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Book Excerpts

While her mother vacations in Hawaii, a child sent to visit her aunt finds herself alone on the Vegas streets

This excerpt from a short story collection by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers introduces a young girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances

Warren Hammond is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. “KOP Killer” won the 2012 Colorado Book Award in Mystery. His novel “Tides of Maritinia,” published in 2014, is a spy novel set in a science fictional world.

Angie Hodapp is the Director of Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency. She holds a BA in English and secondary education and an MA in English and communication development, and she is a graduate of the Denver Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. She and her husband, novelist Warren Hammond, live in an old carriage house in the heart of Denver.

The following is an excerpt from “False Faces: Twenty Stories About the Masks We Wear,” edited by Hammond and Hodapp.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist in Anthology/Collection

This excerpt from the short story, “Bernice’s Mom’s Honolulu Vacation” was written by Katherine Christensen.

Las Vegas, Nevada, 1966 

Bernice wriggled in the molded airport chair trying to touch her feet to the ground.

“What brings you to Vegas, anyway?” the stewardess asked. “Parents divorced?” 

“My Aunt Lu used to be a showgirl,” Bernice answered. 

“Everyone in Vegas used to be a showgirl.” The stewardess consulted her Timex and sighed. She eyed Bernice with a look that Bernice knew from experience would amount to no good.

“Sit here a minute, would you? Sit right here and don’t go anywhere. I promise I’ll be right back.” The stewardess walked down the row of slot machines, her navy-blue stewardess skirt swinging from side to side with each step. She walked right on out the exit door without looking back. 

After about an hour, Bernice eased off the seat and went to buy herself a nickel candy bar from the vending machine. When she came back, her suitcase was gone. Her mother would be furious, but Bernice didn’t mind. One less thing to worry about. She was glad she still had the coloring book the captain had given her. And she still had the folded piece of paper in her pocket, which held her mother’s phone number in Honolulu. Not that Bernice would dream of interrupting her mother’s vacation. “Don’t screw this up for me, Bernice,” her mother had said to her about ten times in the past week. “Just this once, I want to go somewhere nice and be treated like a queen. Is that too much to ask?”

Co-editor Angie Hodapp.

It was not uninteresting watching the people in the airport come and go. Bernice especially liked the Hare Krishnas with their bright colors and jewelry with bells that jingled when they danced. Bernice smiled at them but they ignored her.

Outside, a Ford Rambler scraped against the curb. Bernice knew this was Aunt Lu, even before she recognized her from the faded Polaroid her mom had shown her. 

Aunt Lu looked Bernice up and down. “You look nothing at all like Patricia.” 

People said Bernice’s mother was delicate, dainty, fragile. As it turned out, her mother was none of those things. Appearances, Bernice had learned, could lie.

Aunt Lu, on the other hand looked tall and vigorous for her age.

“Where’s your suitcase?” Aunt Lu asked.

“I’m so hungry I could eat a rhinoceros,” Bernice answered. 

Compared to Sacramento, Las Vegas was bright and dry and brown. Against every fence were tumbleweeds tangled with trash. 

Billboards lined the streets. Our Slots Are Generous. All You Can Eat Steak and Eggs. Girls, Girls, Girls.

“I’m saving the Strip for tonight when you can see its true colors,” Aunt Lu said. 

“It’s only for a week, Bernice,” her mother had said. “For your information, that does not make me the world’s worst mother in the Guinness Book of Records.” 

Aunt Lu lived in a beige house. In front of her picture window grew a palm tree so small and fat it looked more like a monster pineapple. A fancy woven chair sat on the cement front porch. Up close, the chair was covered over with spider webs and dried palm fronds. Underneath was a dented Pabst Blue Ribbon can. 

Inside the house, it was dark, and cool, and dusty. Aunt Lu mostly pointed to things. The hall, Cousin Grace’s old bedroom where Bernice was to sleep, the empty bureau drawer, the bathroom. 

Later that night, Aunt Lu drove Bernice slowly down the Strip, from one end to the other and back again, in her cream-colored Lincoln Continental, which she usually kept in the garage and only drove on special occasions. Bernice sat in the back seat on vinyl seat covers that made little pillow-shaped dents on the backs of her legs.

The people looked like they walked right out of the Sunday comics. Ladies in miniskirts and white patent-leather go-go boots. A long-haired boy with a guitar strapped around his chest. A woman in a shimmery evening dress, white satin gloves pulled up past her elbows. 

“False Faces: Twenty Stories About the Masks We Wear.”

Aunt Lu named each casino they drove by: Tropicana, Sahara, El Rancho, Hacienda, Thunderbird. The Fabulous Flamingo flashed its name in neon pink. A man in a uniform opened Bernice’s door. 

Inside the Flamingo, Bernice heard bells. Then she realized it was the sound of coins, loads and loads of them, clinking and jingling from the slot machines. The slot machines had rotating red and blue flashing lights and sirens just like police cars. The cigarette smoke was so thick it made Bernice’s eyes water. 

A pack of young women wound through the crowd serving cocktails on shiny trays. They wore men’s tuxedo coats, only without the pants, and their high heels were so high they walked on tiptoe. One of these tip-toeing ladies brought Bernice a pink drink that tasted like cotton candy. A pink parasol toothpick skewered two cherries floating in the glass. “Now you can be the most sophisticated young lady in the whole dang place,” the waitress said with a wink.

Bernice sat on the couch where it was all right for children to wait and played with her paper parasol. Closing it and opening it. Twirling it around. 

Bernice had just changed into one of Grace’s old nightgowns when Aunt Lu walked in wearing a leopard-print robe. She carried a shoebox in one hand, balanced her ashtray on top. 

“Found this in Grace’s things.” She handed the box to Bernice. 

Co-editor Warren Hammond.

Inside the shoebox lay a Barbie doll. Bernice thought her hair was the most sophisticated shade of yellow. She wore a full-length green evening gown and satiny white gloves above her elbows, like the woman on the Strip. Her shoes were real black satin with a single white plastic pearl above the toes. There were five other pairs of shoes, all the size of thumbtacks, plus a pink velvet coat, a pale pink dress with a feather fluff, a white fur muff, and silver boots. And four of the tiniest, most darling handbags Bernice had ever seen. The red one was exactly the size of Bernice’s pinky nail, and it had a flap that really opened and closed. 

Cousin Grace’s old room had a fuzzy yellow bedspread and a ruffled canopy. Bernice sank deep into the middle of the mattress, worried she’d suffocate if she sank any deeper. She put Barbie on the pillow next to her, and every time Bernice opened her eyes, Barbie was smiling. Bernice was old enough to know that Barbie was always smiling. But it was nice, just the same.

Aunt Lu was not up when Bernice woke the next morning. Bernice tiptoed past her closed door. On the mantel in the living room was a large black-and-white photo of Aunt Lu in her showgirl days. It was signed, To my fans. Love and Kisses, Lulu Belle. Her hair swooped upward in layers to a sparkly tiara. Feathers fanned out from behind her like a peacock tail. 

On the kitchen table sat an overflowing ashtray and an empty glass with a half an inch of caramel-brown liquor at the bottom. Bernice touched her tongue to the brown liquid. It tasted nasty, like smoke and pepper. 

Bernice went back into Grace’s room, changed back into her travelling clothes, and finished coloring in the coloring book. She looked out the window, saw a deep blue sky with gauzy white clouds like cigarette smoke.

Morning became lunchtime, and there was still no sign of Aunt Lu. Bernice made herself a peanut-butter sandwich on stale Wonder Bread. When she finished and put her dish in the sink, she walked right up to Aunt Lu’s room and put her ear against the door. Nothing. Not even snoring.

She knocked. No answer. She rattled the doorknob the way her mother always did. “Aunt Lu? Is everything OK? It’s me, Bernice.”

No answer. She tried the knob. The door was locked. What if Aunt Lu snuck out a window and left? What if she was sick? 

Bernice went into Aunt Lu’s kitchen and opened drawers. She found many interesting items, including an old-fashioned brass key the size of her palm. Even though she knew it wouldn’t work, she tried it in the door, but it was way too large. She went back to the kitchen and searched until she found a pair of hair-cutting scissors, which was what she usually used at her house, on her mother’s door. She fitted one pointy end into the little hole in the base of the doorknob. She wiggled it patiently until she heard it click.

A mirrored tray on the polished dresser, a silver-edged comb, a silver-handled brush. At first Bernice thought she just couldn’t see Aunt Lu in the tangle of sheets and quilt, but she looked closer, and the bed was empty. She took a step toward the closet. There was Aunt Lu, on the floor between the bed and the closet. A small pile of bony limbs and a leopard-patterned negligee. 

Bernice felt this thing in her head, like a giant hand, pressing down. She pretended her heart was not pounding, pretended her stomach was not squirming like worms. She tiptoed backwards out of Aunt Lu’s bedroom and closed the door, locking it again, as if she’d never entered. She walked backwards all the way to Grace’s room and sat back down on the bed. In front of her on the dresser was the shoebox with the Barbie.

Bernice grabbed the shoebox and headed out the front door. 

— Buy “False Faces: Twenty Stories About the Masks We Wear” at BookBar.
— Interview with “False Faces” editors Warren Hammond and Angie Hodapp.