The family’s in trouble. I’m not supposed to intervene, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact they may die. I think I care.
“Hey!” the mother calls to me. “Can you help me with the groceries?”
She got her nails done again. This time she’s painted them a bright shade of blue with tiny fake diamonds glued on the tips. I can’t keep track of how many colors they have been since I arrived, but I wonder if I should have. At least 5, but it could be as much as 8. Although I did plenty of research before coming here, it’s much different seeing these kinds of things in person. I resist the urge to touch them.
“Sure!” I say.
Grabbing two brown paper bags from the trunk of her shiny black SUV, I hope I’ve gotten the tone of my voice right. I keep getting it wrong and people stare at me. There are so many nuisances to speech I simply don’t get and my time is almost up.
Peeking inside the bags as I walk up the rose-lined walkway, I take note of the contents; cilantro, bananas, apples, a bag of tortilla chips, and a loaf of sweet-smelling bread. I make a list in my head for my report. I don’t know what questions I’ll be asked when I return tomorrow. I should have been writing things down. I’ll do better next time.
“Everything okay?” the mother asks. “You seem lost in thought…well you always do, but even more so today.”
“Oh, I’m okay.”
I met her on my first day here while standing on a black iron bridge overlooking a murky duck pond. She came up beside me with a clear plastic bag of bread. She ripped the square slices into tiny pieces and threw them into the water. She had bright yellow nails and I remember thinking “banana fingers.” As I watched the ducks fight for the white lumps of bread, several large open mouths appeared. I gasped and jumped back, for a moment forgetting where I was. She laughed.
“I like you,” she said. “You are weird.”
After letting me throw the rest of the bread pieces into the water, she insisted I walk with her to a place called Freddy’s a few blocks over. Dark and smoky inside, she taught me how to drink vodka martinis. You must hold the glass with one hand and never eat the olive until the drink is gone. You take tiny sips and there’s a lot of talking about things and telling men to “fuck off” when they walk over.
“Now we have to reapply lipstick,” she said when our third drink was gone. “So we don’t look dead.”
She showed me how to pull off the silver cap, twist the bottom and draw the bright pink color across my soft lips. It tasted terrible, but she said sharing makeup makes us friends. I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be a friend and if perhaps it could be my one thing. I’m not sure I get it.
Sitting my bags of groceries on the kitchen counter, I watch her reach above the stove to put away two bottles of clear liquor. Her sweatshirt pulls up and I see the large purple butterfly tattooed on her lower back. She told me it was a stupid thing she did in college, but I like it. I wish I could get one.
The children come running down the stairs to rummage through the bags for something to eat. Twins with the same color hair as their mother, but with the fast-talking pace of their father. The speed and volume of their conversation makes me temporarily unable to do anything but stand with my human mouth open.
“Earth to Edith,” the girl says.
She taps me on the side of my head with her tiny, pudgy finger.
“Come in Edith,” the boy says.
They both laugh and I join in. Perhaps laughing can be my one thing. I lean into it more, savoring how it makes this human form feel inside. It’s a pleasant warmth I feel radiating from my chest. The more I do it, the more affectionate I feel towards those I do it with. Laughter is a bonding agent, I think.
It’s very different from the feeling I felt when the dad held his dirty black gun to my temple last night.
I shut my tiny black notebook and slip it and my gold pen back into my pocket. Other words flow and float with me as I walk slowly along the jagged water line created by the continuously flowing ocean waves. As I finish my allotted time on this jeweled planet of contraction and beauty, I’m still not satisfied I’ve captured the one thing I can share when I leave tomorrow.
A rounded bubble in the sand catches my eye and I walk toward it on human feet. It’s a dead jellyfish, a translucent blob with four brain-like pink circles inside its liquid squishy form. I kneel in the wet sand and touch it with my pale human finger.
“You shouldn’t touch that,” a little girl says.
“Why?” I ask.
“It can sting you.”
“I think it’s dead.”
“It can still sting you.”
“Are you sure?”
She digs her small toes into the sand and looks at me with watery wide brown eyes. There’s a smattering of freckles across her nose and she’s not smiling. I can tell my question has hurt her feelings and made her question a truth she thought was irrefutable. There’s trembling energy coming from her. I forget how fragile youth can be.
“You are probably right,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Here,” she says.
Opening her tiny fist she presents on her palm an off-white round seashell with a five-pointed petal shape in the center. Remaining crouched in the sand I smile at her and run my fingers along the raised rough ridges. She smiles and I can see dimples appear in her puffy pink cheeks.
“What a great find,” I say.
“You can have it,” she says. “I have a lot of them.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. We come here all the time and I have tons! I’m so good at finding them.”
“Thank you. I will treasure it.”
“I’m Lucille, but everyone calls me Lucy.”
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Edith.”
She smiles and runs back to her mother who lies on a blanket reading a book under a bright rainbow umbrella. I see the mother, dressed in a black bathing suit with a pink wraparound skirt, visibly relax when her child returns and realize I’d been watched closely as I interacted with her young.
I was a suspect, a potential danger in a lineup of things this mother must protect her child from. Rolling onto her back, she pulls her child onto her, hugging her with both arms. I pull out my notebook and pen.
The father comes in and slams his fist on the counter. A jar of paintbrushes topples over spilling its grayish-green water across the white tiles. The mother quickly pulls up her silver purse and the children make a little squeaking sound before scampering upstairs with the bag of chips and two small cans of soda from the fridge.
The mother slinks to the father and puts her arms around his waist, pressing her body into his. She makes a kind of cooing sound, but he doesn’t notice. His lips are pressed tight.
“We are in trouble,” he says.
He notices me and makes a sound reminding me of the crows in the cornfields where we landed, a warning sound of alarm and distress. I try to look smaller, shrinking back into the corner of the yellow kitchen, but he’s peeled the mother off and walks with slow swaggering steps toward me.
“What are you doing here?” he says.
The mother steps between us placing both her hands on his wide chest. He takes a deep breath, swelling out like a pufferfish. She shrinks as he pulls the black gun from his waistband and points it at my face.
“I asked you a fucking question?” he says. “What are you doing here?”
“Putting away groceries,” I say.
“What do we even know about her?” he says to the mother. “She could be the one who tipped them off about us. It’s all gone to shit and she’s the only thing different around here. You found her at the fucking park. What did you think would happen?”
“Babe,” the mother says. “She’s like stupid or something. You know that. She’s harmless, you know? Like a stray pup that’s been kicked. Just look at her.”
I stare at the small circle at the end of the gun and not at their faces—his angry and hers scared. Weapons are familiar to me, although we don’t use them anymore I remember a time when our people did. I could tell him about how bad this will all go, but I say nothing. I am not supposed to intervene.
“Shit,” he says.
“Babe,” she says.
“We are fucked,” he says.
He lowers the gun but I don’t dare to move. She slips her arm around his waist and guides him from the kitchen. I’m putting away the rest of the groceries when the men come. They kick in the front door and begin shooting.
Human blood is red.
Maybe that’s the one thing I can divinely share.
No, I think I’ll stick with laughter.
A light green ball rolls across the wet sand and lands beside my toes. Before I have time to react, a furry brown dog snatches it up with slobbering quickness and dashes back toward its owner standing along the sand dunes in an oversized sunhat. I wave at them, but they don’t wave back. Perhaps the sun has turned me into a shapeless shadow and they don’t see my raised hand. I put it back down.
The brightness of the green orb in the dark brown sand reminds me of the dancing beauty of the fractured sky the humans call the Aurora Borealis. It happens when excited electrons release light to create a crackling show of vivid colors. It can feel violent, like an explosion, like a gun blast. I spin around the quiet beach and look for signs of angry fathers or men with guns, but see none. It was a long time ago, I remind myself. You are much older now and understand a lot more. I take out my notebook and pen.
Entangled memories war within me, the past and the present swirling into and out of focus. Of all the planets I’ve been to and all the things I’ve collected, the memory of my first mission clings to me and won’t let go. I could not have saved them, yet I feel like I could have. It’s why I’ve been allowed this rare second visit to Earth—to heal. It’s to be my final mission.
I stare into the vast watery ocean and take a deep breath. In and out, like the water, like the tides, like the flow of all things. In and out.
The capacity to calm oneself on all planets has surprised me. There’s always an in and out, it just looks different on each planet and with each species we inhabit. These missions, while difficult, aid in our knowledge of the complexity of all things. It allows us to see the bigger picture. Gathering truth is our salvation and I will miss it.
A cluster of seagulls take flight squawking loudly as the little freckled girl and her mother run into the cold water holding hands and laughing. They squeal as a foamy wave crashes into their bare legs and they run back onto the dry land. I watch them do this over and over, the thrill of chasing a wave and playing tag with the icy water.
I close my eyes and savor the sound of their laughter. My first one thing.
Opening my eyes I see the mother wrapping a thick orange towel around the shivering child. She kisses her face and hugs her tight. They rock back and forth and the mother begins to sing. It’s a simple tune, a humming really, but the feeling ripples across the beach and into my arms. I wrap it into my shirt and cradle it to me.
It’s warm and big, my new one thing.
My last one thing.
Author’s note: Oh, this prompt threw me all over the place. I struggled for several days writing all kinds of ideas in my journal which all kept sounding like either Star Trek episodes or rather quite strange commentaries about society or politics. I ended up landing on the idea of an alien poet sent to Earth for inspiration and so began the lines “Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.” As the alien began walking the beach, however, something shifted. I found my alien was more interested in a singular idea, as I suppose I was, than a bank of words for poetry. This led me to write what would then become the beginning. Originally I saw it as an entirely different alien having a completely different experience on Earth, but it too shifted when I figured out they were the same alien on thier last mission.
The experience of discovery when writing these stories is perhaps the biggest mystery to me. Each week it unfolds in a different way. It’s a mystery I hope I never solve, as finding my path to the tale is half the fun. While this story might have ended up being the very cliched thing I was trying to avoid, I’m happy I found it. Please let me know what you think and thank you so much for reading.
Short Story Challenge | Week 19
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 with an alien in disguise among humans. We had to include the Aurora Borealis, paintbrush, cornfield, cluster, lineup, overlook, suspect, bridge, dome, and dash.
The Shadow can hear the wet sound of a tongue licking a dry lip or the tiny flick of an index finger scrapping the cuticle of a thumb. With no eyes and no nose, it relies on its heightened hearing to track its prey. It flows like liquid smoke back and forth in front of a small rocky waterfall, its arms and legs are sweeping willow branches made of darkness.
Faven’s knees and thighs ache from sitting cross-legged on the cold, wet stone floor. It’s been hours since she’d run into this cramped spot, hiding within the sound of the rushing water. She can see the Shadow moving through the blurry wall, its distorted blackness plunging her from light to dark as it paces. It knows she’s nearby.
Soaked from the icy mist, Faven knows she can’t stay here much longer. She presses her translucent wings, tied close to her body with a piece of soft white rope, hard into the jagged rocks behind her to stop them from quivering and giving her away. She shouldn’t have come here.
A loud ripping blast, the sound of wood being shattered, roars through the night. The Shadow’s inky black shape stops moving and its elongated body stands silhouetted by hundreds of dancing red sparks. The fragrant sugary smell of burning petals floats into the cave, the smell of the pink lyndol tree, and Faven covers her mouth to prevent herself from coughing.
The Shadow presses its hands onto the place hips might be, a stance Faven would find comical if she wasn’t so terrified. Two more explosions echo around her, followed by a blast of hot wind which roars through the cave and singes her eyebrows. She needs to cough but swallows it back. Her throat burns.
The Shadow slinks toward the fire, roaring in all directions. Faven watches it swallow up the smoke as it goes, sucking it up with big gulping sounds, the hungry eye of a tornado. She crawls on hands and knees keeping her eyes on its black shape until she can push her hot face into the cold water. Pulling back, she catches the icy liquid into her cupped hands and takes several long gulps.
Faven removes a three-inch green knife the shape of an elongated leaf from her leather belt and swipes up to cut the rope. Her wings spring out and flap back and forth swirling the pink vapor until it forms a whirlpool around her. She presses through the smoke and the water, out the entrance of the cave, and straight up into the still night sky. Stars shine above and around her, wishes made into balls of brilliance to twinkle for all time as beacons of hope.
Savoring the feeling of the wind pressing into the curves along the thin membranes of her wings, Faven circles above the burning trees. Her long brown braid has come loose and thick strands of hair whip at her cheeks and eyes. She searches the forest for her friends.
Apollo, dressed in his favorite green argyle suit, presses through the forest blasting trees with a long, twisting staff made of dark redwood. It looks too big for his small hands and Faven wonders where it came from. He’s pale and chanting something under his breath. His short black hair, wet with sweat, sticks to his head.
Luz runs beside him holding a small hand mirror of tarnished gold, an object Faven has never seen before. Streaks of yellow light flow from its shimmery surface to create a crisscrossing web around the two of them. She’s wearing a pinafore of pale pink and her curly blonde hair has been pulled up into two puffs at the top of her head.
Both of their wings are tied back with a white rope to conserve energy. They are moving further into the woods, away from the Fae towns to the West and East. Faven can’t see the Shadow but knows it’s not far behind.
“Up here!” She calls to them, but they don’t hear her.
With a burst of energy, she flies ahead, landing in a field of weeds and wildflowers just a moment before her friends appear through the tree line. They smile as she tucks in between them, running in a line together across the field and down a small hill toward the foul-smelling waters of the brine lake.
“I told you to go home,” Faven says.
“You’re welcome,” Apollo says.
“Hi!” Luz says.
“Where did you get those?” Faven says.
She points at the items her friends clutch in their hands, the gnarled staff, and the antique mirror. Although all three of them have portfolios of skills far greater than most 10-year-olds, nobody would trust them with such powerful magical artifacts. They are the orphans of the temple, the forgotten children of the Fae, and nobody gives them such expensive gifts. Apollo laughs.
“Stole them,” he says.
“Borrowed them,” Luz says. “From the Fae High School.”
“Nobody saw us,” Apollo says. “We were stealthy little rats.”
“I’m no rat,” Luz says. “More like a colorful chameleon or a snowy owl.”
A sudden sharp crunching sound causes them to spin around. The Shadow, free from the smoke and fire, moves toward them with impossibly long strides. Streaking, sneaking, sliding across the ground, closing the gap between them within moments with slick untiring movement. The clicking sound of its gnashing teeth comes from the center of its black body, making all three of them shiver.
“Go!” Faven says. “It only wants me.”
“There’s no time to argue this again,” Apollo says. “We aren’t leaving you.”
“We fight together,” Luz says.
Faven appreciates their loyalty but wishes they’d simply go home. She’s the one who woke up the creature and she’s the one it wants. It was her stupid idea to draw the pentagram in the forbidden woods and call forth the Shadow. They were simply witnesses to her incredible foolishness.
She grew up hearing the bards sing of her mother—a raven-haired beauty who fought with twin golden blades while her baby suckled at her breasts. She defeated packs of horned drooling beasts from the center of the Earth with a fierceness said to have been forged by her years of solitude within the forbidden forest. She died when Faven was two-years-old, poisoned by a former lover.
Faven wants a chance to do something brave, to be something more than the orphaned trouble-maker the Elders make scrub the stone temples with wire brushes to keep her small hands busy. Everyone expects more of her, yet no matter how hard she tries, she’s the one who ruins everything.
She tried to create a fantastic dessert made of strubel berries harvested under the full moon for the summer feast but ended up setting fire to the kitchen when her cooking spell backfired. She collected an assortment of exotic and strange-looking flowers for her crown at the spring dance, but a seed pod exploded a few minutes after the music began and the smell made everyone sick. Last week she’d been showing off her flying skills in the garden and thought it would be impressive to fly through a large open window into the great hall, spin around, and come back out. She accidentally knocked over a magical corked vase. It broke and filled the hall with rainbow-colored rain. They still haven’t been able to stop it.
Faven didn’t think the stories of the Shadow were real. She’d heard them for years but believed they were told by the Elders as another way to control her and keep her grounded. Her mother lived in the forbidden forest alone for over a decade, so the story goes, and she thought maybe the Shadow would know her. Really, if she’s being honest with herself, she thought the Shadow might be her. It’s why she took the risk and performed the summoning spell, but now she’s ruined everything. Her friends might die because of her. The thought instantly fills her with dread.
“What do we do?” Luz says.
Without slowing, Faven removes her knife and carefully slashes the ropes holding back their wings. She grabs their hands and as they reach the edge of the lake and all three of them rise into the night sky as one. Apollo blasts the ground below them and Luz holds the mirror out to cast the net of protective light.
The Shadow, confused, circles below them making its horrible clicking sound. It won’t hesitate for long and it can fly. Faven has seen it spiral around the forest, swirling like an autumn leaf, sniffing for her. It won’t give up and it’s faster and stronger than all of them.
Apollo and Luz are red-faced and sweaty. Faven can feel them trembling and she tightens her grip on their free hands. They are getting tired, the magical weapons are draining them of all their energy. They are running out of time.
“Where do we go?” Luz says.
“We can’t go home or to the villages,” Faven says. “It will follow me wherever I go and put everyone in danger.”
“I know a place,” Apollo says. “But I don’t know if I can make it.”
“Show me,” she says.
On Faven’s 9th birthday, after blowing out the candle the Elders put in her morning bowl of oatmeal, she reached out and touched Luz’s hand. An image of a package wrapped in pink cotton flashed into her mind. It was sitting under the sink in the kitchen beside the big blue bottle of cleaner. She jumped from her chair and ran into the kitchen and pulled it out.
“Hey,” Luz said. “That was supposed to be a surprise for tonight!”
“But you wanted me to have it now,” Faven said.
“I did!” Luz said.
A feeling, like a blush, rushed through her body—she could read minds! After experimenting with her friends, she discovered it wasn’t mind-control or a way to captivate the mind of others, but rather a one-way guidance system allowing her to retrieve information given freely by someone she trusts. So far, she’s mostly used it to gossip and pass math tests. However, right now, she hopes it will allow her to lead her friends to safety.
Apollo nods and presses an image through their connected hands—an abandoned Eagle nest perched high in one of the ancient rendel trees. It’s covered with fertile tangry mushrooms, strong and pungent. If they can make it there, the scents will protect them for the night.
“I’ll get us there,” Faven says.
Flapping her wings as hard as she can, Faven pulls her friends away from the lake and back into the dense trees of the forbidden forest. There’s a sweeping sound behind her and she’s certain the Shadow has taken flight. She dips and dives, pulling her friends with her, using all of her strength and skill to swerve up, down, and around.
The nest sits exactly where Apollo showed her and she swoops down into it landing on a smelly pile of discarded eggshells, layers of white bird poop, and hundreds of the fat dark brown tangry mushrooms. The fetid stench makes all three of them gag as they lay on their sides catching their breath. The Shadow swoops past them and disappears into the forest.
“You saved us,” Luz says after a few minutes of silence.
“For now,” Faven says. “He won’t give up. Go home! Please. I can’t be responsible for your deaths. I won’t be able to live with myself.”
“This again?” Apollo says. “We aren’t discussing it. There’s no home without you and we stick together. There’s no other way. We are one.”
“We won’t leave you,” Luz agrees. “You can’t get rid of us.”
Faven nods but doesn’t agree. Her friends curl up beside her, three tiny children folding into one another as they do every night in their tiny bed at the top of the temple. Fatigue overpowers the smell and the fear, allowing the warmth of their bodies to melt into the oblivion of dreamless sleep. The rendel tree, the oldest of the trees in the woods, rocks them gently as the night wind sweeps across the fairylands.
Dreams swirl in and out of focus for Faven, gentle sweet images of honey, flowers, and tiny butterflies dancing between her fingertips. Her mother’s face appears above her, bronze-skinned with wide eyes the color of the deepest part of the sea. She hovers with thin milky white wings, flapping them slowly, creating a sweet-smelling breeze Faven feels like kisses upon her cheek. She wants to cry out to her mother, to speak to her, but she’s unable to do anything but look at her. Her deep black hair flows around her face, waves of dark strands flowing nearly vertical from her now unsmiling face. Inky blackness swirls into her hair, mixing with it.
With a flash of panic, Faven opens her eyes and finds it’s still night. She’s not too late. Peeling herself from her friends, she moves to the edge of the nest, hangs her legs over, and tries to remember the story of the Shadow.
Birthed at the dawn of time, it is made out of the hallowed madness left in the wake of its mother—death. A cousin of torment, it was captured by the ancient forest and allowed to dwell below the roots of rotten trees. It can be woken, brought to the surface, by those knowing the ancient ritual and calling its name. Once called forth, however, it won’t return to the soil until it kills the soul of its summoner.
Faven must die. There’s no loophole and until she dies her friends are in terrible danger. She stretches her wings out behind her, flapping them three times to allow blood to flow into the soft folds before falling out of the nest head first. Swooping over the trees, she calls the Shadow forth using its sacred name. It appears within moments and she swoops to the forest floor to greet it.
“No!” Apollo screams.
She sees Apollo spiraling down behind her and watches as the Shadow twists and changes directions in mid-air. Within seconds, hardly a breath, it reaches Apollo and dives through his small body. The color instantly drains from his face and Favin screams. She takes flight and catches his falling figure, the impact causing them both to crash land into a pile of soft brown bark.
Luz lands without a sound on a low tree branch near the sobbing Favin. She hangs upside down by her knees, a silent bat in a cave. Teary-eyed Favin runs her hand through Apollo’s black hair and kisses his soft cheeks.
“It’s all a game,” she says. “Just a game.”
The Shadow lands beside her and when she turns to face it the long, low sound of a bell rings through the air. It lasts several moments, and as it vibrates through the forest, the trees disappear leaf by leaf. Luz jumps down from the green metal bar and lands beside her.
“The bell rang,” she says.
Apollo stands and laughs. He grabs Favin by the hand and pulls her from the bark. She blinks, tears still in her eyes.
“I didn’t really die,” he says. “Because I’m not done playing the game. It’s not fair.”
“We can figure it out next recess,” Luz says. “Maybe we find a rejuvenation spell or something.”
Favin stops and looks at the two kids in front of her. Apollo’s wearing faded blue pants and a green shirt with some kind of creature on the front with big teeth and tiny arms. Luz wears a dress of bright yellow with rainbows covering her legs. Both are wearing shoes with metal circles and crisscrossing white strings.
“Are you okay?” Luz says.
“I don’t know,” Favin says.
“I’m not dead,” Apollo says again. “Okay, guys? It’s not fair.”
“Okay,” Luz says. “We heard you the first time! We wouldn’t kill you off, right Favin?”
“Right,” she says.
The three of them hook arms and walk across the hard, cracked grey earth toward short buildings painted blue and white. Kids stand in lines talking, pushing, and laughing. Favin doesn’t mind this new game at all.
After School | A Triolet
she’s waiting for me when the bell rings faded yellow sweater smelling of home unknown to me except in dreams, no wings she’s waiting for me when the bell rings my name upon her lips she does sing with bluest eyes framed by glasses of chrome she’s waiting for me when the bell rings faded yellow sweater smelling of home
Mother’s Love | A Nonet
my mother knows every inch of me her child from any time or place we fold into each other her arms a warm blanket of protection from the bad dreams of shadowy death my mother heals every inch of me
Author’s note: If you’ve been around this blog for some time you’ve probably realized my love of fairies and fantasy. This week, my story was inspired by the elaborate games I watched my daughter play with her friends at school. They had one storyline they played for over a year, adding more and more backstory and adventure. I thought, what if the game was real and the main character wished it to not be and was instead transported to a playground. It’s a bit of a twist on the “it was all a dream” plot, and one I hope you enjoyed. Thanks for reading, and as always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 18
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 a child’s dream literally becomes true. We had to include the high school, captivate, portfolio, argyle, witness, fertile, eyebrow, pentagram, thirsty, and guidance.
Jasper’s yelling at me again. His puffy face so close to mine I can smell the tobacco tucked into his cheek and see how the sweat dripping off his bald head has formed snaking rivers in his makeup. He’s accusing me of being sloppy, but I never am.
“Girl, I’ve about had it with you,” he says. “Your dismount was wobbly and your feet looked like flat clubs. How many times have I told you to point your toes?”
There’s no way I can answer the question without making him angrier. I wish I could say, “at least I can see my toes.” He leans back on his heels, his thick right hand swings forward and for a moment I think he might slap me. It wouldn’t be the first time and I wonder if I could catch his wrist with my hand. I’m a lot stronger than I used to be. He spits a gob of black spit at my bare feet and I leap back. He laughs.
“Get out of my sight,” he says.
He’s off to get sloppily drunk on fat, yellow bottles of chartreuse he keeps in a round steamer trunk inside his tent. It takes two of the strong men to carry it from the train. He’ll have some of the young acrobats in his bed tonight performing tricks for him, and on him. Does he applaud after? At least I’m too old for him to want me anymore. He likes them young, with smooth skin.
Turning in the opposite direction of his tent, I weave my way through the maze of our makeshift portable city toward the far end where the animals are kept. My partner Dusty, a grey-speckled gelding I’ve been trick-riding for the last few months, will be waiting for me to put on his blanket and give him oats sprinkled with bran.
One of the many barefooted kids hanging around the tents walked Dusty back to his stall after our act so I could try and get some food. The cook locks everything up an hour after the show and I’ve grown tired of rummaging through the garbage bins because I don’t make it in time. Tonight I was lucky and got a bowl of lukewarm stew with several pieces of meat.
The energy after the show can vary, but tonight it’s mellow. We have three more shows tomorrow and everyone knows they must conserve their energy. It never gets fully quiet in the camp, but there are small pockets of it. The shadow thing lives in those silent places, and I rush from sound to sound to avoid being alone with it. I don’t have many memories left for it to steal. I wonder if I used to know its name.
Dusty snorts as I approach, pawing the sandy, soft ground in his makeshift stall. The ocean roars in the distance, the air cool and sweet. I lean against the wooden fence and press my face to his soft muzzle, savoring his earthy breath on my face.
RJ runs toward me with two buckets in his hands, sloshing water everywhere. The muscles on his tanned back and chest are shiny and covered in glitter. He drops the buckets at my feet and I stare at the heart-shaped mole on his left cheek, a lucky fairy kiss. Perhaps that’s how he can walk the tightrope with such skill.
“Did ya hear?” he says. “Sasha ran off! Nobody can find her nowhere. Jasper’s gonna kill somebody.”
I scan the places between the tents as if the skeletally thin frame of the tan and black cheetah might be lurking in the spaces between the flapping colorful fabric walls. She’s one of the older animals in the show and it seems unlikely she’d run off. RJ smiles at me, leaning close enough I can smell he’s eaten something sweet. He doesn’t look the least bit scared.
“When did it happen?” I ask.
“No idea, but I know I ain’t sleeping in my tent tonight.”
“She won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t take no chances with this body. I’m gonna string a tarp up in the trees and you can slip in beside me if ya want.”
He winks, picks up his buckets, and runs off. I’m pretty sure cheetahs can climb trees. I press my toes into the wet spot the buckets left behind, feeling the cooling effect it has on my body. The men are always wanting me to “slip beside them,” even with my scars.
The sound of angry voices fills the night, blowing and hopping from shadows to light, from tent to tent. I can make out snippets of words forming into insults, accusations, and threats. Jasper’s angry growl sounds nearby and I jump. RJ’s right, someone will die if Sasha isn’t found and it might be me.
Jasper used to adore me, back when people flocked to see the Red-Haired Beauty ride Enormous Horace around the center ring. I had five huge trunks of costumes—silver and gold glittery jumpsuits, elaborate feathery headpieces, and exotic silk scarves. The cook would bring me trays of food and I slept on piles of soft cushions in the main tent beside Horace, my best friend. Jasper wishes I’d died in the fire with him, and sometimes I do too.
The dark shadowy thing lurks behind a barrel. Its spidery legs stretch across the ground toward me. What would happen if it swallowed all my memories? Would I die? The high-pitch trumpeting sound echoes inside my chest, as it has since the day Horace saved me but not himself. I touch the patches of thick pink skin on my arms and legs, wrinkled skin like him. The pain of loss shudders through me.
The voices are closer now. Climbing through the wooden fence, I swing my body onto the back of Dusty in one practice motion. His thick back twitches, ears flatten and his tail swishes back and forth. Beams of light come toward us in the darkness, and the thing by the barrels slinks away. I bend down and flip open the gate.
“Run,” I whisper into Dusty’s ears.
He doesn’t hesitate, springing forth like the starved race dogs when they are finally released from their smelly-cramped boxes and made to run the track for food. Jasper knows the amount of time it takes to make an animal desperate enough to run as fast as they can, but not too far gone they are lethargic or will fight one another. He plays with people the same way.
We weave in and out of the tents and past the pens holding the other animals. I consider flipping all the latches as I pass, but not all the animals want to be free. Jasper screams my name, and I consider calling back “I’m going to look for Sasha,” but it’s not true. At least I don’t think it is. I haven’t decided yet.
The sound of the ocean, faint in the campsite, becomes louder the further we ride. Resting my head on Dusty’s neck, I let him run where he wants. The rhythm of his hooves on the ground relaxes us both and allows my thoughts to wander back and forth in time. Memories mix with the night sky, bright spots of light in a sea of darkness, cliffhangers of thought, unfinished and grey. I can count on my fingers the number of complete memories I have left.
The moon, bright and round, interrupts my thoughts as if whispering “pay attention.” We are at the shoreline now, the dark waves moving in and out with foamy breath I can see and smell. Sliding off Dusty, I watch him wander toward a patch of wild grass, tough seedlings survived by wind and water. He tears at them with his large white teeth.
A tall, slender lighthouse stands perched on the edge of a rocky cliff far off to my right. A silhouetted figure against the black casting its sweeping gold beam into the night to warn ships of the jagged shoreline. I’d like to swim into the light and see if the creatures of the sea swarm up toward it, tricked into thinking daylight has become a fleeting line across the top of the water. They probably know better than I do.
Walking along the shore, I dance in and out of the waves, my old pink leotard shedding its sequins in a trail behind me. A large porous black rock covered with sea creatures lays exposed by the retreating tide with a deep ring of water around it. Leaning in, I see tiny darting crabs, a plump purple starfish, and rows of soft green sea anemones.
A constellation of stars reflected in the water reminds me of the jewels Horace wore around his neck. I touch them and the water ripples out from my fingertips. I miss him. A torrent of hot tears streaks down my cheeks and drips into the water. I watch them as they plunk loudly and form into tiny balls of light pulsing and moving in circles. They are alive, my tears, little balls of rainbow-colored light.
Scooping them into my hands, I find they are heavy and wiggly. Startled, I let them plop back into the still water and watch as they swim around and around. Tiny fish dart from hiding places in the rock to nibble at my tears. Are they saltier than the ocean?
Picking one up, I put it into my mouth. It tastes sweet, like puffed spun candy on a stick. It slides into my stomach and a fresh memory floats up from some hidden part inside me. Bright-green eyes and golden hair singing a lullaby of light—I was loved once. Sinking down into the sand, savoring the sound of her voice, the word mother glows golden within me.
Greedy, I begin shoving the tears into my mouth, eating and eating, letting the images come in blasts and bursts. Forgotten faces, sounds, and tastes dance around me—treasures of time returned and restored in full color and sound. The sensation makes me tired, and I fall backward into the sand pushed into a deep sleep.
As if through a thick fog, I’m aware of my body being dragged out of the cool water and into the warm sand. Blinking and blinking, I can make out the shape of Dusty using his teeth to pull me across the beach by my now torn leotard.
“It’s okay,” I say.
Dusty lets go, whinnies, and paws the ground beside me. I sit up. Awareness prickles down my arms and legs, bringing everything around me into bright focus. The tide has risen high enough to almost fully cover the rock I was laying beside—its black peak sits like a tiny pyramid surrounded by roaring waves. The sun has begun rising, transforming everything from the white light of the moon to the golden pink of the sun.
Dusty snorts close to my ear and I look up to see people coming in a line down the beach carrying dying torches. They are still too far away to make them out, but I know it’s my circus family looking for Sasha and possibly me. For a brief moment I consider calling to them, but I remember the truth the memories revealed. They aren’t my family.
Running through the sand, I leap onto Dusty’s back and kick his sides with both feet. He gallops along the water’s edge before turning toward the shore. We scramble up two sand dunes until we arrive at a wide dirt road heading off in both directions. He stops and we see the long-lanky figure of Sasha walk slowly across the road. She looks at me, blinks twice, and then disappears into the bushes.
Dusty turns and walks down the road to the right and I run my hands along his neck. My real name is Gillian and I had a family before the darkness came and took their faces from me. They are still out there and I’m going to find them.
I’m dipping my toes into the poetry world and felt inspired to write these poems looking deeper at the magic hinted at in the story.
Saliva pools inside puffed pink cheeks as the squishy bubble bursts between molars, exploding juices down my scratchy throat. Burning it fizzles inside; soda pop madness, sweet as jars of candy swiped from dark corner shops while peers sit behind rows of school desks. Her face, the one swallowed by the slinky shadow creature while I walked unknowing into the wrong silent place, comes now with painful throbbing to sing words I’d heard long ago but forgotten, and to brush the stray hairs off my sticky cheek with soft fingertips. The thoughts of love once mine, unasked for but given anyway, are pinpricks of pain, nerves awakening after pinched off so long, messages to tell my body to really feel. I stuff more into my mouth, craving sensations of the forgotten, much too much, but oh how my true name echoes and changes everything.
Plucked from our icy home deep within the salty brine of life’s starting place, we slumber in grains of sand tinier than eyes can perceive. Minute flecks of light, rays of sun mixed with moonlight, we live far below scuttling claws and slippery flippers. You called us forth in an instant, brought by proximity to the shadow of the shadows mark upon your soft imperfect body. We saw you weeping into our waters and felt compelled to stir and rise. We exist, persist, to seek balance between all things. Shifting, we move matter within moments with forces older than time, faster than light and sound. You can’t see until we let you the realness of your truth. The faces and moments feasted upon and stolen from you within the sacred silence it lurks behind. Teasing, we form into physical shapes, tempting you to taste of your life, plopped into waiting warm mouths, sliding into the depths of bone and muscle, wiggling and writhing—alive. We unleash captured memories to dance on the surface of your consciousness, tangos of truth you knew but which it hid within the folds of time.
Author’s note: While at the ocean last week I messaged Anna I needed to go have a great big cry beside the water. She said something about my tears mixing with the saltwater and the image stuck. I imagined my tears becoming little fish in the water nibbling at my toes, and wondered if they could be some kind of mythical creature. The idea felt magical and I played around with it in my head for a few days.
The more I sat with the story, the main character no longer was me, but rather a girl running away from the circus. This thought bloomed, fed by a story I heard on NPR about Horace, an elephant at the Kyiv Zoo. I took nothing from the podcast story except his name and the sensitive nature of elephants, but I’d highly recommend you read about the bravery of those zoo workers to stay in a war zone to care for the animals.
I find myself wanting to know about Gilly and the forces warring around her. I may return to her and her world at another time. Thanks for reading, and as always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 17
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 goes on a trip alone to gain perspective. We had to include the lighthouse, flock, muscle, sprinkle, insult, cliffhanger, cheetah, chartreuse, wrist, and seedling.
A scream wakes everyone aboard the Blue Moon, guests and crew alike. They rush from their bunks to the galley where Elle stands screaming. Her grandmother lies face down in the center of the room, a large knife sticking out of her back.
“Don’t get any closer,” Captain Clark says emerging from the ship’s cockpit dressed in a crisp navy blue suit and a bright-red tie. Apart from the stubble on his chin, he appears exactly as he had at dinner seven hours before.
“Return to your cabins,” he says. “Please.”
Nobody leaves, but they do move a bit, allowing Captain Clark to get closer. He lowers himself to the ground beside Millie, his knee brushing the pale pink of her silk pajamas. She’s wearing a white scarf tied around her head, the back of which has come loose, exposing several grey curls stuck to her neck. He checks for a pulse, although it seems unnecessary considering the amount of blood pooled beneath her.
“She’s dead,” Captain Clark says.
Elle’s wails increase and she throws herself onto the floor. Kate, who has been standing motionless by the doorway for several minutes, shakes her head and walks on bare feet across the room. Dressed in a short white robe, Kate’s long grey hair is tangled and she’s got a crease along her left cheek from her pillowcase. She sits on the floor beside Elle.
“It will be okay,” Kate says. “It will all be okay.”
Kate smooths down Elle’s curly red hair and rubs her back—her best imitation of motherhood. They’d celebrated the girl’s 18th birthday the first week on the boat, but Kate sees her as the little girl with pigtails who has always been Millie’s sidekick. Elle’s wearing the same two-piece silk pajamas as her grandmother, only in a light lavender color. They were so close—two peas in a very strange pod. Kate can’t believe any of this is real.
“It will be okay,” Kate says again. “It’s going to be okay. I’m here.”
She’s comforting Elle, but inside she’s screaming “not my Millie” over and over. Her best friend, her shit-talking secret keeper, the one who wouldn’t let her die of loneliness, who has pulled her up off the ground for over 30 years, lies still and quiet. Kate wants to feel the pain of it, but she can’t let the door open even a crack. It would be too big and she’d be buried by it.
It’s a nightmare. It has to be. This is her honeymoon, after all. She’s waited her entire life for this love, for this trip, for all the good things to come to her. It can’t involve losing Millie, it simply can’t. There’s no place in her happily ever after without her.
Millie believed in her dad’s crazy treasure hunt story as much as her. They’ve spent years talking about what it could be, where it could be, and what they’d spend the riches on if they found them. There’s nobody else she wants beside her when she discovers if any of it is true.
Kate stares at the long wooden handle of the knife. Someone on this boat went into the galley kitchen, took the knife, crept up on Millie, and plunged it into her back. She looks around the room and can’t imagine anyone here doing such a terrible thing. It makes no sense at all. A sudden thought occurs to her; maybe someone snuck onto the ship. She read somewhere about modern-day pirates boarding ships and killing people. If that’s the case, they might still be here or there might be more of them coming.
“Do you think we are in danger?” she asks Captain Clark. “Could someone else be on the ship?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so. I haven’t heard or seen another ship approaching.”
Kate doesn’t feel comforted by this and scans the room for her new husband. They’ve been married a total of three weeks, but she feels like it’s been a lifetime. For over 20 years they were next-door neighbors, but it wasn’t until they were in their 50s, both widowed, that they began to see each other in a romantic way. It was a second chance at love for them both, and it has been a wonderful surprise Kate could have never seen coming.
She finds Marvin slumped against the far wall looking pale. She wants to run to him, to feel his warm hands on her back and disappear into his chest, but Elle needs her. She kisses the girl on her head and continues rubbing her back.
With a sudden jerk, Elle pushes Kate away and falls across the lower half of her grandmother. She puts her arms around her waist and screams into her lower back. When she lifts her head, the silence in the room has grown hard as ice.
“Who would do such a thing?” Elle screams.
Spit flies from her mouth. Pounding her fists on the wooden floor, she screams again. The sound makes everyone shrink back as if struck. It’s a volcano of pain erupting and erupting, and the room feels swept along with it. Carolyn sobs loudly into Will’s shoulder.
Kate tries to put her arms around Elle but she pushes her away. The sound of coughing comes from the hallway, followed a moment later by Jack. He’s wearing plaid pajamas and he’s forgotten his glasses, so he’s squinting. When his eyes meet Kate’s, she sees him stiffen.
“Okay,” he says. “Everyone stay calm.”
He circles the body of Millie twice. It’s hard for him to comprehend what he’s seeing. He’d kissed Millie on the bow of the ship last night, hours ago. She’d giggled into his neck and smelled of lavender. She’d made a cheesy joke about climbing his beanstalk and he’d walked away blushing.
He feels a pain in his chest as hope drains from him. He’d really thought maybe he’d have one last chance for love, at his age, but now it’s gone. She’s gone. Unfairness, his old friend, has struck again.
He makes eye contact with Kate and Elle. The tightness in his chest increases and he has to focus on his breath. They look at him for answers, and he knows he has no choice but to press away from his own feelings and let his training kick in.
Detective Jack might have retired with dreams of treasure hunts and moonlight kisses, but another bloody crime scene pulls him back to himself. This he knows how to handle.
Jack leans down beside Elle and speaks in a low, soft tone.
“When did your grandmother leave your room?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I woke up and she wasn’t there, so I went looking for her and…”
“Did you see anyone else awake on the ship? Another boat? Did you hear anything at all?”
“No. It was quiet and she was just lying here….”
Jack pats Elle on her shoulder, stands, and speaks in a louder tone, so everyone can hear him.
“Captain Clark and I will search the ship,” he says, “The rest of you stay put.”
The two of them leave together, and the room feels larger. Kate continues to stroke Elle’s back beside the body of Millie, while Marvin remains slumped against the far wall. Their friends, Carolyn and Will have moved to the couch and sit talking quietly with each other. The only other people on the ship, the cook and the maid sit staring at the empty fireplace without speaking.
The men are gone for a long time, and when they return Kate notices Jack’s wearing his glasses and his gun holster.
“We didn’t find anyone else on the ship or any sign anyone had boarded,” Jack says. “We are going to continue to investigate but Kate, I think it’s best you take Elle to your cabin and sit with her. Get her a drink and don’t leave the room, okay?”
Kate nods and Elle allows herself to be pulled out of the galley. Jack circles the room and takes in the position of everyone. There’s no sign of a struggle, and he wonders why Mille would have left her room in the middle of the night. The treasure map, which sits in a golden frame on the table in the center of the room, hasn’t been touched. It’s unlikely the motive then.
“Has anyone moved anything?” Jack asks.
“No,” Captain Clark says. “We all arrived to find Elle in here alone beside Millie.”
“How many members of your crew are on board this ship?”
“There’s just the three of us, me, the cook, and the maid.”
He gestures to the other two who sit beside the fireplace in big squishy chairs dressed in their pajamas. Both women are in their mid-twenties and look terrified. The cook begins to sob.
“You can’t think one of us would do this?” Captain Clark says.
“I don’t know what to think at the moment. How far are we from the nearest port?”
Before Captain Clark can respond, Marvin steps forward.
“We can’t turn back now. Aren’t we almost there?” he says. “Kate and I spent our entire life savings on this venture. If she doesn’t get to see it through, it will all be for nothing. Aren’t we close? Like really close to the island? I mean, couldn’t we finish and then go to port?”
“We have a dead body on our hands here,” Jack says.
“We are very close,” Captain Clark says. “We should arrive within the hour. The nearest port is at least two days away.”
“Are you both suggesting we still go on this ridiculous treasure hunt and what…leave Millie here on the floor?” Jack says.
Both look uncomfortable and say nothing for a few minutes—thoughts bubbling between them like rapids and riptides. Jack isn’t sure he likes any of this. When he agreed to take this trip, it was only because he’d promised Kate’s father he’d look after her. Jack walks around the room, stopping at the tattered map.
Kate’s father was his partner for 15 years. He’d cheated on his wife, gambled, and drank far too much, but he was a good cop and he loved his little Kate. He’d died days before the wedding in a car accident, and Jack had walked her down the aisle. He loved her like his own, and he knows how much this treasure hunt means to her.
From the time Kate could speak, her father told her the fantastical tales of their ancestor—Pirate Jacob Cutter. He’d been the captain of a large sailing vessel, and under the flag of the British, he’d crisscrossed his way across the ocean sinking ships and amassing tremendous wealth. He’d been a pirate for the Queen, but when he’d been called back to England, he decided to hide a large portion of his treasure on a remote rocky island.
When he arrived home, however, he was double-crossed by a former lover of the aging Monarch. She had him pulled from the ship and hung from the mast the second he arrived. Luckily, he’d left the map and a key to his small son who hid in an empty barrel for several days on the ship. Eventually, he got away, and the map and key have been passed down from generation to generation ever since.
Jack assumed he’d made up the story to get Kate to fall asleep at night, or maybe to connect their family legacy to something bigger. However, after his death, Kate found the map and a rusty key in a safety deposit box along with a note encouraging Kate to “be the Cutter who finally retrieves what is rightfully theirs.”
While the merits of seeking stolen treasure could be debated, Kate decided to organize this trip as part mourning her father’s death, and part treasure hunt adventure. Jack had agreed to come along, out of curiosity, and a need to protect his friend’s daughter. Her new husband, who has been pacing the wall, now stands with hands on his hips in front of him.
“I don’t see how we can turn back,” Marvin says. “You know how much this means to Kate.”
“I do,” Jack says.
After much discussion, some of it quite heated, the group decides to wrap Millie in blankets and put her in the large refrigerator until they can visit the island and see if the treasure is real. After talking with Elle and Kate they agree Millie would want them to continue.
Part II: Island Adventure
At daybreak, they board four kayaks to paddle through a small crack in the rocky shoreline and follow a little creek into the heart of the island. Kate pulled the map out of the picture frame, rolled it up, and stuffed it into her coat pocket. She and Marvin are in one kayak, Will and Carolyn in the second, Elle and Jack in the third, and Captain Clark on his own in the fourth.
Kate sits in front of Marvin, and he kisses the side of her neck.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Not really, but I’m glad we are still going to see what’s on this island.”
He kisses her neck again and she smiles despite all the sadness and uncertainty. She’s never been in love like this before, and sometimes it feels a bit like madness. He’d kissed her the first time in his beautiful garden, pressing her against the side of his tool shed and making her body feel young and alive. They’d made love on the ground, flattening a dozen or so daffodils, and she’d not been able to get enough of his touch since. It feels a bit like a drug.
“It’s just you and me,” he says into her ear. “It’s just you and me.”
She thinks about how he proposed to her in a kayak similar to this one while they paddled around the lake under the light of a full moon. He’d sung her a song he wrote about her body and his, about true love’s kiss, about destiny and waiting a lifetime for her. She’d cried as he slipped the ring on her finger.
Marvin kisses her neck again.
“I forgot to tell you, I overheard Will and Carolyn fighting before we left the ship. It was something about money. I heard the word divorce…”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, they seemed really upset.”
Will and Carolyn have been in Kate’s life for a long time. Will worked as a dispatcher at the police station with Jack and her father, and Carolyn practices shiatsu. She’s healed Kate’s back more than once. She’s sure whatever Marvin overheard, it’s nothing.
The creek wanders through the island, away from the rocky shoreline, and into luscious green valleys dotted with flowering shrub trees and bright yellow and purple flowers. There are numerous flocks of big birds Kate thinks might be ravens, and they’ve spotted packs of animals resembling tiny deer.
The further inland they go, the harder it becomes to fight the current. Eventually, Captain Clark suggests they abandon the kayaks and move forward on foot. They paddle into a small inlet, pull the boats up the embankment, and stop to rest. Jack creates a makeshift picnic table with some pieces of driftwood and Kate spreads the map out for everyone to look at.
“It looks like we’ve entered here,” Jack points at a dot on the map and follows a thin black line with his finger. “And if we follow the creek, we should eventually find a waterfall.”
“I can’t believe we are here,” Kate says.
“I can’t either,” Elle says. “Grandma would be cracking some kind of joke right about now, probably something about how we should take a selfie to preserve the exact moment Kate finally believed in her father.”
Kate, Elle, and Jack burst out laughing. The others don’t seem to find it funny. Kate hugs Elle.
“Oh, she’d have us rolling on the ground for sure,” Jack says.
He points at Marvin’s khaki pants and giggles.
“She’d have a field day with your outfit,” he says.
“What’s wrong with it?” Marvin says.
The girls laugh hard, and Marvin looks hurt. Kate kisses him.
“Don’t listen to them,” she says. “I like the Boy Scout look. You’ve got a pocket for everything.”
She pats him on the butt and laughs again. He tries to join in, but she can tell he’s not enjoying being the object of their jokes. Millie was always teasing him, and he rarely enjoyed it. Captain Clark scowls at the laughter.
“We better get a move on because we are burning daylight here,” he says.
“Who talks like that?” Elle whispers to Kate.
“Boy Scouts,” Kate says.
She bursts out laughing and the two link arms and follow the others along the creek. They hike for several hours, stopping occasionally to take a drink of water or to eat a snack from their backpacks. Each time they stop, Kate notices Captain Clark sitting closer and closer to her. She keeps catching him staring at her. It’s unnerving.
After another water break, she grabs his arm and pulls him away from everyone.
“Is there something you want to say to me?” she asks.
He looks pale and for a sickening moment, Kate worries he might pull out a knife and kill her. She takes a step back and sees his eyes are teary. He swallows over and over before speaking in a low, shaky voice.
“I don’t know how to say this, and I know it’s not the time but…I knew your dad.”
Of all the things she considered he might say, this wasn’t it. Her father knew a lot of people, being a police detective, and she wonders in what context they knew each other.
“Yeah…I knew him my entire life….”
The tears fall down his cheeks now and he covers his face for a moment. Marvin and Jack have stopped and are walking back toward them. Captain Clark stares at his feet and then lets the words rush out as if he’d been holding his breath for his entire life.
“He was my dad too, well in name only really. He’d come around occasionally to give my mom money and tell me stories of Pirate Jacob Cutter. When I heard someone was wanting to charter a boat to these particular islands, I knew it must be you, and I made sure to give you the best price so you’d choose me. I wanted to tell you on day one, but it never felt like the right time. I mean, it’s not the right time now either…”
Kate pulls him into her arms and hugs him. She’d known her father was unfaithful to her mother for years, the two of them were not quiet when they’d fight. It’s surprising he had another kid though, but also wonderful. Kate lost her mother to cancer when she was in her 20s and she has no siblings. After her father died, she thought she was alone in the world. Now, it appears, she isn’t.
They stare at each other for a few minutes with goofy smiles, both feeling a little awkward. She can see a bit of her father in his eyes and wonders why she didn’t see it before. She’s hurt her father never told her about her brother, but she imagines he was probably too proud to tell her. She’d worshipped him as a child, and he probably didn’t want to do anything to sully her view of him.
“You were at the funeral,” Kate says.
She remembers him now, standing in the back crying. She’d not thought much of it at the time as her father knew a lot of cops and many of them had come to pay their respects. Clark looks like he could be one of the cops, with the same wide shoulders and tall frame as her father. It hurts her to think he didn’t get the same comfort she did, and that her father didn’t leave him anything in his will.
“Yes,” Clark says. “I thought about telling you then, but it didn’t seem right.”
“He was a complicated man,” Kate says. “I’m glad you told me now.”
They hug again and turn to face the waiting Marvin and Jack. Marvin steps forward and puts his arm around her waist and Jack has his hand on his gun holster.
“Hey guys,” Kate says. “I’d like to introduce you to my brother.”
Part III: All For Love
The small group follows the creek for another hour, the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder. While they walk, Kate and Clark share stories of their father and realize how much they have in common. He’d taught them both an appreciation for Star Trek, the music of Queen, and how to properly fold a towel. While he only saw his son every few weeks, he had a huge impact on his life. He’d become a Captain because of his father’s pirate stories.
“When did you know about me?” Kate asks.
“He told me about you all my life,” Clark says. “I thought of you as my secret sister, and he had a way of making it seem special and not sad. You know?”
“Yeah,” Kate says. “Dad did have a way with words, didn’t he?”
She wishes she could ask her dad why she didn’t get to hear stories of her secret brother, but she knows it comes back to his pride. Clark invites her to come for Christmas to meet his mother and his siblings. He’s got three brothers and two sisters, all of them share the same father, his stepfather who still lives with his mother.
“He’s a great guy,” Clark says. “They are all pretty amazing actually. They are going to just love you!”
Her father must be watching this all unfold with a big smile. He left her an entire second family to be a part of. It makes her heart swell with gratitude for his imperfections. She catches up to Marvin and slips her hand into his.
“Isn’t this simply amazing?” she says. “I suddenly have an entire family to be a part of. It’s incredible.”
He doesn’t say anything, and Kate can see something about the situation bothers him. She grabs his hand and squeezes it, but he doesn’t squeeze back. He walks faster and then stops.
“Would you look at that!” he says.
They’d been walking for a long time in a thick grove of trees, stepping over fallen branches and rocks, but they’d suddenly arrived at the source of the sound they’d been following for hours—a magnificent waterfall. It’s exactly where the map said it would be.
The group stands in a half-circle watching the cascade of white empty into a pool of light emerald green. The misty spray flattens their hair and makes Carolyn’s makeup run down her face. Kate and Elle exchange a little smile, knowing Millie would have made a Tammy Fey joke.
“Now what?” Will says.
He’s had the hardest time with the hike, and he stands doubled over trying to catch his breath. Kate thinks, with the exception of Elle, they are all too old to be playing treasure hunt. She can feel pains in her back, feet, and right hip. Marvin had a limp the last hour and Carolyn was crying off and on about her lower back.
“Rushing water, falling in, hides the treasure from within,” Kate recites from memory. “I think we have to go through the waterfall.”
“I’m out,” Will says.
“No he isn’t,” Carolyn says.
They exchange looks which make Kate wonder if what Marvin said might be true. She doesn’t want to think anything bad about her friends, but they are acting strange. Jack seems to be thinking the same thing, and he unbuttons his jacket so Kate can see the gun on his hip. Captain Clark does the same thing.
“So, how do you think we get into the waterfall?” Elle says. “We just like swim through it or something?”
“I see a path,” Jack says. “Off to the left there. Do you see it?”
They do, and all agree to follow Jack as he leads the way. They inch along a slippery rock ledge, helping each other around large boulders until they arrive inches from the waterfall, soaking wet.
“We might as well have jumped in,” Kate says.
The path curves around and disappears along the back of the waterfall, becoming a narrow walkway they have to squeeze sideways through. After several minutes of slowly moving, it opens up into a clearing of waist-high mustard seed grass blowing in a slight breeze. Sitting in the center, raised up higher than the surrounding land, sits a squat-looking red clay temple. It’s got sweeping lines and two tall spires on either side of an open doorway.
“Wow,” Elle says.
“It’s really here,” Kate says. “It’s real. Can you believe it? It’s real!”
“I didn’t think we’d find anything,” Jack says.
“Me either,” says Marvin.
“It’s beautiful,” Captain Clark says. “Just as dad described it.”
“Exactly like it,” Kate says. “Jacob Cutter’s treasure should be inside there. It’s unreal.”
“What are we waiting for?” Elle says.
They walk in a line through the weeds to the small temple. It’s covered with intricate carvings along the red walls—a hieroglyphic language filled with curves and lines. Kate runs her fingers over the markings as they pass, amazed at how ancient it seems. She wonders how long it’s been here, probably hundreds of years before Jacob Cutter discovered it.
The temple floor curves downward and ends at three very narrow tunnels. Kate pulls back out the map, and with the help of a flashlight, examines it. There’s nothing after the temple. No clues as to which direction to go.
“Maybe the temple is the treasure,” Kate says.
“I don’t think so,” Marvin says. “I think we should search the tunnels.”
“Maybe we should split up?” Clark says.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Jack says. “It looks like a pretty tight fit.”
Kate and Marvin take the left tunnel, Elle and Jack the middle, and Clark the right. Will and Carolyn decide to wait at the entrance to the temple, both too tired from the hike to go on.
Kate holds the flashlight as Marvin leads the way. It’s a tight fit and appears to be a natural rock tunnel, not something carved by those who built the temple. It’s damp and they have to brace their arms on the walls to not slip on the rocky ground and slide all the way down.
“It’s really quiet,” Kate says. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so quiet.”
“I like it,” Marvin says.
He grabs her hand and pulls her closer to him. The tunnel stops inside a small round space, about the size of a closet. They shine the flashlight up and down the walls but find nothing. No markings. No treasure.
Marvin pulls Kate to him, slamming their bodies together in the way Kate has grown to love. It’s passion and desire, and it floods the space between them, filling her with instant longing. The flashlight falls to the ground and Marvin presses her into the wall and kisses her, his hands moving under her shirt. She moans as he presses his body closer to hers.
A sudden and horrific sound slams into them. It’s the sound of a gunshot, and it reverberates around the small room, vibrating the walls and making both Kate and Marvin pull apart in shock.
“What’s going on?” Kate says.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to go find out. You stay here.”
“No way! I’m not going to sit here alone.”
“Please, Kate. I don’t know what’s going on, but you are safe here. Nobody will get past me in the tunnel and I’ll let you know the second I figure it out. Okay?”
Kate knows he’s right, but she doesn’t like the idea of sitting alone. He hands her the flashlight, sweeping it along the walls several times, making sure there is no other entryway into the room. She hates when men are always trying to protect women, but she decides to let him have this. Her hip hurts anyway.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. “I promise.”
She sits with her back to the entrance and pulls out a water bottle from her backpack and takes a drink. Trying not to think about the gunshot, she focuses on where she is. Her father would be so proud of her. It’s not about a treasure for her anymore, although it would be wonderful if there was one, it’s the fact the map did lead them somewhere. They found the temple behind the waterfall, the story she’s heard a hundred times. Pirate Jacob Cutter was real and he was here.
Kate hears another gunshot and she stands up. She shines the light around the room, and then seconds later, she hears two more. Panic races through her and she hears someone coming down the tunnel with short, shuffling feet.
“Kate,” Elle calls. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she calls back.
Elle emerges with Jack behind her.
“Where’s Marvin?” Jack says.
“He went to see what was going on. You didn’t see him?”
The three of them crawl back up the tunnel and find Will and Carolyn are no longer there. They exchange worried looks. Jack holds his gun out in front of him, while Elle and Kate form a line behind him. With slow cautious steps, they enter the tunnel on the right. The path is twice as wide as the one Kate went down with Marvin and it gradually turns several times back and forth. After a few minutes, they see a light ahead and Jack stops.
“Who’s there?” Marvin calls from up ahead.
“Jack, Kate, and Elle,” Jack says. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”
“Yes, I’m okay, but it’s horrible in here. It’s just horrible. Don’t come in.”
His voice doesn’t sound right. Jack inches forward anyway with Kate and Elle right behind him. They enter the room to find Marvin standing beside a large stone pedestal, a weathered metal trunk with a large rusty lock sitting atop it. Small holes in the roof let in dime-size rays of light, giving the round room a misty, underwater feeling. There are tiny rocks and leaves on the ground, and Kate’s footsteps are loud as she walks toward her husband. She fingers the key around her neck, excited by the possibility of unlocking the greenish trunk.
“Stop,” Jack says.
Kate does and her eyes sweep around the room, looking for the source of danger she can so clearly hear in Jack’s voice. She spots several things all at once. Marvin is holding a gun in his right hand, dangling it beside his leg as if he doesn’t know it’s there. Will and Carolyn lay motionless along the wall with liquid pooled beneath their heads. Clark lays inches from Marvin, half upright against the wall, his shirt dark with what appears to be blood.
“No!” Kate screams. “No, no, no, no…”
She runs to her brother and tries to pull him up, she feels warm blood soak instantly into her shirt. He smiles at her, still alive. He tries to speak, but his mouth fills with blood and he makes a kind of strangled burbling sound before falling silent. His eyes, her father’s eyes, still look at her.
Kate screams and Elle rushes to her side, trying to comfort her. The pain becomes too much, and Kate surrenders to it. It crashes into her, wave after wave, pounding and thundering inside her and around the room. She’s only vaguely aware of Elle’s arms around her, as she sobs and screams. Her life has unraveled on this trip, it’s all gone so wrong. She cries until there is nothing left in her body, slumping over onto the floor. A rock pokes into her cheek and she stares at the rays of light above and around her.
“I wish we’d never taken this adventure,” she says. “No amount of treasure is worth all we’ve lost.”
Jack, who had been walking silently around the room, moves to Kate and pulls her to her feet. He kisses her cheek and whispers something into her ear. Kate pulls Elle to her and they walk out of the room leaning on each other.
“What happened?” Jack asks Marvin.
He’s leaning against the pedestal looking tired and pale. Slick sweat has formed on his face and his shirt appears soaked. He doesn’t move.
“Greed,” he says. “They were all fighting over the treasure. They all wanted it for themselves. I guess they shot each other.”
“You didn’t see it?”
“No. I got here right before you did.”
Marvin looks up at this and smiles. There’s a transformation in his face, one Jack’s seen before. It gives him chills. Both men begin to walk around the room, circling the pedestal in the center.
“What did you whisper in Kate’s ear?” Marvin says.
“Did you tell her something about me?”
“Because I won’t have you telling lies about me to my wife. She’s mine, not yours. You won’t poison her against me.”
“I don’t care if you believe me. You can’t prove anything.”
“I figure you killed Millie because she made those jokes about you all the time, and Kate was going to share the treasure with her, but I don’t understand why you killed the rest. Did you worry Kate would share the treasure with her brother? Did Will and Carolyn say she’d promised some of it to them? Was this all to protect your share? Was this about your greed?”
Marvin stops moving and raises the gun still in his hand and points it at Jack’s face. He smiles again and laughs. The sound echoes around the stone room.
“You don’t understand anything.”
“You think this was about money, I don’t give a shit about money. I have money Kate doesn’t even know about. I’ve always had money. What I want is Kate.”
“You have Kate.”
“No. You don’t understand. I don’t want to share Kate. Not with foolish Millie, not with some new brother, and not with you. Millie was trying to poison her against me with her little jokes here and little digs there. If I didn’t do something about it, she’d have used her stupid mouth to rip us apart. I wasn’t about to let that happen. You see, Kate is mine. She’s mine. I waited my entire life for her. I did my time with a wife I didn’t love, waiting for the day Kate Cutter would be mine. Nothing will take her from me now. Nothing. Certainly not a washed-up old cop like you.”
Jack doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. He’s sad for Kate, for all this trip has uncovered for her. She’ll never be the same, and he hates this man for doing this to her. He wants to shoot him in the face, but his years of training keep his temper under control. He needs to hear all of it first.
“What about Will and Carolyn? Why did you shoot them?”
“They came in at the wrong time, plus I could blame the entire thing on a dispute between them and Clark. They were stupid, useless people anyway. I don’t know what Kate saw in them.”
“The first gunshot?”
“Apparently, Clark thought he’d shoot in the air to signal he found the treasure. When I found him alone, it was easy to grab the gun from his holster and shoot him. He didn’t even see it coming. What a foolish, trusting little man.”
“So much like Kate, huh?”
“Don’t you dare compare them! Kate’s nothing like that idiot. She’s perfect, and after I kill you, she will be mine forever.”
Marvin raises the gun and Jack spins and hides behind the pedestal.
“Did you hear all that Kate?” Jack calls.
Kate steps into the doorway, tears streaming down her face. Marvin runs to her, but she pushes him away.
“You are a monster,” she says.
“No, Kate. You don’t understand. I did all this for you. For us. Don’t we deserve to be happy Kate? Remember, I promised we’d be happy. Look at me. It’s just you and me. It’s just you and me.”
Jack steps out from behind the pedestal and Marvin spins around and fires. Jack slides across the floor and shoots Marvin in the side. He falls to the ground and Kate kicks the gun from his hand. She stands over him trembling.
“I loved you,” she says. “We could have had everything.”
“Don’t leave me, Kate,” he says. “It’s just you and me…”
Kate stands silently looking down at Marvin. He holds his hands pressed against his side, the blood pooling around his fingertips. There are tears in his eyes, but he says nothing more. Elle and Jack stand beside her, placing a hand on each of her shoulders. She really loved him, but he was a monster in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and she hates she didn’t see it. More than anything, she feels angry she put all her friends and family at risk for this pathetic man. His love was nothing compared to what she’d felt in her life, a tiny pinprick of light in a world of sunshine.
Elle, Jack, and Kate pull the heavy chest off the pedestal and walk out of the temple together.
Author’s note: I don’t know why I decided to try and write something so huge this week, but once I made the decision I couldn’t turn back. The story is partly inspired by the film “Death on the Nile,” and partly a highly fictionalized account of the marriage of my own grandmother Kate to her neighbor Marvin when they were in their 60s. He wasn’t a murderer, but he did take her from me and I never forgave him.
This isn’t my finest work. It was too big of a story to tell in a week, and I worked for more hours on it than I’d ever care to admit to anyone. I’m posting it anyway. Do you know why? Because this weekly challenge of writing short stories isn’t about perfection or trying to be the best. No. It’s about me proving to myself I can write every single day. I can sit down and write through the fear, the messes, and the anxiety. It’s not about being “good,” it’s about finding my voice and playing with storytelling.
If you read the entire thing, thank you! It was a beast of a tale, but one I very much enjoyed writing. As always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 16
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 newlyweds on their honeymoon. We had to include the words cockpit, selfie, kayak, thought bubble, picnic table, wander, propose, shiatsu, motherhood, and temple.
Blowing out as much air as I can, my heavy body sinks beneath the choppy surface of the lake. The sounds instantly mute, bringing with it the first moment of calm I’ve had in days. Opening my eyes, I see nothing but the cloudy silt of the disturbed lake bed from where I walked into the water. If she met me here, maybe I’d be able to hear her.
Surfacing, I walk on tippy-toes, my feet occasionally sinking into the slimy stickiness of decomposed leaves, peats, sedges, and what remains of the creatures who have died here. I imagine them sinking down, landing sideways on a giant rock to take their last gill-filled sip of water. Perhaps they look up one final time to see the sunlight casting golden rays in a circle around them, illuminating tiny dancing specks in the water—a fond farewell.
Something brushes against my left calf and my heart races with panic. It could be a plant, a fish, a water snake, or something else. I picture an ancient and ugly beast covered in grey scales, a blood-sucking descendant of the dinosaurs, disturbed by my unwanted presence in its waters. It stalks me through the murk, circling and circling, getting closer and closer.
As the idea of the creature grows and solidifies, so does my panic. I lean into it, thinking some truth might be found in the sensation. I notice how as the thoughts become bigger, the creature becomes clearer until the instinctual urge to run overtakes my writer’s curiosity. I dive under the water, kicking, twisting, and punching until I arrive in the shallows and can see there’s no monster beneath me.
Keeping my body perpendicular to the rocky bottom, I swim along the shoreline looking for small fish or tiny treasures. I resurface every few minutes to keep the cabin and the horizon within sight. Although these waters are a second home to me, I’m fully aware of how quickly the water can disorient you. When I was a child, we’d bring a bright rainbow-colored umbrella to keep on the shore so I’d always be able to find the home base.
My younger self, freckled pink, runs along the hot beach to escape under the umbrella where my mother sits reading beside a giant wicker basket of snacks. I grab a banana and some almonds and she touches my cool skin with her warm feet. I push her away.
Flipping to my back, keeping my ears under the surface, I savor the muffled silence. The white sky above remains motionless and still, empty as I am. I’m more than halfway through my stay here and I have nothing written. My outline lays shredded on the cabin floor and the silence I came for exists nowhere but here below the surface of the lake. The book I wrote last year feels as if it contained all my words and truth. I have nothing more to offer. I tug at my wet hair and twirl it between my fingers, pulling and pulling.
If I could bring a pen and paper into the mirrored waters, would she slip beside me and whisper the words? I’ve lost her, my golden shadow muse, somewhere in the noise I can’t seem to get away from. She won’t return, and the madness inside me seems to be growing; an itchy sliver embedded deep within my palm, a prickly cactus of sharpness, a dentist’s drill pounding. It all feels a lot like failure.
From day one at the cabin silence has eluded me, replaced by an unexpected and unwanted presence–whispers and movements I can’t quite hear or see. A permanent shadow of sound perpetually here, but not here. I’ve wandered looking for it, seeking it out, and found only its partners–its noisy neighbors.
First, it was the trees, scrapping and clawing at the cabin day and night. I found a ladder and a saw and trimmed them back, so nothing touched the house. Then the squirrels took up leaping and scampering from the cut branches to roll things along the roof, creating a cacophony of sounds, driving the words from me. I had to cut back more and more of the branches until the trees lay ugly and bare, the pile of wood taller than me.
Then it was the sound of water dripping from faucets, the kind of noise used to torture out truths in secret basements. I turned off the water, drove into town and bought new gaskets and a plumbing book, and spent over a week fixing and fixing and fixing. The drops stopped.
But then it was the birds. Chirping and singing in voices shrill and constant at all times, driving the words from me, keeping her from me. I’d yell at them, but they’d scatter and return moments later with louder cries. I flung baking soda along the rails, boxes and boxes of it, and strung together forks to hang from the porch. I scattered birdseed far from the cabin day and night.
It worked for a time until a small brown bird made the tiny peach tree outside the front window its home. It would sing and sing, mocking me day and night. A robotic bird, unreal and unearthly. In a fit of anger I chopped down the baby tree, its single peach the size of a walnut lay on the ground and I wept. My dreams of cobblers and ice cream were destroyed in a single impulsive moment.
The words, my words, lay within the silence, I’m certain of it. They lay with her within the curves and folds of her shadowy dress, waiting for the moment of peace to settle for her to creep on padded feet behind me and breathe into my neck and whisper to me the story I know is so close. I’ve found it and her before, but now it’s simply too loud.
From Sunday to Saturday, from Monday to Friday, the days blend into days, and the sounds blend into sounds. She won’t come until it’s quiet, and I can’t find words without her. They are locked inside a box within a box and the key lies in the silence I can’t find.
Diving down into the water I begin digging through the muck, struck by the idea the key lies here. My fingers feel inadequate and I wish I’d brought a shovel or some kind of underwater ax. I shove items into the pockets of my bathing suit skirt, surfacing to fill my lungs and then returning to dig and scoop, dig and scoop.
Eventually, my body and breathing become weary and I surface to find the white sky has turned dark. A small sliver of the moon sits surrounded by tiny twinkling stars mirrored in the black water around me. The mountains have released the sighing breath of night, and the cool air makes my body react with gooseflesh and shivers.
A sudden disorienting panic hits me and I swim as fast as I can, items falling out of my suit and returning to the muck below me. I’m haunted by the idea of hands in the water reaching for me, grabbing at me, taking the key back, and by the time I reach the shore I’m sobbing and far from where I’d left my towel and shoes.
Running across the sharp pebbled beach, ignoring the pain in my feet, I focus on the golden light of the cabin. I’d left one window uncovered and the hooded desk lamp has transformed the dull curtains into bright yellow beacons. I run and run, up the dark wooden steps and into the familiar musty smell of our family cabin.
I wrap the nearest quilt, a remnant of my mother’s last stay here, around my shoulders, and trembling I throw logs into the large brick fireplace. I rub my wrinkled hands along the blanket until they are dry enough to twist the pages of an old National Geographic magazine into cones to light. I scrape a match along the edge of the box and press the reddish flame into a gray photo of a gnarled gargoyle with pointy ears and watch the word Paris turn to ash.
When I sit on the floor, the items from the lake poke into my sides. I pull them out and lay them in a line across the hearth—Barbie head with matted brown hair, a bright blue fidget spinner turned rusty but still able to move, several bottle caps from various cheap beers, an “I Love You a Latte” pin missing the back, and a bright silver ring.
It’s the last item I think could be the key. I wipe it on the blanket and try it on several fingers and find it only fits my pinky. It’s a simple thin band, with no markings, dainty but heavy. I hold my hands closer to the fire to warm them and look at how the metal ring reflects back the orange and red light. The whispering sounds pulse around me. I wish they’d stop.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my shadow stretching out, a thin skeletal version of me. I follow it down the hall and into the bedroom, strip off my wet clothes, and stand naked before an upright golden mirror. I don’t recognize myself in the dim light leaking in from the fire down the hall, the flickering body of a woman I might have known at some point, but who looks nothing like me anymore. I stare into the mirror version of my hazel eyes and have the terrifying thought I might do something like wink, or my eyes might suddenly becoming not my own.
I’m about to scream, but instead, I twirl my hair with my left hand and pull until several strands break free. I let them fall to the floor and notice the tops of my shoulders are beet red with small blisters forming under the skin. I grab a sample bottle of aloe from a drawer beside the bed, wondering if it has an expiration date, and rub it into the inflamed skin anyway. The cool gel makes me feel feverish and sick. I’m veering off course. I’m not me. I don’t like this and I wonder when I last ate something.
My shadow dances along the wall and I slip on warm pajamas and follow it. I’m sleepwalking or dreaming, moving through thick clouds, heavy and drunk. I sit at my writing desk by the front window, open a blank journal page, and put the pen on the paper. Hovering, I sit still for seconds, minutes…hours. A prickling sensation begins at my toes and travels in a rush up my body. All the nerves feel dull and alive at the same time—on alert. The pen begins to move.
“The golden shadow…”
The tiniest flicker of hope left inside dances with joy at the words, at the feeling of her behind me. She presses further, our bodies merge into one, the shadow takes the pen and writes an entire page and I know as it flows from my hand it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
With a snapping feeling, my body lurches back and then forward. I hit my head on the desk with a thud. She’s gone. Some sound has chased her away and I scream, the sound traveling out of every pore of my body, emptying me of everything. My heart pounds and I begin to sweat and shake.
I stand on wobbly legs and follow the sound, a bloodhound tracking the scent through a dark and dangerous forest. I feel the rage inside at having the words taken away, a bubbling tea kettle screaming and screaming. The faint sound seems everywhere and nowhere. I circle the rooms, down the hall, and back.
It’s in the hallway! I press my ear against the wall until I find the exact spot and realize, with horror, it’s the sound of a pen writing on paper. My words are inside the wall. Someone has stolen them, taking them from me, and I need them. I need them more than I need to breathe or eat or be. I bang on the wall and scream, but the sound continues without pause.
I scrape and scrape with my fingernails until I’m able to pull at the flowered wallpaper, tearing off a wide strip and throwing it on the floor. I pick at the uneven wall underneath until I’m able to form a tiny hole. I run to the writing desk, grab my gold pen and press the tip into the hole, twisting and twisting until it pops through. I press down hard, like a lever, until a chunk of plaster falls to the floor.
Using my hands, I tear off the rest of the wallpaper and the crumbling bits of fibrous material as fast as I can. Throwing it all around me, I’m no longer aware of the why. My knuckles and fingers bleed, but I continue to rip and tear until I’ve uncovered the entire stretch of wall between two light-colored wooden posts. In the center of the blank wall, a black shadow oozes and bubbles out like oil, running down the wall in a thick stream.
I scramble backward and fall against the wall behind me, sliding down until I’m clutching my own knees and rocking. The shadow moves slowly, like thick molasses across the floor, growing in size and shape until it becomes a grotesque twisted version of me. It leers tall and thin in the hallway, reaching with spindly cold fingers toward my face. I feel it reaching through nothingness, into nothingness, dragging me toward its thick dark madness.
The scratching sound fades, or maybe simply never was. The shadowy shape before me opens its mouth to reveal sharpened black teeth, a cartoonish Jack-O-Lantern, dripping down onto me the whispery sounds of fear and anger. It’s louder than ever before, a pulsing and grating sound, and I cover my ears and continue to rock in place.
Time seems to stand still in this moment, a frozen nightmare of my own creation. Knowingness eventually prickles along my back, bringing with it the vision of a small girl with pigtails. Her tiny voice begins to whisper in my ear, speaking of kindness, and worth and begging me to fight back. I’m sitting on the back fence of the home I grew up in, singing as loud as I can to the passing cars. The world needs to hear my voice. I have something to say.
The singing becomes louder and louder and I feel her wrap her golden arms through mine. We are one. I feel through the debris for my pen and stand with it held out in front of me. The shadow doesn’t shrink, but I grow. I stand tall and firm, my resolve larger than my fear has ever been, and I thrust my pen as hard as I can into the silhouette before me. It shatters, the darkness dissolving into tiny puzzle pieces of nothing, running down the walls and into the floorboards. It’s gone or maybe it never existed at all.
Holding the pen firmly in my hand, I walk on steady legs to the writing desk and set it down. Sunrise dances through the cloudy sky as I step onto the porch to listen for the sounds of the world. I don’t need to cover my ears anymore.
Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper
You inspired me, yet you feel so far away
Words float around, bubbles of colored vapor
Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper
Endings, beginnings round and round I caper
Lost in dark along the perfectionists highway
Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper
You inspired me, yet you feel so far away
Author’s note: My inspiration for this story came while writing at the coffee shop this week and looking down to see the golden shadow of my pen on my journal page. My mind was filled with images of shadow creatures, muses, and the idea of madness. As I began to write, the story took me to the lake and to the idea of needing silence to create. As the story progressed a bit of “The Shining” crept in and I had to resist the urge to have her hack the wall with an ax. You can probably also see the influence of Edgar Allen Poe with the sounds in the wall. Thank you, as always, for reading and if you feel so inspired, please let me know what you thought in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 15
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a writer with noisy neighbors. We had to include the words dentist, rainbow, explosion, horizon, cactus, palm, Saturday, latte, beets, and sample.
“I’m very into science-fantasy, that kind of swordfights and magic and technology thing.” -Gary Numan
Dani and the Queen
“You know you can’t be here,” the guard says.
He stands wide-legged with his left hand on the hilt of his long sword. Dani tries to remember if she can recall his name and if she knows something about him she can use to her advantage. Coming up with nothing, she tries another tactic.
“You know me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
Taking a step toward him with her right sandaled foot, she presses into the slit of her silken dress so the entire length of her muscular leg shows from calf to thigh. She watches his eyes travel the length of her body, his voice wavers a bit when he speaks.
“I’ve strict orders,” he says. “You aren’t allowed anywhere near the Queen.”
His hand tightens on the hilt of his sword, steadying himself, as Dani leans forward allowing the tops of her breasts to become candlelit, the gold medallion between them catching the light and gleaming brightly. He shakes his head and takes a shuffling step back.
“I can’t,” he says. “I really can’t.”
Dani flows towards him, closing the space between them within seconds. She reaches for the guard’s rough right hand held rigidly at his side. She pulls it into her soft one and turns it over, running her thumb along the callouses. His breathing pattern changes and his shoulders and knees become soft. She presses her lips to his ear, allowing her body to fall heavily into his. He swallows loudly and she can see goosebumps prickle on his thick neck.
“I’ll be right back,” she whispers.
Slipping her body around the trembling guard, like smoke blowing from gently parted lips, she disappears into the shadows and up the wide stone steps. She’s learned to use her power like this, to lure and to distract. It’s how she befriended the Queen, and also why she’s been banned from the palace. The guard won’t follow her, and he won’t remember why. A heaviness makes her pace slow, followed by the familiar feeling of regret.
The monsters are coming. Her vision from the fire dances before her, an afterimage half in darkness and half in light. She has to warn the Queen. The ticking of a clock she can’t see surrounds her, whispering it may already be too late. She stumbles sideways and presses her palms into the cool wall to steady herself. The Old Woman told her she’d have a vision and it would change everything. She’s spent half her life waiting for the moment to occur, and when it did earlier tonight, it wasn’t at all what she imagined.
Dani was at the tavern performing one of her frequent concerts on her golden clavichord, a spectacle of purple layered silk. The packed crowd came to hear Dani sing of the beauty and tragedy of Andromeda, chained to a rock because of jealousy. She’d begun to sing the part about the serpent slithering toward the princess when she’d glanced at the fire.
That’s all it took—one single glance. There, as if waiting for her always, was the future displayed in all its horrid brilliance. It danced within the flames, vivid and terrifying. She’d stopped playing and screamed, the drunken audience clapping as if it was part of the show. Pressing through the crowd, she’d rushed outside and run all the way to the back entrance of the palace. The fate of the entire kingdom rests on her convincing the Queen to believe in this vision, but she isn’t sure she believes herself or if it can be stopped.
Dani feels a panic surge like bile within her gut and forces herself to continue up the dark staircase. Memory comes to her as she steps up and up in the dark on silent steady feet. She considers the nature of time and space, like old friends or playmates who either haunt or beguile you with visions of happiness or tragedy. It seems to Dani the older she gets the thinner the fabric of time seems, and the harder it becomes to distinguish memory from the truth. Words float around her. Words like crazy and cursed. She begins to think this might all be for nothing.
Perhaps what she saw in the fire had already been, a vision of evils far away and long ago. She wants to believe it more than anything, but a tugging in her chest, her heart perhaps, tells her what she saw will happen and will happen soon. Only the Queen can stop it, but after what happened between them, Dani isn’t sure she’ll listen. To hope feels childish, but it’s all she has. It’s all anybody has.
As she nears the top of the staircase she imagines the Old Woman waiting for her dressed in her tattered brown cloak, her long silver hair flowing around her, leaning on her crooked staff and singing. She’s been gone for so long, and yet the memory of her hasn’t dulled.
She’d found Dani in a mushroom patch, a dirty blonde baby smiling in a single ray of sunlight.
“My bright dandelion in the dirt,” the Old Woman called her.
As she grew, she taught Dani to play the clavichord, the instrument of wistful poets and star-struck lovers. The stringed keyboard would come alive in her tiny hands and she’d play for hours each night while the Old Woman stared into a roaring fire to read the flickering flames as if they were an open book. Dani would play and the Old Woman would sing of prophecy, destiny, and magic.
Dani smells her earthy scent and imagines her love like a mist or fog filling the dark staircase. She rushes up the final three stairs, to find not the Old Woman waiting for her, but an unfamiliar soldier in a bright, silver suit of armor. He holds a thick metal lance in front of him—a clear stop sign. She halts.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
His voice sounds echoey and deep from within his shiny helmet. Dani can see how small she looks in the reflection and tries to square her shoulders and stand straighter. The soldier presses the sharp iron lance into the flesh above her left breast. She feels the sharp point pierce the skin.
“I need to see the Queen,” she says. “It’s a matter of life and death. Just one minute with her. Please.”
“You aren’t allowed here,” he says. “She doesn’t want to see you.”
She can’t reach him through the metal, can’t touch the part of him open to her. He presses the sharp lance harder and she feels it slide further into her flesh, warm blood runs down the inside of her dress, making the purple fabric darken and stick to her body. Prickles of sweat form on her forehead and she sways slightly. She summons all her strength to stay upright.
“I must speak to the Queen,” she says. “It’s urgent. Please. Please!”
The soldier presses harder, the lance becoming thicker and thicker, widening the hole in her fabric and her body. She can feel the warm blood now on her foot and hear it dripping onto the stone floor. This man will kill her. The certainty of it emboldens her, breaking free a surge of power she usually keeps still and controlled. It whips around her, like a fierce wind, blowing out the nearest torches on the wall.
With closed eyes, she grabs the lance with both hands and spins with it still inside her body, freeing it from his grasp. He grunts in frustration and reaches for her, but she dodges him spinning and spinning in circles. She can feel his energy faintly but focuses on her own. With all she has, she pulls the lance free of her body with a sickening wet sound and a scream of pain. She staggers back from the soldier and holds the heavy lance out in front of her. Her hands and body vibrate and she opens her eyes.
“I need to see the Queen,” she says. “Please.”
“Never,” he says with a laugh. “Just look at yourself. You’re shaking like a leaf. You don’t have it in you, Dani.”
“You know me!” she says. “Please. You have to listen.”
He laughs again and she realizes he must be the Queen’s personal guard, the one who turned the Queen against her. The suit of armor and the iron lance are to protect himself from her, to make her power useless. It makes her furious, but there’s no time. She has to reach the Queen.
She lowers the lance and runs at the soldier intending to flick off his helmet, instead, the sharp point sinks into flesh she can’t see between his helmet and chest plate. Roaring, he stumbles back, teetering for a brief second, and then falls down the steps. The clattering of metal hitting stone over and over lasts for a minute and then goes silent. She can’t see the bottom.
For several breaths, Dani doesn’t move. The monsters are coming. The words slide like an iceberg inside her stomach and she spins from the staircase and into the torch-lit maze of hallways. As she walks, she tears a strip off the bottom of her dress and presses it against her bleeding wound, using the tight fabric of her bodice to hold it in place. She’s amazed that, after all this time, the path to the Queen’s room is as familiar to her as anything.
The Queen’s wide bedroom door sits ajar and Dani steps inside to find the formerly exquisite space has been transformed into a crude workshop. Gone are the beautiful paintings, the racks of dresses, and the ornate bureaus covered with sparkling jewels and crowns. Instead, long tables crowd the room in a haphazard way, filling the space and giving it a confusing and dirty feeling. Metal, wires, bolts, springs, cogs, and weights litter the tables and the floor. Dani steps carefully around the debris toward the center of the room.
Sitting in the place formerly occupied by the Queen’s four-poster bed is a wide metal barrel filled with bright orange coals. The Queen stands before it with enormous brown leather gloves covering her hands and forearms. Her golden hair, dirty and dull looking, is tied at the nape of her neck with a piece of leather. She’s wearing a soiled pair of dark pants and a matching shirt.
As Dani watches, the Queen pulls a rectangle piece of hot metal heated to a dull red color from the coals and carries it to a curved piece of black iron sitting on an old tree trunk. She grabs a wood-handled hammer and begins pounding the hot metal. She turns and hits, turns and hits. Dani inches a few steps closer, and the Queen looks up. Her eyes widen for an instant and her mouth looks about to form words, but instead, she looks away and returns to her pounding.
Dani feels weak from the heat, the acrid smell of the burning metal, and her recent blood loss. Her power completely drained, she steps carefully through the chaotic room until she finds a pile of dirty furs laying in the far corner. They smell of wet dogs, but she lowers herself onto them anyway. The Queen continues to work for several more minutes before suddenly slamming the metal onto the floor and kicking it across the room with a loud clatter. It lands inches from Dani’s face.
The Queen pulls off her gloves, throws them on the floor, and walks to Dani with loud, heavy steps. Hands balled into fists at her sides, she towers over Dani and presses her lips tight together. The Queen’s eyes, as blue and beautiful as Dani remembered, sweep over her bloody wound but the expression on her face doesn’t change.
“What do you want?” she says.
Dani tries to stand but finds her entire left side is now weak. Instead, she attempts a smile, which isn’t returned.
“I miss you.”
Dani regrets the words the second she says them. The Queen makes a strangled sound and takes a step back. She grabs the material of her pants and twists it in her hands. There are tears in her downcast eyes and when she speaks it’s a low hoarse sound spoken through a tightly clenched jaw.
“Get out. I don’t want you…here.”
The pause between the words feels important, and when Dani answers she speaks softly and carefully.
“I’m sorry…I didn’t come to fight with you. I’ve come because…well, I’ve come to warn you. The kingdom’s in great danger.”
“It was, when you were here,” her words an angry rush. “ You have no power now and I have no use for you. Get out!”’
She continues to stare at the floor and her hands are fists again.
“No, you don’t understand. I saw a vision in the fire…”
She’s told the Queen of her days with the Old Woman and her prophecy, and they make eye contact for a brief moment. It’s a flash, a slight lowering of the defenses Dani used to live behind, a softness of her features, and a small parting of her lips. Dani reaches a hand toward her and the Queen kicks it with her heavy booted foot and spits on the floor. It hurts. There’s no love left and Dani wishes she’d never come back to the palace. She should have gone far away like she asked. This has been a terrible mistake.
Sobbing, Dani manages to pull herself into a seated position. The pain radiates across her body to her right side. She swallows sour sickness in her mouth and tries again. She must make her understand.
“Please,” Dani says. “I know I hurt you and I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am for all of it, but this isn’t about us. The kingdom is in great danger from…”
“From what?” the Queen says looking at the floor.
The Queen doesn’t shift or even lookup. Dani realizes she has no words to describe her vision and feels the horror of it rush through her. She should have thought of this, of how she’d have to convince her, what she’d say. She’d expected a flicker of love to be there, a tiny flame she could blow on and use to get the Queen to listen. She didn’t count on the iron lance or the Queen to look and act so differently.
She’d fully underestimated her heartache, the pain she’d caused with her betrayal, and the way it has transformed the once young and trusting Queen into this strange woman in front of her. It had all happened so fast and she’d not had a chance to explain. Now, it’s too late. The monsters will come and so will the piles of bodies. She can’t stop any of it.
The Queen stares at the floor for a few minutes further, sighs loudly, and then stomps across the room to one of the long work tables. Dani tries to summon something within herself to move, to get out of here, but there’s nothing left. She’s never felt this empty and helpless before. She’s numb and terrified.
There’s a series of flashing and popping sounds across the room followed by a loud creak and stomp. Steam fills the already hot room, smelling of oil and metal. Dani can’t see anything until the Queen returns with an odd-shaped soldier at her side.
He’s roughly the size and shape of a man but covered in darkened curving brass. A bright yellow dandelion is stamped in the center of his chest, the stamp the Queen would press into the letters she’d write and stuff under Dani’s pillow at night. The stamp created to represent their love and friendship. For a brief second, she thinks it’s a message of reconciliation. A symbol of hope.
Then she looks at the face of the soldier and where the eyes should be are giant slats looking into the darkness, a void of nothing. Realization hits her and Dani covers her mouth in a silent scream. The Queen’s lips curve into a chilling smile.
Fear beats within Dani like a second heartbeat. She can feel the two rhythms warring within her chest, a battle for her body. She begins to shake violently, and her breath comes in tiny raspy gasps.
“The monsters…” she whispers.
Looking around the room she can see what she didn’t before. The piles of metal and debris are parts. Body parts. There’s a pile of bronze legs on one table, several heads on another, arms and torsos scattered here and there. The Queen’s smile widens as the metal guard bumbles toward Dani with rigid, robotic steps. With much creaking, the bronze soldier lifts Dani into its hollow arms. Peering into the dark slats, she can see there’s no man inside the machine.
“The monsters…” she says again.
The Queen laughs as the metal man carries Dani’s limp body out of the room and into the maze of hallways. Dani touches the dandelion stamp with her fingertips and watches it disappear and reappear as they pass the torches on the wall. If she’d understood earlier, maybe she could have done something. If she’d patched things up years ago, maybe she could have stopped it. The Old Woman told her the vision would change everything.
Dani’s realization has come too late.
The monsters are here.
She will be the first to die.
The bodies will be piled in the courtyard.
Author’s note: Science fiction and fantasy are my two favorite genres. I mixed them together this week with this strange little fairytale of visions, monsters, and lost love. The idea for the robotic soldier came from years of exposure to Steam Punk and researching the story of the Ancient Greek robot Talos. I also researched the oldest instrument with a keyboard and was happy to find the quiet beauty of the clavichord. If interested, you can watch someone play music on a clavichord from late 16th or early 17th century Italy. Thank you, as always, to everyone who takes the time to read my short stories. Your comments make my day and keep me going on this crazy journey. I wouldn’t press so hard to find the story if it wasn’t for you. Your support means the world.
My neighbor left a slip of lined paper under a rock on the front doorstep at 5:35 p.m. I watched him on one of the four grainy black-and-white video monitors in the furthest corner of the old barn. From my perch on an upturned crate, I saw him look in the windows and knock on the front door for more than five minutes. I haven’t been able to breathe properly since.
I don’t understand why people can’t leave me alone. I’ve put up signs and made it clear the property is monitored but still they come and pry. Last Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. a uniformed man from the city came to the door with a clipboard and a long, black flashlight that he shined through the windows. He walked around the property calling my name, upturning several boxes, and looking through them. I felt sick.
He left behind a bright yellow notice stuck to my front door saying I’m in violation of a bunch of city codes, which translates to them wanting to chase me from my home. I have no doubt it’s some bored politician looking to make a name for himself by picking on an old man. My father designed and built this house before I was even born. It’s his house and I won’t budge. I’m not hurting anyone and I simply want to be left alone with my stuff.
I check the monitors one final time and, finding no sign of my neighbor’s return, I stand and shake my legs back to life. Using an old rope strung for this purpose, I pull my way outside, into the dark, through the cramped backyard, and into the house. My breath begins to normalize when I stand inside, the walls of stuff surrounding me like shadowed friends. I touch everything I can with outstretched hands and feet. It’s all here.
I press between two large boxes to reach the light switch, sucking in my gut as much as I can. My pants slip down to my hip bones and I blink for a few minutes until the familiar shapes and patterns come into fluorescent focus. The visit by the neighbor affected my routine and I curse at the lost time. I don’t like when people interrupt me.
Swaying in place I try to remember what I was doing when I heard the gate open and ran outside. My belly aches and I realize I’ve not eaten anything today. I shuffle sideways into the kitchen and rummage for several minutes until I find an instant rice cup with broccoli and cheese. I add some water and put it in the microwave.
The lined note is still on the doorstep. I try not to think about it, but it feels like an intruder lurking nearby and the uneasiness almost makes me dash back outside to check the cameras. No, he’s not coming back tonight. It’s too late. He’s the kind of guy with a family who goes to bed at sunset and rises before the light to dash off to some 9-5 job. I hate that there’s still a part of me envious of men like him.
The shrill sound of the microwave timer makes me jump. I remove the paper cup and grab a silver fork from a pile in the sink. It’s not clean and I wipe it on my faded plaid shirt and move to the round wooden table behind me. My watercolors sit open beside a dry and ugly painting half-finished. I don’t remember what I was trying to do with the colors. I crumble it with my hands and throw it onto a pile of garbage, then sit to eat my food.
My father used to sit upright and proud in this faded yellow chair before it became stained and cracked. Straightening my own back to match his I hear him calling from his bedroom for me to come and help him. I shake my head to clear the sound. I don’t want to remember him then.
Instead, I crane my neck around, popping it, until another image comes into focus of him sitting at the clean kitchen table with a starched white shirt on. He’s putting on golden cufflinks and talking about the art museum he’s designing downtown. My feet don’t quite reach the floor and my mother is still alive. There’s laughter and bread baking. He strokes her rounded belly and they kiss.
The images float away though, like they always do, like a dream you can’t quite hold onto or tiny filaments of dandelion fluff in a slight breeze. No matter how hard I try, the memory fades into the room around me, absorbed by my things until his hoarse and crackly voice begins to yell at me.
“Hey, shithead! Do something useful for a change.”
“You can’t even cook rice right you useless piece of garbage.”
“What have you done with your life? Nothing! Absolutely fucking nothing.”
“Such a waste.”
His arsenal of insults echoes around me and I can’t finish my food. Throwing it across the room I watch it splat into a pile of wires. I can wash them off when I need them, is my first thought, followed immediately by the knowledge I’ll never need them. Then an itchy thought begins to form around the idea of waste and garbage, but the sound of wind chimes outside stops it.
My body feels stiff when I stand and my legs ache from sitting on the crate for hours, but I need to be sure the wind doesn’t blow away the lined note. It suddenly feels important for me to read it, to decipher the messages from the outside world. It could be crucial.
The path to the front door has become narrow and impassable at points, limiting my ability to move quickly or even fluidly through the space. It requires concentrated effort and a bit of climbing. My breath becomes wheezy and after removing the pile of boxes stacked against the door, I begin coughing. It’s several minutes before it subsides and I grab an old t-shirt from the floor to spit mucus into. I throw it back down. I’ll wash it later.
I look through the peephole, but despite the bright floodlights illuminating the porch and front gate, I can’t see anything but shadows. I search them for movement on tip-toes for several minutes, listening to my collection of wind chimes ringing out in various tones throughout the night. The cacophony makes me smile. It’s enough to scare away the monsters, I think, and then laugh at being such a scared old man. The boogeyman died a few years ago.
There are five locks across the door, and I unlatch them from top to bottom. Pulling the door open requires both hands, as it scrapes on the dirty ground and pulls with it discarded pieces of paper and little items which have fallen out of the boxes. I spot a pair of argyle socks and an old cellphone. Both are in good shape, and I bend over to pick them up and shove them into my pants pockets to examine in more detail later.
The lined note, which I can now see is on yellow legal paper, sits folded in half longwise under a rock painted to look like a giant ladybug. The rock was a gift from a friend years ago and when I touch it I can hear her laughter twirling around me. It’s such a vivid sound and I call out to her into the darkness.
There’s no response because she isn’t here. I’ve not seen her in fifty years. The number fifty sticks in my throat, burning and itching until it causes another round of coughing. I snatch up the note and the rock through the spasms, spit bloody phlegm into a box of old tools and close the door behind me by pushing against it with my back. I slide to the floor, the cellphone tumbles out of my pocket and lands on an old candy wrapper beside me.
I set down the rock and grab for the phone, balancing it on top so it sort of teeters back and forth for a moment before finding its stopping point. It looks incomplete, so I pull the colorful socks from my pocket and drape them across the top. Yes, that’s right.
Unfolding and smoothing the paper I find a handwritten note printed in neat, black letters. It looks like the handwriting of a woman. I pull my glasses from my breast pocket and read out loud to myself.
The large beech tree in front of your house appears to be dying. The neighborhood children walk past the tree to and from school and we are concerned it could fall onto one of them or hit a passing car on the road injuring someone. Could you please remove it?
Your Concerned Neighbors”
Scrawled under the neat printing are a dozen or so signatures in various colors of ink. Conspiracy. Collusion. They must have spoken to the official who came here to try and take my father’s house from me. I stare at the paper and tears fall from my eyes blurring the ink, streaking it, and creating something new from something old.
Inspiration prickles through me and I twist my body so I can use the doorknob to pull myself to my feet. I fold the damp paper and put it in my front pocket with my glasses and restack the boxes in front of the door until I can’t reach to add another. I climb and crawl my way back to the kitchen table.
Unearthing rusted scissors from a pile of stuff on one of the chairs, I pull the paper note out of my pocket and begin cutting it into blurry yellow and black strips. When I’m done I arrange them on the table, tearing some pieces even smaller until they form the image inside my mind. I’ll need tape, dark brown fence paint, and one of the broken canvases in the barn.
“Tomorrow,” a voice inside says.
I push it away and shuffle through the house, touching things as I pass, making notes of other items I can combine and transform. There’s a wildness inside me roaring like it does, a beacon of need my father called crazy and my mother called art. I don’t know what to call it, but it drags my tired body into the chilly night until I’m standing near the beech tree sweating and panting.
The reddish-purple leaves glint in the moonlight. Copper Beech, I remember. My mother planted this tree and now it’s sick. I press my cheek against the rough bark and find it covered in puckered welts leaking sticky whitish residue. The leaves, once glossy and firm, are fragile brittle nothings in my fingers.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” I say to it. “You are simply sad.”
I hug the bark, feeling the cancerous bumps press through my shirt into my delicate thin skin like needles pressed through or fingers thrust hard. I stumble back and suddenly recall a book I’d seen in the barn with a tattered brown and gold cover, the pages filled with colorful illustrations of plants. “The Family Herbal, or an Account of all those English Plants, which are Remarkable for their Virtues.”
“I’ll be back,” I say.
After several minutes of stepping around stacks of empty flower pots, piles of rocks, and overturned rotting boxes, I find the rough rope and use it to pull myself into the barn. Through the maze, I travel, hand over hand, until I reach my destination in the sighing darkness. I find a string above me and pull it, illuminating cobwebs and the shadowy shape of things old and new.
I begin shoveling my way through the boxes and piles, moving things as I search for the book. I try not to linger too long as I uncover tiny smiling Santas, satin dress shoes, half-eaten leather belts covered in chew marks, a box of rubber bands, a collection of gold jar lids, and my father’s old wheelchair. These items all have stories to tell, but I’m not interested right now. The book is all that matters.
Tiny creatures scatter unseen around me, their scent mixed with my own so we are barely distinguishable from one another. Dirty. Filthy. Diseased. The words take shape and then are replaced. Tree. Knowledge. Savior. There will be no need to remove the tree, for I might be old, but I still have tools and the ability to work. I have my hands. I have my stuff and my house. No, not my house. His house and my stuff.
A tall stack of boxes teeter toward me and I try to push them back upright, but I’m not heavy enough. Slowly, ever so slowly, they lean into my body until my legs give way and I slide backward tumbling. My head hits the wooden planked floor with a thud I don’t hear but rather feel—an internal earthquake. My arms are pinned beside me, boxes sit on and around me, as the light above sways and sways.
When the light stills and stops I see a small book with a faded-blue cover that has landed beside my head, inches from it. I can smell the musty, gluey scent as if it’s trying to lure me to it—calling me to pay attention. Squinting at the faded gold letters for several minutes I eventually make them out, “Relativity.”
From somewhere deep inside the word rings and rings. My mother’s soft voice fills the barn reading to me late into the night of light, space, time, and gravity. Her voice like a thousand stars in the night sky calls and twinkles around me until I see her above me with outstretched arms. Her eyes speak of things I’ve forgotten—being called “her boy,” feathery kisses in the golden morning light, flower gardens, and midnight comforts when the nightmares came.
The stuff around me, the precious items I’ve held close to protect and comfort me, melt before my eyes and turn to colorful yellow vapor and sweet-smelling smoke. I watch it swirl around me, around her, until it floats out the windows and into the clear night sky. She pulls me to my feet, and I’m small again. Tears stream down my cheeks, but there’s only happiness on her face. The full moon shines bright behind her.
The word “sorry” wants to come, but she pulls me into her arms and pushes it away.
“Home is when we are together,” she says.
I smile and allow her to carry me home on her hip.
Author’s note: I tried to come up with a haunted house story, but since I wrote one in Week 10 I challenged myself to think about other definitions of haunted. I took inspiration from the many stories of trauma in my own family and our tendencies toward hoarding as a response to those experiences. The idea of being haunted by your past drove me to this story of the old man.
The photos in this story are mine, taken while cleaning out a relative’s home who struggles with hoarding and mental illness. I know this wasn’t a happy piece to read, but I hope you liked the ending. I didn’t know where I was going with this story, but once he was trapped under the boxes the ending came and I cried while typing it. The loving mother returning to rescue her hurt son was the happy ending my heart desired for him. If it touched you in some way, please let me know. Thank you.
Next Week’s Prompt
Something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character
I don’t remember driving or getting out of my car. I’m running down the narrow tree-lined trail as if speed or distance could remove his words. They stick to my body and crawl across my skin. I pump my arms and push harder. My sandaled feet slapping against the trail send up little puffs of dirt, smoke signals to nobody. He wishes I’d leave for good. Maybe I will.
My toe catches on a twisted root and I tumble forward, landing on my side. My head smacks a rock with a painful thud. I suck in air for a few breaths until it finally reaches my lungs and burns. Lightning bolts of pain flash in my temples and down my left side. Shuddering, I blink repeatedly to return focus to my eyes.
The sudden sound of music alerts me to the fact I’m not alone and I sit straight up. It’s a wooden flute playing a soft earthy melody, calling and calling. I stand and leave the trail. Pulled and lulled I move as if half-asleep, or half-drugged, toward the gentle notes.
The trees and the music collide to hide the creatures I can now sense close by me. The veil pulled thin as if half-wanting to reveal to me what I know with certainty lies hidden in the murky darkness. I hear them as rustling leaves and cracking twigs. They play peek-a-boo in the dimness, breathing and watching me as I pass.
A fracture of light bursts through a tree branch and blinds me temporarily; the glint off the horn of a unicorn perhaps or the gleam of gold held tight in the fist of a greedy leprechaun. I squint as I feel my way forward with outstretched hands and pointed toes. Cool darkness surrounds me, wetting my clothes and my head…or is it blood?
The creatures continue to swirl at the edges of my vision, not allowing me to see their full shapes or forms. Fairies with backpacks of magical delights dance through the shadows moving with the music, taunting and teasing with giggles I can almost hear. Darker, deeper creatures of warts and madness peek out from beneath rotten logs threatening to pull me toward them, into the cool, moist ground.
I jump as hundreds of birds burst from the trees around me, erupting into a swirling, pulsing black mass of cawing and tweeting. They fill the yellow fireball sky of sunset—a dark cloud of mass exodus. Raising my arms out I wish to sprout wings and follow them into the near night, but the sound of the flute stops me. The pitch and tempo have shifted, matching the frenzy of the birds, drawing me back toward the invisible pied piper hidden deeper and deeper into the woods.
I’m drawn forward by a tugging within my body that I can’t explain, a burning cavernous flame in my core. A part of my mind feels the absurdity of it and wonders if I’m laying on the forest floor bleeding out. I think about the fight with my husband, the horrible things we said to each other and didn’t mean. Our past, our history, and our life together feel twisted and entangled. If I could unravel it, what would be left of me?
Mischief and enchantment lie covert and waiting as I step into a clearing of tall weeds and see a magnificent green willow tree before me. The source of the music hides behind its sweeping branches which move as if dancing to the sounds. Nausea punches through me and I stop as the familiar scene plays out in front of me. I’ve been here before. The air stills and I can sense him watching me with all-seeing eyes of practiced seduction.
He crawls forward through the long, dark branches, emerging first as a great bronze shoulder and a deep green eye. Swaying in place for a moment, the half-lit creature of my dreams made flesh again, I shudder. My body knows him and heat rushes through me, bringing painful longing below my belly button, a primal and ancient ache I feel in my breasts and lips.
The music slows as collar bone, second shoulder, second eye, and golden hair come into view with a seductive ooze; liquid and solid, warmth and ice. He unfolds his body and stretches cat-like to a standing position, his hands and lips continuing to play the wooden instrument, the sound slowing and slowing until it’s deep and breathy like him.
I step toward his warmth, and he lifts his chin in welcoming remembrance. The memory of hands and lips on flesh burns and burns until I’m shuddering and aware my breath now comes in tiny gasps. With snooping and pitying eyes he stares into me and I know the time for choice has arrived.
He is time itself, the choice of life continued or life restarted. The reset of all things. The wheel of life spins before me, spun by him, but the final decision remains mine. It’s been this way before and it will be this way again. I feel the truth of it course like passion, like lust, and I sway with the music to the tension of decision.
The web of choices pour from his flute singing of the doors I’ve opened and closed, connections forged or severed, moments linked by a series of yeses and noes. My husband’s blue eyes swim before me too, the link of our combined paths entwined from years of sharing decisions and bodies, for better or for worse. The tug of the past and the pull of fresh starts war within me with cannon blasts and fire.
Running my hands down my heavy body I feel the effects of eating sadness for every meal and I want to tear the extra flesh from the bones. I twist uncomfortably and see his eyes following my hands, feasting on my self-hatred and tasting my unhappiness. He swells larger and the strength of his gravitational pull increases.
Time slinks toward me with a smirk of satisfaction around his pursed lips. He feels the moment coming, the giving up of this flesh and returning to him. He circles me now as the breathy notes fall around me slower and slower, winding toward me and the moment of finality I know will come in an intake of breath. He smells of fresh starts, like a thousand showers, the deepest part of the ocean, and fresh-turned soil.
Inevitability weakens me, but at the last moment, I turn from him and run. My head explodes as I crash through the trees.
I’m not ready yet.
Author’s note: I’ve written many versions of this story, including my latest manuscript during NaNoWriMo last November. The storyline of wanting a mythical and romantic character to sweep in and take away all my troubles returns to me again and again. When the going gets tough, I dream of being rescued. My Prince Charming, however, always comes with a dash of fear, magic, and some makeup.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise my favorite film of all time is “Labyrinth.” I often like to envision David Bowie/Jareth coming to rescue me and giving me all the things I say I want. Of course, like Sarah, I’d probably refuse his offer and fight my way through the Goblin City and back toward the family I love.
I hope you enjoyed this take on the rescue story, with the “he” being the seductive personification of time. I’d really love to know what you think in the comments below, and thank you for reading.
Elle leans on the black metal railing in front of the train station in a lopsided blue hat, matching blue shirt, and bright red bow tie. There are two round white buttons at her waist. She places her gloved hand on top of a small boy’s head to mess his hair and he giggles.
Click. Click. Click.
A girl in a twirling pink princess dress runs at top speed and almost knocks her over. Elle saves the moment, catching her and doing a sort of silly dance. They turn to face the camera together, a whirl of happy motion.
Click. Click. Click.
All pacifier and big eyes, a terrified toddler hides in his stroller clutching a stuffed mouse to his face. Elle gets down on one knee and plays peek-a-boo behind her gloved hands until he warms to her. He gives her a high-five and smiles for the camera.
Click. Click. Click.
A group of teenagers in the crowd yell out they love her and Elle makes a heart shape with her hands and presses it towards them. She waves and waves as children pass by her, the joy contagious and beautiful. Smiling, she hops on one foot and then the other, until she spots Greg off to her right with a clipboard in his hand. He’s writing and she feels herself deflating.
Everyone knows when Greg comes to watch your shift it means one of two things; promotion or firing. Elle tries to ignore him, but her eyes keep returning to his dark handlebar mustache, blue pinstripe suit, and bright white cummerbund. His pen stays in motion.
She can’t help but think about her now ex-roommate Britney. Greg visited her a few weeks ago during her final performance of the day and afterward released her. He said she “didn’t have the right energy” and “looked off-brand.” In an instant, her dream of being promoted to a face character ended. It broke her.
Elle found her sobbing on the locker room floor. They took a bus to a small diner far from the tourists and Britney cried into her cheeseburger for a long time, her snot congealing with ketchup to form a stream of gross gunk down her face.
“How dare he do this to me! I’ve worked so hard!” Britney sobbed. “Greg’s a monster!”
“It’s not rocket science, Elle! I don’t know why he makes it out to be so difficult. I didn’t do anything different today than I’d been doing for two years. It makes no sense. I deserve to be a princess! He was never going to give me a fair shot.”
Elle had worked beside Britney a few times, and although she’d never say it to her face, she understood Greg’s decision. Britney felt she deserved better, begged for it all the time, and didn’t put much heart or enthusiasm into her current role. Elle felt a mix of sadness and relief watching Britney stuff her blow-dryer into the top of her packed wheelie bag and walk out the apartment door.
Click. Click. Click.
A large family approaches and Elle lays on the ground in front of them, as she’s been taught. It’s the only way to make the large group photos work. She knows her poses are correct, but Greg writes and writes on his clipboard and she can’t imagine what he could be writing.
“Fails to be perfect.”
“Not good enough.”
Elle gets the signal and follows her handler to the cast-room. She waves and does a little dance until she’s fully out of view. Although she can’t see him, she knows Greg followed. As she removes her giant head and gets a drink of water, he walks in smiling.
“Wonderful job Elle,” he says.
“You know why I’m here, right?”
Elle doesn’t want to make any guesses, so she shrugs and smiles. He smiles back.
“I know you have been waiting for this, so I wanted to tell you in person. You have done it, Elle. Congratulations. You are now friends with Snow White.”
He hands her a red hair bow and she rubs the satin with her fingers.
“You will begin your training next week,” Greg says.
Elle finishes up her shift, 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off until the park closes. It isn’t until she walks back to her apartment, the full moon bright in the sky above her, that it hits her. For as long as she can remember, her mother has dreamed of her playing Snow White at the Happiest Place on Earth. She’d told Elle it was her destiny because of her pale white skin, dark black hair, and red lips. There wasn’t any other plan for her and now she’s done it.
She should call her mom. She should celebrate. She should be happy. All the shoulds feel wrong.
She takes a hot shower, slips into soft pink pajamas, and runs her hand along her bookshelf until she finds the well-worn book of pastel drawings, the soft cloth binding frayed slightly on the edges. She flips to her favorite page marked with a red silk ribbon, a beautiful painting of a garden filled with bluebells and snowdrops. Written in her neatest handwriting along the bottom are the words, “Snow White’s Garden/My Garden.”
She remembers writing those words when she was 10-years-old, the year her mother gave her the book and told her she would become Snow White. Elle loved the idea. It made her feel special and loved. She practiced singing and talking until she could mimic Snow White as well as anyone. Her mother would beam with pride watching her.
When she was 18, they drove across five states to California for the auditions. On the drive, her mother opened up a bit about her own life, something she rarely did. She told Elle she’d been a model her entire childhood and teenage years, and how she’d been on the cover of hundreds of magazines and traveled all over the world.
“But my mother didn’t protect me, Elle,” she’d said. “And people hurt me. Lots of people hurt me. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Her mother stayed for several months after Elle got hired, and pressed hard for her to be Snow White. Elle understood she had to put in time as other characters, and she didn’t mind at all. She enjoys slipping on the costumes and transforming into the beloved characters of the park. The ritual of it, the tears of joy, and the infectious laughter make Elle feel whole.
The day her mother finally left for home, she’d squeezed Elle painfully tight to her and sobbed into her shoulder. They’d never spent time apart and Elle was a bit terrified of being on her own, but also excited. She felt it was time for her to make her own decisions and friends—something she’d not done her entire life.
“Promise me you’ll be okay,” her mother said, black mascara running down her cheeks.
“I’m okay mom,” Elle said. “I’ll be okay.”
She wasn’t sure she would be, and the first night alone with Britney in the apartment she’d spent a long time crying in the shower. She wondered how she’d manage to feed herself, work until late at night, and do her own laundry. It felt overwhelming, but Elle surprised herself. She found a rhythm, made friends, and discovered she was more than capable of caring for herself.
Now, with Britney gone, Elle realizes how much she loves being alone with her own thoughts. She’s taken up reading, painting, and baking. On her days off she meets friends at the park, goes for a run, or has friends over to play games. Her life has become full and her own.
Her mother calls her at 5 a.m. every morning, and Elle waits up for her call. It’s always the same questions, rapid-fire and breathy from her anxious mom.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you Snow White yet?”
“Who can I talk to?”
Elle brews herself a cup of mint tea and snuggles under a blanket. She looks around the room at her place and feels a swelling of pride. It’s been two years since her mother left, and Elle loves her life. She thinks about how wonderful it feels to see children light up at the sight of her and how often their joy brings her to tears. Snow White may have been her original dream, her mother’s dream for her, but it doesn’t fit her. It’s not what she wants.
Elle takes a sip of tea and picks up her cellphone. It’s her life, she thinks, and smiles.
“Sorry to call so early, Greg, but I’ve been thinking about the offer and I’d like to decline. I love my current role and I wonder if I might keep it.”
“Are you sure, Elle? You’d make a fantastic Snow White.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”
She sips her tea, watches the sunrise through her front window, and happily waits for her mother’s call.
Author’s note: As you may have guessed, I spent the week in Disneyland celebrating my nephew’s 3rd birthday. It was a wonderful whirlwind of a trip! There was very little time for writing and thinking, but I did manage this short story written late at night with sore feet and a full heart. I hope you enjoyed it.
Leo stumbles from bed on his first morning in the old farmhouse and finds the porcelain bathroom sinks, the claw-footed bathtub, and the toilets filled with water up to the brim. It feels as if the house has swelled during the night and absorbed all the water it could find. It makes him uneasy.
He wanders into the kitchen and plunges his hand into the sink. The icy cold water stings like bees attacking his skin and he fights the urge to yank it out. He fumbles for a minute until he finds the stopper, but when he pulls it up the water stays put as if held in place by an invisible hand. He jumps back, splashing the frosty water on his bare chest and belly. His uneasiness grows.
Leo gets dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, climbs into his new truck, and makes the thirty-minute drive into the town of Knotts. It’s the kind of small-town she always wanted to live in and he hopes it will be the perfect place for his recovery. It’s a quaint, quirky place his truck’s GPS doesn’t recognize; the line on the digital map looks like he’s driven into the middle of a field.
The town consists of a pair of long brick buildings facing each other across a two-lane road, a curving white archway with a flashing red light, and a three-pump gas station. Leo parks in the empty gravel lot behind the building which houses the bank, post office, and general store. He finds all three places closed. The red light reflecting off the dark windows feels ominous and he crosses the empty street at almost a run.
He walks past a rustic-looking bar, the smell of smoke and sour beer lingers around the doorway and he can see a ratty-looking pool table through the dark window. A feed store sits beside it, a line of hay leads from the double doors to the street. Both are closed, but the cafe has a flashing open sign, and Leo darts inside.
A metallic bird sound calls out as he opens the door and the owner appears from the back room singing a greeting in a high, loud voice.
“Welcome to Birdwatch Cafe,” she sings. “Where the early bird catches the worm.”
She giggles. Ornate metal birdcages with brightly colored stuffed birds line the walls and Leo feels their glassy black eyes watching him as he approaches the wide orange counter. The sound of tango music blares from a small neon green boombox he’s sure dates back to the 1980s.
The plump woman smiles at him with a curved nose and small eyes, a bit bird-like. Dressed in flowing colorful clothing, she wears a large peacock clip in her red curly hair and thick blue eyeshadow. He orders a black coffee and a fresh blueberry muffin and sits down at a round purple table near the front window. She plants herself across from him and leans forward.
“You’re new around here,” she says.
It’s not a question and he reads enough mystery novels to know small towns in the midwest are filled with gossipy folks like her. He smiles and tries his best to answer her questions in a way she won’t be likely to exaggerate when recounting it later. She fires them off, one after the other without much pause.
He moved from San Francisco into the old farmhouse on Route 22 to work on a novel. No, he’s not published anything she would have read. Yes, he found the place easy enough. No, he doesn’t plan on getting any animals or farming the land.
“Just you up there all alone, huh?”
She leans further forward with this question and presses the sides of her arms against her breasts to make them swell out the top of her now slightly pulled-down hot pink sweater. He can see her leopard print bra. Her question, a missile launched across the bow of the ship to signal her intent and to stake her claim, makes his cheeks burn and he looks at the floor.
“Yeah,” he says.
He considers lying or telling her about Cecilia, but instead, he stands, wipes crumbs off his pants, and tries to maneuver around her to the front door. She stands and faces him, and he feels obligated to speak.
“Do you know when the general store opens?” he asks.
“Jim should be there now,” she says. “You need to fix somethin’? Everything okay with the house?”
The way she looks at him implies more than a question, it’s as if she knows something about the water. He wants to ask her about it, but he’s anxious to be free of her piercing eyes and prying questions. She’s standing so close he can see freckles on her nose.
“No,” he says. “I just want to look around.”
He inches around her, but she sidesteps him so they remain facing each other. Smiling, she pulls him into her, hugging his stiff body, his arms remaining fastened at his sides. She smells of baked goods and loose-leaf tea. The silent hug lasts forever, and when she releases him he staggers back.
“We are huggers ‘round here,” she says.
“Okay,” he says.
“Don’t be a stranger, now.”
She winks and his face flushes red, as red as the blinking light in the center of the road. He steps outside and wishes the weather was either hot or cold so his burning cheeks would make sense. There’s nobody on the street, but when he starts to cross a large man comes out of the store and leans against the doorframe.
The man seems to grow and grow as Leo gets closer until he’s looming in front of him, blocking the entire doorway. He’s a grizzly bear of a man, shockingly tall and wide-shouldered with unkempt dark brown hair and a thick beard obscuring all but his broad nose and his deep brown eyes. Without a word, he turns and disappears into the store with a sort of lumbering, limping walk.
Leo follows him inside and finds the store well-lit and crammed full of stuff. It seems determined to be the very definition of diversified goods. Shelves upon shelves lay packed with hardware, hunting gear, medicine, groceries, clothing, and small electronics. He’s surprised so much fits into such a small space. Leo finds the plungers and stands in front of them with his hands in his pockets.
“Can I help ya, fella?” Jim says.
Leo jumps and faces him. He feels like a startled rabbit and stammers a minute before finding his voice.
“I’ve got a problem with water,” he says.
“The old homestead off Route 22, eh?”
“Yeah…how did you know?”
He scuffs down the aisle, his left foot slightly deformed and tilted inward. When the man reaches the front counter he lowers himself onto a wooden stool with a gruff grunt.
“The name’s Jim,” he says. “But I reckon Tami told ya that. She loves to talk.”
“There’s nothin’ wrong with the plumbing at the house boy,” he says. “I fixed it myself.”
Leo isn’t sure if he should tell him about all the water, but Jim continues before he can.
“I can’t tell ya why things happen there, they just do. You got to learn to live with it…” his voice trails off. He looks hard at Leo who takes a step back. “Or not. It’s your choice.”
Leo grabs a package of balloons and some gum by the register, pretending they are what he came for. Jim raises his eyebrows and smiles.
“On the house,” he says.
Leo shakes his head all the way to his truck, trying to rid himself of the feelings settling there. He blares 50s music and drives with his windows down singing along to “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Long Tall Sally.” When he arrives back at the farmhouse, the water is gone. Very well, he thinks. He sets to work unpacking and cleaning, determined to not let the water enter his mind again.
He’s unsuccessful. Leo thinks about the water all day. When he sits down to work on his novel he keeps returning to water; flowing prose spills from his fingertips and his main character finds himself floating down the river, dreaming of the ocean, and drinking gallons of water. He finally snaps his laptop shut and wanders his property until dark, looking for a creek or river. He finds neither.
Before bed Leo checks each faucet, turning them on and then off as tight as he can. Under layers of blankets in the cold house, he dreams of her. A mixture of truth and fiction; he dreams of the rocky cliff, the horrible roaring waters below, of her car falling and falling, of her hands clawing and clawing, of her last gasping breaths. Sharks tear the car to bits and feast on her body. He wakes in tears and cries out into the night.
“CiCi! Oh, CiCi! I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.”
She doesn’t respond. She never does.
He rolls onto his side and his brain does its thing; spirling thoughts tumbling one after another, a terrible snowball effect of grief and regret. He should have gone to her sister’s birthday party with her. She hated driving at night. He wanted to work on his novel and she didn’t hold it against him. She never did. She encouraged him and kissed his head. She believed in him. He didn’t write. He’d spent the night staring at the blank screen, reading poetry blogs, then writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over. The words didn’t come. He couldn’t make them.
The driver of the semi-truck had been on the road for two days without stopping, trying to earn extra money to pay for his daughter’s wedding. He fell asleep, crashed into her tiny Prius, and pushed it off the cliff and into the sea. If he had been at the party they would have left earlier or later. She’d still be here. He didn’t even write.
His Cecilia. His beautiful, young wife. Gone. He wishes they’d have died together. The grief gnaws at his insides and he pulls the blankets over his head to try and stop the thoughts and the horrible lingering images from his nightmares. It doesn’t work. The knife in his gut twists and twists.
He rushes from bed to puke in the toilet—it’s full of water, so is the sink, the bathtub, and the cup he’d used to rinse out his mouth before bed. He rushes out the back door and pukes into a hydrangea bush. He drops to his knees and sobs, the big purple flowers watch him, glittery flecks of moonlight reflecting off his sickness.
When he can stand, he walks outside in his pajama and the cold night air makes him shiver. It’s been two years since her death, and yet it feels like two minutes. The grief feels as thick as ever. His therapist told him he needed a change of scenery and to start writing again, the project she believed in. He would dedicate his book to her, but first, he has to write it. He has to write the words stuck behind the grief, or maybe tangled up in it. He’s not sure he can.
Returning to the house he drapes a blanket around his shoulders and walks from room to room looking at the water, searching it for signs of CiCi’s face, for some sign she’s here with him. He wants so much to believe she’s here, but he feels nothing of her. It’s just water. She’s gone.
The next few days at the farmhouse were more or less the same, but eventually, Leo finds his own rhythm. Coffee and watering the flowers in the morning. Writing, or attempting to, from breakfast to late lunch. A long walk around the wild property in the early evening, followed by reading and a light dinner beside the fireplace until bedtime. Each night he crawls into bed and the nightmares come and each morning he wanders the house looking at the water.
Leo begins to leave out bowls, vases, and cups to test if they will be filled in the morning. They always are. No matter where he hides them or how small, come morning any empty vessel is filled to the brim with icy cold water. He vacillates between amusement and fear of the water, or more precisely, who gathers the water. It’s not his CiCi, but it is someone.
Three months after arriving, having made little progress on his now water-themed novel, Leo decides to pretend the water bringer is CiCi. He begins talking to her out loud.
“Hey CiCi, how’s it going? I can’t remember, do you like peach jam?”
It’s weird at first, his voice echoing in the empty rooms. However, the more he does it, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. Soon it’s as if she’s with him all the time, beside him as he walks through his day. He narrates his daily tasks to her, talks out plot ideas for his book, and reads to her each night before bed. He picks her flowers from the garden and she fills the vases at night with fresh water.
He knows it’s weird, but he feels comfortable with his pretend CiCi, and she seems to feel the same. Sometimes he can feel her near him; a brush of air near his ear or the lingering smell of fresh lemons. It’s strange and soothing.
A year passes and he finishes his novel. He lights a roaring fire, drinks a bottle of wine, and reads it out loud in one sitting. It takes all night. He feels as drained and full as he can ever remember feeling in his life.
He curls up on the floor and feels a shape beside him, a hand touching his cheek. He wants to recoil, but he doesn’t. He sits up and pulls the empty air in front of him to his chest, embraces, and let’s go. Tears fill his eyes.
“It’s time for you to move on, CiCi. You don’t belong here. I’ve loved our time together, but you have to go. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. You deserve to find happiness away from here. Go, sweet CiCi. Go.”
The words feel as if they’ve been pushed through him by some divine hand, soothing words of love speaking comfort to them both. A sense of calm surrounds him and he lays down and falls instantly asleep on the rug in front of the fire. When his dreams come, they are lovely.
Lucille doesn’t know why he loves her. He’d arrived one day and, unlike the others before him, he didn’t leave. He calls her CiCi, the name her father called her. She loves him.
She risked touching him tonight and he didn’t recoil, but it was the words he spoke she felt seeping into her body. She felt them like cool liquid spilling down her throat and she smiled.
She’d been thirsty for a long time. A hundred years maybe. The fever had ripped at her, burning her from the inside, and she couldn’t get enough to drink. Gallons of water sloshed around inside her, but nothing stopped the fire and the burning. Nothing until his words.
A brilliant white light fills the room and Lucille steps toward it without a backward glance.
Author’s note: I’m not one for ghost stories. I’m a scaredy-cat and I stray away from books, movies, or television shows which give my brain fresh imagery for nightmares. I made an exception with the Netflix shows “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” Both are phenomenal and serve as my inspiration for this week’s story. I hope I didn’t borrow too much of the imagery from either, and that you enjoyed meeting Leo and Lucille.
Next Week’s Prompt
The main character thinks he or she is about to get fired