Short Story Challenge 2021!

At around this time last year, I’d made up my mind to write twelve short stories for each month of 2020. The idea was that each story would have something to do with its respective month – inspired by a holiday, typical activities, the weather, etc.

I enjoyed the project so much that I’m doing it again in 2021. This year, I think I’d like to challenge myself to write twelve stories around a central theme. But I don’t know what that theme should be! So, I thought I’d reach out to you, wonderful readers, for your ideas and suggestions.

And to see if any of you would like to join me in my Short Story Challenge 2021. 😊 It’ll be fun!

So, what do you think my central theme should be?

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If you haven’t read them and you’d like to catch up, here’s a list of the twelve stories from 2020. Some of them I really like, some of them could have been better, but either way, it’s kind of cool seeing all of them listed here. I enjoyed writing each of them. I’ve put asterisks by my favorites.

January 2020 – Charmed

February 2020 – Snow Moon

**March 2020 – Something Borrowed

April 2020 – The Green Man

May 2020 – The Bridge

**June 2020 – The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

**July 2020 – Magic Hour

August 2020 – Birthday Funeral

**September 2020 – Memories of September

October 2020 – The Sleepwalker

**November 2020 – In the Time It Takes

December 2020 – The Last Glenmoor Christmas

Don’t Bet Against Me (A Poem)

When I was born
six weeks too early, too tiny,
and before I even had a name,
they took bets on whether I’d make it.

I made it.

I’ve always made it,
every moment of every day,
even when I shouldn’t have,
when I should have failed,
I’ve made it.
And I’ve made it good.

So I tell people:
Don’t bet against me.
Underestimate me and
just wait and see
what happens.

Because I made it, and I’ve made it, and I’ll make it.

I am my own hero,
my own knight in shining armor,
my own deus ex machina,
my own miracle.
I am unstoppable,
unflappable,
unembarrassed,
unashamed,
and unconcerned with those who’d doubt me.

I made it.

Even when it’s impossible (nothing’s impossible),
when it’s too dark to see (there’s always light),
when the game seems lost (life’s not a game):

Whatever you do,
don’t bet against me.

The New Year (A Poem)

The cold moon ushers in the New Year –
full of promise,
flanked by worry and doubt and fear,
but new nonetheless, and fresh and free.
May we all see dreams made real,
time and touch and love,
and may we be happy.
May we take this year and make it
what we want and need,
and may we do what we can do.
May we happen,
and not get happened to.
The New Year opens the door.
May we all walk through.

The Last Glenmoor Christmas

Glenmoor Farm glowed in the dark. At least, at Christmas it did. The farmhouse rose from the snow-covered ground into the night sky illuminated in twinkle lights. Inside, each sitting room overflowed with greenery and tinsel. The fir tree in the family parlor stood tall and proud and covered in red garlands and silver bows, surrounded by boxes of every size wrapped in delicate gold and white paper.

“I wonder what it’ll be like next year.”

“Smaller.”

Tara and Sammy sat scrunched together on the couch in the family room, sipping store-bought eggnog out of matching crystal goblets. The twins had spent every Christmas of their entire lives in this house, unwrapping gifts and smiling for pictures in this room.

“Is it our fault?” Sammy stared straight ahead.

“Every kid goes to college,” Tara answered.

“Yeah, but they never mentioned selling this place until we left,” Sammy replied.

“They probably didn’t want to worry us,” Tara reasoned.

“200 years. Our family’s owned this house for 200 years.”

“Minus two,” Tara said. “Remember they sold it and bought it back after the Civil War.”

“The shame of it!” Sammy giggled. They’d both heard the story growing up, of how their great-something grandfather had gambled away the farm and how his son had fought tooth and nail and pocket book to get it back. Now the fight was over, forever. “You really don’t think it’s because of us?”

“I don’t think it matters why.”

“I guess you’re right,” Sammy said, and shook her head. “I just can’t believe it.”

“I kind of feel like that’s adulthood.”

Tara and Sammy had gone away to college in late August, and they’d returned for their first break in October to the news of an imminent sale to one of the area’s major housing developers.

“It feels empty without you two,” their mother had told them.

“This was always our retirement plan,” their father had added.

Talking about it that October night, the twins knew they should have expected the news.

“There’re developers everywhere,” Tara had said. “They’ve been breathing down our necks for years to get at this land.”

“Suburbia calls,” Sammy had replied. “And we must answer.”

Now, home for their winter break, the twins had made plans to pack up their room starting tomorrow, the day after Christmas. They’d set the table knowing it would be the last time. They’d cooked oatmeal for breakfast in the brick kitchen fireplace knowing that they’d never see it again after this last holiday. And now, outside, they could hear family arriving on Glenmoor’s circular cobblestone driveway, the last any of them would pull up to the old big house with car loads of gifts and casserole dishes.

“Samantha,” their mother called from the foyer. “Sammy! I need you to park Art’s car.”

“Can’t park his own car,” Tara whispered, as they made their way to the front room. “Runs a bank, and can’t park his own car.”

“Everyone’s got their own talents,” Sammy said. “I am excellent behind the wheel.”

“You are not,” Tara said. “She just doesn’t want you near the custard.”

“Mean,” Sammy whined. And then smiled at her sister. “See you on the other side.”

**********

“Well, this will be a memorable Christmas.” Sammy leaned on her cheek on her sister’s shoulder.

“If you mean because I curdled the custard, I will thank you to keep your opinions to yourself.” Tara gave the top of her sister’s head a playful smack.

“You did, though.”

“Yeah, and you dented Uncle Art’s car.”

“Well, nobody’s perfect.”

The remains of Christmas dinner lay in shambles on the dining room table, surrounded by dirty china and half-finished glasses of wine and water. From their hiding place at the top of the chestnut wood staircase, Tara and Sammy could hear the muffled, jumbled conversation of their family.

“Do you think the developer will keep the house?” Sammy sat up.

“It’s historic, right?”

“Do you think that’ll matter, though?”

“I don’t know,” Tara answered. “I don’t know what any of this will look like a year from now.”

The twins looked out of the showcase window in front of the stairs, out onto the meadows and pastures, and the barns and sheds that dotted the rolling property. They thought of the ponds and the corn fields, and the little forest of sycamores and ash trees they’d played hide and seek in as children.

“I guess they’ll definitely chop down the woods,” Tara said.

“I was thinking about that, too,” said Sammy. “And how they’ll flatten everything.”

The opening chords of “Oh, Christmas Tree” drifted up the stairs. The twins heard singing, mostly off key, and their father laughing, probably at their mother trying to plunk something recognizable out on the keys of the old church upright piano they’d inherited from some spinster great aunt who never left Glenmoor.

“Now we don’t have a choice,” said Sammy.

“Were you thinking of Aunt Alice?”

“Of course I was.”

“I was, too. How many greats is she?”

“I don’t know,” Sammy said. “Lots.”

“We should go down,” Tara said, and stood. “They’ll be opening presents soon.” She reached out a hand to her sister, and pulled Sammy up.

Sammy sighed. “Another teddy bear from Aunt Virginia.”

“We have an enviable collection,” Tara said.

“Lead on, MacDuff,” said Sammy.

“You know that’s a misquote, right?” Tara straightened her rumpled sweater as they both descended the stairs.

As the night wore on, the twins opened presents, sang carols, gave hugs, and benefitted from their cousin Leo’s sneaky plan to spike the cranberry punch. After everyone had gone and the house lay silent and dark, they crawled into bed and stared at the ceiling, trying not to think of what came next. Neither of them slept, and at just after 4:00 a.m., Tara broke the silence.

“Most people can park a car,” she said.

“Mom always told me I’m the special one,” Sammy replied.

“You’re certainly special, all right.”

“Glenmoor is special,” Sammy said. “Glenmoor’s probably more special than all of us.”

“Now why’d you have to go and bring it up,” Tara replied. “I was just about asleep.”

“I don’t know,” Sammy answered. “I just can’t get it out of my head. It’ll all be gone this time next year.”

Tara sat up against her headboard and pushed the covers off her pajama-clad legs. “Well, now I’m awake.”

“Sorry,” Sammy said. “I don’t think I could sleep if I wanted to.”

“It’s almost morning, anyway. Let’s go out for a walk,” Tara suggested.

“In the dark?”

“It’s not like we’re going to get lost.”

“Good point,” Sammy said. “Okay, I’m in.”

Both girls jumped out of bed, and bundled up in winter coats and gloves and waterproof boots. Out the door and straight ahead, they walked. They walked the whole property before the sun came up, and they met the dawn sitting in the garden, huddled together on a cold, black wrought iron bench.

Glenmoor Farm came alive with the light. Morning sunshine gleamed off the handmade single-pane windows, and bright red cardinals darted in and out of the scrubby, fallow bushes and brush. The snow in the fields and on the trees glistened, pink and golden, an expanse of glittering, white magic on the quiet landscape.

The twins looked ahead, each lost in the same thought.

“I wonder what it will be like next year,” Tara said.

“Different,” said Sammy. “Just, different.”

A Note on My December Short Story

I’ve been plugging away at my December short story this week. I think I like what I’ve got and where I’m going. My original goal was to post it today, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. So, I’ll try to post on Friday. It’s a Christmas story (I think), so it would make sense to post it on Christmas Day (I think).

If not by Christmas Day, then it will be next week.

By the end of December, there will be a new short story on this blog.

I don’t struggle with deadlines, I think, so much as I struggle with ideas. I’ve got lots and often I’ll start a few different stories at once and see which one finishes first. I’ve started two different stories for December, and I like them both. I’ve put in a similar amount of time on them at this point, but I think I know which one I’ll focus on in the coming hours/days.

I don’t know yet quite where it’s going, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it gets there.

I think that’s my favorite part of writing, at the end of the day. I love the journey. I love starting with almost nothing – a character, or a sentence, or a setting, or a few lines a dialogue – and building a whole world in the course of just a few pages.

There’s nothing quite so tantalizing and terrifying as a blank page.

So, onward, and we’ll see where I get to. Or rather, where the story takes me. Somewhere good, I hope, and a bit Christmas-y.

Four Snow Haiku

Delicate and slow
Snowflakes descend from gray skies
And turn the world bright

*******

In rhythm with life
Like white petals on a breeze
Fragile crystals fall

*******

Powder coats the ground
Soft like sweet icing sugar
Dessert for the eyes

*******

This new snow globe world
Brief and fleeting as a breath
Fantasy made real

*******

I love snow. I’ve always loved snow. I like the way that life slows down when it snows. I like the reminder that fragile things – tiny, delicate things – like snowflakes, can have a huge impact and tremendous power.

A December snowstorm is a truly rare thing here in Virginia. The forecast has changed several times over the last hours, so I’m not sure how much snow we’ll get today, but I can tell you one thing:

I will enjoy every single millimeter and every single moment of it.

Waiting for Snow

For days and days,
we watch.
And we wait –
for the cold snap,
the good pattern,
full clouds and low pressure,
the track and the timing,
elements that must come together.
Warm breath on the crisp air,
red noses, chilly fingers,
hats and gloves
and hot chocolate in hand,
we watch and we wait
for the delicate promise
of the season’s first snow.

Fragments (A Monday Poem)

Of course the big picture is beautiful.

It’s made up of a million little miracles –
small victories
and delicate pieces.

Beautiful all on their own,
these fundamental fragments,
and meaningful
not because they are part of something larger.
Just because they are.

In the Time It Takes

“Do you think they know?”

Her hands are slick and shiny, covered in butter, and flecked with dark bits of thyme and black pepper. In front of her, a large, raw turkey, slathered and herbed and stuffed, rests in an heirloom roasting pan on a bed of onions and celery.

“We’ll tell them after dinner.”

His hands are clean, but he picks at a bit of dry skin around the nail of his pointer finger.

“There’s no possible way they’ll know, right? No way they could have figured it out?”

“I don’t see how.”

She steps away from the counter and he moves forward, lifts the roasting pan and places the turkey in the oven. Already, it looks perfect. Picture perfect, just like a Norman Rockwell painting.

“I’m worried,” she says. “I just want everyone to enjoy dinner. I don’t want drama.”

Bright sunlight peeks in through a window above the sink. The tiny kitchen feels alive with fragrance and clutter and heat. The oven’s been on for hours.

“I know,” he answers. “It’ll be fine.”

She sets a timer.

“Someone will complain that it’s dry,” she says. “Or that it’s too salty. Or not salty enough.”

“Someone could have volunteered to cook.”

“I volunteered, though, so it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s good.”

“You didn’t volunteer,” he points out. “You felt obligated. That’s different.”

She knits her brow. “I did not feel obligated.”

“You absolutely did.”

“No, I didn’t. This felt like something I could do. I like to cook.”

“This isn’t cooking,” he argues. He gestures around the kitchen, to the towering collection of pots and pans stacked on the countertops, and then to the stack of dishes already soaking in the sink. “This is forced labor.”

She looks over to the timer. She sighs. “I don’t want to argue with you,” she says.

“Then let’s not.”

“Okay, let’s not.” She checks a list she’s hung on the fridge. She’s worried over it for days, adding and then crossing out items. “I need to make the sweet potatoes. We have marshmallows, right? You bought them?”

“I don’t like marshmallows,” he says. “Who decided to add marshmallows?”

“I have no idea,” she answers, and adds “but I’m certainly not a better cook than they were.”

“You’re a great cook,” he says.

She smiles. “And that’s why you love me.”

“One of many reasons,” he says. He walks over and pecks her on the lips. “What can I help with?”

Together, they chop and roast sweet potatoes, and glaze them with maple syrup and Bourbon. She makes a green bean casserole while he sets the table. She’s crafted a special centerpiece, full of little orange and yellow pumpkins, gold ribbons, and cinnamon sticks. He positions it just so, with little tea candles all around to catch the light.

She comes into the dining room carrying a tray of crystal wine glasses, a wedding gift they only use once a year. She places one down at each setting.

“Thank you for setting the table,” she tells him. “It looks great.”

“Thanks,” he says.

She doesn’t reply.

“You did a really good job on the centerpiece,” he adds.

“Are we doing the right thing?”

He can hear an edge in her voice, a raised pitch, a thinness.

“We’ve talked about it for months,” he says. “It’s an opportunity I’m probably not going to get again. And you’re excited, too, remember?”

“I am,” she answers. “I really am.”

“The it’s the right thing,” he says, even and confident.

“But what if it’s not? What if we’re making the wrong decision?” She tightens her grip on the tray, now hanging lengthwise, covering her abdomen. Her knuckles turn bone white.

“Do you really feel that way? Or are you letting holiday stress get to you? Your family can be handful this time of year.” He crosses his arms, puts a hand up to his chin, shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

“How could you even say that?”

“I’m sorry,” he says again.

“I’ve been agonizing over this. You know how hard it is for me.” She turns, sharp and intent, on one ankle and makes her way back to the kitchen.

From the dining room, he hears the loud clang of the tray hitting the counter. “I know,” he says, almost too quiet.

“And to bring up my family like that. How could you?”

He winces. He says nothing.

“My family’s lived here forever. No one’s ever moved away. No one. It’s just not done.”

He joins her in the kitchen, tries to catch her eye as she opens and closes drawers, pulls out one serving spoon after another.

“You know we’re close. You’ve known that from day one.” She leans over the sink, bearing her weight down on her hands, forcing herself to stay upright, focused.

“Your family will be okay. It’s a move,” he says. “It’s not a life sentence. We can always come back if we hate it.”

“You know as well as I do that you don’t want to come back.” She finally turns to face him. She sets her lips in a thin, tight line.

“That’s not fair,” he says.

“It’s true, though,” she replies, short and clipped.

“You were the one who told me to look for this job.”

“I know, but it’s not like you needed convincing.”

“You even chose the city,” he yells. He takes a breath, starts again: “You said you’ve always wanted to live in Chicago.”

“I know,” she says. “I know, you’re right.”

She checks the oven timer. The turkey’s turned golden. She starts to say how nice it’s coming along.

“I know you’re worried,” he says. “But we’ve talked about this.”

“I know. We have.” She bites a nail. “But I just feel like it’s the wrong decision.”

“You feel like that today, because it’s a holiday.”

“No, that’s not why.” She closes her eyes, opens them, knows they’ve gone hard and wide. “Don’t tell me what I think.”

“I’m not,” he says, gentle, patient. “But you were ready to go before today.”

Outside, the sun ducks behind a cloud, and against the window, they both hear the ping of tiny pinpricks of rain. The weather’s turned, but in their kitchen, things are still hot and close and heavy as a weighted blanket.

The timer sounds. He retrieves the turkey from the oven. They both watch as it steams, and she moves to cover it with foil.

“Then you haven’t been listening to me,” she whispers. There is nothing calm in that whisper.

“I have!” He raises his voice again. He doesn’t fight it this time. “I really have. I thought we were on the same page.”

“You hear what you want to hear,” she snaps.

“I hear what you tell me.”

“I tell you everything! You just don’t listen.”

“I listen.”

They move all of the sides to the table, one after another. Warm casserole dishes, overfull gravy boats, all set up in the kind of perfect order of a magazine spread, each in its place and each place just right, with the turkey at the head, surrounded by fat sprigs of rosemary.

“You listen and filter out what doesn’t fit into what you’re thinking.”

“That’s not true,” he says.

“It is,” she counters.

“You know it’s not.” Quiet, defeated, deflated. “And if you really feel that way, I don’t know why you married me in the first place.”

“Sometimes I don’t either.”

“Do you mean that?”

She pauses, and for a moment, they both wait. Silence hangs between them.

She nods. “Yes,” she says. “Yeah, I think I do.”

He nods back, makes his choice, and answers. “Then we have other things to talk about.”

“I guess we do,” she says. She turns her back to him and walks out of the room.

He follows her out, walks into the living room and starts a fire for the evening. It roars to life. Later, after dinner, everyone will gather here to drink hot chocolate and play a board game, as they do every year. He’s always enjoyed the tradition.

Outside, a car door slams. Quiet conversation drifts up the walkway to the front door. He joins her in the foyer and plasters on a smile. It matches hers, bright and vibrant and convincing.

“I don’t understand how we got here,” she says. The smile doesn’t slip.

“I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” His mouth stays curled, like hers, tight and stretched and smooth. It shines like a scar.

The doorbell rings.