Late Night Visitor | A Short Story

A light touch on the bottom of my left foot drags me instantly from the rainbow haziness of the dream world to the very real darkness of my bedroom. I’m not alone. With a jerk, I retuck my legs into the safety and warmth of my colorful blanket cocoon and look around.

A wild wind outside my window batters the branches of the big oak tree casting wispy skeletal shadows along my purple walls. Everything else looks still and normal. Through the lacy curtains, the moon appears as a tiny crescent in a sea of black. When will this end?

Wiping tears from my eyes with the sleeve of my plaid nightgown, I realize I’m crying. My cheeks burn hot. I’m tired of feeling sad and scared. It’s not fair!

Burrowing my nose into the worn calico fur of my stuffed kitty Butterscotch, I breathe in the familiar sweet and musty smell. Snuggles by the fire. Hide-and-seek. Christmas morning.

As I’ve done the last ten nights in a row, I grab the red plastic flashlight from inside my pillowcase. I don’t expect to see anything but I make myself look just in case. I hold Butterscotch tight as I move the yellowish beam around the room.

Starting with my bookshelf, I scan my collection of rocks and figurines, moving along the floor past several mounds of dirty and clean clothes to the huge pile of stuffed animals. All fine. Unicorn poster. Tiny fake plant. Corkboard of Polaroids. Three empty cans of sparkling water and two empty Frito bags on the desk. Hello Kitty backpack spilling its contents out on the chair. Everything is where I left it.

My foot feels tingly and weird as if the imprint of the mystery touch lingers. Pulling the covers over my head, I sit under the blankets and use the flashlight to search every inch of my foot for clues—a fingerprint, scratch mark, or some tiny speck of goo. Nothing. It’s my normal foot.

For a moment I consider turning on the desk lamp and working on an essay for English class about the Giver, but my rumbling stomach has other ideas. I wish when I turned 12 last week my parents gifted me my future job instead of an event planner and a plain gold watch. I don’t want to make checklists, set goals, or make decisions. I know free will and emotions are supposed to be blessings, but I’m tired of them.

Tucking Butterscotch into the top of my nightgown, I tiptoe through the hallway toward my parent’s bedroom. I’m forced to pass the tall grandfather clock with its dark mahogany wood, sharp spiky top, and creepy drawing of the moon with a baby face. Its eerie ticking sound echoes in the silent house and I sneak a quick peek at the time before rushing by. The two ornate black hands point at the gleaming golden 12 and 2. Whatever keeps waking me is pretty punctual.

My parents sleep with the door slightly open and I peek in to see them both in their light brown wooden sleigh bed. They’re snuggled against each other under a purple and green checkered quilt and my dad’s snoring lightly. I watch them for a few minutes, seeing if they might be pretending to sleep, but they’re breathing deeply and don’t stir.

The first night I felt the touch on my foot I screamed with surprise and terror. My parents came rushing in, mother throwing on the light and father scooping me into his arms. When I told them what happened, dad checked the entire house for signs of anyone and mom gave me a cup of warm milk. I didn’t fall back to sleep that night or any night since. It’s almost becoming routine, which explains why I’m extra tired and hungry.

I rush down the stairs and take a quick peek into the living room for any signs of my foot toucher and, finding none, I head for the refrigerator. A small white bowl of leftover rice pudding sits on the middle shelf. Although mom will yell, I take it anyway. Pulling off the plastic wrap, I grab a spoon and head to my favorite squashy chair by the front window.

Snuggling under mom’s grey, wooly blanket and setting Butterscotch on my lap, I eat the sugary pudding and scan our quiet street. A tall silverish lamppost sits at the edge of our lawn casting a bright yellow glow around it. Cars sit quietly on driveways and grey garbage cans line the curb. Nobody is watering their lawn or jogging and I see no birds. It’s too early for much of anything.

The house next door has a huge maple tree and its reddish leaves dance in the wind as if alive. Dad and mom’s song plays in my head, spinning like the old record they bring out after they’ve shared a bottle of wine. Dad slips his hand around her waist and she puts her head on his shoulder.

Everybody’s feelin’ warm and right/It’s such a fine and natural sight/everybody’s dancin’ in the moonlight.

Across the street, our new neighbors have added a giant blow-up turkey to their yard for Thanksgiving. The wind has blown it sideways and its butt wiggles in the air. Abby would know the perfect joke. The thought makes the pudding no longer taste good. Don’t think about her, Brin. Just don’t.

Setting the bowl on the floor, I pull Butterscotch up to my face again. I don’t know why this is happening to me. I’ve googled “something touched my foot while sleeping” several times and it’s led me down some strange and winding paths. I could be suffering from any number of ailments from sleep paralysis to periodic limb movement disorder to restless leg syndrome.

One website said it could either be a bad omen or mean you were experiencing a spiritual awakening. Another said it’s a ghost or spirit and it’s important to cleanse your house with sage. I downloaded several ghost detector apps on my iPad but they proved useless and confusing. My parents have proved useless as well.

On the way to school a few days ago I told mom about my research, but she cut me off after a few minutes and pulled the car over. Clutching the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white, she stared intensely at me. It’s the look she uses when she means business. Her voice went all tense and low.

“Listen to me, Brin. Nothing touched your foot. You were dreaming. No, I won’t buy you sage or take you to the doctor. No, I won’t keep talking about this and if you keep googling stuff on your iPad I’ll take it away. Do you understand?”

I told her I do, but what choice do I have? For over a year now I’ve begged for a cellphone and if I have any hope of ever getting one, I know I have to drop it with her. She’s practical and has no patience for anything unexplained. Plus, she thinks I’m making it up for attention. She hasn’t said it directly, but I can tell.

Dad’s equally useless. He works all the time and dozes off after dinner, but I managed to catch him alone yesterday when he took the garbage can out to the curb. Without my mother around, I tell him about my research and ask him for his help. He grabs my shoulder and smiles.

“You just have an overactive imagination is all. It can trick your senses into believing anything. It can feel real, but I assure you it is not. Remember your imaginary friend…what was his name?”

Why does he have to bring him up? I whisper his name as if he’ll hear us talking about him.

“Mr. Croaky.”

“Right! You were convinced you saw him jumping around and hiding in the bushes. Now you are getting older and your brain does the pretending while you sleep instead of during the day. It’s part of growing up. It’s normal, kiddo. You aren’t little anymore. It’s good. You’ll see.”

It all comes back to me growing up. It’s all my parents seem to talk about these days. Last week my mother gave me a box and asked me to fill it for a children’s charity her work is sponsoring. When I filled it with old clothes she scowled at me.

“What about all these toys you have laying around? Barbies? Dolls? This mound of stuffed animals? You are a teenager now. It’s time to let stuff go.”

I cried and locked myself in the bathroom until she dropped it, but I know she’ll bring it up again. I don’t want to stop playing with my toys. I love them. They don’t get it. Abby was the person who did, but I was wrong about her. She’s the worst. The absolute worst.

Balling my hands into fists, I fight the memory but it’s like throwing up with the flu. It comes at me in a wave of ugliness and I don’t have the strength to fight it off. I press my nose to Butterscotch’s pink plastic one and feel the pain come roaring in.

It’s the 8th-grade science field trip and we stand on a wooden pier looking at the seals in the water. They roll around and bark at each other. Most of the other girls are trying to get the attention of either Cameron or Dylon by posing with their sunglasses and giggling like idiots. Not us. Abby and I are above such nonsense. I grab her arm and sing into her ear.

“Rolling, rolling, rolling, keep those seals rolling. Fisheye!”

Abby laughs but looks over at the students on the trip and blushes. She inches a little away from me, as she has done all day. Stepping closer and grabbing her arm, I create exaggerated British voices for the seals. Her body feels tense beside me. Stiff. Unmoving. Frozen.

“Oh, hi Cheryl, I didn’t see you rolling over there. Fancy a cuppa, mate?”

“Oh, hi Carol. Yes, I’d love one. I’m simply knackered. A cheeky fish kept me awake all night with its chittering.”

“What a bugger! Hey, did you change your whiskers, darling?”

“Yes, I waxed them with fish oil. It’s all the rage in Paris these days. Tip-top posh and all.”

“Oh, bloody brilliant!”

Abby doesn’t laugh. My British voice always makes her laugh. Instead, her cheeks turn bright red and she spins from me. My arm falls limply to my side as she walks over to the three most popular girls in our grade, Tracy, Stacy, and Pam. We’ve nicknamed them STP—Stupid Tall Pretty. She doesn’t look back.

For a brief moment, I think she’s gone to play a prank on them, but I know it’s not true. I saw it coming but tried to ignore it. Abby pulls a pair of round blue sunglasses out of her backpack. She didn’t tell me about those and we don’t have secrets. We didn’t have secrets.

The glasses are an expensive name-brand kind. Abby’s talking fast and running her fingers through her curly blonde hair. They all take turns trying the glasses on and taking selfies.

“Oh, Abby,” Tracy says, touching my best friend’s cheek with a bright red fake nail. “I never realized the perfect shape of your lips. You have to try this!”

She hands Abby a tube of pink lip gloss and she puts it on. The bubblegum smell is strong and sickly sweet. Stacy links arms with Abby and coos beside her in a stupid baby voice.

“Do you have Instagram?”

“Not yet, but I got a new cell phone last week and haven’t had a chance to download it yet.”

Another secret she didn’t tell me about. She pulls a bright pink phone out of her backpack and they all examine it. Apparently, it’s cool from the sounds they are making. I clench my fists tighter to resist the urge to rush over, grab it, and throw it into the ocean.

“You are too pretty to not be on Insta,” Pam says. “Let’s do a photo shoot for your first post!”

“You can use my scarf,” Tracy adds. “It matches your eyes.”

The entire time this unfolds I feel tears welling in my eyes, but I wipe them away and straighten my back. I won’t give up on my best friend without a fight. Okay, she suddenly cares what they think. I can play along.

Tucking my wild brown hair behind my ears, I walk to where they are all standing in a semicircle. Nobody looks at me but I flash the brightest smile I can muster. Abby looks miserable like she might be sick. I want to hold her hand and pull her away. You don’t have to do this, I want to say. Instead, I pull off my charm bracelet and hold it out in front of me.

“I’ll contribute my bracelet for the photos.”

A gift from Abby on my 10h birthday, she’s added new charms to the bracelet each Christmas and birthday since. The charms represent special memories we have; a pair of roller skates, two stars, a mermaid, bunnies, ice cream cones, and daisies. The girls all stare at it in silence while Abby looks at her blue converse. I see the sharpie heart I drew yesterday on the left toe is smeared.

“Uh, no thanks,” Tracy says. “What is it…iron?”

“I don’t think cheap metal is the look we’re going for,” Stacy says. “Plus, it’s kind of babyish.”

“It’s silver…”

My voice sounds tiny and they laugh. It’s the kind of laugh you can’t escape from, high and lifting and fake. I search Abby’s face looking for recognition, a hint at the girl I’ve loved since kindergarten. She looks away.

“The light’s better over here,” Pam says.

They walk away and I don’t follow. Returning to the spot where we stood moments before, I stare at the seals trying to make sense of what happened. It feels as if my heart broke in half and my face lit on fire.

I don’t know how I manage to keep the tears in, but I do until sitting alone on the bus ride home in the back row. While Abby rests her blonde hair on the shoulder of someone other than me, I let go and sob. Nobody notices.

The last ten days without Abby have been the worst of my life. She doesn’t look at me at school and won’t return my emails or phone calls. She missed my birthday. Dad says learning to cope with change is a requirement of growing. Mom says heartache gets easier with time and I’ll make new friends. It’s not getting easier, I don’t want new friends and I don’t want to grow up.

Tears come. I hate Abby for what she did to me. I hate getting older. Why must my life change? I liked the way it was. I’m sobbing now pressing my face into my stuffed kittie. A horrible pain stabs at my stomach and chest. Broken-hearted. Crushed. Gutted. When will it stop hurting this bad?

A familiar touch on my foot makes me jump and I pull my legs to my chest. A small man stands exactly where my foot sat a moment ago. He’s frozen in place with his hand still extended out in front of him. We stare at each other and his tiny dark brown eyes grow wider and wider. Neither of us blinks.

The size of a mouse, he’s dressed in dark green overalls with a light green shirt underneath. He’s chubby and smells of dirt and moss, like the logs by the creek behind our house. His cheeks are puffy and pinkish. I whisper quietly hoping to not startle him away.

“Are you real?”

“Are you?”

His voice isn’t squeaky, but deep, almost a croak. He lets his hand fall to his side and shuffles his dirty little bare feet. His toes are the size of a grain of sand.

“I think so. Why do you keep grabbing my foot?”

“You keep making a horrible sound and I want you to stop.”

What kind of sound do I make in my sleep? He points to the tears on my face and I suddenly understand.

“My crying?”

“I don’t know what you call it, but I don’t like it. You keep doing it. Stop it!”

He stomps his little foot as if to emphasis his point. It makes the tiniest of slapping sounds on the wood floor.

“Oh! Well…I’m sad and when I’m sad, I cry.”

“Well, get un-sad then.”

He stomps his foot again and I can’t help but smile.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes, it is.”

With a quick movement, he half hops and half climbs the blanket onto the arm of the chair. Looking at him closer I realize he’s much younger than I first thought, like a small, hairy child. He has freckles on his nose, long eyelashes, and bright pink smiling lips.

“See, you aren’t doing the loud sound now. You stopped.”

“Well, you distracted me.”

He claps and jumps up and down. Flecks of gold sparkle in his big brown eyes.

“See. Easy!”

“Well….the next time I’m not distracted, I will start crying again. I can’t stop it.”

“Why?”

“My heart is broken.”

Frowning, he hops forward and grabs onto my pointer finger with both hands, and closes his eyes. A faint tingling radiates from his touch and I close my eyes too. The sensation grows and grows, moving from my finger to my hand. It travels up my arm and across my body until soon every part of me feels warm and alive.

I’m standing on the banks of a wide gentle river that sings as it flows over hundreds of stones in shades of grey and white. Sunlight dances off the surface as tadpoles and minnows dart in and out of shadowy hiding places. Colorful ducks drift past and several round turtles scuttle off logs disappearing under the rippling water. A frog sits on my foot blinking up at me with wide, watery eyes.

My body feels as if all the sadness has been squeezed out. It flows away from me with the water. In its place, happiness bursts and blooms. I feel as I did when I was four years old. Free and silly. I splash into the water as a faint humming sound surrounds me. I open my eyes.

Sitting on the armrest of the chair is the creature I drew hundreds of times as a child. A wide green frog with kind watery eyes and a huge smiling mouth. He ribbits and sticks out his tongue. The little man has transformed into his real form. I laugh so hard I nearly knock him off the chair.

“Mr. Croaky! You’ve come back!”

He blinks but says nothing. I found him by the creek one day hiding in an old log. Mother told me she didn’t see him, but I knew he was real. When scary dogs barked at me on walks in the neighborhood, he’d hop onto my head to distract me. If nobody else could play, Mr. Croaky would show up and we’d go on adventures in the backyard. He came with me on my first day of school. He helped me meet Abby on the playground, hopping into her backpack and croaking until I came over and talked to her. I’ve missed my old friend.

The tingly feeling is fading from my body and I fear all my sadness will return when it does. I reach out to touch Mr. Croaky and he hops across me toward the other armrest. I hear a faint splash as something round and hard falls into my lap. A stone.

In an instant, I know things have shifted. Mr. Croaky has disappeared again and this time it’s forever. It doesn’t hurt like I thought it would, but it feels as if a part of me has left too. In its place though, I feel a spark of something new forming. A kind of hope which wasn’t there before. I think I’m going to be okay.

Picking up the stone I find the river still there when I close my eyes. It will be there for me whenever I need it. The sun outside rises slowly, painting the sky shades of gold and pink. Butterscotch falls to the ground as my mother comes in to tell me it’s time to go to school. I pick her up and gently place her back in the chair.

Author’s note: I rewrote the ending of this story for three days trying to find it. I kept having her whisked off to Neverland-type places so she wouldn’t have to face pain anymore. I wanted her to stay a little child so badly, but it’s not the truth. Although this ending broke my heart a bit, I know it’s the right one. I hope you enjoyed my story and I’d love to know if you remember your last moment of childhood. Did you have one? Have a wonderful week.


Short Story Challenge | Week 46

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about the last moment of childhood. We had to include the words Thanksgiving, refrigerator, surprise, contribute, pier, bird, strength, iron, voices, and requirement.


Write With Us

Prompt: Chasing the enemy
Include: demon, bystander, escaped, parakeet, destiny, hammer, singing, ash, cathedral, heels


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Poetry: The Mall Santa in November

Long before the first whiff of candy canes rise
A bauble-covered evergreen, enormous in size
Arrives in the mall for all the holiday-hooked
While fat turkey waits to be basted and cooked

Sitting center stage on a velvet couch of green
Glad tidings brought forth before casserole of bean
Dear Father Christmas, old Santa Claus himself
Precedes eggnog, gingerbread, or elf on the shelf

November’s mall Santa has quite an easy gig
Before shopping gets desperate, pushy, and big
Fur-lined coat, hair of white, smiling with ease
He waves at the shoppers, aiming only to please

So if you like your Saint Nicholas full of glee
Don’t wait until the line snakes around the tree
November’s the time to gather up all the holly
And visit the mall for your dose of the Big Jolly

Poetry: Current Mood

Crawl out of mismatched blankets to shiver write, heater broken again.

Cracked heels bleed in fuzzy grey socks, add self-care to today’s to-do list.

Must hold breath another week for mental health help, therapists get sick.

Tears fall fast in upstairs bathroom, moms know the art of hidden sadness.

Can’t take another hit, cold sore erupts fat, ugly on bottom lip.

Coffee in my cup is ice already, but what I need is some warmth.

Write, write, write all my crisp inside words, but does anybody want them?


Inspired by Brandon Ellrich, I used the format of the American Sentence this week to explore some of my current feelings. If you are unfamiliar with this poetic form, it was Allen Ginsberg’s effort to make American the haiku. It must be seventeen syllables and it comes from the notion, “poets are people who notice what they notice.” Thank you for reading my first attempt at these.

Let’s Go to the Ocean | A Short Story

“What you need is luck,” Gemma says.

We’re hiding out in the storage room, pretending to move things from one spot to another. Although she’s wearing the same ugly blue vest as me, it doesn’t look bad on her. She pulls up the mesh sleeve of her striped undershirt and taps a tattoo of a magic eight ball on the inside of her wrist with a pointed black fingernail. One of her silver rings clinks against the other.

A moment of silence sits between us. I’m wondering if she means I need her, but I’m terrified to think such a thing. Last night after work we hung out by her beat-up brown car. She offered me a clove cigarette from her huge black purse and we stood shoulder to shoulder smoking. She talked nonstop, hilarious shit about her roommates. I laughed like an idiot.

I grab a bag of expired bread rolls and toss them at her. She catches them and sticks her tongue out at me. Her green eyes sparkle and dance like sunlight bouncing off the river. I’m in trouble. I force a laugh and look away.

“No shit I need luck. There’s no way I’m paying my rent this month. Whatever. It’s a crappy place anyway…”

My voice trails off because it sounds like I’m asking for a place to stay and I know her two roommates are assholes. I’m fucking this up. She gives me a reassuring look and I feel unsteady. My words come out in an outtake of breath as if they’d been sitting in my mouth waiting for me to let my guard down.

“Let’s go to the ocean.”

The image of her sitting beside me in the sand at sunset makes my face burn and I turn away from her. What am I doing? I haven’t had a car in two years let alone funds for gas or food. All I do is complain to her about being poor. She’s got to think I want to use her. I’m such an idiot.

“How about dinner tonight?”

She’s beside me now holding my hand. I look at her and it’s as if kindness has taken human form—all soft edges and gentle warmth. Flecks of gold dance in the green of her eyes. I’m drowning.

“Would you go out to dinner with me tonight, Eloise? My treat. I want to show you something.”

I nod as one of the night bosses, Mr. Parker, walks in the door. His brick-red puffy face looks at us standing close together and he frowns. I catch a glimpse of a golden cross in his chest hair and I brace myself for whatever nonsense he’s about to throw our way. His voice is fast and breathy.

“Eloise, go outside and break down the boxes to be recycled. Gemma, I’m moving you to books. Let’s go girls! I don’t pay you to stand around smiling all day.”

My shift ends a half hour before Gemma’s and I spot her standing in the book section holding a dictionary in her hand as some sweaty overweight man yells at her. He’s inches from her face. I want to punch him and rescue her, but Mr. Parker’s lurking nearby. I can smell his cheap cologne. I don’t want to get her into trouble and I need my stupid job. My feet drag as I walk away.

I wash myself up in the bathroom and go outside to stand next to her car. She comes out ten minutes after her shift ends with tears in her eyes. Instinctively I hug her close and she lets me hold her while she sobs. The customers at our store can be brutal. The bosses aren’t much better. I wish I could take her away from this place.

“Some people are so mean, you know?” she says into my shoulder.

I do know. My entire life has been filled with mean people, but it won’t help her to compare pain. She hands me a clove cigarette and we smoke again, standing with our backs against the cool metal of her car. A flock of geese flies past honking loudly. The sky darkens. She flicks her cigarette on the ground and grinds it out with the toe of her black Doc Martin boot.

“Okay, let’s get away from this place.”

We drive to a Chinese restaurant called “Lucky Day” and she orders us both rice bowls with extra chicken to-go. She plays old Britney Spears music and we sing along at the top of our lungs. We watch the sunset turn the sky orange and purple.

After about 20 minutes she pulls onto a dirt road. It’s bumpy and uneven so she slows the car. We drive through tall arching trees and a narrow twisting road going up and up. I hold onto the door handle and she laughs at me. When we reach the top she turns off the car and smiles.

“Get out.”

A tiny part of me wonders if this is where I die. It’s a ridiculous thought because I’m not scared of her, but it’s the middle of nowhere and we barely know each other. She seems to sense my discomfort and laughs again.

She pulls out a flashlight, a blanket, and two black hoodies which we quickly put on. She hands me the bag of food and I follow her through a densely wooded area until we reach a pile of boulders. Without hesitation, she scrambles to the top and I follow as best I can. She drops the blanket and clicks off the flashlight.

“What do you think?”

At first, my eyes see nothing but blackness, but soon I’m able to recognize a vast field of trees and grasses spreading out below us for what looks like forever. A tiny patch of glittery water catches the pale moonlight—a river or stream. She tilts my head up and I gasp. Without any streetlights or homes, the sky above us has exploded with more stars than I’ve ever seen. It’s what poets write about and artists paint. It’s breathtaking.

“Wow.”

“Right?”

We stand for a long time saying nothing until her stomach rumbles loudly eliciting giggles from both of us. Spreading out the blanket, we eat the rice bowls in silence. I’ve never been able to recognize a meaningful moment when I’m in it, but this time I do. This isn’t any old place and she’s not any old person. It feels like fate. Like destiny. Like an origin story of happiness.

Eventually, it gets cold and we decide to walk back to the car. She blasts the heater but leaves off the lights. We sit in silence for a long time. It’s as if neither one of us wants to break the spell cast by the night sky. I finally speak and my voice sounds small.

“Thank you.”

“It’s my favorite place. I found it a few years ago when I was looking for a place to…well…I didn’t really want to live anymore. This place sort of healed me. I’m glad you liked it.”

“I loved it.”

A loud crinkling sound fills the car as she reaches into the front pocket of her hoodie and pulls out our fortune cookies. She turns on the overhead light and we both crack them open.

“The real kindness comes from within you,” she reads. “Ugh. These things are getting more and more generic. That’s not a fortune. Maybe you will have better luck. Read yours.”

“A golden egg of opportunity falls into your lap this month.”

We both burst out laughing. I know a joke is there somewhere about her on my lap, but I don’t try to get it out. Instead, I fold up the fortune and put it into my pocket. Who knows? Maybe my luck is about to change. With her, it feels like anything is possible.

“It’s 11:11.”

She’s pointing at the small clock and I nod. I can tell I’m missing something. She squeezes my hand.

“Do you know what it means?”

“You turn into a pumpkin? I wake up and it’s all a dream? Your clock is broken?”

“11 in numerology is a master number. It’s extra powerful. It takes the energy of 1 and amplifies it. To see 11:11 means you are on the right path.”

She squeezes my hand again and when our eyes lock the car tilts sideways.

***

My studio apartment has an old-fashioned landline with a chocolate brown phone attached to the kitchen wall beside an electric stove with one working burner. The back left. The dirty tan spirling cord stretches long enough to reach every room. I find myself sitting on the wobbly toilet staring at the torn flowered wallpaper with the phone still pressed to my ear.

The person on the other end of the line, Jimmy something, has hung up. Boop. Boop. Boop. It’s a faded electric sound and for a moment I think it’s someone mimicking or mocking the noise. I listen harder and realize I’m wrong. Nobody is there. I’m alone.

You’d think finding out your only relative has died would be terribly sad, but I’ve not seen my grandpa for a long time. He left me with a family for the weekend when I was five and never came back. I don’t blame him.

Holding the phone out in front of me as if the booping sound might be a countdown to an explosion, I walk through the narrow hallway to the kitchen. With a click of plastic sliding into plastic, it’s quiet again. I sit on the cold linoleum floor in my underwear and bra. Crumbs stick to the back of my thighs. All I can think about is the phone call.

I didn’t know the landline worked until it rang. A British man speaks to me in a soft tone, as if he’s speaking to a small child or a furry animal, not someone who will be 20 years old in a few weeks. I suppose it’s meant to be soothing, but it feels condescending.

“I’ve been trying to reach you for days but apparently your cell number has been disconnected. I got this number from your work. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Miss Lewis, but your grandfather has passed away. He died in a car crash on Friday night after attending a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a tragedy. He was a good man. A fine man.”

He pauses. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he’s waiting for me to cry or ask follow-up questions. I don’t do either. Eventually, he clears his throat and speaks again, this time he sounds happier. Almost gleeful.

“He left you a considerable sum of money, Miss Lewis. Property too. I’ll need you to come into my office in LA. to sign the paperwork. It’s pretty straightforward. Check your email for the details. You are about to be a very wealthy woman. Congratulations.”

Another pause. I probably mumble “okay” or “yes” but I don’t remember. His voice transforms back to soothing—the sound equivalent of backing away slowly. He knows it’s a lot for anyone to process, especially someone clearly not doing great in her life.

“Sorry for your loss, Miss Lewis. See you soon. Goodbye.”

Magic eight ball. Golden egg. 11:11. Gemma.

A dripping sound from the sink brings me back to where I am—sitting on my dirty kitchen floor shivering. The faucet’s been leaking for the past three months, but right now the sound feels like an urgent alarm. I’ve got to get moving. Things to do. I don’t know how to do any of them.

A line of ants marches across the floor toward a stray light-brown generic toasted O piece from the last of the cereal I ate dry for dinner last night. I trace the line as it marches up my scratched brown cupboards to the small curtainless kitchen window. My thoughts wander as I watch them, backward instead of forward.

Both my parents died when I was a baby in a horrific accident on the highway. They’d gone dancing at the Elk Lodge as their first outing since I was born. The headline in the newspaper read “Swing Dance Champions Killed in Two-Car Crash” with the subhead “Alcohol Involved.” I printed out a copy of the article from the library when I was a teenager and remembered the words “quick” and “instant.”

Framed in my bedroom is a photo the babysitter took before they left. We are standing in front of a glittery silver Christmas tree. Mom’s dressed in deep purple and dad in dark green. He’s got his lean arms around her tiny waist and they are both staring at me smiling. I’m wrapped in a pale pink blanket and my red hair and blue eyes are the brightest things in the photo. We look deliriously happy. I wish I could remember.

My grandpa did his best but he wasn’t cut out to care for a small child. A music producer with contracts with some of the biggest names in the business, his lifestyle wasn’t exactly family-friendly. His LA office walls were covered in shiny gold and platinum album covers. He talked fast, always clicked a pen, and smiled a lot. He chewed gum. I don’t remember if he ever hugged me.

I do remember his secretary. She wore cat-eye glasses, and bright red lipstick, and smelled of vanilla. I spent a lot of time hiding under her desk and eating chocolate. Her name was Valerie. Will she be at the funeral? She’s got to be in her 80s.

I need to make plans. Take out the garbage. Spray the ants. Get time off from work. A bus ticket. I’ll need something black to wear to the funeral. Will Gemma miss me?

“You are about to be a very wealthy woman.”

I can’t think about it too much or maybe it won’t happen. Bad things always follow when I get my hopes up. Fortune cookies are nonsense. I look at the clock and see it’s 11:11.

***

The last few weeks have been a blur of technicolor LA opulence. Jimmy, the fancy British lawyer who called me, is a pretty decent guy with his silk Italian suits, well-manicured hands, and rich warm laugh. I know he’s paid to help me, but I couldn’t survive without the services he provides—a strict and steady Hollywood regime of valium, alcohol, and expensive dresses. I’m Alice in Wonderland and it’s all curiouser and curiouser.

I stay in grandpa’s posh LA apartment, one of three properties he left me in his will. Most of the place is chrome, absurdly clean, and lacking any personal artifacts. The one exception is a photograph of me on his nightstand. I am 4 or 5, the age when he left me, laughing in candy cane pajamas. When I tilt my head in the dim light faint fingerprints appear on the silver frame. I stare at them for hours wondering why he never tried to find me.

Jimmy said grandpa paid a “nice family” to raise me in the suburbs. He thought they’d give me a better home. “Safe from the LA crazies.” He didn’t come to visit because he wanted me to have a normal life. It’s probably good he didn’t. I’m not sure what would have happened if he knew the truth about how they treated me. The abuse. I’m sure it would have broken his heart.

Grandpa’s funeral is a who’s-who of the music scene and I meet more famous people and Hollywood stars than I can name. Each one says “your grandfather was a hell of a man.” I say “thanks” as if I’d been a part of it.

Grandpa left a lot of unfinished business, personal and professional. I sit through dozens of wildly uncomfortable meetings where people glare at me and say “who is this again?” They want to be sure I know I am a nobody. Unfortunately for them, I am the nobody who gets the money they think is theirs.

Apparently, grandpa led a very active social life. I have more than one drink thrown in my face. One woman even calls me a “charlatan.” For some reason I like it. I might have it tattooed on my arm. I can afford it.

Besides the apartment in LA, I now own a penthouse in New York and a beach house along the Northern California coast. I also have a car. It’s not just any car. It’s a shiny black 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. I polish it myself with super expensive wax. I name it Ben.

After kissing Jimmy goodbye and promising to come back soon, I kick off my shoes and drive barefooted the six hours back home. I eat sunflower seeds throwing the shells out the window while wearing a flowing white dress with tiny daisies embroidered on the sleeves. My red hair tangles in the wind and I sing at the top of my lungs to the Grateful Dead.

“Walk out any doorway. Feel your way, feel your way like the day before. Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you.”

Pulling into the parking lot of my old work, I’m thrilled to see Gemma’s old brown car parked along the side entrance. I park beside it, run my fingers through my hair, and apply pink lip gloss. It’s a little over three hours before she comes out. I’ve been dozing off and on, but at the sight of her, I’m wide awake.

She’s wearing a black hoodie and she stops beside her car, digs through her big black bag, and pulls out a clove cigarette. Her makeup has smeared and it’s clear she’s been crying. I don’t want to startle her, so I wait.

After a few minutes, her eyes find mine. Recognition takes a moment but it’s worth it. Her face transforms. Light returns to her eyes and her cheeks pinken.

“Your golden egg, huh?”

Smiling, I nod slowly and pat the leather seat beside me.

“Let’s go to the ocean.”

Author’s note: It’s the first week of NaNoWriMo and so far I’m on track! Last night I ventured across town to read my poetry in person at an amazing bookstore. I’m leaning more and more into this writing life. It’s scary and beautiful. My story this week features the character who wanted me to write her last week, Eloise Lewis. She didn’t want to meet the devil, but she did want to run away to the ocean. It felt nice to give her a happy ending. I hope you enjoyed it.


Short Story Challenge | Week 44

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 a fortune cookie comes true. We had to include the words numerology, hilarious, dictionary, recycled, brick, ocean, meaningful, garbage, star, and origin.


Write With Us

Prompt: A Strange Request at a Piano Bar

Include: carnival, apple, sprained, mask, juvenile, controversy, oxidation, twirl, awkward, sassafras


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Abandoned Church | A Short Story

“Destiny calls when the angel sings
Flitting in darkness with silent wings”
-scrawled on the back of a polaroid

Jagged mountains line the horizon in all directions like cardboard cutouts in a child’s diorama. Bright sunlight and low fog have transformed the sky into a flat white blanket inches above my head. I fear it will fall on me for what I’ve done, for what I’ve taken, but I’m not turning back. My bare feet sink deeper and deeper as I trudge along the sandy path. I’m close.

The old woman at the lodge fought a lot longer than the others. Dark brownish blood foamed at her lips and she convulsed wildly in her four-poster bed, but she kept breathing through the night and into the morning. A lingering sour smell clung to everything, making me gag several times. I tried to be patient, but time was running out. It won’t wait for me forever.

She screamed when I pried the photo album from her hands. Her stiff grey eyes focused sharply on mine and I could see the truth as a statement and a question. The soup, I almost said but decided it didn’t matter. Instead, I held a pillow to her face until she stopped struggling and took the small, black key from the pocket of her pale pink nightgown. It was warm as I tucked it into the pocket of my jeans.

In the dim morning light filtering through the white gauzy curtain, I found the polaroid on the thirteenth page behind a thin protective layer of slightly browning plastic. Peeling it back inch by inch, I freed it from its sticky prison. Turning it over I saw the flowy cursive black writing and smiled tracing the letters with my thumb. It’s true. Tossing the rest of the album onto the old woman’s motionless body I walked out.

I’m holding the photo in my left hand now and I pull it to my nose and breathe in deeply as I’ve done hundreds of times during the seven hours of walking. It smells like plastic at first, but if I wait it’s followed by another scent far older. My body shivers with anticipation and deep recognition of the heavenly aroma. Damp stone. Wet Earth. Home. It’s waiting for me.

As I walk I notice my vision has a filmy quality to it, a haziness I’ve come to associate with sleep. It’s got to be the hypnotic effect of the singing. I feel it like a hook inside my belly pulling and pulling. The others didn’t believe enough to hear it. It chose me.

The path narrows and clusters of yellow flowers sit like torches on either side of me. They smell faintly of honey and are near enough to brush my arms as I pass with feathery softness. Without the lights of the highway, I feel as if I’m already transported to another place. Whiteness in all directions. Stillness too. Nothing but the soft, tender voice calling me with words I feel more than hear. So close now. 

A turkey vulture cries and circles above me. Its distorted winged shadow stretches across the path and I resist the urge to look at it. The stories are real even if people don’t believe in them. It requires more than faith to get what you want. I’ve proven myself capable of radical actions. I’m willing to do what the others are not. I’m a true believer.

The steady regime of exercise, prayer, and meditation has prepared not only my mind but my body for today. Although I’m bone tired, it’s nothing like I would have been before I arrived at the lodge. The old woman taught me well and a spark of remorse threatens to ignite. I blow it out. She didn’t hear the song because she hasn’t suffered like me. Nobody has. It’s not my fault it didn’t choose them.

When the church comes into view it’s exactly like the picture. I pause to savor the moment, holding the polaroid beside it to compare the old image with the real thing. White walls with a slanted red roof. Square windows along the side with divided panes. A red steeple topped with a small silver cross.

I feel static energy course through my body as warmth, like lowering myself into a hot bath after a lifetime of freezing cold showers. It’s here. I found it.

Trembling, I force myself to walk slowly and steadily with my head held high. I didn’t come this far to make a bad first impression. After leaving the old woman’s room I changed out of my bloody clothes, braided my long brown hair neatly into two braids, washed my body, and dressed in a flowing white gown. I’d left all my possessions behind.

Plucking one of the yellow flowers, I add it to my hair and smooth the soft cotton folds of my dress. The scent of frankincense oil, woody and sweet, clings to my skin. Tears fall from my tired eyes. It’s all happening.

Three wooden steps lead to the door, but my feet have suddenly locked in place. They won’t move. It’s as if they are encased in iron bands. Using my hands, I pry each foot off the ground setting it on the step above. I repeat this for each step. It’s a long, hard process. Sweat drips off my forehead, leaving a trail of little dark brown circles in the wood behind me. When I reach the top I’m panting.

For days the haunting song has called me here and now as I straighten my back and stare at the red door the beautiful sound stops with a sudden crack. The silence envelops me and I fall to my knees. No! I’m too late.

Frantically, I struggle to stand and tug at the rusted doorknob with both hands. It doesn’t budge. Panic thunders through me, a storm of anger and frustration. Clenching my hands into fists I pound wildly at the rough door. Splinters tear into my skin and I taste blood in my mouth. 

“No!” The scream comes from deep inside, an eruption more than a sound. It comes with a blast of exhaustion as I fall back to my knees shaking with full-body sobs. How could I have failed? After all I did. The image of the old woman’s face swims in front of my eyes. The others too. How many died? I swat the memories away.

Falling to my side I feel a stabbing warmth between my breasts. The key! I’d attached it to a silver chain and tucked it into my bra. How could I have forgotten? Hysterical giggles come with the realization. It’s not too late! 

With a loud hiccup I stand, tucking a few loose strands of hair back into place. Embarrassment burns hot across my cheeks and chest. Several ravens caw loudly behind me but I don’t look back. Instead, I study the door.

Carved runes line the frame, deeply embedded in the wood with a slightly silver glow to them. The old woman would have been able to read them, but I can’t. I locate the keyhole, round at the top and straight at the bottom. Undoing the clasp on the chain, I pull it from my neck and insert the black key into the lock and turn it to the left. It makes a loud click.

Part of me expected music or bright lights to greet me, but when I push open the heavy door, I find neither. White light from behind me casts my shadow down a long, dusty aisle between rows and rows of dark wooden pews. It’s silent. Cobwebs hang saggy and thick from the rafters and it smells strongly of dust and mold. 

“Hello?” I call.

A slight scuttling sound at the far end of the church echoes through the room for a brief second before returning to silence. I take a step forward and watch my shadow move ahead of me. It seems more sure of itself than I do and I watch it for a few minutes, listening hard. All I hear are the birds outside. They seem frantic. I ignore them.

With slow careful steps, I move down the aisle. Tiny pebbles and leaves stick to my bare feet. Most of the pews are empty but a few have old hymn books or bibles flipped open on the seats. The pages look thin and faded. If I touched them would they turn to dust?

Reaching the wooden pulpit at the farthest end of the church I’m disappointed to find it empty. No candlesticks. No crosses. No adornments of any kind.

A single deep note sings out into the darkness to my left. I feel my heart swell with the sound. It’s here! With a swift, light movement I rush down a flight of stone steps and through a long dark hallway. Suddenly, I crash hard into a solid shape. A door. Running my hands along the splintery wood I find a cold metal doorknob. I turn it and pull it open.

At first, all I see is the lamp on the desk. It’s the kind suited for a lawyer’s office, a gleaming golden base with an emerald green lampshade. A single sheet of paper and a brass pen is set in the center of the polished wood surface. It’s such a strange sight I almost laugh, but a sound beyond the desk stops me. I gasp.

Metal bars separate the part of the room I’m standing in from a cement square cell with rusty silver bars. The inside is covered in writing and pictures, like those you’d see under freeway underpasses or the sides of trains. Sitting huddled in the furthest back corner is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. An angel.

Its deep blue eyes stare into mine and I feel the brokenness inside me stir like leaves in an autumn breeze. Its face looks carved from marble, smoothly perfect yet at the same time distorted and unnatural. It’s wearing a charcoal grey cloak covering most of its body and head. A single note escapes its ebony lips and I feel every cell in my body shudder in response.

Rising from the floor in a fluid effortless manner, it ruffles a pair of enormous dark feathery wings. Curving high above its head on both sides, they fall around it almost touching the floor. I imagine when they are open they’d easily stretch across the entire length of the church. A long, slender finger points at the desk and the pen zips across, clicking open.

Reluctantly tearing my gaze from the angel before me, I stare at the thick white sheet of paper. It’s written in a language I’ve never seen before, but I’m aware it’s a contract. A tiny flicker of doubt burns in my chest. An image of a red devil with spiraling horns, sharp black hooves, and bright yellow eyes flashes into my mind. Taking a step back I feel dizzy.

“Sign.”

It’s the voice I’ve heard in song calling, guiding, and luring me. The angel stands at the bars now. Hunger lives in those blue eyes, but also love. I sense it wants me and I want it too. I grab the heavy pen and sign as fast as I can, my name a blurry scrawl of black.

The bars snap away and I fall. Feathers flutter around me and the ravens outside scream. What have I done?

Author’s note: My story is a day late this week because after writing 3,000 words I discovered my main character was in the wrong story. She refused to do the things I asked of her and therefore the devil would not appear. As a result, I started over this morning and came up with this short story partly inspired by the amazing Netflix miniseries “Midnight Mass.” Please let me know what you think in the comments below. I truly appreciate every like and comment. Have a safe and happy Halloween!

A neighbor’s elaborate Halloween decoration.


Short Story Challenge | Week 43

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 featuring a deal with the devil. We had to include the words regime, album, torch, lodge, highway, sandy, rune, contract, taken, and suit


Write With Us

Prompt: A fortune cookie comes true

Include: numerology, hilarious, dictionary, recycled, brick, ocean, meaningful, garbage, star, origin


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Poetry: The Princess and the Pumpkin

Once upon a time. Nightbirds
forget their songs. Twig fingers 
snap. Sunset shadows stretch beyond 
the dense thicket. Princess wakes.

Flowing red hair, starry blue 
eyes. Gossamer gown and dianthus 
lips. Sneaking outside with thin 
cobweb slippers and apple cheeks.

Tenebrous clouds tap dance through
black night sky. Faceless wolvie
packs roam the woods. Burrs 
grab delicate skin. She runs.

Gloomy twisty forest. An abandoned 
garden bed beneath a Linden 
tree. She curls inside orange
pumpkin’s sticky pulpy depths.

Empty dark monster hisses, spits 
poisonous lies. Heavy razor-clawed 
feet press firmly. Her golden
light slowly dims and fades.

Ravens call. Deers rush. Rabbits
thump. Her heart shoots free
flashing bright across the inky
wide open heavens. Fighting spirit.

Bold as sunflowers, lightning bolt
strong. She’s thick roots burrowed 
deep. An ocean wave thundering
along sandy shores. Princess survives.

*Dedicated to my strong girl. Keep fighting. I see you.

Afraid of the Dark | A Short Story

A long, razor-sharp claw scrapes against the round glass window sending Toothwort Button deeper into the folds of his enormous patchwork quilt. He tries to keep his eyes closed but they pop open as the wooden front door creaks within its minuscule frame. Rolling into a tight ball, he tucks his fingers and toes as close to his body as he can. His fluffy white beard tickles his knees.

Something’s in the house. He feels it inching through the room sniffing at the empty hearth, scraping by his collection of acorn caps, and bumping into his walnut shell bed. Maybe it will leave on its own, he hopes. Pressing his eyes tightly closed and covering his ears with both hands, he lays as motionless as he can, repeating silently to himself “please go away, please go away, please go away.”

When he’s certain some time has passed, he uncovers his ears and listens to the quality of the silence. The creaking of the door remains, but the shuffling and bumping has stopped. To be sure, he listens harder until he can hear the crickets outside and harder still until he can hear the faint babble of the creek.

Pulling back the edge of the blanket he peers around the dark circular room but with the thread-bare moon giving off only a sliver of light, all he can see are wispy shadows darting across the moss-covered ceiling. There’s still plenty of deep darkness where things could be hiding. He’ll have to light the lantern.

With careful, slow movements, he climbs out of bed, slips on his bright yellow wool slippers with upturned toes, and sneaks to the lantern beside the fireplace. It takes him three tries to get the match lit, filling the room with a sulfurous smell and a yellowish glow. After the shadows settle, he can see the room is indeed empty.

“Fiddlesticks and gumdrops.”

Not finding anything is the preferred outcome, of course, but it means he’s still afraid of the dark, and gnomes are not supposed to be afraid of the dark. The realization makes him feel like a silly fool. It’s a good thing he lives alone, for who would want to be friends with an old gnome with watery eyes and stubby fingers who is always scared. It’s laughable.

He kicks at a heap of dried calendula flowers sitting by the front door. In the morning he plans to use them to dye a fresh batch of wool yarn so he can knit himself a new sweater for winter. His old one is full of holes and, although it’s still comfy, has stopped keeping him warm.

Looking at the leafy shadows dancing around the walls of his house, he has an idea. What if he didn’t go back to bed tonight? What if instead, he decides to find out what’s so scary about the darkness? The idea makes him shiver with a kind of energy he finds both terrible and exciting. Maybe he can be brave. It’s worth a try.

Pulling on his old sweater, his bright red pointed cap, and sturdy brown boots, he grabs the rounded metal handle of the lantern and presses open the bark door fully to the night. For a few minutes, he stands on the threshold shivering. This is a very bad idea. A terribly stupid idea. But he’s going to do it anyway.

Toothwort Button lives in the center of a bustling ancient forest, but he rarely speaks to anyone. The creatures he meets are usually too much in a rush and gnomes don’t hurry. This time of year, when the leaves are crunchy and mushrooms are plentiful, there’s no shortage of things to do during the day. He might take a refreshing swim in the creek, forage for rose hips or the last of summer’s berries, or take a walk through the mushroom fields. 

Looking at the darkness around him now, however, he has no idea what to do. Everything is different in the dark—the trees more looming, the air thinner and harder to breathe, and the smells mustier and sharper. He takes a tentative step. Then another.

His boots look odd in the lantern light and he watches them walk over the dark soil as if they belong to someone else. Suddenly his face smacks into something sticky and he freezes. High above, a looming shape lowers through the canopy of trees, a large shiny wet body—a killer whale leaping through the dark to attack. 

This is exactly why he’s scared of the dark. He drops the lantern, closes his eyes, curls into a ball, and screams.

“Don’t eat me!”

“What?”

It’s a thin voice, not at all whale-like, and when he opens his eyes and looks up the creature has stopped a few inches above him. Dangling from a nearly transparent string, it rotates in a circle showing off its eight spindly legs and numerous shiny black eyes. The gnome wants to scream again but realizes it would be rude and instead swallows hard and takes a step backward.

“Are you going to eat me?”

The creature laughs, a soft and not-at-all unpleasant sound. Toothwort smiles and tries to look friendly, but his feet want to run. They wiggle inside his boots.

“Of course, I’m not going to eat you. The name’s Agaric. Agaric the Spider.”

It bobs its big body up and down, and although the small gnome finds it funny, he isn’t sure he should giggle so he swallows hard again.

“I’m Toothwort Button. Toothwort Button the gnome.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, but why are you out so late at night little gnome? You gave me quite a fright.”

The idea he could scare someone else made him giggle and this time he didn’t swallow it. The spider blinks its many eyes at him and smiles widely.

“I’m sorry. I was trying to find out why the dark is so scary. Do you know?”

The spider lifts each of its eight legs as if the answer might be found beneath them, and then shakes its head slowly.

“The dark is the safest time for me. I’m far more afraid of the light, so I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Thank you for not eating me.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck!”

The spider waves all its legs at him which makes Toothwort giggle again. He waves back.

“Thank you!”

Picking up his little lantern, the gnome holds it out in front of him, noticing how the rays of light form a star pattern casting thin straight lines into the darkness. As he walks on, it’s hard to make sense of all the shadows. He knows the forest is filled with rocks, sticks, leaves, tree branches, ferns, mushrooms, and acorns, but in the darkness, they all become unfamiliar lumps.

Squinting hard through the thick trees, he can make out tiny stars dotting the vast blackness of the night sky. While safe in his bed he imagines them as friends watching over him. However now, in the dark of the night, they look more like balls of fire about to flash through the sky to land on his head. Feathery fear prickles across his skin as he walks a bit faster.

A rustling sound in the tree above him makes him jump and freeze in place. He wants to run, but this time his feet won’t listen and stubbornly sit still within his boots. Raising the lantern shakily upward, he expects to see twin gleaming fireballs streaking toward him, but instead finds two sharply pointed ears, two large outstretched wings, and one sniffy wet nose.

This is exactly why he’s scared of the dark! He drops the lantern, closes his eyes, curls into a ball, and screams.

“Don’t eat me!”

“What?”

It’s a squeaky voice, not at all fire-like, and when he peeks through his fingers at the figure above him he finds it hasn’t moved any closer. In the darkness, he can make out soft brown fur and round black eyes. It wiggles its outstretched wings and yawns making a strange high-pitched peep. A red liquid drips from its furry chin.

“You…you…aren’t going to eat me?”

The thing blinks its watery eyes and Toothwort worries it might be crying. Did he hurt its feelings? Before he has a chance to apologize, the thing swoops gracefully and lands on the ground beside him. Toothwort yelps and closes his eyes again. Why must it be so close and why won’t his feet run?

“Of course not.”

It’s making a wet, slurping sound and talking with its mouthful. Toothwort slowly opens his eyes to see it taking bites of a mushy raspberry sitting beside the lantern. There’s sadness in its wide black eyes.

“I’m Puffball. Puffball the Bat. Sorry if I scared you. Everyone is scared of me. Some rabbit called me a ‘depraved monster of the night.’ Can you believe it?”

Toothwort can. Despite being furry, it’s kind of scary with those veiny wings and strange big eyes, but it’s clearly hurting. Brushing himself off and standing he remembers his mother always said “the cure for sadness is praise.” He clears his throat.

“Well, I don’t think it was nice of that rabbit to call you names. You are beautiful with those wide, thin wings. I bet you can fly super fast too. Also, you must be good at finding things because I’ve not found any raspberries for weeks.”

The bat stops eating and stares at Toothwort blinking for a minute until a huge smile bursts across its face. It makes him look a lot less scary and the gnome smiles back.

“What’s your name?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m Toothwort Button. Toothwort Button the gnome.”

The bat pushes a piece of raspberry toward him, but he shakes his head.

“No thank you. I’m not very hungry.”

“What are you doing at night if you’re not eating?”

“Oh, I’m trying to find out why the dark is so scary. Do you know?”

The bat looks around the forest for a minute and shakes its head.

“The dark is the safest time for me. I’m far more afraid of the light, so I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

The gnome nods. It’s the same thing the spider told him. He wonders if anyone will know. Picking up his lantern he gives the bat a final smile and waves.

“Well, I better keep looking.”

“Bye! Good luck!”

The bat grabs the rest of the raspberry with its feet and swoops into the trees with a graceful back-and-forth motion. He’s scary, but nice too. Pressing the lantern up a bit higher in front of him he continues through the forest.

All around him are unfamiliar shapes and fleeting sounds. Scuttling sounds. Whooshing sounds. Big dark shapes. Small thin shapes. It seems the further he walks from the bat the more fear clings to him. It’s like a rumbling inside, a thunderous feeling climbing up and up from his wee toes to the tip of his bright red cap. Toothwort doesn’t like this at all. He hates it.

Although his feet are still moving forward, he wishes he’d never left the warmth of his bed. Why did he think the answers to why he’s scared of the dark would be found in the dark? All he’s managed to accomplish is finding new things to be frightened of. What if he meets a spider who isn’t nice? Or a bat who isn’t sad? What if he meets something far far worse than both.

Toothwort has always been fond of his ability to play make-believe and imagine things, but it’s not a worthy skill when you are in the dark. He puts together creatures he’s seen in new and frightening ways. A large warty frog with bat wings. A scuttling ladybug with huge rabbit feet. A firefly with spider legs, spitting flames.

It’s at this exact moment when all the fears inside him seem ready to rip through his body and come pouring out into the night, he hears a rustling sound right next to him. Freezing, he moves the beam of his lantern slowly to the left and finds a large, dark bush mere inches from his face. And it’s moving.

This is exactly why he’s scared of the dark! He drops the lantern, closes his eyes, curls into a ball, and screams.

“Don’t eat me!”

“What?”

It’s a soft voice, not at all monster-like, and it ramps up immediately talking faster and faster. Toothwort isn’t sure what to make of this rapid-fire voice in the bushes, but by the time it’s done talking, he’s standing and brushing dirt off his yellow sweater.

“Eat you? Eat you? What are you talking about? You are about to eat me? I can tell with your light…your stomping…your breathing! Let’s make a bargain. Okay? We can do that, right? Right?A deal? You don’t eat me and I don’t eat you. What do you say? Deal? Deal? Deal?”

As it repeats the last word over and over Toothwort sees a small nose poke through the bushes twitching wildly. It’s quickly followed by two almond-shaped black eyes, two small ears, a long slender body, and an enormous bushy tail.

“I’m Truffles. Truffles the Squirrel and I hope you don’t want to eat me. Do we have a deal?”

It thrusts a furry paw out toward the gnome.

“We have a deal.”

They shake enthusiastically until the squirrel, overcome with excitement, sweeps Toothwort up into his arms and swings him around in circles. It’s a bit scary, but also fun, and Toothwort laughs and laughs. They spin so fast that the gnome’s boots fly off his feet disappearing into the night.

“Oh, I’ll get ‘em! Sorry!”

With a bouncy leap, Truffles scurries around in the dark, bumping into things and rustling leaves. In less than a minute the boots are back on the gnome’s feet, but Truffles mumbles quietly under his breath hopping from one foot to the next.

“What’s wrong?”

“You don’t like me. I didn’t even ask you your name and now….”

The gnomes thrusts out his hand.

“I’m Toothwort Button. Toothwort Button the gnome. And I do like you.”

Truffles sniffs loudly.

“You do?”

“I do.”

“Wait? What were you doing before you came across me? Did I stop you from some big quest? I did, didn’t I? I ruined your quest. I spoiled your fun. I’m always doing that. I’m such a silly fool!”

Toothwort is smiling again. There’s something so enduring about this new friend. He’s comfortable around him. It’s as if the broken parts inside him, the things he doesn’t like about himself, don’t matter as much. Taking Truffle’s paw into his hand he wonders if maybe he has the answer he’s been searching for.

“Actually, I’m trying to find out why the dark is so scary. Do you know?”

Truffles jumps into the air, spinning and leaping.

“I do!”

Toothwort jumps to his feet and the two of them dance together, holding hands and moving in a circle, but this time Truffles is careful not to spin him so fast that his boots fly off. When the celebration winds down, Truffles gives him a hug and steps back.

“You are scared of the dark because you are alone. You need a friend and now you have one.”

“I do?”

“You do.”

For a moment Truffles and Toothwort simply smile at each other in the pale golden light of the lantern. Neither of them jumps when an owl hoots in a tree above them or when they hear the sound of a mouse scuttling nearby. They are simply content to smile at each other in the dark.

“Truffles, I have an idea! Do you want to come live with me?”

The second the words come out the old fears inside Toothwort spring forth as well. He was so certain a second ago of everything, but what if this new friend doesn’t want to spend all their time together? What if he already has a friend? Truffles has a strange look on his face.

“Do you need help cleaning? Like a janitor?”

“Oh, no! I mean…like so we can be brave together. So the dark isn’t scary all the time…We could live in my house…together…”

Toothwort feels tears about to spring from his eyes, but before they do Truffles pulls him close whispering “yes” into his bright red hat. Hugging, they stand in the dark for a long time both thinking about what it’s like to not be scared anymore and to have a friend.

Author’s note: This week’s story is dedicated to my darling daughter with big feelings. It might be a silly little tale but it’s full of lots of heart. Sometimes the darkness is shadows across the wall, but most of the time it’s dealing with loneliness and scary thoughts of not being good enough. May you find something here you can cling to.


Short Story Challenge | Week 42

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story with a good reason to be scared of the dark. We had to include the words a killer whale, depraved, janitor, bargain, dye, fool, heap, kick, praise, and quilt.


Write With Us

Prompt: A deal with the devil

Include: Regime, album, torch, lodge, highway, sandy, rune, contract, taken, suit


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Poetry: Ghost Flowers

Midnight whispers wake us, voices we know
Call, calling out from generations long ago
Begging us to climb vine-covered walls
Where shadows hide and moonlight falls
To secret gardens where nightmares grow

Hands clasped together—our protective shield
Quick, quickly we cross the vast muddy field
Through scrawny, tawny bramble copse
Where starlight magic jumps and chops
Past broken mushrooms laying half-healed

There we hear the night’s beating heart
Thump, thumping loudly as if tearing apart
Stumble, trip through twisty almost-road
Past two-headed raven and three-footed toad
Where ghost flowers’ bold eyes flit and dart

Luckily these sickly pink flowers can’t shout
Roar, roaring for backup from monsters about
Instead slowly blinking they don’t look away
Following our movements with nothing to say
Until dark gloomy clouds turn the light out

Panicked we run despite no guiding star
Trip, tripping on half-rotted logs where they are
Fingers slip, paths divide—until it’s only me
Standing beneath an unwavering willow tree
Hoping nothing near has the power to mar

The drowsy pink sun eventually rises all sad
Cry, crying for you—my sweet-hearted lad
Lost in the wood where the early bird sings
Days, weeks, and months we look for your things
Until winter wipes clear all the traces we had


  • This week’s poem follows the format of Robert Frost’s “Ghost House” using the same rhyming structure and ending words. The painting was found at Goodwill and my teenage daughter added the eyes and other pen details.

The Cornfield | A Short Story

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.

“Hazel?”

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.

“Hazel?”

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.

“I’m sorry.”

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.


Write With Us

Prompt: A good reason to be scared of the dark

Include: a killer whale, depraved, janitor, bargain, dye, fool, heap, kick, praise, quilt


My 52-Week Challenge Journey