The Sanity of Strawberries: Misty

This is from my new novel, The Sanity of Strawberries, to be published in 2018.

Girl in a boat on the river I should have known William Delaney was bad news the first time he stepped up on Mama’s front porch, on account of he showed up with my cousin Drake, and everybody knew what all kinds of meanness Drake was into. But all I could think of when I saw William was how big he was. Big and tall and solid.  Ever one of us Meadows looked like the runt of the litter, pushed back on the hind tit and never getting quite enough to grow right.  William looked like he always got his share and then some.

The old boards bowed a little with his weight and he stood there looking down at me with the evening sun so bright behind him it was like looking up at a big man-shaped shadow outlined in bright gold.

I was on the porch because there was no room in the little living room, not even on the floor. My sister, Brenna Mae, had moved back in with her three kids and her boyfriend and his two kids. With Mama and Earl that made nine people in there squashed up together in front of two rusty box fans and the new 52 inch TV Earl just brought home from somewhere.

Grandma Mary Ella shared my room since she got kicked out of the nursing home for setting her sheets on fire by falling asleep smoking.  It was my fault, really, I was the one who took her the smokes. She wanted them so bad, I couldn’t say no. So I said she could share my room and I’d look after her. I didn’t mind, she was a sweet old thing, you know? But after Brenna Mae came back home, it just got too crowded to breathe hardly. Grandma was in there now taking taking a “nap” – knocked out on pain pills –  which is why I couldn’t hide out there like I did sometimes.

When Drake said, “Hey Misty, want to take a ride in a brand new pick-up?,”   it should have been a no-brainer. An automatic no-way-ho-say cause running around with Drake was likely to be hazardous to your health and a danger to your freedom. Last time I went anywhere with him I ended up walking six miles home in the dark while Drake got escorted to the county lockup.

But when William stuck his big hand down in front of me, I grabbed on and let him pull me up.  I climbed up in the cab of his pickup truck without him having to ask twice and sat there between him and Drake with the air conditioner  cooling my face and William’s solid denim covered thigh right up against my bare leg. By the time we dropped Drake off at the Thirsty Hog, I was already half in love with William’s rumbling bass voice, his easy laughter, his dimple that winked in and out with every smile.

I went home with him that first day and when I saw the house I was a goner. Two stories, bright white with fresh paint, surrounded by a big yard shaded by a dozen hundred year old oaks, then all that farmland stretching out flat and green as far as you could see.  Delaney crops growing on Delaney land.  Four bedrooms, five baths, and a living room bigger than our whole house.

I was half in love with William. And all the way in love with the idea of being a Delaney, of being somebody who belonged in that house.

That was my mistake, the thing I did that caused everything else.

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Marvin’s Money

Bess and Marvin JohnsonIf you’ve read Tangled Roots, you will recognize Bess and Marvin, an older farm couple who lived on the bluff overlooking their river bottom crop land. This story was cut from the final version of Tangled Roots and I thought you might enjoy getting to know Marvin and Bess a little better.

Marvin’s Money

When the dogs started raising Cain out front Bess went straight to the front door and peeked through the lace curtains. Time was she would have just thrown the door wide open without looking. The dogs carrying on like that meant company, and used to be company was always welcome at River View. But times had changed, and now she always looked first. The young man standing on the front porch looked harmless enough. He was dressed in ragged jeans and a tee shirt, his thin face showing his fear as he glanced back over his shoulder at the hounds. He was about 16, barely driving age, Bess thought. She figured he most likely turned off on the wrong road and got lost.

She opened the door and ordered the dogs into silence. The young man stepped inside quickly, slipping past Bess without so much as an ‘excuse me’. Then he pulled the screen door closed, leaving the dogs outside whining in frustration.

“They don’t bite,” Bess assured him, “they’re all bark”

“I wasn’t scared! Did you think I was scared of the dogs? I wasn’t scared.”

Bess smiled. “Well, some folks are. They do make a lot of noise.”

The young man thrust his hand into the pockets of his worn jeans, jingling change with his fingers as he stepped further into the room, craning his neck around to look all around the room.

“Are you here by yourself, Ma’am?” Bess didn’t like that question, the hairs on the back of her neck started to prickle with unease.

“No, I’m not by myself. My husband’s at home. Did you want to see him?” Bess leaned out the screen door. Marvin had come out of the barn and was looking up toward the house. She motioned for him to come.

Marvin threw her a look when he came in. He wasn’t happy with her. He was always reminding her not to open the door to a stranger when she was alone in the house. She was sure she would hear all about it later. For now, though, he kept most of his attention focused on the kid.

“What brings you way out here?”

“Oh, I was just kind of looking for a place to hunt. I hear there’s a whole bunch of deer hiding out up here on these bluffs.”

“You heard that, huh?”

“Yeah, I heard there was some bucks with really big horns.”


“Yeah, you know, like a whole tree branch on their head?”

“I know. We most generally call them antlers, though.” Marvin’s voice was mild.

“Yeah…antlers.” The kid didn’t even know enough to be embarrassed. He had moved away from the foyer and was wandering through the living room, looking over the framed family photos on the walls. Bess watched in horror as he picked up her favorite glass bluebird, turned it over in his hands, and carelessly put it back down too close to the edge of the end table. All the time his eyes kept moving, roving over everything from her knitting basket beside her chair to Grandma’s mantel clock above the fireplace. He’s acting like this is a gift shop, Bess thought indignantly, like he can’t find what he’s looking for…

Without invitation, the young man unceremoniously seated himself in Marvin’s favorite chair. “You have a real nice place here,” he announced.

“Thank you.” Bess responded automatically. She stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, torn between the habit of good manners and her growing sense of unease. She would usually offer refreshments to any guest, however uninvited. But she really wanted this insolent young man out of her house, and offering him a cup of coffee might prolong his stay. When she saw Marvin sit down on the sofa across from the boy, she followed his lead and perched uneasily on the edge of a rocker near the kitchen door.

The boy had picked up the bluebird again and was tossing it casually back and forth between his hands as his eyes continued to roam over the room.

“I don’t believe I caught your name?” Her husband waited for a response, but the boy sat there with a little smile on his face and didn’t say a word. After a minute, Marvin tried again, “my name is Johnson and…..”

“I know who you are,” the boy interrupted. “And I know your wife’s name, too. Bess? Isn’t that right? And your son is Jim Johnson.”

“You know my son?”

“Sure. I know him.”

“I guess Jim must be the one who told you about the hunting out here?”

“Yeah! Jim told me to come on out and hunt. But I thought it’d be, you know, polite, to stop and talk with you folks first.”

“That was real..polite..of you.”

Bess watched the stilted conversation in silence. Every word out of the kid’s mouth made it more obvious that he didn’t know her son at all. Jim was very protective of River Bluffs’ 400 acres. No one hunted out here anymore. Not even Jim.

Marvin didn’t challenge the kid on his lies, though, so she held her tongue, waiting and watching.

“Let’s go for a walk.” Marvin’s voice was still quiet and genial. “I’ll show you the best hunting spots.”

“Naah..I think I’d like to just stay in here a while, where it’s nice and cool, you know?” The boy stood up and stretched, making the tattoos on his forearm jump as he flexed his muscles.

She saw now he wasn’t as young as she had first thought. Although his face was smooth and thin, his shoulders were broad under the loose tee shirt. He walked to the front window. Now he was between Marvin and the door. “Sure seems strange to look out and not see nobody,” he commented as he pulled the lace curtain aside. “The last house I passed must be a couple miles back. That’s a long ways to your nearest neighbors, huh? Don’t it make you nervous, living way out here all by yourself?”

“No, why should we be nervous? We have company all the time. We have a lot of friends. But we haven’t heard from Jim for quite a while, have we, Bess?” Marvin looked across the room, straight into Bess’s eyes for a moment as he spoke, and then casually turned back to the boy. “I guess that’s why he didn’t tell us you were coming out.”

To Bess, the message was as clear as it always was when Marvin said those same words. He would never tell her directly to call Jim. But if he hadn’t heard from him in a while, or if there was a chore he needed Jim’s help with, he always let her know with just those words. “We haven’t heard from Jim in a while” meant “Call Jim!”

There was a phone in the kitchen. Bess stood up. Somehow her voice came out calm and steady. “Would either of you fellows like a cup of coffee, or a Coke, or anything?”

“I’ll take a cup of coffee, if it’s fresh,” Marvin answered quickly. “Why don’t you make a new pot? How about you, son? Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Don’t suppose you have any beer?”

“Maybe. I’ll go look.” Bess hurried across the hall into the kitchen. The phone was hanging by the backdoor. She thought about going on through the door and down the road to Hendersons. But it would take a good while to get there, and they might not even be home. And she couldn’t just leave Marvin. She grabbed the phone and dialed Jim’s number.

She was still dialing when she heard the kitchen door open. She knew he was there. Right behind her. She hung up the phone and turned to face him. He wasn’t playing with the pretty little blue bird any longer. Now he had a big ugly knife.

It was a folding knife with a long thin blade. A pocket knife, some portion of Bess’s mind noted remotely. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the bright gleam of the blade as it flicked back and forth in his nervous hand.

“Who are you calling, Grandma? I thought you come in here to get me a beer?”

“I…I was just getting it…. it’s in the refrigerator.” She forced herself to look away from the knife. She didn’t want him to see how frightened she was. But it was too late. He knew. She could see it in his mocking smile and in the coldness of his dark eyes.

He moved closer. She couldn’t help flinching, but he only reached over her shoulder to grab the receiver of the wall phone. The acrid stench of his sweat surrounded her as he stretched the coiled plastic line out between their bodies. His eyes never left hers as he slowly brought the knife and the telephone receiver up in front of her face and sliced through the cord, silencing the insistent buzz of the dial tone.

“Leave my wife alone!” Marvin’s voice was rough in the sudden silence.

The boy spun around and threw the phone receiver against the wall. “I haven’t touched your wife, old man! Not yet!” He grabbed Bess, pulling her in close against his left side, the knife in his right hand hovering near her face. “But I could. Anytime I want to, I could. So you both better just quit messing with me.”

Marvin had stopped just inside the kitchen door. Like Bess, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the bright blade. “Messing with you…”

“Do you think I’m stupid? Old Miss Sunday School Teacher Johnson jumps up and says she “may” have a beer in HER refrigerator? You think I’m so stupid I can’t figure out she could have some other reason for running off to the kitchen in such a great big hurry?”

“Okay, Okay…. just let go of my wife and tell me what you want. Whatever it is, you can have it! Just let my wife go!”

“Now you’re the one who’s stupid. You know what I want. And as for your wife, she’s gonna stay right here beside me while the three of us look over this fine big house of yours. I don’t have to see the whole thing. You can just go straight to the safe.”

“Safe? I don’t have a safe!”

“Safe, strong box, cedar chest, hatbox…hell, I don’t care what you keep your money in! Just show me where it is!”

Marvin unsnapped the chest pocket of his overalls and pulled out his wallet. “Here, take it, I think there’s about two hundred in there.”

“I didn’t come out here for your wallet! I came for your money – your real money.

But this is my money. I don’t –

“Marvin, stop! Please don’t lie! Give him the money. He’s going to hurt me if you don’t.”

Bess looked past the knife, staring straight into her husband’s eyes, willing him to understand. “Please! He knows you don’t like banks. Somebody must have told him about all the money you’ve saved, about how you like to look at it and count it sometimes…show him where it is Marvin! Just show him where you keep the money you save!”

Marvin stood for a long moment, his eyes never leaving his wife’s face. “It took me a long time to save that money.”

“You better listen to Miz Johnson, old man, she’s making sense.”

“Yeah. I reckon she is.” Marvin turned and pointed back through the door. “The money’s right down the hall in the closet.”

The boy smiled. “Show me.” He grabbed Bess by the upper arm and forced her along with him as he followed Marvin. As they passed through the kitchen door, Bess tripped and fell heavily into the wall. The boy had to let go to keep from being pulled down with her. He jumped back, cursing as she hit the floor with a thump.

“Oh, dear Lord, I think I broke my hip! Oh, it hurts so bad! Ohh!” The thin, quavering wail was the frightened cry of an old woman.

Marvin tried to get to her, but the boy stepped over her body and gave him a push. “First the money! She’s not going anywhere.”

“Okay, okay…….it’s right here, under the stairs” The closet was about eight feet down the hall from the kitchen door. Marvin opened the door and stepped back, revealing a dark narrow doorway.

“It’s in there?”

“Yes. Everything I’ve saved is right back there in the back of the closet. You want me to go in and get it and bring it out to you?”

Marvin started into the closet, but the boy grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Wait just a minute. You seem awful eager all of a sudden. I bet you got a big old shotgun in there with that money.”

” I just want you to get the money and go, so I can take care of my wife! There’s nothing in there except money.”

“Well, I think I’ll just see for myself, just the same. Where’s the light?”

“It’s a chain in the ceiling. Right up over your head.”

The boy took a step into the closet and reached up to find the chain. The weak light of the 40 watt bulb was enough to show the surprise on his face when he looked toward the back of the long narrow closet. He was so intent he didn’t notice when Marvin stepped back and gently closed the heavy closet door. He did hear the click of the bolt sliding into place. But it was too late. The thick door muffled his curses and although it sounded like he was kicking and banging with all his strength, the door didn’t even quiver.

Bess was on her feet coming down the hall when Marvin turned around. “I thought you broke your hip!”

“ No dear, I just didn’t want to go into the closet with him.”


Jim had his deputy stand to the side with his gun ready while he opened the closet door. But it was obvious right away that the fellow in the closet wasn’t going to be giving them any trouble. He was sitting on the floor, his face was wet with tears When he looked up, blinking and squinting against the light, his red-rimmed eyes held more relief than threat. The wide planks of the floor glittered with silver and copper coins. The kid had one jar in his lap, another lay on its side spilled out.

The shelves behind the boy held rank after rank of those gallon glass jars. Another just like it sat on the dresser by Marvin’s bed, ready to receive his pocket change every night.


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Writer’s block? Procrastinator? Too busy? Tell it like it is! All those words mean LAZY.

Writer’s block? Procrastinator? Too busy? Tell it like it is! All those words mean LAZY. At least, for me, they do. Those are the words I tell myself to explain why I never seem to get anything done. I make big plans, buy supplies, make announcements.  But the jobs don’t get done.

The hall needs to be spruced up. I bought the paint and new flooring almost a year ago.

The utility room is stuffed  full of totes and baskets.  I need to go through, donate, mend, pitch.

My desk is littered with notes, books, and printouts – research for the new novel.

I was home alone most of yesterday and should have made progress on at least one of those jobs.

Oh, I did try. I started working on each one of those jobs at different times yesterday. I got the paint out, found rollers and brushes. Now I have all that out on the counter, adding to the mess.  I folded one basket of laundry.

I sorted through my research and wrote two paragraphs on the novel.  Two paragraphs.

Most of the day I spent reading, browsing Facebook, and playing online games.   When my husband came home, I cooked a big supper and settled in for the evening to watch TV with him.

Okay. The first step toward getting better is to admit you have a problem.

  • added Personal Block List extension to Chrome.  blocked all my favorite game sites.
  • opened control panel and removed all the games on my computer’s hard drive.
  • added the Stay Focused extension – it will temporarily block all websites.
  • put my Kindle away in a drawer where I can’t see it.

I realize I’m treating myself like a child who has no self control and must be watched constantly to make sure she behaves.  Well, as Mama used to say, “if the shoe fits – wear it.”

Am I the only one with this problem? Do you lose unintended hours to social media?

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Twenty-Four Days – a thriller by J Murray

One of the best things about being a writer is meeting other writers who generously share information, ideas, and inspiration.  Jacqui Murray is a writer I met through the A-Z Blogging Challenge in April.

In Murray’s  latest thriller, U.S. and British agencies have less than a month to stop a North Korean missile strike after hijackers steal nuclear warhead–armed submarines.

A blistering pace is set from the beginning: dates open each new chapter/section, generating a countdown that intensifies the title’s time limit. Murray skillfully bounces from scene to scene, handling numerous characters, from hijackers to an MI6 special agent.

Interested? The first chapter is free.

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99 Cent Sale!

99 Cents today!

Snakes in the Kitchen is on sale for only 99 cents this week, for all ebook readers! That’s exciting news for me, because it means my book will reach more readers.  Thank you, Three Creeks Press & Macmillan!

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My Mother in her white uniform on the way to work at the State Hospital. Taken in Grandma Rogers yard in Mokane.

Mama was modest and didn’t usually let anybody watch her get dressed, but on the first day of her new job she called Sissy into the bedroom to help her and I went, too.  Mama had a list of everything she had to wear. One thing on the list was a “good” underwire brassiere with “firm support.” She couldn’t get it fastened in back so I climbed up on a chair and guided the little hooks together for her.  She already had on her firm support girdle, another required garment.  It was a “long line” model that started just a few inches below the brassiere and stretched down to the top of her thighs. Four long elastic straps, with clips on the ends to hold up her stockings, dangled from the bottom of the girdle. Her cotton panties were pulled up over top of the garters and the girdle. A full slip came next, then the starched white cotton uniform with snaps marching up the front. She had cut her wavy dark auburn hair to a chin length bob and what was left had to be tucked into a hairnet. The finishing touch was a starched nurse’s cap. Everything, including the stockings, was pure bright white.

“Wow! Mama you look so different! Like a real nurse!” Sissy spoke in an awestruck whisper.

“Do I really?” Mama turned and looked over her shoulder to see the new woman reflected in the dresser mirror. She straightened the white cap and tucked a loose curl under the brown hair net. “I do look different, don’t I?”  She danced around the bedroom, gathering up her purse, her keys and the pure white sweater to wear home at midnight when the air was chilly.

Sissy and I followed Mama out the door and stood side by side on the sidewalk watching as she drove away.

“How long does she have to work? Will she be home for supper?”

Sissy shook her head. “No. She won’t be home until a long time after we go to bed tonight. She’s working four to midnight.”

An excerpt from my memoir Snakes in the Kitchen.

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Tangled Roots has a new cover!

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try,  again. . . Tangled Roots, my mystery novel, hasn’t been selling very well as an ebook. Many of my wonderful friends, relatives, and neighbors bought the paperback edition, and some of you even wrote lovely five-star reviews for me. Thank you all so very much! You have my everlasting gratitude.

But, in order to succeed out in the big wide world, Tangled Roots must find readers who never heard of Carolyn Paul Branch. The experts I consulted tell me  the original cover doesn’t show up very well as a tiny thumbnail picture on a telephone or ereader.  And that’s the way most people order books these days.

The new cover will be on all the book selling sites within the next few days.

It’s still the same story! Don’t buy another one if you’ve already read Tangled Roots.

What do you think? Do you like my new cover?

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The body – a snippet from Sanity of Strawberries

The county hospital was a low, sprawling building over on the west side, but in a town of 12,000, nothing is very far away, and I was there in less than five minutes. I pulled around back to the emergency exit and parked in one of the “emergency vehicles only” slots. The door opened into a narrow hall with a small glassed in waiting room on the right with the treatment room on the right.  I checked the waiting room first, mostly out of habit. Sometimes,  those who care enough to sit in that dingy little room for hours will tell you more about what really happened than you learn in days of official investigation.

The only occupant today was an older man, narrow shoulders hunched over a bible on his lap. I couldn’t see any connection he might have to Delaney, so I turned to the door on the left,  tapped the button and looked up at the camera. The buzzer sounded and I went in.   Joe Harrison stood behind a high counter on the right, working at a computer. I knew he was a full fledged M.D., even if he did look like a teenager in his pale blue scrubs. He acted like one, too, ignoring me while while he tapped at his keyboard, watching the screen intently for what seemed like a long time before he finally looked up.

“Sheriff?  That was fast. I just hung up the phone. . . You are here about him, aren’t you?”  There were three treatment areas directly across from the counter.  When they were in use curtains pulled around to partition each bed off for privacy. Two of the narrow beds were empty. William Delaney lay on the third. All the dull tan drapes were pulled aside. He didn’t need any privacy.

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Inside Biggs – a snippet from Sanity of Strawberries

The hallway was mostly empty now, the heavy scent of hamburger and cooked onions hung in the hot humid air.  That must be where they were all heading before, to an early supper.  When I came around the corner at the end of the hall, only one man  lounged against the wall, but he was big and broad enough for two or three and had  tattoos covering his arms, neck, and even his shiny pink bald head. I nodded. He didn’t nod back, but his eyes followed me, and the short hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

When his big hand landed on my shoulder, I was expecting it enough to keep from flinching, from breaking into a run, from wetting my pants. Barely.  I turned around to face him, hoping I looked calmer than I felt.

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Renee – a snippet from Sanity of Strawberries

I should have known William was bad news the first time he stepped up on Mama’s front porch, on account of he showed up with my cousin Ricky, and everybody knew what all kinds of meanness Ricky was into. But all I could think of when I saw William was how big he was. Big and tall and solid.  Ever one of us Stantons looked like the runt of the litter, pushed back on the hind tit and never getting quite enough to grow right.  William looked like he always got his share and then some.



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