Backstory to “Relative Secrets”
I’m proud and happy to report my short story “Relative Secrets” has been published at online magazine Close to the Bone! You can read it at
While you’re there, check out the many other imaginative and gritty stories!
The spark of inspiration for this story was ignited more than 20 years ago when I was on a flight from Chicago to Denver. The guy I sat next to kept up a constant line of chatter, even though all I wanted to do was sleep. The only thing I remember from all that chatter was that he owned an abandoned gold mine up somewhere not too far from Denver, and he tried hard to get me to visit his goldmine.
I thought he was a weirdo. Nice enough, but definitely strange.
I don’t remember how I shot him down or how he reacted. I didn’t feel threatened, until sometime later when I told a friend about the experience, just kinda laughing about it, and she immediately asked, “Do you think he’s a serial killer?” I hadn’t yet developed my true-crime-TV obsession, so I told her, “Nah, he was just your garden variety weirdo.”
It was years, and after many, many episodes of Dateline, Snapped, True Crime and all the rest, that I decided that I probably avoided a bad outcome because I don’t like caves (including mines), never have, and because I thought it was just weird for someone to invite me to a mine. Since deciding that the guy probably intended something awful, I’ve thought periodically about whether he ever successfully lured someone to the mine.
Often, in the backstories of serial killers, they have less than optimal childhoods. Although, I understand that that can shape a person, it annoys the hell out of me when it’s used as a defense for torturing serial murderers. Lots of people have bad childhoods, lots of people are bullied. Most don’t go on to commit such vile acts.
I wanted to show that dichotomy of choices and to show it in a way where it was a whining killer who’s consistently complaining about his past mistreatments, while the hero also has a disturbing backstory that she doesn’t offer as an excuse for anything. The only hint of Suzanne’s backstory is her reaction to the killer’s assumption about her “whte bread” life. Then at the end…
My friend Christine said she thinks I should do a series on Special Agent Suzanne Jetzer. I hadn’t thought about it before she suggested it. I can definitely see the potential. But…I have a couple other projects ahead of that so I can’t go all in just yet!
Miracles and Tragedies
I recently had reason to ponder miracles. To be just a bit more specific, I had reason to ponder, “Why this miracle and not that miracle?” Even more specifically, I was asked, “Why would God grant that person continued life contrary to the indications of every test performed, and not save the kids at Uvalde?”
Of course, I had no logical, comforting, or remotely satisfying answer to give.
In contemplation of miracles, it may help to define what a miracle is. I found three definitions:
- a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and, therefore, is considered to be the work of a divine agency
- A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences
- an amazing product or achievement, or an outstanding example of something
The third definition refers primarily to technology, which is constantly expanding our knowledge of scientific laws. So, such amazing products are not, therefore truly miracles, because they are explained by our expanding knowledge. That would seem to indicate, that an event is a miracle simply because it Is surprising and welcome, and we don’t yet know how or why it happened.
Will we ever know why one family gets a miracle while others get profound grief?
Well, perhaps we’ll someday be able to explain the miracle. For instance, in the case of a patient who’s given no chance of living through their injuries yet does, we may later have more advanced knowledge regarding how the human body heals itself than what we currently understand (i.e., we may later be able to explain the miracle through natural law).
Of course, that in no way explains the question of “if there is a God, why did He let those children die In terror?”
Anyone who tells you they have the be all end all answer to that question is either a liar or seriously delusional. There are lots of pat answers given when a grieving loved one cries out “Why?” They range from “it’s proof there is no God” to “it was their destiny” to “Jesus called them home” to “do not question the will of God” to “the universe is just a series of random events.” Often these responses (except for “there is no God”) are murmured just to end the uncomfortable conversation. It’s hard when faced with someone’s grief to tell them, “I don’t know.”
The simple fact is that we cannot conclusively answer questions like “Why did God let X happen?” We won’t know the answer in this life. I’m sorry, the only truthful answer to the question is “I don’t know.” We can offer no divine answers because we cannot presume to know the will of God, but we can provide support to the family members and take action to prevent the event from happening again.
So,, sometimes we don’t know why bad things happen to good people or why some families are granted miracles.
I think the answer for both is to stop questioning the divine why of it, and, instead, be grateful. For the miracle, instead of questioning how, just be grateful. After the immense grief of a tragedy fades to a constant dull ache, send up a little prayer or thought of gratitude for the loved one you had for however short a time. Perhaps too pat an answer, but it’s all I have to offer after “I don’t know.”
Our Boy Elon
Twitter’s lawsuit against Elon for breach of contract goes to trial October 17. I’m not an attorney, but I think our boy has screwed himself, unless Twitter gets to feeling generous and cuts or deal, or unless he truly finds some sort of violation on Twitter’s part.
Why do I think he’s screwed? Because the deal he agreed to pretty much tied up the judge’s (Kathleen McCormick’s) recourse if she does not find that Twitter somehow committed fraud: She will rule, not that Elon has to pay the $1B termination fee, but that he has to follow-through on buying Twitter for $44B. Twitter’s lawsuit, plus the countersuit Elon filed on 7/29, will eat up millions, and it’s questionable as to whether the loans Elon had lined up originally to finance the merger will hold after all this brouhaha. So, $44B could be pretty catastrophic for him.
Our boy’s a genius, so maybe he has something else up his sleeve…
In other news:
For those of you in the Delaware beaches area, there’s a sweet little used book store just off Rt. 26 (across from Lord Baltimore Elementary School) called Turning Pages Book Lounge. If you like coffee, it’s tied in with Drifting Grounds coffee shop, and apparently welcomes your pooches. Well, at least there was one puppy there when I stopped in…
Book Review: 2697 Pages by Heidi Dischler
The protagonist of this story is Penny, a teenager just finishing her junior year of high school. Penny lives with her father who calls her “Lincoln” and who has been very successful in real estate in their coastal Connecticut town.
Although she can’t remember her mother, she’s never gotten over being abandoned by her. She’s fixated on that abandonment and convinced that everything in her life would be better if she could just reconnect with her mom. Her obsession with that belief is not helped by her father’s refusal to talk about her mother or even share pictures of her.
This is where the title of the book comes in. Penny has kept a scrapbook (actually, scrapbooks) of almost every day of her life since she was a young child. That way she can look back and see the connections, complete with pictures, to the people in her life. There are…you guessed it…2697 pages by the end of the book.
Other side effects of her abandonment issues: Penny can be a little controlling, manipulative and judgmental And when someone seriously hurts her, she tends not to forgive. Enter Tyler. He and Penny were best friends in childhood, and then as an adolescent, he declared his love and kissed her. Penny was ecstatic until shortly later when she saw her lifelong nemesis kiss him. To Penny, it was the ultimate betrayal, and she shunned him from that moment forward…that is, until the day he defended her in a school hallway.
Shortly after that hallway dust-up, she determined that Tyler had the skills to help her find her mother. So, they spend the summer traveling Connecticut searching for Penny’s mom. In the course of their adventures, they fall in love, and Penny learns many lessons about herself and those around her.
The book is well written, and Ms. Dischler has a very smooth writing style. The situation with Penny’s mother was anticlimactic, and I felt it could have been more completely explored. I’d say the same for other serious topics brushed over quickly in the book, such as Tyler’s abuse at the hands of his father. However, were I in the book’s obvious target audience (young adult), I might feel differently. Even with those subjective detractions, I believe this book highly deserving of a four-star recommendation.
Short Story: Nutty Time Capsule
Gunner hadn’t expected to be alive when the town’s time capsule was opened. He hadn’t really thought about that day at all. When the time capsule was sealed, he had no vision of the future – not even his own future. His whole existence was devoted to keeping his spot on the football team and the social perks it gave him in Smalltown USA, AKA Henderson, Oklahoma.
In early 1985, the Henderson Town Council had commissioned the time capsule to be sealed in the new City/County building’s cornerstone that autumn. Everyone had said the capsule wouldn’t be opened for at least one hundred years.
The town council hadn’t banked on climate change or the resulting super tornado that ripped through Henderson on May 28, 2022.
If Gunner hadn’t banked on being alive when the time capsule was opened, he certainly hadn’t banked on his father being alive when it happened, and would never have dreamed in 1985 that he’d have so much to lose. See, Gunner had married a woman who stoked the ambition that had lain dormant in him throughout his high school and college years. Through her support (well, if support were a scripted march through life with a drill sergeant by your side) and the guidance of his father (if guidance was “Well, that’s not the way that I or anyone else with sense would do it, but you always gotta do things backward,” counts as guidance), Gunner was now a state senator and had just announced his bid for U.S. Congress.
Now, it may sound like Gunner has led a rough life with his wife driving him and his father belittling him. But, the truth was without those two forces pushing him, Gunner would most likely have spent his life still riding shotgun in Danny Pearson’s suped up Chevelle, getting caught up in whatever fool thing Danny brewed up.
No, Gunner Erikkson’s life was good, and this time capsule business was likely to ruin it all.
Back in ’85, Gunner’s father, Gunther, had been on the town council, so he was responsible for collecting items from his constituents for the time capsule. Gunther had accumulated hundreds of donated artifacts and had laid them out in his home office to best consider which should make the cut for inclusion. He took his responsibility seriously and wanted to make sure that what he selected admirably represented his community.
Gunner and his football buddies had been goofing off at Gunner’s house after school one September afternoon when they had come across all the competing artifacts in Gunther’s office. The proffered items ranged from CDs of music popular in Henderson, such as the most recent album by Reba McEntire (who was born and raised in Oklahoma), to maps of the city and county, to pictures of what seemed to be every person and half the chickens living in the county, to hand-written notes about citizens’ day-to-day lives. Some farseeing soul had even contributed a soil core sample in case by the time the capsule was opened, the soil composition was changed. Unfortunately, Gunther had not seen fit to “include dirt” in his capsule package.
Gunner and his buddies had laughed at the things their fellow citizens had thought important enough to put in a time capsule. In the disdain that teenagers have for anything history-related — well, for anything not youth-related — the idea of a time capsule from 1985 struck them as ridiculous. It hadn’t taken long that fateful day for them to decide, that to show their complete contempt for the project, they would contribute something completely irreverent.
“I know,” Robbie had cried. “We can photocopy pictures of our asses at the library. I know Linda will give us a little private time with the photocopier.”
“That’s so ‘been there, done that’,” Dale countered.
They bantered about other ideas all centered around their asses, when suddenly, Danny said, “How about we take a Polaroid of all of us with a nut hanging out our fly? My cousin did that at the family reunion last year, and no one noticed it until my Aunt Marion sent out copies of the pictures. All the old people had a cow over it!”
In their group, whatever Danny said went, and that went double with Gunner. Danny was everything Gunner aspired to be: naturally athletic, funny, popular with the girls. So, no sooner were the words outta Danny’s mouth than Gunner had “borrowed” his mother’s Polaroid camera. But, then they ran into a snag: they all wanted to be in the photo, but someone had to take the photo. Gunner quickly shot down the idea of his younger brother Anders taking the picture – he’d rat them out for sure. So, they called their friend Aaron and asked if he’d come over and act as photographer. Immediately, he wanted in the picture, too, and the same thing happened with Jack and Keith. Finally, when they called Allen, he said he’d take the picture.
So, it was that seven boys lined up in two rows – three kneeling and four standing – each with one of their testicles protruding from the flies of their jeans.
When they looked at the result, Jack grabbed the picture, tore it up, and said, “I’m out. I look like a pervert on my knees with Keith above me with his nut pokin’ out.”
After a bit of discussion, the boys all agreed that the kneeling part was a bit too much even if nobody would see it for a hundred years. Finally, they settled upon striking various poses around Gunther’s pool table, each of them with one of Gunther’s cigars in their mouths – figuring that made them all seem macho.
They whooped and hollered and high-fived each other when the picture developed. As Danny put it, this was the ultimate prank on the whole town. Still, they shied away from putting their names on the back, and instead, they opted to put their football jersey numbers. Even Allen put his jersey number next to “Taken by” on the back of the Polaroid.
Then it was up to Gunner to somehow sneak it into his dad’s time capsule pouch. In the end, it wasn’t as hard as he’d thought it might be. His dad’s system of selection was to take each item as he decided it should be included and put it in the pouch. His plan was that when he ran out of room, he’d be done. One afternoon, Gunner inserted the Polaroid in the middle of pictures that were already in the pouch, and the deed was done.
Now, five weeks after the City/County Building had been leveled, the time capsule was set to be opened in a ceremony everyone hoped would bring a moment of celebration to a town that had seen terrible destruction in the supercell tornado that had flattened fully one-half its buildings. Luckily, there was only one confirmed death, and that was of Mayor Gerald Haney’s prize-winning stud bulldog, Maurice. Maurice had panicked during the storm and had run headlong into it. His body was later found on top of the Methodist church, which otherwise was seemingly untouched by the storm. In part as a celebration of the church’s good fortune, the congregation allowed the mayor to hold a visitation for Maurice in the church hall. It was followed by a potluck luncheon put on by the ladies of the church. The mayor lamented that Maurice would’ve dearly loved to have had a bit of Miz Turner’s famous Yankee pot roast one last time.
As Gunther was the only member of the 1985 town council still alive and in Henderson, he was charged with the honor of opening the time capsule and presenting each of the artifacts within it. Consequently, immediately upon hearing the time capsule was going to be opened, Aaron (current town council member) and Keith (deacon in the Baptist church) both called Gunner and told him he needed to get that photo pronto. Danny, who ran a used car lot on the edge of town, called him, too. Danny’s take was a little different: “Hot damn, Gunner, did you ever think we’d get to see their faces when they get a load of our picture?” Gunner didn’t bother trying to explain to Danny the impacts of their thirty-seven-year-old prank.
He set off trying to figure out how to get the photo. It turned out, however, that sneaking the picture in, was much easier than trying to snatch something from the sealed time capsule. The mayor had the time capsule locked up “at a secret location,” which everyone assumed to be his greenhouse. In an age of technology when Mayor Haney guarded his prize-winning begonias with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, Gunther didn’t have a chance of breaking into the capsule without getting caught.
His only choice was to confess to his dad what he’d done and ask him to pull the picture without announcement. This was the reason why he’d invited his eighty-two-year-old dad to dinner this evening and asked his wife, Becky. to fix Gunther’s favorite meal: Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes and angel biscuits. He lied to Becky about the purpose of the dinner – said his dad seemed a little down, and he thought a little father-son time might fix him right up. He wasn’t sure Becky believed him, but he’d face that particular pickle later. After dinner, Gunner and Gunther retired to Gunner’s office to sip bourbon and smoke cigars.
As they sat in the comfortable leather chairs, puffing cigars, Gunner was still trying to drum up the courage to tell his father about the photo, when Gunther demanded, “Out with it.”
Stunned, Gunner shot back, “What do you mean?”
Gunther put his cigar out in the ashtray on the chairside table. “The only way Becky lets us smoke in the house is if you’re about to ask me for something big. How much and for what?”
Momentarily annoyed, Gunned snapped, “I don’t need your money, Dad.”
“Well, if it’s not money, what is it?”
Gunner put out his cigar, took a deep breath, and said, “Back in 1985, I snuck something into the time capsule. It will be very bad if anyone sees it. Bad enough to ruin me, and several other men.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Gunther responded. “What is it, and how did it get in the capsule?”
“Well,” Gunner said, trying to buy time. “I snuck it inside the package you were putting together.”
Gunther sipped his bourbon, then swirled what remained in his glass. Finally, he said, “So, you rifled through the artifacts in my office — disrespecting both me and my position as a city council member — and stuck something disreputable into my pouch?”
“Yes,” Gunner answered without looking at his father. “I was seventeen.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Gunther said again. “Seventeen and doing some fool thing Danny Pearson got you into. What is it?”
Gunner gulped what was left of his bourbon before he answered. Pulling at his neckline he said, “It’s a Polaroid of some guys from the football team.”
“Boy, are you gonna make me pull this from you like teeth?”
Gunner rolled his eyes, but was smart enough to close them before he did so, and sighed audibly. “Dad, it doesn’t matter. Can you pull the pic or not?”
Gunther crossed his legs and replied, “That’s a pretty belligerent tone for someone asking for a favor. It’s no skin off my butt if you get embarrassed when your little joke sees the light of day.”
“Okay. It’s a pic of a bunch of us posing around your pool table with what the kids these days call ‘sneaky nuts.’”
Gunther’s face was expressionless when he said, “’Sneaky nuts?’”
Exasperated, Gunner blurted, “One of our testicles sticking outside our pants.”
Both men were silent for a moment, and then Gunther got up and went over to the credenza to pour himself more bourbon. With his back to Gunner, he said in a choked voice. “You and your football buddies went down in the basement, exposed your genitals to each other, and thought it a good idea to commemorate the event with a photo. A photo that you thought exemplified everything Henderson was in 1985. You boys never did have the sense God gave a goose.”
“No, it wasn’t like that!” Gunner cried. “It wasn’t supposed to be opened for a hundred years, and we just thought…we weren’t exposing our genitals to each other…geez, dad, it was just a stupid joke!”
“Just a joke. After disrespecting yourself, you then disrespected me by putting it in my pouch for the time capsule. Not something I or anybody with any sense would do, but sometimes you just can’t get out of your own way.”
“Dad,” Gunner said wearily. “Will you help me, or not?”
Gunther turned and leaned against the credenza, his newly-filled glass in hand.
“Let’s see, my choices in this scenario are either I abuse my position of honor to abscond with a time capsule artifact that legitimately and historically belongs to the town, or I stand in front of the town, display a picture of my son and his friends’ ‘coming out party’ so to speak—”
“For the love of God, Dad! We were not coming out—”
“Well, your genitals certainly were!”
“It wasn’t our genitals. It was just…one nut..”
“Last I checked, testicles were included in genitals, and as such, you don’t put them on public display!”
“Dad,” Gunner growled. “Just tell me what you’re gonna do.”
Gunther swirled his drink for a moment and then said in a much calmer voice, “By rights, the only honorable thing for me to do is display the photo, not mention the tiny unmentionables on display in the photo, and read off the jersey numbers on the back. Unfortunately for you, as your first statehouse campaign prominantly featured your jersey number from the 1985 State Championship, everybody’s gonna know which tiny unmentionable is yours.”
Gunner said in a resolute tone, “I’ll be damned if I can understand how that’s the honorable thing, but you always do whatever you’re going to do. If you’ll excuse me, right now I need to tell Becky how I’ve ruined our lives.” He got up and walked toward the door, then abruptly turned back to his father.
“No,” he said. “I am not going to tell her I’ve ruined our lives, because I haven’t. It was an innocent prank pulled by a bunch of adolescent boys thirty-seven years ago.”
He smiled broadly and continued. “And, you know what, Dad? It was funny then, and it’s funny now. When you read off my jersey number, I’m…when you read…wait just a minute. How do you know about the jersey numbers on the back?”
Now it was Gunther’s turn to smile. “Oh, I found your little ‘prank’ thirty-seven years ago. I went back through everything in the pouch before I turned it in. At first, I was just pissed that all you little peckerwoods had my cigars in your mouths. Then I saw Danny Pearson’s foot up on the chair, finger pointing at his crotch – not too subtle that one.”
“So, this whole time you’ve been busting my chops for what? Fun?”
“Pretty much,” Gunther admitted with a grin and a shrug.
Holy crap,” Gunner said.
“Holy crap is right. Seven dern fools exposing themselves in a photo. I was ready to take you to the woodshed, as my daddy would say, but your dear mother stopped me. God love her, she thought it was hilarious. ‘Gunther,’ she said. ‘Look at their serious faces, and then look…it’s hysterical!’ God love her, she had me laughing about it, too.”
Wistfully, Gunner said, “I miss her so much.”
“Me, too, boy, me, too.”
After being silent a second, Gunner asked, “So, you threw it away? Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
Gunther smiled a sad little smile. “Your mother. She said she imagined that you boys were all so excited thinking you’d pulled such a trick on the future townfolk. She said we should let you think the photo was in the time capsule. Oh, she got such a kick watching you boys at the sealing ceremony. She took Polaroids of the bunch of you.”
Gunner frowned, “I don’t remember any pictures of us from the sealing ceremony.”
Gunther laughed. “Of course, you don’t, because we put those away with your – what did you call it before – ‘sneaky nut’ photo.”
“You still have it?” Gunner asked incredulously. “Why?”
“Your mother,” Gunther said, again. “She thought we should leave it and the other photos to you upon our passing. Because it was so damn funny to her, but also as one last reminder of our parental protection – saving your grandkids potential embarrassment. Not everyone would find that photo funny coming out of the time capsule!” He laughed and then continued, “I’m glad the time capsule unsealing is happening while I’m alive to see it — don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry half the town was destroyed – but it’s given me the opportunity to see, again, what kind of man you are.”
“One that puts his ‘tiny unmentionables on display’?”
Gunther chuckled, “Well, I was thinking more about how you completely took responsibility for your actions earlier this evening and faced me like a man. I’m proud of you. Of course, I’m assuming you haven’t made a habit out of sneaking your nuts into pictures.”
Gunner, looking sheepish, replied, “Well, there was one wedding shortly after college…”
“For the love of God, son. I take it all back. You don’t have the sense God gave a goose.”