STORY STARTS / STORY PROMPTS

by Joelle Steele

Need ideas for your next short story, screenplay, or novel? Try these story starts, sometimes called story prompts. There are about 70 of them, and I add new ones from time to time. They are not written to be great literature, only to inspire your imagination and give you a place to start. They're absolutely FREE. Just be sure to drop me a line at joellesteele@manyhatspublications.com and tell me which number you decide to use so that I can remove it from this page.

1. The sun was sinking behind the Parker City landfill. Mac Reardon squeezed his ample girth through the narrow opening in the chain link fence next to the parking area, behind the three bulldozers and a rusting green Chevy pickup. Somewhere in the mountains of debris was the box, his box, the one that Ralph had discarded by mistake. Everything in his life was riding on its contents. He shook his flashlight and it flickered. The search was on.

3. The rocks and pebbles tumbled down the hillside in a torrent through the trees and underbrush and onto his legs. He was sure the left one was broken in two places, once below the knee and then at the ankle. He was otherwise not seriously injured. As soon as the rock storm stopped, he would try to find wood for a splint and crutch. Then came the real challenge: the 4-mile walk back to civilization.

4. She was an adorable blonde cherub, toddling around the food court near the fountain in her red overalls. May watched her with a longing she could not even hope to suppress, especially after losing her own unborn daughter just two weeks earlier. Where was this little angel's mother? May looked around and studied the faces of all the people at the food court. The child walked behind a planter overflowing with vines. May rose from her table, dropping her trash in the can, and walked directly to the two-year-old. No one was watching. She lifted her gently and quickly but casually carried her out the mall's main entrance.

5. It's wrong to cheat. It's wrong to cheat. Why is it wrong to cheat, she wondered? Who would it hurt? She needed to pass this test or Luke would pull out the belt. Not that she wasn't fully accustomed to the sting of his words accompanied by the burning cowhide strap and its hard shiny brass buckle on her thighs. Katy had given her the answers. Why not use them and save herself from at least one more beating?

6. The curtains were torn, the room reeked of mildew. The tile around the backsplash had come away from the wall and was in pieces around the sink. The ceiling was missing a large piece of drywall and the floor was rotted ... everywhere. She pushed a chair away to get a closer look at the stove. The scraping of the chair legs on the floor wakened the cockroaches and they scurried, as did a large mouse ... or was it a small rat?

8. Gomer Fawlkes had never looked better than he did the Tuesday morning before his funeral. He was still unshaven, his graying beard fluffed out just above his bolo tie with the big silver-set turquoise. In place of a plaid flannel shirt and his signature cognac-colored suede jacket with the fringes, was a brand new charcoal suit. But, as his best friend Irving remarked, "That man ain't got no shoes on!"

9. He was so gorgeous. His hair was dark, thick, long, and wavy. It gleamed in the rays of the early morning sun. He displayed only the slightest shadow of a beard. His nose was aquiline with a faint little mole on its right flank. As he breathed deeply in his sleep, his full lips trembled slightly. She could not see his eyes, but she had memorized them in great detail within the first five minutes of their meeting at his sister Francine's wedding. His eyes were what drew her to him. They were large, grey, and framed by a thick brush of long, black lashes that any woman would kill to have.

10. Buttercup needed milking. It was dark out and moonlight washed over the bedcovers, illuminating the sleeping figures of two striped cats and the face of a petite blond woman, his wife of 28 years, Helen. He freed his feet from the blanket and stepped onto the rag rug. His overalls were on the chair where he'd left them the night before, along with his favorite red-checked shirt. He slipped into his clean underwear that Helen always laid out for him at night, then put on the shirt, overalls, and fresh socks. He tiptoed downstairs and put on his shoes in the mud room. Today, was the big day, the day that would change his life forever. And he didn't even know it.

12. The extender on the letter "y" was overly long with a small hook on the end of it. Sheryl Cochoran lifted her magnifying glass back to the small yellowed paper. She pulled the gooseneck lamp closer. There it was. The same long "y" with the hook. It was a match too, just like all the other handwriting traits in the two writing samples. But what did it mean? Could Albert Macafee still be alive?

13. Under the drawer was a faded yellow sticker bearing the name "Brewster & Sons Fine Furniture, Phila, Penn." Mabel Lucetti sighed. So Horace was right after all. The story her father had told her about making the old chest of drawers as a wedding gift for her mother was a lie. Just like the one where he said she had died giving birth, when in reality she had died in a car accident several years after abandoning the family for a soldier she met at the café where she worked part-time. What else had he lied about, she wondered? Then it hit her. The house in New Rochelle. The ranch in Utah. The silver mine in Nevada. Were those all lies too? If they were, Horace would be right, and the old man would not survive to the year's end.

16. The alarm blared and red lights flashed along the halls. Brenda and Butch ran towards the stairwell doors. The loud thudding of their pursuer was drowned out by the desperate pleas of the Sandyne security system. Butch turned and growled as they reached the door. Brenda fumbled and then pushed hard on the door, and they were in the stairwell, heading down to the lobby, nine floors below. Butch ran ahead of her, and she stopped only for a split second to slip off her shoes and cast them aside. Only six more floors. Butch barked and Brenda's hackles were up. A door slammed above them and the thumping began on the stairs in earnest. He was faster than she was, and he had another advantage as well: he could see.

17. Perhaps Angeline would introduce her. Or maybe Mrs. Figgers. She knew everyone. Of course, so did Aunt Hetty and cousin Charles. But Charles would never keep a secret. He was utterly incapable of discretion. There was always the widow and matchmaker, Mrs. Marie. But she didn't see her anywhere. "Miss O'Hare, I'm Patrick Kennedy, Arthur and Caroline's son. May I interest you in some refreshment?" There was no longer any need to make a suitable introduction.

18. Mark Algren Camoti. The name came up each time on the search engine. It was associated with mining, airlines, trucking, a casino in Puerto Rico, a chain of restaurants in southern California, and a collection of hotels and gas stations. He'd said he was a writer. A writer? Could there really be more than one person with the name Mark Algren Camoti?

19. The shoes were way too tight. The straps dug into her ankles. The color was not quite right either. Too ... too... taupe. The heel was okay, just a tad higher than she was used to. The sales clerk smiled, dimples forming in his cheeks, his eyes like glorious Roman pools, gleaming under a hot Italian sun. "I'll take them," she smiled.

21. She could not recall if she was wearing her good underwear. Funny how that was all she could think of. Her mother's words echoed in her head all the while. She could hear people talking, but she could not understand the language. No one in the United States spoke English anymore, of course, and she couldn't speak at all. It wasn't just the tube in her throat. She just couldn't form the words. She wasn't even sure how she got in the back of the ambulance. It was all a gigantic blur. Except for the music, a song from her childhood, something about fish or little fishies.

22. That bitch. Again with no tip. Like he was going home in his own chauffeur-driven li-mo-zeen or something. To hell with her. Next time he'd just spit in her water-with-a-slice-of-lemon. See how she'd like that. She wouldn't know and he could just enjoy knowing he'd got even. Maybe give her real coffee next time instead of her usual decaf. She'd never notice with all the half-and-half and Equal she poured in it anyway. He finished clearing the dishes away and wiped off the table, just as his favorite big-tipper entered.

24. Maggie Little liked cats. Actually, she worshiped cats, all eleven of her four-legged furballs. So it was no surprise that she reacted so strongly when her landlord, Mister Stevens, gave her the ultimatum: they go or she goes. How could she part with any of her beloved felines? Each had his or her own unique personality and Maggie loved them each equally. She couldn't just sit back and let Mister Stevens ruin her life — and theirs.

25. There had not been any reliable telephone service anywhere for at least ten years now. The Internet had suffered greatly as a result. But Boris Kapnov kept the lines alive in Paso Robles, the current capital of Baja California — although there was still talk of moving the governor's office to Fresno, which was far ahead of the rest of the state in terms of rebuilding. Boris had his reasons for keeping the communications channels open, and it had nothing to do with any altruistic notions. He had a plan, a goal, one that would make him the man with all the power. Boris had knowledge. Yes, it was obtained by years of eavesdropping on private conversations, but he now knew more about what was going on in the governor's office than the governor did.

26. When she was only six years old, they went to Disneyland. It had just opened and the Monorail wasn't even running. The Matterhorn wouldn't be built for many years. Now, she was making the same trip with her six-year-old granddaughter, Erin. But things had changed. The orange groves were long gone, and in their place were miles and miles of dense, high-speed traffic. She wasn't used to driving, especially not on the congested freeways of southern California. And especially when any Highway Patrol car could spell the end to her sunny vacation.

27. Jeremy placed his new stamps into the album, using the tongs to gently slide them under the transparent guides. In the background, he could hear his mother in the kitchen making dinner. He examined his new stamps with the old magnifying glass that once belonged to his grandfather. The blue stamp had a lump under it, and he figured there was a speck of dirt on the back. But that would have to wait, because his mom was now calling him to eat.

28. City Hall had changed. So had the library. the old brick edifices were gone, and in their places were the clean, modern structures that lacked personality and craftsmanship. She was sure that many other things had changed in the 23 years that she'd been gone. Her mother ... well, she would have changed, but she passed away two years ago. She wondered who else she might see and if they would recognize her, if they would — if they could — ever forgive her.

29. Aunt Ida's garage was filled with old trunks and suitcases, dilapidated boxes, and willow and rattan containers that had been storing her treasures — and her secrets — for the last 55 years. Her nieces, Monica and Martha, had accepted the dubious task of sorting through their late aunt's belongings. As Monica pawed through boxes of knick-knacks that were probably valuable collectibles, Martha pried open the lock of an old suitcase that dated at least to the 1940s. The lid popped open and she stifled a scream.

31. The garbage truck lumbered down the alley, waking up all the residents as it emptied the nine dumpsters that lined the block. Stuart awoke with a start, then relaxed back into his pillow when he remembered that he had thrown the box into the dumpster the night before, covering it over with bags of garbage the neighbors had discarded. No one would find it, and once it arrived at its final destination, it would be buried under an Everest of debris forever.

32. Carly's pen pal had become her E-mail pal five years ago, after 15 years as an old-fashioned pen and paper correspondence. Carly had been 12 years old when she first answered his pen pal ad in a teen magazine. And, in just a few short days, she would be 32 years old, and her penfriend would be coming to meet her.

33. Why were women so hard to shop for? If he bought her jewelry it meant hard commitment. If he bought perfume or flowers it spelled romance, and he didn't know how he felt about her yet. On the other hand, if he bought her a book, she might think he was a nerd and .. oh, yeah, well, he was a nerd. He couldn't get her a puppy or a kitten. If he bought her a CD it might be one she already had, or she might not like the music he picked. Getting to know a woman was just so damned complicated. Chocolate! That's it. No woman could resist it, could they?

34. Everyone loved Barney Hubbard. He was everyone's favorite history teacher. He was smart and funny, and if you asked a stupid question, he didn't make you feel stupid when he answered it. And he taught more than just dates and events. He taught about the people behind them. He made history come alive. So why were they firing him? There were so many rumors. Would the truth ever come out?

35. Watching birds was the thing Dick Allioti enjoyed most in the world. He loved being outdoors, bundled up in his favorite dark brown jacket with the sheepskin lining. Today, he was at Buxton's Pond in Willowdale, trying to get a better view from the rock outcropping near the bridge. It was colder there, but he propped his camera on the tripod and sat with his elbows on the rocks, holding his binoculars steady. When he was last at the pond, he was an unwitting witness to a violent confrontation between Mark Filippo and Angela Muggetti. He left before the angry couple did and went straight home. He hoped there would not be a repeat performance today. A shot rang out and broke his reverie. His shoulder was instantly wracked with pain.

36. "What I burn I bring to me," she chanted, holding the $20 bill in the candle flame. The crisp new bill burned blue at first, slowly, and then turned a deep orange in the darkened room. She hoped she was not bringing herself any bad karma by destroying government property. She just needed more money. "What I burn I bring to me," she chanted again as she dropped the remains of the burning bill into the ashtray.

38. Sandy dashed down the hall to the control booth and flipped on the microphone just as the commercials ended. "We're back on the air with basketball great, Stretch Masterson. So Stretch, is it true that you're considering retirement?" Sandy always tried to end an interview with the subject everyone most wanted to hear. Stretch hesitated and looked around, preoccupied as he had been for the last half-hour. "Well, you know Sandman, I'm thinking of making a change, but ..." His words were cut short as the door to the control booth opened.

39. It was the start of another dismal day, dark clouds covering the sky, a cold breeze off the water. Andrew Burchfield sat on the enclosed sun porch and watched the activities of the seagulls and other shore birds, occasionally glimpsing an otter or harbor seal splashing around in the water. Melanie had left him sometime during the night. She must have packed her bags while he was at work. He only guessed that she had called a taxi, since both cars were still in the driveway and it was at least a 30-minute walk into town. She took very little with her, and he assumed she would return to collect some of her more valuable items, like her easel and paints, some of her finished canvases, and the pottery she had been collecting for the last ten years or so.

40 The postcard was from Tangier, but it was mailed in the United States three full days after he had returned. But he still hadn't called. And the postcard's message was cryptic at best: "Wish I could tell you everything and end this madness." What was he talking about? Tell me everything about what madness? She laid the postcard down on the hall table and went to the phone.

41. The language barrier was insurmountable. They both spoke English, but you would never know it to listen to them. He said black, she said white. It was always that way. They could never agree on anything, and they tried so hard to read between the lines of each other's sentences that they missed the real conversation at hand. It always led to a fight.

42. After the last epidemic, the CDC had closed the majority of restaurants and hotels in the country in a last-ditch effort to curb the spread of the virus that had taken the lives of more than half the population of North America in less than ten years. And now, just when it looked like the epidemic might finally be under control once and for all, a report came out of Seattle that the virus had mutated.

44. She tried to keep her eyes open. She didn't want to fall asleep at the wheel. It was only another 22 miles and then she could pull over and sleep in the car. But she had to get out of Iowa and into Nebraska. It was her goal. One state every day. It was the only way she could do it. She marked off the days on her calendar and hoped she would reach Nevada in time. She had to be there on time. She had to put a stop to it all before things got any further out of control. She saw the sign that said "Welcome to Omaha," and she took the next exit.

45. She could hear him crying in the living room. Tom was always crying. Raging, then crying. No matter what she said it was never enough, never what he wanted to hear. She knew it was her own fault for not saying the right things, for letting him down, for disappointing him, even for betraying him. She had promised to honor and obey, and perhaps it was just not in her nature to do so. This time it was dinner. Not only was it late getting to the table, but the peas were mushy and the pork was slightly burned. He hated it when the meat was the least bit overdone. And it was the dinner on top of the phone call that had tipped him over the edge. She knew she shouldn't have answered the phone. She knew it would be Yvonne, and Tom didn't like her to associate with Yvonne. He thought Yvonne was a bad influence on her. And she was. Yvonne was one of those "free spirits" who just did whatever she pleased. Tom knocked on the bathroom door and called her name softly. She wrung out the washcloth and examined the bruise that was forming next to her left eye. Her ribs were a little sore, but they would be fine in a day or two. She would have to rely on make-up for the bruise.

47. The church always smelled funny to her. Perhaps it was the last remaining tinges of incense on the cool air. Or maybe it was the stone walls. Whatever it was, she didn't like it and it brought back memories she didn't want to remember. Mainly she didn't want to remember her previous confessions, or the sins she had confessed. But now she was compelled to confess. She had to tell someone. She took her place in the long pews filled with the other waiting sinners. There were over twenty people ahead of her.

48. Rocky was a Norwegian Forest Cat and proud of it. He was bigger than all the other cats in the neighborhood, and his coat was long and shiny, with dark brown and black stripes. His great bushy tail alone was enough to make him strut proudly along the fences between the houses. All the fences except for the one that bordered the Watson's house. They had that stuck-up Siamese — Shai was his name. Rocky's favorite place to visit was the Kemp residence. That was where she lived, that beautiful, the vain, the glorious Miss Chloe. She was the love of his life, but she didn't even know he existed..

49. Just outside of the city was an old bridge over the long-dry Tillman Creek. Eddie and his pals used to hang out and smoke there when they were kids. Now, it was mostly homeless people living there, Eddie being one of them. If he'd only known then what he knew now. But then again, sometimes you know better and you still go and do something stupid anyway. That was pretty much the story of Eddie's life. Bad choices, one after the other. It was one of those bad choices that put him on the street, and it was an entire litany of other bad choices that kept him there. And, after more than six years, he was actually getting used to living on the fringes of society. He had never much fit in anywhere and now he really fit in well. He could actually relate to the people with whom he shared a life under the bridge.

50. The ship landed just as the prophets had predicted it would. Larry and his son Jason were better prepared than was his wife, Cathy. He had gone so far as to pack a special suitcase for the voyage home. He knew people thought he was crazy, but there it was, right in the middle of Jeff Guptill's newly-planted soybean field. The plants had only just begun to sprout, so the ship could be seen in its entirety from top to bottom in all directions. It was not a "flying saucer" as Cathy used to refer to it sight unseen. Instead, it was oblong and multi-tiered, with small windows on the sides. It was metallic, a sort of greenish-blue, but Larry didn't know what kind of metal it was. Folks had gathered all around the field, suitcases in hand, waiting for the giant behemoth to open its doors and carry them away to the home world.

51. Rudy tipped the scales at 359. Down from 418 just three months earlier. The pills seemed to be working, just like the guy on Front Street promised. Rudy had almost no appetite most of the time. He was thirsty as all hell, and he often craved potato chips, but other than that he seemed to be doing pretty well. Of course, he wasn't sleeping much, and the guy told him that might happen. But he didn't feel tired very often. In fact, he had more energy than he'd ever had in his entire life. He was up one night painting the back fence until his neighbor, that nosy Gary Holm, threatened to call the police if he didn't turn off the lights for the night. Rudy turned off the lights. The fence was almost finished anyway. He went inside and watched old movies until the sun came up, and then he went to work at Pic-A-Pac Manufacturing, where he worked as a shipping clerk.

53. Computers were funny things. Just when you thought everything was safely stored away on their hard drives, something would go wrong and you would lose everything. Or so Noah thought. He didn't really know where things were stored half the time. He just put everything in the My Documents folder, and now there were over 4,000 files in it. He wasn't even sure what was in most of those files, and he didn't want to have to sit down and read them all to find out. He knew what some of them were. The ones that were numbered at the very top of the list. Those were the keepers. He had to hold on to those files no matter what. If he deleted them or forgot to back them up, it would mean an end to his meal tickets for sure.

56. Someone had raided the pantry again. This time it was the crackers and cookies. Yesterday it was the potato chips. Before that it was apples, bottled water and juices, and peanut butter. Terri shut the door and headed to the phone. She had called the police before and told them about items missing from her pantry, but they thought she was crazy. She would try again to convince them that someone was getting into her house and slowly but surely emptying her pantry of all the food items.

57. When it rained it poured. Bentley's life seemed to be falling apart. First Sharon left him. Shortly after that, his son Adam had stopped talking to him. Then there was the problem with the credit card charges and the cell phone bill. And now, as if all of that was not enough to make even the sanest man in the world into a blithering idiot, Bentley had been fired. And for what? For one minor screw up. One teeny little oversight and they sent him packing.

58. By all accounts it would seem that Joann Stuyvesant was a perfectly normal woman. She was happily married, a model mother of two healthy teenage sons, employed for the past ten years in a responsible position as a city engineer, a willing volunteer for the local homeless shelter and active member of the arts society. She had friends and was well-loved by all of them. But Joann was not what she appeared to be. Not by a long shot.

59. Cooper was only three years old, but he knew a thing or two about the neighbors. For instance, he knew that the man next door left the house by the back door every night at about 2pm and dug holes all over his back yard and then filled them in before sunrise. He knew that a woman in the house behind that neighbor watched the man from a hole in their shared fence. What Cooper didn't know was what the digging man was looking for and why the woman at the fence was so interested in what he was doing.

60. The padlock was rusty. She hadn't gone into the storeroom for at least two years or more. No one else ever came to the basement either. The forty-year-old freezer was filled with old issues of Life magazine from the 1950s and 60s. She panted as she dragged the rolled up carpet into the room. She removed the magazines from the freezer; she would box them up later. After trying several times to hoist "the rug" into the freezer, she finally succeeded.

62. It was at least 100 degrees out. One of those days you could cook an egg on the sidewalk. And the air conditioning wasn't working. Yeah, like that was a surprise. He sat under the patio overhang next to the tall shrubs that he had planted when he first moved into the house. Was it already 10 years? He didn't remember the names of the shrubs or when he had moved in. It seemed like an eternity. He did know for sure that he hadn't left the house since 1998. It was a struggle just to get past the patio door.

63. The coach was running late. After it finally arrived, she went inside the tiny depot. No one else was there and her future employer was also late sending his carriage for her. She hurriedly fumbled as she opened her case, removed the small clothes brush, and began to brush the dust off of her coat and the exposed areas of her charcoal-colored wool dress. Her dress boots were black leather, and she wiped them clean with a cloth she carried for just that purpose. She adjusted her hair and then repositioned her hat, just as a small trap arrived out front.

64. Mucia Nockharthi carefully erased the "F" and wrote in a "T." She quickly glanced down the page, proofing her work. The take-home quiz should get a "B." She could have gotten an "A" for her son Jakratty, but she didn't want to draw attention to the fact that his mother was doing his homework. Not that it was shocking or anything. After all, it was 2034, and the new Education Completion Laws had recently gone into effect. Mothers were desperate to help their children graduate. If Jak didn't pass he would not graduate, and that meant only one thing, that he would be sent to the work camps.

66. She looked at the gravestone and then at the list of names. Hoverby. Linus? No, not Linus. But his first name did start with an "L." She was sure of that. She stepped back to look at the tiny stone behind the giant Hoverby obelisk. All at once the ground gave way beneath her, and her right leg sunk into the earth past the knee, causing her left leg to crumple beside her on the ground. She pulled herself up, almost laughing at the thought of some of the many horror movies she had seen in which a hand suddenly grabs a person's ankle from a grave. She sat on the grass, rubbing her sore knee, and absently glanced into the sinkhole. In the shadowy recess she could just make out the shape of a hand attached to an arm, reaching upwards.

67. Love at first sight was just something you read about in romance novels. That was what she kept telling herself. And she had been saying it for days now. To anyone who would listen. It was just not possible to fall in love with a perfect stranger you had never even met. But their eyes had met, and his were deep brown lined with dark long lashes, almost black. And when she looked into those eyes, even from across the auction floor, she knew. She just knew. And what's more, he knew it too.

68. He remembered the house as soon as he saw it. After 38 years, it looked much the same as it had when he was living there with his parents and his two sisters. The barn had collapsed and its wreckage could be clearly seen behind the house at the end of the long driveway. The two giant firs were gone; even their stumps had been removed. The front porch, the one where he had spent many an evening gazing out over the fields at sunset, had been enclosed with glass windows. He wondered why, since there was no longer a view of anything other than row upon row of new cookie-cutter houses. What was that saying? You can't go home again. That was it. But he was home, and he knew that what was behind the front door had been waiting a long time for his return.

69. Everyone seemed to think that goats were mean and cantankerous. But Bucky was anything but. He was an elegant, large, brown Nubian goat with long pendulous ears and a distinguished Roman nose. His great-great-grandfather was a British goat who had been bred with an Egyptian goat, and many years later, Bucky was the best stud in all of Virginia — possibly all of North America — and therefore quite in demand for his services. He was valuable for doing what he did best, and as a result, the Gebhardt Dairy, Bucky's owners for going on five years, made some of the best goat cheeses on the eastern seaboard.

71. Her life had become a cliché. She didn't even want to listen any longer to the sound of her own words as they spilled out of her mouth, like that of some ill-mannered diner, chewing with her mouth full, not caring what fell to the table or into her lap. She had no job, no car, and no money in the bank. Every credit card was maxed out months ago. The creditors were stalking her night and day until she simply stopped answering the phone. She was everything she never wanted to be. She was a good-for-nothing, a deadbeat. And all she could think of was that it could have been so different. If only she had stayed with the boring and predictable Randy.

72. The lights were visible all the way from Choat's Ridge down to Willow Pass. A continuous line of red tail lights. Jack knew it was going to be one of those nights. He reached into his briefcase for his cell phone, anxious to call Darlene to let her know he'd be late. He speed dialed number 7 but it went directly to voice mail. He left a quick message — Darlene always hated it when people left long rambling messages for her. As he tossed the cell back into his open briefcase on the passenger seat, he slammed on the brakes, avoiding a collision with a lone pedestrian. What was someone doing walking along this stretch of highway? He looked in the rear view mirror to see if the guy was okay but didn't see anyone. Traffic was moving at a snail's pace and he was already in the right-hand lane, so he pulled over and got out, grabbing his flashlight from under the front seat, and walked back to see if the man was all right.

73. There were more photographs in the box than she remembered. Most of them were taken when she and Brian had just started dating. After they were married, it seemed like everyone immediately forgot how to use a camera. But there were a few snapshots of the two of them in front of the fireplace at her mother's house. It looked like Christmas, probably four years ago. They were both smiling, and he had his left arm around her and his right hand was in her lap, cradling her hand in his. She tried to remember what it felt like, to be in that moment again. It made her head hurt. Try as she could, she was unable to feel anything at all. It was as if everything had died inside of her.

74. In the distance, probably on the next street over, someone had been running a chainsaw for almost two hours. Despite the disruptive noise, Eileen focused her attention on completing the Schedule C. She had to finish her taxes and get them over to the post office today. For sure. Barney was curled up on her feet, breathing heavily and snoring, occasionally making tiny "woof" sounds in his dreams. The morning sun was streaming through the trees and shining onto the surface of the fish pond, where birds swooped in to take an occasional sip and then bathe in one of the shallow waterfall trays. All in all, it was pretty peaceful, chainsaw nothwithstanding. An old model white SUV pulled into the driveway, and she rose to see who it was. She wasn't expecting anyone. She parted the lace curtains a bit, and saw a tall, rosy-cheeked man of about 65 getting out of the vehicle. His hair was the same color red as hers.

75. Dino slathered a little more of the foamy stuff into his hair. What was it that Dotty had called it — moose? Well, didn't matter. She had liked it and that was all that he cared about. He combed his hair forward, then back a little. Examined it in the mirror. It made him look too much like a 1950s "greaser." He tried again. Better this time. You couldn't see the part where his hair was starting to thin. And he was only 32! At that rate, he'd be bald by the time he was 40. He thought about shaving it all off. Brian had done that and it looked pretty good. Nah, he didn't have the head for it. Too flat in the back. He wished he could ask Dotty. She always knew what to do. But Dotty was gone. Well, not gone from the house exactly, but gone nevertheless.

76. Next to the camp fire were two empty sleeping bags. The coffee pot was full and hung over the fire, and a box of crackers lay open on the ground. The crackers had spilled out and a dozen tiny birds pecked at them. On the folding table were apples, a half-loaf of bread, paper plates, two coffee mugs, a six-pack of sodas, and an empty box of ammo. The 1999 Jeep Cherokee was unlocked, and the cargo area contained boxes filled with additional provisions. Someone had been camping on his land. Again. And he knew exactly what had happened to these poor folks. He posted signs everywhere that specifically stated "NO TRESPASSING" and "KEEP OUT." Hell, there was even a big locked gate. People these days just couldn't seem to read and follow directions. And how did they get past that gate in a Jeep? Now he'd have to get rid of it, and he was running out of room.

77. Geordie ran his finger along the spines of the books. He loved the way the leather bindings felt and he enjoyed the smell of the old, fragile pages, filled with words he could barely comprehend at times, even when he could make out the language. There it was. He knew they had a copy. He'd seen it before when he was watering the plants in Mr. Forest's den. It was "The Rubaiyat" by Omar Khayyam with illustrations by Pogany. If he was lucky, he could sell it for at least $200. That should be enough to cover the car insurance payment. He'd worry about the rest of the bills later. The book was a little oversized, but he slipped it underneath his shirt and down the back of his jeans.

78. The pain from his tooth had expanded into his jaw. Ivan Paris cradled his chin in one hand as he confirmed his apointment with dentist Myron Goetz' receptionist. He had called more than half of the dentists in the Manhattan yellow pages trying to find a dentist who could squeeze in a new patient. And Ivan was always a new patient. He never stayed in town longer than a month before moving on to his next destination. And Ivan was always on his way out of town as soon as he arrived. If he couldn't find Carlo Mancini in Manhattan, he would follow up on whatever lead he uncovered while there by going to the city where somebody claimed to have last seen Mancini. Right now he thought it might be Miami, but first he had to take care of the tooth.

79. Why were TV commercials always so loud! Mary Kate moved the skillet to an unlit burner and went to get the remote. Much better. She enjoyed TV, but hated commercials. All they did was remind her of all the wonderful things that she would never have. She hated the news too. It was a reminder of how fragile the world was and how your life could change — or end — in the space of a few short seconds. That's what had happened to her mother, run down by a speeding delivery truck when Mary Kate was only four years old. And Donald, poor Donald. He went to war, tripped on a "bouncing betty," and was instantly blown into oblivion. The commercial ended and Mary Kate hit the mute button again, returning her to an afternoon with Oprah.

80. It was raining hard and leaves covered the ground. The trees were almost completely bare. Where was a newspaper when you really needed one? It had to be autumn, and the last thing he remembered it was late spring and he was in Chicago at the Drake Hotel. But one quick look out the window told him he was not on Michigan Avenue. He was in a house, in a residential neighborhood, and it looked more like Boston or perhaps Baltimore. He could hear muffled voices from outside the bedroom door and he hopped back into bed, pulling the covers over his head.

83. Miracles do happen. It's hard to believe it when they do, but then that's what being a miracle is all about. A miracle is unexpected, remarkable, and altogether wonderful. Josh and Cinda Lawrence had been praying for a miracle. For three years they prayed every day, often two or three times a day, begging God to send them a child to love. Any child. They had so much love to give. And then, out of the blue, just when they were about to give up and accept that they would always be childless, the miracle occurred. It came in the form of a nine-week-old baby girl named Chang Liu.

84. The snow was finally beginning to melt. He sat silently, gazing out the window from the confines of his wheelchair, wondering if this would be the year. His daughter, Michelle, and her husband had been talking again about renting a backhoe and all kinds of equipment to remove and then rebuild the ornamental pond. Of course, they were right. There was, however, a beauty in the old architecture and the statuary, and he would miss seeing it, because if they removed it, the only thing he would be seeing was the inside of a jail cell.

86. The bus was late. Kit readjusted her backpack and leaned her portfolio up against the fence. Why didn't they put a bench at this stop. It wasn't like there weren't enough people standing around every morning, rain or shine. There was Mr. Shiny Shoes, casually parading to the stop in his overly-formal work attire. She often wondered where he worked, or if he worked at all. But she didn't want to have to talk to him again, so she hung back as far as she could, hoping he wouldn't see her and try to initiate conversation again. He really creeped her out, and she felt that one evening on the way home he might have actually tried to attack her or something, but he didn't. Maybe it was because the old man walking his dog had come along at just the right time.

87. The doves flew into the warm air of the vivid blue sky. Strains of the song rang out: "perhaps love ...," but Star knew it was not about love. It wasn't even about new beginnings. It was about the end. The end of Alan Reynolds. Yes, it was the beginning of the end for him. She had him right where she wanted him. Now, all she had to do was wait and keep her eyes open. She hoped it wouldn't take too long to discover how he did it. I mean, he had to keep some kind of records. And she would find them. Justice would be served. She would bring him down.