the key

Day 3 of StoryADay: write a “drabble” —  a story in 100 words or less.

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barren cement

homeless person asleep on the street

From across the street behind plate glass, past steaming herbal tea you can just see a crimson nose twitch at diesel-filled air. One hand rolls back a ragged grey blanket, to expose a bowl-shaped chest. Perhaps that’s where copper coins were tossed as the night passed. From under the blanket early bugs are snapped from torn jeans, then shimmied up hips discreetly draped by nubby wool. Knotted hands tug on white cotton sox, a sporting veil for long-grounded prayers. A sudden crouch and pivot, to freeze and stare at the plate glass echo of unruly hair, only to vanish back under the woolen blanket. So starts another long day, housed on barren cement.

Today’s Story-A-Day prompt and I didn’t see eye to eye; I wrote a piece of prose poetry instead. Ah well! At least I wrote! Sláinte!

All’s well in the neighborhood

Jem left the house at precisely 6 a.m. Monday through Friday. Wanda could set her watch by this fact, and frequently did. As far as Jem was concerned, no person and no event was ever to interfere with his workday schedule. Including Wanda. In fact, Wanda learned early in their marriage that the day went better if she stayed in bed until the door to their flat clicked shut. Wanda used to watch Jem as he walked down to the corner newsstand to pick up the Times for his one-hour train ride into the city. She wondered if Mr. Dunham also set his watch by Jem.

Mr. Dunham didn’t set his watch by anyone’s schedule but his own, which included picking up assorted newspapers, muffins and fruit juices by 5 a.m., and selling out by 9 a.m. so he could return home and cook breakfast for his wife. He looked up from facing the rows of apple juice and handed Jem a copy of the Times. “Morning, sir,” he said. “Muffin? Juice?” he asked. Mr. Dunham always asked. Jem always said no. It took a few seconds to realize Jem actually nodded yes. Surprised, Mr. Dunham tucked the apple juice and bran muffin Jem pointed at neatly into a paper bag. Jem handed over a five spot. “Keep the change,” Jem said, and pivoted neatly on his right heel to continue his march down the street. Mr. Dunham’s warning died on his lips as Jem collided with the customer who had edged quietly up behind Jem.

“Careful!” The woman Jem nearly knocked over had a curious toddler clinging to her legs, further upsetting her balance. Jem grabbed her by the arm to steady her. “My apologies, ma’am,” he nodded once, and looked down at the toddler with a brief smile. The woman watched Jem walk away, before turning to Mr. Dunham to order two muffins and juice. “Pleasant enough, fellow, isn’t he?” she asked with a bright smile. “Even if he doesn’t watch where he’s going.” She pursed her lips together and glanced once more at Jem’s retreating back. Mr. Dunham narrowed his eyes at her, counting back change. No wedding band and no sign of one recently removed, either. “Pleasant, enough,” he said. “And married these last ten years or more.”

Mr. Dunham glanced up the street and waved a cheery hello to Wanda. Clutching her faded terry bathrobe closed, Wanda was leaning out the front door to pick up the morning milk delivery. She smiled and waved back. All was well in the neighborhood.

Each May, folks have the chance to take part in the StoryADay writing challenge, hosted by Julie Duffy. Today’s prompt asked folks to weave words together following the main character on his way to work using three different POVs. Lovely, I say, since my focus this month is on character building. Enjoy!

May Montage: The First Three Days

May is known in some circles as Story-A-Day  month, and folks that take part try to write a short story a day based on the provided prompts. The challenge is flexible and open to setting your own story writing goals with the bigger purpose being to develop the daily habit of writing! Personally, my primary goal this month is to write a first draft of a prompted short story of about 5000 words to submit to a challenge anthology. So, I’ll be picking and choosing prompts throughout that month that whet my creative juices and help spur me along with the main goal. While I won’t share the ultimate story I’m working on, I will share the shorts I write as we go. So, without further ado — here are the first three.

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Day 1: The Prompt
You attend the funeral of an old friend. Afterwards, in the mail you receive a postcard. It’s from the friend, and it reads “I’m not dead. Meet me Tuesday night at 8 at ___________.” And signed by him/her. First make a list of possibilities for how this could be the case. Begin your story with, or after, the arrival of the postcard.

“You’ve got mail.”

Nonni’s scratchy voice greeted me as I stopped on the doormat and slid my shoes off. Tucking the battered briefcase under the foyer table, and hanging my patched blazer on the rack, I carried my lunchbox into the kitchen. Nonni was shelling peas, a cup of steaming coffee by her elbow. I dropped a kiss on her brow, settling into the chair across from her, and began sorting through the stack of mail.

“And how was today?” she asked. “Any better than yesterday?”

“I suppose,” I took a deep breath and looked at Nonni’s kind eyes. “I only thought about her most of the day instead of all the live-long day. I still can’t believe Jenny’s gone.”

Nonni set the shelled peas aside and wrapped up the empty pods into the old newspaper. She leaned forward and laid a gentle hand on mine before tapping a Winston 100 into her hand and lit it, puffing energetically.

“That stuff’ll kill you, Nonni,” I waved my hand at the writhing smoke and coughed. “Or me,” I added, and then picked up the one piece of mail that wasn’t clearly a bill.

“Damn! I haven’t received a postcard in years. I didn’t think people still sent ‘em!”

I flipped the card over and felt the blood drain from face. It was from Jenny, postmarked two days ago, in the afternoon, from a local post office. It couldn’t be. Two days earlier I was standing at her graveside, wishing the weather would cooperate and weep so I wouldn’t have to. Instead, it had been obscenely beautiful and glorious with a blazing sun, crystal clear blue sky, not a single cloud, and flowers in full bloom.

“What is it, Dave?” Nonni peered at me.

“Jenny,” I swallowed. “She says she’s not dead and to meet her tonight at 8 pm at the Gnarled Oak.” Jenny and I met at least once a week at the neighborhood pub to share a companionable pint and catch up on each other’s week. I hadn’t been in for several months, ever since Jenny grew too ill to meet me there anymore.

“I don’t understand . . . I watched them bury her!”

Nonni inhaled and blew out a reflective puff of smoke, tapping one finger lightly on the chipped table.

“Well, m’boy,” she said, “there’s nothing to do but to get over there and find out what’s going on.”

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Day 2: The Prompt
A socially awkward girl in her early teens is a latchkey kid, alone at home after school as usual. Flipping through channels she lands on one she soon realizes only she can see—and it’s from the future.

Maidie dropped her bookbag on the front porch and dug dispiritedly through her coat pockets for the house key. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the other neighborhood kids clumped in groups, chattering and laughing. The only time she ever spoke to any of them was if they were forced to through group projects at school. Otherwise, she spent her days alone and pretending she didn’t care.

Her fingers finally located the key. It had slipped inside a tear in her pocket lining. Maidie made the tear a bit bigger in her efforts to retrieve the key, and grimaced. She finally wormed it out through the tear and leaned forward to unlock the front door, nudging the heavy backpack on in front of her.

Turning around, she glanced back outside and saw different kids heading up to doors that opened for them, with mostly smiling mothers or grandmothers greeting them. Maidie’s mom was widowed and worked two jobs to make ends meet. Which left Maidie to let herself in, do her homework, the chores and fix a late dinner for her worn-out mother. Maidie didn’t mind, really, and was looking forward to getting a part-time job herself to help take some of the pressure off her mother. And, frankly, to have someone to talk to, even if it was only as a cashier or bagger at the local grocery store.

Maidie was an only child, and had never really understood or liked kids her own age. At Sunday School, she kept to herself, blossoming only when she was helping the older ladies serve coffee and cookies after service, or when she was cleaning for Mrs. Jensen down the street. Adults made sense to her. Kids didn’t. Plus, they were downright mean.

Maidie shrugged off her coat and padded on stocking feet into the kitchen to grab an apple for a snack before turning on the ancient black and white TV sitting on the counter. No one she knew had such an old TV – with rabbit ears even! – and no cable. Their old TV took a little bit to warm up and only offered a grainy picture and fuzzy sound with a choice of three local stations, but she supposed it was better than nothing.

Maidie pulled up a stool and watched the picture slowly come in. Grimacing, she changed the channel from Days of Our Lives to General Hospital to . . . and stopped in surprise. The picture was crystal clear and in color.

“What the heck?” Maidie leaned closer. It was like nothing Maidie had ever seen, with people strolling arm and arm in clothes that rippled and changed color and style every other step. There were sleek, translucent buildings towering high above but not blocking the sun. Instead, the sun slanted through the buildings, falling upon carefully manicured lawns and shrubs. Maidie peered closer and realized what was missing.

“There aren’t any cars!”

No sooner had the words come out of her mouth, a large spherical shape crossed the screen, floating somewhere midway between the ground and the tops of the buildings. Maidie gasped in dismay as people stepped out of the device. She fully expected they would fall to their deaths below, but instead they drifted down to land lightly on the sidewalk below.

“This can’t be real,” Maidie flipped the channels and saw what she expected to see of the afternoon’s soap operas, and then flipped the channels again.

“It’s still there,” she murmured. “I don’t think I’m dreaming. But what is it? What am I seeing”

With a start, she realized there was a low voice speaking and she turned the volume up.  It was no language she had ever heard before. Frustrated, she started to turn away before she realized that the language was changing . . . and changing again, and again, and again. Almost, as if the voice was repeating a message over and over in many different languages to make sure the message was heard loud and clear.

Finally, the voice spoke in English: Please listen carefully to the following emergency broadcast. This is a message from five hundred years in your future. We have come back across time to warn you of the crisis that is very near. Many of you will die – only a few will live. Take heed and prepare. You must plan on eating from stored provisions for the next year and staying safely below ground while the war happens above. Take only what you need to survive. Leave all else behind. Those of you who survive will start again and create the world you now see for your kin. Please, remember those of us yet to come.”

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Day 3: The Prompt
People called him The Doll Maker. Nobody ever wondered aloud why every doll had the same face.

People called him The Doll Maker. Nobody ever wondered aloud why every doll had the same face. They only wondered in their minds, because askers disappeared, never seen again. An unwitting person would ask the fateful question, and the people would hush in dismay. The Doll Maker would cup the unfinished doll’s blank face in his gnarled hands, peering from under bushy eyebrows at the asker before setting the unfinished doll on the shelf above. The next day the doll would be done, it’s face the same as the doll before and the doll to come. The asker was gone.

I’ve Missed You So

Day 9’s prompt: All things suck until one life-changing event . . . hmmm . . .

“If at first, you don’t succeed . . .” Bailey paused, and Julius continued, “Just throw that shit out?”

“That’s my preference,” Bailey crumpled the letter. Three times she had tried to write, and each time she crumpled the paper up, tossing it out. How does one give parents important news when they refused to acknowledge your existence?

“It’s your life, babe.” Julius kissed her forehead. “Gotta run. Late for work.”

“Go on.” Bailey watched Julius walk down the sidewalk and disappear around the corner.

She sighed, shaking her head. Her parents steadily rebuffed every attempt to reach out to them. Bailey had celebrated Thanksgiving and birthdays alone for the first time in her life. Cards and presents were returned unopened. Phone calls went unanswered. Doors were left locked. Once she and Julius got together, her parent’s had firmly closed their hearts and home to her.

Bailey had cried too many times to count on Julius shoulder, going through what seemed like boxes of tissue. She didn’t know what to do, except say screw it and move on. She was losing her ability to hope, and just felt beaten down. Her body literally ached. Although that could be the radiation treatment effects, too.

Bailey wandered into the kitchen, uncovered her aging cellphone, and took a deep, steadying breath before dialing with shaky fingers.

She was getting ready to disconnect the call, when it suddenly picked up.

“Bailey?” A familiar voice wrapped itself around Bailey’s heart, squeezing gently.

“Mom?” Bailey felt tears sting her eyes. “Mommy?”

“Oh, sweet girl,” her mother breathed softly into the phone. “I’ve missed you so.”

Bailey sat slowly down in her chair, feeling something unclench inside. “Oh. mom,” she said, “I’ve missed you so. I have so much to tell you.”

Just One More Bounce, Please

On to week 2 of September’s writing challenge. Day 8’s prompt is to write a story about wanting something and not having the power to get it, once, twice, thrice . . . until . . .

“He really is intent on his playing, isn’t he?”

Jana smiled fondly across the park at her four-year old grandson, energetically bouncing his stuffed Tigger against the wooden play structure, singing with atonal enthusiasm, “The most wonderful thing about Tiggers . . . is Tiggers are wonderful things!”

“He’s says Tigger is always asking for just one more bounce. It’s like Robin thinks that ragged old toy is alive. I swear, the interior life of a child knows no bounds.”

“Do you think he remembers?”

Jana took her eyes off Robin and looked her oldest friend somberly. “If there’s any justice in the world, at all, no.”

Both adults looked across at the giggling child and the stuffed Tigger. Robin had tucked Tigger under one arm, scrambling up the toy. At the top, he dropped Tigger to the ground, with the injunction to remember, “They’re tops are made out of rubber. They’re bottoms are made out of springs!”

The Tigger landed awkwardly on the beauty bark below the Big Toy and fell to one side. Robin climbed over the side and jumped after Tigger. Jana half-stood, heart in mouth, to holler, “Robin, stop!” and watched as the boy landed gracefully, snatching Tigger up and hugging him tight.

“I also swear he thinks he can fly.” Jana shook her head, heaving a sigh, half-watching Robin as she packed empty sandwich wrappers and juice boxes into Robin’s Tigger-themed lunchbox. She paused, listening to Robin’s piping voice explain that Tigger’s ” . . . tops are made out of rubber . . . and bottoms are made out of springs!” ending with a plea to Tigger to “just how him one little bounce, all on his very own.”

“The therapist thinks how he plays with Tigger, asking him to show him just one little bounce is how he’s processing what he saw when . . . ” Jana felt bile rising in her throat, with its now-familiar gag reflex kicking in. She swallowed convulsively and looked off across the playground, her eyes swimming.

“I’m so sorry, Jana. This is more than you ever bargained for, isn’t it?”

Her friend paused, and then stood up herself, brushing the bits of bark off her pants and tugging her coat more firmly down around her hips. “When do you think he’ll be able to attend preschool so you can come back to work? We miss you.”

Jana snorted. “Who knows?” and gave her friend a quick hug before heading over to where Robin sat, cradling his Tigger in his arms, eyes far away fixed on some hidden memory.

Jana could hear the quaver in Robin’s voice as he stroked the Tigger’s head. “It’s okay, Tigger. You’ll bounce when you’re ready to . . . I know you will.”

Jana sat quietly down next to Robin. She could feel the wintry sun on her back, while a brisk breeze ruffled her prematurely graying hair into her eyes.

Robin looked up at her. “I can’t remember the next words, Gramma. Tigger won’t bounce if I can’t remember the words.” Tears started to fill his eyes and Jana smiled reassuringly.

“We’ll sing it together, Robin, okay?”

He nodded, and Jana started at the beginning in a low and soothing voice. Robin sang with her, his voice steadying. By the time they reached, “They’re bouncy, flouncy, pouncy, trouncy,” Robin was up and jumping himself, thumping the Tigger’s spring-loaded legs vigorously onto the metal slide next to him . . . “fun, fun, fun, fun, FUN!”

“Catch, Gramma!” Robin charged back up the Big Toy, and dropped Tigger into Jana’s waiting hands. She obligingly held Tigger.

“Bounce him, Gramma, bounce him!”

Jana leaned down, bouncing Tigger off of the beauty bark beneath her feet while Robin slid down the slide, singing at the top of his lungs, “But, by far the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is he’s the only one!”

Jana handed the Tigger over to her grandson, and held out her hand.

“Let’s head home. It’s nap-time.”

Robin pulled away, dashing back up the Big Toy.

“Just one more bounce, Gramma, please? One more? Please?”

 

Broken Mirror

Today’s prompt invited us to go back to the “like me/not like me” characters and focus on dialogue. So, here’s one more snippet of the mirror series. Enjoy.
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“Mother . . . mother . . . mother?”
 
“Really, Luellen. Once is enough. And then wait to be acknowledged. How many times must I tell you, once and wait. Repeat it after me . . . re-peat-it-af-ter-me!”
 
“OW! . . . Once and wait . . . once and wait . . . once and wait . . . aieee.”
 
“Stop that dreadful sniveling. I don’t wish to hear it.”
 
“Yes, mother.”
 
“Do you hear that, Luellen?”
 
“No, mother.”
 
“Exactly. Now, finish your breakfast. We have much to do today.”
 
“Yes, mother.”
 
“Well?”
 
“Mother. Why is Rayanna serving us breakfast?”
 
“I don’t know to whom you’re referring, Luellen.”
 
“Her, mother! Right there! Taking your plate. Rayanna. Can’t you see her?”
 
“I will tell you this exactly once, Luellen, so listen closely. You no longer have a sister. She is dead to us, do you understand me? Dead. Never speak her name again . . . and wipe your eyes. It’s nothing to cry about.”
 
“Ye-ee-s, mo-mo-mother . . .”
 
“There’s my good daughter. Now, finish your breakfast. The maid is waiting to clear the table.”
 
 

Mirror Reprise

Today’s writing prompt was to write about someone very different from yourself. It seemed logical to try the point of view of another character in an earlier prompt. Start with that short and then see what you think . . .

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“Maybe it would show a world free from her.” Luellen glanced at her sister crouching in a nearby corner. Steam rose off the mop bucket, shrouding the tangled, greasy mess of her hair.

The grimly upright woman standing in front of her murmured, “Be still.” Luellen choked back laughter, bowing her head and tracing the tiled floor pattern with her eyes, instead. Mother gazed impassively into the mirror for several long minutes, before giving a slight nod. The salesman half-bowed as he backed slowly out of the room.

“Leave me.” Mother sat slowly down on the upholstered chair behind her, continuing to gaze into the mirror as though there were nothing else to be seen in the room.

When Mother spoke in that dead, flat voice, it was best to obey immediately.

Luellen’s sister never seemed to learn that lesson. Luellen had cowered many times behind chairs or doors as her sister resisted Mother’s lessons and subsequent punishments for disobedience.

Until one morning, Luellen’s sister came to the table dressed as a serving maid. The bruises were plain on her face, and traces of the latest whipping were bleeding through the back of her sister’s dress. Over time, her sister’s role was downgraded again and again, until now she was dressed in rags and scrubbing floors.

“You have no sister,” was Mother’s only response the one time Luellen dared to ask her Mother why her sister was dressed as a serving maid.

Luellen passed by her sister, not glancing at her. Would her sister ever learn? In the end, obeying Mother was just another game. One that Luellen intended to win.

Sometimes, the lovely thing about . . .

. . . writing short stories during a challenge month, is that the ideas bubbling up so nicely lend themselves to a longer story. Just in time, too, with National Novel Writing Month around the corner! 

Here’s just a snippet from Day 5 of September’s Story-A-Day prompt:

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I’d like to say the devil made me do it, but I really don’t think there is such a thing as a devil. Maybe. Certainly, there must be a malicious sprite or two, but no devils and no angels. I hope. Unless angels are the ghosts of loved ones long gone, paying a stiff penance in guardianship duties before being admitted through the Pearly Gates? That’s a convenient story I like to tell, anyway. It makes me feel that my bull in the china shop routine has a purpose. Would it be fair then, to go back and undo what I’ve already done? Or would it just destroy the hopes of my guardian angels. What about my hopes?

In the Mirror

I knew I shouldn’t have looked in the mirror. My sister said vanity would be my undoing.

But . . . after years of being told I was fat, ugly, with no trace of beauty, no need for clean clothes, clean hands, clean face, brushed hair, I had to look. But . . . after years with no reason to smile or laugh. Or cry, either. Only beautiful children are held when they cry. No one would ever hold me.

Just today, I overheard the antiquities dealer telling mother and sister that the mirror was magic. It would show them what they most desired.

My sister laughed in that tinkling, little girl way. “Maybe it would show a world free from her,” and looked at me scornfully where I crouched with a scrub brush and pail of water. I ducked my head and pretended I didn’t hear.

Late that night, I crept into the hall. I looked in that mirror, and I looked and I looked. There was nothing. Eventually, my breath fogged the mirror. I wiped it away with the flat of my hand.

The mirror showed me what I most wanted. It wasn’t beauty, after all.

 

Only Me

 In life’s chessboard, we capture, castle, capitulate.
We evade, elude, escape.
Eventually, we checkmate — or we lose.
And always, looking back, we learn how we lost the war, 
even as we won the battle.
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     “Full of yourself today, Nettie?” 
     Tom folded the scribblings into an airplane, launching it high above Nettie’s head. 
     “You know better.” 
     Nettie stared into the sun glaring through the window, refusing to meet Tom’s eyes. Her hands were heavy with padded restraints around her wrists. 
     The plane fluttered to the floor near her feet.
     “They’ll never believe you,” Tom leaned in.
     “Only me. Only me.”

 

You Made Your Bed . . .

          Don’t blame your misfortune on me, foolish girl. 

Ritva was in a fine state, splattered wine dripping down her chin onto her linen blouse fluttering untucked at her waist when her hand had hastily jerked at the sound of the voice behind her. Why, oh why, wouldn’t the voice shut up? She had hoped enough wine would at least dim the irritating nasal quality, but all it seemed to do was frame it in stark relief, rather like a washed out photograph mounted on brilliant purple cardstock.

          You made your bed — go lie in it. Isn’t that what your mother always said?
          The last year really had been hell on wheels, Ritva decided. Which was why she had chosen to go on a lengthy holiday rather than remain at home with her aging parents, counting medications and bowel movements.
          It was an odd and uncomfortable thing, to watch the steady decline of one’s parents — especially when they had been such pillars of their small community for so many years. Ritva’s father had served as mayor for most of Ritva’s life, her mother the local schoolteacher for the small mixed age single room schoolhouse.
          “It’s your duty to car for those less fortunate than you, Ritva, never forget that.” Ritva had lost count of the times she had heard those words from  her mother and father. “Shut up!” she screamed inside. “Why can’t I have a life of my own? Why must I always take care of others? Who will take care of me?”
          Ritva had always felt trapped by her parents, their life, the community. There had been no way to escape, to strike out on her own. Her mother’s health had started to fail before Ritva was done with high school, and her father was unable to cope. And so began Ritva’s own slow decline into lost dreams and niggling resentments and a fear of growing old and dying, never going farther away than a day’s travel by car.
          And who came to help you free yourself, silly girl?
          The crotchety voice purred next to her ear, and Ritva froze in dismay. The voice was back — maybe it had never gone away? She could feel the panic well up in her, feel her throat closing and she gasped for air. Where had she gone wrong?
          Just a mere two weeks ago, this same crotchety voice explained to her how to be free, but that the price was to relay the voice’s message exactly as instructed. The voice meant for her to raise her flag of freedom, but only after she had permanently rid herself of all encumbrances. In fact, the voice has been most clear about the required actions to gain her freedom.
          So, Ritva had filled a metal bucket with the blood of those she once cared for, and painted the voice’s message haphazardly thoughout the town. Then she carefully washed and changed, and packed a small overnight bag before taking the keys to her father’s old Buick and every dollar she could find. She drove through the night to the nearest airport, boarding an airplane for destinations far removed from the slow decline of her once vibrant parents.
          You really didn’t think you’d be free from me, did you?  The voice cackled, and Ritva began to laugh and weep, tasting despair.

Turn Away From the Fight

And so begins the September Story-A-Day Challenge. Let’s see if I can get past day 10 this time! To learn more about this writing challenge, check out: www.storyaday.org 
 
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Sanzai stopped in the middle of the taunting crowd, breathing as slowly as he could. A rock about half the size of his fist thudded into his right shoulder, while blobs of spit landed on and around him. The jeers and taunts of the circling crowd of enraged people sounded more and more like a pack of rabid dogs.

“Not my people, not my people.”

Sanzai clenched his jaw tight, feeling tension circle under his jaw and constrict his throat before breathing slowly out, letting his muscles soften and release.

There was magic in what he did. Sanzai had been born and bred to fight. It was what he knew, what he did, what gave him meaning and purpose.

He had grown up knowing the ecstasy of the winning blow, of the tearing in his vocal cords as he screamed victory to his enemies, of having mastered all his fears.

Until the long-robed priests took him away.

They had a use for him, they said. A need. For a protector. For one who was stronger than the torments which would be dealt him as he worked to save a people who would never know or appreciate what he did for them.

Sanzai briefly closed his eyes, accepting the blow with the stick behind his knees. He lurched, nearly fell, and continued to move forward, through the shrieks and howls and blows.

The priest’s required Sanzai to unlearn the emotion while preserving the skill.

For weeks, he labored under the priest’s tutelage, in blazing hot suns of endless sand testing his ability to endure thirst and a callous burn, learning to burrow in the sand and conserve precious saliva.

For many weeks more he shivered high above on the granite cliffs in thin air, climbing, always climbing, mastering a new learned fear of falling as priests stood high above, watching, always watching.

From the mountains he was taken to the dim, green recesses of perpetual sound and humidity, of slitherings and smells and a new oppressive heat that made him long for the arid desert or acrid mountain air.

And always, there was the challenge. The challenge of battle, the thrill of warfare, the need to conquer and win and cause the other to despair. The challenge to survive, to live was not the challenge. That was the skill to preserve. The challenge was to avoid the fight. Whether with beast, nature or man.

Sanzai rocked backwards and then fell to his knees, placing one hand on his temple. The hand came away with blood, and Sanzai looked at the rock that had fallen to his feet. It was bigger than his fist. His head rang and he panted.

“I am Sanzai, not beast nor man. I am Sanzai, sent to cleanse this land. I am Sanzai. Through me, you’ll live. I am Sanzai.”

He grunted, pushing himself upright. The crowd around him was silent.

In the distance, Sanzai could see the fluttering of the priest’s robes. They stood silently, arms folded across their chests, watching, always watching. For weakness. For failure. For signs of humanity.

Sanzai had struggled against the teachings of his youth, at which he so excelled. If it was possible to bleed in mastering his impulse to lash out, to defeat the enemy, to win against all odds, he had bled. He had gone without, had made himself humble, small and grateful. Had given in to the force of nature, to the care of the animals.

He would beat the priests. He would win against their odds, their unnatural challenges, the bizarre battles and tests they tasked him with each day.

This was his final test.

To turn away from the fight when attacked by his brothers and sisters, by the people he was chosen to protect.

Sanzai knew what he had to do.

With a snarl, he swooped low grabbing rock and stick, and watched as the now silent crowd fled.

Adventures in Description

          Thank god he was as tall as me now, with a wiry, tensile strength. The thirty extra pounds I lugged around were bad enough without adding in my day pack’s weight. Which now dangled from my young son’s arm, waving jauntily to me as he disappeared around a bend, little puffs of dirt exploding under his feet. If I were him, I’d be relieved to run ahead, too.
          Earlier, he had carried most of my weight as my hip kept giving out at the worst moments, those moments usually involving narrow ledges with deep ravines. After I slipped on shale for the third time, my son looped an arm around my waist, holding me upright over the slippery stuff. I had hesitated to take his help before deciding this was no time for pride or there would be a fall. A long one. And painful. Besides, I had certainly carried him often enough when he was little. turn about was fair play, yes?
          The last tricky passageway navigated, with only gentle forest trail remaining for the last mile or so, he fairly vibrated with eagerness to keep moving. I shooed him ahead, pulling out my water bottle. The slosh was reassuring, but once I held it up, I could see how low the level was in the bottle. Just enough for a nip, no more, I decided. The water was warm and flat, but even so, it was still nectar to my parched mouth and throat. It trickled slowly down, landing in my startled stomach which gurgled in — I hoped — delight.
          I sighed in relief. Just to stand still for a time was a blessing. Even with the weight of the late summer heat pushing down on me. Between the heat and the stillness, I had the sense of being slowly baked in an oven. The scent of rising sap, sure sign of a forest preparing for its long winter nap, did nothing to dispel the notion. Instead, it brought to mind the morning’s long digested pancake breakfast, smothered in butter and maple syrup. My stomach gurgled again, this time in protest of imminent starvation and I patted it ruefully.
          My shirt stuck in a damp, sticky mess to my belly, and I pinched the cloth between two fingers, pulling it off my skin and tying it into a knot under my breasts. It was hot enough that the birds had gone to ground. While the fir and pine trees offered shade, they also had the curious ability to hold in the warmth, as well as all obnoxious, biting bugs. Consequently, every few steps, I would encounter yet another swarm of gnats or stinging insect.
         Of which, a particularly persistent one was dive-bombing me as I stood still on the trail. Irritably, I batted away the critter hovering in front of my nose. Time to move on before the thing landed and bit.

Guilty Pleasures

     “Time for your Scottish porn, eh?”
     “It’s my single guilty pleasure each week,” I placidly popped another popcorn kernel in my mouth, ignoring Jake, leaning idly against the doorjamb, cleaning dirt out from under his fingernails.
     “What time are you picking Tee up from soccer practice?” He leaned around the door frame and neatly snagged his truck keys off of the hook.
     “Me? I thought you were!” I reluctantly tore my eyes from the screen where Jamie Fraser and Dougal McKenzie were straining to brain one another in manly fashion, and peered across the room at my grinning husband.
     “Side job,” my husband straightened up and closed his penknife. “I told you that last night.” He slipped the penknife in his pocket and leaned further into the kitchen, picking a gleaming Granny Smith apple from the  bowl of fruit on the counter. “Gotta run,” he said around a bite of apple. “Tee’s practice is done in ten minutes. If you hurry, you can pick her up on time.”
     Grumbling under my breath, I turned off the show. I preferred to watch the first airing, rather than catch the show later. No matter how carefully I monitored my social media feed, inevitably a spoiler slipped by and the suspense was killed.
     Ten minutes to get to the soccer field, ten minutes to return home. I would still need to kill at least thirty minutes before Starz would play reruns. I grabbed an apple for Tee and my car keys and headed out the front door. We could make a pit stop at the grocery store and grab some frozen pizza and bagged salad for dinner. That would just about fill in the time. And then home again, home again, jiggety-jig. I was looking forward to Claire and Jamie’s latest escapades in France.
     Ten tries later, the ancient Chevy S-10 finally started and I breathed a sigh of relief, backing out of the driveway. Sure enough, I hit every single red light across town to the soccer fields. By the time I got to Tee, she was wound up tighter than a tick.
     “Daddy’s never late,” she snarled, sliding into the car, folding her arms across her chest.
     “Bully for daddy,” I left the car humming, in park, and folded my own arms across my chest.
     “Aren’t we going?” My daughter’s lower lip trembled, and I suddenly felt remorseful, flashing back to my own internal anxiety whenever my parents were late picking me up. It was a routine occurrence — at least on their side. None of us kids were allowed the luxury of being tardy for anything, ever. Now, as an adult, I took a secret pleasure in rebelling against the ingrained strictures of “on time, every time.”
     “Sorry, sweetie,” I gently brushed a wayward hair from my daughter’s cheek. “The truck didn’t want to start and then I hit every red light on the way here. Buckle up and we’ll stop by Safeway on the way home to get a pizza and bagged salad.” Tee snugged her seatbelt tight and I handed her an apple.
     “Thanks, mom.” Tee chewed reflectively for a minute, watching the fields slide by through the open window,  and then perked up. “Look! It’s Sandy! Pull over.”
     Sandy was Tee’s best friend from school. Unlike Tee, who was physically active and a tomboy, Sandy was a consummate girl, all pink and frills. Sandy took ballet and jazz dance, and was in great demand in our small community for her babysitting skills. Tee was more likely to be called on to do yard work and walk dogs. What the two found in common to forge their friendship, I didn’t know, but it worked for them.
     It looked like Sandy was having a hard day. Tears streaked the side of her face and her shoulders were shaking. We had pulled over next to where she sat on a rock overlooking the irrigation ditch that doubled as a creek, running through the middle of town. I sighed internally and looked at my wristwatch. Outlander would just have to wait a  while longer, I supposed . . .
     “Sandy!”  Tee had jumped out of the car and rushed over to her friend. Sandy’s face brightened at the sight of her friend and then crumpled again. The girls held a hurried conference, Tee hugging Sandy around the shoulders, and then they looked over at me.
     “Everything okay, Sandy?” I called through the open window. “Do you need a ride home?” I nobly added, stifling my sudden surge of irritability.
     Sandy sniffled and wiped another tear off her cheek, while Tee called back, “She can’t talk about it, mom. Can she come stay with us for the night? She needs a break.”
     For the life of me, I couldn’t remember girlhood being so emotional. With a shrug, I waved the girls toward the truck and tucked my purse down on the floor.
     “Thanks, Mrs. James.” Sandy sniffled again, and Tee handed her a Kleenex.
     “You’re welcome, Sandy,” I said, then added, “Call your folks and let them know where you are when we get home, please.”
     “Yes, ma’am,” she said, in a hushed voice.
     God, I thought to myself, the melodrama. How could twelve be so hard?
     We pulled into the grocery store. I had been intending on a quick dash, with Tee choosing a couple of pizzas and me finding a decent bag of salad. The pace was a bit more reflective of a funeral dirge, though, and I bit my tongue on hurrying the girls. The first round of the newest Outlander episode was winding up and the second showing would be starting. Great. Another hour to wait. Would I ever get home to watch it?
     I rejoined the girls in the checkout line. For some reason, there was only one cashier and about twenty people lined up waiting to pay. I didn’t recognize the cashier, which meant a new hire. And, of course, most hands held an assortment of coupons. I sighed again, this time externally, and tried to prepare myself for the long haul.
     Thirty minutes later, we finally escaped, the pizza only nominally frozen by this time, and the bagged salad definitely wilting. For some reason, the girls were dragging their feet, huddled together near the twenty-five cent carnival ride, whispering intently to each other.
     “Girls, let’s go,” I called to them from the truck door.
     “Mom,” Tee said as they slid into the truck and slammed the door shut. “Can we run Sandy home so she can grab some stuff?”
     Running Sandy home was not a small request, especially with groceries dying an untimely death in the summer heat. Sandy lived ten minutes outside of town, on a rutted, dirt road that took twenty minutes to navigate carefully.
     “Nope,” I said. “Sorry, no can do. We’ve got groceries to get home before they spoil. Maybe daddy can run you two out there after dinner.”
     “But, mom,” Tee wailed. “Sandy has just got to get home.”
     “Umhmmm,” I responded, turning onto Main St. towards our house. “And just how was she going to get there before we came along and found her sitting next to the creek?”
     Both girls subsided into a sullenness that reflected my own internal discord. Sandy’s parents were very straight-laced, and it was a sure shot I would not be watching my favorite TV show tonight lest Sandy inadvertently see something considered unsuitable for a girl of her tender years.
     I winced internally, hearing the grating, holier-than-thou voice of Sandy’s father in my head. He was one of two pastors in town, the fire and brimstone model, and I cordially detested everything he stood for and did.  On the other hand, perhaps the girls would decide to stay the night at Sandy’s house, and then I could see my Scottish porn, as Jake liked to call it.
     And then, on the other hand, I might not get to see anything on TV at all for some time to come, I realized, as I pulled into my driveway. Sandy’s father and the local sheriff were standing on my doorstep, arms folded and feet tapping, as we slid to a stop and hopped out. It was going to be a long night, I decided. Jamie and Claire would just have to wait.