Talk Out the Fire (A Short Story)

Harley Orr noticed everything.

When he and his mother lived in the city, he noticed the smell of exhaust and of people all around him. He noticed the other children in his daycare, their unmatched socks, and how the teachers always had dark circles under their eyes. He noticed his mother, how she moved like a racecar, and only stopped to sleep. He noticed how she stirred his mac and cheese for dinner, fast and then slow, always with the same wooden spoon, and served in the same blue plastic bowl. He noticed that he spent a lot of time alone.

Now, in the hill country, he noticed creaky house sounds and musty forest smells and the way the light slanted just right at about 4:00 in the afternoon on the second Sunday in March, on the creamy white wall of his new bedroom in his grandmother’s house.

They’d moved in with his grandmother not too long ago, Harley and his mother, and the little clapboard house on the mountain felt different, but not in a bad way.

“It won’t be forever, baby,” his mother had told him. “Just until I find a new job.”

He noticed how his mother’s voice tightened on those words, “new job.” His heart beat a little faster.

“But we’re not homeless, are we, Mom?”

“No, baby, we’re not homeless.”

“And we can stay here for a while, right?” Harley pressed his fingers into his palms, waited for her answer.

“Not if I can help it,” she’d said. “Your nana sure would love it, but we’re not hill people, you and me.”

Harley didn’t know what that meant, but he did know he liked his new room. It had a big window that faced an oak tree and a creek in the back yard. The house did smell a little, like dust, Harley thought, but it was clean and you didn’t have to eat your dinner on the couch, because there was a dark wood table right in the kitchen.

He also liked his grandmother. He noticed how she always smelled a little like caramel and peppermint, and how she smiled a special, crooked close-lipped smile at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, and how her knobby fingers combed his hair as gently as if he’d been a breakable thing.

“Look here,” she’d told him, perched on the side of his new bed the first night he’d slept in it, “this is your home now, understand? I want you to be happy here, okay?”

“Mom’s not happy,” Harley’d replied.

“Well, it’s awful hard to make Arlene happy, but we’ll see what we can do, won’t we?” She’d reached over and given his shoulder a squeeze, and then she’d said, “Goodnight, Harley-bug.”

He’d never had a nickname before.

That first night, Harley hadn’t slept much. His new room during the day felt bright and warm, but at night, it felt a little like a haunted, dark cave. He noticed the quick skitter of something outside, the groan of a shutter in the wind, the “sshhhh” of the breeze through the branches. In the morning, his grandmother had told him not to be scared, that it’s always a little hard to get used to new places.

“Remind me when you’re older, and I’ll tell you all about when your papaw built this house, and how we got used to it together.”

Harley’s mother got a job that first week, waitressing at a diner in town. She called it “temporary.” The hours were long, but the pay was good, and Harley was happy enough to spend the time with his grandmother. He noticed pretty quickly that things moved a little slower at her house. Mornings always meant a big breakfast, sometimes biscuits and jam, and sometimes scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. In the afternoons, his grandmother would walk down the hill to the mailbox, always pausing a few times to pull a weed or just look around or up at the sky. She’d start dinner at 3:00 each day, stringing beans or peeling potatoes or shucking corn in the sunroom. Now that the weather had changed, and the air was starting to warm, she liked to sit out on front porch, a plastic bowl nestled in her lap.

They sat together one day in the sunlight, watching the trees sway in the gentle spring breeze, and Harley helped string the beans while his grandmother peeled potatoes and onions. He noticed that his grandmother always gave him a little extra on his plate, if he did some of the work himself.

“You’re getting to be pretty fast with those green beans,” his grandmother told him.

“I like green beans,” he said. He adjusted the bowl in his lap, to show her just how many he’d done.

“Next, maybe I’ll teach you how to chop the firewood. I reckon you’re big enough to handle the ax.”

Harley looked over at her, eyes wide as saucers, breath caught right in his throat.

She winked, “I’m only kidding, bug.”

Harley released an audible sigh.

They sat together, both working in silence, until the vegetables were all ready to be cooked. Just as they both stood to go into the kitchen, Harley noticed a deep rumble from down the hill. He’d never heard a sound quite like this one, so gravelly and deep and loud. It was loud. He grabbed his grandmother’s free hand, dropped the bowl of beans.

“Nana!”

“It’s just a truck, Harley, don’t you worry.”

But she was moving fast, pulling him into the house. She told him, quicker than she ever talked, “Go on up to your room and don’t come down.”

“Nana?” Harley stood still at the bottom of the stairs. He noticed tears on his cheeks, and a sting in his eyes. He realized he was crying. “I’m scared.”

His grandmother came over, and she hugged him, tight but not hard. Outside, he heard car doors slam, and yelling, and worst of all, he heard someone screaming. Not quite screaming though. Screaming and crying together. He’d never heard anything like that before.

His grandmother let him go, turned him around and nudged him toward the stairs. “Everything’s fine and don’t you worry. I just got a feeling you don’t want to see what’s about to walk through that door.”

This time, he ran up the stairs two at a time. He slammed his bedroom door behind him. He thought about locking it, but noticed it didn’t have a lock. He hadn’t noticed that before. He took deep breaths, slid down onto the floor and pulled his knees to his chest. And he listened.

He heard the screen door open, and the screams and cries. And he heard muffled voices.

“…happened?”

His grandmother.

“…to the stove. Hot cast iron…oil in the frying pan…”

“…on into the kitchen…at the table…”

His grandmother, again.

“…thank…”

And then, everything went quiet.

Harley was scared, but he was also curious. He couldn’t help it, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. He didn’t want to get in trouble, but he wanted to know what was happening, and he wanted to make sure his grandmother was okay.

He stood up. Slowly, a little at a time, he turned the doorknob, and as quiet as he could, he opened the door. He stepped out into the hall, and crept down the stairs. He rounded the corner, and peaked into the kitchen.

He saw three people. One older woman, and one little girl. He noticed she was about as tall as he was, and that she had a big, red, horrible burn on her arm. And he saw his grandmother, standing over the girl. Her back was turned. She touched the girl’s arm, right on the burn. Harley winced, and he must have made a noise, because his grandmother turned around and spotted him.

“Come on in here, Harley. It’s all right.”

He took a few cautious steps, and then, feeling a little more brave, took the last big strides to the table. He sat down across from the little girl. He noticed her eyes were red, but she didn’t cry anymore.

“This is Helen and Libby. Libby’s about your age.”

Libby sniffed.

“Now, Harley, I need you to be real still and real quiet, and I’m going to work on Libby’s arm.”

Harley did as he was told, and he watched.

His grandmother closed her eyes. She held Libby’s burned arm in one hand, and with her other, right above the angry red splotch, made a little pushing motion in the air.

She said, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

A little push in the air, right over Libby’s arm, and then again, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

Harley just stared.

Once more, his grandmother pushed at the air above Libby’s burned arm, and said, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

His grandmother opened her eyes, and looked at Libby. “Does that feel better?”

The little girl nodded her sandy blonde head, looked at her arm, poked at the burn, and smiled a little. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered.

“Thank you, Alice,” the older woman said.

“You don’t need to thank me at all,” Nana told her. “Just make sure you keep that child away from the stove when you’re cooking.”

The older woman stood up, and ushered Libby out of the room.

“And bring Libby back one of these days to see Harley.”

“I will,” the older woman said, and opened the screen door. “It’ll be nice for her to have a kid her age to play with.”

Libby smiled at Harley, and Harley smiled back.

They left through the front, and Harley heard the car start and then make its rumbling way down the hill.

His grandmother walked over to the sink and washed her hands. “You snuck downstairs, rascal,” his grandmother said. But she didn’t sound angry, and after she dried her hands on a kitchen towel, she beckoned him to her, to sit on her lap. “I didn’t want you to be scared. Your mother used to hate it when this happened. She’d be mad if she knew I showed you. Thinks it’s not real.”

“You fixed her,” Harley said.

“I took the pain away,” his grandmother answered. “I talked the fire out of the burn.”

“It’s like magic,” Harley told her. “You made her better.”

“In a way,” she said.

“How?”

“It’s my gift, straight from the Lord himself, and it belonged to my daddy before me.” She gave Harley a squeeze and said, “One day, I’ll give it to you.”

Harley’s eyes went wide. He shivered, a quick chill that started at the top of his head and made its way down to the tippy tips of his toes. “Really?”

“You’re my grandson, aren’t you?”

Harley nodded.

“And this is your home?”

He nodded again.

“Then yes, sir. But not for a long time, so don’t you worry.” She set her jaw and looked right in his eyes. “You’re a smart, brave boy. Don’t be afraid.”

Harley wasn’t afraid. For the first time, in as long as he could remember, he wasn’t afraid at all.


Thank you for reading! This is the third 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 two stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

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 April.

This Place

“How do you stand it here?”

“What do you mean?”

The two of us sat together on top of a giant round hay bale, the largest in the field this year, staring out at the stars. In the chill of a mid-February night and the light of the full Snow Moon, we could see our breath hanging in the air in front of us.

“The dark. The quiet. The…nothing. There’s just nothing to do,” he said.

“I’m used to it, I guess,” I answered.

“I will never get used to it,” he said.

“It’s not that bad. I think you’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“No. You just don’t know the difference.”

“That’s mean,” I said.

“You guys don’t even have a movie theater.”

He’d moved at the beginning of the school year. His parents had dragged him halfway across the country when his dad took a new job, all the way from sunny, funky Austin to the lonely, scrappy mountains of Russell County. We’d met on the first day of school, but only because we had to.

“I’m supposed to give you a tour,” I’d explained, my backpack slung over one shoulder. “It won’t take long.”

“Thanks,” he’d said. “I kind of figured.”  

We’d walked up and down the three main hallways and the side wings of the red brick block of a high school. I’d asked about his classes, invited him to sit with me and my friends at lunch. I’d offered to meet him after school and show him around town, or, at least, what little town there was to show. He’d said yes.  

It had been almost a half a year since then.

“It’ll start to get warm soon,” I said. “The redbuds are really pretty in spring.”

“Those are trees, right?”

“Yes. The next town over has a festival when they start to bloom. We should go.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” I said back. I squeezed his hand.

I’d introduced him to the hay bales on the winter solstice. He’d spent the entire Christmas season lamenting the chintzy 1970s decorations sprinkled along Main Street.

“They’re sort of charming,” I’d said. “Like looking into another time.”

“I spent last Christmas in Germany,” he’d said. “I wish you could see the Christmas markets there.”

“Maybe someday,” I’d answered. “Why aren’t you traveling this year?”

“My dad’s too busy.”

“Come to my house tonight,” I’d offered. “My mom’s making steaks, and I’ve got a surprise for you after.”

I don’t know what sort of surprise he’d expected, but he didn’t seem impressed by the rolling pasture and enormous hay bales.

I’d always walked out to the fields on cold, clear nights. I liked the silence, the peace. And in the winter, I loved the brightness of the stars against the dark, empty landscape. I’d thought maybe he would, too. I didn’t know much about what it was like living in a big city, but I knew it never got dark enough to see the stars.

“This is my own personal light show,” I’d told him. “I wouldn’t bring just anybody out here to see it.”

He’d laughed, and said, “So you think I’m special?”

We’d kissed then, for the first time. “I like you,” I’d told him. “You’re a jerk, but I think you’re pretty cool.”

“I like you, too,” he’d said.

I wanted that night to live in my memory, always.

“I like you,” I told him now. “And I like this.”

“I like you,” he said, from somewhere far away. “It always looks the same out here.”

“Not at all! The constellations are changing all the time.” I pointed up, showed him Orion and the Big Dipper. “Some nights,” I added, “you can see the milky way.” Did he truly not notice? “Once, I saw the Northern Lights. They almost never come this far south.”

“I saw them when I went camping in Alaska.”

“I’ve never been to Alaska.”

“You’ve never been anywhere.”

“I’ve been to Nashville. And to Myrtle Beach.”

He harrumphed, released my hand, and hopped down.

“I’m going home,” he said. “It’s cold and I’m bored.”

“Well, excuse me. Sorry I’m not interesting enough for you.” I took a deep breath, let it out. “You’re being a snob.”

He turned around and looked up at me. “Don’t be like that,” he said.

It usually ended this way. Him, walking away from me to go play whatever latest video game he got online, or to video chat with his friends back in Texas, or to tinker with his computer. Me, on the verge of tears, clenching my jaw to keep from yelling at him, feeling like a dumb small-town hick.  

“I’m not being like anything,” I said. “I just wanted to share this with you.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. Let’s just go home, okay?” He started to walk down the hill.

Strictly speaking, the farmer next door didn’t like having trespassers on his land, but because he knew me, he usually let it slide. Our two families had been sharing this little valley for five generations. He wouldn’t start trouble over two stupid kids sitting around on top of hay bales in the dark.

“I thought it might make things better,” I said. “I mean, for you.”

“What?”

“I thought you might feel better, if you could see what makes this place special.” I hopped down and walked over to him. I caught his hand again, held it up between us in both of mine. “I know it’s not big or loud or anything, but this is something you can only do out in the country. There’s nowhere else in the world quite like this.”

“You’re hopeless,” he said, but he pulled me in and kissed me quick on the lips. “Someday you’ll get out of here, and you’ll understand why I hate it.”

“This is my home,” I told him. “It doesn’t matter where I go. I’ll always be from here.”

“Wait and see,” he said. “You’re too good for this place.”

He turned and walked away. From the bottom of the hill, he called up to me, “Are you coming?”

“No,” I answered. “I’ll stay.”

“Well, see you tomorrow, then.”

I stood right where he left me, planted in that one spot. I looked out ahead at the dark expanse of field and pasture, and at the rolling mountains in the distance, illuminated by the silvery cast of the full moon.   

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

Thank you for reading! This is the second 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’s January’s story, if you’d like to read it: The Roads

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 on Friday, March 26th.

The Roads

“The ridge or the glade?”

I am eight, and it’s my birthday. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s gold Toyota Tercel, holding a cake box in my lap.

She looks at me, stretches a hand out to tweak my nose, and asks, “The ridge or the glade, Betsy-bug?”

I am sixteen, learning to drive myself, on a hot day in the middle of a mountain summer, behind the wheel of my grandfather’s enormous red and white Ford truck. He’s forced me into this, like it’s all a big joke, and as I struggle, sputter, and sit white-knuckled behind the steering wheel, he laughs.

He reaches over and steadies my trembling hand, and asks, “The ridge or the glade?”

I am twenty-two, heading south on I-81 from college for Christmas with the boyfriend I once thought I’d marry. We sing along to whatever plays on the radio, and rest our interlocked hands on the center console of a silver Nissan Altima.

“You have two choices,” I tell him, “once we get close to the house. The ridge or the glade.”

“The what now?”

“Those are the two roads we can take, once we get into town,” I explain. “Would you rather take the ridge or the glade?”

“I literally don’t know what those things are,” he says.

I glance over at my city boy. I can’t help but smirk. He’ll learn soon enough, but for now, I explain again.

“There are two ways we could get to my parents’ house. One takes us through a clearing. Do you get carsick?”

“I don’t think so,” he answers.

“Okay, good to know. The other takes us up over the mountain. Which one do you want to see?”

“The glade, I guess,” he says.

Turns out, he does get carsick. The tight curves, the dips and the little inclines of the glade road are too much for his nervous stomach.

“You could have warned me,” he says, once we’re safely parked in the driveway and unloading bags filled with laundry and textbooks.

“I did,” I say. “We’ll take the ridge next time.”

For the first half of my life, two roads brought me home, one high and one low, both so clear in my memory that I could drive them blindfolded even now.

Tonight, my mother’s voice wakes me.

“The ridge or the glade,” she whispers, close to my ear.

Outside, it snows, and the wind howls, and the dying embers of the wood fire beside my recliner glow bright and alive in the midst of a winter storm that the Weather Channel calls one for the century.

I almost answer her. “The ridge,” I almost say. I’ve always loved the ridge best, and it’s right on the tip of my tongue. But as I come out of sleep, and the drowsy haze lifts from my mind, I stop.

I stop because I am alone in my living room, tucked under a blanket my granddaughter knitted for my seventieth birthday. My mother’s been gone for nearly twelve years, and it’s been almost as long since I’ve seen the ridge or the glade.

I am sixty-one, sitting at a table in a sterile, white and gray office space. A real estate agent, an ancient friend of my long-dead uncle’s, sits beside me. Across from us, an attractive young couple beams and radiates excitement and energy. They’ve told me my mother’s home is their dream home, where they’ll raise their family, where they’ll build their life together. I sign the papers and the home belongs to them.

I am sixty-one and three quarters. I drive through the ridge one last time, intending to say a final goodbye, now that my mother’s affairs are settled. I round the curve and look to my right. My mother’s house, my home, has disappeared. In its place, the beginnings of a new structure rise from the landscape, a beast unlike anything the little valley has seen in all its many eons. I take the glade back out into town, and though I want to, though I want to change everything, I don’t look back.

I rise, pushing myself up against the thick, round arms of my oversized La-Z-Boy. There was a time that I would have been embarrassed to own it, but I practically never leave it these days. The blanket falls to the floor and I don’t pick it up. My back feels stiff and my joints ache. It’s the cold air, I think.

I make my way through the dark, to the kitchen sink where I pour a glass of tap water and drink it down in one gulp. I stand still for a moment and look out the window at the snow falling fierce and heavy in the halo of a bright orange streetlight. I haven’t thought of the roads home in years. I used to dream about them. I’d dream of driving in the dark, of rounding curves too fast or of creeping along beside the meadow flowers and the cow paths. But tonight, now in this moment, I can’t get them out of my mind.

I pour another glass and carry it with me back to the side table by the recliner. I settle in, under the blanket by the fire, and I feel myself again drifting off into sleep. I wonder if I’ll dream.

“The ridge or the glade?”

This time, it’s my voice, my question. My mother sits beside me in my white BMW, and warm sunlight shines in through the windshield. I remember this car. It’s the first one I ever bought for myself.

I look over. My mother is young again, and so am I. Her chestnut hair matches mine, and together we smile the crooked smile that was passed down to us.

“The ridge,” she says. “You like the ridge best.”

“I do,” I answer, “but I know you love the glade.”

“I love them both,” she says. “Mostly for where they take me.”

“Me, too,” I say.

We take the glade home.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the first 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.

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 on Friday, February 26th.

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?

**********

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

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.”

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.

The Sleepwalker

The night we moved to Glenmoor Farm Estates, there was a windstorm. The biggest, loudest windstorm I’d ever heard. It shook the windows, rattled the plastic shutters against the siding, thrummed against the door frames and snapped and tore through the flimsy new-growth trees in our front yard. And it blew over the empty dirt field around us in gusts so ferocious and powerful it felt like a living thing. Like a monster, a giant come down from the sky to wreak havoc and eat humans and spread chaos and destruction in its terrible wake.

My dad tells me it was just a little wind, but I remember it differently.

I was ten when we moved in. I was “too old” to be afraid of silly things like wind and giants and the dark, but then, you’re never really too old to be afraid, are you? We’d been living in a row house close to the city. My little sister and I had shared one of the two tiny bedrooms, and when my parents found out that we would have a new baby brother or sister – it turned out to be both, and they’re too young to remember the move – they told us it was time for a bigger place. So off to the suburbs we went, the four of us soon to be the six of us, out into the wild, as far as I was concerned.

Our old neighborhood was tight, close, and full of other kids. We’d walk to the basketball court, or the pool, or just around on the sidewalk, and we’d bring frisbees and yo-yos and chalk and cards. We’d play and talk and hang out until dinner, or until it was time to do homework or chores. I knew my neighbors, all of them by name, and all of them knew me, and the busy streets felt alive and awake and real.

The new house was different. It sat on a quarter of an acre, massive to us, on a street called Ashwood Terrace. It had more space than we needed, a kitchen larger than our entire row house, and granite countertops. You could turn on the fireplace in the second living room with a light switch. Wrapped in neat, white siding with dark blue shutters, and a small porch at the front, it looked like a quaint little farmhouse straight out of a storybook.

But to me it felt hollow and huge, like a cave. And like a cave, I imagined it was the perfect place for something monstrous to hide, to wait for you and grab you and drag you away.

“You’ll get used to it,” my mom said, as she unpacked boxes in my new bedroom. “It’s just different, but it won’t feel different forever.”

“But…”

“I promise. And please be careful not to talk like that in front of your sister. She’ll get scared.”

I was already scared. And it wasn’t just the house. The neighborhood was brand new, unfinished, and quiet as a graveyard. No cars parked on the streets, no kids running around to play with. No one had any interest at all in getting to know each other. Everyone just stayed in their houses most of the time, and no one talked to anyone else. I remember, once, trying to greet one of our very few new neighbors, a woman walking her dog near our front porch.

“Hello,” I’d called, and waved with the vigorous intensity only a child can muster for a stranger.

In reply, I’d gotten a stare. Just a blank, indifferent stare. And she’d walked away without even raising her hand.

Glenmoor Farm Estates used to be a family farm, an old one. The builders had demolished the old family home, the barns and sheds, had drained ponds and leveled corn fields, meadows, and pastures, and chopped down acres of forests. They’d eventually replace all of it with custom-built, luxury houses like ours, but they’d only finished six when we moved in, and the emptiness of it stretched out around us, an endless, bare landscape of brown dirt and blank space. I’d never seen the kind of dark it got at night, and in the dark, that empty space played tricks on me. Or, at least, that’s what my parents say.

It started the night we moved in, the night of the windstorm.

We were all tired from the day. We’d finished packing the last boxes that morning, had loaded the rented moving truck ourselves, and we’d spent hours unpacking. We didn’t have that much stuff, really, hadn’t had space to have that much stuff, and what we had didn’t come close to filling the rooms of the new house. But we’d all felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the time the sun went down. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – we couldn’t find any restaurant that delivered to our new neighborhood – and went to bed early.

The wind picked up as my mom and I made up my bed for the night, my first night in my own room, without my sister, in six years. I couldn’t remember a time without her crib or her bed beside mine.

“It’s loud,” I said.

“I know,” she replied.

“It’s really loud, Mom.”

“It’ll pass,” she said. “Just try to ignore it. All new houses have funny new noises.”

I stared out the window as I changed into my pajamas. It was dark outside except for the scant light from a full moon, veiled in thin, wispy clouds.

In the moonlight, out in the field behind us, the wind kicked up whipping curtains of dirt and dust. And something else, something like a figure, dancing, twirling and turning in quick, fluid movements. And that figure became two, and then three, and they linked themselves together and weaved and twisted and bent themselves into sharp, unnatural angles.

“There’s someone out there!” I pointed straight ahead. “Mom, there’s people out there!”

She looked out the window with me and said, “That’s just dust, honey. It’s okay. It’s okay to be scared in a new place.”

The wind blew again, a powerful, heavy gust, and I heard a scream in the distance.

“Mom,” I shrieked.

More screams echoed my own, high and sharp, like frightened children. Like me.

“It’s foxes,” my mom answered. “Remember we told you there used to be lots of foxes here?”

“It doesn’t sound like a fox. It sounds like a person.”

“Okay, bud,” she said. “I know you’re scared. I know this is different. But you’re going to have to be a big kid tonight and be brave. I promise there’s nothing out there. It’s just your imagination.”

She put a firm hand on my back and ushered me to the bed. She tucked me in, kissed my forehead, and turned off the lamp on the side table.

“Mom,” I said, “can’t I leave it on? Just for tonight?”

“Okay, sweetheart. But just for tonight.” She blew a kiss as she stood up and walked out the door, pulling it half-closed behind her. “I promise you’ll feel better in the morning.”

I listened to the wind for hours. Every time I closed my eyes, I imagined the figures dancing in their wild circle, or the screams that sounded like murder victims. I tossed and turned. I counted sheep. I finally drifted off at what I thought must be after midnight, and I dreamed. I dreamed of the dirt field in the dark. I dreamed of voices and dancing, and of foxes. And I dreamed of a white ball of light, a solitary flame out in the middle of the darkness, and the light wanted me to come to it, to meet it and to follow it.

I woke up to bright sunlight and a quiet, still morning. I pushed my covers away and lifted my feet out of bed. I saw brown smears on my new white sheets, streaks and spots where my feet had been. I lifted up one foot onto my knee, cradled it in my trembling hands. I think I knew what I’d see. The bottom of my foot was caked with dirt.

Looking back, I think that was the first night I sleepwalked. It wasn’t the last.

I told my parents over breakfast what I thought had happened. I told them about my dream and the dancers and the screams, and I showed them my filthy feet. My dad found a strip of jingle bells in a box marked “X-mas,” and he hung them on the door handle outside of my room.

“This way,” he told me, “if you open the door at night, we’ll hear it. Don’t worry, kiddo. If you sleepwalk again, you won’t get far.”

“But I don’t want to do it again, ever!”  

“You’re just getting used to the new place,” he said. “I bet it stops as soon as you’re settled in.”

“But what if it doesn’t?” I bit my bottom lip, looked up at his face.

“Then we’ll take you to the doctor. It’s going to be okay, buddy.”

I didn’t feel like it was going to be okay.

Over the next week, we learned to live with the constant hum of construction noise. The rhythm of hammers and the keening of table saws became our alarm clock. Not that I needed an alarm clock. I didn’t want to go to bed at night, begged to sleep in my parents’ room, and I got up each morning as soon as I saw the first hint of sunlight.

“You’ve never been a morning person,” my dad said one day, as he drank a quick cup of coffee before work. “New habits for a new place, huh, kiddo?”

“Yeah,” I muttered into my cereal.

Down our street, yellow wood frames sprang up like weeds. Rows of bright green sod blanketed sections of the ground. The deep technicolor of the new grass looked wrong against the barren dirt behind us, but my dad said soon there’d be houses back there, and probably plenty of kids to play with, and that we were lucky to have bought in so early.

“We get to see it all happen,” he said, with a big smile. “We’re like pioneers.”

And I suppose we were, in a way. Out alone in this desolate landscape, waiting for the promise of new life and new adventures. I understand why it all made my dad excited. It made me uneasy, to look out my window and find only a dark, empty void. 

For the first time in my life, I noticed dark circles under my eyes. I couldn’t focus on anything. I fell asleep at my desk on my first day at my new school. The teacher sent a note home, and my mom sat down on the edge of my bed that night.

“Do you want me to sleep in here with you?” She looked tired herself, and worried. A deep wrinkle carved itself into her forehead. She brushed a stray bit of hair away from my cheek.

“Okay,” I said.

“I know you’re scared, but you need to sleep. I promise nothing’s going to get you. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said again.

“Okay,” she answered back, and snuggled in beside me.

In the warm cocoon of her arms, I finally slept deep and sound for the first time in days. And I dreamed.

I dreamed of women in delicate white dresses. They swayed and whirled in a tight circle, their hands laced together, and they yelped and cried as they danced, and those cries became screams. Screams like frightened children. In the middle of their circle, the light shone bright and steady, and it beckoned me, called to me the way a mother calls to her children, welcomed me. And I listened. And as I made my way to it, the women stilled and turned, their eyes as black as the night around us, their mouths stretched into thin, hungry smiles. They waited. I kept moving. I needed to reach them, to get to the light. I needed it as much as air in my lungs and food in my belly.

I woke up to my mother’s arms around me, to her panicked face and her frantic cries.

“I woke up and you weren’t there! Oh, honey, I was so scared!”

We stood in the back yard, right at the edge of the grass. The field loomed in front of us.

My parents argued constantly for the next week. They tried to hide it behind closed doors, but I heard them.

“…need to see a doctor, as soon….” My mom.

“…going to be fine…settle in….” My dad.

“…not normal…not safe….” My mom again.

They compromised. They installed an alarm system. It would sound the second any exterior door opened, and it was loud. It hurt my ears when they tested it.

“If you sleepwalk again, you’ll wake the whole neighborhood,” my dad said. “And it’ll probably wake you up, too.”

We’d lived in the new house for two weeks at this point. All of our boxes were unpacked, and my mom had started filling rooms with new furniture, with decorations and pictures and scented candles. She’d chosen expensive curtains and had painted most of the rooms in warm, calming colors. To anyone else, it would have looked like a home. To me, it still felt foreign and hollow.

“We’re going to paint your room tomorrow,” she told me, on a Friday night after dinner. “I picked your favorite color, and I have a surprise for you, too.”

I crawled into bed that night wondering what the surprise might be. Maybe a TV. Or a bean bag chair. I’d always wanted a bean bag chair, and she’d always told me we didn’t have room. At least that wasn’t a problem anymore. I wonder, now, if she’d planned something nice all along, or if she was only reacting to how scared I was, how much I was struggling.

I turned my lamp off and closed my eyes tight. I willed myself to sleep. My mom had installed a nightlight to help me feel safe, and it shined steady, like a beacon. Outside, the wind began to blow. I kept my eyes closed, counted down from ten over and over, and eventually, I fell asleep.

And I dreamed. But tonight, the dream was different. The dancers stood straight in a line, their black eyes fixed on me, their arms outstretched and their palms turned up. The white light flickered in front of them, dim and uneven, but still calling, still pulling me in, beckoning me out.

I woke up in the field.  

The women stood in front of me. They were there, and solid and real, and I knew if I reached out and touched them, my hand would meet solid, real flesh. And I knew that to do that would be dangerous, deadly even. The light went out, and they stepped toward me, reached for me with fingers as crooked and mottled as tree limbs. I could hear the wind blow through their hair, crackling, like dry leaves in the fall. I could hear something else too, something high-pitched, artificial.

The alarm. I could hear the house alarm, just faintly, but I could hear it. Home wasn’t out of reach, if I could just make my legs work. But I couldn’t. I just sat there, frozen, whether from fear or something else, something even more powerful, I don’t know.

The women moved around me, encircled me, and I screamed. I screamed and it matched the pitch of the alarm. They locked hands, began to sway and bend and stomp, and move closer and closer, until they became a wall between me and the world, between me and home. And as they danced, they hummed. The hum mingled with the sound of the wind.

And then it stopped. All of it. Arms wrapped around me, lifted me up.

“…scared us to death,” my father said. “Let’s get you inside and get you warmed up.”

Wrapped in his arms, my chin propped against his shoulder, I looked out at the field as he carried me home. It was empty, save for one wood frame, the beginnings of a new house, the first of many.

I didn’t sleepwalk after that night, and I haven’t in all the years since. The neighborhood grew, and more grew around it, and soon the whole area became a sea of roads and houses, of traffic and people and noise. There are no old family farms left.

I wonder, now, if it was all in my imagination. But it doesn’t really matter. The things we fear, and the things we remember, all of our stories, they’re real to us. Whatever happened to me, those first days in that new house, it’s no less real than anything else, and whatever it was, it didn’t get me.

My dad says the night we moved to Glenmoor Farm Estates, I scared myself into sleepwalking. I remember it differently.

October Stories #4: Regret Won’t Die

Here it is, folks – the final post in this limited series. For the others, go here, here, and here.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing these incomplete snippets! It’s intimidating to post things that are unfinished and largely unedited, but it’s also sort of freeing. It’s a good reminder that, when it comes to writing, something is better than nothing. You can’t build sandcastles without sand. Just getting something down on the page is the most important thing.

This particular piece is more a pre-writing exercise than anything, creating a character and a history to build on, inspired by a trip I took (I think I was on it while I was writing this) to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I imagined this story as a psychological mystery/thriller, with a ghostly component. I liked the idea of exploring regret and isolation, of looking at how running away isn’t a solution, and how old hurts and bad thoughts, unchecked and pushed away, can be debilitatingly toxic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I’ll try to think of some others I can put together in the future. In the meantime, thank you for reading! (And check back on Wednesday for a complete short story for October. It’s going to be a good one!)

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

Laura Fuller had always envied her cousin’s hair. Lyla Henry had deep auburn hair that glowed copper in the sunlight, and bright green eyes with fiery gold flecks. Laura’s own hair was dull blonde, almost gray, and her eyes were brown. Just brown. Lyla’s alabaster skin shimmered like a pearl. Laura’s was tawny, always tan, even in winter. 

One night, when Lyla and her parents had come for a visit, Laura had teased knots into Lyla’s hair as she slept. The next morning, Lyla had sniffled, resigned, as she watched the tangled mess fall to the floor, lobbed off with kitchen scissors. One summer, as they lay on a blanket under a blistering hot sun, Laura watched as Lyla’s milky white skin turned deep purple.  She’d replaced Lyla’s sunscreen with coconut-scented lotion. Laura broke Lyla’s glasses, put baby oil in her shampoo, sprinkled pepper in her soda. Any petty, unkind thing. When Lyla cried, Laura smiled. 

When Laura learned that Lyla’s parents had died, and that Lyla would be coming to live at her own house, she spent the whole night outside wrapped in a blanket, lying with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing, staring up at an unfriendly moon in an angry sky threatening rain.

Laura believed that we must be born with the ability to hate, because she had hated Lyla, who was chatty and funny and kind, for as long as she could remember. Next to Lyla, she felt dirty and clumsy. At sixteen, Laura could muster only mild sympathy, and a bit of ruthless satisfaction, knowing that Lyla had nothing, no parents and no home and no love.  And for that, she felt awful all over again. Why had Lyla been born gentle and beautiful, while she had been born bitter and spiteful?

Lyla settled in quickly, but she cried into her pillow at night when she thought no one would hear. She shared Laura’s room, and the day she moved in, she made Laura a throw pillow with lace and sequins to put on her bed. She’d sewn a picture of the two of them into the stuffing, and made herself one to match. Lyla helped Laura’s mother with the dishes after dinner, and swept every other day. Laura seethed, and spent hours reading books and lying in bed. Lyla exceled in school, made a large group of friends, and went to the movies every Friday. She put a picture of her parents on her bedside table, and kissed it each night before going to sleep.  Laura hid the picture under some blankets in her closet. While Lyla searched, Laura stepped outside to watch the birds in the garden.

About a year later, Lyla didn’t come home for dinner after studying with friends at the library, Laura felt relieved to have one night alone. When the police found Lyla’s hat and gloves in a ditch the very next day, Laura worried, and cried for Lyla for the first time in her life. When her mother hosted a funeral service, with a casket filled with Lyla’s favorite books and photos, and the pillow she’d sewn to match Laura’s, Laura spent the night again wrapped in a blanket in the garden, with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing.

********

Laura and Lyla were connected, had always been connected, born two days apart to two twin sisters. When Laura had fallen and scraped her knee, Lyla’s had scabbed over. If Lyla should happen to trip on the stairs, Laura would stumble. And when Laura felt angry and hateful toward Lyla, Lyla would stare into Laura’s eyes with a deep ache in her own.

On the night Lyla disappeared, Laura dreamed of wind and weeds. She dreamed of dirt and dark. In the wind she heard howls, and in the weeds she smelled blood. When she did wake, twisted in a heap of blankets on her bed, she heard only the sound of crickets and clocks, the quiet, calm noises of an old house, and she knew that her dream was real. Laura felt empty and incomplete, as if a part of her was missing, gone, murdered. Whoever had taken Lyla had taken a part of Laura too.      

The police never arrested anyone, and they never found Lyla. Laura spent the next two years, until she turned eighteen, haunted by bad memories. If she found a copper hair strewn across her pillow, if she found a picture of Lyla and her parents in a desk drawer, if she felt someone behind her walking in the woods, or gentle hands on her back as she brooded in the tire swing, Laura feared that Lyla was there, or had been there. Laura became so apprehensive and nervous that any drop of hatred in her body dried up, became hard and heavy, sitting in her chest like a stone, growing mossy, dark black with mold. Some days she could smell damp on her breath, the earthy mushroom scent of that jagged rock in her core, odious and acrid.

********

On the day she turned eighteen, Laura purged her room of all signs of Lyla. Any picture, any stuffed animal, any book or belt or piece of jewelry. She stuffed the pillow Lyla had crafted into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She put fresh yellow roses on Lyla’s empty grave, and promised that she would never worry about a breath on her cheek in the night or a presence behind her as she walked. She went to college, and spent the next four years practicing forgetting her cousin. But she felt the stone in her gut dig deeper, carve out a larger cavity, and sink into her, heavy and unbreakable.  She wondered again why she had been born only to hate and hurt.      

********

Out of college and living at home, Laura began again to feel the breath on her cheek as she slept.  She dreamed only bad dreams, and spent her days groggy and silent. When she found an old picture of Lyla lying on her dresser, she knew Lyla lived in that house still, and was watching.

Laura moved, when she was twenty-two, across the country, to a sparsely populated island on the eastern shore of Virginia. She lived with an acquaintance of her mother, who was elderly and needed help with housekeeping and grocery shopping. She settled into her small bedroom, into her routine of housework and errands, and thought very seldom of Lyla, or of the stone still nestled inside her. She wrote editorial columns and feature articles for a local paper. She learned to bake soufflé and to play piano. She read at night on the porch, and listened to the distant clamor of gently crashing waves. 

She made friends with the locals and spent quiet evenings at the table playing cards and eating cookies. Sometimes, in between sleep and wake, she dreamed of Lyla humming, or sometimes, whispering.

Find me. I’m here. I’m not gone.

October Stories #3: A Little Christmas

*For the first two posts in this limited series, go here and here.*

I’ve been working on some version of the story this scene comes from since 2016. It’s a story about a house, a family, a legacy, and what it means to come home again. I don’t know why I’ve never finished it. I suspect it’s a bit too close to my heart. I’ve loved and hated writing it, and it’s given me more trouble than it will perhaps ever be worth. We’ll see.

Enjoy this bit, though, and be sure to check back next week for the last October Stories post! (And thank you for reading!)

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The dark tree limbs meandered like streams against a bright midnight sky, black, gnarly rivulets creaking with the howling wind. Tall grasses, waiting to be baled into winding bundles of hay, swayed back and forth. The craggy fields sat silent, waiting for the promise of Christmas snow. How many years since Tess had seen a winter in this hollow? 

Eight Christmases away, eight in the bustle and traffic and lights of the city, attending party after party and trying to build some reputation in the world. Wrapped tightly in a sturdy handmade quilt, Tess certainly didn’t envy the partygoers now.

As she sat, alone except for Charlie, in front of the glimmering embers of the fireplace, she thought of all of those wasted holidays. How many red velvet cakes had she missed? How many cups of Christmas custard? How lonely, now, the last Taylor woman, waiting along with the empty fields and valleys for that first flake of mountain snow.

From somewhere in the belly of the house, Tess heard a step, a sigh, the creak of a door upstairs. Perhaps not so alone, she thought, and scratched Charlie’s wrinkled head.

“Charlie,” she whispered, watching his ears perk up and his eyes remain closed. Did he feel it too? This was home, and you’re supposed to be home at Christmas. Even the house, standing tall and dark and steady against the winter wind, seemed content to have a Taylor home.

October Stories #2: Final Wishes

*If you didn’t catch the start of this limited series, check out this post: October Stories #1. If you did and you’re back for more, welcome back, and thank you!*

A few years ago, I had a weird dream. This happens frequently, but my dreams usually aren’t vivid enough to warrant writing them down. This dream was different, and it inspired me to start the story I’m sharing today. I think about this one from time to time, but I’ve never come back to it. Maybe one day.

Anyway, enjoy! And come back next week. 😉

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To anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just that – a door. And not a very interesting one.  It was regularly tall, wooden, with panels in the standard places, and a simple brass doorknob. No light peeked out from underneath it, and the usual person looking at it would think, quite reasonably, that it opened to a narrow set of stairs leading up to a dusty old attic filled with boxes and crates brimming with the collected junk of a thousand yesterdays.

Sara Smith, however, and despite her entirely common name, was not a usual person. And her parents knew it.

All parents think their children are special. “Jack rides his tricycle faster than any other boy on the block,” a parent might say. “Yes, well, Jane is already writing in cursive and her fingers can barely fit around the pen,” another might reply.  

Sara’s parents, sitting in the parlor with other families sharing lunch or tea, would change the subject. “The weather’s been lovely this summer,” they might suggest. Or sometimes, “I hear the spring festival this year is supposed to draw twice the normal crowd.” The conversation would then move on toward topics unrelated to children and their small but noteworthy accomplishments, at least for the next several minutes, and Bill and Anna Smith would look at each other and breathe two syncopated but inconspicuous sighs of relief.

Because Sara Smith was not a usual child. 

Her birth was normal enough, if a bit early. She’d been a normally happy baby. She’d even liked prunes, though when her mother thought of that now, she wondered if it might have been the first sign that something was not quite usual. As Sara had grown, she’d hit her milestones right on schedule. She learned to babble and then to talk, to crawl and then to toddle and then to walk and then to run, to sound words and then to read them, and she’d even broken her arm trying to climb a tree when she was five. She liked unicorns, princesses, coloring books, and, much to her mother’s dismay, the color pink. 

One night, when Sara was six and three months, and playing in the nursery her parents had set up in the bright, airy attic of their quaint, cozy house, her mother had come up to check on her. In between giggles, she’d heard Sara talking. 

“My mommy says it’s good to be helpful and to share.”

Silence.

“I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”

Silence.

“You’re welcome. I like your necklace. It’s shiny.”

Silence.

“Sara,” her mother called, “who are you talking to?”

“The nice old lady,” Sara replied. “She wants me to help her.”

“With what?” Anna Smith was proud that her daughter was playing at helping.

“She says she’s not alive anymore and her son is sad and I should let him know that she’s okay and that the combination to the safe is seven seven three nine. That’s a really big number, isn’t it, Mommy?”

“Yes,” Anna replied, “it is.” She didn’t know what else to say.

Looking back, Bill and Anna Smith always thought of that moment as the one that changed everything, because it was the moment they knew that Sara, their happy, normal, freckled, giggly daughter, could see ghosts.

Sara Smith was not a usual child. And to anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just a door. But to Sara Smith, it was the entrance to her very special workshop.