Meet Me at the Elephant Ears | A Short Story

Most of the time mom’s snores are a source of aggravation for me and my younger brothers. The sound oscillates between dry wheezes and wet aggressive snorts. Siam thinks she does it on purpose and Theil worries it’s a sign she will die early. I don’t know about either of those things, but tonight I’m grateful for the sounds. When you want to do some sneaking, being able to hear if your mom is asleep is quite useful.

Rolling off the corner of our shared mattress and standing, I pause by the back door and look at my sleeping family through the dim light of the lantern mom always keeps lit. They’re huddled together in the center of the empty room under a thin paisley afghan we found in a wooden trunk in one of the upstairs bedrooms. It smelled like rot and mold, but mom washed it over and over in the small sink until it smelled like nothing at all.

Theil looks like a baby holding a ratty stuffed lion and sucking on one of his long, slender thumbs. Mom’s got her arms around him and his mass of curly brown hair is pressed into her chest. Siam has rolled away from them both into the spot I just left. He looks sweaty and he’s frowning. He’s probably hungry. After all, he’s always hungry.

Mom shaved her hair off when we arrived a few days ago and I’m still not used to seeing the scars on her bald head. If I was a bit more creative I might think they formed the shape of something, but I find them unnerving to look at. They are reminders of what we’ve been through and I want so hard to forget for a moment. Tonight is a time of new things, not old. A time for me, not mom and my brothers.

Pressing open the back door as slowly as I can, Siam opens his eyes and spots me. I’m worried he might scream, but he doesn’t even flinch. There’s a kind of “be careful” look in his deep brown eyes and I silently mouth, “I’ll be back, promise.” He gives me a little thumbs up and my heart breaks. What if I don’t come back? I’m tough, but the world is unpredictable and he’s lost so much already. It’s almost enough to stop me, but then I think about the softness in Remi’s golden-green eyes. I grab my backpack and close the door softly behind me.

In the orange light of a huge harvest moon, the overgrown backyard looks wild and inviting. Elongated and exaggerated shadows dance merrily across the broken fence—huge fractured flashes of dark and light. I’m suddenly excited to be on my own with only myself to protect. It’s alluring to be selfish.

There it is though—selfish. A battle rages within my chest, thudding uneven and fierce. Guilt. I’ve never snuck away from my family before, not even when the world was right-sided. Am I wrong for leaving my family to meet this boy? Don’t I deserve a moment of being a teenager?

“Meet me at the elephant ears tonight,” Remi whispered when I’d passed him in the street today with my brothers. He’d winked and smiled at me from beneath his black cowboy hat and touched my bare arm with his warm, strong hand. Since that moment all I can think about is what will happen if I do. Does he like me in the way I like him? Will I have my first kiss? What if this is some trick to humiliate me?

For the past two years, we’ve been on the run. I’ve not had time to really think about how I look, but now I feel self-conscious and dirty. Letting my curly black hair down from the messy bun it’s almost always in, I run my fingers through the tangles but they immediately get stuck. It’s too late now. Either I go as myself and risk being wrong about his feelings for me, or I go back inside and wonder forever what tonight could have been. I make the quick decision to pull my hair back up.

Inching around the side of the house, barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt, I stop beside an old rabbit hutch covered with thorny vines and open my backpack. Pulling on my favorite olive green sweater and my brown cowboy boots, I strap the leather-sheathed hunting knife to my thigh. There’s no reason to be stupid and walk around unarmed.

Looking at the empty hutch it occurs to me we’ve not seen any animals in town since we arrived. Usually, animals know when the monsters are coming and run far away from them. We’ve taken our cues from nature, running from place to place hiding as they do, until now. Is it a mistake to stay in the false sense of comfort this town affords?

For a split second, I picture myself bolting back inside to wake everyone and insist we run before the monsters attack, but the feeling passes. No fight or flight decision is necessary at this moment. Everything is okay. Mom’s got my brothers and I can take care of myself.

Mom says she wants to try living in town for the boys. They are small and all the running has made them skinny and weak. Although we both carry them on our backs as much as we can, they aren’t growing enough and they barely speak. It’s as if the fear of the last two years has pressed pause and they are stuck at age three.

The truth is, mom and I need this place too. Even if I’m right about the animals, I don’t want to leave. We all deserve a shot at something more normal.

Mom’s become friends with a woman we met on the road who led us here, Mer. She’s a tall, striking woman with rich brown skin, almond-shaped eyes, and jet black spiky hair. Dressed always in black leather pants, she has a pink smiling cat tattooed on her left bicep. She makes mom laugh, a sound I didn’t even know I missed until it shined around us all like a bright colorful rainbow. Maybe it signals the terrible scary storm has ended.

There are about 100 people here in the town of Amal, which mom says is an Arabic word meaning Hope. Surrounded by a makeshift wall with ten lookout towers, there’s limited electricity, a doctor, and rumors of a school starting for the little kids. It’s as close to a return to the old ways as we can get, but I’m not ready to lower my defenses. Not quite yet.

Climbing over the locked side gate, I walk along the cracked sidewalk, scanning all directions for any sign of movement. Most of the debris has been cleared away from the town, but there are still objects in the bushes and gutters. I pass a rusty French horn with dandelions growing around it, a reddish tricycle turned on its side, and a pile of shattered Christmas lights.

As I get nearer to the place with the elephant ear plants, my thoughts turn away from the town and toward Remi. What do I even know about him? Yes, he’s cute, everyone seems to like him, and he smiles a lot. However, those are superficial things. Nothing of substance. I’d been so worried he wouldn’t like me, what if I don’t like him? 

What if he’s a bad person and I’ve been swept up in this fantasy version of him because we happen to be the only two teenagers in the town? What if I’ve misread everything and he simply wants to be friends? What if he’s going to kill me?

“Qamari?” Remi says softly from behind a huge maple tree whose bright reddish-orange leaves almost match the moon’s intensity. He steps out and all my fears of him fade in an instant. I can’t stop a big grin from flashing across my face.

“These are for you. I grew them myself.”

I take the bundle of lavender flowers wrapped in yellow ribbon and put them up to my nose. They smell wonderfully fresh and I feel myself inflate with an intensity I’ve not experienced before. It’s not love, I don’t think, but something more primal. A feeling of deep desire or maybe it’s the sensation of being desired. Either way, I really like it.

“I’m glad you came. I was worried you wouldn’t…I mean you barely know me.”

He’s not wearing his cowboy hat tonight and I can see he’s got wavy black hair. Dressed in dark jeans and a blue t-shirt, he smiles at me and then kicks the ground like my brothers do when they are about to be scolded. He’s as nervous about this meeting as I am and it makes me like him even more.

“I’m glad I came too.”

For a few minutes, we just stand close to each other in silence. The elephant ear plants around us have drops of water inside them—little reflection pools containing the splendor of the starry night sky. It’s like walking in the galaxy, I think.

I can hear his heavy, even breathing and he smells of something like campfires or fresh-cut wood. He grabs my hand and squeezes it. My cheeks flush pink as I feel myself growing warm all over.

“Can I show you something?”

Nodding, I let him lead me through the quiet town. He shows me the flowers which bloom only for “night owls and teenagers.” Behind a pale blue house, we find a cluster of evening primroses, delicate yellow flowers which smell sweet and tangy. Along a back fence, we find three trumpet-shaped moon flowers with a strong lemony scent and he warns me they are poisonous and to not let my little brothers eat them.

Finally, we arrive at a wooden gazebo near the center of town almost entirely overgrown by a dark green bush covered in tiny white star-shaped flowers. There’s a strong, sweet smell in the air and he picks one of the flowers and hands it to me. I turn the long stem in my fingers watching the petals spin.

“Night-blooming jasmine,” he says. “My mother planted these all over our property when I was little. One year I pulled off all the flowers and soaked them in a bowl of water to make perfume to give to the girls at school. Almost every girl who used it got a rash and mom was called for a meeting.”

I laugh but he doesn’t join me.

“A lady’s man then?”

He shuffles his feet and swallows hard. Turning from me and looking up at the sky, he talks in a low hesitant voice. I can tell he’s not sure he should be sharing so much with me.

“No. I was kind of an outsider, actually. My mom was like a town joke…an outcast because our property was covered in wild plants and she dressed a bit…different. I was trying to get the girls to like me with the perfume, but it backfired and it just gave them new names to call me. ‘Witchy boy’ I think was their favorite, but it’s better than how the boys treated me…”

For a few minutes, we are silent again and I consider telling him about how my father used to beat my mother every day before the monsters came…but then decide it’s not the time to exchange stories. I’d rather stop the discomfort, ease his pain, not transfer it into sympathy for me. Moving so I’m facing him I lean forward and wrap my arms around him.

We sort of sway in place for a few minutes until he pulls away and we lock eyes. I want to memorize the way the flecks of gold dance within the sea of green. I want to be looked at the way he’s looking at me forever. He leans in and I feel the warmth of his breath on my lips.

The sound of footsteps and voices pulls us instantly apart. Within seconds I’ve unsheathed my knife and Remi has found a jagged metal pipe. Crouching low, we slink together into the darkness of the old gazebo holding our weapons tightly in front of us. The voices are arguing, one whiney and the other gruff.

“I told you, man, I don’t want no trouble. No trouble at all.”


“Come on…it’s not like I did something really wrong. So what if I took some extra bread. I’m hungry, man. I’m starving. You can see my bones. Can’t you see my bones?”

“Put down your shirt and walk.”

“Then tell me where are we going? Can’t you tell me? I don’t like this, man. I got a bad feeling about this. It doesn’t feel right. I’m sorry. Didn’t you hear me say I was sorry?”


Remi and I kneel next to each other and peer over the railing of the gazebo. The dense plants hide us in shadow, but we are careful to stay low and not move. I can feel Remi’s breath beside me is calm. He’s been through much worse situations and so have I.

The shorter of the two men, the one with the whiney voice, is dressed in saggy, ripped clothing and isn’t wearing shoes. He’s got a scruffy blonde beard and his hair is wild and dirty. There’s a sour smell coming from him that reaches through the jasmine to sting my nose.

I recognize the taller man, but don’t know his name. He and mom talked for a long time the first day we arrived while my brothers and I waited in a room filled with toys and books. I think he might be in charge of security as he dresses like an old-timey sheriff with a bright white cowboy hat and a crisp button-up tan shirt.

Keeping my knife at my side, I inch close enough to Remi to whisper directly into his ear.

“Who are they?”

Despite his even breathing, Remi’s holding the pipe white-knuckled. Something about the situation has him on alert and it’s not at all about being caught out at night as a teenager. His eyes don’t leave the pair, but he whispers back as low as he can.

“That’s Tom, but I don’t know the other man.”

The smaller man suddenly stops and crosses his arms in front of him. He’s breathing hard now—tiny, wheezy gasps. Tom unholsters his black gun and points it at his face. Remi grabs my hand and we slink a little further into the shadows, but keep our eyes on the men.

“I said walk.”

“Please, man. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I promise. You can’t do anything to me. It’s not right. We aren’t monsters. We don’t do this to each other. I’m just starving man. Starving!”

“Walk or I shoot you.”

The smaller man begins to cry but resumes walking. Tom reholsters his gun but keeps his hand on the grip. They walk past the gazebo toward a line of boarded-up storefronts. Tom pushes the wailing man past the hardware store, book store, and pharmacy and then stops at a place called “Sweet Symphony.” It’s painted gold and purple and I imagine it was either a candy or music store, perhaps both.

There’s a strange muffled sound nearby, a kind of faint moan I usually associate with the monsters. I look at Remi, but he’s focused straight ahead at the men. The hairs on my arms stand up and I tighten my fingers around the leather handle of my knife until I can feel the ridges dig into my palm.

Tom bends down and picks up a rusted silver crowbar from a pile of tools laying near the door. He hands it to the sobbing man who only takes it after Tom nearly hits him over the head with it. The faint moan comes again and I feel my heart pounding and my muscles tighten.

“Open it.”

“Why man? I just wanted some bread. I’ll work it off. I’ll do anything. Don’t hurt me.”

Tom slaps the wailing man across the face and he stops crying. They stare at each other in silence for a minute and Remi squeezes my hand tighter. I’m unsure if he’s nervous because he knows what’s about to happen or because he doesn’t. The small man blows his nose on his shirt.

“Shut up and open it.”

He does. We watch in silence as it takes the sniffling man several minutes to pry open the wood from the door. Eventually, it falls to the ground with a splintery, cracking sound. The door has a red X spray-painted across it and Remi gasps.

“What?” I mouth without sound and he shakes his head. He knows what’s going to happen. He knows what’s in there. I realize by the way my body feels, I do too. They can’t have one here in the town. They just can’t. Remi smacks the pipe against his legs hard and then makes a kind of low growl in the back of his throat.

“No!” the man screams the second he realizes what’s happening. The scratching sounds of the monster behind the purple door intensify. Remi lets go of my hand to grip the pipe with both hands as Tom turns the doorknob and pushes the man inside. 

We don’t see what happens next, but we hear it. The man’s garbled scream is swallowed up within seconds by the sound of the thing feasting on his body. The tearing, clawing, liquid sounds make my body shiver and I realize I’m standing now with the knife pointed toward the door. Remi’s beside me with his pipe. We don’t make a sound.

Tom shuts the door. There’s no mistaking the wide smile on his face as satisfaction. I shiver at the look. It’s wicked and wrong what he did and there’s no explaining it away. Remi and I slink back down as Tom opens a toolbox beside the door and hammers fresh nails into the piece of wood.

The second Tom’s footsteps disappear back into the night, I turn to Remi. He’s still grabbing the pipe tight and he looks sweaty. The image of my family sleeping a few streets away makes me feel sick to my stomach. I was right. There’s no such thing as comfortable in this new world.

“Did you know?” I say more to say something than to really know the answer. It doesn’t matter. My family is in danger and I’m already planning on how I’m going to explain to my mom what I just saw. She will be mad I snuck out, but I can take her anger. There’s no staying now.

“There were rumors…but I didn’t want to believe it.”

“We can’t stay here.”

Remi turns to me and there are tears in his eyes. I can tell he’s been thinking the same thing. We could kill the monster, yes, but it’s not about that unthinking beast behind the purple door. It’s the fact this town is being run by someone who would feed it and keep it nearby as a tool. Someone who smiled after. Someone who is far more dangerous than the monsters.

“We could go together,” Remi says in a whisper. 

I don’t answer. The dream of kissing his beautiful face seems almost silly now. All I can think about is saving my family. I touch him gently on the arm and run out into the night. It’s time to move again.

Author’s note: I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of witnessing a crime in a post-apocalyptic world where the ideas of morality are slightly skewed. They did this so well in the early days of “The Walking Dead,” and I think it’s where most of my inspiration for this story came from. I’m not sure I did exactly what I wanted, but I did grow really fond of Remi. I might want to do more with him in the future, this sweet “witchy boy” who is simply trying to do his best in a world torn apart by monsters. 

Short Story Challenge | Week 38

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where the main character witnesses a crime. We had to include the words Christmas, almond, paisley, lion, pipe, scream, fade, French horn, inflate, and maple.

Write With Us

Prompt: Magic in everyday occurrences
Include: Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, sweatband

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

With a Touch of the Tapestry | A Short Story

After weaving through the crowded streets of London on the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle, we finally arrive at an old three-story brick building east of Charing Cross and park next to a chain link fence covered in red and blue ribbons. It’s another obligatory charity event we must be seen at, this time featuring the eclectic artwork of a Tibetan monk with the unlikely name of DC Jones.

Smoking beside the wooden back door, Brax spots us and flicks his cigarette to the ground using the heel of his chunky black doc to snuff it out. He’s been waiting to let us in so we don’t have to face the crowds of paparazzi waiting out front. Without his usual black hat, I can see he’s dyed his buzzcut the color of sharp cheddar.

“Did ya hear?”

There’s a quickness to his nasally voice that I associate with being high and I prepare myself for whatever crazy thing he’s about to say. His bright green eyes are outlined with thick black eyeliner and his lips are painted sparkly blue. There’s a huge hole in his black t-shirt exposing some of his hairy stomach. I hope he’s staying outside or in some back room.

“Hear what?” Ollie says, pulling off a dark leather helmet and dismounting his shiny black Ducati. His blonde curls are matted and sweaty, which only enhances how incredible he looks in his expensive tailored maroon suit. He helps me off the bike and I have to stop myself from leaping into his arms so our bodies are touching again.

We’ve been together for six months and I’ve lost my mind. He’s all I think about. Ollie Sinclair, the man with the icy blue-grey eyes of a wolf, is the enthusiastic lead singer of the underground punk band Juxtaposed. A wild child of famous parents, supposedly chummy with the royal family, he’s unpredictable but kind with a husky voice like some fabled siren. I can’t get enough of him.

Pulling off my own helmet, both men turn to watch as my long red ringlets fall down cascading out like the red carpet undoubtedly unfurled at the front entrance. My hair is part of the magic of my family and I smile at the effect it has on both of them. The sound of brass chimes can be heard from inside the building followed by applause, but none of us are in a hurry. Brax smiles and steps closer to me.

“Hi, Neev.”

His voice is slurred, he’s got a glazed look in his eyes, and his hands are twitching. I know he wants to touch me. Wearing black leather pants, a tight maroon corset, and spiky heels, there’s little doubt I will distract every person in the room tonight. It’s how it’s always been—the good part of my family legacy. The complicated, yet easy part.

Brax stares into my olive green eyes and swallows hard. Ollie punches him on the arm and Brax shakes his head and looks at the ground. A former heavyweight boxer with a bit of a heroin problem, Brax is the manager of the band. He’s got a boyish smile despite being in his 50s and it’s hard to stay mad at him for long. Ollie gives him a quick hug thumping his back hard.

“What’s the big news?”

Brax sighs and looks up at the starry night sky. A sliver of the moon is visible behind a cluster of dark grey clouds. It might rain.

“Oh, yeah. The Queen died.”

Nothing could have prepared me for the sensation felt inside my body at those words. Thunder. No. Lightning. Electric sparks of pain shoot out from the center of my body activating every nerve ending. I’m not ready.

I want to believe the Queen’s death is a delusion of Brax’s current high, but the truth of it can be felt as an awakening inside me. Like when the cherry blossoms bloom overnight in Greenwich Park creating an arch of pink thick enough it nearly blocks out the sun. I’m lost in the haze of pink and I can barely breathe.

This will end everything. I knew it would happen, she was 96 years old, but no part of me really thought she’d die. I don’t want to do this.

“Are you okay?”

Ollie pulls me to him and I bury my face into his warm chest and let the wailing sobs come. The men talk softly saying things like “she loved the Queen” and “she’s got a tender heart.” They have no idea my feelings are purely selfish. After tonight I’ll pass them in the street and they won’t even look at me. My life as I know it has come to an end.

Brax runs into the building and returns with a wet towel that he places gently across the back of my neck. I gasp for air and Ollie looks like he might cry. His worried expression makes the fluttering chaos inside me intensify. Maybe I don’t have to do this. It’s ultimately my choice, right? What if I choose Ollie?

“Should we call an ambulance?” Brax says. He has tears in his eyes and probably thinks I’m having a bad trip or something. Ollie strokes my hair and kisses my cheek. It only makes things worse.

“No. I’m okay.”

Taking a step back from both men I run a hand through my long hair, parting the thick curls. This magic is an implement, a tool, given to our family for one purpose only. To abandon my duty is simply unheard of, but I’m not like the women before me. Ollie isn’t like the men before him. We could be something real in this world. The thoughts calm my breathing and I take Ollie’s hand and tenderly squeeze it.

Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, I wipe the tears from my face and force a smile. I know what’s at stake here, but I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’d rather spend the evening beside the man I love being admired and envied. The alternative turns my stomach. I don’t want to think about it.

“Let’s go inside.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m okay. People are looking forward to seeing us tonight. Let’s not let them down.”

Holding tightly to Ollie’s arm and leaving Brax at the backdoor, we walk through a maze of dark hallways toward the low humming sound of people talking. Each step requires immense concentration as a nuclear war rages inside me—fulfill my duty and save the world or do nothing and save myself. I’m in charge of my destiny. I get to make the choice but time is running out.

We reach a large square room lit by rows and rows of candles in tall brass holders, giving the space a flickering ghostly feeling. Several hundred celebrities and rich Londoners wander about the room looking at the monk’s odd, splotchy black-and-white paintings set on wooden easels in a spiral pattern in the center of the room. It feels as if I’m in a psychiatric hospital surrounded by flicking Rorschach tests.

A waiter hands me a tall glass of red wine and Ollie and I make our rounds kissing cheeks and trading compliments. Everyone wants to touch us, but instead of feeling the normal thrill of being seen and desired, I feel dizzy and weak. If only they knew the truth about me. If they knew what my inaction would do to their country, they’d be spitting in my face and tearing out my hair. Am I really willing to destroy everything to be fakely admired and loved?

Dressed in a rich brown fur shawl, a large pudgy woman with bright red cheeks grabs my arm and smiles. She smells of fig pudding and I imagine she’s a duchess of something. The rim of her wineglass is covered in pale pink lipstick.

“The Queen’s funeral is likely to be the social event of the decade. It will be a who’s who of the entire world and I’ve already made a call to several designers to get on the list for a dress. You have to work quickly in these situations or you will be left looking like a fool. Do you have a designer in mind dear?”

Her grip on my arm is too tight. Ollie senses my discomfort and answers for me. With a wink he defuses the situation, leaving the woman laughing. Her touch lingers on my skin, burning slightly as Ollie guides me to the next painting. As we stand side-by-side I know I have to get out of here.

“Are you really okay?”

Ollie’s voice drips with pity and concern. I hate this. I wish there was a way to fulfill my destiny and keep him, but that’s not how it works. Once I complete my task, everyone I’ve ever met will forget about me and I’ll return to my childhood home outside of London. That includes Ollie. It’s how it’s always been and always will be. It’s the bargain made and the price I have to pay for the years I’ve spent in the spotlight.

Mum tried to prepare me. She told me not to get close to anyone and to have fun. I should have listened. It’s too late.

“What time is it?”

For a moment we stand staring into each other’s eyes and I feel the room and all the people fading from my view. Standing on my tiptoes I kiss him with every ounce of passion in my body, hoping my lips and tongue can convey what my words can’t. Stepping back I pull up his sleeve and look at the golden watch on his wrist. 10:30 p.m.

“Do you know what time the Queen died?”

Ollie looks around the room and realizes I’m talking to him, he slowly shakes his head. Spinning from him I walk to a cluster of people standing around one of the paintings talking softly about the proper ingredients for Yorkshire pudding. I’m doing them a favor by interrupting such a boring conversation.

“Excuse me, but do any of you know the Queen’s time of death?”

Several people look at me and shake their heads, but a handsome middle-aged man I recognize from the game show “Mastermind” steps forward and touches my arm. He’s a former journalist with a warm smile and rich brown eyes. There’s a bit of sadness mixed with longing in his voice.

“It was announced at 6:30 p.m. that Her Majesty the Queen died peacefully at Balmoral, but I suspect she died much earlier than that. Perhaps sometime around noon and they were giving the family time to arrive.”

“That gives me roughly 1 1/2 hours. Shit.”

“1 1/2 hours to do what, my dear? Are you okay?”

Before I can answer, Ollie makes a joke and then pulls me from the group. Holding my arm tight, we walk silently through the crowds of people until we arrive back into the dark maze of hallways. Once we are out of earshot of the others, he stops and presses me against a brick wall. I think he might kiss me, but instead, he hugs me gently.

“Are you okay? You seem shaken by the Queen’s death. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”

For the second time tonight, I consider telling him the truth about the history of my family and our connection to the crown, but I know how insane it sounds. Plus, I’d have to reveal his attraction to me isn’t exactly of his own free will. Instead, I flip around and press him into the wall and kiss him one final time. I’m going to miss being Ollie’s girl. Tears roll down my cheeks.

“Goodbye,” I say, stepping back. He grabs my arm and pulls me hard into him with a mix of desire and an urge to protect me. He looks wild and scared. The magic is working overtime, but I remind myself he won’t remember any of this. I have to be strong. Pulling his watch off his wrist, I slip it onto mine.

“What’s going on? You aren’t acting like yourself? You are scaring me.”

His desperate voice is interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps coming in our direction. Brax appears in the dark hallway holding up his cell phone flashlight. His nasally voice sounds frantic and there’s something that looks suspiciously like a gun in his other hand.

“Is everything okay?”

With a burst of adrenaline, I push away from Ollie and sprint past Brax through the dark hallways. They call to me, but I ignore them, bursting out the back door and into the cold darkness of the late summer evening. The pull inside me I’ve tried to ignore all night roars to life with fevered urgency.

I don’t bother with a helmet, but instead, hop on Ollie’s bike, turn the key, and press the starter button. Within moments I’m zooming toward Buckingham Palace, my magical hair blowing straight behind me like fluttery red ribbons. I’ve made my choice.

Tears stream down my face as I silently curse myself for being so stupid and not following procedure since mum died a year and a half ago. I’m supposed to visit the palace on a tour every summer and locate the tapestry so I’ll be able to reach it quickly. What if this is the year it’s been moved to another room or worse another palace?

When mum died suddenly of a heart attack, something inside me broke so fully that I lost all perspective. For a year I rebelled against every institution there is, testing the boundaries of my magic to see how far it protected me. I swam as far as I could out to sea without a life jacket, walked in front of speeding cars, and took all the drugs. Every time I was in danger, a stranger would risk their safety to save me.

All of my foolishness ended on the night I stumbled into a smokey club and saw Ollie on stage. From the second he opened his mouth, I knew I wanted him. The last six months have been a dreamy mix of passion, music, creativity, and love. I got to do all the things I’ve wanted in life and now it’s time to do the thing I was born to do. My magic is a gift but it comes at a price and it’s time to pay.

Nearing the palace I see the roads are blocked off and there are hundreds of mourners streaming onto the grounds with bouquets of flowers, silver photographs, and stuffed animals. Some are carrying candles and singing. The Queen’s death will be a cause of great mourning, but if I don’t act quickly, things will become far more dire.

Ditching Ollie’s bike on the side of the road, I sprint past the mourners and toward the soldiers dressed in red tunics and black bear hats which have formed a line across the entrance to the palace. Walking slowly in front of them, I find a soldier who has already spotted my hair and is looking at me.

“I need to get inside,” I say. “It’s urgent.” 

Without a word, he escorts me through the large gates, across the lawn, and to a side door locked with an iron padlock crested with the head of a lion. Smiling, he takes out the key and turns it with a loud click. He’s young with soft, blue eyes. He and the other soldiers won’t remember they saw me, but I give him a kiss on the cheek anyway touching the golden strap of his helmet.

“Thank you.”

He blushes and I hurry inside. The lights are dim and I walk through what must be some kind of service area until I find the more familiar palace rooms I’ve visited every summer of my life. Checking Ollie’s watch I see it’s 11:30, which means I’m almost out of time. Fear thunders in my chest and I kick off my strappy heels so I can walk faster.

Although I’m seen by several officers and officials, nobody stops me or talks to me. I’m under the deep protection of magic, nearly invisible to everyone I pass. The energy inside my body vibrates and hums louder and louder.

Closing my eyes, I let mum’s voice guide me toward the tapestry, toward my destiny, and the role the women in my family have played in the monarchy for decades. I’m not sure how long I wander, occasionally bumping into a wall or a red velvet rope, but suddenly I feel it calling to me. Opening my eyes, I run barefoot down several long hallways, through two large sitting rooms, until I reach a room of gold and red.

Taking up almost an entire wall is the gorgeous tapestry of my ancestor. She’s standing with one hand up in the air and the other down at her side dressed in a vibrant dress of emerald green. There are several doves fluttering around her bright red hair which is filled with tiny white flowers. As I watch, one of the flowers falls to the ground.

Touching my own hair, I peek again at Ollie’s golden watch on my wrist. 11:55. I’m almost out of time. With all my might I push an antique desk from the wall until it’s close enough to the tapestry I can climb on top of it. 

Sweating and panting from the effort, I feel the magic inside my body pull into a giant ball within my chest—a beating heart of its own. Standing on tippy-toes I reach my hand up and touch the outstretched hand of the woman on the tapestry—my ancestor.

My mother did her best to explain what would happen, but I think part of me always thought it wasn’t true. How could our family lineage be responsible for protecting the sovereignty of a monarchy we weren’t directly related to? Yet, as the power flows out of me and into the tapestry the truth comes with it. A beautiful story of love and sacrifice.

The woman on the tapestry, Margret, was a faithful friend of the beautiful Queen Elizabeth I. A traveler and explorer, she loved her Queen with all her might and would bring her gifts from around the world. Unfortunately, lingering anger from the actions of her sister Mary and her father King Henry VIII had created conflict with the fairy kingdom. The result was pestilence, famine, and lingering curses throughout the land. 

Marget traveled far across the sea to the home of the Fairy Queen brokering peace between the two worlds offering herself and her descendants as servants of the fairies. The deal was agreed upon and Margret returned home with the tapestry. Once the Queen hung it within Richmond Palace prosperity and wealth once again flowed within the kingdom.

Each woman in our family since has been born with the power of incredible beauty and magic, but upon the death of the current King or Queen, we must return the magic to the tapestry by the stroke of midnight or the peace between the worlds would be shattered. It’s an incredibly important role and one I can’t believe I considered not fulfilling. Duty and destiny are far greater than any individual’s love and desire.

Falling backward onto the desk with the power returned where it belongs, I feel peacefulness spread through me as if I’m sitting in wool pajamas before a roaring fire. I thought I’d feel empty, but I don’t. The memories of Ollie and the life I’ve lived before this moment feel precious, but also hazy and far away. It’s as if it was all a beautiful dream and I’m finally awake.

I feel connected to my mum and the women before me in a way I can’t fully understand. Pride and love have replaced the magic. It’s a sensation of being whole and complete. A turning of the page.

Sliding off the desk, my bare feet feel cold against the stone floor. It’s time to leave the palace and return to my small childhood home on the outskirts of London. I feel the stirring of new life within my body, a shuddering sensation as if my capacity to love has grown instantly and infinitely greater. Closing my eyes I can see her—my own little red-haired beauty to carry on the family legacy. Touching my belly, I walk through the empty rooms and out the front door.

Author’s note: A few years ago I was fortunate enough to take a tour of Buckingham Palace. As I wandered the rooms almost in a trance, I was taken back to my younger self who dreamed of a “Princess Diaries” scenario. I imagined at any moment someone would appear from behind one of the rich tapestries to whisk me away to some secret room where I’d be told I belonged not in my middle-class home in the United States but rather within the historic walls of the palace.

When I discovered the prompt this week was to write about a story pulled from today’s headlines, I had to do something relating to the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II. Hopefully, this story was a fitting tribute of sorts and not at all offensive to anyone living in the UK. I tried to stay away from actual facts as much as possible, sticking instead to my naive love of fantasy tales like Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere.” Any errors on my part are simply a result of my trying to tell a compelling story.

I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did writing it. Let me know in the comments below and I send my deepest condolences to the royal family and all the people of the United Kingdom.

Short Story Challenge | Week 37

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 pulled from today’s headlines and rewritten. We had to include the words boxer, cherry blossom, magic, implement, artwork, safety, chime, chain link, towel, and ingredient.

Write With Us

Prompt: The main character witnesses a crime
Include: Christmas, almond, paisley, lion, pipe, scream, fade, French horn, inflate, maple

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Octopus in the Room | A Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The piglet squeals with delight.

“A real dolphin is saving me! Wow!”

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

“Where are the people?” the piglet asks.

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

“Over here!” a voice calls.

“We found a survivor!”

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

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

Short Story Challenge | Week 36

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story that takes place in one room. We had to include the words petting zoo, handsome, unbound, annoy, weekend, invest, immortal, piglet, cocktail, and camp.

Write With Us

Prompt: A story pulled from today’s headlines and rewritten
Include: boxer, cherry blossom, magic, implement, artwork, safety, chime, chain link, towel, and ingredient

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Broken Shell | A Short Story

Where the rolling sea meets the sand
you will find the ancient ocean man.
Sit still and listen if you can
to broken sea shells in shaking hands.”
-Old Sea Proverb

Vanora squats beside a rotting pile of kelp to examine the tiny insects buzzing around it. The golden tinge of sunset makes their wings appear delicate and translucent. They must be a kind of fly or gnat and she wonders how long their lifespan is. Probably days or perhaps only hours.

A wave of nausea hits and she falls forward in the sand on aching, aging knees. When did she last eat something? Breakfast was a large bowl of fresh strawberries and a cup of weak coffee in an off-white mug with a slight chip along the rim. She’d almost cut her lip but noticed at the last second and turned the mug.

The rest of the day is blurry and Vanora doesn’t like when her memories aren’t clear. Her grey hair smells of coconut shampoo and it’s braided back so the wind doesn’t tangle it. She must have showered and taken a nap. She feels clean and rested in black leggings and a loose purple sweater, but awfully hungry. She probably forgot to eat again.

For most of her life, she’s been a writer, always scribbling herself notes, poems, snippets of song lyrics, and endless to-do lists. Her novels were never on the New York Times Best Seller list, but she’s proud of how they reflect her as a mother and a woman. In the last few years, however, the words won’t come. The notes she leaves herself now are cryptic and upsetting. It’s as if she speaks a different language each day and there’s no global translator.

It’s hard to accept such a drastic change within herself, particularly as most of the time she feels like the same person—viewing the world through a lens of flowery words, colorful contrasts, and abstract connections. Yet her mind doesn’t hold everything at once anymore—sand running through a sieve collecting only the bits and pieces large enough to not fall through. It feels terribly unfair.

Sitting back, she touches the slimy seaweed with her pointer finger and sadness suddenly ripples through her chest, making it hard to breathe. This plant provided shelter, food, and protection to generations of sea life only to be ripped from its foundation and deposited onto the sandy shore like a banana peel thrown in an overflowing trash can. Or like an old woman who gave everything for her family only to find herself living alone in a travel trailer moving from town to town.

Waving her hands frantically to scare off the bugs, she lifts the limp plant up by the bulb, runs to the edge of the water, and tosses it as far as she can. The roaring waves mask any plunking sound but she imagines it’s similar to dropping dumplings into a boiling pot of chicken broth. Bloop.

Her children always loved soup night sitting around the large wooden table throwing crusts of bread at each other. It’s been years since they were all together—scattered now like sand in the wind. Maybe she should call them all to meet her by the sea. Would they come? Life can be so busy for those in the thick of it. This she remembers.

Vanora stands and brushes the wet sand off her clothes as best she can. There’s nobody on the beach except a few seagulls and a scraggly-looking crab missing a leg. She watches him scuttle sideways, struggling to cross the sand, and is struck by how similar they both are. Unable to move as they like. Pondering what’s next. Needing help.

Grabbing the large reddish shell with both hands she lifts the terrified crab from the sand and carries it into the icy water. The cold seeps into her pants and it requires all her focus to keep balanced, but she doesn’t stop until she’s certain the crab won’t be dragged back instantly to shore.

“Good luck, little fellow.”

With a flick of her wrists, she lets it go and it immediately disappears beneath the bubbly white foam. Vanora feels a pang of jealousy and wonders if anywhere will feel like home again. It’s been years since she’s felt the comforting feeling of belonging, but it feels more like decades. Lost memories and lost time. When did loneliness become her only constant?

Finding a large piece of driftwood to use as a backrest, Vanora sits in the sand with her legs out in front of her. The blue of her nail polish has chipped and she’s shivering from the cold. The sun continues to inch toward the water, painting the sky with thick, vivid brushstrokes of pink and gold. Nature’s nightly masterpiece always changes and surprises her.

“Every starry galaxy morphs and sings
caught within its own orbital rings, 
but it’s humans who have the power
choosing how to spend every hour.”

An eerie deep voice crackles beside Vanora and she turns to find a tall, wrinkled man sitting in the sand beside her staring at the sea. His limbs are long and crooked and he’s dressed in only a pair of tattered brown pants. There are tears falling from his pale green eyes, cutting a path through his weathered, sandy face. Sadness, the great connector, erases all traces of fear from Vanora and she’s left with only peaceful curiosity.

It’s as if he’s simply another creature found along the shore—nothing less and nothing more. There’s a slick wetness about him as if he crawled out of the water moments before and perhaps he did. His feet are covered in sharp, white barnacles and his long, grey hair and beard are peppered with pieces of dark green seaweed. His speech is slow and careful.

“Skulls of restless men do lie
beneath the choppy waves and sky,
searching for what they already know
love transcends the moon’s bright show.”

These words are followed by a blank expression and silence. Vanora feels as if she should respond but the man has now opened a tiny burlap sack he pulled from his pants pocket. He unties a thin brown rope and withdraws several shells with long, pointy fingers. Grasping them loosely between his palms, he begins shaking them.

The colorful sky swirls and tilts until everything is cloudy and grey. All sounds are muted except for the shells within the ancient man’s hands. Vanora sways to their rhythm finding herself falling into a sleep-like trance. Images appear dream-like and cloudy swirling for a moment until they flash into vivid, sharp focus. One after another.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Thirty-five seconds are left on the timer before the roast is ready to be pulled out of the oven. Vanora wipes her hands on her faded flower apron and watches the children rushing around setting the table. The older boys carry the glassware while the little ones help with napkins and silverware. Her husband kisses her on the cheek before washing his hands for dinner. The baby fusses in the high chair.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Turning off the radio reports announcing another deployment of troops, the family gathers in the overgrown field behind the house in the late hours of the night. Using a borrowed brass telescope they take turns looking at the moon, Venus and Mars. They eat banana pudding and vanilla cookies from a thermos. The little ones pick flowers using a flashlight. Vanora wipes a tear from her husband’s cheek with her pointer finger.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Walking through the empty house Vanora checks one more time for anything left behind. She doesn’t want to leave her home, but the war isn’t stopping anytime soon and without her husband, she must do what she can to protect her children. Her youngest just learned to walk and he waddles across the clean wooden floors giggling at how much space there is to move. The oldest children fold their arms and scowl. Nothing she can say will fix this for them.

“What you have always given free
I have taken from the sea,
stolen from the ocean’s dark abyss
a broken memory shell to reminisce.”

Minutes pass into hours as the chilly night gives way to foggy dawn. Vanora sits stiffly with her eyes closed, locked in a slideshow of the past. She watches echoes of herself and her children grow up and change through vivid snapshots of her 70 years of life. Meetings and partings. Happiness and grief. Love and loss. Fullness and beauty transform into warming gratitude that radiates like flashing sparks through her tired body.

A hawk swoops across the sky calling loudly. She opens her eyes. The strange ocean man beside her is gone and the world looks bright and hopeful. A broken sand dollar sits beside her and she holds it close to her chest and smiles. Walking back to her small trailer the words flow as they haven’t in years, almost singing themselves within her, weaving with memories unlocked and free.

“What once was taken far from me
hidden inside the Tumtum tree,
this broken shell gimble gave
for might memory now to wave.

With burbling breath and flowing pen
I return back unto myself again,
for within my beating beamish heart
truth whispers of another fresh start.”

Author’s note: I’ve been working all week to get my house ready to host my mother-in-law’s memorial this Sunday and I left myself no time for writing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the words would come at all. I stayed up late last night, far into this morning, and this story is what developed. While it may not have stayed entirely on topic, I’m kind of proud of this one. Let me know what you think in the comments below and I’ll catch up on reading everyone’s blogs next week. I miss all your words!

Short Story Challenge | Week 35

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 conversation between artists. We had to include the words skull, galaxy, expression, trash can, deployment, visitor, brushstroke, decade, forgot, and ponder.

For an added bonus this week, here’s a picture of Angelica as a unicorn and me as Raggedy Ann back in the early 2000s. She was simply the cutest. Still is.

Write With Us

Prompt: A story that takes place in one room
Include: petting zoo, handsome, unbound, annoy, weekend, invest, immortal, piglet, cocktail, and camp

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Blackberry Quest | A Short Story

It isn’t easy to surprise your mother when you are five years old, but Henrietta doesn’t mind doing hard things for the people she loves. For the last several hours she’s been on a hunt for blackberries to give her mother for her birthday. A tiring barefooted quest that’s led her to the very edges of where she’s allowed to go on their small farm.

Despite checking the ditches along the road, the field behind the animal barn, the banks of the small creek, and the apple orchard, her little wicker basket remains empty. Henrietta thought finding the berries would be easy as she’s gone with her mother to harvest them many times, but she never paid attention to where they picked them and now she wished she had.

Mother does so much for Henrietta and she loves blackberries and cream. She can’t go home empty-handed. She simply must keep looking.

Stuffing her left hand into the pocket of her favorite purple linen dress and swinging the basket in her right, Henrietta skips along the edge of the property marked by a two-rail wooden fence. Her thick, blonde braid bounces against her back and she sings a song about blue jays and mockingbirds with a sweet high voice her mother says is “purely delightful” but her new teacher calls “truly distracting.”

Pink-cheeked, she stops abruptly when she spots a dirt path leading into a patch of scrubby-looking old trees she’s never noticed before. Perhaps that’s where the berries are hiding. She stares at it for a long time, wrinkling up her nose and twirling the basket in her hand.

To follow the path means she must break the rules. It’s beyond the border of the wooden fence—the one she swore to never, ever cross. Closing her eyes tight she pictures the joy and delight on her mother’s face when she hands her the basket of berries and the decision is made. She has to go for it.

Hiking up her dress, Henrietta carefully climbs over the fence and lands with a thud on the other side. Her heart races as she sprints to the clump of scraggly trees, certain a huge blackberry bush will be waiting among them. It isn’t. There are only rocks, dirt, and weeds. She picks up a round grey stone and throws it in frustration. The berries must be just a little further.

For the next few hours, she follows several winding paths through a mostly dry forest of thorny weeds. She knows she should turn back but she keeps thinking she sees the dark green leaves of the berry bushes just around the next corner. Just a little further.

The path suddenly ends at a lumpy hill covered in swaying, yellow grasses. With hope still wrapped around her like a tiny silken cape, Henrietta tucks the basket under her arm and climbs on all fours like a bear to the very top. Thorns make her palms and bare feet burn and itch. Just a little further.

On the hilltop, Henrietta watches the dark purple wild lupine flowers sway slightly in the warm breeze of the now late summer evening. Tiny golden hairs escape her thick braid and curl around her ears. Still no sign of berries.

Scrambling onto a small boulder, Henrietta stands on tiptoes and reaches for the puffy white clouds in the darkening blue sky. She’s certain eating one would make things better. It certainly can’t get any worse.

Suddenly her left calf starts to cramp and she yelps in pain, tumbling from the rock into a patch of scratchy brown weeds. Curling into a ball she uses her thumbs to try and massage out the pain but it doesn’t work. Tears from her soft blue eyes make tracks down her bright pink cheeks. It’s not fair.

Rolling onto her back, she lands in a patch of soggy mud and feels it soak completely through her thin dress. Mom will be furious at the stains. She’s stupid and dumb for wandering away and getting lost. A useless baby.

These kinds of thoughts aren’t like Henrietta at all and she wonders if perhaps the wind is saying these awful things to her. She’s simply lost. That’s all. There’s no need for name-calling.

“Stop it wind. Stop being mean.”

As if in response the wind gusts across the hilltop causing the long stems of the flowers to lean almost to the ground. There’s a high-pitched sound, like when mother’s yellow tea kettle is ready, and Henrietta covers her ears and closes her eyes. She isn’t sure she wants to look for berries anymore.

When the wind stops, Henrietta sits up, expecting to see her beautiful mother appear over the crest of the hill and rescue her. When she doesn’t, Henrietta wipes the tears from her eyes with the muddy hem of her dress and sniffs loudly. Being brave is getting harder and harder.

Maybe it’s time to go home and give mother something else for her birthday. Henrietta’s thinking about putting together a bouquet of wildflowers when a horrible screeching sound causes her to look up. Two rather ugly birds sit on the rock she fell from. They are covered in black feathers with bright pink naked heads, hooked white beaks, and intense black eyes.

She scrambles backward further into the mud puddle and the birds laugh at her. It’s a horrid sound and it makes her mad. Jumping to her feet, she places her hands on her hips and stomps her foot sending a spray of mud up around her.

“Go away you mean things.”

“We aren’t mean things. We are vultures. Don’t you know anything?”

They take turns speaking, each saying one word at a time, with matching slow growly voices. Henrietta feels her cheeks heating up and she twists the hem of her dress in her left fist. The birds smell terrible so she plugs her nose, causing her voice to sound strange.

“I know lots of things.”

“Like what?”

“I know how to spell my name and count to 100.”

“Everyone knows that.”

“I know all the names of the flowers in my mother’s garden; pansy, bellflower, iris, candytuft, tulip, wisteria, and hydrangea.”

“Everyone knows that.”

“I can snorkel in the water all by myself and know the names of all the fish in the lake; trout, salmon, bass, catfish, perch, and pike.”

“Everyone knows that.”

The vultures laugh again, scraping their shiny black talons loudly against the rock and clicking their beaks. Henrietta thinks nothing of this warning but instead grabs a handful of mud and throws it at the birds. They dodge it easily and then dive toward her with loud, terrifying squawks.

“Oh, no!”

Realizing a bit too late she’s in danger, she turns quickly and sprints down the far side of the hill. About halfway down she discovers she’s going too fast but can’t stop herself. Instead, she falls forward until she’s rolling like a wild croquet ball spinning towards a field of wire wickets.

“Help! Someone help me!”

Within seconds a mass of blue and white swirls around her, circling wildly with tiny quick moments too fast to fully see. There’s a sweet sugary smell in the air and a low rhythmic humming Henrietta associates with lullabies and bedtime. She’s scared but also very curious.

The creatures move faster and faster until they are able to stop Henrietta’s forward movement and suspend her in midair upside down. She looks from the delicate soft creatures to the sky beneath her wiggling toes and giggles.

“Thank you, but I think I’m pointing the wrong way.”

The swarm of blue and white butterflies lightly laugh, flip her around, and gently ease her dirty feet onto a patch of soft green clover. Holding out her arms and spinning in a circle she dances with them until they eventually disperse and fly off into the darkening forest around her.

“Wow. What was that?”

“Butterfly effect.”

The fast breathy voice comes from inside the branches of a large sycamore tree leaning slightly to the right. Henrietta moves closer and finds a tiny squirrel climbing up and down the branches grabbing acorns from a pile at the base of the tree and then storing them inside a hole midway up the tree’s trunk. Its long bushy tail twitches up and down.

“Did you say butterfly effect?”

“I did.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“The butterfly effect?”


Henrietta laughs in frustration but the squirrel doesn’t stop moving and doesn’t add anything further. She leans down to examine the fat brown acorns touching one of the wooden caps with her fingertip. A terrible squeaking sound erupts and the squirrel rushes toward her.

“Don’t you dare! Those are mine!”

Henrietta quickly pulls her finger away and takes a step back.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just looking at them.”

“Had to purge my other spot…got too busy. Too busy. Industry moving in. Those beavers have no scruples I say. No scruples at all. They just take and take and take. These are mine. I collected them. Mine. Mine. Mine.”

Henrietta covers her mouth to stop a chuckle from escaping and then smiles gently at the squirrel who has stopped moving to look at her closer. It sniffs her hand with its twitchy nose and she can see the forest reflected in the shiny black of its small eyes.

“You lost?”

Its voice is slower and softer. Henrietta thinks it sounds worried about her. Looking around the thick forest of tall trees she finds nothing looks familiar. She really is lost.

“I guess I am. I was looking for blackberries for my mother’s birthday and I didn’t find them and then…I kind of got lost. I don’t know where I am.”

The last words bring a few tears and Henrietta quickly sweeps them away with the back of her hand. She feels like she should be tougher, after all, she’s a kindergartner now and can go down the big twisty slide without anyone to catch her at the bottom. The squirrel takes another step toward her with its head turned to the side.

“Can I help?”

Henrietta brightens at this.

“Maybe….do you know the way to my house? It’s the big blue one with the white fence behind it.”

The squirrel shakes its head sadly and they both sit quietly for a few minutes staring at the forest floor. Henrietta feels bad for stopping this kind of creature from its work but then she has an idea. An exciting idea.

“Could I help you?”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Of course! We can use my basket to gather up the acorns and then I can climb up and dump them inside.”

Nodding its head vigorously they get to work putting the plan into action. Henrietta climbs trees in the orchard all the time to help her mother get the apples near the top, so climbing with the basket isn’t hard for her at all. Before the sun sets another inch in the sky, they are done.

The squirrel rushes around the tree chirping excitedly and Henrietta feels proud of herself. She loves to be a helper. It makes her heart feel as if it has grown big and full inside her body. Her mother would be so proud.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” it chants over and over in time with its twitchy tail.

Stopping mid-tree, a thoughtful look breaks across the squirrel’s face followed by more frantic running and squeaking. Henrietta laughs hard and this time she doesn’t hide it. Bouncing on its back legs as if ready to spring high into the air and take flight, the squirrel talks super fast.

“I have an idea! I have the best idea of all the ideas in the woods. Will it work? I don’t know. But it’s a good idea. A fine idea. A wonderful idea. He owes me a favor and he has to be able to help. He has to. It’s a good idea. A great idea. I can help you!”

“You can?”

“Yes. I know someone who might be able to help! Wait here!”

With that, the squirrel scampers away at top speed mumbling “great idea.” Henrietta sits on the forest floor and picks out thorns from her dress and tosses them as far as she can. She wishes she’d asked for one of the acorns because her mother loves to draw little faces on them and line them up along the kitchen window. She decides she will ask the squirrel when it returns.

“I’m no snitch. I tell ya. No snitch. You can’t make me talk. No. No. I won’t tell you. I won’t.”

A gruff voice breaks through the woods and within moments Henrietta sees the squirrel walking slowly beside an old, fat, grey rabbit with a slight limp. It’s shaking its head, making its long, floppy ears flap all over the place. Henrietta thinks it’s the cutest rabbit she’s ever seen and has to sit on her hands to avoid reaching out to touch its soft fur.

“See! She’s nice and she needs our help.”

Stopping a few inches away the rabbit stares at Henrietta for a long time. She’s not sure if she should say something to it, and after what feels like forever, it nods once.

“I’m no snitch. I tell ya. No snitch. But I’ll show her the berries. For her mother…”

Henrietta jumps to her feet, sending both the squirrel and the rabbit into a nearby bush.

“Sorry. I’m just excited.”

“It’s okay. I’m no snitch, but let’s go. Don’t tell anyone I told you okay? Nobody. I’m no snitch.”

“Oh, I won’t tell a soul.”

The squirrel rushes to its pile and then returns to Henrietta with an acorn in its tiny paws.

“For you mother.”

“She will love it! Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.”

Henrietta wants to touch its soft fur but decides it might be bad manners and instead blows the squirrel a kiss before turning to follow the grumpy rabbit into the forest. They walk slowly in silence for a long time around fallen logs, through patches of bright green ferns, and around several large colorful mushrooms.

The sky beyond the trees has turned golden orange and purple. Soon the moon and the stars will be out. Her mother must be so worried about her and it makes Henrietta feel terribly upset. By the time they reach a large blackberry bush hugging the edge of a small stream her enthusiasm for picking has been replaced with utter despair.

“Here you go. Now, remember, I didn’t take you here. I’m no snitch.”

Henrietta begins to sob. She can’t help herself. All she wanted to do was make her mother’s birthday special and she missed the entire day, broke the number one rule, and probably won’t ever find her home again. Thinking about her mother’s crying green eyes makes her feel sick as she clutches her stomach.

The rabbit hops into her lap and looks at her with concern in its dark shiny eyes.

“You can pet me if you want.”

Henrietta does and is surprised to find it makes her feel better. The more she strokes the soft, grey fur the calmer she becomes. The babbling sound of the nearby stream draws her attention to the blackberry bush and she feels a renewed sense of purpose. This day can be saved!

“Thank you, rabbit. A million times thank you.”

It hops from her lap and she runs toward the bush and begins picking the fattest, prettiest blackberries she’s ever seen until her basket is filled to the tippy-top. Mother will be so overjoyed she’ll forget everything else. Henrietta pops a few of the berries into her mouth and chews them happily.

“Excuse me…”

A deep voice causes Henrietta to almost drop her basket and she’s shocked when she turns around to find an enormous deer with huge antlers pawing the ground a few feet from where she stands. It occurs to her in an instant that the berries must be his and he’s going to be really mad.

“I’m sorry. You can have them back.”

She’s about to pour the basket onto the ground when the deer laughs. It’s not mocking like the vulture’s cackle but rather a gentle soft chuckle between friends. Tilting his head he nods to her.

“My forest friends have told me you are trying to get home for your mother’s birthday. You are almost too late little one. Mother moon has opened her eyes and her starry children are rushing out to play. The day is almost over.”

Tears reform in Henrietta’s already swollen eyes as all the feelings of the day flood through her again. She falls to the forest floor letting the basket of berries tumble from her hands. Nothing is as important as being with her mother and she should have never left the farm. Love and time together are the most important gifts of all.

“It’s okay,” the deer says. “It’s all going to be okay.”

Henrietta looks up to see all her new forest friends gathered in a circle around her—big deer, grey rabbit, twitchy squirrel, and the swirling mass of blue and white butterflies. They gather the berries for her and return them to the basket. They kiss her on the cheek and help her onto the smooth back of the large deer. She can feel his breath beneath her and her own breathing slows to match his.

“Time to go, little one. Your mother’s waiting for you,” the deer says.

“Thank you!” she calls to her friends who stand waving until she’s out of sight.

The journey takes no time at all and soon Henrietta sees the fence at the back of the orchard. Her mother stands near the treeline with her back to her. She’s wearing a long purple dress covered in tiny white flowers. The moonlight makes her hair look sleek and silver.

“Henrietta! Where are you, daughter? Henrietta!”

Sliding quickly off the deer’s back she kisses him on the nose, leaps over the fence, and runs toward her mother.

“I’m right here! Mother! I’m right here!”

Her mother scoops her into her arms and kisses her from head to toe, the basket of berries falling to the ground beside them.

Author’s note: This was a hard week for our family. We gathered together in my sister-in-law’s home as my strong loving mother-in-law gently faded away from us in her upstairs bedroom. We held her hand, kissed her face, and brushed her hair. We made sure she knew she was loved but also that it was okay to leave us. It was a beautiful and incredibly hard week.

My short story, written mostly in one sitting, was inspired by my love for her and many of the wonderful moments we’ve shared over the years. There’s a little Alice, a little Blueberries for Sal, a nod to family history, and a lot of grief. I’ll miss you forever, Janet. Your loving legacy will not be forgotten.

Short Story Challenge | Week 34

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about an interrupted journey. We had to include butterfly effect, vulture, cramp, industry, purge, scruple, snorkel, snitch, warning, and useless.

Write With Us

Prompt: A conversation between artists
Include skull, galaxy, expression, trash can, deployment, visitor, brushstroke, decade, forgot, ponder

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Masterpiece | A Short Story

“Tipped paint splatters
Tenor boldly serenades
Treasured dinner platters
Transformation fully made.”
-old family saying

Salvador wants to blame everything on global warming but the summers have always been hot in the desert. I’m preparing things for our guests but he’s still running around in the boxers he bought from an expensive art boutique in Paris years ago. He’s claiming it’s too hot for clothes.

Covered in tiny yellow butterflies, the silk design looks less like a masterpiece and more like he’s got a problem with incontinence. At his age, it’s a miracle he doesn’t.

“You need to get dressed, Sal. They will be here any minute.”

“What? You don’t think they’ll like my fancy pants? I know you do.”

With this, he tries to do a little dance gyrating his hips toward me until something seems to catch and he winces. He braces himself against the kitchen counter and his cheeks flush red. I don’t laugh or ask if he’s okay. Long ago I learned his ego bruises easier than one of our garden tomatoes and with guests on the way I need him in a good mood.

He should be using his carved wooden cane but he’s often too proud. Despite his age, his lean body still contains hints of strength and youth. I can almost see the man he used to be and it gives me hope. His blue-grey eyes catch mine and I see hurt and maybe hesitation behind them. The pain of aging feels unfair and undignified. I wink at him and force a smile.

“Get dressed, Mr. Cassanova. Save the sexy for later.”

This does the trick and he saunters away into the bedroom the best he can with a slight limp. I consider crushing up some pain pills to put in his dinner but I think a few glasses of wine may have the same effect. We’ve got a lot riding on this evening and everything needs to go as planned. One misstep and we will have to abandon everything and start over.

Sprinkling a dash of fresh pepper on the top, I smile at the masterpiece waiting for our dinner guests—my grandmother’s rather unorthodox bean and rice casserole which takes an entire day to make. I slip the blue cast iron pot into the oven to keep it warm, take off my flowery apron, and stand in front of the hallway mirror to apply some pink lipstick and a little mascara.

Although my long silver hair looks stunning braided into a crown on the top of my head. I frown at the uneven tone of my skin and the way the wrinkles around my faded hazel eyes and mouth make my features appear sunken. I’ve never gotten used to seeing myself like this.

Salvador wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my neck. My body reacts to his touch, as it always has, and I breathe out loudly in fake annoyance. He laughs and steps back. Watching him in the mirror, I see him put up his wrinkled hands in surrender and then let them drop. When he speaks his voice is breathy and low. There are careful layers hidden behind his words and I wonder if he’s having second thoughts.

“You can’t blame me, Toba. You look so good in that dress. I want it to be just us.”

My emerald green dress has a plunging neckline and shows off all the parts of my body he loves so much. He leans against my back and reaches around to playfully tug on the intricate thick golden chain around my neck. I want so much for this moment to last but I can’t trust those feelings. Tonight needs to happen for everything to be okay again. One more time.

“You’ve seen me wear this dress a hundred times, Sal. Now, let’s look at you!”

Spinning around I face him and examine his white linen pants and rich burgundy silk shirt with tiny brass buttons. He’s swooped back his unruly grey hair with gel taming it to the sides of his head, but I know it won’t stay down for long. Our outfits go well together and I pull him beside me and turn back to the mirror to take us both in. We are a stunning pair for being in our 70s and I know it will put us at an advantage tonight.

The doorbell rings and Sal pulls me to him for a quick kiss. There’s homesickness in the way his lips press into mine, and I know it’s been too long since I’ve allowed myself to sink into him. There’s been too much to organize and sort through. I’ve barely kept it together, but tonight will change it for us. Hope makes me feel bold as I kiss him passionately on his neck.

“Tell them to go away.”

His voice and body shudder. For a moment I worry he’s forgotten where we are but then he smiles and his hands travel along my body tracing the curves until he reaches the places he likes best. Does this need to happen? Is he trying to tell me he doesn’t want to go through with it? It’s been so long since I’ve seen such clarity and passion behind those cloudy eyes and I want to send our guests away and simply be devoured by him. The doorbell rings again and I hear Frida’s soft voice.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

Reality rings through me and I reluctantly pull myself from Sal’s strong arms. He looks like he may cry so I grab his hands in mine and squeeze them. If I could freeze time I’d lock us at the doorway with passion flowing electrically between us, but I can’t. Tonight is important. I will him to understand the message in my eyes and then kiss him quickly on the cheek.

“Later, my love.”

My voice cracks. Tears threaten to erupt and I pinch my forearms hard to bring myself back to this moment. Draping purpose around my shoulders and swallowing hard, I step around him and open the door to our guests.


His voice trails behind me and the word lands on my shoulders pressing so hard I stumble in my flat ballet shoes as if they are the six-inch stilettos of my youth. Sal says nothing more and I wonder if perhaps I’ve misread his intentions. Maybe this was a mistake after all.

“Hello!” I say. “Welcome to our little home!”

Frida and her date stand beaming in the doorway with a bottle of wine and a bouquet of fresh colorful tulips. I chose Frida for her stunning curves, gorgeously thick black hair, and rich brown eyes. She’s wearing a white linen dress and I realize how perfect she will look standing beside Sal. It feels almost like fate and it eases some of my anxiety.

Her partner for the evening, though, surprises me. From our conversations at the coffee shop, I expected her to be attracted to the artsy kind with glasses and wild hair. Instead, this tall dark man looks like a supermodel complete with a dimpled smile and incredibly deep brown eyes. I blush a little as he steps forward and kisses my cheek.

Frida follows behind him and kisses me as well. The rich rose scent coming off her makes me wish I’d thought to spruce myself up a bit more. I probably smell like food and perhaps Sal’s musky aftershave. They are an extraordinary and glamorous pair.

“This is my dear friend, Diego,” Frida says. “We met on holiday in Rome last year and haven’t tired of each other yet.”

Diego winks at her and then turns his attention back to me.

“We are so grateful you invited us to your home. Frida can’t stop raving about her new friend and her famous artist husband.”

With a look of fake embarrassment, she playfully punches him on his tanned muscular arm. I straighten my back and remind myself of my mission. Play the part, Toba. You are fully capable of this. You’ve done this many, many times before. You can do it again.

“Don’t mind him, Toba. He’s just jealous I’ve been talking about someone other than him.”

“Guilty as charged.”

They both laugh and I join in and take the bundle of beautiful flowers from Frida and place them in an empty vase just inside the door. Sal has disappeared. This doesn’t work without him and I feel panic squirming inside my gut—a swarm of wild cicadas chirping “danger, danger.” I hate this feeling.

What if he’s forgotten they are here? What if he’s gone to the studio to paint or climbed the ladder to the rooftop garden? What if it’s not a good day after all? His memory has been slipping more and more. I need him alert and strong tonight.


Sal appears in the doorway to the kitchen holding a bamboo tray with four crystal wine glasses and a bright silver bottle opener. Winking at me, he crosses the cozy living room and places it on the wooden coffee table. There’s a look of triumph in his eyes at the look of shock in mine. He remembers.

“Thank you,” I say. “Diego and Frida, I’d like you to meet my husband Sal.”

Diego crosses and the two shake hands, but Frida looks a little starstruck. She hasn’t moved and I savor this moment. My words have worked on her. The spell is cast.

“I’m…I’m…oh, my goodness, listen to me babbling. I’m sorry. I’m just such a big fan of your work and I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you.”

“Well, I hope I’m not a disappointment to such a stunning woman as yourself.”

Sal steps forward takes her hand and kisses it gently. Frida blushes and Diego pulls her to him with a giggle. I get the sense he’s jealous of her obsession with both of us and that’s understandable. It’s far worse than he can imagine, however. I swallow back regret and shame. There’s no time for that.

“You are everything I thought you’d be and more.”

Frida’s cheeks are pink and her voice sounds a bit shaky. She stares around the room at Sal’s paintings, her eyes wide and filled with tears she doesn’t even try to hide. His artwork has this effect on most women and I watch a small smile cross Sal’s face. It’s always nice to be appreciated.

Diego offers to open the bottle of wine and Sal nods, taking my hand and sitting with me on our stripped green couch. Frida walks around to look closer at “Midnight in the Garden” and then “Dinner for Two.” Diego removes the cork and pours four glasses of a strong-smelling red wine. Sal squeezes my knee.

After passing a drink to each of us, Frida and Diego sit in the two antique chairs across the coffee table and we all stare at each other. Youth and beauty radiate from both of them. It’s an almost tangible thing in this dim room—a glowing warmth I feel calling me. I deserve to feel this again.

There’s a brief moment of silence, but Diego laughs and fills it with his confident, booming voice. He’s a man used to having everyone looking at him with a strong jawline and a head full of luscious deep, black curls. Confidence mixed with the arrogance of old money.

“You’ve got a beautiful house here, Sal. It’s quite a bit away from the world though, isn’t it? I suppose that’s on purpose. Wanted a break from the big city life? All your adoring fans?”

With this, he gives Frida a little patronizing glare but she doesn’t notice. She’s staring back and forth from Sal to his paintings. Her eyes are glassy and she’s barely blinked.

“We chose this location for the stunning views of the night sky. There’s nothing else quite like it,” I say. “Perhaps you saw it when you drove in?”

Diego nods and then goes on and on about telescopes and seeing the Aurora Borealis from his yacht. I’m more interested in the way Frida’s looking at Sal. She’s barely sipped her wine and she’s holding tight to the arms of the chair. Her soft voice cuts off Diego in mid-sentence.

“Have you painted the sky, Sal?”

Everyone looks at her and she blushes. Her red lipstick has left a slight mark on her glass and the dim light of the room makes her thick hair appear shiny and wet. Sal smiles gently and avoids looking at either me or Diego.

“Yes, I’ve painted many versions of the night sky. Hundreds, maybe thousands.”

Frida leans forward and I almost laugh as she presses her breasts together unnecessarily. There’s no denying her beauty in any setting but she seems to be untethered. This is happening far faster than it should.

“I bet they are wonderful.”

“Would you like to see one?”

The timer I set in the kitchen dings right on time. Sal finishes a second glass of wine with a huge gulp. Memory seems to be returning to him. He knows what’s happening and appears to be playing the part a bit too early.

“Why don’t we eat first,” I say.

Diego nods and adds, “Yes, I’m rather hungry.”

He pulls Frida’s arm but she doesn’t move. It’s as if the world has shrunk down for her and all she can see is Sal. An artist and a muse.

As familiar as the scene is for me, it never gets easier. The gravitational pull of Sal’s magnetic energy feels electric and I have to shake my head to avoid allowing jealous thoughts to take form. Play your part, Toba. No second guessing or stopping it now. One more time.

“Diego, would you help me set the table?”

Without a word, he looks from Frida to Sal and then follows me into the kitchen. I hand him the deep blue starry napkins and point to the small round table outside on the veranda surrounded by strings of white globe lights. He blinks back tears and doesn’t move.

“There will always be a Sal to take her from me.”

He’s not talking to me, but I understand the feeling. If I didn’t need Frida so badly I’d happily end this all right now. This isn’t something I accounted for, his feelings, and I feel a bit ashamed of myself for not realizing it before this moment. He will suffer from tonight, yes, but men like him always bounce back. He will be fine.

“He’s an old man, Diego. You are handsome and strong. You have nothing to fear.”

My words seem to have shaken him back to life and he looks at me as if he has no idea what I’m talking about. He laughs, grabs the pile of silverware sitting on the counter, and walks smoothly out the back door. Far off in the desert, I hear the howl of a lonely wolf calling for its pack.

I watch Diego from my place in the kitchen as he gently sets the table with careful attention to detail. A graceful man with long limbs and manicured hands. There’s an ease and beauty about him and I realize I’d have fallen hard for him in my youth. He stares up at the night sky and scowls.

“It’s not so great.”

He’s mumbling when he returns to grab the bowls and the basket of fresh-baked bread. I can tell he’s unnerved far greater than even he himself understands. Perhaps he feels the danger sparking around him but can’t name it.

Purposely I move into his path and smile at him holding the dutch oven in my hand. Tilting the lid, the strong spicy scent of the dish spills out around us. He returns my smile.

“That smells wonderful.”

“Thank you. It’s a family recipe passed down for generations on my mother’s side. I’m the fifth woman in my family to make it and it’s only for special guests like you, Diego.”

This compliment seems to have brought back some of his joie de vivre and he takes the heavy dish from my hands outside to the table. Frida and Sal join us moments later and I can tell she’s on the hook. A few more well-placed words combined with the food and we’ll have her.

“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”

Frida and Diego greedily spoon the food into their mouths while Sal and I watch. It’s working. They seem mesmerized and although I can’t be sure, I think Sal’s already feeling better. He touches my leg under the table. Diego begins talking with a mouthful of food.

“Forgive my manners, but this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten and that’s saying something. I’ve eaten at the finest restaurants in the world and nothing compares. I’m serious. You could make a fortune on this dish.”

They always want to make money off of it. I’m disappointed by his predictability, but it’s Frida who matters right now. Smiling, I repeat my question.

“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”

Her dark brown eyes look up and meet mine for the first time since starting dinner and I can see the start of the change in them. They are smokey and the pupils shrunk so small you can barely see them, a tiny seed in a murky sea.

“Oh, it’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The phoenix…the moon…I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I wasn’t prepared for any of this. It’s just so…overwhelming.”

Frida begins to cry and Diego looks alarmed but can’t seem to stop himself from spooning the food into his mouth. Frida scoots her chair back and walks around the table until she’s standing beside Sal’s chair. It’s time.

“Would you like to watch me paint something?”

Sal stands and squeezes my left hand. Neither of us like this part, but tonight will be the last time. We’ve agreed on just one more painting. One more canvas covered in blood. One more shot at youth. This time we won’t waste it playing and traveling. We will have a family—a daughter to pass things onto. We will be smarter and more careful. One more time.

“I’d like nothing more.”

Frida’s crying harder now and her voice cracks, but when Sal takes her hand a rush of happiness causes her to visibly relax. He guides her down the winding path behind the house to his studio. She will give her life for us. For Sal. She will be his muse. Our sacrifice. Another great work of art.

Diego continues to eat but panic has set into his eyes. I move so I’m sitting on the table beside him and begin to sing. The rich tenor of my voice spills out around us, following Sal and Frida to their tasks, and flowing out into the desert in all directions. It’s a visible mist now and Diego breathes it in.

He’s smiling by the time I walk him to his car. There will be no memory of visiting us and he’ll forget about Frida too. Tomorrow will be a new day for him, for all of us, and I kiss him on the cheek. He pulls me into a tight embrace.

“Goodbye, dearest Diego.”

“Goodbye, my love.”

There’s no confusion on his face. He’s forgotten already. I watch until the red taillights of his silver car disappear over the horizon and then spin in a circle. The aches and pains of aging are already fading and I can’t wait to jump into Sal’s arms and make love in the morning.

One more time.

Author’s note: The process of writing continues to both amaze and delight me. I started out with an idea of an elderly couple needing to sell a forged piece of art to not lose their house. The husband perhaps has dementia. However, as I started to get to know Sal and Toba, something far more sinister appeared to be brewing. When the ending hit me I was again surprised by it and I had to go back and rewrite the beginning to match. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it.

Short Story Challenge | Week 33

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a dinner party. We had to include phoenix, canvas, homesick, evening, spicy, rooftop, cicada, orthodox, ding, and spruce.

Write With Us

Prompt: An interrupted journey
Include: butterfly effect, vulture, cramp, industry, purge, scruple, snorkel, snitch, warning, useless

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Blood Moon Messenger | A Short Story

Dark goes the atavistic night
Deeply held by mystic sight
Words hang stoney and set
Fate falls within epoch’s oubliette
-Medieval Moon Prophecy

With an arthritic, wrinkled hand covered in thick, golden rings, the ancient Alchemist hastily scrawls with black ink across the water-stained parchment. Wild words of black winds. Stark words of naked truths. Secrets born of a lifetime studying darkness and light.

From its iron perch near the top of the peaked roof, an enormous red-tailed hawk tracks the movement of the feather-quill pen with unblinking amber eyes. Silently it nods in understanding. The end has come at last.

“Boy,” the Alchemist says weakly. “Boy, come here.”

Galdur has been waiting outside the slightly ajar round door for hours, shivering in a light robe of tattered brown, looking at his burned hands in the glow of the blood moon. With shuffling steps, he presses open the door fully then enters and bows deeply. He’s not a boy but feels the title fits him better than other things he’s been called.

“Yes, sir. I’m here.”

Slumped at his desk near the low-burning fire in the center of the room, the Alchemist folds a thick piece of parchment into thirds and doesn’t acknowledge him. The enormous brown and white hawk, however, clicks its beak and opens its wings, flapping silently for a moment. Galdur avoids looking at its four sharp black talons but can’t escape its monstrous shadow cast against the far wall. He shivers.

Colorful smoke drifts around the small circular room and Galdur holds his robe to his mouth to avoid breathing in the sour smells. His eyes water as he makes his way toward the Alchemist by stepping carefully around tall stacks of antiquated books, through little nooks of shadowy space, and around shelves filled with bottles of dark, swirling liquid. Galdur feels the room and the hawk watching him. They are waiting for him to fail. He always manages to do things wrong.

For as long as he can remember, the Alchemist has called for Galdur to fetch him food, clean his wounds, test his potions, run his errands, and take the hits when his frustration makes him moody. He can’t remember life before coming here but sometimes imagines leaving the fear and failure of this life behind in search of something else. Although he isn’t sure he deserves anything else.

Silently he takes his place on a short wooden stool beside the fire and looks at the aging Alchemist’s long, gnarled, grey hair and beard. He can see the dark puffy skin around his faded blue eyes and his crooked sloping back. It appears he’s aged decades since yesterday, but that can’t be. Galdur wonders if he’s looking through a prism or some kind of magical fog. Everything feels heavy and unstable around him. He wonders if he might be getting sick.

Using one of the many stout beeswax candles lit on the crowded desk, the Alchemist melts a square of silver wax onto the fold of parchment and presses a golden moon stamp into it to seal the paper. Clicking its sharp beak, the large hawk swoops down and lands on a wobbly pile of books taking a moment to settle itself securely before presenting its scaly, orange leg. The Alchemist shakes his head slowly with tears in his eyes.

“Not today, old friend. This journey isn’t for you.”

Decades ago, the Alchemist and the hawk met on the sandy banks of the roaring river Thames. Under the light of the full blood moon, the same moon as tonight, tendrils of destiny and time weaved together forging an unbreakable bond. Together, they’ve seen the world reshaped time and time again by the forces of shadow and light, an immeasurable war raging forever behind the faces of man. It’s been a long, exhausting battle. They are both very tired.

The Alchemist strokes the soft feathers on the back of the bird’s neck. This isn’t a moment for nostalgia, reflection, or hesitation. There’s no time for such things. When this night is over, both he and the hawk will be dead and his last act will either save or condemn this world. It’s no longer in his hands and there’s a certain relief in the knowledge he has done all he can. His work, their work, has ended. Only the moon knows what lies ahead.

“Come closer, boy.”

Slipping off the stool, Galdur takes three slow steps forward with dirty, bare feet. There’s a pounding in his head and he realizes the smoke has reached his lungs, making him dizzy.

“Put out your hands.”

Galdur opens both hands palms up and braces himself for the pain which usually accompanies this command. Instead, the Alchemist gently places the silver-sealed parchment into them as if returning a baby bird to its nest. Galdur feels a rush of warmth floods his body followed by a sense of urgency. The Alchemist closes his eyes and makes a deep bassy sound in his throat. The hawk tries to mimic it but it comes out as a haunting high-pitched hoot.

With a shudder, the Alchemist opens his greyish-blue eyes and stares at Galdur. There’s a look he’s never seen in his teary eyes. He recognizes it as finality, as a goodbye. Whatever happens next will be the end of their relationship and the beginning of something new. He tries not to smile as fate seems to be on his side for the first time in his life.

“You know where to go. You’ll find the cottage behind the waterfall. She will be waiting for you. Nothing else matters.”

Galdur knows the place he speaks of. For years he’s been made to study maps and travel halfway there and back, but never has he been allowed to leave the forest. The Alchemist has both prepared him and broken him. He wonders if he has what it takes to fulfill this task. It feels too important to be left to someone who fails as much as he has.

“You can do this.”

Not for the first time, Galdur has the sense that the Alchemist can read his mind—an unpleasant and uneasy thought. Even so, the words of encouragement feel as refreshing as the first spring rain and he savors the cool sweetness. He didn’t know just how thirsty he had become.

Staring down at the flickering shadows across the sealed parchment in his hand, he searches for something to say to the man who found him as a child and both raised and abused him. Conflicting feelings fight for dominance, begging like hungry abandoned pups to be heard and acknowledged. He sways slightly.

Galdur’s lived a life shut off from the rest of the world. A childhood without birthdays, syrupy treats, or any trace of kindness. A life of only service, servitude, and solitude. A life designed for a single purpose—to deliver this parchment into the hands of the Lady of the Lake. He feels overwhelmed as the pieces of his life click into place. Each task led him to this very moment. He begins to cry.

“Thank you.”

He’s surprised by his own words and how much he means it. He’s grateful for a life with purpose, even if it’s been difficult and lonely. When he looks up he sees the Alchemist and the hawk have both bowed their heads and closed their eyes. He considers trying to rouse them but decides the time for talking has passed. It’s time for action.

Without looking back, he holds the parchment to his chest and walks swiftly through the room and into the cool night air. There are three things waiting for him draped across an oak barrel of mulled wine: a pair of leather boots, a thick wool cloak, and a small sword. He’s certain none of it was there when he went in, but he knows destiny doesn’t require explanation or belief. It requires faith.

“Thank you.”

The deep brown leather boots and dark green cloak both fit perfectly. The sword, a short silver dagger with tiny gleaming stars etched along the sharp blade, comes with a leather holster and belt. Galdur secures it around his waist and spins in a circle. There’s a sense of all things coming together. A feeling of completion and new beginnings. He laughs.

Reaching inside the cloak he finds several leather pockets. One is the exact shape of the parchment letter complete with a silver button to secure it close to his heart. There’s a pocket with a flask filled with wine, another with a sack of gold, and a final one filled with tiny carved stones each a different phase of the moon.

Sifting through the smooth stones with his left hand he pulls out the tiny full moon and holds it up to the sky. The journey ahead seems etched on its surface, calling him to be swift, to be bold, and to be brave. If he doesn’t deliver the letter by sunrise all will be lost. He turns toward the foggy forest and takes off in a run. 

Destiny awaits and only the moon knows what truly lies ahead.

Author’s note: There’s nothing more fun than a good fantasy adventure. I set out to write one centered around the journey of an important letter but ran out of time to complete the story. Instead, you get the beginning of an epic journey that might someday be made into a novel including shadow monsters, the lovely Lady of the Lake, and a tale of true redemption for dear old Galdur. Thanks, as always, for reading my story of the week.

Short Story Challenge | Week 32

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a letter changing everything. We had to include alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, and bank.

Write With Us

Prompt: A dinner party
Include: phoenix, canvas, homesick, evening, spicy, rooftop, cicada, orthodox, ding, spruce

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

New Experiences | A Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

“Right this way!”

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

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

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

“Don’t do that.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

“Say it.”

“We are open to new experiences.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look up,” the Parent says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story Challenge | Week 31

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

Write With Us

Prompt: A letter changes everything
Include: alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, bank

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Stitches in the Woods | A Short Story

“Needle and the thread
Gotta get you outta my head
Needle and the thread
Gonna wind up dead”
-Shawn Mendes, Stitches

The golden crack of light shining in between my dark blue curtains tells me it’s morning. Another day and night have passed. I’m still alive.

“Honey, you need to get out of bed.”

Mom is at the door again, her long brown hair pulled up into a butterfly clip at the top of her head. The concern in her voice makes me feel guilty but I can’t move. The heartache feels like marbles in my blood, pushing painfully through my veins to sit heavily within my chest. The pain is too much.

Chrissy left me for some boy she met at cheer camp. My beautiful, everything Chrissy. We were supposed to get married and move to New York after graduation so she could make it on Broadway and I could work at the New York Times. It’s been our plan for three years. This can’t be real.

“Honey, you need to eat something.”

Mom’s back with a thick stack of pancakes smothered in butter and maple syrup. Her green eyes look hopeful, but the smell makes my stomach lurch and I run into the bathroom and throw up in the sink. It’s strange how heartache can make your favorite food smell disgusting.

Mom tries to rub my back but I duck into my thick blue comforter and roll away from her. Chrissy deleted all of our pictures from her Instagram and replaced them with photos of her and Ryan kissing at the State Fair. They shared a corn dog and rode the Ferris wheel. I want to kill him.

Grabbing my phone I check to see if Chrissy has texted me back. She hasn’t. Scrolling through my hundreds of blue unread messages I’m embarrassed at how pathetic this all is. I’ve never felt more out of control and sad.

Her last text burns bright white on the screen: “I’m really sorry. I can’t keep texting you. It’s over.” Swiping right I look at the red delete icon but don’t press it. I toss my phone to the floor.

There’s nothing I can do but accept her decision despite every fiber of me screaming to keep fighting. What could I have done differently? If I’d bought her flowers more or visited her at camp would it have changed things? She was my forever and I lost her. Life doesn’t have meaning anymore.

“Honey, I’m taking you to grandma. She’ll know what to do.”

Pressing my forehead into the cold glass of the car window, I watch the blurry scenery change from scraggly buildings to tall slender trees. Grandma lives in a little one-room cabin deep in the woods near a small creek that empties into a large river a few miles from her place. My childhood was spent here—throwing rocks, breaking sticks, and climbing trees. It makes sense for mom to bring me here.

Laying on grandma’s plaid couch, covered in soft-knitted blankets, I hear them talking about me. “Hasn’t eaten in days,” “won’t shower,” “worried” and “heartbroken.” The words drift through me without much meaning. Tears are flowing down my face but I don’t remember starting to cry. Have I ever stopped?

Grandma makes me drink a strong earthy tea with lots of honey. Mom’s car isn’t parked outside anymore and the golden light spiking through the trees is either the sunrise or the sunset. I drain my cup faster than I anticipated and she refills it again and again.

“You need to listen to me, Theo.”

She’s holding my face in her wrinkled hands and her small grey eyes are staring into mine. Rosemary and wool. Mint and mushrooms.

“Go into the woods—the spot near the creek where the trees form a circle. You must go alone and pray for love and hope to return to your body. After you pray, take a large drink of water from the stream.”

Her expression leaves little room for argument and she places my tattered blue converse and black hoodie beside me on the couch. Grandma has taken me to her holy spot many times but this will be the first time I’ve gone alone. She watches me get ready and then hugs me to her.

“When you return we’ll eat a big meal of fried chicken and potatoes. You will find yourself again, Theo. Trust me.”

Stories of my grandma’s healing abilities flow easily around family gatherings, like side dishes and desserts. I’ve heard drunk relatives call her a “witch” and sober ones call her “magic.” It’s hard to say what I believe but it doesn’t matter. She will not take no for an answer.

There’s a well-worn path leading from her house and into the woods. With how the birds are singing and diving through the trees, I decide it’s a little after sunrise. A huge black and blue bird with a spiky head, a blue jay, dives down in front of me three times causing me to have to stop and step around him. Stupid bird.

The white granite of the outlook tower appears through the trees for a moment but then becomes lost again in the thick branches of the forest. I used to love when grandma would take me there. We’d stand and look up at the tiny windows far above us and she’d tell me stories of how the villagers erected the tower in the 1800s as a way to keep watch for fires and invaders.

“The people of the hills looked out for one another back then. We were all connected…not like today when we’ve spread out like seeds sprinkled in the wind never looking back from where we came from. The tower meant something. It still does to me.”

When I was younger I’d lay awake at night imagining how I could get through the bricked-up doorway to the treasure trove of gold and jewels waiting for me to claim it. I always thought when I got older I’d either tunnel underneath, scale the sides, or use a tightrope to walk from the trees to the windows at the top. Maybe I still will. It might be worth the risk to be rich and not have to think about college and all the work ahead of me in my life. I need a new plan anyway.

Following the sound of the creek, I find my way to the circle of tall pine trees. It’s a strange place and I feel my heart race when I arrive—as if it’s alive or filled with tiny eyes watching my every move. Standing in the exact center I look up to see the tops of the trees disappearing into a now-blue sky dotted with fat white clouds. 

The heaviness of having lost Chrissy feels like it waited until I entered this spot to slam into me again. Stumbling back, a boulder of pain knocks me to my knees. I forgot about her for a moment and it’s confusing. It was nice to feel like myself and dream of the treasure in the tower, but also it felt disloyal to have forgotten how much I love her for even one second. Why is this happening to me? I feel crazy and wild. I scream.


The word echoes through the forest and turns me into a slobbery sobbing mess. Laying on my back I stare at the ring of trees and try to remember what grandma said to do but all I want to do is forget. The word sounds strange in my head like I’ve never heard it before, so I say it out loud.


Yes. I want to forget. All I’ve ever wanted in my life is to forget her name, the blue of her eyes, and the way her arms feel around my waist. The taste of her lips. I want to be free of this pain of loss.

“I want to forget Chrissy. I want to forget everything.”

A rush of cold wind blows through the trees, lifting old leaves from the ground and swirling them around me. As I watch them dance in the air, an uneasy feeling begins at my toes and then travels like a shiver up to my head. I press my fingers into my temples and watch as fat, thick fog crawls along the forest floor until it reaches me. It seems alive, with fingers and toes, as it presses me hard into the ground. I try to scream but find no air in my lungs.

Rotting wood. Rancid water. Decay. This isn’t the spirit that helps grandma. Its icy breath stings the back of my neck and sends another wave of shivers through my body. With a low, hissing voice it whispers into my ear. Forget. The fog and the word seem to be one—pressing down on me and repeating itself over and over. Darkness comes and I feel my body sinking into the soft ground.

No. I don’t want this. With all my energy I move my arms through the leafy soil until I get them under me and I can press myself up into a push-up position. The foggy thing above me groans and sighs, but I press harder and harder. I get my knees up under me and scream.


Pressing upward with a sharp jerk I manage to throw the thing off the back of me and jump to my feet. It repeats “forget, forget, forget” in a husky higher pitched voice, but I don’t turn and look at it. I don’t want to see what it looks like. With my arms out in front of me, I fall out of the fog and stumble a few steps until I regain my footing.

The forest beyond the circle has remained bright and silent. It’s the kind of stillness you feel inside you like a blanket and I lean into it as I run all the way back to grandma’s house. She’s waiting on the porch and I fall into her arms. A nightingale sings far off.

“It’s going to be okay.”

She’s made her famous fried chicken, thick potato wedges, and fresh bread which I gobble up in an instant. Grandma talks while I eat but I hear nothing she says. All I can think about is the word forget as if I’ve summoned it to live inside me now. Forget Chrissy. Forget the way she made you feel. Forget your plans. It’s like a chorus singing so loud I have to cover my ears.

“You okay?”

Nodding yes, I want to scream out no. There’s something happening inside me, but I don’t know how to describe it. Swirling, maybe? Coursing? That’s closer. Infecting…

“Lay down and rest.”

The moon shines fully through the big cabin windows and once the blankets are on me I drift instantly off to sleep. Cool blasts of air wake me and I pull the blankets tighter and look around the room. Fog, with the same horrible smell as before, creeps in around the cracks of the front door. Grandma’s asleep in her chair by the fire, her knitting still on her lap. I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

Pressing my eyes tight together I tell myself to wake up, but I feel the slimy thing climbing on top of me. It soaks my blankets. A sharp fingernail traces my cheek. Its breath feels like ice.

“Forget,” it hisses in my ear.

Its strong slimy hands grab my shoulders and with a jerk, it flips me onto my stomach. The weight of it feels crushing as it climbs onto my back and I manage to turn my face slightly to the left so I can suck in tiny gulps of air. There’s searing, burning pain along the back of my head. Dark hot liquid seeps into the pillow around me and onto the couch. I can’t scream. I can’t move. Something sharp stabs into my head over and over, but the feelings are too intense and I remember nothing else. Forget.

When I wake up grandma has made pancakes and I eat them without touching the spot on the back of my head that pounds and throbs. It’s nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing. She smiles and we drink tea. I’m going to be okay. It’s all over now.

“It’s remarkable. I can’t believe how much better you look. Your cheeks are pink and you actually smiled when you saw me. Grandma’s healing powers have done it again!”

Mom’s laughing and pulling me to her. She’s warm and smells like lavender and the pink cream she puts on her face at night. I want her to hold me for a long time but I push away dramatically and give her a smile. I’m fine, mom. Don’t you worry about your boy. I’m good.

Sleep comes quickly when we return home but it’s not peaceful. I wake to the fog pouring in from around my bedroom window and the horrible rotting smell. Don’t look. You are having a bad dream. It flips me, and sits on my back, and I’m helpless to whatever it’s doing to the back of my head. Hot liquid. Burning pain. The sound of snipping like metal scissors. Why did I go into the woods? Why didn’t I tell grandma what happened? It feels so real, but it can’t be. This can’t be happening.

I wake up on the floor, sweating and in pain. Running my hand down the back of my head I find something there. It feels like the stitches I had when I cut open my knee hiking in the woods last year, only much bigger. Running into the bathroom I grab my dad’s shaving mirror and angle it so I can look at the back of my head. Stitches, fat and uneven, run down the back of my head. I touch the sharp tips of the red thread and scream.

Dropping the mirror to the ground I scream. Mom rushes to my side. She’s in her plaid nightgown and brown fuzzy slippers. Rubbing her eyes she looks from me to the shattered mirror on the floor.

“What happened? Are you okay?”

“Mom, did I have surgery?”


“Did I have surgery or something? On my head.”

“You are worrying me. No. You didn’t have surgery. What’s wrong?”

Turning around I show her my head and she says nothing. I touch the stiff stitches in a line from the top of my head to the base of my neck. They are there. I can feel them.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?”

She’s staring at me now with tears in her eyes. I can tell by the fear on her face she can’t see them. Maybe they aren’t there. It’s part of the dream or hallucination or something. It’s not real. None of this is real. I shrug and try to smile.

“Must have been a bad dream, mom. I’m okay.”

She says I look terrible and asks me if I’m worried about seeing Chrissy on the first day of school. When I tell her I don’t know that name, her face falls. She puts her hand on my forehead.

“I’m not sick. It was a bad dream. I’m okay mom.”

The next few nights are some version of the same—fog, blood, sharp sounds, and pain when I wake up. I avoid touching the back of my head anymore and take handfuls of Motrin every few hours. Whatever is happening with me, it’s nothing. Probably brought on by stress. Forget. Forget. Forget.

Rockford Academy starts on Monday. My first few classes are fine but something strange happens at lunch. A beautiful blonde cheerleader with bright blue eyes comes up to me and says we need to talk. When I tell her I don’t know her, she gets angry and throws my lunch tray on the ground.

“What do you mean you don’t know me?”

“I’m sorry but I’ve never seen you before.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’m sorry.”


Her friends give me dirty looks and surround her as she walks away. I have no idea what happened but when I look at my best friend he’s shaking his head so hard that his long, blonde hair covers his eyes.

“Damn dude,” Henry says. “That was harsh bro. Chrissy seems really hurt.”

“I don’t know her.”

“Fine, fine. If that’s how you want to play it but you are coming across like a jerk. You’ve been good friends since grade school. Maybe you could be cool, you know? Be her friend?”

Without thinking I touch the spot on my head and shiver as I feel the sharp points of the stitches poke my fingers. It’s still there. I want to tell Henry about my time in the woods, about the nightmares and the fog, but I don’t want to risk him not believing me. I don’t have a lot of friends and I want to try and be normal again. We eat our lunch and talk about music. We make plans to hang out together on the weekend and maybe see a movie.

I’m a senior and classwork counts now. I’ve got the school newspaper, marching band, trigonometry, English, history, and debate. There’s no time to worry about anything else. Forget. Forget. Forget.

On Friday another strange thing happens. A boy in a Nirvana t-shirt sits beside me at lunch. He runs his hand through his long, blonde hair and makes fun of my colorful socks. I try and ignore him, but he punches me on the arm and ruffles my hair. I don’t like anyone touching my head, so I try and move away from him. He follows me and asks what movie we are going to see this weekend.

“I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

“What the hell, bro!”

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t know you.”

“Henry. Your best friend. Why are you so weird? You’ve been so fucked up since the whole Chrissy thing. I’ve tried to be cool but this is going too far.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know you and I don’t know any Chrissy.”

“Fuck you, Theo.”

He punches me on the arm and walks away. Something about the exchange makes me cry. I run into the bathroom and text my mom to come to get me. She said Henry had already texted her and she thought it was time I saw a doctor. I agreed.

Doctor Brandywine has been my pediatrician since I was a baby. He dresses in colorful Hawaiin shirts and always calls me “my man.” He and my mom discuss possible underlying conditions, headaches, memory loss, and insomnia. It feels like I’m no longer able to follow their conversation and I worry the dreams are killing me. Forget. Forget. Forget.

The doctor and then the psychiatrist find nothing wrong with me but they whisper things like “depression,” “break up” and “not like himself.” They start me on medication but it just makes me sleep more. I get dizzy spells and I pass out. My pillow’s covered in blood only I can see.

The nightmares continue and I think maybe I should talk about them but I fear they will grill me on the details and I don’t have them. It’s all fog and invisible stitches. Pain and clicking sounds. Nobody will believe me.

Maybe I’m having one of those existential crisis things I’ve read about—a separation of fantasy and reality. They change my meds. I get worse. More people yell at me. I stop going to school and I blackout and lose time. Food tastes terrible.

I’m driving in the car with a woman who is crying softly. Her brown hair has fallen out of a colorful butterfly clip and her green eyes are swollen and red. She touches my hand.

“Get better, son,” she says.

I don’t know her. There are voices and I’m aware I’m crying but then the fog comes again. And the pain.

“Tell me what happened in the woods.”

I’m laying on grandma’s couch and she’s sitting in a rocking chair beside me knitting something with bright orange string. My hand goes up to the place on the back of my head and I shiver. Watching her sharp silver knitting needles I focus on the small clicking sound. 

“You can tell me anything, Theo. I believe you.”

Grandma’s unblinking eyes meet mine. Shivering, I speak as fast and low as I can, afraid I’ll fall asleep again or not be able to fully form the words. Grandma keeps knitting but she leans closer. Her rocking chair creaks.

“When I went into the woods something happened. A thing heard me saying I wanted to forget and it sort of attacked me…crawled inside me. It…it started to come to me in dreams. When I’m asleep I feel it…but I can’t see it…”

I close my eyes and the image of a creature comes to me for the first time—a hulking, hunched nightmarish form wet and horrible. Tears flow along with tidal waves of fear. Grandma places her knitting in a wicker basket beside her rocker and leans forward.

“Did you drink from the stream?”

The stream. It takes me a minute to remember what she’s talking about. Then it hits me.

“No…I got scared and ran from the woods without drinking the water. Should I have?”

Grandma nods, stands, and paces back and forth in front of me in maroon and grey wool socks with slow shuffling steps. Tiny rainbows from the crystal prisms hanging in the windows dance across the dusty wooden floor. Her breath sounds even and calm.

“Theo, what does this thing do?”

“I don’t know…I guess it hurts me…my head…there’s stitches…but only I feel them.”

Grandma sits beside me on the couch. She grabs my hands in hers and I can feel she’s shaking…or maybe it’s me. The sunlight from the window behind her makes her white hair glow around her face. She’s beautiful.

Reaching up I feel the bumpy sharp ends of the stitches forming a jagged line down the back of my head. I’m scared the creature will hurt grandma but she peels up my hand and runs hers along the same spot anyway. Her touch is gentle. There are tears in her eyes when she jerks her hand away.

“You feel them, don’t you? You believe me?”

“I do.”

For a moment I’m happy someone believes me but it transforms in an instant into suffocating fear. If grandma feels the stitches then it’s all real. That horrible thing has been cutting open my head each night. I don’t know what to do with this terror, so I bury my head in her chest and sob.

“Theo. There’s no time for crying. You need to be strong.”

She rises and I follow her into the kitchen wiping my eyes and nose on my sleeves. Pulling down tiny bottles of herbs from shelves around the kitchen I watch her mix them in a pestle, grinding them and adding them to a little wooden bowl. She pulls out a glass jar full of water and fills the big black tea kettle.

“Water from the stream of life.”

When she sets the kettle on the stove I feel suddenly light-headed and lay down on the floor. Her voice calls to me from far away but I can’t call back. I’m drifting off and it’s coming for me.

The fog enters from every crack in the cabin wetting everything it touches. There’s an awareness I didn’t have before and I’m able to see myself lying helpless on the floor. I can’t do anything but watch as an enormous wet creature slithers across the floor to me making a horrible sucking sound.

It’s got damp dark skin covered with tiny red dots of blood I only see when it’s really close to me. Its long, thin fingers end at hooked nails as sharp as knives. There are hollow places where eyes and a nose should be and it makes a terrible, deep groan when it’s close. It’s got no lips and endless rows of sharp pointy teeth. I hate it.

Using its sharp nails, I feel it snip the red stitches along the back of my head and then pry back the skin to reveal a grotesque scene. Inside my head, on my brain, are stitches etched like embroidery. It’s a word and it looks to have been stitched over and over. It’s thick and red.

Using one of its horrible nails it slices open its frog-skinned arm and pulls out a long, thin cord of red blood. Pulling a tooth from its mouth with a sickening pop it threads a tiny black hole at the base and begins to stitch over the word, adding another layer. The word shines wet with fresh blood pouring onto the floor around me. Forget. Forget. Forget.

Opening my eyes I find I’m laying on the floor with an old woman standing over me with flowing gray hair spilling around her face. She gives me her hand and helps me to my feet. Rosemary and wool. Mint and mushrooms.

“It’s okay, Theo. It’s all going to be okay.”

“Do I know you?”

She hands me a thick clay mug full of dark brown tea which smells like fresh dirt with a hint of honey. It feels warm in my hands and I realize I’m shivering and damp. The woman’s eyes are kind and she leads me to a plaid couch.

“Drink it all, Theo.”

It’s bitter, hot, and burns as I swallow it. She watches me from a rocking chair while knitting a pair of bright orange socks with two sharp silver needles. There’s a flickering fire in the hearth giving off a strong cedar smell. I’m dizzy and I fall to my side on the couch and drop the cup onto the floor.

Pain hits my stomach and with a horrifying gasp, I realize she’s poisoned me. It’s too late. Shaking violently a sharp stab of pain slams into the back of my head. No. I don’t want to die! She keeps rocking and knitting. Why isn’t she helping me? It feels as if I’m being torn into two from the back of my head. I scream and she’s by my side.

“It’s almost over. You are doing really well.”

She pulls me to an upright position with surprisingly strong arms and holds a large wooden bowl in front of me as the spasms in my stomach turn more violent. Bright red strings mixed with blood erupt from inside me and she pulls at them. I gag and choke. It lasts for several minutes and when it’s over I fall back onto my side.

“You did it, Theo. It’s gone now. It won’t come back.”

Grandma tosses the contents of the bowl into the fire and I watch it burn and sizzle. She places a pair of newly knitted orange socks on my feet and hands me a cup of clear water. It tastes wonderful and I drink it all. Chrissy. Theo. Mom. I remember.

“You will be okay now.”

She kisses my head and pulls me close. The water makes me feel warm and safe. Chrissy may have left me, but it doesn’t mean my life has to end. I have people who love me and I’m going to be okay.

Author’s note: I’m on a road trip with my teenage daughter this week and she challenged me to write something scary. We came up with the idea together while driving across Oregon but I pretty clearly need practice in writing suspense and horror. Let me know what you think and thanks for supporting me and my writing.

Short Story Challenge | Week 29

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about an unexpected visitor shaking things up. We had to include tightrope, nightingale, underline, risk, academy, existential, outlook, Friday, gobble, and grill.

Write With Us

Prompt: Parents solve a problem together
Include: rhinoceros, umbrella, announcement, petal, feather, fruit, placement, sketch, wobble, boil

My 52-Week Challenge Journey

When the Snow Falls | A Short Story

Although the moon has been in the sky for several hours, it’s too warm for the children to sleep. They lay in matching brass beds in the large stone room, sweaty and restless in thin white linen pajamas. A few of the younger children whisper and giggle to themselves, but most are simply waiting, staring at the night sky through the high rectangular windows.

Winnie runs her hand along the stones feeling the heat from the day still living inside the granite. When she approaches the room of the children she begins to hum to herself a tune from a long-ago memory. The children shift when she arrives and she allows the song to move through her and out her full pink lips.

“Cold the wind blows through the trees
Cold the wind lives within me.
Cold are voices in the night
Cold are visions lost from sight.”

Her hand moves to her blinded eyes, opaque white with a hint of blue, and she presses her palm into them. Fionn sits up. She wants to say words of comfort to the woman who has taken her in, who cares for all the unforgotten children of the village in her castle on the hill, but she doesn’t have the words. They seem locked within her and she looks across the room to where her best friend Drift sits with his knees tucked up under him. He’s staring at Winnie. They all are.

“Into the village, I dance and sway,
Feeling the coldness melt away.
Into the water, I sink and dive,
Feeling the world around me alive.”

Winnie begins to dance, a slow twirling movement with her arms out. Her sundress, a soft light blue color, twirls around her knees. Her red hair falls from the wooden clip holding it at the top of her head spilling into beautiful ringlets around her oval face. She seems lost in her song, spinning and dancing around the room with a sweet smile on her face. She’s breathtaking.

When she reaches the furthest wall of the room, she stops. Some of the children are sitting up and the little ones are whispering to each other again. Winnie opens a wooden chest and pulls out the purple glass bottle with the little off-white squeeze ball at the end. She turns back to them, smiles warmly, and begins.

“Once upon a time the people of this land lived in a world of changing seasons and peaceful harmony. Each one had its own Queen who presided over it for three months of the year. They took turns ruling, each spreading their own magic over the land.

The May Queen with a giant crown of daffodils upon her head arrived in spring bringing rain showers, dancing breezes, and colorful blooming flowers. She called the birds to sing and the rabbits to run.

The Sunshine Queen dressed in shades of brilliant orange arrived in summer bringing darting dragonflies, longer days, and sparkling waters. She called the melons to ripen and the bumble bees to buzz.

The Leaf Queen dressed in a flowing willow gown arrived in autumn bringing crisp cool air, swirling winds and turning the land to shades of brown. She called the pumpkins to swell and the leaves to fall.

The Snow Queen with glittery long white hair arrived in winter bringing biting coldness, sharp icicles, and fields of crystal white snow. She called the bear to sleep and the hearth to be lit.”

Although Fionn and the other children hear this story every night, it always enchants them. They don’t move, mesmerized by her words, captivated by a world that seems at once make-believe and real. Winnie lowers her voice now, saying the next part in almost a whisper.

“All of this changed when the Snow Queen became jealous. Feeling left out and angry, she locked the other Queens into tiny cells within her icy palace. She cursed the lands, her wrath spreading like a virus, leaving the people to suffer through wars, plague, and famine. The natural tranquility and balance of the world transformed into chaos and selfishness.”

Winnie spins in a circle holding the purple bottle out in front of her with extended arms. She dances as she finishes up the story, singing the last part with a voice as soft as the water lapping the shore of the lake. The children all sit up now.

“Still, to this day, the Queens remain locked away in the Snow Queen’s icy palace awaiting children of pure hearts to rise up and heal the lands. You, my sweet ones, are those children! You are the ones we have been waiting for. Your kindness, warmth, and love are all we need to rid the world of the Snow Queen’s infectious curse. You, my darling little children of the land, will free us all!”

Overcome with joy the children clap. They always clap. Winnie takes a small bow and giggles. Fionn and Drift, older than the rest, smile across the room at each other. They no longer believe in Queens or curses, but remember how good it felt to think love could heal the world and save them from the harshness of reality.

“Now it’s time to rest little ones,” Winnie says. “Lay down.”

Starting with the first bed, she walks down the line, kissing the forehead of each child and then spraying them with a fine mist of fresh lavender water. She whispers “sweet dreams” and “you are loved” to each child. Fionn watches the little ones curl into a ball with a smile on their faces and fall asleep almost instantly.

Feeling tears ache behind her tired eyes, Fionn shifts from side to side. She waits until Winnie leaves and she’s certain all the children are asleep before allowing herself to cry. Drift crosses the room and quietly slips in beside her. He wraps his thin arms around her pulling her close. They both have the same shade of brown hair, but while Fionn has dull green eyes, Drift’s are a brilliant blue.

Despite the heat, they cling to each other—the misery passing between them without the need for words. They’ve had to bury a few of the small ones lately because they got heat sick and they couldn’t get them cool. The truth is far bleaker than any bedtime story.

The windmills don’t move anymore. The cypress trees have shriveled and fallen. The temperatures keep rising and rising. The cooling waters of the lake are receding, and when they dry up, no amount of hope and love will save them. The young teenagers hold each other until exhaustion dries their tears and they fall into a dreamless sleep.

The children rise with the sun, as they do each day. After eating a quick breakfast of dried fruit and nuts, they hike to the lake. Winnie, despite having no vision, leads the way with the youngest child tied to her back with a winding piece of white cotton. They are almost to the water when the sound of hooves on the hard-packed ground makes them stop.

“What’s that?” Winnie asks.

“A man on horseback,” Fionn says.

“He’s headed right for us,” Drift says.

A golden-red horse, its coat shining bright as the sun, gallops toward them leaving a trail of dust behind it. The rider pulls the reins and suddenly stops in front of them. He’s a large man with a shiny bald head, a round fat belly, and a fluffy red beard sprinkled with golden flecks of light.

He laughs and slides off a saddle of polished dark leather flinging a huge red velvet sack onto his shoulder. He seems unfazed by the heat standing in shiny black boots, red pants, and a matching red jacket lined with white fur. There are thick gold rings on every finger.

Fionn and Drift feel ripples of unease circling around them. This man and his presence endanger them all. They inch closer together and protectively stand holding hands in front of Winnie and the other children.

“Who goes there?” Winnie calls.

“My lady,” the man says. “I’m Arki. I was told of the blind woman of unspeakable beauty who lives by the lake with the children of the land and I see their descriptions of you fall terribly short. You are the goddess of my dreams and I bow to you and bring gifts.”

Winnie blushes as she unwinds the long piece of fabric from around her waist, pulls the toddler from his spot on her back, and sets him on the hot ground. He begins to cry. Fionn rushes forward and scoops the blonde boy into her arms soothing him with soft kisses on his warm head. Arki’s eyes are dull and grey. His lips are small and tight.

There’s an odd look on Winnie’s face as she lets the fabric fall in a heap on the ground and smoothes out her soft blue sundress with both hands, stepping toward the stranger. Arki bows before Winnie, beaming at her. Drift wants to yell “she’s blind and can’t see you” but a worried look from Fionn stops him.

Arki winks, setting down the velvet sack on the ground in front of him, and pulls out bags of candy, bottles of sugary drinks, and toys. He hands them to the children who rush forward grabbing greedily at the presents. The man laughs and his belly shakes. Drift grabs Fionn’s hand again, squeezing it tight and pulling her closer to him.

“What’s happening?” Winnie asks Drift.

He tells her of the gifts, of the man’s huge stature, and adds a bit about how he looks “untrustworthy.” Winnie doesn’t seem to be listening. She walks closer and closer to the man. There’s something enchanting about him she doesn’t understand—a pull that feels at once magical and comfortable. She feels him deep inside her bones. When she reaches out and touches him, the man holds his hand to his heart and stumbles back three steps.

“Warda,” Arki says in a whisper. “My love.”

“Her name is Winnie,” Fionn says.

Winnie says nothing, but the name Warda rings through her like a bell— both wrong and right. The connection is unmistakable and irresistible. She sways and finds she can barely stand. Electric sparks shoot through her body taking over. She’s not in control but doesn’t care. To surrender to him feels as natural as breathing. To be his is all she’s ever wanted.

No words are spoken as the two adults circle each other, a sort of imperial dance of old passing between them. The children watch as the woman they know and love seems to fall away from them in an instant. Arki pulls Winnie to him, sweeping her off her feet. They dance to music only they can hear as the children watch with fear and confusion.

After a few minutes, Arki pulls Winnie onto his horse, swinging her into place behind him. She wraps her arms around his thick waist and nuzzles her face into the fur of his big coat. The children watch with wide eyes as the horse lunges forward at full gallop toward the castle on the hill. She doesn’t look back or call out to them.

Fionn and Drift lead the other children to the water and keep them safe during the heat of the day. They kiss the little ones’ cheeks and tell them it will all be okay. They keep them cool and feed them jam and bread for lunch. They hold their tiny hands and sing songs with them. When it’s time to return to the castle the teenagers feel the last beautiful drops of childhood melt away from them. They are in charge now and they are in real danger.

In the days to come, the children do their best to stay clear of the strange and powerful man who has taken over their home and their Winnie. There’s little doubt he’s a supernatural being, a larger-than-life monster who commands them to either fetch things for him or stay away. His fiery voice thunders at all times through the stone walls and the children grow more and more hopeless.

They rarely see Winnie, but when they do, she’s unrecognizable in fire-red dresses of silk with thick gold necklaces of bright, fat rubies. Her hair has grown longer and turned a light caramel color. She drinks golden goblets of wine and lounges by the empty hearth on piles of furs. There are no more bedtime stories. No more kisses or lavender water. No more talking to her at all. She’s become Arki’s lover, Warda.

As days turn into weeks, Fionn and Drift know they must do something. On a cloudy night, after the other children have fallen asleep, they sneak on bare feet through the castle to spy on the couple. They find Winnie sleeping alone on a pile of furs before the empty hearth. Rushing to her, they grab her shoulders and shake her.

“Winnie! Please, Winnie. Wake up! Please! We need you!”

No matter how hard they try, shaking her and pleading, she doesn’t stir. The sound of Arki’s booming voice causes them both to jump. They follow the sound and find Arki standing naked in the bright moonlight. He throws back his head, howls at the sky, and runs toward the lake.

The children follow him, running as fast as they can to keep up and stop behind a muddy boulder near the shoreline. They watch him walk into the lake until he’s standing with the water to his chest. He begins to drink. It’s not like a normal person, cupping water into their hands and sipping. No. This is something else entirely.

He thrusts his head under the water and sucks and sucks. He doesn’t come up for air, but rather continues to drink as the water around him begins to pull from the shore. He’s draining the lake! He’s the reason the water pulls away more and more each day. The children have to cover their mouths to not scream as he finally stands, the water now around his shins.

Heat radiates from him in ripples causing the ground around them to crack further and the boulder to become so hot they are forced to inch away from it. Arki walks out of the water pressing his large hands together forming a ball of fire he plays with, tossing it up and catching it before throwing it at one of the few remaining trees. It burns bright in the dark night.

Fionn and Drift don’t move or speak long after Arki has disappeared back toward Winnie and the castle on the hill. They watch the tree until there’s nothing left but a pile of glowing ash.

“What are we going to do?” Fionn says.

She’s crying now. Drift tries to pull her to him but she pushes him away. Despair feels thick around her, like a heavy golden chain tightening around her throat. She pounds her fist on the hard ground.

“What can we do?” Drift says.

“We have to do something! He’s a monster! We will die if we don’t do something. The children will die. We can’t let him do this. There has to be a way. There has to be.”

There’s silence for a minute before Drift speaks. His voice is quiet and hesitant, a tiny whisper against the dark.

“We could go into the tunnels.”

Fionn shudders at the idea. Long ago Winnie warned them to stay away from the tunnels under the castle because they are unstable and hold the heat. They both know most of the old things are down there, covered in ancient dust, and perhaps answers. They look at each other and nod. It’s the only way.

The entrance to the tunnels is blocked by a heavy wooden desk in the old library. The books were burned long ago by invaders along with Winnie’s family. She couldn’t make it to the fortified tower in time, but she survived by hiding in the tunnels for weeks, eating old bottles of jam, and drinking wine. The children know this because they once found her weeping in the library when they should have been asleep. It was the one time she told them of the past.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” she told them. “You children are the hope for the world. Remember that. Yes, there are bad people and bad things. Bad things happen to us but we don’t have to let them define us. We can still be good. We can still be kind. Don’t ever forget that.”

Fionn and Drift don’t like to break rules, but they know what must be done. They brace their feet against the wall and press their backs into the hulking desk. It moves slowly inch by inch and they pause every few minutes to listen for the sound of Arki or Winnie. It’s a long time before the small door of light wood is fully exposed. The pair hold hands and stand before it, already tired from the effort.

“Winnie isn’t herself,” Fionn says. “So it’s not wrong. Right? We have to do this.”

“Sometimes you have to break the rules to save others. We have no other choice.”

“I hate this.”

“Me, too.”

Holding hands they enter the tunnel and shut the door behind them. It’s pitch dark and they both wish they’d thought to bring some kind of torch with them. Fearing the naked Arki they saw at the lake and what will happen with the water is gone, they let go of each other’s hands and use the wall to guide them down the spiraling stone steps.

The further they go the hotter and thicker the air becomes. By the time they reach the bottom of the stairs, they have become drenched in sweat and have bright red faces. Both feel as if they are ill with high fevers. A small light far off to their right suddenly appears. It’s bright after so much darkness and they reach for each other’s hands at the same time. Both of them are shaking.

Unsure if they are seeing things, they inch toward the light, staying so close their shoulders and knees bump into each other. They find a small metal torch with a bright yellow flame sitting in a shiny brass holder. They spin around looking for who may have lit it, but don’t see or hear anyone.

“This is weird,” Drift says.

“You think?”

“Maybe we should go back.”

“Back to what? We need to find answers and we already took the risk and came down here. There’s no other choice. We can’t keep doing nothing.”

“I know, but I don’t like any of this.”

Fionn doesn’t either but she pulls the torch down anyway and holds it out in front of her. She’s about to ask what direction they should go when her hand is pulled sharply to the left, toward the entrance of another tunnel. It’s a terrifying feeling, but after what she’s seen Arki do, it feels as if she doesn’t have any other choice but to go with it. Something is guiding her and she’s choosing to believe it wants to help.

“This way,” she says without explaining the weird pulling sensation to Drift. She hopes she’s right to trust whatever this is.

The path slopes downward and they follow the torch as it guides them through turn after turn, deeper and deeper into the maze of tunnels. There’s little to see besides empty stone walls and locked metal doors until they reach a completely round room. There are two striped armchairs set before a roaring fire, an enormous red and blue faded rug, and a small table. It’s cozy and strange.

“Whoa,” Fionn says.

“Yeah. Whoa.”

They spin around expecting someone to be there, but find they are alone. Fionn places the torch into an empty holder by the door and turns to find Drift standing before the fire staring up at an enormous oil painting of a woman. As Fionn gets closer she can see the painting closely resembles Winnie, only this woman’s features are slightly more angular with thinner lips and a pointer nose. She’s sitting on a chair covered in white furs while wearing a bright-red silk dress. Her golden brown hair falls in glossy ringlets down to her waist. There’s a strange smile on her face which looks like she might be slightly in pain.

Drift suddenly gasps and points at the bottom of the elaborate golden frame. Fionn jumps.

“Look!” he says. “There’s a name on the plaque below it.”


“Yes, the name Arki keeps calling Winnie. He must think she’s her or something. That has to be a clue. Right?”

“I guess…it’s definitely weird and spooky…as if this woman has taken over Winnie.”

“Exactly like that.”

Fionn and Drift stare at the painting in silence. There’s an odd coolness to this room despite the roaring fireplace and the heat of the tunnels. It would be refreshing if they weren’t so scared. They sit down in the chairs thinking and staring into the fire—neither has seen one except for occasionally in the kitchens when Winnie makes them stew. This one feels different and they wonder what kind of magic led them here and what this new information about Warda means. How can they free Winnie? How they can get rid of Arki? It feels impossible.

On the table between the chairs are two things; a box tied closed with a piece of leather wound around it several times and a handwritten note on yellowing paper. Drift leans closer and reads it out loud without touching it.

“My dearest Arki,
I’m sorry I can’t do it anymore. My heart has seen the darkness of the world and I can’t unsee it. Do not look into the mirror. Do not let it out into the world. I tried to destroy it, but it would not burn and it would not break. I wish I could stay with you forever, but my heart is broken and can’t be mended. I shall enter the water of the lake and never return.
Please forgive me,

They stare at the box and imagine the mirror must be inside. Both shrink back from it and sit staring silently at the fire for a few minutes. Fionn is the first to speak, her voice quiet and careful.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

“We look in the mirror?”

“Are you crazy?”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

“This is no time for jokes.”

“I know. Sorry. We use the mirror, right?”

“We get Arki to look into it. Whatever happened to Warda may happen to him and…if it does…Winnie might be free.”

“Wait..he definitely knows about the mirror? He would, right? I mean…if Winnie is Warda.”

“Yeah. I guess so…we will have to trick him.”

“Trick him? Maybe…but I don’t know. It all seems so confusing. If Warda killed herself then why has she returned and taken over Winnie?”

“And who left this room for us to find?”

And guiding the touch, she thinks. They sit for a moment pondering these questions when the face of a small girl appears in the fire. At first, they both think they can’t be seeing what they are seeing, but there’s no denying it when she begins to speak. Her voice is echoey and soft.

“Use the mirror and save us all,” the voice says.

Fionn notices the girl has the same features as Warda and a thought occurs to her. Is this her child? Is this why Winnie has told them the story over and over that they will save everyone? How do they fit into all this? She leans forward and speaks to the strange floating face.

“Who are you?”

“My parents once ruled this castle, but they were not good people. You must stop them. If you don’t, they will rise again and again and these walls and this land shall never be free.”

Drift jumps up and almost yells in excitement at some kind of understanding. It’s unbelievable, yes, but it makes sense. The spirits of this girl’s parents haunt these lands. They have to stop them!

“Your parents?”

The face smiles, nods, and fades away. They sit for a few minutes both lost in thought of the other children, of Winnie, and of the journey still before them. At the same time, they rise, bumping into each other and laughing.

“We get Arki to look into the mirror,” Drift says.

“Then the curse will be broken and Winnie will return to herself.”

“Easy as pie.”

They give each other a short, awkward hug which turns into giggles. Drift tucks the box under his arm and Fionn grabs the torch and lets it guide them back through the maze until they reach the wooden door at the top of the stairs. They listen for a few minutes with their ears pressed against the wood, and after hearing nothing, open the door slowly. There’s no sign of Winnie or Arki. They did it.

Leaving the torch in a bracket at the tunnel entrance, they enter the quiet library and ease the door closed behind them. They decide to put the desk back so the smaller children don’t accidentally find the tunnels. It’s hard work, made worse by how tired and scared they both are. Once done, they make their way through the silent house creeping around corners until they reach the kitchen. They drink and drink from the small indoor well until some strength returns to their tired bodies.

“Tomorrow?” Drift whispers.

“Now,” Fionn whispers back. “Look!”

She points out the small window of the kitchen at the sun beginning to rise in the sky. The children will be waking soon. They will need to get them to the water. The time is now.

They race through the castle searching room after room and find no sign of either Winnie or Arki. They run outside and through the once beautiful grounds searching behind bushes and in the tiny dilapidated gazebos. A terrible wet, raspy sound echoes through the dead garden and they follow it until they find a man and a woman lying naked side by side at the bottom of an old fountain.

“I don’t like this,” Drift says.

“Me either,” Fionn says.

The woman’s got long stringy grey hair and her wrinkled body is covered in tiny burn marks. The man beside her looks to be hundreds of years old. A fragile, frail form of dust and smoke. Fionn screams as the man rises slowly to his feet. It’s not until they see his grey eyes that they realize it’s Arki.

“What are you doing here?” Arki says in a wheezy, ancient voice that makes him sound like the wind.

He’s moving toward them, aging in reverse, growing younger and fatter within moments. The red suit appears with a flash of fire and he holds his hands out in front of him. Drift jumps in front of Fionn.

“Stay back,” he says.

The man laughs, the fake jolliness of it gone now. It’s a horrible sound and both the children scramble back. Fionn fumbles with the leather holding the box as Drift grabs a large rock and holds it up in front of him.

“What are you going to do little boy? Are you going to throw a rock at me? I’ve lived hundreds of years and defeated men far greater than you. You have nothing on me. ”

The fireball they saw him conjure in the lake has appeared again and he tosses it back and forth in front of him. Winnie, as Warda, stirs but doesn’t climb out of the stone fountain. She looks at them with unseeing eyes and moves her head from side to side.

“Hey,” Fionn calls. “Over here!”

A few things happen at once. First, Drift lunges at Winnie pressing her back into the fountain. Second, Arki spins around and releases his fireball which misses Fion’s head by inches, crashing into the stone wall behind her leaving a charred black circle. Third, Fionn holds the golden mirror with both hands in front of her and Arki looks into it.

At first, nothing happens. Fionn closes her eyes and holds the mirror steady for what feels like minutes. Nobody makes a sound or moves until suddenly Arki growls and lunges at the mirror. He grabs it and within seconds it fuses to his hand. He runs from them screaming toward the lake, a fiery light glowing around him, heat blasting out in all directions.

Drift stands revealing the writhing and crying form of Winnie/Warda beneath him. The other children appear blinking and rubbing their eyes in the morning light. They cry out when they see Winnie in fear and confusion. A horrible scream followed by blasts of hot air explodes around them—Arki! Fionn scoops up the blond-haired toddler and Drift drapes the ancient form of Winnie/Warda across his left shoulder.

“Follow me,” Fionn says. “We need to get to the tower.”

They race into the castle and up the winding staircase of the fortified tower—the place generations of Winnie’s family used when war came to their doors. The children huddle together in the corner around the writhing form of Winnie, while Fionn and Drift stand on wooden crates to peer out the small stone window.

Arki stands in the center of the lake swollen up to more than ten times his normal size—a terrifying giant of a man. He’s still holding the golden mirror, they can see it glittering small in the palm of his enormous hand. He’s screaming and crying, growing and growing in size.

“Warda!” he cries. “My love!” 

With one final bellow, the swollen form of Arki explodes, turning into a tidal wave of water. It rushes across the land, refilling the lake, and slamming loudly against the tower only a few inches from the windows where Drift and Fionn stand. The tower doesn’t move or quake—it remains strong as ever.

Winnie, returning to her beautiful self in a flash, pulls the children to her trying to hug and kiss them all at once. Blasts of cold air fill the tower dancing through the children’s hair and blowing their clothes away from their bodies. Everyone giggles and jumps to their feet—the horrible heat is gone!

“You did it, my loves,” Winnie says. “You saved us all. I knew you would. I just knew it. I’m so proud of you.”

Her words feel cooler than the wind blowing through the windows and warmer than the hottest of days. When the excitement fades, Winnie sits on the floor as the sunlight streams in, casting everything in a golden yellow light. She starts to tell them a new story.

“Once upon a time, a woman fell in love with a creature of the sun named Arki. Their love burned bright and beautiful, blessing the lands with joy and prosperity. On the day of their wedding, a day filled with light and warmth, the Snow Queen arrived in her white chariot to give the bride a golden mirror. She told her to look into it on the day her first child was born and it would bless the child with a long, healthy life.

The years went by and the woman forgot about the mirror until the day she gave birth to a striking baby girl with hair red as the sun. She named her daughter Willa and as she held her tight she remembered the mirror. That night, alone in her room while her baby slept in her cradle, she gazed at its shimmery surface. 

The mirror was a curse—a gift given out of jealousy and anger. Instead of showing the new mother a vision of her daughter’s happiness, it showed her all the evil and darkness of humanity. What she saw within the glass broke her heart into a million pieces.

Arki tried to patch her back together, but he could not. On the day of her daughter’s first birthday, she drowned herself in the lake. Arki found her body and wept and wept. His sadness turned into anger and he burst into flames blinding the firstborn of all the children thereafter, trapping the land in perpetual summer, and sending him back into the sun.”

Stopping and wiping the tears from her eyes she grabbed the hands of Drift and Fionn. She looked and smiled at the children making sure to make eye contact with each one. Pulling the littlest one into her lap she finished the story.

“Many, many years later the castle was filled with children. Beautiful, loving, kind children who brought it back to life despite the curse. Guided by the spirit of Willa they were given the mirror and they used it to free the kingdom forever. It was because of these children the people of her lands lived happily ever after with peace and love in their hearts.”

The children clapped. They always clapped. Winnie giggled.

It took a few days for the water to recede, but the tower was stocked with plenty of food, water, and blankets. For the first time in their lives, the children slept cuddled together clinging to the warmth they’d spent their lives cursing. They played games, they told stories, and they dreamed.

When they were able to step outside they found the sky darkened with grey clouds. The windmills spun. Tiny flecks of white fluttered around them, sticking to their hair and collecting in little piles on the ground. The littlest one among them jumped from Winnie’s arms and shoved the icy snowflakes into his mouth.

“Do you think the Snow Queen freed the other queens?” Fionn asked, throwing the tiniest of snowballs at Drift. She believed all the stories now.

“Absolutely,” he said, catching it and shoving it into his mouth.


Author’s note: Last week I watched the new Thor movie and there’s a powerful scene in the film which brought me to tears. Without giving anything away, it involves children fighting for themselves. I was struck by the power of this image and wanted to play with that a bit in my story this week. Using elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Snow Queen,” and other fairy tales I’ve loved throughout the years, I created this new story. This was perhaps the most fun I’ve had writing in the last 28 weeks and I truly hope you love it as much as I do. Let me know what you think!

Short Story Challenge | Week 28

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about getting away with murder. We had to include Snow Queen, windmill, tunnel, childhood, endanger, cypress, wine, horseback, temperature, and imperial.

Write With Us

Prompt: An unexpected visitor shakes things up
Include: tightrope, nightingale, underline, risk, academy, existential, outlook, Friday, gobble, grill

My 52-Week Challenge Journey