“What’s that horrible sound?” Walter asks, setting his black coffee mug on the wooden end table and muting the television. He misses the coaster by an inch.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Winnie says, moving the cup onto the coaster for him before she hears it—a harsh, grinding noise far off in the distance. A chainsaw, perhaps, or a car struggling to start.
“For heaven’s sake. I need quiet! Is that too much to ask?”
Winnie takes a drink of her coffee to avoid answering. There’s a shiny black rhinoceros beetle eating a banana on the screen and the movements of its big horn line up with the loud sound outside. Winnie giggles. Walter grunts.
“What’s so funny?”
She points at the strange insect on the TV and her husband turns it off. With a dramatic sigh, he hoists himself from his green-striped chair and walks with three slow shuffling steps to stand before the large bay window. He adjusts the glasses on his nose and stares in the direction of the noise.
Sunlight reflects off the many crystal prisms hung in the window casting round rainbows into Walter’s thin, grey hair and across his unshaven face. Winnie loves him, even if he makes her feel bad most days. Next month will be 40 years of marriage. They should plan a party.
“This won’t do.”
Turning toward her, she can see the anger and accusation in his grey eyes. He blames her for anything and everything that’s gone wrong since she insisted they sell the farm and move to this small house near town. She didn’t want to move either, but they couldn’t keep up with the work of the farm. They are both in their 70s, their only child lived more than two hours away, and Walter has a heart condition. It was the right choice to move, but he holds it against her. He makes her pay.
Coming up beside him she slips her arm around his waist and leans her head onto his shoulder. He used to tower over her, but now they are closer in height. As he shrugs her away she sidesteps, pretending to check the succulents on the windowsill to see if they need water. The tenderness between them has been replaced with iciness. It burns.
“There’s nothing to be done. I’m sure the sound will stop soon. Let’s watch the rest of our show. Those beetles are really fascinating.”
The grinding outside gets louder and sounds as if it’s coming toward them. Walter leans closer to the window and she does too. There’s no sign of whatever is making the noise.
“Can’t you do something?”
He’s not using his cane and wobbles for a second, but Winnie knows better than to put out her arm to steady him. The hair on the back of his neck is standing up like some pissed-off alleycat and she tries to rub his back. Stepping away, he makes a low sound. Did he just hiss at her?
“What would you have me do, Walter? You need to relax.”
“Don’t tell me to relax. You can find a way to make it stop. I need quiet—you already know this. It’s not good for my blood pressure.”
Translation: you made me move here and I hate it. I’m going to use my anger at the situation and your worry about my heart to make you feel sorry for me instead of taking responsibility for my own actions.
“Walter, are you seriously asking me to get dressed, leave the house, track down the source of the noise, and get it to stop?”
“I’m asking you to care.”
Using the wall to steady himself, he presses past her and disappears into the kitchen. She hears him pulling out the big silver pot from under the sink and slamming it onto the tile counter. They’re supposed to make two different fruit jams tomorrow, but it sounds like he’s starting it now. Winnie feels the tightness in her lower back and knows she won’t be much help. Damn him.
She straightens the pillows on the couch and gathers up the coffee mugs before heading to the kitchen. Walter’s lowering the peaches with a wooden spoon into the pot of boiling water. His eyes look red and it’s obvious he’s been crying.
Winnie feels a wave of exhaustion as she slumps down into one of the yellow kitchen chairs and looks out the small open window. They really should get a new screen, but the old farmhouse didn’t have any and it reminds her of home. She loves to sit here with her eyes closed and hear the sounds of the world—even if they are far different living in suburbia than out in the country. Today, she only hears the horrible grinding sound. What could be making such a racket?
Something brushes against her cheek and she opens her eyes. A brightly colored peacock feather lays in front of her. It must have flown in the window. She picks it up and stares at it in wonder. A magical gift.
“Walter, look at this!”
Keeping his hands on the counter he turns and his eyes widen upon seeing such a beautiful, delicate thing on their cluttered wooden table. It reminds them both instantly of their favorite family memory when their daughter wanted to be a turkey for Halloween. She’d proclaimed it at the breakfast table on the first day of October dressed in a mustard-colored jumper, her red hair braided into two long braids, and her feet stuffed into mismatched rain boots.
“A wild turkey with lots and lots of feathers,” she said, jumping up and down and shaking her butt.
Even then, at barely three years old, their only child knew what she wanted. A perfectly wild, free-spirited mix of the two of them, Wren made each day adventurous and challenging. They loved her with a ferocity verging on mania and they both knew if something happened to her they’d not survive. She was their everything.
They worked on the costume in secret each night after Wren went to bed and hid it on the top shelf of the pantry during the day. Walter collected feathers in the woods behind the farm and sheared one of the sheep for stuffing. Winnie attached the feathers one by one with a perfect whipstitch to a fluffy suit made to look fat and round by the fresh wool.
A day before Halloween they decided to show it to her. They needed her to try it on so they could make sure the placement of the wings hit the right spots of her body and make any last-minute changes.
“Surprise!” they said together holding it up when she woke from her afternoon nap.
“What is it?”
“A turkey,” Walter said.
“Just like you wanted,” Winnie said. “Your costume.”
Falling onto the floor in a heap of anguish, Wren sobbed and sobbed. Both parents sat beside her confused, waiting patiently until she could catch her breath and explain the costume catastrophe cry fest. Several minutes later she bolted to her room and emerged with a sketch of the “turkey” complete with colorful blue, green, and gold feathers.
Walter scooped her up into his arms and explained to her the mixup and asked what they could do to fix it. He was always so good at staying calm with her, listening, and problem-solving. They deconstructed the costume and using dye, an old umbrella, and lots of hot glue, turned the turkey into a beautiful peacock with a few minutes to spare before trick-or-treating.
“She was the cutest peacock ever,” Walter says.
“It seems like yesterday.”
Silence falls between them for a minute as they both relive that night. Driving in the old red pickup holding hands while the colorful peacock and her little brown and white dog Gromit bounced around the back. They’d driven down one of the long, gravel farm driveways and she’d jumped out and ran to the door with her hollow plastic pumpkin, Gromit barking at her heels. The neighbors would give her candy and she’d repay them with little gleeful laughs and grateful hugs.
Both Walter and Winnie jump as the grinding sound erupts outside, much closer and louder this time. It’s a low strong bass-heavy booming sound and it causes the windows to rattle, the wind chimes to move, and a picture to fall off the wall. Winnie retrieves Walter’s cane from where he left it in the living room and the couple steps onto the front porch together.
“What in the heck is that?”
High above them, amongst a bright blue sky with streaking white clouds, are hundreds of glowing balls of light moving in straight even lines across the sky. They appear to have no mass, no distinct anything really. More like bubbles than anything. Booming bubbles.
“I have no idea, Walter.”
Looking around, it appears most of the neighbors aren’t home. Is it possible in their attempt at simplifying their lives by cutting out watching the news has backfired? Did they miss some kind of important announcement? Wren will know what to do.
Winnie leaves Walter sitting in his old rocker on the front porch and finds the pot of water still boiling on the stove. She turns it off and leaves the mushy peaches where they are. Retrieving her cell phone from where she left it plugged in last night, she grabs the binoculars Walter uses to watch the birds and a bottle of water.
“They’ve stopped moving,” Walter says.
She hands him the binoculars and the water bottle before taking her place beside him on the porch. The bubble things sit still and silent in the sky. Maybe it’s some kind of sun flare or an optical illusion.
Not only has the sound stopped but everything around them seems paused. There’s no bird song. No rumbling cars in the distance. It’s quieter than a night on the farm and it makes them both feel uneasy.
Wren lives a few miles away in an apartment with her girlfriend Jade. They run a trendy coffee shop downtown filled with their artwork, used books, and mismatched comfy sofas. They have open-mic nights, write-ins, and art shows.
Winnie attends a lot of the events, but feels jealous and a bit out of place. Her daughter and their friends are so cool, free, and creative. It’s intimidating. After retrieving her reading glasses from her pocket, she sends Wren a text.
“Hey, it’s mom. Call me ASAP. It’s urgent.”
Walter hands Winnie the binoculars and then takes a long drink of water. He’s shaking slightly and Winnie realizes he needs to eat or his blood sugar will get too low. Before she can get to her feet, however, he reaches out his hand and squeezes it. There are tears in his eyes.
She presses the binoculars to her face and then lowers them covering her mouth in shock. The things aren’t bubbles at all but shiny metal ovals which are lowering slowly toward the ground. Not a solar flare. Not an optical illusion. Things. She checks her phone and finds Wren’s message unread. It’s not like her.
“What do we do?”
Walter doesn’t answer at first and Winnie isn’t sure if he heard her or if he’s thinking. She feels her heart beating fast. Every science fiction movie and television show plays through in her mind. Please let this be the Prime Directive kind of aliens and not the old “we are out of room on our planet and need yours” kind. Actually, let it not be aliens at all.
“We have to find Wren and Jade. Family should be together for whatever this is.”
Nodding, Winnie rises to her feet and hands the cell phone to Walter.
“I’m going to pack up a few things. You keep trying Wren.”
Walter nods and then grabs her hand and squeezes it. They’ve always been a team in crisis and she can see today will be no different. His eyes are softer now and she’s hit with a wave of gratitude for all he’s done to protect her over the years. She wants to say so much, but panic and worry about their daughter wins out and she lets go. When she’s inside she hears him call out to her.
“It’s going to be okay.”
The confidence and strength she has always admired in him can be heard in those words and it brings stinging tears to her eyes. He will get them through this. They just need to focus on finding Wren and it will all be okay. Whatever is happening, they can face it as a family.
Digging out an old black backpack of Wren’s from the hall closet covered in tiny buttons, Winnie fills it with Walter’s medicine and some food. Going into the bedroom, she pulls out two large suitcases. One she drags to the kitchen and fills with canned goods, chips, nuts, and a can opener.
The second suitcase she sets on the couch and fills with things from around the house. The photo albums from the bookshelf. A tiny pink crochet baby dress with a matching bonnet from a box under her bed—the first thing Wren wore after being born in front of the fireplace 35 winters ago. Wren’s painting of the farm hanging above the fireplace. Her grandmother’s antique perfume bottles from the top of her vanity. All the jewelry Walter and Wren have given her, including a locket with a piece of baby hair inside. Her favorite rose teapot.
Walter unlocks the white van and he helps her load the bags into the back. They add in pillows, blankets, and several large bottles of water. It reminds them both of the big fire when Wren was 10, scrambling to evacuate before it got too big and the roads were closed.
Walter stayed back and used his tractor to dig trenches/fire breaks around the farm and help his neighbors do the same. The fire stopped less than 20 feet from their large barn, but not before burning all their crops and half the county. It was a terrifying time, but they were a lot younger and had more energy to get things done. Now, it feels like too much.
Collapsing into the van, they are exhausted and sweaty from all the activity. Winnie makes Walter eat a protein bar and take an extra blood pressure pill. She takes a handful of painkillers for her back and hip. Checking the phone again she sees her message to Wren remains unread. Her stomach drops.
“I hope she’s okay, Walter. It’s not like her to not answer.”
“It’s barely noon. Maybe they had an art opening last night and she’s still asleep. She keeps her phone away from her bed like we do. I’m sure she’s okay.”
While Winnie appreciates his optimism, she can tell by the fast way he pulls out of the driveway he doesn’t quite believe it himself. They both look up at the sky and see the bubble things have gotten much lower. How long did it take them to pack things up? How long do they have before something truly terrible happens? Can they reach their daughter before then?
They pull onto a deserted freeway and drive for a few minutes before reaching downtown and taking the exit leading to Wren’s apartment. One of the silver bubble things sits atop a window-covered skyscraper, balanced on its peak like a marble on the end of a pen.
Winnie’s aware of the hysteria now in her voice. She can’t help it. The streets are empty. Homeless camps abandoned. Businesses open without electricity or people. Stoplights don’t blink red, they are simply not working at all.
Rolling down her window she finds the eerie quiet far scarier than it was on their little suburban street. They drive through an oval shadow and she pokes out her head to see another one of the things has reached the building level. It looks shiny but still without any real substance. If only she had something sharp she’s sure she could burst it.
“We need to get to Wren. She’ll know what to do.”
She loves her husband’s faith in her daughter and can’t help but feel the same way. Since moving close to the city, Wren and Jade have helped them with everything. They arrange their groceries to be delivered, take them out to fancy dinners, and make sure they always have tickets to every show in town.
Last Friday Wren and Jade took her to get pedicures and out to lunch at a fancy cafe with mimosas in huge crystal goblets. That weekend they took Walter for a drive in the country and asked him to teach them the names of the different birds hanging around the rice fields. They are beautiful, wonderful girls. Women. She loves them both very much.
Pulling up to the three-story historic white building they don’t see Wren’s little gold car parked out front. In fact, there are no cars anywhere. Slipping through the unlocked side gate, they enter the small courtyard shared by three apartment buildings. It has a large stone fountain in the center surrounded by planters of hollyhocks, oxeye daisies, and marigolds.
Walter stops at a green picnic bench and sits.
“Go on without me. I’ll wait here.”
Winnie wants to argue but she’s anxious to reach her daughter and Walter walks so slow with his cane. Kissing him on the top of the head she sprints as fast as her aching body will let her to the blue stone staircase leading to the front door of her daughter’s apartment building. It’s really a beautiful place—old and decorative. It’s so Wren.
There are only five stone steps but Winnie finds herself grasping the thick metal handrails and pulling herself up inch by inch. She’s really tired. Packing the van was too much for both of them and she’s wondering if they should have stayed put and waited for Wren. What if she’s gone to fetch them and they aren’t there?
When she reaches the top another horrible thought occurs to her. If the electricity is out the elevator won’t be working. Her daughter lives in a penthouse on the third floor. Winnie won’t make it up all those stairs. It’s not possible. This all feels so foolish.
With a final look up toward the thing in the sky, she turns the large brass knob to at least call to Wren from inside. It’s locked. No! She hadn’t thought of this. It’s always unlocked.
She bangs both fists on the hardwood for several minutes. The sound echoes around her but nobody comes, except Walter clunking toward her with his heavy wooden cane. He stops at the bottom step and leans on a large stone lion.
“The door’s locked. We can’t get in. What if she’s up there unconscious or something and we can’t reach her? What if she needs us, Walter? We can’t do anything! I’m useless!!”
She didn’t mean for it to come out and she covers her mouth a bit shocked at herself. Tears flow down her face and she takes steading breaths to stop herself from losing it completely. It’s not true, she knows it’s not, but she’s felt it for a long time. Far longer than losing Wren to college. Far longer than losing the farm. She’s felt useless most of her life.
Walter smiles up at her. It’s a genuinely kind smile and it reminds her so much of the boy he was when they met. She’s drawn to him, like she was back then, hobbling down the small staircase and landing in his arms. He pulls her close. He smells of Old Spice and wood. Why does he always smell so good?
“You have never been useless a day in your life, my love. From the moment we met you saved me. I don’t deserve you.”
From above them, the metal bubble softly sighs releasing a gentle, cool breeze. The courtyard fills with dancing cherry blossoms swirling in all directions—a private, silent show for two. They sit together on the bottom step and catch the delicate petals in their hands, a bouquet of pale pink and white.
Sunlight becomes darkness as the thing above them descends lower bringing stillness and cold. Peacock feathers float around them, first a few and then hundreds. Each contains a memory of their child—she’s here with them. They feel her in every feathery touch and they smile at the life they’ve had together. It was good. They did good. When the grinding sound comes they don’t flinch or look up. They hold hands and smile.
Author’s note: Each week I’m inspired by something in my life and it flows into my stories either directly or indirectly. These peacock pictures are from my trip to Oregon last week and they were begging me to use them somehow in a story. I struggled for a few days to find a direction to take Winnie and Walter but ultimately was led to the empty courtyard filled with feathers. This is my 30th short story this year and I feel both depleted and inspired. Your likes and comments keep me going, so please let me know what you think of the story in the comments below. Share with a friend if you really like it. Thanks for reading and have a great week!
Short Story Challenge | Week 30
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about parents solving a problem together. We had to include rhinoceros, umbrella, announcement, petal, feather, fruit, placement, sketch, wobble, and boil.
Write With Us
Prompt: A tour guide in the Florida Keys
Include: revolver, headphones, doughnut, leopard, spaghetti, tiki hut, magma, magnetize, swampy, recital
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods