throwing stones — chapter one

Fuck. What the fuck had happened?

Ron tried to catch her breath, but there was so much dust in the air that she started coughing violently. Her chest hurt, and when she managed to stop coughing she threw up a little. It tasted like she had swallowed an ashtray. She waited until the coughing stopped, then she drew in a deep breath. She could breathe, at least, though she could barely move.

She'd read that in a book once, that you take a deep breath when you've been hurt, to see if your ribs are okay. Checking further, she found that her right arm was fine, but her left arm was numb and didn't move. Her legs seemed to be pinned under something.

She had an urge to scream for her father, but she used her good arm to punch herself in the shoulder. She could deal with this. She looked around, but she couldn't really see anything. She was lying down and she seemed to be in some sort of tunnel. No, it was... she reached across her body to feel the rough wood on her left. She nearly gave herself a splinter, but she thought she knew what it was. It was the huge wooden piling that blocked the bridge between the city and U-town. She sat on it every morning, waiting for the mail delivery, so she damn well should know what it was. She was lying on the road surface, which was gritty and also familiar. She reached up and felt the dark surface above her.

It was wood, but not like the barricade. This felt like planks. She pushed, but it didn't budge. She tried to move her left arm, so she could push with that as well, but she couldn't get it to budge. She felt tears welling up, but she punched herself again. There was just enough room for that.

Her father would come and find her. He knew where she was, and he would lift this thing off her, and she was not going to let him see her crying like a little baby...

Which was when she remembered that both of her parents were out of town. She tried to squirm her way up, but moving made her left ankle hurt so bad that she yelled, "motherfucking shit!"

She stopped trying to move and she yelled for help. If you yell loudly, because you really need help, not screaming like a girl and not crying, then it's okay.

Ron's father Marshall walked her to school almost every day. He didn't have to, of course, but they both enjoyed it. He was the assistant to Jan Sleet, the famous reporter and amateur detective. Jan and Marshall had adopted Ron, who had run away from her real parents months earlier (her "birth parents," as Marshall always called them). Ron had been twelve then, and she was now thirteen.

Sometimes Ron and Marshall talked while they walked, sometimes not. They enjoyed it either way. Today, he was talking about the book report she had written the night before, reminding her to bring it to her history teacher during the afternoon.

School was okay. They had just changed her schedule again, so now her history class was in the mornings. Ron didn't go to school on the mornings, because she needed to deliver the mail, so now she was excused from History and she had Civics instead. Marshall had made it clear that, even though she was no longer in Mr. Tremayne's History class, she still had to turn in this one final paper.

She had been to one Civics class so far, and it had been weird. It was also about history, but different history than the History class. It was all about the history of U-town itself and how it functioned. So, it was about the people who had founded U-town, and Vicki who ran it, and it was weird to have a class about people who she delivered mail to every day, especially when two of them were her parents.

After Civics, she had Gym. They were learning basketball, which Ron really enjoyed, though she hated changing in the locker room. Ron hated the locker room. Even the smell of it made her feel like throwing up. She hated to take off her clothes except when she was alone and the door was locked. And the shower, which she never used, was worse. How could you shower with other people?

When Gym was over and she was changed back to her regular clothes, she went to the school mail room and slipped her report into the slot for Mr. Tremayne. She preferred that to seeing him.

Mr. Tremayne had got the idea somehow that Ron's postal responsibilities were unfair and that she should be free to go to school full time. This was completely wrong, and Ron was tired of trying to convince him. He thought it was something her parents were forcing on her because it was good for them, and, like some of her other teachers, he didn't listen when she told him he was wrong.

And she knew there would be trouble at home if she kicked one of her teachers.

"Hello, Hazel," someone said behind her. She turned and saw Sharon Golden.

"Hi," Ron said.

Sharon took an envelope from her book bag and slipped it into one of the mail slots. "I'm taking Dr. Alexander's advanced literature class," she explained, "and this report is due today. Dr. Alexander is out sick, but I didn't want to miss the deadline."

Sharon and her brothers were the only students in the school who didn't try to take advantage when a teacher was out. They always turned in their work on time. Ron thought they were probably aliens, or maybe mutants. Why take Dr. Alexander's class in the first place? It was a difficult class, and it wasn't required, so why take it?

"Your father is outside," Sharon said as she turned to go.

"Oh, shit," Ron thought. She wondered what she'd done wrong now. Marshall walked her to school, but he never picked her up.

Marshall smiled when he saw her coming down the steps, but she could tell he was worried about something. He had been in a good mood in the morning. She wondered what he could be upset about now. She had punched a boy during the basketball practice when he'd called her a name, but there was no way her father could have heard about that already.

"What's up?" she asked as she walked over to him. She had made it clear in the past that he wasn't to hug her or anything like that when the other students could see them.

"I thought I'd walk you home, Ron," he said. "Your mother and I have to go out of town this afternoon, and I wanted to tell you about it before we leave."

"Okay," she said, and they set out. "Is Mom on a case?" she asked. Her mother's cases sometimes meant she had to travel, and she never traveled without Marshall.

"No," Marshall said, "this is family stuff. Unfortunately." He caught her alarmed look. "Nothing to do with your family. I mean your birth family. This is your mother's family."

Ron nodded. "Family" always sounded like trouble to her, because it was always in the back of her mind that her real family might appear and screw everything up. Her life with Jan and Marshall was far better than she had ever thought family life could be, but she knew how easily good things could get messed up.

"I thought we might have a sandwich," he said. "I didn't get any lunch, and as soon as we get back to the hotel your mother and I have to go. Do you want a piece of pie?"

Ron was pretty much always willing to have a piece of pie, so they stopped in a coffee shop that she liked and took a small table. It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place was mostly empty.

"Do you know anything about your mother's family?" he asked her once they were seated.

She shook her head. "She talked about her dad, Vinnie. Grandpa. He sends her mail sometimes, from Italy. And packages. That's all I know." Ron delivered the mail, so she always knew who got what, and mail from Italy was unusual.

"Well, this is to do with Jan's mother. Her name is Alex. Alexandra. Jan was raised by Vinnie, so she didn't know her mother. She's... troubled." Ron already knew that "troubled" meant "crazy." The waitress came over and asked if they needed menus. Marshall ordered a tuna sandwich and a salad, and Ron asked for a piece of apple pie a la mode. Warm, of course.

"Your mother always wanted to know Alex, though," he continued when the waitress had gone, "or at least to know where she was. Vinnie had no idea; he hadn't seen her for years. But you know your mother. If there's a mystery, she can solve it."

Ron nodded. Her belief in her mother's detective abilities was absolute.

"Well, Alex was difficult to find – she had changed her name at least once – but Jan got a line on her and eventually found her. And in the process we met Perry Nelson. He's the person we need to go talk to today."

Ron frowned. She had heard that name, but couldn't remember where.

"He's a famous writer," Marshall explained. "He's very young, but he's written three successful novels."

"I..." She was trying to remember, then it came to her. "A girl in my English class, she read a book of his, and she got all goopy when she talked about it. She asked Miss T. why don't we study his books instead of stupid Moby Dick, and Miss T. said Melville was a great author and Perry Nelson was very young. And something about June..."


She shrugged. "Something like that."

Marshall laughed. "Well, he is young, but he's a pretty good writer. We met him, and, well, the case got complex, but your mother solved it. And I think she and Alex have exchanged letters a few times, but they're not close." He hesitated. "Do you know anything about multiple personalities, Ron?"

She was working on a huge mouthful of pie, so he waited while she chewed and swallowed it. "Like when people are nice one day and mean the next? Miss T. is like that."

He shook his head, using his knife and fork to slice up the contents of his salad. "No, that's different. That's manic-depressive. Not that Miss Tumolo is manic-depressive," he added quickly. "After all, everybody is like that to some extent." He smiled. "You're in a better mood some days than others, after all. That's not a disorder, that's just normal. But, when it's extreme, when it's not because of things that happen, then it can be a disorder. Like an illness."

He poured dressing on his salad. Ron nodded. "I get it. Miss T. isn't crazy, she's just annoying."

He smiled. "Exactly. She's your teacher; it's part of her job to annoy you."

Ron closed her eyes and shook her head, restraining herself from saying how good she thought Miss Tumolo was at this part of her job.

"Anyway," Marshall said as he took a few pieces of red onion from his salad and slid them into his sandwich, "multiple personalities is different, and more serious. That's when you actually have different personalities, like you think you're different people on different days. So, say you were a girl named Susan. On Monday you might be yourself, Susan, and then on Tuesday you might be somebody named Fred, and you'd dress differently and talk differently, and you'd be mad if somebody called you Susan."

"So, Alex thought she was a guy?"

"No, though I understand that happens sometimes. Anyway, the main thing is that when we met Alex, she said she was going to write a book about what had happened to her, about the multiple personalities and so on."

Ron shrugged. Ron wasn't much for reading books, except what she had to read for school. She used a spoon to scoop up some of the melted ice cream from her plate. "This happened a while ago, right?" she asked. Marshall nodded, chewing on a bite of sandwich. "Then what's going on now?"

"We were never sure if Alex would really write the book she talked about – it takes a lot of discipline to write a book, and she's pretty unstable – but I saw an ad for it in the paper this morning. We have no idea what's in it, but some of the things she was doing when we met her were illegal. Does she talk about that, does she talk about Perry, or about us? We want to talk to Perry, to see if he knows more than we do." He chuckled. "Frankly, I'm sure he hasn't heard about it yet. He lives out in the woods with no television or telephone, and I don't know if he reads newspapers.

He hates publicity, and this is going to be a big story when the book comes out, because it's an unusual story and also because he's involved and he's famous, and your mother is famous. And there are potential legal ramifications, too, from what Alex was doing. I don't know what that will mean, but the first thing we want to do is talk to Perry."

Marshall was still working on his sandwich and salad, so Ron stood up and went to the counter, where the waitress was trying to tune in some music on the radio. "Excuse me," Ron said, "can I get a Coke?"

The waitress nodded and Ron went back to the table.

"There's more," Marshall said. "Vinnie and Alex had another child, and that's–"

"Vicki, right?" Ron asked.

Marshall stopped and regarded her. "How did you know that?" he asked.

Ron shrugged as the waitress brought her the tall glass of soda. "They look alike. Mom and Vicki. And they kind of talk the same way sometimes – not as much as you and Mom, but sometimes they do." She looked a bit uneasy as she sipped her soda through the straw. "I mean, their faces look alike, not the... everything else."

It was true that most people, meeting Jan Sleet and Vicki Wasserman, would not have immediately noted the similarities. Jan Sleet was six feet tall, thin to the point of emaciation, with a narrow face and lank brown hair to her shoulders. She always wore large, horn-rimmed glasses and impeccable, perfectly-tailored three-piece suits, and she walked with a cane. With all of this, though, she was the less unusual looking of the two women.

"I'm surprised you noticed," Marshall said. "Most people don't see it." He smiled. "You are your mother's daughter. You'll be a detective someday."

"Did she know?" Ron asked. "Vicki?" She took it for granted that her mother had known.

"No, she didn't. We had to tell her this morning, when we saw the ad in the paper." Ron waited, slurping the last of her soda. "She took it fairly well," he said.

"Is she going with you?" Ron asked.

He nodded. "For security."

"So, Alex is my grandmother?"

"Yes, as Vinnie is your grandfather."

"Does she know about me?"

"I don't think so." He looked uncomfortable "If you ever meet her, don't refer to her as Grandma or anything like that. Don't throw your arms around her." He laughed at Ron's expression. "I know you wouldn't do that. My point is this: when you meet Vinnie, you could do exactly that and he would love it. We've written him all about you and he's delighted to have a granddaughter. I think he was pretty sure he would never have grandchildren. Your mother being, as she would put, it, a career girl–"

"And because Vicki is a..."

Ron caught her father's expression and stopped before she uttered a word she knew her father didn't approve of.

"In any case," Marshall continued, "Alex is different. As I'm sure you'll see, sooner or later."

Ron's parents had gone, along with Vicki. She had said goodbye to them in their room, but they hadn't made too big a thing of it. They were planning to be back the next day after all. After they had gone, Ron wasn't sure what to do. She had homework, but she could do it later. She didn't feel like doing it in the room all by herself.

Then she thought of the Golden. She thought she'd go visit them, and she could do her homework with them. Sharon and her brothers always did their homework right after dinner.

She wondered what they were having for dinner tonight. The food at their house was always good. She liked eating with her parents, but they did drag her to some weird places for dinner. Indian food, Korean food, she never knew what they would end up eating. Some of it was pretty disgusting.

But the Golden didn't cook that kind of food. She smiled. They were trying so hard to be normal, they made only the most normal food. Maybe tonight would be meatloaf. She really liked their meatloaf.

She picked up her ancient Red Cross shoulder bag and went downstairs. She always had the bag with her. In the morning, she used it for the daily mail delivery. After the mail was delivered, she used it to carry her school books.

She ran into Pat downstairs in the lobby. Pat was in her twenties, with short hair. She usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, and almost always wore a baseball cap.

"Hi, Ron," she said. "Guess we're on our own tonight." She smiled. "Do you know where you're eating dinner?"

"I'm going to see friends," Ron said. "See you later."

She left, frowning. She didn't really like Pat. It sounded like Pat thought Ron couldn't get herself fed when her parents weren't there. Ron had taken care of herself just fine for a long time before she ever met Jan Sleet and Marshall O'Connor. She loved them, but she could still take care of herself. They knew it, so she didn't see why it was such a mystery to Pat.

She made a face as she crossed the street. She knew she wasn't supposed to feel this way, but Pat also made her uneasy because she knew Pat was Vicki's girlfriend. They shared a room together, even though Vicki was barely sixteen. First Ron had thought they were just friends, roommates, but then she saw them at a big party for Jack's birthday and they were holding hands and even kissing. In front of everybody.

It made Ron's stomach hurt. When Pat looked at Ron, was she thinking... Ron shook her head. It seemed crazy, but Vicki was only three years older than Ron. She felt queasy. No, it was crazy, but she tried to avoid Pat whenever she could.

She never mentioned this to her parents. They were willing to accept all sorts of people, so Ron did too. But she had her own opinions.

As she walked, she thought about the things Marshall had told her. She didn't think it had anything to do with her. Jan had parents, and she assumed Marshall had parents, but they weren't in U-town, so they didn't matter to her. And Vicki was now Jan's sister. She hoped that wouldn't get weird.

Ron was not large, but she had a very loud voice, and that's what saved her.

"We're coming!" a woman's voice called. "Try to stay calm."

Ron didn't dignify that with a reply. As she waited, she thought about the fact that her parents weren't going to rescue her from this. Well, she loved them, but she didn't really need them. She'd never needed anybody but herself, and you should never rely on other people.

Then she thought she heard her mother's voice.

–Ron? Ron, are you alright?

Ron looked around, as well as she could in the dark and smoke. "Where are you, Mom?" she demanded.

–I'm not there. I'm still away. Are you alright?

"Fuck no," Ron said. "I think my leg is busted. I'm stuck under something and I can't move, but somebody heard me yelling. I think they're going to try to get me out. But I don't know what's on top of me."

–We're coming, Jan Sleet said. As fast as we can.

Ron wanted to say something to indicate that of course it would be good to see them, but that she would cope and so on, but what she did say was, "Hurry."

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About Anthony Lee Collins

I write.
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6 Responses to throwing stones — chapter one

  1. Maggie says:

    I’m not going to comment on tiny grammatical errors (of which there are very few) unless you want me to.

    Starting out with a curse word is sure to get readers’ attention, but it might not be the right kind of attention. Personally, it doesn’t bother me.

    Ron’s personality and mentality are pretty clearly developed at this point. (But I don’t have a clear picture of what she looks like.) I was initially thinking that she was older than 13 based on how she acted and spoke. I’m curious to know exactly why she ran away from her parents and why Jan and Marshall adopted her (especially since she seems to have an abrasive personality). She also seems to be fascinated by Sharon Golden’s “normal” life.

    Jan and Alex seem to be mysterious, enigmatic figures. Marshall’s personality isn’t totally clear yet.

    I’m interested in U-town itself. Vicki runs U-town and she’s only 16. That seems a little odd to me. I originally imagined Vicki as much older. (I could just be confused, though.)

    Dialogue throughout is realistic. I can’t critique anything there.

    There is an awful lot of exposition here, especially explaining the relationship between Alex and Perry. It’s a little boring because I don’t know these characters well enough to be fully invested in them yet.

    I think that the end and the beginning parts of this chapter could have been put together in a prologue. Having them bookend the main text of the chapter was somewhat confusing. I’m not sure why you did that… maybe the reason will become clear later on.

    There are a bunch of questions I have, but I’m going to wait to see if the story answers them as it moves along. I hope that was helpful. Let me know if there’s anything else specific I should look at.


  2. Maggie, thanks for your comments. Very helpful. For one thing, there is a reason that I didn’t use a prologue for the beginning and ending bits. I didn’t think of it. And it is clearly preferable, so thanks. That will allow me to do a bit more flashback, since I do want to establish Jan a bit right away. Alex and Vicki (and U-town itself) are supposed to be somewhat mysterious at this point, but not Jan.

    You should see all the exposition I took out, so it’s useful to know that it’s still too much. I’m trying to decide whether I’m telling the same story from a different POV or just telling a different story, so your comments are helpful.

    It would also be helpful to know what questions you have. That way, I will know if you’re wondering about the things you’re supposed to be wondering about, or if you’re wondering about things that I’m thinking should be clear. :-)

    Thanks again.

    Working on Chapter Two now.

  3. Tiyana says:

    Hey, Anthony. I’ll try not to repeat things that Maggie has already stated, heh, and point out other things I noticed.

    I actually got really confused with all the different characters. You introduced Ron, Marshall, Jan, Dr. Alexander, Mr. Tremayne, Sharon Golden (and the Goldens), Vinnie, Alexandra (which is easily confused with Dr. Alexander), Miss T./Tumolo (which could possibly be confused with Mr. Tremayne when only using her initial), Perry, Vicky, and Pat all in the same chapter…which for me was too much (12 names). I think statistically the (average) human brain can recall about 7 given items on a short-term basis before they start to get all jumbled and need to be clumped into categories and whatnot (which takes time from reading and turns into analysis), so perhaps you might consider leaving some of the people unnamed or mentioning them later rather than sooner, if possible.

    One way to help characters stick in reader’s minds, besides developing unique speech patterns and vocabulary sets, is to assign them habitual body language cues–nervous ticks, a tendency to pace when nervous, etc.–though, this could easily get out of hand and become annoying rather than helpful. Still, it’s something for consideration. Just has to be handled carefully.

    This brings up another point: I think the main reason why I’m having trouble remembering the characters is because most of them aren’t actually present in the scenes. We get to see and hear Ron and Marshall and some of the others express themselves on the page, so when their names are mentioned it’s easier to remember them because we’ve already seen their thoughts and actions start to emerge and can begin to identify patterns in their personality (we know that Ron likes to use cuss words, for example, lol); these are patterns that get repeated throughout the story along with their names, reinforcing their personality.

    It’s just hard to remember people you haven’t really experienced them for yourself yet, you know? For me, that was the main issue.

    However, when it came to Ron and her predicament of being pinned beneath the rubble, that left me very much intrigued. I really wanted to know how she got there and how she would get out. And I do think the reveal of Ron having a grandmother with multiple personality disorder was interesting, and I want to know more about U-town and why Ron is running mail all the time. So those are all the highlights of this chapter, I think.

    If the path to understanding these things–the revelation of them–were a bit clearer, then I think it’ll make for a stronger chapter.

    (Okay, I hope you don’t hate me now, lol. I don’t especially like being a critic, though I hope this helps!)

    Oh! Btw, I saw your comment about third-person on the title page, so I can explain what I meant here. When you focus on the perceptions of one character per scene (or chapter) as you are doing with Throwing Stones, then that’s called a third-person limited perspective. It just means you aren’t giving the reader extraneous details that the current POV character couldn’t possibly be aware of through their own limited experiences.

    Now, you can still switch between different character viewpoints throughout the rest of the story, if you want to, but each scene needs to be limited to only one character’s viewpoint at a time. You could have three scenes in a chapter, for example, and potentially have each of them told from a different viewpoint–which still allows for some omniscience though isn’t quite so jumbled as third-person omniscient, in which you can hop between viewpoints whenever you so choose to (like mid-scene).

    So that’s what I meant when I made the comment about focusing on one character, heh.

  4. Tiyana, thanks for all the comments.

    Jo sent her feedback in email, and she mentioned the number of characters who get mentioned, too. Some can definitely remain nameless, and there’s at least one who may get left out entirely. I’m still working through the question of whether I’m telling the same story as the first draft (but from a different POV), or different story.

    And I hadn’t thought of the Miss T./Tremayne thing, or Alexander/Alexandra. That sort of thing can definitely be fixed, particularly if I don’t mention the teachers by name. None of them will be important characters, as far as I know, so that was just to give a bit of realism to Ron’s school life. That can be done in other ways, obviously.

    (As I’ve mentioned before, in A Sane Woman I used a lot of gender-neutral names — Alex is from that book — and that confused some readers. It’s easy to name characters one at a time, each for perfectly good reasons, without thinking of how the reader will react to encountering them all at the same time and what will be the sources of confusion.)

    And, as I said to Maggie, I plan now to have more detail of Ron’s regular day, slowing the character introductions and defintely establishing Jan much earlier.

    Oh, and I will mention that I talked about multiple personalities, but I deliberately didn’t use the word “disorder.” :-)

  5. sonje says:

    In general, there’s too much information. As others have mentioned, too many characters parade through. For instance, Ron is going over to dinner with her friends, the Golden. That’s it. Stop. If Ron should actually encounter the Golden at some point (I assume she will) then you can go into how they are weird. And frankly, I think you can cut that whole thing out. It doesn’t go anywhere. We don’t see her having dinner with them, so why mention it? A lot of it can go, really. By go, I actually mean can be placed later when we can spend some time with it and absorb it instead if it just flashing by.

    As others have also noted, too much exposition in the pie-eating scene. Doesn’t need to be any more complicated than, “Ron, your mother and I have to go away over night to talk to your grandmother.” “Oh really? Why?” “Because she’s written a book and we’re worried that it could cause problems. We just need to talk to her about it. Like I said, we’ll be back tomorrow.” “Okay.” When Ron is actually going to meet Alex, then she finds out about the multiple personality thing, etc. When the book becomes a problem, we find out about Perry Nelson. I did kind of get the feeling there that you’re filling us in on backstory, but the backstory is not necessary for the story. People who have read your other books will say, “Oh the crazy mom and that writer guy.” And people who haven’t don’t care about the crazy mom or the writer guy. Either way, we don’t need it.

    The most interesting part of the story (so far) is Ron trapped under the bridge or whatever it is. Blah blah blah, I thought, reading through the rest of it. I want to get back to that. When we did, I really focused again. If you want to start with that, go away from it for only short bursts, short flashbacks to the day before. I don’t think you even need to do that. If you want to tell Ron’s story, then tell her story. Start there. Go forward. Don’t try to cram everyone else’s old story in there. They should only show up when their stories become Ron’s story.

    Just my humble opinion!

    Also, the name of the point of view you are using is called “third person limited.” :)

  6. Sonje, I’m glad to get your feedback (a bit ahead of schedule, I believe), since Chapter Two is nearly ready to go and I wanted to get your reactions to Chapter One before posting #2.

    I agree about the exposition, as I said before, though my current thinking (when I get to rewriting) is to put the beginning part (Ron trapped) into a prologue and then have more of “Ron’s day before,” including the dinner with The Golden. It’s awkward to have the mention without the dinner, so I think the dinner should be there. And if some readers forget about the prologue situation before we get back to it (as Jo said she did), then that’s fine.

    There are reasons for not just starting with the “Ron trapped on the bridge” scene and moving forward from there, but I agree that a series of short flashbacks from there wouldn’t be ideal. Jo said that she finds a lot of flashbacks at the beginning of a story, before she even knows where she is and what’s going on, to be confusing, and I think she’s right.

    I’m already thinking that third person limited (which sounds like a train — “all aboard for the Third Person Limited to Chicago and points west!”) may be _too_ limited, but I’ll make that decision later.

    Thanks again for your feedback (which I don’t think I’d classify as “humble,” but “helpful” beats “humble” every time :-) ).

    Chapter Two coming soon. As you’ll see, I’m holding Perry Nelson back, and I may ditch him entirely. A lot of complex exposition may indicate that the writing needs to be improved, but it may also indicate that the plot underneath is too complex. I wouldn’t mind losing Perry (he’s an okay character, but really kind of a drip), but I will miss his girlfriend, but I already knew she’d have to go because of some overlap with Ron (as mentioned in Maggie’s excellent post about combining characters:

    As I say, Chapter Two coming soon.

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