Cassandra on the Island: Wisterias

The following is the second to last section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous sections here.


Lesson #1 – Find Beauty in the Smallest Things

Cassandra loved her granddaughter’s smile. Granted, if put under the gun, she would praise all of her grandchildren’s smiles, but there was something about young Toni Lyn’s smile that Cassandra found comfort in.

So when Toni Lyn called to ask if she could spend the summer with her on the Island, Cassandra immediately said yes. Toni Lyn’s parents however were less than amused with the idea when they found out. They feared that Cassandra would be a bad influence on their eighteen-year-old daughter’s perspective of the world. It wasn’t because of Cassandra’s past (they never truly knew about her time in Europe. Even for Cassandra most of it had slipped from memory and would only return as dark images in nightmares that left her strangely humming Mozart songs), but what Cassandra had become.

Cassandra had become a rascally old woman.

Cassandra loved to give her opinion about everything under the sun. Her opinions were always unique (and most of the time too unique). It was amazing to her children the change that occurred. It was almost as if Cassandra found a switch or a button that changed everything. Spending time with their mother soon became a chore of having to smile and nod to many strange and unique points.

Peter (the father of Toni Lyn) claimed the change in her personality arrived after her husband’s death. That was not the case. She was like this for at least three years before the good Reverend disappeared from her side. Living with her during that time could sometimes be uncomfortable for him. Where he seemed to fall back on his conservative upbringing and beliefs (and his questions pushed back into the shadows), she went to the other extreme.

By the “Summer of Poetry,” it had been four years since Jonathan’s death and Cassandra felt more alone each day. Her life seemed to follow a simple pattern. Continue reading


Cassandra on the Island: Eglantines

The following is the sixth section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous sections here.


This was not a day Cassandra was looking forward to. Peter and Lucy had been gone for two weeks and, in her opinion, it was time she got up and did something. Doing this was at least something. God knows, it had to be done.

“Are you sure you don’t want my help,” Alisha asked earlier that morning on the phone. “The dust up there and your allergies.”

“I’ll be fine,” Cassandra said. “I don’t need the help.” What she couldn’t say was how much she wanted to have this moment alone, even though she wasn’t looking forward to the experience. “And you have Duke, Jr. to take care of.”

Alisha knew Cassandra was just making excuses now. Having a two-year-old following them never bothered them before. “Duke, Jr. #3 is not a problem. And Duke, Jr. #1 and #2 won’t be back from school until three, so I do have time if you need me.”

Cassandra had to fight back from letting out a laugh. Duke, Jr. #1 was almost 9 and the names still made her laugh. Granted, Alisha was almost ten years younger than Cassandra, but that fact still did not explain some of the odd things she did. “Alisha, you know you can still change their names if you want to.”

“Why would I want to do that?”Alisha had lost count how times Cassandra had brought up this issue. Yes, it was unique to name all your children Duke, Jr., but Duke liked it and Alisha liked being unique. Of course, whenever Cassandra brought up this debate it was usually her way of saying “give me some space” in the nicest way possible. “Fine, I get the hint,” Alisha said.

“Don’t take it personally, Alisha,” Cassandra said softly. “I want this moment alone. Jonathan is at work. It’s the first time both my children have been gone.” Children? Was it even fair to still call them children? Lucy was 17, almost 18, and Peter was 22… 22? That idea was still hard for her to grasp. A senior in college and it felt just like yesterday when she last played hide-and-seek with him in the yard. Continue reading


Cassandra on the Island: Red Jasmines

The following is the fifth section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous sections here.

Red Jasmines

“Tell it to me again, mommy.”

“Lucy, you need to sleep. I won’t let you go Trick-or-Treating unless you take a nap. You know how you get without a nap. You’ll be asleep by Wilson Avenue.”

“Just tell me and I’ll sleep.”

“You promise?”

She nodded her head.

“Well, I thought your dad was late.”

“But daddy is never late.”

“That’s what was bothering me. And I was looking forward to the date.”

“Did you try calling him?”

“Yes, I left message after message. I was going to go out looking for him, but I didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“You know that, my silly little girl.” She reached down and tickled the sides of Lucy’s arms.

She giggled.

“He showed up at the door in a tuxedo. And he had me close my eyes. He led me to the side of the house. And through my eyelids I could see we were moving towards a bright light… a bright gold-like glow. He had covered the gazebo with Christmas lights, hundreds and hundreds of Christmas Lights. As it began to rain… just a little rain, not much. He looked so handsome, the rain and the lights. It was all so perfect.”

“Then what?” Continue reading


Cassandra on the Island: Sweet Williams

The following is the fourth section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous sections here.

Sweet Williams

Another map was found and the word spread through across the island like the hurricane of ’77. Gossip and stories could be heard on any street corner where at least two adults were standing.

“…it was in a chest, I hear…”

“…Yes, and it took a gold key to open it…”

A third person walked up. “Did he have it analyzed yet?”

“No, he doesn’t want to risk having it fall into someone else’s hands.”

A fourth person with a young boy joined the conversation. “It’s a fake.”

“What? How can you say that?”

The fourth person put down the groceries he was holding. “It’s always a fake.”

The first person sat up straighter in his chair and squinted his eyes at this intruder. “Reverend Jonathan, doesn’t your religion teach you to have faith?”

Jonathan sighed. “Faith in God, Mr. Reginald, not in gold treasures hidden by a mythical pirate.” Continue reading


Cassandra on the Island: White Lilacs

The following is the third section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous sections here.

White Lilacs

“This is not a date,” Cassandra said for the hundredth time. To emphasize the point, she used her hands. She began by waving her hands out in front towards Alisha in a “Get out of here” fashion. She followed that with brushing her right hand casually through her hair (“It’s such a little deal, see how little I care about messing up my hair” was the thought behind the motion). It was all too casual… She paused, let out a fake sigh and then sprinted back to the closet. “Where is that damn black dress?”

“You mean the low-cut one?” Alisha asked from the doorway.

“Yes!” Cassandra quickly turned to face Alisha.

“It’s mine.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is. I bought it in London on the flight over.”

“I bought that two years ago when I was in Paris.”

“Paris? Paris? You were in Paris for five minutes. And that was just to pick up that new girl.”

“I still had time to shop.”

“Uh huh.” Alisha leaned against the doorframe. She crossed her arms. She stared at Cassandra.

Cassandra stared at her.

She stared back at Cassandra.


“SO WHERE THE HELL IS IT?” Cassandra screamed.

Alisha jumped. “The dry cleaners.”

Cassandra threw up her arms in frustration and turned back to her closet.

“And is he really a low-cut kind of guy? You look fine,” Alisha tried to reassure. “Why don’t you just wear what you’re wearing?”

Cassandra glared at her.

“Okay, wear something else, see if I care.” Continue reading


Cassandra on the Island: Hyacinths

The following is the second section of my novel Cassandra on the Island. You can read the previous section here.


He loved how Cassandra would always awake with a smile. There were days (usually when he needed inspiration for an upcoming big event that was weighing him down) that he would wake up early just to catch it. There were even times (of course, he wouldn’t tell her) that he wouldn’t dare even let himself sleep. He would be like a child waiting for Christmas morning to break.  Fidgeting and trying to find comfort while resting on the same arm for almost six hours, never daring to move to the other arm. Her smile was worth the discomfort for him.

“His sunrise.” Yes, that’s what he called it. It began a thousand silent poems that sang in his head (The ones too beautiful for simple words or paper) as he watched her sleep. She always slept on the side of the bed near the window. It was the window the sun would break through, as if nature wanted to be sure to take part in this little daily event. But they, in the long run, could only be supporting players to her performance.

The smile would always start slow. The left side of the face… yes, it would start there… a fidget… a slight movement… rise… rise… then the right… a little… her teeth would make a brief appearance… then one hand would (usually the right) reach to touch her pillow (he never knew why she would have that impulse)… and then… eyes… smile… cue the sunlight…

You couldn’t help but kiss that smile. Cassandra was awake.

What the good reverend didn’t know is that Cassandra was always haunted by nightmares. If he knew he probably would’ve asked her to discuss it (as his thousand hours of practical social work skills kicked in). But that was a road she didn’t want to go down… no need… no need…

She already knew where the nightmares came from. She didn’t need an analysis to tell her that. The images flew in a torrid wave of flesh and tight unreleasing grips and pain. All her memories had become one man to her. He had four arms that held her down and eight legs that would bump and grind forcing her into uncomfortable positions. “The Beast” (yes, that is what she called it in her mind) had no face, but every night it would consume her. She was consumed by the touch, the humiliating and painful embrace, and just his presence. She felt his weight all pressing down, down, down on her.

At six a.m. she could feel the Beast finishing. When he started to finish was when she began to relax… and then…. It was always the beautiful same, she would remind herself of who she was now. It was then she would reach for her pillow (she never had soft pillows in Amsterdam; she couldn’t allow herself comfort when she was in that place)…. Is it?… Yes, it’s a soft pillow. She is still saved. She knew her reality and who she was again in this existence.

She was Cassandra, the wife of the good reverend and a mother of two playful children… And THAT is what made her smile. Continue reading


Cassandra on the Island: Her Gardening

To begin with:
Cassandra had four separate plots of land
where she wanted to plant flowers.
She called them “A, B, C, and D.”
In each plot, she placed two different flowers.

Plot A

She had a talent, her mother would say, for shining brilliant in situations. It was not like walking into a room and capturing the eye of everyone there; It was not like smiling and making everyone smile right along (even though they had no idea what they were smiling about). It went far beyond the dictionary definition of “Charisma.” Cassandra’s mother called it a gift of “radiance” and, when on, it could remind people what a wonder it is to be alive.

Her mother first noticed the talent when taking her daughter to swim at Lake Michigan. It was at the lake that she hated her disability the most. She never knew fear until the first moment she watched her eight-year old run across the beach as she could only sit back in her wheelchair and watch.

But while her mother hated the separation on those moments, Cassandra sought it. It became a reward for her. The kind given after keeping her room clean for five days straight or for helping her mother back in her chair after a fall. Her mother cursed how those incidences seemed to humble her (at least in her mind). The moments when she had to rely on her daughter, her little, tiny daughter, to save her.

If the car accident that crippled the mother taught the two anything, it was the ability to adapt; and adapt is exactly what both of them did. They adapted to losing Cassandra’s father. (Her mother never had the courage to tell her daughter her husband used to beat her. She decided to let her have the delusion of gold around his memory.) They adapted to Cassandra’s mother’s handicap. And Cassandra’s mother adapted to trying to hold her daughter as close as she possibly could, as Cassandra adapted to enjoying the escape from her mother’s suffocating love.

So going to the beach became that for Cassandra, an escape from her mother and the life back home and what she faced every day. (Even though, young Cassandra would have never admitted it, she was quietly embarrassed by her mother’s handicap and would rarely invite her friends over.) The lake was a ritual as rich as entering a church. Like placing holy water on her head, every step for this child was important.

Step 1- Getting mama out of the car.

This step took the longest.

Well, it felt that way for Cassandra. The beach was right there staring at her! How could she not feel the pressure to move faster, faster?

            Step 2- Leaving mama prepared.

Her mother had a full collection of supplies that had to be double-checked. Batteries in her megaphone? Check. First Aid Kit? Check. Binoculars? Check.

Step 3- Make sure mama’s chair is in a good position.

This was very crucial; if her mother couldn’t see her, Cassandra’s time in the water was done. So it was very important to her that she had the best view of every aspect of the beach.

Step 4- The slow walk.

Cassandra’s mother always yelled at Cassandra when she ran. Looking back at her youth, Cassandra believed this was all related to her mother’s inability to run herself. But running on the beach could spell disaster for the day. A simple sprint could call for an end to her cleansing in the waves.

…And yet, Cassandra didn’t mind torturing her mother when she met the water.

Step 5- Going under.

Cassandra always went completely under water first. And she would hold herself under… and under… and under…

She loved the silence. She loved the isolation… She loved the quiet and she hated coming up for that first breath. Her mother hated this game of Cassandra’s. There was many a day that she called her daughter back to the car because of that disappearance. To Cassandra, this was as close to the feeling of immortality she had ever felt. Continue reading


I Want to Tell You a Story … Cassandra on the Island

I want to tell you a story.

Let’s begin like this- I wrote a novel for my thesis when I was working for my Master’s at the University of Southern California and I made the head of the department cry.

I had few interactions with this professor. I like to think he liked me, he personally asked me to take a few advanced courses and met with me now and then to discuss agents and my writing, but we were of different worlds. How else do you explain the meeting of a poet and a novelist? We use the same words, but for a novelist it is about the meaning, where for the poet it is about the music beneath it.

To graduate, I needed people to sign off on my thesis. I had one from a fiction professor (I can’t remember his name now) and the head of the department promised to be the second… and he delayed… and he delayed.

I was working on campus, which was fine for me since I didn’t have to drive anywhere and there was a Carl’s Jr on campus and I was a little addicted to their crispy chicken sandwich (I don’t need to say more about that here). But on this day, instead of waiting in the outrageously long line of students and eating that awesome sandwich, I decided to bother the delaying professor. He was in his office and knew why I was there when I walked in. He didn’t make eye contact with me and promised to start the book that afternoon, shrugging me off.

I had to accept that answer and leave.

That night I received a call after 9 PM. It was him and he was crying. He kept saying the word “beautiful.” He talked to me about the book for over an excited hour, asking about why I did certain things, what they meant. He was figuring out different tricks I did in the writing in between his emotional outbursts.

It is not often a writer gets to speak to a moved reader the second after they finish their book, but I was having that experience here, and it was with someone that surrounds himself with books and writers! This is legit, right?

He wasn’t planning to read the book straight through, he said. He was planning to finish, maybe skim bits. He skims, he said. He skims most books from students, he said… but here he didn’t. And once he started he couldn’t stop.

He told me what he loved, what made him laugh and what made him cry.

He asked if he could share the book with others, and I said that was fine. He said I didn’t have to worry about my thesis, and he couldn’t wait to buy the book in print… and then he was off the line.

Now… let me be clear… I’m not telling you this story about a crying professor to brag. I’m telling you this because it was the first time I truly felt like a novelist. Continue reading


The Quiet Scream in the Library: A Cynical Rant About Literature

I don’t always like fiction.

This may seem weird to say since I am a writer, I have an MFA in the field, and I used to do book reviews on NPR (actually I did those reviews for over three years, you can find them here), but it is true. Painfully, painfully true. I just don’t always enjoy reading fiction.  And it is rare on a relaxing Sunday afternoon that I feel like turning to a piece of fiction to pass the time.

I know… I know… blasphemy!

The problem is I believe that I have studied and analyzed literature to such a point that I have practically (and academically) taken the pleasure out of it.

It’s the great college conundrum! A question every college student has to ask him or herself- Do you go into a field around the subject that you love? Yes, you will enjoy the classes more than you would, say, in a different field but it also may impact how you view it for the rest of your life.

In other words, once Dorothy sees the wizard behind the curtain you can’t put the wizard back. English majors like me are Dorothys. And no matter how much we wish it, we can’t bring the “magic” back.

Continue reading


Short Story: A Children’s Nightmare

The children could have spent all day looking at that tombstone. It was the most foreboding piece of marble in the cemetery. But for the children, the size of that tombstone brought along pictures of giants and monsters. And the fact that it said “Better Dead Than Alive” under the name “Jake Hawkins,” couldn’t help but make them think that it was good he was dead. Did he terrorize a village with his footsteps? Did he steal maidens from their wedding days? Did he eat people? Whatever he did in life, there was a celebration in his death.

It might have been that problem that confused Lisa the most. For Lisa did understand death. She understood the concept at least. Her Grandmother still tells the story of Lisa when she was three and they were at the park across the street from Matt’s house. Lisa was playing on the swings and her Grandmother was talking with her Grandfather about who they knew buried in the other graveyard beyond the playground.

Now her Grandfather grew up in a strong religious background and from time to time he would try to convince people of that fact. Especially in his old age he seemed to go back to those studies as a form of support for the coming end. It also seemed to give possibility (when he truly allowed himself to believe) for a hope, feeling and moment of happiness for the people gone.

But her Grandmother was exactly the opposite of her Grandfather. She was an atheist of the strongest kind (actually she had an opinion about everything and every opinion of hers was strong). Her husband and she would spend days arguing about things like a game perfected over the decades of holding hands in their little time.

Well, on this day her Grandmother wanted to take Lisa and go over the hill and visit the tombstones to pay respect to their old friends. Her Grandfather did not like this idea because of two reasons:

  1. Lisa was just a three year old and he didn’t want to take responsibility for what that experience could do to her precious young psyche.
  2. The second (he said) their spirits have moved on so it would be only a waste of time. They were in heaven or wherever. Of course, there was probably a little of his own fear of death associated with that difficulty.

His wife grabbed this argument and sunk her teeth into it like a shark with raw meat. Her argument to number one was that the sooner Lisa is introduced to the problem the less difficult it would be for her as she grew older. It would help her maturity. She also said that she would “If given the opportunity teach her about sex.”

Now while she went on to argue against the “silliness” of number two the mention of the work “Sex,” awakened the Grandfather to a new understanding of reality. Little Lisa will grow up. Little Lisa will fall in love. She will have children. She will have a life and there is a good chance that he won’t be around to see her and the life she creates.  The concept took his breath away. He just never pictured everything going on without him and it was very stunning. Lisa’s children. Lisa’s children’s children. All that time and ages that will go on and on without him. Maybe even someday he will be forgotten? Lost in the eternity of time. And these little moments of perfection with his wife (playing their game) and Lisa laughing on her favorite swing will slip slide away into a growing void. Her beautiful child laughter. Disappearing until it’s gone….

He fought back a tear. If he allowed it to fall, he would never have heard the end of it from his wife. Over the last few years she has had a hard and harder time figuring out what is the game and what is the reality. Oh well, it made them happy; it made her happy. Continue reading