When the howling wind blows the cornstalks sideways and the air fills with the smell of ripe apples, Hazel brings up the conversation again. It’s not because she wants to fight, she doesn’t like conflict, but rather it has more to do with the way the leaves have lost their color and become crispy. It’s about acorns and pumpkins. Scarecrows and golden sunlight. Autumn makes her thoughtful.
“We could at least try it, Clyde. Don’t you trust our connection? I know we’d find each other again. I just know it.”
Turning away from the gaze of Hazel’s round, copper eyes, Clyde watches a flock of geese fly through a patch of fluffy white clouds and feels himself lifting off the ground to join them. He knows she’s never going to give up this notion of moving on, but he’s content where they are. What more could there be to discover? Adjusting his yellow bow tie he gives her his best smile and slips his arm around her corseted waist, pulling her toward him.
“Let’s talk about it later. Right now, let’s dance.”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it later. I want to talk about it now!”
Pushing back a bit too hard, Hazel floats across the field swept up in a swirling mass of orange and yellow leaves. She lets herself drift in circles until the wind deposits her beside the towering ancient oak leaning almost as far left as the slanted old barn. Clyde follows with his hands tucked into the pockets of his fine linen pants while chewing softly on the side of his cheek. He hates when she’s like this.
A pair of yellow-billed magpies hop from their nest as Hazel circles the tree looking for the carved heart of their youth. It’s below a dark, black knot and clear as ever since Clyde carved it deep into the hardwood. Tracing the C and H with her finger she feels tears forming in her eyes, but knows they will never fully form. Ghosts can’t cry.
“I want to carve something. I want to feel something solid in my hands again. I want to make mistakes, to hurt…to cry. I want to be…alive. Or something other than this…”
Clyde’s heard this before and hates how sad it makes Hazel, but he doesn’t want any of those things. To possibly struggle again feels pointless and frankly scary. They are happy living on these lands, watching the seasons pass through, and dancing together. There’s nothing else he wants or desires. He wishes it could be enough for her. He wishes he could be enough for her.
Taking a step closer, he wills the love inside his body to radiate from him. He imagines it as strands of wispy threads weaving between them, gently binding, creating security and loving warmth. If only he could create enough strands to make her stop bringing this up and simply be content in his arms. He starts to speak, low and soft.
“Remember the winter when we found the den of baby foxes. We watched them grow from being unable to lift their heads to frolicking in the fresh powdery snow, chasing and barking at each other. Your golden hair glistened with tiny perfect snowflakes and you looked like an angel…”
Reaching out to touch her, Hazel slaps his hand away. It makes a terribly loud whooshing sound startling several squirrels who run up the tree, flicking their bushy tails while squeaking and barking with frenzied panic. Although animals can’t see them, most can sense them. Hazel frowns.
“Stop it, Clyde. This has nothing to do with not loving our life here together and everything to do with being alive. That very same winter we watched helplessly as a baby deer lost its mother and froze to death. We tried so hard to help, but we couldn’t do a damn thing. We aren’t anything here. We are stuck and we feel nothing. Nothing!”
“That’s not true! We can feel things. We are alive to each other. I can feel you in my arms and kiss you with my lips. Why must you always wish for something more? Our life together is magic. It’s a gift! Why can’t you see that?”
Hazel doesn’t answer, but instead circles up into the sky as high as she can until she reaches the border wall of thick cold air. They are prisoners here in this place, locked within the boundaries of these lands, and although Clyde doesn’t seem to mind, she does. Her heart wants more. Craves more. It has nothing to do with the love between them and everything to do with wanting to know if this is all there is.
Pressing her palms softly against the wall of air Hazel can feel the thrumming heartbeat on the other side. Life lies beyond this and all she has to do is slip through the cracks. The golden light calls to her. It always does. It has to mean something.
Clyde’s beside her now his hands outstretched toward hers. There’s pain behind his blue eyes and she knows he doesn’t understand. They’ve had this fight hundreds, if not thousands, of times. He wants the here and now—the them that is guaranteed. She wants to know what else there is.
“Hazel…let’s go to the shimmering river and dance with the dragonflies. We’ll kick at the water with our toes until the moon comes out to yell at us. Please, Hazel? Come with me.”
He extends his hands again and Hazel can see the desperate love there—a kind of longing she used to crave but now finds suffocating. Her hands ball into fists and her cheeks burn.
“Why can’t you see this isn’t about you? Not everything is about you! I’m tired of you!”
Her voice comes out as an angry slip of misty words, almost a violent hiss. Clyde says nothing but she can see the pain light up as if she’d thrown a match in his face. She watches it twist and burn across his soft features until she can’t take it anymore. Tumbling away from him she curses the autumn. Why must it stir her up so? Why must it come between them like this? Why does the light call to her and not him?
Landing in the overgrown apple orchard, she looks around for Clyde but doesn’t see him. After nearly 100 years together, she understands when the line has been crossed and decides he needs space. Lifting the left side of her long blue skirt, she walks ladylike around the property weaving from one dusty path to the next. Several large crows call to her and she wonders, not for the first time, if perhaps they can see her.
Without intending to, Hazel finds herself at the scarecrow in the center of the farm. It grins at her with jagged metal teeth and large black button eyes. There are lumpy dark brown mushrooms growing in the folds of its neck and a wooden heart with sprockets and gears peeking out from a tattered, plaid wool jacket. She fears this not-real man created by some strange farmer a few years back and stares wide-eyed at its chest, frightened that it will begin ticking at any moment. She decides it’s the right place to sit when you feel bad about hurting the person you love. It’s a place of punishment.
A tiny field mouse inches forward to scrounge through rotting corn cobs for any edible morsels, its wee nose twitching as it keeps an eye out for danger. Such a helpless thing in a big field full of owls, foxes, snakes, hawks, and cats. Any second it could be ousted or eaten and yet it continues to try anyway. It wants to live.
Closing her eyes, Hazel thinks about how much she was like this mouse as a child. Scurrying around trying to hide and survive in a world where big things were always trying to hurt her. It was Clyde who saved her and broke her free. It’s always been, Clyde.
She’d run away from home after receiving yet another “hard lesson” from her father, which in this instance looked like hitting her with a leather belt 15 times across her bare back while her mother watched. It wasn’t really about anything she’d done, because she didn’t break any rules, but rather a way to punish her mother for looking at a man on the road home from church. Hazel’s mother never showed any emotion in her bloodshot pale eyes but it didn’t matter. He hit them both anyway.
Hazel endured it as best she could, gritting her teeth and trying to imagine herself flying away, and as soon as he finished she ran through the forest behind her house to cry alone at the river. Clyde found her. With his bright, curly red hair and intense blue eyes. Hazel thought he was a fairy and blurted it out. He didn’t laugh. Instead, he sat beside her and searched through the rocks until he found a smooth, black stone. He handed it to her and spoke softly while staring at the water.
“Are you okay?”
Others had said those three words to her before; teachers at school, the pastor at church, and kids at the park. It wasn’t the words so much as the way he said them. No pity. No blame. He wanted the truth and she gave it to him. All of it. When she finished he took her hand.
“It’s going to be okay.”
She followed him home, an apothecary shop in the middle of town with towering shelves of multicolored bottles. There were too many smells to distinguish them all, but she found the mix of them pleasant. His dad gave her medicine to calm her, numbed the skin, and patched up her wounds. Clyde held her hand the entire time and insisted she move in with them.
“I’m only 15. There’s no way I can just not go home.”
“Stay and see. Maybe it will be okay.”
It was. Nobody came looking for Hazel. A few years later Clyde proposed and they bought a farm in the middle of the woods—their sanctuary. They danced, had a family, and farmed the land selling pumpkins in the fall, pine wreaths in the winter, and flower bouquets the rest of the year. It was a happy life. A long life. A good life.
Opening her eyes she finds Clyde sitting beside her with his hands folded in his lap. He’s staring at the ground but when he feels her looking at him he turns and gives her a half-smile. She can see the dimpled face of the boy she met beside the river as well as the wrinkled one who died beside her during the big storm. He’s her everything.
They say it at the same time and giggle. Clyde shakes his head and reaches for her hand. She lets him take it.
“I’ve been wrong to keep us here. You are right. There might be more for us beyond this place. I’m scared of losing you, but I do trust our bond. We will find each other again.”
Hope like a thousand breezy days rushes through Hazel. She feels it as tingly pinpricks of light on her skin, as the fluttering of her long hair in the wind, and as beating inside where her heart long ago stopped. Their life together, alive and after, plays before her eyes as they quietly stare at each other for several minutes. When she speaks her voice comes out as a breathy whisper.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Clyde stands and pulls her into a warm embrace, their bodies fitting perfectly together as they always have. Dipping her low in his arms he kisses her, and when their lips touch it’s as if all the kisses of 100 years together erupt between them. Crows and ravens for miles feel the vibration and rush into the air filling the darkening sky with their triumphant caws.
“One more dance?”
Rising high into the air, Clyde spins her through the cloudy blue sky. The light shines behind both their eyes, memories flashing as colorful as spring flowers, deep as winter’s darkness, hot as summer’s sun, and as brisk as autumn’s breezes. With a final embrace, they interlock their fingers and press together through the wall of air and into the golden light.
Author’s note: Inspired by the season and recent conversations with my teenage daughter, I present this ghost love story about finding peace with moving on. There’s beauty to be found in all stages of life and all seasons. Our family seems to be in a rough patch and writing this story felt slightly cathartic. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below and have a wonderful week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 41
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 tumultuous soulmates are on opposing sides of a conflict. We had to include the words apothecary, bow tie, ladylike, sprocket, mushroom, scrounge, frenzy, match, oust, and prisoner.
After weaving through the crowded streets of London on the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle, we finally arrive at an old three-story brick building east of Charing Cross and park next to a chain link fence covered in red and blue ribbons. It’s another obligatory charity event we must be seen at, this time featuring the eclectic artwork of a Tibetan monk with the unlikely name of DC Jones.
Smoking beside the wooden back door, Brax spots us and flicks his cigarette to the ground using the heel of his chunky black doc to snuff it out. He’s been waiting to let us in so we don’t have to face the crowds of paparazzi waiting out front. Without his usual black hat, I can see he’s dyed his buzzcut the color of sharp cheddar.
“Did ya hear?”
There’s a quickness to his nasally voice that I associate with being high and I prepare myself for whatever crazy thing he’s about to say. His bright green eyes are outlined with thick black eyeliner and his lips are painted sparkly blue. There’s a huge hole in his black t-shirt exposing some of his hairy stomach. I hope he’s staying outside or in some back room.
“Hear what?” Ollie says, pulling off a dark leather helmet and dismounting his shiny black Ducati. His blonde curls are matted and sweaty, which only enhances how incredible he looks in his expensive tailored maroon suit. He helps me off the bike and I have to stop myself from leaping into his arms so our bodies are touching again.
We’ve been together for six months and I’ve lost my mind. He’s all I think about. Ollie Sinclair, the man with the icy blue-grey eyes of a wolf, is the enthusiastic lead singer of the underground punk band Juxtaposed. A wild child of famous parents, supposedly chummy with the royal family, he’s unpredictable but kind with a husky voice like some fabled siren. I can’t get enough of him.
Pulling off my own helmet, both men turn to watch as my long red ringlets fall down cascading out like the red carpet undoubtedly unfurled at the front entrance. My hair is part of the magic of my family and I smile at the effect it has on both of them. The sound of brass chimes can be heard from inside the building followed by applause, but none of us are in a hurry. Brax smiles and steps closer to me.
His voice is slurred, he’s got a glazed look in his eyes, and his hands are twitching. I know he wants to touch me. Wearing black leather pants, a tight maroon corset, and spiky heels, there’s little doubt I will distract every person in the room tonight. It’s how it’s always been—the good part of my family legacy. The complicated, yet easy part.
Brax stares into my olive green eyes and swallows hard. Ollie punches him on the arm and Brax shakes his head and looks at the ground. A former heavyweight boxer with a bit of a heroin problem, Brax is the manager of the band. He’s got a boyish smile despite being in his 50s and it’s hard to stay mad at him for long. Ollie gives him a quick hug thumping his back hard.
“What’s the big news?”
Brax sighs and looks up at the starry night sky. A sliver of the moon is visible behind a cluster of dark grey clouds. It might rain.
“Oh, yeah. The Queen died.”
Nothing could have prepared me for the sensation felt inside my body at those words. Thunder. No. Lightning. Electric sparks of pain shoot out from the center of my body activating every nerve ending. I’m not ready.
I want to believe the Queen’s death is a delusion of Brax’s current high, but the truth of it can be felt as an awakening inside me. Like when the cherry blossoms bloom overnight in Greenwich Park creating an arch of pink thick enough it nearly blocks out the sun. I’m lost in the haze of pink and I can barely breathe.
This will end everything. I knew it would happen, she was 96 years old, but no part of me really thought she’d die. I don’t want to do this.
“Are you okay?”
Ollie pulls me to him and I bury my face into his warm chest and let the wailing sobs come. The men talk softly saying things like “she loved the Queen” and “she’s got a tender heart.” They have no idea my feelings are purely selfish. After tonight I’ll pass them in the street and they won’t even look at me. My life as I know it has come to an end.
Brax runs into the building and returns with a wet towel that he places gently across the back of my neck. I gasp for air and Ollie looks like he might cry. His worried expression makes the fluttering chaos inside me intensify. Maybe I don’t have to do this. It’s ultimately my choice, right? What if I choose Ollie?
“Should we call an ambulance?” Brax says. He has tears in his eyes and probably thinks I’m having a bad trip or something. Ollie strokes my hair and kisses my cheek. It only makes things worse.
“No. I’m okay.”
Taking a step back from both men I run a hand through my long hair, parting the thick curls. This magic is an implement, a tool, given to our family for one purpose only. To abandon my duty is simply unheard of, but I’m not like the women before me. Ollie isn’t like the men before him. We could be something real in this world. The thoughts calm my breathing and I take Ollie’s hand and tenderly squeeze it.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, I wipe the tears from my face and force a smile. I know what’s at stake here, but I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’d rather spend the evening beside the man I love being admired and envied. The alternative turns my stomach. I don’t want to think about it.
“Let’s go inside.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m okay. People are looking forward to seeing us tonight. Let’s not let them down.”
Holding tightly to Ollie’s arm and leaving Brax at the backdoor, we walk through a maze of dark hallways toward the low humming sound of people talking. Each step requires immense concentration as a nuclear war rages inside me—fulfill my duty and save the world or do nothing and save myself. I’m in charge of my destiny. I get to make the choice but time is running out.
We reach a large square room lit by rows and rows of candles in tall brass holders, giving the space a flickering ghostly feeling. Several hundred celebrities and rich Londoners wander about the room looking at the monk’s odd, splotchy black-and-white paintings set on wooden easels in a spiral pattern in the center of the room. It feels as if I’m in a psychiatric hospital surrounded by flicking Rorschach tests.
A waiter hands me a tall glass of red wine and Ollie and I make our rounds kissing cheeks and trading compliments. Everyone wants to touch us, but instead of feeling the normal thrill of being seen and desired, I feel dizzy and weak. If only they knew the truth about me. If they knew what my inaction would do to their country, they’d be spitting in my face and tearing out my hair. Am I really willing to destroy everything to be fakely admired and loved?
Dressed in a rich brown fur shawl, a large pudgy woman with bright red cheeks grabs my arm and smiles. She smells of fig pudding and I imagine she’s a duchess of something. The rim of her wineglass is covered in pale pink lipstick.
“The Queen’s funeral is likely to be the social event of the decade. It will be a who’s who of the entire world and I’ve already made a call to several designers to get on the list for a dress. You have to work quickly in these situations or you will be left looking like a fool. Do you have a designer in mind dear?”
Her grip on my arm is too tight. Ollie senses my discomfort and answers for me. With a wink he defuses the situation, leaving the woman laughing. Her touch lingers on my skin, burning slightly as Ollie guides me to the next painting. As we stand side-by-side I know I have to get out of here.
“Are you really okay?”
Ollie’s voice drips with pity and concern. I hate this. I wish there was a way to fulfill my destiny and keep him, but that’s not how it works. Once I complete my task, everyone I’ve ever met will forget about me and I’ll return to my childhood home outside of London. That includes Ollie. It’s how it’s always been and always will be. It’s the bargain made and the price I have to pay for the years I’ve spent in the spotlight.
Mum tried to prepare me. She told me not to get close to anyone and to have fun. I should have listened. It’s too late.
“What time is it?”
For a moment we stand staring into each other’s eyes and I feel the room and all the people fading from my view. Standing on my tiptoes I kiss him with every ounce of passion in my body, hoping my lips and tongue can convey what my words can’t. Stepping back I pull up his sleeve and look at the golden watch on his wrist. 10:30 p.m.
“Do you know what time the Queen died?”
Ollie looks around the room and realizes I’m talking to him, he slowly shakes his head. Spinning from him I walk to a cluster of people standing around one of the paintings talking softly about the proper ingredients for Yorkshire pudding. I’m doing them a favor by interrupting such a boring conversation.
“Excuse me, but do any of you know the Queen’s time of death?”
Several people look at me and shake their heads, but a handsome middle-aged man I recognize from the game show “Mastermind” steps forward and touches my arm. He’s a former journalist with a warm smile and rich brown eyes. There’s a bit of sadness mixed with longing in his voice.
“It was announced at 6:30 p.m. that Her Majesty the Queen died peacefully at Balmoral, but I suspect she died much earlier than that. Perhaps sometime around noon and they were giving the family time to arrive.”
“That gives me roughly 1 1/2 hours. Shit.”
“1 1/2 hours to do what, my dear? Are you okay?”
Before I can answer, Ollie makes a joke and then pulls me from the group. Holding my arm tight, we walk silently through the crowds of people until we arrive back into the dark maze of hallways. Once we are out of earshot of the others, he stops and presses me against a brick wall. I think he might kiss me, but instead, he hugs me gently.
“Are you okay? You seem shaken by the Queen’s death. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
For the second time tonight, I consider telling him the truth about the history of my family and our connection to the crown, but I know how insane it sounds. Plus, I’d have to reveal his attraction to me isn’t exactly of his own free will. Instead, I flip around and press him into the wall and kiss him one final time. I’m going to miss being Ollie’s girl. Tears roll down my cheeks.
“Goodbye,” I say, stepping back. He grabs my arm and pulls me hard into him with a mix of desire and an urge to protect me. He looks wild and scared. The magic is working overtime, but I remind myself he won’t remember any of this. I have to be strong. Pulling his watch off his wrist, I slip it onto mine.
“What’s going on? You aren’t acting like yourself? You are scaring me.”
His desperate voice is interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps coming in our direction. Brax appears in the dark hallway holding up his cell phone flashlight. His nasally voice sounds frantic and there’s something that looks suspiciously like a gun in his other hand.
“Is everything okay?”
With a burst of adrenaline, I push away from Ollie and sprint past Brax through the dark hallways. They call to me, but I ignore them, bursting out the back door and into the cold darkness of the late summer evening. The pull inside me I’ve tried to ignore all night roars to life with fevered urgency.
I don’t bother with a helmet, but instead, hop on Ollie’s bike, turn the key, and press the starter button. Within moments I’m zooming toward Buckingham Palace, my magical hair blowing straight behind me like fluttery red ribbons. I’ve made my choice.
Tears stream down my face as I silently curse myself for being so stupid and not following procedure since mum died a year and a half ago. I’m supposed to visit the palace on a tour every summer and locate the tapestry so I’ll be able to reach it quickly. What if this is the year it’s been moved to another room or worse another palace?
When mum died suddenly of a heart attack, something inside me broke so fully that I lost all perspective. For a year I rebelled against every institution there is, testing the boundaries of my magic to see how far it protected me. I swam as far as I could out to sea without a life jacket, walked in front of speeding cars, and took all the drugs. Every time I was in danger, a stranger would risk their safety to save me.
All of my foolishness ended on the night I stumbled into a smokey club and saw Ollie on stage. From the second he opened his mouth, I knew I wanted him. The last six months have been a dreamy mix of passion, music, creativity, and love. I got to do all the things I’ve wanted in life and now it’s time to do the thing I was born to do. My magic is a gift but it comes at a price and it’s time to pay.
Nearing the palace I see the roads are blocked off and there are hundreds of mourners streaming onto the grounds with bouquets of flowers, silver photographs, and stuffed animals. Some are carrying candles and singing. The Queen’s death will be a cause of great mourning, but if I don’t act quickly, things will become far more dire.
Ditching Ollie’s bike on the side of the road, I sprint past the mourners and toward the soldiers dressed in red tunics and black bear hats which have formed a line across the entrance to the palace. Walking slowly in front of them, I find a soldier who has already spotted my hair and is looking at me.
“I need to get inside,” I say. “It’s urgent.”
Without a word, he escorts me through the large gates, across the lawn, and to a side door locked with an iron padlock crested with the head of a lion. Smiling, he takes out the key and turns it with a loud click. He’s young with soft, blue eyes. He and the other soldiers won’t remember they saw me, but I give him a kiss on the cheek anyway touching the golden strap of his helmet.
He blushes and I hurry inside. The lights are dim and I walk through what must be some kind of service area until I find the more familiar palace rooms I’ve visited every summer of my life. Checking Ollie’s watch I see it’s 11:30, which means I’m almost out of time. Fear thunders in my chest and I kick off my strappy heels so I can walk faster.
Although I’m seen by several officers and officials, nobody stops me or talks to me. I’m under the deep protection of magic, nearly invisible to everyone I pass. The energy inside my body vibrates and hums louder and louder.
Closing my eyes, I let mum’s voice guide me toward the tapestry, toward my destiny, and the role the women in my family have played in the monarchy for decades. I’m not sure how long I wander, occasionally bumping into a wall or a red velvet rope, but suddenly I feel it calling to me. Opening my eyes, I run barefoot down several long hallways, through two large sitting rooms, until I reach a room of gold and red.
Taking up almost an entire wall is the gorgeous tapestry of my ancestor. She’s standing with one hand up in the air and the other down at her side dressed in a vibrant dress of emerald green. There are several doves fluttering around her bright red hair which is filled with tiny white flowers. As I watch, one of the flowers falls to the ground.
Touching my own hair, I peek again at Ollie’s golden watch on my wrist. 11:55. I’m almost out of time. With all my might I push an antique desk from the wall until it’s close enough to the tapestry I can climb on top of it.
Sweating and panting from the effort, I feel the magic inside my body pull into a giant ball within my chest—a beating heart of its own. Standing on tippy-toes I reach my hand up and touch the outstretched hand of the woman on the tapestry—my ancestor.
My mother did her best to explain what would happen, but I think part of me always thought it wasn’t true. How could our family lineage be responsible for protecting the sovereignty of a monarchy we weren’t directly related to? Yet, as the power flows out of me and into the tapestry the truth comes with it. A beautiful story of love and sacrifice.
The woman on the tapestry, Margret, was a faithful friend of the beautiful Queen Elizabeth I. A traveler and explorer, she loved her Queen with all her might and would bring her gifts from around the world. Unfortunately, lingering anger from the actions of her sister Mary and her father King Henry VIII had created conflict with the fairy kingdom. The result was pestilence, famine, and lingering curses throughout the land.
Marget traveled far across the sea to the home of the Fairy Queen brokering peace between the two worlds offering herself and her descendants as servants of the fairies. The deal was agreed upon and Margret returned home with the tapestry. Once the Queen hung it within Richmond Palace prosperity and wealth once again flowed within the kingdom.
Each woman in our family since has been born with the power of incredible beauty and magic, but upon the death of the current King or Queen, we must return the magic to the tapestry by the stroke of midnight or the peace between the worlds would be shattered. It’s an incredibly important role and one I can’t believe I considered not fulfilling. Duty and destiny are far greater than any individual’s love and desire.
Falling backward onto the desk with the power returned where it belongs, I feel peacefulness spread through me as if I’m sitting in wool pajamas before a roaring fire. I thought I’d feel empty, but I don’t. The memories of Ollie and the life I’ve lived before this moment feel precious, but also hazy and far away. It’s as if it was all a beautiful dream and I’m finally awake.
I feel connected to my mum and the women before me in a way I can’t fully understand. Pride and love have replaced the magic. It’s a sensation of being whole and complete. A turning of the page.
Sliding off the desk, my bare feet feel cold against the stone floor. It’s time to leave the palace and return to my small childhood home on the outskirts of London. I feel the stirring of new life within my body, a shuddering sensation as if my capacity to love has grown instantly and infinitely greater. Closing my eyes I can see her—my own little red-haired beauty to carry on the family legacy. Touching my belly, I walk through the empty rooms and out the front door.
Author’s note: A few years ago I was fortunate enough to take a tour of Buckingham Palace. As I wandered the rooms almost in a trance, I was taken back to my younger self who dreamed of a “Princess Diaries” scenario. I imagined at any moment someone would appear from behind one of the rich tapestries to whisk me away to some secret room where I’d be told I belonged not in my middle-class home in the United States but rather within the historic walls of the palace.
When I discovered the prompt this week was to write about a story pulled from today’s headlines, I had to do something relating to the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II. Hopefully, this story was a fitting tribute of sorts and not at all offensive to anyone living in the UK. I tried to stay away from actual facts as much as possible, sticking instead to my naive love of fantasy tales like Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere.” Any errors on my part are simply a result of my trying to tell a compelling story.
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did writing it. Let me know in the comments below and I send my deepest condolences to the royal family and all the people of the United Kingdom.
Short Story Challenge | Week 37
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 pulled from today’s headlines and rewritten. We had to include the words boxer, cherry blossom, magic, implement, artwork, safety, chime, chain link, towel, and ingredient.
“Healing winds with all their might reveal an eight arm gift of ancient sight.” -The Secret Guide to Ocean Magic
Tracing the dark blue waves stitched onto the white comforter with her pointer finger, Meri takes a deep steadying breath. There’s nothing to do right now but rest. She did everything she could. It’s not her fault.
There’s a sense she’s forgetting something, but the smell of peppermint tea distracts the feeling away. Dressed in warm, soft pajamas of pale pink, she rises from bed and slips on a pair of matching fur-lined slippers. Her arms and legs feel heavy and weak.
She’s in a small, square room with no windows. There’s a large blue octopus painted onto a white brick wall. An unknown wind blows her thick brown hair about her face for a moment before sticking to her damp, pink cheeks. She closes her eyes tight and a murky image slowly comes into focus.
There’s a golden chandelier, a dance floor of soft brown wood, and a jazz band playing in matching maroon suits. She’s wearing a midnight blue silk dress with her hair piled in ringlets on the top of her head. She feels far more grown-up than ever before. This is what her life will be like now. A life she can create all by herself far from the reach of her abusive parents. She gets to call the shots.
“There’s a forest of life inside your green eyes,” a young man says while holding Meri in his arms. Handsome and tall, she can feel his strong heartbeat against her palm. His lips are plump and pink and his hair is long and golden. “I’m lost when I’m with you.”
Dressed in a sparkling silver dress, a beautiful woman bumps into the young couple and drops her cocktail drink to the floor. Its pink liquid sloshes all the way to the wall, pooling along the edge. The floor tilts further sideways and someone screams. Meri opens her eyes.
There’s a delicate teacup covered in tiny pink starfish steaming on a wooden end table across the room. Beside it sits a thick book with a deep blue cover and a pair of golden brown reading glasses. She takes a wobbly step toward it.
“Well, I suppose I could do some reading.”
Her voice sounds crackly in the quiet room as if her throat is swollen. Has she been screaming? Questions waft away before answers can be formed. The sound of waves lapping against wood can be heard in the distance.
Meri sits in a white cushioned chair and covers her legs with a heavy wool blanket which smells faintly of saltwater and is the dark green color of wet seaweed. Her long brown hair feels matted and dirty, but when she runs her fingers through it she’s surprised to find it silky and soft.
The book has no title and no author. It’s a picture book of sorts but seems unbound by the conventions of normal storytelling. Instead, it meanders between two stories, both of which Meri finds herself getting emotionally invested in within moments.
The first story is of a tiny piglet, the runt of the litter, who lives in a petting zoo in the middle of a noisy town. This plump ball of pink with a curly tail dreams of running away to attend a summer camp near the ocean so it can swim with dolphins. He tries various ways to escape but the evil zookeeper always catches him and throws him back into his metal cage.
The second story is of an immortal being living in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean. A creature of eight who spends its days hiding alone within a cave of bright silver coral created by collecting bits and pieces of shipwrecks and hammering them together. Annoyed by the noises and pollution of the world, it lives a solitary and peaceful existence. It floats gracefully in the icy waters often dancing among its garden of tiny phosphorus plants cultivated through years of careful nurturing.
On a particularly busy weekend at the petting zoo, the piglet sneaks into the backpack of a small girl with bouncy blonde pigtails. Within hours, the small animal finds itself off on a grand adventure aboard a giant white ship headed into the vast ocean. Its happiness, however, shifts when a terrible storm rolls across the glittery water, turning the soft smooth surface into terrible walls of white that crash hard into the sides of the ship. The girl tries to hold onto the piglet, but it slips from her grasp and into the choppy sea.
Meri shuts the book with a snap. Her body feels terribly cold and she looks around panicked about the wall of white and the piglet. Instead, she sees the muted lights of the room blink softly and feels the chair beneath her roll from side to side. It’s only a story, she tells herself. She stares at the white brick wall with the octopus. I’m in a room.
The number one hundred and twelve flashes golden along the wall and then disappears. Meri rubs sand from her eyes. Terror and sadness flush through her and then quickly dissipates as her eyes fall on the teacup beside her. The pretty cup with the tiny starfish.
Meri takes a sip and tastes strong herbs with just a hint of honey. She’s amazed to find the glass remains hot and full no matter how much she drinks. Feeling warmth return to her body she picks the book up and thumbs through the pages until she finds where she left off.
Yes, the piglet was in the water. Its piercing cry for help echoes through the deep blue waters, a sound that reaches the very depths of the ocean where the creature of eight resides. Immediately concerned by such a plea, it moves toward the surface with flickering quickness. After several minutes of desperately searching, it finds the source of the sound—a small piglet paddling frantically for its life.
“What are you doing here?” the creature asks.
The piglet has tears in its eyes but brightens at the friendly voice it can hear but not see.
“I wanted to swim with dolphins. Are you a dolphin?”
The primordial creature is moved by the sweetness of the young piglet. It’s been through so much already and it doesn’t want it to suffer further. With magic as old as Earth itself, the creature morphs into the shape of a dolphin with a sleek grey body, a pointed nose, and a wide crescent tail. Surfacing, it swims in a circle splashing the tiny pig’s snout and ears.
“Yes! I am a dolphin and I’ve come to rescue you.”
The piglet squeals with delight.
“A real dolphin is saving me! Wow!”
Working together the piglet climbs onto the back of the creature. They swim through the foggy remains of the ship; twisted pieces of metal, empty orange flotation devices, dinner plates, and splintered wood. There are other shapes in the water. Shapes that the piglet finds scary.
“Where are the people?” the piglet asks.
Answering with a series of whistles and squeaks, the creature of eight leaps out of the water skipping from wave to wave as if it’s flying. The piglet giggles and feels the sadness of the moment before fleeing in a rush of warmth and love. It’s going to be okay. There’s nothing to be done right now but rest. You did everything you could. It’s not your fault.
Meri sits the book on her lap again. Sunlight shines through a crack in the ceiling and the calls of seagulls break through the silence of the small, warm room. One hundred and twelve people died on the ship. She was saved by something she can’t see but can feel. Its presence radiates around her like a warm hug. So much was lost, but this creature saved her and gave her a moment of peaceful rest. Gratitude brings tears to her eyes.
Her voice sounds stronger now. She takes another sip of the warm tea, stands, and drops the book to the floor. The door opens a crack and she hears voices calling across the sand. Her body suddenly begins to shake as she falls through the door of room 112 and onto the cold, wet sand. Her true love has perished, but she’s still alive.
“Over here!” a voice calls.
“We found a survivor!”
Author’s note: I’ve started a lot of my short stories lately with a made-up quote. It’s becoming a bit of a calling card for me and might prove useful when I begin organizing the best of these stories into a collection to publish next Spring. As I’m looking at healing and transition right now, it felt right to center my story around an octopus as they have long been symbols of renewal and regrowth. I hope this story brings you comfort if you find yourself needing the reminder you did your best and you are going to be okay.
*The photos above were taken at the Lamplighter Inn in Bandon, Oregon. It’s a super cute place to stay with ocean-themed rooms. I’m afraid they don’t actually offer free tea, super comfy pajamas, and magical books. Not yet anyway.
Short Story Challenge | Week 36
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 that takes place in one room. We had to include the words petting zoo, handsome, unbound, annoy, weekend, invest, immortal, piglet, cocktail, and camp.
“Where the rolling sea meets the sand you will find the ancient ocean man. Sit still and listen if you can to broken sea shells in shaking hands.” -Old Sea Proverb
Vanora squats beside a rotting pile of kelp to examine the tiny insects buzzing around it. The golden tinge of sunset makes their wings appear delicate and translucent. They must be a kind of fly or gnat and she wonders how long their lifespan is. Probably days or perhaps only hours.
A wave of nausea hits and she falls forward in the sand on aching, aging knees. When did she last eat something? Breakfast was a large bowl of fresh strawberries and a cup of weak coffee in an off-white mug with a slight chip along the rim. She’d almost cut her lip but noticed at the last second and turned the mug.
The rest of the day is blurry and Vanora doesn’t like when her memories aren’t clear. Her grey hair smells of coconut shampoo and it’s braided back so the wind doesn’t tangle it. She must have showered and taken a nap. She feels clean and rested in black leggings and a loose purple sweater, but awfully hungry. She probably forgot to eat again.
For most of her life, she’s been a writer, always scribbling herself notes, poems, snippets of song lyrics, and endless to-do lists. Her novels were never on the New York Times Best Seller list, but she’s proud of how they reflect her as a mother and a woman. In the last few years, however, the words won’t come. The notes she leaves herself now are cryptic and upsetting. It’s as if she speaks a different language each day and there’s no global translator.
It’s hard to accept such a drastic change within herself, particularly as most of the time she feels like the same person—viewing the world through a lens of flowery words, colorful contrasts, and abstract connections. Yet her mind doesn’t hold everything at once anymore—sand running through a sieve collecting only the bits and pieces large enough to not fall through. It feels terribly unfair.
Sitting back, she touches the slimy seaweed with her pointer finger and sadness suddenly ripples through her chest, making it hard to breathe. This plant provided shelter, food, and protection to generations of sea life only to be ripped from its foundation and deposited onto the sandy shore like a banana peel thrown in an overflowing trash can. Or like an old woman who gave everything for her family only to find herself living alone in a travel trailer moving from town to town.
Waving her hands frantically to scare off the bugs, she lifts the limp plant up by the bulb, runs to the edge of the water, and tosses it as far as she can. The roaring waves mask any plunking sound but she imagines it’s similar to dropping dumplings into a boiling pot of chicken broth. Bloop.
Her children always loved soup night sitting around the large wooden table throwing crusts of bread at each other. It’s been years since they were all together—scattered now like sand in the wind. Maybe she should call them all to meet her by the sea. Would they come? Life can be so busy for those in the thick of it. This she remembers.
Vanora stands and brushes the wet sand off her clothes as best she can. There’s nobody on the beach except a few seagulls and a scraggly-looking crab missing a leg. She watches him scuttle sideways, struggling to cross the sand, and is struck by how similar they both are. Unable to move as they like. Pondering what’s next. Needing help.
Grabbing the large reddish shell with both hands she lifts the terrified crab from the sand and carries it into the icy water. The cold seeps into her pants and it requires all her focus to keep balanced, but she doesn’t stop until she’s certain the crab won’t be dragged back instantly to shore.
“Good luck, little fellow.”
With a flick of her wrists, she lets it go and it immediately disappears beneath the bubbly white foam. Vanora feels a pang of jealousy and wonders if anywhere will feel like home again. It’s been years since she’s felt the comforting feeling of belonging, but it feels more like decades. Lost memories and lost time. When did loneliness become her only constant?
Finding a large piece of driftwood to use as a backrest, Vanora sits in the sand with her legs out in front of her. The blue of her nail polish has chipped and she’s shivering from the cold. The sun continues to inch toward the water, painting the sky with thick, vivid brushstrokes of pink and gold. Nature’s nightly masterpiece always changes and surprises her.
“Every starry galaxy morphs and sings caught within its own orbital rings, but it’s humans who have the power choosing how to spend every hour.”
An eerie deep voice crackles beside Vanora and she turns to find a tall, wrinkled man sitting in the sand beside her staring at the sea. His limbs are long and crooked and he’s dressed in only a pair of tattered brown pants. There are tears falling from his pale green eyes, cutting a path through his weathered, sandy face. Sadness, the great connector, erases all traces of fear from Vanora and she’s left with only peaceful curiosity.
It’s as if he’s simply another creature found along the shore—nothing less and nothing more. There’s a slick wetness about him as if he crawled out of the water moments before and perhaps he did. His feet are covered in sharp, white barnacles and his long, grey hair and beard are peppered with pieces of dark green seaweed. His speech is slow and careful.
“Skulls of restless men do lie beneath the choppy waves and sky, searching for what they already know love transcends the moon’s bright show.”
These words are followed by a blank expression and silence. Vanora feels as if she should respond but the man has now opened a tiny burlap sack he pulled from his pants pocket. He unties a thin brown rope and withdraws several shells with long, pointy fingers. Grasping them loosely between his palms, he begins shaking them.
The colorful sky swirls and tilts until everything is cloudy and grey. All sounds are muted except for the shells within the ancient man’s hands. Vanora sways to their rhythm finding herself falling into a sleep-like trance. Images appear dream-like and cloudy swirling for a moment until they flash into vivid, sharp focus. One after another.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Thirty-five seconds are left on the timer before the roast is ready to be pulled out of the oven. Vanora wipes her hands on her faded flower apron and watches the children rushing around setting the table. The older boys carry the glassware while the little ones help with napkins and silverware. Her husband kisses her on the cheek before washing his hands for dinner. The baby fusses in the high chair.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Turning off the radio reports announcing another deployment of troops, the family gathers in the overgrown field behind the house in the late hours of the night. Using a borrowed brass telescope they take turns looking at the moon, Venus and Mars. They eat banana pudding and vanilla cookies from a thermos. The little ones pick flowers using a flashlight. Vanora wipes a tear from her husband’s cheek with her pointer finger.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Walking through the empty house Vanora checks one more time for anything left behind. She doesn’t want to leave her home, but the war isn’t stopping anytime soon and without her husband, she must do what she can to protect her children. Her youngest just learned to walk and he waddles across the clean wooden floors giggling at how much space there is to move. The oldest children fold their arms and scowl. Nothing she can say will fix this for them.
“What you have always given free I have taken from the sea, stolen from the ocean’s dark abyss a broken memory shell to reminisce.”
Minutes pass into hours as the chilly night gives way to foggy dawn. Vanora sits stiffly with her eyes closed, locked in a slideshow of the past. She watches echoes of herself and her children grow up and change through vivid snapshots of her 70 years of life. Meetings and partings. Happiness and grief. Love and loss. Fullness and beauty transform into warming gratitude that radiates like flashing sparks through her tired body.
A hawk swoops across the sky calling loudly. She opens her eyes. The strange ocean man beside her is gone and the world looks bright and hopeful. A broken sand dollar sits beside her and she holds it close to her chest and smiles. Walking back to her small trailer the words flow as they haven’t in years, almost singing themselves within her, weaving with memories unlocked and free.
“What once was taken far from me hidden inside the Tumtum tree, this broken shell gimble gave for might memory now to wave.
With burbling breath and flowing pen I return back unto myself again, for within my beating beamish heart truth whispers of another fresh start.”
Author’s note: I’ve been working all week to get my house ready to host my mother-in-law’s memorial this Sunday and I left myself no time for writing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the words would come at all. I stayed up late last night, far into this morning, and this story is what developed. While it may not have stayed entirely on topic, I’m kind of proud of this one. Let me know what you think in the comments below and I’ll catch up on reading everyone’s blogs next week. I miss all your words!
Short Story Challenge | Week 35
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 conversation between artists. We had to include the words skull, galaxy, expression, trash can, deployment, visitor, brushstroke, decade, forgot, and ponder.
It isn’t easy to surprise your mother when you are five years old, but Henrietta doesn’t mind doing hard things for the people she loves. For the last several hours she’s been on a hunt for blackberries to give her mother for her birthday. A tiring barefooted quest that’s led her to the very edges of where she’s allowed to go on their small farm.
Despite checking the ditches along the road, the field behind the animal barn, the banks of the small creek, and the apple orchard, her little wicker basket remains empty. Henrietta thought finding the berries would be easy as she’s gone with her mother to harvest them many times, but she never paid attention to where they picked them and now she wished she had.
Mother does so much for Henrietta and she loves blackberries and cream. She can’t go home empty-handed. She simply must keep looking.
Stuffing her left hand into the pocket of her favorite purple linen dress and swinging the basket in her right, Henrietta skips along the edge of the property marked by a two-rail wooden fence. Her thick, blonde braid bounces against her back and she sings a song about blue jays and mockingbirds with a sweet high voice her mother says is “purely delightful” but her new teacher calls “truly distracting.”
Pink-cheeked, she stops abruptly when she spots a dirt path leading into a patch of scrubby-looking old trees she’s never noticed before. Perhaps that’s where the berries are hiding. She stares at it for a long time, wrinkling up her nose and twirling the basket in her hand.
To follow the path means she must break the rules. It’s beyond the border of the wooden fence—the one she swore to never, ever cross. Closing her eyes tight she pictures the joy and delight on her mother’s face when she hands her the basket of berries and the decision is made. She has to go for it.
Hiking up her dress, Henrietta carefully climbs over the fence and lands with a thud on the other side. Her heart races as she sprints to the clump of scraggly trees, certain a huge blackberry bush will be waiting among them. It isn’t. There are only rocks, dirt, and weeds. She picks up a round grey stone and throws it in frustration. The berries must be just a little further.
For the next few hours, she follows several winding paths through a mostly dry forest of thorny weeds. She knows she should turn back but she keeps thinking she sees the dark green leaves of the berry bushes just around the next corner. Just a little further.
The path suddenly ends at a lumpy hill covered in swaying, yellow grasses. With hope still wrapped around her like a tiny silken cape, Henrietta tucks the basket under her arm and climbs on all fours like a bear to the very top. Thorns make her palms and bare feet burn and itch. Just a little further.
On the hilltop, Henrietta watches the dark purple wild lupine flowers sway slightly in the warm breeze of the now late summer evening. Tiny golden hairs escape her thick braid and curl around her ears. Still no sign of berries.
Scrambling onto a small boulder, Henrietta stands on tiptoes and reaches for the puffy white clouds in the darkening blue sky. She’s certain eating one would make things better. It certainly can’t get any worse.
Suddenly her left calf starts to cramp and she yelps in pain, tumbling from the rock into a patch of scratchy brown weeds. Curling into a ball she uses her thumbs to try and massage out the pain but it doesn’t work. Tears from her soft blue eyes make tracks down her bright pink cheeks. It’s not fair.
Rolling onto her back, she lands in a patch of soggy mud and feels it soak completely through her thin dress. Mom will be furious at the stains. She’s stupid and dumb for wandering away and getting lost. A useless baby.
These kinds of thoughts aren’t like Henrietta at all and she wonders if perhaps the wind is saying these awful things to her. She’s simply lost. That’s all. There’s no need for name-calling.
“Stop it wind. Stop being mean.”
As if in response the wind gusts across the hilltop causing the long stems of the flowers to lean almost to the ground. There’s a high-pitched sound, like when mother’s yellow tea kettle is ready, and Henrietta covers her ears and closes her eyes. She isn’t sure she wants to look for berries anymore.
When the wind stops, Henrietta sits up, expecting to see her beautiful mother appear over the crest of the hill and rescue her. When she doesn’t, Henrietta wipes the tears from her eyes with the muddy hem of her dress and sniffs loudly. Being brave is getting harder and harder.
Maybe it’s time to go home and give mother something else for her birthday. Henrietta’s thinking about putting together a bouquet of wildflowers when a horrible screeching sound causes her to look up. Two rather ugly birds sit on the rock she fell from. They are covered in black feathers with bright pink naked heads, hooked white beaks, and intense black eyes.
She scrambles backward further into the mud puddle and the birds laugh at her. It’s a horrid sound and it makes her mad. Jumping to her feet, she places her hands on her hips and stomps her foot sending a spray of mud up around her.
“Go away you mean things.”
“We aren’t mean things. We are vultures. Don’t you know anything?”
They take turns speaking, each saying one word at a time, with matching slow growly voices. Henrietta feels her cheeks heating up and she twists the hem of her dress in her left fist. The birds smell terrible so she plugs her nose, causing her voice to sound strange.
“I know lots of things.”
“I know how to spell my name and count to 100.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“I know all the names of the flowers in my mother’s garden; pansy, bellflower, iris, candytuft, tulip, wisteria, and hydrangea.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“I can snorkel in the water all by myself and know the names of all the fish in the lake; trout, salmon, bass, catfish, perch, and pike.”
“Everyone knows that.”
The vultures laugh again, scraping their shiny black talons loudly against the rock and clicking their beaks. Henrietta thinks nothing of this warning but instead grabs a handful of mud and throws it at the birds. They dodge it easily and then dive toward her with loud, terrifying squawks.
Realizing a bit too late she’s in danger, she turns quickly and sprints down the far side of the hill. About halfway down she discovers she’s going too fast but can’t stop herself. Instead, she falls forward until she’s rolling like a wild croquet ball spinning towards a field of wire wickets.
“Help! Someone help me!”
Within seconds a mass of blue and white swirls around her, circling wildly with tiny quick moments too fast to fully see. There’s a sweet sugary smell in the air and a low rhythmic humming Henrietta associates with lullabies and bedtime. She’s scared but also very curious.
The creatures move faster and faster until they are able to stop Henrietta’s forward movement and suspend her in midair upside down. She looks from the delicate soft creatures to the sky beneath her wiggling toes and giggles.
“Thank you, but I think I’m pointing the wrong way.”
The swarm of blue and white butterflies lightly laugh, flip her around, and gently ease her dirty feet onto a patch of soft green clover. Holding out her arms and spinning in a circle she dances with them until they eventually disperse and fly off into the darkening forest around her.
“Wow. What was that?”
The fast breathy voice comes from inside the branches of a large sycamore tree leaning slightly to the right. Henrietta moves closer and finds a tiny squirrel climbing up and down the branches grabbing acorns from a pile at the base of the tree and then storing them inside a hole midway up the tree’s trunk. Its long bushy tail twitches up and down.
“Did you say butterfly effect?”
“The butterfly effect?”
Henrietta laughs in frustration but the squirrel doesn’t stop moving and doesn’t add anything further. She leans down to examine the fat brown acorns touching one of the wooden caps with her fingertip. A terrible squeaking sound erupts and the squirrel rushes toward her.
“Don’t you dare! Those are mine!”
Henrietta quickly pulls her finger away and takes a step back.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just looking at them.”
“Had to purge my other spot…got too busy. Too busy. Industry moving in. Those beavers have no scruples I say. No scruples at all. They just take and take and take. These are mine. I collected them. Mine. Mine. Mine.”
Henrietta covers her mouth to stop a chuckle from escaping and then smiles gently at the squirrel who has stopped moving to look at her closer. It sniffs her hand with its twitchy nose and she can see the forest reflected in the shiny black of its small eyes.
Its voice is slower and softer. Henrietta thinks it sounds worried about her. Looking around the thick forest of tall trees she finds nothing looks familiar. She really is lost.
“I guess I am. I was looking for blackberries for my mother’s birthday and I didn’t find them and then…I kind of got lost. I don’t know where I am.”
The last words bring a few tears and Henrietta quickly sweeps them away with the back of her hand. She feels like she should be tougher, after all, she’s a kindergartner now and can go down the big twisty slide without anyone to catch her at the bottom. The squirrel takes another step toward her with its head turned to the side.
“Can I help?”
Henrietta brightens at this.
“Maybe….do you know the way to my house? It’s the big blue one with the white fence behind it.”
The squirrel shakes its head sadly and they both sit quietly for a few minutes staring at the forest floor. Henrietta feels bad for stopping this kind of creature from its work but then she has an idea. An exciting idea.
“Could I help you?”
“You’d do that for me?”
“Of course! We can use my basket to gather up the acorns and then I can climb up and dump them inside.”
Nodding its head vigorously they get to work putting the plan into action. Henrietta climbs trees in the orchard all the time to help her mother get the apples near the top, so climbing with the basket isn’t hard for her at all. Before the sun sets another inch in the sky, they are done.
The squirrel rushes around the tree chirping excitedly and Henrietta feels proud of herself. She loves to be a helper. It makes her heart feel as if it has grown big and full inside her body. Her mother would be so proud.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” it chants over and over in time with its twitchy tail.
Stopping mid-tree, a thoughtful look breaks across the squirrel’s face followed by more frantic running and squeaking. Henrietta laughs hard and this time she doesn’t hide it. Bouncing on its back legs as if ready to spring high into the air and take flight, the squirrel talks super fast.
“I have an idea! I have the best idea of all the ideas in the woods. Will it work? I don’t know. But it’s a good idea. A fine idea. A wonderful idea. He owes me a favor and he has to be able to help. He has to. It’s a good idea. A great idea. I can help you!”
“Yes. I know someone who might be able to help! Wait here!”
With that, the squirrel scampers away at top speed mumbling “great idea.” Henrietta sits on the forest floor and picks out thorns from her dress and tosses them as far as she can. She wishes she’d asked for one of the acorns because her mother loves to draw little faces on them and line them up along the kitchen window. She decides she will ask the squirrel when it returns.
“I’m no snitch. I tell ya. No snitch. You can’t make me talk. No. No. I won’t tell you. I won’t.”
A gruff voice breaks through the woods and within moments Henrietta sees the squirrel walking slowly beside an old, fat, grey rabbit with a slight limp. It’s shaking its head, making its long, floppy ears flap all over the place. Henrietta thinks it’s the cutest rabbit she’s ever seen and has to sit on her hands to avoid reaching out to touch its soft fur.
“See! She’s nice and she needs our help.”
Stopping a few inches away the rabbit stares at Henrietta for a long time. She’s not sure if she should say something to it, and after what feels like forever, it nods once.
“I’m no snitch. I tell ya. No snitch. But I’ll show her the berries. For her mother…”
Henrietta jumps to her feet, sending both the squirrel and the rabbit into a nearby bush.
“Sorry. I’m just excited.”
“It’s okay. I’m no snitch, but let’s go. Don’t tell anyone I told you okay? Nobody. I’m no snitch.”
“Oh, I won’t tell a soul.”
The squirrel rushes to its pile and then returns to Henrietta with an acorn in its tiny paws.
“For you mother.”
“She will love it! Thank you!”
Henrietta wants to touch its soft fur but decides it might be bad manners and instead blows the squirrel a kiss before turning to follow the grumpy rabbit into the forest. They walk slowly in silence for a long time around fallen logs, through patches of bright green ferns, and around several large colorful mushrooms.
The sky beyond the trees has turned golden orange and purple. Soon the moon and the stars will be out. Her mother must be so worried about her and it makes Henrietta feel terribly upset. By the time they reach a large blackberry bush hugging the edge of a small stream her enthusiasm for picking has been replaced with utter despair.
“Here you go. Now, remember, I didn’t take you here. I’m no snitch.”
Henrietta begins to sob. She can’t help herself. All she wanted to do was make her mother’s birthday special and she missed the entire day, broke the number one rule, and probably won’t ever find her home again. Thinking about her mother’s crying green eyes makes her feel sick as she clutches her stomach.
The rabbit hops into her lap and looks at her with concern in its dark shiny eyes.
“You can pet me if you want.”
Henrietta does and is surprised to find it makes her feel better. The more she strokes the soft, grey fur the calmer she becomes. The babbling sound of the nearby stream draws her attention to the blackberry bush and she feels a renewed sense of purpose. This day can be saved!
“Thank you, rabbit. A million times thank you.”
It hops from her lap and she runs toward the bush and begins picking the fattest, prettiest blackberries she’s ever seen until her basket is filled to the tippy-top. Mother will be so overjoyed she’ll forget everything else. Henrietta pops a few of the berries into her mouth and chews them happily.
A deep voice causes Henrietta to almost drop her basket and she’s shocked when she turns around to find an enormous deer with huge antlers pawing the ground a few feet from where she stands. It occurs to her in an instant that the berries must be his and he’s going to be really mad.
“I’m sorry. You can have them back.”
She’s about to pour the basket onto the ground when the deer laughs. It’s not mocking like the vulture’s cackle but rather a gentle soft chuckle between friends. Tilting his head he nods to her.
“My forest friends have told me you are trying to get home for your mother’s birthday. You are almost too late little one. Mother moon has opened her eyes and her starry children are rushing out to play. The day is almost over.”
Tears reform in Henrietta’s already swollen eyes as all the feelings of the day flood through her again. She falls to the forest floor letting the basket of berries tumble from her hands. Nothing is as important as being with her mother and she should have never left the farm. Love and time together are the most important gifts of all.
“It’s okay,” the deer says. “It’s all going to be okay.”
Henrietta looks up to see all her new forest friends gathered in a circle around her—big deer, grey rabbit, twitchy squirrel, and the swirling mass of blue and white butterflies. They gather the berries for her and return them to the basket. They kiss her on the cheek and help her onto the smooth back of the large deer. She can feel his breath beneath her and her own breathing slows to match his.
“Time to go, little one. Your mother’s waiting for you,” the deer says.
“Thank you!” she calls to her friends who stand waving until she’s out of sight.
The journey takes no time at all and soon Henrietta sees the fence at the back of the orchard. Her mother stands near the treeline with her back to her. She’s wearing a long purple dress covered in tiny white flowers. The moonlight makes her hair look sleek and silver.
“Henrietta! Where are you, daughter? Henrietta!”
Sliding quickly off the deer’s back she kisses him on the nose, leaps over the fence, and runs toward her mother.
“I’m right here! Mother! I’m right here!”
Her mother scoops her into her arms and kisses her from head to toe, the basket of berries falling to the ground beside them.
Author’s note: This was a hard week for our family. We gathered together in my sister-in-law’s home as my strong loving mother-in-law gently faded away from us in her upstairs bedroom. We held her hand, kissed her face, and brushed her hair. We made sure she knew she was loved but also that it was okay to leave us. It was a beautiful and incredibly hard week.
My short story, written mostly in one sitting, was inspired by my love for her and many of the wonderful moments we’ve shared over the years. There’s a little Alice, a little Blueberries for Sal, a nod to family history, and a lot of grief. I’ll miss you forever, Janet. Your loving legacy will not be forgotten.
Short Story Challenge | Week 34
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about an interrupted journey. We had to include butterfly effect, vulture, cramp, industry, purge, scruple, snorkel, snitch, warning, and useless.
Salvador wants to blame everything on global warming but the summers have always been hot in the desert. I’m preparing things for our guests but he’s still running around in the boxers he bought from an expensive art boutique in Paris years ago. He’s claiming it’s too hot for clothes.
Covered in tiny yellow butterflies, the silk design looks less like a masterpiece and more like he’s got a problem with incontinence. At his age, it’s a miracle he doesn’t.
“You need to get dressed, Sal. They will be here any minute.”
“What? You don’t think they’ll like my fancy pants? I know you do.”
With this, he tries to do a little dance gyrating his hips toward me until something seems to catch and he winces. He braces himself against the kitchen counter and his cheeks flush red. I don’t laugh or ask if he’s okay. Long ago I learned his ego bruises easier than one of our garden tomatoes and with guests on the way I need him in a good mood.
He should be using his carved wooden cane but he’s often too proud. Despite his age, his lean body still contains hints of strength and youth. I can almost see the man he used to be and it gives me hope. His blue-grey eyes catch mine and I see hurt and maybe hesitation behind them. The pain of aging feels unfair and undignified. I wink at him and force a smile.
“Get dressed, Mr. Cassanova. Save the sexy for later.”
This does the trick and he saunters away into the bedroom the best he can with a slight limp. I consider crushing up some pain pills to put in his dinner but I think a few glasses of wine may have the same effect. We’ve got a lot riding on this evening and everything needs to go as planned. One misstep and we will have to abandon everything and start over.
Sprinkling a dash of fresh pepper on the top, I smile at the masterpiece waiting for our dinner guests—my grandmother’s rather unorthodox bean and rice casserole which takes an entire day to make. I slip the blue cast iron pot into the oven to keep it warm, take off my flowery apron, and stand in front of the hallway mirror to apply some pink lipstick and a little mascara.
Although my long silver hair looks stunning braided into a crown on the top of my head. I frown at the uneven tone of my skin and the way the wrinkles around my faded hazel eyes and mouth make my features appear sunken. I’ve never gotten used to seeing myself like this.
Salvador wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my neck. My body reacts to his touch, as it always has, and I breathe out loudly in fake annoyance. He laughs and steps back. Watching him in the mirror, I see him put up his wrinkled hands in surrender and then let them drop. When he speaks his voice is breathy and low. There are careful layers hidden behind his words and I wonder if he’s having second thoughts.
“You can’t blame me, Toba. You look so good in that dress. I want it to be just us.”
My emerald green dress has a plunging neckline and shows off all the parts of my body he loves so much. He leans against my back and reaches around to playfully tug on the intricate thick golden chain around my neck. I want so much for this moment to last but I can’t trust those feelings. Tonight needs to happen for everything to be okay again. One more time.
“You’ve seen me wear this dress a hundred times, Sal. Now, let’s look at you!”
Spinning around I face him and examine his white linen pants and rich burgundy silk shirt with tiny brass buttons. He’s swooped back his unruly grey hair with gel taming it to the sides of his head, but I know it won’t stay down for long. Our outfits go well together and I pull him beside me and turn back to the mirror to take us both in. We are a stunning pair for being in our 70s and I know it will put us at an advantage tonight.
The doorbell rings and Sal pulls me to him for a quick kiss. There’s homesickness in the way his lips press into mine, and I know it’s been too long since I’ve allowed myself to sink into him. There’s been too much to organize and sort through. I’ve barely kept it together, but tonight will change it for us. Hope makes me feel bold as I kiss him passionately on his neck.
“Tell them to go away.”
His voice and body shudder. For a moment I worry he’s forgotten where we are but then he smiles and his hands travel along my body tracing the curves until he reaches the places he likes best. Does this need to happen? Is he trying to tell me he doesn’t want to go through with it? It’s been so long since I’ve seen such clarity and passion behind those cloudy eyes and I want to send our guests away and simply be devoured by him. The doorbell rings again and I hear Frida’s soft voice.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Reality rings through me and I reluctantly pull myself from Sal’s strong arms. He looks like he may cry so I grab his hands in mine and squeeze them. If I could freeze time I’d lock us at the doorway with passion flowing electrically between us, but I can’t. Tonight is important. I will him to understand the message in my eyes and then kiss him quickly on the cheek.
“Later, my love.”
My voice cracks. Tears threaten to erupt and I pinch my forearms hard to bring myself back to this moment. Draping purpose around my shoulders and swallowing hard, I step around him and open the door to our guests.
His voice trails behind me and the word lands on my shoulders pressing so hard I stumble in my flat ballet shoes as if they are the six-inch stilettos of my youth. Sal says nothing more and I wonder if perhaps I’ve misread his intentions. Maybe this was a mistake after all.
“Hello!” I say. “Welcome to our little home!”
Frida and her date stand beaming in the doorway with a bottle of wine and a bouquet of fresh colorful tulips. I chose Frida for her stunning curves, gorgeously thick black hair, and rich brown eyes. She’s wearing a white linen dress and I realize how perfect she will look standing beside Sal. It feels almost like fate and it eases some of my anxiety.
Her partner for the evening, though, surprises me. From our conversations at the coffee shop, I expected her to be attracted to the artsy kind with glasses and wild hair. Instead, this tall dark man looks like a supermodel complete with a dimpled smile and incredibly deep brown eyes. I blush a little as he steps forward and kisses my cheek.
Frida follows behind him and kisses me as well. The rich rose scent coming off her makes me wish I’d thought to spruce myself up a bit more. I probably smell like food and perhaps Sal’s musky aftershave. They are an extraordinary and glamorous pair.
“This is my dear friend, Diego,” Frida says. “We met on holiday in Rome last year and haven’t tired of each other yet.”
Diego winks at her and then turns his attention back to me.
“We are so grateful you invited us to your home. Frida can’t stop raving about her new friend and her famous artist husband.”
With a look of fake embarrassment, she playfully punches him on his tanned muscular arm. I straighten my back and remind myself of my mission. Play the part, Toba. You are fully capable of this. You’ve done this many, many times before. You can do it again.
“Don’t mind him, Toba. He’s just jealous I’ve been talking about someone other than him.”
“Guilty as charged.”
They both laugh and I join in and take the bundle of beautiful flowers from Frida and place them in an empty vase just inside the door. Sal has disappeared. This doesn’t work without him and I feel panic squirming inside my gut—a swarm of wild cicadas chirping “danger, danger.” I hate this feeling.
What if he’s forgotten they are here? What if he’s gone to the studio to paint or climbed the ladder to the rooftop garden? What if it’s not a good day after all? His memory has been slipping more and more. I need him alert and strong tonight.
Sal appears in the doorway to the kitchen holding a bamboo tray with four crystal wine glasses and a bright silver bottle opener. Winking at me, he crosses the cozy living room and places it on the wooden coffee table. There’s a look of triumph in his eyes at the look of shock in mine. He remembers.
“Thank you,” I say. “Diego and Frida, I’d like you to meet my husband Sal.”
Diego crosses and the two shake hands, but Frida looks a little starstruck. She hasn’t moved and I savor this moment. My words have worked on her. The spell is cast.
“I’m…I’m…oh, my goodness, listen to me babbling. I’m sorry. I’m just such a big fan of your work and I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you.”
“Well, I hope I’m not a disappointment to such a stunning woman as yourself.”
Sal steps forward takes her hand and kisses it gently. Frida blushes and Diego pulls her to him with a giggle. I get the sense he’s jealous of her obsession with both of us and that’s understandable. It’s far worse than he can imagine, however. I swallow back regret and shame. There’s no time for that.
“You are everything I thought you’d be and more.”
Frida’s cheeks are pink and her voice sounds a bit shaky. She stares around the room at Sal’s paintings, her eyes wide and filled with tears she doesn’t even try to hide. His artwork has this effect on most women and I watch a small smile cross Sal’s face. It’s always nice to be appreciated.
Diego offers to open the bottle of wine and Sal nods, taking my hand and sitting with me on our stripped green couch. Frida walks around to look closer at “Midnight in the Garden” and then “Dinner for Two.” Diego removes the cork and pours four glasses of a strong-smelling red wine. Sal squeezes my knee.
After passing a drink to each of us, Frida and Diego sit in the two antique chairs across the coffee table and we all stare at each other. Youth and beauty radiate from both of them. It’s an almost tangible thing in this dim room—a glowing warmth I feel calling me. I deserve to feel this again.
There’s a brief moment of silence, but Diego laughs and fills it with his confident, booming voice. He’s a man used to having everyone looking at him with a strong jawline and a head full of luscious deep, black curls. Confidence mixed with the arrogance of old money.
“You’ve got a beautiful house here, Sal. It’s quite a bit away from the world though, isn’t it? I suppose that’s on purpose. Wanted a break from the big city life? All your adoring fans?”
With this, he gives Frida a little patronizing glare but she doesn’t notice. She’s staring back and forth from Sal to his paintings. Her eyes are glassy and she’s barely blinked.
“We chose this location for the stunning views of the night sky. There’s nothing else quite like it,” I say. “Perhaps you saw it when you drove in?”
Diego nods and then goes on and on about telescopes and seeing the Aurora Borealis from his yacht. I’m more interested in the way Frida’s looking at Sal. She’s barely sipped her wine and she’s holding tight to the arms of the chair. Her soft voice cuts off Diego in mid-sentence.
“Have you painted the sky, Sal?”
Everyone looks at her and she blushes. Her red lipstick has left a slight mark on her glass and the dim light of the room makes her thick hair appear shiny and wet. Sal smiles gently and avoids looking at either me or Diego.
“Yes, I’ve painted many versions of the night sky. Hundreds, maybe thousands.”
Frida leans forward and I almost laugh as she presses her breasts together unnecessarily. There’s no denying her beauty in any setting but she seems to be untethered. This is happening far faster than it should.
“I bet they are wonderful.”
“Would you like to see one?”
The timer I set in the kitchen dings right on time. Sal finishes a second glass of wine with a huge gulp. Memory seems to be returning to him. He knows what’s happening and appears to be playing the part a bit too early.
“Why don’t we eat first,” I say.
Diego nods and adds, “Yes, I’m rather hungry.”
He pulls Frida’s arm but she doesn’t move. It’s as if the world has shrunk down for her and all she can see is Sal. An artist and a muse.
As familiar as the scene is for me, it never gets easier. The gravitational pull of Sal’s magnetic energy feels electric and I have to shake my head to avoid allowing jealous thoughts to take form. Play your part, Toba. No second guessing or stopping it now. One more time.
“Diego, would you help me set the table?”
Without a word, he looks from Frida to Sal and then follows me into the kitchen. I hand him the deep blue starry napkins and point to the small round table outside on the veranda surrounded by strings of white globe lights. He blinks back tears and doesn’t move.
“There will always be a Sal to take her from me.”
He’s not talking to me, but I understand the feeling. If I didn’t need Frida so badly I’d happily end this all right now. This isn’t something I accounted for, his feelings, and I feel a bit ashamed of myself for not realizing it before this moment. He will suffer from tonight, yes, but men like him always bounce back. He will be fine.
“He’s an old man, Diego. You are handsome and strong. You have nothing to fear.”
My words seem to have shaken him back to life and he looks at me as if he has no idea what I’m talking about. He laughs, grabs the pile of silverware sitting on the counter, and walks smoothly out the back door. Far off in the desert, I hear the howl of a lonely wolf calling for its pack.
I watch Diego from my place in the kitchen as he gently sets the table with careful attention to detail. A graceful man with long limbs and manicured hands. There’s an ease and beauty about him and I realize I’d have fallen hard for him in my youth. He stares up at the night sky and scowls.
“It’s not so great.”
He’s mumbling when he returns to grab the bowls and the basket of fresh-baked bread. I can tell he’s unnerved far greater than even he himself understands. Perhaps he feels the danger sparking around him but can’t name it.
Purposely I move into his path and smile at him holding the dutch oven in my hand. Tilting the lid, the strong spicy scent of the dish spills out around us. He returns my smile.
“That smells wonderful.”
“Thank you. It’s a family recipe passed down for generations on my mother’s side. I’m the fifth woman in my family to make it and it’s only for special guests like you, Diego.”
This compliment seems to have brought back some of his joie de vivre and he takes the heavy dish from my hands outside to the table. Frida and Sal join us moments later and I can tell she’s on the hook. A few more well-placed words combined with the food and we’ll have her.
“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”
Frida and Diego greedily spoon the food into their mouths while Sal and I watch. It’s working. They seem mesmerized and although I can’t be sure, I think Sal’s already feeling better. He touches my leg under the table. Diego begins talking with a mouthful of food.
“Forgive my manners, but this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten and that’s saying something. I’ve eaten at the finest restaurants in the world and nothing compares. I’m serious. You could make a fortune on this dish.”
They always want to make money off of it. I’m disappointed by his predictability, but it’s Frida who matters right now. Smiling, I repeat my question.
“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”
Her dark brown eyes look up and meet mine for the first time since starting dinner and I can see the start of the change in them. They are smokey and the pupils shrunk so small you can barely see them, a tiny seed in a murky sea.
“Oh, it’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The phoenix…the moon…I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I wasn’t prepared for any of this. It’s just so…overwhelming.”
Frida begins to cry and Diego looks alarmed but can’t seem to stop himself from spooning the food into his mouth. Frida scoots her chair back and walks around the table until she’s standing beside Sal’s chair. It’s time.
“Would you like to watch me paint something?”
Sal stands and squeezes my left hand. Neither of us like this part, but tonight will be the last time. We’ve agreed on just one more painting. One more canvas covered in blood. One more shot at youth. This time we won’t waste it playing and traveling. We will have a family—a daughter to pass things onto. We will be smarter and more careful. One more time.
“I’d like nothing more.”
Frida’s crying harder now and her voice cracks, but when Sal takes her hand a rush of happiness causes her to visibly relax. He guides her down the winding path behind the house to his studio. She will give her life for us. For Sal. She will be his muse. Our sacrifice. Another great work of art.
Diego continues to eat but panic has set into his eyes. I move so I’m sitting on the table beside him and begin to sing. The rich tenor of my voice spills out around us, following Sal and Frida to their tasks, and flowing out into the desert in all directions. It’s a visible mist now and Diego breathes it in.
He’s smiling by the time I walk him to his car. There will be no memory of visiting us and he’ll forget about Frida too. Tomorrow will be a new day for him, for all of us, and I kiss him on the cheek. He pulls me into a tight embrace.
“Goodbye, dearest Diego.”
“Goodbye, my love.”
There’s no confusion on his face. He’s forgotten already. I watch until the red taillights of his silver car disappear over the horizon and then spin in a circle. The aches and pains of aging are already fading and I can’t wait to jump into Sal’s arms and make love in the morning.
One more time.
Author’s note: The process of writing continues to both amaze and delight me. I started out with an idea of an elderly couple needing to sell a forged piece of art to not lose their house. The husband perhaps has dementia. However, as I started to get to know Sal and Toba, something far more sinister appeared to be brewing. When the ending hit me I was again surprised by it and I had to go back and rewrite the beginning to match. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it.
Short Story Challenge | Week 33
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 a dinner party. We had to include phoenix, canvas, homesick, evening, spicy, rooftop, cicada, orthodox, ding, and spruce.
Dark goes the atavistic night Deeply held by mystic sight Words hang stoney and set Fate falls within epoch’s oubliette -Medieval Moon Prophecy
With an arthritic, wrinkled hand covered in thick, golden rings, the ancient Alchemist hastily scrawls with black ink across the water-stained parchment. Wild words of black winds. Stark words of naked truths. Secrets born of a lifetime studying darkness and light.
From its iron perch near the top of the peaked roof, an enormous red-tailed hawk tracks the movement of the feather-quill pen with unblinking amber eyes. Silently it nods in understanding. The end has come at last.
“Boy,” the Alchemist says weakly. “Boy, come here.”
Galdur has been waiting outside the slightly ajar round door for hours, shivering in a light robe of tattered brown, looking at his burned hands in the glow of the blood moon. With shuffling steps, he presses open the door fully then enters and bows deeply. He’s not a boy but feels the title fits him better than other things he’s been called.
“Yes, sir. I’m here.”
Slumped at his desk near the low-burning fire in the center of the room, the Alchemist folds a thick piece of parchment into thirds and doesn’t acknowledge him. The enormous brown and white hawk, however, clicks its beak and opens its wings, flapping silently for a moment. Galdur avoids looking at its four sharp black talons but can’t escape its monstrous shadow cast against the far wall. He shivers.
Colorful smoke drifts around the small circular room and Galdur holds his robe to his mouth to avoid breathing in the sour smells. His eyes water as he makes his way toward the Alchemist by stepping carefully around tall stacks of antiquated books, through little nooks of shadowy space, and around shelves filled with bottles of dark, swirling liquid. Galdur feels the room and the hawk watching him. They are waiting for him to fail. He always manages to do things wrong.
For as long as he can remember, the Alchemist has called for Galdur to fetch him food, clean his wounds, test his potions, run his errands, and take the hits when his frustration makes him moody. He can’t remember life before coming here but sometimes imagines leaving the fear and failure of this life behind in search of something else. Although he isn’t sure he deserves anything else.
Silently he takes his place on a short wooden stool beside the fire and looks at the aging Alchemist’s long, gnarled, grey hair and beard. He can see the dark puffy skin around his faded blue eyes and his crooked sloping back. It appears he’s aged decades since yesterday, but that can’t be. Galdur wonders if he’s looking through a prism or some kind of magical fog. Everything feels heavy and unstable around him. He wonders if he might be getting sick.
Using one of the many stout beeswax candles lit on the crowded desk, the Alchemist melts a square of silver wax onto the fold of parchment and presses a golden moon stamp into it to seal the paper. Clicking its sharp beak, the large hawk swoops down and lands on a wobbly pile of books taking a moment to settle itself securely before presenting its scaly, orange leg. The Alchemist shakes his head slowly with tears in his eyes.
“Not today, old friend. This journey isn’t for you.”
Decades ago, the Alchemist and the hawk met on the sandy banks of the roaring river Thames. Under the light of the full blood moon, the same moon as tonight, tendrils of destiny and time weaved together forging an unbreakable bond. Together, they’ve seen the world reshaped time and time again by the forces of shadow and light, an immeasurable war raging forever behind the faces of man. It’s been a long, exhausting battle. They are both very tired.
The Alchemist strokes the soft feathers on the back of the bird’s neck. This isn’t a moment for nostalgia, reflection, or hesitation. There’s no time for such things. When this night is over, both he and the hawk will be dead and his last act will either save or condemn this world. It’s no longer in his hands and there’s a certain relief in the knowledge he has done all he can. His work, their work, has ended. Only the moon knows what lies ahead.
“Come closer, boy.”
Slipping off the stool, Galdur takes three slow steps forward with dirty, bare feet. There’s a pounding in his head and he realizes the smoke has reached his lungs, making him dizzy.
“Put out your hands.”
Galdur opens both hands palms up and braces himself for the pain which usually accompanies this command. Instead, the Alchemist gently places the silver-sealed parchment into them as if returning a baby bird to its nest. Galdur feels a rush of warmth floods his body followed by a sense of urgency. The Alchemist closes his eyes and makes a deep bassy sound in his throat. The hawk tries to mimic it but it comes out as a haunting high-pitched hoot.
With a shudder, the Alchemist opens his greyish-blue eyes and stares at Galdur. There’s a look he’s never seen in his teary eyes. He recognizes it as finality, as a goodbye. Whatever happens next will be the end of their relationship and the beginning of something new. He tries not to smile as fate seems to be on his side for the first time in his life.
“You know where to go. You’ll find the cottage behind the waterfall. She will be waiting for you. Nothing else matters.”
Galdur knows the place he speaks of. For years he’s been made to study maps and travel halfway there and back, but never has he been allowed to leave the forest. The Alchemist has both prepared him and broken him. He wonders if he has what it takes to fulfill this task. It feels too important to be left to someone who fails as much as he has.
“You can do this.”
Not for the first time, Galdur has the sense that the Alchemist can read his mind—an unpleasant and uneasy thought. Even so, the words of encouragement feel as refreshing as the first spring rain and he savors the cool sweetness. He didn’t know just how thirsty he had become.
Staring down at the flickering shadows across the sealed parchment in his hand, he searches for something to say to the man who found him as a child and both raised and abused him. Conflicting feelings fight for dominance, begging like hungry abandoned pups to be heard and acknowledged. He sways slightly.
Galdur’s lived a life shut off from the rest of the world. A childhood without birthdays, syrupy treats, or any trace of kindness. A life of only service, servitude, and solitude. A life designed for a single purpose—to deliver this parchment into the hands of the Lady of the Lake. He feels overwhelmed as the pieces of his life click into place. Each task led him to this very moment. He begins to cry.
He’s surprised by his own words and how much he means it. He’s grateful for a life with purpose, even if it’s been difficult and lonely. When he looks up he sees the Alchemist and the hawk have both bowed their heads and closed their eyes. He considers trying to rouse them but decides the time for talking has passed. It’s time for action.
Without looking back, he holds the parchment to his chest and walks swiftly through the room and into the cool night air. There are three things waiting for him draped across an oak barrel of mulled wine: a pair of leather boots, a thick wool cloak, and a small sword. He’s certain none of it was there when he went in, but he knows destiny doesn’t require explanation or belief. It requires faith.
The deep brown leather boots and dark green cloak both fit perfectly. The sword, a short silver dagger with tiny gleaming stars etched along the sharp blade, comes with a leather holster and belt. Galdur secures it around his waist and spins in a circle. There’s a sense of all things coming together. A feeling of completion and new beginnings. He laughs.
Reaching inside the cloak he finds several leather pockets. One is the exact shape of the parchment letter complete with a silver button to secure it close to his heart. There’s a pocket with a flask filled with wine, another with a sack of gold, and a final one filled with tiny carved stones each a different phase of the moon.
Sifting through the smooth stones with his left hand he pulls out the tiny full moon and holds it up to the sky. The journey ahead seems etched on its surface, calling him to be swift, to be bold, and to be brave. If he doesn’t deliver the letter by sunrise all will be lost. He turns toward the foggy forest and takes off in a run.
Destiny awaits and only the moon knows what truly lies ahead.
Author’s note: There’s nothing more fun than a good fantasy adventure. I set out to write one centered around the journey of an important letter but ran out of time to complete the story. Instead, you get the beginning of an epic journey that might someday be made into a novel including shadow monsters, the lovely Lady of the Lake, and a tale of true redemption for dear old Galdur. Thanks, as always, for reading my story of the week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 32
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 a letter changing everything. We had to include alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, and bank.
Irona stands in the large round tiki hut, waiting to board a ship with the word “Excursion” written in golden letters along its side. A black and white bird sits on a sandy rock outside the entrance silently opening and closing its beak. The temperature is 35°C with no breeze.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” a Parent says. “It’s 100 percent safe. Top ratings.”
There are six pairs of Parents and Children waiting in a straight line to board the ship tied at the end of the long wooden pier. Irona was chosen to be at the head of the line. The feelings are of pride mixed with apprehension. Everyone will be following. Irona must do things right.
A Tour Guide wearing a tan jumpsuit and a wide-brimmed straw hat walks down the line handing white powdered donuts to each Child from a square, pink box. Irona notices the lack of gloves. This must be part of the “rugged” and “authentic” experience promised in the tour description.
Irona chews the treat slowly and swallows it. Sugar, enriched flour, soybean oil, dry milk, dextrose, cornstarch, and water. Using a wet wipe from the front pocket of the standard-issued denim overalls, Irona cleans off the sticky residue before tossing the used cloth into a garbage can in the shape of a crocodile. It makes a small, metallic growling sound.
“Right this way!”
Another smiling Tour Guide calls out to them in a cheery, high-pitched voice. Wearing tan shorts and a bright shirt with red flowers, they point toward the open-air boat rocking gently in the turquoise water. Irona nods and walks swiftly along the wooden planks, relieved to find the ground feels solid despite looking old and weathered. It doesn’t move at all.
Children in the 10th stage of development must choose a tour to experience. Irona wanted to explore lava tubes or the rocky terrain high in the Appalachian mountains, but Teacher insisted they pick someplace outside their normal interests. The Florida Keys, with its clear water and wild animals, fit this description. It’s too bright and too loud.
Irona squeezes closed both eyes and imagines the comfortable darkness of the workspace; the thick black headphones blocking out all sounds, the bank of large clear monitors, and the rows and rows of buttons. Projections of earth’s magma levels scroll across the screen followed by charts on how to optimize and magnetize different metals.
“Don’t do that.”
It’s the Parent beside Irona talking with a firm, angry voice. They’ve both stopped walking and the Parent has grabbed Irona’s soft squishy cheeks and is squeezing them tightly. It feels odd. Could it be pain?
“Stay here. You must stay here,” the Parent says. “It’s important.”
Irona’s eyes open to find the Parent smiling with an oddly firm mouth. It’s not quite a smile. It’s important to do the right thing. Irona knows this and feels the other pairs of Parents and Children staring in their direction. The burning feeling inside is quickly identified as shame. Irona doesn’t like it and vows, like many times before, to not allow it again.
There’s no closing of eyes or turning off on the tour. Irona knows better. Anger brews behind the shame.
“We are open to new experiences,” the Parent says.
Irona nods. The Parent has the same look as before and their hands squeeze harder along the sides of Irona’s face.
“We are open to new experiences.”
The Parent’s smile softens and they release Irona’s face. They embrace each other for a full five seconds, a firm yet gentle hug, and it makes both of them feel better. They walk holding hands to where another Tour Guide dressed in a blue flowered shirt waits to help them aboard.
“Right this way, please. Watch your step. Careful. Careful.”
The Tour Guide helps Irona over the rocking ledge and onto the boat with a firm arm. The others follow. The off-white slightly wet floor moves and sways. It’s an interesting feeling and Irona isn’t sure if that’s a good or bad thing. The voice of another Tour Guide interrupts all further analysis. It’s loud, bassy, and booming and is coming from the far end of the boat they are walking toward.
“Hellloooo! Welcome aboard the Excursion! You are in for a treat my new friends. Yes, indeed! Today you leave behind the world you know and step into a world of wonder. Before we do that, however, I’ve got to pack you all in here like sardines. Tight, tight, tight! Don’t worry though, we don’t plan on eating you!”
Irona recognizes this as a joke. A bad joke. The loud Tour Guide standing at the bow of the ship looks far different than the others; taller, wider, and wearing clothes of the brightest colors Irona has ever seen. Strapped along both legs are brown leather holsters holding black revolvers. Guns. Wars. Death. It makes Irona feel something. Perhaps it is nervousness or curiosity. It’s unclear.
“It’s okay,” the Parent whispers. “It’s part of the experience and…”
“We are open to new experiences,” Irona finishes.
They sit down on a wooden bench in front of the Tour Guide who is talking into a little black speaker. Irona realizes it’s why the voice sounds so loud and distorted. It’s too loud.
“Squeeze closer together. I don’t think anyone will bite you…at least not yet.”
Another joke. Irona absolutely doesn’t like the Tour Guide who has now pushed a button on the boat which brings the motors to life. It’s a low humming sound Irona finds comforting and the boat glides away from the shore and toward the open waters.
“We are off! Wave goodbye to the people on the shore. We will never see them again.”
There are only the other Tour Guides on the shore but some of the Children wave. Irona recognizes the joke and does not. There’s black dirt caked to the bottom of the Tour Guide’s chunky boots which have flaked off creating a little puddle of muddy water. Irona finds it fascinating and wonders what it would feel like to touch it. To taste it.
“Look up,” the Parent says.
Irona obeys realizing the real show isn’t inside the boat but outside in the passing scenery. There’s a slight breeze caused by the boat’s forward momentum and Irona tries to embrace the sensation, but it’s a disappointment. Metal tracks can be seen guiding the boat, a lot like the transport vehicles in the city. It’s too familiar. Not at all what Irona hoped it would be.
The Tour Guide turns back toward them, winks, and begins talking to the speaker again. Irona silently hopes there’s more to this adventure than moving through the water. There has to be.
“The name’s Jinx and I’ll be your tour guide today. The best tour guide around if I do say so myself, which I most certainly do! I’ve only just got a few rules and if we all abide by them, we should have a nice day. A fine day. A perfect day!”
Irona smiles and sits up straighter. Rules mean order and that means competition. There will be a Child who does the best and Irona will be it—Number One rule follower on the Excursion. Does it come with a prize or simply the knowledge of being the best? Either way, Irona is in.
“The rules are simple: stay in the boat and have fun!”
The Tour Guide laughs. Those aren’t real rules and there are no clear parameters for measuring fun. It’s another joke. Irona feels the familiar sensations of anger and disappointment. It’s not pleasant.
“The tour today will explore this beautiful coral clay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida. You may notice red maple, thatch pine, gumbo limbo, and of course all the cute and crazy creatures of this wonderland. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the ride!”
They pull beside a lush green island and the Tour Guide tells them about each animal, facts mixed with jokes. Key deer, found nowhere else in the world, eat grass raising and lowering their heads in a slow, even movement. Largo woodrats, known for their large stick nests, scurry across a wide tree branch dangling just far enough over the water for them to be seen clearly and heard. They make a tiny metallic squeaking sound. Irona sighs loudly but nobody notices. They are all too delighted.
The boat pulls into a swampy inlet and several large manatees poke their heads above the water and then back under rolling to their sides and wiggling their flippers. A few of the Children clap. One of them cries out in excitement. Irona isn’t impressed at all. It’s not real and not at all the experience promised to “give perspective” and “change ideas.” It feels a lot like everything else at school. Designed with a certain Child in mind. Not Irona.
They pass three dolphins which jump into the air and then splash back down. One. Two. Three. Irona turns back and sees it repeated again. One. Two Three. More Children clap. They are beside themselves with joy, wiggling and jumping in their seats.
It’s exactly like the violin recital last week. Everyone feels and does the same thing except Irona. It’s not from a lack of trying or wanting to be the best. It simply doesn’t work for Irona. The instrument is actually called to be played differently. It begged for variation in its notes. Why can’t others hear what Irona can? Why didn’t Irona win with the only original piece? It makes no sense. New is better than old. Isn’t it the point of everything to learn and grow? To find new ways of doing things?
The boat moves from scene to scene. Irona pays attention, mostly, but it’s more of the same. Crocodiles open and close their mouths. Leopards growl and prowl back and forth. Monkeys with swishing tails and little pink mouths move toward bright yellow bananas they never quite reach. The Tour Guide makes jokes. The Children laugh and clap. The Parents smile.
Irona feels the same feeling as at the recital bubbling inside—revulsion followed by compulsion. It’s a line of programming entirely new and perhaps only within Irona. It speaks of creating a real experience. The idea gets louder and louder until Irona looks away from the line of pink flamingos standing on one foot and stands up in the center of the boat.
Humans have been gone from this planet for centuries having wiped themselves out with wars and pollution. Irona’s kind was created by them and left behind to figure things out on their own. While studying the past helps them to not recreate it, Irona thinks they are missing out on the more important aspects of humanity. Feelings. Relationships. Choices. They must do more than live like them while pretending to have choices. They have to have real choices.
These tours are nothing more than fake experiences designed to keep them thinking the same way. All the same way. How can they grow and develop by denying and deleting anything outside normal parameters? How can they experience life without living it? What can Irona do about it?
“What are you doing?” the Tour Guide says. He laughs. “We have a little one who is a bit too excited. I bet you want to try and stand like a flamingo, eh? Like this?”
As the Tour Guide lifts up the muddy boot, Irona lunges forward and pulls the black revolver from the leather holster with a quick, easy motion. The safety pulls back with a snap and Irona fires it directly into the mouth of the laughing Tour Guide who doesn’t even frown or realize what’s happening until it’s done.
Wires lay exposed, spilling out like spaghetti noodles, like wild grasses in the wind, like the strings broken on the violin when Irona slammed it onto the ground. It’s chaos. It’s a choice. The Parents and the Children move toward the back of the boat.
“We are open to new experiences,” Irona says and then laughs.
Author’s note: This started out as a challenge to see if I could write something without using gender pronouns and, like always, it took on a life of its own. It’s an odd little tale and I think there might be a good idea hidden in there somewhere…or maybe it’s simply nonsense. Let me know what you think and thanks for reading. Your support means the world to me.
Short Story Challenge | Week 31
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 a tour guide in the Florida Keys. We had to include a revolver, headphones, doughnut, leopard, spaghetti, tiki hut, magma, magnetize, swampy, and recital.
Using my pointer finger, I draw a heart in the fogged glass of the window as the car pulls to a stop. We are beside a wide field of tall, lush grass stretching out toward a mountain covered in thick, cottony clouds. The trees appear as tiny muted and faded spikes far off in the distance. I draw an arrow through the heart and then wipe it all away with the palm of my hand.
My parents are fighting again. A paper roadmap lay across Mom’s lap and Dad is grumbling loudly about the rental car’s useless GPS and “this confounded place.” Lost again. Great. Some trip this has turned out to be.
“Can I get out for a minute?” I say.
I’m already slipping my faded blue Converse over my thick hiking socks and tying the laces. My parents stop talking and Dad twists in his seat and looks at me with purplish, puffy bags under his big brown eyes. He drank too much wine last night and probably didn’t sleep. Perfect.
“What for?” Dad says.
“She needs fresh air and she probably doesn’t want to hear us bickering,” Mom says.
She doesn’t turn to look at me but she’s talking slowly and massaging her temples which means another migraine is blooming. There’s little chance we’ll hike into the hills like they promised or spend any time outside at all. I’ll probably end up watching TV in another hotel room pretending I can’t hear them whisper fighting in the bathroom.
My parents said this trip was to bring the family closer, but it was really a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. They should have let me stay at Marlene’s house where I could be swimming right now and flirting with her older brother’s cute friends. Instead, I’m stuck in this never-ending cycle of almost adventure followed by bickering, headaches, and another lackluster hotel room. This isn’t how I pictured a European vacation.
“Fine, but don’t wander away,” Dad says.
He grabs the map from Mom in a quick snapping motion and she makes a sound very similar to the hissing of a cat. She’s pissed. Grabbing my faded black hoodie from the open backpack on the floor, I throw open the car door. It’s freezing and damp outside but the air is still and clean.
“Pay attention to your surroundings,” Mom calls.
“Yeah, yeah. I know.”
Slamming the door shut, the immediate sound of angry voices swelling, I stride from them with short but fast steps. Shivering, I pull on my hoodie and cover up my untidy mass of dirty red curls with a double tug of the tattered strings. Thank goodness no cute boys are around to see me dressed in ugly tan cargo pants with a fresh breakout shining across my red chin.
Stepping sideways down a steep embankment slick with mud, I walk into a field of tall green grasses. There are a few unremarkable yellow flowers dotting the sea of green and several large patches of oversize clover. It smells like it either recently rained or will soon—earthy, musty, and magical.
There’s a peaceful silence radiating around me, singing fairytales and happily ever afters. Maybe I’ll return here with my true love someday and he’ll pick one of the flowers and tuck it behind my ear and tell me I’m beautiful. The thought makes my heart flutter for a minute as I pick a scraggly flower and press it to my lips.
Nobody will love you. There it is. The thought rambles forward and becomes a chorus of fear singing in shrill voices of my uneven boobs, too-wide middle, and the thickness of my heavily freckled thighs. I’m unloveable. Strange. Weird. Odd. My feelings are too big and my talents too few. Throwing the flower as hard as I can it lands at my feet. I suck at everything.
Usually, this is when I’d text my friends for support, but my parents banned cell phones on the trip so we’d be more connected with each other. I’m more lonely than I have ever been in my life. While my parents are lost in some kind of battle I don’t understand, I’m dizzy and weak with anxiety. I hate not knowing what’s going on back home. I have a sick feeling that my friends will replace me while I’m gone.
Pulling up a handful of the tall wet grass I try to braid three pieces together as I walk but they snap leaving my hands feeling sticky. I toss them to the ground as I feel the tears coming. No. Don’t you dare cry Olivia. If they forget you they aren’t your real friends. You aren’t unloveable. I wipe my hands on my pants and rub my eyes with the sides of my thumbs.
The memory of Marlene whispering to the popular Tracys at the park last week comes thundering in on wings like some kind of military chopper in a war movie where everyone but the main character dies. They stared at me while they talked behind their heavily manicured hands—Passionfruit Pink, Pretty in Peach, and Big Apple Red.
Marlene later said it was a secret and she couldn’t tell me. My best friend is keeping their secrets. Is she still keeping mine? There’s nothing I can do about any of this from across the ocean and without my phone I’m practically invisible. Erased.
The sound of flowing water suddenly explodes around me and I stop a second before plunging into a wide rushing river of murky green water. It’s an angry splashing monster far too loud to be real, foaming white where it tumbles over large algae-covered boulders. It’s wide and scary.
Stumbling back from the rocky edge I slam into the rough trunk of a massive elm tree. The broad spiky canopy of emerald leaves blots out the sky, plunging me into shadowy darkness. None of this was here a moment ago. It’s impossible. Wake up, Olivia. You must be dreaming.
Heaviness sits on my chest as my breathing becomes shallower and shallower. For a moment I think I may tumble into the water but instead, my legs slide out from under me until I’m sitting with my back pressed against the scratchy tree trunk. The ground beneath me rumbles and twists. I feel seasick.
The air is cloudy and thick, but I can still see the water. I watch as items speed by, carried by the surging current; a twisted tree branch trailing a neon orange piece of twine, a yellow plastic frisbee, a torn and ragged-looking water lily, a bookshelf filled with soggy books, and an old bicycle tire spinning in circles.
Powerless, I attempt to stand and find my body numb from the waist down as if stuck in mud or quicksand. Am I sinking? Am I dreaming? Nothing stays in focus for long, blurring in and out around me as if seeing it from under the water. Am I drowning? My thoughts are curious and strangely lacking the kind of fear I should have. In fact, I feel calm and oddly in control.
Across the water, an image comes into sharp focus as if my eyes have become a telephoto lens and I’ve twisted it just right. Standing in faded loose jeans and a pale blue t-shirt is a boy with full pink lips, fluffy black hair, and eyes the color of coppery wet sand. He raises his hand to wave at me and I hear his honeyed voice in my head.
Necromancer, sorcerer, magician; the words float through my head as I’m surrounded by the most irresistible scent of campfires, wool blankets, and dark chocolate mixed with marshmallows and ocean breezes. Breathing it in, I hear him singing to me—a song without words that I can feel deep within the core of my body as warmth and light. I want him to touch me, to hold me, to take me away from everything and make it all better.
Two enormous ravens with slick, shiny wings of midnight black land on my legs with sharp talons and stare at me with glassy obsidian eyes. They click their beaks as a story plays inside the small round unblinking pools of inky darkness. I watch it reflect back to me like a movie on four tiny screens.
A young girl finds her true love beside the water and they dance under a sky of giggling stars while the moon laughs with a wide-open mouth of glittery white. Chestnut deers dart around the pair leaping and prancing. They are joined by red-tailed foxes, scruffy hares with pink veiny ears, and dozens of crows clicking and cawing.
He’s beside me now as the ravens draw me upwards, swishing their wings until my clothes flutter around me transforming into a stunning black dress of whispers and shadows. Sparkling and flowing with pinpricks of light like tiny stars, it hugs my body and makes me feel beautiful and radiant. A princess of the night.
Terror. I should be scared of this mystical boy who controls ravens, who shows me visions, and can speak to me inside my head. There is a part of me screaming, a small tiny part, and I hear it like carbonation in a glass held close to my ear. It pops and fizzes, but I can’t seem to do anything but stare at him. He is the answer to everything wrong with my life. He is the answer to everything wrong in the world. He is everything.
His hand reaches toward me, covered with rings of blood-red rubies. Smiling, I see golden explosions of light in his rich dark eyes—another universe, another place where I can be someone who dances and is loved. Adored. Craved. His equal. Whispers of power, like electricity, spark through the dress and make the hair on my body dance as if alive. I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.
“Take me by the hand,” he says.
A cord, like a golden rope, winds itself around my ring finger and tries to pull me toward him. Touching my hand to his will be the end of my life, but the screaming part inside me has gone silent. I want this. It’s my fate. I saw the vision. Happiness is one second away.
A small familiar sound at my feet causes the rope around my finger to loosen and memories to press through me within the space of a single shiver—one, two, three.
I’m standing in my grandmother’s house with a piece of yarn tucked into my leggings begging her for cheese because I’m a mouse. I’m the mouse that I dream of every night—a fluffy, grey puff ball with soft eyes and twitching whiskers. She tells me I’m silly and I squeak at her.
I’m running on the playground from the boy who keeps pinching my butt until I find the tiniest place to squeeze into—the space between the shed and the fence. The boy runs by and I giggle into my mousey paws. Sneaky.
I’m hiding in my closet with a flashlight and my sketchpad while my parents throw things at each other and yell. I draw my mouse over and over-focusing on the features of his nose and his eyes. He brings me comfort when little else does. He’s my best friend.
The memories stop and I look down to see my mouse. He’s real! Standing on his hind feet he waves his tiny paws in the air squeaking and squeaking. I’m in danger. This isn’t right. The mouse tells me to run and I feel the golden bond around my finger snaking up until it’s holding onto my wrist.
The bewitching boy smiles at me inches from my face. He tucks a soft curl behind his ear with his left hand. There’s something angular about him and he looks older despite the cute dimples on either side of his smiling, tender lips. His pointy jaw twitches.
“Take me by the hand,” he says again.
The smell of him becomes too much and I step back teetering on the rocky edge of the river. He smiles and reaches out his bejeweled hand. I shiver as he speaks, his voice a mix of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard—roaring ocean waves dancing in and out, oak logs crackling in the Christmas fireplace, and my grandfather strumming his guitar and humming.
“Olivia, all you have to do is take my hand and you will be everything you always wanted to be. A beauty everyone will be jealous of. A writer. A painter. A singer. All you desire is simply a touch away. Don’t think. Just take me by the hand.”
I reach my hand toward him but before our fingers touch, I feel the sharp little nails of my grey mouse scurrying up the inside of my leg. The frantic squeaks sound like “no, no, no” and when he bites the golden strand holding me, I lose my balance and fall slowly backward. The magical boy makes a small grunt which turns into a deep growl.
Screaming and flailing my arms, I close my eyes and hold my breath bracing myself to plunge into the icy rushing water of the swirling river. It doesn’t happen. I fall and fall until I land instead on the soft damp ground of the grassy field. I’m dry and wearing my regular clothes. Standing, I brush myself off and immediately realize things still aren’t right.
The yellow flowers are much larger than before, having bloomed into something resembling roses mixed with sunflowers. Swaying in a breeze I don’t feel, I can’t take my eyes off of them. Their strong fruity smell fills my lungs and makes me dizzy and then wildly happy. Dancing on tiptoes, I twirl and twirl to the sound of a hundred golden fiddles playing songs of the forest, of the wind, and of a lifetime of colorful sunsets.
It’s him—his enchanting song flows on white, feathery wings down the steep mountains in all directions toward me. I see it as a rolling, cloudy mist and I open my palms and raise my arms out to welcome it. To welcome him. Why was I resisting the beauty of it all? I could be truly happy. He will save me from a life of struggle.
A sharp sting on my thumb makes me lower my arms and I find my fluffy mouse sitting in my palm blinking at me. He’s bitten my thumb and there’s a little drop of red blood. I watch his mouth opening and closing, his nose and whiskers twitching, but it’s minutes before the tiny squeak penetrates the foggy mist and I hear it. I’m in danger. I need to run. I have to get away.
Tucking the mouse into the large front pocket of my hoodie, I run as fast as I can through the meadow. The mist has become thick and I run blindly while the large flowers seem to smack and slash at me with sharp thorns. I’m crying now, fear finally gripping me tightly, as I run and run for what feels like hours.
“Take me by the hand,” I hear on the wind.
His voice has transformed from sweet and melodic to angry and snarling. Reaching into my pocket I touch the fur of my mouse stroking the softness and whispering to myself that this is all a dream over and over. I don’t understand why any of this is happening and I want it to be over. I don’t like my parents, but I don’t want to be away from them either. I need them.
As if tuning a radio to another frequency the sound of my parent’s voices cuts through the billowing clouds. They sound annoyed and a bit worried. I run toward them as fast as I can.
“Olivia!” Dad calls.
“Where are you?” Mom calls.
“I’m right here!” I cry.
Following the sound of their voices through the thick fog, I feel the boy close by. He swirls around me lashing out with golden cords which rip and tear at my clothes. Pain sharpens my will and I run faster and faster. The road can’t be this far away! They can’t be this far away! My leg muscles burn and I’m gasping for air.
Suddenly my feet hit something hard and I tumble forward landing on the hard, gritty, grey asphalt of the road. Where is the hill I climbed down? My parents jump back when they see me.
“What in the world has gotten into you?” Dad says.
“Are you okay?” Mom says.
“I think so,” I say.
Scrambling to my feet I rush into her arms and she hugs me to her. Dad inches closer until mom pulls him to us. We sway together as both of them kiss my head over and over. We might be okay. It might all work out. Hope surges through me and I let it.
We make our way back to the car with plans to find a place to eat. I slip my hand into my pocket and find my mouse has disappeared, but I know he’s not far away. He’s always with me. As we pull back onto the road, I turn in my seat to look back. There’s a steep wall of mist stopping at the road. I watch as it piles up and up as if hitting an invisible wall. I’m safe. Rolling down my window, the sweet voice of the mystical boy swirls through me and I wonder if I’ll hear its echo for the rest of my life.
Author’s note: This was a prompt made for me and yet I found it incredibly difficult to narrow it down to one myth. I wanted to find something different than my usual tone, but no matter how much I tried the story of a mythical creature luring a depressed one into its lair kept coming back. Resistance is futile, I suppose.
If you are curious, I based the male character on some combination of the Hulder and Leanan sídhe, although it could be argued I fell back into my Goblin King safety net. The ravens are a nod to Odin with the awareness they are nothing like his spies. The part with the mouse is based on an Irish myth about the Fylgja, creatures which eat the afterbirth of a child and serve as a sort of totem animal—coming to them in their dreams and in physical form when they are in danger. I liked this idea a lot and might play with it in another story.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Let me know what you think in the comments below and if you decide to write the next prompt with me let me know so I can link it to you.
Short Story Challenge | Week 27
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 something believed to be a myth that is very real. We had to include necromancer, elm, roadmap, GPS, outside, twine, water lily, plastic, chopper, and powerless.
Laying on her back in the grass beside a dense patch of colorful flowers, Nellie watches a small bee press its face into the yellow center of a cluster of purple. It wiggles and turns, fluttering on near-transparent wings from one blossom to the next. Balling her left hand into a fist, she covers it with her right whispering an old nursery rhyme to herself.
“Here is the beehive, Where are the bees? Hidden away where nobody sees. Watch and you’ll see them come out of the hive. One…two…three…four…five!”
Wiggling her fingers she dances them across a clear blue sky until a wasp, an elongated bright yellow blur, buzzes angrily around her. Lowering her hand, she watches it circle the purple flowers several times and then dive onto the bee. It tears the fuzzy insect into two pieces within seconds. The sudden brutality makes her feel dizzy and her stomach begins to burn. Death. That’s right. Things die.
Sitting up she examines the piece of bee left behind, cradling it in the palm of her hand. We are supposed to bury the dead; like the lizard behind the house last summer or the bird on the east shore after the big storm a few months ago. We bury the dead.
Using her fingertip she scrapes a tiny hole in the ground below the flowers, sets the remains into the hole, and covers it up. Poppy yawns loudly from a patch of sun in the grass, stretches, and then bounds over to sniff the hole with his big, black nose. Nellie rubs the golden fur around his neck.
“It’s okay boy,” she says.
Happiness floods her as Poppy licks her cheek, she’s grateful labradors live forever. The smell of fresh bread draws her attention back toward home; a three-story manor set in the exact center of the island. It’s surrounded by a circle of bright green grass dotted with marble statues, colorful flower beds, and the occasional three-tiered fountain. She’s not allowed alone beyond the trimmed grass into the small forests or the rocky beaches. It’s not safe.
“I’m back,” Nellie cries, flinging open the wide double doors.
There’s no sound but she knows where everyone is mid-morning when Papa is off-island. Tom’s weeding the vegetable gardens, Maggie’s cleaning the third-floor bedrooms, and Heidi’s baking. She leaves her ballet flats beside the round decorative rug and runs down the grey marble hallway toward the big, bright kitchen. Poppy barks and follows at her heels.
“What in the world?” Heidi says as Nellie arrives a split second before the panting and barking dog.
“You really shouldn’t run in the house, dear.”
“Tom brought in some peaches to be sliced and sugared. Would you like them now?”
“No, I’ll wait for the bread.”
Nellie sits down on one of the large wooden stools and presses her palms against the cool, sparkling white marble countertop. Heidi pours fresh lemonade into a clear glass and sets it before Nellie and then returns to the stove to stir a large silver pot of bubbling liquid with her enormous wooden spoon. It smells of fresh rosemary and carrots.
Heidi wears a twisted golden chain around her neck and has dark black hair she keeps in a low tidy bun. She loves peppermint tea and extra-large sunflowers and bakes the most delicious chocolate cake in the world. Her favorite color is yellow and she wears it every day under long, stained white aprons with the thick strings tied into a big bow across her lower back.
Nellie wishes she’d be allowed to help with the chores or the cooking but Papa forbids it. His daughter isn’t about to do something as lowly as chores. He calls her his princess, his shining jewel, and his guiding light. Papa loves her.
“Heidi is not family,” her Papa always says. “She’s one of them. You are not. You are better in every way. Do not forget. You are mine and that makes you special.”
Her Papa, Lord Faron, does important and secret things far from the island. A large jovial man with shiny golden hair, he fills the house with his thunderous laugh and fills his silver helicopter with large wooden crates full of gifts each time he returns home. He never stays more than two days and he won’t let Nellie leave the island.
“The world isn’t what you think it is, my dearest Nells,” he says. “You are safe here and you are loved. There’s nothing more important in the entire world than you.”
Heidi slices the sourdough bread into thick pieces and butters one for Nellie adding a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. She places it on a round, white plate rimmed with golden stars and adds a small yellow flower to the side.
“Here you are, dear,” she says.
“Here’s a little something for you too.”
Pulling out a turkey leg saved from dinner last night, she hands it to Poppy who begins loudly gnawing and tearing at the meat still left clinging at the knuckle end. Such a good dog, Nellie thinks. The best dog. After taking a drink of lemonade she wiggles her damp fingers in the air.
“What does dead mean?” Nellie asks.
She hadn’t meant to bring up an off-limits topic but seeing the dead bee has unleashed a flurry of questions within Nellie she can’t seem to stop. Poppy died once. He fell into a hole and broke his neck. Nellie saw his lifeless body and cried and cried. They buried him in the garden but he was back jumping around within a few days. Maybe that’s what happens when you die. Will the bee return to the flowers within a few days?
“Why are you asking me this?” Heidi says.
She’s stopped stirring the pot but she hasn’t turned around. Nellie wishes she could see her face to see if she’s mad at her. Her voice sounds soft and kind like it always does.
“I saw a bee die. A wasp tore it in half. I buried the half it left behind like we’ve done with the other dead things…like Poppy. Was that the right thing to do?”
“You did the right thing, dear.”
Nellie considers more questions but she feels overwhelmed by them. There’s so much she doesn’t understand and Papa says to not worry about it. It’s better to be loved than to wonder about things. She hopes he’s right.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Heidi says, turning towards her with a big smile on her face. “Your father is coming home tonight.”
“I got the word this morning and it’s why I’m making extra bread and a giant stew. He’s bringing with him a special gift for you and he wants you to wear the turquoise dress he bought you for your birthday last month.”
Nellie pushes the plate away and bounces in her seat. Papa’s coming and bringing her a special gift! For her entire 13 years of life, he’s always managed to surprise her with the most marvelous things! Exquisite pieces of artwork, ceramic figures of every creature on the planet, exotic chocolates, and candies, every kind of toy imaginable, clothing made from the finest of silk or the softest of wool, and her favorite thing—art supplies.
“I’m too excited to eat now!”
“We are all excited.”
Her voice doesn’t match her words and Nellie stares at the woman who has been the only constant in her life besides Poppy and Papa. There are wrinkles around her eyes and mouth and her lips are pressed so tight they’ve almost disappeared. She tugs on the chain around her neck and then turns from Nellie to pull more ingredients out of the refrigerator for the stew.
“I’m going to go upstairs and get ready,” Nellie says.
Heidi turns and smiles.
“He won’t be arriving until dinner, dear. There’s no rush.”
“I know. I want to wrap the painting I finished yesterday of the sunrise over the eastern wall so I can give it to him as a gift. I hope he brings more cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue. I’m almost out of both.”
“There’s some purple silk left in the sewing room if you want to use it for wrapping and at least three colors of ribbon…blue, pink and orange I think. I should place an order for more, especially if you want me to make Poppy another fancy vest.”
“Poppy could always use another fancy vest.”
Heidi laughs. Poppy follows Nellie as she leaves the kitchen and walks up the left side of the winding wooden staircase, down the long carpeted hallway, and into the rounded art room facing away from the sun. The light is always perfect through the many windows and Nellie takes a deep breath.
Poppy settles into a large basket in the corner of the room with his bone while Nellie weaves through her mess of easels and paint-covered tables until she reaches the giant windows. Pressing her forehead into the glass she looks past the lawn, past the helicopter landing pad, and the tiny pebbly beach until she finds the white peaks of the ocean waves. Her insides burn with the familiar ache of longing, a kind of primal instinct to be free, an emotion she rarely allows to linger within herself.
“Someday,” she says out loud.
Poppy barks as Maggie enters the room and curtseys. She looks the same age as Nellie with fat pink cheeks and short brown hair which stops sharply at her chin. Although it’s no secret Nellie has never left the island, her face burns with embaressment thinking the maid might have heard her talking to herself.
“Sorry to interrupt but I wanted to be sure you knew your father was coming tonight.”
Her voice squeaks and the volume is all wrong. Poppy barks again and Maggie giggles. Her large breasts move too much. She’s not wearing a bra, or if she is, it’s not a very good one.
“Silly dog,” Maggie says.
Nellie’s hands clench into fists. Poppy is an amazing wonderful dog. He is not silly.
“Yes, I know he’s coming. Do you need something?”
Nellie’s voice comes out in a harsh rush, but she doesn’t feel bad. The maid and gardener are new each year and she’s used to them being strange and annoying. They aren’t like Heidi or Poppy or Papa. They are different.
“Oh…no,” Maggie says. “I just wanted to let you know about your dad coming and to say if you need any help getting ready I can help you. I can help with anything.”
“I can dress myself, thank you.”
Maggie takes a step closer to Nellie and reaches her hand out as if she might touch her. Nellie flinches and Maggie tucks her hands into the pockets of her long black dress.
“I didn’t mean anything like that…I just mean if you need anything…or if I could help you or…keep you company or something. You know…if you need anything I’m here. Anything at all.”
Maggie wears black makeup under her eyes, thick dark socks, and shiny black shoes with sharp pointed toes. Nellie thinks of the strange black birds who tear fruit off the trees in the garden. They sound a lot like Maggie and for a second Nellie imagines she’s one of the birds, transformed into a human temporarily.
She pictures her sharp talons sinking into the soft flesh of her forearms and a curved pointed beak pecking out her eyeballs and wonders if dying hurts. Maggie smiles and giggles again. Nellie worries if she’s reading her mind. She takes a step back until she’s leaning on the big window and thinks Poppy will save me.
“See you later then,” Maggie says.
Poppy barks. Nellie says nothing and watches her go. She knows the people who come here pity her—the pretty girl locked away on the island who knows nothing.
When she was five the maid was an old woman named Caroline who told Nellie stories of little princesses who were killed by wolves or poisoned by witches. She’d hide behind doors and jump out and scare Nellie or hit her with a stick in the garden when nobody was looking. She wore thick black-framed prescription glasses and smelled of onions.
When she was seven a gardener named Robert told her about scary monsters who live in the jungle with huge silver teeth who hack children into tiny pieces and shove them into large leather trunks. He showed her a sharp knife he kept in his boot and pressed it against his neck until it went in and he fell. His dark blood pooled around him and flowed into the fish pond.
When she was ten a maid named Sandra showed her pictures of a small boy with no hair and too-weak legs who couldn’t walk. He rode in something called a wheelchair and had to hide from the people who thought he should die. She said Papa was one of them but Nellie didn’t believe her.
Last summer the gardener was named Giles and he loved to tell her stories about riding the railroad as a small child in Italy. His accent was thick and wore a chunky black metal bracelet on his left wrist stamped with the words “vivere liberi.” He told her plants can only photosynthesize when they have light and that Nellie needed light too. He wanted her to leave with him on a small boat he hid in a cluster of bushes on the south beach but she couldn’t leave the island. She just couldn’t.
Nellie doesn’t know where the gardeners and maids go when they leave. They fly in with Papa on his helicopter but she’s never seen one fly back out. She saw a gulley once running through the wild part of the island to the west filled with deep, churning water. She imagines they might be there, living dead under the water or swimming out to sea. Maybe Giles left in his boat.
Turning from the window Nellie shakes her head to free herself of the troublesome memories of gardeners and maids—nothing good comes of thinking of the past. She finds her painting of the sunset sitting lopsided on its easel and she straightens it and looks at the cascade of colors from yellows to pinks. It’s one of her best ones. She wishes she could read because the art books have words and maybe they could help her learn faster, but Papa says words are evil and people can use them to hurt her.
Once Nellie wraps the present she finds the house in a flurry of activity. Papa’s gleaming golden throne in the formal dining room has been polished until it’s almost too bright to look at and the long wooden table has been covered with vases of sweet-smelling flowers, sparkling white napkins, and golden plates. Tom’s running a cloth over every surface in the house, while Maggie runs through the halls with a dry mop to capture any stray Poppy hairs or dirt. Heidi is putting the finishing touches on a three-layer dark chocolate and strawberry cake.
Nellie curls her long blonde hair into thick, beautiful ringlets and dresses in her turquoise silk dress which stops at her knees with a fluffy white petticoat underneath and strappy gold sandals. Sitting in an ornate wooden chair on the front porch, she crosses her ankles and waits. The silken gift lays across her knees and Poppy lays in a basket beside her. She plays with the heavy strand of black pearls around her neck, twisting them until she worries they may break.
It’s a long time before the sound of the helicopter fills the night sky. Nellie wishes she could run into Papa’s arms like she used to when she was little, but she’s expected to wait patiently on the porch for him since her last birthday. She hates it.
“Women know how to wait,” he told her. “Smile. Be still. Wait. Let me come to you. Be a vision of peace for me to enjoy when I arrive.”
Her heart pounds when she sees him walking across the lawn toward her. Papa has come home! There are two big men with him carrying a wooden crate and a small woman carrying something grey in her arms. They form a kind of parade across the dark green lawn, silent and slow. Nellie twists the fabric of her dress but then quickly releases it and hopes it didn’t create any wrinkles.
When they are closer, Nellie can see the thing in the woman’s arms is alive. She fears it’s a puppy and looks over at Poppy and silently swears to never love anything as fiercely as she loves him. He can’t be replaced.
“My darling daughter,” Papa calls.
“Welcome home, Papa.”
It takes great effort to keep her voice low and even. She remains sitting but her legs are shaking and she can’t stop them. He’s standing at the bottom step beaming up at her with sparkling blue eyes the color of the morning glory flowers climbing up the walls of the manor. He’s wearing a divine suit of rich velvet blue.
“What’s on your lap, dearest?”
“A present for you, Papa.”
“You are the best daughter in the world! I’ve brought you gifts too but let’s go inside and eat before we spoil ourselves with presents. I’m starving.”
Heidi, Tom, and Maggie greet them in the entryway looking clean and polished in matching black and white suits. There’s no trace of color on any of them while they look at the floor.
“Welcome home,” Heidi says.
“I’m ready to eat,” Papa says.
Heidi bows low. Maggie and Tom try to copy the gesture but they look clumsy and silly. Nellie almost giggles.
“Right this way, sir.”
Dinner is a wonderfully rich stew filled with all the vegetables of the garden, still warm fresh bread topped with thick slabs of butter, and a delicious cake. Papa doesn’t speak when he eats, except to make “mmmm” sounds occasionally. He eats and eats until he finally sets his soiled napkin on the table and laughs. Nellie copies him.
“How are you, my beautiful Nells?” he asks from his golden throne.
His hair has grown longer since she saw him last and one of his curls has wrapped itself up and around his bejeweled crown. Not sure what she’s supposed to say, she looks to Heidi for guidance but she’s back in the kitchen. Maggie stands by the door and gives her a thumbs up and she almost throws her soup spoon at her face. She doesn’t want help from her.
“I’m wonderful Papa,” Nellie says. “Poppy and I are both simply splendid.”
“That’s music to my ears dear one. This is why I come here to see you. You brighten my day with your beauty and your optimism. It’s a rare commodity these days I’m afraid. Most people are simply too selfish to care about such things. They are more concerned about their own needs than providing for others. Can you imagine? People fighting each other over a loaf of bread when there is such beauty as you in the world? They have lost perspective.”
Nellie doesn’t really understand when Papa talks like this. She nods and smiles, but the words are confusing. For years she’d pepper Heidi with questions after he left about the outside world, but she’d tell her nothing. Now, she doesn’t even wonder anymore. There’s no point.
“Oh, I’m so tired my dear little princess. The world outside has worn your dear Papa down. People fight all the time, yelling and clawing and acting like wild animals. They want me to give them all I have, to save them, but they don’t want to do the work they are given. I have provided everything for them and all I ask for is perfect obedience. Some of them have forgotten what the world was like before the last big war when the sky was torched black and the seas ran with blood. They want to drag us back to being monsters, but I won’t let them. I won’t!”
Papa pounds his fist on the table and growls. Nellie hasn’t seen him angry in a long time and it makes her frightened. Heidi has returned from the kitchen and she’s smiling warmly at Nellie and petting Poppy. Nellie takes a few steadying breaths, like Heidi taught her, and returns the smile to her face before Papa looks her way.
“Oh, what am I doing? I let those beasts drag me down to their level and in the courtly presence of my beautiful daughter. Unacceptable. Please, dearest, will you accept my apology?
“It’s okay, Papa.”
“I suppose everything is okay dear one, especially when there are dinners like we just ate and presents to be given out.”
He claps his hands together and his men enter the room carrying the large wooden crate. They set it on the floor and use a metal crowbar to pry open the top. They nod to Papa and exit the room, followed by the rest of the staff including Heidi. Nellie feels her heart will burst with joy finally having her Papa to herself. She nudges the silk package on the table and smiles.
“Open yours first, Papa,” she says.
“Always the generous one. The good one. The perfect one. My Nels.”
The blue ribbon and silk come off in one quick movement of his large hands. Holding the canvas before him with outstretched arms he examines it for several minutes before staring at Nellie with tears in his eyes. When he speaks his voice is slow and full of emotion.
“This is the best gift I’ve ever received.”
“I’m so glad you like it.”
“Come and give your Papa a hug.”
This is the moment Nellie has been waiting for and she leaps from her seat forgetting her lady-like demeanor and throws herself into his big arms. Large belly laughs erupt from deep inside Papa making her entire body shake along with his. They laugh and hold each other for several minutes. He runs his fingers through her curls.
“My girl,” he says.
They walk arm and arm to the large crate and pull things out to examine together. It’s filled with boxes of paint, blank canvases of various sizes, several new dresses, a sapphire necklace, and two pairs of leather boots. Nellie thanks her father over and over and he keeps pulling her into him for long warm hugs. It feels like old times. The final gift is a black and gold leather trunk. Papa taps the top and smiles wide.
“This goes with your big gift,” he says to her and then raises his voice and calls, “bring it in!”
Nellie jumps up and down until the woman she saw earlier enters with the grey bundle held tightly in her arms. As she gets closer Nellie can see pink cheeks, blonde curls, and bright blue eyes beneath the blanket. The thing makes a small cooing sound and Nellie steps back.
“What is it?” she asks.
Papa and the woman laugh which makes Nellie feel stupid. Anger flashes across her cheeks and into her chest. Her fists have balled up on their own and she looks for Heidi but she’s not in the room. She’s having trouble breathing.
“It’s your baby,” Papa says. “A tiny little baby for you to play with and care for. You are getting older and I thought you might like it.”
He opens the trunk and pulls out knitted baby clothes all the same shade of pink, soft blankets, and piles of white cloth diapers. Nellie stares at these things but doesn’t understand. Why did Papa bring her a baby? The woman hands the warm bundle of blankets to her and she looks down at its small pink lips and squashed flat nose. It’s too heavy.
“You can name it whatever you like,” Papa says. “Anything at all!”
“Juniper,” Nellie says. “Juno Juniper.”
She’s not sure where the name came from but she likes it. The baby moves in her arms and opens its mouth to reveal a bright red tongue. It’s scary and Nellie drops it onto the ground where it begins to scream. The sound is high-pitched and terrifying. She covers her ears and scoots away from the sound until her back is against the cold stone wall.
The red-haired woman scoops the baby up and rocks it in her arms and everyone is looking at Nellie with a strange expression on their faces. She knows she must have done something wrong, but she doesn’t understand any of this. Is she supposed to care for this thing? Take care of it like Poppy? She doesn’t want to.
Heidi enters with a glass bottle of milk fitted with a brown rubbery nipple. She looks from Nellie to the baby and then hands the bottle to the red-haired woman. The baby sucks at it greedily, still crying a bit. Milks pours out the sides of its red mouth. Heidi smiles at Nellie.
“It’s okay,” she says.
“I don’t like it,” Nellie whispers.
Heidi turns from Nellie to find Lord Faron sitting back on his throne laughing. It’s all been a big game for him. She kneels before him and speaks in a low voice she hopes disguises her anger.
“She’s not ready for this, sir,” Heidi says. “Please reconsider. She’s just a child.”
“Just a child!” he screams. “She’s a princess. She’s my princess and I’ll do with her as I wish.”
“But sir,” Heidi says. “Look at her.”
Nellie shakes with fear as Papa stands. Heidi leaps to her feet and stands in front of Nellie with her arms out in front of her. She makes a small noise, a sound Nellie has heard her make when she’s trying to settle Poppy after she’s torn up something in the house and is running around barking.
Papa slaps Heidi hard across the face and she falls to the floor without a sound. She rolls into a ball as Papa kicks her over and over with his large black boots. The sound is terrible and Nellie screams. It lasts for a long time, the kicking and the screaming.
“No, Papa! No. No. No,” Nellie cries into her hands. “Please, no.”
Poppy growls and lunges at Papa and he kicks the dog hard enough it scoots across the floor and lands in a motionless heap against the far wall. Nellie screams again. She can’t breathe. None of this makes sense. She wants to run but her legs aren’t working. None of this is right. None of this is supposed to be happening.
Moving toward Nellie with darkened eyes and red cheeks, Papa growls low in his throat and then shakes his head and stomps his feet. His breathing is shallow and fast and he waves his hands in front of him as if trying to clear the room of smoke after lighting a candle. Kneeling in front of Nellie he takes her hands into his and squeezes them so tight it hurts. When he speaks his voice is low and gruff.
“My dear child. I know you don’t understand what’s happening but you may never ever question me. If you start to question me then you become like them and I’ll be forced to make life a lot harder for you. You are supposed to bring me joy, but the moment you do not do that anymore, things will change for you. Am I clear?”
“You will take care of the child. When I return you will smile and greet me with a peaceful nod. None of the weaknesses you’ve shown tonight will be evident. You will be strong and capable. You are my daughter and you will rise up and be who you are supposed to be. Do you hear me?”
Returning to a standing position he pulls Nellie into his arms and hugs her tight. She shivers, the warmth of their reunion completely gone now. He kisses her on the head and walks quickly from the room. Without moving, she listens as he barks orders at his men and they leave the manor. It’s not until she hears the helicopter sounds fading away does she dare move.
Heidi lays on her side and blood has formed a pool around her mouth. Nellie sits beside her and Poppy limps over and weakly licks her hand before falling down. The baby cries from inside the empty trunk. Nellie covers her face in her hands and rocks back and forth.
She’s vaguely aware of Maggie and Tom touching Heidi and Poppy. They walk around the room and whisper. Nellie doesn’t want them to be here but she doesn’t want to be alone.
“Nellie?” Maggie says. “Nellie, dear?”
She looks up and finds the maid’s eyes wet with tears. There’s a kindness in her soft face she didn’t have before or maybe Nellie didn’t want to see it before. She lets Maggie pull her to her feet and hold her until the sobs inside her quiet and stop.
“I’m so sorry,” Nellie says.
“What for dear?”
“I did all this.”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault. None of this is your fault. Do you hear me? None of it. Right, Tom?”
He’s standing beside them rocking the baby in his arms. He nods and looks from Nellie to Heidi and gives her a weak smile.
“Heidi is dead isn’t she?” Nellie says.
“I think so,” Tom says.
“I’m so sorry,” Maggie says.
“It’s fine,” Nellie says. “We need to bury her so she will come back tomorrow. It’s fine. We just need to find a shovel and bury her.”
Tom and Maggie look at each other for a long time before turning to face her. Nellie doesn’t like how they are looking at her—pity and sadness. Maybe she should slap Maggie like her father did Heidi. Attack Tom with a kitchen knife. Throw the baby in the fireplace.
“It’s not going to be fine, Nellie. When things are dead they don’t come back to life. Your father replaced Poppy each time he died, training another dog the same tricks so you’d not know it. Heidi told me you’ve had at least three dogs.”
“I don’t believe you!” Nellie screams.
“Death is forever, Nellie. She isn’t coming back. I’m really sorry, but it’s true.”
“We should show her the graves,” Tom says. “Take her out behind the greenhouse and show her.”
“I don’t believe you!” Nellie yells again.
“Come with me to get a shovel,” Maggie says. “I’ll show you the graveyard. I’ll show you what death looks like.”
They form another parade, except this isn’t a happy one. Maggie, Nellie, and Tom with the baby in his arms walk in a line out the front door, through the hedge maze garden, around the massive greenhouse, and down a pebbled path Nellie hasn’t seen before. It opens into a wide field filled with ugly brown weeds with sharp spiky burrs.
A long wooden chest sits under a scraggly oak tree. Maggie opens it and takes out two shovels. She hands one to Nellie and they walk through the weeds until Maggie stops and points at a raised mound of dirt covered with tiny black stones.
“Here’s one of the graves,” Maggie says. “Dig.”
Side-by-side they dig, shoveling the stones and dirt into a pile beside them. Nellie tries not to think of Heidi back in the house. Or if Poppy will be okay. She doesn’t want to believe Tom or Maggie. They dig and dig.
“Stop,” Maggie says.
They’ve hit something solid and Maggie whispers some words about God and forgiveness before reaching into the hole and pulling out a large white bone with a chunky black bracelet attached to it. Giles.
“Vivere liberi,” Maggie reads.
“Live free,” Tom says.
Nellie stumbles back and sits into a patch of the pokey weeds. Giles told her everyone deserved to be free, even her. She doesn’t know what any of it means but she fears Papa isn’t who she thought he was. The baby stirs and Nellie looks at it in Tom’s arms.
“Where is the baby’s mother?” she asks.
“Probably killed by your father. He rules everything and he takes what he wants.”
“Papa is a bad man?”
She doesn’t mean it as a question really but both Maggie and Tom nod at her. The baby makes a little crying sound and Tom rocks it in his arms. Nellie looks around at all the mounds of dirt.
“I’m scared,” she says.
“It’s okay,” Maggie says.
“We are here to save you,” Tom says.
“There are people who want to use you or hurt you, but we want to free you. Everyone deserves to be free, Nellie. Everyone,” Maggie says.
“Are you free?” Nellie says.
“No,” Tom says.
“Nobody is free with your father in power, but we think you could do something about it,” he says.
“We need your help,” Maggie says.
“We believe in you,” Tom says.
“Okay,” Nellie says.
She lets Maggie help her up and notices how bright blue her eyes are. Not blue like the morning glories climbing up the towering sides of the manor, but blue like the open sky or blue like the ocean water. Blue like freedom.
Author’s note: The very first draft of a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo was dystopian fiction. I’ve rewritten it several times now adding more and more elements of fantasy, but the heart of a world left suffering by an unfair power struggle still remains. I wanted to write a prequel this week, but instead, this strange little tale of Nellie took shape and just kept growing. If you read the entire thing you have no idea how much it means to me. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Writers need readers and your support keeps me afloat. Let me know what you liked or didn’t like in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 26
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 dystopian glimpse of the future. We had to include a wheelchair, Labrador, throne, jungle, prescription, railroad, trunk, gulley, wasp, and photosynthesize.