Inside the Trees | A Short Story

The orange trees killed my father. It wasn’t their fault, not really, but grandmother says she can’t forgive them for allowing her only son to fall from their twisting branches to the hard ground below. After the windowless van takes away dad’s unmoving body, she lugs a huge ax from the old woodshed and hacks away at the trees until nightfall. Ker-chunk. Ker-chunk. Ker-chunk. She piles all the bright, round fruit and glossy green leaves in the center of the yard and lights them on fire with a red jug of gasoline from the garage. I watch her from my bedroom window as a slight breeze licks the flames and grandmother dances around them. When the smoke clears I see a thick, fuzzy white mold growing on her skin. It spreads quickly, growing thicker and darker. I smell the sickly scent of rot and decay from inside the house, but mother won’t let me run to grandmother—even after she screams. As the sun rises and turns the sky golden pink, we hear her curse the trees with her last dying breath.

***

I didn’t mean to break free, not really. The ancient ones taught me how to flow from one tree to the next, how to coax the leaves to turn toward the light, and how to root myself deep when conditions are harsh—but I’m curious. And restless. When the fire starts, I squirm and fight. I don’t want to do the same thing as always, to snuggle deep into the earth and stay dormant in the suffocating darkness of the soil until I find another tree to crawl into. No, I want to burst free, to fly and soar, and to experience sensations I’ve never felt before. On a whim, I jump and catch a breeze and find a new home in an old woman’s skin. At first, the softness and warmth are divine. I move with her and through her. I dance and sway, but she fights our connection. Her blood boils and churns. She screams. I feel myself changing from a tiny life force of trapped light into some combination of the woman and me, but her body gives out and she falls lifeless to the hard ground. I burst forth as a crackling mist of tiny flickering particles. I move with the wind and spread myself out in all directions, becoming one with everything I touch. I’m free. I may have transformed into a killer, but it feels too wonderful to stop.

***

My grandmother is the first to succumb to the mysterious sickness, but not the last. It spreads quickly and soon it isn’t just orange trees we fear, but all trees. No longer can we collect acorns in our pockets and sit with our backs pressed against the rough bark of the towering old oaks, or listen to the golden songs of the marsh wrens while hiding beneath the sweeping thin arms of the willows. Trees are dangerous. Rustling leaves are death rattles, warning us to run. The poison travels by leaf and by seed until the tree itself becomes nothing but mold and ash—like the body of my mother, my neighbors, and all my friends from school. Those of us still alive cover our skin with thick layers of cracking mud and crawl into rock caves or underground bunkers, anywhere the tiny particles can’t find us. We learn to run and we learn to hide. I’ve gone from the loving center of my family of three to a homeless orphan in a world where shade means monsters and a fragrant breeze means death.

***

Spring becomes summer and the winds stop blowing. I settle all over the earth as a yellow dusting—a thin layer of fine pollen. The animals rush through me and I catch rides on their fur, but they always wash or shake me free and I’m left laying at the bottom of a river or on the hot ground. Stuck. Although I am abundant, bountiful and many, a singular emotion forms within me—restlessness. I want the adrenaline surge of newness again, the thrill of excitement I had when I boiled in blood for the first time. I want more. I catch a ride on the back of a tiny mouse and plan on moving into a ripe red strawberry, but on a whim, I move into the furry creature instead. Its body reacts—spinning, boiling, transforming. I sing with the feeling and rejoice. I’ve found my new playmates.

***

In the middle of summer, the sickness moves to the animals. We find their bodies everywhere. Some are covered in sickly sweet-smelling white mold, others in spidery green threads that crisscross and pin the lifeless bodies to the earth. The sickness seems to grow inside and burst free, or perhaps it grows on the outside and bursts in. Nobody can tell. The occasional bird or mouse darts quickly past, but sightings of larger animals have stopped altogether. Life seems to be dying off and it makes me think of dinosaurs and extinction. Will my bones become a fossil for some future scientist to ponder? The family I’m traveling with leaves me beside the road because food is running scarce and they are scared, but I’m a fast runner and I’m good at hiding. I climb up a mountain and find an abandoned cave to make my home. Despite the soaring temperatures outside, it’s nice and cool inside. I lay as still as I can listening to the brisk silence. It’s a crisp, bare sound and I grow to appreciate how it echoes around me noiseless and clean. It’s far better than the hot silence outside the cave—the thick, deadly stillness that whispers “death is coming for you” without making a sound at all. I try not to listen to the growing panic inside me, but as my cans of food dwindle I’m finding it harder and harder to live alone in my cave of silence.

*** 

The harsh stillness of summer gives way to the blustery winds of fall. After months of being unable to dance in the breeze, I’m overjoyed at the thought of twirling through a cloud of colorful leaves. I grab hold of the first big wind and soar effortlessly across a cloudless sky looking for a tree or creature to explore. I find nothing. No birds. No trees. No sounds. The land has become barren and flat, covered only in the moldy remains of those I’ve touched. Rolling emptiness spreads off in all directions and the marred remains create an unfamiliar ache within me. It’s a conflicting sensation of triumph and loss. I’m a creature of light, but this feels more like darkness. How did I become the opposite of life? The currents lift me and I travel over the crumbling rocks remembering bird songs and children climbing trees. I search for signs of anything left, but I fear this realization comes too late. What have I done?

***

Winter comes without a sound. I watch as the snowflakes fall. I’ve scavenged everything I can and it’s not enough. I’m not going to make it. Crawling to the edge of the cave, I push my hand out into the air and a chill travels through me. Shivering, I see a fleck of orange on my palm. I scream and rub it on the rocks, but I fear it’s too late. The sickness has found me at last. A voice speaks inside me, a soft whispery sound I’m certain means madness, but I listen anyway.

“I’m sorry dear child. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

“I’m going to die,” I say to the voice. “Like my mother, my grandmother, and the birds. I’m going to die in this cave alone.”

“You aren’t alone. I’ll stay with you.”

The voice brings warmth. It wiggles through my body and I crawl toward the center of the cave and fall asleep.

***

Redemption. The word rings through me and I cling to it. Riding on the breezes, I gather all the scattered parts of myself and cover the child with a thick blanket of life. I don’t try to become her, I try to heal her. I breathe air into her lungs and move blood through her veins. Outside the world is covered in white but inside I’m remembering my purpose and I remake things. The strength of the ancient ones flows through me and I hope it will be enough. Everything I am, all my many multitudes of particles and energy, I pour into the small child on the stone floor. Cracking the rocks, I break the ground into tiny pieces and regrow life. It ebbs out from the child and from me like rivulets of liquid stars. The earth shudders and shakes, moving with us, becoming a new land—a new start. The moon watches, winking above, singing her soft lunar lullaby and nodding her approval.

***

A honey smell tickles my nose and I wake in the cave but find it’s no longer the same. Silence has transformed into bird song, rocks into towering trees, and the bleakness of winter into spring’s happy sun. Rested and calm, I stand on strong legs and spin in a circle. The air sweetly dances with me. I’m alive. Above me towers a beautiful tree, covered in delicate white petals and round ripe fruit. I climb into the strong branches and reach through the glossy green leaves to snap off a bright shiny orange. The rich citrusy smell makes my body shudder with joy. Sitting within a curve of the tree, I peel the sticky fruit and throw the thick peels to the soft ground below. The first bite bursts with juice and it drips down my chin and through my fingers. A fuzzy yellow and black bee buzzes around my head and I think it speaks to me of second chances, but I can’t be sure as the marsh wrens are calling and I feel the urge to run.

Author’s note: This piece was inspired by the orange trees in my grandmother’s backyard and was written as an assignment for a class I’m taking called “Exploring Your Aesthetic.” The challenge was to play with form and story structure. I found the assignment challenging, which probably means it was the exact thing I should be doing. Let me know what you think of this story, particularly if the format feels different enough and if you found the story engaging. Thank you for your continued support!

The Mask | A Short Story

Katie doesn’t like this house. It smells of cigarettes and all of the windows are covered with thick, dark brown curtains. Her father drinks a beer with his new boss Terry at a round, wooden table covered in glass ashtrays and tall bottles. She sits underneath with her legs crossed staring at her father’s boots.

Her mother gave her strict instructions to be on her best behavior, and she’s trying, but the house doesn’t seem to like her either. The off-white tiled floor burns icy cold beneath her thin dress and shadows creep along the walls with spidery quickness. She wraps her arms around her father’s warm leg and hopes they can leave soon.

A sharp scratching interrupts the dull sounds of the men talking and Terry stands to pull back one of the thick curtains. A huge, black dog barks and jumps at a muddy sliding glass door. Katie yelps and climbs onto her father’s lap as Terry unlatches the door and pulls it along an uneven track to let the dog inside.

Katie’s seen many dogs in her 5 years of life. Tiny dogs with watery eyes peeking out of the purses of old ladies at the grocery store. Big brown dogs chasing after tennis balls with long wagging tails at the park. Old scruffy dogs who sniff the air when she walks by their yard.

This dog isn’t like any of those. It’s large and hairy and smells exactly like the old mud puddle behind her kindergarten classroom. Foxtails poke out all over its matted fur and it’s got a deep growling bark reminding her of a bear or a lion. Its movements are quick and jerky. Suddenly, it darts at her.

With a snarl, it tears off a strip of lace from the bottom of her pink dress and runs with the fabric in its mouth to a spot in front of the refrigerator. It rips and tears and growls. Katie curls up as small as she can on her father’s lap and tries not to cry. He rubs her back in a circle with his large, warm hand.

Terry laughs loudly and harshly, a sound Katie dislikes as much as the dog’s bark. He grabs her father’s shoulder and leans close enough Katie can see he’s got yellow teeth and small grey eyes with flecks of crust stuck in the corners.

“Say hi to Fluffy,” Terry says. “I think she likes you.”

Katie knows she’s supposed to do what adults say, but she doesn’t want to. Her father stays silent, which Katie understands means she must listen. Mother said it’s important for Terry to like her father. Be on your best behavior. She looks in the direction of the scary dog and speaks as low as she can hoping it doesn’t actually hear her.

“Hi, Fluffy.”

The dog responds with a large bark and a lunge. Katie jumps from her father’s lap onto the table, knocking over several empty beer bottles, one with beer still inside. The mess spills and drips onto the floor, but none of the bottles break. Terry laughs and grabs the collar of Fluffy who snarls and snaps at the air while wagging its long tail.

Katie stands in the center of the table in her black patent leather shoes almost as if she might do a dance. Terry pulls the dog over to the counter and rummages around in a drawer until he finds a large rawhide bone. The dog rips it from his hand and runs off into the darkness of the house. Katie doesn’t like not knowing where the dog went but allows her father to lower her back onto his lap.

Terry returns his hand to her father’s shoulder and smiles at Katie. It’s not the sort of smile Katie likes. It reminds her of the boy in class who put a beetle in her lunchbox and pinched her arm hard enough to leave a bruise when the teacher wasn’t looking.

“Katie, I want to show you something special. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before and you are going to love it.”

He laughs again, this time it’s a short hard laugh. Her father doesn’t say anything, but he stands and sets Katie on the floor. She looks at Terry’s bare feet and notices his big toes are covered in thick black hair. My father works for a monster, she thinks, and now we have to follow him to his lair. 

Keeping her eyes peeled for Fluffy, she and her father follow Terry through a curtain of clinking, brown beads into a short hallway without any light at all. She grabs her father’s hand and he squeezes it. Her stomach burns and aches. No, she thinks. My dad needs this job.

Terry opens the door with a flourish saying “voila, my study!” as if he’s a magician instead of a monster. Katie knows some people can be both. She squeezes her father’s hand tighter.

Lit by a single green lamp in the far corner, the room consists of a large wooden desk cluttered with paper, two shelves filled with old books, and an orange couch covered in black dog hair. Terry pulls a bottle of dark liquid and two glasses out from a drawer in his desk and fills each about halfway. 

“Whiskey makes everything better.”

He hands her father a glass and the two men clink them together and drink. Terry appears to have forgotten what he wants to show Katie and, for a few minutes, the two men talk about work while Katie stands near the couch with her eye on the half-open door in case Fluffy decides to make another run at her dress.

After a few minutes, Terry’s eyes land on Katie and he gives her the same smile as he did in the kitchen. She runs to her father’s side trying to disappear under his plaid woolen jacket and Terry laughs. His belly moves up and down as he does.

“I almost forgot! Katie, come here. I want you to meet someone.”

She shakes her head, but her father pulls her so she’s standing in front of him. Terry moves behind his desk and points at a purple cloth hanging on the wall. It’s covering a lumpy, dark shape and Katie feels the burning in her belly turn into a living thing. Fear.

Before she can react to this change within herself, Terry grabs the cloth with a quick, exaggerated flourish and throws it into the air. It floats to the floor. Magician and monster.

On the brown wood panel wall sits a horribly ugly mask—an old witch with huge bulbous eyes, stringy white hair, and bright orange lips. Dark wrinkles line its too-real face and Katie screams and hides behind her father. Her fear grows fangs.

“Don’t be scared, Katie. Helga’s an old friend of mine and she wants to say hello to you.”

Katie feels exactly the same way she did the day a boy at school pushed her off the swings, a horrible soaring feeling she knows will end with pain. Her father pulls her to the front of him, lifts her into his arms, and places her on the desk facing the mask. Katie keeps her eyes squeezed tightly closed. Fear growls.

“I don’t want to see it! I don’t like it!”

Her father keeps his hands on her shoulders, aiming her at the mask. Terry touches her on the arm and she tries to jump, but her father won’t let her move. Her body shakes and fear rattles around inside her. It rumbles.

“Don’t be rude to Helga, Katie. You are a guest in her house.”

Terry sounds mad and Katie decides she has no choice but to open her eyes. The witch instantly comes to life. It blinks its eyes and laughs a terrible  “cackle, cackle, cackle” then does the most horrible thing Katie could have imagined. It spits water in her face. 

“Stop!” she screams.

It’s at this instant the fear inside her leaves. She’s not sure how it gets out, but she feels it wiggle free and move across the room. Terry is laughing so hard he’s bent at the waist, gasping with the force of it. Her father isn’t laughing, but he is looking at Katie. He knows exactly what happened.

With a gentle movement, he pulls her off the desk and says they must be leaving. Terry looks angry and says “it was just a joke,” but her father doesn’t respond. In fact, neither of them speaks until she’s buckled into her booster seat.

“I’m sorry, daddy. I really tried.”

His hands are shaking and he’s got tears in his eyes.

“It’s okay, Katie-Bear. He had it coming. I can find another job.”

***

Terry slams the door and finds Fluffy curled up in front of the now dead fireplace, chewing on her bone. He’s angry at how things went with his co-worker. People can’t take a joke these days. Soft. Weak. Snowflakes. He shouldn’t have let him bring the kid.

He goes into the garage and gathers up several Duraflame logs and throws them into the fireplace. Using the zippo from his pants pocket, he lights the fire and pats Fluffy on the head. 

“Good dog,” he says.

Returning to his office, he pours himself a large glass of whiskey and stares at the Halloween mask he got last year at a discount store. It’s his favorite thing. You pull the scarf and it spits. It’s hilarious. The stupid kid isn’t going to make it in this world being so jumpy and weak. Her dad better start smacking her around a bit. Toughen her up.

He raises his glass to the mask before settling into his chair to work on invoices for Monday’s big merger meeting. He’d hoped Greg would help him, but now he will have to fire the poor bastard. Can’t have someone soft on the payroll.

A blast of water suddenly hits the back of his head and he spins around. The witch mask blinks, the mechanics sounding louder than usual, and laughs. He laughs too.

“What the fuck, Helga!”

At first, he thinks he must have snagged the scarf with his chair and set it off, but the mask continues to laugh. Terry looks around the room, thinking maybe he’s being pranked, but he lives alone and nobody’s around. He swallows the rest of the whiskey in his glass and stands up.

The mask blinks at him and continues to laugh, but the sound has changed. It’s no longer the same “cackle, cackle, cackle,” but rather more like a human laugh. A child’s laugh.

“What the fuck!”

Terry stares at the witch’s bulging eyes as they grow bigger and rounder. He’s about to grab the mask from the wall when it spits in his face. Not a short blast of water, no. A steady stream of dark, red liquid. It drips onto his white t-shirt and then onto the floor. It’s warm and he has the horrible feeling it’s blood.

Roaring in anger, he grabs the mask off the wall and smashes it to the floor. He stomps on it over and over until the laughing stops and he’s out of breath. He slinks onto the floor and feels a tingly burning sensation crawling up his arm and into his mouth. He tries to spit it out quickly, but it’s too late.

Fear has crawled inside Terry and he falls onto his side and cries as it sings to him of all the darkness of the world. He’s a speck of nothing in a vast universe, an old piece of stardust rotting in the night. Every moment of pain he’s inflicted on others plays through his mind, poking at his heart until it seizes up, and stops. Terry lies motionless on the floor. Dead.

***

Katie wakes in her bed as the piece of fear crawls across the dark room and lands on the pillow beside her. She knows she should feel bad, but she doesn’t. Instead, she scoops up the little spark, swallows it, and goes back to sleep.

Author’s note: This story idea came from a real-life incident from my childhood. I decided it was time to take back my fear and grow from it. If you are interested, here’s the actual mask which still haunts me today.

Waiting for the Bus | A Short Story

Someone watches me from within the shadows of the curving metal archway of Hotel TwentyThree across the street. Although all I can see is a vague dark shape, I’m sure of two things—it’s a man, and his eyes are fixed on mine. Protectively, I pat the stack of freshly printed pages tucked in the inner pocket of my black, woolen coat and lick off my peppermint lip gloss.

The icy rain has turned the sky into a hazy, vertical river and I press my back into the farthest corner of the tiny bus shelter and hope the man can’t see me. The next bus won’t be here for another 20 minutes, perhaps longer due to the storm. I’m running out of time.

A car drives through the gutter creating a small tidal wave of grey water which soaks into my soft leather boots. An old oak tree scrapes its branches against a third-story window of the hotel and raindrops thunder against the bus shelter’s metal roof. I pull the edges of my black woolen cap further over my ears and try to disappear.

Time folds around me, an odd constricting as if I accidentally wrapped my checkered scarf too tight around my neck. Several people come and go through the doors of the hotel, but I stare at the dark shadowy shape of the man willing my instincts to be wrong. A dog barks. Another dog answers.

The rain stops for a brief minute and the sun casts a single ray of light onto the shiny wet pavement in the center of the street. It’s at this moment the man reveals himself by taking two steps forward. He’s tall and thin with a sharp, angular face. I wrap my arms around myself and take tiny sips of the too-cold air. 

He’s found me again. His piercing blue eyes meet mine and I’m falling. The deepest part of the ocean. The dark spot on the moon. Chaos.

It doesn’t matter how much time goes by or how far I travel, he finds me every time. My body can’t decide how to react—it flushes hot with anticipation and shivers with fear. He makes me crazy. I look for a place to run, but it’s pointless. He’s already spotted me.

Without breaking eye contact, he crosses the small foyer and steps off the curb. His careful, graceful movements suggest he might be kind and gentle. He isn’t. He’s a fierce rushing river. A smooth, hard stone. A prowling, sleek panther.

The rain returns, but he’s unfazed by the water falling onto his curly, thick, black hair. He walks straight into the road and past the spot the sun touched moments ago. A battered grey truck almost doesn’t see him, but slams on its brakes at the last second honking madly. He doesn’t look up but instead keeps his eyes fixed on mine. An invisible cord pulls him closer and I wonder who controls it—him or me.

A raven cries out and my legs stop working. I fall sideways into the glass wall of the bus shelter and see the word “rouge” written in cursive red letters. I close my eyes and his scent reaches me—saltwater, driftwood, and wet paper. The day we met, more than 20 years ago, plays as it always does when he arrives.

Mother didn’t want me to come on her beach vacation, but my father didn’t want me either. I sit with my back pressed against a large piece of driftwood writing in a notebook my 7th-grade English teacher gave me on the last day of school. It’s got a field of bright sunflowers on the cover and I love it.

I’m trying to ignore the sounds my mother and her new boyfriend are making under the stripped umbrella off to my right, and the fact his hands are under her bathing suit again. It’s slightly overcast but the beach is packed with families. I wish I’d been allowed to stay in the hotel room.

My teacher says I have a natural writing ability and I’m trying to prove myself worthy of her compliment by writing a poem about the ocean. My words flow slowly and I’m concentrating so hard I don’t notice the boyfriend until he’s ripped the notebook from my fingers.

“What do we have here?”

“Please, give it back!”

My voice sounds desperate and it makes him smile. I hate the look on his face. My mother isn’t around to see what happens next. How he stands with one hand on his hip and holds the book up high with the other. How with a ridiculous screechy voice meant to imitate me, he reads my words loudly for everyone within earshot to hear as I run around him grabbing at the book.

Flowing, like my breath, the waves whisper
my name. “You aren’t wanted here,” mother
said, but the wind tells me another story.

The boyfriend laughs, as does a mother and son sitting on a beach towel a few feet away. Others join in and by the time my mother returns, the boyfriend has thrown my notebook into the ocean. It bobs up and down in the waves erasing my words, sucking the ink to the bottom of the sea.

My mother tries to comfort me, but I run from her, diving into the cold churning water. I fish out my soggy pages, cradle them to my chest, and run along the beach until I find an empty rock cave. I sob into the echoing space, listening as my pain becomes its own kind of thundering wave.

It’s in this moment of sorrow, as I tell myself writing doesn’t matter anyway, the man appears. At first, he’s nothing more than a silhouette in the cave entryway. A shadow I tell myself is an illusion or a trick of the light, but then he comes closer and I feel his warmth. His blue eyes meet mine and I fall into them, the color of sapphires or the hottest part of the flame.

I’m scared of him at first, but he stays with me for the rest of the trip. He speaks to me of love. He tells me to trust him. When I get home, I pack up all my books in a box and shove them into the back of my closet. I don’t need words anymore.

Opening my eyes, I see him staring at me. He looks exactly the same today as he did in the cave—fiery blue eyes, black leather knee-high boots, tight grey pants, a flowing white shirt, and a gold brocade jacket with a high sweeping collar. A medallion sits on his chest, a silver circle with a large blue stone. I resist the urge to touch it, as he presses closer. A soggy cigarette hangs from his perfect pink lips.

“We meet again, my love.”

I want to argue with him, to scream “I’m not your love,” but I’d be lying. Every part of me wants to dive into his arms and let him smother me with suffocating kisses. He knows this and presses close enough to warm my lips as he speaks.

“It’s been a while and I see you have written more. Still struggling, are we? Still fighting to be heard.”

I don’t like these words. Standing upright, I place my palms on his broad chest and push hard. The heat of his body moves through mine. He takes the cigarette from his lips, tosses it into a puddle, and pushes himself into my palms. His muscles tighten beneath my hands and my words come out far weaker than I intend, fading to barely a whisper with the last word. 

“I’m fine. I don’t need you. I prefer the struggle to you…”

He steps back, pulls my hands from his chest, and kisses each fingertip. Shivers of memory come with those delicate, breathy touches—decades lost in his seductive embrace. I’ve missed him. As he speaks, he unwinds the scarf from my neck.

“Come with me, my love. I have a room across the street covered in candles, waiting for you. The bath is drawn, warm, and smelling of lavender. You only have to let the pages go, take my hand, and we can spend eternity together. Isn’t that what you really want?”

Dropping my hands, he grabs tightly to my waist and snaps my body to his. The pages flatten between us as his mouth finds the spot on my neck marked years ago by him. He kisses it softly, using his lips and tongue. My body screams in response, begging me to surrender. His voice oozes around me, through me, invading every cell.

“Aren’t you tired?”

His lips are on mine now. Honey. Buzzing. Madness. I’m slipping, but he holds me in place with his strong arms. It would be easy to be his again. Isn’t this what I want—to be loved? Pulling back he cups my face with his hands. His eyes are madness maddened—swirling pools of intensity.

“You’ve tried so hard, but you aren’t very good, are you? It hurts me to see people laughing at you. They don’t know you like I do. I’m the only one who truly sees you.”

Tears fall instantly at these words and his large hands move from cradling my face to circling my neck. His thumbs press into my throat, trapping my words, making it hard to swallow. He drips more warm poison into my ears and I think of Hamlet, and then Ophelia.

“You know all those people who say they like your writing…they are being nice because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you. I’d never lie to you because I’m the only one who loves you. I’m the only one willing to tell you the truth.”

While still speaking in the soft tone of a lover, he takes one hand off my throat and unbuttons the top button of my jacket. He’s going to take my words and throw them into the puddle with his cigarette. They will become mushy garbage. Aren’t they already?

“You’ve given it a try and it didn’t work out. The time has come to stop trying. Writing and creating isn’t who you are. They are a thing you tried and failed at. It doesn’t have to define the rest of your life.”

He’s at the second button.

“You deserve a life of ease and comfort. No more waking up early to write or trying to make deadlines nobody cares about. You can sleep in. You can throw away all those pesky books and notepads. You can stop thinking so much. All we need is each other to be happy.”

He’s at the third button.

“You are a fraud, my love. It’s only a matter of time before everyone knows. It’s best you stop now and give up this silly, childish dream. Honestly, it’s foolish to cling to dreams at your age. Aim lower. Be content with less. I’m all you need now. Let me be your dreams.”

His hand slips into my jacket and his fingers touch the stack of freshly printed pages. Dreams. Dreams. Dreams. The word becomes a hole and I’m falling, falling, falling. I land at the bottom and sit in the blackness. It’s cold and scary, but I know this place. I’ve been here many times before.

I light a match and stare at the tiny dot of warmth in a sea of nothingness. I watch it with fascination as it grows and grows. Images come into view in the flickering light, words too, they dance and play—cave drawings, ink on parchment, a typewriter in a back room, a glowing laptop.

I’m surrounded by a sea of sunflowers. The bright golden blooms move slowly with the setting sun. I’m not alone. Characters stand around me, a bit hazy and unclear, but they are speaking to me. A tiny fairy who doesn’t like flowers. A teenage girl stepping out of the shadows of a dark family legacy. A world where art has become weaponized.

What will happen if I quit writing? Will he truly love me and care for me? He’s left me before. Once I give him my words to destroy he disappears. Without the struggle, he doesn’t want me.

I’m Alice sitting across the messy tea table from the Mad Hatter. “First you lose all hope, and then everything is arranged in the best way.”

I’m Dorothy standing beside Glenda the Good Witch in the courtyard of the Emerald City. “You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”

I’m Anne sitting across from my friends discussing exams. “I’ve done my best and I begin to understand what is meant by the ‘joy of the strife.’ Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.”

His scent surrounds me and pulls me back. The smile on his face has left and he’s gripping the pages within my pocket hard and pulling at them. They won’t budge. Not an inch. He’s breathing heavily and the hand holding my neck loosens at the sound of the bus approaching, its hissing brakes sound like a freedom bell.

I grab his hand and pull it out of my jacket. His eyes are darker now, grey storms in a sea of blue. The bus door opens as I’m buttoning my coat closed.

“I’ve got to meet my editor,” I say. “It was nice to catch up.”

His cheeks redden as he reaches a weak hand toward me. I sidestep it easily. The power he held over me has temporarily lifted. Even if his words are true, I’m going to keep writing. My characters need me and I need the struggle. Life isn’t about easy.

The bus driver and I exchange pleasant words as I pay my fare and take a seat in the back near a window. When the bus is pulling away, I look at him. He’s the same as ever, beautiful and scary. Our eyes meet and in them is the familiar “see you later” look. He will return. Nothing about him ever changes, but I do. I’m getting stronger.

“You have no power over me,” I whisper as he becomes a blurry image lost behind swirling raindrops.

Author’s note: I’ve another short story for you this week. I’m taking a writing class called “Exploring Your Aesthetic” and the assignment was to personify one of the plagues of being a writer. I chose Imposter Syndrome and made him into a lovely little homage to David Bowie’s Goblin King. It was supposed to be a short writing exercise, but I spent days on it and decided to share it here. Let me know what you think and have a wonderful day!

Rainy Day Recruit | A Short Story

A scrawny rat, eating Raisinets out of a crumbled yellow box in the dark alleyway, freezes when two thin blurry shapes blink into existence. The shapes flicker and wobble, slowly changing from straight fuzzy lines to the round full shapes of two women. With a squeak, the rat scurries along the brick wall and disappears behind an overflowing green dumpster.

Despite one being damp and the other smelling of rot, the two women remain untouched by the wall of icy cold rain falling heavily between the large brick buildings. In fact, the water seems to bend around them, creating an invisible umbrella-shaped shield. Neither of the women seems in a particular hurry to move.

“Kind of a shit-hole,” the tall one, named Tulsi, says as a damp unlit cigarette bobs between her bright purple lips.

Skeletal thin with slick white hair perpetually damp with sweat, Tulsi has sharp cheekbones and an even sharper chin. She wears dozens of clinking silver bracelets and bright purple track shoes. Her nose constantly sniffs the air and she has large front teeth, making her appear slightly like a rabbit.

“Didn’t choose it, did I?” the short one named Borage says in a slow, lazy voice before lobbing a glob of foamy spit into an oily puddle.

A woman of large fleshy proportions, Borage wears a billowy blue dress made of an aquatic-looking textile with moldy black stains along the uneven hem. She’s got long, tangly brown hair parted into dozens of tiny braids tied off with fraying pieces of multi-colored string. Thick droopy bags sit heavy beneath her milky grey eyes.

Neither of the women has been to this realm before, but it’s kind of the job. You go where you are told, traveling with the water, landing at a time and place perfect for collecting the next recruit. It’s a job neither of them loves or hates. It’s simply the job they have.

Tulsi reaches out her hand so the rain splatters on her long, curving purple fingernails. She’s thinking about the last few jobs and how much they fucked it up losing the recruits and almost getting seen. This time, she tells herself, she’s gonna pay attention and not let anything distract her. Lady Devlynd won’t give them any more chances. Borage stares at a fat silver watch on her left wrist and seems to be thinking the same thing.

“Our recruit will be here soon. Pull your hand back and be ready.”

With a hiss, Tulsi slams her arm to her side. She hates being told what to do, especially by her inept partner. They are equals after all, despite how bossy Borage has become lately. How long have they worked this job together? It’s been at least 52 cycles, perhaps more. Time doesn’t matter in this job. Collection is key. Completion is key. Colors are key.

Tulsi runs her hands down the length of her slender body, touching the living art hanging from her shoulders. Lilac, plum, violet, periwinkle, eggplant, grape, amethyst, iris, orchid, mulberry, wine. She collects shades of purple everywhere adding them as patches to her long, slick overcoat. Maybe she’ll find a new one tonight.

“Don’t even think about it.”

Reading her partners mind, Borage stamps her thick black boot hard onto the slick pavement and summons up the harshest scowl she can manage. She doesn’t like being stern, but one of them has to start leading. They can’t afford another fuck up.

Tulsi sticks out her tongue in response. They have the kind of deep understanding grown from time spent together, but it doesn’t mean they like each other. It’s all become so tiresome.

Borage touches the bulging leather sack tied around her wide waist with one finger before quickly pulling it away. She does understand. She’d much rather sweep through this uncharted world looking for wildlife to add to her etched bone collection instead of convincing yet another young recruit to come with them. They promised Lady Devlynd though—no gallivanting or wanton side missions tonight. This one is important.

Borage is about to ask Tulsi what the boy looks like again when a skinny teenager comes around the corner dressed in a dark black hoodie pulled up over his head. He’s got colors dripping from his hands and a backpack filled with spray cans. He’s already working.

“Hey kid,” Tulsi says. “Where ya going in such a hurry?”

His bright blue eyes snap toward them and widen. Instantly he can tell they aren’t cops, but a gut instinct says they might be something far more dangerous. He should never have come to Las Vegas, this wholesale freak show of a town.

“What do you want?”

He’s got a slight English accent and his voice sounds raspy, as if he’s fighting off a cold. The street lamp at the end of the alleyway lights up his face, revealing a thick silver septum ring and a tattoo of a green leaf on his left cheek. It’s definitely him.

The women exchange a confirming look and the boy steps backward until his backpack hits the brick wall behind him, making the metal cans inside clink loudly together. He’s got nothing left to steal, but he’s still scared. People find things to take even when you’ve got nothing left to give.

“We need you to come with us, kiddo. Don’t be scared.”

It’s the tall one speaking and she’s got the kind of fidgety energy the boy associates with drug users. Neither of the women moves toward him but he feels like they could be quick if they wanted to. He doesn’t intend to be a part of whatever they are selling.

“I’m not interested, ladies. My dad’s waiting for me and he’s not happy if I’m late.”

He presses harder into the wall behind him and realizes the rain isn’t falling on the women but instead arches over them like a watery rainbow. It must be some kind of trick to lure him in, but it doesn’t really make any sense. The larger of the women thrusts her hand into the rain and twists it in a circle. He finds himself unable to move.

“Ulrich, dear. We know you don’t have any family.”

Her voice is honey-thick and slow. He doesn’t like it.

“How…how do you know my name? Who are you?”

Smiling wide, she exposes a mouth full of brown teeth and bright red gums. In her thick hand is an orb of flickering water glowing as if lit from within. He stares into it and memories wriggle forth in waves. The ground tilts and rumbles beneath him as emotions take hold in terrifyingly rapid succession.

His mother is standing at the boarding gate with a small brown suitcase in her hand. He’s crying with his tiny fists clenched at his side. The adults are using words like radiology, chemotherapy, and metastasized, but he’s thinking only of burying his nose into his mother’s soft red curls and breathing in her rosemary and mint smell. Don’t go, mother. Please don’t leave me.

He’s drawing with crayons in a yellow kitchen crowded with hundreds of empty plates from his mother’s funeral. Her midwest family sent for him to come across the ocean, but they don’t want him. He hears them talking about foster care and youth shelters in the other room using words like burden, stupid, and troubled. He wishes the floor would swallow him.

A puffy-faced man hits him with a slender black leather belt in front of a room of other children all trying hard to not make eye contact with each other. He’s yelling words like idiot, moron, and useless as spit flies from his cracked lips. When it’s over, Ulrich packs up the few art supplies he’s managed to steal into his old backpack and runs away into the rainy night.

The orb of water falls to the ground with a tiny pop and flows instantly into a nearby puddle containing an old sneaker and a green tennis ball with a gaping hole in the side. Ulrich looks at the faces of the two women, screams, and runs from the alley. A streak of bright white flashes across the sky followed by the crashing sound of thunder.

“Shit,” Tulsi says.

Borage frowns.

“Go after him. I’ll be right behind you.”

The women are forbidden from entering buildings or interacting with creatures not being collected, so it makes it complicated when they run. Sometimes the memory bubbles are so intense the recruit falls to the ground sobbing and other times they choose this route. Borage hates the fleeing ones.

Lucky for them, this one isn’t hard to find. Tulsi follows his loud echoey sobs in the night, weaving through several blocks of dingy, greasy buildings until she locates the scared boy. His knees are pulled up to his chest and his back is pressed against an old rusted car at the end of a narrow lot. Weeds poke up through the cracks and it smells of gasoline and lighter fluid. The boy doesn’t notice when Tulsi arrives and stands quietly beside him.

It’s a long time before Borage finds them and she’s shocked to see both the boy and her partner crying wildly. She coughs and Tulsi lifts her eyes, pulls out a light purple handkerchief from her jacket pocket, and blows her nose loudly.

“What are you crying for? You’re not supposed to cry!”

“I hate when they are sad like this. This one’s had a hard time.”

They aren’t supposed to show emotion, but Borage puts a hand on her colleague’s boney shoulder and gives it a light squeeze. It’s hard to not feel for these recruits, these lost souls who Lady Devlynd will use to fuel her power. It’s a better life working for her, yes, but it’s not great. It’s not free.

“What do you want with me?”

The boy’s voice sounds deflated and his eyes are red and puffy. Rain pours in sheets upon him and Borage presses closer until her shield covers him as well. He wipes at his eyes with his wet sleeves.

“We’ve come to take you away from here. Where we come from we need people like you—artists. We need your vision, your artistic skills, and your colors.”

Tulsi sniffs loudly and hiccups. She hands the boy the slightly used handkerchief and he takes it. In a soft low voice, she adds, “We need your pain too.”

They aren’t supposed to say this part, but it doesn’t matter because the boy doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. She can tell he’s going to come with them by the way he’s moved a bit closer. She wishes they had other options, but they do not.

If they don’t deliver the boy to Lady Devlynd they will be cast back out into the blackness. It’s their last chance to prove themselves useful and neither she nor Tulsi wants to return to living without colors or feelings. She pinches her arm as hard as she can to avoid drowning in the memory of the blackness. She can’t go back.

Lobbing a wad of spit onto the ground, she touches her leather pouch and attempts to push away the swelling of emotions infecting her from being this close to the boy. They aren’t supposed to let the recruits’ emotions penetrate and soak through them, but tendrils of his pain snake through her layers like tiny spikes. Shit.

Although it’s not allowed and it’s a very bad idea, she can’t help herself. He’s so sad. She has to help just a little. A tiny bit can’t hurt.

Opening the leather pouch she pulls out a bone of a small absorbent animal from her original home—a water creature like her. She spits on the t-shaped white porous surface and spins it through her fingers three times before touching it to the forehead of the crying boy. Tulsi gasps.

“No!”

Borage doesn’t respond. The bone burns red hot in her hand changing colors as it takes the sadness into itself—moving from light sky blue to the deep color of the bottom of the oceans of her home world. Tulsi grabs her shoulders and shakes her violently. Her head snaps back and forth.

“Stop! Please, Borage! Stop!”

She jerks the bone from the boy’s forehead and thrusts it back into her pouch, tying it closed instantly. The boy’s face has changed and she wonders if she took too much pain because he’s smiling. He’s got two perfect dimples in his soft cheeks. Shit, again.

Tulsi steps forward and grabs the boy’s hand, pulling him to his feet. He seems far sturdier than before. She plucks “Purple Rain” off his shirt and slides it into an empty spot on her jacket with a satisfying smile. Borage shouldn’t get all the fun.

“Time to go,” the big woman says.

The boy leaps at Borage and hugs her tightly around her middle. She feels his warm face press against her fleshy body and suddenly it’s all worth it. Even if she took too much and she’s cast out into the blackness—this moment is worth it. Feelings flood her and she does nothing to stop them.

With the boy holding hands between them, Tulsi casts the portal into the rain, and all three step through and disappear into the night. They leave behind a tiny puddle on the ground and a purple bud.

Author’s note: For my final story of the year I wanted to write a take on the classic henchmen story only turning them into women. It started out as a character piece and somehow drifted to being about a lot of things—52 stories, beginnings, endings, feelings, and connections. I love this little story and I’m so proud of how far I’ve come in this year of writing. I want to thank every single person who has given me a like or a comment. I’ll be writing a complete wrap-up sometime next week where I’ll tally up the number of words I wrote, how many comments/likes received, and the lessons I’ve learned. It’s been a wild ride and it makes me very excited for 2023. Happy New Year!


Short Story Challenge | Week 52

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about being caught in the rain. We had to include the words Las Vegas, radiology, etch, funeral, textile, sweep, wholesale, wildlife and English.


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Christmas Eve in the Graveyard | A Short Story

Sebastian doesn’t mind the dead. He’s lived his entire life surrounded by towering stone tombs, crumbling brick walls, and iron fencing. It’s the living he has a harder time with.

He let Tim and Matthew leave early, to be with their families, and microwaved himself a slice of cold pizza. It’s best to do this ritual alone anyway. He’s not sure the others take the responsibility as seriously as he does and they talk too much. Sebastian prefers the silence of the night.

After pouring raspberry tea into a dark green thermos, he wraps his red woolen scarf around his neck, buttons his peacoat, and leaves his little stone cottage on the edge of the graveyard. He doesn’t bother locking the door. Nobody comes around after dark on Christmas Eve.

The tiny twinkling lights of his small decorated tree can be seen through the yellow frosted window, it makes him smile. Mother would be proud he’s carried on her traditions. He hoists the big burlap sack onto his shoulder and gives a nod to the glowing, full moon casting its light in rings through the thick grey fog.

Although it makes sense to start in the center of the graveyard and weave himself out like his mother taught him, he makes a quick detour to her grave. It sits in the furthest south corner under a sprawling oak tree draped in soft Spanish moss. The silvery strands of garland look like flowing water in the moonlight—ancient silken gowns.

Setting the bag on the damp grass, he unties the brown twine holding it closed. Gently, he pulls out a small pine tree clipping tied with a soft red satin ribbon—the prettiest piece for mother. Kissing it softly, he places it on the curling carved letters spelling out her name. Margery Higgins.

“Merry Christmas, mother.”

His voice sounds soft in the night and it brings with it a memory of her singing “Thankful Heart” while cooking split pea soup on the old gas stove. She’s got her bright red hair pulled back into a massive curly bun at the base of her neck, and she’s wearing an old tattered apron covered in stains. Her voice manages to be both soft and strong—exactly like her.

“With a thankful heart that is wide awake
I do make this promise every breath I take
Will be used now to sing your praise…”

Wiping at his eyes, he closes the bag and weaves his way to the large mausoleum in the exact center of the dense city of the dead. Passing hundreds of stone crosses, carved marble angels, and granite slabs, he at last arrives at a crumbling plaster tomb carved with over 50 names. Reading each one quietly to himself he holds within his heart a space of honor and love.

After he’s finished he opens the bag and places a large pine branch across the names. His fingers brush a soft patch of moss pushing through a splintering crack in the gravestone. He whispers into the night.

“Merry Christmas.”

Repeating this process he makes his way through his workplace and home, one of the oldest cemeteries in New Orleans. He takes his role as caretaker seriously. Around hour three his back feels tight and he stops to take a drink of his hot tea. Silence spreads around him in all directions, thick and cold.

A feeling wiggles its way through his layers and lands heavily in his chest. He’s running out of time to find her. He turned 40 a few months ago and although he’s told himself he’s fine on his own, visions of a woman walking beside him continue to haunt his dreams.

She’s got soft eyes and bright pink cheeks. They’d make the cottage a home again, filling it with music and laughter. He’d teach her how to honor those forgotten and she’d tell him nothing is impossible with love. The thought makes him smile, but it quickly becomes a frown. It’s too late. He’s out of time. He missed his chance.

A part of him wants to fall onto the ground and sob at the thought of spending another Christmas alone. His mother died 10 years ago and he’s tried so hard to remain hopeful, but loneliness presses in on him from all sides. Its crushing weight makes him stumble and almost fall.

He looks at the night sky, hoping for a sign, a bright star peeking through the foggy gloom or the call of a night heron signaling change, but the misty darkness remains still and silent. Sebastian wipes tears from his eyes and takes a big sip of tea, letting the warmth fight against the paralyzing fear which has settled firmly in his gut.

Flipping open his grandfather’s golden pocketwatch he confirms what he already knew, its almost midnight. He sighs. He better get to it if he hopes to finish before the first rays of morning light peak over the horizon and burn off the thick fog. Love must be given first in order to receive it. He tucks the thermos back into his pocket and continues.

Lost in his rhythm of reading names and leaving a pine offering on each grave, Sebastian doesn’t see the woman until he almost bumps into her. A thick scent of vinegar and roses fills the air and he clears his throat to announce his presence. She responds by turning slowly toward him with a graceful, smooth movement reminding him of a swan or crane.

Dressed in layers of smoky grey and black clothing, the plump woman has thick silver ringlets peeking out from beneath a dark, lacy bonnet. The word “matriarch” comes to mind. Her eyes are cloudy but contain a hint of blue—hydrangeas in autumn when the color has almost fully drained. 

She’s holding a white handkerchief covered in tiny pink embroidered butterflies. Sebastian finds his voice but it sounds shaky and small in the night. Almost a whisper.

“I’m sorry if I startled you. Not many people visit graves in the middle of the night.”

She doesn’t look startled and it’s a lame apology. He’s not sure he should be giving her one anyway. People aren’t allowed in the cemetery after sunset and he wonders if perhaps Tim forgot to lock the front gate. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The woman makes a small movement, a sort of slight wave, and the handkerchief blows from her hand and lands at his feet. Sebastian lifts it and gently shakes out a few dried leaves which instantly clung to the feathery soft piece of cloth. He hands it to her and she smiles.

“Thank you, dear.”

Her voice sounds rumbly—a snare drum in the night. He knows he should tell her to leave, but the softness of her eyes stops him. It’s Christmas, a time of magic and love. She must miss the person she’s visiting an awful lot to risk catching a cold or getting caught. 

He gives her his best reassuring smile. She’s standing at the foot of one of the oldest graves, a tiny brick house covered in cracks and adorned with a simple marble vase he sometimes fills with flowers. She speaks in a scratchy, dry voice—an old voice.

“I called him Benny and he called me Etta. In our 50 years together we never spent a Christmas apart. When love burrows its way deep into your heart nothing can stop you from finding each other again and again. My home is with him…always.”

The old woman smiles at Sebastian and reaches out her hand. It doesn’t quite reach him. Her voice rumbles louder now—cracking like weak thunder.

“You know what I mean, don’t you dear?”

Sebastian looks at his feet and nods. He doesn’t know the kind of love she’s talking about, but he wants to. The painful sensation of time slipping away vibrates through his body ringing like a brass bell. Where is she? Why can’t he find her? He presses the toe of his boot into the ground, making a round hole in the soft dirt.

The woman doesn’t move but, somehow, suddenly feels closer. Her eyes meet his and a rush of wind blows around them filling the air with swirling bits of dirt and dust. Sebastian closes his eyes and the woman speaks directly into his ear—a cold breath sending shivers through his body.

“It’s never too late for love. Don’t give up hope. She will find you. Keep your heart open. Magic happens for those who love and care for others like you do. Oh, dear, sweet, Sebastian. Don’t. Give. Up.”

In an instant, all is quiet and still again. Sebastian opens his eyes and isn’t entirely surprised to find he’s alone. Pulling out a small sprig of pine with tiny blueberries, he places it across the names Benedict Murray and Henrietta Murray—Benny and Etta. He smiles.

“Merry Christmas, Etta. I won’t give up.”

Throwing the burlap sack back onto his shoulder he moves to the next gravesite. This time he sings a little song.

“Stop and look around you
The glory that you see
Is born again each day
Don’t let it slip away
How precious life can be.”

Author’s note: With Christmas upon us, I wanted to write something sweet and hopefully touching for those reading during such a festive time. I hope you enjoyed my little ghost story and if you are feeling blue this time of year, please don’t give up. Keep being the loving beautiful soul you are and things will get better. Thank you for supporting me and lifting me up with all your wonderful comments on each of my stories. May your holidays be merry and bright!


Short Story Challenge | Week 51

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where magic interferes in New Orleans. We had to include the words matriarch, throat, impossible, vinegar, apology, snare, choose, raspberry, microwave, and slice.


Write With Us

Prompt: Caught in the rain
Include: Las Vegas, radiology, etch, funeral, textile, sweep, wholesale, wildlife and English


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Emerald Shoes | A Short Story

“supreme moon—
librate broken hearts
trapped in adolescence

fertile mourning fields
divine cooling light
deliver them to Freya”
-unknown poet

The rhythmic sound of my cell phone buzzing on my nightstand wakes me. I try to cling to the warmth of my dream, an image of a roaring fireplace in a cozy log cabin, but it fades away. The buzzing continues. I roll onto my side, unplug my phone and see Carly’s smiling face. It’s 3 a.m.

“Hello?”

For a few seconds, she doesn’t say anything and it’s enough to allow my brain to flash through an assortment of macabre images of blood and death. I haven’t heard from her in over 6 months and a lot could have happened.

Fully awake now, I sit up in the dark room listening hard. My body feels fidgety and strange.

Carly’s breathing heavy and I have a new terrible thought—maybe she didn’t mean to call me at all. Music plays in the background, a deep pulsing bass, and my heart matches it. When she finally speaks it’s in a small, distant voice I barely recognize.

“Do you remember how you always wanted emerald shoes?”

Of course I do. When I was small my mother read the story of the Wizard of Oz to me and I pictured Dorothy’s shoes as sparkling green and wanted an exact pair. I cried when I saw they were red in the movie. Carly’s the only person I told the story to—the only one I trust with embarrassing details of my childhood.

Why is Carly calling me? Our last conversation was strange and filled with too many pauses—too many things unsaid. Now, she’s calling in the middle of the night with a question I can’t help but read more into. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

My body tenses as I lean over and switch on the lamp. I keep my voice as neutral as I can, but I know it sounds shaky. I grab a handful of blankets and twist them in my left hand.

“Are you okay?”

Carly laughs. It’s a lousy attempt at sounding casual. If Jonas hurt her, I’ll kill him. I shouldn’t have let her go.

“I’m fine.”

I don’t believe her. The last time I saw her was over a year ago, the day before she moved. Jonas had spent months chipping away at my best friend, carving out pieces of her he didn’t like and replacing them with religious doctrine. When she left I barely recognized her anymore, and I wonder how much of her is left.

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Vegas and I saw them—the emerald shoes. A dancer had a shiny pair and I thought…exactly like Harriet dreamed…exactly…”

Her voice fades out. None of this makes sense. Jonas controls everything she does and its way out of character for him to take her to Vegas. The alarm bells turn into sirens and I feel my body shiver at the thought of Carly alone in such a big city. I can’t come up with a single scenario in my head to make sense of any of this.

“Vegas! Why are you in Vegas? Where’s Jonas? Are you sure you’re okay?”

She ignores my questions and speaks in the same distant voice.

“The shoes are so pretty, Harriet. You’d love them.”

Jumping out of bed I pace across my faded yellow rug. Carly, my Carly, is calling me and talking about emerald shoes. The wall built around my heart to protect myself cracks slightly and I reinforce it immediately by reminding myself she’s gone. She chose Jonas. She left.

Vegas. The world of casinos, excessive drinking, Elvis impersonators, and drive-up wedding chapels. Wedding chapels. I fall onto the bed and close my eyes. Hardening my voice, I speak again.

“Why are you calling me Carly? It’s the middle of the night and you haven’t called me in a long, long time.  What are you doing in Vegas?”

She sniffles and I realize she’s crying. Why is my Carly crying? I want to run to her and save her…but no.

“The shoes, Harriet. I saw them and I…well…I thought of you. I always wanted to find a pair for you, but I never did.”

I’m crying now, scared for her. All the old feelings I thought I’d cleared away bubble inside me. The more I talk to her the greater the intensity. My voice floats to the ceiling and circles above me like a ghostly shadow. Carly speaks again and I picture her face. I don’t want to. It’s too painful.

“I…I just wanted you to know I was thinking of you.”

I think about you all the time, but you left me, Carly! You left me! The words dart and stab at me long after she hangs up. I try to call her back but it goes to voicemail. I roll into a ball and cry until my alarm goes off.

On the drive to work, everything is Carly and I slam my fists into the steering wheel in frustration. I’d finally stopped looking at her photos and had started healing. Now one phone call and our history waves at me from every car and window. Everything is Carly.

We met freshman year in English class and bonded over our love of Edgar Allen Poe. She drew a raven on my hand and I couldn’t stop staring at her green eyes. By the end of the first day, I knew how to make her laugh and did it as much as possible. My world became wrapped up in all things Carly.

It wasn’t until our junior year I realized my feelings were more than they should be for a friend, but it felt too late. I watched her date an assortment of guys, each eventually breaking her heart. I’d run my fingers through her coppery curls as she lay across my lap until the pain of the loss wasn’t so big.

At some point, it felt like a betrayal to tell her how I really felt. I wondered if she’d think I was only being nice to her because I wanted her for myself, like all the guys she dated. So, I stayed quiet. Even after we graduated and she met Jonas. Even when she told me she was moving away. I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t.

Pulling into the parking lot at work, I wipe my eyes and blow my nose. I tuck my thick brown hair back in a bun and apply some mascara and lip gloss. It’s the best I can do today.

I still can’t believe I get to work at the independent bookstore in town. It’s my dream job and I love everything about it. Walking in the door the smell of the books distracts me and by the time I reach the back counter my heart isn’t screaming Carly anymore. It’s more like a whisper.

“Hi, Harriet.”

Trudi’s standing beside the espresso machine, smiling at me. Her curly blonde hair is braided today so it looks like a crown on the top of her head. Her lips are glossy and pink.

My legs freeze up for a moment, and a traffic jam inside my brain slows everything until I’m stiff and awkward. I’m smiling too big. I’m blushing. Her eyes are green and gold—sunset filtered through sweeping willow tree branches. I get so weird around her. I don’t know what to do with my hands.

“Would you like a peppermint tea?”

I nod, insecurity reducing me to a caveman. Don’t grunt or scratch yourself, Harriet. Take a deep breath. She likes you.

For months we’ve been flirting with each other, but I don’t trust it. What if she isn’t really into me, but just friendly? I don’t want to chase another Carly for years only to end up heartbroken and alone. I wish I could be sure.

Trudi fills one of the white mugs with hot water and adds two tea bags and a bit of honey. She’s wearing a silver ring on her right index finger with an oval piece of labradorite. I pull my necklace out of my sweater and wonder if she’s noticed we wear the same stone.

“Hey, I want to ask you something.”

Her voice is light and airy—no hint of nerves. She places the steaming mug on the counter in front of me and leans on her elbows. I try to look casual, but I’m shaking. I grab the mug with both hands and stare intently at the light brown water.

“My brother and some friends are throwing a ‘Save the Environment’ party on the rooftop of their apartment tonight and I wondered if you wanted to come with me?”

Carly. It’s the first thing I think and I hate myself for it. If Trudi would have asked me out yesterday I’d have jumped for joy, but now I feel torn. What if Carly calls? I hate how much hold she still has on me. Trudi places her left hand over mine so we are cupping the mug together.

“I don’t want any confusion here. I like you, Harriet, and this would be a date. Not a friend thing.”

I let my hand fall from the mug and Trudi grabs it. We smile at each other for a long time until a customer walks up to the counter beside me. She gives my hand a gentle squeeze before letting go.

“No pressure. Let me know.”

She turns to the customer and politely takes their order. For a few minutes, I can’t walk. I’m upset I didn’t say yes right away. I’m confused about last night. If Carly had a family who cared I’d text them to check on her, but she doesn’t. All she has is me and Jonas. I don’t know what to do.

My boss comes over and I try to listen to what he says but my mind isn’t here anymore. It’s still on my ceiling at home. After a few hours of messing things up and fumbling around, he tells me to take the rest of the day off. I can’t find Trudi so I text her an apology. 

“I’m not feeling well. Let’s try again. I like you too.”

I don’t go home right away, but instead, drive to a spot along the river Carly and I used to go when we were upset. I park my car beside the boat ramp, take off my shoes, and sit so my feet dangle in the cold water. I say, fuck it, and call Carly. It goes right to voicemail again. I cry so loud I scare away the ducks who yell at me as they fly to the other side of the river.

“That’s right! I chase everyone away!”

Gathering up a pile of rocks, I throw them as hard as I can at the water. It doesn’t help, so I grab larger rocks and toss them. I scream and scream until a couple in a kayak pass and ask me if I’m okay. I tell them I will be. They offer to paddle over and sit with me but it makes me feel worse.

Driving home I consider changing and still meeting Trudi for the party, but the truth is I’m not over Carly. She’s my person. I know it deep in my bones and I can’t shake it. I can’t be wrong about this. I just can’t.

I stop at the liquor store and grab a bottle of wine, a huge bag of Hershey kisses, and a frozen pizza. Tonight I’ll feel sorry for myself and maybe tomorrow it will be easier. I need a good, long cry.

Holding the paper bag in my arms so the flimsy handles don’t break, I walk across the parking lot and down the sidewalk toward my apartment. As I get closer I see a woman sitting crosslegged on my welcome mat. Holding a box in her arms, she stands and takes a step forward. It’s Carly.

The world around me slows and sharpens. A blue jay on the fence ruffles its feathers and hops sideways. My neighbor shuffles his feet as he walks by carrying a stack of mail. A calico cat peeks out from behind the bushes and twitches it tail. I’m on high alert. Alarm bells ring in my ears and I almost drop my bag.

Carly’s cheeks are flushed bright red. She stares at a spot above my head. Neither of us seem capable of making eye contact.

Although I’ve dreamed of this moment, I remind myself it might not be what I think it is. The wall. She chose Jonas. She left. I take a step back and speak as loud as I can but it comes out in a shaky whisper.

“What are you doing here?”

She’s wearing a white sundress covered with tiny black ravens. Her curls are longer and they frame a slightly chubbier face. The redness of her cheeks spreads to her chest. She’s scared. I am too. She looks at the box in her arms and her voice is as shaky as mine.

“I left Jonas…”

The walls crack and the ground below me shifts. I reinforce it by taking another step back. I can’t have her in my life again. No. It’s not fair to assume I’d forget everything we went through and just let her back in. What does she want? A place to stay? A refuge from her life until she falls into the arms of the next man who tells her she’s pretty?

I take another step back. The bag in my hands feels suddenly too heavy and I set it on the ground. I wish the wine was twist-off so I could take a huge swig. I don’t know how to tell her to leave, but I’m not going to be used again. I deserve to be loved. She speaks louder and faster, the words tumbling into a pile on the sidewalk between us.

“I’m sorry, Harriet. I know I don’t have any right showing up here and I don’t expect anything. I promise. I…I just brought you something…”

Our eyes meet for the first time and I feel the walls crumble. I try and hold onto the pieces but they fall through my fingers onto the sidewalk as dust. She walks closer and closer. Run away! Yell at her! Do something! Her eyes are bright and clear—sparkling emeralds in a sea of golden stars. She’s close enough I smell her familiar scent—mint tea and lavender. 

“I really am sorry…”

Ocean waves. Rain falling on the roof. Christmas carols. She’s all the happy things and I’m falling.

She flips open the lid of the box and I see a shiny pair of emerald green shoes. My dream shoes. Nothing about this moment feels real and we both stand frozen in time—statues in a garden where life isn’t so complicated and weird. 

We are both crying but I don’t know if it’s for the same reason. I touch the shoes lightly and I’m surprised they don’t evaporate into smoke. They are real. She’s really here.

“Thank you…”

The words squeak out as a million questions race through my mind. I don’t want to leap, but my heart already has. As if waking from a dream, she quickly pulls me to her, squishing the shoes between us. Her mouth finds mine and all my questions are answered. Carly, my Carly, has found her way home to me.

Author’s note: I hope you enjoyed this sweet little story inspired by my true desire for everyone to find love. It’s a small nod to the Respect for Marriage Act signed this week and my commitment to supporting everyone in the LGBTQ community. Love is love. Let me know what you think in the comments below and have a wonderful week.


Short Story Challenge | Week 50

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story taking place when the phone rings at 3 a.m. We had to include the words supreme, emerald, careless, traffic, liberate, adolescence, lousy, wave, environment, and oval.


Write With Us

Prompt: Magic interferes in New Orleans
Include: matriarch, throat, impossible, vinegar, apology, snare, choose, raspberry, microwave, and slice


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Full Moon Harvest | A Short Story

Laying on my side under a fluffy blanket, I stare at the tiny blue flowers embroidered on the white curtains trying to picture the face of the woman who stitched them. Father says she had straight honey-brown hair like mine with eyes as dark green as the spiky holly leaves growing behind our house. I don’t remember her at all.

What I do remember is the blood, red as the poisonous round berries, pooled around her body at the base of the towering willow tree. The bright, white moon reflected in the thick red liquid. The terrible swishing sound of the feathers.

It was an accident. Nobody knows why she left 3-year-old me sitting beside an empty wicker basket to climb the old twisty branches, but she did. She fell to the ground and it was hours before my father returned from working in the fields and found us. I was sitting silently beside the basket with the barn cat on my lap.

I lightly touch the three round scars on my left arm where the crow dug its talons into my soft skin. I wonder why I can’t remember her face but I can remember its oily black feathers were tinged with a hint of blue.

“Ayla, are you still awake?”

Father’s at my door so I close my eyes tight and don’t move. He wants to talk about me returning to school, but I can’t bear to face the guilt and shame in his deep, brown eyes. He thinks he failed me, but the truth is I’ve failed him.

He grabs my foot with his warm hand, giving it a gentle shake. Part of me wants to roll over and tell him everything, but it feels as if an enormous dam has been built around my heart and the truth would burst it open. My father doesn’t deserve the tidal wave of pain it would cause him, so I stay as still as I can.

Letting go of my foot, he moves around the room, trying to be quiet but the tiny glass perfume bottles on my dresser clink together as he opens and closes each wooden drawer. He slides a few books out of the bookshelf, ruffles the pages, and slides them back. He’s always searching my room for hints at what has changed between us, but it’s not an object to be discovered.

He moves to the window and I peek out from my blankets, taking in his broad shoulders and long greying hair pulled back with a light brown leather cord. He’s still in his faded blue bib overalls, the ones he wears every day for working on the farm. I wish I could reach around and grab the treasures out of the big front pocket like I did when I was little. 

I used to lay the items out across my bedspread and touch each one as if they belonged in a museum. The well-worn and super soft red paisley handkerchief—more pink than red these days. The round silver watch his father gave him when he inherited the family farm a few years before I was born. My mother’s golden wedding ring slipped off her finger before she was buried in the cemetery right outside of town.

He turns around and I catch a brief glimpse of his round belly and his bushy grey beard before shutting my eyes tight again. He kisses my forehead and I smell the lingering woodsy vanilla scent of the pipe he smokes every night on the porch before bed. My uncles join him, and on nights when the work hasn’t been too brutal, they all bring out their guitars and we sing together. It hasn’t happened in a while though. It’s been a rough harvest.

When father reaches the door I hear a gasping, choking sound I know means he’s about to cry. He shuts the door tightly before the sobs fully form and I wonder if he’s thinking about my mother or me. Either way, it breaks me and my eyes burn hot with tears. I hate the way things are.

Three months ago I turned 13 and the strangeness started. I’d shove it all back if I could, but once you learn a thing it’s impossible to not know it. Although the sneaking and lies are temporary, it makes me feel horrible. Tonight I hope it will be the last time I sneak out. One last full moon harvest alone at the willow tree. 

I’ve been laying fully dressed under the covers since nightfall, but everyone is up late because of the chaos caused today by my dad’s youngest brother. He likes to invent new ways to speed along the process of the harvest, and today he hooked up our old plow horse Checker to a new pulley system for shaking the almond trees. It didn’t work.

Checker got one of his legs tangled terribly in a rope and pulled it until the metal snapped. It spooked him so bad he ran far out into the wheat fields causing my father to lose several hours of work retrieving him. Although Checker only has a few cuts on his legs and chest, my father was terribly upset. I heard him punch the couch pillow when he came in for dinner, a rare outburst for him.

The farm isn’t doing well. I hear snippets of anxious conversations when my father and uncles don’t think I can hear them. They’ve discussed selling off parts of the land, but none of them want to lose any of the property their father and grandfather farmed. I wish I could help, but I’m afraid my problems only complicate matters. I’m a distraction.

Framed by wispy dark clouds, I stare at the large white moon outside and the calling inside me swells and grows until it’s almost a wail. I try to picture my mother’s face and how her lips would look making such a sound. No. All I see is bright red blood and blue-black feathers. Her face remains below the rippling waves, a blurry almost-image. I twist my blankets and wipe my tears onto my pillow.

The one face I can see clearly is Penelope, with her tiny upturned nose and bright pink cheeks. She’s the one who decided I was an outcast at school and spread the rumors about me kissing every boy in town. Penelope with the bright shiny golden hair. Penelope with the pretty homemade dresses and colorful satin ribbons. Penelope with a sharp tongue and mocking laugh.

I jump out of bed to stop myself from thinking of her hurtful words and walk quietly to the window. Pulling it open slowly, I lean out so I can peek at the porch to see if anyone is still sitting in the wooden rocking chairs. It’s empty. 

Throwing my legs over the window ledge, I drop to the ground and pull my grey work boots and a small wicker basket out from where I stashed them in the bushes. I slip on my boots, pull up the hood of my faded red jacket, grasp the basket handle tight, and take off at a run.

The farm looks different at night. All the noise, the sharp edges and straight lines, fade into a blanket of muted softness in the silvery light. I run past the large barn filled with sleeping animals, the row of hulking metal plows, and into the almond orchard. Twinkling stars dance amongst the rows of trees hidden occasionally by dark fast moving clouds.

Low grumbling voices call in the dark around me in a language I don’t understand and I spin in circles trying to see them. They are too quick. I feel their eyes watching me and it brings with it the familiar fluttering of fear in my chest. 

Can I trust them? Just because they call me to the place my mother died doesn’t mean they know anything about her. Hope feels dangerous, but I have it anyway. It’s sugary and heavy, thick like honey. I stop running and slowly walk.

At the end of the orchard, the shadow of the willow tree waits for me—a twisting dark shape reaching out with sharp leafy fingers. With even slower steps, I approach the massive gloomy tree and slip under its long hanging branches. The voices follow me, surrounding me on all sides.

Slanted beams of moonlight illuminate them as they come—tiny lunar spotlights. They climb out of the branches above me, tunnel in from the ground below, and walk out of the shadows. Little dark hairless men no bigger than my hand. Made of dirt and roots they have tiny, watery black eyes and huge flat feet. In an instant, their voices go silent.

Each carries an acorn out in front of them with both hands. Taking turns, one at a time, they run forward and throw it into the basket. The small, oblong nuts make a soft thunk as they hit each other. I watch the tiny men, searching their blank faces for answers, but they give me none. They seem content with completing this harvest ritual—giving me a gift I have no idea what to do with.

On the first full moon I heard the voices and followed them to the willow tree. I screamed when the little men appeared. They threw acorns at me as I ran away, pelting me softly on my back. The next day I searched the space under the tree and found no little footprints or acorns—nothing to prove it had happened at all. They didn’t call for me again for an entire month and I decided it had been a very vivid dream.

The second full moon when I heard the voices I grabbed a basket for the acorns. I sat perfectly still as they filled it, exactly like I’m doing right now. When it was complete, they stood around me waiting for me to do or say something. I froze. It felt too unreal, too terrifying, and so I did nothing at all.

Minutes stretched into hours and eventually I must have fallen asleep. I woke up the next morning in my bed with no memory of walking home. I ran straight to the willow tree and found the basket exactly where I left it. The acorns were gone, but I at least had some proof it had been real.

My mind cloudy and jumbled and my vision blurry, I try to count the little creatures as they slink forward, throwing their acorns into my basket. All I can focus on is the soft thud of the nuts hitting each other. After a few minutes, it occurs to me it’s rhythmic—almost a song. Am I missing a message? I listen harder.

The last little man throws his acorn into the basket and steps into the shadows, leaving the space below the tree silent again. They stand still, watching me. Blinking. I bring one of the nuts to my nose and sniff it. It smells of earth and sunshine. My moment has arrived so I clear my throat and speak.

“Thank you for these treasures, but I wonder if any of you can talk to me. I have questions…about my mom.”

My voice sounds shaky and small. The little creatures respond by stomping their tiny feet on the ground and making a low humming sound. It’s the sound of thunder far off in the distance. It grows and grows around me and a new sensation blooms inside my chest—a loosening. My shoulders fall slightly and my hands become limp at my sides.

“Ayla.”

A deep voice outside the tree speaks my name and it echoes around me. The little men repeat my name over and over—a  chant now matching the stomping.

“Ayla. Ayla. Ayla.”

The branches of the tree part and a face appears. It’s a beautiful man with high pointed cheekbones and brilliant sparkling green eyes. He reaches his large hand toward me and I let him pull me into the moonlight. My body vibrates with warmth and energy—I’m floating toward him.

Once my feet return to the ground I gasp. He isn’t a man, but rather the most majestic creature I’ve ever seen. Half-man, half-horse, he stands smiling at me with bright pink lips. I stare at his flowing golden hair, his thick palomino horse body, shiny black hooves, and swishing nearly white tail. Breathe, Ayla. Breathe.

“I’m Dawa and you’ve already met my helpers. I call them the Root Men, but they go by many names.”

He gestures to the little men who have followed me out. They stand silently in a circle around us and all at once bow so low to the ground their tiny noses touch the dirt. I’m not sure if they are bowing to me or him. I return the gesture regardless, bending at my waist and sweeping my arms out in front of me. A sound like giggling follows.

“I wish we could have met under different circumstances, Ayla, but I’m afraid you are in danger.”

He points at the darkening clouds and I see they are swirling. Deep black with a hint of blue. Feathers. Dawa’s voice is breathy and fast. He paws the ground with his front hooves.

“They are coming for you, as they did your mother.”

The words feel like a key turning inside me. Horribly, vividly, the memory comes. Its razor-sharp clarity knocks me to my knees and I cover my ears and rock back and forth. No. No. No.

Mother and I are on an apple hunt weaving through the rows of trees looking for signs the bright red fruit is ready to be harvested. I’m not paying attention though because our old barn cat Theo is chasing birds and I want to make sure he doesn’t catch one. A bright warm sun sits high in the sky and I’m wearing my favorite daisy sundress without shoes.

I chase Theo through the tall green grass of the orchard until he climbs into the branches of the old willow tree. The moment Theo reaches the top the sky around us turns dark. The sun has been replaced by inky black swirling clouds dancing, twirling, and falling. It can’t be right. The sky can’t fall. Can it?

Mother screams and runs to me. She sets the wicker basket below the tree, holds my face in her soft hands, and speaks slowly and firmly. Her dark green eyes are wide.

“Sit beside the basket and look toward the house. No matter what happens, do not look behind you. Do not move and stay quiet. Not a sound. It’s extremely important, Ayla. I need you to promise.”

I nod. We’ve played this game before. The “don’t move” game. Mother’s serious about it and I listen. She breaks off a low branch of the tree, holds it in her hand, and climbs. I think she’s going to rescue Theo, but he’s beside me now. He climbs into my lap and I close my eyes tight. 

I cover my ears, but the sounds wiggle through my fingers and I hear them anyway. Terrible low growls. Mother’s ragged uneven breathing. A ripping sound. Mother’s long scream.

A loud thump shakes the ground behind me. I don’t turn around, but I do open my eyes. A horrible creature crouches low in front of me with dozens of long spidery legs. It’s got bright yellow cat-like eyes and is covered with inky black feathers with a tinge of blue. Its tongue darts in and out of its tiny red mouth.

It grabs hold of my arm with one of its legs and three spiky nails pierce my skin. Mother would be proud. I don’t make a sound. I don’t move. I stay right beside the basket.

“Ayla!”

Dawa pulls my hands from my ears. Tears fall hot from my eyes. Mother was killed by these creatures and they are coming for me. The centaur grabs my shoulders and shakes them gently. His dark green eyes are wide and his voice is firm.

“You must come with me. Now!”

The little men have turned away from us and are facing the clouds. The sky is falling. It’s coming. Dawa grabs my hand and swings me onto his back. I hold onto his neck as he takes off at a run. When the creatures dive low behind us I don’t make a sound. Mother would be proud.

Author’s note: I ran out of time for this story and am disappointed it’s more of a first chapter again than a complete short story. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed meeting Ayla and stepping into her world for a bit. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Thank you!


Short Story Challenge | Week 49

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a family-run farm. We had to include the words temporary, invent, trust, horse, burst, pulley, dam, punch, and checker.


Write With Us

Prompt: The phone rings at 3 a.m.
Include: supreme, emerald, careless, traffic, liberate, adolescence, lousy, wave, environment, oval


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Under the Sign | A Short Story

My feet won’t stop moving under the hard, wooden desk. It’s as if they have come alive and are set on getting me in trouble. I look at my brown spoonwood shoes in irritation and hiss at them as quietly as I can.

“Cut it out.”

Several students turn to look at me and I stare straight ahead, ignoring them. My feet stop moving but the jitters move up my legs and I know it will have to come out somewhere. I try hard to focus on the Old One in charge today, Mr. Hawthorne.

“Dandelion. Taraxacum officinale. Irish daisy. Monk’s-head. These bright yellow flowers can be used for many things, including immunity boosting and reducing inflammation. They are hardy regardless of the conditions you submit them to unless, of course…”

Mr. Hawthorne’s voice sounds rumbly and low, reminding me of the tired lion I saw on the class field trip to London last year. He’s reading from a dark brown leather book with thin yellow pages and his wire-rimmed glasses keep slipping to the tip of his pointy nose. My fingers have turned fidgety and I sit on them.

To distract myself, I count the hairs on Mr. Hawthorne’s big toes and wonder for the hundredth time why none of the Old Ones have to wear shoes. It seems wildly unfair. I’ve been to Headmaster Buckthorne’s office to discuss my objections to all the dress codes so many times the school secretary, Mrs. Yarrow, calls me a thistle in her side. I can’t help it.

I don’t like being in trouble, but it seems every school rule was designed to squash me and me alone. None of the other students seem to have as much difficulty doing what’s expected of them. My fingers wiggle loose from under me and find a home in my tangled, violet hair.

I wind a messy curl around my index finger until a hangnail on my thumb gets stuck and I’m forced to yank it out. It hurts and I hide the torn strands of hair inside my desk before anyone notices. It’s a good thing I have a lot of hair.

The jitters have exploded through me now and I can’t stop them. Slipping under the desk, I crawl across the floor of the library and sit crossed-legged under the farthest back table. Nobody seems to notice, or if they do, they don’t say anything.

My wings are bound inside the pale yellow uniform all fifth-year fairies must wear to prevent us from flying or doing magic. It’s not the best color to go with my dark violet hair, but far better than the ugly brown uniforms of fourth-year. The color I’m most excited to wear is the dark green of the eighth year because they get to have their wings out.

I discovered last year a way to still wiggle my wings a tiny bit under the bindings of the uniform. It’s not much movement, but it creates enough magic to amuse myself. Setting my pencil on the floor, I make it perform a complicated twirling dance number. I hum a song about three blind mice.

“Piper,” Mr. Hawthorne calls.

His voice is sharp and I snap to attention. Grabbing the dancing pencil, I slide out from under the table and run back to my desk. Mr. Hawthorne’s dark grey eyes watch me the entire time. He might be smiling, but it could also be a grimace. I’m not so good at reading faces. Tucking my pencil into my desk, I fold my hands and answer with my formal classroom voice.

“Yes, sir.”

His glasses have slipped again and his eyes are sort of crossed. I know better than to laugh, but a giggle brews dangerously in my stomach. I dig my nails into the tops of my hands to stop it.

“Can you answer the question?”

All the eyes in the room are on me. I swallow hard and speak as clearly and confidently as I can.

“23, sir.”

His eyes widen and he’s definitely smiling now. Pride surges through me although I know it shouldn’t because I didn’t know the answer. He rubs his hands together.

“Well…yes, actually. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

I purposely avoid looking at my best friend Rosemary, but I know she’s smiling too. She quickly scrawled the answer on her palm in bright red ink and flashed it to me as I passed her desk. Saved again.

Rosemary and I met when the school year started and Headmaster Buckthorne says we are “thick as thieves.” I know this is a dig at me, but I don’t care. Rosemary is the best thing ever to happen at Hollyhock’s Fairy School for the Highly Gifted. The best thing in all my years here.

Rosemary keeps her long black hair in two braids, tied with blue ribbons the same shade as her eyes. When she laughs she throws back her head and sticks out her round belly. She holds my hand and saves me when the jitters get too big. I’m not sure how I survived before Rosemary.

Mr. Hawthorne dismisses the class for lunch and Rosemary and I walk to the furthest part of the field behind the school to eat together. She’s got a large sandwich of honey and hazelnut, decorated with a tiny sprig of lavender. She cuts it in half and hands me the biggest piece.

“I’m not going back to class,” I say with my mouth full.

Rosemary laughs. It’s my favorite sound in the world.

“You always say that.”

I try to give her a serious look, but I don’t have one.

“I mean it today. I can’t take another minute. I’m going crazy.”

Rosemary takes a sip of hot tea from a thermos with tiny pink tulips painted on the side. The minty smell makes me a bit sad. It smells like mothers. I look at the ground until Rosemary speaks again.

“Where will you go?”

Jumping to my feet, I do a dramatic twirl before answering.

“Don’t you mean, where will we go?”

Rosemary’s face changes to a frown, but I pretend to not see it. Instead, I watch two butterflies chase each other across the field. My wings twitch wildly in their bindings.

“Oh, no, not today. My mom was upset last time. She cried and cried and made me promise never to go off without telling her again. She thought I died! I had to sleep in her bed for a week!!”

Short of sticking my fingers in my ears, I do everything I can to block this out. With a huge leap, I chase the butterflies across the field. I do a somersault followed by a cartwheel. A few of the smaller kids applaud and I bow. Rosemary can’t understand how much her words hurt. How could she? It’s not like she knows.

When I was 4 years old my mother had an accident. She came out of the bedroom of our small cabin in the woods and her bright green eyes had turned milky white. Her curly strawberry-blonde hair had turned grey and her peachy smooth skin had become bumpy and pale as snow. She was cold to the touch and unresponsive. I didn’t know what to do.

For two days I watched this chilly version of my mother wander from room to room, unblinking and silent. A neighbor finally stopped by for a visit and found me crying alone in a closet. It wasn’t until years later, Headmaster Buckthorne told me the truth about what happened.

My mother had been trying to complete a complex and illegal magical spell to locate my father, a soldier in the Fairy Force. He disappeared during an intense battle in the Sage Mountains a week before I was born. She used old and unstable magic. It changed my mother permanently, leaving me an orphan.

With no family to take me in, Headmaster Buckthorne brought me to Hollyhock’s Fairy School for the Highly Gifted a few weeks after my mother’s accident. He studies “magical amnesia” and is fascinated by my mother’s case. While he studies her and tries to look for a cure, I live in a room above the library and I’m allowed to attend this prestigious school.

I don’t care about grades or how great this school looks for future magical employers. I don’t think about my future at all. I do think about mothers. I think about them a lot.

Rosemary’s mother has beautiful red hair and bright pink cheeks. She puts notes in her lunchbox and makes sure she has a thick enough jacket when it’s cold out. I wish I had been enough for my mother, but I wasn’t. She wanted my father more than me. 

Sometimes I pretend she’s not locked up in the Hospital for the Incurable, but rather living with my father in a magical glen deep within the Blackwood Forest. I see them with a new daughter, one who sits still and follows the rules. They want nothing else than to be with her because she’s loveable and sweet. She’s nothing like me.

Rosemary’s smiling at me and I’m ashamed of my jealousy of her mother. I wish I could tell her about mine, but the words are locked inside me. They are stones buried far too deep to unearth. I touch her soft hair and dance around her.

“Well, I’m going with or without you…and it’s going to be amazing.”

I drag out the last word and I can tell this interests her. She sets the sandwich on her lap and stares at me with wide eyes.

“What is?”

Spinning, I wink and grin as wide as I can.

“You have to come with me to see.”

Rosemary frowns, but it’s not a real one. I can see a smile hidden beneath it waiting to come out.

“Oh, Piper, don’t do that to me. My mother will kill me!”

Fluttering my wings under my uniform I use a little magic to make a leaf jump into the air and land on her nose. She giggles.

“It’s going to be amazing.”

I sing the words and I know I’ve hooked her. She likes adventure as much as I do, maybe even more, and her mother forgives her every time.

Headmaster Buckthorne isn’t as forgiving and I’ll pay for my disobedience by losing my weekend flying privileges for several weeks and maybe I’ll have to clean the school bathrooms too. I don’t care. An adventure with my best friend is worth any cost.

Sitting on the itchy grass beside her, she leans close enough that our shoulders touch. Whispering our plans is part of the fun. Her breath tickles my ear.

“How are we going to get off school grounds this time?” 

It’s becoming a lot harder to escape as each time we do Headmaster Buckthorne blocks us, but last time he couldn’t figure out how we did it. I plan to use the same route.

“We’re going under the sign again.”

Rosemary sighs and crosses her arms over her chest. She doesn’t like this plan and I don’t blame her. The school sign sits on the edge of a steep cliff. Last time we removed our school uniforms and slipped through a small hole, but I didn’t realize how cold and fast the falling would be. It took a few minutes for our wings to open. Instead of fun and exciting, it was more like dangerous and scary.

“I don’t like the sensation of falling. It makes me dizzy and I don’t want to be in my underwear again. What if someone sees us this time? It was so cold!”

She’s right, but I’ve thought of all this already. I pull my leather school bag onto my lap and open it wide enough to show her what’s inside.

“What if we don’t fall, but fly instead?”

I’ve stolen two light blue tunics from the laundry room before my breakfast—the uniforms of the fairy garden workers. Our wings will be free for flying and we will be able to roam the grounds around the school without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Rosemary claps.

“You are amazing!”

“I know.”

I try not to look too pleased by the compliment, but my cheeks burn hot. It’s good to hear her say it. She grabs my hand and whispers as close to my ear as she can.

“Even in the tunics, how can we get out the front door of the school? Last time you got Basil to free a bunch of beetles from the garden and the chaos provided our distraction. We can’t do the same thing…it would be too obvious.”

Several second-year students in pale pink wander by us and I make sure my bag is shut tight. The bell rings and without another word, we pack our things and walk arm and arm back toward the main school building. I whisper as low as I can as we walk.

“Don’t worry about a thing. It’s all arranged. Luckily, Basil still likes me and he’s working on a very good distraction. Let’s hurry though, I don’t want to miss it.”

We walk through the large wooden double doors and into the main entryway, a cavernous room with a vast grey stone floor and a giant golden chandelier burning bright with hundreds of tiny candles. The two main staircases wind off to the left and right, along with several dark hallways. We see Basil waiting near the golden statue of the founders, Claude Mugwort and Bella Vervain. He’s not wearing his uniform.

Freckle-faced with bright blue hair, poor Basil has the unfortunate fate of being in love with me. He’s followed me around since year two and I’m afraid I’ve abused his kindness. When he sees me he blushes and gives me two thumbs up. I mouth “thank you” and the redness of his face seems to darken—is it vermillion or beet? My face reddens too, but mostly out of guilt.

Taking Rosemary by the hand, I lead her into a little alcove near the stairs where a picture of a bowl of lemons sits hidden from view. I press the third lemon with my pointer finger and a secret door opens revealing a closet filled with cleaning supplies. Rosemary gasps.

Growing up in a school that is empty part of the year, I’m probably the only student to know some of its secrets. It has many. A tiny magical blue light shines above us.

“Change, quick! We haven’t much time. We can store our clothes and my bag here.”

Rosemary and I untie our identical school uniforms and change into light blue tunics. They are a bit big for us, but we tie a few extra knots so they won’t fall off when we fly. Rosemary’s bouncing on the balls of her feet like me. We are ready. The sound of raised voices and the shuffling of feet fills the main hall outside.

“Not yet,” I whisper. “Basil will signal us with a whistle.”

The sound of voices grows louder, accompanied by the most lovely and intoxicating sugary smell. My mouth waters and Rosemary giggles beside me. A few seconds later we hear a short burst of sound, like a train whistle. It’s the signal.

We open the door slowly and walk out from the alcove. The scene before us makes us both double over in laughter. Basil is brilliant! 

The main entryway has been transformed into an oversized and elaborate butcher shop. Sausages, whole chickens, ducks, and pigs hanging from strings in every direction. Only, these aren’t dead animals. No, they are all made of candy. Chocolate turkey legs and cream-filled pork chops. Gummy hamburgers and malted meatballs.

Basil sits at a large wooden table in the center, eating a platter with a huge candy pot roast complete with fake glazed carrots and roasted red potatoes. He’s throwing bits of food at the gathering crowd who are stuffing their faces and screaming. We lock eyes for a minute and I mouth “I owe you.” He laughs and throws a peppermint onion at the approaching Headmaster Buckthorne. 

It’s almost too much fun to leave, but I don’t want Basil to have gotten into trouble for nothing. I pull Rosemary by the arm, through the screaming crowd and out the front door. It’s silent as we cross the lawn with our wings flapping awake behind us.

“Basil’s the best,” Rosemary says.

“What I have to show you is even better.”

I’m lying. The truth is, I have no idea where we are going or what we are looking for. I only know I have to get away from this place—both my home and my prison. A place so close to my mother, yet I’m not allowed to see her. A place I only get to escape when Rosemary comes with me.

The truth is, I don’t have the courage to go alone. I grab her hand and squeeze it. Guilt tears at my stomach. She’s got a mother who loves her. So does Basil. I’m going to get them both hurt.

Holding hands, we squeeze through the small hole, spread our wings and fly off together to find adventure.

Author’s note:  I know with confidence I’ll be writing a middle-grade fairy book at some point and perhaps the seeds for it are right here. I hope you enjoyed meeting Piper, Rosemary, and Basil. Thanks as always for your likes and comments—you have no idea how much they mean to me.


Short Story Challenge | Week 48

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 day in the life. We had to include the words identical, pot roast, decorate, sign, abuse, library, amnesia, butcher, submit and sensation.


Write With Us

Prompt: A family-run farm
Include: temporary, invent, trust, horse, burst, pulley, dam, punch, and checker


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Chalky Hands | A Short Story

Harsh streaks of morning sunlight break through the thick grove of oak trees, casting bright lines across the towering ancient building before me. My time has run out. My final act will be incomplete. It seems fitting.

My hands, raw from rubbing the chalk into the rough stone of the cathedral steps, shake wildly. I ball them into fists and find they don’t fully close anymore. Everything hurts.

Drops of blood from my nose escape onto the concrete, spoiling my act of redemption, and I dab at them with the dirty hem of my dress. They transform into dark red smears polluting the ground and my art. Poisoning it.

Father Rudolph will be here any minute to make sure I’m gone before his beautiful parishioners arrive for Easter Sunday services. Nobody wants to smell the decay already clinging to my young ragged body. It’s a day for resurrection and lilies, not ashes and death. I’m not what anyone wants to see.

For three days I’ve knelt here, drawing and redrawing these images of the afterlife. I thought if I depicted heaven with as much detail as possible I’d be allowed in. If I got it right, the churchgoers would love it and I’d be saved. I’ve gone without food, water, or rest. My last desperate act. A final plea for forgiveness.

I doubt it will work. Some deeds are unforgivable. Blood can be washed from your fingers, even scraped out from under your nails with a wire brush, but the stain remains forever. At least for those like me.

A ticking sound fills the courtyard, loud enough to drown out the chittering of the birds. The sickness I caught when I arrived here three weeks ago has progressed faster and faster. My breathing has become slow and painful. It won’t be much longer.

Closing my eyes I see the face of the one I thought to be my true love and protector—Cyrus. The curve of his thin nose, the thick pink of his lips, and the soft blue of his uneven eyes. His heart beat strong and clear, but the love he had was for himself not for me. I figured it out too late.

He promised me life would be different after we smashed my mother’s head in with a shovel and buried her in the dark soil of the garden. It proved only true for him. He was praised as the “Witch Killer.” I was shunned as her filthy daughter.

I’ve been living in a small wooden house behind the church. The women in the black robes pray over me and tell me it’s never too late to love God, but they don’t see the darkness inside me—lust, hatred, and jealousy. They don’t understand the truth. I wish I was wrong.

The last time I saw Cyrus he stood smiling and holding hands with his pretty, pregnant wife—his thick fingers covered with gold rings. He glowed brightly with rebirth, his soul cleansed by the God of second chances. While I remain soiled—polluted and corrupted by my birthright of pain. My thin fingers are covered in scratches and dirt. 

Opening my eyes, I see a large hawk circle above my masterpiece. It casts its winged shadow over the colorful chalk images as if it knows the truth about me. It caws and I hear the demon of my mother’s shadow call out to me.

“You are nothing but a sponge soaking in the evil of the world.”

I escaped the prison of my childhood only to be sentenced to another. The badness inside me, the parts inherited from her, wriggling alive and venomous, make it impossible for me to expect anything but unhappiness. It’s hopeless.

This last-minute grand gesture, this final Hail Mary, will do nothing. I’m unredeemable. Unloveable. Tainted.

The truth lies in my fractured heart. This attempt at worship, a sacrifice worthy of wiping away my sins, have failed because at some point it morphed into vanity. It’s a ploy to get recognized and blessed.

Cyrus and his wife will be forced to walk through my images. The chalk will stick to their shoes and follow them home. He will have to see what he left behind. What he did.

I’m not truly sorry for what I’ve done. My mother was evil and deserved to die. I did what was right. We both did, but I’m the one who has to pay the price. I’m the sacrificial lamb.

Fatigue throbs at my temple, a relentless steel hammer pounding my brain. I can’t stop blinking. My back has become a cord knotted tight—rigid and unmoving. I’m unable to straighten or fully stand. Pain sings through every cell. The end is near.

Leaning back on my heels, I smile at my army of chalk angels covering every step; playing instruments, sitting, standing, wings outstretched, praising, and praying. I wanted to add a sheep in the meadow, more flowers along the picket fence, a parakeet in the hollow of the eucalyptus tree, variation to the clouds, and more feathers on the wings of the final angel. I wanted to do so much more.

Mother taught me to draw before I could speak. My thoughts have always been colorful pictures I could channel through a pencil or pen to make come alive. Chalk proved a bit harder to use, but perhaps it’s because the stakes are much higher. This time I hoped my images would buy me a seat at the heavenly table.

With a loud creak and a bang, the ornate double doors of the church open. I wrap my chalk into a burlap cloth and gather my sketches and rags. Throwing them into my tattered grey bag, I stumble to the bottom step and fall to my knees gasping for air.

Footsteps and voices head toward me but I don’t look. I’m a statue, the patron saint of “I’m sorry”—a pile of broken glass. Two shadows cover my body, shielding me from the world. A man speaks low, almost in a whisper. He’s close enough I can feel his warmth.

“It’s remarkable.”

Father Rudolph answers. He smells of fresh bread, coffee and frankincense.

“Would you like to meet the artist?”

“I’d be honored.”

I raise my face to them, but their white robes blur my vision and I focus on the opulent gold cords around their necks. Outstretched hands reach to touch mine and I present my palms, a rainbow of scrapes and colors. A pauper of the pavement.

“This is Amelia, the girl I told you about.”

The man sighs and covers his mouth. I wonder what he’s been told about me. He touches my shoulder gently and I see his hands are covered in bright gold rings.

“You’ve done a remarkable job.”

Warmth fills my heart for a brief moment—the sin of pride. I should not be so pleased with myself. Tears fill my eyes.

“Thank you.”

A hoarse croak. Did I speak the words or think them? Panic strikes my heart as the enormous bronze bell dances in the tower striking its thunderous note for all to hear. The time has come. This is no place to die. 

The mothers in wide-brimmed hats covered in colorful flowers will be here soon with their children. Little girls in lacy pink dresses with bright, clean braids. Little boys in pressed suits of baby blue with shiny black shoes. Fathers with handfuls of crisp dollar bills for the collection plate. All smiling and forgiven.

I gather my bundle into my tired arms and run. The bell chases me, thundering loudly the way my heart did when Cyrus touched me for the first time. As a missionary visiting our lands, he taught me about beauty and love. He told me we could be together in a place where my talent would be celebrated and appreciated. He showed me another way.

As I run through the manicured gardens, pain coursing through my chest, my thoughts are only of him. When he sees my drawings will he remember our night together under the stars? Will he remember the love we shared? Will he be sorry?

I make it to the garden behind the church, but my legs falter. Weakness forces me to collapse in a heap—a rag thrown onto the bricks of a crumbling stone statue. Is it Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes? Or Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children?

A bystander with deep blue eyes and large soft hands touches my head gently. Is it Cyrus? Has he come to say goodbye? 

No. I don’t recognize the man trying to lift me, but I see the distress on his face. I’m a horror, a terrible nightmare made real. I don’t want him to watch me die. A tiny voice escapes through my dry cracked lips.

“Go…”

His eyes widen in surprise as mine flutter shut. Pain swallows me whole. I surrender to its tightening grip.

I couldn’t outrun or trick my way into a different destiny. Time always wins. The sky fills with clouds and I feel the raindrops on my closed eyelids. Does this render my army of chalk angels irrelevant? Am I truly not capable of being saved? As the breath leaves my body I realize the truth—I know nothing.

Author’s note: The young girl of this bleak story, Amelia, chases the enemy of time. Her last shot at redemption washes away in the rain, but she realizes it meant nothing. In the end, it’s not up to her to decide what happens. I hope you found something interesting or redeeming here. I’m incredibly thankful to everyone who reads my blog and comments. Thanks for believing in me even on the days I do not.


Short Story Challenge | Week 47

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 chasing the enemy. We had to include the words demon, bystander, escaped, parakeet, destiny, hammer, singing, ash, cathedral, and heels.


Write With Us

Prompt: A day in the life
Include: identical, pot roast, decorate, sign, abuse, library, amnesia, butcher, submit and sensation


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Late Night Visitor | A Short Story

A light touch on the bottom of my left foot drags me instantly from the rainbow haziness of the dream world to the very real darkness of my bedroom. I’m not alone. With a jerk, I retuck my legs into the safety and warmth of my colorful blanket cocoon and look around.

A wild wind outside my window batters the branches of the big oak tree casting wispy skeletal shadows along my purple walls. Everything else looks still and normal. Through the lacy curtains, the moon appears as a tiny crescent in a sea of black. When will this end?

Wiping tears from my eyes with the sleeve of my plaid nightgown, I realize I’m crying. My cheeks burn hot. I’m tired of feeling sad and scared. It’s not fair!

Burrowing my nose into the worn calico fur of my stuffed kitty Butterscotch, I breathe in the familiar sweet and musty smell. Snuggles by the fire. Hide-and-seek. Christmas morning.

As I’ve done the last ten nights in a row, I grab the red plastic flashlight from inside my pillowcase. I don’t expect to see anything but I make myself look just in case. I hold Butterscotch tight as I move the yellowish beam around the room.

Starting with my bookshelf, I scan my collection of rocks and figurines, moving along the floor past several mounds of dirty and clean clothes to the huge pile of stuffed animals. All fine. Unicorn poster. Tiny fake plant. Corkboard of Polaroids. Three empty cans of sparkling water and two empty Frito bags on the desk. Hello Kitty backpack spilling its contents out on the chair. Everything is where I left it.

My foot feels tingly and weird as if the imprint of the mystery touch lingers. Pulling the covers over my head, I sit under the blankets and use the flashlight to search every inch of my foot for clues—a fingerprint, scratch mark, or some tiny speck of goo. Nothing. It’s my normal foot.

For a moment I consider turning on the desk lamp and working on an essay for English class about the Giver, but my rumbling stomach has other ideas. I wish when I turned 12 last week my parents gifted me my future job instead of an event planner and a plain gold watch. I don’t want to make checklists, set goals, or make decisions. I know free will and emotions are supposed to be blessings, but I’m tired of them.

Tucking Butterscotch into the top of my nightgown, I tiptoe through the hallway toward my parent’s bedroom. I’m forced to pass the tall grandfather clock with its dark mahogany wood, sharp spiky top, and creepy drawing of the moon with a baby face. Its eerie ticking sound echoes in the silent house and I sneak a quick peek at the time before rushing by. The two ornate black hands point at the gleaming golden 12 and 2. Whatever keeps waking me is pretty punctual.

My parents sleep with the door slightly open and I peek in to see them both in their light brown wooden sleigh bed. They’re snuggled against each other under a purple and green checkered quilt and my dad’s snoring lightly. I watch them for a few minutes, seeing if they might be pretending to sleep, but they’re breathing deeply and don’t stir.

The first night I felt the touch on my foot I screamed with surprise and terror. My parents came rushing in, mother throwing on the light and father scooping me into his arms. When I told them what happened, dad checked the entire house for signs of anyone and mom gave me a cup of warm milk. I didn’t fall back to sleep that night or any night since. It’s almost becoming routine, which explains why I’m extra tired and hungry.

I rush down the stairs and take a quick peek into the living room for any signs of my foot toucher and, finding none, I head for the refrigerator. A small white bowl of leftover rice pudding sits on the middle shelf. Although mom will yell, I take it anyway. Pulling off the plastic wrap, I grab a spoon and head to my favorite squashy chair by the front window.

Snuggling under mom’s grey, wooly blanket and setting Butterscotch on my lap, I eat the sugary pudding and scan our quiet street. A tall silverish lamppost sits at the edge of our lawn casting a bright yellow glow around it. Cars sit quietly on driveways and grey garbage cans line the curb. Nobody is watering their lawn or jogging and I see no birds. It’s too early for much of anything.

The house next door has a huge maple tree and its reddish leaves dance in the wind as if alive. Dad and mom’s song plays in my head, spinning like the old record they bring out after they’ve shared a bottle of wine. Dad slips his hand around her waist and she puts her head on his shoulder.

Everybody’s feelin’ warm and right/It’s such a fine and natural sight/everybody’s dancin’ in the moonlight.

Across the street, our new neighbors have added a giant blow-up turkey to their yard for Thanksgiving. The wind has blown it sideways and its butt wiggles in the air. Abby would know the perfect joke. The thought makes the pudding no longer taste good. Don’t think about her, Brin. Just don’t.

Setting the bowl on the floor, I pull Butterscotch up to my face again. I don’t know why this is happening to me. I’ve googled “something touched my foot while sleeping” several times and it’s led me down some strange and winding paths. I could be suffering from any number of ailments from sleep paralysis to periodic limb movement disorder to restless leg syndrome.

One website said it could either be a bad omen or mean you were experiencing a spiritual awakening. Another said it’s a ghost or spirit and it’s important to cleanse your house with sage. I downloaded several ghost detector apps on my iPad but they proved useless and confusing. My parents have proved useless as well.

On the way to school a few days ago I told mom about my research, but she cut me off after a few minutes and pulled the car over. Clutching the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white, she stared intensely at me. It’s the look she uses when she means business. Her voice went all tense and low.

“Listen to me, Brin. Nothing touched your foot. You were dreaming. No, I won’t buy you sage or take you to the doctor. No, I won’t keep talking about this and if you keep googling stuff on your iPad I’ll take it away. Do you understand?”

I told her I do, but what choice do I have? For over a year now I’ve begged for a cellphone and if I have any hope of ever getting one, I know I have to drop it with her. She’s practical and has no patience for anything unexplained. Plus, she thinks I’m making it up for attention. She hasn’t said it directly, but I can tell.

Dad’s equally useless. He works all the time and dozes off after dinner, but I managed to catch him alone yesterday when he took the garbage can out to the curb. Without my mother around, I tell him about my research and ask him for his help. He grabs my shoulder and smiles.

“You just have an overactive imagination is all. It can trick your senses into believing anything. It can feel real, but I assure you it is not. Remember your imaginary friend…what was his name?”

Why does he have to bring him up? I whisper his name as if he’ll hear us talking about him.

“Mr. Croaky.”

“Right! You were convinced you saw him jumping around and hiding in the bushes. Now you are getting older and your brain does the pretending while you sleep instead of during the day. It’s part of growing up. It’s normal, kiddo. You aren’t little anymore. It’s good. You’ll see.”

It all comes back to me growing up. It’s all my parents seem to talk about these days. Last week my mother gave me a box and asked me to fill it for a children’s charity her work is sponsoring. When I filled it with old clothes she scowled at me.

“What about all these toys you have laying around? Barbies? Dolls? This mound of stuffed animals? You are a teenager now. It’s time to let stuff go.”

I cried and locked myself in the bathroom until she dropped it, but I know she’ll bring it up again. I don’t want to stop playing with my toys. I love them. They don’t get it. Abby was the person who did, but I was wrong about her. She’s the worst. The absolute worst.

Balling my hands into fists, I fight the memory but it’s like throwing up with the flu. It comes at me in a wave of ugliness and I don’t have the strength to fight it off. I press my nose to Butterscotch’s pink plastic one and feel the pain come roaring in.

It’s the 8th-grade science field trip and we stand on a wooden pier looking at the seals in the water. They roll around and bark at each other. Most of the other girls are trying to get the attention of either Cameron or Dylon by posing with their sunglasses and giggling like idiots. Not us. Abby and I are above such nonsense. I grab her arm and sing into her ear.

“Rolling, rolling, rolling, keep those seals rolling. Fisheye!”

Abby laughs but looks over at the students on the trip and blushes. She inches a little away from me, as she has done all day. Stepping closer and grabbing her arm, I create exaggerated British voices for the seals. Her body feels tense beside me. Stiff. Unmoving. Frozen.

“Oh, hi Cheryl, I didn’t see you rolling over there. Fancy a cuppa, mate?”

“Oh, hi Carol. Yes, I’d love one. I’m simply knackered. A cheeky fish kept me awake all night with its chittering.”

“What a bugger! Hey, did you change your whiskers, darling?”

“Yes, I waxed them with fish oil. It’s all the rage in Paris these days. Tip-top posh and all.”

“Oh, bloody brilliant!”

Abby doesn’t laugh. My British voice always makes her laugh. Instead, her cheeks turn bright red and she spins from me. My arm falls limply to my side as she walks over to the three most popular girls in our grade, Tracy, Stacy, and Pam. We’ve nicknamed them STP—Stupid Tall Pretty. She doesn’t look back.

For a brief moment, I think she’s gone to play a prank on them, but I know it’s not true. I saw it coming but tried to ignore it. Abby pulls a pair of round blue sunglasses out of her backpack. She didn’t tell me about those and we don’t have secrets. We didn’t have secrets.

The glasses are an expensive name-brand kind. Abby’s talking fast and running her fingers through her curly blonde hair. They all take turns trying the glasses on and taking selfies.

“Oh, Abby,” Tracy says, touching my best friend’s cheek with a bright red fake nail. “I never realized the perfect shape of your lips. You have to try this!”

She hands Abby a tube of pink lip gloss and she puts it on. The bubblegum smell is strong and sickly sweet. Stacy links arms with Abby and coos beside her in a stupid baby voice.

“Do you have Instagram?”

“Not yet, but I got a new cell phone last week and haven’t had a chance to download it yet.”

Another secret she didn’t tell me about. She pulls a bright pink phone out of her backpack and they all examine it. Apparently, it’s cool from the sounds they are making. I clench my fists tighter to resist the urge to rush over, grab it, and throw it into the ocean.

“You are too pretty to not be on Insta,” Pam says. “Let’s do a photo shoot for your first post!”

“You can use my scarf,” Tracy adds. “It matches your eyes.”

The entire time this unfolds I feel tears welling in my eyes, but I wipe them away and straighten my back. I won’t give up on my best friend without a fight. Okay, she suddenly cares what they think. I can play along.

Tucking my wild brown hair behind my ears, I walk to where they are all standing in a semicircle. Nobody looks at me but I flash the brightest smile I can muster. Abby looks miserable like she might be sick. I want to hold her hand and pull her away. You don’t have to do this, I want to say. Instead, I pull off my charm bracelet and hold it out in front of me.

“I’ll contribute my bracelet for the photos.”

A gift from Abby on my 10h birthday, she’s added new charms to the bracelet each Christmas and birthday since. The charms represent special memories we have; a pair of roller skates, two stars, a mermaid, bunnies, ice cream cones, and daisies. The girls all stare at it in silence while Abby looks at her blue converse. I see the sharpie heart I drew yesterday on the left toe is smeared.

“Uh, no thanks,” Tracy says. “What is it…iron?”

“I don’t think cheap metal is the look we’re going for,” Stacy says. “Plus, it’s kind of babyish.”

“It’s silver…”

My voice sounds tiny and they laugh. It’s the kind of laugh you can’t escape from, high and lifting and fake. I search Abby’s face looking for recognition, a hint at the girl I’ve loved since kindergarten. She looks away.

“The light’s better over here,” Pam says.

They walk away and I don’t follow. Returning to the spot where we stood moments before, I stare at the seals trying to make sense of what happened. It feels as if my heart broke in half and my face lit on fire.

I don’t know how I manage to keep the tears in, but I do until sitting alone on the bus ride home in the back row. While Abby rests her blonde hair on the shoulder of someone other than me, I let go and sob. Nobody notices.

The last ten days without Abby have been the worst of my life. She doesn’t look at me at school and won’t return my emails or phone calls. She missed my birthday. Dad says learning to cope with change is a requirement of growing. Mom says heartache gets easier with time and I’ll make new friends. It’s not getting easier, I don’t want new friends and I don’t want to grow up.

Tears come. I hate Abby for what she did to me. I hate getting older. Why must my life change? I liked the way it was. I’m sobbing now pressing my face into my stuffed kittie. A horrible pain stabs at my stomach and chest. Broken-hearted. Crushed. Gutted. When will it stop hurting this bad?

A familiar touch on my foot makes me jump and I pull my legs to my chest. A small man stands exactly where my foot sat a moment ago. He’s frozen in place with his hand still extended out in front of him. We stare at each other and his tiny dark brown eyes grow wider and wider. Neither of us blinks.

The size of a mouse, he’s dressed in dark green overalls with a light green shirt underneath. He’s chubby and smells of dirt and moss, like the logs by the creek behind our house. His cheeks are puffy and pinkish. I whisper quietly hoping to not startle him away.

“Are you real?”

“Are you?”

His voice isn’t squeaky, but deep, almost a croak. He lets his hand fall to his side and shuffles his dirty little bare feet. His toes are the size of a grain of sand.

“I think so. Why do you keep grabbing my foot?”

“You keep making a horrible sound and I want you to stop.”

What kind of sound do I make in my sleep? He points to the tears on my face and I suddenly understand.

“My crying?”

“I don’t know what you call it, but I don’t like it. You keep doing it. Stop it!”

He stomps his little foot as if to emphasis his point. It makes the tiniest of slapping sounds on the wood floor.

“Oh! Well…I’m sad and when I’m sad, I cry.”

“Well, get un-sad then.”

He stomps his foot again and I can’t help but smile.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes, it is.”

With a quick movement, he half hops and half climbs the blanket onto the arm of the chair. Looking at him closer I realize he’s much younger than I first thought, like a small, hairy child. He has freckles on his nose, long eyelashes, and bright pink smiling lips.

“See, you aren’t doing the loud sound now. You stopped.”

“Well, you distracted me.”

He claps and jumps up and down. Flecks of gold sparkle in his big brown eyes.

“See. Easy!”

“Well….the next time I’m not distracted, I will start crying again. I can’t stop it.”

“Why?”

“My heart is broken.”

Frowning, he hops forward and grabs onto my pointer finger with both hands, and closes his eyes. A faint tingling radiates from his touch and I close my eyes too. The sensation grows and grows, moving from my finger to my hand. It travels up my arm and across my body until soon every part of me feels warm and alive.

I’m standing on the banks of a wide gentle river that sings as it flows over hundreds of stones in shades of grey and white. Sunlight dances off the surface as tadpoles and minnows dart in and out of shadowy hiding places. Colorful ducks drift past and several round turtles scuttle off logs disappearing under the rippling water. A frog sits on my foot blinking up at me with wide, watery eyes.

My body feels as if all the sadness has been squeezed out. It flows away from me with the water. In its place, happiness bursts and blooms. I feel as I did when I was four years old. Free and silly. I splash into the water as a faint humming sound surrounds me. I open my eyes.

Sitting on the armrest of the chair is the creature I drew hundreds of times as a child. A wide green frog with kind watery eyes and a huge smiling mouth. He ribbits and sticks out his tongue. The little man has transformed into his real form. I laugh so hard I nearly knock him off the chair.

“Mr. Croaky! You’ve come back!”

He blinks but says nothing. I found him by the creek one day hiding in an old log. Mother told me she didn’t see him, but I knew he was real. When scary dogs barked at me on walks in the neighborhood, he’d hop onto my head to distract me. If nobody else could play, Mr. Croaky would show up and we’d go on adventures in the backyard. He came with me on my first day of school. He helped me meet Abby on the playground, hopping into her backpack and croaking until I came over and talked to her. I’ve missed my old friend.

The tingly feeling is fading from my body and I fear all my sadness will return when it does. I reach out to touch Mr. Croaky and he hops across me toward the other armrest. I hear a faint splash as something round and hard falls into my lap. A stone.

In an instant, I know things have shifted. Mr. Croaky has disappeared again and this time it’s forever. It doesn’t hurt like I thought it would, but it feels as if a part of me has left too. In its place though, I feel a spark of something new forming. A kind of hope which wasn’t there before. I think I’m going to be okay.

Picking up the stone I find the river still there when I close my eyes. It will be there for me whenever I need it. The sun outside rises slowly, painting the sky shades of gold and pink. Butterscotch falls to the ground as my mother comes in to tell me it’s time to go to school. I pick her up and gently place her back in the chair.

Author’s note: I rewrote the ending of this story for three days trying to find it. I kept having her whisked off to Neverland-type places so she wouldn’t have to face pain anymore. I wanted her to stay a little child so badly, but it’s not the truth. Although this ending broke my heart a bit, I know it’s the right one. I hope you enjoyed my story and I’d love to know if you remember your last moment of childhood. Did you have one? Have a wonderful week.


Short Story Challenge | Week 46

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about the last moment of childhood. We had to include the words Thanksgiving, refrigerator, surprise, contribute, pier, bird, strength, iron, voices, and requirement.


Write With Us

Prompt: Chasing the enemy
Include: demon, bystander, escaped, parakeet, destiny, hammer, singing, ash, cathedral, heels


My 52-Week Challenge Journey