BY: BRENDA STANLEY
When aggressive television network news producer, Elle McCord, is assigned to Iraq at the beginning of the Gulf War, she feels her career is beginning to take off. But when her mother informs her that her elderly and ill aunt is about to give away the family farm to a mysterious stranger, Elle takes a detour to try and stop the man who is at the heart of it all.
On the rural Pennsylvania farm, Elle’s horrific childhood memories surface, and what she learns about the mysterious stranger who is swindling her aunt is nothing like what she expected.
Elle finally leaves for Iraq, but when she arrives, she meets Faiza, her translator, who teaches her about the sacrifices of family and love and what home really means.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Like Ravens in Winter by Brenda Stanley, Elle McCord is a reporter assigned to Iraq at the beginning of Desert Storm. She is excited about the assignment until her mother calls her and tells her that her eccentric aunt is about to give away the family farm to a gold-digger. Heading for the farm, Elle is determined to stop the man taking advantage of her aunt, but what she finds there is not at all what she expected. And when she goes to Iraq to cover the war, she finds surprises waiting for her there as well.
Incredibly moving, intense, and at times chilling, this is more than just a love story. It is the story of love, loss, and unexpected friendships when you are not sure who you can trust. A really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Like Ravens in Winter by Brenda Stanley is the story of Elle McCord. Elle is a news producer for a Washington, DC, news bureau, and she has been assigned to cover the Gulf War in Iraq. But before she can leave Washington, she gets a frantic call from her mother. It seems Elle’s elderly aunt Kate is smitten with a younger man and about to give away the family farm in rural Pennsylvania. Elle reluctantly heads for the farm to assess the situation, but the man “scamming” her aunt is very different than Elle’s preconceived ideas and she begins to wonder if he is really as bad as her mother seems to think. Elle’s preconceived notions are called into question again when she arrives in Iraq and meets Faiza, the Iraqi translator who shows Elle what true sacrifice for those you love is all about.
Well written, poignant, and thought provoking, Like Ravens in Winter is a story you won’t soon forget. I found it very hard to put down.
There were few sad situations in life that compared to a grown daughter who hated going home. For Elle McCord, it was a yearly challenge, and a creative drain that began the night after New Year’s Eve and lasted until the night before Christmas the following year. This year was especially taxing. Maybe it was the stress of the recent police action breaking out in the Persian Gulf, or maybe she had just burned out.
“Two minutes to air!” the director yelled, as the studio lights burned down upon the set. It was early September in Washington, DC, and the muggy summer of 1990 was slowly coming to an end. Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, had invaded Kuwait just a week before and the tension was building, as the United Nations demanded his withdrawal.
Elle knew that the possibility of a war in the prime of her career was a dream come true. She had covered murders, political fraud, and scandals by the dozens, but nothing compared to the emotional and sensational impact of a war, except maybe the assassination of a president. A war would give her that rush she needed. It was the reason she went into news. It was what made her life full and exciting. For ten years she had covered everything from extreme horror, to terrible sadness, to incredible love, and when it was over, she flew back home to her apartment and moved on to the next story.
Elle had just returned from a short trip to North Carolina, where a large number of troops headed to the Persian Gulf. It was a quick but productive trip that only piqued her interest in the impending hostilities overseas. She sat winding the telephone cord around her finger and tried to bring her conversation back to a quieter tone.
“Mother, I can’t make it this Christmas, because I’ve got too much to do with the stuff breaking out in the Gulf.”
Going to her mother’s home in San Diego was smothering and usually humiliating. Elle had left home after high school and over the last decade hadn’t spent more than a week each year with her mother. When she did visit, she ended up leaving after just a few days and wondering why she had ever agreed to go in the first place. Did she really think her mother would stop goading her about her weight, her inability to apply eyeliner, or her lack of a husband? Not since junior high did Elle remember a conversation with her mother that didn’t focus on her falling short of her mother’s ideals.
During the last couple years, she hadn’t made the trip at all. It gave her a twinge of guilt knowing she was all her mother had left, but she had become an expert in rationalization. The weekly phone calls were enough to keep her from feeling guilty enough to succumb.
Elle was an only child. But that wasn’t always the case. When she was young, her sister Suzanne was killed on the family farm. It was a tragedy that hit the family so hard and unexpectedly that her father left the farm too. Elle didn’t know if it was the pressure or overwhelming sadness that made him leave. She was so young herself at the time, all she knew was she lost both a sister and a father in the same blow.
Now as she was nearly thirty, she still felt pressure each fall when her mother asked what her plans were for the holidays. Elle loved her mother, but disliked being around her. She loved the sound of Rose’s voice, as long as it came from the other end of a phone line. Her weekly phone calls home were like clockwork and seemed to satisfy both women. But being in her mother’s presence was a different story.
Ted Malone took his seat at the desk. Elle admired his calm style and never tired of watching him adjust his coat and prepare to greet the masses. Holly Rand followed like a royal servant, making last minute touch-ups on his hair and make-up. She winked at Elle and made a chatty motion with her hand, knowing Rose was on the other end of the line.
“Are you going to wave at me, honey?” Rose asked during mid-gripe.
“Mother, I’ve told you for years, I can’t wave at you.”
“Then do that hair flip thing. Come on. It’s the only chance I ever get to see you.” This really meant, “If you did something with your hair and makeup, maybe you’d be in front of the camera instead of behind it.” No matter how many awards Elle won for her writing, in Rose’s eyes, it was still a step below being the one who was on TV.
As the opening music for “Nightline” boomed through the studio, Elle leaned back and stroked a piece of hair behind her ear.
Rose giggled with delight, knowing the blurred figure at the desk behind Mr. Malone was her daughter “waving” at her. “Hi, honey!” she yelled into the receiver.
“Hi, Mom,” Elle mumbled, playing along.
“Is that the sweater I sent you?”
“Yes,” Elle replied, actually pleased at the sappiness of it. But she clicked her nails nervously, wanting to end the conversation before it turned into the usual argument about Elle’s lack of consideration and attention paid to her mother.
“Elle, I need you to do me a favor.”
Elle continued to click as she waited to hear the request.
“Your Aunt Kate isn’t doing too well. I need you to visit her.”
Elle sat up straight as if she didn’t quite hear Rose correctly. “Aunt Kate. Visit. I barely remember her. Why?”
“Because she’s family.”
“But I don’t even know her.”
“Sure you do. You called her Auntie K.K.”
Elle put her hand over her eyes, frustrated at her lack of memory. “Mom, that was over two decades ago.”
“I showed you pictures. She was holding you, remember?” Rose continued to ramble on. “My second cousin Dodie’s daughter called. She says Kate is trying to change her will. She’s giving the land to…well, to someone else. It’s horrible.”
“What land?” asked Elle, trying to type and listen at the same time.
“Your Grandpa Elmer’s farm, it’s been in our family for years. Kate’s been living there, but now I hear she’s trying to give it away.”
“So what’s the big deal? You don’t have any need for it.”
Rose paused and cleared her throat. “But it’s worth some money and she’s giving it to a…younger man.”
Elle couldn’t help but let a small burst of laughter erupt quietly into the receiver. “Like how much younger? For someone who’s Aunt Kate’s age, younger doesn’t mean young. I think you’re jealous.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not what you think and it’s not funny, Elle. She’s giving away everything Daddy worked for to some gold digging kid.”
Elle enjoyed the comical aspects of her mother’s predicament. “So what do you expect me to do?”
“Harrisburg is only two hours from Washington. You can do it this weekend.”
“That’s tomorrow. I can’t just up and go to Pennsylvania tomorrow.”
“Why not? You aren’t dating Kevin Marcus anymore, and you need to get away from work once in a while, besides the family is counting on you.”
“For years you’ve been talking about how you have no family. Now all of a sudden we have family and they’re counting on me.”
Rose paused, trying to pick her words. “They wouldn’t have called me if it wasn’t urgent. They know that you’re an investigative reporter and will be able to get to the bottom of all this.”
“Mother, I’m a field producer. Get to the bottom of what? What did you tell them?”
“Elle, your relatives are simple people. Most haven’t even finished high school. They want someone to come and talk to Kate and find out if she really knows what she’s doing. They think she may be a little…demented.”
“So why don’t they talk to her?”
“They can’t just talk to her.”
“Why? You call her. She’s your sister.”
“You don’t understand, Elle. Kate’s…well, different. We were never close. She’s been causing trouble like this ever since…” Rose hesitated. “She’s stubborn and, well, I couldn’t stand being around all of it.”
“You’ve always said you left Pennsylvania because you hated living on a farm,” Elle said, annoyed.
“I did. I couldn’t stand Pennsylvania. I hated living in the middle of nowhere. I wanted a career. That’s why I moved to California.”
Elle pondered what Rose had gained from moving to LA. Five husbands later, she was a condo-dwelling divorcee, with a dozen vain friends, whose only joy in life was outdoing each other with stories about their exes.
“The family in Pennsylvania is very reserved. They don’t talk about anything that could cause a conflict. They know that, with you being from the big city, it’s okay for you to be more…”
“What, nosey?” Elle interrupted.
“You don’t understand, Elle. They are horrified by the thought of Kate and this guy. They don’t want to see the land go to someone other than family.”
“But I thought you said there wasn’t any other family alive but Kate.”
“Then who are all these people you keep calling family?”
“They are mostly distant cousins from your grandpa’s sisters.”
“So, you want the land so you can just sell it.”
“Well, it is a lot of money…about two million, but it’s not just the money. Dodie’s daughter Cynthia and her husband Jonathan want to expand their restaurant there. Your grandpa used to raise chickens, and they want to build a little diner that serves chicken, that way it can stay in the family.”
“You’re going to sell it to this Dodie person. Is she the closest relative to Kate, besides us?”
“Yes, she is the granddaughter of your grandpa’s sister. They will be so excited to see you.”
“I didn’t agree to do this, and I still don’t understand what you want from me. What makes you think she’ll even speak to me? You certainly don’t think that I’ll be able to change her mind about the will.”
“No, but maybe if this guy sees that the family is checking things out, he’ll back off. If he doesn’t, then we can do something, maybe through an attorney. She has no one to protect her, and I’m so far out here.”
“How long ago did grandpa die?”
“It’s been over twenty years now.”
“And you’ve never been back?”
“Well,” Elle said smiling to herself. “This ought to be interesting. I guess I need to go check out the hunk who has my aunt all a-quiver.”
“Don’t talk like that. The cousins have planned a brunch for you at Cynthia’s house. She’ll call you tonight with directions.”
“Figuring I’ve never had any cousins, this ought to be interesting. I hope you know I will have completely done my ‘duty to family’ thing for a lifetime with this one.”
Rose scoffed. “You always make it seem like work when it comes to helping me. You should want to help your family.”
Elle held her tongue at the hypocrisy of her mother, and began to contemplate her visit with the cousins.
Holly picked through Elle’s clothes. “So you’ve never met any of these people before?”
Elle threw toiletries and shoes into a bag. “We left when I was about eight. I remember some things, but not much. I know I’ve never had a desire to go back,”
Holly pulled out a pair of shoes with thin heels. “You’re going to the country. You need jeans and boots. You act as though you’re trying to impress the hayseeds.”
Elle smiled and slicked her blonde hair back into a tight ponytail. “I’m not trying to impress anyone, but I’m not planning on plodding around in a barn. It’s a lunch.”
“So, do you know anything about these people? Imagine you, the queen of Type A related to a bunch of farmers. They’re probably nervous about meeting their big city cousin.”
Elle shrugged. “I’ve barely had any family and don’t know how to act when we meet. Do I act as though we’re old friends? Mom says they are conservative. What if I offend them?”
Holly laughed and propped herself up at Elle’s vanity and began to experiment with a new shade of lipstick. “Trust me, you’ll offend them, but they’ll all say, ‘She’s from the city.’ And then everyone will nod and their ideas about us urbanites will be confirmed and everyone will go home happy. You’ll come back to work on Monday with great stories about how warm and endearing they all are, and that will be the end of it.”
“You’re probably right,” Elle said, clicking her perfectly sculptured nails.
Holly grabbed a sweater. “Wear the red. It screams out bold and sassy. Oh, and don’t forget the World Network News jacket. I have to wear mine to all the relative things. You’ll make Rose proud.”
“So have you talked to Kevin Marcus lately?” Holly asked cautiously.
Elle nodded. “He’s in Baltimore for a couple weeks. He called one night after having a little too much to drink. He probably regrets it now.”
“Regrets the call or the break up?”
“Who cares? I don’t need the angst.”
Holly shrugged. “I still can’t believe you don’t want him. He’s a rich, handsome attorney—”
“He is also a slacker. I swear if he makes partner, it will be a miracle. The guy has no drive. I don’t want to end up like my mother, divorced and alone.”
“So you’d rather always be alone?” Holly asked.
“No. I just refuse to jump into something.”
“You dated Kevin for two years.”
Elle looked into the mirror. She studied her thin, tired face. “And for two years I had to change my schedules, act like I was happy when I wasn’t, and walk on eggshells, like a wimpy female.”
“But you are—” Holly began to say.
“I know, I’m female. You know what I mean,” Elle said.
Holly walked to the door. “Do you want me to take care of your cat while you’re gone?”
Elle shrugged. “Take him. I’m not sure he even knows I’m his owner. You have him more than I do.”
Holly scoffed. “You can’t just give away your pet.”
“I don’t think he’ll mind or even notice. It’s not like he gets much out of this relationship.” Elle looked down at the black and white cat who licked its leg unconcerned about being the topic of conversation. “What do I have to offer? I don’t think he’s too worried about losing me.”
Holly reached down to pick up the cat.
Elle put a hand out, stopping her. “I’ll drop him off tomorrow, okay?”
Holly shrugged and left the two alone in the empty apartment.
As the door closed behind Holly, Elle took a seat on the floor. She felt herself turning weak. It may have been two decades ago, but Elle remembered more about the Pennsylvania farm than she had ever told anyone. Much of it was a hazy fog and quick flashes of sights and people, but what she still saw clearly was a foreboding presence that lived on that farm. It was worse than any horror show monster, with bulging eyes, a sickly bluish face, and in her visions it was always swooping down on her.
She had never let that image fade. The guilt stabbed through her as though she were standing in a field and watching the monster take the life of the only sister she had. She remembered the crying and chaos that followed. Elle put her hands out in front of her and opened them. She traced the oddly shaped and palpable scars that covered her palms. She hated shaking hands. As she sat alone, she remembered the desperation she felt and the sadness that was still so strong in her. Sometimes, it hit her so hard she was unable to function.
She swallowed hard and wondered if she had done the right thing in agreeing to go to the farm. She turned and kneeled toward her cat. “Here, Kitty,” she called in a sweet high-pitched tone. The cat looked up. “Here, Kitty,” she tried again. “Please,” she whispered. As though feeling her pain, he cocked his head and stretched. He slowly climbed into her lap and cuddled up.
© 2011 by Brenda Stanley
“Unexpected twists and one really creepy turn.” ~ Debbie Worten, KUTV
“Expertly told story about this crazy news business is a story about us all.” ~ Alex Cabrero, KSL TV
“Riveting! A real page turner!” ~ Tracie Potts, NBC News
“From Washington, DC, to the streets of Baghdad, to a Pennsylvania farm, a story-driven journalist discovers herself crossing personal and professional boundaries—boundaries she thought she had buried with her nightmare-causing past. What a ride!” ~ Todd Blackinton, KPVI TV, Idaho
“Hooked from the very sentence! I was fascinated with the dichotomy with Elle’s life; her drive to find the real story juxtaposed with discovering her own ‘real’ story. I not only related to Elle as a journalist, but as a woman. This is a fantastic book club book. Everyone should grab a glass of ‘chilled’ red wine and read it.” ~ Mary Sturgill, KBMT TV, Texas