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