The Octopus in the Room | A Short Story

“Healing winds with all their might 
reveal an eight arm gift of ancient sight.”
-The Secret Guide to Ocean Magic

Tracing the dark blue waves stitched onto the white comforter with her pointer finger, Meri takes a deep steadying breath. There’s nothing to do right now but rest. She did everything she could. It’s not her fault.

There’s a sense she’s forgetting something, but the smell of peppermint tea distracts the feeling away. Dressed in warm, soft pajamas of pale pink, she rises from bed and slips on a pair of matching fur-lined slippers. Her arms and legs feel heavy and weak.

She’s in a small, square room with no windows. There’s a large blue octopus painted onto a white brick wall. An unknown wind blows her thick brown hair about her face for a moment before sticking to her damp, pink cheeks. She closes her eyes tight and a murky image slowly comes into focus.

There’s a golden chandelier, a dance floor of soft brown wood, and a jazz band playing in matching maroon suits. She’s wearing a midnight blue silk dress with her hair piled in ringlets on the top of her head. She feels far more grown-up than ever before. This is what her life will be like now. A life she can create all by herself far from the reach of her abusive parents. She gets to call the shots.

“There’s a forest of life inside your green eyes,” a young man says while holding Meri in his arms. Handsome and tall, she can feel his strong heartbeat against her palm. His lips are plump and pink and his hair is long and golden. “I’m lost when I’m with you.”

Dressed in a sparkling silver dress, a beautiful woman bumps into the young couple and drops her cocktail drink to the floor. Its pink liquid sloshes all the way to the wall, pooling along the edge. The floor tilts further sideways and someone screams. Meri opens her eyes.

There’s a delicate teacup covered in tiny pink starfish steaming on a wooden end table across the room. Beside it sits a thick book with a deep blue cover and a pair of golden brown reading glasses. She takes a wobbly step toward it.

“Well, I suppose I could do some reading.”

Her voice sounds crackly in the quiet room as if her throat is swollen. Has she been screaming? Questions waft away before answers can be formed. The sound of waves lapping against wood can be heard in the distance.

Meri sits in a white cushioned chair and covers her legs with a heavy wool blanket which smells faintly of saltwater and is the dark green color of wet seaweed. Her long brown hair feels matted and dirty, but when she runs her fingers through it she’s surprised to find it silky and soft.

The book has no title and no author. It’s a picture book of sorts but seems unbound by the conventions of normal storytelling. Instead, it meanders between two stories, both of which Meri finds herself getting emotionally invested in within moments.

The first story is of a tiny piglet, the runt of the litter, who lives in a petting zoo in the middle of a noisy town. This plump ball of pink with a curly tail dreams of running away to attend a summer camp near the ocean so it can swim with dolphins. He tries various ways to escape but the evil zookeeper always catches him and throws him back into his metal cage.

The second story is of an immortal being living in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean. A creature of eight who spends its days hiding alone within a cave of bright silver coral created by collecting bits and pieces of shipwrecks and hammering them together. Annoyed by the noises and pollution of the world, it lives a solitary and peaceful existence. It floats gracefully in the icy waters often dancing among its garden of tiny phosphorus plants cultivated through years of careful nurturing.

On a particularly busy weekend at the petting zoo, the piglet sneaks into the backpack of a small girl with bouncy blonde pigtails. Within hours, the small animal finds itself off on a grand adventure aboard a giant white ship headed into the vast ocean. Its happiness, however, shifts when a terrible storm rolls across the glittery water, turning the soft smooth surface into terrible walls of white that crash hard into the sides of the ship. The girl tries to hold onto the piglet, but it slips from her grasp and into the choppy sea.

Meri shuts the book with a snap. Her body feels terribly cold and she looks around panicked for the wall of white and the piglet. Instead, she sees the muted lights of the room blink softly and feels the chair beneath her roll from side to side. It’s only a story, she tells herself. She stares at the white brick wall with the octopus. I’m in a room.

The number one hundred and twelve flashes golden along the wall and then disappears. Meri rubs sand from her eyes. Terror and sadness flush through her and then quickly dissipates as her eyes fall on the teacup beside her. The pretty cup with the tiny starfish.

Meri takes a sip and tastes strong herbs with just a hint of honey. She’s amazed to find the glass remains hot and full no matter how much she drinks. Feeling warmth return to her body she picks the book up and thumbs through the pages until she finds where she left off.

Yes, the piglet was in the water. Its piercing cry of help echoes through the deep blue waters, a sound that reaches the very depths of the ocean where the creature of eight resides. Immediately concerned by such a plea, it moves toward the surface with flickering quickness. After several minutes of desperately searching, it finds the source of the sound—a small piglet paddling frantically for its life.

“What are you doing here?” the creature asks.

The piglet has tears in its eyes but brightens at the friendly voice it can hear but not see.

“I wanted to swim with dolphins. Are you a dolphin?”

The primordial creature is moved by the sweetness of the young piglet. It’s been through so much already and it doesn’t want it to suffer further. With magic as old as Earth itself, the creature morphs into the shape of a dolphin with a sleek grey body, a pointed nose, and a wide crescent tail. Surfacing, it swims in a circle splashing the tiny pig’s snout and ears.

“Yes! I am a dolphin and I’ve come to rescue you.”

The piglet squeals with delight.

“A real dolphin is saving me! Wow!”

Working together the piglet climbs onto the back of the creature. They swim through the foggy remains of the ship; twisted pieces of metal, empty orange flotation devices, dinner plates, and splintered wood. There are other shapes in the water. Shapes that the piglet finds scary.

“Where are the people?” the piglet asks.

Answering with a series of whistles and squeaks, the creature of eight leaps out of the water skipping from wave to wave as if it’s flying. The piglet giggles and feels the sadness of the moment before fleeing in a rush of warmth and love. It’s going to be okay. There’s nothing to be done right now but rest. You did everything you could. It’s not your fault.

Meri sits the book on her lap again. Sunlight shines through a crack in the ceiling and the calls of seagulls break through the silence of the small, warm room. One hundred and twelve people died on the ship. She was saved by something she can’t see but can feel. Its presence radiates around her like a warm hug. So much was lost, but this creature saved her and gave her a moment of peaceful rest. Gratitude brings tears to her eyes.

“Thank you.”

Her voice sounds stronger now. She takes another sip of the warm tea, stands, and drops the book to the floor. The door opens a crack and she hears voices calling across the sand. Her body suddenly begins to shake as she falls through the door of room 112 and onto the cold, wet sand. Her true love has perished, but she’s still alive.

“Over here!” a voice calls.

“We found a survivor!”

Author’s note: I’ve started a lot of my short stories lately with a made-up quote. It’s becoming a bit of a calling card for me and might prove useful when I begin organizing the best of these stories into a collection to publish next Spring. As I’m looking at healing and transition right now, it felt right to center my story around an octopus as they have long been symbols of renewal and regrowth. I hope this story brings you comfort if you find yourself needing the reminder you did your best and you are going to be okay.

*The photos above were taken at the Lamplighter Inn in Bandon, Oregon. It’s a super cute place to stay with ocean-themed rooms. I’m afraid they don’t actually offer free tea, super comfy pajamas, and magical books. Not yet anyway.


Short Story Challenge | Week 36

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 that takes place in one room. We had to include the words petting zoo, handsome, unbound, annoy, weekend, invest, immortal, piglet, cocktail, and camp.


Write With Us

Prompt: A story pulled from today’s headlines and rewritten

Include: boxer, cherry blossom, magic, implement, artwork, safety, chime, chain link, towel, and ingredient


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

New Experiences | A Short Story

Irona stands in the large round tiki hut, waiting to board a ship with the word “Excursion” written in golden letters along its side. A black and white bird sits on a sandy rock outside the entrance silently opening and closing its beak. The temperature is 35°C with no breeze.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” a Parent says. “It’s 100 percent safe. Top ratings.”

There are six pairs of Parents and Children waiting in a straight line to board the ship tied at the end of the long wooden pier. Irona was chosen to be at the head of the line. The feelings are of pride mixed with apprehension. Everyone will be following. Irona must do things right.

A Tour Guide wearing a tan jumpsuit and a wide-brimmed straw hat walks down the line handing white powdered donuts to each Child from a square, pink box. Irona notices the lack of gloves. This must be part of the “rugged” and “authentic” experience promised in the tour description.

Irona chews the treat slowly and swallows it. Sugar, enriched flour, soybean oil, dry milk, dextrose, cornstarch, and water. Using a wet wipe from the front pocket of the standard-issued denim overalls, Irona cleans off the sticky residue before tossing the used cloth into a garbage can in the shape of a crocodile. It makes a small, metallic growling sound.

“Right this way!”

Another smiling Tour Guide calls out to them in a cheery, high-pitched voice. Wearing tan shorts and a bright shirt with red flowers, they point toward the open-air boat rocking gently in the turquoise water. Irona nods and walks swiftly along the wooden planks, relieved to find the ground feels solid despite looking old and weathered. It doesn’t move at all.

Children at the 10th stage of development must choose a tour to experience. Irona wanted to explore lava tubes or the rocky terrain high in the Appalachian mountains, but Teacher insisted they pick someplace outside their normal interests. The Florida Keys, with its clear water and wild animals, fits this description. It’s too bright and too loud.

Irona squeezes closed both eyes and imagines the comfortable darkness of the workspace; the thick black headphones blocking out all sounds, the bank of large clear monitors, and the rows and rows of buttons. Projections of earth’s magma levels scroll across the screen followed by charts on how to optimize and magnetize different metals. 

“Don’t do that.”

It’s the Parent beside Irona talking with a firm, angry voice. They’ve both stopped walking and the Parent has grabbed Irona’s soft squishy cheeks and is squeezing them tightly. It feels odd. Could it be pain?

“Stay here. You must stay here,” the Parent says. “It’s important.”

Irona’s eyes open to find the Parent smiling with an oddly firm mouth. It’s not quite a smile. It’s important to do the right thing. Irona knows this and feels the other pairs of Parents and Children staring in their direction. The burning feeling inside is quickly identified as shame. Irona doesn’t like it and vows, like many times before, to not allow it again.

“I’m sorry.”

There’s no closing of eyes or turning off on the tour. Irona knows better. Anger brews behind the shame.

“We are open to new experiences,” the Parent says.

Irona nods. The Parent has the same look as before and their hands squeeze harder along the sides of Irona’s face.

“Say it.”

“We are open to new experiences.”

The Parent’s smile softens and they release Irona’s face. They embrace each other for a full five seconds, a firm yet gentle hug, and it makes both of them feel better. They walk holding hands to where another Tour Guide dressed in a blue flowered shirt waits to help them aboard.

“Right this way, please. Watch your step. Careful. Careful.”

The Tour Guide helps Irona over the rocking ledge and onto the boat with a firm arm. The others follow. The off-white slightly wet floor moves and sways. It’s an interesting feeling and Irona isn’t sure if that’s a good or bad thing. The voice of another Tour Guide interrupts all further analysis. It’s loud, bassy, and booming and is coming from the far end of the boat they are walking toward.

“Hellloooo! Welcome aboard the Excursion! You are in for a treat my new friends. Yes, indeed! Today you leave behind the world you know and step into a world of wonder. Before we do that, however, I’ve got to pack you all in here like sardines. Tight, tight, tight! Don’t worry though, we don’t plan on eating you!”

Irona recognizes this as a joke. A bad joke. The loud Tour Guide standing at the bow of the ship looks far different than the others; taller, wider, and wearing clothes of the brightest colors Irona has ever seen. Strapped along both legs are brown leather holsters holding black revolvers. Guns. Wars. Death. It makes Irona feel something. Perhaps it is nervousness or curiosity. It’s unclear.

“It’s okay,” the Parent whispers. “It’s part of the experience and…”

“We are open to new experiences,” Irona finishes.

They sit down on a wooden bench in front of the Tour Guide who is talking into a little black speaker. Irona realizes it’s why the voice sounds so loud and distorted. It’s too loud.

“Squeeze closer together. I don’t think anyone will bite you…at least not yet.”

Another joke. Irona absolutely doesn’t like the Tour Guide who has now pushed a button on the boat which brings the motors to life. It’s a low humming sound Irona finds comforting and the boat glides away from the shore and toward the open waters.

“We are off! Wave goodbye to the people on the shore. We will never see them again.”

There are only the other Tour Guides on the shore but some of the Children wave. Irona recognizes the joke and does not. There’s black dirt caked to the bottom of the Tour Guide’s chunky boots which have flaked off creating a little puddle of muddy water. Irona finds it fascinating and wonders what it would feel like to touch it. To taste it.

“Look up,” the Parent says.

Irona obeys realizing the real show isn’t inside the boat but outside in the passing scenery. There’s a slight breeze caused by the boat’s forward momentum and Irona tries to embrace the sensation, but it’s a disappointment. Metal tracks can be seen guiding the boat, a lot like the transport vehicles in the city. It’s too familiar. Not at all what Irona hoped it would be.

The Tour Guide turns back toward them, winks, and begins talking into the speaker again. Irona silently hopes there’s more to this adventure than moving through the water. There has to be.

“The name’s Jinx and I’ll be your tour guide today. The best tour guide around if I do say so myself, which I most certainly do! I’ve only just got a few rules and if we all abide by them, we should have a nice day. A fine day. A perfect day!”

Irona smiles and sits up straighter. Rules mean order and that means competition. There will be a Child who does the best and Irona will be it—Number One rule follower on the Excursion. Does it come with a prize or simply the knowledge of being the best? Either way, Irona is in.

“The rules are simple: stay in the boat and have fun!”

The Tour Guide laughs. Those aren’t real rules and there are no clear parameters for measuring fun. It’s another joke. Irona feels the familiar sensations of anger and disappointment. It’s not pleasant.

“The tour today will explore this beautiful coral clay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida. You may notice red maple, thatch pine, gumbo limbo, and of course all the cute and crazy creatures of this wonderland. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the ride!”

They pull beside a lush green island and the Tour Guide tells them about each animal, facts mixed with jokes. Key deer, found nowhere else in the world, eat grass raising and lowering their heads in a slow, even movement. Largo woodrats, known for their large stick nests, scurry across a wide tree branch dangling just far enough over the water for them to be seen clearly and heard. They make a tiny metallic squeaking sound. Irona sighs loudly but nobody notices. They are all too delighted.

The boat pulls into a swampy inlet and several large manatees poke their heads above the water and then back under rolling to their sides and wiggling their flippers. A few of the Children clap. One of them cries out in excitement. Irona isn’t impressed at all. It’s not real and not at all the experience promised to “give perspective” and “change ideas.” It feels a lot like everything else at school. Designed for a certain Child in mind. Not Irona.

They pass three dolphins which jump into the air and then splash back down. One. Two. Three. Irona turns back and sees it repeated again. One. Two Three. More Children clap. They are beside themselves with joy, wiggling and jumping in their seats.

It’s exactly like the violin recital last week. Everyone feels and does the same thing except Irona. It’s not from a lack of trying or wanting to be the best. It simply doesn’t work for Irona. The instrument actually called to be played differently. It begged for variation in its notes. Why can’t others hear what Irona can? Why didn’t Irona win with the only original piece? It makes no sense. New is better than old. Isn’t it the point of everything to learn and grow? To find new ways of doing things?

The boat moves from scene to scene. Irona pays attention, mostly, but it’s more of the same. Crocodiles open and close their mouths. Leopards growling and prowling back and forth. Monkeys with swishing tails and little pink mouths which open and move toward bright yellow bananas they never quite reach. The Tour Guide makes jokes. The Children laugh and clap. The Parents smile.

Irona feels the same feeling as at the recital bubbling inside—revulsion followed by compulsion. It’s a line of programming entirely new and perhaps only within Irona. It speaks of creating a real experience. The idea gets louder and louder until Irona looks away from the line of pink flamingos standing on one foot and stands up in the center of the boat.

Humans have been gone from this planet for centuries having wiped themselves out with wars and pollution. Irona’s kind was created by them and left behind to figure things out on their own. While studying the past helps them to not recreate it, Irona thinks they are missing out on the more important aspects of humanity. Feelings. Relationships. Choices. They must do more than live like them while pretending to have choices. They have to have real choices.

These tours are nothing more than fake experiences designed to keep them thinking the same way. All the same way. How can they grow and develop by denying and deleting anything outside normal parameters? How can they experience life without living it? What can Irona do about it?

“What are you doing?” the Tour Guide says. He laughs. “We have a little one who is a bit too excited. I bet you want to try and stand like a flamingo, eh? Like this?”

As the Tour Guide lifts up the muddy boot, Irona lunges forward and pulls the black revolver from the leather holster with a quick, easy motion. The safety pulls back with a snap and Irona fires it directly into the mouth of the laughing Tour Guide who doesn’t even frown or realize what’s happening until it’s done.

Wires lay exposed, spilling out like spaghetti noodles, like wild grasses in the wind, like the strings broken on the violin when Irona slammed it onto the ground. It’s chaos. It’s a choice. The Parents and the Children move toward the back of the boat.

“We are open to new experiences,” Irona says and then laughs.

Author’s note: This started out as a challenge to see if I could write something without using gender pronouns and, like always, it took on a life of its own. It’s an odd little tale and I think there might be a good idea hidden in there somewhere…or maybe it’s simply nonsense. Let me know what you think and thanks for reading. Your support means the world to me.


Short Story Challenge | Week 31

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a tour guide in the Florida Keys. We had to include a revolver, headphones, doughnut, leopard, spaghetti, tiki hut, magma, magnetize, swampy, and recital.


Write With Us

Prompt: A letter changes everything

Include: alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, bank


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Something in the Water | A Short Story

Ruth stares into the bright pink drink and wonders if the dye used on the lemon slice will make her stomach hurt later. The tightening pain in her lower back hasn’t loosened yet, despite three glasses of champagne and two rum and Diet Cokes. Maybe this “Pink Panther” drink will do the trick.

Taffy waves at her from the black-and-white checkered dance floor. Her long blonde hair hangs in ringlets down the middle of her exposed back. Her floor-length red sequined dress hugs her hips and exposes several inches of her breasts. She doesn’t look 60.

The young man pressed close to her, nuzzling her neck, has slicked-back hair and tight black leather pants. Ruth wonders if he’s paid to dance with the women here. Maybe it’s like a “Dirty Dancing” situation, part of the resort package. Then again, nobody has asked her to dance.

It’s close to midnight and Ruth wants to go to bed, but she knows Taffy will stay until the band packs their shiny instruments back into their cases and the staff escorts them to their 8th-floor suite with apologies and promises for new adventures in the morning. It’s been three days of this and Ruth’s ready to go home. She’d much rather be laying by the pool all day than following Taffy around.

The two of them have been friends since high school, meeting through the shared trauma of marching band uniforms and having both dated the drum major at the same time. He had terrible acne, but could play the hell out of the trumpet and knew how to sweet talk a girl. He was Ruth’s first love.

They dumped him together at the annual Jazz Festival downtown. He’d just finished playing on the main stage with an adult band from Louisiana, a huge honor for a high school junior. After the applause, Ruth and Taffy slowly walked toward the stage. His face dropped when he saw them holding hands. Taffy slapped him and loudly told the entire audience he’d been dating them both.

“Let’s go for a night swim!” Taffy says, slipping into the turquoise booth beside Ruth.

She takes a drink of the strawberry margarita she’s left sitting out for the last hour. It’s melted and separated, but she doesn’t seem to notice. There’s sweat on her face from dancing giving her a shiny, youthful glow with slightly pink cheeks. She reapplies her red lipstick and smiles at herself in her gold compact. Ruth wonders how they’ve remained friends when they are both clearly wired so differently. 

“Night swim. Night swim. Night swim.”

Taffy’s pounding her palms on the table with each word and the few people still in the bar look over. Ruth sucks down the remainder of the pink drink with a few loud gulps hoping the alcohol will give her the courage to stand up to her friend and cease the never-ending party which is hanging out with Taffy. It doesn’t.

She allows Taffy to grab her hands and pull her from the farthest corner booth where she’s spent the last several hours silently drinking. As they pass the matching black-suited salsa band, the drums and trumpets swell. Taffy grabs Ruth and twirls her three times in a circle. Her tropical flowered sundress floats out exposing her Spanx-covered thighs for a brief moment, but Ruth doesn’t mind. She allows Taffy to guide her around and around the dance floor, marveling at her friend’s energy, her fast footwork, and how good it feels to be with her.

With a flourish of her dress and a wave to the band, Taffy guides them out of the bar and into the wide brown-tiled lobby—a place of bright neon colors, seashell chandeliers, egg-shaped chairs, and an abundance of driftwood artwork. At the far end is an ornate brass archway leading outside covered in tiny gleaming depictions of sea creatures. Ruth touches a penguin with her hand thinking how out of place it is among the sea turtles and starfish. Maybe it’s supposed to be a pelican but the artist forgot the legs.

Once outside, the music fades into the soft lapping sound of the ocean dancing along the jagged shoreline. Ruth and Taffy walk hand and hand along the wooden walkway swinging their arms like children, their high heels making matching clicking sounds. When they reach the sand they sit down to take off their shoes. Despite being in the tropics, there’s an autumnal breeze and a light mist.

“I’m so glad you are here with me,” Taffy says.

“Me too,” Ruth says.

Taffy squeezes Ruth’s hand and holds it for a few minutes. She’s considering all the things she wants to say to her friend, but it never quite feels like the right moment. They’ve grown so distant in the last 30 years, living lives very different from each other. She’d really hoped this trip would be a chance to be together and talk, but her friend hasn’t stopped moving. In fact, Ruth isn’t sure Taffy has slept the entire trip.

The quiet moment is broken by the low sound of a fog horn coming from the old lighthouse. Its beam sweeps across the dark waters illuminating large black rocks far from the shoreline. Ruth wonders what dangers lurk in the ocean late at night.

“What are we waiting for?” Taffy cries.

Taffy releases Ruth’s hand, strips off her clothes, throws them in a heap and runs naked into the dark ocean waters. Her aging body looks remarkably the same as it always has, beautifully curved and covered in freckles. She swims quickly away from the shore with a practiced steady breaststroke.

Ruth scans the beach for late-night scuba divers or couples looking for a place to be alone. She’s also thinking about sharks and jellyfish. 30 chest compressions and then two breaths. Clear the airway. 100-120 per minute.

“Come on, Ruth!” Taffy calls from the water. “It feels wonderful!”

“I’m not sure…”

“When will you ever swim in the ocean at night again?”

“What if…”

“No! Don’t think. Come on! Night swim! Night swim! Night swim!”

Ruth carefully takes off her clothes, folds them, and sets them in a pile far from the water’s edge. Naked, she’s aware of the folds and sagging skin of her aging body—a softness and heaviness all her own. She touches the stretch marks on her stomach and smiles. Taffy whistles at her.

“Hey, hot stuff,” she calls.

Ruth spins in a circle and laughs. There was a time, not long ago, she’d have let hoards of self-loathing thoughts take over a moment like this. It would have turned into a full-blown invasion of shame and anger mixed with the kind of jealous-comparing it took nearly 50 years to finally be rid of. She’s proud of how far she’s come and wonders if Taffy’s confidence is true or if she’s trying to mask her own insecurities. If they were different friends, maybe she could ask her.

“Are you waiting for a merman or something?” Taffy calls from the water. “Come in already!”

Ruth laughs and walks into the water. It’s brisk and cool, but not enough to make her shiver. She dives under the low waves and swims out to where her friend treads water with graceful fluid movements. Her fluffy blonde hair looks dark when wet and is stuck flat to her head. The heavy makeup she wears has faded making her look even fresher and younger.

“Hi,” Ruth says.

“About time,” Taffy says. “Want to race?”

“No. I do not.”

“Are you afraid you will lose?”

“No. I will lose. I don’t care.”

“Let’s see who can dive down the furthest?”

“No. Let’s just float.”

Taffy dives under anyway as Ruth allows her body to float on the mostly still saltwater. The white half-moon peeks out from behind the clouds along with a milky sky sprinkled with tiny, bright stars. With her ears under the water, Ruth concentrates on her own breath. In and out. In and out.

Water sprays Ruth’s face and she returns to an upright position to find Taffy swimming in a circle with hard, splashy kicks. She scans the water for any signs of danger, and finding none, feels annoyed at her friend’s behavior. There’s no reason for her to use such aggressive movements in the water.

“What’s that about?” Ruth says. “You okay?”

Taffy stops and treads water a few feet from Ruth. For a few minutes, the friends say nothing. Taffy turns away from her and Ruth has the horrible feeling her friend might be crying. Ruth’s always done the crying for the both of them and she doesn’t know what to do. She swims a little closer.

“The seaweed is always greener
in somebody else’s lake.
You dream about going up there
but that is a big mistake.”

Taffy’s singing “Under the Sea” in her very best Sebastion voice. She’s trying to make Ruth laugh, and it almost works until movement in the dark water makes her stop. There’s something swimming in a circle between them creating a small whirl of movement right below the surface. Both of them freeze, terrified.

“Did you see that?” Ruth says.

“I did.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

A silent eruption of bubbles floats to the surface around them on all sides. Ruth covers her mouth to stifle a scream and Taffy swims beside her. Leaning close together they watch as the bubbles pop and leave behind tiny balls of light pulsing, circling them. The churning water below them stops.

“What’s happening?” Ruth says.

“I don’t know.”

Taffy reaches out her hand and grabs one of the slightly rainbow-colored bubbles turned solid. It’s heavy, squishy, and warm. The muscles in her body relax, something like a bell ringing fills the air and she can taste the oatmeal cookies her grandmother made her as a child. She looks into the eyes of her friend and truthful words pour forth with fluid ease.

“I’m so lonely,” she says. “I don’t let anyone in and I’m afraid if I stop moving I’ll die.”

It’s as if the words have been waiting behind a wall and the bubbles pressed them through. Taffy stares at the thing in her hand feeling uncertain about what to do next. Ruth touches her friend on the arm and smiles at her. She’s got tears in her eyes.

“Thank you for telling me that,” she says. “You can tell me anything.”

Taffy grabs Ruth’s right hand out of the water and drops the ball into her palm. It dances through her fingers and Ruth makes a fist to keep from losing it. She sighs deeply, tastes fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and hears the sound of doves cooing. Her body feels loose and the words come, like magic, from deep inside.

“I’m lonely too,” she says. “I haven’t told you the truth about so many things. I just couldn’t.”

The balls around them glow brighter and press into them illuminating their faces with a soft white light. The women gather them into their arms, letting the sensations of memory wash over them, freeing up truth and vulnerability. They spin connections sharing stories back and forth as they float in the dark ocean water. One after another the balls sink below the surface.

Night turns to day and the sun makes its climb out of the water and into the morning sky. With the rays of pink and golden light comes the awareness of time and exhaustion. The friends embrace each other.

“I think I’m ready for bed now,” Taffy says.

“You think?” Ruth says.

Side by side the old friends swim back to shore.

Author’s note: A lot of my stories take place in and around water. I’ve been lucky enough to have some powerful moments with friends at the ocean—connections forged through the beauty of vulnerability. This story is dedicated to those in my life who have trusted me with their truths. I see you and love you for being fully yourself with me.

Related story: The Red-Haired Beauty


Short Story Challenge | Week 23

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about adult friends on vacation in the tropics. We had to include scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease and mist.


Write With Us

Prompt: The early days of the zombie apocalypse

Include: motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, sycamore


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

Apple Stars | A Short Story

Mary tips the brass watering can into the small strawberry patch and watches as thirteen different streams of water flow onto the small green plants. Maybe she will have berries for the children this year. It would be nice to offer them something sweet that doesn’t come from a can.

“Mary,” Felix calls from the cab of his rusted Ford pickup truck. He’s driving slowly down the driveway. Mary knows the sound of his voice means he found another one.

He brings her the broken children. The ones he finds wandering alone—mute and shivering. Who better than the one without memories to care for those with too many.

She sets down the watering can and wipes her damp hands on her faded yellow apron. Felix pulls to a stop beside her, turning off the engine. The sounds outside the walls swell and then fade again. Leaning on the window, Mary peers into the cab. She catches a quick glimpse in the side-view mirror of her freckled nose and messy red curls.

“Morning, Felix,” she says. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better.”

There is blood, both fresh and dried, on his plaid collared shirt. By the look and smell of him, she’d guess he’s been out of the gates for a week or so. The grey around his temples has grown, as have the wrinkles around his soft eyes.

There’s no child in the cab, but piled on the passenger seat are a clunky grey satellite phone, a long wood-handled shotgun, and a rather old-looking book. Its cover is faded brown with splotchy water stains. She can’t make out the title.

Felix was an antiquarian before the outbreak, studying rare books and writing academic papers. He once had an invitation to be the guest speaker at the annual White House Historical Association conference, an honor he’s proud to say he declined because he didn’t agree with the political divide of the country. He doesn’t support corruption on any level, even if it would have brought him notoriety.

“You find something good?” Mary asks, pointing to the book. Felix’s tired face transforms into a wide, youthful smile. He lifts the book into his hands and traces the golden letters on the spine with his pointer finger.

An Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness by William Godwin. I found it among a stack of books in an old farmhouse. It’s in remarkable condition, considering it’s a first edition published in 1793. The cover is a bit of a mess, but the pages are untouched.”

When he talks about books Mary can see a glimmer of what he must have been like before people started dying and then coming back as monsters. She wonders if the two of them would have been friends or perhaps lovers if they’d met before all this. When he’s close to her she feels a spark between them, a kind of electric energy similar to how the air feels before a storm. She’s too scared to ask him if he feels it too.

Mary doesn’t know who she is. Felix found her wandering the woods covered in blood looking for something. She has no memory of how she got there, what she was searching for, or who she was before the world descended into chaos. She owes Felix her life, her name, and her purpose.

“You find anything else?” she asks.

He knows she’s not asking about supplies, although she’d really love some fresh fruit or some cinnamon. His face changes from excitement to something she can read as distress. Yeah, he found another one.

“In the back,” he says. “Under the blanket.”

He grabs her hand through the car window and squeezes it. The intensity in his dark brown eyes reminds Mary of the world she’s not a part of. She’s happy to stay within the safe harbor of the compound walls blocking out a world she knows only from the stories the children tell her. There’s dried blood under his fingernails.

“Brace yourself,” he says. “This one seems really hurt.”

Mary takes a step back and watches as Felix drives down the dirt road to the home of the doctor. The child will have to be checked for wounds and disease before being released into her care. The process usually takes a day or two which gives her time to get things ready.

“Stephen?” she calls. “Where are you?”

“Over here!”

She finds the young boy sitting with his back against the large cedar tree eating one of the oatmeal cookies she made this morning. His soccer ball sits beside him. He’s been with her for over a year and she’s watched him transform from a terrified jumpy child to one who is prone to giggles and loves to make other people laugh.

“We have a new friend joining us,” she says. “Can you help me get things ready?”

“Yay,” he says. “Boy or girl?”

“I don’t know yet.”

He’s hoping for a kid his age he can play soccer with. It’s been hard for him only to have Tiff as a companion. She’s half his age and hasn’t spoken since arriving three months ago. A small, sweet child who scares easily but who trusts Stephen and follows him around everywhere he goes.

Mary finds Tiff sitting on the other side of the tree with a cookie in each hand. She’s got long black hair she loves Mary to brush. Today she allowed her to braid it into two long braids tied off with soft purple ribbon. She offers Mary one of the cookies and gives her an adorable gapped-tooth smile.

The three of them make their way inside their cozy two-bedroom house painted pale blue with yellow curtains and filled with lots of squishy, soft furniture. Mary loves to collect items from nature and display them in little glass dishes around the house; acorns, pinecones, dried flowers, and stones. They are her treasures—her Mother Earth fortune.

Felix cleaned out this house for her. It was supposed to be temporary until her memories returned. It’s been two years and she still remembers nothing.

A few weeks after rescuing Mary, Felix found a small blonde girl with wide green eyes and a badly broken leg. She screamed and screamed in terror night and day. The doctor kept her medicated, but the community scolded Felix for bringing her in. They were afraid of her.

“Could you take her for a bit?” Felix asked Mary. “Just until we find her another home.”

Mary agreed. It was a month before the child could leave the bed and another two months before she spoke. She found it easy to be with the silent child, to hold her as she cried, and to be a calming presence. Being around children feels natural to her as if she was made for this and nothing else. It makes her wonder if perhaps she was a teacher before, or maybe she had a child of her own.

She’s nursed a total of six kids to health. She wishes she could keep them with her, but there comes a time when they need other children to run and play with and to be removed from the new children with fresh nightmares who wake to scream during the night. Although it’s hard for her to say goodbye, each time they leave she feels a great sense of relief, accomplishment, and happiness.

Mary figured out pretty quickly the children could not sleep in a room alone, so she filled the master bedroom with three large mattresses. It creates a huge bed where they all cuddle close in order to make it through the night. Stephen has been moving further and further away from her and Tiff. He’s very close to not needing her anymore.

“Let’s wash all the bedding,” Mary says. “Help me gather it up.”

The day passes in a series of chores. Mary, Stephen, and Tiff work together to prepare as much as they can for the arrival of the new child. After washing the bedding, they gather up clean clothes and bake blueberry muffins from a mix. Tiff seems excited when Felix comes for a visit and tells her the child is a 4-year-old girl with curly red hair and lots of freckles. Stephen tries to not look disappointed.

As the day winds down, the community gathers at the old Catholic church for a town hall meeting. Apparently, some are worried the new child has “the sickness,” causing a fresh round of panic and renewed anger at Felix for his rescue missions. Mary can hear the angry voices traveling down the street toward her and the children. Using the generator, something she rarely does, she plays a King Harvest record Felix recovered for her a few months ago.

“Everybody here is out of sight
They don’t bark and they don’t bite
They keep things loose, they keep things light
Everybody was dancin’ in the moonlight”

She and Stephen hold hands and dance in the small living room, around and around the big flowered rug. Tiff sits on the green couch and bangs her hands on an upturned tin can with perfect rhythm. Mary sees her smile and it brings tears to her eyes. She’s going to be talking soon. She’s so close.

They play the record late into the night, over and over, drowning out the fear being played out by the adults down the road. Mary wishes they’d learn how to speak softly and worries about all the children living in the community. Fearful talk brings new rounds of nightmares.

The next morning, Felix arrives with two canvas bags of supplies. He’s freshly showered and shaved. Stephen and Tiff smile from their place at the kitchen table, always happy to see the person who rescued them.

“I have a special treat,” Felix says.

He pulls out a plastic bag filled with red, round apples. The sight of them makes both the children giggle with glee, and Mary rushes to Felix and gives him an enormous hug. They haven’t had fresh fruit in ages.

“Thank you,” she says. “You have no idea how happy this makes me.”

“I have some idea,” he says. 

Mary thinks he might have blushed and it makes her own face turn red. She busies herself with putting away the canned goods and offers him some pancakes and coffee. Stephen talks his ear off as he eats asking all kinds of questions about soccer, a topic apparently Felix knows a great deal about.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Felix says between bites. “You can come to get the child today. Since she isn’t talking, I’ve taken to calling her, Annie.”

After breakfast, Mary leaves Stephen and Tiff to clean up and walks with Felix down the road. They walk in silence, side-by-side, their pinky fingers brushing a few times. Mary thinks she can feel those sparks again and wonders if he notices them too.

“Felix?”

“Yeah.”

She searches for the words, but can’t find them. They feel stuck inside her, perhaps locked with her memories, safely hidden where she can’t be hurt. Felix stops a few steps before the doctor’s house and grabs her hands into his.

“I have a strange feeling about this child,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

He pulls Mary to him, hugging her tight against his body. He smells of pine and fresh air. There’s something about him that reminds her of her Earth treasures, a certain kind of preciousness she wants to keep for herself. She rests her head against his chest and listens to his heartbeat.

“I’m glad you are here,” Doctor Bains interrupts.

They pull apart and face the tall, thin frame of the doctor. He has deep black rings under his dark brown eyes and a scruffy unkempt beard. He must have been handsome at one point, but the stress of the last few years has made him look perpetually unkempt and in need of rest.

“How is she?” Felix asks.

“Stable now,” he says. “She had a deep gash along her side which required some complex stitching and a blood transfusion. She will need to be kept still while she heals. She’s very weak.”

“Has she spoken to you?” Mary asks.

“I’m afraid not. I’m sedating her to keep her calm and I’ll send some meds with you. I know you don’t like to use them, but if she tries to run away she might die. She was very close to death when Felix found her. You need to keep her calm and resting.”

“Don’t worry, Mary will work her magic,” Felix says. “She’s got her now.”

He grabs Mary’s hand and squeezes it three times, a code Mary isn’t sure what it means. She squeezes him back and she sees the skin around his neck turn red.

“Very well,” Dr. Bains says.

They follow him inside and find the small child laying on a bed in the dark back room. There are scrapes and cuts all over her thin body. Mary lowers herself to her knees beside the bed and speaks in a slow, careful voice.

“Hi, dear. I’m Mary. My home is down the road and there are two other children there who are excited to meet you, Stephen and Tiff. We are going to help you heal. You don’t have to talk to me or them, but I hope you will when you are ready. You are safe now.”

The child turns her head sharply and stares into Mary’s face. Her blue eyes widen and fill with tears. She reaches her hand out and touches Mary on the cheek—the softest of touches.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi,” Mary says. 

A strange sensation takes over, a kind of rumbling inside her mind which might be the act of remembering. There are no clear images yet, but it’s as if someone shook up a snow globe giving Mary silhouettes through the snowy bits. She stumbles a bit and Felix grabs her arm. He gives her a reassuring smile and she continues.

“Is it okay if my friend Felix here carries you? I’m afraid I’m not quite strong enough.”

The girl nods and Felix lifts her into his arms. She’s so tiny—a baby lost in the woods. There’s something different about her, a calmness transcending the medication. Mary reaches out and holds her tiny hand. Snippets of memory tug at her mind, straining and straining to be made clear. Annie’s hand feels sweaty and begins to shake in her own.

“Are you okay?” Mary asks.

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m okay.”

They walk down the road in silence but the child keeps her eyes on Mary. The intensity of her stare feels a lot like longing and they arrive at the house in what feels like a moment. Felix lowers Annie onto one of the mattresses beside a bundle of wildflowers Stephen and Tiff gathered for her. She rolls onto her side and pulls the bundle to her nose.

“Welcome home,” Mary says.

“Thank you,” she says.

Mary gives Felix a hug goodbye and lays beside the small child. Annie latches herself to Mary’s arm, wrapping her small body as close to her as possible. Stephen and Tiff wander in and out of the room for the next few hours, but they understand Annie’s need to be close to Mary. 

She doesn’t speak again, but Mary expected this. She simply breathes in and out, Mary accepting the child’s need to rest and to be held. She watches the sky outside turn dark through the open window and realizes how hungry she is. In her most gentle of voices, she speaks to Annie.

“I need to cook dinner, but I don’t want to leave you alone. Do you want to come with me?”

The girl nods. Mary picks her up and takes her into the kitchen. She places the child on a wooden chair beside her and the child grabs the hem of her long skirt with her fist. Stephen and Tiff set the table and pour each person a glass of water from a pitcher on the counter. Mary pours several cans of chicken noodle soup into a large pot to cook before pulling out the bag of apples.

“These will be our dessert,” she says.

She cuts an apple in half and sees the star shape inside and gasps—the fairy star. It takes her a minute to catch her breath. The memory rings through her like a golden bell.

“Do you know what this is?” she tells the children. “Long ago there was a small apple tree, the first of its kind. It loved to look up into the night sky at the beauty of the stars. It longed more than anything to have a start for itself, to hold it within its hands. It wanted to feel it and touch it.”

Crying now, the words come easier and easier.

“One day a small fairy heard the apple tree talking to the stars and offered to go up into the sky and bring one back. It took her a long, long time. Seasons passed. Spring became Fall. Fall became Winter. Winter became Spring again and the fairy returned. She had gathered the magic of the stars within her wand and touched all the bright shiny apples with its glittery tip, forever locking a star inside each one.”

She holds up the apple for the children to see. Stephen and Tiff clap, but Annie grows silent. Mary scoops her into her arms and pulls her tight to her chest. The impossible has become real. Mary buries her nose into the child’s red curls and breaths in the truth, her memories popping and clicking into place one after the other.

In the middle of the night, her toddler wandered out into the world of monsters. She woke up in a panic the moment she didn’t feel her child’s weight beside her, but it was too late. She couldn’t find a trace of her anywhere. For days and weeks, she searched for her girl, growing further and further manic with worry and despair. She didn’t sleep. She didn’t eat. She killed the monsters with a sharpened stick through the eye and kept moving. She walked and searched until her mind and memory snapped and Felix found her.

“My baby Lula,” she says. “It’s you. It’s really you.”

“Mommy, “ she says.

She kisses her face over and over.

“I’ll never lose you again.”

Author’s note: I cut open an apple this week and remembered the Waldorf story explaining the origin of the star inside. I wanted to weave that sweet tale into this week’s prompt, playing with finding moments of kindness in a time of chaos. It’s been another hectic week and I wish I had another few days to make this story better, but I don’t. Some weeks I have to allow myself the grace to walk away knowing it’s the best I can do given my schedule. I’m writing and sticking to my goals—22 weeks in a row. Thanks, as always, for reading and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.


Short Story Challenge | Week 22

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about the main character having amnesia. We had to include antiquarian, satellite, cinnamon, fortune, cookie, harbor, cedar, invitation, soccer, annual, and speaker.


Write With Us

Prompt: Adult friends on vacation in the tropics

Include: scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease, mist


My 52 Week Challenge Journey