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Prologue

John carefully spooned a serving of stuffing onto the tray held in front of him, smiling at the man standing there.  “Merry Christmas, Bird Man.  I’m glad to see you joined us today.”  He automatically looked up, when the door at the far side of the gym slammed open with a loud bang against the wall, and frowned.

“I win!  I found you!” Edith shouted.

“Close that door before too much cold air comes in and come here quietly.  You are disturbing our patrons’ fine dining experience,” he said in a calm voice that carried easily across the large room.

Edith looked surprised at the admonishment, but did as he bade.  “That little elf said that I wouldn’t be able to find you by Christmas, but I did!  I win!” she crowed softly as she approached, blocking the line as she stood in front of John.

“If you are here to eat, you need to take your place at the end of the line.  If you are here to work, come around the side over there and I will give you an apron.  There are lots of dirty dishes to be washed.”  He saw the look of distaste cross her face and sighed.  She was going to take a lot of work!  “If you just want to talk, you can go sit over there in that chair and wait for me.  I should be done here in another couple of hours.”  Her eyes followed his nod and realized that there was a solitary chair sitting in the nearest corner, turned so that when seated, its occupant would be facing the wall.  He knew just what she was thinking. “If you decide to walk out, don’t bother to return,” he said softly and then shook his head.  “I have to say Edith, that I am very disappointed that you weren’t able to find me without depending on my Christmas Day track record.  You obviously have a lot to learn.”  He made a shooing motion with his hand.  “You’re holding up the line for these hungry folks.  Step back out of the way while you decide your future.”

She moved back a few paces to allow the line to proceed and nibbled her bottom lip as she studied him.  She knew he hoped that she would accept the apron and work washing dishes, but she hated how wrinkled her hands would look after being in the hot water for very long.  She looked at the positioning of the chair.  Had John placed it that way on purpose, or was it always like that?  Had he expected her?  Apparently he had known she wouldn’t want to work and had created another choice for her.  Was she insulted that he knew she wouldn’t want to work?  Then in her mind she heard his speech again, ‘If you are here to eat, you need to take your place at the end of the line...’  Well, there it was!  She didn’t have to wash dishes or sit in the corner, she could get a tray of food and sit with the… with the… patrons.  Tossing her head defiantly, she moved to take her place at the end of the line.

John, while seeming to focus his attention on each person as he served them, had been watching Edith to see what she would do.  When he saw that she intended to stay, he felt the tension ease in his shoulders and his smile grew a little brighter.  “Good choice,” he said softly when she reached him and held out her tray.  Her triumphant smile faltered a bit as she realized that she hadn’t outsmarted him.  “I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt on this one and congratulating you on picking the option that has the best story potential.  I want to see what you come up with twenty-four hours from right now.”  He casually glanced at his watch.

“How many words?” she asked automatically and then mentally kicked herself for going along so easily.

He shrugged, “It’s just a starting point.  No set number, I want to see what you can do when time is your only limitation; although you may not leave until I give you permission.  You will stay for the entire time and see this through to the end, understand?”  He waited for her nod of agreement.  “Good.  Go and get to know the stories of the people you eat with and remember to mind your manners.  You’re off to a bad start there—slamming doors and shouting across the dining room—what would your granny have to say about that, I wonder.”

She paled as her mind automatically fed her the information of just how quickly Granny would have been reaching for the Board of Education.  And then she blushed as she realized that John’s comment indicated that he knew all about the one person who had kept her in line.  Her eyes flew to his face to see what he was thinking.

He smiled gently.  “You’re holding up the line again, Miss Edith Ruth Morton.”

An hour later Edith was smiling as she stepped back slightly from the group of people standing in a semi-circle around the old upright piano tucked in the far corner of the gym.  It was the first time in years that she had sung Christmas carols.  She was surprised at how the words had automatically returned to her and how much meaning some of the songs had held for her.  She swiped at a tear that was threatening to fall from the corner of her eye and gave a quiet sniff.  Maybe next year she should make the trip home for Christmas.  Her family always accepted her excuse that she had to work over the holidays, but she knew they missed her and, for the first time, she allowed herself to realize that she missed them as well.

When she had successfully disengaged from the group who were surging eagerly towards the Christmas tree placed next to the piano and the Santa who had just entered, she was surprised to feel John by her side.

“How are you holding up?”  He dropped a casual arm across her shoulder and felt her tension.  “Are you tense because I’m touching you or are you having some problems with your experience here?  I saw your tears a minute ago and I want to make sure you’re okay.”

She rolled her shoulders and he immediately dropped his arm away.  She was surprised to discover that she missed that brief intimacy.  “A little of both, I guess,” she said in answer to his question. “I haven’t made a lot of time in my life for men.  It’s always been my experience that when they touch, they don’t want to stop.”  She smiled up at him.  “Thank you for respecting me on that.”  He nodded in response and raised an eyebrow encouraging her to finish her explanation.  She sighed, “I haven’t been home for Christmas in several years, since I finished college and got this job, in fact.  I’ve told my family that I have to work and they’ve been supportive; but I know that if I asked, my boss would probably give me a few days off to go home, especially since I’ve worked so many other holidays.  Standing around singing Christmas carols just made me feel a little homesick.”  John looked steadily at her.  “Okay!” she said with a small show of temper, giving just the tiniest stamp of her foot, “It’s made me feel guilty that I’ve been neglecting my family and not appreciating how lucky I am.  Are you happy now?” she huffed.

John chuckled, wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in tightly for a one armed hug, releasing her immediately afterwards.  “There’s the Edith I know!  I promise to respect your wishes on stopping when you tell me to stop, but you should know that I tend to be a toucher when I want to connect with someone.  And if Santa is right, and so far he has been on everything he’s told me, you’re going to need to accept the fact that at some point you will be feeling my hand on at least one part of your anatomy.  And when that happens I will not stop when you ask me.”  He gave her bottom a not-so-gentle spank.  He leaned down until she could feel his breath on her ear.  “And it will be without any clothing between my hand and the point of contact.”  She gasped and turned red, but to his satisfaction, she did not move away from him.

“So this is it, Edith.  Now is the time when we decide whether we commit to this mentorship and promise to see it through or whether we go our separate ways.  I gave you a writing assignment and I believe you accepted it.  But I just want to confirm that this is really happening.  From now on when I tell you to do something, you will accept that I have my reasons for it and you will obey me without argument, even if it is washing dishes or sitting in the corner.  When the time is right, I will be happy to explain the reason for each order I give you, but don’t expect to have that conversation at your will.  All disagreements are automatically settled in favor of my opinion and arguments will be handled in the time-honored manner that your granny has proven to be successful with you.  Temper tantrums will not be tolerated.  I promise that no matter how frustrated you make me, I will not give up on teaching you everything you need to know to succeed in this business.”

She gasped and turned towards him at his last words.  “No matter how frustrated I make you!  Well, doesn’t that just take the cake?  You’ve just told me that you plan to beat me and then try to sound all magnanimous that you won’t give up on me!”

He took her by the arm and pulled her further away from the group receiving presents from Santa.  “Keep your voice down, woman!  This exact behavior is one of the reasons that you aren’t respected by your colleagues, you have no sense of place.  Now is not the time to make a scene, these people are having the only bit of happiness they are likely to get for a long time in their dreary lives.  Be respectful!”

“But you said that now was the time to commit!”

He nodded.  “Yes, I did.  Because Santa is here and wants an answer from us.”  He gestured towards the man handing out presents and Edith was surprised to recognize him as the Nickson’s Department Store Santa.  “I don’t think you realize how hard this is going to be for me, Edith.  I’m freelance for a reason; I hate conflict and I tend to remove myself from anything that makes me feel frustrated or angry.  Santa has set up this mentorship for my benefit too, you know.  He wants me to learn patience and to stick with something I find unpleasant until I succeed and reach the goal.  I have gone through my life doing everything I can to avoid setting goals because I know I won’t stay with it when things go against my opinion of how they should be.  I walk away.  Santa has made it clear to me that this time I can’t walk away.  He has made a believer out of me and if he says this is what I need to do, then I am willing to commit to it.  For the first time in my life I am making a commitment to something that I know will drive me crazy.”

“You just told me that all disagreements will be settled in your favor and that you will spank me when I argue.  How is that learning patience or sticking with something when it goes against your opinion of how it should go?”

“Because you will change me as much as I change you,” he answered simply.  “I’ve just stated the rules as I want them to be, but we both know that I am not going to get my way every single time.  I believe in fairness and I know for a fact that there will be times that I will want like anything to give you a good paddling, but I won’t be able to do it because I won’t be able to justify it to myself.  I expect that there will be times when I lose my temper with you and I will have to apologize.”  He chuckled, “That’s something that we’re both bad at; but I have learned the value of a well placed apology and you still don’t get that.”

He touched her hand.  “I wish that you had found me earlier so we could have had more time to hash this out, but the fact that you couldn’t find me says volumes about what you need to learn.  All you had to do, you know, was ask any senior editor or news director in town how to get in touch with me.  They all know.  If you had done an Internet search on my byline you would have found all the articles I’ve written and who published them.  Again, they all know where to send my paycheck and how to contact me if they have stories they want me to do.  I bet you just kept hoping that I would show up at some news event, even though I know Santa told you I was planning on changing my career course.  You had to wait until you could find me at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day.  How many did you check before you found me?”

She blushed bright red and looked away.  He had been right about everything he had said and she was embarrassed when she realized how easily she should have found him.  Why hadn’t she thought of doing the things he mentioned?  She really did need to learn or get out of the business!

“Edith, I’m waiting for an answer.  How many did you check?”

She hung her head, still refusing to meet his eyes.  “Three,” she whispered.

“You did it all today?  You ran all over the place checking soup kitchens looking for me?  You didn’t think to call any of the organizations that were sponsoring soup kitchens and ask if I was a volunteer for them?”  She shook her lowered head, miserable that here was yet another easy method that she just didn’t think of using.  John sighed, “Are you sure this is the business you want to be in?”

At that, her head snapped up and her eyes blazed with determination. “Yes!” she hissed.  “I want to be the best darn reporter there ever was!  Teach me, please!”

He looked at her.  “I’ve made my statement of commitment to you.  I want to hear yours to me.”

She gulped and bit her lip.  “I promise I will do my best to do as you tell me and to learn what you have to teach me.”  She could see that he expected more and she grudgingly gave it.  “I acknowledge that you will use corporal punishment at times and I will submit to it.”  Still he waited.  “I don’t know what else you want from me!” she wailed softly.

“I want to know that you won’t give up and walk away when things get tough.  You are not exactly known for your work ethic, Edith Ruth Morton.”

“Why do you keep using my full name?” she wailed again.  “How do you even know it?  Did Santa tell you?”

John shook his head, smiling.  “No, I did what you should have done, I did an Internet search on you and read everything I could, to get to know and better understand you.  I learned your middle name that way, although I will admit that Santa told me that your granny was the only person to have successfully taught you anything that stuck with you.  I’ve been using your full name to see how you would respond to it, a well-trained country girl like your past indicates you should be, knows to pay attention and be obedient when she hears her full name.”

She slumped.  “I don’t know anything about you except that Santa told me you’ve been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times.”

John flushed and turned away.  “I try to keep that quiet.  No one likes a braggart also ran.”

“I was impressed.”  She gathered herself and made eye contact.  “I was impressed, not only by the fact of your multiple nominations, but also by the fact that you are modest about it.  I know I would have been finding a way to slip it into every conversation I had with anyone in the business.  And your statement just now points out why you are the person I need to learn from.  I would be the biggest braggart also ran you ever saw and everyone would hate me and make jokes about me behind my back.  You knew to avoid that.”  She dropped her voice.  “Please teach me, be my mentor.  I promise I won’t give up when I feel frustrated.”

“Edith Ruth Morton, I don’t know how you are on keeping promises.  But I’m sorry to say that from what I do know about your past history, I don’t feel confident about accepting one from you.  I need something more, I’m afraid.”

“You can spank me if I give up,” she offered.

“There is no doubt that I should handle it that way, but I know that it wouldn’t work.  If you decide to leave this mentorship before it is finished and I try to spank you into staying, you will report me to the police.  And I wouldn’t disagree with that.  No woman should be physically hurt to make her do something she really doesn’t want to do.  You need to give me something that will bind you to your promise and I have no idea what it is.  You will have to figure that out for yourself.”  

She stared at him, shaking her head wordlessly, at a complete loss of ideas on how to solve the impasse.

“There you two are!” Santa said cheerfully as he joined them.  “Merry Christmas!  I am glad to see that you have finally gotten together.  How are things working out?”

“Merry Christmas, Santa,” John responded.  “We’re working on it, but we haven’t gotten there yet, I’m sorry to report.”

“Oh my, that is sad news.  How about you, Edith?  What do you have to say for yourself?”

She turned her stricken look on him, but couldn’t speak around the lump that had formed in her throat.  Tears welled up, but wouldn’t fall.

“Poor little Edith,” Santa murmured.  “Your past behavior has come home to roost, hasn’t it?”  She nodded and docilely moved into his arms as he spread them in an invitation for a hug.  “I warned you that you would have to convince John and to be prepared.  I imagine that you expected that he would be so eager to teach you that he wouldn’t present any problems.”  She gave a wordless wail and the tears finally fell.  Santa held her for a brief moment longer and then took her by the shoulders and moved her away from him.  “You need to fix this, Edith.  Crying to me isn’t going to make this happen, you know.  You think about promises that you have given and kept and then about how to give one to John that he will know you will keep.”  He lifted his velvet sack, which was decidedly thinner than when he had entered the room.  “I’ve given out all the presents to everyone else, but I still have a few left, for you two.”

John looked surprised.  “No, Santa!  I don’t need anything, give your gifts to those who can really use them.”

Santa chuckled and held out two wrapped packages to him.  “These are for you, because you will really need them, premature as they may seem right now.”

John took the gifts and tore the paper to reveal two books, one was about mediation and yoga techniques and the other was a humorous work suggesting creative ways to vent frustration.  He opened it at random and laughed out loud when he read the suggestion.  “Build a snowman and knock it down.”  He looked up.  “I’ve always been suspicious of snowmen, so cold and unmoving, leering at you with those eyes of coal.  I love this!  Thanks, Santa.”

“You’re very welcome, John.  Edith, here are your gifts.  Open the smaller one first.”

She obeyed and uncovered a beautifully embossed leather bound journal with her initials worked into the design in gilt lettering.  She gasped and looked up sharply at Santa.  “This is exactly what I’ve always wanted!  I mean, EXACTLY as I pictured it in my mind.  This is the journal I was going to buy for myself when I knew that I had succeeded.”

“If you can picture it strongly enough, Edith, you can make it happen.  Write your dreams for your career on the first page and then go over them with John.”  Santa held up an admonitory finger.  “I don’t mean the job you want, I mean the person you want to be.”  He leaned over and gave her a wink along with the second gift.  “Once you have everything settled in the journal, I think loaning him this will seal the deal.  There is nothing more special than the love of your granny.”  He patted her on the shoulder.  “You can do this, Edith.  Make it happen!”  Then he turned to the other man.  “She needs your help, John.  Don’t let her flounder.”  They shook hands.  Santa waved to the room at large and with a loud “Merry Christmas!” left as a chorus of ‘Thank you’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ echoed through the room.

John looked at Edith, wondering just what Santa expected him to do.  She looked up from the blank page and smiled.  “If I write a statement of purpose here of what I want to achieve, will you accept that with my promise to not give up?  Every time I get frustrated I can read these goals again and be reminded of why you are making me do things I don’t want to do.”

John returned her smile.  “It’s a start.  Get your notebook so you can work out the exact wording before entering it in the journal.  Such a work of beauty shouldn’t be marred by scratched out words and scribbled additions.”

Her smile faltered and she looked down.  John had come to recognize this as her ‘I’ve failed again’ look and vowed that by the time he was finished with her he would never see it again.  “You don’t carry a notebook, do you?” he asked quietly.  She shook her head.  “Add that to your assignment for tomorrow.  Always, always have paper and pencil available to take notes.  Here, use mine for now.”  He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a worn spiral bound notebook with a pencil stuck through the wiring.  He handed it to her.  “I’ve found that spiral bound are good because your pages don’t tear out and get lost as easily and it’s a handy way to keep your pencil with it.  Notice I said pencil; pens have a much higher failure rate, so stick with pencils when you have a choice.  But once you’ve got your goals all figured out, they should go into your journal in pen to remind you of their permanency.”

“Will you help me?” she asked shyly.

“I’m happy to be your sounding board as you work your way through it, but you’re going to have to talk to me while I work.  There are a whole lot of dirty dishes that need washing!”

By the time the teetering stack of dirty trays had been washed, dried and put away, Edith had honed her list of attributes down to wording that she felt was concise and complete.  By the time all the dirty cooking pots and pans and utensils had received the same treatment as the trays, Edith had decided how she would rank each item and list them in her journal.

John read them over and nodded his approval.  She didn’t realize it, but what she had created was a basic blueprint for living a good life as a decent human being and had very little to do with reporting.  John had no intention of dissuading her from valuing the list she had created, instead, he handed her a pen and pointed her towards a worktable off to the side in the kitchen.  “Sit down and copy it into the journal in your best handwriting please.  I’m going to sweep the gym floor and then we can head out.”

She sat where he indicated and set to work.  When he finished sweeping and returned to check on her, he was amazed that he felt a protective concern for her.  How had she gotten so far off course?  He knew that she did a decent job of reporting for her employers, not outstanding in any way, but also not anywhere near the worse he had seen, either.  And she was doing it without half the basic skills she should have.  Once he drilled those into her, her stagnant career should finally take off.  He chuckled as he realized that she was sitting as she must have been taught when she first learned cursive writing, her back straight, her legs aligned with knees pressed tightly together, her journal at a slant, and one thing he was certain hadn’t been taught, but had undoubtedly still been a part of her schoolgirl posture, the tiny pink tip of her tongue was protruding slightly between her lips.  Her concentration was intense and she wasn’t aware that he was standing next to her.  He placed the second gift from Santa, which remained unopened, near her and moved away slightly so that he wouldn’t cause her to startle and spoil her careful writing.

“Done!” she finally pronounced and looked up with a smile of pleasure.  “Thank you for being patient and waiting for me.  Want to see?”  She offered him the journal and he took it and solemnly read it over.

“You’ve done a beautiful job with this, Edith.  Shall we sign this together as an agreement of your goals for this mentorship?”

“Yes, I was hoping that you would accept this with my promise.”

John sighed and shook his head.  “I’m not sure this is sufficient, Edith.  A few declarative sentences and a promise from someone with a history of always putting her selfish needs first, isn’t quite what I was looking for.”

“But you’ll sign it with me as a start?”

“Yes.”
 
“But you still need more from me?”
 
“Yes.”

She sighed and pulled the final present from Santa towards her.  “He said that loaning you this should do the trick.  I was kind of hoping to leave this out of the equation.”  She pulled the paper off the rectangular box and lifted the lid to reveal a worn hickory wood paddle nestled in tissue paper.  Faint lettering was barely visible and John leaned closer to try to make it out, chuckling when he finally did decipher it.

“It says Board of Education,” Edith offered helpfully.  “When Santa said something about the special power of a Granny’s love, I knew what was in this box.  I don’t know how he did it, but this is the very paddle that my Granny used to teach me not to swear.  Look, you can see where I tried to carve my name into it.  Hickory is a very hard wood and all I could do, really, was make scratches.  But that’s my name right there.  And here’s the dent that I put in it when I threw it across the patio and hit the house.  Oh, she tanned me good for that display of temper!  I couldn’t sit down for three days.”  She looked up, blinded by the tears that filled her eyes, but smiling.  “I really could and did sit down, it was painful, but I could.  I just didn’t want to let her know that I could.  I tried to make her feel guilty and she was having none of that.  I came close to getting a second paddling for that stunt.” 

She grinned.  “She called it a stunt, and here I am, so many years later, echoing her words and seeing the truth in them.”  She held it out to him, extending her palms flat out with the paddle lying across them as if it were tribute from a peasant to a king.  “This is what you were waiting for.  This is the symbol of my Granny’s love for me and I would never, ever do anything to lose it.  As Santa suggested, I will loan this to you until we have finished the mentorship.  Here is my guarantee that I will not give up when things get tough, because I won’t walk away and leave this in your possession.  Use it as you see fit, with my Granny’s blessings.”

John accepted her offering, tapping it against his palm and feeling the weight the paddle carried.  “Thank you, Edith.  This is something important to you and I can tell that it is just what I needed from you.”  He looked at her.  “You know at some point I’m going to use this on you, don’t you?”  She nodded.  He smiled and patted her arm.  “I accept your commitment.  You have yourself a mentor.”  Her body sagged in relief that it was settled.

John grinned. “You also have two assignments, due in…”  He made a show of consulting his watch and then looked at her.  “Due when, Edith?”  She blanched.  He shook his head slowly.  “That’s what I thought.  I said it was due in exactly twenty-four hours and you didn’t check the time.  I’m not going to bail you out, you know.”  He carefully replaced the paddle in the box and put the lid back on, creating an innocent package that could be carried in public.  Whistling slightly, he turned and headed towards the exit.  “I think my life is about to get a lot more interesting with you in it.”  He waved his hand in a forward motion.  “Come on, I’ll buy you dinner and you can bounce your story ideas off me.”  He grinned with a mock leer, “That is, if you think you can spare the time.”

Chapter One

“Oh!”  Edith took a step back, dismayed to see the look on John’s face as she opened her apartment door.

“You didn’t know it was me, did you?” he asked grimly as he entered and turned to close and lock the door.  “Get your journal, please.  You can list that first.  Never, EVER open your door if you don’t know who is on the other side.”

She gulped and nodded, going quickly to find her notebook, happy that she had managed to do at least one thing right.  She proudly offered him her brand new spiral notebook with a pencil stuck through the wires, just like the one that she knew he carried, and was surprised when he shook his head.

“No, your notebook is for work.  I want you to get your special journal, the one Santa gave you.”

Edith bit her lip as she studied him, trying to gage from his expression just what he might be planning to do to her new favorite possession.

“Get it NOW, Edith!” he barked and then calmly moved away from her as he took his coat off and hung it on a hook by the door.  When he had finished this small domestic task, he turned back towards her and held out his hand imperiously.

She reluctantly placed the leather covered, gilt decorated book in his palm.  “Why do you want this?  I haven’t written anything in it yet, other than the statement that we agreed on yesterday.”

He ignored her question as he scanned her small, very untidy apartment.  “Where do you work?  Do you have a desk somewhere under all this mess, or do you sit at the kitchen table?”  He eyed the debris littering that surface.

She blushed.  “I wasn’t expecting company.  It’s not usually this bad.  I was busy, you know, with the holidays.”

“Good manners are one of the things I plan to drill into you, so I will demonstrate how that applies in a situation like this and refrain from all the obvious comments that your run-away mouth would have uttered if you were in my shoes.”  He turned slowly taking in the entire space.  “You are going to be sitting and writing.  Please clear off wherever you normally do that.”

Avoiding his eye, she slipped past him to the alcove with her table and started gathering the dirty dishes.

He moved beside her and reached out to stop her hands.  “I can take these; I know they go in the kitchen.  You put away the other stuff.”

She nodded and circled to the other side of the table and began collecting the papers and other small items, hunching her shoulders against the comments she knew would be forthcoming when John took the pile of dishes into the kitchen and discovered that there wasn’t any free counter space to put them on.  But she didn’t hear anything besides the small clinks of china, glass and utensils being moved around.

How did he free up his hands from the load he was carrying, to be able to move stuff around?  She knew that the piles were already so precariously stacked that he couldn’t have added the dishes from the table to the top of what was already in there.  She shrugged and put the handful of junk that she was carrying on top of the paraphernalia on the coffee table and then muttered in frustration when the whole mound tilted sideways and slid onto the floor.

“Pick it up and put it on the chair,” John ordered softly when she decided to ignore the mess and head back for another handful from the table.  “You need to get in the habit of picking up fallen things immediately and you won’t find your apartment getting quite this rough.”  He put his load of jumble on the nearby chair as the starter.  “I’ll finish the table while you gather that up.”

By the time she had managed to get everything neat layered enough that the whole pile would stay put, she heard running water.  She finally finished crawling around chasing after bits that had rolled or slid under the sofa and stood, turning to see John wiping down her table top with a paper towel.

“Okay, there’s no stickiness anywhere, you should be able to write in your journal safely without worrying about damaging the beautiful work on the cover.”  He pulled out the chair that would put her back to the kitchen.  “Sit here, please.”

She still wasn’t sure what was going on with him.  She had expected angry words, at the very least a scolding, perhaps threats, possibly even a spanking, although her mind moved immediately to shut down that line of thought.  Even though she had given him her Granny’s paddle, titled Board of Education, and had accepted that, at some point, he was likely to need to use it, she didn’t want to believe that it would really happen.  Especially not little more than twenty-four hours after she had given it to him.  But then, twenty-four hours was her current major problem.  He had given her a writing assignment, which was due in twenty-four hours, and she hadn’t noted the time.  Since she didn’t know when to hand it in, she hadn’t done the work.  The deadline had come and gone without her acknowledging it in any way.

“When someone is holding something for you, waiting, it is expected that you will be courteous in return and move it!  Get your ass in this chair right now, Edith.”

She gulped and quickly sat down.  Obviously John’s patience with her was about worn out.

He pulled out the adjacent chair and seated himself.  “So talk to me.  What happened with your assignment?”  He rubbed the back of his neck like he was easing tension.  “I’d like to hope that you have it all ready to give me and somehow just didn’t know how to hand it in, but I think that is unlikely.”  He paused, and at her continued silence, sighed.  “Come on, talk to me, Edith.  If I have to piece it together with a prolonged game of twenty questions, I’m going to add on extras to the spanking you already have coming to you.”

When she had settled into her chair, she had folded her hands together and rested them on the table, her eyes lowered in the posture of the weak afraid to anger the strong by making eye contact.  She was the very picture of a contrite schoolgirl on her best behavior.  At John’s words, her shoulders slumped.  So much for hoping to avoid a spanking!

“I’m waiting, Edith Ruth Morton.  For each question I have to ask you I’m going to add one extra, if you don’t spill right now.”

She gulped, knowing that he didn’t mean an extra spank with his hand, and started talking.  “I’m sorry, John.  I screwed up.  You knew I did yesterday; you pointed it out before we even left the gym to go eat dinner.  I didn’t make note of the time my assignment was due.”

“So you didn’t do it at all?” he asked, incredulous.

She shook her head miserably, her eyes still lowered.  “I bought the notebook and pencil like you told me,” she offered.

“What did you do today?  I thought perhaps you had something urgent come up at work, so I spoke with your boss; you weren’t working today, so how did you spend your time?  It clearly wasn’t housekeeping.”

“It was my day off…” she hesitated, saw his nod to continue, and shrugged.  “I slept in and watched television.  “It was my day of rest.”

“I see,” he said evenly.  “Do you have a day of cleaning written into your routine?”  He immediately shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Edith, that was a snide comment and I apologize.”

He pulled her journal out of the pocket of his tweed jacket and placed it on the table in front of her, and then added a pen that he produced from another pocket.  “Here is what we are going to do.”  He opened the journal to a pair of pristine pages, skipping the one that backed on her statement of goals.  “I want you to list your behaviors over the last day here.  The poor choices or mistakes on the left hand side, the good things on the right.  As we begin our association and this exercise, you are going to be writing a lot more on the left side, but, as time passes, I expect that your actions will change and you will start having more things to list on the right hand side.  The finished product will be a record of how you have improved yourself and you should feel very proud of how far you have come.”  He held up a hand to silence her before she could do more than open her mouth.  “I know that you probably had other plans for how you wanted to use this exquisite creation.  But, this is the major point that I am trying to teach you.  When this book is complete, the Edith who reads it will be happier than whatever version of yourself would exist through your alternative use of this journal.  And I promise, in celebration, I will have a new one especially made for you, that will be just like this one.”

She sighed, picked up the pen and ran her hand down the blank page, stroking, smoothing her special possession that was being changed from what she had wanted, and by her own hand.  But hadn’t she already done that yesterday when she so carefully wrote her statement on the first page?  She wanted what John had to offer.  She needed to trust that he was right with this plan.

“The time for doubts and second thoughts was before we committed to this mentorship yesterday, Edith,” he said softly.  “Start your list with opening your door when you didn’t know who was on the other side and then write down everything else that was a poor choice or mistake since you walked into the gym yesterday and asked me to teach you what I know.  Break it all down.  Don’t just say that you didn’t hand in your story.  Say that you were discourteous to me by not contacting me and letting me know that it wouldn’t be forthcoming.  Suppose I had been holding a space in a paper or news program and you didn’t produce?  The sooner you tell me that there is a problem, the more options I will have to deal with the new situation.  If you still don’t know how to contact me, write that down because that is something that you should have immediately settled yesterday.  And I want everything listed, not just things I am involved with, if you cut off another driver, didn’t stop to let a pedestrian cross the street, sassed your mother, put it all down.  Everything.  Writing it down is like going to confession, you have owned up to it and then we can work on correcting it.  Let me know when you are finished.  We will discuss whether you have covered everything and then talk about the good things before you start that list.”

She sighed.  He seemed to have such faith that there would be good things to list.  Right now she couldn’t think of anything to put on that side, while her mind was throwing lots of stuff at her to list on the bad side.

John stood and placed his hand on her shoulder.  “Don’t think of it as bad.  That’s why I very carefully used the terms poor choice and mistake.  This is not about creating guilt; it is about recognizing opportunities for improvement and congratulating yourself when you deserve it.  I’m going to work in the kitchen while you make your list.  I had you sit with your back to me so I wouldn’t distract you, but let me know if I’m creating a problem for you.”

She nodded.  “Thank you.  I’m embarrassed that you feel a need to clean my kitchen.”

He chuckled, “That’s a good start, Edith.  It’s my choice to help you by washing dishes.  We’ll talk about it later.”  He tapped the page.  “Start working on this, it’s going to be a late night.”

As he steadily worked through the collection of dirty dishes, John wondered whether Edith might be dragging out her task either because she was worried about the spanking that she knew was coming, or to give him time to do a thorough job in her kitchen.  He shook his head, it didn't matter, both were going to happen regardless of how late the evening ran.  Periodically as he worked, he had to stop washing when the drainer got too full, and dry and put away the clean items to make more space.

This led to him having to rummage through her cabinets to figure out where things belonged, and he was growing concerned because he saw only a few cans and boxes of food.  He hadn't seen a single take-out container anywhere in the apartment; even the kitchen trash was missing that universal item of someone living alone.  He finally gave into his curiosity and checked her refrigerator, feeling very guilty for snooping, but telling himself firmly that he was doing it because he was concerned for her well-being.  What he found did not ease his worry.  She had all the usual half-empty condiment bottles and assortment of pickles and random items that seemed to be de rigueur in refrigerators, and there was some food to create meals, eggs featured prominently, but again, not a lot.  It was the same story in her freezer, just a few frozen meals.  He doubted that she could feed herself for a week using every single thing in her kitchen.

“How are you doing, Edith?”  He stepped up behind her and glanced at her journal.  “You are doing a great job of writing neatly and I like how you've created bullets for each item.  I'm sorry for interrupting your train of thought; I'm just trying to get a time frame here.”  He rested his hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

She had startled when he put his hand on her shoulder, but the warmth it brought was nice, so she resisted her impulse to shrug it off.  He had warned her that he was a person who liked to touch others as part of making a connection and had promised that he would respect her wishes to end contact as soon as she indicated her discomfort—with the exception of when he was spanking her.  Yes, he had made it very clear that spankings were coming in the future.

“I'm probably pretty much done, but I'm trying to make sure that I didn't miss anything.  I messed up with the writing assignment so I'm trying extra hard to do a good job with this.”

“I'm delighted to hear that, Edith.  Do you want a few more minutes or can I sit down and talk with you for a bit?”

“Will I get into trouble if I stop now and then discover that I missed something?”

“No.  You add it to the list when you think of it.”

She used her foot to nudge out the chair that he had used before and had pushed in when he left the table.  “Then have a seat and let's talk.”

He sat down and reached for the journal, asking, “May I?”

She nodded silently, sliding it over to him.  Once he had it in front of him, she couldn't help herself from asking, “What would you have done if I refused?”

“I would have explained that the whole point of this is to improve your behavior; we both know that you need help with that, and that it's hard for me to help until I know the specifics.  This journal needs to be shared with me, but if you want a private journal, that I won't ever ask to see, I will get you one tomorrow.”  He smiled, “In fact, you can count on it.  Having a place to vent will probably help you have better control when in company.  Do you want something nice that you plan to keep, or do you just want a throw-away that you can toss when it is full?”

She twisted her fingers in agitation.  “Why are you being so nice to me?  I didn't do my assignment; I didn't even try.  But instead of yelling at me, you're bring nice and cleaning my kitchen!  I don't understand.  I'm confused.

He patted her hand, “Poor Edith, it's very early in our time together and your expectations aren't meeting reality.  Things will get better, I promise.  You are going to be spanked for not making any effort on your assignment, but not until I reach that point in my plans for this evening.  It is coming; don't worry.  As far as being nice, that is who I am and how I hope to train you to become.  There is way too much anger in this world; I don't need to add to it.  When I see a way of helping someone who needs help, I do it if I can.  We will talk later about the state of your kitchen, don't worry about that either.”

He patted her open journal.  “I'm curious to see what you have written and talk with you about it.  But first, have you had dinner yet?  I haven't and I'm hoping you have some good delivery places around here.  Do you have any preferences?  I know there's a Dominoes not too far away, if you haven't got any better suggestions.”

She shrugged.  “Yeah, sure, pizza is fine.”  She waved her hand, “I'm not picky, order whatever you want.”

John hit the speed dial on his phone and then paused mid-order to check what kind of salad she wanted, insisting that she have one when she indicated that she wasn’t interested.  Once the address was given, he ended the call and put his phone away.

“You want to know what it takes to be a successful journalist, all my tricks of the trade.  Taking care of yourself is key.  If you don't have good health, if you aren't absolutely on top of things, your body will give out more quickly when you're in the field.”  He paused and looked at her, “I'm assuming that you want to be flexible and do foreign reporting as well as domestic.”  He smiled at her vigorous nodding.  “That is another conversation we need to have soon, but not tonight.  For now, I'm going to give you the benefit of all my experience and we can sort out what will apply to your future goals later.  So far you have two major lessons, eat as healthy as opportunity permits and never open your door without knowing who is on the other side.  That isn't just a safety rule because you are a woman, many incautious journalists have opened doors to gun-toting terrorists or hostile police or military and found themselves in extremely dangerous situations that they could have avoided if they had been more careful.  If I ever catch you, even hear of you breaking that rule, the Board of Education will be meeting with you.  That is the level of importance I place on that, do you understand?”  She nodded.  “No, I want a verbal response on that.”

“Yes, sir, I understand.”

“Thank you.  Now this isn't polite to ask, but since we are going to be working closely together, I need to know.  Are you okay financially?  I'm concerned at how few groceries I found in your kitchen.”

She blushed and dropped her eyes.  “I'm okay.  I'm managing fine.  I've never been big on stocking a lot of food, I just kind of eat when it occurs to me.”

“That's going to change, Edith.  Part of eating healthy is regular, well-planned meals that are balanced with the food groups.  Catch as catch can eating should be reserved for when you are following a major story.  You have a job with a fairly routine schedule, yes I know that breaking news can get you called in at any time, but for the most part, you can pretty much know when you can plan mealtimes.  I'll be watching you on this, so follow through or you will find yourself getting spanked.  Please tell me immediately if anything I expect of you creates a hardship and we will work it out, before you have to write it down here.”  He patted the journal.  “Now give me a few to look this over and we'll talk.  In the kitchen there are some things that I wasn't sure about where they belonged.  I'd appreciate it if you would put them away, please.  I put them on the stovetop.  When you're finished come rejoin me.”

She nodded, went into the kitchen, and stood stunned at how much he had accomplished in such a short time.  She sighed as she looked at the things in the pile of items; many of them didn't have a place where they belonged and that was why they had been out on the counter.  She picked a random cupboard and shoved everything inside.  John looked up from her journal in time to see her action and made a mental note of how she handled indecision.

When their food arrived, John refused to let Edith pay anything, insisting that since he had come at dinner time it was appropriate for him to provide the meal.  He made sure that her journal was well away from the food and called her to come eat. 

“I know it's not the best conversation over dinner, but I'm conscious of the time and I know that you have a production meeting tomorrow morning, so let's talk a little about what you've written under your poor choices column.” 

Edith looked up from pushing her salad around as she tried to look like she was eating it and nodded warily.

“As I mentioned earlier when I peeked over your shoulder, I am very impressed with your formatting and tidy presentation.  Good job.  I found the things that I mentioned to you, like shouting across the dining room yesterday and checking before opening your door, so I am pleased that you are retaining what I'm teaching so far.  I am disappointed to see that you were thoughtless to some of the guests yesterday, but at least you have realized that your behavior was poor and you owned up to it.  That's the first step to changing those sorts of interactions, you are becoming sensitized to what is acceptable and I'll help you keep heading in the right direction.  So, I think you have done a good job here, but I am concerned about this last item that you listed.  Tell me why you have written down your decision to eat with the patrons rather than work in the kitchen.”

She flushed and refused to meet his eyes.  “I know that I was being selfish about avoiding work and trying to get around doing what you expected from me.”

He nodded.  “But I told you it was a good choice, that it would yield the most story possibilities.  If you think it was a poor choice, then you need to add ignoring your mentor’s opinion to this list.”

“You were being kind to me; you knew exactly what I was doing and you gave me a graceful out to justify my bad behavior.  At the time I didn’t know that I was going to have to write a story, so I didn’t know that I should be looking for options.”

“Edith, you have just made me very happy.  By recognizing that bit of social tactfulness, you have reassured me that you do know the subtle nuances of successfully interacting with people.  It’s there inside you.  I just need to strip away the things that you have allowed to overlay that.  I was hoping that having a granny who cared so much about appropriate language would mean that you had been taught properly.  I will help you re-order your priorities so that those early lessons come back to the forefront.  Put a star next to that one, or circle it or make it stand out in some way.  That is one I want you to remember.”

“So, I should add not listening to your opinion, too?”

“Nope.  You were on a higher level than I expected.  Good girl!”  His eyes were twinkling.  “In fact you can list that as your first good behavior.”

“What was good about it?”

“You saw my intent and acknowledged it for what it was; and you did it gracefully without making a big deal about it.”

“But I didn’t at the time,” she argued.  “I thought I had pulled one over on you.”

He chuckled and patted her hand.  “I am very glad that you are being so open and honest with me.  That should be your second thing on the good behavior list.  And to encourage you to continue in that vein, I am giving you a positive credit that you can use to take away a negative.”  At her look of confusion, he chuckled again, shaking his head.  “We both know that you have many spankings in your future; undoubtedly you are going to earn extras along the way.  Well, you just earned having one of those extras wiped clean from your slate.  We’ll call them gold stars so that we can refer to them without other people understanding exactly what they mean.”  He tapped the blank page designated for her good behaviors.  “Let that be a powerful motivation to be thorough in putting things down on this side; I will be delighted to award gold stars whenever you give me an opportunity.”

“You will?”

“Yes.  I believe in trying to maintain balance in all things, positive reinforcement as well as negative will be prominent in this mentorship.  We still have a couple more things to do tonight, so get going on this, please.”  He kissed her forehead as he stood up, ready to move away from the table.

 


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