The Mask | A Short Story

Katie doesn’t like this house. It smells of cigarettes and all of the windows are covered with thick, dark brown curtains. Her father drinks a beer with his new boss Terry at a round, wooden table covered in glass ashtrays and tall bottles. She sits underneath with her legs crossed staring at her father’s boots.

Her mother gave her strict instructions to be on her best behavior, and she’s trying, but the house doesn’t seem to like her either. The off-white tiled floor burns icy cold beneath her thin dress and shadows creep along the walls with spidery quickness. She wraps her arms around her father’s warm leg and hopes they can leave soon.

A sharp scratching interrupts the dull sounds of the men talking and Terry stands to pull back one of the thick curtains. A huge, black dog barks and jumps at a muddy sliding glass door. Katie yelps and climbs onto her father’s lap as Terry unlatches the door and pulls it along an uneven track to let the dog inside.

Katie’s seen many dogs in her 5 years of life. Tiny dogs with watery eyes peeking out of the purses of old ladies at the grocery store. Big brown dogs chasing after tennis balls with long wagging tails at the park. Old scruffy dogs who sniff the air when she walks by their yard.

This dog isn’t like any of those. It’s large and hairy and smells exactly like the old mud puddle behind her kindergarten classroom. Foxtails poke out all over its matted fur and it’s got a deep growling bark reminding her of a bear or a lion. Its movements are quick and jerky. Suddenly, it darts at her.

With a snarl, it tears off a strip of lace from the bottom of her pink dress and runs with the fabric in its mouth to a spot in front of the refrigerator. It rips and tears and growls. Katie curls up as small as she can on her father’s lap and tries not to cry. He rubs her back in a circle with his large, warm hand.

Terry laughs loudly and harshly, a sound Katie dislikes as much as the dog’s bark. He grabs her father’s shoulder and leans close enough Katie can see he’s got yellow teeth and small grey eyes with flecks of crust stuck in the corners.

“Say hi to Fluffy,” Terry says. “I think she likes you.”

Katie knows she’s supposed to do what adults say, but she doesn’t want to. Her father stays silent, which Katie understands means she must listen. Mother said it’s important for Terry to like her father. Be on your best behavior. She looks in the direction of the scary dog and speaks as low as she can hoping it doesn’t actually hear her.

“Hi, Fluffy.”

The dog responds with a large bark and a lunge. Katie jumps from her father’s lap onto the table, knocking over several empty beer bottles, one with beer still inside. The mess spills and drips onto the floor, but none of the bottles break. Terry laughs and grabs the collar of Fluffy who snarls and snaps at the air while wagging its long tail.

Katie stands in the center of the table in her black patent leather shoes almost as if she might do a dance. Terry pulls the dog over to the counter and rummages around in a drawer until he finds a large rawhide bone. The dog rips it from his hand and runs off into the darkness of the house. Katie doesn’t like not knowing where the dog went but allows her father to lower her back onto his lap.

Terry returns his hand to her father’s shoulder and smiles at Katie. It’s not the sort of smile Katie likes. It reminds her of the boy in class who put a beetle in her lunchbox and pinched her arm hard enough to leave a bruise when the teacher wasn’t looking.

“Katie, I want to show you something special. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before and you are going to love it.”

He laughs again, this time it’s a short hard laugh. Her father doesn’t say anything, but he stands and sets Katie on the floor. She looks at Terry’s bare feet and notices his big toes are covered in thick black hair. My father works for a monster, she thinks, and now we have to follow him to his lair. 

Keeping her eyes peeled for Fluffy, she and her father follow Terry through a curtain of clinking, brown beads into a short hallway without any light at all. She grabs her father’s hand and he squeezes it. Her stomach burns and aches. No, she thinks. My dad needs this job.

Terry opens the door with a flourish saying “voila, my study!” as if he’s a magician instead of a monster. Katie knows some people can be both. She squeezes her father’s hand tighter.

Lit by a single green lamp in the far corner, the room consists of a large wooden desk cluttered with paper, two shelves filled with old books, and an orange couch covered in black dog hair. Terry pulls a bottle of dark liquid and two glasses out from a drawer in his desk and fills each about halfway. 

“Whiskey makes everything better.”

He hands her father a glass and the two men clink them together and drink. Terry appears to have forgotten what he wants to show Katie and, for a few minutes, the two men talk about work while Katie stands near the couch with her eye on the half-open door in case Fluffy decides to make another run at her dress.

After a few minutes, Terry’s eyes land on Katie and he gives her the same smile as he did in the kitchen. She runs to her father’s side trying to disappear under his plaid woolen jacket and Terry laughs. His belly moves up and down as he does.

“I almost forgot! Katie, come here. I want you to meet someone.”

She shakes her head, but her father pulls her so she’s standing in front of him. Terry moves behind his desk and points at a purple cloth hanging on the wall. It’s covering a lumpy, dark shape and Katie feels the burning in her belly turn into a living thing. Fear.

Before she can react to this change within herself, Terry grabs the cloth with a quick, exaggerated flourish and throws it into the air. It floats to the floor. Magician and monster.

On the brown wood panel wall sits a horribly ugly mask—an old witch with huge bulbous eyes, stringy white hair, and bright orange lips. Dark wrinkles line its too-real face and Katie screams and hides behind her father. Her fear grows fangs.

“Don’t be scared, Katie. Helga’s an old friend of mine and she wants to say hello to you.”

Katie feels exactly the same way she did the day a boy at school pushed her off the swings, a horrible soaring feeling she knows will end with pain. Her father pulls her to the front of him, lifts her into his arms, and places her on the desk facing the mask. Katie keeps her eyes squeezed tightly closed. Fear growls.

“I don’t want to see it! I don’t like it!”

Her father keeps his hands on her shoulders, aiming her at the mask. Terry touches her on the arm and she tries to jump, but her father won’t let her move. Her body shakes and fear rattles around inside her. It rumbles.

“Don’t be rude to Helga, Katie. You are a guest in her house.”

Terry sounds mad and Katie decides she has no choice but to open her eyes. The witch instantly comes to life. It blinks its eyes and laughs a terrible  “cackle, cackle, cackle” then does the most horrible thing Katie could have imagined. It spits water in her face. 

“Stop!” she screams.

It’s at this instant the fear inside her leaves. She’s not sure how it gets out, but she feels it wiggle free and move across the room. Terry is laughing so hard he’s bent at the waist, gasping with the force of it. Her father isn’t laughing, but he is looking at Katie. He knows exactly what happened.

With a gentle movement, he pulls her off the desk and says they must be leaving. Terry looks angry and says “it was just a joke,” but her father doesn’t respond. In fact, neither of them speaks until she’s buckled into her booster seat.

“I’m sorry, daddy. I really tried.”

His hands are shaking and he’s got tears in his eyes.

“It’s okay, Katie-Bear. He had it coming. I can find another job.”

***

Terry slams the door and finds Fluffy curled up in front of the now dead fireplace, chewing on her bone. He’s angry at how things went with his co-worker. People can’t take a joke these days. Soft. Weak. Snowflakes. He shouldn’t have let him bring the kid.

He goes into the garage and gathers up several Duraflame logs and throws them into the fireplace. Using the zippo from his pants pocket, he lights the fire and pats Fluffy on the head. 

“Good dog,” he says.

Returning to his office, he pours himself a large glass of whiskey and stares at the Halloween mask he got last year at a discount store. It’s his favorite thing. You pull the scarf and it spits. It’s hilarious. The stupid kid isn’t going to make it in this world being so jumpy and weak. Her dad better start smacking her around a bit. Toughen her up.

He raises his glass to the mask before settling into his chair to work on invoices for Monday’s big merger meeting. He’d hoped Greg would help him, but now he will have to fire the poor bastard. Can’t have someone soft on the payroll.

A blast of water suddenly hits the back of his head and he spins around. The witch mask blinks, the mechanics sounding louder than usual, and laughs. He laughs too.

“What the fuck, Helga!”

At first, he thinks he must have snagged the scarf with his chair and set it off, but the mask continues to laugh. Terry looks around the room, thinking maybe he’s being pranked, but he lives alone and nobody’s around. He swallows the rest of the whiskey in his glass and stands up.

The mask blinks at him and continues to laugh, but the sound has changed. It’s no longer the same “cackle, cackle, cackle,” but rather more like a human laugh. A child’s laugh.

“What the fuck!”

Terry stares at the witch’s bulging eyes as they grow bigger and rounder. He’s about to grab the mask from the wall when it spits in his face. Not a short blast of water, no. A steady stream of dark, red liquid. It drips onto his white t-shirt and then onto the floor. It’s warm and he has the horrible feeling it’s blood.

Roaring in anger, he grabs the mask off the wall and smashes it to the floor. He stomps on it over and over until the laughing stops and he’s out of breath. He slinks onto the floor and feels a tingly burning sensation crawling up his arm and into his mouth. He tries to spit it out quickly, but it’s too late.

Fear has crawled inside Terry and he falls onto his side and cries as it sings to him of all the darkness of the world. He’s a speck of nothing in a vast universe, an old piece of stardust rotting in the night. Every moment of pain he’s inflicted on others plays through his mind, poking at his heart until it seizes up, and stops. Terry lies motionless on the floor. Dead.

***

Katie wakes in her bed as the piece of fear crawls across the dark room and lands on the pillow beside her. She knows she should feel bad, but she doesn’t. Instead, she scoops up the little spark, swallows it, and goes back to sleep.

Author’s note: This story idea came from a real-life incident from my childhood. I decided it was time to take back my fear and grow from it. If you are interested, here’s the actual mask which still haunts me today.

Poetry: Mr. Willowby

weathered, treasured pages
lit twinkling lights
childhood has stages
measured in Christmas nights 

rollicking, frolicking fire
child-led merrymaking
favorite book magnifier
for a mother’s heartbreaking

old family traditions
wee bit oversized
find new conditions
for love to crystalize

sharp scissors snip
trimming the top
recast as partnership
family love doesn’t stop


*Inspired by the family’s favorite Christmas book “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree” and my need to learn flexibility as my son turns 18 this month.

Late Night Visitor | A Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Croaky.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, bloody brilliant!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have Instagram?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s silver…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you real?”

“Are you?”

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

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

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

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

“My crying?”

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

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

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

“Well, get un-sad then.”

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

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes, it is.”

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

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

“Well, you distracted me.”

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

“See. Easy!”

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

“Why?”

“My heart is broken.”

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Croaky! You’ve come back!”

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

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

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

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

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


Short Story Challenge | Week 46

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


Write With Us

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


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Photography: 4th of July

I’ve not felt patriotic in years. After seeing a terrible car accident this morning and reading of yet another mass shooting, my mood is far from celebratory. I decided to photograph my day in an attempt to combat the anger, disappointment, and sadness at fully realizing freedom in America has always been selective. It’s getting harder and harder to cling to the hope things will get better.

Here’s a look at what brings me joy and gives me the energy to keep fighting—my sister’s new puppy, playing with my sweet nephew, dominoes, fresh tomatoes, swimming with my mom and aunt, and sparklers.

Thank you so much for your support.


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What to see more?

The Car Wash

“Auntie,” he calls from the back seat.

I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him smiling from his car seat in his striped footie pajamas. He turns the tiny gold key to my jewelry box over and over in his small hand. We spent all morning unlocking tiny doors around the house, letting out imaginary rabbits to rush around and find carrots in the carpet.

“The van is dirty,” he says.

We make eye contact in the mirror and he giggles. His bright blue eyes are hidden behind my pink sunglasses and he’s wearing a knit blue cap. I play along.

“Are you sure?” I say. “It looks clean to me.”

“Yes! It’s dirty!”

“Well…what do you think we should do?”

“Car wash!”

He says the words with a squeak at the end. His entire body jerks and the sunglasses fall off his face.

“You think so, huh?” I say.

“Yes! Car wash!”

“I don’t know…”

“Car wash! Car wash! Car wash!”

He knows I’m going to give in and I do. When he sees the yellow duck on the sign he claps his hands and kicks his legs. I put on our song, “Working at the Car Wash” by Rosvelt, and pull the shade back from the sunroof so we can see the bubbles all around us.

“Ready?” 

“Yes!”

I watch the joy and excitement on his squishy face as he stares at the green, blue and purple bubbles. We sing, dance, and giggle over the harsh sounds of the water and the fat colorful rollers slapping against the van.

It’s pure joy.

A ritual we’ve discovered together.

An auntie thing.

He turns three on Saturday and I live for these pockets of magic we uncover. 

Our shared treasure.

They feel big and important.

And fleeting.

My own children are teenagers, beautiful and complex. We are close and continue to create new memories, but I miss when they were small enough I didn’t have to share them with school or friends.

When they were mine.

I’ve discovered playing with my nephew allows me to slip back into memories of my own kids in a new and different way; to uncover the feelings and sensations of burying them in the sand, snuggling them at bedtime, and holding them when they’ve fallen. 

These little snapshots of my kids at his age come into focus with surprising intensity. It’s like remembering an old language I used to speak, slipping on an old sweater, or opening a tiny door.

It’s a wonderful and unexpected gift.

All the love.

All the silliness.

All the tears.

All the firsts.

This week my son got his first bank account and started his first job. As I drive him to work it occurs to me it’s the exact route I took to his preschool. The feelings swelling up are familiar too; another moment of letting go and another shifting of our relationship.

The sadness I expect to come, however, doesn’t.

It feels different.

When I pick up him at 10 p.m. he requests a Happy Meal and hopes he gets a Stitch toy. He talks animately about his job and the people he met. He laughs and we listen to “Pump up the Jam” at high volume and sing along.

My boy.

There you are.

The pandemic and his accidents robbed him of growth and some of the firsts he should have had. It put us in a strange place of adversaries, and we’ve both lost the comfortable way we’d always been together. The silly way we could look back and move forward; our own dance.

I’m remembering it.

I hope he is too.

We have a lifetime of firsts left.

First job uniform.

Home, Broken, Home

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Our house in the 1970s

It doesn’t look like my childhood home anymore. It hasn’t looked like it in a long time.

The effects of depression hang in the air, tangibly thick, like the layers of neglect and random things. Peeling back each one we find plenty that’s broken, unusable, forgotten or discarded. There are cords, cigarette butts, bottles, worn-out blankets, unmatched shoes and boxes of stuff bought for a purpose or plan long since abandoned. As we shovel it all away, pile it to be taken to the dump, my heart is breaking for what is at the very bottom of it all, the thing left when you peel everything away.

My childhood home.

My childhood.

Skating in the garage. Homework at the dinner table. Christmas mornings. Biking around the court. Neighborhood friends. Mudpies. A summer wedding in the front yard. Nursing a possum back to health. Hiding in my closet. Buried pets. Ewok battles. Midnight Jane Fonda workouts. My dad at his computer. Microwave popcorn. Goodnight kisses. My purple room. First day of school pictures. Our pig running through the back and front screen door. Slumber parties. Dancing on my bed. Rosanne on the TV. Mom sewing at the kitchen table. Sandbags. Doves. Playing shipwreck. Daycare kids. Charles Chips tins. Yellow flowered wallpaper. Spacecat peeing in the entryway. Piles of leaves. Brown carpet.

None of these memories will be erased by this move. I get to keep them. They are mine.

Yet there is something profoundly sad about the way this place I grew up, this place I learned about myself and the world, became. It didn’t just get sold. There isn’t just a new family moving in.

The house was broken.

Then taken (foreclosure).

It’s violating. It’s as if a part of my childhood was left to rot and spoil in the sun, a dead fish in a pile of debris. It’s ugly and raw.

I don’t blame my parents. There is no blame to place anywhere. Sometimes families fall apart and ours did so at an excruciatingly slow pace. It’s been decades and there are still casualties. Piles of them.

Although it would be easiest to only look forward, to face away from what was, I find myself drawn back by the little pieces of history unearthed. I want to remember, to honor these feelings, to touch all the creases and cracks of the walls before they are no longer mine to feel.

This weekend we must say our final goodbye. We will take the last things off the walls. I’ll open the hallway cupboards and run my hands over the place the board games used to live. I’ll walk into my closet and shut the door and sit in the dark one last time. I’ll stare at the door to my parent’s bedroom, the one I couldn’t enter without knocking. I’ll look out my bedroom window.

I was lucky to have grown up in this middle-class suburban neighborhood. I know that. My brother and I had friends to play with, we swam in the gutters, got into fights, babysat, borrowed sugar, trick-or-treated, sold candy bars door-to-door, walked the dogs and slowly changed into the people we are today.

The home of those memories, however, has been gone for a long time. It was fractured by divorce, mental illness and time. Things broke and didn’t get fixed. Weeds became impossible to combat. Cracks too big to mend.

The park we played at has been fenced off, permanently closed due to gangs and violence. My car was stolen when I was visiting and pregnant with my first child. Most of the neighbors have moved and the new ones are not friendly. It isn’t the neighborhood of my youth, it’s as crumbling as the roof and as ugly as the butchered tree in the front yard.

Things don’t stay frozen in time. Erosion. Evolution. Transformation.

Leaving this home behind will be a new start for my mother and brother, a chance to wipe clean the wounds of the past that lay bare and bleeding. They can shed the guilt, the pain and the reality of a space no longer serving the purpose it once did. They can outrun the ghosts and the echoes of a life lived.

This is an opportunity to make things better.

It’s for the best.

I know all this, yet it doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve never liked the end of a book or the goodbyes when someone leaves. I wish I could skip ahead to the time when the pain is a memory, but that isn’t how things work.

The pain is here right now, whether I acknowledge it or not. This is the hard part.

Once we pull away with the last load of things on Sunday, maybe looking back for one last glance of myself riding my big wheel around the court, the real healing can begin.

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Oh, the messes we make

There is a pile of cut yarn outside my bedroom door, and five stuffed animals hang from the bannister having “flying lessons.” Every box from Christmas I put in the garage to break down, is back in the house in various stages of transformation, surrounded by tape, scissors and markers.

The dining room table is home to a puzzle on week three of progress, and a half-completed robot model. Stacks of books fill every flattish surface, teeny-tiny scraps of paper are cut up and have been thrown confetti-style down the halls, and two tiny plants appear to be in the process of being repotted by someone in the bathroom sink.

The state of my house is not good, folks. It is a cluttered mess of intentions and creation. We are a family who likes to do things, make things, get lost in the “thing,” and what we seem to hate the most is admitting the thing is over.

If the puzzle is put away, it means we didn’t finish it.

If the books are on a shelf, they may not get read.

If we clean up the boxes, the fort will never be completed.

We are a family of potential.

I have been fighting this for a long time.

I would walk around the house picking up all the messes, bitching as I do, and feeling the overwhelming sense of futility as I turn around to see several new “projects” erupting behind me.

It was driving me crazy. Ask my kids. I had become the Cleaning Dictator often yelling “take this shit to your room” and “what the hell is this mess?” and “are you kidding me?”

I’d march around in full martyr-mode, always feeling a sense of being overwhelmed or buried by ALL THE STUFF. I’d throw projects away because I’d get tired of seeing them or throw everything into a closet and slam the door to have ONE EMPTY SPACE.

Part of this battle was because my insides were in turmoil and I needed my space to not be. I needed everything organized, because I couldn’t categorize all the messy, dirty feelings which weighed me down and made it impossible for me to move.

Another part was embarrassment, of imaging what people would think if they stumbled into our “in progress” home on a day I didn’t frantically shove things into closets or drawers. They might think I am lazy or I don’t give a shit about my family.

I was losing my mind over it.

I was on the verge of completely squashing my kid’s creativity, because I could not contain it.

I could not stand it.

Then I started writing again.

My writing is a mess; the characters are unformed, stumbling along trying to become real and struggling with the half-story I’ve placed them in. I’m having to slowly uncover the pieces and letting it be a jumble for now, while I figure out how it all fits together.

It almost stopped me completely.

Twice.

I’m still writing.

I’m accepting this mess is part of the creative process, and I’m trying to explore it with patience and curiosity. It’s hard to ignore the unease it brings, but it is necessary. I am not going to just sit down and write a novel. It is a chaotic, disorganized and jumbled process which requires both ignoring my fears and embracing them.

It’s fucking hard guys.

But doing this, being in the trenches, has made me look at the mess of my house, and even my kids, in a different way.

I’ve always been supportive of open play and creativity, actively fighting to provide them the space and time for it; we drive 25 minutes so they can attend a Waldorf school which is in line with these ideals. But at the same time, I’ve been a nagging bitch about the messes which come along with it.

Contradictions are apparently my thing.

There is a big part of me which would love my house to look like Restoration Hardware; seriously, everything in that store is gleaming and beautiful and fucking rad.

But it never will.

People don’t live there.

Duh, right?

I can’t remove the mess, because WE are the mess. I’d be replacing all the little stories they create with their stuffed animals, all the pictures they draw, all the badges and houses and forts…for some idealistic version of a home I’d probably hate.

I want my kids being loud and crazy and wild.

I want them making shit out of everything.

I want my kids to know their ideas are worth exploring fully.

The dishes and laundry are done. There isn’t anything rotting or smelling bad in the house. It is just projects, crafts and imagination exploding out in all directions.

It is the chaos of a creative life.

There is an important lesson for us all to learn about finishing things, cleaning up after ourselves and respecting the space of others. I’m not throwing up my hands in defeat. There is plenty of work to do still, and I’m sure we can get there.

For now, though, I want to stop yelling and allow more space and time for the messy creativity to happen. I want to stop struggling so hard against it, and learn to give things the time they need.

Maybe I can even learn to love the mess as much as I love the kids who create it.

Probably not.

But I can stop how I react and realize how temporary this all is.

So, bring on the Styrofoam sinks:img_8435The random piles of coins:img_8437Whatever this is:img_8439Bring it on.

Because we live here and this is what we do.

‘Ugly, bad and stupid girl’

I see anger and hurt in her little face, but there isn’t time to address it.

I pack her lunch. I make her toast and oatmeal. I put a little watercolor Valentine heart next to her plate.

“You make me proud every day.
Love,
Mom”

She smiles and says thanks, but I can see it didn’t reach her. The place inside where it is hurting is hidden too deep. I can’t reach it with a card or a hug.

It is time for her to leave for school. She moves slowly, layering three jackets over her flower dress.

“Remember,” I tell her. “You control what kind of day you have.”

“Yeah,” she says and gives me a half hug before walking out the front door.

I watch her stomp away with her head down. She doesn’t look back, but I wave from the door anyway.

I drink my coffee and silently pray for her.

The day drains away. Errands. Cleaning. Driving. Driving. Driving.

Carpool reports she screamed on the way to school because she lost a game.

Brother reports she was yelling at some kid on the playground.

She reports everything is unfair.

Great.

The day isn’t over. We have to make a second trip back to school. She brings her knitting and I think maybe this wave is over.

No.

On the drive back home, she starts in on her brother again. It is over nothing at all.

He tries to tell her he doesn’t want to argue, but she clearly does.

She needs to prove her point and won’t stop.

The sound scrapes along the edges of the car and seems to fill every space.

“Stop it,” I say.

She does not. The sound escalates and I try again.

“Just drop it,” I say louder. “I’m serious. I don’t want to hear it anymore.”

I turn on the music, but she continues even louder.

The sound reminds me of arguing with my brother as a kid.

I want to tear my hair out.

I want to tear her hair out.

“I’m fucking sick of this shit,” I blurt out. “Stop fighting. You have been fighting from the second you woke up. I’m over it. STOP. NOW.”

Even as the words come out, I regret them. I want to force them back down my throat, but the damage is done.

She begins to sob.

You fucked up, I tell myself. You really fucked up.

Even so, I am still angry and my heart has turned into a heavy stone.

“Stop crying,” I yell.

“I can’t!” she yells back. “Don’t you understand I can’t?”

“You can and you will,” I say.

She doesn’t.

The rest of the drive home, I fume and she sobs.

We walk in the door and she loudly clomps up to her room. I stomp into mine muttering about respect and how ridiculous she is being.

I put on my pajamas and wash my face. My anger slowly fades and the sound of her sobs reaches me. A stab of guilt and regret does too.

I take a deep breath and walk into her room.

She is hiding under the blankets crying.

“Can I sit down?”

“Yes.”

“Can I hug you?”

“Yes.”

She lunges into my arms and cries into me.

“I’m a ugly, bad and stupid girl,” she cries. “Nobody will ever forgive me.”

I hate every one of these words.

“Oh love,” I start.

“It is true,” she says. “I am so stupid and dumb.”

I hold her and let her tell me all the things. The boy who told her she looked like a pile of garage. The girls who won’t let her play with them at recess. Her fear she will never learn to ride her bike without training wheels. Her anger at being the littlest in the family.

All. The. Things.

With each word her body softens until she is a mushy, soft baby back in my arms. I cradle her to me and rock gently.

“No matter what you do, I will never love you any less fierce,” I say. “You can never, ever do anything I won’t forgive. Ever. You are my girl and nothing will ever change my love for you. Ever.”

The smile on her face radiates and I am bursting with love.

How could I have ever yelled at this precious face? How could I have forgot for even one second how small and beautiful and tender and perfect she is?

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I should not have yelled at you. I lost my temper and it wasn’t OK.”

“You are the best mommy ever,” she says.

We melt into a mushy pile of love under the blankets and talk and talk and talk.

She really does make me proud.

Every day.

lola

Little Peppermint, the house fairy

You might be shocked to hear I don’t like Elf on the Shelf.

I know it is weeks past Christmas, but stay with me. It is relevant.

I don’t like the elf for lots of reasons, enough to fill an entire book and then some. I’ll spare you the long rant. Basically, I find an elf moving around the house at night creepy and I hate the pressure it puts on kids to be “good” and on parents to remember to move the damn thing.

There.

I know. Geez mom. Way to make it all about you.

According to my 8-year-old daughter, we are the ONLY family in the world to not have a spying elf and it isn’t fair. We had no less than 20 conversations revolving around the injustice of it all.

“Mom, you just don’t understand.”

Nope. I don’t.

“I will make it clothes.”

No.

“It will be fun.”

No.

“It is a good lesson to kids on being good.”

No.

She finally realized there was no budging on the issue and made her own. Only this little one isn’t an elf. She is a fairy, she is named Peppermint and she moves around the house the entire year.

THE ENTIRE YEAR.

Bam. Got you mom. Now you have to move the fairy around the house every day or I will lose faith in magic and shit like that.

At first, I played along and moved dear Peppermint all over the house. It was actually fun to pose her in the bowl of oranges on the counter, or hide her in the Christmas tree or have her hanging with baby Jesus in the nativity.

But I got busy.

And forgetful.

And tired.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fun mom. I swear I am. I play dolls and games and tell stories.

I’m awesome.

But come on.

I have to remember to move the fairy every night.

Every. Single. Night.

It is too much.

Yesterday at breakfast, my girl tells me Peppermint hasn’t moved since a few days after Christmas.

“Mom,” she says. “Do you think Peppermint will ever move?”

I think I see tears in her eyes. Real tears, folks.

“I don’t know love,” I say and silently promise myself to move the damn fairy every day for the rest of my life. “I think she was just really tired from the holidays. I’m sure she will move soon.”

“I hope so,” she says.

Well-played daughter.

The second she is out the door, I take Peppermint out of the doll house bed and put her on the mantle holding a few candy canes.

Nailed it.

She comes home and notices right away.

“She moved!” she says.

“Yep.”

“Can’t wait to see what she will do tomorrow.”

Yep.

We leave the house an hour later for her keyboard lesson. My boy decides to stay home to work on his homework.

When we come back, Peppermint has moved again.

This time she is sitting with a doll playing a game my girl created the day before.

“Wow!” she says. “I can’t believe it.”

My boy comes over all smiles and snuggles up close to me.

“I will move Peppermint mom,” he whispers in my ear. “Just look how happy she is.”

And then my heart exploded.

peppermint

The little black kitten of jealousy

kitten

My phone dings and I look to see a dozen pictures of the sweetest little black kitten.

This darling new addition to my friend’s family, which they are calling Faun, causes me to start ahhhing loudly.

The kids come running.

“What is it?” they ask.

I flip the phone around and show them.

My girl immediately starts crying.

Not just little tears either.

Big, fat ugly tears which quickly turn to sobs.

Oh no.

As much as I’m aware of her wish for a kitten, this possibility didn’t occur to me.

I feel mean, as if I’d done something to hurt her on purpose.

The jealousy and anger pulse from her. She tries to calm herself, but the feelings are beyond containment. I let her cry and rage until the intensity ceases a bit.

“You are jealous because you want a kitten,” I say.

She nods and cries a bit more.

“I feel like a bad friend,” she says through her tears. “Have you ever felt jealous?”

Have I ever. I tell her about growing up and being incredibly jealous all the time. My friends got more presents at Christmas, had prettier hair, more boyfriends and took elaborate vacations my family would never be able to afford. I didn’t even fly in an airplane until I was in college.

I know a little about jealousy.

“Did you grow out of it?” she asks.

No. I have to admit that I have moments as an adult where I feel the pang and sting still. More moments that I care to acknowledge.

I want a kitten too. I want a new laptop. I want a real summer vacation. I want to be smarter, more successful and drive a nicer car.  I want to be skinny.

Longing for things you don’t have is as human as it gets.

“What do you do about it?” she asks and hugs me tight.

I can feel the desperation in her voice and I know I have to get this moment right.

I pull back a little and look in her eyes.

There are different kinds of emotions, each balancing the other out, I explain. Like in the movie, “Inside Out,” where Joy can’t exist without Sadness.

She nods.

“When I think about jealousy, I picture purple,” she says. “Like grape jelly. So I picture her being purple with a pale green dress on.”

“Sounds good,” I reply. “Who balances jealousy?”

I ask this question and realize I don’t have an answer. My emotional growth is about the same as her in this department. Well, maybe a bit better. I don’t cry all the time. Not all the time.

“I don’t know,” she says.

We both sit there for a few minutes thinking about it. Jealousy makes you want things other people have. What is a word for being happy with what you got?

“Contentment,” I finally say. “I picture her as wearing all pink and having a sweet voice. She says things like, ‘my room is so beautiful’ and ‘I love my family so much!”

“Yes,” she says. “Contentment tells me ‘I’m lucky to have a mom that rubs my back and talks to me’ and ‘I have awesome red hair.’”

Exactly.

We list off more and more things which make us feel content.

It feels good and the ugliness of the longing for what others have starts to fade for us both.

We cuddle up closer. She points to the picture on her wall of us nursing when she was a baby. She tells me she looks at it every night as she is falling asleep.

“I just pretend you are laying next to me,” she says. “Then I fall right asleep because I know you love me.”

My heart does complicated leaps of joy and sadness.

I tell her jealousy won’t go away and will be with her the rest of her life.

“Just be sure to let contentment have a voice too,” I say.

We agree to keep this conversation going.

“Maybe when I’m in college I can Face Time you,” she says. “Might even have holograms by then and I’ll project you laying right next to me.”

“Absolutely,” I say.