Kudzu and catastrophes: A slapstick scene from “Under Review”

Hello everyone, and happy June!

It’s getting pretty warm and summery here. The flowers are delightful. The humid heat is maybe a little less delightful–but at least the scent of magnolias is wafting through the air magnificently?

I’ve been working away at Under Review, the next book in the Doctor Rowena Halley series. It will probably be a few more months before it’s ready for release, but I’m currently at over 57,000 words in the first draft, so progress is being made. While you wait, I thought I’d offer up another little excerpt.

Actually, this is a fairly long excerpt, of almost 2,000 words. 


Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to the excerpt. It’s a bit of a comic relief episode, with Rowena visiting her grandparents over fall break. Her parents have come back from their stint at Doctors Without Borders and have announced their intention of moving to a small town and building a tiny house out of reclaimed materials. John has dropped a bombshell, declaring that he actually has a serious girlfriend. But Rowena, meanwhile, continues to have personal and professional trouble, and it all seems to be connected one way or another with the private security and prison firm Security Solutions…


When I showed up that morning, John was already mowing the lawn and my mother was weeding the front garden bed. The sounds of vigorous sawing and hammering came from the back shed.

“It’s Bobby and your grandfather,” my grandmother told me when I got out of the car and nodded towards the noises. “They’re building some kind of prototype for something in the tiny house Bobby thinks he want to build. Or rather, I should say, your grandfather is building it.”

“No doubt.” My father liked to dream up designs. He was less good when it came to the actual physical implementation of them. I had occasionally seen him with a hammer in his hand in my childhood, but 90% of the time that had been thirty seconds before some kind of catastrophic accident that at best involved losing a thumbnail, and at worst meant a trip to the ER. The rest of us had learned to keep him away from tools of all sorts for everyone’s sake.

“He’s planning to hire a builder for the actual house, right?” I asked. “He’s not planning to build it himself?”

My mother, who’d gotten up from weeding and come over to us, sighed. “He wants to build it all with his own two hands,” she said. “And I do too, for that matter. It would be very rewarding, don’t you think? I don’t know if you remember the yurt, Rowena…”

“I remember,” I put in quickly. “That was awesome. But I thought you built it.”

“I did. Bobby just helped a little. And it turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. But it gave him an itch to build his own home that he’s never been able to satisfy—until now.” She sighed again. “I can do some of the build for the house, but I can’t do everything. As it’s currently planned, it will involve welding, plumbing, electricity…all kinds of skillsets I don’t possess, and don’t feel like learning. But your father is now itching to take welding classes…”

She trailed off as my grandmother and I stared at her in horror. “I don’t think he’ll actually go through with it,” she added hastily. “You know how he is about that sort of thing. But it’s all he can think about right now. He wants to weld some kind of a bookshelf out of reclaimed steel, so he and your grandfather are putting together a wooden prototype right now.”

I tried to envision a bookshelf hand-welded from reclaimed steel by my father. The mind boggled. “What kind of an aesthetic are you going for?” I asked cautiously.

My mother sighed again. “Not Rust Belt Chic, at any rate. But you know how he is: you have to let him have his enthusiasms. Probably by next month he’ll have given up on the welding and settled for something more sensible.”

I nodded hopefully. It was true that my father, while prone to unwise enthusiasms, normally managed to see sense after a bit. He was, after all, extremely intelligent. He was also very competent in the areas where he was actually an expert. And he didn’t like to hurt people. So altogether, it was normally not too difficult to persuade him to take the more practical course. But he was very easily swept away.

There was a shout of pain and surprise, followed by a sudden cessation of hammering and then the sound of a pile of two-by-fours crashing down on the back shed’s concrete floor. My mother, grandmother, and I shared a look of concern.

John stopped the lawnmower and went sprinting into the shed. A minute later, he came back out, ushering our father along beside him. Who had, I noted with alarm, a bloody rag held up to his face.

“Bobby!” My mother went jogging over to check on him. I palmed my car keys, ready to make a quick dash to the local ER.

After a thorough examination, though, my mother declared it unnecessary. It was just a simple nosebleed, which under her ministrations quickly stopped bleeding. Somehow, my father explained once he could speak, he’d lost control of his hammer and it had flown back and hit him in the face, cracking his glasses but, my mother declared, doing nothing worse than bruising the rest of him.

“Well,” said my grandmother, once that had all been sorted out, “I do enjoy a little family excitement, I must say. Weena, darling, how do you feel about helping me put in some pansies?”

I spent the rest of the morning helping my grandmother put in her fall display of black and orange pansies. She liked to go all out for Halloween, including a themed flowerbed. As a child I’d thought it was hilarious. Now I wondered how she found the energy and enthusiasm. Then I wondered how I had gotten so much older and more jaded than my grandmother.

In the afternoon John and I attacked the kudzu that was constantly threatening to engulf the shed, the yard, and, if it had its way, the house. Our grandparents’ property backed up to a creek bottom that was infested with kudzu (along with snakes, ticks, chiggers, and other unsavory things). Several times a year the kudzu had to cut be back with all the brutality we could muster. John had already mown everything he could reach with the mower. Now we went after the rest of it with clippers and machetes.

“God damn,” said John, once we’d stripped all of it we could reach from the shed. He flapped the hem of his shirt, trying to get a little cool air onto his chest. “It gets worse every year. Maybe Grandma and Grandpa should try a flamethrower to burn the shit out of it.”

“And set the entire property on fire?” I eyed the expanse of kudzu strangling the trees along the property line. “I’ve heard goats work,” I said. “Goats and pigs. Maybe they should get a little herd of goats and pigs.”

“Plus, then you’d get bacon! I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Someday you’re going to think that’s funny.”

“I doubt it,” I said.

“You need to live a little, Ro!”

“Mmmmm.” I wiped some sweat off my forehead with my shirt and sized up the nearest kudzu-smothered tree. I was hot and tired and ready for a refreshing shower and a cool drink. On the other hand, I wasn’t at work, so that was a major positive.

“What do you think?” I asked John. “Should I do a career change and go into landscaping?”

“Nah.” He wiped sweat off his face too. “I’ve already looked into it. Thought about it as a possibility for once my twenty years are up and I leave the Marines. But the pay is shit. Plus you’d have to deal with rich assholes all the time.”

“That’s what I thought, too,” I said. “But I’ve still been entertaining it as a happy fantasy.”

John grinned. “We could do it as a family business. ‘Halley and Halley.’ You bring the charm and I’ll bring the muscles. We could specialize in…I don’t know…regenerative gardening or some shit like that. Is that a thing? It sounds like it should be a thing. It sounds like just the kind of shit the people putting in tiny houses made of reclaimed materials would eat up.”

“I’m sure it is,” I said. “And I’m sure other people have already thought of that and are moving rapidly into that niche.”

“Yeah. And I don’t think I’d actually be any good at it anyway. The only thing I know how to do in a garden is mow grass and whack back kudzu.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Not really a useful skillset, especially when goats can probably do it even better.”

John was attacking the kudzu at the base of the next tree. “Seems like I should have a better set of skills,” he said, his back to me. “Seems like I should be worth something after everything I’ve done.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You and me both.”

“But so far the only places I’ve found that might be interested in me are law enforcement and private security.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “And if it’s something you are interested in, Brian Michaels has offered more than once to help out.” Brian Michaels was the chief of campus police at Crimson. His son had served under John’s command, and Brian had expressed his willingness to do whatever he could for the man who had straightened out his ne’er-do-well youngest son and, possibly, saved his life under fire.

“I should hit him up. I guess.” John didn’t sound very enthused. “And I’ve actually had someone from Security Solutions reach out to me. Aren’t they the folks who basically own Crimson?”

“More or less,” I said. “That’s proactive of them.”

“I got the feeling they were real proactive people.”

“Do you think you might take them up on it?” I asked cautiously. My heart sank at the thought of John taking up private soldiering in any form. But I also knew that he was right when he said he might not have a lot of other options. He was coming up very soon on his twenty years of service with the Marines, and was planning to leave then. Gung-ho as he’d always been, he was looking forward to getting out of the military.  But he didn’t know what he’d do next. Early forties was awfully young to retire, and he’d need some kind of an income to supplement his pension.

“Camila says she’ll cut off my balls if I do.”

“Well,” I said. “That settles it, then.” I tried to hide my surprise. Normally I’d expect John to respond to that kind of a statement by breaking off the relationship with extreme prejudice.

“Yeah. She’s had a few run-ins with them before, because of her law firm, and she pretty much spits with rage whenever their name comes up. She’s trying to get me to go to law school instead.”

I hoped that I was able to refrain from gaping like a fish. “Are you thinking about it?” I finally managed to ask.

“I’d never thought about it before. But once she suggested it, I started to think yeah, maybe I could be a lawyer. I mean, I’m no brain like you, Ro, but I’m not a complete idiot. I could probably get through law school. And there’s a lot of work that needs doing out there.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, still trying to hide my shock. “You mean like…social-work kind of work?”

“It sounds stupid when you say it like that…”

“No, it doesn’t,” I put in quickly. “I think you’d do a great job of it, if that’s what you want to do.”

“I’m still thinking about it. Don’t tell anyone, okay? Not until I’ve thought about some more. But Camila thinks it would be great for both of us.”

“In that case, she might have a point,” I said. “And I’m sure you’d do great in law school. And I’d bet you’d make a great lawyer, too.” The thought had never occurred to me, either, but now that I considered it, I could totally see John as a hard-charging lawyer.

My phone pinged. I stopped attacking the kudzu to pull it out of my pocket.

Darling Inna, said the text. I really have a lot of questions about Security Solutions. Can we talk?


Gosh, what will happen next? To be honest, I don’t entirely know myself, since that’s about where I left off yesterday. So I guess we’ll all find out soon 🙂

In the meantime, happy reading!

Sid Stark

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