When the Snow Falls | A Short Story

Although the moon has been in the sky for several hours, it’s too warm for the children to sleep. They lay in matching brass beds in the large stone room, sweaty and restless in thin white linen pajamas. A few of the younger children whisper and giggle to themselves, but most are simply waiting, staring at the night sky through the high rectangular windows.

Winnie runs her hand along the stones feeling the heat from the day still living inside the granite. When she approaches the room of the children she begins to hum to herself a tune from a long-ago memory. The children shift when she arrives and she allows the song to move through her and out her full pink lips.

“Cold the wind blows through the trees
Cold the wind lives within me.
Cold are voices in the night
Cold are visions lost from sight.”

Her hand moves to her blinded eyes, opaque white with a hint of blue, and she presses her palm into them. Fionn sits up. She wants to say words of comfort to the woman who has taken her in, who cares for all the unforgotten children of the village in her castle on the hill, but she doesn’t have the words. They seem locked within her and she looks across the room to where her best friend Drift sits with his knees tucked up under him. He’s staring at Winnie. They all are.

“Into the village, I dance and sway,
Feeling the coldness melt away.
Into the water, I sink and dive,
Feeling the world around me alive.”

Winnie begins to dance, a slow twirling movement with her arms out. Her sundress, a soft light blue color, twirls around her knees. Her red hair falls from the wooden clip holding it at the top of her head spilling into beautiful ringlets around her oval face. She seems lost in her song, spinning and dancing around the room with a sweet smile on her face. She’s breathtaking.

When she reaches the furthest wall of the room, she stops. Some of the children are sitting up and the little ones are whispering to each other again. Winnie opens a wooden chest and pulls out the purple glass bottle with the little off-white squeeze ball at the end. She turns back to them, smiles warmly, and begins.

“Once upon a time the people of this land lived in a world of changing seasons and peaceful harmony. Each one had its own Queen who presided over it for three months of the year. They took turns ruling, each spreading their own magic over the land.

The May Queen with a giant crown of daffodils upon her head arrived in spring bringing rain showers, dancing breezes, and colorful blooming flowers. She called the birds to sing and the rabbits to run.

The Sunshine Queen dressed in shades of brilliant orange arrived in summer bringing darting dragonflies, longer days, and sparkling waters. She called the melons to ripen and the bumble bees to buzz.

The Leaf Queen dressed in a flowing willow gown arrived in autumn bringing crisp cool air, swirling winds, and turning the land to shades of brown. She called the pumpkins to swell and the leaves to fall.

The Snow Queen with glittery long white hair arrived in winter bringing biting coldness, sharp icicles, and fields of crystal white snow. She called the bear to sleep and the hearth to be lit.”

Although Fionn and the other children hear this story every night, it always enchants them. They don’t move, mesmerized by her words, captivated by a world that seems at once make-believe and real. Winnie lowers her voice now, saying the next part in almost a whisper.

“All of this changed when the Snow Queen became jealous. Feeling left out and angry, she locked the other Queens into tiny cells within her icy palace. She cursed the lands, her wrath spreading like a virus, leaving the people to suffer through wars, plague, and famine. The natural tranquility and balance of the world transformed into chaos and selfishness.”

Winnie spins in a circle holding the purple bottle out in front of her with extended arms. She dances as she finishes up the story, singing the last part with a voice as soft as the water lapping the shore of the lake. The children all sit up now.

“Still, to this day, the Queens remain locked away in the Snow Queen’s icy palace awaiting children of pure hearts to rise up and heal the lands. You, my sweet ones, are those children! You are the ones we have been waiting for. Your kindness, warmth, and love are all we need to rid the world of the Snow Queen’s infectious curse. You, my darling little children of the land, will free us all!”

Overcome with joy the children clap. They always clap. Winnie takes a small bow and giggles. Fionn and Drift, older than the rest, smile across the room at each other. They no longer believe in Queens or curses, but remember how good it felt to think love could heal the world and save them from the harshness of reality.

“Now it’s time to rest little ones,” Winnie says. “Lay down.”

Starting with the first bed, she walks down the line, kissing the forehead of each child and then spraying them with a fine mist of fresh lavender water. She whispers “sweet dreams” and “you are loved” to each child. Fionn watches the little ones curl into a ball with a smile on their faces and fall asleep almost instantly.

Feeling tears ache behind her tired eyes, Fionn shifts from side to side. She waits until Winnie leaves and she’s certain all the children are asleep before allowing herself to cry. Drift crosses the room and quietly slips in beside her. He wraps his thin arms around her pulling her close. They both have the same shade of brown hair, but while Fionn has dull green eyes, Drift’s are a brilliant blue.

Despite the heat, they cling to each other—the misery passing between them without the need for words. They’ve had to bury a few of the small ones lately because they got heat sick and they couldn’t get them cool. The truth is far bleaker than any bedtime story.

The windmills don’t move anymore. The cypress trees have shriveled and fallen. The temperatures keep rising and rising. The cooling waters of the lake are receding, and when they dry up, no amount of hope and love will save them. The young teenagers hold each other until exhaustion dries their tears and they fall into a dreamless sleep.

The children rise with the sun, as they do each day. After eating a quick breakfast of dried fruit and nuts, they hike to the lake. Winnie, despite having no vision, leads the way with the youngest child tied to her back with a winding piece of white cotton. They are almost to the water when the sound of hooves on the hard-packed ground makes them stop.

“What’s that?” Winnie asks.

“A man on horseback,” Fionn says.

“He’s headed right for us,” Drift says.

A golden-red horse, its coat shining bright as the sun, gallops toward them leaving a trail of dust behind it. The rider pulls the reins and suddenly stops in front of them. He’s a large man with a shiny bald head, a round fat belly, and a fluffy red beard sprinkled with golden flecks of light.

He laughs and slides off a saddle of polished dark leather flinging a huge red velvet sack onto his shoulder. He seems unfazed by the heat standing in shiny black boots, red pants, and a matching red jacket lined in white fur. There are thick gold rings on every finger.

Fionn and Drift feel ripples of unease circling around them. This man and his presence endanger them all. They inch closer together and protectively stand holding hands in front of Winnie and the other children.

“Who goes there?” Winnie calls.

“My lady,” the man says. “I’m Arki. I was told of the blind woman of unspeakable beauty who lives by the lake with the children of the land and I see their descriptions of you fall terribly short. You are the goddess of my dreams and I bow to you and bring gifts.”

Winnie blushes as she unwinds the long piece of fabric from around her waist, pulls the toddler from his spot on her back, and sets him on the hot ground. He begins to cry. Fionn rushes forward and scoops the blonde boy into her arms soothing him with soft kisses on his warm head. Arki’s eyes are dull and grey. His lips small and tight.

There’s an odd look on Winnie’s face as she lets the fabric fall in a heap on the ground and smoothes out her soft blue sundress with both hands, stepping toward the stranger. Arki bows before Winnie, beaming at her. Drift wants to yell “she’s blind and can’t see you” but a worried look from Fionn stops him.

Arki winks, setting down the velvet sack on the ground in front of him, and pulls out bags of candy, bottles of sugary drinks, and toys. He hands them to the children who rush forward grabbing greedily at the presents. The man laughs and his belly shakes. Drift grabs Fionn’s hand again, squeezing it tight and pulling her closer to him.

“What’s happening?” Winnie asks Drift.

He tells her of the gifts, of the man’s huge stature, and adds a bit about how he looks “untrustworthy.” Winnie doesn’t seem to be listening. She walks closer and closer to the man. There’s something enchanting about him she doesn’t understand—a pull that feels at once magical and comfortable. She feels him deep inside her bones. When she reaches out and touches him, the man holds his hand to his heart and stumbles back three steps.

“Warda,” Arki says in a whisper. “My love.”

“Her name is Winnie,” Fionn says.

Winnie says nothing, but the name Warda rings through her like a bell— both wrong and right. The connection is unmistakable and irresistible. She sways and finds she can barely stand. Electic sparks shoot through her body taking over. She’s not in control but doesn’t care. To surrender to him feels as natural as breathing. To be his is all she’s ever wanted.

No words are spoken as the two adults circle each other, a sort of imperial dance of old passing between them. The children watch as the woman they know and love seems to fall away from them in an instant. Arki pulls Winnie to him, sweeping her off her feet. They dance to music only they can hear as the children watch with fear and confusion.

After a few minutes, Arki pulls Winnie onto his horse, swinging her into place behind him. She wraps her arms around his thick waist and nuzzles her face into the fur of his big coat. The children watch with wide eyes as the horse lunges forward at full gallop toward the castle on the hill. She doesn’t look back or call out to them.

Fionn and Drift lead the other children to the water and keep them safe during the heat of the day. They kiss the little ones’ cheeks and tell them it will all be okay. They keep them cool and feed them jam and bread for lunch. They hold their tiny hands and sing songs with them. When it’s time to return to the castle the teenagers feel the last beautiful drops of childhood melt away from them. They are in charge now and they are in real danger.

In the days to come, the children do their best to stay clear of the strange and powerful man who has taken over their home and their Winnie. There’s little doubt he’s a supernatural being, a larger-than-life monster who commands them to either fetch things for him or stay away. His fiery voice thunders at all times through the stone walls and the children grow more and more hopeless.

They rarely see Winnie, but when they do, she’s unrecognizable in fire-red dresses of silk with thick gold necklaces of bright, fat rubies. Her hair has grown longer and turned a light caramel color. She drinks golden goblets of wine and lounges by the empty hearth on piles of furs. There are no more bedtime stories. No more kisses or lavender water. No more talking to her at all. She’s become Arki’s lover, Warda.

As days turn into weeks, Fionn and Drift know they must do something. On a cloudy night, after the other children have fallen asleep, they sneak on bare feet through the castle to spy on the couple. They find Winnie sleeping alone on a pile of furs before the empty hearth. Rushing to her, they grab her shoulders and shake her.

“Winnie! Please, Winnie. Wake up! Please! We need you!”

No matter how hard they try, shaking her and pleading, she doesn’t stir. The sound of Arki’s booming voice causes them both to jump. They follow the sound and find Arki standing naked in the bright moonlight. He throws back his head, howls at the sky, and runs toward the lake.

The children follow him, running as fast as they can to keep up and stop behind a muddy boulder near the shoreline. They watch him walk into the lake until he’s standing with the water to his chest. He begins to drink. It’s not like a normal person, cupping water into their hands and sipping. No. This is something else entirely.

He thrusts his head under the water and sucks and sucks. He doesn’t come up for air, but rather continues to drink as the water around him begins to pull from the shore. He’s draining the lake! He’s the reason the water pulls away more and more each day. The children have to cover their mouths to not scream as he finally stands, the water now around his shins.

Heat radiates from him in ripples causing the ground around them to crack further and the boulder to become so hot they are forced to inch away from it. Arki walks out of the water pressing his large hands together forming a ball of fire he plays with, tossing it up and catching it before throwing it at one of the few remaining trees. It burns bright in the dark night.

Fionn and Drift don’t move or speak long after Arki has disappeared back toward Winnie and the castle on the hill. They watch the tree until there’s nothing left but a pile of glowing ash.

“What are we going to do?” Fionn says.

She’s crying now. Drift tries to pull her to him but she pushes him away. Despair feels thick around her, like a heavy golden chain tightening around her throat. She pounds her fist on the hard ground.

“What can we do?” Drift says.

“We have to do something! He’s a monster! We will die if we don’t do something. The children will die. We can’t let him do this. There has to be a way. There has to be.”

There’s silence for a minute before Drift speaks. His voice is quiet and hesitant, a tiny whisper against the dark.

“We could go into the tunnels.”

Fionn shudders at the idea. Long ago Winnie warned them to stay away from the tunnels under the castle because they are unstable and hold the heat. They both know most of the old things are down there, covered in ancient dust, and perhaps answers. They look at each other and nod. It’s the only way.

The entrance to the tunnels is blocked by a heavy wooden desk in the old library. The books were burned long ago by invaders along with Winnie’s family. She couldn’t make it to the fortified tower in time, but she survived by hiding in the tunnels for weeks, eating old bottles of jam, and drinking wine. The children know this because they once found her weeping in the library when they should have been asleep. It was the one time she told them of the past.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” she told them. “You children are the hope for the world. Remember that. Yes, there are bad people and bad things. Bad things happen to us but we don’t have to let them define us. We can still be good. We can still be kind. Don’t ever forget that.”

Fionn and Drift don’t like to break rules, but they know what must be done. They brace their feet against the wall and press their backs into the hulking desk. It moves slowly inch by inch and they pause every few minutes to listen for the sound of Arki or Winnie. It’s a long time before the small door of light wood is fully exposed. The pair hold hands and stand before it, already tired from the effort.

“Winnie isn’t herself,” Fionn says. “So it’s not wrong. Right? We have to do this.”

“Sometimes you have to break the rules to save others. We have no other choice.”

“I hate this.”

“Me, too.”

Holding hands they enter the tunnel and shut the door behind them. It’s pitch dark and they both wish they’d thought to bring some kind of torch with them. Fearing the naked Arki they saw at the lake and what will happen with the water is gone, they let go of each other’s hands and use the wall to guide them down the spiraling stone steps.

The further they go the hotter and thicker the air becomes. By the time they reach the bottom of the stairs they have become drenched in sweat and have bright red faces. Both feel as if they are ill with high fevers. A small light far off to their right suddenly appears. It’s bright after so much darkness and they reach for each other’s hands at the same time. Both of them are shaking.

Unsure if they are seeing things, they inch toward the light, staying so close their shoulders and knees bump into each other. They find a small metal torch with a bright yellow flame sitting in a shiny brass holder. They spin around looking for who may have lit it, but don’t see or hear anyone.

“This is weird,” Drift says.

“You think?”

“Maybe we should go back.”

“Back to what? We need to find answers and we already took the risk and came down here. There’s no other choice. We can’t keep doing nothing.”

“I know, but I don’t like any of this.”

Fionn doesn’t either but she pulls the torch down anyway and holds it out in front of her. She’s about to ask what direction they should go when her hand is pulled sharply to the left, toward the entrance of another tunnel. It’s a terrifying feeling, but after what she’s seen Arki do, it feels as if she doesn’t have any other choice but to go with it. Something is guiding her and she’s choosing to believe it wants to help.

“This way,” she says without explaining the weird pulling sensation to Drift. She hopes she’s right to trust whatever this is.

The path slopes downward and they follow the torch as it guides them through turn after turn, deeper and deeper into the maze of tunnels. There’s little to see besides empty stone walls and locked metal doors until they reach a completely round room. There are two striped armchairs set before a roaring fire, an enormous red and blue faded rug, and a small table. It’s cozy and strange.

“Whoa,” Fionn says.

“Yeah. Whoa.”

They spin around expecting someone to be there, but find they are alone. Fionn places the torch into an empty holder by the door and turns to find Drift standing before the fire staring up at an enormous oil painting of a woman. As Fionn gets closer she can see the painting closely resembles Winnie, only this woman’s features are slightly more angular with thinner lips and a pointer nose. She’s sitting on a chair covered in white furs while wearing a bright-red silk dress. Her golden brown hair falls in glossy ringlets down to her waist. There’s a strange smile on her face which looks like she might be slightly in pain.

Drift suddenly gasps and points at the bottom of the elaborate golden frame. Fionn jumps.

“Look!” he says. “There’s a name on the plaque below it.”

“Warda!”

“Yes, the name Arki keeps calling Winnie. He must think she’s her or something. That has to be a clue. Right?”

“I guess…it’s definitely weird and spooky…as if this woman has taken over Winnie.”

“Exactly like that.”

Fionn and Drift stare at the painting in silence. There’s an odd coolness to this room despite the roaring fireplace and the heat of the tunnels. It would be refreshing if they weren’t so scared. They sit down in the chairs thinking and staring into the fire—neither has seen one except for occasionally in the kitchens when Winnie makes them stew. This one feels different and they wonder what kind of magic led them here and what this new information about Warda means. How can they free Winnie? How they can get rid of Arki? It feels impossible.

On the table between the chairs are two things; a box tied closed with a piece of leather wound around it several times and a handwritten note on yellowing paper. Drift leans closer and reads it out loud without touching it.

“My dearest Arki,
I’m sorry I can’t do it anymore. My heart has seen the darkness of the world and I can’t unsee it. Do not look into the mirror. Do not let it out into the world. I tried to destroy it, but it would not burn and it would not break. I wish I could stay with you forever, but my heart is broken and can’t be mended. I shall enter the water of the lake and never return.
Please forgive me,
Warda”

They stare at the box and imagine the mirror must be inside. Both shrink back from it and sit staring silent at the fire for a few minutes. Fionn is the first to speak, her voice quiet and careful.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

“We look in the mirror?”

“Are you crazy?”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

“This is no time for jokes.”

“I know. Sorry. We use the mirror, right?”

“We get Arki to look into it. Whatever happened to Warda may happen to him and…if it does…Winnie might be free.”

“Wait..he definitely knows about the mirror? He would, right? I mean…if Winnie is Warda.”

“Yeah. I guess so…we will have to trick him.”

“Trick him? Maybe…but I don’t know. It all seems so confusing. If Warda killed herself then why has she returned and taken over Winnie?”

“And who left this room for us to find?”

And guiding the touch, she thinks. They sit for a moment pondering these questions when the face of a small girl appears in the fire. At first, they both think they can’t be seeing what they are seeing, but there’s no denying it when she begins to speak. Her voice is echoey and soft.

“Use the mirror and save us all,” the voice says.

Fionn notices the girl has the same features as Warda and a thought occurs to her. Is this her child? Is this why Winnie has told them the story over and over that they will save everyone? How do they fit into all this? She leans forward and speaks to the strange floating face.

“Who are you?”

“My parents once ruled this castle, but they were not good people. You must stop them. If you don’t, they will rise again and again and these walls and this land shall never be free.”

Drift jumps up and almost yells in excitement at some kind of understanding. It’s unbelievable, yes, but it makes sense. The spirits of this girl’s parents haunt these lands. They have to stop them!

“Your parents?”

The face smiles, nods, and fades away. They sit for a few minutes both lost in thought of the other children, of Winnie, and of the journey still before them. At the same time, they rise, bumping into each other and laughing.

“We get Arki to look into the mirror,” Drift says.

“Then the curse will be broken and Winnie will return to herself.”

“Easy as pie.”

They give each other a short, awkward hug which turns into giggles. Drift tucks the box under his arm and Fionn grabs the torch and lets it guide them back through the maze until they reach the wooden door at the top of the stairs. They listen for a few minutes with their ears pressed against the wood, and after hearing nothing, open the door slowly. There’s no sign of Winnie or Arki. They did it.

Leaving the torch in a bracket at the tunnel entrance, they enter the quiet library and ease the door closed behind them. They decide to put the desk back so the smaller children don’t accidentally find the tunnels. It’s hard work, made worse by how tired and scared they both are. Once done, they make their way through the silent house creeping around corners until they reach the kitchen. They drink and drink from the small indoor well until some strength returns to their tired bodies.

“Tomorrow?” Drift whispers.

“Now,” Fionn whispers back. “Look!”

She points out the small window of the kitchen at the sun beginning to rise in the sky. The children will be waking soon. They will need to get them to the water. The time is now.

They race through the castle searching room after room and find no sign of either Winnie or Arki. They run outside and through the once beautiful grounds searching behind bushes and in the tiny dilapidated gazebos. A terrible wet, raspy sound echoes through the dead garden and they follow it until they find a man and a woman lying naked side by side at the bottom of an old fountain.

“I don’t like this,” Drift says.

“Me either,” Fionn says.

The woman’s got long stringy grey hair and her wrinkled body is covered in tiny burn marks. The man beside her looks to be hundreds of years old. A fragile, frail form of dust and smoke. Fionn screams as the man rises slowly to his feet. It’s not until they see his grey eyes that they realize it’s Arki.

“What are you doing here?” Arki says in a wheezy, ancient voice that makes him sound like the wind.

He’s moving toward them, aging in reverse, growing younger and fatter within moments. The red suit appears with a flash of fire and he holds his hands out in front of him. Drift jumps in front of Fionn.

“Stay back,” he says.

The man laughs, the fake jolliness of it gone now. It’s a horrible sound and both the children scramble back. Fionn fumbles with the leather holding the box as Drift grabs a large rock and holds it up in front of him.

“What are you going to do little boy? Are you going to throw a rock at me? I’ve lived hundreds of years and defeated men far greater than you. You have nothing on me. ”

The fireball they saw him conjure in the lake has appeared again and he tosses it back and forth in front of him. Winnie, as Warda, stirs but doesn’t climb out of the stone fountain. She looks at them with unseeing eyes and moves her head from side to side.

“Hey,” Fionn calls. “Over here!”

A few things happen at once. First, Drift lunges at Winnie pressing her back into the fountain. Second, Arki spins around and releases his fireball which misses Fion’s head by inches, crashing into the stone wall behind her leaving a charred black circle. Third, Fionn holds the golden mirror with both hands in front of her and Arki looks into it.

At first, nothing happens. Fionn closes her eyes and holds the mirror steady for what feels like minutes. Nobody makes a sound or moves until suddenly Arki growls and lunges at the mirror. He grabs it and within seconds it fuses to his hand. He runs from them screaming toward the lake, a fiery light glowing around him, heat blasting out in all directions.

Drift stands revealing the writhing and crying form of Winnie/Warda beneath him. The other children appear blinking and rubbing their eyes in the morning light. They cry out when they see Winnie in fear and confusion. A horrible scream followed by blasts of hot air explodes around them—Arki! Fionn scoops up the blond-haired toddler and Drift drapes the ancient form of Winnie/Warda across his left shoulder.

“Follow me,” Fionn says. “We need to get to the tower.”

They race into the castle and up the winding staircase of the fortified tower—the place generations of Winnie’s family used when war came to their doors. The children huddle together in the corner around the writhing form of Winnie, while Fionn and Drift stand on wooden crates to peer out the small stone window.

Arki stands in the center of the lake swollen up to more than ten times his normal size—a terrifying giant of a man. He’s still holding the golden mirror, they can see it glittering small in the palm of his enormous hand. He’s screaming and crying, growing and growing in size.

“Warda!” he cries. “My love!” 

With one final bellow, the swollen form of Arki explodes, turning into a tidal wave of water. It rushes across the land, refilling the lake, and slamming loudly against the tower only a few inches from the windows where Drift and Fionn stand. The tower doesn’t move or quake—it remains strong as ever.

Winnie, returning to her beautiful self in a flash, pulls the children to her trying to hug and kiss them all at once. Blasts of cold air fill the tower dancing through the children’s hair and blowing their clothes away from their bodies. Everyone giggles and jumps to their feet—the horrible heat is gone!

“You did it, my loves,” Winnie says. “You saved us all. I knew you would. I just knew it. I’m so proud of you.”

Her words feel cooler than the wind blowing through the windows and warmer than the hottest of days. When the excitement fades, Winnie sits on the floor as the sunlight streams in, casting everything in a golden yellow light. She starts to tell them a new story.

“Once upon a time a woman fell in love with a creature of the sun named Arki. Their love burned bright and beautiful, blessing the lands with joy and prosperity. On the day of their wedding, a day filled with light and warmth, the Snow Queen arrived in her white chariot to give the bride a golden mirror. She told her to look into it on the day her first child was born and it would bless the child with a long, healthy life.

The years went by and the woman forgot about the mirror until the day she gave birth to a striking baby girl with hair red as the sun. She named her daughter Willa and as she held her tight she remembered the mirror. That night, alone in her room while her baby slept in her cradle, she gazed into its shimmery surface. 

The mirror was a curse—a gift given out of jealousy and anger. Instead of showing the new mother a vision of her daughter’s happiness, it showed her all the evil and darkness of humanity. What she saw within the glass broke her heart into a million pieces.

Arki tried to patch her back together, but he could not. On the day of her daughter’s first birthday, she drowned herself in the lake. Arki found her body and wept and wept. His sadness turned into anger and he burst into flames blinding the firstborn of all the children thereafter, trapping the land in perpetual summer, and sending him back into the sun.”

Stopping and wiping the tears from her eyes she grabbed the hands of Drift and Fionn. She looked and smiled at the children making sure to make eye contact with each one. Pulling the littlest one into her lap she finished the story.

“Many, many years later the castle was filled with children. Beautiful, loving, kind children who brought it back to life despite the curse. Guided by the spirit of Willa they were given the mirror and they used it to free the kingdom forever. It was because of these children the people of her lands lived happily ever after with peace and love in their hearts.”

The children clapped. They always clapped. Winnie giggled.

It took a few days for the water to recede, but the tower was stocked with plenty of food, water, and blankets. For the first time in their lives, the children slept cuddled together clinging to the warmth they’d spent their lives cursing. They played games, they told stories, and they dreamed.

When they were able to step outside they found the sky darkened with grey clouds. The windmills spun. Tiny flecks of white fluttered around them, sticking to their hair and collecting in little piles on the ground. The littlest one among them jumped from Winnie’s arms and shoved the icy snowflakes into his mouth.

“Do you think the Snow Queen freed the other queens?” Fionn asked, throwing the tiniest of snowballs at Drift. She believed all the stories now.

“Absolutely,” he said, catching it and shoving it into his mouth.

“Good.”

Author’s note: Last week I watched the new Thor movie and there’s a powerful scene in the film which brought me to tears. Without giving anything away, it involves children fighting for themselves. I was struck by the power of this image and wanted to play with that a bit in my story this week. Using elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Snow Queen,” and other fairy tales I’ve loved throughout the years, I created this new story. This was perhaps the most fun I’ve had writing in the last 28 weeks and I truly hope you love it as much as I do. Let me know what you think!


Short Story Challenge | Week 28

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 getting away with murder. We had to include Snow Queen, windmill, tunnel, childhood, endanger, cypress, wine, horseback, temperature, and imperial.


Write With Us

Prompt: An unexpected visitor shakes things up

Include: tightrope, nightingale, underline, risk, academy, existential, outlook, Friday, gobble, grill


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Midnight Wedding Vows | A Short Story

An ant crawls along the edge of the tub, looking for a way out. I don’t want to kill it, but I’m scared it will lead others to me. It winds around the large bottle of rosemary mint shampoo he bought me after our last big fight and stops at the edge of my pink razor. I could squish it easily but I don’t.

I hear him packing things in the bedroom, loudly slamming books and clothes into his large black suitcase. I want to believe this is like all the times before but I know it isn’t. We aren’t coming back from this.

Sinking below the bubbles I travel into the safe place of memory where I can wrap my arms around his waist and slide behind him onto his silver and green motorcycle. I press my face into his warm back breathing in his deep, rich scent. We drive through the darkness to the little white chapel in the woods. Several ravens perch on the branches of the towering sycamore tree singing to us, serenading our love. It’s us versus the world.

A loud thud brings me back and I sit up and stare at the dark wooden door separating me from him. I wonder if he still has the black gun he held to his temple last night or if he threw it in the lake like he told me he did. I sweep my hand over the cloudy water clearing away a patch of white foamy bubbles so I can stare at my reflection.

“Are you going to say anything?” he says quietly through the door. He doesn’t try to open it.

I don’t have any words left so I stare at the reflection of my distorted puffy face in the water searching for recognition in my swollen eyes. He’s crying loudly as if he’s an animal howling at the moon; misery bubbling and echoing through our tiny home in the woods. We were supposed to sit in matching rocking chairs on the porch drinking homemade lemonade with arthritic hands and wrinkled eyes. He promised me so many things.

“There once was a girl who stole the Eiffel Tower and put it in her pocket. She carried it with her everywhere she went, her own little plaything she could pull out and amuse herself with whenever she liked. It was for her alone to enjoy.”

He has stopped crying and his voice sounds watery and soft through the door. I hang on to his words like I always have, breathing in his musically-rich voice, his distinct way of making everything sound romantic and mysterious. Poetry mixed with madness; the way it began and has remained. 

Closing my eyes I see myself swimming along the shoreline of the murky lake near my parent’s home distraught after yet another messy breakup. The soft sound of a guitar on the shoreline breaks my fluid rhythm. Surfacing, I spot him sitting on my favorite rock—the one with the smooth flat top filled with little hearts carved by teenagers proclaiming “B+W forever” or “CR+TJ for life.”

“Fig tree resting in the shady woods reaching toward the light…”

His singing voice is deeply rich with a slight hint of his British accent and I’m mesmerized. A large white dog with straggly white fur sits beside him and when it spots me it dives into the water. He stops playing and watches as the big hairy thing tries to lick my face, lapping at the water while its tail churns bubbles behind it.

“Don’t mind Brutus,” he calls to me. “Like me, he can’t resist the allure of beauty in the water. Tell me, are you a mermaid?”

I couldn’t speak for a long time. I’d never met anyone like this lanky man with a head full of curly hair and eyes as bright and deep as the rainbow moon labradorite stone I wear around my neck. I was enchanted from the start.

“The world missed the Eiffel Tower. They put up posters asking for anyone with information to please come forth, but nobody did for the girl was careful. She cradled it tight to her body at night, only bringing it out when she was sure nobody else would know. It was her secret.”

The last word he spits at me through the door, banging his fist for emphasis. Yes, I know this story. He’s still angry about the pale pink envelope he found stuck in my copy of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” It was never a problem with love between us but with secrets. He wanted to hold them all and I wanted to protect him.

“I wish you’d never found the letter,” I say.

He slams his fists into the door several more times and screams. This wildness usually presses me against the wall, bites my shoulders, and fiercely presses our lips together. Now it’s mutated into undulating wails of anguish and anger. He screams and screams. The ant has disappeared and I wonder if it jumped under the water to escape the sound.

I cover my ears and think about the day Brutus died. I found my love wrapped in a dark green wool blanket under the willow tree beside the still lake water. For the next two days, he didn’t move—refusing food, water, and my touch. It was his way—go inside himself or explode. There are no grey areas within him. For someone so beautifully expressive and poetic, it makes no sense to me he can be so black and white.

He’s gone silent and I hear the door creak as he leans his body against the thin wood. When he speaks the sound oozes toward me like spilled toxic honey. I shouldn’t listen but I do. I let the words seep deep into me.

“The day you promised would never come has arrived. You swore with all you are to never do this to me, but your words were lies. You killed the last buffalo, shot it with your pretty little shotgun and now the world shall never see it again.”

“No,” I say into the cold bath water. “I never lied to you.”

He’s not there. I follow the sound of his steel-toed boots walking through the house back and forth; our cozy cabin we’ve slowly made our own with paintings, piles of books, and squishy chairs made for two. He slams the front door and I jump gasping for air. I’ve been holding my breath.

The sputtering sound of his old red pickup truck makes me bolt out of the water. I run wet and naked out the front door to catch a glimpse of the rusted bumper disappearing into the dense forest of tall pine trees. I don’t breathe as I listen for the sound of him turning around and returning. It doesn’t come.

Several black birds circle the woods above me. Are they the ravens who witnessed our nuptials in the woods? Could they be here to witness our end? The sun creeps down the tree line releasing the swirling night winds blowing in from the far away ocean. Shivering, I fall onto the wooden porch and pull my legs up to my chest. He will be back. He always comes back.

I cry into the splintered wood. We are going to sand it down and repaint it this summer a soft sandy brown color. I rub my palms into the reddish splintery wood until one embeds itself into the palm of my hand. I stare at it and wonder if it symbolizes something.

Closing my eyes tight I travel back to our night. He pulls a bouquet of flowers from his oily dark brown saddlebag; a dozen pink, yellow, and white tulips tied together with a piece of soft brown leather. I hold them in my hands as we stand on the church steps under a vast dark sky of bright stars. He kisses my neck and a breeze blows my lacy white dress around my knees.

“Happiness, cheer, and forgiveness I give to you among the witnesses of the night,” he says. “May our forever be like this forgotten chapel, sacred and wild.”

I pick at the splinter, grabbing at it with the tips of my pointer and thumb. The weathered steeple leaned to one side and I wonder if it’s fallen now, blown to the ground during the big storm we had last month. It’s home to the animals anyway and they don’t care if it’s vertical or horizontal. Its bones will continue to provide shelter and nesting material for far longer than it was a place of worship hidden in the unforgiving woods.

A dark bird swoops from the trees grabbing at a tiny shadow scurrying out from behind the woodpile. I think I hear a tiny squeak and picture a fluffy grey mother mouse leaving behind her nest of too-naked pink babies. The tears I thought had dried up come again but the sound of his truck doesn’t.

He burned the pink letter in the fireplace while I stood beside him. I watched it curl up and fade into ash. The only remnant of my life before him I’d stowed away, my mother’s words scrawled out in thick, black ink. Her words of love and concern. Her words of anger and hurt. He burned them as he had all my things the night we moved here.

“Don’t let him erase who you are,” he quoted back at me. “Don’t let him take my beautiful girl from this world and tuck her away into the wilderness like a caged bird.”

Holding the black handgun against his left temple he made me convince him I didn’t believe her words. I tried to do so, over and over, but he saw the pain in my eyes and knew the truth. He was incapable of sharing me with others, and I missed my mother and my friends. I paid a price for loving him and he decided it was too much and he must leave. I fought to convince him to change his mind, but he would not. Black and white.

Pulling myself from the porch I stagger into the dark, quiet house. I see the empty places where he took things, gap-toothed holes punched into our singular woven life. He’s never taken things when he’s left before. I suck in the thick air and it feels like being in the middle of a forest fire, crackling heat breaking all around me.

Falling to the floor again, I pull his soft grey blanket from the light blue loveseat and press it around my shivering body. You want this, I tell myself. You need him to leave because you’ll never have the courage to walk away by yourself. You want this. You need this.

I force myself to focus on how his brilliant eyes would cloud over when he’d get angry or sad. All the hurts of his life, the abuses inflicted on him through his childhood, and the tortures of his teenage years, would turn into a visible mist encasing and transfiguring him into a shadow of himself—a monster. He’d stagger around, his feet forgetting how big they were, kicking anything in his way.

“You never loved me,” he’d say. “You are like all the rest.”

I’d never know how long these transformations would last, these stormy tempest-torn moments he’d become someone else. It was best to go for a swim or a long hike, leaving him to splinter wood with his well-worn ax or throw shiny knives into the trees behind the old barn. To stay was to fight against a stranger who couldn’t see me. It wasn’t a fight I could win.

I stagger to the bathroom and rinse myself off in the shower before drinking an entire bottle of red wine and slipping under the soft covers of our bed. The smell of him surrounds me and I fall asleep telling myself he will return tomorrow and it will be different this time. The rainbow after the storm will streak across the sky and he will be back within my arms free of the misty madness forever.

A sound outside wakes me. He’s back. I run into the bathroom and rinse my mouth with mouthwash and run a brush through my tangled blonde hair. I’m wearing the one shirt he left behind, a long blue flannel that reaches mid-thigh. My thick, strong legs look good in the golden light streaming in from the bathroom window.

Unbuttoning the top three buttons, I splash some rose oil onto my breasts and under my arms. My body vibrates with anticipation of his electric touch. I slither into the living room smiling and panting but find it empty. He’s not here.

There’s a low moan outside followed by a thumping and scratching sound. It reminds me of the time a rabid dog took refuge in a dilapidated barn with broken legs. It still crawled toward us, foaming and feverish. I’d fetched the shotgun from under the bed and left when he’d shot it. We both cried as we buried it under the moonlight.

Climbing onto the couch I peer through the faded yellow curtains. There’s no sign of his truck, but there’s a large shape at the foot of the porch steps roughly the size of a man. I can’t make out any details, but it’s writhing and crawling. The sound of the moan comes again, a deep guttural sound followed by the sound of nails scraping on wood.

What if it’s him? Maybe he had an accident in his truck and he was forced to crawl through the woods injured toward me. While I slept warm and intoxicated in our bed he could have been struggling to stay alive. Guilt burns my cheeks red as fire.

I throw open the front door and the horrible sour smell of death blows into my face as the creature at the bottom of the steps raises its head as if to see me, except there are no eyes, only inky black crusted holes. It opens and closes its mouth with a sickening clicking sound of teeth on teeth.

I scream and it quickens its movements, clawing at the wooden steps towards me. It has exposed bones for legs with no feet. The sharp broken-off bones dig into the ground trying to get leverage to propel it up the stairs. I scream again and slam the door shut. 

Monster. Zombie. Undead. This must be a nightmare. I splash water on my face from the kitchen sink as the sound of the thing moaning and moving continues. A loud thump tells me it has made progress and is getting closer.

I pull on a pair of jeans and my faded brown boots. Laying on my stomach I find the shotgun still under his side of the bed. It was his grandfather’s and the fact he left it behind tells me he either plans to return or he knew I might need it. Either way, I hold it across my chest and return to the living room.

The 12 gauge shells are in a box on the bookshelf made to look like three old books sitting together. As I pull it down and load the gun, I remember him trying to convince me that learning to shoot is part of living in the woods. When I’d still fought him on it, he told me he’d had a nightmare where I’d been torn to shreds by a wild animal. He begged and begged until I finally relented.

The prophetic poetry of this moment brings tears to my eyes and I can’t help thinking I’ll never be loved the way he loved me again. He’d move the world to save me. Would I do the same for him?

The moaning sound rises as I inch open the door holding the end of the gun snug against my shoulder and focusing on keeping my knees flexed. The horrible thing has made its way to the third step and when it senses me it quickens its movements. There’s nothing natural about how fast it is and I aim at its head and shoot. I’m surprised by how little I hesitate and how easily I absorb the recoil.

It slides down the stairs landing in a motionless heap on the ground. Its chest lays splayed open, a twisted mass of raw flesh and bone. It reminds me of a computer I saw laying in a ditch on the side of the road once—a discarded heap of tangled wires and splintered metal. Motherboard exposed. This thing had a mother.

I scream and the sound echoes in the woods around me and is answered by the call of hundreds of birds circling the morning sky. I’m alone out here and wonder if the shot and my cries are calling more of these things to me. I cover my mouth as a wolf howls in the distance—awake at dawn as confused as me as to what’s going on.

I kick the now twice-dead thing on the ground to make sure it doesn’t move. It makes a squishy sound and leaves a wet mark on my boot. I gag.

Has the end just begun or has it been raging on while I’ve been tucked away from the world in my love nest? Or was my mother right and it’s been more like a gilded cage? The tears return and I can see the night I pledged myself to him playing like a film in the sky. A golden cast of clouds and sunlight reenacting it all; forcing me to see and feel it.

He kicked open the chapel doors at midnight, swollen shut after years of being unused, lifting me into his arms and carrying me down the dark vine-covered aisle. Silver moonlight shone through holes in the roof and illuminated the stained glass window set behind a small wooden alter; a giant golden cross in a swirling sea of blues and greens. He placed matching homemade twisted-wire rings onto our fingers, symbols forever entwining us together.

“Let the stars, the moon, the beasts of the world bear witness as we pledge our pure love to each other. May nothing stand between us now or for all eternity. Soul mates through infinite space and time, we are no longer two beings lost at sea, but one being bound together in the blissful bonds of dutiful devotion.”

We made love on the altar in the single most romantic moment of my life. I was utterly devoured by him; swallowed up and erased from the Earth. I’d become a part of his magic; an alluring rhythmic line in an epic poem composed by and recited by him year after year. Looking down at the monster at my feet I feel the words he’d spun around me crack and shatter.

I return to the cabin and pack my things into my two matching blue suitcases. There is no reason to stay here anymore. I need to see what’s happening in the world and decide for myself what to do next. I stretch my arms out and feel the muscles of my shoulders and back loosening.

I load my old Mazda 3 and lay the shotgun in the seat beside me. I’ve pictured the day I might leave here for years, and although it’s nothing like I could have imagined, the sense of freedom still lingers at my fingertips. I take off my ring and tuck it into the pocket of my jeans.

Author’s note: You might find similarities between this story and one I wrote in week 8 titled “Sunset, Sunrise.” Both have to do with an end of a toxic relationship and include violence. I thought it might be interesting to explore a couple on the fringe, away from media and other people, at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. I found their twisted love story fit neatly at the end of the world. I apologize if it was a bit too dark or graphic for some of you. Thanks as always for reading and supporting me in this 52-week journey. Almost halfway there!


Short Story Challenge | Week 24

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 the early days of the zombie apocalypse. We had to include a motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, and sycamore


Write With Us

Prompt: Memory editing wreaks havoc
Include: Jupiter, chocolate, domestic, blossom, ladder, steam, extension, pine cone, sunrise, tide


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

Something in the Water | A Short Story

Ruth stares into the bright pink drink and wonders if the dye used on the lemon slice will make her stomach hurt later. The tightening pain in her lower back hasn’t loosened yet, despite three glasses of champagne and two rum and Diet Cokes. Maybe this “Pink Panther” drink will do the trick.

Taffy waves at her from the black-and-white checkered dance floor. Her long blonde hair hangs in ringlets down the middle of her exposed back. Her floor-length red sequined dress hugs her hips and exposes several inches of her breasts. She doesn’t look 60.

The young man pressed close to her, nuzzling her neck, has slicked-back hair and tight black leather pants. Ruth wonders if he’s paid to dance with the women here. Maybe it’s like a “Dirty Dancing” situation, part of the resort package. Then again, nobody has asked her to dance.

It’s close to midnight and Ruth wants to go to bed, but she knows Taffy will stay until the band packs their shiny instruments back into their cases and the staff escorts them to their 8th-floor suite with apologies and promises for new adventures in the morning. It’s been three days of this and Ruth’s ready to go home. She’d much rather be laying by the pool all day than following Taffy around.

The two of them have been friends since high school, meeting through the shared trauma of marching band uniforms and having both dated the drum major at the same time. He had terrible acne, but could play the hell out of the trumpet and knew how to sweet talk a girl. He was Ruth’s first love.

They dumped him together at the annual Jazz Festival downtown. He’d just finished playing on the main stage with an adult band from Louisiana, a huge honor for a high school junior. After the applause, Ruth and Taffy slowly walked toward the stage. His face dropped when he saw them holding hands. Taffy slapped him and loudly told the entire audience he’d been dating them both.

“Let’s go for a night swim!” Taffy says, slipping into the turquoise booth beside Ruth.

She takes a drink of the strawberry margarita she’s left sitting out for the last hour. It’s melted and separated, but she doesn’t seem to notice. There’s sweat on her face from dancing giving her a shiny, youthful glow with slightly pink cheeks. She reapplies her red lipstick and smiles at herself in her gold compact. Ruth wonders how they’ve remained friends when they are both clearly wired so differently. 

“Night swim. Night swim. Night swim.”

Taffy’s pounding her palms on the table with each word and the few people still in the bar look over. Ruth sucks down the remainder of the pink drink with a few loud gulps hoping the alcohol will give her the courage to stand up to her friend and cease the never-ending party which is hanging out with Taffy. It doesn’t.

She allows Taffy to grab her hands and pull her from the farthest corner booth where she’s spent the last several hours silently drinking. As they pass the matching black-suited salsa band, the drums and trumpets swell. Taffy grabs Ruth and twirls her three times in a circle. Her tropical flowered sundress floats out exposing her Spanx-covered thighs for a brief moment, but Ruth doesn’t mind. She allows Taffy to guide her around and around the dance floor, marveling at her friend’s energy, her fast footwork, and how good it feels to be with her.

With a flourish of her dress and a wave to the band, Taffy guides them out of the bar and into the wide brown-tiled lobby—a place of bright neon colors, seashell chandeliers, egg-shaped chairs, and an abundance of driftwood artwork. At the far end is an ornate brass archway leading outside covered in tiny gleaming depictions of sea creatures. Ruth touches a penguin with her hand thinking how out of place it is among the sea turtles and starfish. Maybe it’s supposed to be a pelican but the artist forgot the legs.

Once outside, the music fades into the soft lapping sound of the ocean dancing along the jagged shoreline. Ruth and Taffy walk hand and hand along the wooden walkway swinging their arms like children, their high heels making matching clicking sounds. When they reach the sand they sit down to take off their shoes. Despite being in the tropics, there’s an autumnal breeze and a light mist.

“I’m so glad you are here with me,” Taffy says.

“Me too,” Ruth says.

Taffy squeezes Ruth’s hand and holds it for a few minutes. She’s considering all the things she wants to say to her friend, but it never quite feels like the right moment. They’ve grown so distant in the last 30 years, living lives very different from each other. She’d really hoped this trip would be a chance to be together and talk, but her friend hasn’t stopped moving. In fact, Ruth isn’t sure Taffy has slept the entire trip.

The quiet moment is broken by the low sound of a fog horn coming from the old lighthouse. Its beam sweeps across the dark waters illuminating large black rocks far from the shoreline. Ruth wonders what dangers lurk in the ocean late at night.

“What are we waiting for?” Taffy cries.

Taffy releases Ruth’s hand, strips off her clothes, throws them in a heap and runs naked into the dark ocean waters. Her aging body looks remarkably the same as it always has, beautifully curved and covered in freckles. She swims quickly away from the shore with a practiced steady breaststroke.

Ruth scans the beach for late-night scuba divers or couples looking for a place to be alone. She’s also thinking about sharks and jellyfish. 30 chest compressions and then two breaths. Clear the airway. 100-120 per minute.

“Come on, Ruth!” Taffy calls from the water. “It feels wonderful!”

“I’m not sure…”

“When will you ever swim in the ocean at night again?”

“What if…”

“No! Don’t think. Come on! Night swim! Night swim! Night swim!”

Ruth carefully takes off her clothes, folds them, and sets them in a pile far from the water’s edge. Naked, she’s aware of the folds and sagging skin of her aging body—a softness and heaviness all her own. She touches the stretch marks on her stomach and smiles. Taffy whistles at her.

“Hey, hot stuff,” she calls.

Ruth spins in a circle and laughs. There was a time, not long ago, she’d have let hoards of self-loathing thoughts take over a moment like this. It would have turned into a full-blown invasion of shame and anger mixed with the kind of jealous-comparing it took nearly 50 years to finally be rid of. She’s proud of how far she’s come and wonders if Taffy’s confidence is true or if she’s trying to mask her own insecurities. If they were different friends, maybe she could ask her.

“Are you waiting for a merman or something?” Taffy calls from the water. “Come in already!”

Ruth laughs and walks into the water. It’s brisk and cool, but not enough to make her shiver. She dives under the low waves and swims out to where her friend treads water with graceful fluid movements. Her fluffy blonde hair looks dark when wet and is stuck flat to her head. The heavy makeup she wears has faded making her look even fresher and younger.

“Hi,” Ruth says.

“About time,” Taffy says. “Want to race?”

“No. I do not.”

“Are you afraid you will lose?”

“No. I will lose. I don’t care.”

“Let’s see who can dive down the furthest?”

“No. Let’s just float.”

Taffy dives under anyway as Ruth allows her body to float on the mostly still saltwater. The white half-moon peeks out from behind the clouds along with a milky sky sprinkled with tiny, bright stars. With her ears under the water, Ruth concentrates on her own breath. In and out. In and out.

Water sprays Ruth’s face and she returns to an upright position to find Taffy swimming in a circle with hard, splashy kicks. She scans the water for any signs of danger, and finding none, feels annoyed at her friend’s behavior. There’s no reason for her to use such aggressive movements in the water.

“What’s that about?” Ruth says. “You okay?”

Taffy stops and treads water a few feet from Ruth. For a few minutes, the friends say nothing. Taffy turns away from her and Ruth has the horrible feeling her friend might be crying. Ruth’s always done the crying for the both of them and she doesn’t know what to do. She swims a little closer.

“The seaweed is always greener
in somebody else’s lake.
You dream about going up there
but that is a big mistake.”

Taffy’s singing “Under the Sea” in her very best Sebastion voice. She’s trying to make Ruth laugh, and it almost works until movement in the dark water makes her stop. There’s something swimming in a circle between them creating a small whirl of movement right below the surface. Both of them freeze, terrified.

“Did you see that?” Ruth says.

“I did.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

A silent eruption of bubbles floats to the surface around them on all sides. Ruth covers her mouth to stifle a scream and Taffy swims beside her. Leaning close together they watch as the bubbles pop and leave behind tiny balls of light pulsing, circling them. The churning water below them stops.

“What’s happening?” Ruth says.

“I don’t know.”

Taffy reaches out her hand and grabs one of the slightly rainbow-colored bubbles turned solid. It’s heavy, squishy, and warm. The muscles in her body relax, something like a bell ringing fills the air and she can taste the oatmeal cookies her grandmother made her as a child. She looks into the eyes of her friend and truthful words pour forth with fluid ease.

“I’m so lonely,” she says. “I don’t let anyone in and I’m afraid if I stop moving I’ll die.”

It’s as if the words have been waiting behind a wall and the bubbles pressed them through. Taffy stares at the thing in her hand feeling uncertain about what to do next. Ruth touches her friend on the arm and smiles at her. She’s got tears in her eyes.

“Thank you for telling me that,” she says. “You can tell me anything.”

Taffy grabs Ruth’s right hand out of the water and drops the ball into her palm. It dances through her fingers and Ruth makes a fist to keep from losing it. She sighs deeply, tastes fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and hears the sound of doves cooing. Her body feels loose and the words come, like magic, from deep inside.

“I’m lonely too,” she says. “I haven’t told you the truth about so many things. I just couldn’t.”

The balls around them glow brighter and press into them illuminating their faces with a soft white light. The women gather them into their arms, letting the sensations of memory wash over them, freeing up truth and vulnerability. They spin connections sharing stories back and forth as they float in the dark ocean water. One after another the balls sink below the surface.

Night turns to day and the sun makes its climb out of the water and into the morning sky. With the rays of pink and golden light comes the awareness of time and exhaustion. The friends embrace each other.

“I think I’m ready for bed now,” Taffy says.

“You think?” Ruth says.

Side by side the old friends swim back to shore.

Author’s note: A lot of my stories take place in and around water. I’ve been lucky enough to have some powerful moments with friends at the ocean—connections forged through the beauty of vulnerability. This story is dedicated to those in my life who have trusted me with their truths. I see you and love you for being fully yourself with me.

Related story: The Red-Haired Beauty


Short Story Challenge | Week 23

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 adult friends on vacation in the tropics. We had to include scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease and mist.


Write With Us

Prompt: The early days of the zombie apocalypse

Include: motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, sycamore


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

The Red-Haired Beauty | A Short Story

Jasper’s yelling at me again. His puffy face so close to mine I can smell the tobacco tucked into his cheek and see how the sweat dripping off his bald head has formed snaking rivers in his makeup. He’s accusing me of being sloppy, but I never am.

“Girl, I’ve about had it with you,” he says. “Your dismount was wobbly and your feet looked like flat clubs. How many times have I told you to point your toes?”

There’s no way I can answer the question without making him angrier. I wish I could say, “at least I can see my toes.” He leans back on his heels, his thick right hand swings forward and for a moment I think he might slap me. It wouldn’t be the first time and I wonder if I could catch his wrist with my hand. I’m a lot stronger than I used to be. He spits a gob of black spit at my bare feet and I leap back. He laughs.

“Get out of my sight,” he says.

He’s off to get sloppily drunk on fat, yellow bottles of chartreuse he keeps in a round steamer trunk inside his tent. It takes two of the strong men to carry it from the train. He’ll have some of the young acrobats in his bed tonight performing tricks for him, and on him. Does he applaud after? At least I’m too old for him to want me anymore. He likes them young, with smooth skin.

Turning in the opposite direction of his tent, I weave my way through the maze of our makeshift portable city toward the far end where the animals are kept. My partner Dusty, a grey-speckled gelding I’ve been trick-riding for the last few months, will be waiting for me to put on his blanket and give him oats sprinkled with bran. 

One of the many barefooted kids hanging around the tents walked Dusty back to his stall after our act so I could try and get some food. The cook locks everything up an hour after the show and I’ve grown tired of rummaging through the garbage bins because I don’t make it in time. Tonight I was lucky and got a bowl of lukewarm stew with several pieces of meat.

The energy after the show can vary, but tonight it’s mellow. We have three more shows tomorrow and everyone knows they must conserve their energy. It never gets fully quiet in the camp, but there are small pockets of it. The shadow thing lives in those silent places, and I rush from sound to sound to avoid being alone with it. I don’t have many memories left for it to steal. I wonder if I used to know its name.

Dusty snorts as I approach, pawing the sandy, soft ground in his makeshift stall. The ocean roars in the distance, the air cool and sweet. I lean against the wooden fence and press my face to his soft muzzle, savoring his earthy breath on my face.

“Red!”

RJ runs toward me with two buckets in his hands, sloshing water everywhere. The muscles on his tanned back and chest are shiny and covered in glitter. He drops the buckets at my feet and I stare at the heart-shaped mole on his left cheek, a lucky fairy kiss. Perhaps that’s how he can walk the tightrope with such skill.

“Did ya hear?” he says. “Sasha ran off! Nobody can find her nowhere. Jasper’s gonna kill somebody.”

I scan the places between the tents as if the skeletally thin frame of the tan and black cheetah might be lurking in the spaces between the flapping colorful fabric walls. She’s one of the older animals in the show and it seems unlikely she’d run off. RJ smiles at me, leaning close enough I can smell he’s eaten something sweet. He doesn’t look the least bit scared.

“When did it happen?” I ask.

“No idea, but I know I ain’t sleeping in my tent tonight.”

“She won’t hurt you.”

“I don’t take no chances with this body. I’m gonna string a tarp up in the trees and you can slip in beside me if ya want.”

He winks, picks up his buckets, and runs off. I’m pretty sure cheetahs can climb trees. I press my toes into the wet spot the buckets left behind, feeling the cooling effect it has on my body. The men are always wanting me to “slip beside them,” even with my scars.

The sound of angry voices fills the night, blowing and hopping from shadows to light, from tent to tent. I can make out snippets of words forming into insults, accusations, and threats. Jasper’s angry growl sounds nearby and I jump. RJ’s right, someone will die if Sasha isn’t found and it might be me.

Jasper used to adore me, back when people flocked to see the Red-Haired Beauty ride Enormous Horace around the center ring. I had five huge trunks of costumes—silver and gold glittery jumpsuits, elaborate feathery headpieces, and exotic silk scarves. The cook would bring me trays of food and I slept on piles of soft cushions in the main tent beside Horace, my best friend. Jasper wishes I’d died in the fire with him, and sometimes I do too.

The dark shadowy thing lurks behind a barrel. Its spidery legs stretch across the ground toward me. What would happen if it swallowed all my memories? Would I die? The high-pitch trumpeting sound echoes inside my chest, as it has since the day Horace saved me but not himself. I touch the patches of thick pink skin on my arms and legs, wrinkled skin like him. The pain of loss shudders through me.

The voices are closer now. Climbing through the wooden fence, I swing my body onto the back of Dusty in one practice motion. His thick back twitches, ears flatten and his tail swishes back and forth. Beams of light come toward us in the darkness, and the thing by the barrels slinks away. I bend down and flip open the gate.

“Run,” I whisper into Dusty’s ears.

He doesn’t hesitate, springing forth like the starved race dogs when they are finally released from their smelly-cramped boxes and made to run the track for food. Jasper knows the amount of time it takes to make an animal desperate enough to run as fast as they can, but not too far gone they are lethargic or will fight one another. He plays with people the same way.

We weave in and out of the tents and past the pens holding the other animals. I consider flipping all the latches as I pass, but not all the animals want to be free. Jasper screams my name, and I consider calling back “I’m going to look for Sasha,” but it’s not true. At least I don’t think it is. I haven’t decided yet.

The sound of the ocean, faint in the campsite, becomes louder the further we ride. Resting my head on Dusty’s neck, I let him run where he wants. The rhythm of his hooves on the ground relaxes us both and allows my thoughts to wander back and forth in time. Memories mix with the night sky, bright spots of light in a sea of darkness, cliffhangers of thought, unfinished and grey. I can count on my fingers the number of complete memories I have left.

The moon, bright and round, interrupts my thoughts as if whispering “pay attention.” We are at the shoreline now, the dark waves moving in and out with foamy breath I can see and smell. Sliding off Dusty, I watch him wander toward a patch of wild grass, tough seedlings survived by wind and water. He tears at them with his large white teeth.

A tall, slender lighthouse stands perched on the edge of a rocky cliff far off to my right. A silhouetted figure against the black casting its sweeping gold beam into the night to warn ships of the jagged shoreline. I’d like to swim into the light and see if the creatures of the sea swarm up toward it, tricked into thinking daylight has become a fleeting line across the top of the water. They probably know better than I do.

Walking along the shore, I dance in and out of the waves, my old pink leotard shedding its sequins in a trail behind me. A large porous black rock covered with sea creatures lays exposed by the retreating tide with a deep ring of water around it. Leaning in, I see tiny darting crabs, a plump purple starfish, and rows of soft green sea anemones.

A constellation of stars reflected in the water reminds me of the jewels Horace wore around his neck. I touch them and the water ripples out from my fingertips. I miss him. A torrent of hot tears streaks down my cheeks and drips into the water. I watch them as they plunk loudly and form into tiny balls of light pulsing and moving in circles. They are alive, my tears, little balls of rainbow-colored light.

Scooping them into my hands, I find they are heavy and wiggly. Startled, I let them plop back into the still water and watch as they swim around and around. Tiny fish dart from hiding places in the rock to nibble at my tears. Are they saltier than the ocean?

Picking one up, I put it into my mouth. It tastes sweet, like puffed spun candy on a stick. It slides into my stomach and a fresh memory floats up from some hidden part inside me. Bright-green eyes and golden hair singing a lullaby of light—I was loved once. Sinking down into the sand, savoring the sound of her voice, the word mother glows golden within me. 

Greedy, I begin shoving the tears into my mouth, eating and eating, letting the images come in blasts and bursts. Forgotten faces, sounds, and tastes dance around me—treasures of time returned and restored in full color and sound. The sensation makes me tired, and I fall backward into the sand pushed into a deep sleep.

As if through a thick fog, I’m aware of my body being dragged out of the cool water and into the warm sand. Blinking and blinking, I can make out the shape of Dusty using his teeth to pull me across the beach by my now torn leotard.

“It’s okay,” I say.

Dusty lets go, whinnies, and paws the ground beside me. I sit up. Awareness prickles down my arms and legs, bringing everything around me into bright focus. The tide has risen high enough to almost fully cover the rock I was laying beside—its black peak sits like a tiny pyramid surrounded by roaring waves. The sun has begun rising, transforming everything from the white light of the moon to the golden pink of the sun.

Dusty snorts close to my ear and I look up to see people coming in a line down the beach carrying dying torches. They are still too far away to make them out, but I know it’s my circus family looking for Sasha and possibly me. For a brief moment I consider calling to them, but I remember the truth the memories revealed. They aren’t my family.

Running through the sand, I leap onto Dusty’s back and kick his sides with both feet. He gallops along the water’s edge before turning toward the shore. We scramble up two sand dunes until we arrive at a wide dirt road heading off in both directions. He stops and we see the long-lanky figure of Sasha walk slowly across the road. She looks at me, blinks twice, and then disappears into the bushes.

Dusty turns and walks down the road to the right and I run my hands along his neck. My real name is Gillian and I had a family before the darkness came and took their faces from me. They are still out there and I’m going to find them.


I’m dipping my toes into the poetry world and felt inspired to write these poems looking deeper at the magic hinted at in the story.

Bubbles I

Saliva pools inside puffed pink cheeks as the 
squishy bubble bursts between molars, exploding 
juices down my scratchy throat. Burning it fizzles
inside; soda pop madness, sweet as jars of candy 
swiped from dark corner shops while peers sit
behind rows of school desks. Her face, the one
swallowed by the slinky shadow creature while I walked 
unknowing into the wrong silent place, comes 
now with painful throbbing to sing words I’d heard
long ago but forgotten, and to brush the stray hairs off 
my sticky cheek with soft fingertips. The thoughts of love 
once mine, unasked for but given anyway, are pinpricks
of pain, nerves awakening after pinched off so long, messages
to tell my body to really feel. I stuff more into my mouth, craving
sensations of the forgotten, much too much, but oh
how my true name echoes and changes everything.

Bubbles II

Plucked from our icy home deep within 
the salty brine of life’s starting place, we 
slumber in grains of sand tinier than eyes can 
perceive. Minute flecks of light, rays of sun
mixed with moonlight, we live far below 
scuttling claws and slippery flippers. You called us 
forth in an instant, brought by proximity
to the shadow of the shadows mark upon
your soft imperfect body. We saw you weeping 
into our waters and felt compelled to stir 
and rise. We exist, persist, to seek balance 
between all things. Shifting, we move matter within 
moments with forces older than time, faster than 
light and sound. You can’t see until we let you 
the realness of your truth. The faces and moments 
feasted upon and stolen from you within the sacred 
silence it lurks behind. Teasing, we form 
into physical shapes, tempting you to taste of your 
life, plopped into waiting warm mouths, sliding
into the depths of bone and muscle, wiggling
and writhing—alive. We unleash captured memories
to dance on the surface of your consciousness, tangos 
of truth you knew but which it hid within the folds of time.


Author’s note: While at the ocean last week I messaged Anna I needed to go have a great big cry beside the water. She said something about my tears mixing with the saltwater and the image stuck. I imagined my tears becoming little fish in the water nibbling at my toes, and wondered if they could be some kind of mythical creature. The idea felt magical and I played around with it in my head for a few days.

The more I sat with the story, the main character no longer was me, but rather a girl running away from the circus. This thought bloomed, fed by a story I heard on NPR about Horace, an elephant at the Kyiv Zoo. I took nothing from the podcast story except his name and the sensitive nature of elephants, but I’d highly recommend you read about the bravery of those zoo workers to stay in a war zone to care for the animals.

I find myself wanting to know about Gilly and the forces warring around her. I may return to her and her world at another time. Thanks for reading, and as always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.


Short Story Challenge | Week 17

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 goes on a trip alone to gain perspective. We had to include the lighthouse, flock, muscle, sprinkle, insult, cliffhanger, cheetah, chartreuse, wrist, and seedling.


Write With Us

Next week’s prompt: A child’s dream literally becomes true

Include: high school, captivate, portfolio, argyle, witness, fertile, eyebrow, pentagram, thirsty, guidance


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

Honeymoon Treasure Hunt | A Short Story

Part I: Death at Sea

A scream wakes everyone aboard the Blue Moon, guests and crew alike. They rush from their bunks to the galley where Elle stands screaming. Her grandmother lies face down in the center of the room, a large knife sticking out of her back.

“Don’t get any closer,” Captain Clark says emerging from the ship’s cockpit dressed in a crisp navy blue suit and a bright-red tie. Apart from the stubble on his chin, he appears exactly as he had at dinner seven hours before.

“Return to your cabins,” he says. “Please.”

Nobody leaves, but they do move a bit, allowing Captain Clark to get closer. He lowers himself to the ground beside Millie, his knee brushing the pale pink of her silk pajamas. She’s wearing a white scarf tied around her head, the back of which has come loose, exposing several grey curls stuck to her neck. He checks for a pulse, although it seems unnecessary considering the amount of blood pooled beneath her. 

“She’s dead,” Captain Clark says.

Elle’s wails increase and she throws herself onto the floor. Kate, who has been standing motionless by the doorway for several minutes, shakes her head and walks on bare feet across the room. Dressed in a short white robe, Kate’s long grey hair is tangled and she’s got a crease along her left cheek from her pillowcase. She sits on the floor beside Elle.

“It will be okay,” Kate says. “It will all be okay.”

Kate smooths down Elle’s curly red hair and rubs her back—her best imitation of motherhood. They’d celebrated the girl’s 18th birthday the first week on the boat, but Kate sees her as the little girl with pigtails who has always been Millie’s sidekick. Elle’s wearing the same two-piece silk pajamas as her grandmother, only in a light lavender color. They were so close—two peas in a very strange pod. Kate can’t believe any of this is real.

“It will be okay,” Kate says again. “It’s going to be okay. I’m here.”

She’s comforting Elle, but inside she’s screaming “not my Millie” over and over. Her best friend, her shit-talking secret keeper, the one who wouldn’t let her die of loneliness, who has pulled her up off the ground for over 30 years, lies still and quiet. Kate wants to feel the pain of it, but she can’t let the door open even a crack. It would be too big and she’d be buried by it.

It’s a nightmare. It has to be. This is her honeymoon, after all. She’s waited her entire life for this love, for this trip, for all the good things to come to her. It can’t involve losing Millie, it simply can’t. There’s no place in her happily ever after without her.

Millie believed in her dad’s crazy treasure hunt story as much as her. They’ve spent years talking about what it could be, where it could be, and what they’d spend the riches on if they found them. There’s nobody else she wants beside her when she discovers if any of it is true.

Kate stares at the long wooden handle of the knife. Someone on this boat went into the galley kitchen, took the knife, crept up on Millie, and plunged it into her back. She looks around the room and can’t imagine anyone here doing such a terrible thing. It makes no sense at all. A sudden thought occurs to her; maybe someone snuck onto the ship. She read somewhere about modern-day pirates boarding ships and killing people. If that’s the case, they might still be here or there might be more of them coming.

“Do you think we are in danger?” she asks Captain Clark. “Could someone else be on the ship?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so. I haven’t heard or seen another ship approaching.”

Kate doesn’t feel comforted by this and scans the room for her new husband. They’ve been married a total of three weeks, but she feels like it’s been a lifetime. For over 20 years they were next-door neighbors, but it wasn’t until they were in their 50s, both widowed, that they began to see each other in a romantic way. It was a second chance at love for them both, and it has been a wonderful surprise Kate could have never seen coming.

She finds Marvin slumped against the far wall looking pale. She wants to run to him, to feel his warm hands on her back and disappear into his chest, but Elle needs her. She kisses the girl on her head and continues rubbing her back.

With a sudden jerk, Elle pushes Kate away and falls across the lower half of her grandmother. She puts her arms around her waist and screams into her lower back. When she lifts her head, the silence in the room has grown hard as ice.

“Who would do such a thing?” Elle screams.

Spit flies from her mouth. Pounding her fists on the wooden floor, she screams again. The sound makes everyone shrink back as if struck. It’s a volcano of pain erupting and erupting, and the room feels swept along with it. Carolyn sobs loudly into Will’s shoulder.

Kate tries to put her arms around Elle but she pushes her away. The sound of coughing comes from the hallway, followed a moment later by Jack. He’s wearing plaid pajamas and he’s forgotten his glasses, so he’s squinting. When his eyes meet Kate’s, she sees him stiffen.

“Okay,” he says. “Everyone stay calm.”

He circles the body of Millie twice. It’s hard for him to comprehend what he’s seeing. He’d kissed Millie on the bow of the ship last night, hours ago. She’d giggled into his neck and smelled of lavender. She’d made a cheesy joke about climbing his beanstalk and he’d walked away blushing.

He feels a pain in his chest as hope drains from him. He’d really thought maybe he’d have one last chance for love, at his age, but now it’s gone. She’s gone. Unfairness, his old friend, has struck again.

He makes eye contact with Kate and Elle. The tightness in his chest increases and he has to focus on his breath. They look at him for answers, and he knows he has no choice but to press away from his own feelings and let his training kick in.

Detective Jack might have retired with dreams of treasure hunts and moonlight kisses, but another bloody crime scene pulls him back to himself. This he knows how to handle.

Jack leans down beside Elle and speaks in a low, soft tone.

“When did your grandmother leave your room?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I woke up and she wasn’t there, so I went looking for her and…”

“Did you see anyone else awake on the ship? Another boat? Did you hear anything at all?”

“No. It was quiet and she was just lying here….”

Jack pats Elle on her shoulder, stands, and speaks in a louder tone, so everyone can hear him.

“Captain Clark and I will search the ship,” he says, “The rest of you stay put.”

The two of them leave together, and the room feels larger. Kate continues to stroke Elle’s back beside the body of Millie, while Marvin remains slumped against the far wall. Their friends, Carolyn and Will have moved to the couch and sit talking quietly with each other. The only other people on the ship, the cook and the maid sit staring at the empty fireplace without speaking.

The men are gone for a long time, and when they return Kate notices Jack’s wearing his glasses and his gun holster.

“We didn’t find anyone else on the ship or any sign anyone had boarded,” Jack says. “We are going to continue to investigate but Kate, I think it’s best you take Elle to your cabin and sit with her. Get her a drink and don’t leave the room, okay?”

Kate nods and Elle allows herself to be pulled out of the galley. Jack circles the room and takes in the position of everyone. There’s no sign of a struggle, and he wonders why Mille would have left her room in the middle of the night. The treasure map, which sits in a golden frame on the table in the center of the room, hasn’t been touched. It’s unlikely the motive then.

“Has anyone moved anything?” Jack asks.

“No,” Captain Clark says. “We all arrived to find Elle in here alone beside Millie.”

“How many members of your crew are on board this ship?”

“There’s just the three of us, me, the cook, and the maid.”

He gestures to the other two who sit beside the fireplace in big squishy chairs dressed in their pajamas. Both women are in their mid-twenties and look terrified. The cook begins to sob.

“You can’t think one of us would do this?” Captain Clark says.

“I don’t know what to think at the moment. How far are we from the nearest port?”

Before Captain Clark can respond, Marvin steps forward.

“We can’t turn back now. Aren’t we almost there?” he says. “Kate and I spent our entire life savings on this venture. If she doesn’t get to see it through, it will all be for nothing. Aren’t we close? Like really close to the island? I mean, couldn’t we finish and then go to port?”

“We have a dead body on our hands here,” Jack says.

“We are very close,” Captain Clark says. “We should arrive within the hour. The nearest port is at least two days away.”

“Are you both suggesting we still go on this ridiculous treasure hunt and what…leave Millie here on the floor?” Jack says.

Both look uncomfortable and say nothing for a few minutes—thoughts bubbling between them like rapids and riptides. Jack isn’t sure he likes any of this. When he agreed to take this trip, it was only because he’d promised Kate’s father he’d look after her. Jack walks around the room, stopping at the tattered map.

Kate’s father was his partner for 15 years. He’d cheated on his wife, gambled, and drank far too much, but he was a good cop and he loved his little Kate. He’d died days before the wedding in a car accident, and Jack had walked her down the aisle. He loved her like his own, and he knows how much this treasure hunt means to her.

From the time Kate could speak, her father told her the fantastical tales of their ancestor—Pirate Jacob Cutter. He’d been the captain of a large sailing vessel, and under the flag of the British, he’d crisscrossed his way across the ocean sinking ships and amassing tremendous wealth. He’d been a pirate for the Queen, but when he’d been called back to England, he decided to hide a large portion of his treasure on a remote rocky island. 

When he arrived home, however, he was double-crossed by a former lover of the aging Monarch. She had him pulled from the ship and hung from the mast the second he arrived. Luckily, he’d left the map and a key to his small son who hid in an empty barrel for several days on the ship. Eventually, he got away, and the map and key have been passed down from generation to generation ever since.

Jack assumed he’d made up the story to get Kate to fall asleep at night, or maybe to connect their family legacy to something bigger. However, after his death, Kate found the map and a rusty key in a safety deposit box along with a note encouraging Kate to “be the Cutter who finally retrieves what is rightfully theirs.” 

While the merits of seeking stolen treasure could be debated, Kate decided to organize this trip as part mourning her father’s death, and part treasure hunt adventure. Jack had agreed to come along, out of curiosity, and a need to protect his friend’s daughter. Her new husband, who has been pacing the wall, now stands with hands on his hips in front of him.

“I don’t see how we can turn back,” Marvin says. “You know how much this means to Kate.”

“I do,” Jack says.

After much discussion, some of it quite heated, the group decides to wrap Millie in blankets and put her in the large refrigerator until they can visit the island and see if the treasure is real. After talking with Elle and Kate they agree Millie would want them to continue.

Part II: Island Adventure

At daybreak, they board four kayaks to paddle through a small crack in the rocky shoreline and follow a little creek into the heart of the island. Kate pulled the map out of the picture frame, rolled it up, and stuffed it into her coat pocket. She and Marvin are in one kayak, Will and Carolyn in the second, Elle and Jack in the third, and Captain Clark on his own in the fourth.

Kate sits in front of Marvin, and he kisses the side of her neck.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“Not really, but I’m glad we are still going to see what’s on this island.”

“Me, too.”

He kisses her neck again and she smiles despite all the sadness and uncertainty. She’s never been in love like this before, and sometimes it feels a bit like madness. He’d kissed her the first time in his beautiful garden, pressing her against the side of his tool shed and making her body feel young and alive. They’d made love on the ground, flattening a dozen or so daffodils, and she’d not been able to get enough of his touch since. It feels a bit like a drug.

“It’s just you and me,” he says into her ear. “It’s just you and me.”

She thinks about how he proposed to her in a kayak similar to this one while they paddled around the lake under the light of a full moon. He’d sung her a song he wrote about her body and his, about true love’s kiss, about destiny and waiting a lifetime for her. She’d cried as he slipped the ring on her finger.

Marvin kisses her neck again.

“I forgot to tell you, I overheard Will and Carolyn fighting before we left the ship. It was something about money. I heard the word divorce…”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, they seemed really upset.”

Will and Carolyn have been in Kate’s life for a long time. Will worked as a dispatcher at the police station with Jack and her father, and Carolyn practices shiatsu. She’s healed Kate’s back more than once. She’s sure whatever Marvin overheard, it’s nothing.

The creek wanders through the island, away from the rocky shoreline, and into luscious green valleys dotted with flowering shrub trees and bright yellow and purple flowers. There are numerous flocks of big birds Kate thinks might be ravens, and they’ve spotted packs of animals resembling tiny deer.

The further inland they go, the harder it becomes to fight the current. Eventually, Captain Clark suggests they abandon the kayaks and move forward on foot. They paddle into a small inlet, pull the boats up the embankment, and stop to rest. Jack creates a makeshift picnic table with some pieces of driftwood and Kate spreads the map out for everyone to look at.

“It looks like we’ve entered here,” Jack points at a dot on the map and follows a thin black line with his finger. “And if we follow the creek, we should eventually find a waterfall.”

“I can’t believe we are here,” Kate says.

“I can’t either,” Elle says. “Grandma would be cracking some kind of joke right about now, probably something about how we should take a selfie to preserve the exact moment Kate finally believed in her father.”

Kate, Elle, and Jack burst out laughing. The others don’t seem to find it funny. Kate hugs Elle.

“Oh, she’d have us rolling on the ground for sure,” Jack says.

He points at Marvin’s khaki pants and giggles.

“She’d have a field day with your outfit,” he says.

“What’s wrong with it?” Marvin says.

The girls laugh hard, and Marvin looks hurt. Kate kisses him.

“Don’t listen to them,” she says. “I like the Boy Scout look. You’ve got a pocket for everything.”

She pats him on the butt and laughs again. He tries to join in, but she can tell he’s not enjoying being the object of their jokes. Millie was always teasing him, and he rarely enjoyed it. Captain Clark scowls at the laughter. 

“We better get a move on because we are burning daylight here,” he says.

“Who talks like that?” Elle whispers to Kate.

“Boy Scouts,” Kate says.

She bursts out laughing and the two link arms and follow the others along the creek. They hike for several hours, stopping occasionally to take a drink of water or to eat a snack from their backpacks. Each time they stop, Kate notices Captain Clark sitting closer and closer to her. She keeps catching him staring at her. It’s unnerving.

After another water break, she grabs his arm and pulls him away from everyone.

“Is there something you want to say to me?” she asks.

“Actually…”

He looks pale and for a sickening moment, Kate worries he might pull out a knife and kill her. She takes a step back and sees his eyes are teary. He swallows over and over before speaking in a low, shaky voice.

“I don’t know how to say this, and I know it’s not the time but…I knew your dad.”

Of all the things she considered he might say, this wasn’t it. Her father knew a lot of people, being a police detective, and she wonders in what context they knew each other.

“You did?”

“Yeah…I knew him my entire life….”

The tears fall down his cheeks now and he covers his face for a moment. Marvin and Jack have stopped and are walking back toward them. Captain Clark stares at his feet and then lets the words rush out as if he’d been holding his breath for his entire life.

“He was my dad too, well in name only really. He’d come around occasionally to give my mom money and tell me stories of Pirate Jacob Cutter. When I heard someone was wanting to charter a boat to these particular islands, I knew it must be you, and I made sure to give you the best price so you’d choose me. I wanted to tell you on day one, but it never felt like the right time. I mean, it’s not the right time now either…”

Kate pulls him into her arms and hugs him. She’d known her father was unfaithful to her mother for years, the two of them were not quiet when they’d fight. It’s surprising he had another kid though, but also wonderful. Kate lost her mother to cancer when she was in her 20s and she has no siblings. After her father died, she thought she was alone in the world. Now, it appears, she isn’t.

They stare at each other for a few minutes with goofy smiles, both feeling a little awkward. She can see a bit of her father in his eyes and wonders why she didn’t see it before. She’s hurt her father never told her about her brother, but she imagines he was probably too proud to tell her. She’d worshipped him as a child, and he probably didn’t want to do anything to sully her view of him.

“You were at the funeral,” Kate says.

She remembers him now, standing in the back crying. She’d not thought much of it at the time as her father knew a lot of cops and many of them had come to pay their respects. Clark looks like he could be one of the cops, with the same wide shoulders and tall frame as her father. It hurts her to think he didn’t get the same comfort she did, and that her father didn’t leave him anything in his will.

“Yes,” Clark says. “I thought about telling you then, but it didn’t seem right.”

“He was a complicated man,” Kate says. “I’m glad you told me now.”

They hug again and turn to face the waiting Marvin and Jack. Marvin steps forward and puts his arm around her waist and Jack has his hand on his gun holster.

“Hey guys,” Kate says. “I’d like to introduce you to my brother.”

Part III: All For Love

The small group follows the creek for another hour, the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder. While they walk, Kate and Clark share stories of their father and realize how much they have in common. He’d taught them both an appreciation for Star Trek, the music of Queen, and how to properly fold a towel. While he only saw his son every few weeks, he had a huge impact on his life. He’d become a Captain because of his father’s pirate stories.

“When did you know about me?” Kate asks.

“He told me about you all my life,” Clark says. “I thought of you as my secret sister, and he had a way of making it seem special and not sad. You know?”

“Yeah,” Kate says. “Dad did have a way with words, didn’t he?”

She wishes she could ask her dad why she didn’t get to hear stories of her secret brother, but she knows it comes back to his pride. Clark invites her to come for Christmas to meet his mother and his siblings. He’s got three brothers and two sisters, all of them share the same father, his stepfather who still lives with his mother.

“He’s a great guy,” Clark says. “They are all pretty amazing actually. They are going to just love you!”

Her father must be watching this all unfold with a big smile. He left her an entire second family to be a part of. It makes her heart swell with gratitude for his imperfections. She catches up to Marvin and slips her hand into his.

“Isn’t this simply amazing?” she says. “I suddenly have an entire family to be a part of. It’s incredible.”

He doesn’t say anything, and Kate can see something about the situation bothers him. She grabs his hand and squeezes it, but he doesn’t squeeze back. He walks faster and then stops.

“Would you look at that!” he says.

They’d been walking for a long time in a thick grove of trees, stepping over fallen branches and rocks, but they’d suddenly arrived at the source of the sound they’d been following for hours—a magnificent waterfall. It’s exactly where the map said it would be.

The group stands in a half-circle watching the cascade of white empty into a pool of light emerald green. The misty spray flattens their hair and makes Carolyn’s makeup run down her face. Kate and Elle exchange a little smile, knowing Millie would have made a Tammy Fey joke.

“Now what?” Will says.

He’s had the hardest time with the hike, and he stands doubled over trying to catch his breath. Kate thinks, with the exception of Elle, they are all too old to be playing treasure hunt. She can feel pains in her back, feet, and right hip. Marvin had a limp the last hour and Carolyn was crying off and on about her lower back.

“Rushing water, falling in, hides the treasure from within,” Kate recites from memory. “I think we have to go through the waterfall.”

“I’m out,” Will says.

“No he isn’t,” Carolyn says.

They exchange looks which make Kate wonder if what Marvin said might be true. She doesn’t want to think anything bad about her friends, but they are acting strange. Jack seems to be thinking the same thing, and he unbuttons his jacket so Kate can see the gun on his hip. Captain Clark does the same thing.

“So, how do you think we get into the waterfall?” Elle says. “We just like swim through it or something?”

“I see a path,” Jack says. “Off to the left there. Do you see it?”

They do, and all agree to follow Jack as he leads the way. They inch along a slippery rock ledge, helping each other around large boulders until they arrive inches from the waterfall, soaking wet.

“We might as well have jumped in,” Kate says.

The path curves around and disappears along the back of the waterfall, becoming a narrow walkway they have to squeeze sideways through. After several minutes of slowly moving, it opens up into a clearing of waist-high mustard seed grass blowing in a slight breeze. Sitting in the center, raised up higher than the surrounding land, sits a squat-looking red clay temple. It’s got sweeping lines and two tall spires on either side of an open doorway.

“Wow,” Elle says.

“It’s really here,” Kate says. “It’s real. Can you believe it? It’s real!”

“I didn’t think we’d find anything,” Jack says.

“Me either,” says Marvin.

“It’s beautiful,” Captain Clark says. “Just as dad described it.”

“Exactly like it,” Kate says. “Jacob Cutter’s treasure should be inside there. It’s unreal.”

“What are we waiting for?” Elle says.

They walk in a line through the weeds to the small temple. It’s covered with intricate carvings along the red walls—a hieroglyphic language filled with curves and lines. Kate runs her fingers over the markings as they pass, amazed at how ancient it seems. She wonders how long it’s been here, probably hundreds of years before Jacob Cutter discovered it.

The temple floor curves downward and ends at three very narrow tunnels. Kate pulls back out the map, and with the help of a flashlight, examines it. There’s nothing after the temple. No clues as to which direction to go.

“Maybe the temple is the treasure,” Kate says.

“I don’t think so,” Marvin says. “I think we should search the tunnels.”

“Maybe we should split up?” Clark says.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Jack says. “It looks like a pretty tight fit.”

Kate and Marvin take the left tunnel, Elle and Jack the middle, and Clark the right. Will and Carolyn decide to wait at the entrance to the temple, both too tired from the hike to go on.

Kate holds the flashlight as Marvin leads the way. It’s a tight fit and appears to be a natural rock tunnel, not something carved by those who built the temple. It’s damp and they have to brace their arms on the walls to not slip on the rocky ground and slide all the way down.

“It’s really quiet,” Kate says. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so quiet.”

“I like it,” Marvin says.

“I don’t.”

He grabs her hand and pulls her closer to him. The tunnel stops inside a small round space, about the size of a closet. They shine the flashlight up and down the walls but find nothing. No markings. No treasure.

Marvin pulls Kate to him, slamming their bodies together in the way Kate has grown to love. It’s passion and desire, and it floods the space between them, filling her with instant longing. The flashlight falls to the ground and Marvin presses her into the wall and kisses her, his hands moving under her shirt. She moans as he presses his body closer to hers.

A sudden and horrific sound slams into them. It’s the sound of a gunshot, and it reverberates around the small room, vibrating the walls and making both Kate and Marvin pull apart in shock.

“What’s going on?” Kate says.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to go find out. You stay here.”

“No way! I’m not going to sit here alone.”

“Please, Kate. I don’t know what’s going on, but you are safe here. Nobody will get past me in the tunnel and I’ll let you know the second I figure it out. Okay?”

Kate knows he’s right, but she doesn’t like the idea of sitting alone. He hands her the flashlight, sweeping it along the walls several times, making sure there is no other entryway into the room. She hates when men are always trying to protect women, but she decides to let him have this. Her hip hurts anyway.

“I’ll be right back,” he says. “I promise.”

She sits with her back to the entrance and pulls out a water bottle from her backpack and takes a drink. Trying not to think about the gunshot, she focuses on where she is. Her father would be so proud of her. It’s not about a treasure for her anymore, although it would be wonderful if there was one, it’s the fact the map did lead them somewhere. They found the temple behind the waterfall, the story she’s heard a hundred times. Pirate Jacob Cutter was real and he was here.

Kate hears another gunshot and she stands up. She shines the light around the room, and then seconds later, she hears two more. Panic races through her and she hears someone coming down the tunnel with short, shuffling feet.

“Kate,” Elle calls. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” she calls back.

Elle emerges with Jack behind her.

“Where’s Marvin?” Jack says.

“He went to see what was going on. You didn’t see him?”

“We didn’t.”

The three of them crawl back up the tunnel and find Will and Carolyn are no longer there. They exchange worried looks. Jack holds his gun out in front of him, while Elle and Kate form a line behind him. With slow cautious steps, they enter the tunnel on the right. The path is twice as wide as the one Kate went down with Marvin and it gradually turns several times back and forth. After a few minutes, they see a light ahead and Jack stops.

“Who’s there?” Marvin calls from up ahead.

“Jack, Kate, and Elle,” Jack says. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”

“Yes, I’m okay, but it’s horrible in here. It’s just horrible. Don’t come in.”

His voice doesn’t sound right. Jack inches forward anyway with Kate and Elle right behind him. They enter the room to find Marvin standing beside a large stone pedestal, a weathered metal trunk with a large rusty lock sitting atop it. Small holes in the roof let in dime-size rays of light, giving the round room a misty, underwater feeling. There are tiny rocks and leaves on the ground, and Kate’s footsteps are loud as she walks toward her husband. She fingers the key around her neck, excited by the possibility of unlocking the greenish trunk.

“Stop,” Jack says.

Kate does and her eyes sweep around the room, looking for the source of danger she can so clearly hear in Jack’s voice. She spots several things all at once. Marvin is holding a gun in his right hand, dangling it beside his leg as if he doesn’t know it’s there. Will and Carolyn lay motionless along the wall with liquid pooled beneath their heads. Clark lays inches from Marvin, half upright against the wall, his shirt dark with what appears to be blood.

“No!” Kate screams. “No, no, no, no…”

She runs to her brother and tries to pull him up, she feels warm blood soak instantly into her shirt. He smiles at her, still alive. He tries to speak, but his mouth fills with blood and he makes a kind of strangled burbling sound before falling silent. His eyes, her father’s eyes, still look at her.

Kate screams and Elle rushes to her side, trying to comfort her. The pain becomes too much, and Kate surrenders to it. It crashes into her, wave after wave, pounding and thundering inside her and around the room. She’s only vaguely aware of Elle’s arms around her, as she sobs and screams. Her life has unraveled on this trip, it’s all gone so wrong. She cries until there is nothing left in her body, slumping over onto the floor. A rock pokes into her cheek and she stares at the rays of light above and around her.

“I wish we’d never taken this adventure,” she says. “No amount of treasure is worth all we’ve lost.”

Jack, who had been walking silently around the room, moves to Kate and pulls her to her feet. He kisses her cheek and whispers something into her ear. Kate pulls Elle to her and they walk out of the room leaning on each other.

“What happened?” Jack asks Marvin.

He’s leaning against the pedestal looking tired and pale. Slick sweat has formed on his face and his shirt appears soaked. He doesn’t move.

“Greed,” he says. “They were all fighting over the treasure. They all wanted it for themselves. I guess they shot each other.”

“You didn’t see it?”

“No. I got here right before you did.”

“Did you?”

Marvin looks up at this and smiles. There’s a transformation in his face, one Jack’s seen before. It gives him chills. Both men begin to walk around the room, circling the pedestal in the center.

“What did you whisper in Kate’s ear?” Marvin says.

“Why?”

“Did you tell her something about me?”

“Why?”

“Because I won’t have you telling lies about me to my wife. She’s mine, not yours. You won’t poison her against me.”

“I don’t believe you, Marvin. I don’t believe anything you’ve said.”

“I don’t care if you believe me. You can’t prove anything.”

“I figure you killed Millie because she made those jokes about you all the time, and Kate was going to share the treasure with her, but I don’t understand why you killed the rest. Did you worry Kate would share the treasure with her brother? Did Will and Carolyn say she’d promised some of it to them? Was this all to protect your share? Was this about your greed?”

Marvin stops moving and raises the gun still in his hand and points it at Jack’s face. He smiles again and laughs. The sound echoes around the stone room.

“You don’t understand anything.”

“Enlighten me.”

“You think this was about money, I don’t give a shit about money. I have money Kate doesn’t even know about. I’ve always had money. What I want is Kate.”

“You have Kate.”

“No. You don’t understand. I don’t want to share Kate. Not with foolish Millie, not with some new brother, and not with you. Millie was trying to poison her against me with her little jokes here and little digs there. If I didn’t do something about it, she’d have used her stupid mouth to rip us apart. I wasn’t about to let that happen. You see, Kate is mine. She’s mine. I waited my entire life for her. I did my time with a wife I didn’t love, waiting for the day Kate Cutter would be mine. Nothing will take her from me now. Nothing. Certainly not a washed-up old cop like you.”

Jack doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. He’s sad for Kate, for all this trip has uncovered for her. She’ll never be the same, and he hates this man for doing this to her. He wants to shoot him in the face, but his years of training keep his temper under control. He needs to hear all of it first.

“What about Will and Carolyn? Why did you shoot them?”

“They came in at the wrong time, plus I could blame the entire thing on a dispute between them and Clark. They were stupid, useless people anyway. I don’t know what Kate saw in them.”

“The first gunshot?”

“Apparently, Clark thought he’d shoot in the air to signal he found the treasure. When I found him alone, it was easy to grab the gun from his holster and shoot him. He didn’t even see it coming. What a foolish, trusting little man.”

“So much like Kate, huh?”

“Don’t you dare compare them! Kate’s nothing like that idiot. She’s perfect, and after I kill you, she will be mine forever.”

Marvin raises the gun and Jack spins and hides behind the pedestal.

“Did you hear all that Kate?” Jack calls.

Kate steps into the doorway, tears streaming down her face. Marvin runs to her, but she pushes him away.

“You are a monster,” she says.

“No, Kate. You don’t understand. I did all this for you. For us. Don’t we deserve to be happy Kate? Remember, I promised we’d be happy. Look at me. It’s just you and me. It’s just you and me.”

Jack steps out from behind the pedestal and Marvin spins around and fires. Jack slides across the floor and shoots Marvin in the side. He falls to the ground and Kate kicks the gun from his hand. She stands over him trembling.

“I loved you,” she says. “We could have had everything.”

“Don’t leave me, Kate,” he says. “It’s just you and me…”

Kate stands silently looking down at Marvin. He holds his hands pressed against his side, the blood pooling around his fingertips. There are tears in his eyes, but he says nothing more. Elle and Jack stand beside her, placing a hand on each of her shoulders. She really loved him, but he was a monster in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and she hates she didn’t see it. More than anything, she feels angry she put all her friends and family at risk for this pathetic man. His love was nothing compared to what she’d felt in her life, a tiny pinprick of light in a world of sunshine.

Elle, Jack, and Kate pull the heavy chest off the pedestal and walk out of the temple together.

Author’s note: I don’t know why I decided to try and write something so huge this week, but once I made the decision I couldn’t turn back. The story is partly inspired by the film “Death on the Nile,” and partly a highly fictionalized account of the marriage of my own grandmother Kate to her neighbor Marvin when they were in their 60s. He wasn’t a murderer, but he did take her from me and I never forgave him.

This isn’t my finest work. It was too big of a story to tell in a week, and I worked for more hours on it than I’d ever care to admit to anyone. I’m posting it anyway. Do you know why? Because this weekly challenge of writing short stories isn’t about perfection or trying to be the best. No. It’s about me proving to myself I can write every single day. I can sit down and write through the fear, the messes, and the anxiety. It’s not about being “good,” it’s about finding my voice and playing with storytelling.

If you read the entire thing, thank you! It was a beast of a tale, but one I very much enjoyed writing. As always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.


Short Story Challenge | Week 16

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 newlyweds on their honeymoon. We had to include the words cockpit, selfie, kayak, thought bubble, picnic table, wander, propose, shiatsu, motherhood, and temple.


Write With Us

Next week’s prompt: The main character goes on a trip alone to gain perspective

Include: lighthouse, flock, muscle, sprinkle, insult, cliffhanger, cheetah, chartreuse, wrist, seedling


My 52 Week Challenge Journey