You carve our names “E+K” into the ancient oak behind your daddy’s church in hopes I’ll see, but I’ve grown tired of playing your endless
games. My drawers overflow with your teeny-tiny top-secret messages penned on newspaper scraps— “I miss you,” “meet me behind the old Bulto Market,”
and “kiss me, dearest Kate, I’m dying for you.” Just words. I need more than blue-eyed winks and brief hidden embraces. My love needs
sunshine—warm, bright, radiating fire so vibrant it can’t be stoppered or hidden. Explosive volcano love, running thick down our bodies. Popcorn love, loud hot
buttery passion devoured with both hands. Instead, you give me your blurry photograph standing at 301 Caroline Street, our secret kissing place. You write in
sweeping curvy letters “this is not very clear, but it’s still me. Eddie.” Blurry love is what you offered, thinking I’d accept, but I deserve
someone who wants our love to be broadcasted, shouted, screamed into the streets. Bullhorn loud love. Free to be me love. So, I chased you
onto the old bridge, calling out through hot tears, “choose all of me or none of me.” The bright moonlight stretched my dark shadow so
it covered you entirely as you walked away without looking back. My young love never wavered, but yours wasn’t brave enough to fight. It’s funny
now, finding your thoughtless dare scrawled in ink, “see how long you can keep this.” I kept it forever, blurry Eddie. Not for you, though
I stayed in focus.
Shoebox Poetry: This is the second poem in my series based on an old box of photos I inherited when my grandmother died in 2004. I don’t have any idea who Eddie was, but I wanted to rewrite a possible old love story as a moment of empowerment for my grandmother. She was a fierce woman and I like to think she kept this photograph as a reminder of her strength. If someone out there happens to know Eddie, sorry. This is pure fiction and I’m sure he is/was a lovely man.
Stepping through the maze of twisting vines covering mother’s garden shed, I open the round wooden door and enter without her permission. I need to see what she’s been hiding from me. A sharp, tangy smell fills the air and my bare feet squish into the wet soil. I can’t believe I’m finally doing this.
Streaks of light follow me into the dusty darkness giving me a narrow view of the interior of the shed. I see no shelves. No jars. No baskets. Nothing at all but an empty room. Although it’s small, the dark space above me is filled with scuffling sounds and feels much larger than it looks from the outside. I’m not afraid of the truth, I say to myself and take another step.
Reaching my hands above me to check for cobwebs, I stand on tiptoes and peer into the shadowy rafters. I can’t see anything, but the ruffling sounds increase and I freeze. A moment later, something small and round zips through the air and lands on the fingertips of my left hand.
Remembering all of the puncture wounds on my mother’s body, I brace myself for an attack, but nothing happens. After a few deep breaths, I gather my courage and rotate my hand slowly. The unknown critter hops several times until its heartbeat pounds into the curve of my outstretched palm.
For years I’ve been convinced my mother has been hiding the world within her shed and now I’m certain this living thing in my hand is the key to unlocking it. Lifting it closer to my face and into a streak of sunlight, I see it’s a little black bird with glossy unblinking eyes and a bright orange beak.
It’s the same type of bird I see perched in the peach tree outside the kitchen window every morning while I eat breakfast. I see them in the evening too, sitting in the thin branches of the birch trees while I play in the yard behind the house. Why has mother hidden them in her shed? The bird in my hand coos as if trying to answer and I bring it even closer to my face.
“Hello, little bird.”
I’m not supposed to be here, but the bird doesn’t seem too concerned. It chirps loudly and the sound is answered by hundreds of flapping wings above me. Wispy, dark feathers fall like autumn leaves onto the braids of my hair, the curve of my freckled cheek, and the tip of my upturned nose.
Each place they touch tingles with electricity and heat, moving inward through my body. When the sensation reaches my gut, it explodes. It’s as if the core of my body has been waiting for this moment to truly come alive. I don’t know why my mother tried to hide this from me, but I found it anyway. The truth rushes through me.
All the times I stood in front of the large mirror in my mother’s room and spoke to my reflection as if it might be able to answer me, I wasn’t wrong. Another world does exist, layered beneath ours. It calls to me. Closing my eyes, I picture myself sprouting wings and diving into fluffy pink cotton candy clouds. The world below looks much smaller than it did before, or have I grown bigger?
The birds continue to fly around me, cooing and singing in a language I can partly understand. Mimsy. Snozzwangers. Heffalump. Nerkle. As their wings brush against my cheeks and arms, the words flow through me bringing images of fantastical delights. If I could stay here forever I know I’d learn their language and their secrets. I could become like them.
The metallic thud of a car door closing silences the birds in an instant. Mother’s home from the store and if she finds me in here I’ll be in big trouble. I open my eyes and the birds have all scattered—returned to the dark shadows of the rafters. I want to call out promises to return, but I don’t want to risk being heard and I’m not sure I’ll be able to come back. Instead, I walk out the door and close it as quietly as I can behind me.
I’m a mess, covered in feathers and smelling like the sticky mud on the bottom of the shed. Without looking toward the house, I run through the thick birch tree grove to the shallow creek which separates our property from those of Old Man Stefan. Birds circle and scream in the sky above me, but I don’t know if they are the birds from the shed. I can’t make out what they are saying.
Mother will be calling me soon to help cook dinner, so I dangle my feet into the cold creek and splash water onto my bare legs and arms. It’s icy cold and I shiver slightly. The sun has moved to a place behind the trees and the sky has a golden tinge that will soon grow purple.
The water flows slowly, causing several clumps of vibrant green algae to wave gently. A small gray spotted fish darts out from behind a pile of smooth river rocks. It opens and closes its mouth and I have the strangest thought—if I stick my head in the water will I be able to hear it speak?
Although I know my mother will be calling me soon, I have to try. Laying on my belly on the grassy shore, I plunge my head into the water and listen intently. The rushing sound of the water as it flows over the rocks is occasionally interrupted by an odd popping sound, but I don’t hear any voices. Forcing my eyes open, I see the fish mere inches from my nose. Its large, round eyes stare at me and its mouth continues to move but I don’t understand what it’s trying to say.
Surfacing, I shake the water from my braids and tell myself I’m being silly. The birds didn’t speak to me and neither can this fish. The certainty I felt in the shed has faded and I’m far less confident any of it is real. It’s as if a magical silk was drawn across my eyes coloring the world and is now removed again. I’m suddenly very tired. I cover my face with my hands.
Minutes pass and I only lift my head when I hear the sound of several birds landing in the trees across the water. They stare at me with dozens of shiny black eyes and the warming sensation in my gut flares to life again. I have a feeling I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t know what.
A single black feather floats from the trees and circles above the water. I watch it dance back and forth before it lands delicately on the surface, balanced like a water bug on its spindly legs. Before the current can rush it away, the same grey spotted fish swims frantically to it and bites at its soft uneven edges. I have the sense it’s trying to tell me something so I lean closer to the water.
“You want to be a bird?”
I’m not sure why I say it, but incredibly, the fish nods its head and stares back at me. Okay, I think, I can do this. Lowering my hand into the cold water, the fish quickly swims into my palm. I close my fingers around its wiggly body and pull it out of the water. I stare at its round fish eye for a minute before closing my own eyes.
Using all my imagination and concentration, I picture one of the birds in the shed. I concentrate on the way the feathers fold across the body and the way the beak curves on the top. The fish wiggles in my hand and then goes limp. I open my eyes slowly, afraid I may have killed it, but it worked! I did it!
A small black bird, exactly like those in the shed or those in the trees staring at me now, sits in my palm blinking at me. I giggle as it shakes its wings, nods its head, and flies into the sky. Splashing around in the muddy dirt beside the creek, I watch the bird soar overhead diving and flipping through the clouds. It seems so happy. I’ve never been more proud of myself.
“Ta-Ting! Ta-Ting! Ta-Ting!”
Mother rings the metal triangle by the back door three times which means it’s time for me to go inside and help with dinner. I wave goodbye to the fish-turned-bird and skip my way back home. I don’t remember ever feeling this happy.
Mother puts on her favorite jazz record and luckily doesn’t seem to notice my muddy feet. She hands me the apron covered in lemons and sets me to work peeling potatoes and carrots. She seems lost in thought and I’m happy to work in silence as she seasons the chicken, adds my veggies to the tray, and puts it in the oven.
While dinner cooks, I do my evening chores. I sweep the kitchen and living room, dust everything, set the table, and change into a nice dress for dinner. Mother and I eat in silence, passing the rose-colored salt-and-pepper shakers back and forth. She seems in a good mood and I’m lost in thought. Dinner passes quickly.
After dinner, we do the dishes side-by-side, like always. She washes and I dry. She hasn’t noticed any change in me and I’m doing my best to act normal.
I’m not supposed to know about the magic of the birds, but it’s all I can think about. I wonder what other magic I can do. Does the creature have to want to be changed? Can I change things into something other than birds? Could I change Old Man Stefan’s mean cat into a toad? The thought of the scraggly mean cat croaking and jumping across the fence makes me laugh. Mother notices.
“What’s so funny?”
Mother stops washing the dishes and stares at me with her hands on her hips. I know this stern look and I try hard to keep a neutral face. I don’t want to give away my secret.
“Oh, I was thinking about a funny joke I heard at school…”
It’s a stupid lie and I immediately try and think of a joke I could use if she asks me what it is, but her attention has switched to my hair. She pulls a black feather out of my braid and holds it up to the light. Her face goes from slightly annoyed to angry.
“How could you? I told you to stay out of the shed because it’s dangerous, but did you listen? Of course, you didn’t. You think rules don’t apply to you—little miss perfect. It’s because you think you are better than me, isn’t it? You think the birds won’t attack you, huh? You are wrong, child. You have no idea what you are playing with.”
Without drying her hands and before I can say anything in response, she slaps me hard across the face. I stumble backward and drop the towel onto the floor. She picks it up and throws it onto the counter, knocking over two glasses that tumble to the floor and shatter.
“Look what you made me do! You are an ungrateful brat! Go to your room. I don’t want to see your face anymore.”
Rage prickles through me like a spiny monster trying to get out. Images of throwing things and slamming doors run through my mind, but I know if I act on those feelings everything will get much worse. I’ve never seen my mother so mad, so I do my best to appear calm by hanging my apron on the hook by the door, walking slowly to my bedroom, and shutting the door with a delicate click.
Throwing myself onto the bed, I scream into my pillow until it’s soaked through with tears and my body goes limp. Rolling onto my back, I stare out the window at a crescent moon and wonder if the birds in the shed are still singing mimsy and truffula. Mother will be doing paperwork by candlelight at her desk. I wish I could ask her about the birds. I wish we could talk about anything.
Mother painted my room pale yellow when she was pregnant with me and it’s remained the same color. I scan the three shelves above my bed, looking at my collection of neatly arranged stuffed animals, framed artwork, and little glass figurines. The kids in my class have much messier rooms, but I’ve always been proud of how much I can be trusted to care for my things.
On the shelf closest to me, tucked between a reproduction of “Starry Night” and a stuffed blue penguin sits a glossy glass black bird with a delicate tiny beak of pale orange. I’ve got a collection of ten birds, all given to me by my aunt Nona as birthday presents. She wraps them in pristine white silk and includes a note saying, “Happy Birthday little bird” in curling cursive letters. I wonder if these gifts were meant to be hints at what I discovered in the shed. Does she know? Can she do the same magic?
Without thinking, I reach my hand toward the bird and call it to me.
“Come here, little bird.”
The warming sensation in my gut returns as the bird shakes its wings, chirps softly, and glides from the shelf to my outstretched palm. It breathes slowly and I stroke its soft feathers. It’s alive! I made this bird real just by thinking about it. A rush of excitement thunders through me and suddenly I’m giddy with possibility.
“Come, little birds, come and play with me!”
Singing the words as brightly and cheery as I can, the effect is immediate. A swirling mass of wings and chirps fills the air as the nine figurines come alive and land on the bed around me. Before I can say anything to them, several paintings around the room shake as colorful fantastical birds wiggle out of the frames and join the blackbirds on the bed. These are fuzzy and colorful, unclear but beautiful.
The chorus of birds sings around me. Woozles. Borgroves. Runcible. Versula. As the words worm through me and tell me stories of lands unlike mine I’m dazed with wonder. Tales of horned villains, talking bears, and flying broomsticks. I’m swept away by it all until I hear my mother’s voice in the hallway.
“We need to talk.”
Her voice sounds soft and I know she’s sorry for what happened earlier, but she’ll quickly return to anger if she finds all these birds in my room. I’m not sure what to do, but the birds seem to sense the danger and fly quickly into my open closet. I shut the door softly as my mother walks in. She looks at my ruffled blankets and at the closed closet door and frowns.
“What’s going on here?”
It’s absolutely not convincing, but surprisingly she lets it go. Smoothing the blankets on my bed she pats the spot beside her and I sit close enough our legs are touching. She’s got a new bandage on her wrist, covered in tiny dots of blood. She grabs my hands and squeezes them hard in hers.
“You don’t know the horrors of this world, and I’m glad for it. I don’t like being like this with you, but it’s my job to protect you. Please, please, forget about the shed and the birds. Okay? They are not for you and it will only lead to you getting hurt.”
The word escapes before I can stop myself, but she doesn’t yell. She squeezes my hands harder and speaks in a low, sad tone.
“They will show you things you will want and can never have, my child. Those worlds are not for you and will only make you hate the one we live in. Forget the birds. Come and listen to music with me in the parlor. I’ve made hot tea and we can forget all this unpleasantness. Okay?”
I nod my head and, as she kisses my cheek, I look toward the closet and know the birds are waiting for me. For now, I must keep this power to myself, but someday I’ll be able to let the birds fly free and I’ll join them. We will travel to all the worlds together and maybe I’ll even convince my mother to join me.
Author’s note: This story began as a writing assignment meant to explore my own legacy of writing and how I came to be a writer. I had the idea of using birds to represent books and equating the act of writing to magic. Partway through the story, I got into my head and doubted the very premise of the idea. I was stalled out for weeks, but I finally pushed through and finished it. My dear editor friend said it reminds her of a Studio Ghibli film and I couldn’t think of a better compliment to receive. Let me know what you think and I hope you have a wonderful day.
There once was an orphan who traveled alone at sunrise through a vast forest. As the pink sky touched the cold ground the wind woke. It swirled and roared. It raged and tugged. The orphan was startled but didn’t stop.
She double-knotted the yellow ribbon in her hair, tucked her silver locket beneath her old cloak, and walked and walked. The world around her was alive with sounds, but she heard none, for she was lost in the depths of her enormous grief.
It came to pass she found herself at the bottom of a steep hill facing a rather large tortoise. The two looked at each other for a long time without speaking. It was the tortoise who finally sliced through the silence with his rough, slow voice.
“I’m dying. There’s no other way to say it.”
The orphan didn’t know how to respond and so she said nothing. The wind blew bits of stones and leaves down the sloping hill, some of them landing on the tortoise’s large, round shell. The orphan picked them off one by one.
“I’d like to die at the top of this hill and not the bottom, for it’s better to go up than to go down. Don’t you think?”
The tortoise spoke with certainty, but the orphan had never thought of this before. After giving it several minutes of consideration, she nodded her agreement and spoke.
“I will help you.”
With this, she and the tortoise started up the side of the rocky hill. The going was very slow as the tortoise was old and the wind blew strongly. Each step required a considerable amount of effort. The girl tried everything to move the tortoise faster—lifting, pushing and pulling. But the tortoise was too large and she was too small.
“I don’t know what to do.”
She sounded defeated, but the tortoise blinked at her with watery eyes and said nothing. He had faith in her and so she had to keep trying.
Hours passed with very little progress and although the orphan tried as hard as she could to remain positive, she soon became gloomy and frustrated.
“Wind, do you hear me? I need your help.”
The wind isn’t used to people speaking directly to it, so it decided to answer.
“What do you expect me to do?”
It didn’t take the orphan long to come up with an idea, for she was a clever child with an earnest heart.
“If you could blow in the other direction, it would help me in pushing the tortoise up the hill.”
It wouldn’t be hard for the wind to change direction, but it was stubborn and didn’t like being told what to do.
“What will you give me in return?”
The orphan looked at the tortoise and at herself. She had very little to offer, but not nothing.
“I will give you my yellow hair ribbon if you help us.”
The wind had been tugging at the ribbon for most of the morning and it did indeed want it. The color matched the sun and the wind thought it would look lovely soaring in the clouds.
“Very well. If you give me the ribbon, I will help you.”
The orphan felt sad, for her father gave her the ribbon, but it was the only way to help the tortoise. She untied the double knot and the wind ripped the ribbon from her hand in an instant. She watched it fly through the air and then felt the breeze change, so it pushed at her back.
“Thank you, wind! Now we will reach the top in no time.”
Indeed, the orphan and the tortoise made great progress up the hill, but as the sun reached the center of the sky they came upon a rushing river too wide to step across and too fast to walk through. The water splashed at her bare feet and she again felt gloomy and frustrated.
“I don’t know what to do.”
It seemed an impossible thing to cross such a river, but the tortoise blinked at her with watery eyes and said nothing. He had faith in her and so she had to keep trying.
“River, do you hear me? I need your help.”
The river was used to people crying tears at its banks or throwing in wishing stones but rarely did someone address it directly. It was impressed by the orphan and decided to answer.
“What do you expect me to do?”
It didn’t take the orphan long to come up with an idea, for she was a clever child with an earnest heart.
“We need to cross your waters but you are too fast. Is there a way you could slow down to let us pass?”
The river could slow, but it rarely did so. It was proud of how strong and fast it flowed.
“What will you give me in return?”
Again, the orphan looked at the tortoise and at herself. She had very little to offer, but not nothing.
“I could give you my shiny locket to dance within your churning waters. It would look very pretty amongst the rocks and the fish.”
The orphan pulled open her cloak and the river saw the sparkling silver heart strung around her neck. It did want to feel the joy of having something so stunning in its waters.
“Very well. If you give me the locket, I will help you.”
The orphan was sad, for her mother gave her the locket and it contained a tiny picture of the two of them, but it was the only way to help the tortoise. She gave the smooth silver a kiss and threw it into the water.
In a flash, the locket was swept away by the fast current. The water laughed with glee and then started to slow. Soon it was a narrow brook, bubbling over a sea of colorful stones. Although their feet got a bit wet, they were able to cross and continue on their way.
“Thank you, river! Now we will reach the top in no time.”
For a while, they walked on easily with the aid of the wind, but soon it came to pass that a giant boulder made of dark grey stone landed in front of them with a booming thud. It covered the entire path and the orphan could see no way around it. She pushed and kicked at it, but it did not move and again she felt gloomy and frustrated.
“I don’t know what to do.”
She wanted to cry for the boulder was so gigantic and heavy, but the tortoise blinked at her with watery eyes and said nothing. He had faith in her and so she had to keep trying.
“Boulder, do you hear me? I need your help.”
The boulder didn’t respond, but a tiny troll hiding within its shadows did. It stepped out and scowled. It looked almost human except for its body was covered in twisting dark mushrooms and its skin was dark grey.
“What do you expect me to do?”
It didn’t take the orphan long to come up with an idea, for she was a clever child with an earnest heart.
“We need to get to the top of the hill. Could you move the boulder for us?”
The troll didn’t trust humans for they always made fun of its ugly appearance, but the child didn’t laugh or make faces. The troll scratched its belly and sat on the ground crossing its legs in front of it.
“What will you give me in return?”
Again the orphan looked at the tortoise and at herself. She had very little to offer, but not nothing.
“I could give you my cloak. It’s not fancy but it will keep you warm and will make it easier for you to pass through town without being noticed.”
The troll liked this idea very much. Moving a boulder was easy for such a reward.
“Very well. If you give me the cloak, I will help you.”
The orphan was sad, for her grandmother had made the cloak for her, but it was the only way to help the tortoise. She unclasped the wooden button holding it in place and handed it to the troll.
With great delight, it leaped to its feet and flung the cloak around its hunched shoulders. Almost invisible within the black fabric, it pressed the boulder hard with its gnarled hands until it wiggled free from the path and rolled down to the bottom of the hill.
“Thank you, troll! Now we will reach the top in no time.”
The troll ran toward town and the orphan and the tortoise continued on. As the orange sun touched the horizon, signaling day’s descent into night, the wind slept and they finally reached the very top of the hill. The tortoise settled beneath the shady branches of an old oak tree and smiled widely at the orphan.
“Thank you for helping an old tortoise to make its final journey. I will die now, but before I do I must ask for one final favor. It’s very important to me.”
The orphan looked down at her pale pink shirt and torn blue skirt. She had nothing for the tortoise and the thought made her very sad. She wanted to help but her ribbon, locket, and cloak were gone. She had nothing else to give.
“What could I give you?”
The tortoise wanted to say “you have given me so much already” but it had very little time left. Instead, it extended its neck as far as it could out of its shell and spoke its final words.
“After I have died and the moon rises high in the sky, take one of the rocks from the ground and smash my shell to pieces. Promise it will be done.”
The girl was horrified at the thought, but the tortoise blinked at her with watery eyes. He had faith in her and so she said she would do as he asked. He smiled, closed his eyes, and within moments the great big tortoise had left the world.
A full moon danced across a sky of bright blinking stars. The girl wept for the tortoise and then for herself. Not only was she an orphan, but she’d given away the last remaining pieces of her life. There was nothing left to do but fulfill her promise to the tortoise and hope for a better tomorrow.
It didn’t take her long to find a big rock, and with her eyes squeezed tight, she hit the shell as hard as she could. It made a loud cracking sound and she fell backward onto the ground.
It was several minutes before she dared to look, but she was astonished when she did. The tortoise shell lay split down the center and instead of exposing the soft body within, the shell was filled with glittering gold pieces and bright colorful gems. It was a large enough treasure to live the rest of her life in comfort and luxury.
The orphan cried happy tears for she would not have to struggle anymore.
“Thank you, tortoise. I shall never forget you.”
The girl tore a piece of fabric from her skirt and made a pouch to hold the treasure. As she walked to town, she imagined all the ways this good fortune could be shared with others. For she was indeed a clever child with an earnest heart and would live happily for the rest of her days.
Note: In my writing class this week, we read an article on the elements of a good fairy tale. It brought back many fond memories of reading to my kids before bed and their years of Waldorf schooling.
With a burst of inspiration, I wrote this fairy tale in a single afternoon. It’s very different than my typical writing style and I actually broke some of my writing rules, but it felt like the thing I needed to write—some levity during a time of struggle. I hope this story brings a smile to your face and maybe you can share it with a child in your life.
The orange trees killed my father. It wasn’t their fault, not really, but grandmother says she can’t forgive them for allowing her only son to fall from their twisting branches to the hard ground below. After the windowless van takes away dad’s unmoving body, she lugs a huge ax from the old woodshed and hacks away at the trees until nightfall. Ker-chunk. Ker-chunk. Ker-chunk. She piles all the bright, round fruit and glossy green leaves in the center of the yard and lights them on fire with a red jug of gasoline from the garage. I watch her from my bedroom window as a slight breeze licks the flames and grandmother dances around them. When the smoke clears I see a thick, fuzzy white mold growing on her skin. It spreads quickly, growing thicker and darker. I smell the sickly scent of rot and decay from inside the house, but mother won’t let me run to grandmother—even after she screams. As the sun rises and turns the sky golden pink, we hear her curse the trees with her last dying breath.
I didn’t mean to break free, not really. The ancient ones taught me how to flow from one tree to the next, how to coax the leaves to turn toward the light, and how to root myself deep when conditions are harsh—but I’m curious. And restless. When the fire starts, I squirm and fight. I don’t want to do the same thing as always, to snuggle deep into the earth and stay dormant in the suffocating darkness of the soil until I find another tree to crawl into. No, I want to burst free, to fly and soar, and to experience sensations I’ve never felt before. On a whim, I jump and catch a breeze and find a new home in an old woman’s skin. At first, the softness and warmth are divine. I move with her and through her. I dance and sway, but she fights our connection. Her blood boils and churns. She screams. I feel myself changing from a tiny life force of trapped light into some combination of the woman and me, but her body gives out and she falls lifeless to the hard ground. I burst forth as a crackling mist of tiny flickering particles. I move with the wind and spread myself out in all directions, becoming one with everything I touch. I’m free. I may have transformed into a killer, but it feels too wonderful to stop.
My grandmother is the first to succumb to the mysterious sickness, but not the last. It spreads quickly and soon it isn’t just orange trees we fear, but all trees. No longer can we collect acorns in our pockets and sit with our backs pressed against the rough bark of the towering old oaks, or listen to the golden songs of the marsh wrens while hiding beneath the sweeping thin arms of the willows. Trees are dangerous. Rustling leaves are death rattles, warning us to run. The poison travels by leaf and by seed until the tree itself becomes nothing but mold and ash—like the body of my mother, my neighbors, and all my friends from school. Those of us still alive cover our skin with thick layers of cracking mud and crawl into rock caves or underground bunkers, anywhere the tiny particles can’t find us. We learn to run and we learn to hide. I’ve gone from the loving center of my family of three to a homeless orphan in a world where shade means monsters and a fragrant breeze means death.
Spring becomes summer and the winds stop blowing. I settle all over the earth as a yellow dusting—a thin layer of fine pollen. The animals rush through me and I catch rides on their fur, but they always wash or shake me free and I’m left laying at the bottom of a river or on the hot ground. Stuck. Although I am abundant, bountiful and many, a singular emotion forms within me—restlessness. I want the adrenaline surge of newness again, the thrill of excitement I had when I boiled in blood for the first time. I want more. I catch a ride on the back of a tiny mouse and plan on moving into a ripe red strawberry, but on a whim, I move into the furry creature instead. Its body reacts—spinning, boiling, transforming. I sing with the feeling and rejoice. I’ve found my new playmates.
In the middle of summer, the sickness moves to the animals. We find their bodies everywhere. Some are covered in sickly sweet-smelling white mold, others in spidery green threads that crisscross and pin the lifeless bodies to the earth. The sickness seems to grow inside and burst free, or perhaps it grows on the outside and bursts in. Nobody can tell. The occasional bird or mouse darts quickly past, but sightings of larger animals have stopped altogether. Life seems to be dying off and it makes me think of dinosaurs and extinction. Will my bones become a fossil for some future scientist to ponder? The family I’m traveling with leaves me beside the road because food is running scarce and they are scared, but I’m a fast runner and I’m good at hiding. I climb up a mountain and find an abandoned cave to make my home. Despite the soaring temperatures outside, it’s nice and cool inside. I lay as still as I can listening to the brisk silence. It’s a crisp, bare sound and I grow to appreciate how it echoes around me noiseless and clean. It’s far better than the hot silence outside the cave—the thick, deadly stillness that whispers “death is coming for you” without making a sound at all. I try not to listen to the growing panic inside me, but as my cans of food dwindle I’m finding it harder and harder to live alone in my cave of silence.
The harsh stillness of summer gives way to the blustery winds of fall. After months of being unable to dance in the breeze, I’m overjoyed at the thought of twirling through a cloud of colorful leaves. I grab hold of the first big wind and soar effortlessly across a cloudless sky looking for a tree or creature to explore. I find nothing. No birds. No trees. No sounds. The land has become barren and flat, covered only in the moldy remains of those I’ve touched. Rolling emptiness spreads off in all directions and the marred remains create an unfamiliar ache within me. It’s a conflicting sensation of triumph and loss. I’m a creature of light, but this feels more like darkness. How did I become the opposite of life? The currents lift me and I travel over the crumbling rocks remembering bird songs and children climbing trees. I search for signs of anything left, but I fear this realization comes too late. What have I done?
Winter comes without a sound. I watch as the snowflakes fall. I’ve scavenged everything I can and it’s not enough. I’m not going to make it. Crawling to the edge of the cave, I push my hand out into the air and a chill travels through me. Shivering, I see a fleck of orange on my palm. I scream and rub it on the rocks, but I fear it’s too late. The sickness has found me at last. A voice speaks inside me, a soft whispery sound I’m certain means madness, but I listen anyway.
“I’m sorry dear child. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“I’m going to die,” I say to the voice. “Like my mother, my grandmother, and the birds. I’m going to die in this cave alone.”
“You aren’t alone. I’ll stay with you.”
The voice brings warmth. It wiggles through my body and I crawl toward the center of the cave and fall asleep.
Redemption. The word rings through me and I cling to it. Riding on the breezes, I gather all the scattered parts of myself and cover the child with a thick blanket of life. I don’t try to become her, I try to heal her. I breathe air into her lungs and move blood through her veins. Outside the world is covered in white but inside I’m remembering my purpose and I remake things. The strength of the ancient ones flows through me and I hope it will be enough. Everything I am, all my many multitudes of particles and energy, I pour into the small child on the stone floor. Cracking the rocks, I break the ground into tiny pieces and regrow life. It ebbs out from the child and from me like rivulets of liquid stars. The earth shudders and shakes, moving with us, becoming a new land—a new start. The moon watches, winking above, singing her soft lunar lullaby and nodding her approval.
A honey smell tickles my nose and I wake in the cave but find it’s no longer the same. Silence has transformed into bird song, rocks into towering trees, and the bleakness of winter into spring’s happy sun. Rested and calm, I stand on strong legs and spin in a circle. The air sweetly dances with me. I’m alive. Above me towers a beautiful tree, covered in delicate white petals and round ripe fruit. I climb into the strong branches and reach through the glossy green leaves to snap off a bright shiny orange. The rich citrusy smell makes my body shudder with joy. Sitting within a curve of the tree, I peel the sticky fruit and throw the thick peels to the soft ground below. The first bite bursts with juice and it drips down my chin and through my fingers. A fuzzy yellow and black bee buzzes around my head and I think it speaks to me of second chances, but I can’t be sure as the marsh wrens are calling and I feel the urge to run.
Author’s note: This piece was inspired by the orange trees in my grandmother’s backyard and was written as an assignment for a class I’m taking called “Exploring Your Aesthetic.” The challenge was to play with form and story structure. I found the assignment challenging, which probably means it was the exact thing I should be doing. Let me know what you think of this story, particularly if the format feels different enough and if you found the story engaging. Thank you for your continued support!
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.
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.
Someone watches me from within the shadows of the curving metal archway of Hotel TwentyThree across the street. Although all I can see is a vague dark shape, I’m sure of two things—it’s a man, and his eyes are fixed on mine. Protectively, I pat the stack of freshly printed pages tucked in the inner pocket of my black, woolen coat and lick off my peppermint lip gloss.
The icy rain has turned the sky into a hazy, vertical river and I press my back into the farthest corner of the tiny bus shelter and hope the man can’t see me. The next bus won’t be here for another 20 minutes, perhaps longer due to the storm. I’m running out of time.
A car drives through the gutter creating a small tidal wave of grey water which soaks into my soft leather boots. An old oak tree scrapes its branches against a third-story window of the hotel and raindrops thunder against the bus shelter’s metal roof. I pull the edges of my black woolen cap further over my ears and try to disappear.
Time folds around me, an odd constricting as if I accidentally wrapped my checkered scarf too tight around my neck. Several people come and go through the doors of the hotel, but I stare at the dark shadowy shape of the man willing my instincts to be wrong. A dog barks. Another dog answers.
The rain stops for a brief minute and the sun casts a single ray of light onto the shiny wet pavement in the center of the street. It’s at this moment the man reveals himself by taking two steps forward. He’s tall and thin with a sharp, angular face. I wrap my arms around myself and take tiny sips of the too-cold air.
He’s found me again. His piercing blue eyes meet mine and I’m falling. The deepest part of the ocean. The dark spot on the moon. Chaos.
It doesn’t matter how much time goes by or how far I travel, he finds me every time. My body can’t decide how to react—it flushes hot with anticipation and shivers with fear. He makes me crazy. I look for a place to run, but it’s pointless. He’s already spotted me.
Without breaking eye contact, he crosses the small foyer and steps off the curb. His careful, graceful movements suggest he might be kind and gentle. He isn’t. He’s a fierce rushing river. A smooth, hard stone. A prowling, sleek panther.
The rain returns, but he’s unfazed by the water falling onto his curly, thick, black hair. He walks straight into the road and past the spot the sun touched moments ago. A battered grey truck almost doesn’t see him, but slams on its brakes at the last second honking madly. He doesn’t look up but instead keeps his eyes fixed on mine. An invisible cord pulls him closer and I wonder who controls it—him or me.
A raven cries out and my legs stop working. I fall sideways into the glass wall of the bus shelter and see the word “rouge” written in cursive red letters. I close my eyes and his scent reaches me—saltwater, driftwood, and wet paper. The day we met, more than 20 years ago, plays as it always does when he arrives.
Mother didn’t want me to come on her beach vacation, but my father didn’t want me either. I sit with my back pressed against a large piece of driftwood writing in a notebook my 7th-grade English teacher gave me on the last day of school. It’s got a field of bright sunflowers on the cover and I love it.
I’m trying to ignore the sounds my mother and her new boyfriend are making under the stripped umbrella off to my right, and the fact his hands are under her bathing suit again. It’s slightly overcast but the beach is packed with families. I wish I’d been allowed to stay in the hotel room.
My teacher says I have a natural writing ability and I’m trying to prove myself worthy of her compliment by writing a poem about the ocean. My words flow slowly and I’m concentrating so hard I don’t notice the boyfriend until he’s ripped the notebook from my fingers.
“What do we have here?”
“Please, give it back!”
My voice sounds desperate and it makes him smile. I hate the look on his face. My mother isn’t around to see what happens next. How he stands with one hand on his hip and holds the book up high with the other. How with a ridiculous screechy voice meant to imitate me, he reads my words loudly for everyone within earshot to hear as I run around him grabbing at the book.
Flowing, like my breath, the waves whisper my name. “You aren’t wanted here,” mother said, but the wind tells me another story.
The boyfriend laughs, as does a mother and son sitting on a beach towel a few feet away. Others join in and by the time my mother returns, the boyfriend has thrown my notebook into the ocean. It bobs up and down in the waves erasing my words, sucking the ink to the bottom of the sea.
My mother tries to comfort me, but I run from her, diving into the cold churning water. I fish out my soggy pages, cradle them to my chest, and run along the beach until I find an empty rock cave. I sob into the echoing space, listening as my pain becomes its own kind of thundering wave.
It’s in this moment of sorrow, as I tell myself writing doesn’t matter anyway, the man appears. At first, he’s nothing more than a silhouette in the cave entryway. A shadow I tell myself is an illusion or a trick of the light, but then he comes closer and I feel his warmth. His blue eyes meet mine and I fall into them, the color of sapphires or the hottest part of the flame.
I’m scared of him at first, but he stays with me for the rest of the trip. He speaks to me of love. He tells me to trust him. When I get home, I pack up all my books in a box and shove them into the back of my closet. I don’t need words anymore.
Opening my eyes, I see him staring at me. He looks exactly the same today as he did in the cave—fiery blue eyes, black leather knee-high boots, tight grey pants, a flowing white shirt, and a gold brocade jacket with a high sweeping collar. A medallion sits on his chest, a silver circle with a large blue stone. I resist the urge to touch it, as he presses closer. A soggy cigarette hangs from his perfect pink lips.
“We meet again, my love.”
I want to argue with him, to scream “I’m not your love,” but I’d be lying. Every part of me wants to dive into his arms and let him smother me with suffocating kisses. He knows this and presses close enough to warm my lips as he speaks.
“It’s been a while and I see you have written more. Still struggling, are we? Still fighting to be heard.”
I don’t like these words. Standing upright, I place my palms on his broad chest and push hard. The heat of his body moves through mine. He takes the cigarette from his lips, tosses it into a puddle, and pushes himself into my palms. His muscles tighten beneath my hands and my words come out far weaker than I intend, fading to barely a whisper with the last word.
“I’m fine. I don’t need you. I prefer the struggle to you…”
He steps back, pulls my hands from his chest, and kisses each fingertip. Shivers of memory come with those delicate, breathy touches—decades lost in his seductive embrace. I’ve missed him. As he speaks, he unwinds the scarf from my neck.
“Come with me, my love. I have a room across the street covered in candles, waiting for you. The bath is drawn, warm, and smelling of lavender. You only have to let the pages go, take my hand, and we can spend eternity together. Isn’t that what you really want?”
Dropping my hands, he grabs tightly to my waist and snaps my body to his. The pages flatten between us as his mouth finds the spot on my neck marked years ago by him. He kisses it softly, using his lips and tongue. My body screams in response, begging me to surrender. His voice oozes around me, through me, invading every cell.
“Aren’t you tired?”
His lips are on mine now. Honey. Buzzing. Madness. I’m slipping, but he holds me in place with his strong arms. It would be easy to be his again. Isn’t this what I want—to be loved? Pulling back he cups my face with his hands. His eyes are madness maddened—swirling pools of intensity.
“You’ve tried so hard, but you aren’t very good, are you? It hurts me to see people laughing at you. They don’t know you like I do. I’m the only one who truly sees you.”
Tears fall instantly at these words and his large hands move from cradling my face to circling my neck. His thumbs press into my throat, trapping my words, making it hard to swallow. He drips more warm poison into my ears and I think of Hamlet, and then Ophelia.
“You know all those people who say they like your writing…they are being nice because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you. I’d never lie to you because I’m the only one who loves you. I’m the only one willing to tell you the truth.”
While still speaking in the soft tone of a lover, he takes one hand off my throat and unbuttons the top button of my jacket. He’s going to take my words and throw them into the puddle with his cigarette. They will become mushy garbage. Aren’t they already?
“You’ve given it a try and it didn’t work out. The time has come to stop trying. Writing and creating isn’t who you are. They are a thing you tried and failed at. It doesn’t have to define the rest of your life.”
He’s at the second button.
“You deserve a life of ease and comfort. No more waking up early to write or trying to make deadlines nobody cares about. You can sleep in. You can throw away all those pesky books and notepads. You can stop thinking so much. All we need is each other to be happy.”
He’s at the third button.
“You are a fraud, my love. It’s only a matter of time before everyone knows. It’s best you stop now and give up this silly, childish dream. Honestly, it’s foolish to cling to dreams at your age. Aim lower. Be content with less. I’m all you need now. Let me be your dreams.”
His hand slips into my jacket and his fingers touch the stack of freshly printed pages. Dreams. Dreams. Dreams. The word becomes a hole and I’m falling, falling, falling. I land at the bottom and sit in the blackness. It’s cold and scary, but I know this place. I’ve been here many times before.
I light a match and stare at the tiny dot of warmth in a sea of nothingness. I watch it with fascination as it grows and grows. Images come into view in the flickering light, words too, they dance and play—cave drawings, ink on parchment, a typewriter in a back room, a glowing laptop.
I’m surrounded by a sea of sunflowers. The bright golden blooms move slowly with the setting sun. I’m not alone. Characters stand around me, a bit hazy and unclear, but they are speaking to me. A tiny fairy who doesn’t like flowers. A teenage girl stepping out of the shadows of a dark family legacy. A world where art has become weaponized.
What will happen if I quit writing? Will he truly love me and care for me? He’s left me before. Once I give him my words to destroy he disappears. Without the struggle, he doesn’t want me.
I’m Alice sitting across the messy tea table from the Mad Hatter. “First you lose all hope, and then everything is arranged in the best way.”
I’m Dorothy standing beside Glenda the Good Witch in the courtyard of the Emerald City. “You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”
I’m Anne sitting across from my friends discussing exams. “I’ve done my best and I begin to understand what is meant by the ‘joy of the strife.’ Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.”
His scent surrounds me and pulls me back. The smile on his face has left and he’s gripping the pages within my pocket hard and pulling at them. They won’t budge. Not an inch. He’s breathing heavily and the hand holding my neck loosens at the sound of the bus approaching, its hissing brakes sound like a freedom bell.
I grab his hand and pull it out of my jacket. His eyes are darker now, grey storms in a sea of blue. The bus door opens as I’m buttoning my coat closed.
“I’ve got to meet my editor,” I say. “It was nice to catch up.”
His cheeks redden as he reaches a weak hand toward me. I sidestep it easily. The power he held over me has temporarily lifted. Even if his words are true, I’m going to keep writing. My characters need me and I need the struggle. Life isn’t about easy.
The bus driver and I exchange pleasant words as I pay my fare and take a seat in the back near a window. When the bus is pulling away, I look at him. He’s the same as ever, beautiful and scary. Our eyes meet and in them is the familiar “see you later” look. He will return. Nothing about him ever changes, but I do. I’m getting stronger.
“You have no power over me,” I whisper as he becomes a blurry image lost behind swirling raindrops.
Author’s note: I’ve another short story for you this week. I’m taking a writing class called “Exploring Your Aesthetic” and the assignment was to personify one of the plagues of being a writer. I chose Imposter Syndrome and made him into a lovely little homage to David Bowie’s Goblin King. It was supposed to be a short writing exercise, but I spent days on it and decided to share it here. Let me know what you think and have a wonderful day!
A scrawny rat, eating Raisinets out of a crumbled yellow box in the dark alleyway, freezes when two thin blurry shapes blink into existence. The shapes flicker and wobble, slowly changing from straight fuzzy lines to the round full shapes of two women. With a squeak, the rat scurries along the brick wall and disappears behind an overflowing green dumpster.
Despite one being damp and the other smelling of rot, the two women remain untouched by the wall of icy cold rain falling heavily between the large brick buildings. In fact, the water seems to bend around them, creating an invisible umbrella-shaped shield. Neither of the women seems in a particular hurry to move.
“Kind of a shit-hole,” the tall one, named Tulsi, says as a damp unlit cigarette bobs between her bright purple lips.
Skeletal thin with slick white hair perpetually damp with sweat, Tulsi has sharp cheekbones and an even sharper chin. She wears dozens of clinking silver bracelets and bright purple track shoes. Her nose constantly sniffs the air and she has large front teeth, making her appear slightly like a rabbit.
“Didn’t choose it, did I?” the short one named Borage says in a slow, lazy voice before lobbing a glob of foamy spit into an oily puddle.
A woman of large fleshy proportions, Borage wears a billowy blue dress made of an aquatic-looking textile with moldy black stains along the uneven hem. She’s got long, tangly brown hair parted into dozens of tiny braids tied off with fraying pieces of multi-colored string. Thick droopy bags sit heavy beneath her milky grey eyes.
Neither of the women has been to this realm before, but it’s kind of the job. You go where you are told, traveling with the water, landing at a time and place perfect for collecting the next recruit. It’s a job neither of them loves or hates. It’s simply the job they have.
Tulsi reaches out her hand so the rain splatters on her long, curving purple fingernails. She’s thinking about the last few jobs and how much they fucked it up losing the recruits and almost getting seen. This time, she tells herself, she’s gonna pay attention and not let anything distract her. Lady Devlynd won’t give them any more chances. Borage stares at a fat silver watch on her left wrist and seems to be thinking the same thing.
“Our recruit will be here soon. Pull your hand back and be ready.”
With a hiss, Tulsi slams her arm to her side. She hates being told what to do, especially by her inept partner. They are equals after all, despite how bossy Borage has become lately. How long have they worked this job together? It’s been at least 52 cycles, perhaps more. Time doesn’t matter in this job. Collection is key. Completion is key. Colors are key.
Tulsi runs her hands down the length of her slender body, touching the living art hanging from her shoulders. Lilac, plum, violet, periwinkle, eggplant, grape, amethyst, iris, orchid, mulberry, wine. She collects shades of purple everywhere adding them as patches to her long, slick overcoat. Maybe she’ll find a new one tonight.
“Don’t even think about it.”
Reading her partners mind, Borage stamps her thick black boot hard onto the slick pavement and summons up the harshest scowl she can manage. She doesn’t like being stern, but one of them has to start leading. They can’t afford another fuck up.
Tulsi sticks out her tongue in response. They have the kind of deep understanding grown from time spent together, but it doesn’t mean they like each other. It’s all become so tiresome.
Borage touches the bulging leather sack tied around her wide waist with one finger before quickly pulling it away. She does understand. She’d much rather sweep through this uncharted world looking for wildlife to add to her etched bone collection instead of convincing yet another young recruit to come with them. They promised Lady Devlynd though—no gallivanting or wanton side missions tonight. This one is important.
Borage is about to ask Tulsi what the boy looks like again when a skinny teenager comes around the corner dressed in a dark black hoodie pulled up over his head. He’s got colors dripping from his hands and a backpack filled with spray cans. He’s already working.
“Hey kid,” Tulsi says. “Where ya going in such a hurry?”
His bright blue eyes snap toward them and widen. Instantly he can tell they aren’t cops, but a gut instinct says they might be something far more dangerous. He should never have come to Las Vegas, this wholesale freak show of a town.
“What do you want?”
He’s got a slight English accent and his voice sounds raspy, as if he’s fighting off a cold. The street lamp at the end of the alleyway lights up his face, revealing a thick silver septum ring and a tattoo of a green leaf on his left cheek. It’s definitely him.
The women exchange a confirming look and the boy steps backward until his backpack hits the brick wall behind him, making the metal cans inside clink loudly together. He’s got nothing left to steal, but he’s still scared. People find things to take even when you’ve got nothing left to give.
“We need you to come with us, kiddo. Don’t be scared.”
It’s the tall one speaking and she’s got the kind of fidgety energy the boy associates with drug users. Neither of the women moves toward him but he feels like they could be quick if they wanted to. He doesn’t intend to be a part of whatever they are selling.
“I’m not interested, ladies. My dad’s waiting for me and he’s not happy if I’m late.”
He presses harder into the wall behind him and realizes the rain isn’t falling on the women but instead arches over them like a watery rainbow. It must be some kind of trick to lure him in, but it doesn’t really make any sense. The larger of the women thrusts her hand into the rain and twists it in a circle. He finds himself unable to move.
“Ulrich, dear. We know you don’t have any family.”
Her voice is honey-thick and slow. He doesn’t like it.
“How…how do you know my name? Who are you?”
Smiling wide, she exposes a mouth full of brown teeth and bright red gums. In her thick hand is an orb of flickering water glowing as if lit from within. He stares into it and memories wriggle forth in waves. The ground tilts and rumbles beneath him as emotions take hold in terrifyingly rapid succession.
His mother is standing at the boarding gate with a small brown suitcase in her hand. He’s crying with his tiny fists clenched at his side. The adults are using words like radiology, chemotherapy, and metastasized, but he’s thinking only of burying his nose into his mother’s soft red curls and breathing in her rosemary and mint smell. Don’t go, mother. Please don’t leave me.
He’s drawing with crayons in a yellow kitchen crowded with hundreds of empty plates from his mother’s funeral. Her midwest family sent for him to come across the ocean, but they don’t want him. He hears them talking about foster care and youth shelters in the other room using words like burden, stupid, and troubled. He wishes the floor would swallow him.
A puffy-faced man hits him with a slender black leather belt in front of a room of other children all trying hard to not make eye contact with each other. He’s yelling words like idiot, moron, and useless as spit flies from his cracked lips. When it’s over, Ulrich packs up the few art supplies he’s managed to steal into his old backpack and runs away into the rainy night.
The orb of water falls to the ground with a tiny pop and flows instantly into a nearby puddle containing an old sneaker and a green tennis ball with a gaping hole in the side. Ulrich looks at the faces of the two women, screams, and runs from the alley. A streak of bright white flashes across the sky followed by the crashing sound of thunder.
“Shit,” Tulsi says.
“Go after him. I’ll be right behind you.”
The women are forbidden from entering buildings or interacting with creatures not being collected, so it makes it complicated when they run. Sometimes the memory bubbles are so intense the recruit falls to the ground sobbing and other times they choose this route. Borage hates the fleeing ones.
Lucky for them, this one isn’t hard to find. Tulsi follows his loud echoey sobs in the night, weaving through several blocks of dingy, greasy buildings until she locates the scared boy. His knees are pulled up to his chest and his back is pressed against an old rusted car at the end of a narrow lot. Weeds poke up through the cracks and it smells of gasoline and lighter fluid. The boy doesn’t notice when Tulsi arrives and stands quietly beside him.
It’s a long time before Borage finds them and she’s shocked to see both the boy and her partner crying wildly. She coughs and Tulsi lifts her eyes, pulls out a light purple handkerchief from her jacket pocket, and blows her nose loudly.
“What are you crying for? You’re not supposed to cry!”
“I hate when they are sad like this. This one’s had a hard time.”
They aren’t supposed to show emotion, but Borage puts a hand on her colleague’s boney shoulder and gives it a light squeeze. It’s hard to not feel for these recruits, these lost souls who Lady Devlynd will use to fuel her power. It’s a better life working for her, yes, but it’s not great. It’s not free.
“What do you want with me?”
The boy’s voice sounds deflated and his eyes are red and puffy. Rain pours in sheets upon him and Borage presses closer until her shield covers him as well. He wipes at his eyes with his wet sleeves.
“We’ve come to take you away from here. Where we come from we need people like you—artists. We need your vision, your artistic skills, and your colors.”
Tulsi sniffs loudly and hiccups. She hands the boy the slightly used handkerchief and he takes it. In a soft low voice, she adds, “We need your pain too.”
They aren’t supposed to say this part, but it doesn’t matter because the boy doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. She can tell he’s going to come with them by the way he’s moved a bit closer. She wishes they had other options, but they do not.
If they don’t deliver the boy to Lady Devlynd they will be cast back out into the blackness. It’s their last chance to prove themselves useful and neither she nor Tulsi wants to return to living without colors or feelings. She pinches her arm as hard as she can to avoid drowning in the memory of the blackness. She can’t go back.
Lobbing a wad of spit onto the ground, she touches her leather pouch and attempts to push away the swelling of emotions infecting her from being this close to the boy. They aren’t supposed to let the recruits’ emotions penetrate and soak through them, but tendrils of his pain snake through her layers like tiny spikes. Shit.
Although it’s not allowed and it’s a very bad idea, she can’t help herself. He’s so sad. She has to help just a little. A tiny bit can’t hurt.
Opening the leather pouch she pulls out a bone of a small absorbent animal from her original home—a water creature like her. She spits on the t-shaped white porous surface and spins it through her fingers three times before touching it to the forehead of the crying boy. Tulsi gasps.
Borage doesn’t respond. The bone burns red hot in her hand changing colors as it takes the sadness into itself—moving from light sky blue to the deep color of the bottom of the oceans of her home world. Tulsi grabs her shoulders and shakes her violently. Her head snaps back and forth.
“Stop! Please, Borage! Stop!”
She jerks the bone from the boy’s forehead and thrusts it back into her pouch, tying it closed instantly. The boy’s face has changed and she wonders if she took too much pain because he’s smiling. He’s got two perfect dimples in his soft cheeks. Shit, again.
Tulsi steps forward and grabs the boy’s hand, pulling him to his feet. He seems far sturdier than before. She plucks “Purple Rain” off his shirt and slides it into an empty spot on her jacket with a satisfying smile. Borage shouldn’t get all the fun.
“Time to go,” the big woman says.
The boy leaps at Borage and hugs her tightly around her middle. She feels his warm face press against her fleshy body and suddenly it’s all worth it. Even if she took too much and she’s cast out into the blackness—this moment is worth it. Feelings flood her and she does nothing to stop them.
With the boy holding hands between them, Tulsi casts the portal into the rain, and all three step through and disappear into the night. They leave behind a tiny puddle on the ground and a purple bud.
Author’s note: For my final story of the year I wanted to write a take on the classic henchmen story only turning them into women. It started out as a character piece and somehow drifted to being about a lot of things—52 stories, beginnings, endings, feelings, and connections. I love this little story and I’m so proud of how far I’ve come in this year of writing. I want to thank every single person who has given me a like or a comment. I’ll be writing a complete wrap-up sometime next week where I’ll tally up the number of words I wrote, how many comments/likes received, and the lessons I’ve learned. It’s been a wild ride and it makes me very excited for 2023. Happy New Year!
Short Story Challenge | Week 52
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 being caught in the rain. We had to include the words Las Vegas, radiology, etch, funeral, textile, sweep, wholesale, wildlife and English.
Sebastian doesn’t mind the dead. He’s lived his entire life surrounded by towering stone tombs, crumbling brick walls, and iron fencing. It’s the living he has a harder time with.
He let Tim and Matthew leave early, to be with their families, and microwaved himself a slice of cold pizza. It’s best to do this ritual alone anyway. He’s not sure the others take the responsibility as seriously as he does and they talk too much. Sebastian prefers the silence of the night.
After pouring raspberry tea into a dark green thermos, he wraps his red woolen scarf around his neck, buttons his peacoat, and leaves his little stone cottage on the edge of the graveyard. He doesn’t bother locking the door. Nobody comes around after dark on Christmas Eve.
The tiny twinkling lights of his small decorated tree can be seen through the yellow frosted window, it makes him smile. Mother would be proud he’s carried on her traditions. He hoists the big burlap sack onto his shoulder and gives a nod to the glowing, full moon casting its light in rings through the thick grey fog.
Although it makes sense to start in the center of the graveyard and weave himself out like his mother taught him, he makes a quick detour to her grave. It sits in the furthest south corner under a sprawling oak tree draped in soft Spanish moss. The silvery strands of garland look like flowing water in the moonlight—ancient silken gowns.
Setting the bag on the damp grass, he unties the brown twine holding it closed. Gently, he pulls out a small pine tree clipping tied with a soft red satin ribbon—the prettiest piece for mother. Kissing it softly, he places it on the curling carved letters spelling out her name. Margery Higgins.
“Merry Christmas, mother.”
His voice sounds soft in the night and it brings with it a memory of her singing “Thankful Heart” while cooking split pea soup on the old gas stove. She’s got her bright red hair pulled back into a massive curly bun at the base of her neck, and she’s wearing an old tattered apron covered in stains. Her voice manages to be both soft and strong—exactly like her.
“With a thankful heart that is wide awake I do make this promise every breath I take Will be used now to sing your praise…”
Wiping at his eyes, he closes the bag and weaves his way to the large mausoleum in the exact center of the dense city of the dead. Passing hundreds of stone crosses, carved marble angels, and granite slabs, he at last arrives at a crumbling plaster tomb carved with over 50 names. Reading each one quietly to himself he holds within his heart a space of honor and love.
After he’s finished he opens the bag and places a large pine branch across the names. His fingers brush a soft patch of moss pushing through a splintering crack in the gravestone. He whispers into the night.
Repeating this process he makes his way through his workplace and home, one of the oldest cemeteries in New Orleans. He takes his role as caretaker seriously. Around hour three his back feels tight and he stops to take a drink of his hot tea. Silence spreads around him in all directions, thick and cold.
A feeling wiggles its way through his layers and lands heavily in his chest. He’s running out of time to find her. He turned 40 a few months ago and although he’s told himself he’s fine on his own, visions of a woman walking beside him continue to haunt his dreams.
She’s got soft eyes and bright pink cheeks. They’d make the cottage a home again, filling it with music and laughter. He’d teach her how to honor those forgotten and she’d tell him nothing is impossible with love. The thought makes him smile, but it quickly becomes a frown. It’s too late. He’s out of time. He missed his chance.
A part of him wants to fall onto the ground and sob at the thought of spending another Christmas alone. His mother died 10 years ago and he’s tried so hard to remain hopeful, but loneliness presses in on him from all sides. Its crushing weight makes him stumble and almost fall.
He looks at the night sky, hoping for a sign, a bright star peeking through the foggy gloom or the call of a night heron signaling change, but the misty darkness remains still and silent. Sebastian wipes tears from his eyes and takes a big sip of tea, letting the warmth fight against the paralyzing fear which has settled firmly in his gut.
Flipping open his grandfather’s golden pocketwatch he confirms what he already knew, its almost midnight. He sighs. He better get to it if he hopes to finish before the first rays of morning light peak over the horizon and burn off the thick fog. Love must be given first in order to receive it. He tucks the thermos back into his pocket and continues.
Lost in his rhythm of reading names and leaving a pine offering on each grave, Sebastian doesn’t see the woman until he almost bumps into her. A thick scent of vinegar and roses fills the air and he clears his throat to announce his presence. She responds by turning slowly toward him with a graceful, smooth movement reminding him of a swan or crane.
Dressed in layers of smoky grey and black clothing, the plump woman has thick silver ringlets peeking out from beneath a dark, lacy bonnet. The word “matriarch” comes to mind. Her eyes are cloudy but contain a hint of blue—hydrangeas in autumn when the color has almost fully drained.
She’s holding a white handkerchief covered in tiny pink embroidered butterflies. Sebastian finds his voice but it sounds shaky and small in the night. Almost a whisper.
“I’m sorry if I startled you. Not many people visit graves in the middle of the night.”
She doesn’t look startled and it’s a lame apology. He’s not sure he should be giving her one anyway. People aren’t allowed in the cemetery after sunset and he wonders if perhaps Tim forgot to lock the front gate. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The woman makes a small movement, a sort of slight wave, and the handkerchief blows from her hand and lands at his feet. Sebastian lifts it and gently shakes out a few dried leaves which instantly clung to the feathery soft piece of cloth. He hands it to her and she smiles.
“Thank you, dear.”
Her voice sounds rumbly—a snare drum in the night. He knows he should tell her to leave, but the softness of her eyes stops him. It’s Christmas, a time of magic and love. She must miss the person she’s visiting an awful lot to risk catching a cold or getting caught.
He gives her his best reassuring smile. She’s standing at the foot of one of the oldest graves, a tiny brick house covered in cracks and adorned with a simple marble vase he sometimes fills with flowers. She speaks in a scratchy, dry voice—an old voice.
“I called him Benny and he called me Etta. In our 50 years together we never spent a Christmas apart. When love burrows its way deep into your heart nothing can stop you from finding each other again and again. My home is with him…always.”
The old woman smiles at Sebastian and reaches out her hand. It doesn’t quite reach him. Her voice rumbles louder now—cracking like weak thunder.
“You know what I mean, don’t you dear?”
Sebastian looks at his feet and nods. He doesn’t know the kind of love she’s talking about, but he wants to. The painful sensation of time slipping away vibrates through his body ringing like a brass bell. Where is she? Why can’t he find her? He presses the toe of his boot into the ground, making a round hole in the soft dirt.
The woman doesn’t move but, somehow, suddenly feels closer. Her eyes meet his and a rush of wind blows around them filling the air with swirling bits of dirt and dust. Sebastian closes his eyes and the woman speaks directly into his ear—a cold breath sending shivers through his body.
“It’s never too late for love. Don’t give up hope. She will find you. Keep your heart open. Magic happens for those who love and care for others like you do. Oh, dear, sweet, Sebastian. Don’t. Give. Up.”
In an instant, all is quiet and still again. Sebastian opens his eyes and isn’t entirely surprised to find he’s alone. Pulling out a small sprig of pine with tiny blueberries, he places it across the names Benedict Murray and Henrietta Murray—Benny and Etta. He smiles.
“Merry Christmas, Etta. I won’t give up.”
Throwing the burlap sack back onto his shoulder he moves to the next gravesite. This time he sings a little song.
“Stop and look around you The glory that you see Is born again each day Don’t let it slip away How precious life can be.”
Author’s note: With Christmas upon us, I wanted to write something sweet and hopefully touching for those reading during such a festive time. I hope you enjoyed my little ghost story and if you are feeling blue this time of year, please don’t give up. Keep being the loving beautiful soul you are and things will get better. Thank you for supporting me and lifting me up with all your wonderful comments on each of my stories. May your holidays be merry and bright!
Short Story Challenge | Week 51
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where magic interferes in New Orleans. We had to include the words matriarch, throat, impossible, vinegar, apology, snare, choose, raspberry, microwave, and slice.
“supreme moon— librate broken hearts trapped in adolescence
fertile mourning fields divine cooling light deliver them to Freya” -unknown poet
The rhythmic sound of my cell phone buzzing on my nightstand wakes me. I try to cling to the warmth of my dream, an image of a roaring fireplace in a cozy log cabin, but it fades away. The buzzing continues. I roll onto my side, unplug my phone and see Carly’s smiling face. It’s 3 a.m.
For a few seconds, she doesn’t say anything and it’s enough to allow my brain to flash through an assortment of macabre images of blood and death. I haven’t heard from her in over 6 months and a lot could have happened.
Fully awake now, I sit up in the dark room listening hard. My body feels fidgety and strange.
Carly’s breathing heavy and I have a new terrible thought—maybe she didn’t mean to call me at all. Music plays in the background, a deep pulsing bass, and my heart matches it. When she finally speaks it’s in a small, distant voice I barely recognize.
“Do you remember how you always wanted emerald shoes?”
Of course I do. When I was small my mother read the story of the Wizard of Oz to me and I pictured Dorothy’s shoes as sparkling green and wanted an exact pair. I cried when I saw they were red in the movie. Carly’s the only person I told the story to—the only one I trust with embarrassing details of my childhood.
Why is Carly calling me? Our last conversation was strange and filled with too many pauses—too many things unsaid. Now, she’s calling in the middle of the night with a question I can’t help but read more into. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
My body tenses as I lean over and switch on the lamp. I keep my voice as neutral as I can, but I know it sounds shaky. I grab a handful of blankets and twist them in my left hand.
“Are you okay?”
Carly laughs. It’s a lousy attempt at sounding casual. If Jonas hurt her, I’ll kill him. I shouldn’t have let her go.
I don’t believe her. The last time I saw her was over a year ago, the day before she moved. Jonas had spent months chipping away at my best friend, carving out pieces of her he didn’t like and replacing them with religious doctrine. When she left I barely recognized her anymore, and I wonder how much of her is left.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Vegas and I saw them—the emerald shoes. A dancer had a shiny pair and I thought…exactly like Harriet dreamed…exactly…”
Her voice fades out. None of this makes sense. Jonas controls everything she does and its way out of character for him to take her to Vegas. The alarm bells turn into sirens and I feel my body shiver at the thought of Carly alone in such a big city. I can’t come up with a single scenario in my head to make sense of any of this.
“Vegas! Why are you in Vegas? Where’s Jonas? Are you sure you’re okay?”
She ignores my questions and speaks in the same distant voice.
“The shoes are so pretty, Harriet. You’d love them.”
Jumping out of bed I pace across my faded yellow rug. Carly, my Carly, is calling me and talking about emerald shoes. The wall built around my heart to protect myself cracks slightly and I reinforce it immediately by reminding myself she’s gone. She chose Jonas. She left.
Vegas. The world of casinos, excessive drinking, Elvis impersonators, and drive-up wedding chapels. Wedding chapels. I fall onto the bed and close my eyes. Hardening my voice, I speak again.
“Why are you calling me Carly? It’s the middle of the night and you haven’t called me in a long, long time. What are you doing in Vegas?”
She sniffles and I realize she’s crying. Why is my Carly crying? I want to run to her and save her…but no.
“The shoes, Harriet. I saw them and I…well…I thought of you. I always wanted to find a pair for you, but I never did.”
I’m crying now, scared for her. All the old feelings I thought I’d cleared away bubble inside me. The more I talk to her the greater the intensity. My voice floats to the ceiling and circles above me like a ghostly shadow. Carly speaks again and I picture her face. I don’t want to. It’s too painful.
“I…I just wanted you to know I was thinking of you.”
I think about you all the time, but you left me, Carly! You left me! The words dart and stab at me long after she hangs up. I try to call her back but it goes to voicemail. I roll into a ball and cry until my alarm goes off.
On the drive to work, everything is Carly and I slam my fists into the steering wheel in frustration. I’d finally stopped looking at her photos and had started healing. Now one phone call and our history waves at me from every car and window. Everything is Carly.
We met freshman year in English class and bonded over our love of Edgar Allen Poe. She drew a raven on my hand and I couldn’t stop staring at her green eyes. By the end of the first day, I knew how to make her laugh and did it as much as possible. My world became wrapped up in all things Carly.
It wasn’t until our junior year I realized my feelings were more than they should be for a friend, but it felt too late. I watched her date an assortment of guys, each eventually breaking her heart. I’d run my fingers through her coppery curls as she lay across my lap until the pain of the loss wasn’t so big.
At some point, it felt like a betrayal to tell her how I really felt. I wondered if she’d think I was only being nice to her because I wanted her for myself, like all the guys she dated. So, I stayed quiet. Even after we graduated and she met Jonas. Even when she told me she was moving away. I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t.
Pulling into the parking lot at work, I wipe my eyes and blow my nose. I tuck my thick brown hair back in a bun and apply some mascara and lip gloss. It’s the best I can do today.
I still can’t believe I get to work at the independent bookstore in town. It’s my dream job and I love everything about it. Walking in the door the smell of the books distracts me and by the time I reach the back counter my heart isn’t screaming Carly anymore. It’s more like a whisper.
Trudi’s standing beside the espresso machine, smiling at me. Her curly blonde hair is braided today so it looks like a crown on the top of her head. Her lips are glossy and pink.
My legs freeze up for a moment, and a traffic jam inside my brain slows everything until I’m stiff and awkward. I’m smiling too big. I’m blushing. Her eyes are green and gold—sunset filtered through sweeping willow tree branches. I get so weird around her. I don’t know what to do with my hands.
“Would you like a peppermint tea?”
I nod, insecurity reducing me to a caveman. Don’t grunt or scratch yourself, Harriet. Take a deep breath. She likes you.
For months we’ve been flirting with each other, but I don’t trust it. What if she isn’t really into me, but just friendly? I don’t want to chase another Carly for years only to end up heartbroken and alone. I wish I could be sure.
Trudi fills one of the white mugs with hot water and adds two tea bags and a bit of honey. She’s wearing a silver ring on her right index finger with an oval piece of labradorite. I pull my necklace out of my sweater and wonder if she’s noticed we wear the same stone.
“Hey, I want to ask you something.”
Her voice is light and airy—no hint of nerves. She places the steaming mug on the counter in front of me and leans on her elbows. I try to look casual, but I’m shaking. I grab the mug with both hands and stare intently at the light brown water.
“My brother and some friends are throwing a ‘Save the Environment’ party on the rooftop of their apartment tonight and I wondered if you wanted to come with me?”
Carly. It’s the first thing I think and I hate myself for it. If Trudi would have asked me out yesterday I’d have jumped for joy, but now I feel torn. What if Carly calls? I hate how much hold she still has on me. Trudi places her left hand over mine so we are cupping the mug together.
“I don’t want any confusion here. I like you, Harriet, and this would be a date. Not a friend thing.”
I let my hand fall from the mug and Trudi grabs it. We smile at each other for a long time until a customer walks up to the counter beside me. She gives my hand a gentle squeeze before letting go.
“No pressure. Let me know.”
She turns to the customer and politely takes their order. For a few minutes, I can’t walk. I’m upset I didn’t say yes right away. I’m confused about last night. If Carly had a family who cared I’d text them to check on her, but she doesn’t. All she has is me and Jonas. I don’t know what to do.
My boss comes over and I try to listen to what he says but my mind isn’t here anymore. It’s still on my ceiling at home. After a few hours of messing things up and fumbling around, he tells me to take the rest of the day off. I can’t find Trudi so I text her an apology.
“I’m not feeling well. Let’s try again. I like you too.”
I don’t go home right away, but instead, drive to a spot along the river Carly and I used to go when we were upset. I park my car beside the boat ramp, take off my shoes, and sit so my feet dangle in the cold water. I say, fuck it, and call Carly. It goes right to voicemail again. I cry so loud I scare away the ducks who yell at me as they fly to the other side of the river.
“That’s right! I chase everyone away!”
Gathering up a pile of rocks, I throw them as hard as I can at the water. It doesn’t help, so I grab larger rocks and toss them. I scream and scream until a couple in a kayak pass and ask me if I’m okay. I tell them I will be. They offer to paddle over and sit with me but it makes me feel worse.
Driving home I consider changing and still meeting Trudi for the party, but the truth is I’m not over Carly. She’s my person. I know it deep in my bones and I can’t shake it. I can’t be wrong about this. I just can’t.
I stop at the liquor store and grab a bottle of wine, a huge bag of Hershey kisses, and a frozen pizza. Tonight I’ll feel sorry for myself and maybe tomorrow it will be easier. I need a good, long cry.
Holding the paper bag in my arms so the flimsy handles don’t break, I walk across the parking lot and down the sidewalk toward my apartment. As I get closer I see a woman sitting crosslegged on my welcome mat. Holding a box in her arms, she stands and takes a step forward. It’s Carly.
The world around me slows and sharpens. A blue jay on the fence ruffles its feathers and hops sideways. My neighbor shuffles his feet as he walks by carrying a stack of mail. A calico cat peeks out from behind the bushes and twitches it tail. I’m on high alert. Alarm bells ring in my ears and I almost drop my bag.
Carly’s cheeks are flushed bright red. She stares at a spot above my head. Neither of us seem capable of making eye contact.
Although I’ve dreamed of this moment, I remind myself it might not be what I think it is. The wall. She chose Jonas. She left. I take a step back and speak as loud as I can but it comes out in a shaky whisper.
“What are you doing here?”
She’s wearing a white sundress covered with tiny black ravens. Her curls are longer and they frame a slightly chubbier face. The redness of her cheeks spreads to her chest. She’s scared. I am too. She looks at the box in her arms and her voice is as shaky as mine.
“I left Jonas…”
The walls crack and the ground below me shifts. I reinforce it by taking another step back. I can’t have her in my life again. No. It’s not fair to assume I’d forget everything we went through and just let her back in. What does she want? A place to stay? A refuge from her life until she falls into the arms of the next man who tells her she’s pretty?
I take another step back. The bag in my hands feels suddenly too heavy and I set it on the ground. I wish the wine was twist-off so I could take a huge swig. I don’t know how to tell her to leave, but I’m not going to be used again. I deserve to be loved. She speaks louder and faster, the words tumbling into a pile on the sidewalk between us.
“I’m sorry, Harriet. I know I don’t have any right showing up here and I don’t expect anything. I promise. I…I just brought you something…”
Our eyes meet for the first time and I feel the walls crumble. I try and hold onto the pieces but they fall through my fingers onto the sidewalk as dust. She walks closer and closer. Run away! Yell at her! Do something! Her eyes are bright and clear—sparkling emeralds in a sea of golden stars. She’s close enough I smell her familiar scent—mint tea and lavender.
“I really am sorry…”
Ocean waves. Rain falling on the roof. Christmas carols. She’s all the happy things and I’m falling.
She flips open the lid of the box and I see a shiny pair of emerald green shoes. My dream shoes. Nothing about this moment feels real and we both stand frozen in time—statues in a garden where life isn’t so complicated and weird.
We are both crying but I don’t know if it’s for the same reason. I touch the shoes lightly and I’m surprised they don’t evaporate into smoke. They are real. She’s really here.
The words squeak out as a million questions race through my mind. I don’t want to leap, but my heart already has. As if waking from a dream, she quickly pulls me to her, squishing the shoes between us. Her mouth finds mine and all my questions are answered. Carly, my Carly, has found her way home to me.
Author’s note: I hope you enjoyed this sweet little story inspired by my true desire for everyone to find love. It’s a small nod to the Respect for Marriage Act signed this week and my commitment to supporting everyone in the LGBTQ community. Love is love. Let me know what you think in the comments below and have a wonderful week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 50
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 taking place when the phone rings at 3 a.m. We had to include the words supreme, emerald, careless, traffic, liberate, adolescence, lousy, wave, environment, and oval.
Laying on my side under a fluffy blanket, I stare at the tiny blue flowers embroidered on the white curtains trying to picture the face of the woman who stitched them. Father says she had straight honey-brown hair like mine with eyes as dark green as the spiky holly leaves growing behind our house. I don’t remember her at all.
What I do remember is the blood, red as the poisonous round berries, pooled around her body at the base of the towering willow tree. The bright, white moon reflected in the thick red liquid. The terrible swishing sound of the feathers.
It was an accident. Nobody knows why she left 3-year-old me sitting beside an empty wicker basket to climb the old twisty branches, but she did. She fell to the ground and it was hours before my father returned from working in the fields and found us. I was sitting silently beside the basket with the barn cat on my lap.
I lightly touch the three round scars on my left arm where the crow dug its talons into my soft skin. I wonder why I can’t remember her face but I can remember its oily black feathers were tinged with a hint of blue.
“Ayla, are you still awake?”
Father’s at my door so I close my eyes tight and don’t move. He wants to talk about me returning to school, but I can’t bear to face the guilt and shame in his deep, brown eyes. He thinks he failed me, but the truth is I’ve failed him.
He grabs my foot with his warm hand, giving it a gentle shake. Part of me wants to roll over and tell him everything, but it feels as if an enormous dam has been built around my heart and the truth would burst it open. My father doesn’t deserve the tidal wave of pain it would cause him, so I stay as still as I can.
Letting go of my foot, he moves around the room, trying to be quiet but the tiny glass perfume bottles on my dresser clink together as he opens and closes each wooden drawer. He slides a few books out of the bookshelf, ruffles the pages, and slides them back. He’s always searching my room for hints at what has changed between us, but it’s not an object to be discovered.
He moves to the window and I peek out from my blankets, taking in his broad shoulders and long greying hair pulled back with a light brown leather cord. He’s still in his faded blue bib overalls, the ones he wears every day for working on the farm. I wish I could reach around and grab the treasures out of the big front pocket like I did when I was little.
I used to lay the items out across my bedspread and touch each one as if they belonged in a museum. The well-worn and super soft red paisley handkerchief—more pink than red these days. The round silver watch his father gave him when he inherited the family farm a few years before I was born. My mother’s golden wedding ring slipped off her finger before she was buried in the cemetery right outside of town.
He turns around and I catch a brief glimpse of his round belly and his bushy grey beard before shutting my eyes tight again. He kisses my forehead and I smell the lingering woodsy vanilla scent of the pipe he smokes every night on the porch before bed. My uncles join him, and on nights when the work hasn’t been too brutal, they all bring out their guitars and we sing together. It hasn’t happened in a while though. It’s been a rough harvest.
When father reaches the door I hear a gasping, choking sound I know means he’s about to cry. He shuts the door tightly before the sobs fully form and I wonder if he’s thinking about my mother or me. Either way, it breaks me and my eyes burn hot with tears. I hate the way things are.
Three months ago I turned 13 and the strangeness started. I’d shove it all back if I could, but once you learn a thing it’s impossible to not know it. Although the sneaking and lies are temporary, it makes me feel horrible. Tonight I hope it will be the last time I sneak out. One last full moon harvest alone at the willow tree.
I’ve been laying fully dressed under the covers since nightfall, but everyone is up late because of the chaos caused today by my dad’s youngest brother. He likes to invent new ways to speed along the process of the harvest, and today he hooked up our old plow horse Checker to a new pulley system for shaking the almond trees. It didn’t work.
Checker got one of his legs tangled terribly in a rope and pulled it until the metal snapped. It spooked him so bad he ran far out into the wheat fields causing my father to lose several hours of work retrieving him. Although Checker only has a few cuts on his legs and chest, my father was terribly upset. I heard him punch the couch pillow when he came in for dinner, a rare outburst for him.
The farm isn’t doing well. I hear snippets of anxious conversations when my father and uncles don’t think I can hear them. They’ve discussed selling off parts of the land, but none of them want to lose any of the property their father and grandfather farmed. I wish I could help, but I’m afraid my problems only complicate matters. I’m a distraction.
Framed by wispy dark clouds, I stare at the large white moon outside and the calling inside me swells and grows until it’s almost a wail. I try to picture my mother’s face and how her lips would look making such a sound. No. All I see is bright red blood and blue-black feathers. Her face remains below the rippling waves, a blurry almost-image. I twist my blankets and wipe my tears onto my pillow.
The one face I can see clearly is Penelope, with her tiny upturned nose and bright pink cheeks. She’s the one who decided I was an outcast at school and spread the rumors about me kissing every boy in town. Penelope with the bright shiny golden hair. Penelope with the pretty homemade dresses and colorful satin ribbons. Penelope with a sharp tongue and mocking laugh.
I jump out of bed to stop myself from thinking of her hurtful words and walk quietly to the window. Pulling it open slowly, I lean out so I can peek at the porch to see if anyone is still sitting in the wooden rocking chairs. It’s empty.
Throwing my legs over the window ledge, I drop to the ground and pull my grey work boots and a small wicker basket out from where I stashed them in the bushes. I slip on my boots, pull up the hood of my faded red jacket, grasp the basket handle tight, and take off at a run.
The farm looks different at night. All the noise, the sharp edges and straight lines, fade into a blanket of muted softness in the silvery light. I run past the large barn filled with sleeping animals, the row of hulking metal plows, and into the almond orchard. Twinkling stars dance amongst the rows of trees hidden occasionally by dark fast moving clouds.
Low grumbling voices call in the dark around me in a language I don’t understand and I spin in circles trying to see them. They are too quick. I feel their eyes watching me and it brings with it the familiar fluttering of fear in my chest.
Can I trust them? Just because they call me to the place my mother died doesn’t mean they know anything about her. Hope feels dangerous, but I have it anyway. It’s sugary and heavy, thick like honey. I stop running and slowly walk.
At the end of the orchard, the shadow of the willow tree waits for me—a twisting dark shape reaching out with sharp leafy fingers. With even slower steps, I approach the massive gloomy tree and slip under its long hanging branches. The voices follow me, surrounding me on all sides.
Slanted beams of moonlight illuminate them as they come—tiny lunar spotlights. They climb out of the branches above me, tunnel in from the ground below, and walk out of the shadows. Little dark hairless men no bigger than my hand. Made of dirt and roots they have tiny, watery black eyes and huge flat feet. In an instant, their voices go silent.
Each carries an acorn out in front of them with both hands. Taking turns, one at a time, they run forward and throw it into the basket. The small, oblong nuts make a soft thunk as they hit each other. I watch the tiny men, searching their blank faces for answers, but they give me none. They seem content with completing this harvest ritual—giving me a gift I have no idea what to do with.
On the first full moon I heard the voices and followed them to the willow tree. I screamed when the little men appeared. They threw acorns at me as I ran away, pelting me softly on my back. The next day I searched the space under the tree and found no little footprints or acorns—nothing to prove it had happened at all. They didn’t call for me again for an entire month and I decided it had been a very vivid dream.
The second full moon when I heard the voices I grabbed a basket for the acorns. I sat perfectly still as they filled it, exactly like I’m doing right now. When it was complete, they stood around me waiting for me to do or say something. I froze. It felt too unreal, too terrifying, and so I did nothing at all.
Minutes stretched into hours and eventually I must have fallen asleep. I woke up the next morning in my bed with no memory of walking home. I ran straight to the willow tree and found the basket exactly where I left it. The acorns were gone, but I at least had some proof it had been real.
My mind cloudy and jumbled and my vision blurry, I try to count the little creatures as they slink forward, throwing their acorns into my basket. All I can focus on is the soft thud of the nuts hitting each other. After a few minutes, it occurs to me it’s rhythmic—almost a song. Am I missing a message? I listen harder.
The last little man throws his acorn into the basket and steps into the shadows, leaving the space below the tree silent again. They stand still, watching me. Blinking. I bring one of the nuts to my nose and sniff it. It smells of earth and sunshine. My moment has arrived so I clear my throat and speak.
“Thank you for these treasures, but I wonder if any of you can talk to me. I have questions…about my mom.”
My voice sounds shaky and small. The little creatures respond by stomping their tiny feet on the ground and making a low humming sound. It’s the sound of thunder far off in the distance. It grows and grows around me and a new sensation blooms inside my chest—a loosening. My shoulders fall slightly and my hands become limp at my sides.
A deep voice outside the tree speaks my name and it echoes around me. The little men repeat my name over and over—a chant now matching the stomping.
“Ayla. Ayla. Ayla.”
The branches of the tree part and a face appears. It’s a beautiful man with high pointed cheekbones and brilliant sparkling green eyes. He reaches his large hand toward me and I let him pull me into the moonlight. My body vibrates with warmth and energy—I’m floating toward him.
Once my feet return to the ground I gasp. He isn’t a man, but rather the most majestic creature I’ve ever seen. Half-man, half-horse, he stands smiling at me with bright pink lips. I stare at his flowing golden hair, his thick palomino horse body, shiny black hooves, and swishing nearly white tail. Breathe, Ayla. Breathe.
“I’m Dawa and you’ve already met my helpers. I call them the Root Men, but they go by many names.”
He gestures to the little men who have followed me out. They stand silently in a circle around us and all at once bow so low to the ground their tiny noses touch the dirt. I’m not sure if they are bowing to me or him. I return the gesture regardless, bending at my waist and sweeping my arms out in front of me. A sound like giggling follows.
“I wish we could have met under different circumstances, Ayla, but I’m afraid you are in danger.”
He points at the darkening clouds and I see they are swirling. Deep black with a hint of blue. Feathers. Dawa’s voice is breathy and fast. He paws the ground with his front hooves.
“They are coming for you, as they did your mother.”
The words feel like a key turning inside me. Horribly, vividly, the memory comes. Its razor-sharp clarity knocks me to my knees and I cover my ears and rock back and forth. No. No. No.
Mother and I are on an apple hunt weaving through the rows of trees looking for signs the bright red fruit is ready to be harvested. I’m not paying attention though because our old barn cat Theo is chasing birds and I want to make sure he doesn’t catch one. A bright warm sun sits high in the sky and I’m wearing my favorite daisy sundress without shoes.
I chase Theo through the tall green grass of the orchard until he climbs into the branches of the old willow tree. The moment Theo reaches the top the sky around us turns dark. The sun has been replaced by inky black swirling clouds dancing, twirling, and falling. It can’t be right. The sky can’t fall. Can it?
Mother screams and runs to me. She sets the wicker basket below the tree, holds my face in her soft hands, and speaks slowly and firmly. Her dark green eyes are wide.
“Sit beside the basket and look toward the house. No matter what happens, do not look behind you. Do not move and stay quiet. Not a sound. It’s extremely important, Ayla. I need you to promise.”
I nod. We’ve played this game before. The “don’t move” game. Mother’s serious about it and I listen. She breaks off a low branch of the tree, holds it in her hand, and climbs. I think she’s going to rescue Theo, but he’s beside me now. He climbs into my lap and I close my eyes tight.
I cover my ears, but the sounds wiggle through my fingers and I hear them anyway. Terrible low growls. Mother’s ragged uneven breathing. A ripping sound. Mother’s long scream.
A loud thump shakes the ground behind me. I don’t turn around, but I do open my eyes. A horrible creature crouches low in front of me with dozens of long spidery legs. It’s got bright yellow cat-like eyes and is covered with inky black feathers with a tinge of blue. Its tongue darts in and out of its tiny red mouth.
It grabs hold of my arm with one of its legs and three spiky nails pierce my skin. Mother would be proud. I don’t make a sound. I don’t move. I stay right beside the basket.
Dawa pulls my hands from my ears. Tears fall hot from my eyes. Mother was killed by these creatures and they are coming for me. The centaur grabs my shoulders and shakes them gently. His dark green eyes are wide and his voice is firm.
“You must come with me. Now!”
The little men have turned away from us and are facing the clouds. The sky is falling. It’s coming. Dawa grabs my hand and swings me onto his back. I hold onto his neck as he takes off at a run. When the creatures dive low behind us I don’t make a sound. Mother would be proud.
Author’s note: I ran out of time for this story and am disappointed it’s more of a first chapter again than a complete short story. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed meeting Ayla and stepping into her world for a bit. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Thank you!
Short Story Challenge | Week 49
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a family-run farm. We had to include the words temporary, invent, trust, horse, burst, pulley, dam, punch, and checker.