First Chapter–A Message in the Roses


Chapter One


On a snowy morning in Atlanta, Carrie Sue rummaged through an old cedar chest, searching for a journal. The storm had knocked out her power, but she was grateful to have a fire in the hearth and a kerosene lamp to read by.

She shook her head in dismay at all the stuff she’d collected. Only a pack rat would keep a stack of reporters’ notebooks and a cassette recorder from the 1980s. That was so long ago. No cell-phones or social media then.

When she uncovered her wedding dress embroidered with roses, she buried her nose in the crinoline and inhaled the sweet musk, still lingering after all these years.

Beneath the dress, was a small safe. She fumbled with the combination lock and eventually opened it to reveal the lovely leather-bound book.

Her hands shook as she withdrew the diary. She sucked in a sharp breath and opened it.

But as she began to read, a painful nostalgia stung her. She barely recognized the passionate and reckless young woman she used to be.


Journal of Carrie Sue Justice


December 8, 1986


My stomach knotted when I saw the strange car in my driveway. Damn it, my key wouldn’t open my front door. Deadbolt was locked.

The door vibrated from the blaring stereo inside, as if my house were possessed. I couldn’t imagine my husband blasting music. He’d always complained about loud noise in the morning, and when I left an hour ago, he looked fast asleep.

As the Eagles belted out Heartache Tonight, I punched the doorbell nonstop. No response. By now snow clouds had buried the sun.

Dad used to say, “Always trust your gut.”

My gut screamed disaster, reminding me of the day I received the tragic news about Mom and Dad. They’d died in a plane crash on their way from Atlanta to Ethiopia.

I shook off that sad memory, and focused on trying to get in the house. Kyle didn’t expect me home. He thought I was interviewing Police Chief Barnum about the recent shooting death in our community.

As a news reporter, my job was to find out what happened. Why did police arrest four black teens for the murder of a white teen? Were their arrests racially motivated? Barnum had promised to give me the full scoop.

Unfortunately, my car broke down.

Tyrone, of Ty’s Wrecker and Repair, kindly offered to take me to my appointment in his tow truck. But I had him drop me off at my house so I could drive Mom’s old Cadillac to my meeting. I can’t stand to be without wheels. My downfall.

I couldn’t back the Caddy out of the garage, because Kyle had parked his car behind it. The other car, a red Thunderbird, had parked beside his Alfa Romeo.

How inconsiderate of him to block the driveway like this. I wanted to protest his rudeness, but first I needed to get inside.

I zipped up my leather jacket against the icy wind and inspected the unfamiliar Thunderbird. It had a Georgia tag with the letters “Hot stuff,” and a graduation tassel hanging from the rear-view mirror.

I peered through the T-Bird’s window and saw papers and spiral notebooks scattered everywhere, along with crumpled up paper bags and a pizza box. I pulled at the door handles. Locked.

Who was visiting my husband? And why was he up this early, blasting the roof off? He’d worked late last night, which suited his nocturnal clock.

I’m usually up and out with the chickens. This morning I’d left the house before seven, in plenty of time to stop by the newspaper office before driving to my interview with Barnum. If my car hadn’t died, I would have arrived early.

I stomped my feet like a toddler. The tantrum and fierce wind dislodged my hair from its bun. Unruly strands whipped my face as I pounded on the front door and rang the bell.

Kyle had some nerve, locking me out. This house has been in my family forever.

I’ve lived here most of my twenty-five years. My closest neighbor and buddy, Freemont, said my home, with its white pillars and large veranda, reminded him of Tara in Gone with the Wind.

After I lost Mom and Dad, the so-called “classic antebellum” house I inherited became more of a burden than a home. I’d gladly trade this old relic and all my possessions, if only I could turn back the clock and stop my parents from boarding that fatal flight.

I probably wouldn’t have married Kyle if they’d been alive to advise me against it. Sadly, they weren’t, and I fell in lust too quickly.

Knowing Dad, he would have broken down the door. Mom would have said, “Be patient. Patience is a virtue.”

“Give me patience,” I whispered as I followed the veranda to the back porch. I thought I could get in this way, but the door wouldn’t budge. The slide lock was engaged.

Burning with rage, I ran back to the front of the house and rang the doorbell again. I could barely hear the chimes above the blaring stereo of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire.

I screamed like an angry banshee, or what I thought an angry banshee might sound like. I yelled loud enough to be heard from miles away. My hollering would have woken the dead.

After a while, I gave my burning lungs a rest, and glanced at my wristwatch. He’d given me this watch to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary. I found out he’d charged it on his American Express card, and couldn’t afford to pay the bill. He even had the audacity to ask me to pay for it. For crying out loud, what kind of man surprises his wife with a gift she didn’t ask for, and then asks her to fork out the cash for it? I’m glad I had sense enough to keep our bank accounts separate, or else he would have bled me dry.

My expensive timepiece showed eight thirty. I needed to call Barnum to reschedule, pronto. At least the earsplitting music had finally stopped.

I pushed on the doorbell again. The chimes echoed loudly. I waited and waited. No Kyle.

I knelt down to pick up the stone planter from the veranda. A pang of guilt warned me against what I felt compelled to do. Mom loved these windows. She called them “sentinels.” They’re nearly as old as the house.

I gripped the giant vase in both hands, bent my knees for leverage and drew back the urn. Then the front door creaked open.

My husband’s handsome face appeared, looking like Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost. Indeed, Kyle had played Hamlet a number of times for the Shakespeare Festival. His wavy hair, the color of a copper penny, was all mussed up. His two-day stubble gave him a rugged bad-boy look. He had on a beige long-sleeved tee-shirt, open in the front to show wisps of chest hair. His snug corduroy jeans displayed his abundant manhood. His brown eyes glared at me like I was crazy Ophelia.

He stepped outside and grabbed the planter out of my arms. “What’s wrong, love?” His mouth looked puffy, and he seemed to be exaggerating his Irish brogue, the one he used to charm my pants off. He wrapped his arms around me as if he thought I needed a strait jacket.

I shoved him away and walked inside to see what he was hiding. Lo and behold, I ran smack dab into a young woman about six feet tall, Junoesque and voluptuous.

I’m her opposite; blonde, five-seven, and skinny. Mom used to say I looked like a popular model, the one with the gap like mine between her front teeth, but of course, my mom would say that.

Kyle’s lady friend tossed back her silky long hair, the color of last night’s sunset—reddish orange. She looked me up and down.

My messy hair was frightful, but the rest of me appeared decent. I’d worn my favorite black dress, leather jacket and heels. Kyle’s paramour had on tight blue jeans and a velour sweater that matched her hair. Her sweater was wrong side out, as if she’d dressed in a hurry, in the dark.

She glanced at the tiny watch on her wrist.  “Oh, no, I’m late for work.”

“Who are you?” I spat out.

Rather than answer and explain why she was in my house with my husband, she turned toward Kyle.

He answered for her. “Carrie Sue, this is Maryann Nielson. She’s Blanche in Streetcar. We’ve been going over her lines.”

I bit my tongue and considered Kyle’s explanation. He directs plays for Stage Atlanta at night. In the afternoons he teaches two college classes, with ample time to coach actors at the college or at the theatre. I saw no legitimate reason for him to invite this woman to our home.

Maryann’s lips twitched nervously. “Hi,” she said, as her green eyes ping-ponged from me to Kyle. “Thanks, Kyle. See you later.” With that, she dashed away, jumped into her red Thunderbird, and sped down the long circular driveway like a racecar driver.

I glared at him. “You and Maryann have been screwing around, haven’t you?”

Kyle gave me a stern stare. “No, absolutely not, Carrie Sue. Maryann called this morning and asked me to help her get into character. You know how it is…Opening Night jitters. She’s nervous, unsure of herself.”

I gasped in disgust. “You think I’m stupid enough to believe you were rehearsing with the stereo blaring the way it was?” I slammed my hands on my hips to keep from slapping him.

He rolled his eyes. “I turned on the stereo to try to wake up. And when Maryann arrived, I thought it’d be more appropriate to rehearse on the back porch.” He stepped closer, thinking he could charm me. “And I forgot to turn the music off, love. I’m sorry.”

I slapped his chest, pushing him away. “Don’t give me that crap. You weren’t on the porch. I walked back there trying to get in the house after I discovered my key wouldn’t open the front door, because you’d engaged the deadbolt to lock me out.”

Rather than argue, he strolled outside like a tomcat on the prowl, and looked around. After a moment, he wandered back in. “Where’s your little car?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

He frowned. “Did it break down?”

Seething with anger, I refused to answer.

“If your car broke down, why didn’t you call me?”

“Get real. You wouldn’t have heard the phone above the blaring music. Plus, you were preoccupied with Maryann.”`

He grabbed my arms. “Stop it, Carrie Sue. I love you. Don’t you know that?”

“Get your filthy hands off me.” I pushed him backwards.

“You’re overreacting.” Tears welled in his deceitful eyes.

I turned away, determined not to let this Shakespearian Iago deceive me again. He might be a great actor, but he didn’t have a sincere fiber in his body.

He grabbed my waist and pulled my butt against his sex. “I think I know what you need, baby.”

I poked him as hard as I could with my elbows. “Get out of my house,” I shouted.

His arms tightened around my waist. “You don’t mean that.”

I elbowed him again and stepped toward the antique hunt board. Dad used to keep his snub nose pistol in the top drawer. It was the same type of gun Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald.

I didn’t find the gun but spotted Mom’s stainless steel letter opener. She called this her “paper knife.”

I wrapped my fingers around the handle, not intending to kill him. My main purpose was to get him out of the house and away from me. However, I have to admit, the thought of destroying his manhood crossed my mind.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paradise Isle
Dolphin, Florida
July 4
OneMy heart hammered a warning when I opened the door to leave the beach house. It felt like an anxiety attack, cause uncertain. I realize now the warning was a premonition of death, but you know what they say about hindsight.

I took deep breaths of the warm, salty air and tried to relax, then slammed the door. And checked to make sure it was locked. The face on the full moon reminded me of the last time Adam and I watched the fireworks here. In our ten years together, we never missed the fireworks on Paradise Isle. We’d drive down from Gerry, Alabama. Turn off our cell phones and enjoy a few precious days without interruptions.

After Adam was killed in the line of duty, my body ached with grief, and I didn’t have the stamina to confront my memories in the most romantic place on earth. To escape, I buried myself in work. Luckily, my assignments as a catastrophe investigator sent me far away from Paradise Isle, Florida.

This year I took the advice of my sister, who happens to be a psychiatrist. “Make peace with the past,” Kari Ann advised. “Focus on the good stuff and try to be positive, like when you were little Miss Sunshine, singing ‘open up your heart and let the sunshine in.’”

“Oh please, I was a kid when I sang that.” I told her.

“I know. I’m just saying you need to nurture the little girl inside, and with time, you’ll get through this grieving process, Maeva. But for now, try to live in the moment. Be thankful, not negative.”
I wanted to follow my sister’s advice. I really did, but while looking at that moon, bathing the beach in a silver halo, reality hit me. I was alone, drowning in the past, with too many raw memories like the first time Adam and I made love.
My family and I have vacationed on Paradise Isle in Dolphin, Florida since I was knee high. Mom used to say, “No need to lock the doors. Paradise Isle is the safest place on earth.”
In aerial photographs, Paradise Isle looks like a white thumb, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Dolphin Harbor and the boat pass. “The luckiest fishing village in the world,” according to the Chamber of Commerce sign.
Yet, my heart hammered, as if cautioning me. I glanced all around. Unit Three next door had the lights on. The author Sean Redmond owns that townhouse. I’ve read one of his books, a scary murder mystery.
On the street in front of our townhouses, I saw two teenagers talking and laughing with a man and woman who were probably their parents. They headed up Blue Heron Way toward the boat pass.
For reinforcement, I repeated Kari Ann’s advice: “Live in the moment and be thankful.”
I felt thankful for the afternoon showers, cutting the ninety-degree heat, but not thankful for the swarm of tourists, setting off their own firecrackers. Crowds make me nervous, especially noisy crowds.
I’d never seen this many boats anchored along the shore, honking like mad geese, impatient for the first layers of electric dandelions and long-legged spiders on steroids to explode in the sky. The honking reached a crescendo when the fireworks began.
Rather than watch them, I took off running down the wet, slanted shoreline. The flashes of light and rat-a-tat-tat of the fireworks followed me, orchestrating my run. I hadn’t jogged in months. Soon my toes and calves started cramping. To endure, I gritted my teeth and panted, as if I were giving birth. Maybe the pain in my body will obliterate the pain in my heart.
When I reached my mile marker, I plopped down in one of the wooden loungers, owned by Bobby’s Beach Service and found myself staring at the old Dolphin Mansion, three hundred feet away. Sooty black mold covered the exterior. Beach erosion threatened to topple the seven-foot-tall wall encircling it. Why hasn’t someone restored this landmark? The artist who painted the dolphins, for which the town was named, had lived and died in there.
I saw a light flash from one of the porthole windows. I closed my eyes, then opened them to stare at the building again. The light I thought I’d seen had disappeared, but the eerie feeling stayed with me.
To escape the weirdness, I jumped from the lounge chair and walked out on the cluster of boulders called jetties that protected Dolphin’s boat pass from the Gulf’s relentless attempt to clog it with sand.
During my walk, waves crashed against the jetties and my feet slipped a few times. Luckily, I caught myself before I fell.
When I reached the end, I sat on a chair-shaped boulder and dangled my feet in the water. I felt as though I could reach out and touch the fireworks, which were fired from the Dolphin Bridge directly in front of me. I could watch them in the air, see their reflection in the Gulf, and hear the syncopated beat of the music from several boats anchored in the canal.
The waves slapped my back, drenching me, and for the first time in a long while, I began to relax. In fact, I relaxed so completely I let my guard down and didn’t anticipate the giant breaker that slammed dunked me into the gulf. A swift current carried me away.
I gulped a mouthful of salt water as the undertow pulled me down, sucking like a vacuum. At first, I battled the coursing water, making wide circles with my arms and kicking my legs fiercely. Then I remembered what I’d learned in a lifeguard class. Don’t fight the undertow. Let it take you to the bottom. So I commanded my body to relax. `
When my toes touched the floor of the gulf, I began to swim parallel to where I thought the shoreline might be, and search for a weak spot in the undertow. My lungs burned and expanded like a balloon about to pop. My fingers touched something black and slimy. I froze, thinking shark.
In my panic, I collided with a sand bar and crawled crablike on top of it. I took several deep breaths and looked around for someone to help me. By then, my muscles trembled from exhaustion, and I didn’t think I had the strength to swim back to the jetties. The undertow had carried me to the gulf’s side. The boats and the crowd watching the fireworks were at least a football field away on the harbor side. The jetties separated the two and they were at least three hundred feet away.
I waved my hands above my head and yelled, “Help.” I could feel the shifting of the sand bar, soon to wash away.
When no one answered my cry for help, I jumped from the sand bar and swam back toward the jetties. Halfway there, my fatigued muscles demanded rest. So I floated on my back for a while until I bumped into an object in the water.
When I flipped over to see what I’d collided with, I screamed. It was the unthinkable: a woman’s nude body. I gagged and swam doggie-style, backwards and forwards, studying the corpse. I noticed she’d lost one of her feet. Oh my God. Did a shark do this?
A boat, fifty feet away with a boom box blasting I’m Proud to be an American, cruised nearby. I yelled, “Help, help,” as I pulled the body toward the jetties.
I watched the boat, hoping for a response, but it sped past, ignoring me, but sending a wave, tossing me backwards. I lost my grip on the body and imagined the remains of this poor woman getting caught up in the undertow, never to resurface again.
Though exhausted, I swam after the body. When I reached out to grab it, a cruel wave pushed it away. Eventually, the tide changed and I was able to recapture the corpse. This time, I positioned my body on top of the dead woman as if she were a float. Thankfully and finally, the waves seemed to be working in our favor, pushing us toward the jetties.
The corpse and I soon collided with the rocks and I felt like kissing the boulders, though I didn’t think I had the energy to pull myself up and get out of the water. I gripped a gigantic rock, put my feet in between two of them and was finally able to jump up. Then I got on my stomach and tried to reach the corpse, but my arms weren’t long enough to gain leverage. Thankfully, the waves were pushing the body against the boulders, not taking her away.
I unzipped my waist pouch to withdraw my cell phone. The pouch was waterproof, but after my near drowning, I didn’t expect the cell to work.
I punched in 911. A woman answered, “What’s your emergency?”
“I’ve found a…dead body…in the …near the jetties,” I stuttered and shut my eyes, fighting my panic.
You’d think from the way I acted I’d never seen a dead body, but I’ve seen several as a catastrophe insurance investigator, or CAT, as we are called. I’ve dealt with victims of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes.
“Calm down,” the 911 lady said. “What’s your name and location?”
My voice quivered, “My name is Maeva Larson. I’m in Dolphin on Paradise Isle at the end of the jetties, near where they’re exploding the fireworks. I’m wearing white shorts and a white top. I’m five-one, have short red hair, and I’m the only one out here on the jetties.”
“You said you found a body?”
“Yes, a woman.”
“And she’s dead?” the operator asked.
“Yes, dead,” I snapped, trying to keep my voice steady.
“I’ll stay on the phone with you,” the operator said, her voice low and soothing.
“No, no, don’t, I’m okay,” I said, though I felt anything but. “I just need someone out here now. Hurry, please.”
After I closed my cell phone, I studied the dead woman. Her gold necklace glinted in the moonlight. The necklace had a pendant in the shape of a crown and looked familiar. Too familiar, like the one Tara Baxter had worn the afternoon Geneva VanSant invited me over for wine and finger sandwiches.
Tara had won the Miss Florida contest, and Geneva had received an award for an article about a female hitchhiker. The party was to celebrate both events.
After the get-acquainted hellos, I noticed the crown necklace, “Lovely. Appropriate for your title as Miss Florida.” I remember lifting my glass of red wine to Tara in a toast. “Here’s hoping you become the next Miss America.”
“From your lips to God’s ear,” Tara had said and sipped her drink.
“Is that necklace something the winner gets?”
Tara chuckled and said. “No, Maeva, my mother had it designed for me.”
I didn’t want to believe this dead body was Tara, but I saw no other alternative. On her right hand was a heart-shaped pinky ring. I was certain Tara had worn a similar ring.
What was taking the responders so long? I wondered. The fireworks had ended. The crowd on the beach was moving on. The waves kept crashing the jetties, smacking Tara’s body into the rocks. As I watched her, I began to sob like a frightened child. Never had I felt so alone and powerless.

Posted by at 7:11 AM

Woman’s Best Friend by Sandy Semerad

Joseph Campbell was known for saying, “Follow your bliss.”

P-Nut, my shih tzu, does this instinctively. She sniffs a wild flower like she’s reading a masterpiece.

Eckhart Tolle would be proud. She came into the world knowing how to live in the moment and give unconditional love and I suppose that’s why it’s difficult for me to believe that some human beings—I use the word loosely–train their dogs to fight and kill for amusement. The pit bull terrier is the breed they usually pick.

It saddens me. My daughter once had a Pit Bull named Sonja who could lick you to death, maybe, but never displayed a vicious streak, unlike some pit bulls that have maimed, killed people and animals whenever they were allowed to run free.

I once heard about a feisty pit bull named Major who roamed the farms around Hartford, Alabama, the town adjacent to where I grew up. “Major could tear your butt for a new one,” it was said.

Major was particularly unpopular with farmers because he killed hogs. One day Major made a terrible error. He killed Cody Ryles’ prize pig.

Cody grabbed his shotgun and sent Major to the great pit bull heaven in the sky.

Was Major bred for fighting and for the amusement of humans? I wondered, but no one seemed to know. I can’t believe he inherited his meanness.

I’ve read that pit bulls are a relative of the English bulldog. I’ve never owned an English bulldog, but I once heard about one named Bozo.

Bozo was trained to hunt wild hogs. He would bay the hogs and grab them by their ears until the capture was complete, the story goes. He was alternately tough and gentle. Tough, because he developed an immunity to rattlesnake bites.

Once when Bozo tried to catch a rattlesnake, the snake bit him and filled Bozo with venom. Bozo swelled up and almost died.

When he recovered, Bozo would grab every rattlesnake he saw by the neck and shake the dickens out of it. If the snake bit Bozo, he didn’t care, because the venom didn’t affect him one way or the other.

I have never had a dog like Bozo. My dogs have always been my confidants and guardians. As a child, I had a collie that followed me around and told on me if I did anything he thought was inappropriate.

I was a preschooler when he told on me for trying to burn down a few bushes in my back yard.

Yes, I’m sad to say, I was playing with matches. I must have thought burning the bushes would be a fun thing to do. Fortunately, Jack, our collie, barked his disapproval and told my mother before I started what could have been a major forest fire.

My late Mother used to talk about how Jack protected our family. I have to agree he was beyond wonderful, but then, most of my dogs have been wonderful, and I’m thinking even pit bulls can be wonderful too, when given half a chance.

I have read they are a cross between an English terrier and an English bulldog. I suppose most dogs are in the mixture category, far removed from what is called a pure breed.

When I lived in Atlanta, we had a dog named Sam who was said to be a mix of English terrier and German shepherd. One might say this combination would bring violence, but Sam was a sweet dog, although mischievous.

He loved to roam about and bring me contraband. One time he brought me my neighbor’s old house slippers, something I had no need for, but Sam acted excited. You would have thought he was giving me a diamond. He scratched on the screen door, and when I came to see what he wanted, he had the old torn slippers in his mouth.

I scolded him with “No, no.”

He cocked his head from side to side, not understanding obviously.

Another time, he snatched an old flannel, cherry-decorated nightgown from my neighbor’s clothesline. He had to jump our backyard fence in order to get it. The gown was ripped in the process. I’m ashamed to say I was too embarrassed to return it.

Ultimately, the torn gown ended up in my washing machine and then in the dryer. I was looking for something to frump around in one morning and lacking anything else, I put on the infamous gown.

As luck would have it, my neighbor—the rightful owner of the gown–came over to borrow a cup of sugar that morning. I had completely forgotten the gown’s origin until I saw my neighbor’s distressed expression at the sight of her flannel gown on my body.

Despite my embarrassment, Sam continued his antics until he met his maker one day. The pond behind our Stone Mountain home froze. Sam fell through the ice while he was chasing the ducks. He froze to death before we could rescue him.

In an attempt to recover from Sam’s death, we adopted a Brittany spaniel named Prince. His desires were simple. He wanted love, to be loved, to eat, chase squirrels, bark at falling leaves, run and play with the ducks.

I think Prince thought he was a duck, because he spent so much time playing with them. When we moved away from the pond, Prince suffered from depression. The lady who purchased our pond home heard about Prince’s agony and asked if he could return to his old homestead.

It was tough to give Prince up. But I wanted Prince to be happy, because I believed we should treat our pets with consideration and love.

In turn, they teach us how to love unconditionally, “follow our bliss” and live in the moment.
I’m still trying to learn that from P-Nut.

Posted by at 10:01 AM