Winning

“Why are you stopping?” Ana asks as I shake her off my back.

“Because …. I can’t … breath,” I manage to huff out. I drop to the grassy patch alongside the track. I take deep breaths in and out, in and out.  “What’s my time?”

“No where near where you need to be,” Ana says. She’s standing beside me. Normally she’s a few inches shorter than me, but from my position, she seems to tower above. “Get up,” she says with just a hint of annoyance.

“I can’t do this,” I say looking up to meet her judgmental gaze. Her pale face is blocked out by the midday sun. I’m glad I can’t see her face – I have a list of people I’ve let down, and I can’t bear to add Ana to that already long list.  But my heart is beating at an alarming rate, I can’t seem to catch my breath, and blisters are forming on top of blisters.   “Seriously, I give up. Just leave me here to die.”

“Destiny Marie Augustine, you get your ass up right this instant! You are not a quitter, you hear me?!” she barks. I hold my hand out to her in the hopes that she’ll take mercy on me and at least help me off the ground.  She helps me up, and before I know it I find myself once again hoisting her up and on my back.

“Ready,” I ask.

“Ready ….. set…. GO!” Ana shouts in my ear. My feet hit the spongy blue track. At first all I can think about is how tired I am and how heavy Ana is. But as I continue to run, I remember just how much I want this. No, not want – need this.

I always thought that breaking a world record would be cool,, but never cool enough to actually go through with it.  But after finding out the local news is holding a contest where one local record setter would win a whopping five thousand dollars. This is it, my one big opportunity. As much as  I want the money for myself, I can’t afford to be that selfish.

When dad took off, he took his bank account with him. We weren’t rich then by any means, but we were comfortable. – a solid roof over our heads, a balanced meal, even if they were frozen, and new clothes every school year. No, me, mom, and my younger brother are so close to the poverty line it actually hurts. Mom takes as many odd jobs as she can, but the money she scrapes up is barely enough to cover a full month’s rent of our rickety old trailer. I bus tables at the greasy spoon, and use my free meal to feed three people. And even little Leo has a daily bus route.  Every penny helps, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough.

That is why I have to win this contest. That five thousand dollars will really help me and my family. Maybe even start a small college fund for Leo.

The paper set strict rules for the contest.  Participants can’t just set out to break any old record. Participants have to break the record for the fastest mile run. But here’s the catch, they have to set the record to the fast piggy back mile run.

The original record was set by two dudes in the United Kingdom. In order to beat these dudes my time had to beat their eleven minutes and eleven second record. While I want this more than anything else I have ever wanted, I am not aiming high. I’m setting out to shave that eleven seconds off, and run the full mile with Ana piggy back in eleven minutes flat.

This is why I now find myself with my one hundred and fifteen pound friend strapped to my back.  As I round the bend, I realize that I am essentially carrying my own body weight.

The finish line is sight. I push myself harder than I ever have before. I cross the line and drop Ana on the ground.

“Time?”

“Eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. Almost there! Come on, let’s go around one more time.”

I shoot her the severest look I can manage. “I can’t. Work,” is all I manage to huff out.  She doesn’t argue, she knows I can’t afford to call out or even go in a minute late. Sergio, my boss, will dock me if I’m late.  Or at least he threatens to. “I still have to shower.”

“You have an hour,” she says stubbornly.  I know she means well, and that she wants this for me just as much as I want this for myself. But Ana just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t fully get how tough it truly is. She doesn’t know what it’s line to eat only one meal a day, or what its like to have to wear her hand me downs. Or to worry constantly if there will be a home to go home to at the end of the day.   “So, you’re just…”

I cut her off. “No, I’m not giving up. I’m just putting this on pause for the day. We’ll be back out here tomorrow morning.”

She doesn’t respond but I see her resignation. “Come on, I buy you a drink at the water fountain,” I say with a laugh.  She slings her arm around my shoulder and we walk to the fountain.

“You can do this, you know?”

“Can I?” I ask sheepishly. As much as I want this, I don’t necessarily believe that I can actually win this. Good things like this don’t happen to people like me.   “I want to believe that I can.”

“Than believe it babe! You got this!” Even though I don’t love drill sergeant Ana, I do love how supportive she is and always has been. And it’s the reason why she pushes me so hard.  “The contest is next week, are you nervous?”

“No, not nervous. Maybe anxious?”

“Why?”

“Because there’s so much riding this. That money is practically spent already.”

“You’ll win.”

“But how can you be so sure?”

“Because I know you. And I know what you’re capable of, even if you don’t.”

“Thanks!” Her vote of confidence helps me believe that I can and will actually do this.

***

“Contestants! To your marks!”

“You ready?” I ask Ana.

“The real question is are you ready?”

“Yeah, I am,” I respond. And it’s in that moment that I realize that it’s true. I have worked hard, and in this past week I have pushed myself to every limit. I have shaved seconds off my time. I just hope it’s enough.

I look at the people scattered around the track. There are people from the newspaper, looking very official with ties and little notebooks in hand. There are the world record’s people, also very official looking with fancy clipboards. There are people I know, like Nathan Snow, captain of my high school’s track team, and his head cheerleader girlfriend, Marsha Taylor. And there are people I don’t know, but they all look very athletic.

I scan the bleachers in the hopes of that maybe, just maybe, mom would be here to cheer me on. I spot Sergio and Loraine – they are holding a sign that says “Go Destiny!” . Seeing my boss and my favorite coworker and that ridiculous sign brings a smile to my face. A row over I spot Leo sitting with Ana’s family. They wave frantically at me. Leo gives me two thumbs up.

“Let’s get the show on the road,” I say looking at Ana.

“Lead the way, champ!”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I say taking my place on the track.

“Listen,” Ana starts, spinning me around. “No matter what happens, whether or not you win that money. I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks. You know, I couldn’t do this without you, right?”

“Don’t get all sappy on me now! You have a record to set, and I have to see that you do.”

“On your mark. Get ready. Go!” the emcee booms into a microphone. I take off, slow and steady making sure my breath and my heart rate are even. As I find my footing I pick up speed.

I’m about half way around and I realize that it’s just me and Anna and Nathan and Marsha.   When I first start this, I made a strict rule that Ana and I would not talk in the midst of running. I need to focus everything to the task at hand. But I break my rule.

“Where … is everyone?” I breath out. I can feel Ana crane around to scope out the scene.

“It looks like some dropped out already. Heh, losers!” she says gleefully.

“And the rest?”

“Slow pokes. It’s just you and Nathan.”

Knowing this only makes me want to run faster, harder. Nathan is on okay guy I guess. I’ve never had any problems with him. In all honesty, he’s an all around nice guy. But right now, he’s my competition. And he’s only doing this for the glory. If we could share the prize I’d give him the glory and take the cash.

“I know we promised not to talk, but Marsha is starting to whine about how uncomfortable she is. You got this Destiny! You’re going to win!”

I run and run for what seems like hours. But before I know it the one mile mark is within reach. Nathan and I are neck and neck … almost. I turn my head just enough to see Marsha squirming and that Nathan’s is having a difficult time keeping his stride.  But he’s an athlete, competition runs in his blood. I know he’s not going to give up, not without a fight.

I bate him by letting up a little, letting him think that I’m just so tired I can’t keep up my pace. He takes the bait with a sly smile – one that says ‘I got this’. But just as he’s thinking that this record-setting is his for the taking, I push myself just a bit harder, close the gap and before I know it, I cross the finish line … first!

I’m so elated and exhausted that I don’t even think about my time. I let Ana down and within a split second she’s jumping, hooting, and hollering. Once again her arms are around my neck. But this time she’s hugging me, and a bit too tightly admittedly.

“Did I win?”

“You came in at ten minutes and fifty-eight seconds! You won!”

“I won?!”

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No Time for Sweetness

I listen to the hall clock strike eleven while I stare at Daddy’s pocket watch open in front of me on the kitchen table. The hallway clock is five minutes fast according to Daddy’s watch. He was always fussy about it keeping good time what with being a train conductor and all. I can’t say it’s as accurate as when he was alive but I’ve done my best to keep it wound since he was shot down.

The hallway clock clangs its way through all eleven chimes. Each one sounding more and more like a nail in my coffin. If Mama was still alive she’d tell me these dark thoughts are what come from plotting revenge. But all I have left of her is the rifle in my lap hidden beneath the white linen tablecloth so I suppose it doesn’t matter too much.

I told Jess Cartwright to meet me here at eleven. I’m not sure now what time he might go by. All I know is I plan to point Mama’s rifle at him as soon as he sets himself across the table from me. Mama and Daddy both would have said there were better ways to get information from a man, especially for a pretty girl like me. Especially when the whole town knows Jess has been sweet on me since we were children.

But Lord knows I don’t have time for sweetness. Not when the train robbers who shot Daddy already have a three day head start on the trail heading back east.

I’m spending so much time picturing Jess across from me with Mama’s rifle pointed at his chest while he tells me what I need to know, sweet as you please, that I almost miss when he actually walks into the kitchen through the back door. We never used to lock that door when Mama was alive. I won’t be here long enough to worry too hard about protecting what’s mine. Not when I know Daddy won’t be walking through that door any time soon.

“Christ, Cora,” Jess exclaims when he spots me in the dark kitchen. “You could scare a soul half to death sitting in wait like that.”

He pulls out a chair and I raise my rifle onto the table as he sits. “Don’t you go dying of fright on me just yet, Jess. Not before you tell me what I need to know.”

I can tell he wants to jump up. Maybe run to Sherriff Pomeroy to tell him the town’s got a hysterical orphan on their hands. But then Jess sees the steady hold I have on the rifle and the coldness that’s settled around my eyes—I’ve seen it myself looking in the mirror Mama kept on her dresser. There’s not a thing there to suggest I won’t shoot Jess where he stands.

“This trigger is getting a might slippery Jess. It sure would make things easier if you started talking,” I say evenly.

“Cora, I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish but I don’t know a damn thing you need to know.” He doesn’t bother to apologize for his language. But then we never did stand on ceremony like that. Not with each other. Not until I had to point a rifle at him to make sure I get the truth.

The sun is beating through the windows and I can feel the sweat trickling down my back. Mama and Daddy always loved Arizona. Said there was nothing quite like a sunset out west. Lord, I dreamed of going back east and seeing the ocean Mama grew up next to all the way in Maine. Never thought I’d be planning to head east without either of them. But first I need to know where to go.

“I know as well as you that isn’t true,” I say calmly. I rest the rifle more steady on the table so I can lean forward and look Jess in the eye. “We both know you were on that train Jess. Daddy told your pa he’d keep an eye on you. You had to see what happened.”

“Cora, I can’t tell you what you need to know.”

“I don’t remember saying you had a choice.”

Jess shakes his head so violently it sets his curly hair bouncing. “Nothing doing. You might think you know what you’re doing but your parents wouldn’t want this. Not for you. Not ever.”

I clench my teeth so hard I’m surprised they don’t snap off right in my mouth. “Daddy was shot when the train was robbed and the men who did it have a three day head start. Mama’s gone and has been for five years. There is nothing here for me.” I stop abruptly when I hear the way my voice cracks. I can’t cry anymore. I have no time for it. I ignore the hurt look Jess gives me as I continue, “But if you tell me what you saw, maybe I can follow the men back east and make sure they’re taken in.”

“You and what army, Cora? Those men are outlaws. Your mother’s hand-me-down rifle isn’t going to anything against them. Even the sheriff couldn’t mount a posse. What makes you think you can do what they wouldn’t even try?”

“I guess I don’t have anything left to lose.”

“Cora—”

“No!” I cut him off as I point the gun squarely at him. “I will not have you protect me. I don’t care what history we have or what you think you might owe my parents. I will do this. It’ll go faster with your information but I’ll do it either way. And if you don’t start talking, I will shoot you.”

Jess stares at me for a long, long moment. In the silence I wonder if this is what it feels like when a bone breaks. I think it must be.

“There were eight of them. The Pinkertons on the train shot three in the chaos just before your father was shot down. Six rode off but one was favoring his right side. They were heading east. I heard one of them mention Independence. That’s all I know.”

I return the rifle to my side of the table before I stand. “I thank you for that.” I walk away from the table. I still have a mess of things to prepare before I can set off.

I don’t realize Jess is walking toward me instead of out the door until I feel his hand on my shoulder.

“Cora, please. I’m asking you not to do this. Let the law handle things.”

I turn to face him. “You said yourself that the law isn’t going to do a thing to get justice for Daddy.”

“Your parents wouldn’t want you to do this,” he tries.

“They aren’t here to stop me,” I say as I step away from him.

“I am.”

I look at Jess. He’s asked me to marry him before. Last Christmas and just last week on my nineteenth birthday. He’s told people before that he was sweet on me. But I said no. Both times. Mama didn’t raise me to want to tie myself down. Daddy didn’t teach me to put my own life second to any man’s. Even one like Jess.

“You can’t stop me either. And if you try I will never forgive you.”

Jess looks real wistful as he says, “I could come with you, Cora. I could help.”

“We both know that isn’t true.” Not when Jess has three sisters and an entire farm to tend for his ailing father.

Jess nods. “It never would have been enough, would it?” he asks as he turns to the door.

“What’s that?”

“I always thought eventually you’d want to settle and maybe your eyes would turn my way. That never was going to happen though, was it?”

“Everything’s different now, Jess. I can’t rightly say.”

He nods, real thoughtful like he gets sometimes. Especially when I tell him no. “I suppose we both always knew how out story would end.”

I pick up Mama’s rifle and add it to the saddlebag I started packing last night when I decided this was the only road I could take.

“I suppose we did,” I say as I turn my back to him. I don’t stay in the kitchen to hear the finality of the door closing between us.

 

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Rain

He stared at the blank computer screen. Waiting. He knew from the past three years of school that spells didn’t write themselves; that some magician was behind every spell ever recited, every piece of magic written. He also knew that if he didn’t write and hand in a new spell in the next twelve hours he would fail Advanced Spell Creation 301 and would have to repeat his final year.

Phillip Carton, to put in bluntly, was in bad trouble.

He ran his hands through his hair. He didn’t remember when he’d last had time to comb it. The way his hands stuck in the mane of curls suggested it had been a while. He pushes his glasses higher up his nose and stared again at the screen. No words had materialized on the screen. No inspiration struck.

Phillip took a deep breath as he struggled to tamp down his rising panic. He’d had two months to write this spell. All of his other work was turned in, grades submitted. Literally the only thing standing between him and his Magician Certification was this one unwritten spell.

He had tried to write it, of course. He’d written hundreds of spells. Most of them still littered the floor of his dorm room.

The problem was none of them worked.

He could perform spells. He’d memorized all of the important potion formulas. He could treat magical injuries. He was the top of his class in illusions.

But somehow, in the course of his five years at the school, Phillip had never caught the knack of writing new spells, of putting words to page to create some new piece of wonder; he still didn’t know how to make his own magic.

Phillip closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Five years of school and now it would come down to this. Twelve hours and one spell. He would have no time to test it himself before submitting it to the Graduation Board.

His eyes roved over the failed spells that littered his floor. Maybe the problem wasn’t that he couldn’t write spells. What if, he could hardly believe the audacity of it, but what if he was just thinking too small?

What if his spells to find missing socks and mend broken glasses were too mundane? What if the spell to make perfect scrambled eggs was too unoriginal?

Phillip Carton was a clever man. All of his teachers said so and many of his classmates hated him for it. Perhaps it was just time for Phillip to do what he did best. It was time to be clever.

Birdsong brought his gaze to the window. It hadn’t rained in a month—nearly unprecedented in the typically rainy area where the school was based. Phillip returned to his computer screen with a new vigor as the words he would need began to form in his mind.

Phillip’s fingers raced along the keys of his computer. He would have just enough time to proofread and print the spell before he would run to submit it to the Graduation Board and observe while the members of the board tested and probed the spell.

This spell, he knew, would work. It had to.

Phillip Carton was going to make it rain.

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Noticed

Alice waits another week before she gives up. Then she carefully picks everything up and hides it away. Deep. She deletes the one email he wrote to her. (Responding to one of the three she wrote to him, of course.)

She pretends to forget the bright blue of his eyes. She stops looking for him in every part of the store. She tries hard to convince herself that his hair was cut so short because he was dealing badly with premature baldness in her effort to create flaws where previously she saw none.

She pushes it all aside and reminds herself that she has nothing to be sad about. Because nothing ever happened and, she realizes with the unique clarity that comes from hindsight, most likely nothing ever would have happened.

She tries to tell herself it doesn’t hurt now. She studiously ignores the gaping hole where something more could have been. She must have imagined this loneliness and want that she can’t quite ignore and can’t quite name.

***

In retrospect, again that painfully clear hindsight, it isn’t much of a surprise. All of her crushes—the bad ones—have been on coworkers. All of them have been disasters.

Loving a celebrity from afar always seems too easy; too much like cheating to pine for someone so obviously unattainable. So no. Her crushes—the painful ones she can only think about in quick, fleeting moments after the fact—are always real. Always too close.

Nick wasn’t any different.

***

She never actually had a chance to call him Nick. They never said each other’s names. She knew his name after a lengthy search through the staff directory. And he knew hers after the first email. But that was all. Even now, with the bitter aftertaste of what could have been burning in her throat, there is something scandalous about thinking of him that way—a name that never was never really hers to use freely.

Later, after he replied to her first email and they actually spoke to each other out loud, she learned that they had started working at the department store on the same day. It took a few weeks for her to notice him. Maybe Appliances involved more training than generic checkout. Maybe she just hadn’t paid attention.

But after she saw him, after she realized she was unconsciously tracking him across the store, she knew it was only a matter of time. She knew she was in trouble.

That was before any of the emails. Before she tracked down his name and found excuses to talk about the intricacies of the hierarchy between departments just to mention him. Before she called him anything but That Really Cute Guy in Appliances in her head.

After that but before he replied to the first email she thought something had changed. It wasn’t exactly that he noticed her. Girls who got noticed never had these problems. They were handed phone numbers. They were asked out on dates.

Alice didn’t get noticed. In particularly bleak moments she wondered if Dorothy Parker had been right about boys and girls who wear glasses. Girls Who Got Noticed never seemed to wear glasses. They didn’t have complicated crushes that lasted for months only to fall apart like a spectacularly elaborate house of cards.

So no. Nick didn’t notice her. But he did start talking to her. He did, it seemed for a while at least, seek her out. But maybe that’s something any handsome guy would do. (No matter how much she tried to drive home the idea of the premature baldness, Alice could not deny that Nick was attractive. It was a pointless exercise.) And what attractive person doesn’t want to be adored?

She never put much stock in books that talked about characters blushing until those heady early weeks. She must have looked like a lobster from the way her cheeks heated up when he so much as smiled at her.

The problem with having a painful crush on someone you only see in passing at work, though, was that it’s hard to get to know a person that way. It was hard, Alice learned, to find anything to talk about that didn’t make her sound like a blathering idiot.

He kept coming back though so maybe that was all right. After so much waiting, maybe something was going to happen. Maybe, for once, Alice (wildly hoped) she would actually be Noticed.

But Nick was transferred instead. To Electronics. In another store on the opposite end of town.

That’s when she sent the first email. When he wrote back. When they finally both knew the other’s name.

She sent the second email a little later. When she was sure he was well and truly away and the crushed seemed well and truly pointless. When she thought she had nothing to lose because being brave seemed like a grand idea and pride seemed like a small thing to risk.

He was transferred back the week after that. Of course. After the second email asked him out and admitted that she had Noticed him for quite some time. But maybe that was obvious all along with her lobster red cheeks and incoherent speech and the way she politely refused to acknowledge the bald spot even existed. (In hindsight and with just a little bitterness she can admit now that the bald spot was, in fact, significant in size.)

After he came back, for a little while anyway, it seemed like something might happen. She added more cards to her card-house-crush and she thought for once it might stay strong. She made plans. She had hopes. She named things she wouldn’t usually talk about like that loneliness and want that hindsight are making her feel so acutely right now.

She wondered, briefly and fantastically, if this was what it felt like to be Noticed the way all of her friends who did not wear glasses or have elaborate crushes seemed to be Noticed.

But it wasn’t like that.

Two weeks after he came back, three after she sent that reckless second email, and he never said a word to her. He waved the one time she passed him on her way to the register. They looked at each other quite a few times across the cavernous aisle that separated the bank of registers from Appliances. Once, she was so so sure he was going to walk over. But he never did any of those things. He never emailed even though Alice was sure it would have been the easiest thing in the world.

Suddenly, in such a short time, all of the potential and hope fizzled away to uncertainty and confusion as Alice wondered how she could have possibly been so wrong. Again.

That’s when she sent the third email. And she isn’t proud of that. But pride, it turns out, really is the first thing to go when emotions start to run high.

There were a lot of things she wanted to say to him. A lot of questions to ask, if she was being honest. Instead she kept it simple and she tried to stay civil. She didn’t talk about how many hopes she had pinned to him. She didn’t admit that the idea of being Noticed seemed so much more exciting that noticing someone. She didn’t even hint at the weeks of silence. Instead she went to his email—the only one he had sent when everything still seemed about to happen—and she hit reply again. She didn’t think too hard before she wrote that he could have just said no. He could have given her that small dignity of acknowledgement.

 

***

Alice waits another week before she gives up. For real this time. Then she carefully picks everything up and hides it away. Deep. She deletes the one email he wrote to her. She deletes her replies too. She doesn’t need them to remember that she tried. She doesn’t want them to remind her that it didn’t work.

Eventually his eyes don’t seem quite as bright. And his hair really is short because of the bald spot. He is still handsome, perspective can only change so much, but not in a painful way. Not in a way that makes her heart ache anymore.

She pushes it all aside and reminds herself that she has nothing to be sad about. She tries and succeeds when she tells herself it doesn’t hurt now. She tells herself there are more important things and she is going to find them soon. Maybe they’ll even Notice her.

She tells herself all of that and she believes it because, she realizes with beautiful clarity, that it’s true.

That is what she’s thinking, with a small smile just for herself not for any crush, when she sees a new message with Nick’s name in her inbox. That is what she is thinking as her cursor slides uncertainly between “open” and “delete.”

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Problem Solving

“Lemonade,” Ginny, my younger sister says, standing over me. Her wild, red curls block the sun. But just barely. I lean back on my heels, and look up at her round, cherubic face. I wonder how it is even possible that we are related. As opposite as day and night, Gran always says.

“Did you make it?”

“No, the Johnson’s down the street did,” she replies sarcastically. Her hand extended towards me, I watch the cubes of ice clank against the glass. I am thirsty, but not enough to drink Ginny’s lemonade.

“I’ll pass,” I say. Ginny’s lemonade is just a bit too sweet for my liking.

“Suit yourself,” she says as she turns around and back towards the house.

“Hey!” I call after her. She stops, but doesn’t turn around to face me. She knows what’s coming. “Why don’t you stay out her and help me?”

“You want me to help you?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because you never want my help.”

It’s true. Since mom and dad took on a second jobs, and Gran’s health has taken a turn for the worse, I’ve slid into the adult role around the house. It’s not a role I ever wanted, but it’s a role I have dutifully taken on. And admittedly, I’m a bit of a control freak. Ginny is always offering to help – with the dishes, with the grocery shopping – but I always refuse.  Believe me, it’s not because I don’t want her help, it’s because I want her to enjoy the remainder of her childhood.  But Ginny doesn’t see that.

“Here,” I say handing her a hand shovel. “You were always better than digging holes than I was,” I say.

She willingly takes the shovel from me, and kneels beside me. We work in silence, her shoveling and me weeding the pesky sprouts and shoots of grass and dandelions.

“Remember that summer we spent at the beach?”

“Yeah. Remember how every morning mom had to coax you in just to eat breakfast?”

“I was trying to build Cinderella’s castle!”

“It looked more like a cave,” I say and we both laugh in unison.

“It did not!” she says bitterly, throwing a handful of dirt in my direction.

We don’t talk, but I know we are both silently reminiscing about that long-lost summer. The summer that was perfect. Mom and dad actually had quality time to spend with us. Money wasn’t free-flowing, but it wasn’t as tight as it is now. And Gran was a  vibrant woman who was more active than my sister and I combined.

We spent those summer days lounging on the beach, jumping waves, and eating dad’s famous tuna salad sandwiches. Nights we spent around the table playing Uno.

It’s cliché to even think it, but those were the days.  The days when life wasn’t perfect, but it was damn near close.

I weed silently lost in thoughts of the past.

“Ka-tie! Earth to Katie!”

“Huh, what were you saying?”

“What planet were you visiting?”

“What?”

“You were spacing out. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Keep digging. That hole isn’t big enough.”

“How deep does it have to be?”

“Deep enough to plant that tomato plant,” I say pointing to the row of pots I have lined up and waiting to be planted. “Why are you planting so much this year?”

“No reason,” I lie, and Ginny knows it. She always knows when I’m lying.

“Spill it,” she demands.

“It’s nothing really. It’s just … ” I hesitate, not wanting her shoulders to be weighed down by the burden.

“It’s just what?”

Ginny is a lot stronger than she looks – both physically and emotionally. Stronger than I can and ever will be.

“Money is tight Gin, tighter than it usually is. We’re barely making the bills and rent. And food for a family of five is getting more and more difficult,” I say and linger off. I don’t want her to see the full picture. I don’t want her to know that  I overheard mom and dad talking about how they can’t afford groceries this month.  “This is my way of contributing, Gin. It’s the least I could do.”

“You do a lot, though.”

“It’s not nearly enough. And at least this way I actually feel like I’m doing something … anything, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

I lean back on my heels, and stretch my aching shoulders.  I reach over and grab Ginny’s glass that is stationed between us on the hot concrete slab.  I take a sip of her lemonade. It’s as terrible as I expect it to be. But I’m so thirsty I don’t really care. I’m guzzling the sweet liquid when I hear a clink and a clank.

“What’s that?” I ask looking over Ginny’s hunched shoulders.

“Some sort of metal box,” she says uprooting the dirt covered, rusted box.  Ginny turns the box over in her hands. When she’s done, she tries to pry it open. “It’s stuck!”

“It’s not stuck, it’s locked.”

“Same difference,” she says knowing all to well that I hate that saying. “Here.”

She passes me the box. I inspect it, turning it several times over in my hands. I shake it to try to determine what’s on the inside.  “Something’s in there,” I announce, quite obviously.

“Really, Sherlock?”

I swat at Ginny teasingly. “Do you have a hair pin?”

“A what?”

“A hair pin?”

“Do you mean a bobby pin?”

“Don’t get technical.”

“What do I look like, a walking beauty salon?”

“With that hair of yours … who know what’s hiding in there?!”

“Gran has a ton of them,” she says picking herself off the ground. “Come on,” she says walking away towards the house.

The quiet consumes us as we walk in. I remember the days when life and laughter greeted us at the door. Gran is a sleep in her rocker in front of the ancient television set. Mom and Dad are both at work, due home at any moment. I follow Ginny into Gran’s stark white room. So white, in the late day sun, it’s almost blinding.

I walk over to her dresser, and take a good, long look at my dirt streaked face.  I’m tired, and the dark circles around my eyes show it. Wisps of hair have escaped the bun at the top of my head. My lips are chapped.   Not wanting to face myself in the mirror, I start looking at the many photos Gran has circling the mirror. There are pictures of Gran as a young bride, Gramps, now long gone, in his Air Force uniform. There are pictures of my mom at ripe age of five, dressed in her Sunday’s best and her strawberry blonde curls glistening in the sun. Then there are pictures of me and Ginny.

“Forget the bobby pin,” Ginny says. I spin around and in between her fingers dangles a small, gold key.  I snatch it out of her hands and sink down into the plush mauve carpeting. Ginny sits across from me.

I work the key into the rust lock. It takes some work, but after a long, hard moment I slip the key in. With a good twist, I hear the lock pop. Victory! I lift the lid and my jaw hits the ground .. audibly.

“What is it? What’s in the box?!”

“The solution to all of our problems!”

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Letters

Prompt: Write a ghost story. 

She sat down at her desk. She pulled out her monogrammed stationary. She uncapped her favorite black pen. She pulled her hair out of her way over one shoulder, set pen to paper and began to write him a letter.

He never replied. She had been writing him long enough to know he likely never would. There was a certain freedom in that. She felt she could tell him all of her secrets. Even if he did read them, he would never judge her. Not, perhaps, because he was as perfect as she imagined, but because he would never reply. It was enough.

“I think I’ve loved you for my entire life,” she wrote before signing her name.

She closed the red door of her house and walked out to the mailbox on the corner and slipped the letter inside. It was mid-afternoon with sunlight so bright her pale skin seemed transparent. She nodded to the old woman walking her dog. The woman studiously ignored her, instead keeping her eyes on the phone in her hand. The old woman’s dog growled and barked until the old woman tugged on his leash and they moved further down the street.

Every day, she sat down at her desk. She pulled out her monogrammed stationary. She uncapped her favorite black pen. She pulled her hair out of her way over one shoulder, set pen to paper and began to write him a letter.

She told him about her life in the drafty old house. There used to be other occupants but it had been a long time since she had seen them. They had moved, she supposed. She imagined other people might be lonely. She imagined she should be lonely. But she had her house and she had her letters. It felt like enough.

“I don’t remember what it’s like to be around other people,” she wrote. “I think I’ve loved you for my entire life,” she finished before signing her name.

She moved through the red doorway of her house. She walked out to the mailbox on the corner and slipped the letter inside. It was cloudy and nearly dusk. The darkening skies seemed to pull the light away from everything, even her already pale skin so that she almost glowed. She nodded to the old woman walking her dog. The woman studiously ignored her, instead keeping her eyes on the phone in her hand. The old woman’s dog growled and barked when she tried to pet him. The old woman tugged on his leash and they moved further down the street.

The next day, she sat down at her desk. She pulled out her monogrammed stationary. She uncapped her favorite black pen. She pulled her hair out of her way over one shoulder, set pen to paper and began to write him a letter.

Her pen stopped writing in the middle of her letter. She stared at it for a moment. She couldn’t remember the last time she had needed a new pen. She didn’t know if she had any others. She looked around, disoriented, and wondered for a moment if there was something she was missing. But she had a letter to write.

She set pen back to paper and kept writing. “I feel lost,” she wrote, “and I’m not sure why. Is there somewhere else I should be?” She didn’t expect a reply from him and found no answers in her own mind. “I think I’ve loved you for my entire life,” she finished before signing her name.

The red door offered no resistance as she passed through. She walked out to the mailbox on the corner and slipped the letter inside. It was late by then. She had been delayed by the pen running out of ink. She didn’t remember getting a new one, but she had the letter in her hand so it must have been fine. There was no old woman and no dog. She found she missed them. She slid the letter into the box and drifted back home.

It was too dark to see the eye peering at her from behind a living room curtain. She would have ignored it if she had seen it though. It was getting early and she had a letter to write.

The girl in the living waited until the ghost disappeared through the front door of the house with the red door. Everyone knew about the ghost and pretended they didn’t. Her grandfather was the only one who talked about it—a legend passed down from postman to postman and, sometimes, to curious granddaughters.

They said that the ghost was the woman who used to own the house with the red door. She and her husband moved there after their honeymoon. Before her husband was drafted and deployed.

She told him she would write every day, a promise she kept obsessively. Even after he was declared MIA in Burgundy. Even after V Day and the search for his remains was abandoned.

The way her grandfather told the story, the woman died of a broken heart. But she kept writing. Every day. Waiting for his husband to find his way back to her. If the mailbox on the corner ever seemed cold to the touch, or the air held a sharper bite, he said it meant the woman was mailing her latest letter.

Sometimes her grandfather had even found an envelope in the box. No return address, nothing on the envelope save for a too-old stamp and a name. Her grandfather had never opened the envelopes because he was a professional. The girl had, though. She steamed one open to find a page so faded it was nearly blank. At the bottom, slightly darker than the other words on the page, the girl could make out the words “I think I’ve loved you for my entire life.”

The girl stared at the opened letter now. She could just make out the ghost’s name with a magnifying glass and some guesswork.

She sat down at her desk. She pulled out her white stationary. She uncapped a blue pen. She pushed her bangs off her face, set pen to paper. Carefully, in her neatest handwriting, she wrote: “He’s waiting for you. It’s time to move on.”

The girl sealed the envelope and walked to the house with the red door. She didn’t know if the ghost checked her own mail; her grandfather had no reason to deliver mail to the vacant house nor any useful stories.

The girl squared her shoulders and walked up to the red door. She slipped her note through the mail slot in the front door and stayed for a moment to listen. The house was dark so she would never be sure, but she thought she saw a shadow move past the front window and heard a sound like an envelope being torn open.

The girl was certain, however, that she heard a slow sigh before she peered through the mail slot and saw her note and its envelope float back down to the floor.

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The Lies You Tell

Prompt: A lie that gets bigger and bigger

Lying is a tricky thing. It takes practice and just a hint of sincerity. You have to commit to the lie. Which is something bad liars never seem to understand. You have to tell a lie until you can recite it in your sleep. You have to say it out loud. You have to make every lie so beautiful it will break a person’s heart just to hear it.

You can never believe the lies you tell. Not really. When you start to believe your own lies, the only heart that will break is your own.

Fool that I am, I thought that rule wouldn’t apply to me. I was wrong.

Some people have faces that pull others toward them like magnets. He had that kind of face, beak of a nose and all. Some people have voices so striking that everyone stops to listen when they speak. His voice was like that, sharp enough to cut through the noise around him and still smooth like butter.

But maybe you already know what he’s like. Maybe you can imagine and I don’t need to say anything else.

I suppose everyone had to love him, just a little. That’s how it started for me, slightly dazzled but distant enough that it felt harmless.

He breezed into my life, my town, like a whirlwind. He left chaos in his wake until it all righted itself and it felt like he’d always been there as a clerk in the bank.

He flirted with everyone. He talked to everyone. We all knew. You probably noticed yourself. But it never felt like that. It felt like you were the only person he saw. I never knew what it meant in a book when a heroine said she blushed uncontrollably until the first time I had to stammer through a conversation with him.

I told myself it didn’t matter. That was the first time I lied to myself.

It’s almost imperceptible sometimes, when someone starts to matter dreadfully. My eyes began to track his movements across the bank whenever I was there. I started to watch for him. Wish for him. I didn’t even know his name.

I barely had savings and little need for a bank. Still, I found excuses to be in there almost every day. Loose change to trade for bills. A quick deposit when the ATM had a line. Inquiries about new account options. Any reason I could take. Speaking to him was the best, of course, because it always felt like something could happen. If he was busy–or worse not there–I would finish my business and get on with my day. If I managed to catch his eye before I left all the better.

I told myself it didn’t matter so much, either way. That was the second time I lied to myself.

The problem with lying to yourself is that it becomes much harder to keep track of the truth. It’s easy to get lost.

He always had a smile for me and, on one sensational day I won’t soon forget, a wink. I didn’t stop to think it might mean anything. The line between fantasy and reality was already too blurred for that. I could imagine any number of sensational scenarios. It wouldn’t change the fact that he was paid to be affable and polite. It wouldn’t change the fact that he didn’t know my name.

I wouldn’t know it for some time but those turned out to be the biggest lies I ever told.

I was near the bank just after closing. Not to see him, for once. I was finishing my own shift at the supermarket–one of the few places in town that would hire high school students when I started applying that fall. I was a senior waiting for graduation to finally roll around. He caught up to me while I waited as the bus stop.

Despite all of my surprise visits to the bank, I was still shocked to see him outside its walls, out from behind the big counter where all of the tellers stood. His hair was still carefully combed but he had on a t-shirt now instead of the button down shirts all of the men at the bank had to wear. It was a few seconds before I realized I was staring at his upper arms, at the curve of his neck without a collar obstructing it.

He pulled off his sunglasses to smile at me. I wished, desperately, that there was a bench at the bus stop as I was no longer certain my legs could continue holding me.

“I see you in the bank all the time.”

I nodded dumbly before I replied, ever so witty, “Finances are very important.”

His teeth were so white when he smiled that I immediately forgot how idiotic I must sound.

“So, this is embarrassing because you’re always at the bank, but I don’t know your name.”

He stood so close to me that I could see the stubble beginning to shadow his jaw. It made him look older–the way he was supposed to look, I realized with a shock–not the fresh-faced boy who had been inhabiting my imagination for months.

“I’m Isabel,” I said slowly. “Isabel Downes.” As soon as I said it, I regretted giving him my full name.

“Such a proper name.” Another smile. He stepped closer to me which didn’t seem possible when he was already the only thing I could see. I had spent so long willing him to talk to me like this at the bank. It was only now, when it was actually happening, that I stopped to wonder why he would possibly have anything to say to me.

I licked my lips, nervous and not sure why. “Shouldn’t you tell me your name now?”

“Don’t you think we’ll have plenty of time for that?”

“My mother told me I should never talk to strangers,” I said with a smile as if I were flirting. Another lie, this one too small to even track.

“My name’s Ian,” he grinned this time, all sharp teeth and wants I couldn’t quite name. His eyes roved down to my chest for one beat too long before he finished. “Ian Johannes Abbington.”

I smiled back tightly. His gaze shifted to the bus that was coming. I tugged the neckline of my top a bit higher. Not that it mattered. The shirt, I realized, wasn’t too low cut at all. I tugged on the red sweater I had in my bag, buttoning it despite the heat.

As the bus doors opened in front of us, I tried to think of reasons to walk away. It suddenly felt like too much. He was too close to me. He was too happy to see me. It was too fast despite my own efforts to speed things along. A bead of sweat trickled down my back under the sweater as he gently took hold of my elbow before I could move away.

“Now that we’re not strangers, I think we’ll have a lot to talk about on the ride.”

I stared at him as we moved toward the bus door. The way the night might go unfolded before me. It could be everything I had wanted so badly since the day I saw him. More even, if his behavior was any indication. Or it could be a disaster. The worst mistake I would ever make.

I still wasn’t sure as I followed him onto the bus.

He waved me into a window seat before settling himself beside me, his arm already around my shoulders. “I always like meeting new people,” he said as the bus lurched forward.

“Oh, so do I,” I replied automatically as I watched the bus stop get smaller and smaller in the window.

It was hard to tell, with so much good humor and so many smiles, which of us was lying.

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The Day After

Prompt: A conversation with a stranger.

“What if I told you I might be falling for you?” he asked as they walked toward the entrance to the subway.

Strolling near the park should have been romantic. The perfect ending to a day of adventure and surprises. It could have been, if she let it. But she already had what she needed from him. Even without knowing each other’s names or any personal information, she already felt like he knew too much. She felt like he had come much too close.

“That isn’t going to happen. You don’t even know me.” She pushed her glasses higher on her nose.

“I know enough,” he said, as he pushed a tendril of her red hair behind her ear.

They walked into the subway in silence. He already knew they were going in opposite directions. She’d made sure to tell him that much.

His train was first. She stood with him near the top of the stairs. She took his hands. “You aren’t going to fall for me. You don’t love me. After tomorrow you never will.”

“What are you talking about?”

A train had come. She timed her reply with the onslaught of people. “None of this, nothing today, had anything to do with you.” She let go of his hands. “You had something I needed. I have it now. That’s all this ever was.”

She moved away and disappeared down a set of stairs before he could follow. It didn’t surprise her when she found him staring at her across the tracks. Nothing about him surprised her. Not after today.

“I don’t understand. Why did you do this? Why would you tell me?” he shouted at her, voice stricken.

She remembered when she kissed him, hours ago, probably harder than she should have. Definitely longer. She remembered forcing her hands out of his hair, her body away from his.

She couldn’t kiss him now. Not with an entire set of subway tracks between them. Her glasses were dirty and she could barely see him across the platform. She knew he was upset. But she could only guess at his face. Was he angry? Sad? She wondered if he would look for her as she yelled back, “Because we’re never going to see each other again!”

Her train was coming. She heard the rumbling and saw the gleaming light moving out of the tunnel. He finally noticed the train a moment after her. She watched him turn toward the tunnel.

“I’ll remember you!” he called when he realized he was running out of time. “I’ll remember today and I’ll remember you! I don’t believe it meant nothing!”

“I am sorry! Believe that at least!”

The train came then. It was too late to say anything else. It had always been too late.

She walked into the train car. He watched her, offered a feeble wave. She put her hand against the glass and smiled at him. She didn’t know if he saw it. She couldn’t tell if he watched the train as it left the station or if he would try to follow her. He wouldn’t find her. She knew that much for certain.

She left her glasses on the train when she got off at the next stop. Her vision cleared without the dirty lenses. For the first time all day she could see properly.

She waited until she was in the middle of a crowd before she pulled off the red wig. Her own dark hair was already in a bun. She threw her green sweater into the trash as she wove her way through the station to a different train. She kept her purse. It had the clone of his cell phone—the one that would clear all the obstacles that stood in her way. Tomorrow night she’d use it to buy her freedom. Then she would walk away.

She would sell the phone as promised. There had never been a choice about that. But she also knew she would save the information somewhere. Just for her.

He could try to look for her. Part of her hoped that he would. But he wouldn’t find her. It was much too late for that.

But maybe the day after would be early enough for her to try to find him.

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Ode to A. Hitchcock

Prompt: A story that is 500 words or less.

The best part of the Jersey shore is the annual sand sculpture contest. People flood the beach in the pursuit of handcrafting works of art – art that will eventually be gobbled up by the ever rising sea.

Every year my sister Erica and I stand on the sidelines, speculating. Not this year. This year we’re participating. It doesn’t matter that I hate sand and she has no artistic ability. It doesn’t matter that every sand castle I ever built crumbled in mere seconds. It doesn’t matter that Erica doesn’t want to be here.

The day is overcast, the sand sticking to all the wrong places. For a split second I regret this decision, but with a hot pink bucket and gardening shovel I’m ready.

“What’s the plan Stan,” Erica asks.

I take out a crumpled up sketch, and pass it to her.

“You’re kidding right?! There’s no way in hell we’re sculpting a mermaids.”

“Watch your language,” I say in my mother’s tone.

“Hell isn’t a cuss word. If it was it  wouldn’t be in the Bible.”

I ignore her and begin sculpting. Erica sits back, sunning herself. I stop for a sip of water and to wipe sweat from my brow.

“Whoa!”

“What is it?”

“Look at all those seagulls, there’s about a hundred of them.”

“Don’t exaggerate, there’s like ten.”

Seriously, there are hundreds of the beasts flocking overhead. They make me nervous. I continue on sculpting and shaping the sand, coaxing it to do exactly what I want it to. But the birds continue to flock, swoop, and fly.

I try not to let the birds get to me.  But as the clouds roll in the birds seem to ascend upon the beach, pecking at half eaten sandwiches, squawking at the people. I’m scared. So much so that I hastily gather my stuff and pull my sister up from the sand.

“We’re leaving!”

“What? Why?!  You haven’t even finished.”

“Somethings not right,” I announce. The air is eerily silent, the waves that were crashing simply lap at the shoreline. I turn slowly, and take in the nighmarish scene — seagulls pecking at the people. There’s one tangled in some woman’s hair. I ran. Hands covering my head I pray I wouldn’t call victim to the birds. Erica, with her longer legs is  just ahead, just out of reach. I call to her, but she keeps running farther away.

“Erica wait!” I scream. And as I screamed the largest seagull I have ever seen lands on my sister and it pecks and pecks.

“No, please stop!” I shout.

—-

“Erin! Wake up! Wake up!”

My eyes crack open. “You’re alive!”

“It was just a dream.”

“But the birds –”

“That damn movie! I told you you shouldn’t have watched that.”

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Notes in Books

Prompt: Write a story that is 500 words or less.

Notes in Books

I stand awkwardly in the cafe wondering if she’s here yet.

In my last note I said I would be wearing a blue sundress and a hot pink cardigan. Check.

I considered going for a brighter, more obvious dress–what if the cafe is hot and I have to take off the cardigan?–but my only other clean dress was the yellow one from Aunt Maureen. Aunt Maureen still thinks I share her and mom’s pale complexion instead of dad’s brown skin and crazy curly hair. She somehow missed that yellow does nothing but wash me out so I look sick, sick, sick.

I look around when the door chimes as it opens.

In her last note my friend said that she would have a purple shirt and a black twirling skirt. I’m still not sure what that means but I think it’s probably a dirndl skirt.

We’ve moved onto writing each other postcards and letters but this all started with a sticky note in my favorite book at the library.

I always leave notes when I’m browsing at the library.

I never thought someone would write back.

When I opened the book three months ago a note fell into my hand.

Sometimes I left my notes in the middle. Or at the very last page.

“This book saved me life,” I wrote once. “It felt like nothing was going to be right ever again. But then this book was perfect. And slowly, so slowly, it started to feel like other things could be okay–maybe even perfect–too. I hope you loved it. I hope you’re okay.”

It was that same copy–I recognized the torn and wrinkled dust jacket.

I stared at the note in my hand and then the book before I turned to the last page. The sticky note I left was still there. It still declared that this book saved me and it was still true.

On the folded paper was an address and in thick, blocky capital letters the words THANK YOU.

I added another sticky note beneath the original.

“You’re welcome.” Beneath my note I wrote my address before I could talk myself out of it. I placed the book back on the shelf.

Her name is Olivia and she told me her family is Mexican by way of Newark. We are both avid readers and she might be my best friend. This is the first time we’ll ever meet.

We exchanged numbers last week when we settled the details. I am clutching my phone wondering if she will call to say she’s arrived.

Or maybe send a text to say she changed her mind.

The door chimes as it opens. I hear a girl shout “Lisa!” as she runs toward me, a blur of black and purple. She crashes into me, her arms already hugging me.

I smile.

“I’m so happy to finally meet you!”

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