Poetry has wriggled itself inside me, leaving me pondering words and feelings for hours. I wish I’d not stopped writing so I’d be further along and far more skilled at expressing myself and seeing metaphors and abstractions. My poetry class has been a rough back and forth. Sometimes I feel excited and joyful, and other times I’m filled with crippling self-doubt.
I have a lot of work to do.
This week we did our own version of two poems, which play off of each other.
The first is “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. We were to write a version of this poem as a writer at Comic-Con. I’m fairly certain I’m the only person in my class who has never been, but I imagined myself there. The first thing that came to mind was feeling like I don’t belong—a sense I’m not creative or real enough. I followed the exact format of the poem and found when others shared their interpretations they were far less rigid in their thinking—something for me to ponder moving forward.
For our second poem, we looked at “The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes. He uses all the words of “We Real Cool” to create two more poems with different meanings. I found this exercise the most fun I’ve had so far. I loved breaking the words up and playing with how they sounded reading them out loud. This was also the most personal for me, exploring my feelings of being not worthy of being part of the creative world.
I hope you enjoy this third week of poetry. As always, any and all feedback is greatly appreciated.
Wordy Ones Lost at Comic-Con
Too much I see This bunch. See
The fake. See Me take. See
Words real. See Me feel. See
It all. See Me fall.
Lost in Wordy World
Audaciously ungraciously stumbling too drunk with unresolved dreams much too much to be with, play with, cool kids. I pretend, extend, and reach with all to see
if real me is enough. Naive and candied, honeyed this world of wordy geniuses, the authentic bunch eludes timeworn plain-Jane me, blinking un see
n. Hidden within shadows, turning, twisting off the path traveled, into deep waters where fabulous fake ery lives within the pulsing, pushing. Arms paddle to see/
sea creatures within writhing, writing to unearth a me. Screeching too late, too late, haunted—take deeper voyage under, over, pen on paper to see
k truths with excavated shoveled sand. Words uncover wily words writhing words, piled upward and upright toward some real ness. Will I, won’t I, the dance of solitary solidarity see
ing where words take, two pigeon-toed left feet, lead/lean on me. Bounded, tethered by urgent hoping, desperation—finally feel and reel and real, to uncover the sea and seethe and see.
Kindness, ambition married with martyr me, it wars, bloodied knives out, within my curving all-rounded frame. It’s mothering outward me versus internal me see
ing vast emptiness hidden in wordy distant worlds. The me to be, to stumble, slipping on words with care, for I may fatally fall.
Writers write words too big inside to ignore, much ruckus, boisterous blabbering. But I hear the calling whippoorwills, see
the creaking willows in this hollow by the sea. I fond a bunch of cryptic messages, bottles see
n bobbing up and down the waves to me, for me. Not fake pain, no, far too real. See
the version, vision of me you see, isn’t to take, no, it isn’t for you to see
at all. With my words/ weapons I become more real ly me. Each breath, see
words flow, float from me —pen on paper, the feel of all or nothing, see
me give and give, it feels like not enough. All I am and all I see—
collections of words in me. Don’t look away or I’ll fall.
Jasper’s yelling at me again. His puffy face so close to mine I can smell the tobacco tucked into his cheek and see how the sweat dripping off his bald head has formed snaking rivers in his makeup. He’s accusing me of being sloppy, but I never am.
“Girl, I’ve about had it with you,” he says. “Your dismount was wobbly and your feet looked like flat clubs. How many times have I told you to point your toes?”
There’s no way I can answer the question without making him angrier. I wish I could say, “at least I can see my toes.” He leans back on his heels, his thick right hand swings forward and for a moment I think he might slap me. It wouldn’t be the first time and I wonder if I could catch his wrist with my hand. I’m a lot stronger than I used to be. He spits a gob of black spit at my bare feet and I leap back. He laughs.
“Get out of my sight,” he says.
He’s off to get sloppily drunk on fat, yellow bottles of chartreuse he keeps in a round steamer trunk inside his tent. It takes two of the strong men to carry it from the train. He’ll have some of the young acrobats in his bed tonight performing tricks for him, and on him. Does he applaud after? At least I’m too old for him to want me anymore. He likes them young, with smooth skin.
Turning in the opposite direction of his tent, I weave my way through the maze of our makeshift portable city toward the far end where the animals are kept. My partner Dusty, a grey-speckled gelding I’ve been trick-riding for the last few months, will be waiting for me to put on his blanket and give him oats sprinkled with bran.
One of the many barefooted kids hanging around the tents walked Dusty back to his stall after our act so I could try and get some food. The cook locks everything up an hour after the show and I’ve grown tired of rummaging through the garbage bins because I don’t make it in time. Tonight I was lucky and got a bowl of lukewarm stew with several pieces of meat.
The energy after the show can vary, but tonight it’s mellow. We have three more shows tomorrow and everyone knows they must conserve their energy. It never gets fully quiet in the camp, but there are small pockets of it. The shadow thing lives in those silent places, and I rush from sound to sound to avoid being alone with it. I don’t have many memories left for it to steal. I wonder if I used to know its name.
Dusty snorts as I approach, pawing the sandy, soft ground in his makeshift stall. The ocean roars in the distance, the air cool and sweet. I lean against the wooden fence and press my face to his soft muzzle, savoring his earthy breath on my face.
RJ runs toward me with two buckets in his hands, sloshing water everywhere. The muscles on his tanned back and chest are shiny and covered in glitter. He drops the buckets at my feet and I stare at the heart-shaped mole on his left cheek, a lucky fairy kiss. Perhaps that’s how he can walk the tightrope with such skill.
“Did ya hear?” he says. “Sasha ran off! Nobody can find her nowhere. Jasper’s gonna kill somebody.”
I scan the places between the tents as if the skeletally thin frame of the tan and black cheetah might be lurking in the spaces between the flapping colorful fabric walls. She’s one of the older animals in the show and it seems unlikely she’d run off. RJ smiles at me, leaning close enough I can smell he’s eaten something sweet. He doesn’t look the least bit scared.
“When did it happen?” I ask.
“No idea, but I know I ain’t sleeping in my tent tonight.”
“She won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t take no chances with this body. I’m gonna string a tarp up in the trees and you can slip in beside me if ya want.”
He winks, picks up his buckets, and runs off. I’m pretty sure cheetahs can climb trees. I press my toes into the wet spot the buckets left behind, feeling the cooling effect it has on my body. The men are always wanting me to “slip beside them,” even with my scars.
The sound of angry voices fills the night, blowing and hopping from shadows to light, from tent to tent. I can make out snippets of words forming into insults, accusations, and threats. Jasper’s angry growl sounds nearby and I jump. RJ’s right, someone will die if Sasha isn’t found and it might be me.
Jasper used to adore me, back when people flocked to see the Red-Haired Beauty ride Enormous Horace around the center ring. I had five huge trunks of costumes—silver and gold glittery jumpsuits, elaborate feathery headpieces, and exotic silk scarves. The cook would bring me trays of food and I slept on piles of soft cushions in the main tent beside Horace, my best friend. Jasper wishes I’d died in the fire with him, and sometimes I do too.
The dark shadowy thing lurks behind a barrel. Its spidery legs stretch across the ground toward me. What would happen if it swallowed all my memories? Would I die? The high-pitch trumpeting sound echoes inside my chest, as it has since the day Horace saved me but not himself. I touch the patches of thick pink skin on my arms and legs, wrinkled skin like him. The pain of loss shudders through me.
The voices are closer now. Climbing through the wooden fence, I swing my body onto the back of Dusty in one practice motion. His thick back twitches, ears flatten and his tail swishes back and forth. Beams of light come toward us in the darkness, and the thing by the barrels slinks away. I bend down and flip open the gate.
“Run,” I whisper into Dusty’s ears.
He doesn’t hesitate, springing forth like the starved race dogs when they are finally released from their smelly-cramped boxes and made to run the track for food. Jasper knows the amount of time it takes to make an animal desperate enough to run as fast as they can, but not too far gone they are lethargic or will fight one another. He plays with people the same way.
We weave in and out of the tents and past the pens holding the other animals. I consider flipping all the latches as I pass, but not all the animals want to be free. Jasper screams my name, and I consider calling back “I’m going to look for Sasha,” but it’s not true. At least I don’t think it is. I haven’t decided yet.
The sound of the ocean, faint in the campsite, becomes louder the further we ride. Resting my head on Dusty’s neck, I let him run where he wants. The rhythm of his hooves on the ground relaxes us both and allows my thoughts to wander back and forth in time. Memories mix with the night sky, bright spots of light in a sea of darkness, cliffhangers of thought, unfinished and grey. I can count on my fingers the number of complete memories I have left.
The moon, bright and round, interrupts my thoughts as if whispering “pay attention.” We are at the shoreline now, the dark waves moving in and out with foamy breath I can see and smell. Sliding off Dusty, I watch him wander toward a patch of wild grass, tough seedlings survived by wind and water. He tears at them with his large white teeth.
A tall, slender lighthouse stands perched on the edge of a rocky cliff far off to my right. A silhouetted figure against the black casting its sweeping gold beam into the night to warn ships of the jagged shoreline. I’d like to swim into the light and see if the creatures of the sea swarm up toward it, tricked into thinking daylight has become a fleeting line across the top of the water. They probably know better than I do.
Walking along the shore, I dance in and out of the waves, my old pink leotard shedding its sequins in a trail behind me. A large porous black rock covered with sea creatures lays exposed by the retreating tide with a deep ring of water around it. Leaning in, I see tiny darting crabs, a plump purple starfish, and rows of soft green sea anemones.
A constellation of stars reflected in the water reminds me of the jewels Horace wore around his neck. I touch them and the water ripples out from my fingertips. I miss him. A torrent of hot tears streaks down my cheeks and drips into the water. I watch them as they plunk loudly and form into tiny balls of light pulsing and moving in circles. They are alive, my tears, little balls of rainbow-colored light.
Scooping them into my hands, I find they are heavy and wiggly. Startled, I let them plop back into the still water and watch as they swim around and around. Tiny fish dart from hiding places in the rock to nibble at my tears. Are they saltier than the ocean?
Picking one up, I put it into my mouth. It tastes sweet, like puffed spun candy on a stick. It slides into my stomach and a fresh memory floats up from some hidden part inside me. Bright-green eyes and golden hair singing a lullaby of light—I was loved once. Sinking down into the sand, savoring the sound of her voice, the word mother glows golden within me.
Greedy, I begin shoving the tears into my mouth, eating and eating, letting the images come in blasts and bursts. Forgotten faces, sounds, and tastes dance around me—treasures of time returned and restored in full color and sound. The sensation makes me tired, and I fall backward into the sand pushed into a deep sleep.
As if through a thick fog, I’m aware of my body being dragged out of the cool water and into the warm sand. Blinking and blinking, I can make out the shape of Dusty using his teeth to pull me across the beach by my now torn leotard.
“It’s okay,” I say.
Dusty lets go, whinnies, and paws the ground beside me. I sit up. Awareness prickles down my arms and legs, bringing everything around me into bright focus. The tide has risen high enough to almost fully cover the rock I was laying beside—its black peak sits like a tiny pyramid surrounded by roaring waves. The sun has begun rising, transforming everything from the white light of the moon to the golden pink of the sun.
Dusty snorts close to my ear and I look up to see people coming in a line down the beach carrying dying torches. They are still too far away to make them out, but I know it’s my circus family looking for Sasha and possibly me. For a brief moment I consider calling to them, but I remember the truth the memories revealed. They aren’t my family.
Running through the sand, I leap onto Dusty’s back and kick his sides with both feet. He gallops along the water’s edge before turning toward the shore. We scramble up two sand dunes until we arrive at a wide dirt road heading off in both directions. He stops and we see the long-lanky figure of Sasha walk slowly across the road. She looks at me, blinks twice, and then disappears into the bushes.
Dusty turns and walks down the road to the right and I run my hands along his neck. My real name is Gillian and I had a family before the darkness came and took their faces from me. They are still out there and I’m going to find them.
I’m dipping my toes into the poetry world and felt inspired to write these poems looking deeper at the magic hinted at in the story.
Saliva pools inside puffed pink cheeks as the squishy bubble bursts between molars, exploding juices down my scratchy throat. Burning it fizzles inside; soda pop madness, sweet as jars of candy swiped from dark corner shops while peers sit behind rows of school desks. Her face, the one swallowed by the slinky shadow creature while I walked unknowing into the wrong silent place, comes now with painful throbbing to sing words I’d heard long ago but forgotten, and to brush the stray hairs off my sticky cheek with soft fingertips. The thoughts of love once mine, unasked for but given anyway, are pinpricks of pain, nerves awakening after pinched off so long, messages to tell my body to really feel. I stuff more into my mouth, craving sensations of the forgotten, much too much, but oh how my true name echoes and changes everything.
Plucked from our icy home deep within the salty brine of life’s starting place, we slumber in grains of sand tinier than eyes can perceive. Minute flecks of light, rays of sun mixed with moonlight, we live far below scuttling claws and slippery flippers. You called us forth in an instant, brought by proximity to the shadow of the shadows mark upon your soft imperfect body. We saw you weeping into our waters and felt compelled to stir and rise. We exist, persist, to seek balance between all things. Shifting, we move matter within moments with forces older than time, faster than light and sound. You can’t see until we let you the realness of your truth. The faces and moments feasted upon and stolen from you within the sacred silence it lurks behind. Teasing, we form into physical shapes, tempting you to taste of your life, plopped into waiting warm mouths, sliding into the depths of bone and muscle, wiggling and writhing—alive. We unleash captured memories to dance on the surface of your consciousness, tangos of truth you knew but which it hid within the folds of time.
Author’s note: While at the ocean last week I messaged Anna I needed to go have a great big cry beside the water. She said something about my tears mixing with the saltwater and the image stuck. I imagined my tears becoming little fish in the water nibbling at my toes, and wondered if they could be some kind of mythical creature. The idea felt magical and I played around with it in my head for a few days.
The more I sat with the story, the main character no longer was me, but rather a girl running away from the circus. This thought bloomed, fed by a story I heard on NPR about Horace, an elephant at the Kyiv Zoo. I took nothing from the podcast story except his name and the sensitive nature of elephants, but I’d highly recommend you read about the bravery of those zoo workers to stay in a war zone to care for the animals.
I find myself wanting to know about Gilly and the forces warring around her. I may return to her and her world at another time. Thanks for reading, and as always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 17
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where the main character goes on a trip alone to gain perspective. We had to include the lighthouse, flock, muscle, sprinkle, insult, cliffhanger, cheetah, chartreuse, wrist, and seedling.
I’ve fallen in love with poetry and have been reading a lot more of it. I’m inspired by the variety, depth, and beauty of the distinct voices poets bring to their works. While I’m still quite clumsy, I’m enjoying exploring different types of poetry and playing with line breaks, punctuation, and repetition.
Last week, I was blown away by the thoughtful comments of encouragement and support. My anxiety tells me those poems were a fluke and everyone will hate this week’s offerings, but I know that’s resistance taking the lead. Creativity takes a lot of courage, and I’m summoning all I got to keep moving forward. One word at a time.
This week’s classwork was to write poems inspired by our favorite books. I’m sharing three poems:
Erasure poem from the first page of “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss
Erasure poem from a random page “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” by Patrick Rothfuss
Acrostic poem using “The Name of the Wind”
I hope you enjoy these latest attempts. As always, any and all feedback is greatly appreciated.
A scream wakes everyone aboard the Blue Moon, guests and crew alike. They rush from their bunks to the galley where Elle stands screaming. Her grandmother lies face down in the center of the room, a large knife sticking out of her back.
“Don’t get any closer,” Captain Clark says emerging from the ship’s cockpit dressed in a crisp navy blue suit and a bright-red tie. Apart from the stubble on his chin, he appears exactly as he had at dinner seven hours before.
“Return to your cabins,” he says. “Please.”
Nobody leaves, but they do move a bit, allowing Captain Clark to get closer. He lowers himself to the ground beside Millie, his knee brushing the pale pink of her silk pajamas. She’s wearing a white scarf tied around her head, the back of which has come loose, exposing several grey curls stuck to her neck. He checks for a pulse, although it seems unnecessary considering the amount of blood pooled beneath her.
“She’s dead,” Captain Clark says.
Elle’s wails increase and she throws herself onto the floor. Kate, who has been standing motionless by the doorway for several minutes, shakes her head and walks on bare feet across the room. Dressed in a short white robe, Kate’s long grey hair is tangled and she’s got a crease along her left cheek from her pillowcase. She sits on the floor beside Elle.
“It will be okay,” Kate says. “It will all be okay.”
Kate smooths down Elle’s curly red hair and rubs her back—her best imitation of motherhood. They’d celebrated the girl’s 18th birthday the first week on the boat, but Kate sees her as the little girl with pigtails who has always been Millie’s sidekick. Elle’s wearing the same two-piece silk pajamas as her grandmother, only in a light lavender color. They were so close—two peas in a very strange pod. Kate can’t believe any of this is real.
“It will be okay,” Kate says again. “It’s going to be okay. I’m here.”
She’s comforting Elle, but inside she’s screaming “not my Millie” over and over. Her best friend, her shit-talking secret keeper, the one who wouldn’t let her die of loneliness, who has pulled her up off the ground for over 30 years, lies still and quiet. Kate wants to feel the pain of it, but she can’t let the door open even a crack. It would be too big and she’d be buried by it.
It’s a nightmare. It has to be. This is her honeymoon, after all. She’s waited her entire life for this love, for this trip, for all the good things to come to her. It can’t involve losing Millie, it simply can’t. There’s no place in her happily ever after without her.
Millie believed in her dad’s crazy treasure hunt story as much as her. They’ve spent years talking about what it could be, where it could be, and what they’d spend the riches on if they found them. There’s nobody else she wants beside her when she discovers if any of it is true.
Kate stares at the long wooden handle of the knife. Someone on this boat went into the galley kitchen, took the knife, crept up on Millie, and plunged it into her back. She looks around the room and can’t imagine anyone here doing such a terrible thing. It makes no sense at all. A sudden thought occurs to her; maybe someone snuck onto the ship. She read somewhere about modern-day pirates boarding ships and killing people. If that’s the case, they might still be here or there might be more of them coming.
“Do you think we are in danger?” she asks Captain Clark. “Could someone else be on the ship?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so. I haven’t heard or seen another ship approaching.”
Kate doesn’t feel comforted by this and scans the room for her new husband. They’ve been married a total of three weeks, but she feels like it’s been a lifetime. For over 20 years they were next-door neighbors, but it wasn’t until they were in their 50s, both widowed, that they began to see each other in a romantic way. It was a second chance at love for them both, and it has been a wonderful surprise Kate could have never seen coming.
She finds Marvin slumped against the far wall looking pale. She wants to run to him, to feel his warm hands on her back and disappear into his chest, but Elle needs her. She kisses the girl on her head and continues rubbing her back.
With a sudden jerk, Elle pushes Kate away and falls across the lower half of her grandmother. She puts her arms around her waist and screams into her lower back. When she lifts her head, the silence in the room has grown hard as ice.
“Who would do such a thing?” Elle screams.
Spit flies from her mouth. Pounding her fists on the wooden floor, she screams again. The sound makes everyone shrink back as if struck. It’s a volcano of pain erupting and erupting, and the room feels swept along with it. Carolyn sobs loudly into Will’s shoulder.
Kate tries to put her arms around Elle but she pushes her away. The sound of coughing comes from the hallway, followed a moment later by Jack. He’s wearing plaid pajamas and he’s forgotten his glasses, so he’s squinting. When his eyes meet Kate’s, she sees him stiffen.
“Okay,” he says. “Everyone stay calm.”
He circles the body of Millie twice. It’s hard for him to comprehend what he’s seeing. He’d kissed Millie on the bow of the ship last night, hours ago. She’d giggled into his neck and smelled of lavender. She’d made a cheesy joke about climbing his beanstalk and he’d walked away blushing.
He feels a pain in his chest as hope drains from him. He’d really thought maybe he’d have one last chance for love, at his age, but now it’s gone. She’s gone. Unfairness, his old friend, has struck again.
He makes eye contact with Kate and Elle. The tightness in his chest increases and he has to focus on his breath. They look at him for answers, and he knows he has no choice but to press away from his own feelings and let his training kick in.
Detective Jack might have retired with dreams of treasure hunts and moonlight kisses, but another bloody crime scene pulls him back to himself. This he knows how to handle.
Jack leans down beside Elle and speaks in a low, soft tone.
“When did your grandmother leave your room?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I woke up and she wasn’t there, so I went looking for her and…”
“Did you see anyone else awake on the ship? Another boat? Did you hear anything at all?”
“No. It was quiet and she was just lying here….”
Jack pats Elle on her shoulder, stands, and speaks in a louder tone, so everyone can hear him.
“Captain Clark and I will search the ship,” he says, “The rest of you stay put.”
The two of them leave together, and the room feels larger. Kate continues to stroke Elle’s back beside the body of Millie, while Marvin remains slumped against the far wall. Their friends, Carolyn and Will have moved to the couch and sit talking quietly with each other. The only other people on the ship, the cook and the maid sit staring at the empty fireplace without speaking.
The men are gone for a long time, and when they return Kate notices Jack’s wearing his glasses and his gun holster.
“We didn’t find anyone else on the ship or any sign anyone had boarded,” Jack says. “We are going to continue to investigate but Kate, I think it’s best you take Elle to your cabin and sit with her. Get her a drink and don’t leave the room, okay?”
Kate nods and Elle allows herself to be pulled out of the galley. Jack circles the room and takes in the position of everyone. There’s no sign of a struggle, and he wonders why Mille would have left her room in the middle of the night. The treasure map, which sits in a golden frame on the table in the center of the room, hasn’t been touched. It’s unlikely the motive then.
“Has anyone moved anything?” Jack asks.
“No,” Captain Clark says. “We all arrived to find Elle in here alone beside Millie.”
“How many members of your crew are on board this ship?”
“There’s just the three of us, me, the cook, and the maid.”
He gestures to the other two who sit beside the fireplace in big squishy chairs dressed in their pajamas. Both women are in their mid-twenties and look terrified. The cook begins to sob.
“You can’t think one of us would do this?” Captain Clark says.
“I don’t know what to think at the moment. How far are we from the nearest port?”
Before Captain Clark can respond, Marvin steps forward.
“We can’t turn back now. Aren’t we almost there?” he says. “Kate and I spent our entire life savings on this venture. If she doesn’t get to see it through, it will all be for nothing. Aren’t we close? Like really close to the island? I mean, couldn’t we finish and then go to port?”
“We have a dead body on our hands here,” Jack says.
“We are very close,” Captain Clark says. “We should arrive within the hour. The nearest port is at least two days away.”
“Are you both suggesting we still go on this ridiculous treasure hunt and what…leave Millie here on the floor?” Jack says.
Both look uncomfortable and say nothing for a few minutes—thoughts bubbling between them like rapids and riptides. Jack isn’t sure he likes any of this. When he agreed to take this trip, it was only because he’d promised Kate’s father he’d look after her. Jack walks around the room, stopping at the tattered map.
Kate’s father was his partner for 15 years. He’d cheated on his wife, gambled, and drank far too much, but he was a good cop and he loved his little Kate. He’d died days before the wedding in a car accident, and Jack had walked her down the aisle. He loved her like his own, and he knows how much this treasure hunt means to her.
From the time Kate could speak, her father told her the fantastical tales of their ancestor—Pirate Jacob Cutter. He’d been the captain of a large sailing vessel, and under the flag of the British, he’d crisscrossed his way across the ocean sinking ships and amassing tremendous wealth. He’d been a pirate for the Queen, but when he’d been called back to England, he decided to hide a large portion of his treasure on a remote rocky island.
When he arrived home, however, he was double-crossed by a former lover of the aging Monarch. She had him pulled from the ship and hung from the mast the second he arrived. Luckily, he’d left the map and a key to his small son who hid in an empty barrel for several days on the ship. Eventually, he got away, and the map and key have been passed down from generation to generation ever since.
Jack assumed he’d made up the story to get Kate to fall asleep at night, or maybe to connect their family legacy to something bigger. However, after his death, Kate found the map and a rusty key in a safety deposit box along with a note encouraging Kate to “be the Cutter who finally retrieves what is rightfully theirs.”
While the merits of seeking stolen treasure could be debated, Kate decided to organize this trip as part mourning her father’s death, and part treasure hunt adventure. Jack had agreed to come along, out of curiosity, and a need to protect his friend’s daughter. Her new husband, who has been pacing the wall, now stands with hands on his hips in front of him.
“I don’t see how we can turn back,” Marvin says. “You know how much this means to Kate.”
“I do,” Jack says.
After much discussion, some of it quite heated, the group decides to wrap Millie in blankets and put her in the large refrigerator until they can visit the island and see if the treasure is real. After talking with Elle and Kate they agree Millie would want them to continue.
Part II: Island Adventure
At daybreak, they board four kayaks to paddle through a small crack in the rocky shoreline and follow a little creek into the heart of the island. Kate pulled the map out of the picture frame, rolled it up, and stuffed it into her coat pocket. She and Marvin are in one kayak, Will and Carolyn in the second, Elle and Jack in the third, and Captain Clark on his own in the fourth.
Kate sits in front of Marvin, and he kisses the side of her neck.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Not really, but I’m glad we are still going to see what’s on this island.”
He kisses her neck again and she smiles despite all the sadness and uncertainty. She’s never been in love like this before, and sometimes it feels a bit like madness. He’d kissed her the first time in his beautiful garden, pressing her against the side of his tool shed and making her body feel young and alive. They’d made love on the ground, flattening a dozen or so daffodils, and she’d not been able to get enough of his touch since. It feels a bit like a drug.
“It’s just you and me,” he says into her ear. “It’s just you and me.”
She thinks about how he proposed to her in a kayak similar to this one while they paddled around the lake under the light of a full moon. He’d sung her a song he wrote about her body and his, about true love’s kiss, about destiny and waiting a lifetime for her. She’d cried as he slipped the ring on her finger.
Marvin kisses her neck again.
“I forgot to tell you, I overheard Will and Carolyn fighting before we left the ship. It was something about money. I heard the word divorce…”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, they seemed really upset.”
Will and Carolyn have been in Kate’s life for a long time. Will worked as a dispatcher at the police station with Jack and her father, and Carolyn practices shiatsu. She’s healed Kate’s back more than once. She’s sure whatever Marvin overheard, it’s nothing.
The creek wanders through the island, away from the rocky shoreline, and into luscious green valleys dotted with flowering shrub trees and bright yellow and purple flowers. There are numerous flocks of big birds Kate thinks might be ravens, and they’ve spotted packs of animals resembling tiny deer.
The further inland they go, the harder it becomes to fight the current. Eventually, Captain Clark suggests they abandon the kayaks and move forward on foot. They paddle into a small inlet, pull the boats up the embankment, and stop to rest. Jack creates a makeshift picnic table with some pieces of driftwood and Kate spreads the map out for everyone to look at.
“It looks like we’ve entered here,” Jack points at a dot on the map and follows a thin black line with his finger. “And if we follow the creek, we should eventually find a waterfall.”
“I can’t believe we are here,” Kate says.
“I can’t either,” Elle says. “Grandma would be cracking some kind of joke right about now, probably something about how we should take a selfie to preserve the exact moment Kate finally believed in her father.”
Kate, Elle, and Jack burst out laughing. The others don’t seem to find it funny. Kate hugs Elle.
“Oh, she’d have us rolling on the ground for sure,” Jack says.
He points at Marvin’s khaki pants and giggles.
“She’d have a field day with your outfit,” he says.
“What’s wrong with it?” Marvin says.
The girls laugh hard, and Marvin looks hurt. Kate kisses him.
“Don’t listen to them,” she says. “I like the Boy Scout look. You’ve got a pocket for everything.”
She pats him on the butt and laughs again. He tries to join in, but she can tell he’s not enjoying being the object of their jokes. Millie was always teasing him, and he rarely enjoyed it. Captain Clark scowls at the laughter.
“We better get a move on because we are burning daylight here,” he says.
“Who talks like that?” Elle whispers to Kate.
“Boy Scouts,” Kate says.
She bursts out laughing and the two link arms and follow the others along the creek. They hike for several hours, stopping occasionally to take a drink of water or to eat a snack from their backpacks. Each time they stop, Kate notices Captain Clark sitting closer and closer to her. She keeps catching him staring at her. It’s unnerving.
After another water break, she grabs his arm and pulls him away from everyone.
“Is there something you want to say to me?” she asks.
He looks pale and for a sickening moment, Kate worries he might pull out a knife and kill her. She takes a step back and sees his eyes are teary. He swallows over and over before speaking in a low, shaky voice.
“I don’t know how to say this, and I know it’s not the time but…I knew your dad.”
Of all the things she considered he might say, this wasn’t it. Her father knew a lot of people, being a police detective, and she wonders in what context they knew each other.
“Yeah…I knew him my entire life….”
The tears fall down his cheeks now and he covers his face for a moment. Marvin and Jack have stopped and are walking back toward them. Captain Clark stares at his feet and then lets the words rush out as if he’d been holding his breath for his entire life.
“He was my dad too, well in name only really. He’d come around occasionally to give my mom money and tell me stories of Pirate Jacob Cutter. When I heard someone was wanting to charter a boat to these particular islands, I knew it must be you, and I made sure to give you the best price so you’d choose me. I wanted to tell you on day one, but it never felt like the right time. I mean, it’s not the right time now either…”
Kate pulls him into her arms and hugs him. She’d known her father was unfaithful to her mother for years, the two of them were not quiet when they’d fight. It’s surprising he had another kid though, but also wonderful. Kate lost her mother to cancer when she was in her 20s and she has no siblings. After her father died, she thought she was alone in the world. Now, it appears, she isn’t.
They stare at each other for a few minutes with goofy smiles, both feeling a little awkward. She can see a bit of her father in his eyes and wonders why she didn’t see it before. She’s hurt her father never told her about her brother, but she imagines he was probably too proud to tell her. She’d worshipped him as a child, and he probably didn’t want to do anything to sully her view of him.
“You were at the funeral,” Kate says.
She remembers him now, standing in the back crying. She’d not thought much of it at the time as her father knew a lot of cops and many of them had come to pay their respects. Clark looks like he could be one of the cops, with the same wide shoulders and tall frame as her father. It hurts her to think he didn’t get the same comfort she did, and that her father didn’t leave him anything in his will.
“Yes,” Clark says. “I thought about telling you then, but it didn’t seem right.”
“He was a complicated man,” Kate says. “I’m glad you told me now.”
They hug again and turn to face the waiting Marvin and Jack. Marvin steps forward and puts his arm around her waist and Jack has his hand on his gun holster.
“Hey guys,” Kate says. “I’d like to introduce you to my brother.”
Part III: All For Love
The small group follows the creek for another hour, the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder. While they walk, Kate and Clark share stories of their father and realize how much they have in common. He’d taught them both an appreciation for Star Trek, the music of Queen, and how to properly fold a towel. While he only saw his son every few weeks, he had a huge impact on his life. He’d become a Captain because of his father’s pirate stories.
“When did you know about me?” Kate asks.
“He told me about you all my life,” Clark says. “I thought of you as my secret sister, and he had a way of making it seem special and not sad. You know?”
“Yeah,” Kate says. “Dad did have a way with words, didn’t he?”
She wishes she could ask her dad why she didn’t get to hear stories of her secret brother, but she knows it comes back to his pride. Clark invites her to come for Christmas to meet his mother and his siblings. He’s got three brothers and two sisters, all of them share the same father, his stepfather who still lives with his mother.
“He’s a great guy,” Clark says. “They are all pretty amazing actually. They are going to just love you!”
Her father must be watching this all unfold with a big smile. He left her an entire second family to be a part of. It makes her heart swell with gratitude for his imperfections. She catches up to Marvin and slips her hand into his.
“Isn’t this simply amazing?” she says. “I suddenly have an entire family to be a part of. It’s incredible.”
He doesn’t say anything, and Kate can see something about the situation bothers him. She grabs his hand and squeezes it, but he doesn’t squeeze back. He walks faster and then stops.
“Would you look at that!” he says.
They’d been walking for a long time in a thick grove of trees, stepping over fallen branches and rocks, but they’d suddenly arrived at the source of the sound they’d been following for hours—a magnificent waterfall. It’s exactly where the map said it would be.
The group stands in a half-circle watching the cascade of white empty into a pool of light emerald green. The misty spray flattens their hair and makes Carolyn’s makeup run down her face. Kate and Elle exchange a little smile, knowing Millie would have made a Tammy Fey joke.
“Now what?” Will says.
He’s had the hardest time with the hike, and he stands doubled over trying to catch his breath. Kate thinks, with the exception of Elle, they are all too old to be playing treasure hunt. She can feel pains in her back, feet, and right hip. Marvin had a limp the last hour and Carolyn was crying off and on about her lower back.
“Rushing water, falling in, hides the treasure from within,” Kate recites from memory. “I think we have to go through the waterfall.”
“I’m out,” Will says.
“No he isn’t,” Carolyn says.
They exchange looks which make Kate wonder if what Marvin said might be true. She doesn’t want to think anything bad about her friends, but they are acting strange. Jack seems to be thinking the same thing, and he unbuttons his jacket so Kate can see the gun on his hip. Captain Clark does the same thing.
“So, how do you think we get into the waterfall?” Elle says. “We just like swim through it or something?”
“I see a path,” Jack says. “Off to the left there. Do you see it?”
They do, and all agree to follow Jack as he leads the way. They inch along a slippery rock ledge, helping each other around large boulders until they arrive inches from the waterfall, soaking wet.
“We might as well have jumped in,” Kate says.
The path curves around and disappears along the back of the waterfall, becoming a narrow walkway they have to squeeze sideways through. After several minutes of slowly moving, it opens up into a clearing of waist-high mustard seed grass blowing in a slight breeze. Sitting in the center, raised up higher than the surrounding land, sits a squat-looking red clay temple. It’s got sweeping lines and two tall spires on either side of an open doorway.
“Wow,” Elle says.
“It’s really here,” Kate says. “It’s real. Can you believe it? It’s real!”
“I didn’t think we’d find anything,” Jack says.
“Me either,” says Marvin.
“It’s beautiful,” Captain Clark says. “Just as dad described it.”
“Exactly like it,” Kate says. “Jacob Cutter’s treasure should be inside there. It’s unreal.”
“What are we waiting for?” Elle says.
They walk in a line through the weeds to the small temple. It’s covered with intricate carvings along the red walls—a hieroglyphic language filled with curves and lines. Kate runs her fingers over the markings as they pass, amazed at how ancient it seems. She wonders how long it’s been here, probably hundreds of years before Jacob Cutter discovered it.
The temple floor curves downward and ends at three very narrow tunnels. Kate pulls back out the map, and with the help of a flashlight, examines it. There’s nothing after the temple. No clues as to which direction to go.
“Maybe the temple is the treasure,” Kate says.
“I don’t think so,” Marvin says. “I think we should search the tunnels.”
“Maybe we should split up?” Clark says.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Jack says. “It looks like a pretty tight fit.”
Kate and Marvin take the left tunnel, Elle and Jack the middle, and Clark the right. Will and Carolyn decide to wait at the entrance to the temple, both too tired from the hike to go on.
Kate holds the flashlight as Marvin leads the way. It’s a tight fit and appears to be a natural rock tunnel, not something carved by those who built the temple. It’s damp and they have to brace their arms on the walls to not slip on the rocky ground and slide all the way down.
“It’s really quiet,” Kate says. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so quiet.”
“I like it,” Marvin says.
He grabs her hand and pulls her closer to him. The tunnel stops inside a small round space, about the size of a closet. They shine the flashlight up and down the walls but find nothing. No markings. No treasure.
Marvin pulls Kate to him, slamming their bodies together in the way Kate has grown to love. It’s passion and desire, and it floods the space between them, filling her with instant longing. The flashlight falls to the ground and Marvin presses her into the wall and kisses her, his hands moving under her shirt. She moans as he presses his body closer to hers.
A sudden and horrific sound slams into them. It’s the sound of a gunshot, and it reverberates around the small room, vibrating the walls and making both Kate and Marvin pull apart in shock.
“What’s going on?” Kate says.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to go find out. You stay here.”
“No way! I’m not going to sit here alone.”
“Please, Kate. I don’t know what’s going on, but you are safe here. Nobody will get past me in the tunnel and I’ll let you know the second I figure it out. Okay?”
Kate knows he’s right, but she doesn’t like the idea of sitting alone. He hands her the flashlight, sweeping it along the walls several times, making sure there is no other entryway into the room. She hates when men are always trying to protect women, but she decides to let him have this. Her hip hurts anyway.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. “I promise.”
She sits with her back to the entrance and pulls out a water bottle from her backpack and takes a drink. Trying not to think about the gunshot, she focuses on where she is. Her father would be so proud of her. It’s not about a treasure for her anymore, although it would be wonderful if there was one, it’s the fact the map did lead them somewhere. They found the temple behind the waterfall, the story she’s heard a hundred times. Pirate Jacob Cutter was real and he was here.
Kate hears another gunshot and she stands up. She shines the light around the room, and then seconds later, she hears two more. Panic races through her and she hears someone coming down the tunnel with short, shuffling feet.
“Kate,” Elle calls. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she calls back.
Elle emerges with Jack behind her.
“Where’s Marvin?” Jack says.
“He went to see what was going on. You didn’t see him?”
The three of them crawl back up the tunnel and find Will and Carolyn are no longer there. They exchange worried looks. Jack holds his gun out in front of him, while Elle and Kate form a line behind him. With slow cautious steps, they enter the tunnel on the right. The path is twice as wide as the one Kate went down with Marvin and it gradually turns several times back and forth. After a few minutes, they see a light ahead and Jack stops.
“Who’s there?” Marvin calls from up ahead.
“Jack, Kate, and Elle,” Jack says. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”
“Yes, I’m okay, but it’s horrible in here. It’s just horrible. Don’t come in.”
His voice doesn’t sound right. Jack inches forward anyway with Kate and Elle right behind him. They enter the room to find Marvin standing beside a large stone pedestal, a weathered metal trunk with a large rusty lock sitting atop it. Small holes in the roof let in dime-size rays of light, giving the round room a misty, underwater feeling. There are tiny rocks and leaves on the ground, and Kate’s footsteps are loud as she walks toward her husband. She fingers the key around her neck, excited by the possibility of unlocking the greenish trunk.
“Stop,” Jack says.
Kate does and her eyes sweep around the room, looking for the source of danger she can so clearly hear in Jack’s voice. She spots several things all at once. Marvin is holding a gun in his right hand, dangling it beside his leg as if he doesn’t know it’s there. Will and Carolyn lay motionless along the wall with liquid pooled beneath their heads. Clark lays inches from Marvin, half upright against the wall, his shirt dark with what appears to be blood.
“No!” Kate screams. “No, no, no, no…”
She runs to her brother and tries to pull him up, she feels warm blood soak instantly into her shirt. He smiles at her, still alive. He tries to speak, but his mouth fills with blood and he makes a kind of strangled burbling sound before falling silent. His eyes, her father’s eyes, still look at her.
Kate screams and Elle rushes to her side, trying to comfort her. The pain becomes too much, and Kate surrenders to it. It crashes into her, wave after wave, pounding and thundering inside her and around the room. She’s only vaguely aware of Elle’s arms around her, as she sobs and screams. Her life has unraveled on this trip, it’s all gone so wrong. She cries until there is nothing left in her body, slumping over onto the floor. A rock pokes into her cheek and she stares at the rays of light above and around her.
“I wish we’d never taken this adventure,” she says. “No amount of treasure is worth all we’ve lost.”
Jack, who had been walking silently around the room, moves to Kate and pulls her to her feet. He kisses her cheek and whispers something into her ear. Kate pulls Elle to her and they walk out of the room leaning on each other.
“What happened?” Jack asks Marvin.
He’s leaning against the pedestal looking tired and pale. Slick sweat has formed on his face and his shirt appears soaked. He doesn’t move.
“Greed,” he says. “They were all fighting over the treasure. They all wanted it for themselves. I guess they shot each other.”
“You didn’t see it?”
“No. I got here right before you did.”
Marvin looks up at this and smiles. There’s a transformation in his face, one Jack’s seen before. It gives him chills. Both men begin to walk around the room, circling the pedestal in the center.
“What did you whisper in Kate’s ear?” Marvin says.
“Did you tell her something about me?”
“Because I won’t have you telling lies about me to my wife. She’s mine, not yours. You won’t poison her against me.”
“I don’t care if you believe me. You can’t prove anything.”
“I figure you killed Millie because she made those jokes about you all the time, and Kate was going to share the treasure with her, but I don’t understand why you killed the rest. Did you worry Kate would share the treasure with her brother? Did Will and Carolyn say she’d promised some of it to them? Was this all to protect your share? Was this about your greed?”
Marvin stops moving and raises the gun still in his hand and points it at Jack’s face. He smiles again and laughs. The sound echoes around the stone room.
“You don’t understand anything.”
“You think this was about money, I don’t give a shit about money. I have money Kate doesn’t even know about. I’ve always had money. What I want is Kate.”
“You have Kate.”
“No. You don’t understand. I don’t want to share Kate. Not with foolish Millie, not with some new brother, and not with you. Millie was trying to poison her against me with her little jokes here and little digs there. If I didn’t do something about it, she’d have used her stupid mouth to rip us apart. I wasn’t about to let that happen. You see, Kate is mine. She’s mine. I waited my entire life for her. I did my time with a wife I didn’t love, waiting for the day Kate Cutter would be mine. Nothing will take her from me now. Nothing. Certainly not a washed-up old cop like you.”
Jack doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. He’s sad for Kate, for all this trip has uncovered for her. She’ll never be the same, and he hates this man for doing this to her. He wants to shoot him in the face, but his years of training keep his temper under control. He needs to hear all of it first.
“What about Will and Carolyn? Why did you shoot them?”
“They came in at the wrong time, plus I could blame the entire thing on a dispute between them and Clark. They were stupid, useless people anyway. I don’t know what Kate saw in them.”
“The first gunshot?”
“Apparently, Clark thought he’d shoot in the air to signal he found the treasure. When I found him alone, it was easy to grab the gun from his holster and shoot him. He didn’t even see it coming. What a foolish, trusting little man.”
“So much like Kate, huh?”
“Don’t you dare compare them! Kate’s nothing like that idiot. She’s perfect, and after I kill you, she will be mine forever.”
Marvin raises the gun and Jack spins and hides behind the pedestal.
“Did you hear all that Kate?” Jack calls.
Kate steps into the doorway, tears streaming down her face. Marvin runs to her, but she pushes him away.
“You are a monster,” she says.
“No, Kate. You don’t understand. I did all this for you. For us. Don’t we deserve to be happy Kate? Remember, I promised we’d be happy. Look at me. It’s just you and me. It’s just you and me.”
Jack steps out from behind the pedestal and Marvin spins around and fires. Jack slides across the floor and shoots Marvin in the side. He falls to the ground and Kate kicks the gun from his hand. She stands over him trembling.
“I loved you,” she says. “We could have had everything.”
“Don’t leave me, Kate,” he says. “It’s just you and me…”
Kate stands silently looking down at Marvin. He holds his hands pressed against his side, the blood pooling around his fingertips. There are tears in his eyes, but he says nothing more. Elle and Jack stand beside her, placing a hand on each of her shoulders. She really loved him, but he was a monster in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and she hates she didn’t see it. More than anything, she feels angry she put all her friends and family at risk for this pathetic man. His love was nothing compared to what she’d felt in her life, a tiny pinprick of light in a world of sunshine.
Elle, Jack, and Kate pull the heavy chest off the pedestal and walk out of the temple together.
Author’s note: I don’t know why I decided to try and write something so huge this week, but once I made the decision I couldn’t turn back. The story is partly inspired by the film “Death on the Nile,” and partly a highly fictionalized account of the marriage of my own grandmother Kate to her neighbor Marvin when they were in their 60s. He wasn’t a murderer, but he did take her from me and I never forgave him.
This isn’t my finest work. It was too big of a story to tell in a week, and I worked for more hours on it than I’d ever care to admit to anyone. I’m posting it anyway. Do you know why? Because this weekly challenge of writing short stories isn’t about perfection or trying to be the best. No. It’s about me proving to myself I can write every single day. I can sit down and write through the fear, the messes, and the anxiety. It’s not about being “good,” it’s about finding my voice and playing with storytelling.
If you read the entire thing, thank you! It was a beast of a tale, but one I very much enjoyed writing. As always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 16
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about newlyweds on their honeymoon. We had to include the words cockpit, selfie, kayak, thought bubble, picnic table, wander, propose, shiatsu, motherhood, and temple.
Blowing out as much air as I can, my heavy body sinks beneath the choppy surface of the lake. The sounds instantly mute, bringing with it the first moment of calm I’ve had in days. Opening my eyes, I see nothing but the cloudy silt of the disturbed lake bed from where I walked into the water. If she met me here, maybe I’d be able to hear her.
Surfacing, I walk on tippy-toes, my feet occasionally sinking into the slimy stickiness of decomposed leaves, peats, sedges, and what remains of the creatures who have died here. I imagine them sinking down, landing sideways on a giant rock to take their last gill-filled sip of water. Perhaps they look up one final time to see the sunlight casting golden rays in a circle around them, illuminating tiny dancing specks in the water—a fond farewell.
Something brushes against my left calf and my heart races with panic. It could be a plant, a fish, a water snake, or something else. I picture an ancient and ugly beast covered in grey scales, a blood-sucking descendant of the dinosaurs, disturbed by my unwanted presence in its waters. It stalks me through the murk, circling and circling, getting closer and closer.
As the idea of the creature grows and solidifies, so does my panic. I lean into it, thinking some truth might be found in the sensation. I notice how as the thoughts become bigger, the creature becomes clearer until the instinctual urge to run overtakes my writer’s curiosity. I dive under the water, kicking, twisting, and punching until I arrive in the shallows and can see there’s no monster beneath me.
Keeping my body perpendicular to the rocky bottom, I swim along the shoreline looking for small fish or tiny treasures. I resurface every few minutes to keep the cabin and the horizon within sight. Although these waters are a second home to me, I’m fully aware of how quickly the water can disorient you. When I was a child, we’d bring a bright rainbow-colored umbrella to keep on the shore so I’d always be able to find the home base.
My younger self, freckled pink, runs along the hot beach to escape under the umbrella where my mother sits reading beside a giant wicker basket of snacks. I grab a banana and some almonds and she touches my cool skin with her warm feet. I push her away.
Flipping to my back, keeping my ears under the surface, I savor the muffled silence. The white sky above remains motionless and still, empty as I am. I’m more than halfway through my stay here and I have nothing written. My outline lays shredded on the cabin floor and the silence I came for exists nowhere but here below the surface of the lake. The book I wrote last year feels as if it contained all my words and truth. I have nothing more to offer. I tug at my wet hair and twirl it between my fingers, pulling and pulling.
If I could bring a pen and paper into the mirrored waters, would she slip beside me and whisper the words? I’ve lost her, my golden shadow muse, somewhere in the noise I can’t seem to get away from. She won’t return, and the madness inside me seems to be growing; an itchy sliver embedded deep within my palm, a prickly cactus of sharpness, a dentist’s drill pounding. It all feels a lot like failure.
From day one at the cabin silence has eluded me, replaced by an unexpected and unwanted presence–whispers and movements I can’t quite hear or see. A permanent shadow of sound perpetually here, but not here. I’ve wandered looking for it, seeking it out, and found only its partners–its noisy neighbors.
First, it was the trees, scrapping and clawing at the cabin day and night. I found a ladder and a saw and trimmed them back, so nothing touched the house. Then the squirrels took up leaping and scampering from the cut branches to roll things along the roof, creating a cacophony of sounds, driving the words from me. I had to cut back more and more of the branches until the trees lay ugly and bare, the pile of wood taller than me.
Then it was the sound of water dripping from faucets, the kind of noise used to torture out truths in secret basements. I turned off the water, drove into town and bought new gaskets and a plumbing book, and spent over a week fixing and fixing and fixing. The drops stopped.
But then it was the birds. Chirping and singing in voices shrill and constant at all times, driving the words from me, keeping her from me. I’d yell at them, but they’d scatter and return moments later with louder cries. I flung baking soda along the rails, boxes and boxes of it, and strung together forks to hang from the porch. I scattered birdseed far from the cabin day and night.
It worked for a time until a small brown bird made the tiny peach tree outside the front window its home. It would sing and sing, mocking me day and night. A robotic bird, unreal and unearthly. In a fit of anger I chopped down the baby tree, its single peach the size of a walnut lay on the ground and I wept. My dreams of cobblers and ice cream were destroyed in a single impulsive moment.
The words, my words, lay within the silence, I’m certain of it. They lay with her within the curves and folds of her shadowy dress, waiting for the moment of peace to settle for her to creep on padded feet behind me and breathe into my neck and whisper to me the story I know is so close. I’ve found it and her before, but now it’s simply too loud.
From Sunday to Saturday, from Monday to Friday, the days blend into days, and the sounds blend into sounds. She won’t come until it’s quiet, and I can’t find words without her. They are locked inside a box within a box and the key lies in the silence I can’t find.
Diving down into the water I begin digging through the muck, struck by the idea the key lies here. My fingers feel inadequate and I wish I’d brought a shovel or some kind of underwater ax. I shove items into the pockets of my bathing suit skirt, surfacing to fill my lungs and then returning to dig and scoop, dig and scoop.
Eventually, my body and breathing become weary and I surface to find the white sky has turned dark. A small sliver of the moon sits surrounded by tiny twinkling stars mirrored in the black water around me. The mountains have released the sighing breath of night, and the cool air makes my body react with gooseflesh and shivers.
A sudden disorienting panic hits me and I swim as fast as I can, items falling out of my suit and returning to the muck below me. I’m haunted by the idea of hands in the water reaching for me, grabbing at me, taking the key back, and by the time I reach the shore I’m sobbing and far from where I’d left my towel and shoes.
Running across the sharp pebbled beach, ignoring the pain in my feet, I focus on the golden light of the cabin. I’d left one window uncovered and the hooded desk lamp has transformed the dull curtains into bright yellow beacons. I run and run, up the dark wooden steps and into the familiar musty smell of our family cabin.
I wrap the nearest quilt, a remnant of my mother’s last stay here, around my shoulders, and trembling I throw logs into the large brick fireplace. I rub my wrinkled hands along the blanket until they are dry enough to twist the pages of an old National Geographic magazine into cones to light. I scrape a match along the edge of the box and press the reddish flame into a gray photo of a gnarled gargoyle with pointy ears and watch the word Paris turn to ash.
When I sit on the floor, the items from the lake poke into my sides. I pull them out and lay them in a line across the hearth—Barbie head with matted brown hair, a bright blue fidget spinner turned rusty but still able to move, several bottle caps from various cheap beers, an “I Love You a Latte” pin missing the back, and a bright silver ring.
It’s the last item I think could be the key. I wipe it on the blanket and try it on several fingers and find it only fits my pinky. It’s a simple thin band, with no markings, dainty but heavy. I hold my hands closer to the fire to warm them and look at how the metal ring reflects back the orange and red light. The whispering sounds pulse around me. I wish they’d stop.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my shadow stretching out, a thin skeletal version of me. I follow it down the hall and into the bedroom, strip off my wet clothes, and stand naked before an upright golden mirror. I don’t recognize myself in the dim light leaking in from the fire down the hall, the flickering body of a woman I might have known at some point, but who looks nothing like me anymore. I stare into the mirror version of my hazel eyes and have the terrifying thought I might do something like wink, or my eyes might suddenly becoming not my own.
I’m about to scream, but instead, I twirl my hair with my left hand and pull until several strands break free. I let them fall to the floor and notice the tops of my shoulders are beet red with small blisters forming under the skin. I grab a sample bottle of aloe from a drawer beside the bed, wondering if it has an expiration date, and rub it into the inflamed skin anyway. The cool gel makes me feel feverish and sick. I’m veering off course. I’m not me. I don’t like this and I wonder when I last ate something.
My shadow dances along the wall and I slip on warm pajamas and follow it. I’m sleepwalking or dreaming, moving through thick clouds, heavy and drunk. I sit at my writing desk by the front window, open a blank journal page, and put the pen on the paper. Hovering, I sit still for seconds, minutes…hours. A prickling sensation begins at my toes and travels in a rush up my body. All the nerves feel dull and alive at the same time—on alert. The pen begins to move.
“The golden shadow…”
The tiniest flicker of hope left inside dances with joy at the words, at the feeling of her behind me. She presses further, our bodies merge into one, the shadow takes the pen and writes an entire page and I know as it flows from my hand it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
With a snapping feeling, my body lurches back and then forward. I hit my head on the desk with a thud. She’s gone. Some sound has chased her away and I scream, the sound traveling out of every pore of my body, emptying me of everything. My heart pounds and I begin to sweat and shake.
I stand on wobbly legs and follow the sound, a bloodhound tracking the scent through a dark and dangerous forest. I feel the rage inside at having the words taken away, a bubbling tea kettle screaming and screaming. The faint sound seems everywhere and nowhere. I circle the rooms, down the hall, and back.
It’s in the hallway! I press my ear against the wall until I find the exact spot and realize, with horror, it’s the sound of a pen writing on paper. My words are inside the wall. Someone has stolen them, taking them from me, and I need them. I need them more than I need to breathe or eat or be. I bang on the wall and scream, but the sound continues without pause.
I scrape and scrape with my fingernails until I’m able to pull at the flowered wallpaper, tearing off a wide strip and throwing it on the floor. I pick at the uneven wall underneath until I’m able to form a tiny hole. I run to the writing desk, grab my gold pen and press the tip into the hole, twisting and twisting until it pops through. I press down hard, like a lever, until a chunk of plaster falls to the floor.
Using my hands, I tear off the rest of the wallpaper and the crumbling bits of fibrous material as fast as I can. Throwing it all around me, I’m no longer aware of the why. My knuckles and fingers bleed, but I continue to rip and tear until I’ve uncovered the entire stretch of wall between two light-colored wooden posts. In the center of the blank wall, a black shadow oozes and bubbles out like oil, running down the wall in a thick stream.
I scramble backward and fall against the wall behind me, sliding down until I’m clutching my own knees and rocking. The shadow moves slowly, like thick molasses across the floor, growing in size and shape until it becomes a grotesque twisted version of me. It leers tall and thin in the hallway, reaching with spindly cold fingers toward my face. I feel it reaching through nothingness, into nothingness, dragging me toward its thick dark madness.
The scratching sound fades, or maybe simply never was. The shadowy shape before me opens its mouth to reveal sharpened black teeth, a cartoonish Jack-O-Lantern, dripping down onto me the whispery sounds of fear and anger. It’s louder than ever before, a pulsing and grating sound, and I cover my ears and continue to rock in place.
Time seems to stand still in this moment, a frozen nightmare of my own creation. Knowingness eventually prickles along my back, bringing with it the vision of a small girl with pigtails. Her tiny voice begins to whisper in my ear, speaking of kindness, and worth and begging me to fight back. I’m sitting on the back fence of the home I grew up in, singing as loud as I can to the passing cars. The world needs to hear my voice. I have something to say.
The singing becomes louder and louder and I feel her wrap her golden arms through mine. We are one. I feel through the debris for my pen and stand with it held out in front of me. The shadow doesn’t shrink, but I grow. I stand tall and firm, my resolve larger than my fear has ever been, and I thrust my pen as hard as I can into the silhouette before me. It shatters, the darkness dissolving into tiny puzzle pieces of nothing, running down the walls and into the floorboards. It’s gone or maybe it never existed at all.
Holding the pen firmly in my hand, I walk on steady legs to the writing desk and set it down. Sunrise dances through the cloudy sky as I step onto the porch to listen for the sounds of the world. I don’t need to cover my ears anymore.
Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper
You inspired me, yet you feel so far away
Words float around, bubbles of colored vapor
Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper
Endings, beginnings round and round I caper
Lost in dark along the perfectionists highway
Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper
You inspired me, yet you feel so far away
Author’s note: My inspiration for this story came while writing at the coffee shop this week and looking down to see the golden shadow of my pen on my journal page. My mind was filled with images of shadow creatures, muses, and the idea of madness. As I began to write, the story took me to the lake and to the idea of needing silence to create. As the story progressed a bit of “The Shining” crept in and I had to resist the urge to have her hack the wall with an ax. You can probably also see the influence of Edgar Allen Poe with the sounds in the wall. Thank you, as always, for reading and if you feel so inspired, please let me know what you thought in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 15
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 a writer with noisy neighbors. We had to include the words dentist, rainbow, explosion, horizon, cactus, palm, Saturday, latte, beets, and sample.
My neighbor left a slip of lined paper under a rock on the front doorstep at 5:35 p.m. I watched him on one of the four grainy black-and-white video monitors in the furthest corner of the old barn. From my perch on an upturned crate, I saw him look in the windows and knock on the front door for more than five minutes. I haven’t been able to breathe properly since.
I don’t understand why people can’t leave me alone. I’ve put up signs and made it clear the property is monitored but still they come and pry. Last Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. a uniformed man from the city came to the door with a clipboard and a long, black flashlight that he shined through the windows. He walked around the property calling my name, upturning several boxes, and looking through them. I felt sick.
He left behind a bright yellow notice stuck to my front door saying I’m in violation of a bunch of city codes, which translates to them wanting to chase me from my home. I have no doubt it’s some bored politician looking to make a name for himself by picking on an old man. My father designed and built this house before I was even born. It’s his house and I won’t budge. I’m not hurting anyone and I simply want to be left alone with my stuff.
I check the monitors one final time and, finding no sign of my neighbor’s return, I stand and shake my legs back to life. Using an old rope strung for this purpose, I pull my way outside, into the dark, through the cramped backyard, and into the house. My breath begins to normalize when I stand inside, the walls of stuff surrounding me like shadowed friends. I touch everything I can with outstretched hands and feet. It’s all here.
I press between two large boxes to reach the light switch, sucking in my gut as much as I can. My pants slip down to my hip bones and I blink for a few minutes until the familiar shapes and patterns come into fluorescent focus. The visit by the neighbor affected my routine and I curse at the lost time. I don’t like when people interrupt me.
Swaying in place I try to remember what I was doing when I heard the gate open and ran outside. My belly aches and I realize I’ve not eaten anything today. I shuffle sideways into the kitchen and rummage for several minutes until I find an instant rice cup with broccoli and cheese. I add some water and put it in the microwave.
The lined note is still on the doorstep. I try not to think about it, but it feels like an intruder lurking nearby and the uneasiness almost makes me dash back outside to check the cameras. No, he’s not coming back tonight. It’s too late. He’s the kind of guy with a family who goes to bed at sunset and rises before the light to dash off to some 9-5 job. I hate that there’s still a part of me envious of men like him.
The shrill sound of the microwave timer makes me jump. I remove the paper cup and grab a silver fork from a pile in the sink. It’s not clean and I wipe it on my faded plaid shirt and move to the round wooden table behind me. My watercolors sit open beside a dry and ugly painting half-finished. I don’t remember what I was trying to do with the colors. I crumble it with my hands and throw it onto a pile of garbage, then sit to eat my food.
My father used to sit upright and proud in this faded yellow chair before it became stained and cracked. Straightening my own back to match his I hear him calling from his bedroom for me to come and help him. I shake my head to clear the sound. I don’t want to remember him then.
Instead, I crane my neck around, popping it, until another image comes into focus of him sitting at the clean kitchen table with a starched white shirt on. He’s putting on golden cufflinks and talking about the art museum he’s designing downtown. My feet don’t quite reach the floor and my mother is still alive. There’s laughter and bread baking. He strokes her rounded belly and they kiss.
The images float away though, like they always do, like a dream you can’t quite hold onto or tiny filaments of dandelion fluff in a slight breeze. No matter how hard I try, the memory fades into the room around me, absorbed by my things until his hoarse and crackly voice begins to yell at me.
“Hey, shithead! Do something useful for a change.”
“You can’t even cook rice right you useless piece of garbage.”
“What have you done with your life? Nothing! Absolutely fucking nothing.”
“Such a waste.”
His arsenal of insults echoes around me and I can’t finish my food. Throwing it across the room I watch it splat into a pile of wires. I can wash them off when I need them, is my first thought, followed immediately by the knowledge I’ll never need them. Then an itchy thought begins to form around the idea of waste and garbage, but the sound of wind chimes outside stops it.
My body feels stiff when I stand and my legs ache from sitting on the crate for hours, but I need to be sure the wind doesn’t blow away the lined note. It suddenly feels important for me to read it, to decipher the messages from the outside world. It could be crucial.
The path to the front door has become narrow and impassable at points, limiting my ability to move quickly or even fluidly through the space. It requires concentrated effort and a bit of climbing. My breath becomes wheezy and after removing the pile of boxes stacked against the door, I begin coughing. It’s several minutes before it subsides and I grab an old t-shirt from the floor to spit mucus into. I throw it back down. I’ll wash it later.
I look through the peephole, but despite the bright floodlights illuminating the porch and front gate, I can’t see anything but shadows. I search them for movement on tip-toes for several minutes, listening to my collection of wind chimes ringing out in various tones throughout the night. The cacophony makes me smile. It’s enough to scare away the monsters, I think, and then laugh at being such a scared old man. The boogeyman died a few years ago.
There are five locks across the door, and I unlatch them from top to bottom. Pulling the door open requires both hands, as it scrapes on the dirty ground and pulls with it discarded pieces of paper and little items which have fallen out of the boxes. I spot a pair of argyle socks and an old cellphone. Both are in good shape, and I bend over to pick them up and shove them into my pants pockets to examine in more detail later.
The lined note, which I can now see is on yellow legal paper, sits folded in half longwise under a rock painted to look like a giant ladybug. The rock was a gift from a friend years ago and when I touch it I can hear her laughter twirling around me. It’s such a vivid sound and I call out to her into the darkness.
There’s no response because she isn’t here. I’ve not seen her in fifty years. The number fifty sticks in my throat, burning and itching until it causes another round of coughing. I snatch up the note and the rock through the spasms, spit bloody phlegm into a box of old tools and close the door behind me by pushing against it with my back. I slide to the floor, the cellphone tumbles out of my pocket and lands on an old candy wrapper beside me.
I set down the rock and grab for the phone, balancing it on top so it sort of teeters back and forth for a moment before finding its stopping point. It looks incomplete, so I pull the colorful socks from my pocket and drape them across the top. Yes, that’s right.
Unfolding and smoothing the paper I find a handwritten note printed in neat, black letters. It looks like the handwriting of a woman. I pull my glasses from my breast pocket and read out loud to myself.
The large beech tree in front of your house appears to be dying. The neighborhood children walk past the tree to and from school and we are concerned it could fall onto one of them or hit a passing car on the road injuring someone. Could you please remove it?
Your Concerned Neighbors”
Scrawled under the neat printing are a dozen or so signatures in various colors of ink. Conspiracy. Collusion. They must have spoken to the official who came here to try and take my father’s house from me. I stare at the paper and tears fall from my eyes blurring the ink, streaking it, and creating something new from something old.
Inspiration prickles through me and I twist my body so I can use the doorknob to pull myself to my feet. I fold the damp paper and put it in my front pocket with my glasses and restack the boxes in front of the door until I can’t reach to add another. I climb and crawl my way back to the kitchen table.
Unearthing rusted scissors from a pile of stuff on one of the chairs, I pull the paper note out of my pocket and begin cutting it into blurry yellow and black strips. When I’m done I arrange them on the table, tearing some pieces even smaller until they form the image inside my mind. I’ll need tape, dark brown fence paint, and one of the broken canvases in the barn.
“Tomorrow,” a voice inside says.
I push it away and shuffle through the house, touching things as I pass, making notes of other items I can combine and transform. There’s a wildness inside me roaring like it does, a beacon of need my father called crazy and my mother called art. I don’t know what to call it, but it drags my tired body into the chilly night until I’m standing near the beech tree sweating and panting.
The reddish-purple leaves glint in the moonlight. Copper Beech, I remember. My mother planted this tree and now it’s sick. I press my cheek against the rough bark and find it covered in puckered welts leaking sticky whitish residue. The leaves, once glossy and firm, are fragile brittle nothings in my fingers.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” I say to it. “You are simply sad.”
I hug the bark, feeling the cancerous bumps press through my shirt into my delicate thin skin like needles pressed through or fingers thrust hard. I stumble back and suddenly recall a book I’d seen in the barn with a tattered brown and gold cover, the pages filled with colorful illustrations of plants. “The Family Herbal, or an Account of all those English Plants, which are Remarkable for their Virtues.”
“I’ll be back,” I say.
After several minutes of stepping around stacks of empty flower pots, piles of rocks, and overturned rotting boxes, I find the rough rope and use it to pull myself into the barn. Through the maze, I travel, hand over hand, until I reach my destination in the sighing darkness. I find a string above me and pull it, illuminating cobwebs and the shadowy shape of things old and new.
I begin shoveling my way through the boxes and piles, moving things as I search for the book. I try not to linger too long as I uncover tiny smiling Santas, satin dress shoes, half-eaten leather belts covered in chew marks, a box of rubber bands, a collection of gold jar lids, and my father’s old wheelchair. These items all have stories to tell, but I’m not interested right now. The book is all that matters.
Tiny creatures scatter unseen around me, their scent mixed with my own so we are barely distinguishable from one another. Dirty. Filthy. Diseased. The words take shape and then are replaced. Tree. Knowledge. Savior. There will be no need to remove the tree, for I might be old, but I still have tools and the ability to work. I have my hands. I have my stuff and my house. No, not my house. His house and my stuff.
A tall stack of boxes teeter toward me and I try to push them back upright, but I’m not heavy enough. Slowly, ever so slowly, they lean into my body until my legs give way and I slide backward tumbling. My head hits the wooden planked floor with a thud I don’t hear but rather feel—an internal earthquake. My arms are pinned beside me, boxes sit on and around me, as the light above sways and sways.
When the light stills and stops I see a small book with a faded-blue cover that has landed beside my head, inches from it. I can smell the musty, gluey scent as if it’s trying to lure me to it—calling me to pay attention. Squinting at the faded gold letters for several minutes I eventually make them out, “Relativity.”
From somewhere deep inside the word rings and rings. My mother’s soft voice fills the barn reading to me late into the night of light, space, time, and gravity. Her voice like a thousand stars in the night sky calls and twinkles around me until I see her above me with outstretched arms. Her eyes speak of things I’ve forgotten—being called “her boy,” feathery kisses in the golden morning light, flower gardens, and midnight comforts when the nightmares came.
The stuff around me, the precious items I’ve held close to protect and comfort me, melt before my eyes and turn to colorful yellow vapor and sweet-smelling smoke. I watch it swirl around me, around her, until it floats out the windows and into the clear night sky. She pulls me to my feet, and I’m small again. Tears stream down my cheeks, but there’s only happiness on her face. The full moon shines bright behind her.
The word “sorry” wants to come, but she pulls me into her arms and pushes it away.
“Home is when we are together,” she says.
I smile and allow her to carry me home on her hip.
Author’s note: I tried to come up with a haunted house story, but since I wrote one in Week 10 I challenged myself to think about other definitions of haunted. I took inspiration from the many stories of trauma in my own family and our tendencies toward hoarding as a response to those experiences. The idea of being haunted by your past drove me to this story of the old man.
The photos in this story are mine, taken while cleaning out a relative’s home who struggles with hoarding and mental illness. I know this wasn’t a happy piece to read, but I hope you liked the ending. I didn’t know where I was going with this story, but once he was trapped under the boxes the ending came and I cried while typing it. The loving mother returning to rescue her hurt son was the happy ending my heart desired for him. If it touched you in some way, please let me know. Thank you.
Next Week’s Prompt
Something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character