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 at 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, fits 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 into 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 for 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 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 growling and prowling back and forth. Monkeys with swishing tails and little pink mouths which open and 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 their 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 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 wheelchair, Labrador, throne, jungle, prescription, railroad, trunk, gulley, wasp, and photosynthesize.
Zech’s got his shoulders turned away from me when we pull up to a four-way stop in the middle of Utah. There are no other cars around, but I pause for a full minute to be sure one isn’t going to blast through the intersection and into us. The rain’s so loud I can’t hear the blinker.
“Quite a storm,” I say loudly.
He nods. The reddish hair at the nape of his neck is matted and I’m certain he’s wearing the same red and blue plaid shirt he wore when I picked him up at the bus station late last night. There’s a strong smell of Old Spice and a fainter smell of chewing tobacco and I wonder if he lied to me about quitting. It’s none of my business.
Wishing I could find a way to break the tension, I glace over and find he’s twisting his hands in his lap. It’s exactly like grandma used to do, the way she’d squeeze the fingers of one hand then the next while whispering the Lord’s prayer over and over under her breath. He’s making me uneasy. Five hours left to go.
“See any cars coming?” I say.
He shakes his head no but doesn’t look at me. He’s opening and closing his knees rapidly making our economy rental car rock back and forth. His nervous energy makes me feel like I’m five years old again and he’s yelling at me for riding my bike in the street.
“You could have been killed,” he’d scream. “Don’t you know anything?”
I never knew anything. He’d tell me the statistics of kids being killed on bikes, paralyzed on roller-skates, or how likely I’d be to die in a plane crash. When I moved away to college he gave me enough pepper spray to douse the entire male population three times over.
My roommates both told me driving with my brother to our grandmother’s funeral was a terrible idea. He’d never gotten his license and we’ve not seen each other since I left for college three years ago. He calls me on Sundays to argue and tell me what’s wrong with the world. Politics and religion are his favorite topics. I still know nothing, according to him.
“Mina, you don’t have to be a hero. Your brother has been nothing but an asshole to you your entire life. You don’t owe him shit,” Megan said.
“Seriously! I know he’s all the family you have, but he makes you crazy. You always are in tears after talking to him and a nervous wreck. You don’t have to do this,” Paula said.
They offered to pool their money together to buy me a plane ticket but I couldn’t do it. He needs me and I still hold out the childish hope of having the kind of TV sibling relationship I used to dream about in our shared bed at night. We’d magically become Mable and Dipper from “Gravity Falls,” solving the world’s mysteries while looking out for each other.
The truth is, I’m not sure where my brother lives right now or if he has people in his life. He asks about my classes and my friends, but it’s mostly to assess my level of danger. We are practically strangers.
“Is it okay if I put on some music?” I say.
“No,” he says. “My head still hurts.”
Grandma used to tell us she’d be gone one day and all we would have is each other. At church on Sundays, she’d make us hold hands when we walked through the tall wooden doors so God could see we loved each other. It never made sense to me how this all-seeing and all-knowing God cared so much about how we acted and looked on Sundays. Shouldn’t we love each other every day?
“God’s watching you extra close today,” she’d say. “No wildness or wickedness on Sundays.”
We’d have to stay in our fancy clothes until bedtime. There was no outdoor playing or television. It was dominoes, reading the Bible, eating fried chicken, and having ice cream sundaes for dessert with one single cherry on top. The picture of domestic bliss on the outside, but inside it was flat and empty. I wanted more. I still want more.
“Did you hear old auntie Char will be at the funeral?” I say. “I haven’t seen her in years.”
His voice is flat and he doesn’t turn toward me. The sunrise has begun through the haze of the misty rain and I realize today is the day we will bury our grandmother. It doesn’t feel real. I guess I figured she’d made a deal with God and would live forever. She was 92.
“Do you remember when auntie Char climbed the ladder at our Eastwood home to put up the Christmas lights and fell backward into the hydrangeas? Grandma was so concerned about her beautiful flowers, fussing and pulling the blossoms out from under her butt. Oh, Char was so mad…”
He doesn’t move or smile. He and grandma always seemed to have a secret language of misery I wasn’t a part of. I’d try to be still like them and crack the code, but I’ve remained on the outside. Tapping the steering wheel with my thumbs, I try again.
“Do you remember the name of that stupid dog she had? The little white one who humped everything? It would not leave my shins alone. I swear, to this day, I can’t stand little dogs because of that stinky thing. What was it…Jasper? Juniper? Jackson?”
“That’s right! She’d dress the smelly thing in dirty, ugly sweaters and it would shake and shake like some kind of drug addict going through withdrawals. I’m sure it’s dead now right? She wouldn’t bring it with her to a funeral?”
It’s quiet for a few minutes and then Zech chuckles. It’s the first time since we got into the car his posture has changed. He pulls a plastic bottle of water out of the faded denim backpack at his feet and takes a big swig.
“It’s been 10 years, Min,” he says. “ I’m sure it’s dead now.”
“If you say unless it’s a zombie dog I’m going to punch you in the arm.”
I smile at his remembrance of my favorite childhood movie, “Frankenweenie.” I made him watch it with me at least 50 times. I’d pretend to be terrified, pulling the blankets tight around my shoulders and scooting close to him on our well-worn grey couch. He’d make fun of me, but keep his arm around me. He liked it too.
“Big baby,” he says under his breath.
He pulls out a bag of Hershey kisses, rips open the top, and sets it on the center console between us. I watch from the corner of my eye as he unwraps the silver wrapping, pops the chocolate into his mouth, and then folds the paper over and over in his lap.
“Want one?” he asks.
He unwraps it and I open my mouth. He tosses it, but it misses, hitting the side of my nose and falling down at my feet. It’s probably going to melt there or be squished by my boots. I don’t care, but he’s back to rubbing his hands together in his lap and shaking his knees.
“I’m going to pull over and get it,” I say.
He nods. I take the next exit and follow a twisting road lined with old Birch trees until we reach an abandoned and boarded-up rest stop. It’s overgrown with tall thorny weeds and there’s graffiti on the small half-burned building which used to house the bathrooms and probably a few vending machines. The rain has finally stopped.
“I’m going to stretch my legs,” I say.
He doesn’t look at me, but I examine him for a minute before closing the door. He’s stopped moving and he’s got his arms crossed across his chest. He’s holding his neck at a weird angle. I wonder if he needs a smoke, a chew, or a drink. It’s probably hard for him to be sober around me. I consider giving him permission to do what he needs to cope, but I think it would either embarrass or anger him.
Retrieving the stray chocolate from its spot near the brake pedal, I toss it toward an overflowing garbage can and watch it bounce off the side and land on the ground. There’s a fair amount of steam coming from the engine and it occurs to me it needs a break too. Following a cracked cement path, I arrive at a small patch of dirt filled with cigarette butts, discarded soda and beer cans, and several thin pine cones.
I check my cellphone for messages, but I don’t have a signal out here. The last few days I’ve received a flurry of texts and IG messages from friends I haven’t seen in a long time letting me know they are here for me if I need anything. It’s hard to tell them I feel very little at my grandmother’s death. I can’t imagine what I might need.
The sound of a low meow draws my attention to a cluster of bushes off to the left I didn’t notice before. I take a few tentative steps onto the wet ground, making sure my soft brown boots aren’t going to get stuck, and find the ground solid. A thin and dirty tabby cat pokes out its head and meows again—a sad pathetic sound.
“It’s okay, kitty,” I say. “Are you hungry?”
We don’t have anything in the car we can feed to a stray cat, but it seems the right thing to say. The hair on the back of its neck raises and it limps through the bushes, disappearing from sight. How did it get out here? I can’t leave it behind to starve or run onto the freeway and be crushed. It needs me.
“Come back, kitty!”
Following it through the thick ugly brown bushes I find an area of short dying trees and piles of garbage. Judging by the amount of dog poop on the ground, this was probably once a grassy area for pets. There’s a tangle of black and orange extension cords, an old metal lawn chair twisted and broken, pieces of splintered wood and several large shiny black bags spilling their contents onto the ground. I step around all of it.
“Here, kitty, kitty! Here, kitty, kitty!”
There’s no sign of the cat, but I hear rushing water and follow it until I reach a cement runoff ditch swollen with rainwater. A styrofoam cup floats by followed by a bright yellow kids bucket, the kind you take to the beach. There’s a part of me yearning to fish it out, but Zech’s voice from a long time ago booms inside me.
“Don’t get any closer,” he says. “The tide can rip you out of my arms and into the ocean in an instant. I’d never see you again.”
We are standing on the beach while grandma watches us from her old white Cadillac. She’d parked it on the edge of a cliff looking down at the long line of white foamy waves, while Zech and I scrambled over the sandy dunes to the water’s edge. I’m mesmerized by the force of the waves, terrified really, at how powerful it seems. He grabs my hand and holds it tight.
“Don’t go,” he says.
His big blue eyes are filled with tears. They fall down his freckled cheeks in lines, almost as if they are drawing me a picture. My 5-year-old self promises I’ll never leave him and I mean it. I really do.
Guilt wriggles through me, squirming and singing the song of my selfishness. I wish our parents hadn’t died in that car crash leaving my brother to have a giant scar on his cheek and the burden of worrying about me. I should have picked a college close to home. He needs me.
Stepping onto the rough cement ledge surrounding the runoff ditch, I balance so my toes hang over the two-inch space and I can watch the water rush beneath me. Grandma always wore pale pastel suits with bright colorful silk scarves around her neck. I wonder if the ladies of her church chose the mint green one. It’s my favorite.
“What in the hell are you doing?” Zech calls.
Within an instant, he’s grabbing my shirt and pulling me off the ledge. I tumble forward, lose my balance, and fall to the ground. My knee hits something sharp and I scream out in pain. A jagged piece of glass pierces my jeans and sticks out of my knee. Blood begins to pool around it. Zech stares at it with wide eyes and then begins to scream. His face has turned bright red.
“I swear to God, Min, you do these things to make me crazy. Why would you wander so far from the car? Are you trying to get yourself killed? Don’t you care at all what it does to me? You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself, always have. Must be so nice to walk through the world with people who care about you while you spit in their faces like it doesn’t matter at all. You don’t have any idea about anything. You are a stupid little child.”
He tries to scoop me up from the ground to carry me back to the car, but I push him away and stand on my own. It hurts really bad, but I’m not about to let him be the hero again. I was perfectly fine before he showed up.
“Stop it,” I say. “Just leave me alone.”
“Leave you alone! Seriously, Min. You’re telling me to leave you alone?”
“I was fine and now I’m not. This is your fault.”
Gesturing to my knee, I begin limping toward the direction of the car. He grabs my arm and spins me back toward him. The red of his face has become splotchy and his lips are pressed tight together. He punches me on the arm, hard, and then takes a step back.
“You are such a brat. Seriously. Grandma and I protected you all this time, but you don’t give a shit. You conveniently don’t remember anything. This place…this place…this is where you pull over and pull this shit. I really don’t believe you don’t remember. It’s not like you were a baby, Min. You have to remember. It happened at a rest stop just like this. Fucking, hell. You have to remember.”
I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Searching my memories I find only one at a rest stop. Grandma pulling up in her white Cadillac, a bag of Hershey kisses on the seat between us, Elvis Presley singing “my hands are shaky and my knees are weak…”
Zech says in a quiet voice, “I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet. Who do you think of when you have such luck?”
“I’m in love. I’m all shook up,” I finish.
“What happened before the car?” he says. “Why did grandma pick us up? You can remember the car so clearly, but nothing else. For God’s sake, you were 5. I promised grandma I’d never tell you, but you were there, Min. You were fucking there. Why do I have to be the one to hold it and you get to be the carefree one, off at college? Why do I have to shoulder it alone? It’s fucking unfair. It’s so fucking unfair.”
He’s crying now. Sobbing. He falls to the ground beside me and covers his face with his hands. I watch him and try to recall the moments before grandma came to get us. Was I in the car during the crash too? Did I see our parents die? I don’t remember anything.
Then I do. It’s like blowing out birthday candles, it comes in a whiff of smoke. My parents weren’t in a car accident. They had a fight. Another one. A big one. Zech got cut when our dad took a knife toward our mother. They left us here. They didn’t want us.
Staring at my knee I remember there was a lot of blood when they fought. Raised voices. Raised fists. I don’t want to think about it, but the tourniquet has been pulled off and the blood gushes everywhere. Our parents didn’t die. They left us. Falling to the ground beside Zech I sit as close as I dare. I’m scared and shaking. I don’t want to remember.
“Are they still alive?” I say.
Zech stops crying and looks at me. His face softens and he wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. He opens and closes his mouth, but nothing comes out. He scoots closer to me and I lay my head on his lap. He’s so warm.
“I’m sorry,” Zech says. “I’m so so sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
He’s stroking my hair and his voice is soft and comforting.
“Are they alive?”
“I don’t know. I tried to find them a few times, but other than a few stints in jail over the years, there are no other records of either of them.”
“They really just left us?”
He doesn’t respond for a long time. I move up and down with his breathing and feel like a small child. How many times has my brother protected me and held me like this? How could I not see it for what it was? Reaching up, I trace the jagged scar on his left cheek.
I want to say so much to him; to apologize, to beg his forgiveness, but also to tell him I see it now. All of it. He felt responsible for me. I was his everything. He was only 10, a child like me. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. It begins to rain lightly, but the darkness of the sky hints it might begin to pour again any minute.
“We need to get you out of the rain and bandage up that knee,” he says.
I let him help me back to the rental car and we sit across from each other in the backseat. He pulls a small red first-aid kit from his backpack and I smile. Of course, he brought one along. He probably predicted I’d get hurt and he’d have to save me. I’m grateful.
He gently pulls off my boot, cuts off my jeans at the knee, pulls out the small piece of glass, cleans the wound with alcohol, and uses a butterfly bandage to pull the wound closed. He covers the area with a clear antibacterial ointment and wraps first a soft white bandage and then a blue sticky one around and around my leg.
We climb back into the front seats and fasten our seatbelts. As I start the car he unwraps a Hershey kiss and I open my mouth. It goes in this time. The sweet chocolate melts on my tongue.
“You okay?” he says.
“Right as rain,” I say.
“Right as rain,” he repeats.
Author’s note: My brother and I have had many conversations about events in our childhood that we both remember very differently. This was the starting idea of my story this week, but I allowed it to develop into this tale of siblings connected through family trauma and the roles it cast them both in. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting Zech and Mina. We are halfway through this 52-week journey of short stories and I’m so grateful to everyone who has read, commented, or liked my posts so far. You keep me going and growing each week. Thank you for your support!
Short Story Challenge | Week 25
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 memory editing wreaking havoc. We had to include Jupiter, chocolate, domestic, blossom, ladder, steam, extension, pine cone, sunrise, and tide.
would you have trusted me more if I’d known about fingertip sparks and fluttering hearts?
or if I’d really looked at tiny pencil drawings on matchboxes and folded paper napkins?
you’d pass notes I didn’t understand— messages scrawled on scraps of paper palm to palm
rainbows hung around your pretty neck; delicate lovely things refracting light into everything you did
you left without goodbyes—fleeing rejections spurred by fevered religious hate disguised as family love
you drew naked ladies in Paris seeing worldly wonders dreaming nightly with fingertips stained black
floating down stone steps in tailored suits you charmed everyone with your soft blue eyes
returning home sick, thick sketchbook under heavy arms we talked about everything but the truth
you left without me seeing you kiss your lovers, pink-skinned blushing on ornate bridges
or watching you dance under moonlit skies with flowers tucked into your fluffy blonde hair
driving nowhere we sing with windows down, wind blowing tangles into your fluffy red hair
I sense something brewing behind quiet lips, fingers fidget with your many bright silver rings
with a trembling voice, you say you like girls—scared of rejection bare legs shake
you’ve known since kindergarten, but it wasn’t something you wanted to explore or talk about
honored, I listen to your deeply held sacred truths; as you discover who you are
my old friend breathes words of comfort through me helping me ease your coming out
grabbing soft hands tightly, I squeeze three times letting you know my love remains unchanged
balancing stone words we build together walls to fight against those who would seek destruction
inked drawings, musical explorations, the Heartstopper you share everything with me, showing me the way
crying at pride, past present swirl promising to do better armed with free mom hugs
In honor of Pride Month, I dedicate this poem to a dear high school friend who died of AIDS and my beautiful daughter who trusts me with her truth. I reference the show “Heartstopper” on Netflix and can’t recommend it enough for its sweet portrayal of love. Happy Pride Month!
Ruth stares into the bright pink drink and wonders if the dye used on the lemon slice will make her stomach hurt later. The tightening pain in her lower back hasn’t loosened yet, despite three glasses of champagne and two rum and Diet Cokes. Maybe this “Pink Panther” drink will do the trick.
Taffy waves at her from the black-and-white checkered dance floor. Her long blonde hair hangs in ringlets down the middle of her exposed back. Her floor-length red sequined dress hugs her hips and exposes several inches of her breasts. She doesn’t look 60.
The young man pressed close to her, nuzzling her neck, has slicked-back hair and tight black leather pants. Ruth wonders if he’s paid to dance with the women here. Maybe it’s like a “Dirty Dancing” situation, part of the resort package. Then again, nobody has asked her to dance.
It’s close to midnight and Ruth wants to go to bed, but she knows Taffy will stay until the band packs their shiny instruments back into their cases and the staff escorts them to their 8th-floor suite with apologies and promises for new adventures in the morning. It’s been three days of this and Ruth’s ready to go home. She’d much rather be laying by the pool all day than following Taffy around.
The two of them have been friends since high school, meeting through the shared trauma of marching band uniforms and having both dated the drum major at the same time. He had terrible acne, but could play the hell out of the trumpet and knew how to sweet talk a girl. He was Ruth’s first love.
They dumped him together at the annual Jazz Festival downtown. He’d just finished playing on the main stage with an adult band from Louisiana, a huge honor for a high school junior. After the applause, Ruth and Taffy slowly walked toward the stage. His face dropped when he saw them holding hands. Taffy slapped him and loudly told the entire audience he’d been dating them both.
“Let’s go for a night swim!” Taffy says, slipping into the turquoise booth beside Ruth.
She takes a drink of the strawberry margarita she’s left sitting out for the last hour. It’s melted and separated, but she doesn’t seem to notice. There’s sweat on her face from dancing giving her a shiny, youthful glow with slightly pink cheeks. She reapplies her red lipstick and smiles at herself in her gold compact. Ruth wonders how they’ve remained friends when they are both clearly wired so differently.
“Night swim. Night swim. Night swim.”
Taffy’s pounding her palms on the table with each word and the few people still in the bar look over. Ruth sucks down the remainder of the pink drink with a few loud gulps hoping the alcohol will give her the courage to stand up to her friend and cease the never-ending party which is hanging out with Taffy. It doesn’t.
She allows Taffy to grab her hands and pull her from the farthest corner booth where she’s spent the last several hours silently drinking. As they pass the matching black-suited salsa band, the drums and trumpets swell. Taffy grabs Ruth and twirls her three times in a circle. Her tropical flowered sundress floats out exposing her Spanx-covered thighs for a brief moment, but Ruth doesn’t mind. She allows Taffy to guide her around and around the dance floor, marveling at her friend’s energy, her fast footwork, and how good it feels to be with her.
With a flourish of her dress and a wave to the band, Taffy guides them out of the bar and into the wide brown-tiled lobby—a place of bright neon colors, seashell chandeliers, egg-shaped chairs, and an abundance of driftwood artwork. At the far end is an ornate brass archway leading outside covered in tiny gleaming depictions of sea creatures. Ruth touches a penguin with her hand thinking how out of place it is among the sea turtles and starfish. Maybe it’s supposed to be a pelican but the artist forgot the legs.
Once outside, the music fades into the soft lapping sound of the ocean dancing along the jagged shoreline. Ruth and Taffy walk hand and hand along the wooden walkway swinging their arms like children, their high heels making matching clicking sounds. When they reach the sand they sit down to take off their shoes. Despite being in the tropics, there’s an autumnal breeze and a light mist.
“I’m so glad you are here with me,” Taffy says.
“Me too,” Ruth says.
Taffy squeezes Ruth’s hand and holds it for a few minutes. She’s considering all the things she wants to say to her friend, but it never quite feels like the right moment. They’ve grown so distant in the last 30 years, living lives very different from each other. She’d really hoped this trip would be a chance to be together and talk, but her friend hasn’t stopped moving. In fact, Ruth isn’t sure Taffy has slept the entire trip.
The quiet moment is broken by the low sound of a fog horn coming from the old lighthouse. Its beam sweeps across the dark waters illuminating large black rocks far from the shoreline. Ruth wonders what dangers lurk in the ocean late at night.
“What are we waiting for?” Taffy cries.
Taffy releases Ruth’s hand, strips off her clothes, throws them in a heap and runs naked into the dark ocean waters. Her aging body looks remarkably the same as it always has, beautifully curved and covered in freckles. She swims quickly away from the shore with a practiced steady breaststroke.
Ruth scans the beach for late-night scuba divers or couples looking for a place to be alone. She’s also thinking about sharks and jellyfish. 30 chest compressions and then two breaths. Clear the airway. 100-120 per minute.
“Come on, Ruth!” Taffy calls from the water. “It feels wonderful!”
“I’m not sure…”
“When will you ever swim in the ocean at night again?”
“No! Don’t think. Come on! Night swim! Night swim! Night swim!”
Ruth carefully takes off her clothes, folds them, and sets them in a pile far from the water’s edge. Naked, she’s aware of the folds and sagging skin of her aging body—a softness and heaviness all her own. She touches the stretch marks on her stomach and smiles. Taffy whistles at her.
“Hey, hot stuff,” she calls.
Ruth spins in a circle and laughs. There was a time, not long ago, she’d have let hoards of self-loathing thoughts take over a moment like this. It would have turned into a full-blown invasion of shame and anger mixed with the kind of jealous-comparing it took nearly 50 years to finally be rid of. She’s proud of how far she’s come and wonders if Taffy’s confidence is true or if she’s trying to mask her own insecurities. If they were different friends, maybe she could ask her.
“Are you waiting for a merman or something?” Taffy calls from the water. “Come in already!”
Ruth laughs and walks into the water. It’s brisk and cool, but not enough to make her shiver. She dives under the low waves and swims out to where her friend treads water with graceful fluid movements. Her fluffy blonde hair looks dark when wet and is stuck flat to her head. The heavy makeup she wears has faded making her look even fresher and younger.
“Hi,” Ruth says.
“About time,” Taffy says. “Want to race?”
“No. I do not.”
“Are you afraid you will lose?”
“No. I will lose. I don’t care.”
“Let’s see who can dive down the furthest?”
“No. Let’s just float.”
Taffy dives under anyway as Ruth allows her body to float on the mostly still saltwater. The white half-moon peeks out from behind the clouds along with a milky sky sprinkled with tiny, bright stars. With her ears under the water, Ruth concentrates on her own breath. In and out. In and out.
Water sprays Ruth’s face and she returns to an upright position to find Taffy swimming in a circle with hard, splashy kicks. She scans the water for any signs of danger, and finding none, feels annoyed at her friend’s behavior. There’s no reason for her to use such aggressive movements in the water.
“What’s that about?” Ruth says. “You okay?”
Taffy stops and treads water a few feet from Ruth. For a few minutes, the friends say nothing. Taffy turns away from her and Ruth has the horrible feeling her friend might be crying. Ruth’s always done the crying for the both of them and she doesn’t know what to do. She swims a little closer.
“The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake. You dream about going up there but that is a big mistake.”
Taffy’s singing “Under the Sea” in her very best Sebastion voice. She’s trying to make Ruth laugh, and it almost works until movement in the dark water makes her stop. There’s something swimming in a circle between them creating a small whirl of movement right below the surface. Both of them freeze, terrified.
“Did you see that?” Ruth says.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
A silent eruption of bubbles floats to the surface around them on all sides. Ruth covers her mouth to stifle a scream and Taffy swims beside her. Leaning close together they watch as the bubbles pop and leave behind tiny balls of light pulsing, circling them. The churning water below them stops.
“What’s happening?” Ruth says.
“I don’t know.”
Taffy reaches out her hand and grabs one of the slightly rainbow-colored bubbles turned solid. It’s heavy, squishy, and warm. The muscles in her body relax, something like a bell ringing fills the air and she can taste the oatmeal cookies her grandmother made her as a child. She looks into the eyes of her friend and truthful words pour forth with fluid ease.
“I’m so lonely,” she says. “I don’t let anyone in and I’m afraid if I stop moving I’ll die.”
It’s as if the words have been waiting behind a wall and the bubbles pressed them through. Taffy stares at the thing in her hand feeling uncertain about what to do next. Ruth touches her friend on the arm and smiles at her. She’s got tears in her eyes.
“Thank you for telling me that,” she says. “You can tell me anything.”
Taffy grabs Ruth’s right hand out of the water and drops the ball into her palm. It dances through her fingers and Ruth makes a fist to keep from losing it. She sighs deeply, tastes fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and hears the sound of doves cooing. Her body feels loose and the words come, like magic, from deep inside.
“I’m lonely too,” she says. “I haven’t told you the truth about so many things. I just couldn’t.”
The balls around them glow brighter and press into them illuminating their faces with a soft white light. The women gather them into their arms, letting the sensations of memory wash over them, freeing up truth and vulnerability. They spin connections sharing stories back and forth as they float in the dark ocean water. One after another the balls sink below the surface.
Night turns to day and the sun makes its climb out of the water and into the morning sky. With the rays of pink and golden light comes the awareness of time and exhaustion. The friends embrace each other.
“I think I’m ready for bed now,” Taffy says.
“You think?” Ruth says.
Side by side the old friends swim back to shore.
Author’s note: A lot of my stories take place in and around water. I’ve been lucky enough to have some powerful moments with friends at the ocean—connections forged through the beauty of vulnerability. This story is dedicated to those in my life who have trusted me with their truths. I see you and love you for being fully yourself with me.
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about adult friends on vacation in the tropics. We had to include scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease and mist.
unable to move I gasp, turning tumbling down rabbit holes meant to not be remembered at dawn
Pulling up behind my darkened house in their shiny black El Camino, bass booming—a thunderous storm descends upon my unconscious fragile form. I don’t hear their footsteps as they scribble scramble through the muddy murky darkness toward sleeping me.
wondrous whispering willows lean in to reveal secret truths, sacred words hidden behind the cloudy half-lit moon
Steadfast friends, The Sand Man and The Grater share midnight missions of messy madness. Sneaking in at night’s exact middle, they come silently ruffling my soft, warm blankets. Unknowing, I am fully helpless to the whims of these nighttime lurkers.
when did missing sunshine turn my insides colors, making a mockery melody moment within my comfy covers
They simply divide and conquer, each moving around my room to deliver their own precise brands of nightly justice. The Sand Man sprinkling dream dust into closed eyes, invoking silky soft dreams of rest, while his counterpart sharpens his claws.
don’t be afraid little ones they say as monsters lurk under billowing bed sheets with cutting wits
I’ve never seen The Grater’s form, but I’ve felt his silver touch as he comes to dance with my worries. It seems rather unfair he’s allowed access when the doors and windows are so carefully locked with shiny brass deadbolts.
nothing blends into something, twist the knob, turn the handle, flip switch after switch without the keys
He presses his shiny sharp grates into whatever skin he can reach, slipping under the quilted comforter held tight by my sweaty fists. The words come with him—frightening little whispery repetitions singing songs of my insecurities/fears with feverish unrelenting cruelty.
he’s never coming back to you you’ll be left alone with dark silent shadows under creaking floorboards
The Tooth Fairy has seen his lumbering shape peeking out from the sheets—flashing silver eyes and sharpened talons. She folds her transparent wings tightly together, snatching at long ago lost baby teeth—forever forgetting her pouch of golden coins.
shivering, shaking, my body fights back but movements do nothing to protect openings—internal portals of pain
Heaviness, his tell-tale calling card, will linger around me when I finally fully wake from the night. Throwing off blankets, I yawn as the echoes of his work stick tight on red, raw skin. Failure feels immediate and imminent.
tomorrow always comes without command or permission, blasting hazy new thoughts refracted backward, inward, outward toward light
Breath deeply. Stretch. I mustn’t stay still for the poison will set and I’ll stay in bed. Fight to the shower to scrub the sticky words off with fragrant suds, washing his work down silver drains back to the darkness.
shake awake fingers, dance to life toes, and say farewell to nightmares until fractured, the moonlight returns
Mary tips the brass watering can into the small strawberry patch and watches as thirteen different streams of water flow onto the small green plants. Maybe she will have berries for the children this year. It would be nice to offer them something sweet that doesn’t come from a can.
“Mary,” Felix calls from the cab of his rusted Ford pickup truck. He’s driving slowly down the driveway. Mary knows the sound of his voice means he found another one.
He brings her the broken children. The ones he finds wandering alone—mute and shivering. Who better than the one without memories to care for those with too many.
She sets down the watering can and wipes her damp hands on her faded yellow apron. Felix pulls to a stop beside her, turning off the engine. The sounds outside the walls swell and then fade again. Leaning on the window, Mary peers into the cab. She catches a quick glimpse in the side-view mirror of her freckled nose and messy red curls.
“Morning, Felix,” she says. “How are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
There is blood, both fresh and dried, on his plaid collared shirt. By the look and smell of him, she’d guess he’s been out of the gates for a week or so. The grey around his temples has grown, as have the wrinkles around his soft eyes.
There’s no child in the cab, but piled on the passenger seat are a clunky grey satellite phone, a long wood-handled shotgun, and a rather old-looking book. Its cover is faded brown with splotchy water stains. She can’t make out the title.
Felix was an antiquarian before the outbreak, studying rare books and writing academic papers. He once had an invitation to be the guest speaker at the annual White House Historical Association conference, an honor he’s proud to say he declined because he didn’t agree with the political divide of the country. He doesn’t support corruption on any level, even if it would have brought him notoriety.
“You find something good?” Mary asks, pointing to the book. Felix’s tired face transforms into a wide, youthful smile. He lifts the book into his hands and traces the golden letters on the spine with his pointer finger.
“An Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness by William Godwin. I found it among a stack of books in an old farmhouse. It’s in remarkable condition, considering it’s a first edition published in 1793. The cover is a bit of a mess, but the pages are untouched.”
When he talks about books Mary can see a glimmer of what he must have been like before people started dying and then coming back as monsters. She wonders if the two of them would have been friends or perhaps lovers if they’d met before all this. When he’s close to her she feels a spark between them, a kind of electric energy similar to how the air feels before a storm. She’s too scared to ask him if he feels it too.
Mary doesn’t know who she is. Felix found her wandering the woods covered in blood looking for something. She has no memory of how she got there, what she was searching for, or who she was before the world descended into chaos. She owes Felix her life, her name, and her purpose.
“You find anything else?” she asks.
He knows she’s not asking about supplies, although she’d really love some fresh fruit or some cinnamon. His face changes from excitement to something she can read as distress. Yeah, he found another one.
“In the back,” he says. “Under the blanket.”
He grabs her hand through the car window and squeezes it. The intensity in his dark brown eyes reminds Mary of the world she’s not a part of. She’s happy to stay within the safe harbor of the compound walls blocking out a world she knows only from the stories the children tell her. There’s dried blood under his fingernails.
“Brace yourself,” he says. “This one seems really hurt.”
Mary takes a step back and watches as Felix drives down the dirt road to the home of the doctor. The child will have to be checked for wounds and disease before being released into her care. The process usually takes a day or two which gives her time to get things ready.
“Stephen?” she calls. “Where are you?”
She finds the young boy sitting with his back against the large cedar tree eating one of the oatmeal cookies she made this morning. His soccer ball sits beside him. He’s been with her for over a year and she’s watched him transform from a terrified jumpy child to one who is prone to giggles and loves to make other people laugh.
“We have a new friend joining us,” she says. “Can you help me get things ready?”
“Yay,” he says. “Boy or girl?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He’s hoping for a kid his age he can play soccer with. It’s been hard for him only to have Tiff as a companion. She’s half his age and hasn’t spoken since arriving three months ago. A small, sweet child who scares easily but who trusts Stephen and follows him around everywhere he goes.
Mary finds Tiff sitting on the other side of the tree with a cookie in each hand. She’s got long black hair she loves Mary to brush. Today she allowed her to braid it into two long braids tied off with soft purple ribbon. She offers Mary one of the cookies and gives her an adorable gapped-tooth smile.
The three of them make their way inside their cozy two-bedroom house painted pale blue with yellow curtains and filled with lots of squishy, soft furniture. Mary loves to collect items from nature and display them in little glass dishes around the house; acorns, pinecones, dried flowers, and stones. They are her treasures—her Mother Earth fortune.
Felix cleaned out this house for her. It was supposed to be temporary until her memories returned. It’s been two years and she still remembers nothing.
A few weeks after rescuing Mary, Felix found a small blonde girl with wide green eyes and a badly broken leg. She screamed and screamed in terror night and day. The doctor kept her medicated, but the community scolded Felix for bringing her in. They were afraid of her.
“Could you take her for a bit?” Felix asked Mary. “Just until we find her another home.”
Mary agreed. It was a month before the child could leave the bed and another two months before she spoke. She found it easy to be with the silent child, to hold her as she cried, and to be a calming presence. Being around children feels natural to her as if she was made for this and nothing else. It makes her wonder if perhaps she was a teacher before, or maybe she had a child of her own.
She’s nursed a total of six kids to health. She wishes she could keep them with her, but there comes a time when they need other children to run and play with and to be removed from the new children with fresh nightmares who wake to scream during the night. Although it’s hard for her to say goodbye, each time they leave she feels a great sense of relief, accomplishment, and happiness.
Mary figured out pretty quickly the children could not sleep in a room alone, so she filled the master bedroom with three large mattresses. It creates a huge bed where they all cuddle close in order to make it through the night. Stephen has been moving further and further away from her and Tiff. He’s very close to not needing her anymore.
“Let’s wash all the bedding,” Mary says. “Help me gather it up.”
The day passes in a series of chores. Mary, Stephen, and Tiff work together to prepare as much as they can for the arrival of the new child. After washing the bedding, they gather up clean clothes and bake blueberry muffins from a mix. Tiff seems excited when Felix comes for a visit and tells her the child is a 4-year-old girl with curly red hair and lots of freckles. Stephen tries to not look disappointed.
As the day winds down, the community gathers at the old Catholic church for a town hall meeting. Apparently, some are worried the new child has “the sickness,” causing a fresh round of panic and renewed anger at Felix for his rescue missions. Mary can hear the angry voices traveling down the street toward her and the children. Using the generator, something she rarely does, she plays a King Harvest record Felix recovered for her a few months ago.
“Everybody here is out of sight They don’t bark and they don’t bite They keep things loose, they keep things light Everybody was dancin’ in the moonlight”
She and Stephen hold hands and dance in the small living room, around and around the big flowered rug. Tiff sits on the green couch and bangs her hands on an upturned tin can with perfect rhythm. Mary sees her smile and it brings tears to her eyes. She’s going to be talking soon. She’s so close.
They play the record late into the night, over and over, drowning out the fear being played out by the adults down the road. Mary wishes they’d learn how to speak softly and worries about all the children living in the community. Fearful talk brings new rounds of nightmares.
The next morning, Felix arrives with two canvas bags of supplies. He’s freshly showered and shaved. Stephen and Tiff smile from their place at the kitchen table, always happy to see the person who rescued them.
“I have a special treat,” Felix says.
He pulls out a plastic bag filled with red, round apples. The sight of them makes both the children giggle with glee, and Mary rushes to Felix and gives him an enormous hug. They haven’t had fresh fruit in ages.
“Thank you,” she says. “You have no idea how happy this makes me.”
“I have some idea,” he says.
Mary thinks he might have blushed and it makes her own face turn red. She busies herself with putting away the canned goods and offers him some pancakes and coffee. Stephen talks his ear off as he eats asking all kinds of questions about soccer, a topic apparently Felix knows a great deal about.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Felix says between bites. “You can come to get the child today. Since she isn’t talking, I’ve taken to calling her, Annie.”
After breakfast, Mary leaves Stephen and Tiff to clean up and walks with Felix down the road. They walk in silence, side-by-side, their pinky fingers brushing a few times. Mary thinks she can feel those sparks again and wonders if he notices them too.
She searches for the words, but can’t find them. They feel stuck inside her, perhaps locked with her memories, safely hidden where she can’t be hurt. Felix stops a few steps before the doctor’s house and grabs her hands into his.
“I have a strange feeling about this child,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
He pulls Mary to him, hugging her tight against his body. He smells of pine and fresh air. There’s something about him that reminds her of her Earth treasures, a certain kind of preciousness she wants to keep for herself. She rests her head against his chest and listens to his heartbeat.
“I’m glad you are here,” Doctor Bains interrupts.
They pull apart and face the tall, thin frame of the doctor. He has deep black rings under his dark brown eyes and a scruffy unkempt beard. He must have been handsome at one point, but the stress of the last few years has made him look perpetually unkempt and in need of rest.
“How is she?” Felix asks.
“Stable now,” he says. “She had a deep gash along her side which required some complex stitching and a blood transfusion. She will need to be kept still while she heals. She’s very weak.”
“Has she spoken to you?” Mary asks.
“I’m afraid not. I’m sedating her to keep her calm and I’ll send some meds with you. I know you don’t like to use them, but if she tries to run away she might die. She was very close to death when Felix found her. You need to keep her calm and resting.”
“Don’t worry, Mary will work her magic,” Felix says. “She’s got her now.”
He grabs Mary’s hand and squeezes it three times, a code Mary isn’t sure what it means. She squeezes him back and she sees the skin around his neck turn red.
“Very well,” Dr. Bains says.
They follow him inside and find the small child laying on a bed in the dark back room. There are scrapes and cuts all over her thin body. Mary lowers herself to her knees beside the bed and speaks in a slow, careful voice.
“Hi, dear. I’m Mary. My home is down the road and there are two other children there who are excited to meet you, Stephen and Tiff. We are going to help you heal. You don’t have to talk to me or them, but I hope you will when you are ready. You are safe now.”
The child turns her head sharply and stares into Mary’s face. Her blue eyes widen and fill with tears. She reaches her hand out and touches Mary on the cheek—the softest of touches.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” Mary says.
A strange sensation takes over, a kind of rumbling inside her mind which might be the act of remembering. There are no clear images yet, but it’s as if someone shook up a snow globe giving Mary silhouettes through the snowy bits. She stumbles a bit and Felix grabs her arm. He gives her a reassuring smile and she continues.
“Is it okay if my friend Felix here carries you? I’m afraid I’m not quite strong enough.”
The girl nods and Felix lifts her into his arms. She’s so tiny—a baby lost in the woods. There’s something different about her, a calmness transcending the medication. Mary reaches out and holds her tiny hand. Snippets of memory tug at her mind, straining and straining to be made clear. Annie’s hand feels sweaty and begins to shake in her own.
“Are you okay?” Mary asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “I’m okay.”
They walk down the road in silence but the child keeps her eyes on Mary. The intensity of her stare feels a lot like longing and they arrive at the house in what feels like a moment. Felix lowers Annie onto one of the mattresses beside a bundle of wildflowers Stephen and Tiff gathered for her. She rolls onto her side and pulls the bundle to her nose.
“Welcome home,” Mary says.
“Thank you,” she says.
Mary gives Felix a hug goodbye and lays beside the small child. Annie latches herself to Mary’s arm, wrapping her small body as close to her as possible. Stephen and Tiff wander in and out of the room for the next few hours, but they understand Annie’s need to be close to Mary.
She doesn’t speak again, but Mary expected this. She simply breathes in and out, Mary accepting the child’s need to rest and to be held. She watches the sky outside turn dark through the open window and realizes how hungry she is. In her most gentle of voices, she speaks to Annie.
“I need to cook dinner, but I don’t want to leave you alone. Do you want to come with me?”
The girl nods. Mary picks her up and takes her into the kitchen. She places the child on a wooden chair beside her and the child grabs the hem of her long skirt with her fist. Stephen and Tiff set the table and pour each person a glass of water from a pitcher on the counter. Mary pours several cans of chicken noodle soup into a large pot to cook before pulling out the bag of apples.
“These will be our dessert,” she says.
She cuts an apple in half and sees the star shape inside and gasps—the fairy star. It takes her a minute to catch her breath. The memory rings through her like a golden bell.
“Do you know what this is?” she tells the children. “Long ago there was a small apple tree, the first of its kind. It loved to look up into the night sky at the beauty of the stars. It longed more than anything to have a start for itself, to hold it within its hands. It wanted to feel it and touch it.”
Crying now, the words come easier and easier.
“One day a small fairy heard the apple tree talking to the stars and offered to go up into the sky and bring one back. It took her a long, long time. Seasons passed. Spring became Fall. Fall became Winter. Winter became Spring again and the fairy returned. She had gathered the magic of the stars within her wand and touched all the bright shiny apples with its glittery tip, forever locking a star inside each one.”
She holds up the apple for the children to see. Stephen and Tiff clap, but Annie grows silent. Mary scoops her into her arms and pulls her tight to her chest. The impossible has become real. Mary buries her nose into the child’s red curls and breaths in the truth, her memories popping and clicking into place one after the other.
In the middle of the night, her toddler wandered out into the world of monsters. She woke up in a panic the moment she didn’t feel her child’s weight beside her, but it was too late. She couldn’t find a trace of her anywhere. For days and weeks, she searched for her girl, growing further and further manic with worry and despair. She didn’t sleep. She didn’t eat. She killed the monsters with a sharpened stick through the eye and kept moving. She walked and searched until her mind and memory snapped and Felix found her.
“My baby Lula,” she says. “It’s you. It’s really you.”
“Mommy, “ she says.
She kisses her face over and over.
“I’ll never lose you again.”
Author’s note: I cut open an apple this week and remembered the Waldorf story explaining the origin of the star inside. I wanted to weave that sweet tale into this week’s prompt, playing with finding moments of kindness in a time of chaos. It’s been another hectic week and I wish I had another few days to make this story better, but I don’t. Some weeks I have to allow myself the grace to walk away knowing it’s the best I can do given my schedule. I’m writing and sticking to my goals—22 weeks in a row. Thanks, as always, for reading and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 22
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 main character having amnesia. We had to include antiquarian, satellite, cinnamon, fortune, cookie, harbor, cedar, invitation, soccer, annual, and speaker.
The Waldorf school my daughter graduated from last week names each class after a tree. That tree becomes the class name, a symbol to rally the class together and form them into a cohesive unit. I wrote this poem to honor her teacher and the Linden tree class. The image was drawn on the chalkboard by her lovely teacher on their very first day together. I hope you enjoy it.
Under the Linden Tree
I. Branches and Leaves
Swept forth into the strong branches of the Linden tree, you call out “look at me” and “it’s not fair” straining to be heard among the others. Within your fellow heart-shaped leaves you found symmetry, serrated edges—your pointed tips sharpened by your proximity to magic.
Noisy bees circled, drawn by your sweetness, your softness transformed by storms into hardened beauty carved into any form you like. Tilia, basswood, lime— your names ring out like justice and peace dancing around the base of graceful towering magic.
Seasons danced happily through your green leaves, braced together and held firm by the juggling trunk’s deep roots far deeper than any tempest could shake. Tiny creamy yellow flowers burst forth in bundles, hanging tight to the tree with ambrosial scented, delicate magic.
Youth green fullness, brash and vividly bold, gave way to golden autumn’s crisp firmness curled tight together clinging on for one more precious moment. Yet, breezes come to transform one into many, flying on fitted spiraling wings from your fertile orchard, singing the forever song of Linden magic.
Blown into an orchard, banded cord thick with butterflies, steady roots plant deep in slippery soil ripe with crawling, noisy seekers crying out with “whys” and “how comes.” Beneath the Linden branches the red-winged cardinal’s two-part whistle sings of beginnings, suns, moons—ancient woody magic.
Gathered together under loosely woven branches communing and feasting wildness transforms into dancing movement. Light streaks through limbs to cover crowns as Jack Frost frolics with snowflakes as hands, melting hardness into puddles of kindred kindness. Leafy bunches become conical, balanced magic.
Ridged, furrowed scaly bark grows and smooths until shining with etched runes it reaches across fast-moving water to capture sacred geometric truths within bright colored folds. Bears prowl near, scratching fears, stretching up toward cascading waters, ravens, dragons, stones–Earth magic.
Winds blow birds nests nestled into grooves worn smooth by patient hands. Across distances the song remains strong, drawing the Linden into itself, singing melodies deeply woven through delicate leafy veins forever connected, forever entwined, forever part of sunlight’s loving embrace, warmth wrapped in bonded magic.