The Wheels on the Bus | A Short Story

There’s a massive maple tree outside Nudgee’s new house that’s covered in golden orange and yellow leaves nearly as big as his wicker lunchbox. With wide brown eyes, he stares up into the twisted branches trying to locate the source of an odd clicking sound he’s been hearing since they moved into this small, yellow house two weeks ago. It’s driving him crazy.

He catches a brief glimpse of something shiny and black, but a gusty breeze makes the leaves wiggle and sway and he loses it. Shoot! This place isn’t anything like his real home. He picks up a small rock and throws it at one of the branches, but he’s small for his age and it doesn’t go very far.

“I know you are up there!”

“Who are you talking to?”

Holding her favorite “Live, Laugh, Love” coffee cup with both hands, his mother appears in the doorway wearing her old faded blue bathrobe. Her thick, black hair is rolled up into dozens of pink foam curlers and she’s wearing a pair of dad’s old, grey socks which are too big and floppy. Nudgee thinks she looks like an alien and wishes she’d go back inside.

“Nobody.”

“It’s going to be okay, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“First days are hard, but you got this.”

“I know!”

His mother’s neon blue nails flash in the morning sunlight and Nudgee stomps away in his brown, leather boots to the end of the driveway. He’s 11 years old and that’s old enough to know his mother can’t be sure things will be okay. Why do adults insist on saying things that aren’t true? How about being more honest by saying “I hope it will be okay” or “it might not be okay but you are strong and can handle it.”

Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!

Nudgee turns around to see his mother leaning against the small rectangular doorbell. With a kind of stumbling shuffle, she steps back and spills her coffee down the front of her robe. Her big blue eyes look droopy with dark smudges of yesterday’s mascara. Nudgee’s worried she might start crying again.

“Ouch! Damn it! Shit! Sorry, lovebug! I’m okay.”

Go inside. Go inside. Go inside. Nudgee turns away from his mom and chants the words like a magic spell and when he doesn’t hear anything for a few minutes he turns back around to find she’s gone. It worked.

The familiar rumbling sound of a school bus turns his attention forward. He straightens out his green plaid jacket and tucks his thick, tawny curls inside a bubble-shaped tan hat. A fluttering of nervous energy makes him feel jumpy and he considers simply running down the street. How long would it take to run 100 miles? Didn’t his best friend’s mom say he’d be welcome back anytime?

All morning Nudgee didn’t actually think he’d be going to school. Things have been terrible since his father left, and part of him expected his dad to show up in his black El Camino saying it was all just a big misunderstanding. Yes, mom cheated, sure, but dad wouldn’t leave his little “pollywog” behind forever. He loves him. Right?

The yellow school bus door opens outward with a loud swooshing sound and a lean man with small, round glasses stares down at Nudgee blinking softly. He’s got grey hair, a large bushy mustache, and pale pink lips. Tipping his colorful plaid hat with a gloved hand, he gives the boy a wide warm smile.

“Are you Nudgee?”

He pronounces his name perfectly with a smooth, deep voice, and Nudgee nods. There’s a small golden pin on the collar of the bus driver’s blue shirt in the shape of a snail. Nudgee’s old neighbor, Mr. Arnold, used to pay him a penny a snail to collect them from his garden and destroy them, but he always let them go in the park instead. He liked their weird stalky eyes.

“Oh, good. All aboard!”

Drawing out the last word like an old-timey train conductor, Nudgee smiles. He likes this bus driver. His feet, however, don’t want to cooperate. It’s as if he’s been cemented to the sidewalk and all he can do is look at his boots in frustration while picturing all the kids inside the bus staring at him and making the determination if he will or won’t fit in. His stomach hurts.

With smooth, careful movements the bus driver gets out of his seat, walks down the three stairs, and reaches his gloved hand out to Nudgee. Before he can really think about it, he’s followed the old man onto the bus. He walks down the narrow aisle, staring at the creased lines of the black floor toward the rear of the bus while trying hard to not make eye contact with anyone.

There are no strange whispers or points as he walks, just the regular sounds of kids talking and laughing with each other. It makes Nudgee feel better. As he reaches the rear of the bus he looks up to see two girls playing on some kind of touch screen to his left, and a large boy with fluffy blonde hair sleeping to his right. With a red, white, and blue sweatband around his head, the boy hugs his backpack like a stuffed animal and snores slightly. Nudgee almost squeezes in next to him, but a low calm voice stops him.

“Don’t do it. Roger will drool on you. I, unfortunately, know from experience. It’s a bad idea. ”

Taking a step forward, Nudgee finds a small-framed boy sitting alone against the window of the very last seat with his hands folded on his lap. He’s got shiny black hair, cut short, and small dark eyes. With a wink, he motions to the seat beside him and Nudgee sits down.

“Do you know what Krav Maga is? I didn’t either until I looked it up. It’s some kind of fighting thing the Israeli military uses in battle. Well, Roger says he studies it, but I doubt it. He mostly sleeps and grunts. I think he’s sad.”

The boy points at the seat in front of them and gives a sort of pained look. He’s got deep dimples, dark thin eyebrows, and delicate small hands. The boys smile at each other.

“Oh, thank you.”

The boy puts out his hand and Nudgee shakes it. There’s something familiar about him as if they’ve met before, and it makes the jumpiness inside him calm down. He sighs and settles back in his seat with his lunchbox on his lap.

“I’m Akiamo but most people call me Aki. My mom says it’s not okay to change your name, but I didn’t exactly change it. I just think it’s easier to have a short name. You know? People can never say my name right anyway. Are you new?”

He’s wearing brown and white striped pants, a brown button-up jacket, and shiny brown shoes. There’s a leather knapsack on the seat beside him which is slightly open exposing books, notepads, and several glass jars. Nudgee nods and sets his lunchbox next to Aki’s leather bag.

“I’m Nudgee.”

As he says his name, he braces himself for the inevitable question “what kind of name is that?” He’s used to having to explain that his parents found it in a book and thought it sounded cool. He hopes Aki won’t mention it rhymes with “pudgy” or “fudgy.”

“Wow. What a cool name! I think I’ve read it before in a book. I’m certain of it. Sounds like perhaps a warrior or an explorer. I bet it looks cool as your signature with those double e’s at the end. Can you show me?”

He pulls out a small pad of yellow paper and a bright silver pen. Nudgee writes his name several times across the paper in flowy black letters. He likes how smooth the fine tip writes. Never has writing his name felt so fun as with Aki. They smile at each other again.

“Our dog had a litter of puppies last night. They’re all fat and white with eyes glued shut. You should come to see them.”

Aki pauses for a moment and looks out the window.

“I sometimes wish my eyes were glued shut, but mom says I shouldn’t say such things. It’s just that sometimes you can see too much. You know?”

Nudgee knows and nods. He remembers the night dad came back from his business trip and found Mr. Lobel in the bedroom with mom. He was naked when he ran out the front door, his white butt looked scary and ghostlike in the moonlight. Then the screaming began.

“Are you hungry? My mom always makes me a big breakfast, but I honestly can’t eat before I get on the bus. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because up until the moment I climb into my seat I’m pretty sure I’m going to get out of going to school. I just expect something to happen, you know? Like a miracle or something. Anyway, you hungry?”

Aki pulls out a small glass jar filled with cut apples. Nudgee takes one and to his delight finds it tastes like honey and cinnamon. It’s his favorite snack.

“Good, huh? My mom gets all our fruit from this organic vendor at the farmer’s market. She knows I have an aversion to anything meat or bread related, so she gives me all these little jars of fruits and vegetables. I used to bring dried seaweed, which is my favorite thing, but kids thought it smelled weird. It’s okay though.”

They finish the apples together in silence as the bus stops several times and more kids get on. Nobody else wanders to the far back and Nudgee realizes why Aki likes it so much. If it wasn’t for the terrible bounciness, it would be almost peaceful.

When the bus stops at a red light, Aki suddenly gasps and points out the window. Nudgee scoots closer, squishing the two bags between them and looks at where he’s pointing. There’s a strange black bird sitting on top of a parked yellow VW bug. It’s nearly as big as the roof of the car. It turns and looks at them with bright red eyes and makes a loud clicking sound.

“What is that thing?” Nudgee says.

“I have no idea, but nobody ever sees it but me. It’s always making that horrible sound. You see it right? You really do?”

“Huge black bird with weird blue beak and creepy red eyes. Yep. I see it.”

It hops off the car and starts walking across the street toward them. The clicking sound increases as it gets closer. Suddenly it swoops into the air and dives toward the bus.

“Shoot!” Nudgee says.

“Yeah, shoot!”

They jump to their feet and work together to pull the big glass window closed. The bird reaches the window far before it closes, but it doesn’t try to get inside. Instead, it just hovers and watches them.

The light turns green and the bus starts moving down the street again, but the bird remains right outside the window, clicking its beak wildly. It blinks, a sort of milky membrane covering its shiny red eyes, and then disappears with a puff of blue smoke. Nudgee scrambles over the two bags and stands in the aisle holding onto the back of the seat.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. It’s never done that before.”

Aki pulls out a tattered-looking notebook filled with drawings of the strange bird. There are scribbled notes all over the margins. He puts both bags against the window and motions for Nudgee to sit beside him. Shakily, he does and realizes nobody on the bus has even looked in their direction.

“I’ve been seeing the birds for years, but usually they just stare at me and blink. I’ve taken out every book about birds from the library, including mythologies and legends, but I can’t find anything about this particular creature. Nothing at all. Have you seen one before?”

Nudgee shakes his head but then suddenly remembers the sound he’s been hearing since arriving in town.

“Not before now, but I started hearing that clicking sound the day we moved in and I think one was in my tree this morning. What do you think it wants with us?”

“I don’t know. Are you a witch or something?”

“Are you?”

Both boys laugh at the absurdity of the question but quietly consider it. Nudgee knows his family history does include “healing women,” but he’s never really considered what that means. Aki has heard similar things about “mystics” in his own family. Could they be magical in some way?

When the bus pulls into the school, the boys gather up their bags and follow the other kids as they slowly exit the bus. Before Nudgee can take in the enormity of the brick schoolhouse, Aki grabs his arm and guides him away from the front entrance. He doesn’t want to be late to class, but he has a feeling this is more important than school.

They follow a dirt path along the edge of the building behind a row of large, spiky hedges. Aki runs his left hand along the bricks as he walks and Nudgee copies him. It feels cool and rough.

This is not how Nudgee pictured his first day of middle school, but there’s something about this new friend he trusts. After all, they just saw a magical bird together and that’s more exciting than anything he could learn in school today. Aki stops at the sharp corner of the building and Nudgee bumps into him.

“Sorry.”

Aki smiles but puts his finger up to his lips.

“It’s okay but be quiet. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

Aki doesn’t answer but instead holds his bag to his chest and sprints across an empty cement courtyard. Nudgee follows. They reach a small grove of scraggly trees with peeling white bark. The ground is covered with chip bags and candy wrappers.

Aki walks through it without pausing, stepping over garbage and through a large row of dense bushes. They climb down a small rocky embankment and walk a few more minutes until they enter a grove of old oak trees. Aki stops to pick up an acorn and hand it to his friend.

“I come here to think,” he says. “I want to show you my favorite spot.” 

“Okay.”

Stepping through streaks of golden sunlight and over dozens of fallen logs, the boys wind their way through a dense forest of tall trees until they reach a small clearing. A narrow creek flows between two large moss-covered boulders making a gentle babbling sound. Dropping their bags, the boys kneel down and put their hands in the cold water. Tiny tadpoles and minnows swim by. Nudgee feels a sudden surge of happiness, the first time he’s felt this good since his father left.

“Wow. It’s beautiful here.”

Before Aki can answer, the sound of clicking fills the air. The boys look up to see the strange black bird perched on one of the boulders staring at them. Without standing, the boys hold hands and listen as the clicks become softer and then start to sound like words. It’s a high-pitched voice wobbly and unclear at first, but then it suddenly shifts and they can understand it.

“Hello, my friends.”

The boys say nothing as another large black bird lands on the second boulder. Both birds stare at the boys. Wind rushes through the forest releasing brown and yellow leaves from the trees to dance around them with a low rustling sound.

“We mean you no harm,” the bird says.

Aki squeezes his new friend’s hand and then lets go. He stands up and steps slowly forward, putting his hands out in front of him. Both birds shift slightly and lower their heads in a small bow.

“We don’t want to harm you either. Leave my friend out of this. What do you want with me?”

“You both need to come with us. We’ve been waiting for you. We need your help.”

Nudgee stands and takes Aki’s hand again, grasping it tightly. They are in this together, and although they are both still scared, it’s hard to not be excited by a talking bird and the possibility of adventure. It sure beats schoolwork.

“Go with you where?” Nudgee says.

“Our world is in danger and you are the only two who can save us. There isn’t time. It might be too late already. Please, we need your help.”

With a silent flapping of their wings the birds swoop down, landing in front of the boys. Tucking their legs underneath their bodies, both birds spread out their massive wings and lower themselves onto their bellies. Aki and Nudgee embrace, giving each other courage and encouragement. One bird speaks quickly while the other makes a series of clicking sounds.

“Climb on, please. We have to go. There’s no time.”

With a final look at each other, the boys climb onto the backs of the giant black birds. Grabbing a handful of the soft neck feathers, they brace themselves as the birds gently stand and soar into the cool autumn morning. With a puff of blue smoke, they are transported to a pink sky over a sea of bright blue. The adventure has just begun.

Author’s note: I was stalled on this prompt for most of the week while my kids both suffered from a pretty intense case of strep throat. For some reason, I was interpreting “magic in everyday occurrences” in a very narrow way trying to make it be a coincidence or perhaps the kind of magic you feel when falling in love. Neither of those ideas was working for me though and I turned to my kids for ideas. 

My son blurts out, “two kids see something magical out a window on a school bus, easy, boom!” Just like that, I was off and this tale was born. Partway through I realized it could also be a nod to one of our family’s favorite children’s books we’d read when they were sick, “Frog and Toad.” That story of friendship is magical in so many ways and so Nudgee (Aboriginal word meaning green frog) and Akiamo (Japanese for autumn mountain) were born.

I hope you enjoyed this story and thanks so much for reading. Your comments and likes mean the world to me. Have a wonderful week.


Short Story Challenge | Week 39

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about magic in everyday occurrences. We had to include the words Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, and sweatband.


Write With Us

Prompt: The villain is really the hero

Include: witchcraft, recommend, sand dollar, fisticuff, paprika, eyeball, nightlight, gibberish, infuriating, and dreadful


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Something in the Water | A Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Night swim. Night swim. Night swim.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too,” Ruth says.

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

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

“What are we waiting for?” Taffy cries.

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

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

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

“I’m not sure…”

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

“What if…”

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

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

“Hey, hot stuff,” she calls.

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

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

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

“Hi,” Ruth says.

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

“No. I do not.”

“Are you afraid you will lose?”

“No. I will lose. I don’t care.”

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

“No. Let’s just float.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you see that?” Ruth says.

“I did.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

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

“What’s happening?” Ruth says.

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think?” Ruth says.

Side by side the old friends swim back to shore.

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

Related story: The Red-Haired Beauty


Short Story Challenge | Week 23

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


Write With Us

Prompt: The early days of the zombie apocalypse

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


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

The 52 Week Writing Challenge

Photo/Bridgette White

There’s something magical about mushrooms. I can’t pass one up without examining it. I don’t understand how they can be so varying, yet so beautifully the same.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been playing with writing. I’ve fumbled along with blog posts, journal writing, and a few manuscripts, all in an attempt to craft fiction and art from the bits and pieces of my life. It’s messy, nonlinear, and I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. Luckily, I’ve not had to do it alone.

I met Anna when our children were babies, and we weaved in and out of each other’s orbit for years. My fondest memories include camping along the river with her and her daughter, building fairy houses, and dancing under the stars.

During the pandemic, Anna introduced me to The Artist’s Way. As we worked through the prompts, we grew in our craft and friendship. This led us to complete two years of NaNoWriMo, inspiring and supporting each other through the ups and downs of life and art. Anna’s empathy, kindness, intuition, and raw talent make her a powerful artist and wonderful friend.

Now, as we continue to evolve as writing/accountably partners, we’ve decided to tackle a new project for the year we are calling; 52 weeks, 52 short stories. It’s a way to stay connected, to work on our craft, and to play with our words and our blogs.

Using the story prompts from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. we will share our stories each week on our blogs as well as share each other’s work. You can find Anna’s writing and beautiful artwork at https://loscotoff.com. I’m excited to see the direction we each take these prompts, and how much we learn about ourselves and our craft through the process.

If you want to join in the fun, I’ll post the next week’s prompt at the end of my story each week. Let’s write and grow together.

Dillion Beach last summer

Can we talk?

Her bouncy blonde curls hang wildly down to a soft, mustard-colored sweatshirt. She is smiling, and her blue-green eyes, the light of her face, squint ever so slightly.

We lean close, trying hard to fill the space between us with all the things which have happened since we last sat here, our favorite table in the corner, drinking matching diet cokes and sharing popcorn from a red and white bag.

This is love.

The feeling is big, and yet so simple; connection, familiarity, safety.

Our friendship was forged years ago as young girls trying hard to be seen and heard in a sea of middle schoolers. Something drew us close then, but we seem to have forgotten it, or maybe it lay buried under all the things.

Nearly a year ago, while dodging post-hurricane waves in Florida, our hearts opened up and spilled out to one another. Forged in the powerful surf. Tougher than the wind. We remembered.

We used to borrow each other’s clothes, sing loudly in the car, skip arm and arm down the halls, stay up all night talking about everything and nothing.

I want more.

More of her. More of us. More of the space between women which is sacred and holy and fucking amazing. More time to see her fully, all her complexities and contradictions, hopes and fears, everything.

I want more.

A week ago, I left for a writing retreat to this hippie camp near the ocean and the redwoods. I wanted something to happen, sure, but I feared nothing would. Anxiety, like the proverbial devil on my shoulder, whispering all the ways I would fuck it up.

But I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

Magic became not only attainable, but real; with a fairy path leading to a yurt, a unicorn chef who cooked concoctions worthy of the Gods, and a bonfire where truth was spilled out and passed around from one to the other.

The whispers of the ancients, things I know to be true in my bones, rocked me as I stood every morning on the damp redwood deck in my wool socks, the cool wetness seeping in, a hot cup of coffee clutched tightly in my hands.

The breezes would carry bits of conversation from the women inside, voices of strength and of hope, gathered around a fireplace adorned with candles and trinkets from those who came before. A sense of divine connection filled my soul.

I want more.

Since my return, I’ve dealt with rotten jack-o-lanterns, sick kids spewing mucus and whining loudly, piles of laundry, seven million voices in the carpool van all talking at once; the layers of responsibility trying desperately to bury the ancient truth again under all the shit.

I’m terrified another five, ten, twenty years will pass in a blur before I have another moment of remembering.

I want more.

So, my friends, as I stare at you too long, hold you too tight, forgive me. I’m lost in the redwoods still.

I just want to talk.

 

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The Magical Place

 

The light and the dark of my friend

It can happen in just a second.

We are chatting happily about nothing in particular and the light suddenly shifts. Something I said either sparked a memory or struck an exposed wound that I didn’t see, and the darkness descends.

It’s always in the eyes first. I see the color shift slightly and then his gaze drops. Hoping it wasn’t noticed, eye contact is resumed. Yet the wrinkles on his forehead deepen and I can see the truth just under the surface bubbling.

His voice is his biggest betrayer. The tone, volume and speed all drop and I can actually hear the sadness seeping in. It’s subtle, but so noticeable once you pay attention. Like a siren broadcasting the approaching storm, it’s unmistakable.

Defenses shoot up fast, as only someone as experienced in living with pain knows how to do, and I prepare myself for the protective show.

Smiling way too big.

Telling a joke far too exuberantly.

Twisting the conversation away.

Diversionary tactics honed from years of experience.

He is a master at hiding.

He has perfected the art of subtly pushing friends away and protecting them from his demons. Thwarting real conversations with jokes meant to make you uncomfortable and to push your limits. If you’re off balance than you won’t look deeper at him.

handI watch as he pours himself into his creative outlets. His music, writing and art are filled with darkness and light. They are brilliant and help keep him from descending deeper down.

All of this hiding, covering up and creativity do work…most of the time.

Yet after experiencing and battling the darkness myself, the terrible monster that is depression, those moments when I see it happen can’t be ignored. I can’t just let them go without notice.

Nobody should have to go it alone.

True darkness isn’t something you can wish away or just “get over.” It’s as personal as your fingerprint, yet universal in its ability to destroy you. Everyone has experience with it, yet not everyone is pulled completely down.

I know that I am lucky. I have support, love and therapy. I strive to stay in the light most of the time, yet I know the dark intimately and slip down more than I care to admit.

There is no fix for depression.

It makes you feel alone and isolated. Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to go there with you. It’s too uncomfortable and you have to be willing to expose your own darkness.

It is not for the faint of heart.

I want to be there for him, for my mother and for many others that I see struggle. All I can offer is an acknowledgement of the pain, my sincere love and a listening ear.

I can’t turn away from them.

For me, when I feel that heaviness start to take me over, I get busy. Super busy. I focus on each task throughout my day, making myself check lists and fretting over tiny details that have little real significance. I pour myself into my children and others and hope it’s enough.

But inevitably it happens.

I break.

Retreating into my hole with tears streaming down my face, I push everyone away and wallow in my feelings of inadequacy and fear.

The Machine

There is something in the tonal change
subtle, barely perceptible
enough to pull the lever

Chain winds around and tightens
breath becomes harder, thoughts unclear
belt moves, screeches its familiar tune

Never enough, constantly trying and failing
can’t let go, things will break
turning, tightening, hurting

Unrelenting it whines and chugs
painful pitch vibrates deep inside
sweet relief, release forever inches away

Intensity, fear wrapped in network of pain
turn it up, always threatening to break
shuddering, pulsing, trembling within

Gears slip, yet won’t fully snap apart
unbalanced it eternally churns uneven song
never the same, lever won’t be pushed back

I can see this pattern, this machine, work itself on me and many others that I love. I see it wind us up and spit us out. I wish I could shake us all free of its grasp and live fully in the light. Yet, deep down I suspect that isn’t something that can happen. The dark is always there.

Yet I am trying.

And I am praying.

I’m a tiny baby Christian just barely blooming. I read the Bible as a teenager, but never really embraced it. I was cynical, questioning and goal focused. There was no time to ponder my soul; I had papers to write, bills to pay and expectations to fulfill.

A few nights ago I read this:

1 John 2:6-7: If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

The darkness has been such a big part of my adult life; it’s hard to imagine fully letting it go. Yet I want to. I wonder what it would be like to let go of all the pain that I hold tight to my chest? I wonder what it would feel like to live each day embracing the light and never fearing the dark?

I take another stumbling step forward, but I am no longer alone.

Battling giants and stomping the floor

10274147753_73b9312e43_cThe children were playing on the edge of the woods when then heard loud sobbing. Although frightened by the sound, the children gathered their courage and found a lonely dragon crying. Each tear turned into a precious stone as it hit the ground. The children befriended the dragon and he no longer was lonely.

For years the children would return each Autumn to the woods and visit the dragon. He would give them one of his tears to keep. As the children entered the darkness of winter, these precious stones would serve to remind them of the love, light and friendship they share.

But this year something dreadful happened. A horrible, mean giant stole all the tears. This giant prefers darkness, fear and loneliness and he loves to scare little children. You must sneak into the giants home while he sleeps and steal back the dragon tears one by one. You will need to gather your inner-strength, courage and light to lead you through the task. Good luck.

This is the story that I and others read to the children on Saturday at our school’s annual Harvest Festival. The children would then sneak into the giant’s house and grab a stone.

I watched as one by one they did, indeed, gather their courage and enter the house. The giant was making sounds and shifting in his sleep. He would occasionally wake or say something scary. The children did it. They loved it. Some came back multiple times to conquer their fear.

As I watched this play out over and over, I realized how much I am running from my own fears. My giant is my fear of rejection. My fear that when people get to know me they will leave. My fear that when I speak my truth I will be laughed at. My fear that allowing myself this space and time to heal is selfish. My fear that I will never be happy because I don’t really deserve it.

So I’m facing these fears. I’m walking right up to them. The giant is making lots of sounds but I’m moving forward anyway. Inner-strength, love and light are my weapons.

Sunday was another dancing morning for me and I went thinking about fear. I went with the intention of releasing some of it. What came out was anger. Lots and lots of anger.

At times I stomped the floor so hard that my feet hurt. My hands kept clenching into fists. I realized that I was holding so much anger and resentment. After several hours it started to release its hold. I could feel the anger melting off. By the end of the session I was smiling. Really smiling.

There is still so much work to be done, but I’m feeling lighter.

I spent the rest of the day yesterday with my family. We went to the park. I played catch with my husband. I’m so afraid of baseballs. I saw my mom get her lip split open as a kid and the balls scare me. But I got to the point of actually catching some with my eyes open.

“You are not rooted to one spot,” my husband said. “You can move your feet to meet the ball.”

I watched my daughter try over and over to conquer the monkey bars. Her determination is wonderful to see. She is no longer afraid of falling and can make it halfway before losing her grip. No frustration or tears. I’m in awe of her.

My boy spent his time building with sticks and leaves and floating his creations down the creek. He would throw it off one side of the bridge and then watch it come out the other side. Over and over.

After the park, we all went bowling and then out to dinner. Laughter. Silliness. Balloon animals. Ice cream. Kisses.

Best of all, I was there. Really there.

Stupid, bad mommy

Holding her hands back as she attempts to punch me, I forget about her feet and one connects with my side. Hard. All of her limbs are in motion with the intent on doing damage. She is still small and I can handle her blows.

It’s what is coming out of her mouth that feels like I’m being repeatedly stabbed with a rusty knife blade soaked in poison.

“I hate you!”

“Your a bad mommy!”

“I wish I’d never been born because your so bad!”

“Your a stupid, ugly mommy!”

Each hurtful phrase is followed by a scream that comes from deep inside. It shakes her whole body and seems painful. I hold back my tears and try to remember…she is only 6. She is in pain.

But it hurts.

It feels like I’ve failed at the most important job in the world, being her mother. I’ve failed to give her the tools to handle things.

My poor sweet, sensitive girl.

From the time she started talking it was clear she has strong feelings and emotions. She thinks about things little ones should not and comes up with phrases that often leave me speechless. She is always concerned with how people feel and is often brought to tears when hearing a story about someone sad.

For those reasons, and many others, I have to be careful of what she is exposed to. We limit media and she attends a Waldorf school. But I can’t shield her from every hurt and, truthfully, I don’t want to.

This “I hate you” stuff is new. This is the first full week of school and 3 out of the 4 evenings have ended with an outburst (each getting progressively longer and meaner). After the rage comes the real tears and we get to the hurt and pain. Then, most horribly, it ends with guilt.

“I’m a bad kid.”

“Your a good mommy and I’m just awful to you.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Those words twist the knife and I want to run out of the room sobbing.

The truth behind all this pain is that my girl wants a best friend. She is obsessed with the idea of having someone she can count on. Someone she can trust. I’ve explained that it takes time to build friendships and that she just needs to play with everyone right now.

“Time is all you need.”

“Just keep being yourself and people will line up to be your friend.”

“You are awesome. You are amazing. Give people time to see that.”

I even brought out the old Girl Scout song:

“Make new friends

But keep the old

One is silver

And the others gold”

She wants it so bad that every interaction becomes “is she my best friend or not?” Then she decides the answer is no and is as heartbroken as she will be when her first boyfriend dumps her.

I’m not stupid and can see the correlation between her pain and my own. I know that even at age 6 she can feel her mothers depression. I am not whole right now. I’m broken and I can’t help but feel that she senses it.

How can I expect her to be strong, resilient and confident when I am not?

I hate this.

I want to give her skills that help her find meaning and love.

I want her to feel whole and confident.

I want her to stop freaking out and saying mean things, because this mom can’t take much more. Words freaking hurt.

How can I do all that? I have no clue.

I know some of the answers can be found by seeking Gods help. It keeps coming back to that. We read her book about guardian angels last night and she found some comfort in that. I’m talking to her more about prayer and we are going to start praying together.

My daughter is amazing. I am certain she is destined to do something great with her life.

I only wish I could fast forward through this hard stuff. But, of course, this is the stuff parenting is made of. The hard stuff.

I just hope I survive.

Shards of life

I am a beautiful glass vase that keeps being filled with flowers that then rot and die.

Beauty.
Rot.
Repeat.

Now the vase has been dropped and broken into shards of glass. The pieces are uneven and sharp. Some are beautiful. Many are ugly. It might not ever fit back the way it was before. But that’s a good thing.

It’s a crazy mess and I want to share some shards with you.

*Floating down the Truckee River with my crazy mom, the beautiful Liz and all the kids. Water fights with strangers. Laughing so hard as we crashed into things like rocks, rafts and bridges.

*Watching my daughter lose it. Completely. Screaming and calling me the worst mom in the world while people floated by on their rafts. I may or may not have wished to drown at that point.

*Getting a text that one of my oldest, dearest friends, my dear Angy, her mom Gloria was in the hospital. My arms literally ached to hold her and be there for her.

*Finally being with Angy as she had to see her mom like that. Hearing words that nobody wants to hear. Feeling like the most important thing in the world was being there.

*Knowing I could trust my mother and my friend Liz with my children, so I could release that and be present.

*Seeing the strength, courage and poise with which Angy handled things. She has been and always will be a beacon of light in my life. She is a truly amazing person.

*Seeing her father Earl broken as he couldn’t bear to see his love like that. The love they shared was so intense and present that I felt it was a physical thing I could see.

*Sitting with Earl as he told me story after story about Gloria – how they met, courted, fragments of memories they shared. “I was never nothin’, but she made me feel like somethin’.” Those words are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard in my life.

*Holding my friend as her mother died. Feeling that intense pain like a physical stab. A pain we all have to endure over and over. Knowing that just being with her, holding her, crying with her, was some comfort. Feeling our humanity and fragility together.

*Watching my son learn to shoot a BB gun with Earl. As they knocked down cans in the backyard, it was like time was stopped. I was a kid again, but I had my boy with me.

*Trying to understand my husbands’ reaction and realizing that some pain never goes away. Some things can’t be fixed.

*Knowing my grandfather is battling cancer and that I won’t be able to be there with him. Hurting that I can’t see his beautiful eyes in person again or hear him play his guitar and sing.

*Making the decision to send my mom to see her dad. Makes no sense financially, but seeing the tears in her eyes as I told her to pack and that she was going…worth everything.

*The kids and I drove her to San Francisco for her flight. It was stressful, the kids had to pee, their was traffic and we almost didn’t make it. But she did. She is there. She is probably hugging her dad right now as I type this. That makes my heart sing.

*Realizing it was 3:30 p.m. in San Francisco and that there was no way I wanted to sit in traffic for hours. So, with tank tops and not much of a plan, we parked at Fisherman’s Wharf. We walked around and froze. Ended up on an amphibious vehicle. It drove around S.F. then drove into the bay. Kids got to steer. Talked with the sweetest couple from Denmark celebrating their 10th anniversary. Love was pouring out of them.

*Sitting in my friend Sondra’s backyard drinking coffee and hearing our kids play together. Knowing she will be by my side always. She loves all of my pieces..and I hers.

*Coming to terms with my own unhappiness and realizing that I can’t fix everything. Breaking down and discovering that I try to make everyone happy, but that I cannot. I can only really make me happy and I’m failing. I’m not responsible for others happiness. Still not sure I believe that.

*Seeing how many people care for me. They are coming out of the woodwork and they are all saying the same thing, “so glad you are back, we missed you.”

*Making a plan to work on my strength. I need to get strong, physically and mentally. It’s the path I need to be on. It’s the hard work I need to do.

*Playing babies with my daughter, seeing her love and care for my old doll Nathaniel wearing clothes and diapers from Cooper’s baby wardrobe. She can be so gentle and kind.

*Ironing my beautiful, white tablecloth for Gloria’s celebration of life tonight. Spraying it with starch and fighting all the wrinkles. It will be filled with flowers and pictures. Nobody will see the imperfections. They will see the beauty of the cloth. The beauty of life. The beauty of Gloria and the love she inspired.

So, those are the shards – glorious, sharp, jagged and uneven. I’m fitting them back together. It’s going to be a beautiful, strong vase that you can count on. It will just take time.