Category Archives: Emma’s Stories

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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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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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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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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A Promise Kept

Prompt: A promise made and/or broken.

A Promise Kept

My name is Lilac Dupree and I always keep my promises.

The man I want to kill barely spares me a glance as I pass him on the street. Violet laments the duration of our extended mourning period and bemoans the black crepes and silks that comprise our entire wardrobes. I’ve reminded her several times that it is only a matter of weeks until we can transition to half mourning when she’ll be able to wear some of her precious mauves again. She hardly cares.

No matter. Mourning attire suits my purposes just fine. People rarely pay any notice to a young woman bedecked in black from head to toe. Even the men keen to spot a well-turned ankle coming out of a carriage quickly avert their eyes when they see that ankle is covered by a black dress. Their eyes quickly pass over any pretty face obscured by a black bonnet or parasol. It helps, I think, that the black does little for my complexion beyond washing me out to a sickly pallor against my dark hair.

In mourning I am able to all but disappear. And I need to disappear if I want to exact my revenge.

The man I want to kill walks the city for most of the afternoon. I am grateful for the work boots I borrowed from Josiah and the way that they blend with the black of my skirt and petticoat. He won’t appreciate the strength of my need, or the absence of his boots, when he needs to muck out the stables. But I can hardly be blamed because Mother took the opportunity of transitioning the house into mourning to also transition my own sturdy boots into the trash. Mother claims young women of quality should always wear appropriate footwear. I would like to see Mother tromping around New York City’s cobblestones in her boots with their spool heels. At any rate I could hardly be expected to accomplish anything in such boots. Luckily Josiah is but eleven and has not yet hit his growth spurt. I only needed one extra pair of socks to make his boots fit.

If I didn’t know better I would say the man appears melancholy, morose even. I linger near a window when he walks into a corner pub. The sun is setting. It is the first time I have been out near dusk without a chaperone. I instructed Violet to tell mother I was dining with the Peabodys and staying with their daughter Olivia for the evening. I can only hope the two dollars I gave her with the promise of a new jet bead purse will help to make her a better liar.

My black dress blends into the shadows until I can scarcely tell where one stops and the other starts. Unfortunately it does little to help me blend in. Unattended women are not supposed to venture this far downtown, certainly not this close to the water. The anonymity I enjoyed in the bright afternoon light is quickly morphing into unwanted attention and lingering stares that make my skin crawl.

Just when I begin to question the wisdom of my outing, the man I want to kill exits the pub and passes entirely too close to where I am loitering near the entrance. His eyes are glassy with drink and I sag gratefully with relief when he passes me without a second glance. I lift my skirts to my ankles so that I can follow him more quickly down the street as he rushes through the intersection.

With only a rough idea of where I am in relation to the family brownstone, I can little afford to get lost tonight. I can worry more fully about how to get home after I exact my revenge. I quicken my pace again as the man begins moving east.

My father was murdered eleven months ago. He was a respected banker and much loved by his wife and his two daughters. Everyone says it is a tragedy—his life shot down far too soon. No one knows why anyone would have wanted to kill him. No one knows that I was on my way to meet Father when he was shot.

From across the street I watched the tableau unfold as Father raised his hands in the air before being pushed to the ground by the force of the bullet striking his chest. The street became a throng of people then, a mob of gawkers and Samaritans alike trying to get to Father while still others panicked and tried to run in the opposite direction.

My feet felt rooted to the spot as I watched a man taking in the scene. Our eyes met across the street before he began walking briskly through the mob.

No one stopped him. No one, I realized later, saw him. In that moment I promised myself that I would find him and I would get justice for my father.

I keep my eyes on his brown jacket now as he moves through the street. His red hair is easy to spot in the gloaming—a bright spot in the otherwise darkening night. It took months to find him, tracing his movements on that day eleven months ago by asking merchants in the area and other witnesses. I had despaired of ever finding him when I noticed him near the bank yesterday skulking from shop to shop looking for work or perhaps just gauging if anyone were tracking his movements. My vigilance was rewarded when I left the house early this morning and was able to follow him from the bank all the way downtown to here.

I stop abruptly at a corner to avoid barreling into the man. I’m not a fool. I know I cannot confront him in the middle of a crowded street. My hope, as he winds his way through the streets of the Bowery, is that I might find whatever rooming house he is calling home so that I might enter his room. I grasp my clutch in both hands. After I get him alone, Mother’s pearl handled revolver will do the rest.

It is full dark now. I can only hope we are near his destination. Already my attire is drawing stares amidst the poverty of this neighborhood. Women here have no money to spare for full mourning and women who can do not walk alone at night. I am drawing unwanted attention. The part of my mind not occupied with watching the man’s progress begins to worry how I will get home in one piece much less unnoticed.

The man rounds a corner and I follow quickly down an alley. The only light comes from a door that has been wedged open with a discarded brick. It is not enough to illuminate the man I have been following where he hides in the shadows. I walk into his hard chest before I realize what has happened. His hands clamp around my arms before I can think to back away. No one knows where I am or what I had planned today. Not even my little sister Violet. For the first time since I began my search, I realize I have been the worst kind of fool.

The man turns me so that we are both closer to the light. I am surprised when I see that his eyes are concerned and not at all glassy after his time in the pub. Instead his gaze is shrewd. His hold on me loosens when something like recognition passes across his face.

I waste no time reaching for my clutch. The effect is somewhat ruined by the way my hands shake as I pull Mother’s revolver out of my clutch. “You killed my father.” I raise the revolver until it points to his chest.

“We both know you aren’t going to shoot me, Miss Dupree.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” I say as I fumble with the hammer on the back of the revolver. Much to my horror it catches on the lace of my glove. He stares at me a moment before he easily palms the revolver.

“I know many things about you, Miss Dupree. Including the fact that you placed yourself in great personal peril by following me today,” he says as he places the revolver into his jacket pocket.

I open my mouth to deliver a choice retort when a more pertinent question occurs to me. “How do you know my name?”

“Why do you think I killed your father?” he replies as he leans against one of the alley walls, eyeing me warily the entire time.

“I saw you there. You looked at me, calm as you please, before walking away. What else would you have been doing there?”

He clenches his jaw and stares at something just above my shoulder. “What would you say, Miss Dupree, if I told you that I had been hired to protect your father?”

“I’d say you did a miserable job of it for starters!” I reply indignantly.

“No one would argue that point,” he says with a shake of his head. He returns his focus to me. “My name is Cormac Breen. Your father had reason to believe his life was in danger and he hired me to provide some measure of protection.”

“I dare say you’ve been out of work for the better part of this year then,” I snap. “And I will need that revolver back, Mr. Breen. My mother will miss it.” I hold out my hand for the gun.

“You’ll get it back when I know you won’t try to shoot me again.”

“I thought you said we both knew I wouldn’t shoot you,” I reply caustically. “Changing your mind already, Mr. Breen?”

“Let’s just say I hadn’t heard about the elder Miss Dupree’s temper. As to the matter of my employ: Your father paid generously and I dislike failing. I have been conducting an investigation into your father’s shooting.”

“Wouldn’t that fall into the jurisdiction of the police department?”

“It would,” he says with a nod. “Which is why it’s fortunate that I was only moonlighting for your father.” He lifts the lapel of his jacket to show me a badge. “It’s actually Detective Breen, if you would be so kind, Miss Dupree,” he adds with a smile that is entirely too flattering to his overall countenance.

I do not smile back. “It would seem to me,” I say after a moment, “that between your so-called moonlighting and your official job with the police department that you might have found answers long before now.”

Detective Breen leans forward unexpectedly; close enough for me to see the green of his eyes and the ghost of stubble along his jaw. I take a careful step back as he says, “What would you say, Miss Dupree, if I told you that your father’s death is but the beginning of a conspiracy I am only now beginning to fully grasp?”

“My father was just a banker, Detective,” I say with a scoff as I wonder if Bellevue is missing one of its inmates.

“I assure you I am deadly serious, Miss Dupree. Your father was involved with something that got him killed. I intend to find out what.”

“And what does any of that have to do with me?”

He takes a step closer so that now I am the one against a wall. He has an excited gleam in his eye as he answers my question. “A police detective can only go so far in your family’s world. Particularly an Irish one. You, however, have no such barriers and have already proven yourself an adequate investigator. Since you are so keen to avenge your father and clearly have no regard for your personal welfare in the process, I may be persuaded to accept your assistance so that I can keep my eye on you and assure that another tragedy does not befall your family.”

I stare at him for a moment.

He takes my hand and places the revolver in it. “What do you say, Miss Dupree?” he asks as he holds his hand out to me.

I place the revolver into my clutch again before I reply. I already know my answer. I suppose I’ve known since Detective Breen told me what he was really doing. I suspect he knows as well.

“I promised myself I would find out what really happened to my father, Detective Breen. And I always keep my promises.”

We seal the bargain with a handshake before I can change my mind.

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The Tree and the Bicycle

Prompt: Write a story inspired by an image of your choice (found online).

BE3k7BYCcAEvHGdThe Tree and the Bicycle

Everyone knew about the bicycle in the tree.

Local children measured their height against how far they were from it and their bravery by whether they could climb to it. Teenagers at the high school north of town passed along the superstition that touching the bicycle’s tire could bring good luck. The high school to the south believed touching the same tire would give you a broken heart that no love would ever mend.

There were other rumors, of course.

Mrs. Doyle claimed the bicycle belonged to her sister. That she left it chained to a tree before running away in the middle of the night to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. But everyone knew Mrs. Doyle’s sister ran away with a newspaperman with a nasty temper and a drinking habit to match. Everyone knew they eloped and died in a car crash before any kind of honeymoon.

Old Tom Button once suggested the bicycle was left by a boy before he went to join the army. That was too plausible to believe.

The only person who might really remember was Paula Putnam–the oldest woman in town. Busy with her wealth and whatever being ninety-nine might involve, Paula Putnam kept to herself. She did not visit anyone. She did not invite anyone into her mansion. The only time she was seen in town was every Founder’s Day. The pub had an ongoing pool for when Paula Putnam would finally die. Odds were recalculated and bets renewed once she made her appearance. Some people wondered if she would ever die.

Paula Putnam did not waste her breath on idle conversation. But every year at the Founder’s Day dinner she would tell anyone who would listen about waiting at the tree every night for five years to meet her sweetheart. He rode his bicycle over from the neighboring town–one hour each way, she said–just so he could gaze into her bright eyes and try to steal a kiss. For years he told Paula Putnam that he would marry her. For years Paula Putnam told him she was too young to marry anyone, especially a handsome young man with a fine bicycle and little more to his name beyond striking violet eyes.

But then the story got strange. Paula Putnam did get older eventually, as people are wont to do. Her bright eyes got sharper, her face thinner and suitors came calling from all around. But Paula Putnam’s thoughts stayed with the handsome young man and his fine bicycle.

Paula Putnam didn’t notice it at first. It’s hard, she always said, to notice changes in a person when you see them every day. But then Paula Putnam turned twenty-one and that called for parties and dinners and such that she couldn’t get away even for a moment to meet her sweetheart by the tree.

A week passed.

Paula Putnam saw her sweetheart one more time beneath that tree. She always said it wasn’t the same that final time. She always said that absence doesn’t always leave a heart aching although even those who never knew the full story understood that part for the lie it was.

Paula Putnam ended the story the same way each year late into the Founder’s Day dinner. With her walking away while her sweetheart watched from the tree. She looked back once, she said, and saw him there watching. The moonlight cut through the night in such a way that his brown hair seemed to glow red and even with an entire path between them, she saw the hurt in his unusual violet eyes.

Paula Putnam never saw her violet-eyed sweetheart again but the bicycle stayed there. Paula Putnam told the story as if the bicycle were a reminder of her beauty and her discriminating taste. Nothing more. She would not allow herself to consider what she knew she would never have again.

No one ever knew if Paula Putnam could be trusted. Most people thought she could not. Most people were certain her Founder’s Day story, as it came to be called, was just a story. A way for an aging woman to remember what it felt like to be beautiful and young with her entire life ahead of her.

If anyone did believe Paula Putnam’s story, no one admitted it.

Still, everyone wondered about the bicycle in the tree. For years and years they wondered. Like so many things that become a part of town tradition, the bicycle and the tree started to blend in until it was part of the larger backdrop of the town. Sometimes people would walk by the tree, look up, and remember the strange stories.

When Paula Putnam died the local paper published her story. People talked about it for a while. But nothing lasted forever; not rumors or stories and certainly not memories.

Eventually the tree and the bicycle were forgotten.

Gabriel Sullivan waited a very long time for people to forget.

Covering violet eyes or darkening brown hair to black were easy things in this modern age. It was harder, he found, to erase a previous century’s behaviors. It was harder to change a dialect more commonly associated with another time. Aside from which the colored contact lenses always made his eyes ache.

Gabriel was used to waiting. He had gone entire decades doing nothing else and would likely do so again. He waited for Paula Putnam to stop telling her story about her violet-eyed sweetheart with his fine bicycle. When it became obvious she would never stop, he waited instead for her to die.

It was an easy thing, waiting. Gabriel had nothing but time.

Many years ago Gabriel’s tutor told him once that legends rarely knew they would live forever in myth or song. They were just ordinary people, he had said, often leading ordinary lies. His tutor told Gabriel every subject of every legend was dead and gone long before their stories were told.

Back then Gabriel believed his tutor. It was a long time ago and Gabriel believed things much more readily.

Now he walked, a legend of sorts, through the town that had forgotten him.

If anyone had passed Gabriel they would have noticed the cut of his trousers was a bit sharper than most off-the-rack clothes found in the area. They might have thought his coat a bit out of fashion as he walked toward the cemetery, his hairstyle wrong. Odd. They may have wondered why he stared so intently at Paula Putnam’s tombstone. But it was raining and Gabriel was the only one outside. He preferred it that way.

Gabriel had needed to wait longer than he expected to make this trip. The carved name on the tombstone not nearly as sharp as he would have liked. He brushed moss away from the top corner while he said his goodbyes. He placed a ring box in front of the grave. She deserved more but he had nothing else to give.

He stopped, briefly, to stare up at his bicycle.

He remembered the night he left it chained to the tree. Remembered when the tree began to grow around it and pull the bicycle up off the ground. Gabriel had watched it often, from a distance, over the years. The same way he watched Paula Putnam

Staring at it now he remembered her. She was the prettiest girl in town, no one denied that, but she was also the smartest. She was the one Gabriel loved without quite knowing how much it would hurt. It would be many years before he learned to consider consequences so he courted Paula with wild abandon despite being eight years her senior–with flowers and late-night confessions, with stolen kisses that lasted long than would be deemed proper even now in this modern time when women wore trousers and skirts above their knees.

Gabriel had been so used to time working in his favor. It never occurred to him that a week apart would be his undoing.

Paula Putnam had been meeting Gabriel under that tree for five years when she turned twenty-one. Gabriel was used to watching for small changes so even before that night he noticed how Paula Putnam had aged and grown. He never realized until that night how Paula Putnam might notice some things as well.

Staring at him under the too-bright moonlight she saw his unlined face and its open admiration. She saw that he looked exactly as he had when they first met those five years ago. She asked him what it meant, of course. If he had laughed at it or shrugged her question away, things might have gone differently that night. Except he had no answers. He had no reassurances beyond his love and a ring she would never see.

Gabriel’s eyes stayed on the bicycle as he remembered the fear in Paula Putnam’s eyes as he tried to explain, to tell her it didn’t matter. Paula Putnam was the prettiest girl in town, no one denied that, but she was also the smartest. She knew better than Gabriel himself how much staying with him would cost. She knew letting him go would be nothing compared to getting older and watching his beautiful face stay exactly as it was.

Paula Putnam left him with his bicycle under the tree. Even with an entire path between them Gabriel knew her bright eyes were already turning away. He walked away too, leaving the bicycle behind–another reminder of what was lost to him.

Legends could last for lifetimes stacked one on top of each other. But memories only lasted as long as you let them. Gabriel, for all that it hurt, knew he would remember Paula Putnam for a very long while. But only when he wanted to because Gabriel had lived long enough to know when it was time to move ahead to new places and to new people as well.

Now was such a time.

Nodding once he turned his back on the tree and the bicycle and walked on, pulling his hat down against the thickening rain. Gabriel had seen a great many places and done a great many things. Now that he had said a proper goodbye to the girl he might have married and the life he might have had, he planned to do many more.

After all, Gabriel had time on his side.

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There Are Dragons Here

Gertrude’s grandmother used to tell her there were two types of people in the world: People who preferred art museums and people who preferred natural history museums. Theoretically there was also a third group consisting of people who did not like any museums, but Gertrude never had much use for them anyway.

The skeletons and dioramas of long-dead animals never brought to mind old ghosts or lives cut short when Gertrude wandered the museum exhibits. History was filled with both, of course, but seeing it on display always felt more like a privileged window to somewhere far off rather than a cautionary tale or something to fear.

Natural history museums used to be the domain of dinosaur bones and speculation. But that was years ago. Before glaciers began to melt and dragons awoke to migrate farther south.

No one knew what happened to the larger dragons–the dangerous ones. No one knew why the smaller dragons came to the cities, only that they chose to settle in the sewers and subways systems. Some people–foolish ones–adopted hatchlings that had been abandoned or orphaned. They told themselves a collar and a leash could make a fierce predator into a house pet. How Gertrude envied their reckless confidence.

***

When she was younger, Gertrude’s grandmother would braid her hair while they watched game shows in the early evening. As her grandmother combed her wavy, dark hair Gertrude would ask what it had been like before the dragons came back.

As she divided Gertrude’s hair and began to braid, her grandmother would talk about days when the subways still ran without interruptions and water mains broke for reasons that had nothing to do with dragon teeth or claws. The tugs on Gertrude’s hair would punctuate each story as she tried to imagine manhole covers without the now-common warning “THERE ARE DRAGONS HERE” emblazoned on them in bold capital letters.

Her grandmother was always careful to tell Gertrude to be wary of dragons and remind her of their many dangers. But even as a child she heard the longing in her grandmother’s voice. The wish that she’d been one of those foolish people with a dragon of their own.

Gertrude had been eleven when her grandmother’s arthritis put an end to the braids. Three years later, at fourteen, she had seen her grandmother placed in a nursing home. She had died a year ago. She was buried the day after Gertrude’s seventeenth birthday.

She never found a dragon to adopt. As far as Gertrude knew her grandmother had never even seen one outside of newspaper clippings and television segments. And, of course, museum exhibits.

Her grandmother was also a lover of natural history museums.

Walking from the bus stop to the American Museum of Natural History, Gertrude studiously avoided the grates and manhole covers in the sidewalk. It had been years since any incineration incidents, and even those might have been more urban legend than fact, but as her grandmother had always said, “You can be reckless later. As long you’re careful right now.”

Her grandmother’s warning ran on a loop in her head. She told herself she had to remember the part about being careful but it was the part about being reckless that she kept hearing over and over.

***

Gertrude stood at the base of the museum’s steps as she cleaned her glasses with the hem of her lucky red shirt. Even with the short-sleeved shirt and sandals, her jeans were uncomfortably warm in the summer heat.

The museum’s heavy air conditioning would be a welcome change. There was plenty to explore in the museum’s various wings and exhibits and a variety of places to hide with a sandwich and a laptop to while away the hours. So far she had made it an entire week without being asked to leave or informed of the museum’s policy on outside food and drink (or loitering).

Surveying the front of the museum now with her clean glasses, she realized she wasn’t the only one hoping to spend the summer haunting the museum.

She had first noticed him four days ago when he leaned against a museum wall while he smoked in a light shower. The rain had been heavy enough to soak his button down shirt and change the color of his khaki pants but light enough that his cigarette stayed lit. He had looked a bit like a wet cat as she watched him from the shelter of her bus stop. That is, if a wet cat could look supremely unimpressed, dashing, and just a little bit dangerous–like he might claw you if you tried to touch him.

Today he sat on the steps in a black t-shirt and khakis again staring intently at a laptop computer perched on his lap. Gertrude was embarrassed to notice that his hair was shorter, newly cut, and he had on glasses.

He was smoking again. She wondered if anyone had told him that cigarettes would kill him. A girlfriend must have. Unless she was a skinny model who smoked to keep the weight off. Then she wouldn’t care. Maybe they split a pack of cigarettes every week. Or maybe he smoked a pack a day by himself.

He was probably already eighteen but with the short hair and casual shirt he looked younger. As she watched him remove the cigarette from his mouth, holding it between his thumb and index finger, Gertrude was struck by how much more illicit the cigarette looked held that way.

Too late, she realized she had stared at him for too long. His eyes shifted from his computer to her direction. Quickly, and probably without much subtlety she looked away. As she climbed the long row of steps, she forced herself to keep her eyes straight ahead.

***

Restless from her encounter on the front steps and an idea she couldn’t let go, Gertrude found no comfort in the museum that day; her own skin felt snug and scratchy. Having done a quick circuit of the prehistoric dragon skeletons on display, she accepted defeat and proceeded to the coat check to retrieve her too-large-for-security’s-tastes-bag.

Moving through the coat check line, she thought about her grandmother’s warnings to be careful and save reckless for later. Gertrude began to wonder if it might just be time to be a little reckless.

As she waited for her bag to be exchanged for her coat check token, someone tapped her shoulder. Turning around, she was unsurprised to see he had found her. After circling each other for days in various parts of the museum, it only made sense that he would find her now, stopping next to the coat check line to approach her.

His laptop was hidden away in a messenger bag with a museum ticket stub pinned to the front with a large safety pin. The cigarette was gone though the smell of smoke lingered on his breath and maybe even his clothes. Inside, this close, she could see that his glasses were thin wire-rims; the lenses still too tinted from the sun outside to gauge the color of his eyes.

“I saw you watching me,” he said with an easy smile. “I’ve seen you a few times actually.”

Gertrude didn’t know how to reply. As they looked at each other she wondered if he noticed her eyes widen. She hoped not.

He leaned closer to be heard over the din of the museum’s entrance hall. She felt his breath against her ear as he said, “Does your red shirt mean stop?”

She said, “Isn’t that what red usually means?”

Another smile. “What if I don’t want to do that?”

“I guess I’d need a reason to let you keep going.” As she said it, smoothly and without any indication of her nerves, she couldn’t tell which of them was more surprised. Their eyes locked and she could see now that his were brown, almost black.

They walked out of the museum together as he asked, “How about I keep you company on your next errand? That seems like a pretty good reason.”

Back on the pavement she turned to him. They were almost the same height. Eyes level with his, she said, “A name would be a better one.”

“You first.”

“I asked first,” she replied, still impressed by the calmness in her voice; the easy way she could talk even as she took in the square line of his jaw, the elegant curves of his fingers, and wondered how she was standing on the street talking to someone like him as if it didn’t matter at all.

“Alec,” he said after a moment. “Now you have two good reasons. And you owe me a name.”

“Gertrude,” she said as she automatically offered her hand to shake.

“Pretty name, but you must get lines about that all the time,” he said with another easy smile as they shook hands. Instead of letting go, Alec shifted position so they were holding hands as he looked toward 82nd Street. Gertrude was inordinately glad he couldn’t see the blush that must be creeping along her cheeks.

“So,” he said, “where are we headed next?”

A moment ago, Gertrude would not have had an answer. She would have said her awkward goodbyes, headed home, and tried to avoid Alec the next time she came to the museum–if she came back at all.

Now, as she held a stranger’s hand on the sidewalk in front of hundreds of people, she realized she had been careful long enough.

“Downtown,” she said with complete certainty.”I’m adopting a dragon today.”

***

It was too loud in the subway to talk. As the train moved them closer to Union Square, Gertrude wondered if she was making a terrible mistake. Really, though, if anyone was to blame it was her father.

As she handed him his carry-on suitcase, her father had smiled at her.

“I expect a signed book for every day you’re away,” she said as she always did before he went away.

He offered the expected reply, “I hardly think you need that many copies of my books.”

“I’ll muddle through somehow,” she said as they hugged. As his tour continued, shipments would begin to come from various destinations with inscriptions from all of the authors her father had met along the way. The glamour of so many books, so many gifts, made up for her father being away for weeks at a time whenever a new book came out. Mostly.

It was harder when he left this time—his first tour since they had buried Gertrude’s grandmother. Previous tours had seen Gertrude spending her days visiting her grandmother and listening to stories about dragons. Now that she was old enough to be left alone, now that there was no one else to be with, Gertrude wasn’t sure what to do with herself.

Before he had disappeared into a waiting taxi, her father had given her one more kiss and hug. His parting advice had been, “Don’t adopt a dragon while I’m gone.”

Since then, she had thought of little else.

She started haunting the museum hoping to assuage her sudden dragon-shaped want in other ways.

It hadn’t worked.

Even as Gertrude had told herself it was madness, she knew she was just marking time–just waiting for some sign that it was the right time to find her dragon. Since the idea had taken hold she’d had no doubt that there was a dragon out there meant for her. There had to be.

Sitting next to Alec, still somehow holding hands, Gertrude knew she had finally found her moment. Soon, she was certain, she would find her dragon.

***

Union Square was known for its weekend farmer’s market. Even dragons could not change that. Now, though, instead of the usual produce and freshly baked foods some industrious vendors also had dragon hatchlings. Orphaned before they hatched or too small to make themselves known among their brothers and sisters, these unfortunates would die without intervention.

Most people—the sensible ones—thought the hatchlings should be left alone. Darwinism at work. Reduce an already undesirable population. Stop pretending dragon teeth were meant for anything but rending flesh from bone and causing destruction.

Other people—people Gertrude now sought—rescued these runts and orphans so that they might still be saved.

Standing in front of a stall full of dragons, Gertrude let go of Alec’s hand for the first time since they’d left the museum steps. She gave her donation to the man sitting behind the table. He easily palmed the bills with a hand dominated by gnarled knuckles.

She offered that same hand to the smallest dragon on the table. Squat with four legs, a long tail and wings that had not yet opened, the dragon had purple scales tipped with yellow. Eventually those scales would shimmer as if they were made of gold or precious gems.

She could easily have held the dragon in one hand. Years of reading and countless museum visits told her the dragon would not get much larger. She held her hand out to the hatchling as it blinked its round, orange eyes at her. Staring intently at her hand, the dragon made a squeaking sound.

You only had a few seconds to impress a dragon—moments to move from food to friend. If you missed that chance, or worse wasted it, the opportunity was gone forever. It might be possible to train them, maybe even domesticate some, but no dragon changed its first impression of a human.

As Gertrude held out her hand, letting the dragon find her scent and sense her temper, she held her breath. It was too late, she knew, to find any other dragon. Far too late when she already felt her heart constrict watching this small, plum-colored hatchling. Alec inched closer to her.

“I think it’s a girl,” he whispered, neither of them taking their eyes off the hatchling. “I read that females always have longer tails. Most of her length is tail.”

“I think you’re right,” Gertrude whispered back.

She waited for the telltale pinch of the dragon biting her hand, telling Gertrude she was not wanted. It would hurt.

She closed her eyes and took what comfort she could from Alec’s presence. He wanted her. He, she somehow knew, would not be leaving her.

As the dragon leaned forward Alec moved closer still so that his arm wrapped around Gertrude, holding her other hand.

Slowly, the hatchling opened her mouth. But instead of the bite of sharp teeth, Gertrude felt a leathery tongue scrape across her hand, licking her. Claiming her.

Gently, the dragon began to climb up Gertrude’s arm.

Alec cleared his throat as he watched the dragon ascend. “What are you going to call her?”

“Adelaide,” she said immediately. “It was my grandmother’s favorite name in the world. After Gertrude, of course.”

“Of course,” Alec said with a smile Gertrude could hear in his voice.

Carefully, Adelaide found a comfortable seat on her shoulder. Poking past a strand of Gertrude’s hair, she leaned over and licked Alec’s cheek—claiming him as much as she had claimed Gertrude.

Gertrude stared as Alec’s eyes widened behind his glasses.

“I’ve never read about them doing that,” she said quietly, letting Adelaide wrap her tail around Gertrude like a necklace.

Alec leaned over hesitantly to stroke Adelaide’s head as he said, “Neither have I.”

Still holding hands, they walked away from the stall with Adelaide easily keeping her footing on Gertrude’s shoulder.

“I guess this means you’re stuck with me,” Alec said into the silence.

“My father comes home next week. I’m making spaghetti to welcome him back,” she said as she watched a bus turn the corner.

“I do love spaghetti,” he replied as they stepped over a “THERE ARE DRAGONS HERE” warning carved into the pavement.

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Jack Stewart’s Car

I almost didn’t see the note. But then, my vision always tended to narrow when rain clouds started moving in. I barely managed a wave to Ian as I barreled out of the mall proper into the enclosed parking lot. He might have said something about seeing me the next day. Or maybe he told me to be sure to check Jack Stewart’s car. I couldn’t be sure. That’s the problem with not listening—even if you do have a good reason—you miss things that are hard to make up for later.

Lately, it had been a fair trade. Avoiding all conversation with Ian had been key to my sanity. If we never talked, I could pretend I had never seen the hungry looks he gave every time he walked past the Dough or Dye while I was at the registers. Looks that had nothing to do with the store’s brightly colored donuts. I could even pretend that he really did walk past the store when I wasn’t there; that he hadn’t been going out of his way for weeks to see me at work.

Ian and I had worked in the same section of the mall since he’d been hired to hand out fliers at Hot Topic a few months ago. We had a couple of years’ history before that too. He was my friend. And I was his. But lately, when he thought I wouldn’t notice, I’d seen Ian looking at me like I was an answer to something–some deep want he hadn’t even let himself fully acknowledge.

And sometimes, if I let my mind drift too far, it felt like Ian could answer that same thing for me too. If only I could figure out how to move from being friends to that something more.

But I couldn’t.

Not before a weightless feeling a lot like falling pulled me back and made me ignore Ian instead. I told myself that if I didn’t listen for just a little longer everything would stay the same without my ruining anything at all.

Walking out of the mall that day I was keen to get to my bike and get home before the rain started. That immediate concern pushed all thoughts of dealing with Ian out of my mind.

The mall’s parking lot looked the way it always did hours after the five-o-clock rush ended with hours to go before the late-nighters or early risers would come. A few cars sat scattered throughout the lot, forlorn and hinting at the lives inside the building. The cars belonged to all sorts of people: Kids who caught rides from friends after a movie, store managers working strange hours, night-shifters marking time until they could finally close up and go to karaoke or margarita night or whatever it was you did after work when you were perpetually nocturnal.

Then there was Jack Stewart’s car–hardly a surprise since it had been without tires for over a year. Sucked for Jack Stewart. But it made my life a lot easier.

With the car being a fixture in the lot and the color of a particularly nasty sunburn, it made a great landmark to use to park my bike when I worked my shifts at the Dough or Dye. Before Jack Stewart’s car parted ways with its tires and took up residence in the parking lot it could take me a full fifteen minutes to figure out where my bike had gone at the end of the day.

Jack Stewart’s car was old. If it weren’t hideously decrepit with more rust than paint, it would probably be a classic. If Steve McQueen really did need a fast machine the way that song says, chances are he’d want Jack Stewart’s car. Or he would if the car had tires. Obviously. I still wasn’t sure about cars or driving and even I felt a small thrill every time I saw the car’s smooth curves and sleek lines.

Jack Stewart stayed remarkably calm about the whole thing. He never explained what happened to the tires or why the car now lived in the mall parking lot. But he never threw a fit about it either. Jack Stewart didn’t talk much. Lack of information never stopped me from wondering about Jack Stewart’s car and its tires though.

The day I saw the note I was contemplating the possibility of Jack Stewart’s tires being collected to pay an obscure but pressing debt when I stopped to really look at the windshield. Something had changed. Although he never made any effort to move the car or replace its tires, Jack Stewart kept an eye on his car. The windshield always gleamed but that day it looked strangely cloudy. Milky, even.

At first I thought someone leaving from the hardware store had spilled paint. Except only the windshield was obscured. Then I realized it was covered almost completely with writing scraped on with soap the way used cars always have their prices marked in the sales lot.

Except Jack Stewart’s car wasn’t marked for sale or priced to buy. The windshield read: “Every time I say, ‘Let’s get together sometime,’ I secretly hope you’ll say ‘Why not now?’ But you never do.”

I stared at the writing for a long time before I got on my bike and pedaled away. The part of me that watched too many crime dramas every weekend worried about that note being for me. The part of me that secretly pined for Captain Wentworth worried about that note being for anyone else.

Mom was at a comic convention all week and Dad was still at work when I got home. It was hard to fit in school and my job at the mall. Sometimes it felt like I lived alone, perpetually out of sync with everyone else I knew.

The skies opened as I locked the front door, making the house feel especially large and especially empty. I turned on all the lights along my path to the kitchen as the rain made it darker and darker outside.

I ate dinner standing at the kitchen counter and wondered what a TV police detective would do about the note on Jack Stewart’s car. Then I went upstairs and re-read how Anne Elliot reacted to Captain Wentworth’s letter. It felt like a solution to dealing with the note on Jack Stewart’s car might rest somewhere between the two if I could just find it.

My mom always said the definition of narcissism was believing everything was about you or meant for you. In a world so vast, she said, it hardly seemed likely. She never said that about me–she hated that kind of parent. She said it more about characters we saw on TV or in the news. Very rarely about Dad when he got it in his head that he was the only one who could re-catalog the entire audiobook collection at the library on a holiday when the rest of the staff got to be at home with their families.

My mom’s definition of narcissism wasn’t the real definition, of course. But thinking about Jack Stewart’s car I couldn’t help but wonder who else the note could be for. No one else parked near it, as if disappearing tires were contagious.

I was the only one who gave Jack Stewart’s car a second glance. Except that wasn’t true anymore, I guessed. At least one other person had seen it. Maybe they’d seen me too.

***

The next day I walked by Ian in his usual spot passing out fliers in front of Hot Topic. He always spent the beginning in front of the store. Later, when the last of this stack disappeared, Ian would start walking the mall floor. When he finished with that stack, he’d return to the storefront.

He wore glasses, wire-rimmed not thick black plastic, and his dark hair stopped well before it could get in his eyes. His jeans fit but not tightly. His T-shirt was a solid, cheerful sort of green. Wholesome like an apple or a checkered tablecloth. If anyone but Ian’s sister managed the store he would have never been hired.

Ian waved the pile of fliers at me as I passed. I waved an imaginary stack of papers back at him as he said, “Hey Fiona.”

I smiled back and kept walking as I wondered about Jack Stewart’s car and the note. I didn’t think about how much thought I’d put into my pink top or my grey and pink dotted skirt which I had worn even though biking home from the mall in a skirt is a huge pain. I also did not think about the extra time I’d taken pulling my hair off my face with clips trying to show off the last of the red highlights I’d gotten from the summer sun.

Ian was in the middle of his shift and I was late to my own thanks to the day’s history class running over, so I told myself this didn’t really count as avoiding him.

I didn’t stop to ask what he had said to me yesterday. I didn’t mention Jack Stewart’s car.

I told myself it was because I didn’t have the time, but it probably had more to do with the note being the start of something. As I walked down the long hall to Dough and Dye I pulled the rest of my hair into a ponytail. I felt Ian’s eyes on my back the whole way.

Ian was long gone by the time I left that night. His sister had been known to close the Hot Topic early if the store was dead. Or she had a more pressing engagement.

As I crossed the parking lot to my bicycle, I paid special attention to Jack Stewart’s car. The windshield still looked white but as I retrieved my bike, I saw the note had changed. Now it said: “How I feel about you isn’t likely to change. What are you afraid of Fiona?”

I tapped my fist against the hood of Jack Stewart’s car before I picked up my bike. My hands felt shaky the way they did after I stayed up until four in the morning typing a paper for my AP Lit class. I’d had the exact same jitters the first time I felt Ian’s eyes on me. And the first day I admitted that I saw the way he looked at me now. And it terrified me for reasons I couldn’t even understand.

Now I knew the notes really were for me. It wasn’t narcissism–my mom’s kind or any other. The notes on Jack Stewart’s car had been left for me. I even knew who they were from.

I’d guessed it yesterday. Probably, I should have expected something like this. Ian had always been one for grand gestures and movie moments. Of course he’d written the notes on Jack Stewart’s car.

Though he would never say it, I knew what else the notes meant. I was running out of time. Ian had already waited quite a while for me. The notes had an air of desperation to them as much as grandness. They were his big move.

I had to decide now if I wanted to make a move of my own. I leaned my bike back against the side of Jack Stewart’s car and walked toward the mall entrance.

***

The Dough and Dye supply room was stocked with everything I would need. My favorite supervisor, Carla, was on duty. She liked me so I didn’t even have to sneak the supplies out as I had planned.

It took a surprising amount of effort to clean soap off the windshield of Jack Stewart’s car. As I scrubbed at it with paper towels and window cleaner, I wondered how Ian had managed to replace the first note so quickly.

I stared at the clean windshield for a long time as I waited for it to dry. I expected to feel the same dread, the same irrational panic, I’d been having around Ian for weeks.

Instead, I found I couldn’t remember why I’d been afraid in the first place. I still stood on the edge of change. It just didn’t feel like I’d be falling now. As I opened a fresh bar of soap, I realized Ian had taken the exact same risk. I didn’t know where this note would lead. Neither had Ian when he wrote, “Every time I say, ‘Let’s get together sometime,’ I secretly hope you’ll say ‘Why not now?’ But you never do.” on Jack Stewart’s car.

I carefully wrote out the letters of my own note on the glass. The soap stuck at every stroke, requiring much more pressure than I had expected. When I finished, I rubbed the soap off my hands as best I could and threw away the stub of soap I had left.

Wiping sweat from my forehead, I stepped back to admire Jack Stewart’s car and my handiwork. The windshield on Jack Stewart’s car now read: “I’m off tomorrow. This is me saying, ‘Why not now?'”

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