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Before the Bad

Chapter one: waiting for strangers

By Rebecca MortonPublished 10 months ago 9 min read
Runner-Up in Next Great [American] Novel Challenge
Before the Bad
Photo by Alphacolor on Unsplash

"All I know is that the car is blue," Mel thought, looking up the gray street, brushing away hair the cold wind kept blowing in her face. How did she get here, alone on Thanksgiving Day, waiting for a car she'd never seen driven by people she'd never met to take her to a house she'd never set foot in to have a turkey dinner?

How did her life get here?

It started before all the bad things happened. A young man stared into space, sitting on stone steps next to a young woman looking at his face. They had made an unspoken decision, the second after he had said he was breaking up with his steady girl.

This was before they finished graduate school, before Medgar Evers was shot, before their wedding, and before President Kennedy was shot.

It was before they were aware of the war in Vietnam, before their son was born, before Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot, and before Mel was born.

It was before Watergate, before their kids started school, before President Nixon resigned, and before Mel's parents divorced.

It was before Mel's brother graduated high school, ran away with a girl, and hadn't contacted the family since, and before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. It was before Mel graduated college and before Chernobyl.

It was before Mel began working at a daycare center and before the Gulf War began. It was before Mel moved out of her parents' house to rent a room in a stranger's house so she could walk to work, and before the Gulf War ended.

It was before Mel's father moved to California, leaving Mel and her mother in New Jersey, and before a bomb exploded in the basement of The World Trade Center.

"You're really not going back to her?" Mel's mother had asked that afternoon on the stone steps in front of the English Department building.

"I'm in love with you. I'll call her tonight."

"Does this mean what I think it means?"

"Yes. I think it does."

So they were engaged. Alan took Lynn to a nearby jewelry store to have her fitted for a ring. That night, they phoned their parents and friends with the news from their own apartments, roommates reeling with excitement.

. . .

Was this the blue car? It looked smaller than what Mel imagined. No, it was slowing down. This was the car. An older gentleman, Mr. Ames, she guessed, motioned for her to get into the backseat, as there were bags on the front passenger seat. Yes, he looked vaguely familiar. She had seen him and his wife in church.

"Thank you for inviting me," offered Mel.

"Oh, of course! Every year, we tell the church that if anyone doesn't have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner, they are welcome at our house.

"Well, it's not that I don't have a home to go to. My mother lives about a half-hour drive from here. She's just--she's not doing that well and I don't want her to feel she has to do anything for dinner today. It would be too much for her."

"She's certainly welcome at our house. You should invite her.'

"Well, no, she's not in great shape to go out, either. I'll check on her later tonight. I think she'll be happy I went somewhere for dinner."

Not all of what Mel told Mr. Ames was a lie. If she thought about her mother's health in terms of her mental and emotional state, she was not doing well, though she could probably jog around the block. Her mother had always been socially isolated and had always hated holidays, at least as far back as Mel could remember.

When Mel and her brother ever asked their mother, in the years they were supposedly being raised by her, why she was grumpy at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and July 4th, she always answered the same way: "Because I don't like holidays."

"Then, why do you celebrate them with us by decorating the tree, wrapping presents, baking cookies, and hiding eggs?"

"Because your father would divorce me if I didn't."

It was the same exchange every time, no matter how old Mel and her brother got. Yet, their father had just divorced her, over nothing to do with holidays, Mel assumed.

"Well, I hope she feels better soon," offered Mr. Ames, turning into the driveway of a large, attractive light blue house.

. . .

Alan looked like a young god to Lynn, playing his guitar in a white turtleneck sweater, surrounded by the young women at his apartment. But, as he sang, "Freight Train", Lynn knew none of the other girls could have him. She held up her hand, seemingly to wave at him to request another song.

"No, do "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night"!

"Lynn!", Patty and Angela screeched, "That ring! Look at the ring!"

Alan stopped singing, but continued to play the intro to "Scarlet Ribbons". The room seemed to shake and blur in the candlelight as the applause and hoots began.

Lynn brushed aside her long black hair and covered her face with both hands, because that's what you do, and it gave everyone a better look at the "simple yet elegant" diamond on a silver band. Gold was too showy for Lynn and Alan. They were serious artists, but not too serious as to not be absolutely adorable. Anyone at the party could have told you that.

. . .

Mel tried to keep walking instead of standing still, taking in all of the art work on the walls and the statues and figurines on the tables and shelves. It wasn't the kind of art you'd find in palaces, but it was nice to look at, new and clean. Nothing here was yellowing or ripped at the corners.

The room smelled like flavorful, warm food cooking, mixed with perfume that probably came from Mrs. Ames. It all made something happen in Mel's soul. It brought up the feeling of being in her grandmother's house decades before, and yet she had no real conscious memory of being there.

The "grandmother's house" feeling welled up in her more strongly as she looked around at the soft, plumped up cushions on the couch and chairs in the living room. And then the feeling seemed to sharpen as a kind face shone in front of her.

The light from the Twenty-Four Hour Shopping Channel on the silent TV danced on the young man's eyeglasses. He was wearing a short sleeved, plaid shirt, which was strange for a cold day, but the room was very warm. So I guess it made sense. but this young man, probably around her age, did not make sense in this room.

"I guess they didn't tell you about me." the man said, standing up, walking toward her.

. . .

"She did what? She's what?" Lynn looked away from the phone at Alan.

Alan mimicked Lynn's wide eyes and open mouth, exaggerating her look of alarm. Lynn put her hand over the receiver and shook her head at him.

"What?" whispered Alan.

"Doreen is, uh..."

"In a family way?"

They both began laughing so hard, Lynn dropped the phone, leaving it hanging, waving back and forth like a pendulum in the phone booth. They could hear Lynn's exasperated parents taking turns shouting, "Lynn? Lynn, are you still there?" which only made them laugh harder.

After Lynn picked the receiver back up and expressed concern and sympathy to her parents, she hung up the phone and fell into Alan's arms. His arms, in the cold sleeves of his wool coat felt like home already, though the chill New York City air made their honeymoon trip to Virginia seem like a fading dream.

"We should get a phone for our apartment. This should have been a more private moment," declared Lynn into Alan's cool woolen shoulder.

"You're right," he said. But we'll always remember where we were when we learned your sister's news. Is she getting married?"

"Of course! I'm glad we didn't have to get married. We got married because we wanted to."

"But it was more than that. We simply had to because, well, you know."

"You're right. We couldn't ignore--this--what we have."

They kissed as the well-dressed Manhattanites walked speedily past, lit by signs and headlights, heads down in the wind, unaware of the world inside the booth.

. . .

Whether or not to sit on the couch next to the young man with the glasses was Mel's first puzzle of the evening. Then, he motioned with a skinny arm to the chair across from him. "I'm Nate. Have a seat."

"Hello!" shouted Mrs. Ames, hurrying in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "Yes, I remember you. Is it Melanie?"


"Oh, fine. Mel. Mel, this is our nephew, Nathan. He is spending his Thanksgiving break with us. He's in graduate school at Rutgers, and far from his home. He's my sister's son."

"Too bad our own kids can't seem to get here today," Mr. Ames contributed, walking out of the living room. His parting words were "Going to watch football in the den."

"Our kids all have little kids. We'll see them at Christmas." Mrs. Ames said as she walked back to the kitchen.

Mel and Nate had both sat down across from each other by this time.

"Are you a student?" asked Nate, smiling, then sipped his coffee right afterward, presumably not to look too creepy, staring at Mel.

"No, I graduated from Montclair last May. Now I work at the Learn Together School."

"Oh, a teacher!" Nate sipped again.

"Well, sort of. It's a daycare center."


"With three-year-olds."



Nate chuckled into his coffee.

"It's mostly tying shoes and wiping mouths."

"I'm sure it's more than that."

Mrs. Ames walked in with a white mug of coffee just like Nate's, handing it to Mel. Mel placed it on the coffee table and said to Nate, "Sometimes. I like reading stories to the kids, and singing to them."

"I sing." Nate had put his cup down next to Mel's. "I sing with a group at school."

"Are you studying music?"

"No. Education."

"What kind?"

"Social Studies education--for secondary school."

"I love history. I majored in English in college, but I took a lot of history classes. "

"I did that too! I mean the opposite." Nate picked up his coffee cup and then put it down again without sipping. He looked up at the staircase and said as if to warn Mel, "Here comes Great Aunt Gina."

An elderly woman, slight but heavy on her feet, stomped down the stairs, looking right at Mel. "Is that the girl? Nathan, do you like her, or do you still think you're gay?"

Nate covered his face uttering, behind his hands, "Oh, my gosh!"

. . .

"I know what you're thinking," Alan said, pouring the wine for Lynn and him.

"Since when?"

"I mean, I know what a good heart you have, and I know you may be thinking of offering to take care of Doreen's baby."

"Um, I--"

"It's due in May, right?"

"I'm pretty sure she wants to take care of her own baby."

"Your parents seem doubtful that she'll be able to."

"They're panicking. I think she'll be a great mother, actually. She loved her dolls when we were kids."

"Dolls? It's not the same--"

"Alan, I'm not stupid."


"Why are we talking about this? We already decided to wait a few years to have a baby anyway."

"I know, but I have news."


"Landon Rep. asked me to be in their company again, and I said, "not unless I can direct at least one of the plays."

"And they said you could?"


After a pause and a sip of wine, Lynn put out both hands for Alan to take across the table. He did.

. . .

Over the plates of turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole and mashed potatoes, Mel saw abundant warmth in the food and in the faces, with the exception of Great Aunt Gina's face, but nothing is perfect.

How wonderful it would be, Mel thought, if anyone could just reach out to anyone else, even someone they just met, and say, "I need friends," or "I need a new family", and people would listen and try to be that for you.

But that was not real life, she told herself, as she reached for a slice of corn bread. When it was on her plate, she looked at her right arm to make sure her sweater sleeve was all the way down to her wrist. She wasn't letting anyone see Lynn's fingernail marks in her arm tonight.



About the Creator

Rebecca Morton

My childhood was surrounded by theatre people. My adulthood has been surrounded by children! You can also find me on Medium here:, and now I have a Substack newsletter at

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Comments (2)

  • Scott Christenson9 months ago

    A good story that shows the dangers of isolation as well as the kindness of strangers. I liked how you went back through time in the beginning, and give hints of bad things to come later in the novel. The last sentence is quite a surprise, I didn't see that coming. Lynn already knows Mel somehow?

  • Donna Renee9 months ago

    Family is such a messy thing sometimes, isn’t it? I enjoyed this read quite a lot, beautiful work!!

Rebecca MortonWritten by Rebecca Morton

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