Split Personality: The Heroine

3inOneBoy, looking back at old manuscripts written twenty to thirty years ago—some close to forty, even—sure does make a person see how much they’ve changed over the years. I was into the wounded male hero back then, for one thing, who only needed the love of a good woman to make him shine.

I also apparently bought into the weak helpless female mindset, as well. The heroine as written in the original Eyes at the Window (variously titled back then with both The Country Quiet and The Watchful Stranger—horrible titles) is really not that likable to me when I read her today.

She quivers and whimpers and is easily intimidated. She lets a handsome stranger walk right up and into her house and life and doesn’t act on the few suspicions she has about his intentions. She refrains from pushing back when her bully of an uncle/neighbor insults her and tries to make her feel small. She feels small, in fact, so lets the world screw her over.

When reconstructing the story from memory, I kind of knew that’s how she came across back then, so I toughened her up quite a bit, made her stubborn and independent, but because I was writing a cozy version of the story, I also had to keep her polite, clean minded, and yes, even a little bit helpless at times.

But not this version. In this book I want to transform Miranda into Sarah, bad ass bitch who takes shit from no one. Sure she’s battling demons—an abusive past, doubts her mother spent years instilling in her—but she takes those demons by the throat and screams at them. They may win a battle or two, but she’s not about to let them win the war.

I think you’ll see a big difference in the three versions below.

ORIGINAL
Sarah shifted her weight uneasily as he walked up. She had anticipated this moment, but she was still not prepared for it. When Mathias stopped at the edge of the porch, she stepped out to greet him.“Good morning, Uncle.”

Mathias seemed huge to her, not all that tall, but broad shouldered and husky, with the hint of a spare tire almost hidden beneath his bulky coat. His eyebrows were as thick and dark as she remembered, but his hair was now peppered with gray and looked scanty at the crown.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” he bellowed at her.

Sarah did not answer. She knew a rhetorical question when she heard it. Her mother used to ask them all the time.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to stay in the country?” he continued. “You could have come to my house.”

Sarah did not have an answer for that, even though the excuse that came out of her mouth was not the real one. “I didn’t want to bother you.”

“Bother me? What could bother me more than learning my only niece is living all by herself in this run down dump?”

Sarah hung her head and bit down hard on her bottom lip, a habit so ingrained in her that she didn’t even feel the slight pain. She remained in that humble position while her uncle ranted and raved, but his words couldn’t penetrate the mental barrier she had erected.

“It’s my house,” she offered timidly when he paused for breath.

This brought a further explosion of sound and Sarah wanted to sink into the ground. Paddy, behind her, growled low in his throat at the strange, loud man. The sound strengthened Sarah’s resolve. Assert yourself, Dr. Roberts had told her.

With the assurance that her stout canine friend had her back, Sarah straightened up and lifted her chin. She kept her eyes on the wisps of gray hairs at his temple as she spoke.

“Did you have anything important to say to me, Uncle Mathias? I was just about ready to leave for town when you pulled up. There are a few things I have to pick up.”

He looked appalled. By the time he regained his composure, he had apparently decided to change tactics.

“Sarah, I’m sorry if I’m acting like an old woman. It’s just that I worry about you, out here all by yourself.”

“I know you do, but you really don’t need to. I can take care of myself.” She still couldn’t look him in the eye, and did her best to ignore the skepticism of her mother’s voice at the back of her mind. “Besides, I’ve got Paddy here with me. She won’t let anything happen to me.”

“Yes.” Mathias’s tone was dryly disgusted. “I see you still have a way with dogs.”

“They just know I won’t hurt them, that’s all.”

“But, baby.” Sarah cringed as her uncle called her by the pet name used by her mother. “There’s some things even a good watch dog can’t save you from. You know what I mean, don’t you?”

Sarah stiffened, prepared for his next words. For distraction, she looked toward the barn and her attention was riveted on the upper window. There was something there, watching. She was sure of it. Probably just a barn owl but she could see the shape of a face with eyes staring their way.

Mathis Payne was not to be distracted. “You haven’t been well lately, Sarah. I don’t think that being all alone is good for you. What happens if you begin to sink into depression again with no one around to help you? You had a nervous breakdown after your mother’s death, for Pete’s sake. Surely you don’t want to chance that again?”

“I’m all right,” Sarah answered stiffly.

“Does Dr. Roberts know you’re out here?”

“Yes.” She hoped he didn’t notice her flinch at the lie.

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Well, I can’t help that.”

“And even if he did say that, he’s a fool. You should have more than one doctor’s opinion on a move as big as this one. Or, better still, I’d better see Dr. Roberts myself. He can’t realize how completely isolated this farm is.”

“Do what you want, but it won’t make any difference. I’m staying here.”

“Sarah—”

“I’m busy, Uncle.” Sarah rubbed her palms on her jeans and licked dry lips.

The man was silent for a moment, though his face worked busily. Finally, he said, grudgingly, “Very well, Sarah. If nothing I can say will make you change your mind.” He took a deep breath. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though. All sorts of things can happen to a girl all alone out here.” He narrowed his eyes, leaning toward her slightly.

“You can’t scare me that easily.”

“Just don’t blame me for saying I told you say when something goes wrong.”

“You won’t be saying it.”

“I hope you’re right. Well, let me take you into town, at least, to get your shopping done.”

“I’d rather drive myself.”

“Nonsense,” he snapped. “You shouldn’t be driving yourself anywhere. You know you’re not completely responsible. And aren’t you still on some sort of medication?”

The reminder deflated her. Her shoulders slumped and she heard herself saying meekly, “I’ll get my list.”

REMEMBERED

“Hello?” The greeting came from outside. Unexpected and loud, it made Miranda jump. She pulled her handgun out and clicked off the safety. Rufus ran toward the sound, barking. Miranda followed, calling his name and holding the weapon in both hands pointed toward the floor in front of her. She heard a car door slam.

There was no need to be afraid of her visitors, however. Far from it. As she stepped onto the porch, she saw her “vicious” watchdog Rufus prancing gleefully around the man and woman who stood outside. Hopping up on his hind legs, his nose twitched in anticipation at the covered dish the woman held.

“Rufus, down,” Miranda scolded, holstering the gun once again. “Come here.” The dog reluctantly obeyed.

“I knew a plumber named Rufus once,” said the woman who was holding the casserole. She had just stepped out of the passenger side of a midnight blue Mercedes. Her plumb cheeks were red-veined and her smile cheerful. She wore a bright teal full-length coat and had a black handbag hanging from her arm. “His back end always hung out of his pants when he leaned over, poor man.”

“Sissy,” reprimanded the man with her. He stood on the driver’s side, twirling a key ring in his short, stubby fingers. “What will Miss Preston think, talking like that?”

“I’m sorry,” Miranda said. “Do I know you?” She’d never seen either speaker before that she remembered.

“I’m Harlan Hunter.” He pocketed his keys and stepped forward with one hand outstretched. Miranda couldn’t help noticing his disapproving frown as he glanced toward her handgun. “We spoke on the phone.” His hair needed combing and his eyes seemed to study her intently. His handshake was firm and lingered longer than Miranda expected.

Harlan Hunter was her nearest neighbor. He had been hired by her grandmother’s attorney as caretaker for the property until Miranda decided what she planned to do with it. They had spoken only twice, the last time just a week before when she’d asked him to make arrangements for her arrival.

“Mr. Hunter,” Miranda said rather coldly, stepping back after he let go of her hand.

“Are you coming to find out why the house isn’t ready for me?”

“Not ready?” he asked. “What do you mean? My housekeeper and I just dropped by to present you with a welcome basket to tide you over. This is Sissy Morris.” He swept one arm toward the older woman who joined them at the porch steps. “We live on my farm just to the south of here.”

“Oh dear, is something wrong?” Sissy’s eyes had smile wrinkles in the corners, but now her brow was layered with concern. “I’d have come over yesterday to see if I could make it more presentable, but I always visit my sister on Sundays. We do sort of a sleepover every Sunday night. Reminds us of when we were kids, watching old movies, eating ice cream and staying up late.” She sighed, but with a smile of contentment. “As soon as I got back this morning I had Harlan help me put a care package together and insisted we drive over right away. What’s wrong, dear? I know the place must be a mess.”

“Yes, that’s true, but I wasn’t expecting help with that,” Miranda said. “It’s just that there’s no electricity and the furnace doesn’t seem to be working either.” She gave Harlan an accusing look.

“I believe you were planning to take care of the electric company, Miss Preston.” The way Harlan said it made Miranda flush. “And the repair man was out here two days ago. He told me the furnace was in as good a shape as could be expected, given its age. The propane should have been delivered yesterday.”

“It’s Ms. Preston, Mr. Hunter,” Miranda said, trying to get her equilibrium back. It was true that she had been the one to call the power company, but she was sure she remembered that Harlan had agreed that he would visit the house to make sure all was in order before she got there. She sighed, relenting. “But you should call me Miranda.” These were the first people she’d met and her nearest neighbors. It didn’t make sense to cause friction over something that was probably an oversight and easily fixed.
<cont. later>
Harlan dusted sawdust off his hands and rose to his feet. “If you have a flashlight, I can go take a look at the furnace to see if there is a problem.”

Miranda’s earlier resentment dissolved immediately. “Oh, thank you!” She was grateful for any reason not to have to go down into the dark cellar herself to check. She handed him the flashlight.

<cont. later>
Harlan came back upstairs just as they finished. “Furnace seems fine to me,” he said. “Pilot light’s lit and everything.” Walking to the ancient stove, he found a box of matches on a shelf and turned on one of the controls. Holding the match flame close to the cast iron burner, he waited until the gas caught fire then shook the match out and turned the stove off again.

“Propane is working, too, looks like.” He gave Miranda a look that said more than just words. “I suspect the only reason the thermostat didn’t do anything is because the blower requires electricity to run.”

Of course! Miranda grew warm as her cheeks flushed red again. She hadn’t thought about that, and hadn’t realized the stove was old enough to need manual lighting. She thanked them profusely for both the help and the food, following them back to their car as they prepared to depart.

“Don’t you worry any,” Sissy said, leaning to give Miranda a hug before getting in the car. “You call us if you need any little old thing, you hear? If Harlan or I can’t come over right away, one of us will send Bob.”

That reminded Miranda about the lack of cell phone reception, but she didn’t want to mention it. Harlan already thought she was completely helpless, probably. She’d figure it out herself later.

“I will. Thank you for coming. And thank you again for the casserole. I’m sure it will be delicious.”

“You’re welcome, though it wasn’t all my doing. Harlan already had the sauce going when I got home, using my recipe. That man was so tickled to have a new neighbor he just about cooked the whole thing himself. Didn’t you, Harlan?”

Harlan patted Sissy’s arm agreeably and closed the passenger door. Then he and Miranda walked around to the driver’s side. Before getting in, however, he turned to her with a serious expression. “You know,” he said, “I understand you’re wanting to come out and see the old place. I’m sure it holds many fond memories for you. But it’s obvious you don’t feel entirely safe here.” He motioned to the .38 in its holster. She’d had it on all morning and halfway forgotten it was there.

“Don’t you know that carrying a gun around like that is more likely to get you killed than keep you safe?” he asked. She half expected him to shake a scolding finger at her, but all he did was narrow his eyes in disapproval. “Besides, a little girl like you doesn’t want to be shackled with a white elephant like this. I didn’t want to say anything on the phone, but now that we’re face to face, I would like to offer to take the place off your hands.”

“Take it off my hands?” Miranda asked.

“Buy the place. You know. I can offer a very generous settlement, I can assure you. Very generous.” He leaned toward her and grinned patronizingly. “I guarantee you could buy a great condo back in Chicago with the proceeds, and even have enough left over to get you a cute little car to replace that old junker you got there.” He pointed to her rusted Chevy.

Harlan had a way of pushing her buttons she didn’t quite understand. One minute she felt grateful for his help and the next she felt like he was insulting her. Remembering how wrong she’d been about the propane and furnace, Miranda took a deep breath and counted to five before forcing herself to smile and saying, “I’m not interested in selling, Harlan. Not now. Not for a long time, if ever. But thank you for your help today and while the attorney sorted things out with the probate.”

She thought he was going to argue with her. His frown certainly made it clear he was displeased, and she saw his hand tighten on the car door he had just opened. But all he did was mumble, “We’ll see, missy, we’ll see,” then got in the car and backed up to drive away.

REVISED

Sarah folded her arms and stood with feet planted firmly on the porch as Mathias walked up. She knew her stance made the holster and gun she wore clearly visible. She’d been preparing for this moment since she’d made the decision to come. That didn’t keep the nervous tic in the side of her neck from twitching, but he would find out she was no longer the compliant, bullied little girl she’d been when he’d last seen her.

“Good morning, Uncle.”
As a child, Mathias had seemed huge to her. With her adults eyes, however, she could see that he wasn’t really that tall, just broad shouldered and husky. He even had the hint of a spare tire hidden beneath his bulky coat. His eyebrows were still thick and dark, but his hair was peppered with gray and scanty at the crown.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he bellowed at her.

Sarah knew a rhetorical question when she heard it. Her mother used to ask them all the time.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to stay in the country?” he continued.

“You could have come to my house.”

“Why should I bother you when I have a house of my own to live in?”

“Bother me? What could bother me more than learning my only niece is living all by herself in this run down dump?”

Sarah’s heart thumped as he continued to rant and rave about the dangers of living alone, about the hazards found in old houses. She didn’t move an inch, however, and when he paused for breath, all she said in response was, “It’s my house.”

This brought a further explosion from him. Paddy’s growl beside her added weight to Sarah’s resolve. Assert yourself, Dr. Roberts had told her. Sarah lifted her chin, her eyes on the wisps of gray hairs at his temple.

“I don’t have time for this, Uncle,” she interrupted him. “I’ve got a few things to do in town to get the place cleaned up.”

He looked appalled. By the time he regained his composure, he had apparently decided to change tactics.

“Sarah, I’m sorry if I’m acting like an old woman. It’s just that I worry about you, out here all by yourself.”

“I can take care of myself.” She could, damn it. She would. And even if she screwed it up, it was better than living with this asshole. “Paddy and I have things under control.” She reached down to give Paddy an appreciative pat. The dog looked up with adoring eyes.

“Yes.” Mathias sounded disgusted. “I see you still have a way with dogs.”
“They just know I won’t hurt them, that’s all.”

For a moment she thought she had him stumped. He seemed speechless. Then she noticed the half smile and condescension in his eyes. He titled his head and said in a fake, tender voice,

“But, baby.” Sarah involuntarily closed her eyes as he used the pet name her mother had used so often. “There’s some things even a good watch dog can’t save you from. You know what I mean, don’t you?”

Sarah stiffened, prepared for his next words. For distraction, she looked toward the barn and her attention was riveted on the upper window. There was something there, watching. She was sure of it. Probably just a barn owl but she could see the shape of a face with eyes staring their way.

Mathis Payne was not to be distracted. “You haven’t been well lately, Sarah. What happens if you sink into a depression again? You spent months in that—” He have one hand vaguely as if he couldn’t bring himself to say mental hospital. “—place after your mother’s death. Surely you don’t want to chance that again?”

If he thought the reminder would break her, he was wrong. All it did was piss her off. “I don’t have time to listen to this crap.” Turning, she stepped back toward the house, but his next words arrested her.

“Does Dr. Roberts know you’re here?”

How did he know who her doctor was? She certainly hadn’t told him. She hadn’t started seeing Roberts until after her mother’s death. Who else could have mentioned it? She looked over her shoulder at him. “Yes.”

“I find that hard to believe. And if he did, then he’s a fool. Maybe I should talk to him myself. He can’t realize how completely isolated this farm is.”

She turned fully around them, her shoulders tight, jaw aching. “If my psychiatrist says one word to you about my treatment or my situation, I will drop him like a hot potato and the next time you try to darken my doorway, you’ll like a loaded .45 automatic trained on the center of your forehead. Got that?” His mouth had dropped open. Satisfaction surged through her. “Good. And goodbye, Uncle.”

She and Paddy walked into the kitchen and shut the door. He couldn’t know that her legs were shaking as she did so, or that once inside she leaned against the closed door afraid her weak knees would give way. Triumph and terror trembled through her in equal proportions.

She had done it. The ties were cut. She was really on her own now. Only time would tell if she’d end up drowning thanks to burning that bridge or if she would thrive in the new territory she’d forged for herself.

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