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Excerpt for Engaged To Be Murdered by , available in its entirety at Smashwords













Engaged To Be Murdered

By Christopher Hunter

Copyright 2015 Christopher Hunter

Smashwords Edition




Connect with Christopher Hunter


Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ChrisHu19733152

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/carringtonLA6487

Blog: http://cmh047.wordpress.com

Smashwords author profile: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/cmh047



Table Of Contents

The Motive Behind Murder

Acknowledgements

Deconstructing James Ellis

Chapter 1 – Journey Through The Past

Chapter 2 – Back To Normal

Chapter 3 – A Winter Dawn

Chapter 4 – The Road Yet Traveled

Chapter 5 – Welcome to the Front Lines

Chapter 6 – The Shadows Of The Past

Chapter 7 – Occupying Easy Street

Chapter 8 – A Quaking On Campus

Chapter 9 – A New Day Has Come

Chapter 10 – A Return To love

Chapter 11 – Here’s To Life

Chapter 12 – The Nighttime Is The Right Time

Chapter 13 - An Unforgettable Encounter

Chapter 14 – Prelude To Murder

Chapter 15 – Dark Shadows Of Things To Time

Chapter 16 – Scattered Pictures

Chapter 17 – Evening Conversations

Chapter 18 – The Great Unraveling

Chapter 19 – Weeping In The Twilight

Chapter 20 – Morbid Confessions

Chapter 21 – Caged Animal

Chapter 22 – Afternoon Arguments

Chapter 23 – Cain And Enabled

Chapter 24 – For Whom The Bell Tolls

Chapter 25 – Celebration For The Bereaved

Chapter 26 – Pillow Talk

Chapter 27 – The wee small hours of the morning

Chapter 28 – Late Night Reflections

Chapter 29 – Scattered Pictures

Chapter 30 – A Brewing Storm

Chapter 31 – Under Lock And Key

Chapter 32 – The Plot Thickens

Chapter 33 – Jolly Old Time

Chapter 34 – Not Again

Chapter 35 – Prevaricating Presbyterian

Chapter 36 – A Closer Look

Chapter 37 – Then The Mourning Comes

Chapter 38 – Broken Pieces

Chapter 39 – Chapter Closed


The Motive Behind Murder

A former supervisor derided me for being in my own little world so I decided to create my own. The reason I enjoy writing is a rather simple answer which dates back to my childhood. When I was in kindergarten at Swayze Elementary, my teacher, Mrs. Wally, would let the class tell a story either from a book they brought from home or one that simply sprang out of their imagination. I was one of those students who enjoyed transporting my classmates to a world of my own or someone else’s creation. When I was in the third grade at Little Flower Academy our school held a career day where each student would tell the entire school what they wanted to be when they grow up. I remember being dressed up and standing in front of everyone saying I wanted to be a writer and remember the night before observing my mother read John Grisham’s The Firm after combing my sister Gabrielle’s hair. I remember how engrossed she was by his prose and was inspired to do the same thing for those of you who I’m grateful for reading my first novel. However, life took the expected turn where conventionality overrode my right to dream.

As the years rolled by I took two English composition courses under the tutelage of Professor Karen Harmon during the summer of 2007 at Delta Community College where I learned how to shape a narrative by carefully selecting my words. It was there my passion for writing began to flicker. After graduating from Louisiana Tech University with my bachelor’s in computer information systems, I started working at this dead-end job making $11/hour as an operations specialist locating files to be archived or shredded after the borrower paid off their mortgage. On the weekends, I spent hours holed up in my room eager to express myself in a manner that fed my soul without fear of censure.  Again, my world was consumed by higher education when I decided to enroll in the University of Louisiana at Monroe to get my master’s degree in business administration and work as a graduate assistant for Dr. Michael Beutner who recommended online publishing. Another person told me about online publishing but I again ignored his advice thinking my work wouldn’t be protected.

In the midst of all the advice being given to me I questioned which genre most appealed to me. I remember seeing a YouTube interview featuring America’s queen of suspense, Mary Higgins Clark, advising aspiring authors who are unsure of what to write about to look at the books they enjoy reading. I was always drawn to the world of mystery since I enjoyed reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and other books from that era. However, I wanted my books to be contemporary and one afternoon in March 2012 I was at the Wesley Foundation feeling totally exhausted after a taxing interview for a job I didn’t get. While relaxing on a couch the idea of a murder being committed at my home church started brewing in my imagination. In two weeks the novel was completed but it was in desperate need of polishing. I berated myself for foolishly thinking I could write.

Before coming into work one afternoon I perused the mystery section of Books-A-Million stumbling across novel entitled 50% off Murder by Josie Belle. The cover page and brief synopsis grabbed my attention and after reading it, I realized the cozy mystery genre is the field I had to explore. It’s not bogged down with extreme violence or large amount of sexual innuendo which doesn’t appeal to most readers. Creating the plot and setting was effortless, but one aspect that proved difficult is sculpting the characters. I followed Josie Belle’s example by making the main and supporting characters relatable and realistic.

I needed a way to share my Christian faith which James uses in order to solve local murders. I want to the reader to not only be entertained but detect the subtle themes of friendship woven throughout the story since a close friend of central protagonist is suspected of murder. I was inspired to include that theme when I thought of the special bond David shared with Jonathan, the son of King Saul as discussed in 1 Samuel from the Old Testament.     

Finally, I came across an article on the Internet in the summer of 2014 mentioning the lack of racial diversity in fiction. The fact bothered me and I felt compelled to finish this novel showing minorities can drive a story as opposed to being dismissed to the background. I don’t want readers to assume I am making a political statement by making the central character an African American. I want this book to appeal to those who love a cozy mystery novel. I hope you enjoy this book and many more that will be featured in this series.


 

Acknowledgements

 The idea I have completed my first novel has been a dream of mine since I was child. There have been so many people I credit for their encouragement. I thank God for blessing me with the gift of writing which allows me to create a universe of my own imagination. I want to thank my friends, family, my church family at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the Wesley, the Table, former supervisors, and countless other places that motivated me to explore this gift I tried desperately to ignore. A special thank you goes to my godfather who told me in July of 2008 that he and his youngest son believe I this is my purpose. I want anyone who reads this book to be encouraged to explore their gifts and make their dreams a reality. Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” Don’t hide your light under a bushel fearing what people have to say about you; walk in faith knowing God will see you through everything.






















“One for all, all for one.”

The Three Musketeers


Deconstructing James Ellis

 Who is the main character of the Grad School Can Be Murder series? The main character, James Ellis, is a combination of some of my favorite characters from TV, books, and movies. I infused the curiosity, busybody antics, and ability to recall overlooked yet pertinent details of Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher except James can drive. The cleverness and sharp acuity of Sherlock Holmes are included except James is more sociable and isn’t a recreational drug user. As strange as it sounds I added the dogged determination, persistence, and need to find his own unique path akin to Maria von Trapp except James doesn’t race up hillsides extolling the joys of natural beauty, sewing clothes out of bedroom curtains, and immigrating from a war torn nation. Rounding out the strange case of James Ellis is Mary Richards by stepping out of his comfort zone preferring to attend Carrington University to get a second degree as opposed to remaining at his alma mater Clinton University.

During the writing process I wanted James to be a relatable young man, who is the antithesis of how young men are commonly portrayed as irresponsible, lacking direction, overly muscular, stellar athletes, suave, and wholly comfortable in their skin. James has his doubts about insinuating himself into a murder investigation since he isn’t an expert in crime scene investigation. A groundswell of courage buoyed by his faith, family, and friends motivates him throughout the narrative.

 

Chapter 1 - Journey Through The Past

“The old and familiar adage 'be careful what you pray for' took on a whole new meaning for me when I started my first semester of grad school several weeks ago at Carrington University. When I graduated from college in March of this year, I asked God to add a bit more excitement into my life that didn't involve the usual such as carving out time to study, work out, and meet with professors if I had questions regarding exams and assignments."

James Ellis paused as he struggled to finish the first entry in his journal so he could begin the day with a clear mind. His eyes began to cloud a myriad of emotions that made it difficult for him to verbalize his thoughts on paper. "I had no idea that my first semester of grad school would be tainted by murder...a crime I feel responsible for committing.

 "How could I do it? It's a question I've been asking myself since that vicious evil was committed last Thursday night when my best friend Corey Andrews drove to meet his fiancée, Amanda Lancaster, at her apartment for a quiet evening to discuss their engagement. He entered her apartment finding her lifeless body on her kitchen floor that was colored in her blood. When I received the grisly news my legs grew weak, heart sank, and tears ran down my face as they want to do now but can't otherwise the searing and wrenching pain will render me useless. I killed Amanda because of the jealousy I harbored for having a lackluster romantic life. The only reasons any young woman showed any interest in me as of now is purely financial. Being the son - the youngest son - of two highly successful psychiatrists who have written national and international best-selling books on relationships made the journey in finding someone who likes me for me in my teens even more perilous. The final ignominy is also living in the shadows of my older brothers Neal and Drew who were stellar athletes with muscular physiques, brilliant students who excelled in all their classes, and are handsome young men with hazel eyes, fair skin, flawless complexion, and perfect teeth.

"There are times when I look at my reflection I see my teenage self staring back at me. My face was riddled with acne, teeth covered with braces, and the constant comparisons to my brothers made my life at the time overwhelming. I was the runt of the litter who heard throughout my life 'Why aren't you like your brothers?' or 'Why don't you play sports like them?’ Being assailed with such loaded questions compounded my mounting insecurities and damaged my relationship with my brothers. I loathed them, wanting no part of their company. I felt blessed to lean on Miguel and Corey during those emotionally perilous times when my self-esteem was so fractured. Right now, we don't know where to turn to, but as I'm writing Psalms 121 comes to mind."

He placed his pen on his bedside table skimming through the latest entry greatly pleased it with what he recorded. Emotionally and mentally he was at ease, however, his spirit felt weighted down. He reached for his Bible hoping a verse would offer him the spiritual sustenance he needed to face the day's challenges the moment he stepped outside his house.

"What should I read?" He paused at Psalms 23 commenting, "Too obvious". "No, no," he said as he bypassed a sea of highlighted text before stopping at Psalms 55:22. In a low and muffled tone he read, "'Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.'" He closed his eyes and said a brief prayer not only for himself, his friends, and family, but the person responsible for bringing such profound heartache and despair into the lives of those shattered by the unexpected loss of Amanda.

James opened his dark brown eyes feeling an overwhelming sense of peace and serenity wash over him, one he had never experienced before. He closed his Bible and noticed it was 7:55am. He leapt out of bed with renewed energy, grabbed his bathrobe, and raced towards the shower knowing he had to be at work in an hour. Minutes later he returned to this bedroom pulling out a blue pindot button down shirt and dark rinse jeans. While heading downstairs to the kitchen, James snickered recalling the numerous times his brothers found amusement in his frugality.

"What to eat? What to eat? What to eat?" he repeated while combing through his refrigerator knowing the perfect meal that would satiate his ravenous appetite is a vegetable omelet, two strips of bacon, and lightly buttered toast. As he sat at his round kitchen table, he mulled over his schedule for the day.

His hands started to quake as he recalled finding the body of his landlady, Mrs. Marguerite Richmond, outstretched on the linoleum floor with blood dripping from her temple. He flicked on the lights and knelt at the faint blood stain he had yet to remove. He turned his head in the direction of the once shattered mirror and began running his fingers over the glass fearing it would break the moment he left the room. Second Timothy 1:7 calmed his restless spirit as he grabbed his belongings and headed for his hunter green Toyota Camry that glistened in the morning sun. The cool, refreshing autumn breeze brushed his cheek and the clear blue sky reminded him that God's love and divine providence are all encompassing.

In less than five minutes he arrived at Carrington University parking at the school library observing students whose heads were buried in their books reminding him of his undergraduate years. He envied their seemingly normal lives unencumbered with the intense scrutiny last week’s murders placed him under. He entered the university’s Starbucks purchasing his favorite chocolate chip chunk cookies. The male barista was clenching the Carrington Ledger, the local newspaper, instantly recognizing James from his picture splashed on the front page. His eyes widened with fevered intensity as James handed him his debit card.

“Are you aware that you are the talk of the town?” the male barista asked. “You’re the closest we have as a celebrity in Carrington.”

“I wouldn’t call myself a celebrity,” James replied.

“You are in every sense of the word which is why I’m paying for your cookie,” the barista said. “Not another word,” he continued as James proceeded to open his mouth in protest.

“Thank you.” James exited the café ignoring the intense stares, mouths agape, and whispered conversations focusing on a sign outside the student success center mentioning the imminent career fair. He berated himself for not tucking in his shirt knowing a prospective employer is traipsing around campus blending in with the faculty and staff in the hopes of finding a productive worker.

 However, the longer he ruminated over that eventuality he quickly realized he would exude a small degree of pretentiousness. In his opinion the perfect ensemble that would convey snobbishness is a chartreuse blazer, polka-dot tie, knit polo shirt, brown loafers, and sherbet hued shorts that stopped inches above his knees. He blanched at the idea of dressing like a stereotypical fraternity brother or the campus's resident sycophant, admissions director Daniel Bradford, who'd publicly proclaim James wanting to emulate him. That unnerving scenario made his legs grow weak and stomach clench with extreme discomfort.

Chapter 2 – Back To Normal

The university library’s bell chimed at 1:30pm signaling the end of another routine workday. James sat at his desk astonished the mountain of work assigned to him earlier in the morning was completed. After checking it for accuracy, he headed towards Rudolph’s office door. While raising his fist to knock on the thick oak door, he heard his lively supervisor pleading with his wife, Lynette, about forgetting that today is her birthday.

"I know I forgot your birthday for the third year in a row and our anniversary for the second, but we can have a late lunch this afternoon. How does 1:30pm sound?" he asked longingly.

He shook his head over Rudolph’s dilemma, smiled, and placed his hands over his mouth to muffle his laughter recalling how incensed his mother was at his father for forgetting their wedding anniversary.  He pressed his ear waiting for the miffed Mrs. Rudolph to accept her contrite husband’s lunch invitation when she did.

“Perfect. How does lunch at the student building sound? How is that cheap? The service is quick and we don’t have to wait thirty minutes for our meal to arrive.” Rudolph's apologetic tone eroded into frustration when his wife suggested they dine somewhere else. "Where is it written that I have to break the bank in order to prove how sorry I am?"

“Dr. Rudolph is the only man I have ever met who will display genuine sincerity while trying to justify his frugality at the same time,” James thought.

Mrs. Rudolph mulled over his husband’s suggestion and became amenable to his suggestion.

“I'll see you then," Rudolph said as he returned his phone to its cradle. Pleased to have won back his wife’s affections, he saw James’s shadow under the door much to his chagrin. “James if you continue to place your ear against the door it may stick.”

Embarrassment for invading an intimate conversation blanketed his face as he nervously smiled. He noticed Rudolph’s soft gaze that twinkled with a child’s laughter. “I hope lunch with your wife will ease her frustration over you forgetting her birthday for the past three years.”

"Oh,” he bellowed. “I'm drowning in a sea of busyness,” he gestured to his crowded desk which brimmed with thick folders. He slid down in his chair placing his head in the palms of his hands. "A columnist with this magazine wants to know my opinions on the future and applications of assistive technology, doctoral students are meeting me this entire week regarding their dissertations, and undergrads want to know why their assignments aren't being graded."

He shifted his focus on his computer screens motioning for James to come forward. “I have some students who still don’t understand that if assignments are posted past their deadline it will be counted as a zero. No exceptions.”

Dr. Rudolph was sorely vexed that his undergraduate students couldn't follow the simplest of instructions. He opened his emails narrowing his eyes into tiny slits over students pleading for extensions citing a host of excuses prompting James to roar with laughter. He noticed Rudolph cock his eyebrow in befuddlement but he too began chuckling as he sipped some oolong tea in his large mug with the Nabisco label emblazoned on the side.

“Some undergrad students want to be coddled as if they are still in high school," James commented.

With warmth replacing his displeasure Rudolph asked, "How is life treating you?"

“Fighting the good fight to get my degree and yourself?” James asked.

“Busy, but what else is new? With everything that has happened in the past week she understands why her birthday slipped my mind. The trouble is that if I forget her birthday next year I can't use what happened again." He noticed the dejected expression plastered on James's face. Horrified by his tactlessness, he offered his apologies but James knew Rudolph's gaffe wasn't coming from a place of cruelty.

"Sometimes doctor you have to laugh at tragedy so it won't consume you."

“It's important advice, sound advice that came from your parents' latest book." Rudolph removed Overcoming Trauma In Order To Handle Upcoming Bliss from his leather carrying case. "You plugged another one of their literary gems when you referenced a quote used in the second paragraph in the fifth chapter."

“I should get a back end deal since one of their books discussed my brothers and me. With all the grades posted and assignments updated, is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?” James asked hoping desperately to relax before going to class in an hour.

“Your shackles are unfastened,” Rudolph answered. “Have a good day James.”

“You too doctor and thank you.” James’s phone vibrated with Miguel’s name flashing across the screen. “Were things so slow at the call center that you needed to speak to me?”

“As much as I admire your dry sense of humor, I wanted to know if you wanted to grab lunch before heading for class.” There is a note of relief in Miguel's voice to not have the haranguing of addle brained freshman who wanted to be coddled as if they were in high school.

“Sounds perfect. How is your oppressor?” James asked.

"Surprisingly he isn't crushing my neck with his tyrannical iron boot. I guess his fling with danger gave him some sense of perspective, but it hasn't diminished his capacity to remain a pretentious snob. Nothing is going to stop me from enjoying my afternoon of leisure until I meet up with my study group later today whose constant bickering could be a sign of intense attraction," Miguel answered.

"You certainly have the makings of a top rated psychologist," James commented as he entered the Student Union Building ordering a six inch turkey sub combo. The electric and frenetic pace of the bustling room was reminiscent of the cafeteria of Fielding Hall at Clinton University.

He noticed Miguel munching on a chicken sandwich sitting at a table closest to a flat screen TV paying rapt attention to ESPN's recap of last night's game. He was dressed in a pair of black jeans, grey button down shirt, grey converse, and light windbreaker.

“What did I tell you?” Miguel asked with a note of smugness when James pulled up a chair. "The quarterback from last night's losing team should have retired last season rather than be labeled as being past his prime."

"I'm supposed to take the word of someone who believed the quarterback of the winning team recruited fresh out of college would be a poor choice, but he lead the team to victory by making the winning field goal," James retorted. 

Before countering James's remark, his face hardened as he began mouthing something in Spanish. James was confused by the marked change in Miguel's temperament until he turned around noticing the source of his friend's disdain in the form of the obsequious Daniel Bradford. The slender twenty-three year old admissions director was dressed with his tailored chinos, collared and overly starched shirts, neatly trimmed hair, and polished loafers often times having a newspaper folded in the crook of his arm. 

“If he wanted to look like an elitist snob all he needed is a pink sweater tied around his neck," Miguel mused. He closed his eyes for a brief second praying his and James’s dealings with Daniel are brief.

“Speak of the devil and he shall come,” James murmured from the corner of his mouth before adopting a welcoming countenance. “How’s your day Daniel?”

“I've been fantastic,” he said wistfully. “How is the city’s Sherlock Holmes faring?”

  James took slight umbrage with Daniel’s question but didn’t let his true emotions obvious. "Not too bad,” he curtly answered hoping his and Miguel’s interaction with Daniel is brief. “I've resisted the urge to take morphine to stimulate my mind when bored.”

Miguel was pleased James brilliantly masked his discomfort and contempt under a calm expression. “I see you’ve been keeping up with current events,” him pointing to a newspaper in the crook of Daniel’s arm. The tattered pages indicated Daniel read the paper numerous times, outraged his name isn’t mentioned.

“This town hasn’t been this animated since,” he looked over his shoulder whispering, “the angels of death who operated the Applewood Nursing Home.”

“There’s no need to whisper Daniel since that whole matter involving Regina and Richard Alden was resolved ten years ago. They were crucified in the press after charges of gross negligence were brought against them,” Miguel recalled.

“As memory serves me…

"Those charges were dropped but Mr. and Mrs. Alden had to settle out of court with the residents' families,” James finished.

“Of course, how could I forget?” Daniel beamed disgust at James and Miguel for steering attention away from him. “I have an appointment I don’t want to be late for with the housing department.”

“He flew out of here so quickly he left skid marks which the janitors won’t appreciate,” Miguel commented.

“It’s a good thing we ate before he came otherwise I would have lost my appetite,” James said.

“He is right about one thing though," Miguel said.

“Which is?” James asked with pique. 

“About Carrington never being the same again. You played an integral part in recent events that will keep people talking well until the end of the year,” Miguel answered.

“I played a minor role." James noticed Miguel scowling, a signal of him tiring of his self-effacement. “Okay then,” he surrendered. “I played a large part in how very serious problems were resolved.”

“Our parents are probably having the local paper laminated as we speak. Have you read the articles about the murder and us?” Miguel asked.

“I read the article and was pleased the truth wasn’t ignored for the sake of sensationalism. Many secrets were brought to light,” James answered.

“The story had the ingredients that left readers intrigued, but I was bothered one crucial detail was left out,” Miguel pointed out.

"What crucial detail?" James gestured with air quotes. “I read the article a dozen times and found no omissions.”

Miguel leaned in closer saying nervously, “Your arrest,” before snickering.

James laughed at the nervousness Miguel injected into the conversation. “There’s a difference between a stern reprimand and an arrest.”

“Handcuffs were secured on your wrists as you were being escorted to a jail cell,” Miguel countered with a sly grin as James glowered.


Chapter 3 – A Winter Dawn

The entire campus of Clinton University felt winter’s frigid touch that bleak Saturday morning in February. Some students saw this as an opportunity to lounge around their dorms even though finals were less than a week away. Amanda Lancaster never wasted any moment to study evidenced with her textbooks, note cards, and binders at the foot of her bed.

She slowly crawled out of bed seeing it is nearing 10:30. In under a minute, she raced out of her dorm room to the school’s Langley Memorial Library to spend the entire day studying. She climbed up the stairs finding slight amusement in the library’s doors flying open with a sudden blast of the morning breeze. The hum of florescent lights and elevator doors parting open were the only sounds that greeted her. She arrived at the fifth floor and quickly emptied her book bag before sinking into a cracked blue leather chair.

Her mind brimming with a host of terminology and annotations, it slowly drifted to her boyfriend Corey Andrews who was spending the weekend in Carrington. An image of his amber eyes, cleft chin, and mischievous grin played in her mind. “I miss him,” she murmured before regaining focus.

Three hours flew by and she began obsessing over him and the last time they spent together. She closed her books and called him hoping he isn’t studying.

“How is your study session going?” Corey asked warmly.

Just the sound of his voice lulled her anxieties. “If I cram any more information into my head it’ll explode and won’t have to worry about purchasing my cap and gown, order pictures, and mail out invitations. How is your weekend?”

“Except for the weather, not too bad,” he wearily answered.

“There are many words in English dictionary but they couldn’t perfectly describe the weather,” Amanda added, noticing the howling winds and bare trees sway in the air. “People are such puzzles,” she chuckled.

"How so?" he asked. 

"In the cafeteria some people complained about the plummeting temperatures and will then hate the summer’s scorching heat, but on to another subject. How is your family doing? Hopefully no one is sick with the flu, pneumonia, or the latest illnesses splashed across CNN." 

The conversation ended abruptly prompting Amanda to redial Corey’s phone numerous times with all calls going directly to voice mail. A minute passed when she heard a familiar laugh cut through the silence. She turned around seeing Corey accompanied by James Ellis and Miguel Rodriguez whom she nicknamed The Three Multicultural Musketeers. The term seemed a fitting label with Miguel being a Latino Catholic, James a black Baptist, and Corey a white Methodist. 

Amanda was surprised, but she was puzzled that he and his friends were dressed in black collared shirts, charcoal slacks, and polished oxfords. She smiled at their macabre attire asking, "What's with the funeral parlor attire? Has someone died or about to die?" Her curiosity was piqued noticing a large bag slung around Corey's shoulders. 

“A death is looming," Miguel answered.

Amanda recoiled with anxiety at Miguel's cryptic response. “I’m confused." 

 “The death we are talking about is not physical but spiritual which explains our clothes,” James added.  

Corey approached Amanda opening his bag and removing three iPad minis. One he gave to Miguel, the other to James, and the other he kept for himself. "There is a grave matter that needs addressing and it involves our future. It's apparent my story about me being at home was a clever plan to lower your defenses.” He turned to James whose iPad mini had the word "Will you" in large text, Miguel's had "marry?", and Corey's read "me".  

 Amanda drew her hands over her mouth leaving Corey to wonder if she were overjoyed or shocked by his proposal. With tears streaming down her face, hands shaking, and quivering voice she asked, "Is this your idea of a cruel joke because this is not a laughing matter?" 

"It’s no joke.” Corey knelt in front of her removing a black velvet box containing a three karat diamond secured on a platinum band. “Amanda, will you do the supreme honor of making me your husband? I will do everything possible to make you happy.”

“Yes, I will marry you!" she cried as she wrapped her arms around Corey in a warm and loving embrace, kissing him passionately. She ran her fingers in hair and began analyzing every angle of his face. She secretly hoped Corey would maintain his youthful appearance as time progressed.

“How did you know I’d be here?” she asked while he twisted an auburn tendril with his index finger.

“The student worker at the front desk takes international business with me. The minute you set foot inside the library gave us plenty of time to come up with a nontraditional marriage proposal," James explained. 

“It also helps that you are creature of habit because you’ve spent the past week cooped up in the library. It was a safe bet you’d come here despite the weather,” Corey added.

“What about the iPads?” Amanda asked.

“The psychology department was open and I talked one of the students in to letting us borrow them on the condition we bring them back before this morning’s symposium starts," Miguel answered. 

“I’m speechless,” she commented. 

“Will saying your mother helped me pick out the ring during Christmas break and that I asked your father last night encourage you to speak?" Corey asked. 

“That explains why they seemed so secretive when I spoke to them last night." Amanda nudged Corey on the shoulder for pulling off the perfect surprise. She again embraced Corey ignoring James and Miguel who shared in their joy.

Chapter 4 - The Road Yet Traveled

“I thought she was going to faint," Miguel said. He replayed every second of the proposal as he and James sat in the nearly vacant cafeteria discussing what they witnessed over an hour ago.

“Amanda had more composure than I anticipated." James noticed the disbelief on Miguel's face and knew an explanation is needed. "The last marriage proposal I witnessed was Neal and Erica's and she was so overcome with emotion." He clearly recalled that unforgettable day with remarkable ease. "Neal proposed to Erica at a botanical garden and she cried and hollered so loudly the police were called thinking she was being attacked. Erica spent fifteen minutes explaining to the responding officer she wasn't being harassed but was surprised by my brother’s proposal.”

Miguel's mouth was agape for a few seconds before his laughter cracked the nearly empty cafeteria's silence. "That's a story that will be passed on for generations. One can only imagine her reaction when she is pregnant with her and Neal's first child."

“Hopefully a police report won't be in my future niece or nephew's baby book,” James chuckled. “Anyway, I’m surprised Corey made it through the proposal in total control of his emotions. I expected to hear his voice crack or see his eyes cloud.”

“Come on James, this is Corey Andrews we’re talking about. He has to be the strong one, the one people bring their troubles to which is ironic since I’m a psychology major.”

“True,” James murmured.

“By the way you owe me $20.” James stared blankly at Miguel. “Don’t act as if you don’t remember the little wager we had last month. You said if Corey proposes to Amanda and he cries I owe you $20. I said if he doesn’t, you owe me.”

“I forgot.”

Miguel didn’t believe James. “You never forget anything. You probably remember what you had for breakfast at this exact same time, last year, and what you wore.”

“I’m telling you the truth; I have been so busy with finals that our bet slipped passed by mind. Plus, I thought Corey would have waited until after graduation to propose. He’s the classic overachiever managing to graduate and get a fiancée and graduate within the same time frame while we are left stewing over finals. I wonder what his secret is.”

“What made you think he’d wait until after graduating to pop the question?” Miguel asked. He’s discussed marrying Amanda since this quarter started.”  

“School is stressful enough without the added pressures of entering into holy matrimony. I hope and pray Amanda gets through finals without her head clouded with mailing out invitations, cake tasting, selecting bridesmaids, picking a photographer, and all that comes with planning a wedding.”

Miguel was disappointed at James’s brusqueness. “Our best friend just asked a woman he loves to unite with him in the sight of Jesus Christ. She said “yes” and you’re treating it with such callousness.”

“I’m not being callous just pragmatic,” James argued.

“Pragmatism is one thing, but jealousy is a monster that eats away at someone until there’s nothing left…

“I thought I left my parents and their slick psychological assessments back in Carrington,” James interrupted. “Jealous?! How am I jealous?”

“Maybe because your personal life hasn’t been the healthiest since,” his voice trailed off, “since Simone.”

James’s silence signaled she still occupied a corner of his mind. “Breaking up with her was the best decision I made.” He berated himself for being so blinded by Simone’s beauty and charm that he didn’t see her true colors. “She and people like her flock to money and prestige the way sharks are drawn to the scent of blood. If she were starving to death, she’d feign interest in a man so he can buy her dinner. The only reason I dated her is because I was in love with the idea of being in a relationship.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve been a fool in love and so have many other people. We shouldn’t let disappointments harden or embitter us; otherwise, what’s the point in finding true purpose and happiness in life?”  

James mulled over Miguel’s wisdom which removed the sharp pain of a broken spirit. His freshman year was marked by people who took advantage of his parents’ affluence. Others belittled him for choosing to abstain from sex until marriage.

“A life without purpose is just an existence without substance or growth. Enough of us getting philosophical on a Saturday afternoon, this day and those to come are causes for celebration.” James raised his half-full glass of water midair. “A toast is in order.” 

“Don’t get sentimental on me,” Miguel chuckled.

“Yes sir. Graduation is just around the corner and we have been waiting for this day to come and it’s finally here. I must admit I’m sad this chapter in our lives is coming to an end and can honestly say I’ll miss it.” Their glasses clinked as they finished their drinks and morsels of food they had left.

“Graduation seems so final, almost like a death,” Miguel remarked.

“That’s a strange analogy,” James commented.

Miguel took in a slight breath before continuing. “Let me try to explain. When we came to Clinton we were fresh out of high school thinking we could duplicate the same formula that made us honor students. We realized cramming the night before an exam doesn’t work. Our innocence was substituted for maturity.”

“Entering adulthood involves tradeoffs, or opportunity costs as my economics professor would have me say. Even though this part of our lives is ending doesn’t mean we have to lose our sense of wonder.”

“True, but I will say this. I won’t miss the stress of submitting and proofing assignments before their deadlines, spending hours in the library studying for tests, and muddling through classes that last for hours. However I can’t help but feel that we are part of this elite, exclusive society,” James pondered.

“A society where we all congratulate each other for crossing the finish line eager to see what the world has in store for us,” Miguel added. “I’ll miss Clinton and some of my professors including the ones who seemed determined to make this journey even harder.”

“Those are the ones who teach us the most,” James reluctantly admitted. “Next year Corey will be married making this pensive conversation a distant memory.”

“Do you think we’ll hang out with Corey like we did before after he and Amanda are married?” Miguel asked contemplatively.

“Yes,” James emphatically answered.

"Going to the movies, working out, or watching football will be out of the question,” Miguel countered.

“We will be in his corner when he needs us. I can’t imagine Corey crossing another milestone without us being a part of it. However, part of me is going to delay marriage for at least five or ten years,” James shared.    

“My parents would consider it sacrilegious if I never marry by the time I’m thirty. I could always become a parish priest in Boston like my Uncle Ramón.”  

“If our prospects in finding a wife become even more dismal I’ll call the Boston diocese and tell them we can abide by the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty,” James joked. 

 

Chapter 5 –Welcome to the Front Lines

“I don’t believe this.” James realized he was living out one of his worst nightmares as a twenty-one year old. He had spent the last three weekends cloistered in his bedroom studying for finals. Before entering college he was under the fallacy his Saturday nights would be free of any responsibility. “Whoever says college is nonstop partying should be thrown into a North Korean prison,” he complained. His eyes were heavy with exhaustion as he stared at his textbook which looked like a sea of black ink running off the pages. He looked at his bedside clock which read 7:45pm as he slowly pushed away from his desk and began to massage his knotted shoulders. While pacing his carpeted floor he studied his surroundings: a spacious, taupe painted room with a slanted ceiling. His attention was seized by the roaring night winds that pressed against his small window. He placed his fingers against the glass feeling winter’s icy touch watching bare trees swaying in the night air and fluttering leaves collecting on the ground.

He, Corey, and Miguel resided in the on-campus apartment complex Sutton E. Hall which was within walking distance of their classes, the library, cafeteria, and the Lambright Activity Center. He glided out of his bedroom and as he headed towards the spiral staircase he noticed Corey’s bedroom door was ajar. As he proceeded to shut his door, he noticed an antique silver frame in the center of his bed. Curious, he picked up the frame noticing “Always” inscribed at the bottom as opposed to a cloying phrase. He studied the photo which was of Corey and Amanda last Christmas in Aspen, Colorado, with his family. Their faces beamed with joyful exuberance as they were photographed outside with the ice-capped mountains serving as the perfect backdrop.

 “They look like a couple of Eskimos wrapped up in those winter parkas,” James commented as he placed the picture on Corey’s bedside table. He smirked at the hodgepodge of furniture he and his friends purchased from various liquidation and garage sales in efforts of saving money. The cracked leather sofa, antique coffee table, upholstered recliners, and poorly varnished end tables were a constant source of amusement for the three young men every time they were downstairs.

While settling into a comfortable seat, his stomach roared with hunger. He searched the refrigerator not finding a morsel of food. Refusing to leave his apartment, he ordered a large supreme pizza that arrived in thirty minutes. The full figured delivery woman with liquid brown eyes wore a thick knit hat over her coarse brown hair. Seeing the frustration in her eyes, James gave her a generous tip which softened her hardened face.

As she disappeared into the night, Miguel raced inside dropping his bags, snatching a slice a pizza before James set the box on the living room table saying, “Graduation can’t get here fast enough.”

“You’re preaching to the choir,” James added.

“Armand Goodson will go down as one of the most anal-retentive undergrads in Clinton’s history. He aspires to be a clinical psychologist and will worsen his patients’ problems as opposed to solving them. It’s a shame there is no alcohol because I need something to calm my nerves,” Miguel wearily interrupted.

“Drinking yourself into a stupor won’t ease your problems only delay them until tomorrow,” James said.

“Don’t Dutch uncle me James Ellis,” Miguel snapped. He loosened his pea coat and threw his hat in the recliner.

James knew the account of Miguel’s group meeting would be riddled with tension and passive-aggressive hostilities. He simply asked, “What happened during tonight’s group meeting?”

“While discussing our presentation for the following week Armand steamrolled over my ideas and the other group members’ ridiculing them for being “stale”, “unoriginal”, “bland”, and “failing to capture our class and professor’s attentions”,” Miguel gestured with air quotes. He claimed to be an expert on group presentations since he has been on the president’s list since he was a freshman.

“All things considered Armand should be an expert on group presentations since it took him seven years to become a sophomore and an additional three to choose a major,” James noted.

Miguel laughed uproariously at James’s quip. “I needed that. Out of all the group members she views the information I collect as specious. I can only imagine why,” he stated in a singsong manner.

“I do too,” James added. “It is the 21st century yet ignorance still prevails despite the progress being made in the world. I doubt if Armand would attack you so viciously if you had blond hair, fair skin, light colored eyes, and were named Michael Reynolds rather than Miguel Rodriguez.”

“You hit the nail on the head. Armand treats me as if I snuck into the country illegally, stole someone’s social security number, and other personal information to receive financial because I’m a minority. Given his level of ignorance all she sees is some stupid Hispanic boy who should be selling hot tamales on the side of the highway.”

“Whenever I pass the campus bookstore I always run across this short woman who looks at me with such disdain. I couldn’t tell if she wanted to spit on me, call the police claiming I harassed her, or speak with the registrar’s office to see if I’m a student or a groundskeeper pretending to be one.”

“James you are wrong,” Miguel commented. Seeing him cast bemusement he explained, “The woman you walk by will mistake me for a groundskeeper and you as a suspect in those car thefts at Grambling.”

They both looked at each other and started laughing as the opening credits appeared on screen causing their shared experiences of discrimination to disappear. As midnight approached they peered outside their ice covered living room windows anticipating Corey’s return. A smile played across his face for having taken on the mantle of a parent eager to reprimand a child for being out at such a late hour.

A half hour passed before Corey returned; he was dressed in a two piece charcoal suit, solid black tie, trench coat, and polished shoes, an ensemble he reserved for special occasions. James and Miguel expected him to hover towards his room given the warm glow on his face.

“So Romeo how was your evening with your fair maiden?” Miguel asked.

Seeing Corey in a trance James whispered to Miguel, “It’s safe to assume he had a good evening.” Their attentions returned to Corey waiting for his response.

“To answer Miguel’s question, I had a good time, and I’m not interested in watching the movie,” Corey answered assuredly as he devoured the last slice of pizza he topped with a few kernels of popcorn. “If you’ll excuse me, I have an early morning ahead of me.”

“You do?” Miguel asked.

“Church doesn’t start until eleven. Don’t you remember that on first Sunday we go to Mass, second we go to a Baptist church, on the third week we got o Methodist church, and on fourth Sunday we go home to attend our home churches? We made that arrangement during our freshman year and haven’t deviated from it,” James recalled.

“Amanda and I are going to the local Episcopal Church and then we are having lunch with our parents tomorrow afternoon,” Corey responded.

“Sounds as if you are have your afternoon booked solid,” Miguel stated.

“You’re already casting us aside before rings have been exchanged and vows have been made,” James lamented. “It’ll be nice to see your parents again and finally meet Amanda’s. I’m sure they are excited about your engagement as much as we are.”

“They are,” Corey hesitantly added. He noticed James’s eyes beaming with surprise after hearing his response. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” James answered nervously. Seeing Corey shoot him an inquisitive look he admitted, “I was surprised to hear your mother took the good news so well. Mothers are notoriously protective over their sons getting married.”

“It was quite an adjustment for my father when my sister Marcella got engaged,” Miguel interjected. “It took him a few months to accept that Marcella will no longer be in his care.”

“A few months?” Corey asked. “I remember your father being outright hostile to your brother-in-law Jaime for several months. My mother loves the idea of having another woman in the family. James, she even suggested that you call your friend Evan Stanfield from London to sing The Lord’s Prayer at the ceremony.”

Evan attended Clinton on a student visa to major in music. He had slight misgivings about coming to the United States since he never left England but after meeting James his anxiety subsided. He found it refreshing that James knew Big Ben’s namesake and that Psalms 37:23-24 is on a plaque outside the clock room. Cementing their friendship is their shared affection for music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. He even had the pleasure of meeting Miguel and Corey who shared an affinity for British literature and period piece dramas.

Evan maintained contact with James after returning to England when he was offered a commission with London’s prestigious opera house. It served as no surprise to James since Evan possessed a rich, layered, and powerful tenor voice. His emotional rendition of “Nessun Dorma” at last year’s spring concert caused the most stoic of patrons to shed tears. The school paper compared his vocal range and power to Pavarotti, one of his role models.

“I can’t make any promises, but I’ll email Evan to see if he can sing at your wedding,” James said.

“Good to hear,” Corey enthusiastically said.  

“When is the wedding?” Miguel asked.

“It’s the second Saturday in April,” Corey answered as he ascended the stairs. “For the record, my mother isn’t a needy, controlling, or possessive woman who views Amanda as a threat. You two enjoy the movie and have a good night.”

“You too,” his friends replied.

An idea flashed in Miguel’s mind that needed addressing. “Since broaching the subject of your mother’s reaction to your engagement, I hope we won’t be punished by wearing light blue tuxedos with ruffled shirts and white leather shoes.” 

“Amanda and I have something much worse in mind. We decided on a wedding modeled after Frozen with Amanda as Elsa, her bridesmaids as Anna, me as Kristoff, and one of you dressing up as Sven or Olaf.” Corey laughed as he noticed Miguel and James’s faces grow dim as he slowly closed the door.

 “God help us if he’s joking,” James murmured while lifting his eyes to the ceiling.

“Lord help us if he isn’t,” Miguel added while staring at the ceiling. 

 

Chapter 6 – The Shadows of Death

 It was 4am and James was completely unnerved by a myriad of thoughts that rattled in his mind. While sitting on the edge of his bed, he considered his future after receiving his degree. He was so entrenched in worry his chest tightened and his throat constricted for a few seconds.

“Will I be elated come the beginning of September the instant I realize I don’t have to wake up at six in the morning, take a quick shower, and rush to the cafeteria for breakfast before heading to class? Or will I feel like a ship without an anchor since a life of rote I’ve grown accustomed to for the past four years is now over with? Can I successfully navigate the big bad world that offers very little security unlike college which has a definite beginning and ending? Will I flounder?” he asked himself. Similar reservations plagued him when he started college feeling the overwhelming expectations his parents placed on him since he was their last child to attend college. Whenever he felt the crushing weight of other people’s expectations, he wanted to rebel against his proper upbringing.

His attention returned to the present when he noticed sweat running down the sides of his face for some inexplicable reason. He started breathing deeply to assuage his frazzled nerves but his relaxing efforts only compounded a series of dark thoughts housed in the inner recesses of his mind. With a clear mind he reached for his journal, opened it, and began staring at the sea of white paper which begged him to record his most private and intimate thoughts.

With unsteady hands he reached for his pen and recorded how he felt about Corey’s proposal and the pitiful state of his personal life. James spent close to an hour expressing his profound joy that Corey is starting a new adventure in life which he prays will be lead by God when various trials come in his and Amanda’s direction. He also ruminated over Miguel forcing him to admit he resents that Corey’s personal life is flourishing while his is waning.

"When Miguel called me out for being jealous of Corey I was so quick to deny it which only proved his observations were right. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens irons, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” The idea of admitting to Miguel I dated Simone for the sake of being in a relationship – particularly a one-sided relationship – makes me ill. Money is all I had to offer Simone causing my self-esteem to further plummet, but in hindsight breaking up with her was the best decision I ever made. Dating is a strange field involving risk, but I’m sure marriage is even riskier, requiring more than just human effort.

“I thought I would get married before Corey. Neal married his college sweetheart and Drew is engaged to a young woman he met while in grad school. I had everything planned out. I remained a virgin knowing it would be pleasing in God’s eyes and that I wouldn’t be dragging any excess baggage into my future marriage. Cynics would deride the notion of a young man marrying his college sweetheart as a plot from a Lifetime movie. People say a couple should delay marriage until they are financially secure so their relationship won’t be rife with tension.

“Sounds like the perfect plan, right? However, there are flaws in that logic. Suppose the engagement lasts for years, the relationship begins to suffer as both people climb the corporate ladder, and quickly realize they don’t want to marry each other. Is there a perfect mathematical equation that says doing A, add B, and the result is C: a wonderful partnership?"

He paused, finding it difficult to verbalize what is in his mind.

“I spent most of the night tossing and turning thinking of something else that has been bothering me. These troubles would disturb even the most dispassionate, unemotional person. It has nothing to do with finals, graduation, or marriage since I know God has someone wonderful for me to spend the right of my life with. I thought a rigorous workout, studying for hours, and then watching movies would lull me to sleep but it hasn’t. The source of my troubles is a premonition, some dream of indeterminate origin which has disturbed me.  I keep seeing Corey crying profusely. Part of me thinks he is or will be in a deep state of mourning over the fact that his years of singlehood are ending or his reluctance to compromise. He is so stubborn, always feeling the need to be right. Hopefully he’ll learn he can’t win every battle. For some reason I can’t believe that the source of his distress has anything to do with him striving to be the perfect husband. I believe the source of his pain has to do with something that has yet to come, something tragic.”

He skimmed every word he recorded for this late night passage before returning his journal to his nightstand. He closed his eyes and immediately fell into a deep relaxing sleep free from pointless concern. 

Chapter 7 - Occupying Easy Street

Corey, James, and Miguel were all glowing after their weeklong vacation in Orlando, Florida, days after their college graduation. It was a necessary reprieve from the past stresses the last four years produced. James sat in the backseat of Corey’s black Chevy Envoy flipping through pictures of their vacation which consisted of them visiting perennial points of interest such as Disney World, the Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the Universal Orlando Resort, and the Everglades. Any worry James had he and Miguel spending time with Corey was eroded as they discussed their future en route to Carrington.

Corey accepted an entry level accounting position at a firm in Carrington which offers opportunities for advancement. He thought, “Amanda wants me to follow my dreams because she strongly feels that my success is our success.” His mind was alight with pleasure when told Amanda the good news while touring the Everglades. Her blaring screams that seemed to have come from the depths of her soul tore through the swamp like a jagged knife prompting her fiancé to mercilessly tease her.


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