Dani and the Queen | A Short Story

“I’m very into science-fantasy, that kind of swordfights and magic and technology thing.” -Gary Numan

“You know you can’t be here,” the guard says.

He stands wide-legged with his left hand on the hilt of his long sword. Dani tries to remember if she can recall his name and if she knows something about him she can use it to her advantage. Coming up with nothing, she tries another tactic.

“You know me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”

Taking a step toward him with her right sandaled foot, she presses into the slit of her silken dress so the entire length of her muscular leg shows from calf to thigh. She watches his eyes travel the length of her body, his voice wavers a bit when he speaks.

“I’ve strict orders,” he says. “You aren’t allowed anywhere near the Queen.”

His hand tightens on the hilt of his sword, steadying himself, as Dani leans forward allowing the tops of her breasts to become candlelit, the gold medallion between them catching the light and gleaming brightly. He shakes his head and takes a shuffling step back.

“I can’t,” he says. “I really can’t.”

Dani flows towards him, closing the space between them within seconds. She reaches for the guard’s rough right hand held rigidly at his side. She pulls it into her soft one and turns it over, running her thumb along the callouses. His breathing pattern changes and his shoulders and knees become soft. She presses her lips to his ear, allowing her body to fall heavily into his. He swallows loudly and she can see goosebumps prickle on his thick neck.

“I’ll be right back,” she whispers.

Slipping her body around the trembling guard, like smoke blowing from gently parted lips, she disappears into the shadows and up the wide stone steps. She’s learned to use her power like this, to lure and to distract. It’s how she befriended the Queen, and also why she’s been banned from the palace. The guard won’t follow her, and he won’t remember why. A heaviness makes her pace slow, followed by the familiar feeling of regret.

The monsters are coming. Her vision from the fire dances before her, an afterimage half in darkness and half in light. She has to warn the Queen. The ticking of a clock she can’t see surrounds her, whispering it may already be too late. She stumbles sideways and presses her palms into the cool wall to steady herself. The Old Woman told her she’d have a vision and it would change everything. She’s spent half her life waiting for the moment to occur, and when it did earlier tonight, it wasn’t at all what she imagined.

Dani was at the tavern performing one of her frequent concerts on her golden clavichord, a spectacle of purple-layered silk. The packed crowd came to hear Dani sing of the beauty and tragedy of Andromeda, chained to a rock because of jealousy. She’d begun to sing the part about the serpent slithering toward the princess when she’d glanced at the fire.

That’s all it took—one single glance. There, as if waiting for her always, was the future displayed in all its horrid brilliance. It danced within the flames, vivid and terrifying. She’d stopped playing and screamed, the drunken audience clapping as if it was part of the show. Pressing through the crowd, she’d rushed outside and run all the way to the back entrance of the palace. The fate of the entire kingdom rests on her convincing the Queen to believe in this vision, but she isn’t sure she believes in herself or if it can be stopped.

Dani feels a panic surge like bile within her gut and forces herself to continue up the dark staircase. Memory comes to her as she steps up and up in the dark on silent steady feet. She considers the nature of time and space, like old friends or playmates who either haunt or beguile you with visions of happiness or tragedy. It seems to Dani the older she gets the thinner the fabric of time seems, and the harder it becomes to distinguish memory from the truth. Words float around her. Words like crazy and cursed. She begins to think this might all be for nothing.

Perhaps what she saw in the fire had already been, a vision of evils far away and long ago. She wants to believe it more than anything, but a tugging in her chest, her heart perhaps, tells her what she saw will happen and will happen soon. Only the Queen can stop it, but after what happened between them, Dani isn’t sure she’ll listen. To hope feels childish, but it’s all she has. It’s all anybody has. 

As she nears the top of the staircase she imagines the Old Woman waiting for her dressed in her tattered brown cloak, her long silver hair flowing around her, leaning on her crooked staff and singing. She’s been gone for so long, and yet the memory of her hasn’t dulled. 

She’d found Dani in a mushroom patch, a dirty blonde baby smiling in a single ray of sunlight.

“My bright dandelion in the dirt,” the Old Woman called her.

As she grew, she taught Dani to play the clavichord, the instrument of wistful poets and star-struck lovers. The stringed keyboard would come alive in her tiny hands and she’d play for hours each night while the Old Woman stared into a roaring fire to read the flickering flames as if they were an open book. Dani would play and the Old Woman would sing of prophecy, destiny, and magic.

Dani smells her earthy scent and imagines her love like a mist or fog filling the dark staircase. She rushes up the final three stairs, to find not the Old Woman waiting for her, but an unfamiliar soldier in a bright, silver suit of armor. He holds a thick metal lance in front of him—a clear stop sign. She halts.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

His voice sounds echoey and deep from within his shiny helmet. Dani can see how small she looks in the reflection and tries to square her shoulders and stand straighter. The soldier presses the sharp iron lance into the flesh above her left breast. She feels the sharp point pierce the skin.

“I need to see the Queen,” she says. “It’s a matter of life and death. Just one minute with her. Please.”

“You aren’t allowed here,” he says. “She doesn’t want to see you.”

She can’t reach him through the metal, can’t touch the part of him open to her. He presses the sharp lance harder and she feels it slide further into her flesh, warm blood runs down the inside of her dress, making the purple fabric darken and stick to her body. Prickles of sweat form on her forehead and she sways slightly. She summons all her strength to stay upright.

“I must speak to the Queen,” she says. “It’s urgent. Please. Please!”

The soldier presses harder, the lance becoming thicker and thicker, widening the hole in her fabric and her body. She can feel the warm blood now on her foot and hear it dripping onto the stone floor. This man will kill her. The certainty of it emboldens her, breaking free a surge of power she usually keeps still and controlled. It whips around her, like a fierce wind, blowing out the nearest torches on the wall.

With closed eyes, she grabs the lance with both hands and spins with it still inside her body, freeing it from his grasp. He grunts in frustration and reaches for her, but she dodges him spinning and spinning in circles. She can feel his energy faintly but focuses on her own. With all she has, she pulls the lance free of her body with a sickening wet sound and a scream of pain. She staggers back from the soldier and holds the heavy lance out in front of her. Her hands and body vibrate and she opens her eyes.

“I need to see the Queen,” she says. “Please.”

“Never,” he says with a laugh. “Just look at yourself. You’re shaking like a leaf. You don’t have it in you, Dani.”

“You know me!” she says. “Please. You have to listen.”

He laughs again and she realizes he must be the Queen’s personal guard, the one who turned the Queen against her. The suit of armor and the iron lance are to protect himself from her, to make her power useless. It makes her furious, but there’s no time. She has to reach the Queen.

She lowers the lance and runs at the soldier intending to flick off his helmet, instead, the sharp point sinks into flesh she can’t see between his helmet and chest plate. Roaring, he stumbles back, teetering for a brief second, and then falls down the steps. The clattering of metal hitting stone over and over lasts for a minute and then goes silent. She can’t see the bottom.

For several breaths, Dani doesn’t move. The monsters are coming. The words slide like an iceberg inside her stomach and she spins from the staircase and into the torch-lit maze of hallways. As she walks, she tears a strip off the bottom of her dress and presses it against her bleeding wound, using the tight fabric of her bodice to hold it in place. She’s amazed that, after all this time, the path to the Queen’s room is as familiar to her as anything.

The Queen’s wide bedroom door sits ajar and Dani steps inside to find the formerly exquisite space has been transformed into a crude workshop. Gone are the beautiful paintings, the racks of dresses, and the ornate bureaus covered with sparkling jewels and crowns. Instead, long tables crowd the room in a haphazard way, filling the space and giving it a confusing and dirty feeling. Metal, wires, bolts, springs, cogs, and weights litter the tables and the floor. Dani steps carefully around the debris toward the center of the room.

Sitting in the place formerly occupied by the Queen’s four-poster bed is a wide metal barrel filled with bright orange coals. The Queen stands before it with enormous brown leather gloves covering her hands and forearms. Her golden hair, dirty and dull looking, is tied at the nape of her neck with a piece of leather. She’s wearing a soiled pair of dark pants and a matching shirt.

As Dani watches, the Queen pulls a rectangular piece of hot metal heated to a dull red color from the coals and carries it to a curved piece of black iron sitting on an old tree trunk. She grabs a wood-handled hammer and begins pounding the hot metal. She turns and hits, turns and hits. Dani inches a few steps closer, and the Queen looks up. Her eyes widen for an instant and her mouth looks about to form words, but instead, she looks away and returns to her pounding.

Dani feels weak from the heat, the acrid smell of the burning metal, and her recent blood loss. Her power is completely drained, she steps carefully through the chaotic room until she finds a pile of dirty furs laying in the far corner. They smell of wet dogs, but she lowers herself onto them anyway. The Queen continues to work for several more minutes before suddenly slamming the metal onto the floor and kicking it across the room with a loud clatter. It lands inches from Dani’s face.

The Queen pulls off her gloves, throws them on the floor, and walks to Dani with loud, heavy steps. Hands balled into fists at her sides, she towers over Dani and presses her lips tight together. The Queen’s eyes, as blue and beautiful as Dani remembered, sweep over her bloody wound but the expression on her face doesn’t change.

“What do you want?” she says.

Dani tries to stand but finds her entire left side is now weak. Instead, she attempts a smile, which isn’t returned.

“I miss you.”

Dani regrets the words the second she says them. The Queen makes a strangled sound and takes a step back. She grabs the material of her pants and twists it in her hands. There are tears in her downcast eyes and when she speaks it’s a low hoarse sound spoken through a tightly clenched jaw.

“Get out. I don’t want you…here.”

The pause between the words feels important, and when Dani answers she speaks softly and carefully.

“I’m sorry…I didn’t come to fight with you. I’ve come because…well, I’ve come to warn you. The kingdom’s in great danger.”

“It was, when you were here,” her words come out in an angry rush. “ You have no power now and I have no use for you. Get out!”’

She continues to stare at the floor and her hands are fists again.

“No, you don’t understand. I saw a vision in the fire…”

She’s told the Queen of her days with the Old Woman and her prophecy, and they make eye contact for a brief moment. It’s a flash, a slight lowering of the defenses Dani used to live behind, a softness of her features, and a small parting of her lips. Dani reaches a hand toward her and the Queen kicks it with her heavy booted foot and spits on the floor. It hurts. There’s no love left and Dani wishes she’d never come back to the palace. She should have gone far away like she asked. This has been a terrible mistake.

Sobbing, Dani manages to pull herself into a seated position. The pain radiates across her body to her right side. She swallows sour sickness in her mouth and tries again. She must make her understand.

“Please,” Dani says. “I know I hurt you and I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am for all of it, but this isn’t about us. The kingdom is in great danger from…”

“From what?” the Queen says looking at the floor.


The Queen doesn’t shift or even look up. Dani realizes she has no words to describe her vision and feels the horror of it rush through her. She should have thought of this, of how she’d have to convince her, what she’d say. She’d expected a flicker of love to be there, a tiny flame she could blow on and use to get the Queen to listen. She didn’t count on the iron lance or the Queen to look and act so differently.

She’d fully underestimated her heartache, the pain she’d caused with her betrayal, and the way it has transformed the once young and trusting Queen into this strange woman in front of her. It had all happened so fast and she’d not had a chance to explain. Now, it’s too late. The monsters will come and so will the piles of bodies. She can’t stop any of it.

The Queen stares at the floor for a few minutes further, sighs loudly, and then stomps across the room to one of the long work tables. Dani tries to summon something within herself to move, to get out of here, but there’s nothing left. She’s never felt this empty and helpless before. She’s numb and terrified.

There’s a series of flashing and popping sounds across the room followed by a loud creak and stomp. Steam fills the already hot room, smelling of oil and metal. Dani can’t see anything until the Queen returns with an odd-shaped soldier at her side.

He’s roughly the size and shape of a man but covered in darkened curving brass. A bright yellow dandelion is stamped in the center of his chest, the stamp the Queen would press into the letters she’d write and stuff under Dani’s pillow at night. The stamp was created to represent their love and friendship. For a brief second, she thinks it’s a message of reconciliation. A symbol of hope.

Then she looks at the face of the soldier and where the eyes should be are giant slats looking into the darkness, a void of nothing. Realization hits her and Dani covers her mouth in a silent scream. The Queen’s lips curve into a chilling smile.

Fear beats within Dani like a second heartbeat. She can feel the two rhythms warring within her chest, a battle for her body. She begins to shake violently, and her breath comes in tiny raspy gasps.

“The monsters…” she whispers.

Looking around the room she can see what she didn’t before. The piles of metal and debris are parts. Body parts. There’s a pile of bronze legs on one table, several heads on another, arms and torsos scattered here and there. The Queen’s smile widens as the metal guard bumbles toward Dani with rigid, robotic steps. With much creaking, the bronze soldier lifts Dani into its hollow arms. Peering into the dark slats, she can see there’s no man inside the machine.

“The monsters…” she says again.

The Queen laughs as the metal man carries Dani’s limp body out of the room and into the maze of hallways. Dani touches the dandelion stamp with her fingertips and watches it disappear and reappear as they pass the torches on the wall. If she’d understood earlier, maybe she could have done something. If she’d patched things up years ago, maybe she could have stopped it. The Old Woman told her the vision would change everything.

Dani’s realization has come too late.

The monsters are here.

She will be the first to die.

The bodies will be piled in the courtyard.

Author’s note: Science fiction and fantasy are my two favorite genres. I mixed them together this week with this strange little fairytale of visions, monsters, and lost love. The idea for the robotic soldier came from years of exposure to Steam Punk and researching the story of the Ancient Greek robot Talos. I also researched the oldest instrument with a keyboard and was happy to find the quiet beauty of the clavichord. If interested, you can watch someone play music on a clavichord from late 16th or early 17th century Italy. Thank you, as always, to everyone who takes the time to read my short stories. Your comments make my day and keep me going on this crazy journey. I wouldn’t press so hard to find the story if it wasn’t for you. Your support means the world.

Short Story Challenge | Week 14

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 something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character. We had to include the words Andromeda, stop sign, dandelion, iceberg, spectacle, poet, candlelit, keyboard, bumble, and robotic.

Write With Us

Prompt: A writer with noisy neighbors
Include: dentist, rainbow, explosion, horizon, cactus, palm, Saturday, latte, beets, and sample

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Old Man | A Short Story

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, and the cell phone 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.

“Dear neighbor, 

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?

Thank you,

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 teeters 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, and 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.

Short Story Challenge | Week 13

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 haunted house. We had to include the words silver, relativity, watercolor, Copper Beech, limited, affect, broccoli, politician, arsenal, and cufflink.

Write With Us

Prompt: Something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character
Include: Andromeda, stop sign, dandelion, iceberg, spectacle, poet, candlelit, keyboard, bumble, and robotic

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Water | A Short Story

Leo stumbles from bed on his first morning in the old farmhouse and finds the porcelain bathroom sinks, the claw-footed bathtub, and the toilets filled with water up to the brim. It feels as if the house has swelled during the night and absorbed all the water it could find. It makes him uneasy.

He wanders into the kitchen and plunges his hand into the sink. The icy cold water stings like bees attacking his skin and he fights the urge to yank it out. He fumbles for a minute until he finds the stopper, but when he pulls it up the water stays put as if held in place by an invisible hand. He jumps back, splashing the frosty water on his bare chest and belly. His uneasiness grows.

Leo gets dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, climbs into his new truck, and makes the thirty-minute drive into the town of Knotts. It’s the kind of small town she always wanted to live in and he hopes it will be the perfect place for his recovery. It’s a quaint, quirky place his truck’s GPS doesn’t recognize; the line on the digital map looks like he’s driven into the middle of a field.

The town consists of a pair of long brick buildings facing each other across a two-lane road, a curving white archway with a flashing red light, and a three-pump gas station. Leo parks in the empty gravel lot behind the building which houses the bank, post office, and general store. He finds all three places closed. The red light reflecting off the dark windows feels ominous and he crosses the empty street at almost a run.

He walks past a rustic-looking bar, the smell of smoke and sour beer lingers around the doorway and he can see a ratty-looking pool table through the dark window. A feed store sits beside it, and a line of hay leads from the double doors to the street. Both are closed, but the cafe has a flashing open sign and Leo darts inside.

A metallic bird sound calls out as he opens the door and the owner appears from the back room singing a greeting in a high, loud voice.

“Welcome to Birdwatch Cafe,” she sings. “Where the early bird catches the worm.”

She giggles. Ornate metal birdcages with brightly colored stuffed birds line the walls and Leo feels their glassy black eyes watching him as he approaches the wide orange counter. The sound of tango music blares from a small neon green boombox he’s sure dates back to the 1980s.

The plump woman smiles at him with a curved nose and small eyes, a bit bird-like. Dressed in flowing colorful clothing, she wears a large peacock clip in her red curly hair and thick blue eyeshadow. He orders a black coffee and a fresh blueberry muffin and sits down at a round purple table near the front window. She plants herself across from him and leans forward.

“You’re new around here,” she says.

It’s not a question and he reads enough mystery novels to know small towns in the midwest are filled with gossipy folks like her. He smiles and tries his best to answer her questions in a way she won’t be likely to exaggerate when recounting it later. She fires them off, one after the other without much pause.

He moved from San Francisco into the old farmhouse on Route 22 to work on a novel. No, he’s not published anything she would have read. Yes, he found the place easily enough. No, he doesn’t plan on getting any animals or farming the land.

“Just you up there all alone, huh?”

She leans further forward with this question and presses the sides of her arms against her breasts to make them swell out the top of her now slightly pulled-down hot pink sweater. He can see her leopard print bra. Her question, a missile launched across the bow of the ship to signal her intent and to stake her claim, makes his cheeks burn and he looks at the floor.

“Yeah,” he says.

He considers lying or telling her about Cecilia, but instead, he stands, wipes crumbs off his pants, and tries to maneuver around her to the front door. She stands and faces him, and he feels obligated to speak.

“Do you know when the general store opens?” he asks.

“Jim should be there now,” she says. “You need to fix somethin’? Everything okay with the house?”

The way she looks at him implies more than a question, it’s as if she knows something about the water. He wants to ask her about it, but he’s anxious to be free of her piercing eyes and prying questions. She’s standing so close he can see freckles on her nose.

“No,” he says. “I just want to look around.”

He inches around her, but she sidesteps him so they remain facing each other.  Smiling, she pulls him into her, hugging his stiff body, his arms remaining fastened at his sides. She smells of baked goods and loose-leaf tea. The silent hug lasts forever, and when she releases him he staggers back.

“We are huggers ‘round here,” she says.

“Okay,” he says.

“Don’t be a stranger, now.”

She winks and his face flushes red, as red as the blinking light in the center of the road. He steps outside and wishes the weather was either hot or cold so his burning cheeks would make sense. There’s nobody on the street, but when he starts to cross a large man comes out of the store and leans against the doorframe.

The man seems to grow and grow as Leo gets closer until he’s looming in front of him, blocking the entire doorway. He’s a grizzly bear of a man, shockingly tall and wide-shouldered with unkempt dark brown hair and a thick beard obscuring all but his broad nose and his deep brown eyes. Without a word, he turns and disappears into the store with a sort of lumbering, limping walk.

Leo follows him inside and finds the store well-lit and crammed full of stuff. It seems determined to be the very definition of diversified goods. Shelves upon shelves lay packed with hardware, hunting gear, medicine, groceries, clothing, and small electronics. He’s surprised so much fits into such a small space. Leo finds the plungers and stands in front of them with his hands in his pockets.

“Can I help ya, fella?” Jim says.

Leo jumps and faces him. He feels like a startled rabbit and stammers a minute before finding his voice.

“I’ve got a problem with water,” he says.

“The old homestead off Route 22, eh?”

“Yeah…how did you know?”

“Follow me.”

He scuffs down the aisle, his left foot slightly deformed and tilted inward. When the man reaches the front counter he lowers himself onto a wooden stool with a gruff grunt.

“The name’s Jim,” he says. “But I reckon Tami told ya that. She loves to talk.”

Leo nods.

“There’s nothin’ wrong with the plumbing at the house boy,” he says. “I fixed it myself.”

Leo isn’t sure if he should tell him about all the water, but Jim continues before he can.

“I can’t tell ya why things happen there, they just do. You got to learn to live with it…” his voice trails off. He looks hard at Leo who takes a step back. “Or not. It’s your choice.”

Leo grabs a package of balloons and some gum by the register, pretending they are what he came for. Jim raises his eyebrows and smiles.

“On the house,” he says.


Leo shakes his head all the way to his truck, trying to rid himself of the feelings settling there. He blares 50s music and drives with his windows down singing along to “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Long Tall Sally.” When he arrives back at the farmhouse, the water is gone. Very well, he thinks. He sets to work unpacking and cleaning, determined to not let the water enter his mind again.

He’s unsuccessful. Leo thinks about the water all day. When he sits down to work on his novel he keeps returning to water; flowing prose spills from his fingertips and his main character finds himself floating down the river, dreaming of the ocean, and drinking gallons of water. He finally snaps his laptop shut and wanders his property until dark, looking for a creek or river. He finds neither.

Before bed Leo checks each faucet, turning them on and then off as tight as he can. Under layers of blankets in the cold house, he dreams of her. A mixture of truth and fiction; he dreams of the rocky cliff, the horrible roaring waters below, of her car falling and falling, of her hands, clawing and clawing, of her last gasping breaths. Sharks tear the car to bits and feast on her body. He wakes in tears and cries out into the night.

“CiCi! Oh, CiCi! I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.”

She doesn’t respond. She never does. 

He rolls onto his side and his brain does its thing; spirling thoughts tumbling one after another, a terrible snowball effect of grief and regret. He should have gone to her sister’s birthday party with her. She hated driving at night. He wanted to work on his novel and she didn’t hold it against him. She never did. She encouraged him and kissed his head. She believed in him. He didn’t write. He’d spent the night staring at the blank screen, reading poetry blogs, then writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over. The words didn’t come. He couldn’t make them.

The driver of the semi-truck had been on the road for two days without stopping, trying to earn extra money to pay for his daughter’s wedding. He fell asleep, crashed into her tiny Prius, and pushed it off the cliff and into the sea. If he had been at the party they would have left earlier or later. She’d still be here. He didn’t even write.

His Cecilia. His beautiful, young wife. Gone. He wishes they’d have died together. The grief gnaws at his insides and he pulls the blankets over his head to try and stop the thoughts and the horrible lingering images from his nightmares. It doesn’t work. The knife in his gut twists and twists.

He rushes from bed to puke in the toilet—it’s full of water, and so is the sink, the bathtub, and the cup he’d used to rinse out his mouth before bed. He rushes out the back door and pukes into a hydrangea bush. He drops to his knees and sobs, the big purple flowers watch him, glittery flecks of moonlight reflecting off his sickness.

When he can stand, he walks outside in his pajama and the cold night air makes him shiver. It’s been two years since her death, and yet it feels like two minutes. The grief feels as thick as ever. His therapist told him he needed a change of scenery and to start writing again, the project she believed in. He would dedicate his book to her, but first, he has to write it. He has to write the words stuck behind the grief, or maybe tangled up in it. He’s not sure he can.

Returning to the house he drapes a blanket around his shoulders and walks from room to room looking at the water, searching it for signs of CiCi’s face, for some sign she’s here with him. He wants so much to believe she’s here, but he feels nothing of her. It’s just water. She’s gone.

The next few days at the farmhouse were more or less the same, but eventually, Leo finds his own rhythm. Coffee and watering the flowers in the morning. Writing, or attempting to, from breakfast to late lunch. A long walk around the wild property in the early evening, followed by reading and a light dinner beside the fireplace until bedtime. Each night he crawls into bed and the nightmares come and each morning he wanders the house looking at the water.

Leo begins to leave out bowls, vases, and cups to test if they will be filled in the morning. They always are. No matter where he hides them or how small, come morning any empty vessel is filled to the brim with icy cold water. He vacillates between amusement and fear of the water, or more precisely, who gathers the water. It’s not his CiCi, but it is someone.

Three months after arriving, having made little progress on his now water-themed novel, Leo decides to pretend the water bringer is CiCi. He begins talking to her out loud.

“Hey CiCi, how’s it going? I can’t remember, do you like peach jam?”

It’s weird at first, his voice echoing in the empty rooms. However, the more he does it, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. Soon it’s as if she’s with him all the time, beside him as he walks through his day. He narrates his daily tasks to her, talks out plot ideas for his book, and reads to her each night before bed. He picks her flowers from the garden and she fills the vases at night with fresh water.

He knows it’s weird, but he feels comfortable with his pretend CiCi, and she seems to feel the same. Sometimes he can feel her near him; a brush of air near his ear or the lingering smell of fresh lemons. It’s strange and soothing.

A year passes and he finishes his novel. He lights a roaring fire, drinks a bottle of wine, and reads it out loud in one sitting. It takes all night. He feels as drained and full as he can ever remember feeling in his life. 

He curls up on the floor and feels a shape beside him, a hand touching his cheek. He wants to recoil, but he doesn’t. He sits up and pulls the empty air in front of him to his chest, embraces it, and let’s go. Tears fill his eyes.

“It’s time for you to move on, CiCi. You don’t belong here. I loved our time together, but you have to go. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. You deserve to find happiness away from here. Go, sweet CiCi. Go.”

The words feel as if they’ve been pushed through him by some divine hand, soothing words of love speaking comfort to them both. A sense of calm surrounds him and he lays down and falls instantly asleep on the rug in front of the fire. When his dreams come, they are lovely.


Lucille doesn’t know why he loves her. He’d arrived one day and, unlike the others before him, he didn’t leave. He calls her CiCi, the name her father called her. She loves him.

She risked touching him tonight and he didn’t recoil, but it was the words he spoke she felt seeping into her body. She felt them like cool liquid spilling down her throat and she smiled.

She’d been thirsty for a long time. A hundred years maybe. The fever had ripped at her, burning her from the inside, and she couldn’t get enough to drink. Gallons of water sloshed around inside her, but nothing stopped the fire and the burning. Nothing until his words.

A brilliant white light fills the room and Lucille steps toward it without a backward glance.

Author’s note: I’m not one for ghost stories. I’m a scaredy-cat and I stray away from books, movies, or television shows which give my brain fresh imagery for nightmares. I made an exception with the Netflix shows “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” Both are phenomenal and serve as my inspiration for this week’s story. I hope I didn’t borrow too much of the imagery from either, and that you enjoyed meeting Leo and Lucille.

Short Story Challenge | Week 10

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 ghost story. We had to include the words tango, diversify, blog, invisible, missile, glitter, scuff, balloon, birdcage, and grizzly bear.

Write With Us

Prompt: The main character thinks he or she is about to get fired
Include: magazine, blow-dryer, congeal, bluebell, cummerbund, wheelie bag, pastels, cheeseburger, binding, and science

My 52-Week Challenge Journey