To allow us to concentrate on the Edinburgh Festival Contest, we're not accepting Longer Flash Fiction stories until 13th August. Thanks for your patience.
I was rolling north on State Route 200, going nowhere on that narrow strip of asphalt stretching over the earth like a cancer. I topped a rise in the road. On the vast plain stretching before me was Circle, Montana, the last stop on this road before it dropped into night.
I parked in front of the Cattleman’s Bar, went in and ordered a beer. An old man with a plume of magnificent hair, a flowing beard and worn leather sandals on his feet sat three barstools away, wiping droplets of moisture from a sweating beer bottle. He turned to me and asked, “Do you shoot pool?”
“You look like God,” I said.
“Out here, kid, everybody’s God. Do you shoot pool?”
“Loser buys the next round,” he said to my image in the bar’s back mirror. He flipped a coin. “Call it.”
“Tails. Bad luck.”
The cue ball clacked against the solids and the stripes, driving them into the pockets where they rattled like broken bones in a tin cup before dropping to the bottom. He ran the table. “You lose, kid.”
I tossed money on the bar. Amos the bartender brought two beers. We sat hunched up on barstools, staring at each other in the back mirror. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Waiting for answers.”
“Answers for what?”
“For prayers, kid, for prayers. The people demand answers!”
I finished my beer, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Make it easy on yourself. Don’t answer them.”
The old man laughed. “I never do, but they keep asking.”
I left him at the bar, wiping moisture from his beer bottle, listening to prayers, and waiting for answers that never came.
Adam, Bella, Caleb, Daphne, and Emily stared at the black box that contained five slips of paper- one vote for each of them.
“Gracie,” Adam read, “Gracie, Gracie, Gracie, and Faith. Okay, who voted Faith?”
“This is supposed to be anonymous, but let's use this opportunity to go over everything,” Caleb said calmly.
Bella, shrugged. “Let’s go over the facts. There are two candidates: Gracie and Faith. Gracie comes from a solid family and has lived her life in a good neighborhood. Gracie attended a great college and graduated a few years ago.
“Faith is from a poor family. One of her ancestors moved to America long ago for riches, yet no one ever got a good opportunity. She went to a small college-- only a few people know about it.”
“... We’re stuck trying to figure out who to hire in our company- and - there’s only one spot left. I think it’s pretty obvious to me. Gracie, the good student from Prestigious College, should work with us.” Adam concluded.
“But we need to be unanimous,” Caleb reminded. “So, I want to take you through some things. I have found that Faith also got into Prestigious College. But she declined the offer. That time she needed to stay close to home. She was working several part-time jobs to support her family, who was growing deeper into debts because of her brother who was battling cancer. She needed to be near her worried parents. Faith decided to attend a community college. She attended at night and worked during the day. Faith maintained this routine until she graduated from a state university.
“When I looked at Faith’s college essays, everything was sincere. I could hear her opening her heart and letting the words flow. Gracie’s essays were also impressive. However, I discovered plagiarism, sentences here and there from essays of other candidates.”
“So?” Adam asked, his voice prickly, worried that Caleb might be right. But he stubbornly refused to give in.
Caleb continued, “I went to the local cafe that Faith worked at, and they recommended her. The manager says Faith is a solid worker, and she created a new drink for the cafe, boosting their popularity. Faith is good with people, and cares for others.
“Gracie, on the other hand, worked at a design company. She always did the bare minimum, and gave off the vibe that she was too good for the others. She bragged that she would get into a prestigious job, and would leave everyone behind.”
“Whatever,” Adam grumbled. “Let’s vote again- none of the votes have changed.”
The black box was brought out, and Adam read the results. “Gracie,” he said, smiling. Then his happy expression crumpled as he read, “Faith, Faith, Faith, and Faith.”
“Just change your answer,” Daphne growled, “You know who the good candidate is- admit it.”
Fuming, Adam gave his consent.
Caleb smiled. “I’ll contact Faith immediately to tell her the good news.”
Russia and Ukraine continued to escalate to heightened tensions due to Russia’s stubbornness and Ukraine’s resolve.
Thousands of miles away, somewhat Oblivious to that fact was Adam who groped around for his glasses in order to read a book from his personal library. He was as blind as a bat without them and he absolutely loved his favorite activity which was reading his books.
One pleasant day in the month of May his favorite pastime of reading was interrupted as bone-chilling sirens screamed throughout the atmosphere signaling a nuclear attack was beginning. All week long the news had threatened that this could happen. The Russia/Ukraine situation was worsening and it looked like the inevitable would soon happen. A chain-reaction of destruction was now spreading around the world. Within minutes the skies were filled with nuclear warhead missiles.
The threat of nuclear war had been around for decades. However Adam was well prepared. He had the most sophisticated bomb shelter money could buy. His pantry was stocked with food that would far outlast his lifetime.
As he entered his luxurious shelter he realized he would probably never surface from this tomb. His private collection of books would rival the library of congress. He would live out his life quite pleasantly as he would delight in reading his collection of books for the rest of his life without interruption.
That evening he sat down with a book and started to read it but discovered he couldn’t. Ah yes, his glasses, where had he placed them? He got up and retraced his steps as he groped around.
The side of his hand accidentally bumped them and pushed them off the table and he could hear them fall to the floor.
He immediately got on all fours and crawled around searching for them. He found them fairly quickly which put a big smile on his face. He immediately put them on. His face changed from a smile to stark terror as he realized both lenses were severely cracked rendering his glasses completely obsolete.
Joanne opened up the automatic blinds in her brand-new penthouse flat to reveal another grey day in South London. She wondered how she hadn’t seen it coming. Surely the clues were there. She had either been incredibly stupid or naive. John was a good-looking man and had always attracted a lot of attention.
Before the divorce a month ago, she had been living in an eight-bedroom Georgian house in West Hampstead.
For all intents and purposes, the twenty-five-year marriage had been more than satisfactory. They had always been very much in love and it was only after the birth of their two girls did their intimacy wane. She had been preoccupied with the nursing and then the pre-schooling and then the schooling to pay much attention to it and John never bothered her.
John was from an aristocratic background and money was not a problem. Both daughters had attended prestigious private schools and their adoring father had set them both up in town houses in neighbouring streets when they had finished their studies. Joanne although not averse to hard work, had never been employed. There was always a housekeeper who sometimes ‘lived in’ and sometimes ‘lived out’.
They had met through mutual acquaintances and from the outset had got on like a house on fire. Both retained a large group of friends and they socialized sometimes together or separately depending on the type of event. He still played polo and golf. She still played tennis and rode.
She had suspected lately that he may be having an affair with Cassie the new ‘live in’ housekeeper.
When she went out shopping with the girls or visited her parents they were often left alone together in the house, apart from Stuart their chauffeur. She knew he would never snitch on John; they were too close.
She had noticed that some of her shoes and dresses had been moved in the wardrobe and she couldn’t find one of her fur coats.
She’d also found a pair of red knickers in his bedside cabinet.
Having extra maritals with her husband was one thing but dressing up in her clothes (red knickers aside!) was beyond the pale.
She wasn’t expecting the explanation she got when she finally plucked up enough courage to confront him.
It was John who had been dressing up in her clothes and he who had lost her coat on a night out in town with Stuart, his long-time lover. The knickers were Johns.
Looking back, the signs were there. He’d always dressed very flamboyantly, which she’d liked. His colourful suits and shoes were personally designed and hand made. His wardrobe had always been considerably larger than hers.
Lately, he had insisted on taking their dachshund ‘Precious’ everywhere with them, even to the restaurant. She thought it all just another upper-class idiosyncrasy. She was wrong.
She wasn’t angry, more curious to know how he looked and acted as a woman. She sometimes wished she’d had the courage to look ‘both ways’.
Raindrops fell softly with a hiss. Each drop shatters like diamonds when it collides with the earth, leaving a dazzling path that leads back into the darkness. Through the obscurity of night, the city lights could be seen shining. The air was thick with anticipation for what was to come next, leaving a sense of mystery and restlessness in its wake.
The universe must have a centre from which everything radiates outwards, even if that centre appears to exist outside of our vision and imagination as if it were purely theoretical. Since it is a space beyond what you can perceive, it's speculated to be an absolute zero point.
Except for the most fundamental physical laws, it is devoid of meaning or purpose. However, we know this isn't true because many wonderous objects are floating around in space, making the cosmos tick like a never-ending engine, churning away with its pulse, pounding in sync with the stars that fill the sky.
As I stood there, marvelling at the majesty of the night sky and the glories of the heavens that filled my view, it felt as if time itself had slowed down, giving me a moment to breathe once again.
When you wake up, you’re on the floor in the closet, but it’s not your closet. There are loads of hats, women’s hats, and a sea of black everywhere: black stockings, black dresses, and black skirts. In the middle of the tight space, on a shelf, there are wigs too.
Your mouth is dry, and your body aches. What is happening? You touch your face and lick your lips before you hear laughter, and then boom, a door slams!
“Don't move,” a voice says, a woman with crooked teeth stands over you.
“Who are you? Where am I?” you cough.
The strange woman begins to click her tongue, “Never mind that, your husband’s in the den. Both of you drank too much at the office party, I was nice enough to bring you here.” She begins to whistle and rummage through shelves, while she’s telling you about hats, the red one, she wore on Tuesdays, the silver one she wore on Fridays, that blue one, your husband loved, said it matched her eyes. The woman kisses the air and you feel dizzy. She mumbles on about black hats, leather hats, and denim baseball hats until you are overwhelmed, and manage to rise, get to your feet.
“I need out of here,” you mumble.
“Alright, good…here’s your keys.” she snorts.
You quickly walk to the door, your husband’s passed out in the recliner, mouth open like a sleepy child as you move toward him before the strange woman stops you, pops out with her velvet hat and fake smile right in front of that mantel with all those snapshots.
1-2-3-4–5-6, there are six to be exact. Photos of the woman, your husband posing, hugging, laughing behind the flash of the camera like a B rated-movie in slow motion, the one with the cheap ending.
After eating a delicious dinner at my favorite restaurant I realized there would only be two dollars left in my wallet after paying for my meal. It was getting dark quickly and I decided to get some exercise by walking from the restaurant to my bank to get as much cash as I could from the ATM machine.
As I was returning to my car I was accompanied by three thugs, each one younger, bigger and stronger than myself. One guy had a six inch scar on his left cheek. Another had tattoos all over his face and the last guy had a black patch over his right eye. They were all over six feet tall and weighed more than two hundred and fifty pounds.They had me cornered up against the bank with no help in sight and with no way out. There was only one thing to do.
I coughed loudly three times.
I then said, “Which one of you punks want to be first. I’ll beat the living tar out of you and if I don’t this Covid 19 virus will.”
“Hey, where did everybody go?”
Did you actually think you could escape?
Shelly sits back behind the table of lit candles, all the ash from the paper she had burned with his name scribbled on it. Not just any name, but the name of her boss who was involved with that petite, “nothing of a girl.” They called her his wife, but not for long.
Shelly was a “witch” and had earned that title long ago. When she was younger, she spent her days with teens who practiced witchcraft in the cemetery rather than going to the local mall. She wore black make-up, black clothes, and mini skirts with fishnet stockings, daily, regardless of the weather.
Later, she traded her short skirts for black dresses, long stockings and proudly displayed choker necklaces, onyx rings, and bracelets, the jewelry, made from the delicate hands of her boss, Luke. When she sees him working his magic, it reminds her of the days before with that boy. The boy who worked with metal in his Dad’s garage. The one who created the large metal moon for her bedroom wall and a dagger to ward off spirits in the cemetery, the boy who accidentally slipped down a cliff in the thick lightning storm, never to return.
Now, she mixes the ingredients for the love spell: violet, hawthorn, pearl dust, and honey-infused rose buds. She blends it together, shaking it two to four times before she lets it sit in that dark, cool space for weeks.
When that Tuesday comes, the very day of the super moon, she moves carefully with the potion inside the pocket of her black vest. She walks with ease through the jewelry store without blinking before she drops a dose into Luke’s afternoon coffee.
She waits, the witch waits-waits-waits for him to slip, stumble, fall.
Oh, yes, this man will fall.
This story is dedicated to my new friend, Malvina, who is in my thoughts and prayers – Doug Bartlett
Barry was sitting on his couch watching the news and contemplating his birthday party this year. He would be eighty-seven years of age and he was wondering how his family members would get that many candles on his cake. He then began to reflect on all the craziness he had seen in the past nearly nine decades.
He was startled back to reality when a news bulletin flashed on the screen stating —- “Despite Ukraine’s best efforts the Russians continue to pound away. According to inside information that has just been verified, the Russians have ramped up their offense for an all out chemical and nuclear attack on Ukraine. The Russians have named it ‘Satan’s Wrath’.
Intelligence reports show that the massive attack will begin tomorrow at approximately
11:00 a.m.This would totally obliterate Ukraine and it would require many decades if not centuries to rebuild this nation.”
Unbeknownst to everyone, including the Russian leadership, a meteor the size of a football field is hurtling through space directly at earth at the approximate speed of 6,700 miles per second. At that rate it will make contact with the Earth at approximately 11:00 am tomorrow.
Barry falls into a heavy slumber and doesn’t wake up until 11:15 a.m. At that time another news bulletin comes on the television stating —-
“A large meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere and shortly thereafter made contact with the Earth, itself causing mass devastation to the country of Russia, taking out the entire military Leadership and all the Russian government officials, including Vladimir Putin himself.”
Some call this a coincidence and others call it an act of God.
You be the Judge.
“But you tell me
Over and over and over, again my friend
How you don’t believe
We’re on the eve of destruction.”
A man set sail from a harbor in Southern California crossing the expanse of the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean. His goal was to reach the French Polynesia Islands. He got further and further away from civilization until he could no longer see the mainland.
A powerful squall appeared and scuttled his boat leaving him stranded in the water with no land in sight. He began desperately swimming for his life and was barely able to reach the shore of an isolated, deserted island.
He had mixed feelings as he was barely able to drag himself onto the edge of the sandy beach. You see, he was grateful to be alive but at the same time he couldn’t believe that God would put him in this situation. What had he done to deserve this? Why would God do this, or at the very least allow it to happen?
He continued to pray earnestly that he would be rescued soon as he knew his time was very limited.
He explored the small island and found some palm trees which he could use to construct a small hut.
He came to love his little hut as it provided him shelter from the weather and the bugs.
One evening as he returned from further exploration of the island he went into shock and disbelief as he saw his beloved hut was completely engulfed in flames. He felt totally helpless as there was nothing he could do to stop it from burning down to the ground.
His multiple feelings began to boil up from deep within. The first to surface was denial. Was this actually happening?
The second was frustration as he began to realize the amount of labor that had been involved and would be involved again in order to build another hut.
His feelings soon transitioned into pity, self pity and then finally to anger.Now he was really upset with God and gave Him both barrels. The single best thing at this time in his life and it had been taken away from him. It made no sense to him at all.
The next morning when he woke up he couldn’t believe his eyes. A U.S. Coast Guard ship was on the horizon coming straight toward him.
He ran to the edge of the island with joy and when they landed he asked them, “How in the world did you ever find me?”
“Quite simple,” they responded,”We simply followed the fire you set.”
That man learned a valuable lesson that day.
Twentieth anniversary celebrations and there’s only one hot ticket in town, so it’s the two of us, right down the front, fist pumping the air at the final live date of their farewell tour.
These vagabond minstrels tear through all their greatest hits, but nowadays it’s no longer lighters held high, only phones upon show. The eerie glow and shadows thrown make us all look like foolish neon green ghouls (and much, much older than we truly are)
One electrifying set later, we’re sneaking shots in a dingy basement bar. Ears ringing, so we’re kind of shouting, damp band t-shirts slowly drying, drunken confessions abound; singing along, she suddenly realised she had always been getting the words wrong.
“I mean it,” she yells across the pool felt, one eye screwed shut as she artfully aims, “I swear that it’s always been ‘IT’S A COLD BUMMER THAT YOU’RE LEAVING ON THAT TRAIN’…”
The eight ball ricochets, the pocket spitting it back out.
“Summer, sweetheart, summer!”
She barks her feral laugh.
“Your fault! I must’ve played that goddamn cassette you made me a million times trying to figure it out”
I recall it all: the satisfying clunk-click of thick plastic pause buttons, the commitment of selecting then listening to each track, the hypnotic rotation of tiny dual miniature spools, rewinding a chewed up C60 with a chipped Bic biro, inking each track on the cardboard sleeve in neat block capitals.
She sidles up and hooks her arms around me, giving my behind a cheeky squeeze.
“I knew you were the one when I found that compilation lying on the doormat”
I look into her eyes as she smiles, thinking: the mixtape she’d learnt it from was a mistake.
It was always meant for her sister.
I resist the urge to tell her.
The first time, my mother was released from the state hospital, her eyes had that far-off look. You could tell she wasn’t ready for the outside world. She was malnourished and skinny, scary skinny. The following day, she woke abruptly bursting into my bedroom, grabbing me from my dreamy world.
“We must go now, Jenny Girl!” she cried. “Mom…stop pulling me!”
But she yanked me and held me in her scrawny arms with a fierceness that roared inside. She was running, panting down the driveway as my sister Lila was stumbling behind us screaming to put me down. Tears were streaming down my face as my mother stripped me free of my Cinderella nightgown and offered me up to the sky like some kind of sacrifice to a God that had forgotten her.
For the next few weeks, we stayed with Aunt Joanne, who was married to a man named Sal. Lila and I fell into a routine of helping them out at his Italian restaurant while our mother was in the hospital. We learned to make pizza crust, pastries, and cinnamon sticks in the midst of Mother’s chaos. We loved the wet feel of the dough in our hands as we molded, twirled, and shaped it into something that would last.
At daybreak, I started working: kneading-kneading-kneading. I worked with my hands over and over so my brain would keep moving. That magic bread kept filling my head and belly, and I couldn’t stop.
After the dinner rush, sometimes, I found myself sitting at Sal's Pizza counter across from the mirrored wall. Beneath the low light, I could see my mother’s eyes glaring back at me. I had the same shape, and color only my mother’s drooped with the weight of despair. I wanted my mother to see something, anything. I wanted her to forget, forget about my Dad who disappeared. I glared hard at my pasty self pulling at my eyes until I felt the need to shift. Round and round and round I turned on the black swivel bar stool as if the spinning might launch me up, up, and OUT.
When Mother was released from the hospital for the second time, she was forty-something, liquid paper white. Her hair was dull, a bit matted, but her eyes were clear. She was medicated and had a therapist. The new doctor had kept her inside that small thorny nest until she could fly.
For Mother’s homecoming, Sal gave her a spa day at “Queens” beauty shop. She was scrubbed, rubbed down, clipped, oiled, and came out the door quietly with a new body wave. Behind our soft gaze, and a house full of hand-picked dandelions, she sighed and ran her trembling hands over her puffy mane. And at that moment, we were all, Queens, really, my sister and I were mystified, wide-eyed, and standing tall next to a mother who finally seemed free.
Jade chewed on her fingernails, nervous about the upcoming SAT exams. It wasn’t that she was worried for herself- Jade was a smart girl. It was her best friend, Olivia, that Jade thought about. Olivia was always bad at school, and continually struggled with her work.
“Jade, I can’t do this,” she had said desperately, “Can you help me?”
For days Jade thought about it. Doing Olivia’s test would be cheating and morally wrong. Jade would feel guilty, and so would Olivia. But if not, Olivia’s dreams of attending art school and becoming a singer would be crushed. Jade remembered all the things the two had planned to do. She recalled the day that the two besties had decided to form a girl band after taking vocal lessons at art school. Jade and Olivia had picked out their band name, and had already custom-designed their outfits together, promising each other that they would buy it once they had the money saved up. Their whole life was planned out! Jade couldn’t risk losing everything over a stupid SAT test.
Jade and Olivia looked so similar that people thought they were twins; sometimes even their mothers confused their daughters. The test proctors would not know the difference.
Still, if Jade did this, their relationship would be based on a lie. However ‘stupid’ the test was, Jade knew that she would feel guilty about cheating.
The night before the test, Jade tossed and turned, wondering what her decision would be. By the morning, Jade had made up her mind and decided to call Olivia.
What did Jade say? That, dear reader, is entirely up to your imagination!
In the quiet hour, when the guns rest and the trench’s walls envelop you gently in the dark, like a mother’s loving embrace, you chase your sleep away with a sip of lukewarm coffee and talk.
“What will you do next rotation?” You ask your war twinned brother, noticing the smears of dirt and clotted blood across his drained face, like marks of honour.
The reply is ever the same. “Sleep first, then take my family out.”
“Where?” you ask to keep hearing a human voice.
“Just shopping. Buy Alisa an ice cream cone and that awfully overpriced doll house she cried all night for. Hell with the money, just want her to have it.” He smiles his lopsided grin and shakes ash from the stub. It falls on his boot like charnel dust.
Tomorrow the enemy’s missile will put your best friend to sleep, as he wanted, but he’ll never take his daughter out.
In the quiet hour, when the guns rest and someone asks you what you’ll do next rotation, you don’t say, Sleep. You can’t sleep now, not until the last shot finishes its murderous fly. The pain-twisted faces of your battle brothers cross your mind every coming twilight. As a prayer, you mumble a promise to survive. Someone has to buy the doll house for Alisa.
I passed by a little store. There was a collection of handmade jewellery and other ornaments. The display window showcased these items beautifully. The woman behind the counter looked up as I approached her shop.
“Hi, these are some lovely bracelets. Which one would you recommend?” I asked.
The shop owner pointed to a woven blue and white bracelet on the top shelf.
“That’s adorable, how much would that be?”
She gestured the number ‘4’ for 4,000 Rupiah.
“Sorry, this is all I have,” I handed a 20,000 note.
The woman took the note and went to the back of her store. I caught a glimpse through the unhinged doors. There were 5, maybe 6 children, playing on the wooden floor. They had found an apple from the tree outside and were playing a game to see who gets the first bite. The little one was at a disadvantage, but she had one of her older siblings rallying on her side. I could see a few sheets scattered on the floor, a tiny bathroom in the corner and a little pot used to cook rice.
The woman came back out and handed me the change.
“No, you keep it.” I thanked the woman and took the neatly-wrapped bracelet.
She gestured at me to take the money.
I shook my head and politely said, “It is not much. Please use the money to buy another apple for the little one.”
The woman was filled with happiness and wept.
“Make sure you tell the little one to share with her siblings!”
Irving had isolated himself. He’d been standing off to one side at his self-appointed post, when they brought it in. Parties were not for him. Most gatherings above two people exceeded his social capacity. But today he had a solemn duty, supporting his friend Mike. What he had not been prepared for, was a bouncy castle. Irving watched in tense anticipation as the inflatable monument was erected. Arches, buttresses and parapets of canary yellow plastic took rigid shape from jumbled primordial form. His mind cast back to the summers of his boyhood, of his incessant use of the tiny trampoline his parents got him - a concession for never fulfilling their promise of a bouncy castle for his birthday. But here it was. He could resist the call no longer. He parted the netting and plunged into the shadow cluttered world within. The beginning was tentative, but soon though he found his rhythm, perfect harmony of man and castle. Soon he was in fluid motion, touching the hand of god at each breathless apex, outside of time. The hands spun on the clock, but he had no intention of stopping. The cries of the nanny, the other ‘adults’ with their pleading for him to stop. None of it mattered, the castle had chosen him. The children gawped horrified, one with a broken shoulder. But Mike Jr would always remember the police arresting the strange man who came to his tenth birthday party.
“ You see this?”
I look up from my online shopping and give her my attention.
“Pictures from Colleen McCafferty’s Facebook account,” she said, then holding a finger up, started to read from it.
“Some photos from our amazing weekend with old friends. Thanks to Tony and Molly Woods for hosting the Great Wakefield Photo Reunion.”
“Okay,” I said, knowing where this was going.
“There’s farking everyone there,” she said, “ Colleen, Chris, Marco, even farking Reza A.”
“He was there that summer at the Plattsburgh store that Tony managed.”
“Ok,” I say.
“You know what?” she says, “It isn’t ‘OK’. We were friends with those a-holes for ten farking years and they can’t even be bothered to contact us to let us know there’s a reunion?”
“Would we have gone?”
“I dunno,” she says, “Been a while and it’s a three hour drive now.”
“So, why you getting your titties in a twist about this?”
“Because it should have been our decision to go or not.”
With that she goes off to make lunch.
I get it.
Unknown to her, I’ve been messaging Chris on and off every couple years on his birthday, just to say “hi, happy birthday and basically hope you’re doing OK”
Never heard back from him.
Guess he’s either moved on or we’ve done something to piss them off.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter; we have friends here now and it’s been twenty years since we moved, so I didn’t expect anything effusive from the guy.
Not even one, “Hey, doing great, talk later maybe”
We must have pissed them off.
Was it not sending a card when her Mom died?
A couple days later, she comes to me with a list.
“These are the people I want to re-connect with.”
I look at the list.
“Really?” I say, “Julie Schall?”
“And Donny Tremblant.”
“The guy from Cedar Point?”
“I hear he and his wife own a cottage resort up in the Blue Pine Highlands”
“And you thought he’d let us stay there, just because we knew him….twenty five years ago?”
“I just want to re-connect with a couple people, that’s all.”
So, that became my mission when she was off working overnights.
Trying to find these people I hadn’t talked to in two decades.
A couple of them I found.
Julie even wrote back with a long message about everything she’s been up to since those days.
Got married, got a job with a symphony out west, had a couple kids, got divorced, went gay.
It was a bit of an over-share, truth be told.
Of course, she ended with “ It was nice hearing from you two. Stay in touch.”
Translation: “We’re done here.”
Other than that, there wasn’t any success in tracking people down.
I wasn’t surprised; that time was so transient.
We thought we were all friends but we were really just co-employees with benefits.
I'd felt struck by a strange sensation that I wasn't really in my own body but somewhere else entirely. It had been nothing like this, though I couldn't remember where or how it felt then. I couldn't remember anything from the past two weeks except for flashes of memories here and there. It felt bizarre, like a half-forgotten dream or a nightmare coming back to me in bits and pieces.
A sentiment of being sick, I had followed with a memory. It was like a thread pulled from my brain, one of those strands that run through our rememberings in different directions, some leading here, others there. Eventually, the whole thing came together in one continuous narrative. By then, it was too late to stop it.
I tried to tell myself this wasn't true, and I felt this weird sense of dread at being there, that there must be some other explanation for my strange behaviour. But the smell of the food still filled my nostrils, even though I'd eaten nothing all day except the small glass of water I had forced down at night and the bitter taste of the coffee I tried to drink before leaving the house. The smell of food didn't make me hungry. There was something about it that made me feel unhealthy. The scent of something, the way my nose told me it was wrong.
Then I thought of all those moments in my past that had made me sick with worry and fear. I had realized that it wasn't any of those things making me ill. I remembered a moment, a flash from before. I had walked into a room full of people and smelled them. I also remember being in that moment; I no longer felt sick. I only felt the hunger.
First doll I ever got, a birthday gift from my best friend Lottie. She came into my life on my birthday, 5 years younger than me. She took one look at me and I knew straightaway that she suited the name Amy Londin.
Amy was 6 when she disappeared, didn’t even make her 7th birthday. Her death was confirmed by The Guernsbury Senior Parks Officer. Found with brown wavy hair missing in circular patches from the scalp, looking more like the bristles of a styling brush than a full head of beautiful flowing hair. Her body was found dismembered in the bush by the playground. Lottie and I used to hide in there. Amy was only wearing one shoe.
“She was quite small for her age,” is all he managed to say. As the park detective he concluded it was the local dog walker with her multiple hounds who had torn into Amy’s multi-coloured biscuit-scented dress.
The Senior Parks Officer knows me. He knows my family. He knows Lottie and I played lots with Amy in that playground, knows that we bought ice creams afterwards.
He has organised a service for Saturday week by the café where we spent our pocket money. It includes afternoon tea. My friends will be there, and Amy’s, and Lottie of course. Amy loved afternoon teas, on the grass, on a patchwork blanket. It’s where she knew everything I knew.
She leaves behind a miniature china tea set, wooden sandwiches, knitted cakes and biscuits, a collection of cuddly teddy bears, and beloved dachshund, Bertie.
And our conversations.
You still had the golden friend from childhood, Ella the girl who was there when you were worried, the one who was there when you felt lost. As kids, we would sit in the woods and have tea parties. We would pick blackberries off the bushes and wade our feet in the cool creek singing songs from the boombox to ease our troubled minds.
She was there for you when Dylan proposed under a line of stars in the park. She was there when he put that diamond on your finger and the world was full of sparkle, promise.
And she was there now, watching over you still trying to protect you from the chaos and doom. When she visits you on a Tuesday, it is with a wobbly heart. “Listen,” she whispers, “please listen to me, that strange woman is lurking in the woods by your house, again! I’ve seen her more than once when I’ve come to visit. You know, she’s mad, obsessed. I just have a bad feeling about it, all of it.”
You glare at her, with a look that says, I cannot swallow any more gloom, not another dark day. And Ella did what she always did in moments like these, she grabbed your hand and said, “Come, come, let’s walk down by the river to clear our minds.”
Your steps are quick but you keep looking over your shoulder. Ella is there. She begins to sing a familiar tune from your days in the creek as kids. She’s there as you inhale the Georgia breeze, taking in those tall massive pines that seemed to kiss the sky. Ella is there but the strange woman is not far behind. Dylan had threatened to have her arrested if she did not leave him alone. He changed his cell number and relocated to another office so she would be out of sight.
You can hear footsteps now.
You jump when a tree limb snaps and lands with a thud on the ground. You jump all the time now. Memories of the strange woman sitting outside your house, refusing to leave! All those letters, filled with garbage, and ugly threats. It was clogging up your brain so you stay by the river close to Ella. The footsteps behind you are louder-louder-louder but the rush of the water is mesmerizing, beautiful.
The rapids are high today, so powerful, and there are two of you.
I don’t remember being one. My mom tells the story about when I wandered into a street and the oncoming car stopped. The driver couldn’t see me, yet he still stopped. A miracle, my mom says.
I also don’t remember being two, but my little brother Charlie was born then. My grandma says that I hated him. I wanted all the attention.
I remember a little bit from when I was three. Charlie died just a few months after my birthday, so unfortunately I barely remember him. He’s just a little blurry blob in my mind now.
On my fourth birthday, my preschool best friend moved away. I learned that nothing lasts forever. I never enjoyed school again.
When I was five, I started kindergarten. My mom made a big deal of it, and got my hopes up too high. My older brother had warned me about it. “It’s not thaaaat fun, Kelly,” he said.
My sixth year started out great. But then, a few months later, my cat died. We still haven’t gotten a new one. My dad always said we would.
Shortly after I turned seven, my parents told me they were having another baby. “You’re trying to replace Charlie!” I exclaimed. They tried to assure me they weren’t. I never believed them.
When I turned eight, I started playing soccer. I was really good at it. I still play soccer now.
At nine, I had my first crush. I went to school with him through elementary school, but never saw him after that.
When I was ten, I learned again that nothing lasts forever. My grandma died of cancer. She was my favorite grandparent.
I was an exceptional eleven year old. I’d always gotten a’s in school until my English teacher broke that streak. I guess answers in school aren’t always objective.
Twelve years now. Middle school was hard. Everyone was mean. I learned that most people aren’t good.
When I turned thirteen, I found out nothing changed. Sure, I was a teenager, but there was nothing magical about it. If anything, it was worse.
When we were on vacation when I was fourteen, I had to go to the emergency room and realized that I wasn’t immortal. Luckily, I survived.
I got my first job when I was fifteen. It was at a library, but I learned all kinds of useful skills. I learned how to write a check and write professional-sounding emails.
On my sixteenth birthday, I failed my driver’s test. I passed the next time.
When I was seventeen, my heart got broken. Turns out that “perfect guy” doesn’t really exist. I settled for pretty good, and things have been going well with my new boyfriend.
Tomorrow’s my eighteenth birthday. I’m still in high school. I haven’t picked a college, haven’t picked a career, don’t have my whole life planned out. Sorry, college prep school. It’s a little early to make all those decisions. Maybe I won’t even go to college. Who knows?
Once a barbaric kingdom existed many centuries ago. All details were forgotten about the kingdom, which had thankfully long disappeared. However, one detail was forever remembered.
The queen could put any woman on a grand trial. She would be stationed in front of two stone doors. She would choose one door and open it. Whether that door would lead to life or death was chosen randomly before the trial. When the woman opened the door, out would come a ferocious lion who would immediately kill her, or a handsome man who would take the woman by his arms and marry her.
Crowds of people would always come, to watch with horror the lion gobble the lady; or cheer for the handsome, young man sweeping away the woman’s tears of happiness (or relief).
The onlookers included the queen’s son, the prince, who had always watched the trials until the day when he fell in love with a young maid.
They met together in secret for three months, until it came to the queen’s attention that her son was not with the onlookers at several trials. It did not take long from then as the prince’s love affair unraveled.
The queen put the girl on trial immediately, for ‘stealing’ her son and not doing her job. After days of frantic investigation, and many bribes, the prince finally learned which door led to the lion and the handsome man.
The price often thought about what would happen when the door opened to the lion. He heard the shrieks of his lover in his sleep. However, he thought about the door that led to the man even more often. He could hear the wedding bells and laughter as the love of his life soon forgot all about the prince and married the other man. Even worse, the prince knew who the man waiting behind the door was. He was a handsome, young man, who held high positions in the royal court and was the equestrian champion. The prince could not decide what to do. He would certainly not tell his lover to open the door to the other man, but to imagine his lover opening the door of the lion was heart wrenching. The prince did not sleep the night before the trial.
At last, the day of the trial arrived. As the prince stared out his window as dawn broke, he made his decision.
At the trial, the prince saw his lady arrive in a white dress. The woman looked at the prince briefly and mouthed a single word. “Which?”
No one else heard it, as it was only a breath. However, the prince heard it, and he quickly raised his left hand. The woman opened the stone door. Whether the court was filled with screams of terror or shouts of delight is entirely for you to decide.
Since pitching their see-through toaster idea to Dragon’s Den and winning major investment, sales of ‘The Most Practical Invention of The Decade’ had gone through the roof.
Consequently, Ruby and Mike had decided to move away from the city nearer to the coast where they could enjoy the watersports, they both loved.
Whilst clearing out the loft in readiness, they came across their old slide projector, telescopic screen and a box labelled ‘Gene Pitney U.S tour 2000’.
Deciding immediately to have a good old-fashioned reminisce, they transported everything downstairs and set up.
It had taken them over a year to save for the tickets, working double shifts in the domestic appliance factory where they had met. They flew business class, stayed in 5-star hotels, procured backstage passes and signed T-shirts; the whole VIP caboodle.
Just as they were about to ‘switch on’, the doorbell rang and Ruby grudgingly extricated herself from her large G & T and went to investigate.
To their surprise it was John and Sadie, old work mates who were in the area and had decided to ‘pop in’.
Familiar with their friends’ occasional idiosyncratic behaviour they sat down and insisted they continue with their trip down memory lane.
“That’s us at Gatwick, wearing our matching tour jackets” Mike said proudly.
“Forgot you two were massive Pitney fans” their guests replied.
“We were heading to his concert in Disneyworld, Los Angeles. It had a revolving stage. Forty thousand fans packed in. It was mega!” Ruby effused.
“Wouldn’t that be about ‘Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa’?” John joked.
With disdained looks and deaf ears, the hosts continued.
“His voice was completely unique. A tenor with a range from A2 to G4, and perfect pitch!” Mike waxed lyrically.
John and Sadie nodded in a conciliatory manner.
“There were celebrities from all walks of life; actors, footballers, writers, even a Chinese chess grandmaster. They’d all come to watch him” Mike continued.
“Blimey, a chess guru, who’d have thought it?” Sadie said.
“He was called Ni Huang, known as NI. The press claimed that he won all his finals wearing his signed Pitney shirt; apparently, it brought him luck. I’m sure there’s a slide of him in here somewhere” Mike suggested.
“I suppose you’re all exceptional in your own way then. The unique singer, the chess master and the see-through toaster inventors!” Sadie proffered.
“Found it!” Mike said excitedly.
It was a backstage photograph of the four of them.
“There’s Gene, there’s NI and there’s US”.