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

How the Pandemic has Changed my Parenting

Being a parent is like walking blindfolded into the wilderness. You have to use all your senses, listen to your natural instincts, surrender any idea you know what you’re doing, and you can’t call it quits.

Before the pandemic, my kids were involved in all kinds of activities and I felt the rushing movement like a giant truck I was simultaneously riding and driving. We would fight to get out the door and I’d yell. There were too many car meals, bathroom clothing changes, and exhausted tears. I felt overwhelmed and busy, but confident. I did my best, and at the end of the day, I felt good about the efforts I put in.

During the pandemic, all the things my kids claimed to hate but secretly loved, stopped. The life I’d helped them cultivate away from media and technology suddenly revolved around screens. I was here with them all the time, yet I felt like I didn’t really see what was happening. Our lives became a series of solitary moments in our rooms with our phones or computers, interspersed by nature walks and car drives to nowhere. It went on forever, yet it felt like a blip or a bump we’d get past. We expected it would return to normal, but it didn’t.

The pandemic has transformed me as a parent.

This is not what I expected my life to look like at this moment. I suspect some of you, perhaps all of you, can relate in some way.

For me, the fundamental shift is this; my belief my kids will be okay has been replaced with fear and anxiety.

I can trace how it happened.

Early in the pandemic, my son was in a skateboard accident. He got a road rash on his face and arms, knocked out his front teeth, and had a fairly serious concussion. Each first responder and hospital staff member took a moment to yell at him, and by extension me, for him not wearing a helmet. They rubbed it in thoroughly, and I felt their words chipping away the image I had of myself as a mother. I felt bruised and beaten as I nursed my son back to health in a dark room for several weeks, blaming myself for his accident.

A few months later my grandmother died of Covid. I tried to call her once at the hospital, but she was asleep. I didn’t try again. I was scared to talk to her. There’s was so much unsaid between us, and I wanted her to get better so I could say the things. The lost opportunity felt huge while bringing fears of Covid closer to home.

While I tried to convince myself my kids were strong and would fight Covid easily, I was terrified of unknowingly passing Covid onto my mom, who has bad asthma, or to my mother-in-law who is elderly and fighting cancer. Each time I had a tickle in my throat, I’d worry it would develop into something more, and I’d be one of those who weren’t so lucky to fight it off. It wasn’t a rabid fear, but rather a slow-simmering background of fear which chipped away at me bit by bit.

In addition to Covid, I began to fear how people were acting. The division of those who refused masks contrasted with those hoarding supplies and preparing for a sort of social war. All of these things made leaving my house feel risky and dangerous. I stockpiled dried beans, rice, and bottled water. My neighbor and I talked about his guns and how he could protect us; the conversation felt appropriate at the time.

I watched my kids implode in a way I didn’t understand, and still don’t. It wasn’t simply losing school and friends; it was a sort of reckoning of what kind of life they wanted to have. The trajectory of their accomplishments stopped, and they had nothing to be proud of. They had too much time to think about the world, to see all the ugliness of it, and it changed them.

Six months after his first accident, my son had a second one. This time he was hit by a car walking to the store to buy a soda. The police came to the door as I was doing the dinner dishes and I followed in a daze to the hospital. More scraps, another concussion, and a fresh batch of fears for me. The moments of that day play over and over in my head and it’s hard to let him out of my sight. I’m only truly comfortable when he’s home. I worry when he’s at school or with his friends. I obsessively track his phone throughout the day in an attempt to ease the anxiety. If his phone dies or I can’t get in touch with him, I panic.

My daughter, through the isolation from her peers and anxiety of the world, has developed some mental health struggles. I won’t share the specifics to maintain her privacy, but I missed the signs for too long. I felt another blow to my parenting ego, but worse; I felt a terrible sense I’d let her down in all the ways that matter. I had missed the big stuff. I felt selfish and scared.

All of this has changed me as a parent.

I find it hard to return to the way we were before because much of my mental energy has transformed into anxiety and fear.

My kids miss a lot of school and I don’t care about homework. I let them hang with their friends as much as they want, drive them to therapy and support groups. I’ve put thousands of miles on my car listening to their music and hoping they will feel better.

I want them to feel better.

I am also not requiring enough of them so that they can grow in the ways I know they need to. I’m scared to push and to hold them to the standard I did before. They are not falling short; I’ve simply grown fearful of requirements because I don’t want to lose them. I don’t push.

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve been more worried about my kids dying in the last two years than I did the entire time they were little. I was all about letting them climb a tree, or take a risk. I thought it was good if they got hurt because it showed them a boundary and allowed them to grow.

I’ve lost that.

Now, I fear pushing them will result in dire consequences.

It’s a tightrope of wanting to require more so they feel proud of themselves and grow, but also holding back because I see them as fragile. I know they aren’t as fragile as I’ve made them out to be, but I am.

It feels perilous.

And scary.

How do I become the right kind of hard while still protecting them and myself?

I don’t know.

There’s another component, a sort of social reckoning. What they have experienced has shifted the momentum of their lives. They see their life path, their goals, as something far different than I did at their age. It’s no longer as an individual, but rather how they will be in the world.

They are examining complex things: gender constructs, systematic racism, global warming. There’s a sort of punk rock attitude forming; a kind of new version of the “fuck the man” mentality. Instead of music and drugs, they want marches and social justice reform. They want the world to do better, to be better.

They aren’t going to sleepwalk through their lives, moving from one checked box to the next like I did; high school, college, career, house, kids.

I moved through each thing as if I had no say in the matter; as if all the decisions of my life were preordained and I was simply saying the lines written for me. After all the boxes were checked, I felt cheated and empty. I missed so much because I did what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t slow or pause to examine if the path was what I wanted or if the roles I’d cast myself in fit me anymore.

My kids aren’t doing that.

They think about the kind of lives they want, and although the images are still so unclear, I don’t think they will settle. They don’t believe the story my generation did, and they don’t want the same outcome. I see them looking at me and their father and shaking their heads at how much we don’t question things or fight for a better world. They check us on the language we use and talk about things it’s taken me over 40 years to recognize.

They are facing forward and not shrinking from it. While I see them as fragile, the evidence doesn’t support me. If they can look at the problems in the world with a sort of determined energy of change, how can I see them as weak?

I have hope that all this social awareness is leading to something amazing for their entire generation and, not to be too grandiose, the planet. This outward focus and the ability to accept and empathize with all kinds of people has to be leading to a better world for all of us.

None of this, however, makes it easy to be a mother right now. There are days, more than I care to admit, I wish I could hop into a time machine and do a better job of protecting and shielding my kids. I’d put them in a bubble and not let anything in.

I know that’s not actually true and it’s the fear and the pain talking.

It’s my desire for growth to not hurt, but that’s not how it works.

It hurts.

The story my kids are living, well…it’s their story. All the things they have been through are shaping and molding them. And they are incredible kids.

My challenge has become to support them, to love them, and to go slower. To continue to sit with them in the discomfort, to listen as they question things, and, most importantly, to see my fear as separate from their experience.

The last one has been the hardest for me.

I have to work on healing my own fears around losing them, and not let my decisions be based on either guilt for what they’ve lost or fear I’ll lose them permanently.

I’m trying my best.

Maybe the pushing will come when it feels right, but for now, I observe and I listen. I try and see the ways I can nudge and build on those. These kids have been through so much, and it’s made them strong.

They are freaking rock stars.

My daughter has started having friends over again and they laugh so much. She pours herself into her artwork. It’s for her, not for show or attention. She does art to express her feelings and she holds people accountable for their actions. She sets boundaries, even with me.

My son began working out at the gym and he plays basketball with his friends. He plays guitar in his room for the pure love of it, not caring to impress anyone or show off. He makes everyone laugh, can size up his teachers, and isn’t afraid to call them out when they are being unfair. He forgives me when I hold too tight or freak out, but doesn’t let me off without a fight.

My kids talk to each other all the time. It’s not fake. It’s not superficial. They talk about real stuff and lean on each other.

All of these things are beautiful and real.

My kids aren’t fragile.

I am.

I’m facing forward and I’m doing the best I can, and for that, I need to give myself grace.

No comparing.

No looking back.

I’ve come to realize, parenting doesn’t get easier, and maybe that’s part of the complexity of my own feelings. A bit of sadness my kisses and hugs aren’t magical anymore. A bit of the rose-colored glasses slipping as my kids enter the imperfect world-not the careful world of fairies and magic I crafted when they were little.

While this part of my life feels unsteady and hard, all I can do is keep loving them and trying to do better. As the Everly Brothers sang:

Love hurts, love scars
Love wounds and mars
Any heart, not tough
Nor strong enough
To take a lot of pain
Take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain

The Heart and the Stone | A Short Story

Someone has swept all the dried leaves from the grey stone floors and polished the colorful wood of the massive round table until its surface gleamed like a mirror. I squeeze between two of the tall backed chairs and place my palms on the cool, smooth surface. My face looks dark and angular in the flickering firelight.

It’s been four days since I arrived at Camelot to find I was too late. It turns out the prophecy delivered to me was true, and my son has ridden with his armies into the thick of it. I pull my woolen shawl tight around my shoulders and squint at my reflection, searching my eyes to see if they’ve been altered by what I’ve done.

My mind slips into memory, not of things past, but of things which are to happen, or maybe not. The images torment me, taunt me, and I wonder if she’s the one who set this all in motion. I wish I could stop the vision, but it comes, as it has for seven days now. It comes, relentless and vivid, and I’m helpless to stop it.

My beautiful son lies bleeding near an ancient oak tree, its branches rustling in a terrifying wind. His bright sword, Excalibur, sits bloody and still across his body. His deep blue eyes, the eyes of his father, are filled with terror and fight. I see him mouth my name, Igraine. He doesn’t say mother, or beloved, but instead my name. Igraine. He knows not of my true undying love for him. He knows not of the burning ache inside, always longing to be with him, and he remembers not the embraces and kisses I smothered him with as a babe. No, he cries out the name of the woman he hopes will feel his dying and perhaps do something to stop it. A silver-clad comrade, a crossbow strapped to his back, appears from the woods running towards Arthur, screaming his name, but it’s too late. The light from his eyes fades and his lips stop saying my name.

I rode as fast as I could the day the vision first came, but I arrived too late. Camelot was empty, the staff wide-eyed and teary, but not welcoming. No, they had no love for the mother of their king, for they’ve heard the stories, and they believe the lies. I knew the moment I arrived that I would seek her out, that this would be where it happens, but it took me four days to find the courage to set it in motion. Now I must wait and I must see his dying moments replayed in my mind over and over until I can be sure it’s undone.

“My lady,” a small voice whispers behind me.

I’m startled, but I don’t allow it to show. I turn, holding my head high and my back straight. It’s a thin girl with pale skin, one of the half-dozen servants I’ve seen the last few days. Strands of dirty blonde hair escape from beneath an off-white cap, and she’s got smudges of dirt on her small freckled nose. She holds a heavily loaded tray out in front of her with both hands and bows her head.

She’s probably one of the many orphans Arthur has taken into his care. Stories about the compassionate king who pulled the sword from the stone have been told across the land. Told and retold in taverns, castles, and all the places in-between. These stories of kindness and bravery seem fantastical, but I don’t doubt they are true. 

While I haven’t seen my son in 20 years, I know his heart. The boy who would collect wildflowers and bring them to me, the boy who curled in my lap as I read to him at night, and the boy who rescued wounded animals and nursed them back to health. My heart could sing ballads of all the good of Arthur, long before he became king, and long before he wasn’t mine anymore.

The young girl makes a sort of small squeak, like a wounded puppy. She’s staring at the floor, at the soft brown leather boots on my feet, and at the mud and grass sticking to the sides, soiling the cleanliness of the majestic hall. I know what disgraceful things have been said about me, and I wonder if she believes them. She won’t meet my gaze, so I imagine she does.

“No thanks,” I say. “Take it away.”

The ceramic teapot and cup rattle on the wooden tray, her hands and body shaking as if raked with fever. She doesn’t look up from the floor but speaks again. Her voice is now breathy and panicky. I wonder who made her come in here. 

“My lady, I was told not to take no for an answer,” she says.

The poor child looks as if she may collapse, so I motion for her to set the tray on the table. She shakes her head no and makes the same sound as before. It takes a moment for me to realize, I sigh. The rules.

“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “Nobody may use this table until my son returns.”

It’s one of the many rules I’ve learned since my arrival in Camelot, always delivered by some young servant with shaking hands and downcast eyes. I’m unsure if there’s an actual list of these rules somewhere, or if they are created by someone who wants me to know how unwanted I am here. Whoever gives the servants orders, they must be scarier than me.

The girl says nothing, but silent tears fall down her face. I wish I could enfold her to my bosom and tell her all will be well, but I cannot. I have lost the ability to comfort others, as my son’s dying face fades in and out of my vision. I point to a small round table set near the fireplace.

“Set it over there,” I say, “and please leave me. I don’t want any more interruptions, no matter what anyone tells you.”

The girl sets down the tray with a thud and runs as fast as she can out of the room. A sick feeling rushes through me, making me weak and dizzy. I close my eyes and summon stillness and strength, calling it to me as I was trained to do during my time in Avalon, amongst the priestesses. I walk with silent footsteps to the oversized brown leather chair by the fire and sit stiffly with both feet on the floor in front of me. I allow the full force of the feeling to hit me.

It’s happening faster than I thought. I consider drinking some of the tea, but my body hums and vibrates, and I know it won’t be possible to swallow it. The coldness inside burns, but my body begins to sweat. I stare into the fire, trying to see the happy image promised to me. I see nothing but the flames and feel nothing but the chill, as I replay the night, the horrible details clear and naked before me.

***

She’s easy to find, far easier than I expected. Her hut lies in the exact spot I’d been told it would be, deep in the woods, past the boulder fields, and nestled on the shore of a long-forgotten bog filled with decay and death. The smell overwhelms me, but the sound of my son’s pleas moves me forward until I’m standing at the doorway of a sideways leaning shack, the wood covered in greenish grey moss and mold. I knock hard on the scraggly door of rotting, softwood, and it responds with a squishy, soft thud, barely audible.

“Come in,” a scratchy voice says. “I’ve been expecting you.”

For indeed, this is the way of things, I think. Prophecy and fate, for I must have known all my life I’d end up here with this wretched spirit. Her voice sounds familiar, the stuff of nightmares, and a terrifying internal tugging accompany the sound. My body recoils and I fall to my knees and puke onto a pile of dead leaves. Something stirs, moving through the brownish mound, and I stand before I can see what it is. The door creaks, shifting toward me, and I turn the handle. I’ve already made up my mind, there’s no turning back.

The hut is small and dark, but several shafts of sunlight spike through the tattered roof and illuminate the scene before me. A horribly thin woman sits naked in the center of the dirt floor, a pile of grey skin and bones. Her legs are twisted to her sides, bent at odd angles, as if she’d been crushed. Tall piles of too-white bones lay around her. Long grey hair falls over her face and breasts, tangled and filthy. I try not to think of the things she’s eaten or killed, but instead on why I’m here, and what I’ve come to bargain for.

“You know the price,” she says.

She laughs, a short screechy sound I feel move through me like a gust of wind. She picks up two long bones, femurs, and smacks them together before dragging them in the black dirt, drawing two spiraling circles weaving in and out of each other. She presses harder and harder, the bones digging deeper and deeper, creating furrows in the ground. Grunting, she presses harder and harder still until the bones snap in two. The sound lingers and moves around me, mocking me. She lifts one of the broken bones to her mouth and licks it, her tongue a snake darting out of her hair and back, one quick repulsive motion.

She hums deeply and rocks back and forth. Then pulls a rough stone from under one of her thighs and sharpens the broken piece of bone, rubbing it back and forth across the dark rock. The continuous humming and sharpening sounds make me feel weak, but I don’t dare sit on the floor. I’ve heard the stories of those who show weakness in her presence.

“Say the words,” she says, “and it will be done.”

She continues to rock, to sharpen, and to hum. I’m dizzy, and I don’t want to say the words, but the face of my boy dances around me. All the faces of my boy, from the day I pulled him from my body to his dying moment, they flash like lightning before me, a cruel horrible storm of time, love, guilt, and regret. 

 I know the moment has come. I have no other choice. It’s now or he will die. Fate, it seems, has no wiggle room. Stepping forward, I hold myself in the regal way I was taught. I let down my defenses and speak clearly and strongly. 

“Save Arthur. Save my son,” I say. “Please. I will pay the price.”

The words slice through the air, stopping all other movements and sounds. A wind rushes around us, moving the hair from her face, revealing dark holes where her eyes should be. She leaps to her feet and rushes toward me, faster than a diving hawk. I watch, outside myself, as she stabs the sharpened bone into my chest, into my heart. I feel the blood pour from my body, the corruption of my soul, the death of all I’ve been or ever will be. I don’t scream, and I don’t cry.

We stand locked in this position, her boney body pressed against mine and a wide, toothy smile on her skeletal face. Her teeth are sharp, and for a moment I think she will lunge at my throat, but she yanks the bone from my body and retreats to her spot on the floor, to her pile of bones. She begins licking and sucking the bloody bone, a horrible slurping sound, and I walk, dazed, out the door into the moonlight.

Never have I seen such a moon, so full of light and life. Merlin once told me it’s a giant stone in the sky, nothing more. Like a boulder in the middle of the ocean, held in time and place, but responsible for the movements of the tides and the flow of blood in a woman’s body. I didn’t understand until this moment. It’s as if death, its icy grip tight around my throat, wants me to truly see what I’m leaving behind.

As I walk back toward Camelot, I feel resolved. I would choose to save my son every single time. My life hasn’t been what I thought it would be when I was young, my dreams of adventure and epic love dashed and broken. I’ve made bad choices, I’ve hurt those I love, and I’ve suffered. But I saved Arthur, and I loved him with all I am, and for that, I am beyond grateful.

I touch my chest, expecting a gaping hole, but find none. There’s no trace of blood or gore on my body or my clothes, but I can feel it moving through me. I didn’t know death would be so cold. As I reach the top of a small hill, Camelot comes into view. The sun rises behind it, making the glorious castle glow golden and pink. It could be in heaven, I think. Such beauty belongs to Arthur, not to me. 

“Arthur’s back! Arthur’s back! The war’s over! We won!”

The excited voice of a small boy breaks the silence of the hall, and I realize I’d fallen into a trance as I watched the flames, reliving the last few hours, and feeling the cold devour me, bit by bit. I’m empty of the truest part of me, and I know it’s nearing time. I want to gather Arthur into my arms and feel his warmth, feel the life in his body, and tell him I love him. He must know I love him, he must know all the things I’ve held back, all the truths, and all the sacrifices. 

No.

The hall’s alive with activity; colorful banners and flags appear on the walls, the large chandeliers burn bright with dozens of candles, enormous barrels of ale with shining silver spigots appear everywhere, and plates of hot food and large, pewter mugs cover the famous round table. Servants rush to and fro, smiles on their faces, singing and laughing. Arthur’s alive and so, it seems, is Camelot.

The sounds of horns, horses, and metal armor reach the castle, and I stand. Nobody notices me, as I take a final look at the place my son created, at the people he protects. This victory will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for these people, his people. I know this to be true, the same way I know I shall never embrace my son again.

Weaving through the rushing servants, I exit the great hall. With all the strength left in my body, I hurry through empty corridors until I reach a small wooden door at the back of the castle. It’s left ajar, beckoning me outside, as if Camelot has decided to help me, to protect the king.

Nobody notices as I walk down the stone staircase, through the beautiful gardens, and to the shore of the lake. A bit of fog hugs the edges of the water, but it’s not too thick, and I can see the trees reflected in the glassy, smooth surface. I stop with my toe at the edge, savoring the sounds of celebration in the distance, and lift a large white stone into my arms.

I won’t allow Arthur’s victory and joy to be crushed by my death. It would be cruel to die in his arms, although my heart longs for nothing else. Oh, to hear his voice say, “I love you, dear mother.” I can’t think of it. 

No, my disappearance, if he’s told of my visit at all, will not seem out of character for me. My son has grown used to my comings and goings, my life seemingly my own. He knows not of the ways I’ve guided the world to bend toward him, and he will know nothing of my death or the price I paid to save him.

I step into the cold water, its iciness matches the chill already infecting my body from within. My dress and shawl absorb the water, forcing me to fight them, to fight for every step. I know not what awaits me, but I know this is the way it ends. I’d seen it as a child, felt it every time I was near the water. Yes, this is how it ends.

I step over slippery stones and see small fish rush away from my boots until I reach an underwater ledge, a drop-off so deep I can see nothing but blackness. Cradling the stone in my arms, as if it’s my baby, my Arthur, I step into the deep, and allow myself to sink below the surface.

Author’s note: With this prompt, I decided to play with the idea of the martyr mother. My son recently turned 17, and I’ve been experiencing some strong feelings as we navigate a new relationship. It’s been painful, and although I strive to not slip into martyr or victim mode, it felt like the perfect moment and story to explore the idea of giving all to our children without expecting anything in return.


Short Story Challenge | Week 1

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 new take on the Arthurian legend. We had to include the words Avalon, crossbow, orphan, list, comrade, corruption, lake, enfold, disgraceful, and grass.


Write With Us

Prompt: Anonymous gifts start arriving at the doorstep

Include the words: teenager, camouflage, birch, harmony, rifle, screen door, wrinkle, dive, pick-up, sticker


My 52-Week Challenge Journey