The Making of Annie’s Auld Lang Syne (A Short Story)

First thing’s first: I think this is a silly idea for an essay. I’m only writing it because Mrs. Vernon said I’d get a big fat zero if I didn’t. And so help me, Jordan Nunley, if you make those weird faces while I’m reading it out loud, I will throw my pencil at you every day for the rest of the year. It’s only December 11th, buddy.  

I think this is a silly idea for an essay for two reasons. The first is that we’re twelve. We’re just going to do what our parents tell us to do on New Year’s Eve. The second is that there’s a stupid virus going around that’s keeping us from having too much fun anyway. Chances are, we’re all just going to sit at home and watch TV and eat snacks.

So, yeah, that’s “What I’m Doing on New Year’s Eve.”

But I’ve only written three paragraphs, haven’t I? And I’ve been told I need to write at least five to get a passing grade. So in the interest of my report card, here’s some more stuff that I’m making up to take up space and prove that I can make sentences and choose good vocabulary words.

My sister and I only like each other about half the time. My mom tells me this is very normal, and that we’ll be closer as we get older. Alice and I have our doubts.  

On New Year’s Eve, sometime in the afternoon, Alice will walk into my room and say: “Are you really going to spend all night in here reading?”

She’s not supposed to come into my room without knocking, but she always does. So I’ll already be kind of annoyed, and I’ll say: “Yes.”

And then I’ll go back to looking at the stack of books I’ve got fanned out in front of me, because I’ll want to choose the optimal one to end the year with. A mystery? Or a romance? Or maybe a fantasy. But I’ll take the choice very seriously.

And she’ll look at me with that face that she makes when she thinks I’m being pedantic, and she’ll say: “You’re so boring, Annie.” And then she’ll laugh and walk away.

My sister laughs a lot. Mrs. Vernon knows, because Alice was in this class four years ago, and Mrs. Vernon sent a lot of notes home to my parents about how she’s “disruptive.” She’s always laughing or talking, and she’s always busy, and I sometimes think she’s exhausting. So it never bothers me when she laughs at me, because I laugh at her, too, but only in my head. And there’s no way on earth I’d want to spend my New Year’s Eve hanging out with her and her friends, doing…whatever it is that they do. I’d rather be boring.

Except I don’t really think I’m boring at all. I write a lot of stories, and I read a lot of books. I get to live in new worlds almost every day. That’s why I’ll make sure that the book I choose to read on New Year’s Eve is the perfect choice. Isn’t that cool? I can go anywhere in any world to end the year. Alice will probably just go to the park down the street and drink something gross. To me, that’s boring.

Anyway, I’ll choose a book and start to read, and in about an hour, I’ll probably get hungry. I used to keep a bag of chips in my bedside table for just this problem, but my mom started worrying that we’d get mice. So now, all the food stays in the kitchen. So I’ll walk downstairs and while I’m looking for just the right snack, my mom will be working on dinner, and she’ll warn me: “Don’t ruin your appetite.”

My mom’s a good cook, and I think she’s actually enjoyed having some extra time to learn new recipes. We made cookies together before Christmas, and they were probably my favorite cookies ever.

My dad will hear us over the sound of the TV, where he’ll probably be watching some show on Netflix for like the fifth time, and he’ll walk in, too, and he’ll say: “Where are you going tonight?” And he’ll wink, because he knows I’m not “going” anywhere.

I’ll say: “Decided to go back to Narnia, at least for a while. Might stop by Hogwarts later.”

And he’ll say: “Safe travels. Chess when you get back?”

My dad loves to play chess. He’s been teaching me for the last year or so, and I think I’m getting pretty good. I even win sometimes, though I’m never sure if it’s because I’ve figured it out, or because he lets me. Either way, it’s a thing we can do together, which is cool.

I’ll say: “Sure!”

And he’ll say something dumb, like: “The challenge is accepted. I must prepare for battle.”

My dad’s such a dork.

Last year, we decided to have a fire in the back yard and make S’mores, but this year I think we’ll probably plan to stay inside. It’s been a rainy winter so far, and I don’t think any of us wants to get our hopes up. Except Alice, anyway, because she’s crazy, but I already talked about that.  

I’m already almost out of material, which is something my dad says when he’s trying to be funny. But I guess it’s a real thing, because it’s happening to me right now. Seriously, how do you write an essay about your plans when your plans are basically to do nothing?

Okay, so I’ll have chosen my book, and gotten some chips, and talked to my sister and my parents. Next, I’ll probably head back up and read for a while longer. I don’t know if I’ll actually choose The Chronicles of Narnia or one of the Harry Potter books, but I bet I’ll pick something adventurous. And it’ll probably be something I’ve read before, so it’s a sure thing that I’ll like it. And I guess I’ll eat dinner with my parents at some point, too. I’m not sure what my mom is planning to cook, but I am sure that whatever it is, it will be delicious.

At dinner, I bet we’ll talk about our New Year’s Resolutions. My parents both like to make New Year’s Resolutions, because they say you should always have goals. I haven’t decided yet, but I think my goals for next year are going to be to read twenty books, write ten stories, and start learning to play piano. I bet you’re surprised I want to learn piano, because I’ve never talked about it before, but I do. My mom’s been playing since she was little. If I do chess with my dad, it would be cool to also do piano with my mom.

After dinner, I’ll read for a bit more. And then at about 9:00, my dad will probably beat me at chess. And I bet that by then, he’ll have started a fire in the fireplace. Aside from chess, I think that’s his favorite thing. Alice will probably come home at about 10:00, because that’s her curfew, and we’ll just all sit there together until the ball drops.

My mom always cries a little right at midnight. She says they’re happy tears, and that she’s just really glad that we’re all together. I am, too, even though I can’t wait until Alice goes to college and gets out of my hair for a while.

And right after midnight, my mom will sit down at the piano and play “Auld Lang Syne,” and we’ll all sing. Which is the one thing Alice is good at. And then, we’ll hug and say goodnight, and I’ll get ready and go to bed. Or, to read. My parents always let me stay up late on New Year’s Eve to read.

And that’s it. That is probably “What I’m Doing on New Year’s Eve.” Unless an asteroid hits Earth or my parents win the lottery or something. Then I guess my plans might change.  

See? I told you this was a silly idea for an essay. And don’t think I don’t see you, Jordan. I hope you like Number 2 pencils.

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Thank you for reading! This is the last of the twelve stories I’ve written as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year was: Home.

Here are the first eleven stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

Stage Fright

Cloud Dwellers

Old Enough

Stay tuned for an announcement regarding my 2022 Short Story Challenge. I’ve got some good ideas, and I hope you join me in writing some amazing stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

Happy New Year!

Old Enough (A Short Story)

Inside the house, heat radiated from the oven in the kitchen. The old cast iron woodstove in the basement burned warm and steady. Outside, a thick layer of fresh, white snow had started to blanket the brown grass and the empty trees. It didn’t often snow in the holler before December, but this year, flakes fell wet and heavy onto the newly cold earth. The gray, bright light of a winter morning peeked through the windows, and from his perch at the kitchen table, still in his pajamas, a little boy sat cradling a half-eaten bowl of grits in his hands.

“You go on along and brush your teeth as soon as you’re done,” said his mother. “I know you forgot last night.”

“I did not,” the boy answered.

“Oh, yes you did, James Henry Cumbow. Your teeth’ll fall out if you’re not careful.”

James Henry shuddered. He liked his teeth right where they were, thank you very much, even if he did sometimes forget to clean them. He watched his mother brush a raw turkey with melted butter, and then sprinkle on salt and pepper. His mouth watered.

“After you brush your teeth and comb your hair, you can walk on down the holler and watch.”

“I did so brush my teeth last night,” he insisted. And added, “I can really go watch this year?”

“I reckon you’re big enough,” his mother said.

He jumped off his chair and ran for the bathroom. He’d never brushed his teeth faster. From the kitchen, he heard his mother yell, “And wear your old gloves! I’m not buying more if you get your new ones dirty.”

James Henry dressed in a layer of long underwear, and then faded blue jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt. From the top of his closet, which he could just reach, he grabbed an old wool hat and last year’s gloves. He made his way back out to the kitchen, and hurdled toward the front door.

“Remember, now,” his mother said, “by the time y’all are done, dinner’ll be ready and on the table. Don’t be late. Tell your daddy, too, when you get down there.”

“I will, Mother,” he said, and grinned at her as he opened the door and stepped out into the cold.

James Henry had seen eleven Thanksgivings, this being the eleventh. Every year, before anyone else woke up, he’d watched his father walk down the holler and join his uncles and older cousins and all the neighbor boys in a tradition he’d at first found frightening, but now thought of as fascinating and necessary. Slaughtering the hog would feed all of them for months.

“And well, too,” his mother would say.

“It’s messy work,” his father warned him, every year. “And it’s hard.”

“You’re not old enough to help yet,” his mother told him. “And anyway, it’ll scare you.”

He was scared, a little, as he made his way through the falling snow down toward the barn and the smokehouse.

He was scared, and his hands trembled in their threadbare gloves. But he was excited, too, and he could feel the electric zing of it all the way down to his fingertips. This year, he’d join the ranks of his elders, and he wouldn’t be just a kid anymore.

He spotted his father first, standing outside of the hog’s pen with his Uncle Virgil and with Larry, an older boy from up the hill. Beside them, there were metal buckets full of steaming water, and a table with knives and gloves.

“Hiya, James Henry,” Larry said.

James Henry elbowed his way into the circle to his father’s side, and said back, “Hey, Larry.”

“Isn’t he a little young to be down here?”

Larry hadn’t addressed that to James Henry, but to his father, who looked down and said, “Your mama let you come down here?”

“Yes, sir,” James Henry answered.

“She tell you you’re ready?”

“Yes, sir,” James Henry answered again.

“Then you can stay,” his father said.

“Yes, sir,” James Henry said, and smiled big and wide at Larry, who’d started to look down at the ground.

“Well, that’s your choice, Porter,” his Uncle Virgil said to his father, “but I wouldn’t let my boy down here quite yet.”

James Henry crossed his arms and glared right at Virgil. “I’m old enough,” he said. “And quit talking about me like I ain’t here.”

Virgil just laughed.

James Henry didn’t much care. Let him laugh at me, he thought. I’m still here. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see his father smiling down at him.

“You’re old enough,” Porter said, “and you can stay down here as long as you want to.”

With that, Porter walked toward the barn, and James Henry followed him.

“Daddy,” he asked, “how old were you your first time?”

“I reckon I was about nine,” Porter replied. “Maybe younger. Times was different back then. Little ones had to grow up fast.”

“How about Mother?”

“Your mama didn’t grow up in the holler,” Porter said.

“Where’d she grow up?”

“Philadelphia,” Porter said, “and then she moved down here for me, after the war.”

“What did she do before then?”

“You’ll have to ask her,” Porter answered, “because I ain’t got time to answer all your questions just now.”

James Henry was quiet.

“You ain’t done anything wrong, James Henry,” Porter added. “We just have to get to work if we want to be done by dinner.”

“Oh,” James Henry said. “I see. Can I help?”

“You’re just watching this year. But you can stand right over there while I get things ready.”

James Henry nodded, and wandered over into a dark corner of the barn. He watched for a while, as his father gathered up some extra knives and a couple of saws, but Porter always worked in silence.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah?” Porter answered, but didn’t turn around.

“Can I go outside for a while? It’s not started yet, right? I won’t miss anything?”

“As long as you’re at the pig pen in about ten minutes, you won’t miss nothing.”

James Henry said, “I won’t go too far,” and then jogged out of the barn and towards the smokehouse. He took a moment to stop and scratch one of the barn cats on the head, and then kept on moving, over to the hog’s pen. Larry and Virgil weren’t there anymore, and so he got to take a good, long look at the hog.

He’d seen hogs before. They were fat and muddy, and didn’t move much, from what he could tell. But this hog – this one was special, because it was chosen for the slaughter, and it would feed everyone, and he’d never gotten to see one of those up close on the day before.

“I bet you’re scared,” he told the hog. “Or maybe you don’t know what’s coming.”

The hog sat in silence.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “I’m big enough to not be scared.”

Silence from the hog.

“I reckon you are, too,” James Henry added.

He reached out a hand to pat the hog’s head, but stopped when he heard footsteps behind him.

“It ain’t a pet, James Henry,” Larry said. “Stop fussing over it.”

Behind Larry were Porter and Uncle Virgil, along with a few other men and older boys. Robert, who helped with the stalls, and Tilson, who was only two grades above James Henry. And his Uncle June, too, carrying a rifle.

James Henry shivered. He knew what came next.

Porter walked up behind him and said, “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to.”

James Henry stood right where he was, and kept his eyes open.

“Suit yourself,” Porter said.

When the shot came, it was quick.   

Porter put a hand on James Henry’s head, rubbed at the top of his wool hat and said, “Why don’t you go on back to the house now?”

James Henry watched what was going on around him. The snow fell, and the wind picked up. The men moved fast, methodical. James Henry thought they looked a lot like the bands he saw sometimes on TV, like each man had his own part and his own instrument. It looked a lot like work. Like when mama cut up a chicken for dinner, or when daddy brought home a buck to clean.

James Henry stayed, and his father didn’t try to change his mind. He stayed and he watched, and once the job was mostly done, he walked back up the holler.

When he opened the door, his mother greeted him, told him to go change and wash his face and hands. The house smelled like meat and gravy, and the woodstove still burned away down in the basement. He stood in the doorway, staring out into the room.

“You doing okay?” His mother stooped down and put a hand to his chin. She turned his face right and left, and wiped a smudge of dirt off his cheek.

“I thought…” he started, but didn’t know quite what to say next.

“What did you think?” His mother moved back to the stove, stirred at a pot of green beans.

“I thought I’d feel different,” James Henry said, once he finally found the right words.

“Oh, honey,” his mother said, “it’s just what we have to do to live. It ain’t all that special.”

“Then why’d you make me wait so long?”

“Because,” she said, and sighed, “part of being old enough and big enough and grown enough is understanding exactly what I just told you.”

“It was messy,” he said. “And it smelled bad.”

“I remember the smell my first time, too,” his mother told him. “And I got sick. I didn’t grow up on a farm like you and your daddy.”

“How old were you?”

“Twenty-two, and you were in my belly.”

“You got sick?”

“I did. And I didn’t eat bacon again for two years. You like bacon, right?”

James Henry nodded, and then walked into the bathroom. He washed his face and hands, and changed into clean clothes. When he came back in the kitchen, his father was home, and his mother was setting the table.

And when they sat down to dinner together a little later, James Henry got to say grace.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the eleventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first ten stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

Stage Fright

Cloud Dwellers

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The last story of 2021 will be posted at the end of December.

Cloud Dwellers (A Short Story)

We’ll never know who did it. Who cast the spell and brought the fog. It rolled in as we slept, before the dawn, gray and viscous, a blanket of cool and damp. It slithered over the grass and in the trees, and curled itself into every little nook, cranny, and corner.

Life was quiet on the Mountain. That’s why we came. That’s why we built our homes and planted our gardens and settled here. High above the rest of the world, away from the noise and the hurry, we could live in peace, with no one but birds and bears and deer to judge us, and nothing but trees and stars and each other for company. This we wanted – this easy, quiet, slow turning of the days, this peaceful time together, this chance to build something better than we’d had before. We were all grateful for this place and this peace, and most of all for Mary, who’d made it all possible.

Mary had money, more money than she needed, she said. But more than that, she had love. Love to give to all of us, more than we’d ever had. She embraced us, guided us, and made for us a home in the sky.

“Come to the Mountain with me,” she’d pleaded, “come and live there together and we’ll show the world that it never should have given up on us.”

And we’d come. How quickly we’d packed our bags – only one for each of us – and said goodbye.

“We’ll build something they could never even imagine, and we’ll do it together,” Mary had said. “I deserve happiness. You deserve it, we all deserve it, and we’ll create it there, together. Come with me.”

And then she’d hugged each of us, touched her white, slender hand to each of our hearts, alabaster against the grime of a world gone wrong inside us, and she’d kissed our cheeks with her cool, red lips. And to every one of us, she’d said, “I am yours, and you are mine, and we belong to each other. Do you love me?”

And we’d answered, all of us, barely above a whisper, “I love you, Mary.”

“I love you, too,” she’d said.

And just like that, Mary became Mother, and all of us Brothers and Sisters, her Children. She’d protect us, feed us, clothe us, love us. We truly did belong to each other, and not even an army couldn’t break us apart.

In the beginning, in those earliest days on the Mountain, we prayed and we worked and we sang. And we ate together at every meal, stretched out on threadbare blankets across the high Green Valley meadow, or squeezed into the Peoples’ Hall if the weather was cold or wet. We ate the food we grew, and Mary, always somewhere in the middle of all of us, reminded us to be grateful, and to show appreciation.

“We work together as one, and what feeds one feeds all. We live for each other, and to each other we give life.”

And on Thursday evenings, tucked together into the chapel at the Pinnacle, the top of our little village, Mary told us stories and asked us to share our own. And when those stories were sad, or angry, then we’d join hands and lift our voices to cast out that dangerous energy.

“Make no mistake, my Children,” Mary would tell us, “there is evil in this world, and those who think it and speak it, they manifest it. They cast it, they give it form.”

And here, she would pause, breathe deep, and we could feel her fear and worry. And then she would smile, gentle and wide.

“But we are new,” she’d say, “and we are safe here together. We are new every day, every moment, that we choose to live in love and not in fear.”

Mary spoke often of the Darkness. Her greatest agony, she said, was knowing that it was always close by, in all of our hearts, and our greatest task was keeping it at bay.

“We all harbor Darkness,” she’d warn us. “Even within myself, I feel it. But we must never let it take control of us, and we must never give in to it. My mother always told me, and I tell you now, that one bad apple spoils the bunch. What’s done by one is done by all, but we can work together to harbor the Light. We must always love and trust each other. And my Children, sometimes trust must be earned, and love must be cruel.”

We all knew what she meant. We all knew the Punishments for evil thoughts and dark impulses. Mary decided each case, and we knew she felt the pain of each judgment. A day spent facing the wall, or an evening without supper – these were for mild discretions, like laziness or a harsh tongue. A beating administered by the Offended, that was the cost of spreading lies. But for something truly evil, it was a night in the Cellar, in the cold, dark ground with the worms and snakes, and with no light, food, or water. And if the offense was bad enough, a night could become a week, or more.

Mary would cry as she led us there to witness a Punishment. And she would tell us, as she embraced the Offender, “You are Punished now because you are loved. May you learn this lesson, Child, and may your return to the Light be your reward.”

Always, one of us was missing. But we knew the stakes. We knew that any hatred or sinfulness within one of us could spell the end for all.

Some days, Mary would leave us, and spend time on her own.

“I need my Silence,” she’d say, “so I can hear what can’t be heard. I will bring it to you, and share it with you. My mind is your mind.”

She kept her room in the back of the Pinnacle, and we knew never to intrude upon that space. And so on the days when she rested and listened, we worked as normal, often harder, so she could see. We sewed and mended, we scrubbed, we cooked, we chopped wood for our fires and gathered flowers or leaves for our hearths, and we waited. And when she came back to us, she always noticed.

“My Children, I am proud.”

The greatest compliment.

Our lives were simple. And our love for each other was deep and unshakeable, and we lived for a long time in that comforting, warm certainty. And then, one day, we noticed a change in Mary.

It started at supper, on a cool autumn evening. As Mary led us through our Evening Prayer, her voice trembled.

“My Children,” she began, “my heart is heavy today, and my bones are tired. I feel a change coming, and I fear it will be difficult for us.”

She paused, and we waited, each of us holding our breath and clenching our fists.

“I ask that you trust me, as I trust you,” she continued. “I do not know what our future holds, but I will guide you, and I will show you the path, as I always have.”

She touched one hand to her chest, and raised her mug of tea in the other. “Our Family,” she said.

“Our Family,” we repeated.

In the days that followed, Mary spent more time alone, and when she did join us, her gaze was distant, her blue eyes clouded, and she spoke barely a word. She didn’t join us in preparing our meals, or in our daily chores. And when she did speak, her voice was flat and empty.

“The time is coming,” she would say. “A change is coming. It is one we all need.”

And then, one morning, Mary didn’t come to the Peoples’ Hall for breakfast. She didn’t come the next morning, or the one after that, and we started to worry.

And on the morning of the fourth day, we found a note, and beside the note, a bottle of amber liquid, both placed in the center of the main dining table.

My children, the note read, in Mary’s delicate, spiraling script, the day is today. All Mothers must let their children fly, and today, you must spread your wings. It is the pain all Mothers must endure. I have taught you what I know, and you have made my life full and beautiful. We have belonged to each other, and we will belong to each other always. But today, I must allow you to grow beyond me, and you must allow yourselves to take these next steps into the Light. I must leave you, but my heart will remain on the Mountain, because it is there within each of you.

And here, she’d written instructions. Terrible instructions.

I will meet you on the Path, my Children, though I will walk it with you no longer. Trust that when the time is right, we will be together again.

There was some argument about what to do next. Some of us, the weak and the frightened, couldn’t bear to follow Mary’s guidance, and they left and made their way down the mountain. But most of us, we stayed. And we gathered cups from the kitchen, and we poured for each other from the bottle and drank deeply. And we fell asleep, just as Mary said we would, and when we awoke, there was the fog.

Now we are here alone. And the fog will not relent, and we will never know who brought it to us – doubtless one of the few who left us spoke it into being and made it real. The Light is hard to see, but we will not give up.

And Mary will come to us, we know, when the time is right, just as she said. Perhaps she’ll emerge from the tree line in the Green Valley, or she’ll make her way down from the Pinnacle, weaving through the dark trees in her bright white dress.

But we know she’ll come. Our Mother would never abandon us. In this, we have decided, she is trying to teach us. Patience, maybe, or trust. We trust her. And so we will wait here, for as long as we must. We will wait for her, in this fog, on this mountain, our home.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the tenth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first nine stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

Stage Fright

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of November.

October’s short story…

…will be posted on Halloween. Sunday isn’t a normal posting day for me, I know, but here’s the thing – the weather today is dark and cloudy, rainy and windy, and pretty much perfect for writing a creepy story. So, I’m taking advantage, and time, and really sinking into this one. I can’t wait to see what it looks like once it’s done.

In the meantime, as a preview, here are the first couple of paragraphs:

We’ll never know who did it. Who cast the spell and brought the fog. It rolled in before dawn, gray and viscous, a blanket of cool and damp. It slithered over the grass and in the trees, and curled itself into every little nook, cranny, and corner.

Life was quiet on the mountain. That’s why we came. That’s why we built our homes and planted our gardens and settled here. High above the rest of the world, away from the noise and the hurry, we could live in peace, with no one but birds and bears and deer to judge us, and nothing but trees and stars and each other for company. This we wanted – this easy, quiet, slow turning of the days, this peaceful time together, this chance to build something better than we’d had before. We were all grateful for this place…

Are you intrigued? I hope so! And I hope you’ll pop by on Sunday and give it a read.

Stage Fright (A Short Story)

*Before we begin, an update on Gatsby: He’s feeling better! He’s up and moving around, eating, and asking for cuddles. We’re relieved (that’s probably a massive understatement), and we’re continuing to monitor him to make sure he’s okay. Senior cat life is a roller coaster, but we love him so much and it’s worth it. Thank you to each of you who asked about him and sent good wishes and sweet comments! It made me happy knowing y’all were thinking about him, too. Now on to the story…*

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

–Stage Fright–

Tori Davis Come Home!

The headline looked up at her from the desk. She focused on her mascara instead. One swipe, two swipes. Counting had always calmed her nerves. Three swipes, four and done. She looked down at the newspaper, and wondered who’d left it here for her.

Country’s breakout sensation returns to her roots with a night of unplugged hits at the old train station. Bristol welcomes its hometown star!

Well, that was laying it on a little thick, but generally, yes, correct. Here she was in the back office of the old train station, using someone’s desk as a makeup stand, her grandfather’s old Martin all polished up and ready to play, just for the occasion.

All she’d ever wanted to do was make music.

She put on her favorite red lipstick. Someone had told her, when she started out, that you can hide a lot of mistakes behind bright red lipstick.

From the door at her back, three solid knocks.

“Come in,” she said.

“Fifteen minutes,” said a small voice.

“Thanks.”

A shuffle of feet, a rustling of paper.

“Was there anything else?”

Silence.

“Because I’m almost ready,” she added.

Tori could hear the crowd that had gathered for her, the murmurs and the chants and the claps, and the excitement. She could feel it, humming all through her. Though, it wasn’t really a crowd, was it? More like a group. A small one, less than thirty people, who’d all paid a lot of money for the opportunity to see this close-up, homecoming performance. Somehow, that made it worse.

“I don’t like to let on,” she said, “but I get terrible stage fright. Always have.” She brushed some light, white glitter just above her cheekbones. “So I like to have a couple of minutes before the show just to myself.”

“I’m sorry,” said the voice.

Tori turned around in her chair and saw a girl, maybe about twenty, with a clipboard in her trembling hands and a STAFF badge around her neck. Her knuckles were white. Poor kid. Almost as nervous as she was.

“Don’t be,” Tori said. “Did you want an autograph? I think we have time for that.”

“No,” said the girl. “Well, sure.” And then she added, at about a mile a minute, “I really just wanted to say that you’re my biggest inspiration.” She reached one hand up to fiddle with a strand of hair at her shoulders. “I love your music.” She stepped back toward the door. “Sorry. They told me not to bother you.”

“What’s you name?” Tori smiled at her, and the girl’s shoulders relaxed.

“Amber,” she answered.

“Amber,” Tori repeated. “My best friend growing up had a little sister named Amber.”

The girl’s eyes were big as saucers. Lord, where had that phrase come from, anyway? You couldn’t write that into a song. People would laugh you off the stage.

“Okay, Amber. Come on over here and I’ll sign your badge.”

Amber walked over and took off the lanyard hanging around her neck. Tori signed the paper badge with a blue pen she pulled out of the desk drawer, her own hands shaking. She hoped Amber wouldn’t notice. And so of course Amber did.

“Your hands are shaking,” she said.

“I know,” Tori answered. “Like I said, I get stage fright. I’m always a wreck before I go on.”

“But you’re famous,” Amber said.

“I’m still me.”

Tori remembered, then, how it all started. Community theatre in elementary school, karaoke when she was a teenager, always imitating someone else’s voice.

“I always wanted to sing ‘Strawberry Wine’ when I was younger,” Tori said. “You know that song?”

Amber nodded her head. Tori handed her badge back.

“My mom said that song was too old for me. I put it in every show now.” Tori smiled like the cat who ate the canary, and then winked.

Amber giggled. “I love that song,” she said.

“Me, too,” said Tori. “I like to sing it now, because it reminds me of where I started.”

“Here,” Amber said.

“Well, yeah,” Tori told her, “but not just here, in Bristol.”

Amber raised her eyebrows.

“Here, as me,” Tori said. “As just some girl who liked to sing. I’m still just some girl who likes to sing. They pay me a lot more for it now, though. And if I mess up, I let a lot more people down.”

“You could never let your fans down,” Amber said, quickly and tightly. “We love you.”

Oh, God, that made it a lot worse. Tori swallowed and fought a wave of nausea in her belly. Good grief, there was another one. Who came up with that? Couldn’t put that in a song.

“Have you ever disappointed your mom, Amber?”

“Plenty of times,” Amber replied.

“And did it feel good?”

“No,” Amber answered.

“It felt bad, right? Like, really, really bad? And you thought about it for a long time?”

“Yeah,” Amber said.

“Because you love her.”

“Yeah,” Amber said again.

“And you don’t want to let her down.”

Amber nodded, one solid motion this time.

“That’s how I feel about music,” Tori finished.

Amber stared at her for a moment, and then said, “Music?”

Tori sighed. “Yes, music. I love my fans, but it’s the music that keeps me in this. All I’ve ever wanted was the music.”

She looked at Amber for any signs of understanding, of recognition.

“And I’m terrified every time I go on stage that it’ll be the last one. That I’ll mess up big, and that I’ll never be able to do it again.”

“But you don’t,” Amber insisted. “You don’t, ever.”

Goodness, she was loyal. Tori hated to tell her, “Sure I do. All the time. I even had to go to the emergency room once, before a show. I had a panic attack.”

Amber gasped, just a little, the tiniest intake of air, but Tori heard it.

She added, “People mess up, even at the things they do the best. That’s life.” And then she asked, “How long now?”

Amber looked confused, and then frantic. “Oh my God, I’ve taken up all this time, and they told me not to bother you! I’m so sorry!”

“It’s fine,” Tori said. “It’s really fine.” If she’d been better at this, she might have given Amber a hug. “Just tell me how long now.”

Amber looked at her watch, clearly miserable. “Five minutes.”

“Okay, five minutes. I can work with that.” When Amber didn’t move, Tori added, “Thanks for chatting with me.”

Amber still didn’t move.

“Was there something else?”

“How do you do it?” Amber looked down at her clipboard again. “If it scares you so much, how did you even get started?”

Tori thought for a moment, and then said, “I didn’t have a choice.”

“I don’t understand,” Amber said.

“You don’t choose your family, right? And wherever you’re from, that’s home.”

Something flickered in Amber’s eyes. Good. Finally.

“Music is my family, it’s my home. Nothing else in the world. Just music.”

Amber pursed her lips together, knitted her brow, and said, “I think I understand that.”

“Good,” Tori said. “Now, get going,” she added, not unkindly. “And come and get me at thirty seconds.”

Amber nodded again, another quick, decisive motion, and said, “Thank you, Miss Davis.” And then she left, and closed the door softly behind her.

Finally alone, Tori took three deep breaths. Ten seconds in, ten seconds out. She looked at herself in the mirror, did one more pass of the red lipstick. She looked down at the newspaper again, at the big picture of the famous Bristol arch, placed right beside a picture of her famous face.

And then she got up, straightened her skirt, and slung her grandfather’s old guitar over her shoulder. They were waiting for her. From the door to the office, three knocks.

Home was waiting for her.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the ninth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first eight stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of October.

Just Like Magic (A Short Story)

My grandmother believed in magic, and I loved her for it.

She lived in a small cabin in the woods, accessible only by a long dirt road marked with bright yellow “No Trespassing” signs. She wore her auburn hair long and loose, and her favorite shade of lipstick turned her lips the color of an overripe nectarine. She gathered flowers at sunrise, and filled her modest house with bunches of sage and lavender candles. She sat out on a picnic blanket at night and stared at the moon, and at dusk, she sang for the fairies. You couldn’t convince her they weren’t real.

“Happy nature, happy home,” she’d say.

And I’d nod, bobbing my tangled head up and down to the rhythm of the crickets chirping.

These days, I think we might call her an eccentric, or maybe even crazy. But to me, she was perfect. Some people just aren’t meant to be tamed.

I used to stay with her during those long, hot summer days when my parents were at work and I didn’t feel like being alone in a sweltering house with only the TV to keep me company.

“You’re the only kid I know who doesn’t like cartoons,” my dad told me once.

“I like making up my own stories,” I’d replied.

I guess people would probably call me an eccentric, too, at that age. And probably at this one. I learned a lot from my grandmother.

I remember one particular August day. I know it was August, because I remember the humidity, the gold slant of the sunlight, and the high cornstalks in the neighboring fields. And because school was about to start. My grandmother and I were sitting in her back garden, which she’d let go pretty much wild, on a worn-out plaid blanket. The sun hung low and heavy in the sky, casting shadows through the trees.

“You excited about school?” She asked me this as she wove a crown of purple clover flowers.

“I guess,” I said. I lay on my belly, propped up on my elbows.

“Fourth grade?”

“Yep.”

“I only got to about the sixth,” she said.

I sat up. “Really?”

“Yes, ma’am.” She finished the crown and placed it with a flourish onto my head. “There wasn’t much call when I was your age for girls to finish school,” she said. “My daddy needed me home to take care of us.”

“Couldn’t he do that?” I asked. “Or your mom?”

“There was only my daddy and me,” she answered.

I waited for her to add more, but she stayed quiet. So I took a deep breath and asked, “Where was your mom?”

She took a moment, straightened her legs out in front of her, and said, “I don’t know.”

And then she told me a story.

When I was a little girl, she said, about eleven years old, my mama changed. It was like she forgot who she was, she said, and my daddy didn’t know what to do, and so it fell on me to be daughter and mother both. He told me I had to leave school, and I did. He was not a loving man, she said, but he made sure there was money to put food on the table and shoes on our feet, and I made us dresses out of old sheets and curtains, and our small life was enough. And at night, she said, I sang my mama to sleep.

And one day, she said, I came in from the vegetable garden, and she was just gone. Couldn’t find her anywhere, and neither could anyone else, though we searched through the night and into the next day. And eventually people stopped looking, she said, even my daddy. And my mama never came back, she said. And after a while, people seemed to forget she ever existed at all.  

“Wasn’t your dad sad?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” she said. “And so was I. We stayed sad for a long, long time.”

“Don’t you want to know what happened to her?”

“I do,” she said. “I wish I knew, and I wished it before I fell asleep every night for years. But you can’t live your life just wishing.” And then she added, “Believe me, because I’ve tried.”

“Does my mom know?”

“No,” she said. “No, I never told her, because I didn’t want her to be sad for me.”

“Why’d you tell me, then?”

“Because you’re my brave and smart granddaughter,” she said. “And because you asked.” And then she took my two hands in hers and said, “But don’t you be sad for me.”

I squeezed our hands together and said, “Okay.”

We stayed quiet for a long time after that, and watched the sun set through the tree branches. I picked at the blades of grass around the blanket, pulled them up and arranged them in a neat row. My grandmother hummed to herself. Just when the dark began to settle around us, she said, “I think things happen they way they’re supposed to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s a special kind of magic, the way the world comes together.”

She stood up, and I did the same. As we folded up the blanket, she told me what she meant.

If I’d stayed in school, she said, I wouldn’t have been at the grocery store the day I met your grandpa. And if my mother hadn’t left us, I would have been in school. See, he worked there at the grocery store, she said, and I’d dropped a bag of flour all over the floor, and he helped me clean it up, and that was how we fell in love, just like that, in less than a minute, covered in flour, both of us. Like snow, but in the middle of summer. 

And, she said, if I hadn’t met your grandpa, I wouldn’t have your mother, or you. I’m right where I need to be, she said, and I never even knew I was heading there, but here I am, she said, and that feels an awful lot like magic.

“But that’s not magic,” I told her. “Those are all just things that happened to you.”

“You can see it that way,” she said. “Or you can see that all of those little pieces came together just as they were meant to, and that takes the sting away when the things that happen to you are bad.”

“My friends say magic isn’t real.”

“You listen to me right now, Ellie Jay,” she said. “A lot of people are going to tell you a lot of things you love aren’t real. You don’t listen to them. You listen to you.”

And it’s funny, because even now, all these years later, me sounds a lot like her.

I visited her once, years later, when she was in the hospital. I was her last visitor, as it turns out, and we sat together in her room, hand in hand.

“I sure would like to go home,” she said.

I answered by way of a sniffle.

“Why are you crying, little girl?” she asked me.

“Because I’ll miss you,” I said.  

“Did you know,” she said, “that when caterpillars go into their cocoons, they turn into goo before they become butterflies?”

“I didn’t know that,” I told her.

“That’s what I’m doing now,” she said. “I’m turning into goo. I don’t much like it, but I know it’s just so I can become something else. Just like magic,” she said. “I wonder what I’ll be.”

“Something amazing,” I said.

“Just like magic,” she said, and squeezed my hand.

And honestly, I think she was right, and I love her for it. Life is a lot like magic, only you have to choose to see it. It brought my grandmother to me, and me to her, and who knows where else it might lead me. But I do know one thing. Wherever that is, it’s right where I’m meant to be.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the eighth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first seven stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

Jesse’s in the Back Room

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of September.

August’s short story will be up tomorrow!

It just needed a little more time to come together. But it’s almost there! We had a busy weekend, and I think my brain just needs a little rest before putting on the finishing touches. I’d rather take some time, get some sleep, and come back with fresh eyes than post something I know I’ll want to edit later. So, thanks for bearing with me!

And in the meantime, enjoy this sweet picture of Gatsby enjoying his favorite sunny spot. 🙂

Jesse’s in the Back Room (A Short Story)

I see Jesse’s face in my dreams at night, still and pale, and young. She’s always young, even after all these years. I can’t call it a nightmare. She doesn’t scare me. She doesn’t move and she doesn’t talk. Her eyes are closed, heavy lids and dark lashes, her mouth a thin line. It’s not the dead we should be afraid of.

Jesse was my cousin. She was all quiet moments and pretty things. When we were up to our knees in muddy creek water, hands digging in the muck for crawdads and river rocks, she’d be up on the bank, making flower crowns woven so tight and so clean, every flower perfect, you’d think they were plastic. I wore torn denim overalls and dirty sneakers. Jesse wore white linen, soft cotton in pastel shades. She loved checkers and cherry colas, always in a tall glass with big ice cubes. Her blonde hair lay braided and neat, trimmed bangs framing her freckled forehead. She offered to braid my hair once, and to help me comb out the tangles. I told her it wouldn’t be worth the time.

She was three or four years younger than me. If she’d grown up, we’d be in the same spot – mothers and wives and almost old women, both of us. But when I was eleven, nearly a grown-up, she was a baby. I often wonder what kind of teenager she would have been, what kind of mother, what kind of person. I try not to think of her often, but it’s gotten harder now. See, place is a powerful thing, and this is Jesse’s house.

I’ll tell you a story. Over the years, the details have gotten fuzzy, and most of the people who remembered it well are gone now. I feel like someone should tell it and remember it, though, even if it’s done poorly, because I don’t know if there are even any pictures of Jesse left.

On her last day, we’d gone out into the woods. The weather wouldn’t let up. It hadn’t rained for days, but the dewy air stuck to our arms and faces. The heat wouldn’t break, even at night. Nothing to do in that kind of weather but live with it. So the neighbor kids had strung up a rope swing into one of the old oak trees in the clearing near the river, under its shade and out of the brightest sunlight.

There were five of us that day. Me, my brother, Bill and Audrey from down the road, and Jesse. We headed out after lunch time, our faces and hands stained pink and sticky from the watermelon we’d snuck out of the refrigerator. Except for Jesse’s. She’d decided to save her watermelon for later. Our plan was to cool off in the river, and then to spend some time on the swing, maybe see who could get the highest and then jump the farthest.

“Audrey’s scared of heights,” Bill said.

“I am not,” Audrey yelled, and crossed her arms and stomped on ahead.

“She is so,” Bill told me. “She won’t even climb up the ladder in the barn.”

I wasn’t really listening or not listening. Bill and Audrey argued a lot, and it played in my head like the music on a radio station. Constant background noise. Jesse trailed along behind us, picking the dandelions from along the path and blowing their fluff out around her. She giggled, and I smiled. I turned around at one point and threaded a stem behind her ear.

“It’s itchy,” she said, but she smiled too.

The river was low and warm when we got there. It almost stood still.

“There are mosquitoes everywhere,” I said. “Let’s just go back.”

But the group decided we’d come all this way and we should at least get some time in on the rope swing. So we did, and took turns.

“It’s too high,” Jesse told me. “I don’t want to.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “Next year.”

We headed back at about 3:00, a little more dirty and tired for the time, but pretty happy and mostly distracted from the still sweltering summer day. Jesse trailed along behind again, clean as a whistle, but with a wrinkle in her brow and downcast eyes.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Nah,” I said. “I can tell it’s something.”

“You’ll laugh at me.”

“I would never!”

Now, this wasn’t strictly true. I’d laughed at Jesse plenty. She was an odd kid. But I could tell something was eating at her, and I wanted her to tell me. I especially wanted her to tell me before she told her mom, in case what was troubling her meant trouble for us.

So I added, “You can tell me, promise.”

And she said, “I want to go back and play on the swing.”

“I thought you were scared,” I said.

“I was, but that was dumb. Now I can’t even try.”

“We’ll go back tomorrow,” I told her. “We’ll go just us.”

She grinned a little then, and I thought it was fine. I held her hand most of the way home, and only let it go when Audrey tripped over a rock in the road and needed help to get up. I don’t know how Jesse slipped away from us. But she did. And when we all walked through the kitchen door, Jesse wasn’t with us. I’ve never felt so terrible for anything in my life as I still feel for letting her disappear like that.

“Jesse still outside?” My aunt sat at the table with my mother, shelling sweet peas.

“She was right behind us,” I said. And I thought it was true.

But by 5:00, Jesse still wasn’t back. And people started to worry, and then, before dinner, they went out to look.

They found her in the swing, all tangled up in the rope. She looked like she’d been there a long time. I’ll spare you the details. I don’t like to think of them.

They brought her into our back room, and laid her out on the little twin bed. If you didn’t know, you’d have thought she was sleeping. She looked peaceful there in the dark. I hope she was.

Or, I suppose, I hope she is.

I don’t think she ever left.

Everyone else did, though, and now it’s just me and my husband in this old house. My brother left for the Army. Bill and Audrey moved away. My parents died, and Jesse’s mother, my aunt Margie, she could never come into the house again.

“She’s still in there,” she’d say. “I know she’s still in there.”

I thought she was just sad. Sad and a little crazy. They say she went a little crazy after Jesse died. Now that I’ve had children, I don’t blame her. I’d go crazy, too. I’ve had a hard enough time knowing they’ve moved away to start families of their own. The house is too quiet without them.

Except when it’s not.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a giggle. Sometimes a creak on the floor, or a rustle on the bed. Sometimes, I’ll hear a door open and close, slow and quiet. Jesse was always so quiet. And when that happens, I’ll say to my husband: “Jesse’s in the back room.”

Whether he believes me or not, he’s never said.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first five stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of August.

Old Friends (A Short Story)

The game was Two Truths and a Lie. The players, my best friend, Michelle, and me. The stakes: one bag of tropical-flavored Skittles.

We’d settled into the old back yard treehouse at a little after 10:00, just after peak lightning bug hour, and just before the moon crested the treetops.

It was after midnight now. We were down two bottles of Coke, one slice of the coconut cake we’d made together earlier in the day, and one shoe, which had fallen just after we’d climbed up, and which we were too lazy to retrieve. I’d never minded going barefoot.

Between bites of barbecue chips, I said, “You know I know everything about you, right? Like, this will not be a challenge.”

“Then you know I am full of surprises,” she answered.

That was true.

“You also know that I am allergic to bananas, and that I am secretly a pop star living a double life because I am super talented but also crave normalcy.”

“Too easy,” I laughed. “You’re allergic to strawberries.”

“So you acknowledge my superstardom, then?” She held her chin high, and then she laughed, too.

“That, my friend, is the plot of Hannah Montana, which we are much too old for, and I’m claiming all the Skittles for myself, since you don’t want to play fair.”

We sat in silence after that, listening to the rhythmic sounds of a summer night. Crickets, little frogs, and somewhere in the distance, revving engines and a police siren.

“That’ll be the kids racing down Main Street again,” Michelle said. “Jeez, how many of them are there?”

My mother had told us last night that racing had only recently become a problem in town, but that there also seemed to be an endless supply of foolhardy teenagers with an irrational need to win a stupid game with no actual prizes. Except maybe an arrest record.

“Can’t be that many. There aren’t that many kids in this town.”

That was also true.

“When did we get old?”

“You shut your mouth,” Michelle snorted, and punched the side of my arm. “I have never looked better.”

“Yes, the gray really brings out your eyes,” I told her.

“And the laugh lines make you look like Emma Thompson,” she told me, “but better.”

“Well, that’s good, because Botox terrifies me.”

“And I’m way too lazy for hair dye.”

Thirty-five years we’d been friends. Since elementary school, when Michelle had decided she liked me because of the unicorn on my shirt. I’d liked her because she had pink, hand-drawn scribbles on her tennis shoes. Our friendship had developed from there, mostly against the backdrop of the treehouse. It was our refuge, our secret base, and occasionally, where we’d stashed the beer and cigarettes and other sneaky teenager things. I was certain if we looked now, we’d probably find something tucked away, waiting for us.  

Michelle’s father was a doctor, and her parents had put her through an ugly, acrimonious divorce when we were in high school. It was around that time she’d started spending most of her nights at my house, and we’d gone from best friends to near sisters.

“I feel safe here,” she’d told me, one night around Christmas when we were seventeen, standing in the bathroom taking off our makeup. “This feels like what life should be.”

“This house?” I’d asked.

“No, dummy. This friendship.”

We’d slept that night in the treehouse, under a heavy blanket my parents had brought home from Greece before I was born. Michelle stole that blanket a year later, when we left for college.

“Your mom would want me to have it,” she’d said.

And she was probably right, because my mother hadn’t even mentioned it was missing.

As we’d gotten older, we’d left town, we’d left boyfriends, she’d left college early to paint and I’d left a string of unfulfilling jobs, but we’d never left each other.

“You’re stuck with me and my wrinkles,” I told her, back in the moment. “And I’m stuck with heartburn.” I rubbed four fingers flat against my chest. I could almost feel the acid bubbling. “God, why did we think this was a good idea?”

Michelle pulled a couple of Tums out of her pocket and handed them to me.

“Do you just carry those with you?”

“Yep,” she said. “You don’t?”

“I will now,” I said.

“We thought this was a good idea,” she said, “because tomorrow you turn forty-five, which means you’re practically fifty, which means you’re 75% on your way to death, which means you should eat the damn cake.”

“I think you did your math wrong,” I said.

“I still think you should eat the cake.”

“Noted,” I said. “Consider it done. Tomorrow. I’m not crawling down that ladder in the dark.”

We made a point of celebrating our birthdays together, mine in summer and Michelle’s in October. We hadn’t spent a birthday apart in years. Last year, for Michelle’s, we’d gone to Vegas. This year, for mine, I wanted something a little more simple.

“Fiji,” she’d complained. “We could have gone to Fiji, or anywhere else.”

“I know,” I’d replied, “but it’ll be nice to see my parents and just relax. Low-key doesn’t mean bad.”

“You just wait,” she’d warned me. “You’ll wish you’d done something bigger.”

“We can go to Fiji next year,” I’d said. “Or when I turn fifty. Or when you turn fifty.”

“I claim Fiji, then” she’d said.

And knowing Michelle, she was already making plans.

“I broke my arm in third grade,” I said, as I popped open the Skittles and poured a generous helping into my palm. “And I don’t really like people most of the time.”

“I think both of those things are true,” Michelle said. “Or did you actually break you arm in second grade?”

“Thanks for coming,” I said to her, “even though it’s boring.”

“Well, thanks for existing,” she answered, “even though you probably have better things to do.”

I looked around the treehouse, at our blanket nest and the pile of wrappers and bottles we were in the process of creating, just like old times, and at Michelle.

“Nah,” I said. “I don’t think there’s anything better than this, right now.”

“That,” Michelle said, “is actually, surprisingly, very true.”

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

Thank you for reading! This is the sixth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first five stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of July.

The Return (A Short Story)

*This story’s a sequel to last year’s May story, “The Bridge.” I’ve never written a sequel before, but every time I sat down, I just couldn’t get Allie and Michael out of my head. I don’t know if, even now, they’re quite done with me. We’ll see, but in the meantime, enjoy!*

–The Return–

It’s May, almost June. It’s hot. The leaves, just grown and bright green, already droop and sag and wilt and wrinkle under the blistering sun. I have not missed this. I dread more days of it, while we’re here.

“Supposed to hit 100 today,” says my brother.

I prop my head against the window. With the air conditioning blowing so close to it, for just a second, it feels cool against my sticky skin.

My brother drives. I count the road signs. And together, we make our way home.

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.

The thought hit me out of nowhere on the flight here, and it won’t let go.

Of course, I tell myself, there’s somewhere I’m supposed to be. We’re going home together from our separate cities, to visit our sick father and divide up assets in the house where we grew up. The only thing my brother wants is Dad’s old red and white Ford truck. That should make things easy, because the only thing I want is to get this over with.

I don’t want anything, is what I’m saying.

I’ve never been a collector. I don’t like being weighed down with stuff. My corner apartment is constantly filled with sunlight, the constant, churning whirlpool of my anxiety, and little else. Clutter makes me nervous. I just want to see Dad, hug him, and say goodbye.

“Allie…”

I jerk my head upright. I’d started to doze. I feel a trickle of warm drool on my chin.

“You’re supposed to be watching for the exit,” Michael reminds me.

“You’re not going to miss it,” I answer, because he won’t. I wouldn’t either.

The pull of Dad’s little red brick ranch-style house tugs at both of us, always. It’s brought us back together over and over. It’s brought me here from London now, and Michael from Seattle, that modest house in the middle of a nowhere neighborhood outside of a nowhere town. It’s hooked us both.

It will be the hardest thing we talk about, this weekend: What we’re going to do with it.

Dad’s house saved our family after our mother died. It kept us whole and safe, gave Michael and me a place to explore. It made Dad a handyman, a gardener, and a better father. But at the end of the day, it’s four walls and some windows, two doors and a bedroom that doesn’t belong to me anymore.

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.

I look over at Michael, his face as serene and still as a sleeping baby, and wonder what he’s thinking.

I ask instead, “Should we stop for gas before we hit town?”

“No, we’re good,” he says. “But if it’s okay, there is one stop I’d like to make.”

I know where he’s taking us. I don’t have to ask.

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.

We’re thinking of the same place, a dirt path and a bridge, a fork and two sycamores, and a house that’s always there but never the same. When it’s even there at all.

On the tip of my tongue, I can almost taste strawberry ice cream. And in the pocket of his dark wash jeans, I’m certain Michael has stowed away a hand-carved wooden fox.

We’re not certain, haven’t been in years, if the people we met and the house we visited ever really existed. We were sad kids, motherless too young, trying on a whole new life. Did we make it up?

Does it even matter?

We’ve talked about it a few times in the decades since, but only with each other. Who would believe us, when we’re not even sure we believe it ourselves? And again, does it even matter? It brought us together when we were lost, gave us a mystery, left us feeling touched by magic. We’re lucky, I think, even if we’re delusional.

“Do you really want to know if it’s not there?”

We’re at the exit now, and Michael turns the wheel a little too sharply. The car lurches around the turn before we settle onto the winding road into town.

“It’ll bother me forever if we don’t check. Who knows if we’ll ever come back here, once Dad’s gone.”

He’s not wrong, but, “What if we made the whole thing up?”

“Do you really believe that, Allie?”

I shake my head. No, I think. But maybe.

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.

My hands start to tremble.

“We’ll be fine either way,” I say.

But my voice gives me away. It trembles, too. I don’t know why I’m nervous.

We drive through town, a still charming collection of turn of the century store fronts and tree-lined sidewalks. This town never changes. It just gets older. We turn onto the gravel road that will take us to Dad’s house. And to the dirt path, too. At least, I hope it will. Michael pulls over at a wide spot, and for a moment, neither of us moves.

“We could just go on,” I say.

“Fraidy-cat,” he calls me.

“You’re being mean,” I tell him.

I open my door first. I am not a fraidy-cat, and these days, neither is Michael. He jumps out faster than I can, and comes around to my side. Together, we walk.

And suddenly, there it is. Michael notices it first, and quickens his pace.

“It’s here,” he says, and in his voice, I can hear relief.

My feet won’t move.

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.

“Michael,” I whisper, careful to control my tone, to hide the frantic hitch in my throat “I think we should just go on to Dad’s.”

“Allie, I have to know.”

“Why? Why is it so important to you?” I ball my hands into fists. I fight the urge to raise them to my chest, to plead with him. “What does it change?”

“I don’t know,” he answers. “I don’t know, but I know I have to do this. I have to find out.”

“I can’t,” I say. I hang my head. I feel the tears coming before they start. I wipe them away before they fall. “I need to go.”

I turn on my heel and beat an unsteady path back to our rented sedan.

“Allie!” Michael is only a few steps behind me.

“I’m going on ahead,” I manage. “You can walk to Dad’s from here.”

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.

“There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be,” I finally say, out loud, “and it isn’t here, in the past.”

I stop and turn to face my brother. His chin is high, his brows are set and his mouth cuts across his face like a thin blade. He won’t budge on this. Neither will I. We’re stubborn, both of us. Who knows which of us is right.

“Fine,” he finally bites out.

“I don’t want to know what you find,” I tell him. “I’ll see you at Dad’s.”

He leaves me by the car.

There’s somewhere I’m supposed to be.                                                                    

I get in, turn the key, and drive forward.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the fifth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first three stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of June.