Past Tense

Maybe it’s like this for all old people. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, since it’s what eating me up right now. Was it worth it? You be the judge.

No. On further reflection, I don’t want you to judge. Just shut up and listen.

Once upon a time, there was a little boy. First-born, silver spoon, yadda yadda. You know the scoop. Everything going for him. No hitches. No mountains to climb. No rivers to ford. No valleys to raise up . . . wait.

Hold that. I’m confusing my story with someone else’s. Sorry. Back to me.

The little boy wanted more. Much more. Not more wealth. Or privilege. He wanted to be a real man, in the tradition of the frontier men, pushing westward, testing his mettle against long odds. At the very least, he wanted a coonskin cap and a rifle.

When he was just knee-high, his parents thought it amusing.

When he was ten and still building forts in the backyard and shooting imaginary enemies, escaping from the drudgery of private tutors and his daily round of lessons, the heavy thunderheads of their disapproval filled the sky around his home.

His mother had set her sights on raising the perfect little gentleman. His father was intent on training the heir to his carefully amassed fortune. The little boy was their vision of the future. Or supposed to be.

You awake, boy? There’s a lesson in this story. Pay attention. Show some respect. Hmphhh. Youth these days. I’ll never understand.

What’s that?

Dinner? I’m not hungry. I’m dying.

Oh! you’re hungry? Of course, you are — you’re a growing boy.

I don’t care –eat up. Won’t bother me any. Can’t smell. Can’t taste. Not enough teeth left in my head to chew anything worth eating anyhow.

You settled? Got a plateful? Good. Shut up and eat. I’m talking.

The boy tried. He tried to fit in, by god. He wanted to please his parents. But, somehow he always fell short of the mark.  And the harder he tried, the harder he’d fall. And the more he’d fail, the more his parents would throw up their hands in despair, exclaiming:

“You’ll never guess what he did now!”

“What’s to be done? He’s uncontrollable. He won’t obey.”

“Why can’t he just . . .

Well, you get the picture. Nothing I did was right, ever. Disapproval sticks, y’know. Other people pick up on it. If your parents don’t like you much, no one else will, either.

What’s that? You like me?

Well, that’s fine, boy. I like you, too. You ‘mind me of myself at your age.

Eat up. You’ll need your strength. It’s a long story.

The boy finally had enough of carrying the heavy weight of his parent’s disapproval, of being scoffed at by the neighbor’s, the neighbor’s kids and his classmates.  And so the boy’s moment came. His country called and he answered. Told a whopper of a lie to do it, too. But, join the cause he would and leave his family behind.

Bit of a shock for the lad, that was. Stuck out like a sore thumb. Didn’t even know how to make his own bed, let alone peel a potato or scrub a toilet. But, he could outshoot, outpack and outmarch all the others. So, the Army wasn’t so different from home after all — he was scorned by some for a lack of skills and resented by others for having too many.

But, he gritted his teeth and got through the long days and longer nights. In his more pleasant moments, he dreamed his parents would understand and forgive him for running away.

What’s your question, boy? Don’t talk with your mouth full!  

Did they understand? Forgive me? Hah!

The day before I shipped out overseas, I was called to the Commander’s office. My father was sitting there. He told me I had shamed the family by enlisting in the Army.

He reminded me I was the only son. Second and third sons went to West Point for officer training or into the priesthood — they didn’t enlist and slog about in the mud.

I had exactly one chance to come home. To refuse meant my inheritance would go to a cousin I barely knew. I could never go home again.

So, boy — here we sit, and now it’s on you.

Are you going to take up the mantle and carry on the family name? 

Or, run away, like I did?

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You’re Not the Boss of Me!

I combined yesterday’s drabble prompt with today’s first person prompt. Enjoy!
****************************************************************************** “I loathe being told what to do. I detest it. I can’t stand being told what to do, under any circumstances, ever.”Mack stared at me, expressionless. Literally.

I heard the grandfather clock behind me counting out measured seconds leading to the next quarter-hour chime.

“Nothing to say?” I leaned closer, blowing on Mack’s face gently.

Mack’s bangs startled upwards, before settling back down.  Not a single flicker of interest. I giggled, satisfied.

“You’ll think twice next time, hmm? Oh! Sorry. You can’t!”

Mack wouldn’t try controlling me again.

Whistling, I left. It was a good day to be free.

Cross the Divide

He blinked. Or, tried to. Sticky glue trapped grit and sand in his eyes. Where was he? Groaning, he rubbed his eyes, left first.

Backwards, Nonni said. Unlucky.

He supposed widdershins had finally damned him. Cracking open his eyes, he hastily shut them.

Seconds earlier he and Nonnie were stacking baskets of mussels and berries into his canoe, painstakingly hollowed from a fallen cedar log. 21st century natives, they reinvented an older life and time.

Now all he saw was a cement canoe, Nonni’s fearful shriek echoing as he crossed the divide.

He should have climbed in from the right.

A 4th Grade Holiday

Story-A-Day’s prompt for day 2 continues the theme of short, sweet and simple – write a story containing all of these words from a fourth grade spelling list: Blame, State, Frame, Holiday, Relay, Waist, Pail, Gain, Raise, Mayor, Airplane, Remain

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One day, long ago (or so Gramma tells me), Mayor Abercrombie declared a general township holiday, free from work, free from school and free from every worry, responsibility, or care.

“As part of the health of this state . . . ” and the Mayor paused, wheezing for breath, his bowl-full-of-jelly waist jiggling. He raised one meaty arm in the air and continued: “As part of the health of this state, I declare a general township holiday. There shall be no work and no school for the next twenty-four hours. I expect all citizens to remain free from care.”

My Gramma Jackie herself heard the Mayor’s little speech delivered in his booming voice from the covered front porch of his spacious four-bedroom, whitewashed home. She slipped away to school, taking it upon herself to relay the unexpected news to those students who lived outside of town.

Students who lived far afield were flown in to school by Mr. Thomas, the owner of a crop-dusting airplane. Mr. Thomas took-off and landed on a grassy runway separated from the school play yard by a thin line of scrawny bushes and a small irrigation ditch, most often filled only with weeds and an oozing sort of sludge. The out-of-town students would have missed the unexpected announcement.

Being a quick thinker, my Gramma Jackie scribbled a quick note before she hung up her cloak and set her lunch pail neatly on the shelf above. She handed the note to Sue Ellen, her best friend, and told her to pass it along.

“But, we’re not allowed to pass notes!” Sue Ellen protested. “I’ll get caught. Why are you trying to frame me?”

“Why, Sue Ellen! What a perfectly horrid thing to say,” Gramma Jackie said in surprise. “There’s no gain to me in you taking the blame for making sure all the students know about Mayor Abercrombie’s announcement!”

Gramma Jackie paused and Sue Ellen began to blush.

“After all,” Gramma Jackie continued slyly, “I’m doing YOU a favor. Just think how popular you’ll be with the students who didn’t know. Sue Ellen, a regular Paul Revere!”

Story A Day in May: 30-Minute Miracles

With the successful completion of National Poetry Writing Month, it’s now time to embark on writing a Short-Story-A-Day in May adventures! You can learn more about this fabulous journey and follow along by writing your own story each day here: http://storyaday.org/  In the meantime, here’s my day one offering. Enjoy!
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     “I told you No!”
     One solid thwack on the diapered toddler’s butt after a solid hour of the so-called preferred methods of nurturing parenting ended the battle.
     Without so much as a blink, tear, wail or other evidence of distress, the stubborn fellow veered away from the sliding glass door he had insistently been throwing himself against, weaving his unsteady way to plastic blocks scattered around the toy box. Blinking back her tears of frustration and shame, she reflected on her ignominious failure. To spank a helpless child!
     How could she?
     All through the long months of her high-risk pregnancy, and the even longer months of her baby’s medically fragile entrance into the world, she had sworn that her parenting methods would be radically different from what she experienced.
     No formula for her offspring. No Gerbers, either. Not when there were yams to be baked and mashed by hand, bananas to peel and offer to curious fingers.
     Push toys to encourage crawling — for better right-left brain connections. Long walks in the baby pack in all weathers. Fresh air was essential.
     Dim indoor lighting when natural light faded, and soft guitar, harp and piano music. All hard rock and heavy metal cassettes had been put aside. Gentle, calm environments were a must.
     Face-time, belly-time, and continual talking and singing, preferably using her bits and pieces of remembered French and Spanish languages. And certainly, no television. But, books. All sorts of books. Books, blocks, and toys offering a profusion of textures and colors.
     She was no fool.
     To achieve her venerable goal, she attended every parenting class she could find, dove into therapy. She did everything the midwives said she must for a healthy, viable full-term pregnancy.
     To prepare for the grand experiment of child-rearing, she read every book and article she found regaling the benefits of contemplative pregnancy, natural childbirth, and the incredible first year of baby-led nursing and baby-led weaning, leading eventually to baby-led toilet-training.
     The key here was baby-led. If it was baby-led, it was diametrically opposed to how she was raised, and therefore, to her fevered and anxious mind, correct. It was her only guidepost, her ruler, her measuring stick. The only one she trusted.
     She knew the results of her upbringing. How could she not? She lived them every day. Her child would not have the same memories she carried. Memories that still haunted her fragmented, uneasy sleep. Memories that tripped her into caverns of empty despair. Memories that mocked her dreams and goals, undercut her hopes and fed her fears.
     Fear that, in the end the patterns were set. Generational patterns, fixed in time, no matter her futile attempts to disrupt them. Slowly, she wiped a hand across her wet cheek and turned to stare out the window.

Bye, Bye Bully

So, May is Short Story A Day month. Today’s prompt got me thinking, especially after the last few months helping coordinate and offer domestic violence trainings. Learn more about the May writing challenge here: http://storyaday.org/ and here’s the story that was sparked by today’s prompt:

Bye, Bye Bully

“So, today’s training is geared to help you get into the mind of the abuser. We’re all pretty savvy when it comes to surviving violence, or we wouldn’t be here. What do you need to know to avoid hitting the repeat button that gives abusers the opening into hurting you again? How do these people think? Ideas? Anyone?” 

Madge had edged her chair into a corner that faced the door to the dingy meeting room. Crossing arms over trembling chest, she eyed the group leader with a jaundiced eye. Great, Madge thought, put the pressure on the already victimized. Just what they need. 

The room remained stubbornly silent. Undaunted, the group leader continued. 

“It doesn’t just end in broken bones, bruises, black eyes, or death. There’s a pattern of control, and it starts in the early days.” 

Small shiftings of discomfort rustled in the room. In the early days of hope, those tiny red flags were generally set aside. No one was perfect, right? The excuses mounted up, a complicated weaving of self-blame and rage against the man, the machine, the boss . . . but never the bully. Hyper-awareness of every nuance in mood or behavior built to a fine crescendo, that inevitably came crashing down when the attention and compliance slipped. No matter how it was sliced, the victim facing the abuse always seemed to be at fault, as far as Madge could tell. 

Madge sighed, and unfolded her arms. Who cared? All she wanted to know was how to fight back effectively. Running hadn’t helped. Calling the cops certainly didn’t help. The courts were overbooked and didn’t have time to sift through the nuance of who started it, and who ended it. It was only because Madge had a good attorney that she was sitting in a survivor’s workshop as opposed to jail. But damn it, she wasn’t taking it any longer. 

The group leader’s voice droned on, stretching the afternoon into an eternity of meaningless dribble. Finally, the class was wrapped up with a list of community resources: Need housing? Go here. Need food? Go there. Looking for help with filing court documents? Call advocate so-and-so. 

Nothing about where to get courage, Madge noted. Well, she had a solution to that little pickle, and then courage would be one step closer, and Madge wouldn’t need to deal with the abuse any longer. 

The group leader ended the court-ordered class for victims, opening the door to the hallway. Fresh air flooded he room, and fled before the overpowering, rank stench of frightened women. The group leader handed a half-sheet certificate to each woman as she left the room – proof of attendance for the courts. 

Madge was the last person to leave the room, and gingerly accepted the piece of paper. She briefly met the group leader’s eyes, before commenting, “You forgot the most important part.” 

“What’s that?” The leader raised an eyebrow. 

“The part about courage. The part about bullies only hurting others until they’re stood up to.” 

Madge shrugged and slipped out the door, ignoring the woman’s mouth opening and closing around impotent protestations of escalation, and the greater strength of a man. 

Idiot, Madge thought. Why does everyone think violence only ever occurs between a man and a woman? 

An hour later, Madge had closed the deal on her courage, heading home. Once there, she carefully arranged the chair she would sit in to allow her to keep an eye on both the door and the window. Madge clicked off the safety, swearing that if Rose showed her face here today, her home would be the last one Rose ever entered. 

First Flights

“ . . . 629, now boarding. Flight 629 to Buffalo, now boarding. All travelers report to Gate . . .”

Suppressing a weary groan of relief, Jen stood and stretched, feeling her spine shift and settle, vertebrae by vertebrae. She heaved the carry-on over her left shoulder and offered an encouraging smile to the nine-year old boy blearily gazing up at her.

“Now?” Tod was a slender, waif-like child. His hair was plastered by sweat and what looked like chocolate to one side of his head, and stuck out in bizarre clumps on the other.

“Yep,” Jen answered and held her hand out to him. She adored her little brother, who was quiet and bookish, and yet usually vibrated with an intense awareness of the world around him.

Tod’s sensitivity to light and sound had bothered her parents — especially Papa who had thought Tod weak — but Jen knew the boy’s inner strength.

She had more than once come across her little brother defending a smaller child from the schoolyard bully, with no fear for his own safety.

She had seen him wade in between fighting dogs to separate them without blinking an eye or getting bit.

She had held her breath in fear as Tod scampered after squirrels to the topmost branches that swayed alarmingly so he could find their hidden nests.

Lord only knew what the boy got up to when she wasn’t around. With Mama and Papa gone now, Jen made sure she was around.

Tod scrambled to his feet and clutched his backpack in front of him.

“Don’t worry,” Jen said softly and held out her hand to him. “The flight will be fine.”

Tod’s fear of flying, given his courage in so many other situations, puzzled Jen. And unfortunately, flying across the country a few days before Christmas was not helping the experience.

Jen had flown a few times before, but had never experienced anything like this trip. Scheduled for a six a.m. flight to Chicago, and then transferring to a flight to Buffalo, should have allowed enough time for any re-routing necessary to accommodate the winter weather patterns.

The flight from Sea-Tac had been delayed by nearly twelve hours, and the connecting flight to Buffalo was long gone and no more were scheduled out of Chicago until the following day.

Jen’s limited funds didn’t permit a hotel room, and the airline refused to pay for one. Jen had slid down the wall of the lobby in weary resignation after two hours of arguing with ever scarcer-to-find staff, and breathed deeply though the wails that threatened to burst out of her.

Tod had tentatively stroked her hair. “Jen?” There wasa the faintest quaver in Tod’s voice and Jen’s breath caught in her throat. She summoned her courage and smiled up at him.

“Guess what!” Jen said, as brightly as she could manage, pushing back up the wall and tossing her unraveling braids behind her shoulders. Tod looked back at her solemnly.

“How would you like candy and soda for dinner tonight? And to camp out on the chairs of your choice?” Tod looked around at other stranded passengers settling in for the night, and back at Jen, his eyes wide.

“C’mon!” And so she and Tod had made a feast of Snickers and 7-Up, Fritos and fruit rolls.

And then she taught Tod how to use a wet paper towel to scrub his teeth clean. He had laughed and splashed water at her, and avoided the soap for his hands with a vehement revulsion – seeming for a minute like any other normal nine-year old kid teasing his beloved older sister.

Tod had curled up in the chair next to her and put his head in her lap, asleep in minutes. Jen sat still and alert.

She had found a set of chairs in a corner where she could see anyone who might get too close to them. The lights outside cut a wide swath through the falling snow, which had thankfully settled down somewhat from the earlier more blizzard-like conditions. Hopefully, the ticketing agents tomorrow could get them re-routed rapidly.

The night passed slowly, Jen occasionally drifting off despite her best efforts to stay awake. No one came near them, for which she was grateful. When uniformed staff started circulating, Jen gently shook Tod awake and they started the laborious process of being re-ticketed.

Despite having spent the night in the terminal, they were not the first ones in line. And the people seemed to come in two flavors – weary and resigned, or surly. Little beacons of hope in a smile could be found if one looked closely and long enough – and miracle of miracles, there was an occasional laugh. But mostly people leaned again luggage or each other or even sat on the ground, slowly shuffling ahead a pace or two.

And there were so many lines, looping back in on each other and winding snakelike through the crowded complex. Jen struggled to trace the tail of the line back to the proper counter, and after getting in the wrong line a couple of times was finally directed to the correct line.

The ticketing agent had rapidly booked them on three separate flights, just to make sure if they missed one they had two more options. The woman had smiled kindly at Jen and offered Tod a lollipop, wishing them Happy Holidays as she handed Jen the three different sets of tickets.

“Now mind,” she said, “I don’t think you’ll make the first one unless they’re delayed. But hurry. Go to the left and through those doors to . . .”

Jen had thanked the woman profusely, clutching the tickets in one hand and Tod with her other. “Let’s go, boy,” Jen set off at a rapid pace, dragging the tired boy protesting behind her.

As expected, they were too late for the first flight. The second flight, another miracle, was on-time. It was a little puddle-jumper, with a single row of seats along the right side, and a row of two seats along the left, carrying about twenty passengers, Jen decided. Tod was in the seat in front of her, and he looked back at her anxiously.

“It’s okay,” she said.

Rummaging in her coat pocket, she found the chewable motion sickness tab and handed it to Tod.

“This will help,” she said. With any luck, he would sleep through most of the flight, given how tired he was. And sure enough, by the time they cleared for take-off, Tod’s head was lolling against the seat, gentle snores barely audible above the whine of the engines.

Jen had closed her eyes once there was nothing to see but Lake Michigan below. The flight was supposed to be easy and smooth, with Uncle Jimmy waiting at the other end to take them to their new home.

The weariness was tugging her gently into a doze, and she drifted uneasily feeling somewhat smothered in a cotton-filled world of muted sounds and numb body. She was afraid to sleep.

Suddenly, there was a muffled bang and the plane dropped and then straightened out. Jen gagged on the bile that rose up her throat, and peered anxiously at her brother.

Amazingly, Tod had slept through the noise and drop.

The plane was now banking and the Captain’s voice came over the PA system, calm and reassuring. Slight engine trouble, nothing to worry about, everyone was safe, however they were heading back to O’Hare. Folks would be helped to transfer to other flights.

Jen thought about screaming in frustration, and then she considered crying in despair, and then she decided she knew why most adults seemed to drink or smoke or do both. She wondered what Tod would say when they landed.

She didn’t have long to wait. As they plane’s landing gears were engaged, Tod roused and looked over the back of the seat at Jen with a smile.

“Are we there?” he bounced in excitement and Jen opened and shut her her mouth.

Tod peered out the window, and then a wail of despair rose from his seat.

“Nooo!” he cried. “We’re back where we started!”

Jen grimaced and reached a hand over the seat to ruffle his sticky hair.

“It’s better to be here than floating in ice-cold water,” she said, trying for a light-hearted tone.

The plane landed and taxied to a stop. Folks hastily grabbed their carry-on luggage and prepared to face the daunting task of finding yet another flight to home or work or wherever they were headed.

Jen took tight hold of her frayed patience and Tod’s small hand, and wondered if they ever would make it home. And if they did, what it would be like?

With Tod in tow, she stepped off the plane and into the terminal to start again.

May 2013 Short-Story-A-Day Compilation

 If April brings a month of poetry, as opposed to April showers . . . then, what follows in May? A-ha! The Short-Story-A-Daychallenge. You can learn more about this fabulous site here: http://storyaday.org/  In the meantime, each day’s prompt is below. At day 27, I stopped – I had two graduate school essays and an application to finish by June 1. Enjoy!

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Day 1 Prompt: The “100 Word Drabble”

            Rainey tested the rock in his palm, eyes searching for a target. Rank bodies and angry voices pushed him forward in a surge of energy familiar to people who gathered together to share outrage and make demands – heard and then all too often ignored.
            “Rainey!” He barely heard her voice over the din, and looked down. A trembling girl, lanky braids framing her face, pressed close to him.
            “Why you here, Mandi?” His throat filled with bile, afraid for her in this crowd, roaring closer to violent action.
            “C’mon,” he swung his sister up in his arms, and started edging his way back out towards the relative calm a street away.
Day 2 Prompt: Write a story based on a picture
            “Check it out.” Brad leaned back in his chair, balancing the tilt with arms crossed overhead and jammed against the graying wall. Wisps of smoke curled lazily in the air next to the monitor.
            “What?” Sonji rubbed a hand wearily over her face. Groaning, she stood and stretched, her spine lengthening pop by slow pop. Ignoring Brad’s flickering screen, she went instead to the coffee pot, scowling at the tar-like substance coagulating in the glass carafe.
            “Damn it,” she muttered, and turned the pot off before setting the carafe to soak in the filthy sink.
            “Pigs,” she muttered under her breath. The only woman in a roomful of computer geeks, she was acutely aware of the rancid odors, belches, molding food, and general disarray. The things she did for love of country, law, order . . . she snorted to herself, giving up on the idea of coffee and went over to Brad’s computer. Jon had joined Brad, laptop perched on his lap, fingers clicking away.
            “Score,” Jon said. He cracked his knuckles before hitting the send button, and transmitting the information over to Sonji.
            “Nice,” Brad grinned and elbowed Sonji. “Their all yours, sweetheart. Go get that kidney.”
            Sonji raised an eyebrow and looked closer at the screen. “It’s a Facebook plea. How does that get you a score?”
            “Read the comments, sweets – and follow the trail back to the possibilities.” Brad leaned forward and plucked his cigarette from the ashtray. “Jon here can find the veritable needle in the haystack, the sucker in the pond, the buyer of the bridge in the proverbial desert.”
            “That’s a kid for god’s sake. What if the story’s real?”
            Brad straightened in his chair before swiveling to look at Sonji. His eyes were cold and when he spoke there wasn’t a trace of emotion in his voice. “Gettin’ cold feet? I got a cure for that.”
            “Fuck, Brad,” Sonji said, letting a sneer slide across her face. “You know better than that.”
            She leaned forward and tapped on the screen. “But, if there’s that many options, it seems wonder boy here could pick on someone not under ten years of age.” She shrugged. “I didn’t realize you had a thing against kids, but whatever. They’re usually the first to get donated organs, anyhow.”
            Sonji plucked the cigarette from Brad’s fingers, and sucked in the smoke. “I’ll get the wheels in motion. Your score will be on,” she peered more closely at the data Jon had pulled, “the next flight into the clinic. Filled with all sorts of good feelings about her altruism.”
            Sonji stubbed the cigarette butt out in the ashtray and went back to her sordid little corner of the den she had been living and working in for the last several weeks. She hoped to God her superiors had enough evidence to shut this ring down once and for all. She wasn’t sure she could ever wash the filth off of her.

Day 3 Prompt: Think of a fascinating character from your life (past or present). Think about what they wanted on a particular day. Write that story.

            Elisha stared glumly at the plate in front of him. He had been so excited about the afternoon bonfire and romping in the woods with his cousins, playing Robin hood and cops and robbers and hide-n-seek and climbing trees. But now he supposed he’d be stuck at the table for the rest of the day. All because of stupid green peas. He didn’t care what his Aunt Sally said, green peas made him gag, no matter how fast he chewed and swallowed, or how many gulps of milk he took between each agonized bite.
            Aunt Sally bustled past, placing slices of apple pie with melted cheddar cheese in front of his cousins who dug in with greedy smacking of lips, and semi-muted chortles and head nods toward Elisha. She studiously ignored Elisha as she handed around dessert plates. Picky eaters were not humored in her home. And homegrown food was too precious to waste. Any food, she amended, was too precious to waste.
            “Too bad,” Drew said, around a bite of pie. He was a burly ten year old who was also the bully of the group.  “Elisha won’t get any pie. He’ll sit there all night and miss the bonfire outside rather than eat his green peas.” Drew shook his head in mock sadness, and reached across the table to take a green pea which he shoved into his left nostril before popping it in his mouth as the other cousins giggled.
            “Nummy,” Drew said. “Try it, you’ll like it. Or do you want to try mine instead?” His hand hovered near Elisha’s plate.
            “That’s enough,” growled Ben at the end of the table. He was the oldest cousin at fifteen, and was routinely told off watch over the pack of cousins.
            “Elisha,” he looked over at the miserable boy. “Is it just the taste? Or the texture?”
            “Both,” Elisha said, looking down at his plate, pushing the mound of peas around. He sighed heavily, and looked anxiously up at Ben. “I can’t swallow them.”
            “Well,” Ben said, “maybe I can help.” He unwound his lanky body from the table and went into the kitchen, returning a moment later with barbeque sauce. “Put this on ‘em,” he said. “It’ll help.”
            Elisha squinched up his nose, peering anxiously at Ben. “Really?”
            “Really.”
            Aunt Sally slipped back in the room to start clearing the table. “Ben!” she said. “Do you really have to teach him that nasty habit?”
            “Cut him some slack and give him his pie, Sis,” Ben said. “He’s gonna want it.” Ben leaned towards Elisha, smiling. “Eat up, Elisha — you’ll love it.”
            Elisha screwed up his courage as he unscrewed the top of the BBQ bottle and drizzled a generous amount over the green peas. Ben was right, the BBQ sauce did help! And gave a happy sigh when a slice of Aunt Sally’s homemade pie was set next to his now empty plate. Grinning at his older cousin, Elisha tucked happily into his pie. It was gonna be a great afternoon, after all!
Day 4 Prompt: Pirate an obit and see where the story goes.
            It was surprising, really, how tight the soft linen sheets felt to Clarissa. Rather like winding sheets used to wrap a corpse, in stories of days long gone, she thought. Not that she was any warmer than a corpse.
            She was ice cold, but that no longer bothered her. Rather, the sensation of fabrics and threads irritated her, a sort-of mocking torment for the woman who had once delighted in the sensations of different fabrics, and pairing colors for each day’s new adventures.
            Her toes had struggled against the woolen socks and tucked-in blanket all morning, and try though she might, she couldn’t seem to make Danny understand she wanted them off, cold toes or not.
            Awkwardly, Danny patted her feet through the linens and blankets, misinterpreting her struggles. “It’s okay, dear heart,” he murmured. “I’ll just find another blanket.” Clarissa felt like screaming, and wished she could. Which was odd for her, really, since all her life she had been filled with a cup of overflowing patience and understanding for the people around her. She settled for an internal sigh and submitted to the additional weight of yet another blanket laid across her trapped toes.
            “Pay attention, Clarissa,” she reprimanded herself sternly. “There’s a beautiful, glorious morning blossoming beyond your sick room. It’s trying to peek in and embrace you.” Clarissa smiled to herself, delighted by the shimmering rainbow of lights wavering through the curtains in the morning breeze, and by the soft scent of the rose bush outside the open window.
            She supposed dying when the roses were in full bloom was an ideal way to go. She just wished she could stick around long enough to enjoy the roses yet to bloom. Time flew so fast now, and every day since she heard the fateful words, “late-stage cancer of the . . .” was too short by half.
            She hadn’t thought time would shorten so, not since she grew out of girlhood. She remembered how short those days seemed, sitting next to her dying mother’s bedside, carefully blowing into her new clarinet, practicing her runs and scales. Clarissa had never stopped writing and playing music, true to her mother’s dreams and hopes for her, planted and carefully nurtured at such a young age.
            Clarissa remembered her mother holding her gently in her lap when Clarissa could barely sit upright, teaching her fingers which piano key matched which black circle on the horizontal lines. A flute and clarinet followed in close succession, although Clarissa really wanted a guitar. Clarissa loved the time spent on her mother’s lap, snuggled in close to her mother’s warm body, and the yeasty smell from the home-based baked goods business Mother ran to supplement Papa’s meager income.
            The patience and lessons paid off – at least by way of musicianship. Clarissa could read Bach Sonatas better than she could read Dick and Jane stories by the time she entered first grade. Her teacher, Ms. Clemmons, ridiculed her in front of the class when she was unable to make sense of the words on the page and could barely name the letters dancing in front of her tear-filled eyes.
            And then it was time for the first music class. Clarissa moved confidently to the piano where her teacher was struggling with the music the class was expected to sing with, and easily played music she had not seen or heard before — patriotic folk songs not being part of her family’s music repertoire.
            Ms. Clemmons sat stunned, a slow flush rising up from her neck into her cheeks. After that, Clarissa was paired with one of the best readers in class, Nettie, who by happy chance wanted to learn to play piano. They became bosom friends, helping each other with their lessons and staying in touch even when Clarissa’s family moved from the Big Apple to Santa Monica. Nettie and Clarissa were bitterly disappointed by the imposed distance, and then settled into weekly letter writing campaigns, followed by annual visits when they were old enough to work and afford the cost of travel.
            Weekly letters . . . back in the days when people actually wrote letters, and mailed them using postage stamps, Clarissa mused. She had every letter and card she had ever received from anyone, in specially labeled boxes tucked away in her closet. They were a treasure trove of words, experiences, feelings; life – captured in arduous, thoughtful handwriting – not the blitzkrieg of typewriters, word processors, and internet access.
            She supposed she was a throwback to long-gone days, but eventually Clarissa had made peace of a sort with the demands of her work, driven by the computer age. It was an uneasy peace at best, softened only by her dedication to living as simply as possible in all other ways. She grew her own vegetables and fruits, canned the excess produce, sewed her own clothes, and restored every piece of furniture in her house from what she scavenged at second hand stores or garage sales. She walked or biked or bussed everywhere she went, having never bought a car. She didn’t even have a driver’s license. Plain living, home cooking, long walks every day rain or shine. She never drank alcohol, or smoked, so why was she afflicted with cancer? And why was the cancer stealing her life away? Why?
            Why? When she was first diagnosed, she remembered to slow down, stop, pray and meditate, breathe. She made room in her soul for healing. She invited and welcomed health and wholeness. She sought out naturopathic care and herbal healing and visualized her return to health. But, she was never able to make peace with the demands of her rapidly progressing disease. By the time she was admitted to the cancer care clinic, it was too late –the cancer had spread rapidly throughout her organs and had taken up residence in her very marrow.
            The pain intensified. In response, she increased her yoga practice and deep breathing, but eventually acquiesced and took pain killers. At first, just to help her sleep so she would have the strength to face another day. And then just to help her move between one breath and the next.
            Now in hospice, she was vaguely aware of the dull pressing against her arm where the nurse had hooked up the morphine drip. The dose was higher than she liked, blurring her ability to fully experience the still beautiful parts of life — but without it, her moaning increased to cries of pain and writhing. Keeping her quiet and still gave her friends and family a better comfort level with the time they spent with her. Clarissa had spent a lifetime putting other’s needs in front of her own, and she saw no reason to change that habit now.
            A slight smile crossed her cracked lips, tiny specks of blood squeezing out through the cracks. She was fanning through her memories of loved ones, still here or who she figured she’d see again soon enough, and didn’t care about her lips. Nettie apparently did, as her friend’s gentle voice broke into her musings while Vaseline was carefully soothed over her mouth.
            “There now, Clarissa,” Nettie murmured and Clarissa reveled in the lilting quality in Nettie’s voice. She was quite sure she had never heard a voice more expressive, whether singing or speaking. “You’ve been so brave, for so long. It’s okay to let go. We’re here with you, my dear. We love you and we’ll miss you. But, we’ll be okay.”
            Clarissa heard a small sniffle and struggled to open her eyes and locate who was crying. Danny was slumped at the foot of her bed, his hands wrapped around her feet. Precious man! He had finally understood and taken the blankets off, and the scratchy socks. Through slitted eyes, Clarissa could see that he was tenderly massaging her feet, but she couldn’t feel his hands. “They’re like ice,” Danny mourned.
            Nettie laid a gentle hand on Danny’s shoulder before turning back to Clarissa. “Whenever you’re ready, my dear,” she said, and pressed a soft kiss against Clarissa’s cheek.
            Clarissa tried to lift a hand to her best friend in tribute, and to the man that had shared her life for the past forty years. The effort was just too much. For that matter, each breath felt like too much effort. Sounds wavered in and out, and the rainbow squeezed into a prism of light, drawing her eye, capturing her attention. She thought she just might be ready now to follow that glowing lit hallway. And if she listened closely enough, she was sure she could hear her mother’s voice in the distance. “Well done, Clarissa! I think that’s enough practice now. It must be time for a cookie and glass of milk. Shall I read you a story?”
            Clarissa closed her eyes and sighed into the warm embrace of her mother, and the life yet to come.
Day 5: Choosing to Not Use the Prompt for the Day
            “Now, now, Annie,” Madge pursed her lips, folding her arms across her chest. She leaned in closer to the panting young woman, and whispered in her ear, “You’ve seen horses give birth. Don’t make this so hard. Just push that baby out.”
            Annie groaned as the contraction rippled through her body. As it eased off, she glared up at her mother. Easy for her to say, Annie thought. In her day, women were drugged into sleep and woke up with their bundle of joy waiting to be placed in their arms.
            “Mother,” she growled, feeling the next contraction tighten, “you’re not helping. Get out, if you can’t be . . .” Annie pursed her lips and started puffing through the pain.
            Madge raised one elegantly thin eyebrow, turning to sniff derisively at the huddled group of tie-dyed, beaded, greasy-haired and frankly smelly – well, Madge supposed some were men and some were women – chanting in some weird prayer designed to ease labor. She really had no idea just what her daughter saw in that bedraggled man who fathered her child. Personally, Madge could barely tolerate him. Trust him to bring in this odd group of people to what should be a private event. “And they are, I suppose,” she asked her daughter. “Hmmm?”
            Annie’s groan abruptly shrilled into a shriek, and Jon detached himself from the huddle, hurrying over to the bed. Taking Annie’s hands tenderly in his, he leaned close, murmuring in her ears, only to jerk back in pain when Annie shrilled in his ear, “Don’t you touch me, you sadistic pig. I hate you!” Jon started backing away, stopping when she snarled between clenched teeth, “And just where do you think you’re going? Don’t you dare leave this room, if you know what’s good for you.”
            “That’s my girl,” Madge murmured to herself. “A little anger for the last burst of needed energy. I suppose that’s as good a reason as any to allow fathers in the room – they provide such lovely targets.” Madge pursed her lips as she turned towards the rest of the chanting group. “They, however, must go.”
            Madge was unsure just how Annie had been able to finagle the nursing staff into allowing so many people into her room while she went through labor and delivery. The Sisters of St. Joseph’s nursing staff were clearly relaxing their usually stringent requirements that Madge remembered from when she gave birth to Annie . . . giving in to the times, Madge supposed. The late 1960’s were certainly turning the civilized world upon its head.
            Madge turned to leave the room and go in search of the head nurse to insist she evict the majority of the people in the room, when suddenly in bustled Sr. Teresa, all business, rigidity, and starched wimple. She stopped in the door, her mouth opening and then closing with a decisive snap.  Sr. Teresa glared at the young novice, Clara who was wringing her hands anxiously in a corner, clearly torn between her duty to the laboring woman on the bed and not wishing to get any closer the chanting group.
            “Just what are all these people doing here?” Sr. Teresa demanded. “Out,” she went on, pointing imperiously at the door. Quietly, the room emptied until only Annie, Jon, Madge, Sr. Teresa and Clara remained. For the last several minutes, Jon had been breathing in unison with Annie, wiping her forehead and face between contractions with a damp, cool washcloth.
            “Jon,” she panted.
            “Umm?”
            “I think my waters broke. Either that, or I just wet the bed.”
            Jon beckoned to Clara, excitedly. “I think she’s getting close.”
            Sr. Teresa motioned to Clara to change the linens and clean Annie up a bit, and then looked Madge in the eye. Madge preempted her attack. “I am staying.” She folded her arms over her chest. “I have worked next to my husband delivering foals and calves. I hardly think this will be much different.”
            Teresa narrowed her eyes. “Mechanically, no. However, this is your daughter. It’s perhaps just a bit different, hmmm? I must insist. Clara will fetch you as soon as the baby is born, mom and baby are ready for some company.” Teresa reached behind her and held the door open, holding Madge’s eyes with no sign of weakness.
            “Of course,” Madge murmured, actually not really looking forward to watching her daughter writhe through the last burst, and looked pointedly over at Jon. “And him?” she asked.
            “He’ll join you momentarily,” Teresa said. Jon was helping Clara with the linen change and making Annie as comfortable as possible. As soon as Annie was curled around another contraction, Teresa marched to the bed and disentangled Jon’s hands from Annie’s, and turned him so he was facing the door. At Annie’s groan of protest, Jon halted, and Teresa firmly reiterated, “Out! I’ll call you as soon as the baby is born.”
            The door swung shut behind them, and Jon and Madge stood facing each other in the hallway. Madge shook her head at the young man. “Trust you,” she said in a low, angry tone, “to pollute a beautiful event with your smelly, greasy friends. I do hope you understand that my daughter is not only used to a much more – shall we say – elegant lifestyle, but she also deserves it. And I expect you to provide it for her and the child on its way.”
            Jon raised one eyebrow, and leaned indolently against the door frame. “Ma’am,” he drawled, “you don’t have to approve of me, or like me, or have anything to do with me, if you don’t want. But, Annie’s and my life is just that – Annie’s and my life. And I’m here to tell you – don’t interfere. Or Annie and I will move our family so far and so fast, it’ll make your head spin.”
            The world seemed to stand still and silent for many long moments, before Madge lifted one shoulder. “I suppose you’ll both do s you see fit,” she replied icily, “but don’t forget, it’s Annie’s trust fund you’re living off of. I’d think long and hard, if I were you.” Madge turned to walk down the hall, and then looked over her shoulder at Jon. “Do please let me know when the baby is born. I’m so looking forward to meeting my grandchild.”
Story 6 Prompt: Choose a New Location
            Jaklyn stepped off the Greyhound and gagged. The smell of rotting food and sweaty unwashed bodies pressed in on her, and clung to her along with the humidity and heat.
            “God,” she muttered and immediately regretted opening her mouth. Clapping one hand over her mouth, she swung the tattered orange backpack over her left shoulder.
            Uncertainly, she peered up the street, looking for the youth hostel she was booked into for the night. Tomorrow morning, she would join the work crew heading into the washed out slums to spend a week picking up garbage, tearing down rotten structures, and scrubbing mold off of those places that were still salvageable.
            Jaklyn was not generally interested in doing charity work, but she was desperate for time away from home, and this was the only thing her parents were willing to approve. Since they weren’t a church going family, Jaklyn had to find a group willing to include her and then travel on her own to meet them. She had looked forward to the travel until she boarded the Greyhound and confronted her first wino.
            She was proud of her resolve and forbearance, though, as she nodded and smiled at the man slumped over, gazing vacantly out the window, a bottle wrapped in brown paper clutched in his fist. “There,” she thought triumphantly to herself, “that’s not so bad.”
            Her sense of accomplishment didn’t last long as a very large woman squeezed into the seat next to her, immediately launching into a monologue about her husband’s failures, her multiple children, and the state of the world. Eliciting no response from Jaklyn, she then started to pry mercilessly Jaklyn’s life, not pausing for breath or answer.
            Jaklyn’s nose had been assaulted with the scent of the woman’s perfume, prodigiously applied but unable to mask the rancid smell of clothes worn too often and washed too little. She had hoped that her escape from the confines of the Greyhound would provide some relief, but apparently not.
            Seeing the Youth Hostel sign in the distance, Jaklyn stepped off the curb and crossed the street, avoiding what looked suspiciously like vomit. She supposed she could change her mind at even this late date, and buy a ticket on the next bus back home. The thought of her family’s reaction to her sudden and unexpected reappearance firmed her step and her resolve.
            Smells were just smells, Jaklyn reminded herself. She’d get used to them. The people around her were all God’s children, unwashed or clean. They were her brothers and sisters, and she was here to see how she could help, not judge. “Tell yourself another one, girl,” she said to herself. “That sounds good . . . and the reality is, you’re here to escape from another uncomfortable, smelly situation. Just keep going – and try to be honest about it.”
            Jaklyn marched up the stairs to the hostel, and opened the door to possibility.
DAY 7 Prompt: Write a story in first person
            “I didn’t know the wanting could be so . . . well, intense. How long do I have to flippin’ wait?”
            “Maybe until the ice melts?”
            I narrowed my eyes at Jan. She knew I didn’t appreciate flippancy when I was struggling with control issues — or perhaps patience issues– maybe self-doubt issues. One of which I clung to, the other seemingly out of reach, and the third screaming like a banshee in my head.
            “Be of good cheer,” Jan said, “the way global warming is melting the polar caps, it should only take-”
            She yelped and ducked as I tossed a roll from the bread basket at her head. The roll bounced against the back of her chair and rolled across the floor.
            Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the disapproving frown of the neatly dressed businesswoman at the next table, and the look of “Really?!?!” on the face of the waitress as she bent down to scoop up the roll, look me square in the eye, and shake her head at me.
            “Wow, if looks could kill,” I mimed fear and trembling, and then sank lower in my chair, mixing more cream into my already milky coffee.
            “You’re just going to have to let it go,” Jan said. Her voice had lowered a notch and she was facing me straight on, a serious expression taking up residence in her normally cheerful face.
            I groaned inwardly. Jan was going to give me the ‘I’m older than you and I know better’ lecture, complete with historical vignettes from her own experiences, much drawing of parallel experiences to what I could learn from her, and no consideration at all of the fact that – okay, I admit this is stupid —  I LIKE learning through experience, burnt hand and all.
            I am not a passive learner. Which may sound odd, given the fact that I love to read and can happily bury myself in books for hours on end, but that hobby was more an escape when the rapid pace my life usually took got to be a wee bit too fast even for me and I needed to slow down and breathe for a bit.
            I took a deep breath in, and met Jan’s eyes. “Jan,” I said. She kept talking waving her hands in punctuation.
            “Jan,” I said louder, “stop a minute!” She paused midstream, her mouth open like a guppy.
            “Close your mouth,” I suggested. “You don’t want folks to think you’re a guppy, do you?”
            “Baby bird, maybe,” she responded, spooning up some of her melting ice cream into her mouth before following my advice and closing it.
            “Listen,” I said. “I don’t like waiting. But, I’ll do it this time. Hell, I am doing it. Doesn’t mean I like it. It’s probably good for me. I’m sure I’m learning a lot – yadda yadda. I just want your ears this time. Please. And perhaps,” I paused, searching for the most delicate way to put it, and then opted for my usual method of just saying it straight, “a wee bit of sympathy . . . encouragement . . . go get ‘em, tiger cheerleading? Too much to ask?”
            Jan swallowed her ice cream and looked at me in surprise. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”  Her eyes widened and small smile played across her lips as she looked at me. Me – fidgeting in embarrassment, squirming in my seat like a four year old with her hand caught in the cookie jar.
            Wearing my heart on my sleeve was generally reserved for things that made me angry, roused my ire in defense of the weak or helpless. Not a practice when it came to my inner life. My personal life. My private life. The part of me that I shared only in the most minute portions, protecting it assiduously.
            I only drag my personal life into it when it will help advance the agenda, make a point, win a battle. Maybe someday I’d think far enough ahead to win the war, I thought to sourly to myself. “Cheer up, champ,” I muttered back at the niggling self-doubter inside, “you’re working on that one right now. All will be well.”
            Jan sat back against the diner chair. “Well, well,” she said softly. “The bug has bit.” She raised an eyebrow as she surveyed my flushed face and my disheveled hair from where I kept scrubbing nervous hands through the normally tidy mop. She nodded slowly. “You got it. Sympathy, support, and cheerleading. Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
Day 8 Prompt: Rewrite Day 7 Story in Second Person
            You’re not the kind of person who wears your heart on your sleeve – and yet, here you are, in agony, wishing, hoping, begging for just a minute’s worth of understanding. Just a wee bit of sympathy, a smidgeon of support, perhaps a modicum of encouragement – these are the things you are hoping for.
            You sit across the yellowed diner table, in a tattered booth, gazing anxiously at your best friend, and restraining the urge to throttle her as she makes light of your internal struggle. You succumb to the urge and throw a buttered dinner role at her head, smiling as she yelps and ducks. Serves her right, you think.
            You duck your sweating forehead against your shoulder and notice that not only is the waitress glaring at you, so is the overdressed, aging woman at the table across the way.  You offer them a jaunty smile and turn back to your friend, while mixing still yet more pretend creamer into hours old burnt coffee.
            Nervously, you scrub one hand through your hair, causing the riot of curls to plump out in disarray more than they already have. You breathe a sigh of relief as you realize she’s finally understanding how serious you are, and follow the softening in her eyes and face. She leans across the table and lays her hand gently over yours, saying with great gentleness, “You got it. Sympathy, support, and cheerleading. Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
Day 9 Prompt: Rewrite Day 7 Story in Third Person, Limited POV
            Teena mixed her coffee with still yet more cream, sighing deeply before she looked up at Jan. “I didn’t know the wanting could be so . . . well, intense. How long do I have to flippin’ wait?” irritation warred with anxiety in Teena’s voice. She felt like the struggle was one of a perpetual clash between control and letting go, self-doubt screaming like banshees in her mind.
            “Maybe until the ice melts?” Jan said, a grin teasing at the edges of her mouth. “Be of good cheer,” she continued, “the way global warming is melting the polar caps, it should only take-”
            Teena tossed a roll from the bread basket at Jan’s head, a scowl on her face. “Great, Teena thought, Jan is in full form with her make the world laugh, flippant mode — oblivious, apparently, that levity is so not on the menu right now.”
            The roll bounced against the back of Jan’s chair and rolled across the floor. Both the waitress and a  neatly dressed businesswoman glared and Teena and Jan. Teena chose to ignore them and refocused her attention on Jan, who seemed to be abruptly sobering up to the seriousness of the situation. Teena sighed with relief, as Jan cocked her head and more carefully surveyed Teena’s pale face.
            “You’re just going to have to let it go,” she said, her voice low and her face serious.
            Teena groaned inwardly. Jan was going to give her the ‘I’m older than you and I know better’ lecture, complete with historical vignettes from her own experiences, much drawing of parallel experiences to what Teena could learn from Jan, and no consideration at all of the fact that – okay, Teena admitted this was stupid —  she LIKED learning through experience, burnt hand and all.
            Teena was not a passive learner. She supposed that sounded odd to others when learning styles came up in conversation, since it was also a well-known fact that Teena loved to read and would happily bury herself in books for hours on end. The reality was that her reading hobby was more an escape when her rapid life pace got to be a wee bit too fast, and she needed to slow down and breathe for a bit.
            Teena took a deep breath in, and met Jan’s eyes. “Jan!” Jan kept talking waving her hands in punctuation.
            “Jan,” Teena said louder, “stop a minute!” Jan paused midstream, her mouth open like a guppy.
            “Close your mouth,” Teena suggested. “You don’t want folks to think you’re a guppy, do you?”
            “Baby bird, maybe,” Jan said and spooned up some of her melting ice cream into her mouth.
            “Listen,” Teena slowly said. “I don’t like waiting. But, I’ll do it this time. Hell, I am doing it. Doesn’t mean I like it. It’s probably good for me. I’m sure I’m learning a lot – yadda yadda. I just want your ears this time. Please. And perhaps,” Teena paused, searching for the most delicate way to put it, and then opted for her usual method blunt speaking, “a wee bit of sympathy . . . encouragement . . . go get ‘em, tiger cheerleading? Too much to ask?”
            Teena eyed Jan narrowly, watching her friend swallow her ice cream, surprise on her face.
            “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” A small smile played across Jan’s lips. Teena squirmed inwardly, feeling like a four year old with her hand caught in the cookie jar. Wearing her heart on her sleeve was not generally Teena’s way. She only shared vulnerable internal parts of herself in the most minute portions, protecting herself assiduously from life’s inevitable hurts.
            Teena swallowed anxiously as Jan sat back against the diner chair. “Well, well,” Jan said softly. “The bug has bit.” Jan raised an eyebrow, surveying Teena’s flushed face and disheveled hair , nodding slowly.
            “You got it. Sympathy, support, and cheerleading. Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
Day 10 Prompt: Write a story in 3rd person omniscient POV
            Robin lay back against his pillows and grimaced as the nurse swabbed his arm. “There, now,” she said crisply, “just a wee prick and  . . . voila.”
            Robin opened one eye and looked down the length of his arm to where the nurse was taping in the IV, dripping in the medicine that would supposedly make his illness go away.
            “We got lucky, Robin,” she smiled as she straightened the blanket and spread the special handmade quilt from his church over him. “You’ve done a good job drinking lots of water so we had an easier time of finding a vein. Doctor will be pleased.”
            Robin looked quietly up at her. What was there to say? It wasn’t like he had much choice. Drink the water, and keep it down . . . or suffer through multiple failed blood draws, while staff tried hot towels to bring veins closer, and he wore out his hand pumping a small rubber ball, and the crowd that seemed to expand in his room whenever his body refused access to whatever indignity he was being treated to that time. Robin sighed slightly in relief, and closed his eyes.
            “How about a book? And a snack? I could bring you a popsicle and some juice. A few crackers?” The nurse looked at the boy propped on pillows, his face pale and his lashes resting like a lunatic’s fringe along his cheekbones.
            Robin resisted the urge to shake his head no, knowing that no matter what he said, she would insist on his at least trying to eat something. Robin’s stomach was most grumpy about the addition of anything other than clear fluids as he persevered through the chemotherapy treatments. He understood why he had to have the treatments – but he certainly didn’t like them. He wanted to go home; but home seemed very far away.
            His widowed mother worked full-time to support his five brothers and sisters, and Robin only saw her on weekends. Robin didn’t know how the hospital bills were being paid, but he knew it weighed on his mom since she winced every time someone mentioned the bank fund created by their church to help meet the costs. Even with that help, she couldn’t afford in-home nursing care, and her limited medical insurance didn’t cover it, either. She did call every morning and night, and his room was packed with cards and stuffed animals and plants, but he missed her. He was scared.
            Robin supposed he should be thankful, since a day did not pass where he didn’t have at least two visitors – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Church members, people from the small village they lived in, hospital volunteers. The world had wrapped itself around Robin, and refused to let him alone.  But then, he wasn’t sure if really wanted to be alone. It was just that he tired so easily, and wanted  . . . well, he didn’t know what he wanted, really.
            The nurse bustled back around the curtain blocking his view into the hallway and nurse’s station across from his door.
            “Here we go,” she said, smiling gently. She set the popsicle, apple juice and crackers down on the tray and wheeled it over so it was within easy reaching distance. “Look what I found in the lending library,” she said, handing the Robin the book. “Perhaps you’re his namesake,” she teased.
            Robin looked down at the dog-eared book. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. Something sparked inside Robin as he held the book, a tugging curiosity inviting him into a world that he knew nothing about, and yet felt oddly familiar. Robin could hear birds chirping, and feel the breeze on his cheek where he lay against the scratchy bark of an ancient and gnarled oak tree. The world swam around him for a long minute, until he realized the nurse was calling his name anxiously,         “Robin? Robin!”
            He blinked rapidly and shook his head leaning back against the pillows.
            “I’m okay,” he murmured. What had just happened to him? It had felt so real.
            The nurse peered closely at Robin’s flushed face. “Alright,” she said slowly. “Get some of the apple juice down and rest, okay? Here’s the call button if you need me.”
            Robin nodded, clutching the book tightly to his chest. For a long moment, he had been afraid she would try to take the book from him. He wanted to go back to wherever he had just been. He wanted out of the sterile hospital room. Robin wanted to be free.
Day 11 Prompt: Write a short story using an epistolary style
Romancing the Text
*Long time, no text. How ya doing?*
*Busy, busy — scrambling to get things done.*
*Well, make sure to get some R&R, busy boy. We both have much to do.*
*And much to talk about.*
*True, that. Any idea when?*
*Soon. *
*Before the work week begins? My concentration’s somewhat shattered, know what I mean?*
*I know. I’m sorry. When are you free?*
*Depends on work. How about now? Hungry for a steak dinner?*
*Yes!*
*How do you like ‘em? I’m a medium rare kinda gal.*
*Rare. I’m quite the carnivore . . .*
*Well, my fine carnivore. My thumbs want to text a smart ass comment, however, I’ll restrain myself.*
*You can send any smart ass comment you’re so moved to send.*
*Really? Nah – I’ll save it for another time.*
*Your call . . . Smart ass? Suggestive? Both?*
*Yep.*
*Nice.*
*What can I say? You have that effect on me. The coast is clear here. My door is open.*
*Ooooh, my . . . .*
*Mmmmm?*
*You know . . .*
*I’ll be well-behaved, promise.*
*Is that a ‘good’ thing?*
*Anyway you like it.*
*Will this be a multi-bottle conversation?*
*Perhaps. We have all night. But only one bottle of wine.*
*The rate limiting step in the equation.*
*Sip slowly, I suppose . . .*
*Or think of something else to do.*
*Many things come to mind.*
*Well, great minds do think alike. See you soon.*
Day 12 Prompt: Write A Story Set At A Wedding
            The butterflies threatened to fly out of Emma’s throat dragging along the bile burning her insides. The supposedly most joyous day of her life, and yet she was completely terrified. Emma tried to breathe as deeply as possible to calm her nerves, and gave up, reaching for the glass of white wine sitting on the dressing table.
            It wasn’t too late to change her mind, was it? Emma looked at her trembling hand sloshing the wine around the glass, and carefully set the glass back down before she spilled it. Maybe they had a straw somewhere in the kitchen, and she could just sip the wine. She snorted to herself – slurp, more like, and with great haste, to boot.
            One part of her gibbered in panic, demanding that she sneak out the back door and drive away as fast as she could push her 78 Ford Pinto Pony. With luck, it might hit 55 mph on the freeway. Another part of her grimly predicted forever disappointing family and friends by irresponsibly disappearing. And a final squeaky little piece of her howled in amused laughter at the fix Emma found herself in now.
            Why was she so scared now? she wondered. What the hell was triggering the fear at this point in the proceedings? Just last night, she was sharing a companionable glass of wine with her soon-to-be-husband, Liam, while he treated his motorcycle leathers. At one point, she had jokingly asked him if that was what he intended to wear to the ceremony.
            “Of course not,” Liam said, continuing to clean and treat the well-worn chaps.
            “Oh, good,” Emma had replied. She had cleaned his one suit, a serviceable (although dull) tan suit that he still fit into, and then chosen her wedding outfit to match.
            Emma had found a lovely floral outfit, perfect for the casual wedding they had planned at Liam’s sister’s house. Apart from the minister’s fee, the marriage license, bouquet and wedding cake, there was no cost to the wedding. The food was potluck and disposable cameras were liberally placed for guests to snap pictures. It was a sunny, dry February day – an oddity in the Pacific Northwest — and everyone was in a good mood and behaving very nicely. Why was she so on edge?
            A tap at her door startled Emma out of her pensive reflections and she looked up as her Grannie came in the door. “You look lovely, my dear,” Grannie said. “Feeling okay?”
            “Not really,” Emma said. “Scared to death, in fact.”
            “Most brides are,” her grandmother responded dryly. “Your groom is arriving soon. Let’s head out to the living room, shall we? Hiding in here will just make it worse.”
            Emma looked up at her grandmother’s lined face and tightly curled hair, a shining silvered cap. “Alright,” she said, getting up out of the chair and walking out the door and down the hall with Grannie.
            It was a slow progress down the hall, with folks waiting their turn to hug her and chat for a minute. The kinder folks offered her sips of their adult beverages and forbore to mention her apparent nerves. The ones with a funny bone aching to be tickled made indelicate comments, usually rather loudly.
            Emma glanced down at her grandmother, rolling her eyes. “Thank God they no longer put the bride to bed on her wedding night and then gather outside the chamber door to make sure the happy couple get it on,” she muttered.
            A slight smile quirked Grannie’s lips, and she patted Emma’s arm comfortingly, as they rounded the hallway corner to step down into the sunken living room where Liam waited for her. He had arrived while she was making her slow way down the hall.
            Emma looked across the room, following the sound of his voice, and her heart sank to her toes. Her face went from flushed to pale and she stopped abruptly. “I don’t fucking believe it,” she said. “That asshole!”
            Her grandmother looked up startled and then followed Emma’s gaze across the room, her eyes widening.
            Liam was standing with the minister, fully decked out in his recently cleaned and polished chaps and leather jacket, with his family tartan pinned to his chest. Even worse, the foot long ponytail he had cut off two weeks ago “in preparation for taking on his new responsibility of being a husband and father” had been sewn on the back of his black leather cap, and dangled lifelessly down his back.
            Emma disentangled herself from her grandmother’s grasp and headed back down the hallway. Just a few steps down the hallway, an old friend caught her by the arm.
            “We can leave right now,” Mariah said, a mixture of anger and concern in her voice. “Just say the word, Emma.” Emma gulped in a shaky breath and fled panic-stricken to the bathroom she had vacated just ten minutes ago. With a resounding thud, she flung herself into the chair and stared blankly at her reflection in the mirror.
            What in God’s name was Liam thinking? She had tried to engage him in wedding planning every step of the way, to no avail. She had asked him several times if the suit he had was what he was going to wear, or if he was going to wear something else.
            She didn’t know if the disrespect and lack of communication bothered her more than being upstaged on what was supposed to traditionally be the bride’s day. She wanted to claw his eyes out . . . and she wanted to curl up in a ball and sob. And she really, really, really wanted to skip out, as fast as she could. How could he do this? She had asked him point blank if he was planning on wearing the chaps – and he had lied to her!
            “It’s not the first lie, Emma-girl,” she reminded herself, “and it won’t be the last. You walked into it with open eyes. Pull up your big girl panties and get on with it. The audience is waiting.”
            It was just as well she had reached that conclusion, since her Grannie opened the door and said with a measured forcefulness, “Let’s go, girl. Fix your mascara. The minister’s waiting, and so is your husband-to-be. You made your bed. Now you . . .”
            “I know, Grannie,” Emma responded. “I made it – I can lie in it.” She dabbed at her eyes and reapplied her lipstick, straightening her shoulders. “Even if kills me, hmmm? After all – isn’t that what we women do in our family. Stand by our man – no matter how bad it gets?”
Day 13 Prompt: Sam has been offered a dream position — or at least it would have been if it had been dangled two years ago. But since last summer, Sam thinks there’s more to life than ambition, career, advancement, the trappings of success. Write Sam’s story.
            Sam sat in the chair in front of the pristine mahogany desk, stunned. Mr. McGuinn’s beaming  face across the desk’s shining expanse mocked Sam’s sensation of sinking into a tar pit, trapped and undecided if taking a last breath before his head disappeared under the black sticky mess was a reasonable idea or not.
            Two years ago, the challenge would have been restraining his desire to leap up whooping and stomping in a wild victory dance. Sam had worked hard, pouring his heart and creativity into the firm, and expected to promote rapidly. Instead, in counterpoint to the tidal waves of sadness, Sam heard the sonorous tolling in his head of a Hemingway quote: “I don’t like that sadness,’ he thought. That sadness is bad. That’s the sadness they bet before they quit or betray. That is the sadness that comes before the sell-out.” Sam was done. He would go no further.
            Smiling woodenly, Sam shook his boss’s hand, and slowly left the office with what he hoped looked more like a dignified step, rather than a reluctant trudge to the gallows. Sam would quit before he took the promotion offered to him. But, it wouldn’t do to say so to his boss’s face. He still needed a job to provide for his daughter, Janet. Poor little motherless waif.
            Sam could see Janet’s peaked face gazing anxiously up at him each morning before he handed her over to her nanny — a pale replacement for a mother newly dead — her small fingers clutching at his shirt with a desperate intensity. “You’ll be home for dinner, Daddy, right?”
            “Of course, sweetheart,” he would invariably whisper, and dinner would invariably be held over more and more often while Sam finished a last-minute project. Sam would race home filled with guilt to – invariably — find Janet sleeping in her booster seat over a cold dinner plate. He would then – also invariably — stand helpless in the face of the nanny’s judgment as she quietly packed up her bag and left Sam with his sleeping daughter. After a few weeks of this, the nanny then invariably left for good, and Sam would then – again invariably –open the door in the morning to the newest replacement handing him her references and recommendations from the placement firm. And invariably, Sam would get a call from the placement firm.
            The woman who ran the company would adjure Sam to think of his daughter’s need to see her father, especially during this time of grief and adjustment. Then the woman would caution Sam that the nanny’s were not live-in nanny’s, and had specific employment hours. Then she would end by thanking Sam for his business, and the phone would click, the line dead.
            So, most evenings, after Sam locked the door behind the nanny’s retreating back, he would return to the dining room and clear the table while his daughter slept. Rather than eat, Sam poured a shot of Scotch over a handful of ice cubes in glass tumbler, and sat across the table from his daughter, looking for signs of Carol in her hair and face and hands. Carol’s image faded a little more each day from Sam’s memory. He looked at the photo in his wallet, and felt no connection to the cheerful face and sparkling eyes gazing at the camera. He looked at the family portrait hanging over the sideboard and felt . . . nothing. He didn’t know who those people were, filled with hopes and dreams and a vision of the future that included many more people in the final family portrait decades into the future. Where had that dream gone?
            Ice would clink as Sam drained his drink, and then he would scoop his daughter up and carry her tenderly upstairs to her room. Generally, the nannies caught on quickly to Sam’s inability to make it home in the evening, and they would make sure Janet had a large afternoon snack, an early bath and her PJs on, so that all Sam had to do was tuck his daughter into bed. Janet would stir and start to awaken as Sam tucked her into bed. Janet would sleepily kiss her father’s face and cling to his hand while he rubbed her small back and sang her silly songs and lullabyes, struggling to remember the words and melodies that had floated so effortlessly down the hall to Sam’s ears in the evenings when Carol would go through the nightly tuck-in rituals with Janet.
            Sam flushed with shame remembering how many dinner hours he had missed with his daughter. The shame gave way to a flash of self-righteous anger — what did the world expect? He was the bread earner. That required work. The anger was always short-lived for Sam, the shame and guilt taking precedence. He hadn’t seen it coming. Sam just thought Carol was tired.  Tired from the daily demands of caring for a large home, a small toddler, and a second baby on the way.
            Sam knew Carol’s second pregnancy was taking a lot out of her. He had thought it odd that she was losing weight rather than gaining, but when he asked, Carol would just smile and tut-tut away his concern. Sam never had the time to go with her to her monthly check-ups, and it never crossed his mind to call the doctor and ask what was going on with Carol and the pregnancy.
            And it was too late by the time Sam got the call from the hospital. Carol was gone, leaving Janet and Sam to fend for themselves and find whatever path through the tangled briers of their mutual grief that they could. All Sam knew at this point was that he could no longer hide in his work, leaving Janet to cope with a revolving door of nanny’s and a father that was absent even when he was home. It had to stop. Sam had to choose.
            Slowly Sam pulled a piece of paper over to him, and began the slow process of figuring out the correct words that would in some fashion show his gratitude for the opportunity to promote, and make it clear that this was not the proper time. He was needed by his daughter. He was needed at home. Sam needed the stability of a standard 40-hour work week that ensured he was home and could keep to a daily routine.
            Sam knew, though, that his career would meet an abrupt end. Refusing promotions in the firm generally led to loss of employment altogether. Abruptly, Sam pulled his briefcase over to him and clicked it open. Looking at his tidy desk, he reached across to the one personal item he kept – a picture of Janet during her 4th birthday party a mere two weeks before Carol died so suddenly, and slid it into his briefcase, closing the case. Standing, Sam shrugged into his jacket and clapped his fedora onto his head. Life was altogether too short to miss another moment of his daughter’s life. It was all he had left of Carol.
Day 14 Prompt: Write a story that opens, “On the edge of the mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.”  (Author’s Note: Oh dear – this is so not going to be a short story. It is the merest beginning of a lengthy adventure. What fun!)
            On the edge of the mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.
            This wood is a special wood. The grains twist into complicated whorls, rather like Celtic knotwork. Every color imaginable to wood is represented, rather like marquetry pieced together in finely cut veneers. Between the shifting lines and colors, the cottage appears to the naked eye to waver.
            It is not a solid cottage. The cottage itself is conjured out of equal parts day-dream and cold reality; therefore, it squats uneasily across the dividing line between our world and the next.
            I see your eyebrows lift up into the sky, widening your sky-blue eyes. Disbelief so soon into my story? For shame. Listen patiently, and you will hear a thing or two to trouble your dreams, and haunt your waking hours.
            You know that there are doors between this world and the next – and the next can be any number of places magical, horrifying, entrancing, mysterious. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination. But what lies in between our here and now, and whatever we dream the next place to be?
            Ah, I can see you are intrigued! Come with me, and you shall see.
            Matthew had spent the better part of the day wandering in the forests outside the small village he and his parents recently moved to, following his father’s desire to escape the dull inanities of daily life and work, and his mother’s longing to follow his father. Neither his mother or father appeared to care greatly about any longings Matthew harbored, so he pursued his dreams overtly, secure that they were hidden rather like Poe’s Purloined Letter from their disinterested eyes.
            Matthew’s latest longing included the desire to explore the lands surrounding his new home, and an even more urgent desire to disappear from the cat calls and less-than-gentle-ribbing-of-the-new-kid by his school mates.
            Between his thick glasses, formal button down shirts and trousers, and clipped northern accent, Matthew was an oddity in the little southern community of Castlegrove. And in the time-honored fashion of angst-filled adolescents trapped in their narrow perspectives bounded by their parents’ even more small-minded and fear-filled views of the world, Matthew provided a butt for jokes ranging from indifferent carelessness to studied heartlessness.
            All of which only meant that Matthew drew on his ready skills of slipping easily into his books, studies, and imagination. For example, he had been hearing a stubborn whisper inside his head all week – a whisper that was louder than any jibe or curse tossed his direction.
            “Matthew, please. I need you. The Cottage holds me prisoner.”
            The voice wormed into his psyche, with a desperate intensity and lingering sorrow that beckoned to Matthew. He was called, he knew it. To ignore that call would be less than honorable, a betrayal of who and what he knew himself to be.
            So, Matthew rolled out of his bed which was barely rumpled – he was a sound and quiet sleeper — when the first robins began their morning song. In the dim light of a single lamp, he packed a hearty lunch and filled two water bottles, grabbed his compass, rope, utility knife and windbreaker, shoving them into his tattered knapsack. He then scribbled a brief note to his parents, never dreaming that the vagueness of it would open far more doors into the next world than he had ever dreamed or even hoped for.
Gone exploring. Back by dark. M.
On the edge of the mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood. This cottage waits with great anticipation for the arrival of a hero. It has waited for centuries, and doesn’t particularly care if the hero understands the enormity of the task awaiting him. The cottage only knows that redemption is at hand.
Day 15 Prompt: Beyond the Blue Horizon
            “Are you ready?” Jon held out his hand to Katie. His blue eyes sparkled in anticipation, and his shoulders easily carried the weight of his 150 pound pack. Katie was less comfortable with her 65 pound pack, and shifted uncomfortably under its weight. At 5’4” and 110 pounds, she was feeling rather bogged down, her center of gravity uncomfortably lower than normal.
            The shimmering doorway of the transfer portal beckoned them, and Katie looked from that rainbow image glimmering and throbbing, back to Jon’s bright eyes. She realized that the blue in Jon’s eyes was mirrored by the blue in the portal, and wondered if that was real or more a reflection, a mirage. She smiled hesitantly, but held back from his outstretched hand, turning to look behind her at the control room and the waiting scientists, stern officials and huddled reporters scribbling in their notebooks, or jostling for a place close to the observation window.
            Even though Katie’s heart was racing in anticipation, her palms were sweaty with nervousness. Was she ready? She supposed she was . . . there was nothing left here on Earth for her but unending days of a routine that rarely varied, of experiences that had long since ceased to be new. Her first two decades of life had been spent the same as every other citizen on the worn and overused Earth.
            People were housed in 200 square feet of living space per person, with a maximum of 800 square feet per family. The limit on space had worked to slow population growth as nothing else had. People simply couldn’t tolerate a lack of private space, despite their orientation to communal living.  Adults rotated through assigned work, continuing education, and recreation schedules based not on desire, interest or need, but on some arcane system designed by the government to allocate opportunity and resources fairly. Children spent months each year in specialized schools, receiving basic education and being socialized to the realities and necessities of the world they lived in. It was commonly held that it would take several generations of this before the old population that remembered days of greater freedom died off and would no longer be around to incite the new generations to unrest. Food was bland nutrition packets, modeled after military rations — and potable water was repeatedly recycled from waste products – human, animal and planetary.
            But, by far, the biggest problem for most people was the routinized dullness of everyday life. People were flat out bored. There was no diversity in what people wore, how they did their hair, what they ate, or read or listened to, what they did each and every day . . . and worse yet, they were packed together so tightly that governments had ended up controlling practically every facet of daily life to prevent inevitable outbreaks of unrest and protest. Bored people in a crowd tended to stir up trouble – government perceived its role in protecting the welfare of citizens as one that required strict oversight and control until a more permanent solution could be found to the problems of overpopulation, scarce resources, and restless people.
            Finally, the government had announced a sliver of hope. Not only had NASA found habitable worlds, scientists had landed on a workable theory for teleportation, thereby avoiding the expense and complication of designing spacecraft that could support life and survive decades of space travel. All the experts had agreed that the theory was sound – it was just essentially the same conundrum faced by every generation – getting technology to catch up with theory.
            The entire population had breathlessly waited for an announcement of  NASA’s inevitable breaththrough – and five years ago they had developed the machine and began sending planetary explorers through to investigate possible new homes. Some explorers never returned. Some returned permanently altered. Some brought back news of other species and treaties to consider. And, at long last, one explorer returned with news of a possible planet to colonize.
            The jubilation was widespread. Throngs of people celebrated – until the Lottery Riots began. NASA had announced that only the top 10% of each nation’s potential candidates who met specific markers would be further trained and sent through to colonize the new planet. Since the planet was too far away to transport heavy equipment, supplies or computerized support, the colonists would be reduced to what they could carry over. Very basic tools, supplies, equipment, resources. They would need to build their own homes out of native materials, grow their own food, raise their own livestock . . . if they managed to survive the crucial first few years, they would then need to learn to educate their children and build the communities and systems necessary to a new world.
            Nothing boring about the challenges ahead, Katie though, a smile dancing across her lips. She wiped her hands on her rugged jeans, waved jauntily at the waiting crowd, and took Jon’s hand firmly in her own.
            “Ready as I’ll ever be,” she smiled back at Jon, and together they stepped beyond the shimmering  blue horizon and into a new world.

Day 16 Prompt: Mentally travel ten years into the future. What if a hot-button issue really care about has come to pass or been squelched. What does that mean for everyday life? What will your hero face/do about it?

            “I’m so not Sarah Connor, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!” I muttered under my jagged breath. Which was mildly putting it, frankly. At 4’9” and a pleasingly plump 130 lbs, I clearly bore no resemblance to her. I shrank farther back among the cardboard boxes stacked in the warehouse and patted my jacket pockets until I found my inhaler and took two quick breaths, feeling my lungs stop quivering as the hot pokers dancing up and down them when I gasped for air diminished. It was one thing to enjoy science fiction stories, and spend time wrapped up in dreams of the possible . . . another to be plucked from reality and dropped into a nightmare.

            What had happened? I wondered for the thousandth time since coming to partially buried under — thankfully light weight – cardboard boxes. The warehouse was dim and quiet now. No voices to be heard, no rats squeaking, no machinery humming. When I first came to, there was a welter of confused activity and voices as cardboard boxes were unloaded and stacked ten high in several rows. When the activity ceased, I had tried to stand up and immediately pulled boxes down around my ears. As I said, thankfully they were not heavy, but the shock had sent me spiraling back into a dark pit.

            Slowly coming to my senses again, I tried to piece together past events. The last thing I remembered was the on-going coffee shop argument Jarrod and I were having over – of all things – the increasing use of technology to perform simple, everyday chores that people had once done for themselves. Jarrod argued vehemently against the use of technology, claiming it ruined a person’s ability to do for themselves, to think critically. I, on the other hand, delighted in having more free time to simply daydream and explore ideas, scribbling bits of poetry in my battered notebook, composing pen and pencil drawings, playing my guitar. It was quite all right by me if machines were around to cater to the mundane daily chores.

            Jarrod and I had dated for two years now, and in an otherwise fairy-tale perfect relationship, this was the sticking point. Jarrod was a die-hard hold-over for the Back-to-Basics movement, and didn’t waste an opportunity preaching his message no matter where he was. At first, I found it stimulation and challenging. Eventually, it just grew old, and that’s when the arguments had started. Gentle disagreements, at first, and gradually escalating in intensity and volume. The best I could figure was that Jarrod was truly frightened by the vision he held of the world. A world in which humanity had been relegated to a limited and finite existence, incapable of caring for themselves and stuck in a subservient role, under the authority of hard-wired, complex, thinking machines who had been clever enough to set-up their hostile take-over in such a way that it was barely detectable.

            And hence, one of our sticking points. I liked a good tale as much as the next person – but it seemed to me Jarrod was taking the storyline found in such sci-fi thrillers as Terminator a bit far. But then, we had the same argument about the X-Files, which I found amusing Friday night televised fun, and he took as gospel truth, a way that the general masses were being primed for the eventual full governmental disclosure of hidden truths.

            And here I was, buried under cardboard boxes, shaking in my proverbial boots. The vision that had greeted my eyes when I first came to argued a high probability that Jarrod was right. The off-loading and placement of the cardboard boxes were handled by a small group of men and women, clad in grey one piece suits, under the watchful gaze of what could only be an android. An android who indiscriminately applied what looked to be an electronic prod to the people handling the off-load and stacking. And worse yet, appeared to take pleasure in the groans and gasps of pain, applying longer doses to those who made the most protest.

            I hoped I would wake up soon from this nightmare. Surely, I was only sleeping, my dreams troubled by Jarrod’s gloom and doom predictions. When I woke up, I intended to have a few pointed words with him. And then to cut him loose from my life. I didn’t need his brand of trouble any longer.

            Pinching myself in the arm, I gave myself a stern injunction to wake up and stop this nonsense.

            And gasped as black dizziness threatened to descend over me. A person had crept in quietly down at the end of the warehouse and was walking steadily towards me. It was Jarrod, also wearing the same form-fitting grey one-piece outfit, and glancing nervously around him.

            Unerringly, he came right to where I lay under the cardboard boxes, and handed me one of the grey outfits.

            “I tried to warn you,” he said, miserably. “You just wouldn’t listen.” He glanced over his shoulder, and looked back at me. “Hurry up and change. I need to get you under cover with the rebel faction. They’ve waited a long time for you to show up.”

            My mouth dropped open and I felt the wail of disbelief and panic start to burble up from deep in my gut. When would I wake up from this nightmare? Was it a nightmare? Or was it for real? How had this come to be?

            “Hurry up,” Jarrod urged, and shifted a couple of the cardboard boxes. “Time is short.”

            Gulping, I removed my clothes with shaking fingers and replaced them with what he had handed me. It reeked of whoever had worn it last.

            “I’ll get you for this, Jarrod,” I hissed, “just you wait and see!”

            Trembling, I crawled out from under the last boxes and stood next to him, drawing a deep breath. “Lead on,” I snapped. “This is your nightmare, not mine.” Maybe I did have some Sarah Connor in me, after all.

Day 17 Prompt: Write a story that fits the guidelines of a particular market, themed anthology or competition.  My choice harkens from http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/about.html which offers the following whimsical challenge to its aspirants — compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. So, I’ll try my hand at a few of ‘em . . .

Harvey sat unnoticed in the booth, wait staff bustling past his long empty coffee cup, clutching his cell phone tightly with dismay in one hand and edging the offending ceramic mug ever closer to the table’s edge with the other hand, desperately trying to ignore the irregular thudding of his heart.

Janine wrapped her arms tightly around her middle struggling to stem the flow of angry, unhappy tears while her hostile internal critic hooted in derision, “Big girls don’t cry, my ass — not only do they cry, they drip snot  down the front of their shirts and into their Dr. Pepper – way to go, chickee!”

“If only” had ruled Tak’s every day, every waking moment, every longing or regret or aspiration . . . leaving him in his mid-thirties as a uniformly unfulfilled, bitter, angry man who spat with derision on anyone who had successfully dreamed with lengthy globules of spit, well-seasoned by the tobacco he chewed round the clock.

Day 18 Prompt: Choosing to Not Use the Prompt for the Day

            There came a day when Angie snapped, and grabbing her tormentor slammed his head against a closed locker door. Usually, she tried ignoring the cat-calls and hoots following her down the hallway, attempting to appear oblivious to the taunting while rummaging in her locker. The next class, mathematics, was her second most hated class – the first being PE. She liked sports, but detested the way Mrs. Compton ridiculed her and the “unpopular” girls for their less than perfect athleticism. That had been hard enough for Angie to deal with, but one of the boys in the class had also made it his personal goal to get her to cry as often as possible by making pointed comments about her changing body, or targeting her during dodge ball games, or following her around the hall calling her a variety of demeaning names, such as “douche bag.”

            Angie’s mother was no longer around to consult, and so she had turned to the home economic’s teacher to find out what Cory had meant by that particular insult. She flushed in shame as the older woman explained, and the asked her just who had called her that name, anger sparking in her eyes. She patted Angie on the shoulder kindly, and told her to let the insults roll off her like water off a duck’s back. Angie heard later that day that Cory had been called into the principal’s office and given detention for the rest of the week. With a sick, sinking sensation knew that she would be made to pay later on.

            And sure enough, she was – Cory had not lost a chance to torment her further. He just was more clever about it, making sure he wouldn’t be seen by anyone. Angie worked hard to be like a duck, letting the teasing roll off her back, but it stung.  More than once she found herself in the girl’s lavatory sitting on the toilet crying as quietly as possible so no one would hear her. She knew, as any hunted creature knew, that one sign of weakness from her, and the game would be up, they kids would move in for the kill. She hid the hurt and the shame while people could see her, waiting until she got home to sit in her bedroom, feeling the waves of emotion threatening to drown her. The only answer to the feelings she could find was in the small cuts she made on her arms – not deep, just enough to stop the internal pain, which with every passing day felt more and more unbearable.

            Until her father found her one time, slowly and methodically carving marks into her forearm. He hollered in fear and disbelief, grabbing the knife from her unresisting hand, pulling her to her feet. She stood limply in his grasp, her head snapping back and forth as he shook her. Finally, he let go of her and she fell back into the hallway wall, sliding down the wall to the floor. He had stalked away without another word, and Angie sat in numb silence, watching droplets of rose-red blood form and drip slowly down her arm.

            After that, she walked around in a frozen daze that had the salutary effect of making her seem impervious to the taunts and threats of her classmates. Ice-cold Angie moved through each school day with no visible emotion or even interest in what the day brought; under that was a quivering, terrified Angie who seemed to forever cry, huddled in a quivering ball. At home, ice-cold Angie watched her father leave night after night to “go out” for “adult time”, waking her in the small hours of the morning as he stumbled and lurched through the otherwise quiet home.  And once she woke up to a strange woman leaning over her bed, her father leaning against the door jamb, squealing, “She’s soooo cute! What an amazing father to raise a child on your own!”

            Angie rolled over, pulling the covers over her head and ignored the giggles in the next room. Angie thought she understood – her dad was hurting, too, from the upheaval that had scarred both of them. She was never quite sure of where she stood with him – sometimes he treated her like a precious doll, and others his scorn cut deeply into her soul. Regardless, he was her father. Family was family, and there was a certain amount of duty and loyalty that came along with that package.

            So, when Cory sauntered over to where she stood at her locker, and mentioned casually that his father thought it was crying shame that her father was a drunk and a gigolo, Angie quietly exploded. On her father’s behalf, for surely she would never have found the energy to defend herself in such a fashion. Regardless, the anger energized her, and in the long run she discovered that the anger she felt was what would keep her going day after day.

            So, as Cory stood next to her, leering, she soundlessly and with no expression grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed his head once, twice, three times against the neighboring locker. Then she picked up her backpack and walked to her next class. She heard a dim murmur of shocked voices behind her, but ignored them, choosing instead to jauntily whistle “Yankee Doodle” as loud as she could. She doubted Cory would torment her again anytime soon. It promised to be a good day.

Day 19 Prompt: Start in media res — jump straight into the action and then drip-feed narrative information about prior situations the reader needs without it becoming too intrusive and, well, boring.

            “I prefer my men wild and rugged – with just a touch of class.” Cecie grinned at me as I spluttered over wine meant to slowly tickle my palate, but now burning from a hasty gulp.

            Unwinding her gracefully crossed long legs, Cecie stood and stretched in a slow, sinuous ripple of movement that drew men’s eyes like a magnet. Without a pause, the man she had been eyeing all evening pushed back from the table and stood, meeting the challenge in Cecie’s eyes with a half smile and eyes that lazily traveled the length of her body from top to bottom and back again.

            “Touch of class, my ass,” I mumbled into my wine, trying to not laugh at Cecie and Mr. Rugged himself.           For most of the evening, he and his tablemates had been intently shoving a blueprint pad back and forth between them, taking turns adding and subtracting lines and shapes. Mr. Rugged was the only one of the four not in a pinstripe suit. Instead, he was in jeans and flannel shirt, shoulder length hair curling around his five o’clock shadowed jaw line. Yep, right up Cecie’s alley, I decided. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had cruised up to the local watering hole on a Harley.

            Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the two of them “accidently” collide at the bar while placing orders, and shook my head in disbelief at the adroitness with which they helped each other wipe away the artfully spilled drinks. Mr. Rugged slowly wiped a napkin down Cecie’s bare forearm, twining a finger through her diamond bracelet and raising her hand up to his lips, in apology for his clumsiness, I supposed. Cecie, in her turn, gently pressed a damp napkin against Mr. Rugged’s shirt, her hands gracefully spread across his flat abdomen just above the beltline, raising appealing, apologetic eyes to his.

            “What a show,” I said to myself, shaking my head, and then looked up startled as a man plunked himself down onto the stool across from me.

            “Friends of yours?” he said, nodding his head toward Cecie and Mr. Rugged.

            “I’ll claim her,” I answered, “but him I don’t know.” I quirked an eyebrow at the man across from me. He had a kind face with blue eyes laughing at the show going on at the bar. Both parties were now sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, heads close together in intimate conversation. I figured in five minutes or less, Cecie’s heel-clad foot would begin a slow journey over to Mr. Rugged’s leg and begin a slow exploration of his calf. In the meantime, Mr. Rugged continued to explore Cecie’s bracelet, and the scented wrist it adorned.

            “James,” he said, extending his hand to shake mine in greeting. “Anna,” I replied, enjoying the touch of his firm hand around mine.

            James released my hand, and took a sip of his drink before saying, “While they explore the outer limits of public propriety, what do you say to joining me at a quiet table for a drink and chat? I promise not to spill on you.”

            “What’s the fun in that?” I laughed up at him, gathering my jacket and purse, allowing him to carry my drink to the quiet corner booth out of the public eye.

            “The kind of fun that only you and I would ever need know about,” he said, gesturing to the corner booth, a flickering candle casting a warm glow on the polished wooden table.

            “My friend claims to like wild and rugged men, with a touch of class,” I commented, as we settled ourselves in the booth.

            “Indeed,” James murmured. “And you?”

            “Ah,” I said, reflectively swirling my Merlot around my mouth before swallowing, “I prefer my men civilized and educated – with just a touch of barbarian.”

Day 20 Prompt: Write about your antagonist’s life at the age of sixteen. What were the events that shaped this character back then, and still haunt today?

            “The kid has no idea,” Jason scowled as he set the last nail and drove it home. “None!” He gave the nail an extra thwack for emphasis, and turned to look at Susan, his wife of nearly thirty years. The topic of conversation? The late baby, the one that came along when the others were mostly raised, grown and gone.

            Susan doted on the child, and Jason just wanted him launched and flying off into the wide world. He wanted time with his wife, for God’s sake. Was that so much to ask?

            Susan looked down from his penetrating gaze, and wrung her apron in clammy hands. Jason resented her last pregnancy, not particularly caring to raise one more child. As he told her when they first met and fell in love, he was a man for his woman – and kids didn’t necessarily play into the picture. He did his duty by them, and made sure there was adequate food and a roof over their heads, but he was a skinflint when it came to affection – at least for the kids.

            Susan had come from a large family, and the babble of voices and swirl of activity didn’t bother her in the least. She thrived on it. Jason had been an only child, and by the time he was sixteen, an orphan. Both his parents had perished in a boating accident, and a somber great-uncle had taken Jason in until high school graduation and then packed Jason’s bags and left them on the front porch for Jason to find when he came home from the graduation ceremony.

            Susan was sure she felt more deeply appalled by that story that the man who had actually experienced it. Jason had shrugged it off, trudged the few miles back into town carrying his suitcase and cardboard box, and knocked on the youth hostel’s door. Within short order, he had landed an apprenticeship with the local carpenter’s union and scrabbled his way up the chain of responsibility, pay, and power.

            Susan took a deep breath. “It’s just a short-term loan, Jason. To help get on his feet. Is that so much to ask?”

            Zack at nineteen had his diploma, and a very part-time job flipping burgers. He had no interest in trade school or college. He preferred to scribble stories in notebooks and sip coffee all night with other like-minded folks. Jason had no patience for what he saw as a lack of ambition and responsibility. Artistic endeavors were fine as long as they didn’t interfere with taking care of the basic necessities of life. Jason expected Zack to do as his siblings had done, and strike out into adulthood as soon as the high school diploma was handed to them. Zack had stubbornly refused to leave home until Jason packed Zack’s suitcase for him.

            “Susan,” Jason said heavily, “loans are only given to people who can actually pay back what they borrowed. None of our other kids have ever asked me for a red cent. And they certainly didn’t ask you to ask me! I’m not giving Zack any money. Period.”

            Jason sighed and set down his hammer, moving over to where Susan sat in silence. “Susan,” he said. “I love you and I’d do just about anything for you – but not this. That boy will never be a man if you don’t cut the apron strings. It’s time for him to fly. He’ll fall and get some bruises, for sure. But, he’ll make it. Let him go.”

            Susan wiped a tear from her cheek. “He’s my last baby, Jason,” she said, a quiver in her voice.

            “Yes, he certainly is,” Jason agreed grimly. By god, he was going to enjoy the next phase of life with his wife, unencumbered by the duties of a growing family, even if he had to somehow spirit his wife far away to get her to let go. “And he’ll grow into a man to make us both proud – but only if we get out of his way!”

            Susan leaned her head against Jason’s shoulder, and gently brushed the sawdust flakes from his shirt. She loved the smell of the woodshop and frequently worked with Jason, sanding and varnishing the furniture he built for both fun and play money. All the kids had spent time in the woodshop, learning their way around the tools and projects, as well as in the large garden they maintained in the backyard. Each child had learned how to grow and preserve food, to build the things they needed, to care for their tools and belongings, to take responsibility for meeting not only their individual needs, but for the family as a whole, too. And then Zack came along, and his siblings were all in junior high or high school. He didn’t learn that the way the others did, Susan knew. He was the pet, the toy, the baby. And it showed.

            Susan inhaled deeply, enjoying the scent of her husband’s aftershave and the smell of cut pine wood.

            “Jason,” she said quietly. “You’re right – and you’re wrong. Zack is not as self-sufficient as the rest of our children. We all mollycoddled him. And now we push him out the door with no margin for error, no guidance, no help. He’s just going to need a bit more than the others.”

            The silence in the woodshop threatened to deafen Susan. Her heart thudded in her chest. She rarely disagreed with Jason. He was so still and silent, though, that perhaps he was really considering her words.

            Jason cleared his throat and then turned to look at Susan. “Right and wrong?” he asked. “Susan, you want to give him money and continue to mollycoddle him, then go ahead. I’m not arguing with you anymore about it. But, understand – you’ll be setting up a dripline and he’s going to want to be fed. And the longer you feed him, the longer he’ll want it. For our sake,” Jason paused and gently touched her cheek, “tell him no.”

            Jason stood up and walked slowly over to the push broom, leaving Susan to her thoughts. For their sake, he hoped she said no to Zack. And for Zack’s sake, he hoped she’d say no. The boy wanted to grow up – he just didn’t really realize it, yet. And he wouldn’t as long as mommy gave him a bolt-hole. Jason supposed he had lucked out in the long-run with his parents’ untimely deaths. He had been set free in a most decided way.

Day 21 Prompt: Imagine a person with a very idiosyncratic way of seeing the world who witnesses a traumatic event not directly involving him or her. Narrate the event from this person’s perspective in 1st person POV.

It all started quite inauspiciously, just another day of toil and drudgery for this Cinderella. Making it to work is a miraculous feat for such a one as myself. My fairy godmother has yet to show up, so I am stuck walking to the local bus stop which drops me off two miles from the motel where I clean a dozen motel rooms five days a week.

And bathrooms. Let us not forget the bathrooms. Changing bed sheets is not so bad. Scrubbing toilets? All the maids are required to use their bare hands – no gloves, no brushes, as those items may slow one down. I, of course, am the only one even remotely concerned by this most unhygienic approach.

But, I digress. It’s just so hard to stay on track. There are so many things I see that so many other people – dull people, blind and deaf people, ignorant people! – miss about life’s little mysteries and surprises and . . . where was I? Oh yes, on my way to the required daily rounds of serfdom.

It’s an odd job. I never know what I will find in the motel rooms. Sometimes people are still there, passed out in their body’s regurgitated excesses from the night before. Once I found a baby sleeping peacefully in her car seat, with no evidence of her parent or parents in sight. Sometimes the rooms are as tidy as when I last cleaned them; other times, it is clear that a tornado was imported from Kansas and set loose upon the room. When that happens I peer under the bed looking for Toto. What if Dorothy left him behind?

The “real” world holds no appeal for me. I far prefer the twists and turns of fantasy, of imagination, of dreams and even nightmares. I walk through the real world because I am required to, but it floats on the edges of my vision, in grey and black; muted rumblings of discontent and danger. What’s in my head comes to me in full color, with complete orchestration, and is familiar, safe, welcoming.

On this day, one of my more dull coworkers let out a shriek that literally shook the hallway light fixtures and ran from the room she had just entered screaming hysterically. I avoid emotional displays. They trouble me. So unpredictable people are, when they give way to their feelings. Being of much sounder mind and body than she, I merely leaned against my cleaning cart, watching the supervisor hand the sobbing girl over to another maid, and enter the room. Within seconds, I could hear the supervisor retching. She came back out of the room, holding a towel over her mouth, and sent another maid for the security guard and to call 911.

By this time, I could detect the faint miasma of body secretions that had been stewing in an overheated room – most likely all night. Shaking my head, I delicately pinched my nose shut, and watched the crowd continue to gather in the hallway, whispering and pointing, some gagging and clutching their middles.

“Another one, eh?” The newly arrived security guard arrived and started waving people back from the door. “Damn copycats. One suicide seems to lead to another. What a stench!”

He also pinched his nose closed – an action I highly approved of – and cautiously ducked in through the door to the room. I could hear him turning on the fans and opening the windows and sliding glass door in a somewhat vain attempt to decrease the smells of violent death.

“Holy shit!” I heard him yelp. Abruptly, he came back out into the hall, his eyes darting around to the few people still waiting in the hall. I could see his hands tremble – in shock, I supposed. How people deal with shock and trauma has always fascinated me – I try to gauge how they respond, it’s sort of like a game to me, a curiosity. I am never quite sure what it all means to them, but it’s certainly diverting to watch them react. At this moment, the security guard was actually panting. I wondered if he realized how close to hyperventilating he was . . . and shrugged as the supervisor got him to sit down and put his head between his knees.

In the distance I could hear the sounds of sirens. The official troops would arrive soon, and finish clearing out the hallway from gawkers and bystanders. In the meantime, I had rooms to clean. And as my fairy godmother had yet to produce a glass slipper for me to lose and Prince Charming to find, I supposed I ought to get busy. At least I didn’t have to clean ashes and soot from fireplaces.

Day 22 Prompt: Natalie arrives home from work and is perplexed that her dog is not there to greet her as usual.  In fact, he is nowhere to be seen or heard.  Even more disturbing is the semi-automatic pistol sitting on her coffee table and the sound of running water from the kitchen. What’s the story?
            I’m not the most trusting of people. I’m the first to admit it, and the last to let go of it. It’s just the way I am. Instead, I trust my instinct burbling up from deep inside my belly to tickle along my nape, raising fine hairs along my forearms. Everything tingles when instinct talks – and I listen. Carefully.
            So, when I pushed open the door of house and instinct reared her cautious head, I froze. I went still. I listened in all the ways I had been taught over the years: with my ears for unusual sounds, with my skin to feel for unexpected shifts in air currents, with my nose for new scents. I opened my mouth slightly, in case my tongue had something to add to the picture I was painting. I closed my eyes to sharpen these senses, and to give myself clear vision. We rely too much on our eyes. That cripples intuition.
            Yep. Still there. A semi-automatic Smith & Wesson sat on the coffee table in my living room. Not mine. My Ruger.39 spl was tucked safely away in the inside pocket of my jacket. I continued scanning the living room, looking for furniture or knick knacks out of place, for suspicious patterns of shape or light. Nothing . . .
            What did I know?
            Felix, my friendly adopted shelter mutt was not wagging his tail and jumping up on me to say hello. Nor was he barking furiously at an unknown danger. I could hear a faint trickle of water coming from the kitchen, and it had been trickling continuously since I stepped through the door. Tap left on, then. Nothing tickled my nose . . .
            Cautiously, I sidled closer to the table to take another look at the pistol on my coffee table. It gleamed coldly, a polished matte black.  Initials were scratched deeply into the handle: ZAN. Ah. Now, I knew. Zeke Arin, himself, an old friend back from the days when we trained and worked together for a very elite cadre that did – shall we say, odd jobs – for a demanding clientele. Zeke was playing a little joke on me. I shook my head and reached for the gun, when a very unfamiliar voice stopped me.
            “I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you.”
            I froze and cursed inwardly. What had I missed?
            “Turn around slowly, hands on top of your head.”
            I complied and narrowly caught my mouth opening in surprise at what I saw. A very short, dwarfish creature had somehow crept in behind, holding tight to Felix’s collar. The traitor.  Felix was at the creature’s feet worrying at a hambone in great contentment, and spared me a brief glimpse and pant before going back to his prize.
            “Where’s Zeke?” I asked.
            “I’ve come to take you to him,” the little man answered. Studying him closely, I decided he was a man. A very odd one to be sure, dressed in curious outdated clothes, and with a huge bulbous red nose that overshadowed his deep-set eyes and scraggly beard. His hand on Felix’s leash was gnarled like the boles on oak trees, but the fingernails were long, pointed, and painted a brilliant red, reminding me uncomfortably of Nosferatu.
            “Okay,” I said. “And where would that be? I don’t tend to go on field trips without a few guarantees.”
            Slowly, I edged toward the sofa and he hissed angrily.
            “May I sit,” I inquired. “It’s been a long day – I’m just a bit tired.”
            He eyed me suspiciously, before waving a hand in acquiescence. Slowly, I sat down on the left-hand side of the couch, squirming into the cushions. I kept my face carefully neutral as my inner voice shouted in triumph.  I could feel the comforting bulge of the knife I kept between the cushion and the arm of the couch, carefully positioned so I could easily pull the knife from the sheath. I rested my hand casually along the couch’s arm and smiled disarmingly at the short man. “So, what’s Zeke got cooking?”
            “Ask me yourself.” This time my mouth did drop open in surprise and dismay. How had I missed his presence in my home? Where the hell had he been hiding.
            Zeke came around the couch and plopped down on the far right side. “Don’t touch the knife,” he said genially. “I taught you that hidey-hole.”
            “What the hell’s going on, Zeke?” I narrowed my eyes at his smiling affability.
            “Recruitment time,” he said. “I know we’ve been out of practice, but there’s a new job lined up. And some new toys to play with . . .”
            “Such as,” I asked.
            “Such as what you just experienced. New ways of transporting into and out of situations, surprising the enemy, avoiding potentially lethal situations . . . interested?”
            “How’d you get in here, Zeke,” I asked, folding my arms across my chest.
            “Ah, ah,” he cautioned, as the short little man stiffened to attention. “I know where you keep the pistol, too.”
            “I don’t care how many years we served together, Zeke. You broke into my home. Give me some reasons why I should trust you, and not pull out one or two tricks you didn’t teach me, eh?”
            “Oh, Nat,” he laughed, “you never change. So suspicious.”
            “Well, Zeke,” I said, “that is how I stay alive. And I’m assuming you’d like to continue breathing yourself?”
            “All right, all right,” he held his hands up in mock surrender. “It’ll make more sense if you go with me to the lab to see the new toy, and meet the rest of the team.”
            I held my peace and watched him for several long seconds.
            “I told Antony you’d be stubborn this way,” Zeke said. “He thought you would have mellowed over the years . . . no go, I told him. He finally gave me a token to show you.” Zeke carefully reached into his pocket and brought out a small package tied in brown paper and twine, and slowly handed it to me. When I didn’t reach out for it, he placed it on the cushion between us and settled back against his end of the couch.
            “Grip,” he said to the odd creature holding Felix by the leash. “Head on back to the Cave. Leave Felix here with Nat.”
            “Now? In front of her?”
            “You heard me,” Zeke said.
            The little man slowly placed Felix’s leash on the floor and then stepped back a pace. With a nod to both of us, he closed his eyes and . . . disappeared.
            “What the hell?” I said. “What is going on?” Felix whimpered and laid his brindled head on my leg, eyeing me mournfully.  “S’okay, big guy,” I murmured, stroking his head. Felix had been my rock for the last two years – a role he took quite seriously, staying carefully attuned to my every mood.
            “Open it up, Nat,” Zeke urged. “Antony says bygones are bygones. He doesn’t expect you to join us under the same – um – condition – you left us.”
            I glared at Zeke, furious all over again at what had been a stupid decision so many years ago, with rather unfortunate results. Sleeping with your company commander was just not recommended – even if said commander applied rather persuasive pressure to get what he wanted. Not unwelcome pressure, mind. And during my heady 20s, the lure of power, possession, and control were far too strong to resist.
            “I don’t need to open it,” I muttered. “I know what it is.”
            “Will you come back with me?” Zeke asked. “We need you and your unique skills. Honest, Nat.”
            I sighed deeply. I missed the excitement and the thrill at a certain level. I had become accustomed to a more sedentary life, a more secure life, I suppose you could say. The thought of leaving it behind was both attractive and repulsive. Felix yawned and whined, and put a heavy paw on my thigh, reaching up to lick my face.
            “Felix can come to,” Zeke said. “We’ve been watching you for a while, and know how well trained you have him.”
            “Like I’d subject Felix to danger,” I snapped.
            “Your call. But, time’s running out and I need to get back – with you or not.”
            “And let me guess,” I said bitterly. “If I said no, there’d be some sort of penance or hell to pay, because now I know too much. Neatly trapped, aren’t I?”
            Zeke stood and stretched, cat-like. “Nailed it in one, Nat,” he said, and held out a hand to haul me to my feet. “Pack a bag and lock up. You’ve got five minutes.”
            “Fuck,” I muttered, chewing my lip. “Fine,” I said. “My bag’s been packed for years. I just need to grab it from the hall closet. Let’s go.”
            “Good girl,” Zeke beamed. “That’s the Nat we all remember!”
Day 23 Prompt: It Wasn’t Me!

            “Now, you’re in for it,” Heather hissed at Matthew. “Dad’s gonna kill you.”

            Matthew pasted the most innocent look he could muster up on his face, and continued chewing the last chocolate covered cheery with gourmand delight.

            “I don’t believe it,” Sam moaned. “We’re all going to be in trouble. He got those from his girlfriend. What did you have to go and eat the last one for, you little porker?” Sam aimed a fist at Matthew who squealed through his mouthful and ducked behind Heather.

            “Leave him alone, Sam – you’re such a bully. He’s just a little kid,” Heather flared.

            “I’m a bully?” Sam said, gaping in surprise. “I’m the bully? Maybe you’d better go look in the mirror again, little Miss Perfect Priss.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Figure it out – you’re the smart one, anyhow,” Sam picked up the empty box and shook his head mournfully. “You know how dad is, Matthew,” he said, fixing his brother with a stern eye. “Just take him the box and tell him you couldn’t help yourself. Don’t pretend you didn’t do it.”

            “Yeah, Matthew,” Heather mimicked Sam, “go be a little man and ‘fess up.”

            “Fuck you, Heather,” Sam tossed the empty box back on the counter, and then stiffened as the front door opened. Hastily, they all settled themselves around the kitchen table and the interrupted game of Monopoly they had been playing, Heather rolling the dice and Sam nervously straightening the money. Matthew gave a suspiciously loud gulp and smacked his lips together just as dad entered the room.

            “Hi, guys,” he said wearily, opening the fridge door and pulling out a Heinekin. “How was your day?”

            “Fine, good, ‘kay,” jumbled together in answer.

            Dad raised an eyebrow, and leaned over the counter to look at the game’s progress. “Who’s winning,” he asked.

            Sam and Matthew both pointed at Heather, who, indeed, invariably won every Monopoly game.   “Nice,” Dad said, and then picked up the mail on the counter and idly leafed through it, sorting the bills into one neat stack and then tossing the rest into the garbage.

            “Anyone hungry?”

            The kids all froze, before bursting out in a chorus of, “Oh yeah; starved; you bet.”

            Dad’s other eyebrow jumped up into his black bangs, and then he looked down at the confectioner’s box. Without saying a word, he picked it up and shook it lightly. “Feels lighter to me,” he commented. When there was no response, he pulled the lid off, and then looked at his children. “So, who ate the last cherry?” he asked mildly.

            “Not me,” chorused all three of the children.

            “One of you did,” he said. “Who was it?”

            Sam sighed internally, steeling himself for the explosion he knew was coming. The other kids only visited on holidays, and so they didn’t have the depth of experience with the man’s fits of temper. He jumped only slightly when dad’s hand hit the counter with a thud and his voice boomed: “Who ate the last chocolate covered cherry?”

********************

            Heather idly twirled her glass of wine in her hand and looked at Sam with a small smile. “Matthew never did confess, you know.”

            “Yeah, I know,” Sam said, “and my ass was blistered in his place. You two were such pains to have around on holidays.  You just didn’t get it!”

            “No,” she said sadly, “we really didn’t get it. None of us did. But, that’s all in the past, right?” Heather sipped her wine again and then picked up a stuffed mushroom to nibble on.

            “Besides, did you see the look on his face when you and I confessed to breaking the sliding glass door finally – thirty years after the fact? Holy smokes! The man holds a grudge!”

            “That he did,” Sam agreed. “Here’s to dad,” he went on and lifted his beer in silent tribute to the man.

Day 24 Prompt: Your character wants to find the source of a strange noise they can hear. Tell the story of how they find out what that sound is…
            “Look, I don’t know what the sound is, but I can damn guarantee you it’s bigger than a flipping mouse dancing around in my attic. You need to take care of it.”
            I paused and tried to breathe through my growing irritation as the elderly owner of the duplex I rented hemmed and hawed about the time and expense. Rentals: supposedly the way to avoid the woes and costs of home ownership, and so often the testing grounds for good psychology and extraordinary amounts of patience.
            Finally, I cut through her dithering and said as slowly and clearly as I could, “It’s the law. I can send you a copy of the Landlord-Tenant Act if you like. It’s a big problem and you need to handle it. Or I can handle it, and deduct it out of my rent. Which do you prefer?”
            There was a long pause, and then a quavery response, “I’ll send my son over to take a look.”
            “Fine,” I said. “When?”
            “He’s so busy,” the expected excuse making started to heat up with a familiar whine and I held the phone out several inches from ear while I dug in my jacket for a cigarette and lit it, watching the smoke drift away from the porch and disperse into the rain. Finally, I put the phone back to my ear, just in time to hear the wind-down, with a vague promise of “ . . . in the next week or so.”
            I clicked the phone off, and considered my options. Threats notwithstanding, I could not actually afford the cost of an exterminator, and given the volume of the noise from the multiple critters climbing up and down the water pipes and the stench now emanating from the guest bedroom, I suspected raccoons. A family of the little suckers. Especially since the landlord’s son had been working underneath the duplex in the crawl space a few weeks ago and had left the cover off the opening – which I hadn’t discovered until I walked around the entire duplex looking for a hole or someway for an animal or animals to get into the attic and walls. I had carried the landlady’s voice with me, and she knew perfectly well what I had discovered and what it meant. The old fraud really thought being in a wheelchair gave her a right to act like a slumlord!
            “Damn it,” I muttered under my breath, stubbing out the cigarette and went to get my carefully typed and copied letter, explaining the problem and quoting the applicable laws. And giving her the required number of days to resolve the problem before I legally could take action into my own hands, deducting the cost from my rent. Which would easily cover at least half-a-year’s worth. I had called around and the estimates were costly. I really hoped she’d get her act together, and soon. Sometimes, renting was just more hassle than it was worth.
Day 25 Prompt: Start at the end with the character walking away from a situation (figuratively-speaking) and then go back and explain how he/she got there.
            “Just go,” Jason growled under his breath. “I don’t need hysterics for god’s sake.” He looked down at his coffee, avoiding Andee’s troubled eyes.
            Andee closed her eyes briefly, squelching down the pain and the tears that threatened to well past her eyelids. Slowly, an ache creeping though her guts and spreading into her very joints, she stood up and shrugged on her coat. Expressionless, Jason watched her gather her purse and set a five-spot on the table next to her coffee cup and half-eaten donut.
            “So, that’s it then?” she asked, a slight tremble in her voice.
            Jason shrugged, not trusting himself to respond.
            When he looked up next, it was to see Andee’s erect back disappearing out the café door. He sighed with relief and ignored the tiny stab of guilt. What could he say – she really wasn’t his type, even though it had seemed promising at first.
            Andee felt frozen in time, even though she knew she was walking steadily towards the café door. Her mind played back the last several months of leisurely fireside chats and wine, long walks on the windswept beach an hour from home, sharing popcorn in the town’s ancient movie theater, tangled together in rumpled bedsheets . . . where had it gone wrong, she wailed inside? What had happened? True, they had had their share of arguments – usually only trivial things, things easily let go of or resolved. And true, again, there were moments – at least for Andee – where she doubted the wisdom of their joining together. Sometimes, it seemed to good to be true. And other times, she knew it was too good to be true. Those thoughts she tried desperately to overshadow by thinking of all the good times they shared.
             Andee felt a sharp stabbing pain in her chest and caught her breath on a sob, swallowing convulsively. She stopped at the café door and glanced back over her should at Jason, feeling panic begin to well up inside her. His eyes were cold as he watched her inner struggle play out on her expressive face. Andee realized Jason was further removed from her than he had been before they first met. There would be no comfort from him. He was long since gone. It was just a stated fact now.
Day 26 Prompt: Write a story that includes these words:
  • official
  • corpulent
  • totem
  • panic
  • scratching
  • delicious
 “It’s a rather delicious experience, my dear.”
“Ohhhh?”
“But, of course! It’s just right for scratching those particular itches we all get from time to time.”
“Do tell . . .”
“Promise you won’t panic?”
“What – do you want an official statement from me, signed in blood, with a full oath-swearing in front of the phallic totem you set so much stock in?”
“That is actually a fairly standard requirement before you can join the fun and games.”
“I just don’t know . . . these sorts of experiences . . . it brings all sorts to the dining table, does it not?”
“Certainly! But, not a corpulent one in the bunch!”
“How do I know that’s true?”
“You don’t. You must take my word for it. Would I lie to you?”

Go In Peace

“Mr. Denning? Can you hear me? This won’t hurt a bit, Mr. Denning. It will help the pain, ease your heart.”

The voice came from a great distance away, madly ricocheting through a narrow hallway, and bouncing madly like a ping pong ball in John’s head. Closely following the voice was a most definitive poking, brief firework of pain, as a needle poked into crinkled, paper-thin skin. Heat seared up John’s arms, followed by a sense of cool liquidity, of being wrapped gently in golden clouds backlit by a setting sun.

“That should help quite a bit, Mr. Denning,” the voice seemed both nearer and yet further away John noticed. It figured they’d give him the good stuff when he was done with the whole mess – rather than when the mess first started.

“No, you idiot,” John replied silently. “I’m supposed to be dying – leave me alone. Can’t you read? There’s a ‘do not resuscitate’ order in place.”

The needle was withdrawn and a coolness lightly touched his arm, followed by a sticking, tearing sound as the tape was torn from the dispenser and used to keep the cotton ball in place.

The relief from the heaviness in his chest was remarkable. John felt like it had sat there, steadily growing heavier each year since Nan passed away. Sometimes he could see it taking root in his mind’s eye, and it pleased him to see it so . . .  a small seed of a noxious weed, just like the ones he used to pull from the gardens and flowerbeds with Nana, sending out tendrils of roots that wrapped around his heart, tightening and growing each year, squeezing, ruthlessly choking out his  . . .

The absence of pain was seductive, and John reached for any shreds of energized anger he could find. This fool of a doctor was going to take away his wish. All he wanted was to be done. To join Nan in whatever was next. She was supposed to wait for him. Why hadn’t she waited?

Nan, he mourned again in his head. We were going to be together forever. You left me. You left me, you left me . . . the words settled like heavy stones, thud, thud . . . longer pauses between thuds, each breath shuddering.

“Doctor?” another voice called across the growing stillness which John called to himself, gathering it around as he had the last quilt Nan had carefully made for their double bed.

“It’s my turn, my time,” he repeated to himself, “my turn, my time . . . . my turn, my time.”

“Yes, I saw the order,” the Doctor’s voice hovered in the air over John’s head. “Still have to give it one try – liability reasons, you know.” The doctor and nurse chuckled as papers crackled and flipped. “Look at the medical history, though . . . it certainly never reflects the fullness of a person’s total existence, you know?”

“Let my spirit fly,” John urged silently. “Can’t you see that I am flawed? I am incomplete without Nan. I want to be done, I need to be done.” John felt a warm rush of shame as a tear slid between crusted eyelids.

“There, there, Mr. Denning,” the nurse’s voice soothed, laying a soft hand on top of John’s gnarled knuckles. He had labored mightily all his years, building foundations, laying bricks, and at the end inspecting the labor of the younger generations.

Tricky work, that – he had had to develop a stock of both pointed critical observations well-seasoned by jokes, and a string of encouraging compliments, as crew foremen trailed him around worksites, puffing on smokes and anxiously pointing out anything they could grasp to get him to miss the inevitable flaw. He was known as a tough but fair inspector, with decades of experience behind him. John liked working, and had not retired until he had his first heart attack — a year before Nan slipped away from him.

“Don’t worry, Janet,” John could hear the scraping of a chair against the linoleum floor, a squeaky, irritating sound. “What I gave him will help him hold on long enough for his daughter to get here to say her goodbyes, and he’ll slip quite peacefully away. She should be here in . . .”

“Well, then,” John thought, “that’s better.”

He drew a labored breath as deeply into his lungs as he could after years of blackening his lungs with Camels, surprised by the fact that he could do so without gasping, coughing or the ache that had grown ever larger over the years. His spirit was slipping away, fleeing his worn and tired body.

“Susan had better hurry,” John thought to himself, if she wants to say goodbye. “I don’t feel like waiting around.”

“Doctor?” The nurse’s voice sounded strained.

“Sometimes, families don’t get here in time, Janet. I won’t extend more than once.”

John smiled. Decided that at the end of his life, he may have found a doctor he could like. He was so tired, though, and just wanted to let go and sleep. Would the man let him?

“He’s almost gone, Doctor,” the nurse said quietly.

“He’s lived a full life, Janet. If he’s ready to go, I’m going to let him go. He’s made it clear what he wants. If Susan can’t get her selfish behind in here to say goodbye to her father, that’s really not my problem.”

“He was so proud of you, Doctor.”

“No one has ever had a better father,” the doctor’s voice broke, and John felt a drip on his hand, realizing with a start that the Doctor was holding his worn hand.

“I love you, dad . . . go in peace. Give mom my love.”

Terrible Bosses

“Terrible bosses,” I snorted. “You don’t know about terrible bosses.” 

Janie and I had met for a coffee and chat style lunch at a halfway point between our two offices. The August afternoon was clear and warm – until the wind blew in over the water, and rustled through the leaves above us at The Bistro where we sat on the patio. Janie wanted to talk bosses. Beyond the cryptic message on my phone this morning about the topic of conversation, I knew little else. 

“Please!” Janie grimaced over her coffee. “Of course I do. How could I not?”

Janie did work long hours, I knew – but at a very flexible, go-ahead-and-work-from-home, kind of way. I wasn’t sure if she had ever actually done any sort of manual labor, on a time-clock, with every pea break allotted only so many minutes. Her boss did expect nothing short of miracles from her in terms of last-minute assignments and deadlines. It was not uncommon for Janie to be up at odd hours – like three in the morning – after a few hours sleep to work on a pending assignment, or sketching out a draft in the middle of a sermon at church. 

“I’m not talking about Ruby,” she said.

Janie could generally follow my thoughts, even as slow and lumbering as they tended to be. I gave up fast thinking years ago after it cost me a quick marriage and even quicker, but extremely messy, divorce. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I gave up thinking when connected to strong emotions and had learned to just sit until the simmering cooled down. 

Thinking about my current employer caused me to simmer with a lot of disgruntled resentment — therefore I kept it packed away in its own little whistling teapot, hastily removed from the hot burner and left to cool off for a bit. 

Ruby was Janie’s current employer, for the last two years. Which for Janie was quite a feat. She liked to swoop in to a faltering business, do a little clean-up magic, and move on the next challenge. “I was remembering Tom in the BurgerJoint from my college days. Marco called last night and he’s really struggling with his current campus job. Wants to quit.” 

I watched her delicately extract a Virginia Slim from her purse and puff with great somberness, carefully blowing the smoke away from me. Janie was a very thoughtful smoker. She didn’t smoke inside her home, her car, near doors, or people . . . unless they were clear they did not mind. As a reformed smoker, I rather delighted in it, and wished she’d waft some smoke my way. 

“Tom was horrible,” I agreed laconically. “To me.” 

“He was rude to me, too!” she protested. 

“When?” I laughed shortly. 

Janie floundered for a moment, opening and closing her mouth, then taking another puff. “Well, we both had work, and it was awful to watch him creep around you.” 

“Does Marco have a Tom in his work life, then?” I asked. Marco had come out to his mother last year. As his god-mother, I wasn’t quite sure if that meant something different in terms of relationship dynamics – but my daughter assured me it all was the same. As a straight woman, how she would know was beyond me – but she and Marco were close, like brother and sister – so I figured they talked a great deal about Marco’s first tentative venturing into the dating world. 

Dipping my almond biscotti into the steaming coffee, I took a nibble I knew I didn’t need the biscotti, but when I quit smoking last year, I promised my quaking inner self that I wouldn’t balk at the guilty pleasures of eating a few extra sweets to deal with the nicotine longings. On the other hand, I remained strict with myself about daily trips to the gym – in a somewhat vain attempt to control the damage caused by my ever-growing sweet tooth. I was going to have to invest in a larger pants size soon. 

“Not exactly,” Janie replied. “If by that you mean ‘does his boss hover over him while he scrubs pots and pans at closing, trying to look down his shirt while regaling him about the mating habits of ducks’ – no. On the other hand, his boss apparently modifies timesheets to reflect no OT after he keeps his employees over their assigned hours.” 

“That’s illegal!” I said. 

So was what Tom had done to me in my young 20s – but far harder to prove in a court, sexual harassment still being a figurative elephant in the back stockroom or boss’s office. Besides, for all of Tom’s faults, he also was a single parent and I needed that sort of understanding as I had put cart decidedly in front of horse by having a child before going to college or getting established in a decent career. (As I said, hasty marriage and even hastier, but messy, divorce. 20 years old, high school graduate, no job, no skills outside of minimum wage jobs, and a baby. Eee gads.) 

Tom understood about calls from the child care center when the baby spiked a fever or threw up. “Go, go,” he’d say, waving me out the door. “Make up the hours later. Plenty to do around here.” 

I thought it was a somewhat reasonable trade-off . . . until his hands tried to follow his eyes. Reason departed at that point, and I hastily (and with great emotion) wadded up my apron and threw it at him, telling him shove his lousy dishwashing job where the sun didn’t shine, and to keep his hands to himself if wanted to keep them connected. 

Janie had been a new hire – only around a couple of weeks at that point – working the front register. Her jaw had dropped as I exploded out of the kitchen shrieking like a banshee at Tom who retreated in front of me as though hell were after him. 

Actually, remembering the explosion and his reaction was still fairly satisfying. I grinned to myself. 

“So, what’s Marco going to do?” I cocked my head, eying Janie inquisitively. 

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “He needs a job to pay his living expenses. I don’t have it once I have paid the tuition.” She sat up straighter and shook her head. “How in hell did I get roped into tuition – and at an out-of-state-college? My parents did not pay a single cent towards my college. They cheered a lot from the sidelines, and let me come home for dinner and laundry once a week. But otherwise, I was on my own.” 

I shrugged. Janie had indulged my godson shamefully, and I rather thought he could use a dose of reality. I would never say that to Janie, though. That would be one quick way to destroying a perfectly contented friendship of over 20 years – and in my mind, love Marco or not, the friendship trumped the godparent/godchild relationship. 

Janie stubbed her cigarette out, and then (her one rude characteristic as a smoker) flipped the butt into the bushes behind her. 

I shook my head at her, tsking through my teeth. 

“No reformer righteousness,” she said, raising an eyebrow, 

“Me?” I mimed great surprise, placing a hand over my heart. “Never!” 

“I have to get back to the office,” she muttered, rummaging in her purse for some cash to pay for her coffee. 

“I’ll get it,” I offered. “You can treat next time.” 

“That’s what you said last time,” she smiled at me. “Thanks.” 

Hard worker or not, Ruby had a hard time saving her pennies. She paid her bills, she paid her son’s bills, and the rest dribbled out through her fingers at beauty salons, bookstores, weekend trips. I suspected her retirement fund was shoddy, perhaps even non-existent . . . and I more often than not picked up the tab when we met up for coffee or lunch. 

“Janie,” I stood up as she did. “Did you just need an ear – or did you need some help? Is Marco okay?” 

“I guess I just needed a reminder that he really is ok —  a short paycheck is not the best thing in the world, but probably a good chance to learn how to stand up for himself.” She looked down at her hands, and then back up. “I just worry so about him. He’s . . . he’s . . .” 

“Flighty?” I suggested. “Immature? Inexperienced?” 

Janie gave me an exasperated look. 

“I’ll stop!” I threw up my hands in surrender, grinning. 

“Yes, all those things,” she reluctantly agreed. 

“And he is also kind, generous, and very artistic,” I reminded her gently. “You’re right, Janie, this is his chance to get some real-life experience — which he needs. You can still help him brush off the dirt from any stumbles, but you need to let him fall so he can learn. Don’t rescue him.” 

I put a bill down on the table, and lodged it into place with the water glass. 

“Back to the office?” I asked. 

“Yep,” she said. “Back to the office. Hopefully, with less fretting and stewing than before our lunch.” 

Janie smiled at me, and we headed back out the door, hugging quickly in farewell. I set off at a quick trot along the uphill slope of Broadway Blvd to make sure I was at my desk before my boss came looking. Behind me, without needing to look, I knew Janie was peering in curio shop windows, meandering her way slowly back while her mind continued to gnaw on the puzzle of her son, mothering, and probably one or two work conundrums, as well.

It’s Mine. I Can Break It If I Want!

The sun found its perfect spot on the back of my neck, proceeding to wrap its brilliant rays in a choking fashion with no hope of ever being dislodged. My irritation mounted in nanoseconds as I regarded the keys hanging still and silent in the ignition behind locked doors.

A single bead of salted sweat rolled down between my shoulder blades . . . of course, right in the exact spot no hand of my own could reach.

I stomped my foot and looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes. I had exactly fifteen minutes to make a ten-minute drive across town to pick up the burbling, happy, rambunctious toddler I had left with the sitter. 

Unbelievable. 

There was a locksmith two blocks away . . . who would cost $50 just to make the trip over to determine if he could even open the door for me. $50 which I did not have, being down to my last $20 until payday – and that $20 needed to purchase diapers and milk.

The police would not help, since I had not locked my child in the car with the keys.

Silly me!  Apparently, trying to get back to a sitter who needed to go to her paying job on time and would leave the child on the front porch of her house did not constitute an emergency. 

A bee flew too close to my head and with an inarticulate cry of fear, I swung my purse at it, batting it away. “And stay away,” I muttered.

A bumblebee . . . that was okay. Even a honeybee, sated with pollen . . . okay, too.

Hornets, wasps, yellowjackets . . . no go. There were too many moments firmly encased in crystalline memory of minding my own business only to have a flying menace buzz near, land, and sting.

I didn’t care what anyone said – bees liked to sting me. 

Thirteen minutes left. I wondered if I could jimmy the back window open of my late 1970s  Mercury Bobcat. The little flap window was of course closed tight, but maybe I could get it open just enough to slip my hand through and reach the door handle.

Worth a try, I decided glumly. At least the car had only cost me $150 cash plus $80 for a mechanic to jiggle one or two wires, reconnecting some important junction, change the oil and make sure the brakes were okay.

A broken window could be replaced – junkyards were crammed full of parts for salvage. A child left sitting in his car seat on a porch because I didn’t show up in a timely manner so the sitter could go to her paying job – well . . . that couldn’t be fixed so easily after being broken . . . 

A few vain attempts to slide a Bic pen in between the window gaskets so I could pry the window open did not work. I needed something slimmer.

Hastily scavenging in my purse, I found a slim dime and a quarter. The dime created enough of an opening to get the quarter in next, which then allowed my pinky to get in on the action.

Carefully, I managed to get all four fingertips lodged securely and began to gently pull. If I could do this without breaking the window, that would be best. 

Fingers slick with sweat slid abruptly and the thin opening sucked shut, pinching the skin on my pinky finger in the process. 

“Damn it!” I hollered at the top of my lungs, and slammed my fist on the top of the car. “I don’t need this right now!” 

I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes, trying to marshal my fading resources — never mind my non-existent patience. If this didn’t work, I supposed I could call my mom who lived close to the sitter and beg for help.

Mom worked full-time, and tended to resist being the go-to grandparent for these sorts of things.

She firmly believed – or at least emphatically encouraged – her children to be self-sufficient in every was possible, including dealing with life’s little emergencies.

Bless her soul, I snarled to myself as I wiped my hands dry on my jeans and then repeated the dime, quarter, pinky process. This time, I clenched tightly and gave a vigorous pull. Pop, pop. The little flap window was open. 

And my arm simply wasn’t long enough to reach the door handle. I strained and twisted and panted in defeat. I needed just a few more inches. 

I felt like weeping with despair and instead kicked the car viciously.

The kick made me feel better, although my foot protested the abuse.

The newer cars were fiberglass, but this beast was old enough to have been made with heavy honest-to-god steel . . . and merely shrugged off my kick with barely a ripple, reminding me of stolid cows chewing their cuds, tails flicking annoying flies away. 

I looked at my watch. Five minutes left and a ten minute drive. Now what? 

In frustration, I grabbed the window and yanked with all my might. A cracking sound accompanied the shards of glass flying around me in a sparkling haze, landing on the ground and in the back seat.

I heard a gasp and looked up to see a woman with tightly curled graying hair clutching her purse firmly in one hand and holding her other hand over her mouth. Her eyes were flicking anxiously back and forth between me, the car, and the nearby store, and she looked as though she were frozen in fear.

Of course, I though sarcastically to myself — I am such a fearful woman. 

“What?” I snarled impatiently, and she recoiled from me. Reaching in to the car, avoiding the glass shards as best I could, I got the door open at last. “It’s my car – I can break it if I want to!”  

I hastily brushed the few shards on the driver’s seat out the door and slid behind the wheel. Turning the engine on, I peeled out of the parking lot and made amazing time getting to the sitter, who was standing on her porch, tapping her foot, my son strapped in his car seat and yowling like a scalded cat. He disliked his car seat, always had. But, at least he was safe and there. 

The woman shook her head at me as she dashed down to her car. 

“Sorry,” I yelled after her. “Hold tight to your keys. You don’t want to break a window to get into your car.” 

She made no response, heading down the gravel driveway at top speeds, leaving behind clouds of dust and grit. 

“Hey, bud!” I reached down to scoop up my fretful child. “Mama’s here. Let’s go find a vacuum to clean up the mess I made, hmmm?” 

He stopped squirming and poked grubby fingers into his mouth, lisping, “Mess?” at me, blinking solemnly up before grinning. “Mommy mess?” 

“Mommy’s a mess,” I agreed, hoisting him and his car seat over to the car and settling him. 

“A big one,” I muttered under my breath, hoping I had enough quarters to use the drive-through car wash vacuum cleaner. What a day. 

Carly

Brother lost to dreams of rock-n-roll fame and fortune. Last seen in Florida 1987. Dave, come home. Carly@allisforgiven.net 
Carly wrapped her feet in the trailing length of flannel pink nightgown, and perched her cereal bowl on top of her bony knees. Captain Crunch and Space Blazers – a perfect Saturday morning.  Except Mom wasn’t home from work, yet, and it would  be three more weeks before she would spend her annual summer vacation with Dad – in which case it would be pancakes on the couch dripping in homemade syrup, and laughing while the Road Runner outsmarted the Coyote. No, this morning’s company included her 19-year old brother snoring lustily down the hall, wearing down vocal cords made raw by a night of what he called singing and Carly called screaming into an ancient microphone with his friends in the attached garage.

Carly hated the nights her mom worked at the hospital and Dave was told off to watch her. He made no bones about showing his dislike of the task, as well. Invariably it meant spending the night playing fetch for Dave and his buddies while they mastered the intricacies of “Running Free.” Or tried to. Carly grimaced as she crunched a spoonful of cereal. When Carly wasn’t subjected to the cassette tape turned up as loud as the aging stereo would allow, she was plugging her ears with her fingers in the garage, waiting for the next break when Dave sent her for sodas and chips for all the guys and their invariably changing gaggle of girlfriends, with hair teased impossibly huge and painted up in garish colors, puffing away on a variety of cigarettes.

Carly hated the smell, and knew Dave did, too. He kept trying to shoo the girls outside to smoke, but they were oddly resistant to the suggestion, instead preferring to huddle near the open window in a vain attempt to send the smoke outdoors. Mom, from her work at the hospital, offered interesting little bits of information about what this drug, that activity, or the other lifestyle could result in . . . just a few words and then poof! Onto a different subject: “How was your math test today, dear? Did you find a full-time job yet, Dave? Who walked and fed the dog today? Where’s the mail? Such an interesting case today . . .” and some choice tidbits of gory detail.

Carly got the point although she figured the message was really directed towards Dave – who occupied a good deal of her mother’s time and attention. Mom didn’t get how decidedly Dave’s ears turned off the second his mother mentioned a full-time job. There were plenty available, even if it was grunt work and low pay. It was a start. Dave needed to earn his way. Or go to college. If he went to college, Mom and Dad would pay as long as he kept his grades up. He could get a minor in music, but what about engineering? Law school? Business administration? No one directly addressed the overriding issue: Dave preferred to sleep all day so he could make music with his buddies all night.

The front door banged open just as Derek and Nova were facing off against Prince Zordar, and Carly jumped, narrowly catching the cereal bowl before it tumbled around her feet onto the carpeted floor.

“Good morning, dear,” Carly’s mother absently smoothed a hand over Carly’s rumpled hair. “Sleep well?”

“Yes, mama,” Carly untucked her toes from her flannel nightgown, and stood up with her cereal bowl so she could head to the table where food technically belonged. As long as messes were cleaned up, Carly’s mom didn’t make too much fuss, but it was a small thing to do, and kept mom happy.

“Brother still sleeping, hmmm?”

Carly shrugged and nodded her head towards the hall where the snoring continued to ricochet merrily along the lengths, a jagged wave of sound rising and falling, punctuated by occasional snorts.

“Well, today is a special day.” Carly’s mom twinkled. “Your brother will start work today at the hospital. They had an opening for night shift in room keeping.  I suspect a bit of doing that, and he’ll reconsider heading back to school. Best get dressed, dear – your dad is on his way. We’ll chat with your brother together, but it’s a private conversation, so you are going over to Nanna’s for the morning. She needs help making pies for her women’s luncheon.”

“Mama!” Carly allowed a bit of whining to tinge her usually upbeat voice. “Don’t send me away!”

“Carly,” her mom said with a small smile. “Was your brother allowed to be a part of our conversation when you first menstruated?”

“No.”

“It was a private conversation between the two of us. Your brother and father and I have some hard things to talk about, and your brother deserves privacy. Now, mush! Teeth, face, hair and clothes. Nanna is waiting on you.”

Carly headed down the hall scowling. It just wasn’t fair.

Ten minutes later she was being swooped up into a bear hug from her dad before being sent by bike the three blocks over to Nanna’s. She wondered what she’d find when she returned home. Carly didn’t know what would happen if Dave decided to move out rather than toe the line and get a job or go to college.

There was always a kind of reassurance bubbling in a back corner of her mind that Dave was there, available, a strong support. What would she do if that reassuring presence disappeared? It had been necessary when Mom and Dad divorced five years ago. Carly was just eight years old, and Dave had been the one to hold the pieces together as Mom finished her RN training and started working full-time.

Dave wiped away Carly’s tears, and when he tired of that, he tickled them away. He made her grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup every night mom was gone, and didn’t make Carly eat the detested green peas or salad. He read her story after story after story and sat next to her holding her hand until she fell asleep.

Carly had vague memories of waking up one night to realize Dave had fallen asleep himself sitting next to her bed. She happily started burrowing into her pillows before a glimmer of guilt stopped her, and she threw the covers back and stood up, urging her weary brother to wake up just enough to get to his bed. For the first time, the roles reversed and Carly tenderly tucked her big brother into bed and planted a kiss on his forehead before tiptoeing back to her room. Who would tuck her in, if Dave went? Who would tuck Dave in? Carly’s brow furrowed in worry as she wheeled her banana bike into Nanna’s driveway, dropping it on the lawn and trudging up to the front door.

“Carly, my dear!” Nanna threw open the door, beaming! “I’m so glad you have come to visit me this morning. Come in, child!”

Several hours later, Carly wheeled her bike home, balancing a cooled blackberry pie in one hand, her mouth watering and stomach rumbling, despite the huge piece of apple pie she had just eaten. Her dad’s car was gone, and her mom was out watering the hanging fuschias that drooped miserably under the summer heat.

Her mom must have the next few days off if she was still awake, otherwise she’d be sleeping from her graveyard shift.

“Hey, Carly!” Mom walked over to her and held out her hand in an offer to help.

“I have it,” Carly said, letting the bike thud into the ground. Her rubber handle bar covers were split through, allowing the sharp edges of the metal to cut into the lawn. She hadn’t been paying attention, and jerked her foot encased in only a cheap pair of jelly sandals out from under the descending handlebar just in the nick of time.

“Where’s Dave?” she asked.

“Inside,” her mother replied, opening her mouth and then closing it on whatever else she was going to say, instead turning back to her hose and fuschias.

Carly hurried inside and slid the pie onto the spotless kitchen counter. Her mom had been cleaning. Not the best of signs – she did that deep cleaning thing when she was upset, and the house sparkled in a way it hadn’t for a while now. Carly squared her shoulders and walked softly down the hall to her brother’s room.

Dave was sitting on his bed, sorting papers and books into boxes.

“Dave?” she said, peering worriedly around the door frame.

“Hey, Princess,” he said tiredly, “come here – I want to tell you something.”

Carly climbed up beside him and looked at the stack of clothing on the dresser and the pile of books on the floor.

“You know I love you, right?” Dave said, turning to face Carly. She nodded solemnly, but inside she could feel the scream of fear and sorrow and anger begin to well up, choking her.

“Well, I will love you no matter where I live, or what I do. Okay!” Carly could feel a tear trembling on the edge of her lashes, and she gulped for a breath.

“Hey,” Dave said, and wrapped an arm around her. “It’s time for me to grow up and move on. I want to do things with my life that mom and dad aren’t willing to pay for. That’s fair. I don’t like it,” he said, honestly, “but I don’t want to go to college, and my part-time job lets me have the time I need to do my music.”

Dave shifted his weight and pulled a weeping Carly into his lap. He knew she was growing up rapidly, but she surprised him with how little and fragile she still seemed to him. Except when she was in a temper, and then she seemed pretty fearsome, actually. He grinned thinking of her last temper tantrum. The guys in the band had all been taken aback by the variety and extent of the curses she had leveled on them that night.

He chuckled to himself before tipping up Carly’s head to look into her eyes. “I’m not going far, Carly. Just over to Brandon’s – less than a mile away. I’ll leave you his phone number. Call anytime – even if you don’t need anything. Okay? Besides – when mom has to work, I’ll still be over here so you aren’t alone. She is paying me to do that; and the band and I have to pay her for the rent and electricity to use the garage to practice. I’ll be here! You won’t know I’m missing.”

Carly hugged her brother tight, trying desperately to stop her tears. This was exciting for Dave, and he wanted it so badly. She wanted him to not worry about her. If she kept crying, he might change his mind.

With a last deep breath, she sniffed mightily and scrubbed her hand across her eyes.

“I made blackberry pie,” she offered. With a smile, Dave set her on her feet and stood up, stretching.

“Cut me a piece, little sis – it sounds great. And then maybe you can help me pack? You are so much better at sorting and organizing.”

*******************************

Dave slumped wearily against the wall of his bedroom, absently licking the last of the blackberry pie from his lips.  Carly was a shaping up to be a fine baker, he thought, as he surveyed the wreckage of odds and ends gathered over the last nineteen years. All he wanted was to move on, without the hampering effect of boxes and bags. His mother! She would insist that he pack everything that was his, take it with, toss it, she didn’t specify – but it had to be out by the end of the day.

Some nurse, he snorted. Surgeon, more like. Neatly cutting away the barriers to her carefully sculpted life; the impediment to moving on, moving ahead . . . by sending him away.

Dave clenched his fist and took a deep breath.  He supposed in all fairness, she had given him a firm deadline months ago. College or full-time work. If college, living expenses were on her. If full-time work, he needed to pay a fair market rate for rent and utilities. Buy his own food. Take on household chores beyond the usual assortment he had been tasked with for as long as he could remember . . . plus, the watching over of little Carly.

Well, he’d tried, damn it! He just couldn’t see spending forty or more precious hours a week slaving over a grill, or washing dishes, or — as she so thoughtfully suggested — changing fouled linens and mopping up body wastes in the hospital.

He had a future waiting for him, a plan and a chance. His band was going somewhere – each member was dedicated and practiced, and they were gaining a small following at local parties and events. Brandon’s dad owned a local bar, and the band was soon to start featuring there on Friday nights. They just needed to cut a demo and start submitting if – after they saw which of their originals meshed best with the local listeners.

He couldn’t do everything! Why didn’t she see that? And his father! As usual, daddy (and Dave curled that name into his mouth with an angry twist) just sat by and nodded  in time to Maureen’s rapid fire words, seeming to agree with his ex-wife, offering no thoughts of his own. He would later, Dave reflected – when Maureen wasn’t around to hear his opinion, or rebut, or challenge, or even – on the odd occasion, ask for more thoughts — he would go off on her callousness and unfair expectations and try driving the wedge he had stuck in between Dave and his mother ever deeper.

Dispiritedly, Dave lay back on his bed and pressed his forearm against his forehead. Brandon would be here in another couple of hours with his old battered Chevy truck to help Dave move his things. Some to Goodwill, others to Brandon’s house in the little corner den that Brandon’s parents had agreed to let Dave stay in for the next three months – just until he got on his feet and found a job.

Dave groaned. It was endless – this “get a job” idea. Why was everyone fixated on it? What was wrong with the 15 hours a week he worked for the local carpenter? It paid better than minimum wage. The right amount of hours. Joe liked him – had suggested Dave consider an apprenticeship through the local carpenter’s union. Maybe that would be enough like going to school that his mom would relent and let him stay. Get her off his back just for a few days.

Probably not, he thought. His father was a tradesman, and out of work more often than not. The first steady paycheck the family had enjoyed had been after his parent’s divorce and his mother’s graduation with her RN. No, Dave decided – it was better to carry on – get packed, cleaned up and out. Move on, move ahead . . . move out.

With a burst of energy, Dave rolled off his bed and started to sort through his life – this goes, this stays, and one other pile – decidedly undecided. Carly was doing her chores and then she had promised to come “help.”

Dave sighed. She didn’t need to be a part of this – but she wanted to be close. That was the piece that bothered him – he knew how she had depended on him for time and attention with their mother so busy with work and paying off the debt her twenty years of marriage had cost her.

She might be a nuisance, but she was his only sister and Dave didn’t want little Carly alone. Well, Brandon was just a short distance away – and he would be here several nights a week.  Carly or not, the packing wouldn’t wait – nor would Brandon who was impatient on a good day – and Dave picked up his pace, hastily tossing items into one of the three piles with rapid-fire decisions. It was all just stuff, in the long run. In the end, what counted was the music in his head and heart – not the Lego pieces from a long-gone boyhood, old school projects, and clothes barely worn.

An hour to go. Dave was starting to look forward to the change.

***************************
“Fascinating story, Carly,” Mom murmured, setting the notebook pages down gently on the table. The lined notebook paper’s tattered edges crackled as Mom smoothed them over and over, her eyes focused on something only she could see.

With a little shake of her head, Mom looked Carly square in the face, tilting her head.

“I have not heard from Dave in a long while – how about you?”

Carly swallowed convulsively, and shook her head in denial.

“Carly,” Mom tipped Carly’s head up, one finger delicately placed under Carly’s chin, to look into Carly’s swimming eyes.

“I can’t help him if I don’t know where he is or what is going on,” Mom continued. “Have you seen him?” Mom picked Carly’s story up in the other hand, as if weighing it’s veracity. “This story would seem to suggest otherwise . . . and yes, before you say it, I know it’s ‘just’ a story. Stories come out of real places, Carly. Even if just the seed of an idea.”

“I don’t know where he went, Mom,” Carly said in a low mumble. He stopped by a couple of weeks ago and said he had a lead on some gigs. He needed some money to help tide him over until the band was paid, though.”

Maureen sat, slowly sipping her mint tea. Her stomach had been clenched in knots for what felt like forever, and she wondered again about ulcers. She could feel acids rising up into her throat, a mixed blessing that – as it choked off the screeching she could feel burbling below and seeking a way out, a release from the fear and anger and sadness.

“How much did you give him, Carly?”

Carly had been babysitting all summer earning money for her school clothes and fall sports. Maureen simply didn’t have the money after bills and basic living expenses – and really wanted to make sure at least one of her children developed skills and confidence leading to self-supporting adulthood.

“Carly?”

Carly heaved a deep sigh. “It’s okay, mama,” she responded. “My clothes still fit, and I already talked to the track coach. He can offer me a scholarship for the track team fee. I’ll just need to spend extra time with the fundraising.” Carly hastily added, “It’s okay to do homework at the same time.”

“I see,” Maureen responded. Carefully, she slid the papers back over to Carly. “I gather from your story that you think a lot about how requiring Dave to do something other than his music has caused pretty much an end to the world as you and he knew it.”

“Yes, mother, I do!” Carly’s own pent up fear and worry and anger raged out suddenly. Her mother had provided an opening, and Carly felt no desire to tip toe around the issue any longer. “You kicked him out, mother! Because he wouldn’t get a full-time job! He was working – at a paying job and at his music. He cooked and cleaned and mowed the lawn and scrubbed the toilet. He was taking care of me when you weren’t here!” Carly sputtered to a stop, tears welling up in her eyes, and she angrily dashed them away. “We were doing fine, mother. Dave was doing fine. Maybe not what you wanted, but he was following his own drumbeat – just like you have always told us to do! And you . . . you . . . you shit on him for it!” Carly’s voice had risen to a screech on the last words, and the unspoken question lingered: How long before you shit on me, mother, for not following the drummer and drumbeat you assigned to me?

Carly froze – she had not raised her voice to her mother in over a year – the last time she had been grounded for a month. She certainly had never cursed at her mother.

Maureen looked at Carly evenly, before sitting back with a sigh and a nod of her head, as though she had tallied up the count long ago, but just now received confirmation of its validity.

“Thank you,” she said at last, “for honestly sharing with me what you are thinking and feeling. I wish I had an easy answer for you, but I don’t. And I frankly don’t know how much you need to know or should know about the whole story right now, Carly. But rest assured, it has much more detail to it than you know about – it is not clean, a line sketching in easy black and white, if you will.”

Maureen slowly stood up from the table.

“I need to get a few things done before turning in. I have graveyard shift for the next several days.” Maureen cradled her mug in both hands, absently running her thumbs over the cup’s rim, a gentle, soothing motion. She looked at Carly with a mixture of deep compassion, as well as some disgruntlement. Her own mother used to say that daughters in adulthood were a mother’s best friend – but during adolescence were a trial and worry.

Maureen knew she had been blessed with Carly, who generally speaking made wise decisions far beyond her years, and could be counted on to take care of life’s daily business in a matter-of-fact way without the games and sulks. A bit of a temper, yes – but that she came by quite honestly. Maureen’s lips curved up in a sudden smile. “I love you, Carly – just as you are. I do hope  you know that.”

Carly blinked, and slowly stood up from the table, reaching a hand across to her mother.

“Come here, child,” her mother murmured, setting down the coffee cup, and drew Carly away from the table into her arms. “Forever and always.”

***************************************

The lost is found. Dave is traveling with local band as roadie. His hair is longer than mine! Carly@notestomom.com

Carly strained to see Dave as he muscled the speakers up into the truck, carefully covering them with quilts and tying them down. The band had long since dispersed, packing their personal instruments and exchanging high-fives with each other. Carly noticed that the gaggle of girls honking along behind the men looked pretty much the same as the group that had haunted her brother’s band when she was younger, whispering excitedly, and occasionally breaking out in vicious wing-flapping at each other. She snorted at the image in her mind, and wondered how time could have flown so rapidly forward for her, while it appeared to have slipped backwards for Dave, and stood still for young women stopped in their young teens.

Quietly, Carly moved closer to where her brother shifted the packaged sound board and crates of wound cables and cords and what-all else Carly wasn’t sure. Her heart went out to her brother as she watched him pause and wipe the back of his hand across his forehead before straightening and looking longingly in the direction the band had disappeared.

“Yo!” A heavyset man with grizzled hair sticking out in unflattering spikes came around the back end of the truck. “Almost done?” he leaned against the bumper, and took out two cigarettes, lighting them both and handing one to Dave who took it with a weary smile. “we’re getting together over at Dan’s if you want to come along,” the man continued after reflectively puffing a time or two. “If you’re thinking you’d be welcome to join the band, think again.” He snorted.  “That group has a bit of att-tih-tuhde,” the man drawled the word with disdain, “when it comes to mere flunkies like us.”

Dave hopped down off the truck and shook his head. “Rather like the waitress looking down on the cook, hmmm?” he murmured.

The man gave a hearty guffaw. “Good man!” and nodded his head toward the waiting car.

Carly paused, debating. Dave didn’t know she had found him. He didn’t want to be found. Time seemed to stand still for a long instant while she reached out longingly to her brother, and then she cried out, “Dave!” running a few steps toward him.

He froze, immobilized, before turning, astonishment showing on his tired and worn face which was backlit by the streetlight.

“Carly?” Dave managed to croak out, “is it really you?”

Dave had last seen Carly when she was a gawky teen doing furious battle with bulky glasses, persistent zits, and a body that didn’t seem to fit all its rapidly growing parts – he wasn’t prepared to reconcile that memory with this beautiful young woman who came flying into his arms, crying and laughing all at once.

“Carly, Carly, Carly,” he chanted into her hair, tightening his arms around her and twirling her in circles. “Where did  . . . how?” he stopped and peered around her suspiciously. “Mom or dad here?” he scowled.

“Stop it, Dave,” Carly said with a bit of a sigh. “No, they’re not. It’s just me. I’ve been looking for you for years. Mom knows I found you, but that’s all she knows. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”

“Long story, Carly. Just a sec,” Dave turned around to the waiting group. “Go ahead, Bob,” he said, waving to the older man. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the loft for rehearsal.”

“Good enough,” the man waved back and folded himself into the car, setting off down the road.

“C’mon, Dave,” Carly said, tugging at his arm. “My car’s over here. Let’s get some food. You can take all the time in the world to catch me up on where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to.”