The Wheels on the Bus | A Short Story

There’s a massive maple tree outside Nudgee’s new house that’s covered in golden orange and yellow leaves nearly as big as his wicker lunchbox. With wide brown eyes, he stares up into the twisted branches trying to locate the source of an odd clicking sound he’s been hearing since they moved into this small, yellow house two weeks ago. It’s driving him crazy.

He catches a brief glimpse of something shiny and black, but a gusty breeze makes the leaves wiggle and sway and he loses it. Shoot! This place isn’t anything like his real home. He picks up a small rock and throws it at one of the branches, but he’s small for his age and it doesn’t go very far.

“I know you are up there!”

“Who are you talking to?”

Holding her favorite “Live, Laugh, Love” coffee cup with both hands, his mother appears in the doorway wearing her old faded blue bathrobe. Her thick, black hair is rolled up into dozens of pink foam curlers and she’s wearing a pair of dad’s old, grey socks which are too big and floppy. Nudgee thinks she looks like an alien and wishes she’d go back inside.

“Nobody.”

“It’s going to be okay, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“First days are hard, but you got this.”

“I know!”

His mother’s neon blue nails flash in the morning sunlight and Nudgee stomps away in his brown, leather boots to the end of the driveway. He’s 11 years old and that’s old enough to know his mother can’t be sure things will be okay. Why do adults insist on saying things that aren’t true? How about being more honest by saying “I hope it will be okay” or “it might not be okay but you are strong and can handle it.”

Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!

Nudgee turns around to see his mother leaning against the small rectangular doorbell. With a kind of stumbling shuffle, she steps back and spills her coffee down the front of her robe. Her big blue eyes look droopy with dark smudges of yesterday’s mascara. Nudgee’s worried she might start crying again.

“Ouch! Damn it! Shit! Sorry, lovebug! I’m okay.”

Go inside. Go inside. Go inside. Nudgee turns away from his mom and chants the words like a magic spell and when he doesn’t hear anything for a few minutes he turns back around to find she’s gone. It worked.

The familiar rumbling sound of a school bus turns his attention forward. He straightens out his green plaid jacket and tucks his thick, tawny curls inside a bubble-shaped tan hat. A fluttering of nervous energy makes him feel jumpy and he considers simply running down the street. How long would it take to run 100 miles? Didn’t his best friend’s mom say he’d be welcome back anytime?

All morning Nudgee didn’t actually think he’d be going to school. Things have been terrible since his father left, and part of him expected his dad to show up in his black El Camino saying it was all just a big misunderstanding. Yes, mom cheated, sure, but dad wouldn’t leave his little “pollywog” behind forever. He loves him. Right?

The yellow school bus door opens outward with a loud swooshing sound and a lean man with small, round glasses stares down at Nudgee blinking softly. He’s got grey hair, a large bushy mustache, and pale pink lips. Tipping his colorful plaid hat with a gloved hand, he gives the boy a wide warm smile.

“Are you Nudgee?”

He pronounces his name perfectly with a smooth, deep voice, and Nudgee nods. There’s a small golden pin on the collar of the bus driver’s blue shirt in the shape of a snail. Nudgee’s old neighbor, Mr. Arnold, used to pay him a penny a snail to collect them from his garden and destroy them, but he always let them go in the park instead. He liked their weird stalky eyes.

“Oh, good. All aboard!”

Drawing out the last word like an old-timey train conductor, Nudgee smiles. He likes this bus driver. His feet, however, don’t want to cooperate. It’s as if he’s been cemented to the sidewalk and all he can do is look at his boots in frustration while picturing all the kids inside the bus staring at him and making the determination if he will or won’t fit in. His stomach hurts.

With smooth, careful movements the bus driver gets out of his seat, walks down the three stairs, and reaches his gloved hand out to Nudgee. Before he can really think about it, he’s followed the old man onto the bus. He walks down the narrow aisle, staring at the creased lines of the black floor toward the rear of the bus while trying hard to not make eye contact with anyone.

There are no strange whispers or points as he walks, just the regular sounds of kids talking and laughing with each other. It makes Nudgee feel better. As he reaches the rear of the bus he looks up to see two girls playing on some kind of touch screen to his left, and a large boy with fluffy blonde hair sleeping to his right. With a red, white, and blue sweatband around his head, the boy hugs his backpack like a stuffed animal and snores slightly. Nudgee almost squeezes in next to him, but a low calm voice stops him.

“Don’t do it. Roger will drool on you. I, unfortunately, know from experience. It’s a bad idea. ”

Taking a step forward, Nudgee finds a small-framed boy sitting alone against the window of the very last seat with his hands folded on his lap. He’s got shiny black hair, cut short, and small dark eyes. With a wink, he motions to the seat beside him and Nudgee sits down.

“Do you know what Krav Maga is? I didn’t either until I looked it up. It’s some kind of fighting thing the Israeli military uses in battle. Well, Roger says he studies it, but I doubt it. He mostly sleeps and grunts. I think he’s sad.”

The boy points at the seat in front of them and gives a sort of pained look. He’s got deep dimples, dark thin eyebrows, and delicate small hands. The boys smile at each other.

“Oh, thank you.”

The boy puts out his hand and Nudgee shakes it. There’s something familiar about him as if they’ve met before, and it makes the jumpiness inside him calm down. He sighs and settles back in his seat with his lunchbox on his lap.

“I’m Akiamo but most people call me Aki. My mom says it’s not okay to change your name, but I didn’t exactly change it. I just think it’s easier to have a short name. You know? People can never say my name right anyway. Are you new?”

He’s wearing brown and white striped pants, a brown button-up jacket, and shiny brown shoes. There’s a leather knapsack on the seat beside him which is slightly open exposing books, notepads, and several glass jars. Nudgee nods and sets his lunchbox next to Aki’s leather bag.

“I’m Nudgee.”

As he says his name, he braces himself for the inevitable question “what kind of name is that?” He’s used to having to explain that his parents found it in a book and thought it sounded cool. He hopes Aki won’t mention it rhymes with “pudgy” or “fudgy.”

“Wow. What a cool name! I think I’ve read it before in a book. I’m certain of it. Sounds like perhaps a warrior or an explorer. I bet it looks cool as your signature with those double e’s at the end. Can you show me?”

He pulls out a small pad of yellow paper and a bright silver pen. Nudgee writes his name several times across the paper in flowy black letters. He likes how smooth the fine tip writes. Never has writing his name felt so fun as with Aki. They smile at each other again.

“Our dog had a litter of puppies last night. They’re all fat and white with eyes glued shut. You should come to see them.”

Aki pauses for a moment and looks out the window.

“I sometimes wish my eyes were glued shut, but mom says I shouldn’t say such things. It’s just that sometimes you can see too much. You know?”

Nudgee knows and nods. He remembers the night dad came back from his business trip and found Mr. Lobel in the bedroom with mom. He was naked when he ran out the front door, his white butt looked scary and ghostlike in the moonlight. Then the screaming began.

“Are you hungry? My mom always makes me a big breakfast, but I honestly can’t eat before I get on the bus. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because up until the moment I climb into my seat I’m pretty sure I’m going to get out of going to school. I just expect something to happen, you know? Like a miracle or something. Anyway, you hungry?”

Aki pulls out a small glass jar filled with cut apples. Nudgee takes one and to his delight finds it tastes like honey and cinnamon. It’s his favorite snack.

“Good, huh? My mom gets all our fruit from this organic vendor at the farmer’s market. She knows I have an aversion to anything meat or bread related, so she gives me all these little jars of fruits and vegetables. I used to bring dried seaweed, which is my favorite thing, but kids thought it smelled weird. It’s okay though.”

They finish the apples together in silence as the bus stops several times and more kids get on. Nobody else wanders to the far back and Nudgee realizes why Aki likes it so much. If it wasn’t for the terrible bounciness, it would be almost peaceful.

When the bus stops at a red light, Aki suddenly gasps and points out the window. Nudgee scoots closer, squishing the two bags between them and looks at where he’s pointing. There’s a strange black bird sitting on top of a parked yellow VW bug. It’s nearly as big as the roof of the car. It turns and looks at them with bright red eyes and makes a loud clicking sound.

“What is that thing?” Nudgee says.

“I have no idea, but nobody ever sees it but me. It’s always making that horrible sound. You see it right? You really do?”

“Huge black bird with weird blue beak and creepy red eyes. Yep. I see it.”

It hops off the car and starts walking across the street toward them. The clicking sound increases as it gets closer. Suddenly it swoops into the air and dives toward the bus.

“Shoot!” Nudgee says.

“Yeah, shoot!”

They jump to their feet and work together to pull the big glass window closed. The bird reaches the window far before it closes, but it doesn’t try to get inside. Instead, it just hovers and watches them.

The light turns green and the bus starts moving down the street again, but the bird remains right outside the window, clicking its beak wildly. It blinks, a sort of milky membrane covering its shiny red eyes, and then disappears with a puff of blue smoke. Nudgee scrambles over the two bags and stands in the aisle holding onto the back of the seat.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. It’s never done that before.”

Aki pulls out a tattered-looking notebook filled with drawings of the strange bird. There are scribbled notes all over the margins. He puts both bags against the window and motions for Nudgee to sit beside him. Shakily, he does and realizes nobody on the bus has even looked in their direction.

“I’ve been seeing the birds for years, but usually they just stare at me and blink. I’ve taken out every book about birds from the library, including mythologies and legends, but I can’t find anything about this particular creature. Nothing at all. Have you seen one before?”

Nudgee shakes his head but then suddenly remembers the sound he’s been hearing since arriving in town.

“Not before now, but I started hearing that clicking sound the day we moved in and I think one was in my tree this morning. What do you think it wants with us?”

“I don’t know. Are you a witch or something?”

“Are you?”

Both boys laugh at the absurdity of the question but quietly consider it. Nudgee knows his family history does include “healing women,” but he’s never really considered what that means. Aki has heard similar things about “mystics” in his own family. Could they be magical in some way?

When the bus pulls into the school, the boys gather up their bags and follow the other kids as they slowly exit the bus. Before Nudgee can take in the enormity of the brick schoolhouse, Aki grabs his arm and guides him away from the front entrance. He doesn’t want to be late to class, but he has a feeling this is more important than school.

They follow a dirt path along the edge of the building behind a row of large, spiky hedges. Aki runs his left hand along the bricks as he walks and Nudgee copies him. It feels cool and rough.

This is not how Nudgee pictured his first day of middle school, but there’s something about this new friend he trusts. After all, they just saw a magical bird together and that’s more exciting than anything he could learn in school today. Aki stops at the sharp corner of the building and Nudgee bumps into him.

“Sorry.”

Aki smiles but puts his finger up to his lips.

“It’s okay but be quiet. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

Aki doesn’t answer but instead holds his bag to his chest and sprints across an empty cement courtyard. Nudgee follows. They reach a small grove of scraggly trees with peeling white bark. The ground is covered with chip bags and candy wrappers.

Aki walks through it without pausing, stepping over garbage and through a large row of dense bushes. They climb down a small rocky embankment and walk a few more minutes until they enter a grove of old oak trees. Aki stops to pick up an acorn and hand it to his friend.

“I come here to think,” he says. “I want to show you my favorite spot.” 

“Okay.”

Stepping through streaks of golden sunlight and over dozens of fallen logs, the boys wind their way through a dense forest of tall trees until they reach a small clearing. A narrow creek flows between two large moss-covered boulders making a gentle babbling sound. Dropping their bags, the boys kneel down and put their hands in the cold water. Tiny tadpoles and minnows swim by. Nudgee feels a sudden surge of happiness, the first time he’s felt this good since his father left.

“Wow. It’s beautiful here.”

Before Aki can answer, the sound of clicking fills the air. The boys look up to see the strange black bird perched on one of the boulders staring at them. Without standing, the boys hold hands and listen as the clicks become softer and then start to sound like words. It’s a high-pitched voice wobbly and unclear at first, but then it suddenly shifts and they can understand it.

“Hello, my friends.”

The boys say nothing as another large black bird lands on the second boulder. Both birds stare at the boys. Wind rushes through the forest releasing brown and yellow leaves from the trees to dance around them with a low rustling sound.

“We mean you no harm,” the bird says.

Aki squeezes his new friend’s hand and then lets go. He stands up and steps slowly forward, putting his hands out in front of him. Both birds shift slightly and lower their heads in a small bow.

“We don’t want to harm you either. Leave my friend out of this. What do you want with me?”

“You both need to come with us. We’ve been waiting for you. We need your help.”

Nudgee stands and takes Aki’s hand again, grasping it tightly. They are in this together, and although they are both still scared, it’s hard to not be excited by a talking bird and the possibility of adventure. It sure beats schoolwork.

“Go with you where?” Nudgee says.

“Our world is in danger and you are the only two who can save us. There isn’t time. It might be too late already. Please, we need your help.”

With a silent flapping of their wings the birds swoop down, landing in front of the boys. Tucking their legs underneath their bodies, both birds spread out their massive wings and lower themselves onto their bellies. Aki and Nudgee embrace, giving each other courage and encouragement. One bird speaks quickly while the other makes a series of clicking sounds.

“Climb on, please. We have to go. There’s no time.”

With a final look at each other, the boys climb onto the backs of the giant black birds. Grabbing a handful of the soft neck feathers, they brace themselves as the birds gently stand and soar into the cool autumn morning. With a puff of blue smoke, they are transported to a pink sky over a sea of bright blue. The adventure has just begun.

Author’s note: I was stalled on this prompt for most of the week while my kids both suffered from a pretty intense case of strep throat. For some reason, I was interpreting “magic in everyday occurrences” in a very narrow way trying to make it be a coincidence or perhaps the kind of magic you feel when falling in love. Neither of those ideas was working for me though and I turned to my kids for ideas. 

My son blurts out, “two kids see something magical out a window on a school bus, easy, boom!” Just like that, I was off and this tale was born. Partway through I realized it could also be a nod to one of our family’s favorite children’s books we’d read when they were sick, “Frog and Toad.” That story of friendship is magical in so many ways and so Nudgee (Aboriginal word meaning green frog) and Akiamo (Japanese for autumn mountain) were born.

I hope you enjoyed this story and thanks so much for reading. Your comments and likes mean the world to me. Have a wonderful week.


Short Story Challenge | Week 39

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 a story about magic in everyday occurrences. We had to include the words Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, and sweatband.


Write With Us

Prompt: The villain is really the hero

Include: witchcraft, recommend, sand dollar, fisticuff, paprika, eyeball, nightlight, gibberish, infuriating, and dreadful


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Meet Me at the Elephant Ears | A Short Story

Most of the time mom’s snores are a source of aggravation for me and my younger brothers. The sound oscillates between dry wheezes and wet aggressive snorts. Siam thinks she does it on purpose and Theil worries it’s a sign she will die early. I don’t know about either of those things, but tonight I’m grateful for the sounds. When you want to do some sneaking, being able to hear if your mom is asleep is quite useful.

Rolling off the corner of our shared mattress and standing, I pause by the back door and look at my sleeping family through the dim light of the lantern mom always keeps lit. They’re huddled together in the center of the empty room under a thin paisley afghan we found in a wooden trunk in one of the upstairs bedrooms. It smelled like rot and mold, but mom washed it over and over in the small sink until it smelled like nothing at all.

Theil looks like a baby holding a ratty stuffed lion and sucking on one of his long, slender thumbs. Mom’s got her arms around him and his mass of curly brown hair is pressed into her chest. Siam has rolled away from them both into the spot I just left. He looks sweaty and he’s frowning. He’s probably hungry. After all, he’s always hungry.

Mom shaved her hair off when we arrived a few days ago and I’m still not used to seeing the scars on her bald head. If I was a bit more creative I might think they formed the shape of something, but I find them unnerving to look at. They are reminders of what we’ve been through and I want so hard to forget for a moment. Tonight is a time of new things, not old. A time for me, not mom and my brothers.

Pressing open the back door as slowly as I can, Siam opens his eyes and spots me. I’m worried he might scream, but he doesn’t even flinch. There’s a kind of “be careful” look in his deep brown eyes and I silently mouth, “I’ll be back, promise.” He gives me a little thumbs up and my heart breaks. What if I don’t come back? I’m tough, but the world is unpredictable and he’s lost so much already. It’s almost enough to stop me, but then I think about the softness in Remi’s golden-green eyes. I grab my backpack and close the door softly behind me.

In the orange light of a huge harvest moon, the overgrown backyard looks wild and inviting. Elongated and exaggerated shadows dance merrily across the broken fence—huge fractured flashes of dark and light. I’m suddenly excited to be on my own with only myself to protect. It’s alluring to be selfish.

There it is though—selfish. A battle rages within my chest, thudding uneven and fierce. Guilt. I’ve never snuck away from my family before, not even when the world was right-sided. Am I wrong for leaving my family to meet this boy? Don’t I deserve a moment of being a teenager?

“Meet me at the elephant ears tonight,” Remi whispered when I’d passed him in the street today with my brothers. He’d winked and smiled at me from beneath his black cowboy hat and touched my bare arm with his warm, strong hand. Since that moment all I can think about is what will happen if I do. Does he like me in the way I like him? Will I have my first kiss? What if this is some trick to humiliate me?

For the past two years, we’ve been on the run. I’ve not had time to really think about how I look, but now I feel self-conscious and dirty. Letting my curly black hair down from the messy bun it’s almost always in, I run my fingers through the tangles but they immediately get stuck. It’s too late now. Either I go as myself and risk being wrong about his feelings for me, or I go back inside and wonder forever what tonight could have been. I make the quick decision to pull my hair back up.

Inching around the side of the house, barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt, I stop beside an old rabbit hutch covered with thorny vines and open my backpack. Pulling on my favorite olive green sweater and my brown cowboy boots, I strap the leather-sheathed hunting knife to my thigh. There’s no reason to be stupid and walk around unarmed.

Looking at the empty hutch it occurs to me we’ve not seen any animals in town since we arrived. Usually, animals know when the monsters are coming and run far away from them. We’ve taken our cues from nature, running from place to place hiding as they do, until now. Is it a mistake to stay in the false sense of comfort this town affords?

For a split second, I picture myself bolting back inside to wake everyone and insist we run before the monsters attack, but the feeling passes. No fight or flight decision is necessary at this moment. Everything is okay. Mom’s got my brothers and I can take care of myself.

Mom says she wants to try living in town for the boys. They are small and all the running has made them skinny and weak. Although we both carry them on our backs as much as we can, they aren’t growing enough and they barely speak. It’s as if the fear of the last two years has pressed pause and they are stuck at age three.

The truth is, mom and I need this place too. Even if I’m right about the animals, I don’t want to leave. We all deserve a shot at something more normal.

Mom’s become friends with a woman we met on the road who led us here, Mer. She’s a tall, striking woman with rich brown skin, almond-shaped eyes, and jet black spiky hair. Dressed always in black leather pants, she has a pink smiling cat tattooed on her left bicep. She makes mom laugh, a sound I didn’t even know I missed until it shined around us all like a bright colorful rainbow. Maybe it signals the terrible scary storm has ended.

There are about 100 people here in the town of Amal, which mom says is an Arabic word meaning Hope. Surrounded by a makeshift wall with ten lookout towers, there’s limited electricity, a doctor, and rumors of a school starting for the little kids. It’s as close to a return to the old ways as we can get, but I’m not ready to lower my defenses. Not quite yet.

Climbing over the locked side gate, I walk along the cracked sidewalk, scanning all directions for any sign of movement. Most of the debris has been cleared away from the town, but there are still objects in the bushes and gutters. I pass a rusty French horn with dandelions growing around it, a reddish tricycle turned on its side, and a pile of shattered Christmas lights.

As I get nearer to the place with the elephant ear plants, my thoughts turn away from the town and toward Remi. What do I even know about him? Yes, he’s cute, everyone seems to like him, and he smiles a lot. However, those are superficial things. Nothing of substance. I’d been so worried he wouldn’t like me, what if I don’t like him? 

What if he’s a bad person and I’ve been swept up in this fantasy version of him because we happen to be the only two teenagers in the town? What if I’ve misread everything and he simply wants to be friends? What if he’s going to kill me?

“Qamari?” Remi says softly from behind a huge maple tree whose bright reddish-orange leaves almost match the moon’s intensity. He steps out and all my fears of him fade in an instant. I can’t stop a big grin from flashing across my face.

“These are for you. I grew them myself.”

I take the bundle of lavender flowers wrapped in yellow ribbon and put them up to my nose. They smell wonderfully fresh and I feel myself inflate with an intensity I’ve not experienced before. It’s not love, I don’t think, but something more primal. A feeling of deep desire or maybe it’s the sensation of being desired. Either way, I really like it.

“I’m glad you came. I was worried you wouldn’t…I mean you barely know me.”

He’s not wearing his cowboy hat tonight and I can see he’s got wavy black hair. Dressed in dark jeans and a blue t-shirt, he smiles at me and then kicks the ground like my brothers do when they are about to be scolded. He’s as nervous about this meeting as I am and it makes me like him even more.

“I’m glad I came too.”

For a few minutes, we just stand close to each other in silence. The elephant ear plants around us have drops of water inside them—little reflection pools containing the splendor of the starry night sky. It’s like walking in the galaxy, I think.

I can hear his heavy, even breathing and he smells of something like campfires or fresh-cut wood. He grabs my hand and squeezes it. My cheeks flush pink as I feel myself growing warm all over.

“Can I show you something?”

Nodding, I let him lead me through the quiet town. He shows me the flowers which bloom only for “night owls and teenagers.” Behind a pale blue house, we find a cluster of evening primroses, delicate yellow flowers which smell sweet and tangy. Along a back fence, we find three trumpet-shaped moon flowers with a strong lemony scent and he warns me they are poisonous and to not let my little brothers eat them.

Finally, we arrive at a wooden gazebo near the center of town almost entirely overgrown by a dark green bush covered in tiny white star-shaped flowers. There’s a strong, sweet smell in the air and he picks one of the flowers and hands it to me. I turn the long stem in my fingers watching the petals spin.

“Night-blooming jasmine,” he says. “My mother planted these all over our property when I was little. One year I pulled off all the flowers and soaked them in a bowl of water to make perfume to give to the girls at school. Almost every girl who used it got a rash and mom was called for a meeting.”

I laugh but he doesn’t join me.

“A lady’s man then?”

He shuffles his feet and swallows hard. Turning from me and looking up at the sky, he talks in a low hesitant voice. I can tell he’s not sure he should be sharing so much with me.

“No. I was kind of an outsider, actually. My mom was like a town joke…an outcast because our property was covered in wild plants and she dressed a bit…different. I was trying to get the girls to like me with the perfume, but it backfired and it just gave them new names to call me. ‘Witchy boy’ I think was their favorite, but it’s better than how the boys treated me…”

For a few minutes, we are silent again and I consider telling him about how my father used to beat my mother every day before the monsters came…but then decide it’s not the time to exchange stories. I’d rather stop the discomfort, ease his pain, not transfer it into sympathy for me. Moving so I’m facing him I lean forward and wrap my arms around him.

We sort of sway in place for a few minutes until he pulls away and we lock eyes. I want to memorize the way the flecks of gold dance within the sea of green. I want to be looked at the way he’s looking at me forever. He leans in and I feel the warmth of his breath on my lips.

The sound of footsteps and voices pulls us instantly apart. Within seconds I’ve unsheathed my knife and Remi has found a jagged metal pipe. Crouching low, we slink together into the darkness of the old gazebo holding our weapons tightly in front of us. The voices are arguing, one whiney and the other gruff.

“I told you, man, I don’t want no trouble. No trouble at all.”

“Sure.”

“Come on…it’s not like I did something really wrong. So what if I took some extra bread. I’m hungry, man. I’m starving. You can see my bones. Can’t you see my bones?”

“Put down your shirt and walk.”

“Then tell me where are we going? Can’t you tell me? I don’t like this, man. I got a bad feeling about this. It doesn’t feel right. I’m sorry. Didn’t you hear me say I was sorry?”

“Walk.”

Remi and I kneel next to each other and peer over the railing of the gazebo. The dense plants hide us in shadow, but we are careful to stay low and not move. I can feel Remi’s breath beside me is calm. He’s been through much worse situations and so have I.

The shorter of the two men, the one with the whiney voice, is dressed in saggy, ripped clothing and isn’t wearing shoes. He’s got a scruffy blonde beard and his hair is wild and dirty. There’s a sour smell coming from him that reaches through the jasmine to sting my nose.

I recognize the taller man, but don’t know his name. He and mom talked for a long time the first day we arrived while my brothers and I waited in a room filled with toys and books. I think he might be in charge of security as he dresses like an old-timey sheriff with a bright white cowboy hat and a crisp button-up tan shirt.

Keeping my knife at my side, I inch close enough to Remi to whisper directly into his ear.

“Who are they?”

Despite his even breathing, Remi’s holding the pipe white-knuckled. Something about the situation has him on alert and it’s not at all about being caught out at night as a teenager. His eyes don’t leave the pair, but he whispers back as low as he can.

“That’s Tom, but I don’t know the other man.”

The smaller man suddenly stops and crosses his arms in front of him. He’s breathing hard now—tiny, wheezy gasps. Tom unholsters his black gun and points it at his face. Remi grabs my hand and we slink a little further into the shadows, but keep our eyes on the men.

“I said walk.”

“Please, man. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I promise. You can’t do anything to me. It’s not right. We aren’t monsters. We don’t do this to each other. I’m just starving man. Starving!”

“Walk or I shoot you.”

The smaller man begins to cry but resumes walking. Tom reholsters his gun but keeps his hand on the grip. They walk past the gazebo toward a line of boarded-up storefronts. Tom pushes the wailing man past the hardware store, book store, and pharmacy and then stops at a place called “Sweet Symphony.” It’s painted gold and purple and I imagine it was either a candy or music store, perhaps both.

There’s a strange muffled sound nearby, a kind of faint moan I usually associate with the monsters. I look at Remi, but he’s focused straight ahead at the men. The hairs on my arms stand up and I tighten my fingers around the leather handle of my knife until I can feel the ridges dig into my palm.

Tom bends down and picks up a rusted silver crowbar from a pile of tools laying near the door. He hands it to the sobbing man who only takes it after Tom nearly hits him over the head with it. The faint moan comes again and I feel my heart pounding and my muscles tighten.

“Open it.”

“Why man? I just wanted some bread. I’ll work it off. I’ll do anything. Don’t hurt me.”

Tom slaps the wailing man across the face and he stops crying. They stare at each other in silence for a minute and Remi squeezes my hand tighter. I’m unsure if he’s nervous because he knows what’s about to happen or because he doesn’t. The small man blows his nose on his shirt.

“Shut up and open it.”

He does. We watch in silence as it takes the sniffling man several minutes to pry open the wood from the door. Eventually, it falls to the ground with a splintery, cracking sound. The door has a red X spray-painted across it and Remi gasps.

“What?” I mouth without sound and he shakes his head. He knows what’s going to happen. He knows what’s in there. I realize by the way my body feels, I do too. They can’t have one here in the town. They just can’t. Remi smacks the pipe against his legs hard and then makes a kind of low growl in the back of his throat.

“No!” the man screams the second he realizes what’s happening. The scratching sounds of the monster behind the purple door intensify. Remi lets go of my hand to grip the pipe with both hands as Tom turns the doorknob and pushes the man inside. 

We don’t see what happens next, but we hear it. The man’s garbled scream is swallowed up within seconds by the sound of the thing feasting on his body. The tearing, clawing, liquid sounds make my body shiver and I realize I’m standing now with the knife pointed toward the door. Remi’s beside me with his pipe. We don’t make a sound.

Tom shuts the door. There’s no mistaking the wide smile on his face as satisfaction. I shiver at the look. It’s wicked and wrong what he did and there’s no explaining it away. Remi and I slink back down as Tom opens a toolbox beside the door and hammers fresh nails into the piece of wood.

The second Tom’s footsteps disappear back into the night, I turn to Remi. He’s still grabbing the pipe tight and he looks sweaty. The image of my family sleeping a few streets away makes me feel sick to my stomach. I was right. There’s no such thing as comfortable in this new world.

“Did you know?” I say more to say something than to really know the answer. It doesn’t matter. My family is in danger and I’m already planning on how I’m going to explain to my mom what I just saw. She will be mad I snuck out, but I can take her anger. There’s no staying now.

“There were rumors…but I didn’t want to believe it.”

“We can’t stay here.”

Remi turns to me and there are tears in his eyes. I can tell he’s been thinking the same thing. We could kill the monster, yes, but it’s not about that unthinking beast behind the purple door. It’s the fact this town is being run by someone who would feed it and keep it nearby as a tool. Someone who smiled after. Someone who is far more dangerous than the monsters.

“We could go together,” Remi says in a whisper. 

I don’t answer. The dream of kissing his beautiful face seems almost silly now. All I can think about is saving my family. I touch him gently on the arm and run out into the night. It’s time to move again.

Author’s note: I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of witnessing a crime in a post-apocalyptic world where the ideas of morality are slightly skewed. They did this so well in the early days of “The Walking Dead,” and I think it’s where most of my inspiration for this story came from. I’m not sure I did exactly what I wanted, but I did grow really fond of Remi. I might want to do more with him in the future, this sweet “witchy boy” who is simply trying to do his best in a world torn apart by monsters. 


Short Story Challenge | Week 38

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 a story where the main character witnesses a crime. We had to include the words Christmas, almond, paisley, lion, pipe, scream, fade, French horn, inflate, and maple.


Write With Us

Prompt: Magic in everyday occurrences

Include: Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, sweatband


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Peacock Effect | A Short Story

“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.

“Grrrrrr….whirr….”

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.”

“Me either.”

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.

“Look.”

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.

“What’s happening?” 

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

Stitches in the Woods | A Short Story

“Needle and the thread
Gotta get you outta my head
Needle and the thread
Gonna wind up dead”
-Shawn Mendes, Stitches

The golden crack of light shining in between my dark blue curtains tells me it’s morning. Another day and night have passed. I’m still alive.

“Honey, you need to get out of bed.”

Mom is at the door again, her long brown hair pulled up into a butterfly clip at the top of her head. The concern in her voice makes me feel guilty but I can’t move. The heartache feels like marbles in my blood, pushing painfully through my veins to sit heavily within my chest. The pain is too much.

Chrissy left me for some boy she met at cheer camp. My beautiful, everything Chrissy. We were supposed to get married and move to New York after graduation so she could make it on Broadway and I could work at the New York Times. It’s been our plan for three years. This can’t be real.

“Honey, you need to eat something.”

Mom’s back with a thick stack of pancakes smothered in butter and maple syrup. Her green eyes look hopeful, but the smell makes my stomach lurch and I run into the bathroom and throw up in the sink. It’s strange how heartache can make your favorite food smell disgusting.

Mom tries to rub my back but I duck into my thick blue comforter and roll away from her. Chrissy deleted all of our pictures from her Instagram and replaced them with photos of her and Ryan kissing at the State Fair. They shared a corn dog and rode the Ferris wheel. I want to kill him.

Grabbing my phone I check to see if Chrissy has texted me back. She hasn’t. Scrolling through my hundreds of blue unread messages I’m embarrassed at how pathetic this all is. I’ve never felt more out of control and sad.

Her last text burns bright white on the screen: “I’m really sorry. I can’t keep texting you. It’s over.” Swiping right I look at the red delete icon but don’t press it. I toss my phone to the floor.

There’s nothing I can do but accept her decision despite every fiber of me screaming to keep fighting. What could I have done differently? If I’d bought her flowers more or visited her at camp would it have changed things? She was my forever and I lost her. Life doesn’t have meaning anymore.

“Honey, I’m taking you to grandma. She’ll know what to do.”

Pressing my forehead into the cold glass of the car window, I watch the blurry scenery change from scraggly buildings to tall slender trees. Grandma lives in a little one-room cabin deep in the woods near a small creek that empties into a large river a few miles from her place. My childhood was spent here—throwing rocks, breaking sticks, and climbing trees. It makes sense for mom to bring me here.

Laying on grandma’s plaid couch, covered in soft knitted blankets, I hear them talking about me. “Hasn’t eaten in days,” “won’t shower,” “worried” and “heartbroken.” The words drift through me without much meaning. Tears are flowing down my face but I don’t remember starting to cry. Have I ever stopped?

Grandma makes me drink a strong earthy tea with lots of honey. Mom’s car isn’t parked outside anymore and the golden light spiking through the trees is either the sunrise or the sunset. I drain my cup faster than I anticipated and she refills it again and again.

“You need to listen to me, Theo.”

She’s holding my face in her wrinkled hands and her small grey eyes are staring into mine. Rosemary and wool. Mint and mushrooms.

“Go into the woods—the spot near the creek where the trees form a circle. You must go alone and pray for love and hope to return to your body. After you pray, take a large drink of water from the stream.”

Her expression leaves little room for argument and she places my tattered blue converse and black hoodie beside me on the couch. Grandma has taken me to her holy spot many times but this will be the first time I’ve gone alone. She watches me get ready and then hugs me to her.

“When you return we’ll eat a big meal of fried chicken and potatoes. You will find yourself again, Theo. Trust me.”

Stories of my grandma’s healing abilities flow easily around family gatherings, like side dishes and desserts. I’ve heard drunk relatives call her a “witch” and sober ones call her “magic.” It’s hard to say what I believe but it doesn’t matter. She will not take no for an answer.

There’s a well-worn path leading from her house and into the woods. With how the birds are singing and diving through the trees, I decide it’s a little after sunrise. A huge black and blue bird with a spiky head, a blue jay, dives down in front of me three times causing me to have to stop and step around him. Stupid bird.

The white granite of the outlook tower appears through the trees for a moment but then becomes lost again in the thick branches of the forest. I used to love when grandma would take me there. We’d stand and look up at the tiny windows far above us and she’d tell me stories of how the villagers erected the tower in the 1800s as a way to keep watch for fires and invaders.

“The people of the hills looked out for one another back then. We were all connected…not like today when we’ve spread out like seeds sprinkled in the wind never looking back from where we came. The tower meant something. It still does to me.”

When I was younger I’d lay awake at night imagining how I could get through the bricked-up doorway to the treasure trove of gold and jewels waiting for me to claim it. I always thought when I got older I’d either tunnel underneath, scale the sides, or use a tightrope to walk from the trees to the windows at the top. Maybe I still will. It might be worth the risk to be rich and not have to think about college and all the work ahead of me in my life. I need a new plan anyway.

Following the sound of the creek, I find my way to the circle of tall pine trees. It’s a strange place and I feel my heart race when I arrive—as if it’s alive or filled with tiny eyes watching my every move. Standing in the exact center I look up to see the tops of the trees disappearing into a now blue sky dotted with fat white clouds. 

The heaviness of having lost Chrissy feels like it waited until I entered this spot to slam into me again. Stumbling back, a boulder of pain knocks me to my knees. I forgot about her for a moment and it’s confusing. It was nice to feel like myself and dream of the treasure in the tower, but also it felt disloyal to have forgotten how much I love her for even one second. Why is this happening to me? I feel crazy and wild. I scream.

“Why?”

The word echoes through the forest and turns me into a slobbery sobbing mess. Laying on my back I stare at the ring of trees and try to remember what grandma said to do but all I want to do is forget. The word sounds strange in my head like I’ve never heard it before, so I say it out loud.

“Forget.”

Yes. I want to forget. It’s all I’ve ever wanted in my life is to forget her name, the blue of her eyes, the way her arms feel around my waist. The taste of her lips. I want to be free of this pain of loss.

“I want to forget Chrissy. I want to forget everything.”

A rush of cold wind blows through the trees, lifting old leaves from the ground and swirling them around me. As I watch them dance in the air, an uneasy feeling begins at my toes and then travels like a shiver up to my head. I press my fingers into my temples and watch as fat, thick fog crawls along the forest floor until it reaches me. It seems alive, with fingers and toes, as it presses me hard into the ground. I try to scream but find no air in my lungs.

Rotting wood. Rancid water. Decay. This isn’t the spirit that helps grandma. Its icy breath stings the back of my neck and sends another wave of shivers through my body. With a low, hissing voice it whispers into my ear. Forget. The fog and the word seem to be one—pressing down on me and repeating itself over and over. Darkness comes and I feel my body sinking into the soft ground.

No. I don’t want this. With all my energy I move my arms through the leafy soil until I get them under me and I can press myself up into a push-up position. The foggy thing above me groans and sighs, but I press harder and harder. I get my knees up under me and scream.

“No!”

Pressing upward with a sharp jerk I manage to throw the thing off the back of me and jump to my feet. It repeats “forget, forget, forget” in a husky higher pitched voice, but I don’t turn and look at it. I don’t want to see what it looks like. With my arms out in front of me, I fall out of the fog and stumble a few steps until I regain my footing.

The forest beyond the circle has remained bright and silent. It’s the kind of stillness you feel inside you like a blanket and I lean into it as I run all the way back to grandma’s house. She’s waiting on the porch and I fall into her arms. A nightingale sings far off.

“It’s going to be okay.”

She’s made her famous fried chicken, thick potato wedges, and fresh bread which I gobble up in an instant. Grandma talks while I eat but I hear nothing she says. All I can think about is the word forget as if I’ve summoned it to live inside me now. Forget Chrissy. Forget the way she made you feel. Forget your plans. It’s like a chorus singing so loud I have to cover my ears.

“You okay?”

Nodding yes, I want to scream out no. There’s something happening inside me, but I don’t know how to describe it. Swirling, maybe? Coursing? That’s closer. Infecting…

“Lay down and rest.”

The moon shines fully through the big cabin windows and once the blankets are on me I drift instantly off to sleep. Cool blasts of air wake me and I pull the blankets tighter and look around the room. Fog, with the same horrible smell as before, creeps in around the cracks of the front door. Grandma’s asleep in her chair by the fire, her knitting still on her lap. I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

Pressing my eyes tight together I tell myself to wake up, but I feel the slimy thing climbing on top of me. It soaks my blankets. A sharp fingernail traces my cheek. Its breath feels like ice.

“Forget,” it hisses in my ear.

Its strong slimy hands grab my shoulders and with a jerk, it flips me onto my stomach. The weight of it feels crushing as it climbs onto my back and I manage to turn my face slightly to the left so I can suck in tiny gulps of air. There’s searing, burning pain along the back of my head. Dark hot liquid seeps into the pillow around me and onto the couch. I can’t scream. I can’t move. Something sharp stabs into my head over and over, but the feelings are too intense and I remember nothing else. Forget.

When I wake up grandma has made pancakes and I eat them without touching the spot on the back of my head that pounds and throbs. It’s nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing. She smiles and we drink tea. I’m going to be okay. It’s all over now.

“It’s remarkable. I can’t believe how much better you look. Your cheeks are pink and you actually smiled when you saw me. Grandma’s healing powers have done it again!”

Mom’s laughing and pulling me to her. She’s warm and smells like lavender and the pink cream she puts on her face at night. I want her to hold me for a long time but I push away dramatically and give her a smile. I’m fine, mom. Don’t you worry about your boy. I’m good.

Sleep comes quickly when we return home but it’s not peaceful. I wake to the fog pouring in from around my bedroom window and the horrible rotting smell. Don’t look. You are having a bad dream. It flips me, sits on my back, and I’m helpless to whatever it’s doing to the back of my head. Hot liquid. Burning pain. The sound of snipping like metal scissors. Why did I go into the woods? Why didn’t I tell grandma what happened? It feels so real, but it can’t be. This can’t be happening.

I wake up on the floor, sweating and in pain. Running my hand down the back of my head I find something there. It feels like the stitches I had when I cut open my knee hiking in the woods last year, only much bigger. Running into the bathroom I grab my dad’s shaving mirror and angle it so I can look at the back of my head. Stitches, fat and uneven, run down the back of my head. I touch the sharp tips of the red thread and scream.

Dropping the mirror to the ground I scream. Mom rushes to my side. She’s in her plaid nightgown and brown fuzzy slippers. Rubbing her eyes she looks from me to the shattered mirror on the floor.

“What happened? Are you okay?”

“Mom, did I have surgery?”

“What?”

“Did I have surgery or something? On my head.”

“You are worrying me. No. You didn’t have surgery. What’s wrong?”

Turning around I show her my head and she says nothing. I touch the stiff stitches in a line from the top of my head to the base of my neck. They are there. I can feel them.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?”

She’s staring at me now with tears in her eyes. I can tell by the fear on her face she can’t see them. Maybe they aren’t there. It’s part of the dream or hallucination or something. It’s not real. None of this is real. I shrug and try to smile.

“Must have been a bad dream, mom. I’m okay.”

She says I look terrible and asks me if I’m worried about seeing Chrissy on the first day of school. When I tell her I don’t know that name, her face falls. She puts her hand on my forehead.

“I’m not sick. It was a bad dream. I’m okay mom.”

The next few nights are some version of the same—fog, blood, sharp sounds, and pain when I wake up. I avoid touching the back of my head anymore and take handfuls of Motrin every few hours. Whatever is happening with me, it’s nothing. Probably brought on by stress. Forget. Forget. Forget.

Rockford Academy starts on Monday. My first few classes are fine but something strange happens at lunch. A beautiful blonde cheerleader with bright blue eyes comes up to me and says we need to talk. When I tell her I don’t know her, she gets angry and throws my lunch tray on the ground.

“What do you mean you don’t know me?”

“I’m sorry but I’ve never seen you before.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Asshole.”

Her friends give me dirty looks and surround her as she walks away. I have no idea what happened but when I look at my best friend he’s shaking his head so hard that his long, blonde hair covers his eyes.

“Damn dude,” Henry says. “That was harsh bro. Chrissy seems really hurt.”

“I don’t know her.”

“Fine, fine. If that’s how you want to play it but you are coming across like a jerk. You’ve been good friends since grade school. Maybe you could be cool, you know? Be her friend?”

Without thinking I touch the spot on my head and shiver as I feel the sharp points of the stitches poke my fingers. It’s still there. I want to tell Henry about my time in the woods, about the nightmares and the fog, but I don’t want to risk him not believing me. I don’t have a lot of friends and I want to try and be normal again. We eat our lunch and talk about music. We make plans to hang out together on the weekend and maybe see a movie.

I’m a senior and classwork counts now. I’ve got the school newspaper, marching band, trigonometry, English, history, and debate. There’s no time to worry about anything else. Forget. Forget. Forget.

On Friday another strange thing happens. A boy in a Nirvana t-shirt sits beside me at lunch. He runs his hand through his long, blonde hair and makes fun of my colorful socks. I try and ignore him, but he punches me on the arm and ruffles my hair. I don’t like anyone touching my head, so I try and move away from him. He follows me and asks what movie we are going to see this weekend.

“I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

“What the hell, bro!”

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t know you.”

“Henry. Your best friend. Why are you being so weird? You’ve been so fucked up since the whole Chrissy thing. I’ve tried to be cool but this is going too far.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know you and I don’t know any Chrissy.”

“Fuck you, Theo.”

He punches me on the arm and walks away. Something about the exchange makes me cry. I run into the bathroom and text my mom to come to get me. She said Henry had already texted her and she thought it was time I saw a doctor. I agreed.

Doctor Brandywine has been my pediatrician since I was a baby. He dresses in colorful Hawaiin shirts and always calls me “my man.” He and my mom discuss possible underlying conditions, headaches, memory loss, and insomnia. It feels like I’m no longer able to follow their conversation and I worry the dreams are killing me. Forget. Forget. Forget.

The doctor and then the psychiatrist find nothing wrong with me but they whisper things like “depression” and “break up” and “not like himself.” They start me on medication but it just makes me sleep more. I get dizzy spells and I pass out. My pillow’s covered in blood only I can see.

The nightmares continue and I think maybe I should talk about them but I fear they will grill me on the details and I don’t have them. It’s all fog and invisible stitches. Pain and clicking sounds. Nobody will believe me.

Maybe I’m having one of those existential crisis things I’ve read about—a separation of fantasy and reality. They change my meds. I get worse. More people yell at me. I stop going to school and I blackout and lose time. Food tastes terrible.

I’m driving in the car with a woman who is crying softly. Her brown hair has fallen out of a colorful butterfly clip and her green eyes are swollen and red. She touches my hand.

“Get better, son,” she says.

I don’t know her. There are voices and I’m aware I’m crying but then the fog comes again. And the pain.

“Tell me what happened in the woods.”

I’m laying on grandma’s couch and she’s sitting in a rocking chair beside me knitting something with bright orange string. My hand goes up to the place on the back of my head and I shiver. Watching her sharp silver knitting needles I focus on the small clicking sound. 

“You can tell me anything, Theo. I believe you.”

Grandma’s unblinking eyes meet mine. Shivering, I speak as fast and low as I can, afraid I’ll fall asleep again or not be able to fully form the words. Grandma keeps knitting but she leans closer. Her rocking chair creaks.

“When I went into the woods something happened. A thing heard me saying I wanted to forget and it sort of attacked me…crawled inside me. It…it started to come to me in dreams. When I’m asleep I feel it…but I can’t see it…”

I close my eyes and the image of a creature comes to me for the first time—a hulking, hunched nightmarish form wet and horrible. Tears flow along with tidal waves of fear. Grandma places her knitting in a wicker basket beside her rocker and leans forward.

“Did you drink from the stream?”

The stream. It takes me a minute to remember what she’s talking about. Then it hits me.

“No…I got scared and ran from the woods without drinking the water. Should I have?”

Grandma nods, stands, and paces back and forth in front of me in maroon and grey wool socks with slow shuffling steps. Tiny rainbows from the crystal prisms hanging in the windows dance across the dusty wooden floor. Her breath sounds even and calm.

“Theo, what does this thing do?”

“I don’t know…I guess it hurts me…my head…there’s stitches…but only I feel them.”

Grandma sits beside me on the couch. She grabs my hands in hers and I can feel she’s shaking…or maybe it’s me. The sunlight from the window behind her makes her white hair glow around her face. She’s beautiful.

Reaching up I feel the bumpy sharp ends of the stitches forming a jagged line down the back of my head. I’m scared the creature will hurt grandma but she peels up my hand and runs hers along the same spot anyway. Her touch is gentle. There are tears in her eyes when she jerks her hand away.

“You feel them, don’t you? You believe me?”

“I do.”

For a moment I’m happy someone believes me but it transforms in an instant into suffocating fear. If grandma feels the stitches then it’s all real. That horrible thing has been cutting open my head each night. I don’t know what to do with this terror, so I bury my head into her chest and sob.

“Theo. There’s no time for crying. You need to be strong.”

She rises and I follow her into the kitchen wiping my eyes and nose on my sleeves. Pulling down tiny bottles of herbs from shelves around the kitchen I watch her mix them in a pestle, grinding them and adding them to a little wooden bowl. She pulls out a glass jar full of water and fills the big black tea kettle.

“Water from the stream of life.”

When she sets the kettle onto the stove I feel suddenly light-headed and lay down on the floor. Her voice calls to me from far away but I can’t call back. I’m drifting off and it’s coming for me.

The fog enters from every crack in the cabin wetting everything it touches. There’s an awareness I didn’t have before and I’m able to see myself lying helpless on the floor. I can’t do anything but watch as an enormous wet creature slithers across the floor to me making a horrible sucking sound.

It’s got damp dark skin covered with tiny red dots of blood I only see when it’s really close to me. Its long, thin fingers end at hooked nails as sharp as knives. There are hollow places where eyes and a nose should be and it makes a terrible, deep groan when it’s close. It’s got no lips and endless rows of sharp pointy teeth. I hate it.

Using its sharp nails, I feel it snip the red stitches along the back of my head and then pry back the skin to reveal a grotesque scene. Inside my head, on my brain, are stitches etched like embroidery. It’s a word and it looks to have been stitched over and over. It’s thick and red.

Using one of its horrible nails it slices open its frog-skinned arm and pulls out a long, thin cord of red blood. Pulling a tooth from its mouth with a sickening pop it threads a tiny black hole at the base and begins to stitch over the word, adding another layer. The word shines wet with fresh blood pouring onto the floor around me. Forget. Forget. Forget.

Opening my eyes I find I’m laying on a floor with an old woman standing over me with flowing grey hair spilling around her face. She gives me her hand and helps me to my feet. Rosemary and wool. Mint and mushrooms.

“It’s okay, Theo. It’s all going to be okay.”

“Do I know you?”

She hands me a thick clay mug full of dark brown tea which smells like fresh dirt with a hint of honey. It feels warm in my hands and I realize I’m shivering and damp. The woman’s eyes are kind and she leads me to a plaid couch.

“Drink it all, Theo.”

It’s bitter, hot, and burns as I swallow it. She watches me from a rocking chair while knitting a pair of bright orange socks with two sharp silver needles. There’s a flickering fire in the hearth giving off a strong cedar smell. I’m dizzy and I fall to my side on the couch and drop the cup onto the floor.

Pain hits my stomach and with a horrifying gasp I realize she’s poisoned me. It’s too late. Shaking violently a sharp stab of pain slams into the back of my head. No. I don’t want to die! She keeps rocking and knitting. Why isn’t she helping me? It feels as if I’m being torn into two from the back of my head. I scream and she’s by my side.

“It’s almost over. You are doing really well.”

She pulls me to an upright position with surprisingly strong arms and holds a large wooden bowl in front of me as the spasms in my stomach turn more violent. Bright red strings mixed with blood erupt from inside me and she pulls at them. I gag and choke. It lasts for several minutes and when it’s over I fall back onto my side.

“You did it, Theo. It’s gone now. It won’t come back.”

Grandma tosses the contents of the bowl into the fire and I watch it burn and sizzle. She places a pair of newly knitted orange socks on my feet and hands me a cup of clear water. It tastes wonderful and I drink it all. Chrissy. Theo. Mom. I remember.

“You will be okay now.”

She kisses my head and pulls me close. The water makes me feel warm and safe. Chrissy may have left me, but it doesn’t mean my life has to end. I have people who love me and I’m going to be okay.

Author’s note: I’m on a road trip with my teenage daughter this week and she challenged me to write something scary. We came up with the idea together while driving across Oregon but I pretty clearly need practice in writing suspense and horror. Let me know what you think and thanks for supporting me and my writing.


Short Story Challenge | Week 29

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 an unexpected visitor shaking things up. We had to include tightrope, nightingale, underline, risk, academy, existential, outlook, Friday, gobble, and grill.


Write With Us

Prompt: Parents solve a problem together

Include: rhinoceros, umbrella, announcement, petal, feather, fruit, placement, sketch, wobble, boil


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

One Thing | A Short Story

No. 1

The family’s in trouble. I’m not supposed to intervene, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact they may die. I think I care.

“Hey!” the mother calls to me. “Can you help me with the groceries?”

She got her nails done again. This time she’s painted them a bright shade of blue with tiny fake diamonds glued on the tips. I can’t keep track of how many colors they have been since I arrived, but I wonder if I should have. At least 5, but it could be as much as 8. Although I did plenty of research before coming here, it’s much different seeing these kinds of things in person. I resist the urge to touch them.

“Sure!” I say.

Grabbing two brown paper bags from the trunk of her shiny black SUV, I hope I’ve gotten the tone of my voice right. I keep getting it wrong and people stare at me. There are so many nuisances to speech I simply don’t get and my time is almost up.

Peeking inside the bags as I walk up the rose-lined walkway, I take note of the contents; cilantro, bananas, apples, a bag of tortilla chips, and a loaf of sweet-smelling bread. I make a list in my head for my report. I don’t know what questions I’ll be asked when I return tomorrow. I should have been writing things down. I’ll do better next time.

“Everything okay?” the mother asks. “You seem lost in thought…well you always do, but even more so today.”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

I met her on my first day here while standing on a black iron bridge overlooking a murky duck pond. She came up beside me with a clear plastic bag of bread. She ripped the square slices into tiny pieces and threw them into the water. She had bright yellow nails and I remember thinking “banana fingers.” As I watched the ducks fight for the white lumps of bread, several large open mouths appeared. I gasped and jumped back, for a moment forgetting where I was. She laughed.

“I like you,” she said. “You are weird.”

After letting me throw the rest of the bread pieces into the water, she insisted I walk with her to a place called Freddy’s a few blocks over. Dark and smoky inside, she taught me how to drink vodka martinis. You must hold the glass with one hand and never eat the olive until the drink is gone. You take tiny sips and there’s a lot of talking about things and telling men to “fuck off” when they walk over.

“Now we have to reapply lipstick,” she said when our third drink was gone. “So we don’t look dead.”

She showed me how to pull off the silver cap, twist the bottom and draw the bright pink color across my soft lips. It tasted terrible, but she said sharing makeup makes us friends. I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be a friend and if perhaps it could be my one thing. I’m not sure I get it.

Sitting my bags of groceries on the kitchen counter, I watch her reach above the stove to put away two bottles of clear liquor. Her sweatshirt pulls up and I see the large purple butterfly tattooed on her lower back. She told me it was a stupid thing she did in college, but I like it. I wish I could get one.

The children come running down the stairs to rummage through the bags for something to eat. Twins with the same color hair as their mother, but with the fast-talking pace of their father. The speed and volume of their conversation makes me temporarily unable to do anything but stand with my human mouth open.

“Earth to Edith,” the girl says.

She taps me on the side of my head with her tiny, pudgy finger.

“Come in Edith,” the boy says.

They both laugh and I join in. Perhaps laughing can be my one thing. I lean into it more, savoring how it makes this human form feel inside. It’s a pleasant warmth I feel radiating from my chest. The more I do it, the more affectionate I feel towards those I do it with. Laughter is a bonding agent, I think.

It’s very different from the feeling I felt when the dad held his dirty black gun to my temple last night.

***

No. 4,762

Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.

I shut my tiny black notebook and slip it and my gold pen back into my pocket. Other words flow and float with me as I walk slowly along the jagged water line created by the continuously flowing ocean waves. As I finish my allotted time on this jeweled planet of contraction and beauty, I’m still not satisfied I’ve captured the one thing I can share when I leave tomorrow.

A rounded bubble in the sand catches my eye and I walk toward it on human feet. It’s a dead jellyfish, a translucent blob with four brain-like pink circles inside its liquid squishy form. I kneel in the wet sand and touch it with my pale human finger.

“You shouldn’t touch that,” a little girl says.

“Why?” I ask.

“It can sting you.”

“I think it’s dead.”

“It can still sting you.”

“Are you sure?”

She digs her small toes into the sand and looks at me with watery wide brown eyes. There’s a smattering of freckles across her nose and she’s not smiling. I can tell my question has hurt her feelings and made her question a truth she thought was irrefutable. There’s trembling energy coming from her. I forget how fragile youth can be.

“You are probably right,” I say. “Thank you.”

“Here,” she says.

Opening her tiny fist she presents on her palm an off-white round seashell with a five-pointed petal shape in the center. Remaining crouched in the sand I smile at her and run my fingers along the raised rough ridges. She smiles and I can see dimples appear in her puffy pink cheeks.

“What a great find,” I say.

“You can have it,” she says. “I have a lot of them.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. We come here all the time and I have tons! I’m so good at finding them.”

“Thank you. I will treasure it.”

“I’m Lucille, but everyone calls me Lucy.”

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Edith.”

She smiles and runs back to her mother who lies on a blanket reading a book under a bright rainbow umbrella. I see the mother, dressed in a black bathing suit with a pink wraparound skirt, visibly relax when her child returns and realize I’d been watched closely as I interacted with her young.

I was a suspect, a potential danger in a lineup of things this mother must protect her child from. Rolling onto her back, she pulls her child onto her, hugging her with both arms. I pull out my notebook and pen.

Protective peony. Warming waterlily. Loving lavender. Cradling chyrisanthamum.

***

No. 1

The father comes in and slams his fist on the counter. A jar of paintbrushes topples over spilling its grayish-green water across the white tiles. The mother quickly pulls up her silver purse and the children make a little squeaking sound before scampering upstairs with the bag of chips and two small cans of soda from the fridge.

The mother slinks to the father and puts her arms around his waist, pressing her body into his. She makes a kind of cooing sound, but he doesn’t notice. His lips are pressed tight.

“We are in trouble,” he says.

“How bad?”

“Bad…”

He notices me and makes a sound reminding me of the crows in the cornfields where we landed, a warning sound of alarm and distress. I try to look smaller, shrinking back into the corner of the yellow kitchen, but he’s peeled the mother off and walks with slow swaggering steps toward me.

“What are you doing here?” he says.

The mother steps between us placing both her hands on his wide chest. He takes a deep breath, swelling out like a pufferfish. She shrinks as he pulls the black gun from his waistband and points it at my face.

“I asked you a fucking question?” he says. “What are you doing here?”

“Putting away groceries,” I say.

“What do we even know about her?” he says to the mother. “She could be the one who tipped them off about us. It’s all gone to shit and she’s the only thing different around here. You found her at the fucking park. What did you think would happen?”

“Babe,” the mother says. “She’s like stupid or something. You know that. She’s harmless, you know? Like a stray pup that’s been kicked. Just look at her.”

I stare at the small circle at the end of the gun and not at their faces—his angry and hers scared. Weapons are familiar to me, although we don’t use them anymore I remember a time when our people did. I could tell him about how bad this will all go, but I say nothing. I am not supposed to intervene.

“Shit,” he says.

“Babe,” she says.

“We are fucked,” he says.

He lowers the gun but I don’t dare to move. She slips her arm around his waist and guides him from the kitchen. I’m putting away the rest of the groceries when the men come. They kick in the front door and begin shooting.

Human blood is red. 

Maybe that’s the one thing I can divinely share.

No, I think I’ll stick with laughter.

***

No. 4,762

A light green ball rolls across the wet sand and lands beside my toes. Before I have time to react, a furry brown dog snatches it up with slobbering quickness and dashes back toward its owner standing along the sand dunes in an oversized sunhat. I wave at them, but they don’t wave back. Perhaps the sun has turned me into a shapeless shadow and they don’t see my raised hand. I put it back down.

The brightness of the green orb in the dark brown sand reminds me of the dancing beauty of the fractured sky the humans call the Aurora Borealis. It happens when excited electrons release light to create a crackling show of vivid colors. It can feel violent, like an explosion, like a gun blast. I spin around the quiet beach and look for signs of angry fathers or men with guns, but see none. It was a long time ago, I remind myself. You are much older now and understand a lot more. I take out my notebook and pen.

Firestone feathers. Fatherly fauna. Festal fires. Feverish foes.

Entangled memories war within me, the past and the present swirling into and out of focus. Of all the planets I’ve been to and all the things I’ve collected, the memory of my first mission clings to me and won’t let go. I could not have saved them, yet I feel like I could have. It’s why I’ve been allowed this rare second visit to Earth—to heal. It’s to be my final mission.

I stare into the vast watery ocean and take a deep breath. In and out, like the water, like the tides, like the flow of all things. In and out.

The capacity to calm oneself on all planets has surprised me. There’s always an in and out, it just looks different on each planet and with each species we inhabit. These missions, while difficult, aid in our knowledge of the complexity of all things. It allows us to see the bigger picture. Gathering truth is our salvation and I will miss it.

A cluster of seagulls take flight squawking loudly as the little freckled girl and her mother run into the cold water holding hands and laughing. They squeal as a foamy wave crashes into their bare legs and they run back onto the dry land. I watch them do this over and over, the thrill of chasing a wave and playing tag with the icy water.

I close my eyes and savor the sound of their laughter. My first one thing.

Opening my eyes I see the mother wrapping a thick orange towel around the shivering child. She kisses her face and hugs her tight. They rock back and forth and the mother begins to sing. It’s a simple tune, a humming really, but the feeling ripples across the beach and into my arms. I wrap it into my shirt and cradle it to me.

It’s warm and big, my new one thing.

My last one thing.

Me and my babes when they were little.

Author’s note: Oh, this prompt threw me all over the place. I struggled for several days writing all kinds of ideas in my journal which all kept sounding like either Star Trek episodes or rather quite strange commentaries about society or politics. I ended up landing on the idea of an alien poet sent to Earth for inspiration and so began the lines “Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.” As the alien began walking the beach, however, something shifted. I found my alien was more interested in a singular idea, as I suppose I was, than a bank of words for poetry. This led me to write what would then become the beginning. Originally I saw it as an entirely different alien having a completely different experience on Earth, but it too shifted when I figured out they were the same alien on thier last mission.

The experience of discovery when writing these stories is perhaps the biggest mystery to me. Each week it unfolds in a different way. It’s a mystery I hope I never solve, as finding my path to the tale is half the fun. While this story might have ended up being the very cliched thing I was trying to avoid, I’m happy I found it. Please let me know what you think and thank you so much for reading.


Short Story Challenge | Week 19

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 a story with an alien in disguise among humans. We had to include the Aurora Borealis, paintbrush, cornfield, cluster, lineup, overlook, suspect, bridge, dome, and dash.


Write With Us

Next week’s prompt: A young child makes a discovery

Include: Superman, ginkgo Biloba, cavern, clicker, aloe, moviegoer, stretch, fury, yardstick, makeup


My 52 Week Challenge Journey