Wednesday, May 30, 2018



Mac Anderson holds life in the palm of his hand. He has a beautiful wife, three loving children, a comfortable home and successful career. Everything is perfect—or so it seems. Tragically, Mac is destined to learn that any sense of security can quickly prove false. After a horrific auto accident, an invisible enemy called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) invades Mac’s fragile mind and drops him to his knees. He does all he can to conceal his inner-chaos, but to no avail. Left to contend with ignorance, an insensitive justice system and the struggles of an invisible disease, his family is taken from him.

One shoebox might store an old pair of sneakers. Two shoeboxes could contain a lifetime of photographs. But in Three Shoeboxes, a father’s undying love may be just enough to make things right again.

Book Details

Title: Three Shoeboxes

Author: Steven Manchester

Genre: Literature & Fiction

Publisher: Fiction Studio Books (June 12, 2018)

Page count: 262 pages

A short story set in the world of Three Shoeboxes by Steven Manchester


Like a crystal globe shaken by the hand of God, dusk in Vermont looked like something from a dream. On jagged faces of rock, blue streams of ice stood frozen in time. The air was clean, crisp and still, untouched by the pollution of progress; the hustle and bustle of normal life slowed to a crawl. Mac sucked in a few deep breaths and looked to his side to see Jen taking it all in—and smiling. I’m so happy we decided to get away for the weekend, he thought. We really needed this.
In the distance, snow-draped rolling hills spotted with frosted evergreens were populated with groves of stripped-limbed birches, each standing rigid like ranks of ancient soldiers. Glittering rooftops dripping with icicles stood tucked amongst the steep slopes and meandering country roads. Like fireflies on a blank canvas, random dots of light flickered, illuminating tiny wisps of smoke. These signs of life, clues of comfort, created visions of children nestled by the fire. And mothers and fathers resting their weary bones, Mac thought, exhaling peacefully. There were specks of red barns, divided by crooked stonewalls. Scattered livestock grazed in barren meadows. Small ponds reflected a mirrored-image of the sky. And oh, what a sky it is! Once tinged in hues of pink, the filaments were quickly turning gray, the clouds, moving at a turtle’s pace.
“Incredible,” Mac said under his breath.
“It’s heaven,” Jen replied, grabbing for his hand.
While the world took its well-deserved rest, Mac and Jen ventured across a postcard covered bridge, taking a leisurely stroll into a time long forgotten. As the solemn bong of a church bell marked time, plumes of steam escaped their silent mouths with each smile.
Shopkeepers, hunched against the cold, locked up for the night and scurried home. A nostalgic marquis boasted of last year’s film, while kids sneaked inside to kiss the boredom away. “Maybe we should buy a couple of tickets and go make out in the back?” Mac suggested.
Jen squeezed his hand. “Isn’t that why we rented a room at the bed-and-breakfast?”
“Oh yeah…”
As if sharing an age-old secret, Mac and Jen exchanged friendly nods or wry grins with the townsfolk. Like an echo from above, a gust of wind whipped down and tapped Mac on the shoulder, causing an unexpected shudder to travel the length of his body. Turning up the collar on his coat, at an even slower gait he absorbed the slightest, most miraculous truths: these people, who are criticized for being far behind, are still innocent enough to be kind. It appeared as though their daily existence was suspended in a world of sweet maple syrup, while the present was by the past—and the future was even less welcome. They merely refuse to abandon tradition, Mac decided, but instead embrace a serenity that can only be intended by God.
As he and his beloved wife strolled along, it was as if a giant shade was being drawn, the darkened sky dusting the earth with crystal flakes of white. While the snow deafened the world’s competing noises, Mac realized that his wife was right. We are standing in heaven, he thought. It has to be.
Suddenly, the wailing siren of an approaching police car broke the tranquility, startling Mac and nearly wrestling him to his knees.
Jen stopped and turned to him. “What is it?” she asked, her face instantly contorted in worry.
“I…I don’t know,” he stammered, “All of a sudden, I…I feel like I can’t breathe.”
The siren got closer—and louder.
Mac clutched for his throat, which felt like it was being closed off.
“Mac!” Jen blurted, panic now radiating from her wide eyes.
“I…I…” Unable to manage another word, he shook his head. By now, his chest felt compressed and his head was spinning out of control. He dropped to his knees.
The siren was now ear-piercing.
Please God, he prayed, let this…
Mac awakened, panting and covered in sweat. His mouth was devoid of any saliva, making him gag. He tried to swallow but couldn’t. It felt like a fistful of bleached flour was packed in his throat. His pounding heart thumped in his ears, warning him that he was in trouble. The rest came on with a fury—tingling extremities, a cold sweat, and an adrenaline rush that could have rivaled any tidal wave. He focused on taking in oxygen, and it took a few tormented moments before his breathing improved to quick and shallow. Although he did his best to stop it, the hyperventilating ran its usual course.
What the hell is going on? he thought, desperately searching for the same answers that never came. Why is this happening to me?
By now, Mac felt like his heart was going to explode, or worse—like I might actually lose my mind.
It took a few more excruciating minutes before the rush subsided, leaving behind a vortex of fear and darkness in its wake. Left feeling lightheaded, he was still grateful. At least I didn’t lose all control, he thought, whatever that means.
Quietly pacing the floor, he considered his situation. It’s been a long time since Jen and I have visited a bed-and-breakfast, he thought, sucking in some long, even breaths. He took a seat, tentatively closing his eyes again. It’s summer, he thought, more reality returning to him, and Jen and I haven’t held hands in months. A slap of deep sorrow stung his face. It was just another dream, he realized, shaking its head. He opened his eyes. Looks like I’m getting little to no sleep again tonight. It just wasn’t worth the risk of suffering another surprise attack.
Mac awakened again in his recliner to see Jen staring at him, the look on her face a mix of disappointment and disgust. “So you slept out here again last night, huh?”
“Does it matter?” he asked.
She half shrugged. “I really don’t care, Mac,” she muttered, shaking her head, “except that you forgot to set the alarm and now you’re late for work again.”
“I’m what?” he asked, catapulting himself out of the recliner like he was being shot from a canon. “Why the hell didn’t you wake me?”
“I just did, didn’t I?” she said, her words dripping with the same contempt as his.
“Great, thanks,” he said, hurrying for their bedroom to get dressed for work.
“I left you a list on the top of your dresser,” she called after him, “of where the kids need to be after school.”
He stopped short and turned. “A list?”
She nodded. “I need to work late tonight, Mac. I told you that.”
“You did?”
She shook her head. “But of course you don’t remember,” she said, heading for the kitchen without another word, “you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said in weeks.”
So I’m going in late again today, he thought, and then I have to leave early to cart the kids around. He nodded. I can’t wait to read my shining performance review this year.
 Mac sat in the parking lot for a few extra minutes to compose himself. Every day is harder than the one before it, he thought, grabbing a half-empty bottle of vodka from the car’s glove box. He stared at the clear liquid before shaking his head. If I keep trying to drink my problems away, I’m going to end up in even worse shape. Drinking alcohol had its upside, for sure; the world slowed down and, although Mac still experienced most of the symptoms that anxiety was generous enough to bring, the paralyzing fear over the next attack was normally avoided. Not a bad trade-off for a hangover, he thought. But it was more than just a hangover, and he knew it. Self-medicating is costing me more than I can afford to spend, he thought, in every aspect of my life. Mac knew that although anxiety and depression was the cause, alcoholism had become one of its effects. And the temporary Band-Aid is weakening me, he realized, throwing the bottle back into the glove box.
After being buzzed into the building, Mac hurried through the lobby and took the stairs to avoid everyone on the elevators. Slipping inside his office, he locked the door behind him. Firing up his desktop computer, he checked his calendar for the day.
“Four meetings,” he said aloud. “That’s definitely not going to work.”
Picking up his telephone, he dialed his admin. “Good morning Barbara, it’s Mac.”
He listened. “No, I’ve been here for a while.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, can you cancel all of my meetings this afternoon and reschedule them for later in the week? I need the time to get some work done.” He listened again. “No, I’ll call in for the ten o’clock team huddle. I can multi-task from my desk for that one.” He nodded. “Thanks, Barb.” Hanging up the phone, Mac folded his arms onto his desk and plopped his forehead on top of them. I need sleep more than anything else, he thought. If I could just get a little rest, I might be able to focus and finally get some real work done.
Within seconds, he was out cold.
There was a loud knock on the door.
Mac’s eyes flew open. “What the hell,” he muttered under his breath, “I can’t even close my eyes for two seconds.” He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and hurried to the door to unlock it. Ross, his VP, stepped into his office. “What happened?” Ross asked, clearly upset.
“What do you mean?” Mac asked, his mind scrambling for the answer to a problem he didn’t yet understand.
“Why weren’t you at the team huddle? We waited for you, but when you didn’t call in…”
“Yeah, sorry about that, Ross. I should have dialed in.” Shrugging, he grinned. “Truth is, I was so consumed with work that I lost track of time. And by the time I remembered the meeting, it was too late for me to jump in. I would have been more of a distraction than anything else.”
Ross studied him. “I hope that’s true, Mac,” he said, “because I need the project finalized and on my desk by the end of the week.”
“Of course,” Mac said, his disguise still fastened in place.
“Okay then,” Ross said before marching out of the room.
Mac closed the door behind the man, locking it once again. End of the week, all right, he thought, grabbing for his cell phone. What the hell time is it, anyway?
Mac sat at the head of the Anderson’s kitchen table, fiddling in his plate and struggling to appear interested in everyone else’s day.
“Dad, the softball coach told Mom that he’s considering me as one of his starting pitchers this year,” his teenage daughter, Jillian, announced excitedly.
“That’s great, Jill,” Mac replied, so consumed with worry over his own life and the mounting pressures at work that he’d become blind to anything else.
“I thought so,” Jillian countered, her giant smile fading away.
“And Joe’s assigned me a new investigation,” Jen jumped in, as she passed the mashed potatoes. “Although I don’t know the details just yet, it looks like it’s going to take place at City Hall.”
“Wow,” Mac said, “that’s good…I guess.”
“You guess?”
The kids squirmed nervously in their chairs.
“If it means more time away from the house,” Mac explained, “then I’m not sure…”
“We’ve gone over this, Mac,” Jen snapped. “It’s time for you to step up and start really helping out around here!”
“And I haven’t been doing that?” he asked, glaring at his wife.
“Please stop,” Bella said, “all you do is fight now.” Becoming upset, she stood and hurried out of the room.
Jenn glared back at him. “Nice, Mac.”
“And this is all my fault, right?”
Jillian and Brady got up and followed their sister out of the family’s boxing ring.
Mac shook his frustrated head. “I have too much going on right now to argue, Jen.”
“We need to talk about this, Mac, and come to some sort of agreement,” she pressed.
Mac’s cell phone rang. He started to answer it when Jen gave him a look that could have ended his life. He let it go to voicemail. For the first time in a long time, Mac realized that his wife needed to be heard. It scared him. I’m not a selfish man, he told himself, but right now, the last thing I need to deal with are more issues. He sensed it was absolutely critical that life stay as it was— at least until I figure out what the hell’s going on inside me and how to handle it.
“As much as you think my life rotates around only you,” she said, speaking slowly, “I still have my own dreams that I need to…”
“I’m sorry Jen,” he interrupted, “but…”
“Mac, please,” she shouted, her face cherry-red.
He shut up, but Jen couldn’t continue. Nostrils flaring, she headed out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.

Mac took a few deep breaths. I need to tell her how bad it’s gotten, he decided. She needs to know. He followed her into the living room. “Jen,” he said, hoping to explain, “it’s just that I…I…feel sick.”
Jen shook her head, cutting off his babble. “You should feel sick, Mac…with all of the drinking you’ve been doing lately.”
“No,” he whispered, “you don’t understand. I should have said something…”
She stood and started for their bedroom. As she stomped out of the room, she looked over her shoulder. “Sure, Mac,” she told him, “I never understand.” She rolled her eyes just before disappearing from the room.
But you don’t understand, Mac told her in his thoughts. You don’t understand how petrified I am over all of these changes…and how my every waking moment is spent in a life-and-death battle with anxiety and depression. His eyes filled, but he beat back the tears. You don’t understand, Jen. 
 Sunday finally rolled around. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, Mac struggled to accomplish any real work that he could submit. My God, he thought, even my creativity has abandoned me. If I don’t dig my head out of my backside soon, I’m going to be…The kids barged into the kitchen, each of them speaking at the same time.
“We want to go to the fair, Dad,” Bella called out.
“Yeah,” Brady confirmed even louder, “we’ve been waiting all summer.”
Perturbed with the rude interruption, Mac shook his head. “Ask your mother,” he said, “I have a lot of work I need to finish.”
Jillian smirked. “Mom just said the same thing…to ask you, because she’s working on a deadline.”
“Of course she is,” Mac mumbled under his breath.
“Please, Dad,” Brady pleaded.
Mac shook his head again. “I can’t, guys. Not this time. Sorry.”
As if he’d just received the most devastating news, Brady burst into sobs. “But,,,but I’ve been looking forward to this all year, Dad,” he stammered, “and…and today’s the last day.”
“Yeah Dad,” Bella said, clearly struggling to stay strong. “If we don’t go to the fair today, we’ll have to wait another whole year.”
A plume of acidic bile rose in Mac’s throat, as he considered his wife’s newest delegation. Fair? he repeated in his pounding head, this isn’t fair.
Jillian stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders. “Please Dad,” she repeated in the sweetest voice; it was something Mac hadn’t heard from the glowering teenager in months.
Mac pushed his work away. Why not, he thought. Who needs stable employment anyway? He stood. “Fine, but when I say it’s time to go, then it’s time for us to go.” He scanned each of their hope-filled eyes.
“Of course, Dad,” they sang in unison, pure joy instantly replacing the disappointment in their faces, “of course!”
On the ride to the fairgrounds, while the kids joked and laughed, Mac seethed inside. It’s all about Jen now, he thought. Everything’s about her! It doesn’t matter what my wants or needs are. She calls the shots now. He shook his head. I realize that she just started a new job at the paper, but…
The kids broke out in excited chorus, with Jillian singing the loudest.
Mac took a few deep breaths, trying to keep his anger at bay. But I still have responsibilities outside of the house. Not to mention, I’ve been a complete emotional mess for weeks now. How can she not see that? He shook his head again. She’s my wife, for Pete’s sake! How can Jen not know that…
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…” the kids screeched.
Although he concealed his rage with a smile, Mac continued to burn up inside.
“…life is but a dream,” they finished.
Mac considered the lyrics. Life is but a dream all right, he thought, snickering, a living nightmare!
After parking the van in a brown field that had recently been covered in green grass, Mac shut off the ignition and turned to face his giddy children. “When I say it’s time to go,” he reminded them, “then it’s time for us to go.”
“We know, Dad!”
They burst out of the van and hurried for the long line at the front gate.
Mac dragged his feet behind them. Friggin’ Jen, he thought, well aware that everything from the sweltering heat to the growing crowd had already crawled under his skin—and that he was happy to assign full blame to his delegating wife.
After paying twice what he should have for two adults and two children to enter the fairgrounds, Mac and his entourage paused to take it all in—the sights, sounds and smells.
“There’s the ticket booth for the rides,” Bella quickly pointed out.
“And we have to buy food tickets there, too,” Jillian advised.
Mac nodded. “We’ll come back for both. Let’s take a walk around first and get our bearings. Then we’ll know exactly what we need to buy.”
“Okay,” the kids agreed, their bodies nearly trembling from excitement.
Mac offered a real smile—for the first time. I might as well make the most of it, he thought, we’re here. He started for the far side of a massive field, with the kids buzzing around him like bees at every step.
Beneath a small white circus tent, its sides rolled up, Mac ducked his head and stepped in. The smells of manure immediately attacked him. The good life, he thought, scanning the interior of the dim tent.
The 4H Club was showing off their eclectic mix of livestock: from award-winning sheep—wearing their big blue ribbons—and massive fly-ingested steers, to a handful of gallant horses beside a pen of young, playful goats. Old turn-style candy machines, filled with feed pellets, were positioned outside of the pens and corrals. For a quarter, the kids could buy a full handful. Maybe half a handful for me, Mac considered.
Fortunately, Mac had a pocketful of quarters. “Don’t spill them,” he told the kids, as each one of them lined up to receive their bounty.
With two fistfuls of feed, Bella and Brady stepped up to the wire fence that surrounded the whining baby goats.
Mac immediately went into parent mode and began to teach. “Place your hands flat, with the food in the palm of your hand,” he explained. “This way, you won’t lose any fingers.”
While Jillian watched on from a short distance, both Bella and Brady did as they were told. The small goats licked their palms, causing a wave of giggles.
“See,” Mac said, “they’ll only lick the pellets from your hand. You might feel some nibbling, but they can’t even bite you if they want to.”
The kids giggled more. “It tickles, Dad,” Brady said.
Mac smiled wide; it was the first sense of happiness he’d felt in weeks. He sucked in a lungful of air and exhaled slowly. Maybe this was a good idea, after all, he thought, knowing he’d never admit it to his wife.
The kids were in no rush to leave the animals, and Mac was happy for it. He took the time watching his children and assessing their current stations in life.
Mac realized that the older Jillian got, the less she laughed. That’s not good, he thought. I hope it’s just the norm for her age. But there more changes, as well. The teenage girl never wore jewelry anymore, except for maybe the occasional plastic or rubber bracelet, featuring one motto or another. And graphic t-shirts are now a staple for her, Mac thought, looking away when Jillian caught him gawking. As long as she’s happy, he thought, and comfortable in her own skin, then I’m happy for her.
Mac shifted his eyes to Bella and smiled. Beans is still Daddy’s little girl, he confirmed in his mind, though the clock is ticking fast. Mac cringed every time he noticed growth in her, and today was no different. Like Jillian—who once believed I was Prince Charming—that’ll soon change and she’ll suddenly be embarrassed to be in my company rather than wanting to snuggle with me on the recliner before bed. Just as his smile was about to disappear. Bella looked up at him and grinned. She had her mother’s sparkling eyes that shined for him with a love that could not be denied. I love you too, babe, he thought.
Brady, on the other hand, was a clean slate; a sponge ready to suck up all the lessons and knowledge his dad was prepared to impart. And there are tons that I look forward to sharing, Mac thought. Brady was still a baby in many ways, but he was also in a hurry to grow up and be able to claim his own identity—just as his sisters had done. Please take it slow, little man, Mac told his son in his head. Being grown up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, believe me.While the kids—including Jillian—fed quarters into the crank machines so they could feed the different animals, Mac took the time to inventory the work he and Jen had already put in. For the most part, all three of them are polite and good, he decided, trying to choose right over wrong. In their smiles, there was forgiveness and healing. And each of them is pretty much an open book when it comes to their feelings. They worry much less than most people, making their sleep sound. What I wouldn’t do for that again, Mac thought, wondering if they actually understood the true secret to joy. The only things they own in this world are hope and love…and for that, they thank the Lord every night. Mac felt blessed they were his children, and his eyes filled with the love that gushed for them. They’re destined to live wonderfully enriched lives, he thought. Their willingness to share and be kind will guarantee it.
As the insatiable baby goats lost their novelty, the twang of a country band continued to float over from the giant pavilion. The family gradually made their way through the tent, passing several crafts tables. Beyond that, award-winning jams and pies sat on a long rectangular table, their colorful ribbons waving in the occasional breeze. Mac felt it a blessing to experience this simpler side of life again—even if only for a few hours.
“Maybe Mom should have entered her famous Pop-Tarts in the contest,” Jillian wise- cracked. “She could have…”
“Watch your mouth,” Mac snapped at her, cutting off the rest of her insult. “That’s your mother you’re talking about.”
With a disrespectful snicker, Jillian’s eyes turned to slits. “You argue all the time with her, saying things a lot worse than…”
“And I shouldn’t,” Mac interrupted. “It’s not right.” He shook his head. “She’s your mother, Jill. If you can bad-talk her, then your sense of honor isn’t what it should be, right?”
“I know, but…”
“There are no buts,” Mac said, continuing to walk by her side. “She’s your mom, Jill. Never disrespect her.”
“Fine,” the teenager surrendered, offering another snicker.
As Bella and Brady visited one pen after the next, gently petting the animals, Mac returned to his serene train of thought. A glimpse of yesteryear when there wasn’t so much stress and the need to get everything right, Mac thought, shaking his head.
Breaking through this peaceful world, dreadful carnival sounds drifted over from the other half of the muddy, hay-straw field.
Ugh, Mac thought, and I almost forgot why I hate summer fairs.
Jillian took a knee beside her little brother, clearly enjoying the pure joy in the little boy’s face.
Mac sat on a tall, silver milk can when Bella sauntered over and took a seat on his knee. Mac was happy for the quiet moment together. “Summer will be ending in a few weeks, Princess,” he reminded her. “Are you excited to go back?”
Bella shrugged. “I don’t know. I like school and I love my friends, but…”
“But what?”
“I just get really nervous when I start something new, Dad, and I hate it.”
“You hate starting a new school year, Beans?” he inquired further.
She shook her head. “No Dad, I hate the feeling of being nervous.” She peered into his eyes. “But I bet that doesn’t happen when people get older like you, right Dad?”
In spite of the cruel irony, he chuckled. “Older people?”
“Yeah, adults.”
“Oh babe,” he said, “it happens to adults, too. Believe me. Adults get just as nervous as they did when they were kids. Sometimes, it’s even…” He stopped, afraid to scare her more.
“You do?” she asked, her innocent eyes wide from surprise.
“Sure, I do,” Mac confirmed.
“You still get nervous about stuff, Dad?” she continued to confirm, skeptically.
He nodded. “More than you can imagine, babe,” he said, thinking, more than you’d ever want to imagine. He paused to find the right words. “There would be no such thing as courage if we didn’t have to overcome fear, right?”
She nodded, her innocent face trying to internalize the lesson.
“Everyone gets scared or feels anxious at times, Beans,” he continued. “The trick is not to let it stop you from doing anything, or taking over your life.” As soon as the words left his lips, he felt like a fraud. It’s solid advice, he realized, but for whatever reason, I’m having an impossible time applying it in my own life.
“I won’t, Dad,” Bella said, “don’t you worry.” Smiling, she kissed his cheek.
“You…you won’t what?” he stammered, startled from his all-consuming thoughts.
“I won’t let fear stop me from doing anything,” the little girl promised, kissing his cheek again.
“That’s my girl,” Mac said, throwing on a grin, “you’re a warrior.”
With a giant smile, Bella nodded. “Just like my dad.”
After choking on a gasp, he told Bella. “Go grab your brother and sister. I want to go check out the band for a minute.”
Located in the center of the fairground, the grand pavilion was a steel-framed structure and the only fixed structure on the entire field. Beneath an arched roof, rows of long tables faced a stage at the front of the open-sided building. As they stepped in, the country-and-western band was just returning to the stage from their break.
“Just in time,” Mac commented.
Jillian rolled her eyes, while Bella and Brady stared off toward the midway rides—hypnotized by the cacophony of lights and sounds.
Hand-in-hand, older couples stepped onto the portable dance floor to sway in each other’s arms. Mac pictured him and his wife doing the same, a wave of sorrow washing over him. Not so long ago, we moved together just like that, he thought.
“Can we go now, Dad?” Brady called out, his eyes still fixated on the bustling carnival across the field.
“Take a seat and relax for a few minutes,” Mac said, “we just got here.”
“Yeah, and the music sucks,” Jillian blurted, backpedaling into the shadows, where she was obviously scanning the crowd for people she may know and didn’t want to see her here.
“We’re starving, Dad,” Bella reminded him.
“Yeah, and we want to go on the rides,” Brady added, still standing.
Mac looked at them and grinned. “Maybe you should tackle all those spinning rides before we eat,” he suggested.
They looked back at him and shrugged.
“You’ll probably have a better shot at keeping your dinner in your stomach,” he explained.
They shrugged again. “Either way.”
Mac waited until the country ballad ended before standing and applauding, as much for the couples who’d danced than for the band. “Okay,” he told his children, “let’s go get sick.”
“Yahoooo!” they hooted, taking off at a sprint.
“But we need to stay together!” he yelled behind them.
They never slowed.
The bloated prices at the ticket booth bordered on criminal. And we also need to eat, Mac reminded himself, trying to tally everything in his head. While the kids watched on, he shelled out a fistful of twenty-dollar bills. “Split it between food tickets and ride tickets,” he told the woman behind the smudged glass.
With a nod, she snatched the money with one hand and slid a couple of sheets of perforated tickets forward with the other—the lit cigarette never leaving her lips.
It was dusk, almost six o’clock, when the midway lit up with neon. As they made their way through the carnival chaos, Mac took note of how hot it was. And there’s way too many people here, he thought, feeling claustrophobic, not to mention all the noise. The grind and squeaks of the rides made him pull at his collar.
“I want to do the giant slide first,” Brady announced loudly.
Mac looked up to see the waxed, yellow ribbon of grooves. A long steel staircase ascended a few stories, with worn swags of carpet having to be carried to the top. Looks like too much effort to me, he thought, watching as the carnie operator signaled for the next rider to push off with both hands. Doing as she was told, the rider shot to the bottom in a fraction of the time it took her to hump the carpet all the way up the stairs.
“It’ll tickle our bellies,” Brady added.
“But we agreed on the Tilt O’ Whirl first,” Bella argued.
Mac refocused on a different ride to see kids cramming themselves into some rainbow-colored half shells. With a steel bar resting across their laps, the howling kids began to spin in circles, while each individual car traveled its own circular track. When the ride hit a certain slant, the momentum had the cars whipping around in a rush of uncontrolled madness. You can keep the Tilt O’ Whirl, too, Mac thought.
“But I want the slide,” Brady countered.
“Guys,” Mac said, “there’s no need to…”
Suddenly, a homemade tractor—making its way across the fairground toward the tractor pull track—backfired. The loud sound caused Mac to jump, garnering a few awkward looks from the kids.
“Are you okay, Dad?” Jillian asked, seemingly concerned.
“Of course,” he answered, “why?”
“Because you look like you just got shot,” she said, the kindness completely gone from her tone.
Without dignifying the comment with a response, Mac turned and began walking. As he and the kids scouted out the rides, Bella and Brady were thrown into a frenzy of squeals and high-fives. Flashing lights, carnival sounds, and joyous screams filled the midway. From popcorn to vomit, the smells were overwhelming, making Mac momentarily stop to collect his senses. It was a fake world of obnoxious colors—dark reds and yellows and blues—covering everything. It was nearly dizzying. I detest carnivals and fairs, Mac thought, his anxiety level on the rise.
The teacup ride—with its eight-foot tall daffodil lightposts—was one of the midway’s tamer adventures. “What about this one?” Mac asked.
Even Bella snickered at the lame suggestion.
They passed the Spill the Milk game, where it cost a dollar to toss three softballs into a milk can—that can’t possibly fit them, Mac surmised.
Beside it, Jillian stopped at the Leopard Stand, where people threw baseballs at fake leopards, hoping to knock out a few teeth and win a spotted kitten.
“Step right up and try your luck!” the carnie heckled the teenager.
“No games,” Mac told his wide-eyed daughter right in front of the hawker, “they’re a complete waste of money.”
“Why Dad?” she asked.
“Because they’re rigged and there’s no way you can win,” he explained.
“Oh, come on,” the hawker teased, “let the kid give it a shot. She looks like she has a real good arm.”
“She has a great arm,” Mac fired back, “but she doesn’t need to waste her money for a stuffed animal that she can buy for half the price to play.”
“Wow, you’re no fun, huh?” the man said, grinning.
Brady was starting to agree when Mac stared him into silence.
A bell went off, announcing another winner.
That doesn’t help my case, Mac thought. “Let’s go see what they have to eat before we decide what to do first,” he suggested, happy to create a little distance between them and the land of crooked darts and bent rifle barrels.
Throughout the midway, the choices for dinner were endless: The smells of onions frying on a grill and sweet corn boiling, Candy apples, hot dogs, fried dough, cotton candy, French fries, salt water taffy, hamburgers, ice cream dipped in chocolate and then dipped again in fresh peanuts, and cardboard pizza—all washed down with giant cups of iced-cold soda pop. Add in the rides, Mac thought, and they’re the perfect ingredients for projectile vomiting.
They quickly moved on—back toward the rides.
They were just about to pass a sadistic thrill ride that looked like a UFO turned sideways when Brady stopped to watch. Essentially, each rider stood upright while the ride spun in circles so fast that gravity sucked them flush to its steel cage. Green and yellow lights spun out of control, while human screams escaped from within the blurry cage. Mac grabbed for his mid-section. Feeling his stomach churn, he thought, and we haven’t even eaten all that greasy junk food yet.
He looked down to see Brady staring at the wooden sign of a boy, trying to gage whether he was tall enough to ride. “I’m big enough this year,” Brady thought aloud, “yes!”
“I don’t know, buddy,” Mac said, “this one looks kind of…”
At that very moment, the wailing siren of a small children’s ride permeated the air, making Mac’s head snap up. The harmless carousel-style ride included an ambulance, a firetruck, and several police cars going round-and-round in circles. Small, smiling children pretended to drive each emergency vehicle, while their grinning parents yelled out their names and took pictures as they came past. The siren went off again, paralyzing Mac’s body—including his breathing.
All at once, everything became hazy and confusing. The midway’s many competing noises now sounded like one terrible thump, matching Mac’s racing heart. The lights suddenly appeared to pulsate; it felt like he was standing in the middle of a packed nightclub, struggling unsuccessfully to get out. Clutching for his chest, Mac gasped for air. Oh my God, he thought, not here. Not now! But the world continued to tumble over and over, taking him for a ride he would have never volunteered for. Several tormented moments went by—maybe more—before Mac’s wits returned to him and he was able to catch his breath. He immediately looked for his children but couldn’t see them. Where are they? he thought, more panic flooding his mind and heart. He managed to get his legs moving when he spotted the girls standing together. He hurried to them. “Where’s Brady?” he asked, trying to conceal his hyperventilating breaths.
“We thought he was with you,” Jillian said.
Bella nodded in agreement. “Yeah, we thought he was with you, Dad.”
“Brady!” Mac screamed, his desperate voice cutting through the midway and stopping people in their tracks. “Brady, where are you?”
Several strangers approached. “Are you missing a child?” one of them asked.
“What was he wearing?” another inquired.
Mac’s mind began to spiral again. Stop it, Mac, he screamed inside his head, you need to find your son! He took deep breaths and struggled to think. “His name is Brady and he was wearing…”
Brady suddenly appeared out of nowhere. “I really want to try that ride, Dad,” he said, oblivious to the recent trauma. “I’m tall enough and besides…”
“Where the hell were you?” Mac barked, dispersing the crowd.
The boy’s face went flush. “I…I…”
“What were you thinking, wandering off like that?” Mac shook his head. “That’s it,” he announced, “we’re going home.”
“But Dad, please. We never got a chance to…” Brady began.
“Now!” Mac barked.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” the young boy pled. “I didn’t wander off like you said. I was just standing right there…” He pointed. “…watching kids my own size on that spinning ride.”
“We’re going home,” Mac repeated. “I don’t care what…”
“So we’re just going to waste all of those tickets?” Jillian asked.
“I don’t care about the tickets or the money it cost to purchase them,” Mac said through gritted teeth.
“But we still haven’t eaten, Dad,” Bella jumped in. “We’re all starving.”
“We have food at home,” he said. “Your mother was kind enough to go food shopping this week, so you can all eat when you get home.”
“But Dad…” Jillian began to plead.
“We’re leaving right now!” he roared before turning to head toward the front gate. As Mac reached the fence, he stopped a woman who’d just entered the fairground with two small children. “Here’s some tickets we couldn’t use, ma’am,” he said, “it’ll save you a few bucks.”
While his own children gasped at this final blow, the woman couldn’t thank him enough. “Sir, you have no idea what you’ve just done,” she whispered. “We can’t afford to be here, so…so you’re…” Emotion halted her for a moment. “…you’re like an angel sent from heaven,” she finished.
Jillian snickered. “Yeah, he’s an angel all right,” she muttered under her breath.
Mac’s head snapped back her. His eyes—now angry slits—forced his teenage daughter to stare at her feet.
Amongst pitiful sniffles that were turning into heavy sobs, the Anderson family moped their way back to the van.
“It’s just not fair,” Brady whimpered.
No, it’s not fair at all, Mac thought. “Life’s not fair, buddy,” he said, leveraging an age-old phrase he’d always promised himself he’d never use when he became a parent.
On the ride home, while the two little ones wept uncontrollably in the back seat, Jillian was steaming mad and obviously unable to contain her disdain. “This is such bullshit,” she hissed in a barely audible tone.
“Because you don’t understand, Jill,” Mac told her, looking sideways.
“Then explain it to me, Dad. Why did we have to leave so soon? And why in the hell did we have to leave like that?”
“Watch your mouth,” he said, glaring at her.
“Why?” she repeated, clearly needing an answer.
“Because I got scared, that’s why,” he whispered, continuing to stare out the windshield. “When I realized Brady was lost, it made my blood turn to ice water and shook me right down to my bones.”
“But Brady wasn’t lost,” Jillian snapped back.
“That…that’s right,” the little boy stuttered over the front seat.
“Brady didn’t wander off, Dad,” Jillian added. “He was standing only a few feet away from us the whole time.”
“But I didn’t…” Mac began to counter.
“It’s true, Dad,” Bella interrupted between sobs, “we just didn’t see him standing there.”
“Please Dad,” Jillian said, as though there was still a chance to save the day. “We can go back and…”
“We’re not going back,” Mac barked. “We’re going home and that’s the end of it. I don’t want to hear another…”
Jillian sighed heavily, her face returning to a terrible mix of disgust and disappointment.
It’s the exact same look that Jen gives me now, Mac realized, making his stomach flop sideways and burn the back of his throat.
Jillian faced forward.
“You don’t understand, Jill,” he repeated. This time, he was the one pleading for understanding.
“You’re right, I don’t!” she said, crossing her arms, a clear indicator that she’d completely shut down.
Realizing that external approval was futile, Mac went inward. It’s my job to protect these kids, he thought, and I could have lost Brady because I was distracted from… He stopped, unwilling to give the torment a name. He looked at the passenger seat again before peering into the rearview mirror. They’ll get over this…eventually, he told himself, but if something had happened where I wasn’t there to protect them… He gasped, drawing a bad look from Jillian. I just couldn’t live with that.
As they returned home, Mac discovered his wife standing in the threshold of the front door. Here we go, he thought.
“Back so soon?” she commented.
The two little ones scrambled out of the van, weeping.
Jen’s eyes went wide. While Jillian stormed past her, furious, she asked, “What…what happened?”
Bella and Brady scrambled off to their rooms without answering.
Jen refocused on Mac. “What happened, Mac?”
He shook his head. “We lost sight of Brady for a moment and…”
“You lost Brady?”
“No,” he snapped back, “we didn’t lose him. He wandered off for a minute and…”
“He didn’t wander anywhere,” Jillian screamed from the living room. “Dad just thought he did and then freaked out, telling us that we needed to leave.”
Jen stared at her husband. “Another successful bonding experience, I see,” she said sarcastically.
Mac walked past her, heading for his trusty vodka bottle. “You’re obviously the better parent, Jen,” he hissed, “trust me, I know. You remind me often enough.”
A few silent hours passed before Mac nodded off in his worn recliner; it had become a sad routine as of late.

The distinct sounds of crumpling steel and shattered glass were followed by a single moan. Someone needs help, he thought. I need to… His legs wouldn’t budge. Although he struggled and struggled, he remained trapped.
Mac leapt to his feet, his heart pounding hard enough to explode. As if he were sucking in air through a crimped straw, he struggled to breathe. The sudden lack of oxygen made him dizzy, while his extremities began to tingle. As he fought against the invisible enemy, a heavy coat of fear and despair draped over him. The intense rush—lasting several eternal minutes—carried him to a lack of control he’d never known before. And once done, he felt scarred in every aspect—physically, emotionally, even spiritually.
It took some time for Mac to reclaim some semblance of normal breathing. Cautiously, he eased back into his chair. Maybe I should tell Jen that it’s getting worse, he thought, gripping the arms of the recliner like he was sitting in the electric chair. No, he decided, she has her own stuff to worry about.
Breathing erratically, Mac sat alone in the dark, terrified over the next attack he was sure would come. I don’t know how much longer I can live like this, he thought, losing his breath once again. Something has to give.


a letter from the author

In 2014, I wrote a stage play entitled, Three Shoeboxes. I wanted to create a story where the main character (Mac) held life in the palm of his hand—a beautiful wife, three loving children, a comfortable home and successful career. And then I wanted to yank Mac to his knees, creating a situation where he would need to summon every ounce of his strength, faith, and courage to get back on his feet. I chose an invisible enemy, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), a struggle that has proven very real for me. But instead of using a military experience as the trigger, I went with an auto accident—hedging my bets that this would be more relatable to the audience. Once I had those story components in place, it was easy to remove Mac’s basic sense of security. Suddenly, he realizes how fragile his mind is, how each thought and feeling can produce physical symptoms that are torturous. In trying to spare his family from this monster, Mac tries to conceal his inner chaos—but to no avail. Left to contend with the ignorance of stigma, an insensitive justice system and the struggles of an invisible disease, his family is eventually taken from him. But in Three Shoeboxes, this father’s undying love may be just enough to make things right again.

In 2015, this play went from the page to the stage (with Footlights Repertory Company in Swansea, MA) for a four-night, sold-out run. My daughter, Isabella, played the role of the middle child (Bella), and it was an absolute thrill to combine my passion for writing with her love of theatre. It was also a thrill to sit back and watch the actors take my two-dimensional characters and breathe life into them. The audiences wept. We received standing ovations. I will never forget the experience. It was a true gift.

Fast forward another year and I decided that I loved Three Shoeboxes so much that I was going to convert it into a full-length novel. This feat, however, is easier said than done, taking a story that is complete at 20,000 words and adding another 50,000 that isn’t total fluff. It took me nearly six months to produce the first draft and, fortunately, my publisher (Lou Aronica) is as patient as he is brilliant. With his keen eye and generous direction, I was able to stick the landing and produce the full-length novel.

As a primer for Three Shoeboxes, I penned the short story “Not Fair”—where I’ve thrown readers right smack into the middle of the characters’ lives and strained relationships. Although the entire short story takes place at the deep end of the pool, I promise that all will be addressed in Three Shoeboxes.

Family means everything to me and with Three Shoeboxes I wanted to write a true-to-life story that captured the depths of a father’s love—even when all else fails. I hope you enjoy the novel. From my end, I can tell you that Mac and the Anderson clan will remain with me for many years to come.

“How can someone take something from you when it lives in your heart?”
— Dr. Faust Fiore

Steve Manchester



Mac jumped up, panting like an obese dog suffering in a heat wave. His heart drummed out of his chest. Startled from a sound sleep, he didn’t know what was wrong. He leapt out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. There’s something wrong, he finally thought, I…I need help. He searched frantically for an enemy. There was none. As he stared at the frightened man in the mirror, he considered calling out to his sleeping wife. She has enough to worry about with the kids, he thought, but was already hurrying toward her. “Jen,” he said in a strained whisper.
She stirred but didn’t open her eyes.
The constricted chest, sweaty face and shaking hands made Mac wonder whether he was standing at death’s door, cardiac arrest being his ticket in. I have to do something now, he thought, or I’m a goner.
“Jen,” he said louder, shaking her shoulder.
One eye opened. She looked up at him.
“It’s happening again,” he said in a voice that could have belonged to a frightened little boy.
Jen shot up in bed. “What is it?”
“I…I can’t breathe. My heart keeps fluttering and I feel…”
“I’m calling an ambulance,” she said, fumbling for her cell phone.
“No,” he said instinctively, “it’ll scare the kids.”
She looked up at him like he was crazy. “I’ll go to the emergency room right now!” Grabbing for a pair of pants, he started to slide into them.
Jen sprang out of the bed. “I’ll call my mom and have her come over to watch the kids. In the meantime, Jillian can…”
Mac shook his foggy head, halting her. “No, I’m okay to drive,” he said, trying to breathe normally. “But babe,” she began to protest, fear glassing over her eyes. “I’ll text you as soon as I get there,” he promised, “and then call you just as soon as they tell me what the hell’s going on.”
Jen’s eyes filled. “Oh Mac…” He shot her a smile, at least he tried to, before rushing out of the house and hyperventilating all the way to the hospital.
I’m here, Mac texted Jen before shutting off the ringer on his phone.
The scowling intake nurse brought him right in at the mention of “chest pains.” Within minutes, the E.R. staff went to work like a well-choreographed NASCAR pit crew, simultaneously drawing blood while wiring his torso to a portable EKG machine.
As quickly as the team had responded, they filed out of the curtained room. A young nurse, yanking the sticky discs from Mac’s chest, feigned a smile. “Try to relax, Mr. Anderson. It may take a little bit before the doctor receives all of your test results.”
For what seemed like forever, Mac sat motionless on the hospital gurney, a white curtain drawn around him. I hope it isn’t my heart, he thought, the kids are still so young and they need…
“Who do we have in number four?” a female voice asked just outside of Mac’s alcove. Mac froze to listen in.
“Some guy who came in complaining of chest pains,” another voice answered at a strained whisper. “Test results show nothing. Just another anxiety attack.”
No way, Mac thought, not knowing whether he should feel insulted or relieved.
“Like we have time to deal with that crap,” the first voice said. “Can you imagine if men had to give birth?” Both ladies laughed.
No friggin’ way, Mac thought before picturing his wife’s frightened face. She must be worried sick. But I can’t call her without talking to the doctor. She’d…
The curtain snapped open, revealing a young man in a white lab coat with a stethoscope hanging around his neck.  
This kid can’t be a doctor, Mac thought, the world suddenly feeling like it had been turned upside down.
“Your heart is fine, Mr. Anderson,” the doctor quickly reported, his eyes on his clipboard. “I’m fairly certain you suffered a panic attack.” He looked up and grinned, but even his smile was rushed. “Sometimes the symptoms can mirror serious physical ailments.”
Mac was confused, almost disappointed. So, what I experienced wasn’t serious? he asked in his head.
The young man scribbled something onto a small square pad, tore off the top sheet and handed it to Mac. “This’ll make you feel better,” he said, prescribing a sedative that promised to render Mac more useless than the alleged attack.
“Ummm…okay,” Mac said, his face burning red.
The doctor nodded. “Stress is the number one cause of these symptoms,” he concluded. “Do you have someone you can talk to?”
Mac returned the nod, thinking, I need to get the hell out of here. Although he appreciated the concern, he was mired in a state of disbelief. I’m a master of the corporate rat race, he thought, unable to accept the medicine man’s spiel. If anyone knows how to survive stress, it’s me.
“That’s great,” the doctor said, vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared. My problem is physical, Mac confirmed in his head, it has to be. He finished tying his shoes.
Pulling back the curtain, he was met by the stare of several female nurses. He quickly applied his false mask of strength and smiled. A panic attack, he repeated to himself. When put into words, the possibility was chilling.
The nurses smiled back, each one of them wearing the same judgmental smirk. With his jacket tucked under his arm, Mac started down the hallway. Sure, he thought, I have plenty of people I can talk to. He pulled open the door that led back into the crowded waiting room. That is, if I actually thought it was anxiety. 
Mac sat in the parking lot for a few long minutes, attempting to process the strange events of the last several days. Although he felt physically tired, there weren’t any symptoms or residual effects of the awful episodes he’d experienced—not a trace of the paralyzing terror I felt. And they just came out of the blue. He shook his head. How can it not be physical? He thought about the current state of his life. Work is work, it’s always going to come with a level of stress, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. He shook his head again. I just don’t get it. He grabbed his cell phone and called Jen. “Hi, it’s me.” 
“Are you okay?” she asked, the worry in her voice making him feel worse. 
“I’m fine, babe.” 
“Fine?” she said, confused. “What did the doctor say?” 
“He said it’s not my heart.” 
“Oh, thank God.” 
Her reaction—although completely understandable—struck him funny, making him feel like the boy who cried wolf. 
“So what is it then?” she asked. 
He hesitated, feeling oddly embarrassed to share the unbelievable diagnosis. 
“The doctor thinks it was a...a panic attack.” 
This time, she paused. “A panic attack?” she repeated, clearly searching for more words. Then, as a born problem solver, she initiated her usual barrage of questions. “Did they give you something for it? Is there any follow up?” 
“Yes, and maybe.” 
“What does that mean?” 
“He gave me pills that I’d rather not take if I don’t need to. And he suggested I go talk to someone.” “Talk to someone? You mean like a therapist?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.” 
“Oh,” she said, obviously taken aback. “Then that’s exactly what you should do.” 
“I don’t know...” 
“Is there something bothering you I don’t know about, Mac,” she asked, “because you can talk to me, too, you know.” 
“I know, babe. But there’s nothing bothering me, honest.” He took a deep breath. “For what it’s worth, I don’t buy the anxiety attack diagnosis.” 
“Well, whatever you were feeling this morning was real enough, right? I could see it in your face. It wouldn’t hurt anything for you to go talk to someone.” She still sounded scared and he hated it. “Maybe not,” he replied, appeasing her. In the back of his head, though, he was already contemplating how much he should continue to share with her—or protect her from. “I need to get to work,” he said. “Why don’t you just take the day off and relax?” she suggested. 
Here we go, he thought. “I wish I could, babe,” he said, “but we have way too much going on at the office right now.” 
“And maybe that’s part of your problem,” she said. 
“I’ll be fine, Jen,” he promised. “We’ll talk when I get home, okay?”
“Love you,” he said. 
“And I love you,” she said in a tone intended for him to remember it. 
Mac arrived at New Dimensions Advertising. As an executive at the pinnacle of his impressive career, he was energetic, in control and one step away from the next big promotion. An early meeting had been scheduled with his creative team. He walked in late, a tray of hot coffees in one hand and a box of donuts in the other. 
“I know. I know,” he began in his even-tempered demeanor, “I expect everyone to be here on time, except for me, right?” He smiled at his handpicked crew. “Okay, now that we have that cleared up…” Except for several laughs over the donut box, there was no response. He went on. “Oh yeah, and Brady wanted me to thank everyone again for their generous gifts.” He smirked. 
“Well, everyone but Scott.” 
Scott, an entry-level consultant, peered up from the box. White powder covered his half-open mouth. He was clearly confused by the comment. 
“No, I’m sorry Scott,” Mac said, his smirk growing into a full smile, “I have that wrong. Brady loves the monster truck you gave him. It’s me who has the problem with it.” 
Scott still couldn’t respond, his mouth stuffed with sugary dough. 
 Mac leaned in close to his young prodigy. “My friend, never ever buy a child a toy that can scream louder than the child’s father.” There was a comical pause, followed by Mac’s wink. “Trust me, when you have kids you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.” 
Scott’s smile displayed his relief. The three women and two men seated at the conference table all laughed. From the look in their eyes, they held a deep respect and admiration for their affable boss.
As everyone dove back into the donut box, concepts at different levels of development began flying around the room. Mac controlled the flow, occasionally jotting down some of the ideas into his leather notebook. 
Receiving a nod from Mac, Scott took the floor. “I’ve done the legwork on this one, boss. The way I see it, Woodpine Furniture is competing with three major retailers, each one located within a ten-mile radius of the other. With such a concentration, they can’t…” 
“Competing?” Mac asked, jumping in. “I disagree. In fact, it’s been my experience that a rising tide carries all ships.” 
Scott—along with the rest of the team—awaited an explanation. 
Mac chuckled. “It means that when people are looking for furniture, they’ll shop around—especially if it’s only within a ten-mile radius. And we can use this knowledge to give our client the edge.” Mac’s eyes drifted off into a creative world that few people ever got the chance to witness. “That’s our ace, Scott. We’ll monitor the other stores’ advertising and find a way to capitalize by enhancing our own.” 
“Love it,” Brandt blurted, while the rest of Mac’s team sat in awe. 
Scott cleared his throat. “Ingenious,” he said, “then we can…” 
Mac’s eyes glassed over and he suddenly realized his mind was floating away—and it wasn’t promising to be a pleasurable experience. His knee bounced from nervous energy. Although he tried to stop it, he couldn’t. Aware of the fact that he couldn’t stop fidgeting, a clammy sweat began to form on the back of his neck. 
“Blah…blah…blah…” Scott said, his voice no more than an annoying hum now. 
Mac pulled at his collar a few times before getting to his feet. I can’t friggin’ breathe again, he thought, his mind being thrown into a death spiral. He could feel everything inside of him turning dark, like he was being taken over by some evil force. I…I can’t breathe…  
“Everything okay, boss?” Scott asked. 
Mac shook his head. “If…if you’ll all excuse me…please.” 
Scott halted his presentation, while Mac took the opportunity to hustle out of the room, shocking everyone. 
Mac rushed to the management washroom. Before the door had completely closed behind him, he was bent at the waist, struggling to take in oxygen. Oh God, he thought, trying desperately to calm down and center himself. As he began to slow his breathing, he caught his own reflection in the mirror. This scared him more. Instead of finding the confident man that normally grinned back at him, he was looking into the terrified face of a man he barely recognized—the poor guy’s wide eyes searching frantically for answers. 
“What the hell…” Mac managed, his pitiful voice echoing off the subway tile walls. Am I really having panic attacks?  

copyright © 2018 by Steven Manchester 



Steven Manchester is the author of the #1 bestsellers Twelve Months, The Rockin' Chair, Pressed Pennies and Gooseberry Island, as well as the national bestsellers Ashes and The Changing Season, and the multi-award winning novels, Goodnight, Brian and The Thursday Night Club.

He has written A Christmas Wish (Kindle exclusive), Wilbur Avenue (novelette), and Just in Time (novelette) while his work has appeared on NBC's Today Show, CBS's The Early Show, CNN's American Morning and BET's Nightly News.

Three of Steven's short stories were selected "101 Best" for Chicken Soup for the Soul series and he is the produced playwright of Three Shoeboxes.

When not spending time with his beautiful wife, Paula, or their four children, this Massachusetts author is promoting his works or writing. 

Connect with Steve:

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Monday, May 28, 2018



It’s been seven months since Brie Hooker, a vegan, moved to Udderly Kidding Dairy to live with her feisty Aunt Eva, a confirmed carnivore. But tonight there’ll be no family feud over dinner entrees. Udderly’s hosting a campaign fundraiser for Eva’s best friend, who hopes to be South Carolina’s next governor. The candidate’s son, a pro quarterback, is flying home for the wingding. And Brie’s eager to get a close-up view of the cute tush she’s admired on TV, even though she’s reluctantly sworn off even more tempting local beefcake.

The campaign fundraiser promises to be a huge success until a pitchfork attack turns the goat farm into a crime scene—again. To protect her friends, Brie puts her sleuthing skills to work. Will she live long enough to find out who’s behind a vicious assault, a kidnapping, blackmail, and multiple murders?


Title: Picked Off

Author: Linda Lovely

Genre: Humorous cozy mystery

Series: Brie Hooker Mystery series, book 2

Print length: 270 pages

On tour with: Great Escapes Book Tours


When David Paynter was still wearing short britches, he was nicknamed Paint. The name stuck. Paint is the handsome, 33-year-old owner of Magic Moonshine, a thriving legal purveyor of white lightning as well as fruit-flavored versions of ’shine. He lives in a cabin in the woods with Lunar, an orphaned wolf he’s raised from a pup. For purposes of his Magic Moonshine brand, he promotes a ‘bad boy’ image and reminds people he’s the grandson of a notorious moonshiner. However, he has an MBA and is an accomplished businessman.

Paint’s also a charming flirt and playboy, who’s never been tempted to limit himself to one woman until he meets Brie Hooker. Paint’s best friend since kindergarten is Andy Green, a veterinarian, who is also interested in Brie. Not long after meeting Brie, the boys start a good-natured competition for her affections. But the more time Paint spends with Brie the more enamored he is.  He seriously wants to win the girl.  


Paint, how did you first meet Linda?

She stopped by my legal moonshine store in Upstate South Carolina. Like a lot of folks, she couldn’t resist checking to see if we really kept goats on the roof of a retail store. The goats offered a logical common denominator between the moonshine owner and the goat dairy where Brie Hooker would soon come to live. Of course, I’m much more interesting—and sexier—than any actual moonshiners Linda Lovely might have met.

Why do you think that your life has ended up being in a book?
My guess is that I share some traits with the man the author married four decades ago. I can make her laugh and she seems to think I’m sexy. She also likes that I don’t fit neatly into any stereotypes.

Tell us about your favorite scene in the book.
My favorite scene in Picked Off is when I take Brie for a drink at a B&B to do some undercover sleuthing.

Did you have a hard time convincing Linda to write any particular scenes for you?
No. I just have to keep reminding her that I deserve equal time with Andy Green, my best friend and rival for Brie’s affections. Actually, I don’t understand why Linda doesn’t see that I’m the best match for Brie. In just a few pages she could make us a couple.

What do you like to do when Linda's not writing about you?
I like to fish, hunt, and waterski.

If you could rewrite anything in your book, what would it be?
I’d be the one who escorts Brie into the forest on a drone-spy mission. That way she’d fall on top of me when she tumbles over a log.

Tell the truth. What do you think of your fellow characters?
I like to spend time with most of them. Have a great time ribbing Andy, Aunt Eva, and Mollye. I’ve known Andy and Mollye as long as I can remember and we know each other’s secrets.

Do have any secret aspirations that Linda doesn’t know about?
She recently discovered that I’m planning to expand my business to include fine whiskies and plan to open an outlet in the South Carolina Lowcountry. If she doesn’t have Brie fall for me soon it could complicate our relationship.

If you had a free day what would you do?

Well, my preference would require a little cooperation from Brie.

If your story were a movie, who would play you?
A young George Clooney.

Describe the town where you live.
I don’t actually live in the Town of Ardon. My place is out in the country. I love the woods and nature. Much of Ardon County is rural. But that’s changing fast. Our county butts up against fast-growing areas of Pickens and Greenville Counties, which means there’s a big development push into our undeveloped areas. Lake Sisel has become a big draw for wealthy retirees who like our climate and scenery. Of course a lot of the locals don’t like the newcomers. Okay some of them actually hate the new arrivals, especially if they’re rich and from the North. I say people are people, no matter their accent or where they were raised.

Will you encourage Linda to write a sequel?
She’s already working on the third book in this series, which is due out in the first quarter of 2019.


Linda Lovely finds writing pure fiction isn’t a huge stretch given the years she’s spent penning PR and ad copy. She writes a blend of mystery and humor, chuckling as she plots to “disappear” the types of characters who most annoy her. Quite satisfying plus there’s no need to pester relatives for bail. Picked Off is the second humorous installment in her new Brie Hooker Mystery series. An active member of Sisters in Crime, Lovely served as her local chapter’s president for five years. She also belongs to International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America.

Connect with Linda:
Website  |  Blog  |  Facebook  |  Twitter  |  Goodreads  |  Pinterest  | Amazon

Buy the book:
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Saturday, May 26, 2018



From acclaimed author Charlie Donlea comes a twisting, impossible-to-put-down novel of suspense in which a filmmaker helps clear a woman convicted of murder—only to find she may be a puppet in a sinister game.

The Girl of Sugar Beach is the most watched documentary in television history—a riveting, true-life mystery that unfolds over twelve weeks and centers on a fascinating question: Did Grace Sebold murder her boyfriend, Julian, while on a Spring Break vacation, or is she a victim of circumstance and poor police work? Grace has spent the last ten years in a St. Lucian prison, and reaches out to filmmaker Sidney Ryan in a last, desperate attempt to prove her innocence. 

As Sidney begins researching, she uncovers startling evidence, additional suspects, and timeline issues that were all overlooked during the original investigation. Before the series even finishes filming, public outcry leads officials to reopen the case. But as the show surges towards its final episodes, Sidney receives a letter saying that she got it badly, terribly wrong. 

Sidney has just convinced the world that Grace is innocent. Now she wonders if she has helped to free a ruthless killer. Delving into Grace’s past, she peels away layer after layer of deception. But as Sidney edges closer to the real heart of the story, she must decide if finding the truth is worth risking her newfound fame, her career . . . even her life.


Book title: Don’t Believe It

Author: Charlie Donlea

Genre: Thriller

Publisher: Kensington Publishing (May 29, 2018)

Print length: 340 pages

On tour with: Great Escapes Book Tours 


Charlie, what’s the story behind the title of your book?

My editor and I have created a little theme of fighting over the titles of my books. We went back and forth on my first novel, and he finally won the battle with the title Summit Lake. Another war ensued over the title of my second book. He won again, with The Girl Who Was Taken. I grew to love each title, but was prepared to dig in my heels for the fight over what to call my third book. But just as I started brainstorming title ideas, my editor sent me an email. “What do you think of Don’t Believe It?” he asked.

Damn, I thought. That’s good! It captures perfectly the did-she-or-didn’t-she question that runs through the entire story.

So, we went with it. No fights. No arguing.  

What’s one thing that you wish you knew as a teenager that you know now?
That formal education is important, but does not have to dictate what you do or where you go in life. 

What makes you nervous?
My writing deadlines.

What makes you happy?
Beating my writing deadline.

What makes you excited?
Writing the first sentence of my next novel.

How did you meet your wife? Was it love at first sight?
We met in college. Yes, it was love at first sight for me. For her? She didn’t even notice me.

What’s one of your favorite quotes?
“Books aren’t written. They’re rewritten.” —Michael Crichton 

What’s your favorite line from a book?
“Have you ever made love on the beach?” –Mitch McDeere’s wife asks him this in the closing scenes of The Firm. Mitch scrambles to say no, but of course he has. The line is a great reminder of how much The Firm actually changed him despite his efforts to fight against everything it represented.
The Firm is my all-time favorite suspense novel.

What would your main character say about you?
“He’s a real son of a bitch.”

How did you create the plot for this book?
I’m a huge fan of True Crime. From Serial to Making a Murderer, I’m an addict who can’t stop listening to podcasts and binge watching documentaries. So I came up with the idea of a protagonist who is true crime documentarian looking into a gruesome murder from ten years ago. She ends up producing a television series that becomes the most watched documentary in history. The only problem is that what she ultimately uncovers about the decade-old crime is not exactly what she, or her network, planned on. 

One of your characters has just found out you’re about to kill him off. She decides to beat you to the punch. How would you die?
She’d give me have a heart attack after a computer glitch causes me to lose my 500-page, nearly finished manuscript the day before my deadline.

Who are your favorite authors?
John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, Daniel Silva, Gillian Flynn, Denise Lehane, Mary Kubica and Carl Hiaasen.

What book are you currently reading and in what format?
The Sandman by Lars Kepler, e-book.

Do you have a routine for writing?
1. I’m an early morning writer. Four or five AM. I hate writing in the afternoon, and only when I’m way behind do I ever write at night.
2. A thousand words a day keeps your editor at bay.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received about your writing?
“I read your book in one sitting.”

At first, when I heard that someone read my book in a day or two I’d think: That’s a year of my life that you just breezed through in a few hours. But now I love hearing about a reader cruising through one of my books. It’s means they couldn’t put it down.

What’s the worst thing someone has said about your writing? How did you deal with it?
A reader posted a review that said one of my books wasn’t worth the fifteen-cent late fee the library charged her after she kept it too long.

I loved the jab so much that I included it in a discussion on Mean Book Reviews that I did with Mary Kubica during a book signing. Look it up on YouTube. 


Summit Lake
The Girl Who Was Taken


Charlie Donlea is the USA TODAY and International bestselling author of Summit Lake, The Girl Who Was Taken and Don't Believe It. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two young children, where he is busy writing his next novel.

Connect with Charlie: 

Website  |  Facebook  |  Twitter  |  Goodreads

Buy the book:
Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble

Friday, May 25, 2018



As autumn air settles into the quaint small town of Silver Hollow, there’s nothing more popular than Sasha’s teddy bears—and murder in cold blood . . . 

Silver Bear Shop and Factory manager Sasha Silverman is cozying up to the fall season by hosting Silver Hollow’s Cranbeary Tea Party, the opening event of the village’s Oktobear Fest—a too-cute celebration themed around teddy bears. She barely has a moment to agonize over the return of her former high school rival, Holly Parker, whose new toy and bookstore in town could spell big trouble for the Silver Bear Shop and her cousin’s small bookstore . . .

But when Sasha discovers Holly’s shop assistant dead with a knife plunged in her body, the unpleasant woman suddenly looks like a real backstabber. So does Sasha’s ex-husband, rumored to have rekindled the fiery extramarital affair he once had with the victim. Now, before a gruesome homicide case takes the fun out of both the Fest and her personal life, Sasha must identify the true culprit from a daunting suspect list—or risk becoming as lifeless as one of her stuffed bears . . .

Book Details

Title: Bear Witness to Murder

Author: Meg Macy

Character’s full name: Sasha Silverman

Genre: cozy mystery

On tour with: Great Escapes Book Tours


Sasha, how did you first meet Meg?
Meg chose the teddy bear shop before me, believe it or not. First I was a widow and then I became a divorcee instead. Given my ex-husband’s wackiness, I rather wish she’d stuck with widowhood. I think she named me Kit at first, and then Julie, but I prefer Sasha – a nickname for “Alexandra Victoria”. I adore my dad and sister. Mom’s another story.

What do you think of Meg?
I can’t complain too much, because Meg did come up with a neat guy for me in book 2, Bear Witness to Murder. But I’m the one in the hot seat, stumbling over dead bodies and getting labeled as a “corpse magnet.” Here’s hoping someone else finds the next one in book 3, Have Yourself A Beary Little Murder.

Why do you think that your life has ended up being in a book?
I’m pretty lucky, living with family and friends in a small town, selling shamelessly adorable teddy bears – I love seeing kids hugging a new toy! – and planning bear-themed events for Silver Hollow’s seasonal celebrations.

Tell us about your favorite scene in the book.
That’s tough – I loved all the fun at the village’s annual teddy bear picnic in book 1, and seeing all the painted fiberglass statues in the Parade of Bears in book 2. I guess my favorite, though, was seeing the kids having a blast with their teddy bears at the Cranbeary Tea Party.

Did you have a hard time convincing Meg to write any particular scenes for you?
Nope, Meg includes me in everything. I would rather convince her to exclude me from finding the next dead body. (wink)

What do you like to do when Meg's not writing about you?
I love to relax with a bowl of popcorn and a classic movie like My Fair Lady, or any Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, or Astaire/Rogers films. But I want to try my hand at painting – not the walls, though. My sister Maddie is an artist, and I’m going to convince her to host a “paint” party in book 3. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Absolutely. If you could rewrite anything in your book, what would it be?
Um . . . finding the body. That was awful, on a foggy morning, and my poor teddy bear dog led me right to her. (shiver) Way too soon after finding our company’s sales rep’s in our shop’s factory – stuffed to death! Murder’s a nasty business.

I'll say! Tell the truth. What do you think of your fellow characters?
I love my sister Maddie – she’s so creative and fun, pixie-petite and adorable. I’m lucky to have two wonderful besties, Mary Kate and Elle, and we are so needing a Guilty Pleasures Gossip Club meeting again. We’ve all been swamped, and I haven’t had a chance to share my news about Jay Kirby.

Do have any secret aspirations that Meg doesn’t know about?
I’m not about to spill. Not yet! That’s what secrets are for . . .

If you had a free day, what would you do?
Go to Mackinac Island! But that would take a whole weekend. For a day off, I’d take my dog Rosie to the local dog park. Or pack a picnic basket, a book to read, plus my gravity chair, escape to Hudson Mills Metropark and find a remote spot with a shade tree, and chill away from everything.

What impression do you make on people when they first meet you?
They’d find me open and friendly, easy-going. If they knew me for a while longer, they’d know I was reliable and willing to drop everything to help in a fix.

What's the worst thing that's happened in your life?
Finding my ex in our bed with one of our bridesmaids, on New Year’s Eve, a mere nine months after our wedding day. Flynn Hanson cheated regularly, but I’d been blind to it until that fateful day. Ugh. He thinks he’s God’s gift to women. I wish I could say I’ve learned to be less trusting, but nope. Must be a built-in flaw.

Tell us about your best friends.
My besties are the best! Mary Kate Thompson is a first class baker at Fresh Grounds, the coffee shop she and her husband manage. She has an adorable baby, too. Elle Cooper is married to my first cousin, and they own The Cat’s Cradle, a children’s bookstore. Elle has two adorable daughters. How do they manage careers and kids? I’m jealous! I want a family, but need to find a decent, honest guy I can trust first.

What are you most afraid of?
Not having a child – I love kids, and my biological clock is ticking away. I really want to pass on the family business and keep it running for future kids and families, but if a son or daughter had other plans. . . Sigh. But so far, Maddie and I haven’t had much luck in the love/marriage game.

What’s the best trait Meg has given you?
I’d have to say my independence, despite being close with family.
What’s the worst?
My worst, being vulnerable and way too trusting.

What do you like best about Jay Kirby?
I have to admit I was intrigued by Jay Kirby when he showed up at the end of Bearly Departed with our new mailbox. Hand-carved, a mother bear and two cubs, unique and stunning! I vaguely remembered him from woodshop class back in high school, which I dropped after a month. He remembered me, though! Hmm. Or was it my banged-up thumb? We’re so busy, I hope we have time to get to know each other more. We’ll see.

What’s Meg’s worst habit?
Too much time on Facebook with friends! (LOL)

How do you feel about your life right now? Is there anything you would like to change?
I love my life, my family, my friends. But I really wish some woman would marry Flynn Hanson, my ex, and take him out of state. Or out of the country.

What do you like best about Meg's writing style?
I love all the details – especially the outfits, hats, and designer purses she lets me wear. But my sister Maddie always looks more stylish. Hmm.

If your story were a movie, who would play you?
If it can’t be Audrey Hepburn, then I guess Emily Wickersham of NCIS.

Describe the town where you live.
Silver Hollow – a quaint, Southeastern Michigan town where most of the streets are named for Teddy Roosevelt’s family, everyone knows everyone else’s business.

What's an average day in your life like?
I roll out of bed, yawning like crazy, take a shower, dry my hair or gather it in a wet ponytail, get dressed for work – black jeans and one of our silver logo tee shirts – and then drag my lazy pooch outside. Rosie’s not a morning dog! Breakfast is coffee, a bagel with peanut butter, or a muffin from Fresh Grounds, maybe string cheese or a hard-boiled egg. Shop opens at ten, and I’m busy until the lunch hour when I take Rosie for a walk to the Courthouse square. I usually take along a sandwich and a bottle of water. Then it’s back to work, sometimes leading a tour of the factory and shop, and then dinner with my sister, mom, dad, aunt and uncle – unless they’re all busy doing something else! Maddie does our shop’s social media and graphics, and she’s swamped with painting her statue for the Parade of Bears. I love going for a bike ride after work, or a swim at the Y, or just watching my favorite TV shows like NCIS or a Brit series on Netflix. That’s a typical day, but only if there’s not something crazy going on that puts sleuthing on the agenda.

What makes you stand out from any other characters in your genre?
There aren’t any other cozy mysteries with someone who manages their family’s teddy bear shop and factory!

If you could be “adopted” by another writer, who would you choose?
Sharon Farrow of the Berry Basket mysteries. I love berries of all kinds, and the small town of Oriole Point sounds wonderful. I love the Lake Michigan coast.

Will you encourage Meg to write a sequel?
I believe Meg is working on book 3 now – set at Christmastime. My favorite season!


Award-winning mystery author Meg Macy lives in Southeast Michigan, close ​enough ​to Ann Arbor, Chelsea, and Dexter – the area she chose for the setting of her Shamelessly Adorable Teddy Bear cozy mysteries for Kensington. She is also one-half of the writing team of D.E. Ireland for the Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins Mystery series; two​ books, Wouldn't It Be Deadly and Get Me to the Grave On Time​ ​were​ Agatha Award finalists​ for Best Historical​. Meg's first published book, Double Crossing, won the 2012 Best First Novel Spur Award from Western Writers of America.

Connect with Meg:
Website  |  Blog  |  Facebook  |  Twitter  |  Goodreads 

Buy the book:

Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble