Something Borrowed

The war raged and ravaged and tore at the outside world for a year before the draft.  The whole country watched grainy news footage of dusty, decimated cityscapes and bleeding, wide-eyed children waiting for treatment in makeshift hospitals.  It all felt very far away, before the draft.  After, no one could run far or fast enough.  The draft would catch up with you eventually, if you were a healthy young man without connections.

Nick Keene had been running his whole life, and he was an expert.  He’d started the day his mama killed his daddy in their kitchen.  In the high heat of a Deep South summer, Nick had watched the whole thing, had seen his mother plant a knife deep in his father’s potbelly, had seen his father drop, bleed, and close his eyes a final time.

“Nicky,” his mama had implored him, wringing her bloody hands around a ratty dishtowel. “Nicky baby, you gotta say you did it.”  She stepped over his daddy’s body, not even cold.  She put those stained, raw hands on his shoulders.  “You tell’em you did it.  Ain’t nobody gonna put a baby on death row.  You love me, don’tchu baby?”

He did, in the deep, whole, unconditional way that only children can love, but he ran.  He ran and ran until he reached the next state, and then he kept going.  He missed his parents, his life, his home, but he never looked back.  He was twelve years old, and he’d been running ever since.

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

Nick Keene became Nick Keys, shirking the weight of a family name and a desperate guilt he couldn’t bear to carry.  A string of low-paying jobs took him all across the country, but hard luck followed him everywhere.  He fell out with a girl in Omaha after she lost their baby, crashed a car working as a chauffeur in Los Angeles, lost all his money teaming up with a card counter at the tables in Atlantic City, broke a toe on the docks in New Orleans.  Whether it was something big or something tiny, Nick couldn’t catch a break.

Things had started to change in Kentucky.  At twenty-one, Nick made his money playing music with another runaway.  Tommy Flint was the best guitarist Nick had ever seen, and he often wondered why Tommy had never been discovered, especially considering that Tommy’s ex-partner, Rocky Rush, had.  Rocky’s music topped charts all over the world.  Nick was jealous, and knew Tommy must feel the same, but together, he and Tommy had styled themselves Flint and Key, and they were pretty good.

Two guitars

They hitchhiked when they had to, and took night buses when they could.  They’d stay a little while in a town and then move on.  Nick didn’t know what Tommy was running from, and Tommy didn’t ask about Nick’s past, and between the two of them, they had enough suffering and fear and bad luck to write ten albums worth of songs.  Good songs, songs that made money and got people talking.  Nick figured it was only a matter of time before the right person heard the right one, and they’d be set up for the rest of their lives.

On the night Nick got his draft notice, they sat across from each other in an almost empty diner after a bar gig, splitting a Hot Brown and cold pie over steaming cups of dark black coffee.

“What’ll you do?” Tommy asked.

“Shit,” Nick replied, and took another bite of pie.  “Shit,” he said again.  The white lights overhead suddenly felt too bright, and Nick rubbed his eyes with the calloused fingers of one hand while he considered.  “I have to go see my mama,” he finally said.

“I didn’t know you had one,” Tommy retorted, in a mild attempt to lighten Nick’s mood and the terrible enormity of the situation.  They both knew the draft was a death sentence.

“I didn’t come from nothing,” Nick said, and put three dollars down on the table.  “Everybody has a mother.”  He got up from the vinyl booth, heaved his guitar case over his shoulder, and walked out, leaving Tommy behind him.

“Now, wait,” he heard Tommy plead, shocked and distressed in a way that warmed his frightened heart.  “Don’t go off alone.”

Nick just kept walking.  He heard the door jingle as it closed behind him.  He’d never been good at goodbyes.

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

It took three weeks to make his way home.  When he got there, robbed of his guitar at a bus station in Tennessee and sick from hunger, Nick found his mother in the graveyard, six stones down from a tall magnolia tree.  He found his father, too, not far away, but he lingered by his mother’s plot, scooping the creeping weeds away with the toe of his scuffed brown boot.  He leaned over and ran his fingers along the carved letters of her name, Judith Keene.  She’d only been gone for a month.  He’d only just missed her.  She’d never tried to find him, and he’d never come back to her, not in nine years.  He’d never even written her a letter.

Nick walked from the cemetery to the house where he grew up.  He stood on the sidewalk, just out of the glow of the one leaning streetlight, and stared at the final ruin of his childhood.  The bungalow sat empty and dark, covered in an impenetrable curtain of thick kudzu.

“You’re Nick Keene,” someone said from behind him.

Nick turned, but didn’t step into the light.  “What do you know about Nick Keene?” he asked.

A woman took a step towards him, coming into the halo of bright yellow light, and smiled.  She was a knockout.  Bright auburn hair, ivory pale skin, dressed in a dark blue cocktail dress.

“I know you’re him,” she answered, “and I know you’re hungry.  Come on with me and we’ll get you a sandwich and something to drink.”

She turned and started walking, and Nick followed.  He was hungry, and she was offering.

“Who are you?”  He caught up with her, looked at her delicate profile, and realized she couldn’t be much older than he was.

“I was a friend of Judy’s” she said.

“You knew my mother?”  Nick couldn’t recall that his mother ever had close friends, or any friends at all.

“I did her a favor once.”

“What kind of favor?”

The woman didn’t answer.  Nick wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

“Where are we going?” he asked instead.

“My place,” the woman answered.  “Everything else is closed.”

“Why’re you helping me?”

“Well,” the woman stopped, “the way I see it, you have no past, not anymore.  And if you’re back here, that probably means you don’t have much of a future, either.”  She looked him right in the eyes, and held his gaze.  “You get drafted?”

Nick looked down at the pavement.  “Yeah,” he answered.  “I wanted to see my mama one last time.  I wanted to make things right.”

“Then the least I can do is feed you,” the woman said, and started moving again.

Nick followed, and lost track of time in the humid night air.  He thought they might have gone about a mile, into what was left of downtown with half of its boys away at war, when she walked around the corner of the bank and unlocked a side door.

“Here we are,” she said.

He followed her up a set of narrow stairs and into a large apartment.

“How long’s this been here?”  Nick looked around him, at the expensive furniture and the tall windows.  “I don’t remember this being here when I was a kid.”

“Sit down,” the woman said, and motioned to a leather armchair in the corner.  “I’ll only be a minute.”  She walked towards what Nick assumed was the kitchen, and turned the radio on before stepping out of site.

Rocky Rush’s caramel voice flooded the space around him.  Nick wondered what his life would be like, if he’d been discovered like Rocky, flown off to Hollywood or New York to record music and become famous and live secure and safe for the rest of his life.  All it would have taken was one moment, one right moment in front of the right person.

“Lucky bastard,” Nick grunted.

The woman came back with a plate of club sandwiches and a rocks glass full of something brown and syrupy. “That’s what you want, then,” she said, “to be up on stage, to be a star.”

Nick considered.  He took a bite of food, and a swig of what turned out to be good whiskey.  His throat felt warm.  “I want enough money to live in a place for more than a few weeks.  I want a job that won’t end when the project’s done.”  His voice started to quiver.  “I don’t want to go and fight and die in a country I don’t care about.”

“Your mama didn’t want to die, either,” the woman said.  “She told me so herself.  Said she’d do anything to stay free and alive.  She missed you, though, towards the end.”

Nick realized he’d finished the whiskey.  The woman took it and poured him another, standing over him after handing him the glass, swaying lightly to the rhythm of Rocky’s minor key love song.

“Do you play music?”

“I did,” Nick said.  He told her about Tommy, and their time together and their songs.  “But somebody swiped my guitar outside of Memphis,” he finished.

“That’s too bad,” the woman said.  “Luck’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”  She sat down beside him, nestled herself right against his shoulder.  “I bet you’re every bit as good as Rocky Rush.  I bet he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Nick said.  He’d finished the second glass by now, and felt himself getting tired.  He felt tired all the way to his bones.  He leaned his head back.  The woman snuggled in closer.  He could feel the silk of her hair against the skin of his neck.  “Lucky son of a bitch.”  Nick closed his eyes and sighed.

“You want it, don’t you?  Just a little bit of his luck.”

Nick didn’t reply.

“To be a star?”

“I do,” Nick said quietly.

“I thought so,” the woman said, and kissed him lightly on the lips just as he drifted off to sleep.

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

Nick woke up alone, with a painful hangover and a heavy ball of dread and fear in the pit of his stomach, and no memory of how he’d come to be in the empty attic above the bank.  He remembered, though, that he was going to war, and that his mother was dead.  He had no past, and his future was a pine box six feet under the cold ground.  He stood up and made his way down the stairs and into the bright sunlight, each step taking him closer and closer to what he knew would be the end.

The closest military induction center was four towns over.  Nick walked in and gave his name at a small desk in the front.

“Keene?”

“Nicholas Keene,” Nick replied, and gave his birth date as he presented his draft notice.

The lanky soldier behind the desk looked through every piece of paper in sight, and then said, “Hang on just a minute, a’right?”

Nick waited.  The soldier came back empty-handed, and told him there must have been a mistake, and that he was free to go.

Nick figured the mistake was on their side, that it would catch up with him eventually, but he went, and he used what little money he had left for a bus ticket that would take him as far away as he could go.  On the bus, he sat down beside a paunchy older man in a khaki suit.

“Hey, I know you,” the man said.  “You’re Nick Keys, aren’t you?”

“Who’s asking?”

The man reached into his pocket and presented Nick with a crisp white business card.  “I caught your act in Louisville a couple of months ago,” he said.

“I know your name,” Nick said.  He couldn’t believe it.  “You’re with Columbia.”

“Sure am.  Just down here to see some family, and then I’m heading back up to New York.”

“Oh,” Nick said.  He waited, hoped, the man would say more.

“You here alone?” the man asked.  “Where’s your partner?  You two were dynamite together.”

“He’s still in Kentucky,” Nick answered.  “I’m on my own,” he added.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” the man said.  “Are you interested in being a solo act?”

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

Rocky Rush died in the war a year later. That he had even been drafted surprised his many fans and broke the hearts of thousands of teenage girls.  The shock of his death started a movement among young people all over the country to hold the government accountable for allowing so many young men to die in a conflict many of them didn’t even understand.

Nick played his first sold out show the night he heard the news.  He wrote a song about Rocky, once he was back in his dressing room and three beers deep.  It hit number one, and stayed there long enough to break a record.  Nick Keys, the runaway with no home and no family, was a star.

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

Tommy Flint sat at the bar of a dive outside of Cincinnati, hunched over in his threadbare coat with one hand resting on his tattered black guitar case.  He downed a shot of the strongest thing the bartender had on offer, and hummed the chorus of Nick’s latest hit.  He laughed, low and bitter.

“That lucky son of a bitch,” he said.

“Who?” a delicate female voice answered back.

“Nick Keys,” Tommy answered, with a little less enunciation than he’d like.  “He was my partner,” he finished, and held up his empty glass for a refill.

“Oh?”

Tommy lifted his head and turned to see a striking young woman with auburn hair and ivory skin, wearing a blue cocktail dress.

“I met him once,” she said.  “I did him a favor.”

“He was a good guy,” Tommy slurred.  “Better than all of’m.”

“I’m sure you’re a good guy, too,” the woman said.  “And I’m sure you’re just as talented as he is.  He probably just ended up in the right place at the right time.”

“Mmhmm,” Tommy replied.

“Luck’s funny that way, isn’t it?”

She held up her hand to signal the bartender, and ordered a champagne cocktail.  “This round’s on me,” she told Tommy.  “Is that what you want, then?  To be on stage?  To be a star?”

Tommy downed another shot.

“Just a little bit of his luck,” the woman purred.

“I do,” Tommy answered.

The woman leaned over and kissed his cheek.  “I thought so,” she told him.

Snow Moon

It had been an in-between sort of winter – too warm for snow, and too cold for much of anything else.  Days and days of frigid rains and half-lit skies had passed in a steely, gloomy blur, giving way to more of the same.  All of that would change tonight.

From her cubicle window, Julia watched a robin perch on a ledge of the neighboring office building, and wondered if the little thing knew what was coming.  Her farmer grandparents had taught her that nature always knows, and is prepared, and she wondered why humans so often counted themselves as separate animals.  No one at work seemed prepared today.  Forecasters anticipated the storm’s arrival by 7:00, and now, at 4:45, the office was still abuzz with talk of this meeting and that presentation.  She just wanted to get out the door, onto the road home before the inevitable, interminable traffic jam, and only two emails and a check-in with her manager stood in her way.

Twenty more minutes, she thought, tops.  Just twenty more minutes, and then she’d be on her way to pajamas and hot chocolate and BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, her snow-day traditions from high school onward, and tomorrow, she’d take a walk and make a snow angel.  She wanted hers to be the first footprints.  That had been her favorite thing, when she was young and living on a farm way out in the country with her parents and her grandparents.  She always wanted hers to be the first set of footprints on a fresh fallen snow.  It proved that she, and not anyone else, loved the snow best.  And that had been so important, when she was ten.

Snow Day Footprints

Maybe she’d even build a snowman, she thought.  She hadn’t built a snowman since college.  “Let’s get crazy,” Julia mumbled to herself.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh,” Julia said.  She should have known nothing is ever just to yourself when you work in a cubicle farm.  “Sorry,” she told Sarah-from-the-next-cube.  “I was talking to myself.”

She watched as Sarah nodded and went back to her work.  Julia hated working in an office environment like this.  There was never privacy, but you had all the anonymity you never wanted.  Everything was tinged in somber shades of off-gray – the desks, the carpet, the overhead lights – and people seldom smiled.  Not even the company’s monthly “happy hour” was truly happy.  It was just a tired-out group of not really friends pretending they weren’t networking to get ahead, trying not to appear as drunk as they were.  Artifice and gameplay dressed up in business casual, that’s all it was.

But this job paid the bills, and the bills fed her, kept her in books and clothes, and allowed her the little luxury of a trip here and there when she needed to get away.  She was planning to visit England in the summer, to see Bath.  She’d always dreamed of going to England, and the salary from this job made it possible.  You had to work to live, and work wasn’t always fun, she told herself, over and over.  Her life was just like everyone else’s, she reasoned.  And then she wondered when she had decided to be okay with that, and resolved to start looking for something new, just as soon as she got back from her summer trip.  Maybe she would even move back to the country and take up work on the farm with her parents.  It would be nice to be with her family again.

Two emails and a useless but thankfully brief meeting with her boss later, Julia had packed her messenger bag with her laptop, power cord, mouse, and notes on her priority assignments, and was standing in the elevator, waiting for it to make its slow, creaky way from floor eleven to the lower deck of the parking garage.  She sighed and leaned her head against the wall.

“You look tired,” said an amiable, masculine voice from the other corner.

“I am,” Julia answered.  She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the elevator with her, but that wasn’t surprising.  Her mind had been running on one track since this morning – get home before the snow, enjoy the snow, daydream about snow – and now, at the end of the day, there just wasn’t any room for anything else.  “But I’m really excited for the snow,” she added.

“So, you’re one of the people who likes snow?”

Julia straightened up and turned, and saw that her companion wore a smoky-colored gray suit and light blue tie, and a pocket square.  A pocket square, of all things.  She thought she’d seen him before, was fairly certain of it, but you could never tell.  He looked familiar, but so did every other Caucasian male sporting a dad-bod wrapped up in a suit and tie in the entire building.  Dark hair, brown eyes, and not very memorable at all.  But he looked friendly enough, casual and relaxed, his hands in his pockets.

“I am,” she answered.  “What about you?”

“I love snow,” he said, “and I like this time of year.”

“Really?”

“I do.  I like the feeling of starting fresh.”  He smiled.  Julia noticed his straight, white teeth.

“Most people feel that way about January.”  Julia smiled back.  It felt like the right thing to do.  She hated office banter.

“Sure,” he answered, “but I like February better.  You know it comes from an old Latin word?  Februa, to cleanse.”

Julia hadn’t known that, and said so.

“The Romans had this festival, the Februalia.”

Julia hmmed and nodded.

“And I really do love the snow.  The best snows are always in February.”

Julia nodded again, and hummed a noncommittal “Mmhmm.”

“I’m boring you.”

“No!”  He was, and she would have loved a quiet ride, but she certainly didn’t want him to know that.  “Not at all.  I love snow, too.  When I was little –”

Before she could say more, the elevator lurched to a stop.  Floor two.  Julia felt stuck in a nightmare.  Bad enough being trapped in the elevator.  Worse being trapped in the elevator with an almost complete stranger right before a snowstorm.  They could be in here for hours.

“I don’t think it will be long,” the man said.

Well, that was strange, Julia thought.  “I hope not,” she replied.

“When you were little…”

“What?”

“You were talking about the snow, when you were little.”  The man raised a hand from his pocket, prompting her to continue.

Julia had lost the thread of the conversation when the elevator stopped.  “Um, yeah, when I was little.”  She struggled to collect the thought.  The man waited.  “When I was little, I used to stay up all night waiting for snow.  I wanted to be the first one outside.  I wanted to make the first footprints.”

“I get that,” the man said.

“I just thought snow was the most magical thing.  I still do, actually.  Work is boring, you know?  It’s like life just gets in the way of the things we should be enjoying.”

“Yeah,” the man replied.

“I think if I could just live in a snow day forever, I’d be okay with that.”

“Really?”  The man raised an eyebrow.

“Of course!”  Julia found she couldn’t really stop herself from adding, “everything slows down when it snows.  People actually take the time to be happy.  It’s like they can’t do that on a normal day.  Because there’s too much to do.”  Julia paused for a moment, to take a breath.  “Snow means you have to stop.  You just have to stop and appreciate the moment for once, and I love that moment.”

The man smiled again, and Julia realized it wasn’t an unpleasant smile.  “I think everyone has a moment they’d like to live in forever,” she said, “and that’s just mine.”

“I can see that,” the man said.

“Well, what’s yours?”  Julia asked.

The man opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, the elevator jerked into motion.  “Well,” he said, “that wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” Julia said, and asked again, “so, what’s your moment?”

The doors pinged open on level two of the garage, and the man stepped out.  “I’m made of moments,” he said.  He winked as the door closed.

That had certainly ended abruptly, Julia thought as she went down one more level, and then walked to her silver sedan.  5:31 – earlier than she’d left in days, and plenty of time to beat the storm home, if she took a few neighborhood roads and shortcuts.

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

It snowed for a solid fourteen hours, give or take.  Julia spent the time looking out the window, curled up in her favorite overstuffed armchair.  She caught up on some reading, drank hot chocolate, and watched some of her favorite BBC miniseries.  She stayed up all night.  When the snow stopped, she put on her winter coat and galoshes and walked for an hour or so, enjoying the crunch of the crisp white powder under her feet, and the fresh, icy smell of a winter finally come.  Hers were the first footprints.  She made a snow angel, and she built a snowman, and when the sun went down on the glistening landscape, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon, high and bright and silver against a dark blue satin sky.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

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

A desk in the corner in the corner of a nondescript office building sat empty.  A manager approached Human Resources, asking to hire for a position, and curious as to why it had never been discussed before.  The work went on as it always had, as if Julia had never existed at all.

The man in the gray suit had moved on, too.  A new office building, a new elevator.  He found himself alone with a young man, on the tenth day of March at 5:16 in the afternoon.  The young man looked on the verge of tears, his eyes glassy and rimmed with red, and his hands trembling as they tried to grasp the handle of a black canvas laptop bag.

“Rough day?” the man in the gray suit asked.

The young man dropped his laptop bag to his feet.  It landed with a thud on the floor of the elevator.  “Yeah, people suck.  But it’s just a job.”  He took a deep, shaky breath and said again, “It’s just a job.”

“Sounds like it’s not the right job,” the man in the gray suit replied.

“Yeah, really,” the young man snorted.

“I always thought I’d be doing something more interesting,” the man in the gray suit said.  “I’ve never liked working in an office, but it sure is convenient.”

“I hate it,” the young man said.  He ran his fingers through his hair and added, “I’d rather be hiking.”

“I love hiking,” the man in the gray suit said.  “What’s your favorite trail?  I’ve heard there are lots of good ones around here.”  The man in the gray suit did not hike.

“Oh, man, when I was a kid, there was this trail out west that we used to go to every year and –”

The elevator jerked to a stop between the fourth and fifth floors.  The man in the gray suit smiled.  “And?”

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

Winter turned to spring, and then to summer and fall, and then winter again, and again many times.  Julia’s face grew fine, spidery lines, and her hair turned coarse and ashen.  Hers were still the first footprints.  And as the world outside moved on, one season after another, year after year, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon over the diamond-bright snow.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

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Story Time

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.” –Neil Gaiman

26596643496_05c050fa42_z (1)

Let’s rewind the clock.  By a lot.

At the end of 2018, I came up with a list of several things I wanted to do with this blog.  I’d not written anything for it in ages, and I knew I wanted to create something a little different than what it had been before.  So, I redesigned the page, curated and edited previous posts, and created Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages.

And then – nothing.  The blog fell off my radar, again, for the better part of a year.  Life gets busy, you know?  2020 is a new time, though, and this year I’m dedicated to writing.  I hope you’ll read and stick with me, because I’ve got some cool stuff planned.

First on that agenda – the short story series I started on January 31st.  I’ve always enjoyed reading short stories, but I haven’t really focused on writing them since college.  They’re great practice, though – there’s no better way to focus on tight, consistent plotting and deliberate, concise word choice – and actually pretty fun.  I’m planning to publish a new story each month this year.  I’ll be asking for ideas and inspiration, so please feel free to leave feedback and share your thoughts.  Stories, after all, are meant to be shared with others.

Though I’ll certainly be writing all sorts of posts in the future, I wanted to share this particular information now, because I think we should go on this adventure together.  And I’ve never been one to say no to an adventure.

Charmed

Avery Dye came home one snowy night in January to a dark, quiet house and a cold casserole dish on the kitchen counter with a note inside that read “Be back never, you sick bastard.”

The Holler in Snow

**********

Elsewhere, about five hundred miles away and a little over six miles above his head, his wife Kelly sat in the middle seat of a mostly empty flight.  Kelly had planned every detail of her escape for months, right under Avery’s nose and without any guilt.  In the mornings, smudging a thick layer of cheap concealer over last night’s bruises.  At midday, between errands.  In the evenings, over the finely cracked, delicate porcelain of their civil dinner conversation.  This was the first thing that she’d really done just for herself in her entire twenty-nine years, and if it was selfish, she didn’t have the energy left to care.

When she thought of Avery, alone in the empty kitchen staring down a life without her as his domestic attendant, his living punching bag, his arm décor and bed warmer and everything he thought a “wife” should be, she smiled.  Let him live out his days alone, eating fast food roast beef sandwiches and drinking store-brand soda.  If he bought himself an actual punching bag and a body pillow, he might not even notice.

The plane bounced.  Kelly gripped the armrest.  She’d never flown before, had never traveled far beyond the little hollow between two mountains where she grew up, and each time the engine decelerated, or the wings began to angle, or the ping of the “fasten seat belts” sign sounded, her heart beat faster.  She looked down at her hand.  Her knuckles were white.  How many hours, she wondered, before I’m on the ground again?

“It won’t be long now,” said a soft, lightly-accented voice to her left.

“Excuse me?”

“Before we land.  It won’t be long now.”

“Did they announce it?”

“No, but I’ve flown this route many times before.”

Kelly took a moment to look at the woman sitting next to her.  She’d been so preoccupied before, she hadn’t noticed much of anything.  This woman, elegant in a light blue silk scarf with her dark hair neatly pinned in a bun at her neck, had clearly never lived in a white clapboard shack, had never cooked anything in a casserole dish, and had certainly never worn drug store makeup.

“Oh,” Kelly said, and then added, before she could help herself, “You don’t look like you’d have any reason to visit out this way.”  Though it occurred to her, after she said it, that she was the farthest from home she’d ever been.

The woman waved a thin hand in the air, “Everyone has reasons.  I go where I’m most needed.”

Kelly knew that aid workers of every variety often came to help in the mountains, working at free clinics and repairing rundown houses and such.

“And right now,” said the woman, as she rested a firm but gentle hand on Kelly’s own, “this is where I’m most needed.”

“What kind of work do you do?”  Kelly felt uncomfortable being touched, had not been touched with care in so long, but she tried to dismiss it.  This woman was someone worth impressing, the first one in Kelly’s new life.  This woman, she was certain, had seen the world, had been kissed on both cheeks by handsome Frenchmen in corner cafés, had probably ridden camels in Egypt and eaten real Chinese food in China.  Kelly suddenly felt small.  And why shouldn’t she, she chided herself.  Her world was the size of a high school education and a bad marriage.

“A little of many things,” answered the woman.  “None of them are truly work.”

“I guess it’s not really work if you love what you do.”

“Exactly,” said the woman, and winked a perfectly lined eye.  “Tell me about yourself,” she said.  “I love hearing someone’s story.”

A flight attendant came by just then, and the woman ordered a glass of champagne for them both.  Kelly had never tasted champagne.  She and Avery had toasted with 7 Up at their wedding.  She took the glass, sipped it, was surprised by its tart flavor.  So this was it, she thought, as her ears went warm.  This was her new life, the life she’d dreamed of and finally had the courage to pursue.  This was her breakout, her freedom, finally, come to fruition.  She allowed herself to feel little glamorous, for the first time, sitting beside this beautiful stranger on her way to a new adventure.

“There’s not much to tell,” Kelly replied, embarrassed all over again at her small life and her limited choices, all of them bad and many of them not really choices at all – nothing to do in her small town but visit the local library, no money for college or travel, no good jobs to make money.  At the beginning of her adult life, still a baby, really, at only eighteen, the stability of a marriage to a well-loved local boy, the safety of a roof over her head and food at her table, had seemed like the highest bar Kelly could reach.

“Oh, I doubt that,” the woman said.  “Everyone has a story.”

Something about the rich caramel in her voice, the solid weight of her hand on Kelly’s, the conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, all convinced Kelly, though she didn’t know why exactly, to talk.  And once she got started, as the woman cooed affirmations and tenderly held her hand, Kelly found that she couldn’t stop.  She laid out all of her broken pieces – her sorrows, her regrets, her shame, her dreams – and began to feel lighter with every word.

“Darling,” said the woman, “how much you’ve been through, and you can’t be more than thirty.  But look,” and she motioned out of the window, “we’re here now.”

“We are!”  Kelly hadn’t noticed the plane descending, through layers of clouds and above crystal blue water and white sand.  “I’ve talked your ear off!  I’m so sorry.”

“No, on the contrary, I enjoyed your story.  I’ll keep it close, just like the others I’ve collected.  And I hope you find your burden lighter.”

Kelly thought for a moment.  There had been a burden, hadn’t there?  She’d been worried about something, hadn’t she, frightened even, when she stepped onto this plane?  Only she wasn’t sure now.  Perhaps it was the champagne, she thought.  To be polite, she replied, “I’m sure I will,” and, “thank you.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, and stood to begin a slow walk down the aisle of the plane, humming lightly as she went.

Kelly stood up, as well, and grabbed her overhead bag.  She wandered off the plane and into the terminal, daydreaming about dewy air and warm saltwater.

Blue Water

She thought of nights spent listening to the sound of waves lapping on the shore, and of being alone in a pillowy bed with a good book.

She felt a nagging tug, though, somewhere in the back of her mind, that an empty bed would be terribly lonely, and that the beach would be sticky and too hot, and she wondered if she shouldn’t move to the mountains.  A small town in the mountains, perhaps, where she would meet a rugged, handsome man, and live a simple, charmed life.

**********

The woman watched Kelly go, though Kelly would hardly have noticed.  Her job done, and the fine, wispy strand of story and memory tucked firmly into her palm, the woman turned and walked to Gate A6.  She tucked Kelly’s story into a handkerchief, glowing faintly and still humming a sad, hollow tune, and placed it in her pocket.  She sat down beside a young lady in black leggings and an oversize sweater, with her arm in a sling and a backpack resting on her thighs.

“It won’t be long now,” the woman said.  She ran a hand with sparkling, black nails through her hair, now worn in loose, blonde curls streaked with bright blue.

The young lady turned.  “Huh?”

“Our flight boards in fifteen minutes.  Tell me, are you traveling for business or pleasure?”

The young lady thought for a moment, and said, “Both.  Or neither?  I’m not so sure.”  A tear slid down one cheek, and she adjusted her sling at her shoulder.

“Well, why don’t you tell me all about it?  Maybe I can help you decide.”  The woman smiled, and watched as the young lady’s expression went slack, and then sharp again.

“I don’t know where to start,” she said, but she did start, and she laid out her troubles and her dreams, and the woman listened.

The woman always went where she was needed, and she was always needed.  She never had a moment to feel bored or lonely, because some poor soul was always wishing for an escape, a new start free from pain or fear.  It was a delicate and a daunting job, collecting these stories, weaving them into an even thread that could be pulled out clean and quick.  How fragile, the woman thought, were stories and memories, and how easy they were, once the thread was done, to take forever, and how little they were missed.

**This is the first in a series of stories I’m planning to post.  I’ll write more about it soon.**