Thursday, August 17, 2006

Welcome to BELDENBLOG!

Greetings, lovers of fine fiction & music. I will be regularly posting samples of my work here at BELDENBLOG. If I'm able to, I will also have links to music that I'm working on right now--rough mixes of brand new tunes that will be updated as they approach completion.

Let's start off with something typically cheerful. It's called THE OVERLOOK. The seed of this story was an exercise written on the spot in a writing workshop during my training for the NY Writers Coalition. The assignment was to write about "a secret." At first the story was going to be about the daughter's secret from her father, but as I continued to write (days after the workshop ended) it became much darker, & I realized the secret belonged to the father.

Hope you like it...


Tony was hiking through the woods when he saw them. They were up ahead on the trail, no more than fifty feet away. It was not an overly dramatic sight. It only lasted a moment. If he had come along a minute or two later he might have missed it entirely, and they could have explained things easily enough: a friendly walk, say, or a chance meeting. But at that moment there was no mistaking what was going on.

She was leaning back against a tree, and he was kissing her, his hands holding her face as if he were sipping from a large bowl. Sunlight filtered through the leaves overhead, creating a quilt of light and shadow on their clothing. She wore jeans cut very short, just at the curve of her rump, her legs long and smooth. He was tall in a striped dress shirt, untucked, and khakis.

Tony watched all this from behind a tree, wondering who these young lovers could be. Someone had told him that the Hamilton girl was dating Tad Lennox from across the road, but Tad was a short, stocky boy, nothing like this tall young man leaning down to kiss the girl, pressing his long body against hers. Then, as the girl shifted away from the tree, Tony recognized the distinctive reddish-brown hair that hung down to the small of his daughter's back. At first, he almost laughed, so startled was he to come upon Stacey like this. Then he felt hurt, not so much because she was in the woods kissing a boy, but because she had kept a secret from him. Just an hour ago he had knocked on her bedroom door to ask if she wanted to accompany him on a hike. She'd said no thanks, she had a school report to finish. He'd thought it odd that she preferred to do her homework on such a lovely Spring afternoon, but then his daughter had been acting strangely of late.

He was about to proceed along the trail, curious to see which of her classmates Stacey had fallen for, and to make sure this did not go beyond a gentle kiss in the woods, when the young man drew back his face. It was Mr. Peterson, his daughter's English teacher. He was a youthful fellow—Tony guessed in his late 20s—tall, good looking. At the most recent parent-teacher conference he'd impressed Tony with his intelligence and obvious affection for his students. Tony remembered how relieved he'd felt after the meeting. It was hard to find a teacher so committed these days, even at an expensive private school like the Academy. Most of them, even the younger ones, came off as shell-shocked and bitter at not opting for a cozy office job that paid decently and didn't require endless patience with privileged children. Now, as the two of them walked on, the dedicated Mr. Peterson reached down and squeezed Stacey's rear end.

Tony sat on a fallen tree trunk and tried to think. Only now did the sharp icicle of jealousy stab at him. He thought of he and his daughter as being very close, especially since Evelyn's death. They cooked supper together, went to movies together, conspired together on elaborate practical jokes to play on friends and neighbors. Even more than most fathers and daughters, they shared a private language, certain words and gestures that no one else could understand. When Stacey had questions she would come directly to him and he tried to answer her as honestly as he could, with the right balance of humor and seriousness. It was he who had explained to her the biology of reproduction. At age twelve, she’d woken up to find herself bleeding and without a mother to go to. Of course by then she knew what sex was, but he had felt the need to fill in the blanks.

"But remember," he recalled saying after a brief lecture about the importance of birth control, "It's no good without love."

"You mean the way I love you?" she'd asked.

He pulled her very close then and said, "And the way I love you, too."

She was always an extraordinarily affectionate little girl, even before Evelyn's death, generous with hugs and always reaching out to hold her daddy's hand. That seemed so long ago now. His daughter was another person, a young woman, and he had to admit that she rarely reached out to him anymore.

He stood and headed farther along the trail, deeper into the woods. He walked quickly but was careful not to make too much noise. Fortunately, the path was clear of dry leaves and other debris, and he made good progress. Among the chirping of the birds and rustle of leaves he could hear Mr. Peterson's deep, clear voice up ahead. Had the teacher been involved with Stacey at the time of their school meeting, just a month ago? He tried to recall any clues from the young man's behavior, but remembered only a pleasant, professional conference. Peterson had praised Stacey, yes, but not so much that his enthusiasm was suspicious. He even had a few less than positive comments to share, including the usual complaints that Stacey didn't always live up to her potential and often seemed distracted. He then had asked the inevitable question: was Stacey going through anything especially difficult at home? Tony remembered how Peterson then had leaned forward, as if especially eager for the answer. Tony, as he usually did, made sure to play up Evelyn's passing, and the long, drawn out nature of it, and how this—even after five years--could easily explain his daughter's occasional lapses into melancholy.

This always seemed to satisfy teachers and neighbors. Just last month Mrs. Leek, from next door, had stopped by to tell Tony she’d seen Stacey sitting near the school bus stop, her face in her hands, weeping.

"She looked so upset," Mrs. L. told him. "Is she okay?"

“It’s Evelyn,” he’d explained. “The poor girl still thinks of her now and then. As do I, Mrs. L.”

He’d managed then to spring a tear or two, and the good Mrs. Leek patted his arm and said, “Of course. That must be it. Tell me,” she added, "does she have anyone special to talk to?"

"Of course," he had reassured her. "Only the very best, Mrs.L."

Later, when he asked Stacey about the incident, she had denied crying like that, and said that she'd just been exhausted from staying up so late, for which she blamed him.

At this point the main trail continued on toward the creek, while an unmarked trail branched off to wind up a steep hill with the overly grand name of Piney Mountain. Tony could see the two of them about half way up, leaning into the climb. He and Stacey had hiked this trail dozens, if not hundreds, of times. There was an overlook at the summit that she never tired of, a flat, rocky outcrop that gave a spectacular view of the lake and valley. For hours they would sit and watch the hawks circling overhead, gasping at the predators' occasional plummet toward an unsuspecting squirrel or chipmunk in a clearing far below.

"Come on," he now heard Stacey say, reaching back to help pull Peterson over a fallen tree. The teacher appeared winded, and laughed at himself as the girl yanked him up the hill. They paused, and he pulled her close to him, and again they kissed. This time Tony felt the anger boil up inside him.

On those rare occasions when he'd contemplated it, Tony had assumed his daughter would give herself up to some awkward, gangly boy with a pimply face and unkempt hair. He'd always thought he would have a sort of grace period during which he would remain the primary figure in her life, the mature man to whom she had to listen and obey. Now she was involved—and, by the looks of it, deeply involved—with another older man, another figure of authority. Recent examples of Stacey's unusual behavior came to him, signs that he hadn't recognized for what they truly were. She'd been more shy than usual, for example, especially around bedtime. When he went into her room—a ritual of theirs for several years now—she turned her face away from him and pulled the covers up to her chin. She would then offer up only her cheek for a kiss, and that reluctantly. He'd assumed it was just another of her mood swings, and that things would soon return to normal, but now he wasn't so sure. Other instances of her changed behavior, like the shower incident of the other day, made much more sense in this light, but to contemplate them now, he found, was too painful.

He continued to follow them at a discreet distance. The climb was unusually difficult, perhaps because he was so agitated. His breathing was labored, his legs burning as he neared the summit. There, the terrain leveled off as the trail wound through a thickly wooded area leading toward the overlook. As his breathing slowly returned to normal, Tony fantasized about sneaking up on the two lovers and surprising them. There would be the satisfaction of seeing their startled faces, but what beyond that? If he'd brought his camera he could have taken photos to show to the school's administrators. That would teach Peterson a lesson. He also considered approaching from behind and bringing a rock down on the teacher's head. Everyone would understand. He could see the headlines: OUTRAGED FATHER KILLS PREDATOR TEACHER. No jury of parents would convict him. But he would lose Stacey for sure if he did anything even remotely drastic. Like her mother, she could be vindictive. Not long ago she'd held out her affections for days after he had criticized her clothes in front of a friend. Perhaps the best thing to do was to wait this out.

As he made his way to the overlook, Tony could no longer hear them talking. He worried that they might have gone off-trail, but then he heard the sound of his daughter's laughter up ahead. He couldn't remember the last time he'd heard her laughing like this, the notes rising the way they did when she was particularly pleased. He thought of summer evenings on their deck, devouring ice cream sundaes and telling bad jokes, or watching Marx Brothers movies late into the night with a huge bowl of popcorn balanced on their knees.

He positioned himself behind a large boulder, just this side of the clearing. He peeked around the corner and saw that Stacey was sitting on the lip of the overlook, leaning back against Peterson's chest. The teacher held her close, his arms wrapped around her. Tony's heart beat rapidly. He and Stacey had often sat this very way, when they were reasonably sure that no one would come upon them. He would rest his chin on her head and take in the scent of her freshly shampooed hair. He remembered the day they'd watched a slowly approaching thunderstorm, not caring that they would get caught in a downpour before they could possibly get back home. The clouds had crept in from the northwest like a thick, gray quilt being pulled across the sky, jagged bolts of lightning streaking down to touch the tops of the rolling hills around the valley. She had turned to him then and said that she loved him and would never, ever leave. He could not remember ever being happier. They'd laughed all the way home that day, the rain falling cool and hard, their clothes completely soaked through. At the house they'd tossed them off and, still giggling, wrapped themselves in warm, fluffy towels.

"I've been thinking a lot about it," he heard Peterson say, "and I've decided it's time to do something about…" He sighed, then said, "About the situation."

Even though they were facing the other way, looking out toward the valley, Tony could tell from how his daughter stiffened that her face had gone stony. Sometimes, when she was upset, all expression would drain from her otherwise emotionally transparent face. He'd seen it hundreds of times.

"God, I never should've said anything," Stacey said, her voice nearly trapped in her throat.

"Are you kidding? You were ready to explode. You had to tell someone."

Peterson stroked Stacey's long hair. She hadn't cut it in ages, and spoke of one day shearing it all off to donate to cancer patients. Sometimes, fresh from the shower, she would allow Tony to gently untangle the knots in her hair with his hands as she sat watching TV in her cotton pajamas.

When Stacey didn't say anything more, Peterson said, "You should at least go talk to someone. A professional."

"You mean a shrink? Daddy doesn't believe in them. He says it's a racket."

"He would say that."

"Would I tell this shrink about you? That might not go over too well, either."

Peterson stopped stroking her hair and leaned back on his hands. As if to comfort him, Stacey reached back and touched his cheek.

"I did go once," she said. "After my mom died. I was having nightmares and my doctor insisted."

In that instant, Tony heard again his daughter's shrill cries from her bedroom. The nightmares had been relentless and vivid. Every night, visions of her dying mother, emaciated and hairless, her bloodshot eyes wide as she tried to call to her from an open mouth full of rotting teeth. Barely had Stacey's head hit the pillow before she began shouting in her sleep, until one night he just crawled into bed with her and held her. It was the only thing that helped.

"He wanted me to come every week," Stacey told Peterson, "but daddy wouldn't hear of it."

"It must have been awful," Peterson said, wrapping his arms around her.

She turned to look at him, and Tony had to duck behind the rock to avoid being seen.

"It's all over now," she said. Then there was a long silence during which Tony assumed they were kissing. He sat back against the rock and looked up at the sky. It was a deep blue with wispy, shredded-cotton clouds. Tall pines shuddered in the mild breeze.

He should have seen this coming. Stacey's resistance to him, her distant manner, the tears at the bus stop—it all added up. Then, the other day, when he went into the bathroom to shave while she was showering—something he'd done countless times--she shouted at him to go away, her whole body tensing behind the glass shower door, her voice sharp with outrage. He explained that he'd just come in to shave, that he needed to get to work, but she wouldn't hear of it. "Get out!" she'd cried. "I don't want you in here with me!"

At the time he'd thought, again, that she was simply going through one of her bashful phases. Sometimes, if a pimple flared up on her face, say, she would hold back, cover herself up, worried that he might think her ugly. Now that she was filling out so nicely, with a voluptuous figure much like her mother's, perhaps she was feeling shy and awkward about her body. But now he could see what was really going on.

He leaned back hard against the boulder. He wondered where and how often the two of them would meet. Perhaps Peterson had an apartment near the school, and when Stacey was supposed to be at the library she was actually with him. They probably took long drives together, the way Tony and she used to do, and parked in desolate areas where no one would see them. So many fond memories were being displaced by this new information that Tony found himself pushing the back of his head into the rock until it hurt, the sharp edges digging into his scalp.

Finally, he heard them scrabbling to their feet. He peeked around the boulder to see them holding hands and taking one last look at the valley spread out below. A hawk hung high above the trees, barely moving, like a kite on a string. He remembered the day he and Stacey were hiking through the woods and came upon a small clearing where some trees had burned, their charred, craggy trunks rising like stalagmites from the ground. A squirrel was perched atop one of these trunks, gnawing on a nut. Overhead, a hawk was stealthily watching from the branch of an intact maple tree. "Watch this," he'd whispered, but, seeing what was bound to happen, Stacey had run toward the squirrel shouting, "Shoo! Shoo! Run away!" The startled squirrel high-tailed it into the brush, and the disappointed hawk lifted off and flew away.

"Ready?" Peterson asked, and, still holding hands, they crossed the clearing and headed down the far side of the hill. When they were gone, Tony walked around the boulder and stood at the edge of the overlook. Far off to the west hung a bank of dark clouds, the air beneath it a hazy curtain of rain. He picked up a stone and tossed it over the edge. He heard it clatter through the tree branches, the sound echoing across the valley. He squatted down and placed his palm on the ground where his daughter had just been sitting. Still warm. Below, the lake glittered and, all around it, the roofs of cottages poked up through the trees.

By now Stacey and Mr. Peterson were far down the hill, almost to the lake, but Tony remained where he was. He was surprised to feel a wetness on his face, but he didn't wipe the tears away.

He thought of that day long ago when he and Stacey had sat on this very spot watching the storm approach. He'd known then, of course, that what she'd said wasn't true, but he had always liked pretending.

The wind was picking up now, rustling the carpet of trees in the valley below. From far off came the rumble of thunder. Remembering how he'd held his daughter tight in his arms, he sat and let his feet dangle over the edge of the overlook, and waited for the rain.


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