Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Short Story


Written by Maureen Mullis
Based on an idea by A.J. Mullis

The smell of ozone was heavy in the air as Dave Castleton walked back to his car parked on the other side of the fence. It was a large pasture and he hadn’t had to go too far into it to reach his patient. Lyle Corbett’s old milker was suffering from old age and there wasn’t much Dave could do about it at this point. Lyle was a young farmer and the cow, whom he’d named Gracie, was one of the first he’d purchased for his farm. She’d borne him a few calves and he had kept her on more for sentiments sake than the fact that she produced enough to make her worthwhile. Being an animal lover himself Dave knew the feeling. It was why he’d become a veterinarian.

The first crack of thunder caught his attention and he stopped in his journey to look up at the sky. Roiling black clouds were moving in at a fast rate. He looked around at the flat empty field. The only thing standing besides the cows was himself. He knew from his Boy Scout years that it wasn’t good to be the tallest thing in an empty field during a thunderstorm, so hitching up his jacket in his left arm and getting a firmer grip on his satchel in his right, he picked up his pace.

He was just about to the fence when he felt it. A searing, burning pain that seemed to center in his entire being and radiate out to the tips of his fingers and toes and even the top of his head. He thought maybe he was having an attack of some kind, and barely registered hitting the ground before everything went dark.

Opening his eyes the first thing Dave felt was nothing. Nothing at all. He felt fine. In fact, he felt terrific. He noticed that the pain that usually radiated down his left leg from arthritis and other infirmities from his 57 years of large animal veterinarian practice wasn’t there. Maybe that attack had set him to rights, he thought.

Then he noticed that there was no sky above him. It was just white. Not a bright white but a calm, soothing subdued white. It’s quiet too, he thought. He felt no breeze, heard no storm. It was as if someone had hit an off switch.

“You’re partially right, Mr. Castleton.”

Startled at the sound of the deep male voice Dave pushed himself into a sitting position where he was able to see that wherever it was he now found himself it wasn’t in Lyle Corbett’s field that was for sure. Everything was the same quiet white. Even the desk and two chairs he was sitting next to. The only color anywhere, besides Dave himself, was a black book sitting on top of the desk.

And the man.

Standing next to the desk he was wearing a suit the same shade as wherever they were. Dave wasn’t quite sure if they were inside or outside. The man’s hair was a silvery white, his face completely unlined in spite of the color of his hair. Blue eyes, a brilliant blue Dave noted, regarded him from behind wire-rimmed glasses. His expression was a bit amused, but not in a belligerent way. There was a kindness that emanated from him and made Dave feel calm in spite of the strangeness of the situation.

“Yes, the situation is a bit strange I’m sure,” the man said, “and yes, I can read your thoughts, which does not eliminate the need for conversation. It’s just a trick, if you will, that I use to be able to break the ice when someone new arrives here.”

“Arrives where?” Dave struggled to his feet. “Where exactly is here? And who are you? You seem to know me and what the situation is, but I’m confused.”

“I know you are Mr. Castleton. Would you like to take a seat?”

Pointing to the chair closest to Dave, he himself stepped around to the opposite side and sat down in that chair. Dave looked around. There wasn’t anything for as far as he could see. It was all just the same … what? Nothingness was how he would describe it if he had to.

“It’s not strictly nothing, Mr. Castleton,” the man spoke again and gestured once more to the seat. Dave pulled the chair away from the desk a little and sat down.

“I’m sure it’s something, wherever we are. But I ask again, who are you?”

“You may call me Jacob,” the man said and smiled at him. “I know you have many questions but I think it best that I begin by explaining to you what has just happened. That may answer most of your queries, and then we can spend some time clearing up any of the other items that need answering.”

Dave nodded. “Go ahead then.”

“As you may have surmised, you were struck by lightening back on earth. You are now, as of this moment, here in a sort of way station. A place where we can talk before you are found.”

“Do you mean before my body is found? Am I dead?” Dave started to feel a little rise of panic in his chest. He looked down at himself and saw he was in the same clothing he’d been wearing earlier in the pasture. There was a scorch mark in the middle of his chest that hadn’t been there earlier which supported the claim that he’d been struck by lightening.

“No you’re not dead. Not yet,” Jacob answered. “That is what we will be discussing.”

“What’s to discuss? Do I have a choice?” Dave cried. “Because if I do I choose not to be dead!”

Jacob shook his head. “It’s not quite that cut and dried, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean it’s not that cut and dried? Either I’m dead or I’m not!”

“Please calm yourself, Mr. Castleton and I’ll explain. Lightening is one of the elements we use as a determinant, if you will, for our work.”

That completely confused Dave. “What does that mean? What work? Who or what are you?”

“My work, our work, is the work of mankind. It is our job to help you all to become the person you were meant to be: to assist you in the travails of life, through the rough spots, and to remind your spirit to try to be generous during the highs.” Jacob smiled at him. “Do you understand?”

Dave’s eyes swept around once more. “Is this heaven? Are you an angel? Is that what you mean by the work of mankind?”


Dave was thunderstruck. “So I … I did die?”

“No,” Jacob answered, “at least not yet. That’s up to you.”

“Up to me? You said that before. Who would choose to die?”

“It’s not death in the way you might interpret the word, Mr. Castleton. Death can have many different meanings. And in this case, the choice you have is to return to earth, continue on to heaven, or, and this is what I am here to discuss with you, you can choose to become an angel.”

Dave felt as if the air had been knocked from his lungs.

“You’re kidding me, right? Me? An angel? That’s crazy.”

“Not really. You have lived a good life. In fact, we would say it’s an exemplary life. You have endeavored to help those who have crossed your path in your life. In fact,” he pulled the book over in front of himself and opened it, flipping pages until he came to the one he wanted, “it says here that when you and your wife had only been married a short time and you were still building your practice, you had a few very difficult years financially. Yet you still gave generously to the homeless shelter and food bank. You took the time to volunteer for a variety of charities then, and in the years since.”

“Well,” the attention made Dave uncomfortable.

“Many do not do half as much, Mr. Castleton. Your heart is expansive. You have a strong desire to serve and help, making you a perfect candidate.”

“I don’t know. I never thought of myself as angel material. And besides, what about my wife? Our children and grandchildren? I can’t just leave them!”

“You have left your wife well provided for. Your children have grown up happy and following your example and their children will do the same.

“You see,” Jacob continued, “every life is like the stone in the pond. The ripples continue based on how you have lived your life. You have been liberal in your kindness and love. Your progeny will follow your example because that is the one you left them.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to leave my family,” Dave said. This was hard to comprehend yet as much as he loved his family the idea of being an angel and helping others was beginning to take hold in his mind and heart. “Would I be able to look in on them if I wanted to?”

“Of course,” Jacob nodded. “And all the generations that come after.”

Dave also nodded and sat for a moment. Jacob was right. He had provided well for his wife. She would want for nothing. He’d been careful during his life. Their sons would also look after her. He had taken on a partner a few years ago who had been a godsend. Alex loved caring for animals and helping the practice to grow and become more successful. He knew his patients and their owners would be in good hands.

“Wait a minute,” he said as a thought came to him. “There are a lot of people struck by lightening every year. I remember reading that there’s something like a hundred deaths a year, and over three hundred strikes a year overall in the United States alone. Are all those people candidates to be angels?”

Jacob laughed lightly. “No. No, Mr. Castleton, they are not. Sometimes a lightening strike is a wake-up call, as it were, for the individual to reevaluate their life and see if they need to make changes.”

“The old ‘watch out or God will get you’ joke?”

“Well, not exactly, but you get the idea.” Jacob closed the book and stood up once more. “Sometimes it’s just bad luck, and not everyone who dies has chosen to become an angel either. Some choose to continue on to heaven, and many choose to return to their lives on earth, with no recollection of our meeting.”

“That’s a lot of angels,” Dave said. “Do you really need that many? Don’t you have enough already?”

“There’s never enough. In fact we could use more, but we are limited in the number of people we are allowed to take.” Jacob began to pace behind the desk, his hands pressing together under his chin. “The world today is in greater turmoil than any other time in its history. Humankind needs help, whether they ask for it or not. And many who are embarking on paths that will lead to their utter destruction will not listen to your whisperings. It is hard, heartbreaking work at times, Mr. Castleton.”

He stopped walking and looked off, seeing something else in his mind’s eye.

“And yet, it is the most rewarding thing a spirit can do. When you do reach that person who truly needs you, listens to you, and changes their life for the good, why, it makes your heart sing.”

He turned back toward Dave.

“And the choice is now placed before you.”

“Well then, what’s the catch?” Dave asked.

“Catch?” Jacob’s eyebrows rose. “Are you asking if there’s some sort of trick to our offer?”

Suddenly Dave felt ashamed for asking. This man was from heaven, an angel, or head angel or something, and he was questioning his motives.

“That you regret your question tells me once again how right you are for this calling,” Jacob said softly.

Dave was brought up sharply as he remembered that Jacob could somehow sense his thoughts and feelings.

“Here are the terms,” Jacob continued without waiting for an answer. “You may serve as an angel guiding and assisting those on earth who are in need of you until the end of life on earth as you know it today, or until your wife’s passing and you choose to join her in heaven. If you decide to stay an angel then you will join her during the final days on earth.”

“So this would only be a temporary separation.” Dave thought about it. He wouldn’t grow older, he could still keep an eye out for his family, and he could serve others and maybe even help them. If he thought about it, he would also be serving someone else; someone who had given him everything, even his very life. Was there anything better than that?

He stood up and faced Jacob.

“The farmer will find you in a couple of hours. I will send someone to be with your wife when she gets the news. I promise you, she will be alright.”

Jacob smiled at him.

“I know,” Dave said.

* * *

Val Castleton closed the bedroom door behind her after begging her sons for a moment alone. The news had come only a couple of hours ago about Dave, but it felt as though it had been weeks. She needed a moment alone.

Sitting on the edge of her bed she took a deep breath. How could her world have turned upside down so quickly? This morning she was a happy, contented wife. This afternoon, she was alone.

Then, as quickly as that feeling entered her heart and mind it was replaced with another one. One of joy. It was so unexpected that she gave a little gasp. She could feel Dave with her; feel his presence and his love surrounding her.

“I love you Dave,” she whispered. “You’ve always been an angel in my life.”

Unseen, Dave bent over and kissed her on the forehead as he had untold times in the past and would continue to do untold times in the future.

Then he went to work.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Review: Chasing Lilacs

When I was young I worked alongside an older woman from whom I learned much. She was well travelled with many life experiences and was open to sharing with me. One of the things she often told me was, “scratch the surface of anyone and you’ll find an unsung hero.” At the time I dismissed those words, but have found over the years how wise and honest she was. Carla Stewart’s remarkable novel Chasing Lilacs is a testament to this truth.

It is 1958 and Sammie Tucker’s 12th summer. Living in the small town of Graham Camp the company town of a petroleum plant in the Texas panhandle, this is a pivotal year for Sammie and her friends. In the fall they will begin junior high, a monumental step in the life of a young girl. Overshadowing her summer is her depressed mother whose situation colors everything in her world. But as it is true that God never gives us more than we can bear, it is also true that He brings into our lives those who can help us, and this holds true for Sammie.

The troubled nephew of one of her neighbors moves to town and Sammie immediately feels a connection to the young boy. Her next door neighbor Goldie, who carries a deep sorrow of her own, welcomes the young girl into her heart and home. And Slim, the older man with rumors swirling about him who gives Sammie the attention she has never known from a grandparent. And then there's her best friend Tuwana, whose mother is everything Sammie wishes she could have and fills her with a longing for the one thing she wants: a mother who will love her.

As she navigates this critical year Sammie also learns to trust the still small voice inside her. Railing against her circumstances, at times running from her own emotions, she also learns to rely on her faith to help her charter the muddied waters of her life.

There are many things about Chasing Lilacs that are reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet Stewart’s novel stands competently on its own. With a voice as pure and true as the young girl in her book, Carla Stewart has brought to life people that you will recognize in your own heart. She brings to life those days in the late fifties where children can spend lazy summer afternoons walking to the store for a soda and sitting on the stoop talking, and dreaming of the future and at the same time trying to figure out where you fit in your own life.

The element of faith is so quietly spoken that it whispers to you in the back of your mind letting you know that not only does Sammie need to believe, but you do too. And as she scratches the surfaces of those around her she finds those unsung heroes, and in the process finds one in herself.

This is an author I am looking forward to reading more from. I am so grateful to have found this book. Sammie and the people in her town will live with me for a long time. I hope you take the opportunity to pick this book up and read it. Chasing Lilacs will touch your heart.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sugar and Spice

My women's fiction novel, In the Company of Women, is the story of a group of women who meet and come together during a critical and pivotal year in their lives. Not only do they support and assist each other as they deal with the situations they each face, they teach each other how gratitude, forgiveness and of course friendship can help you get through. Each of the women has a different lifestyle and career. Living in the fictional mountain town of Eagledale, Colorado, their diversity adds some interesting twists and turns. One of the characters, Emma Phillips, owns and operates Everything Nice, a bakery in the town. I write about many of the things that Emma bakes in the book and thought it would be fun to share one of the recipes with you all.

Emma's Sour Cream Blueberry Coffee Cake

1-1/2 cups unbleached, sifted flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup fresh blueberries or other fruit


5 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift flour with sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl beat eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Add to flour mixture and beat until smooth. Spread in greased 9-inch square baking pan.

Dot batter with fruit.

Mix topping ingredients together until mixture resembles cornmeal. Sprinkle over batter.

Bake for 20-25 minutes. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Makes 1 coffee cake.

Note: High Altitude adjustments are as follows:
Add 1 Tablespoon flour
Remove 1 Tablespoon sugar
Baking powder-change to 1-1/2 teaspoons
Change baking temperature to 375 degrees F, and adjust baking time to 45-50 minutes