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…*

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–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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Quiet Neighbors (A Short Story)

There were seven of us in the beginning. Ada, with her gray hair and storm cloud eyes, and June, who loved to laugh and to sing. There were Tilson and Thomas, the stoic farmer brothers, and Clancy, withered and whiskered, always with a flask in his jacket pocket. And then little Marie, a freckled thing with bright gold ringlets and a toothy grin. And of course, me.

It took me a little while to get used to things, but I’ve got a knack for making quick adjustments.

“You could save the whole world with a toothpick and some twine,” my mother always told me. “If only you’d keep you head out of the clouds.”

Yes, there was that. I’ve always been practical, but a dreamer. There never really was a good place for me, and so this new place was as good as any, and over the years, I became the storyteller, the collector, in a way, for all of us. I figured somebody should keep it all straight, and maybe embellish it a little, because what would that hurt, really. We weren’t going anywhere, that was for sure.

In the early days, we sometimes had visitors. They never stayed long, and eventually, they stopped coming altogether. It was just us, and we settled into the way things were.

Some nights, June and I waltzed under the moon and sang ballads for the stars.

“You crooner,” she purred, and flipped her long dark hair over her shoulder. It waved down her back, an obsidian river. “Some theater sure is missing its main attraction.”

I agreed.

And Marie. Marie, all of six and proud of it. Ada tried to tame her curls every day, and in the evenings, June sang her old lullabies. She liked to chase the lizards in the spring. She liked their bright blue tails. And she liked the bluebells. Every April, we’d find ourselves surrounded by the bluebells, growing in every direction.

“Blue’s my favorite, like the sky,” Marie always said, as she touched each cluster of flowers one by one.

Over the years, our number grew, though never by much at a time and ultimately not by much at all. We added Dorothy, a baker with red-tipped fingers, and Joseph, tall and proud with his chest covered in military medals.

“That little girl needs discipline,” he said once, not long after he’d arrived, as we watched Marie chase the fireflies.

“She needs more than she’ll ever have,” Clancy told him. “Reminds me of my own little girl.”

Then came the married couple, Henry and Abigail, who sniped at each other constantly but always held hands.

There were a few others, but they stayed away. If we saw them at all, which we rarely did, they’d seldom even tilt their heads in greeting. Ada didn’t much care for that. She called them rude. I told her they had every right to keep to themselves. “It’s not easy for everyone,” I said.

They were good years, and eventually we came to understand that the world had mostly forgotten us. But we had each other, our own makeshift family, and if you have a family, you have a home. And if you have a home, then you have a whole world right where you are. Though I won’t lie. It always irked me a little that I’d never see the ocean, or the Eiffel Tower.

I suppose things had been changing for a long time before we noticed. I imagine that the fields got smaller, that the houses got larger and people built more of them, and we just didn’t give it much thought. What did it matter to us, after all, if someone built a new house or cut down a tree? We were apart from all of that.

“It’s not our place to worry,” Dorothy said. “I did enough of that for three lifetimes, and I’m not about to give in to an old bad habit when I’ve earned a modicum of peace and quiet.”

It was the noise that changed things. It got to all of us, eventually. The constant hum of motors, the banging of a hundred hammers, the whir of drills and the scrape of saws. It started to drive us crazy, especially Dorothy.

“All that racket!” She stomped and seethed. “Damn it, I earned my peace! I earned it!”

And just as quickly as it seemed to have started, it was over.

And things were different.

“Do you suppose they forgot we’re here?” Ada shook her head. “Surely not.”

“I reckon they don’t care,” said Thomas.

“There aren’t all that many of us, and the weeds cover most everything. Wish I had my garden hoe,” added Tilson.

“Wouldn’t do much good,” Thomas said. “The weeds are too thick for that.”

I looked around, and realized he was right. Green Virginia creeper snaked all around us, blanketed the ground and rested over every gray stone surface.

“They’re awfully close together.” This from Joseph, sharp eyes forward and focused.

“I suppose it makes for fast friends,” offered June, with a small smile.

“More like enemies,” answered Clancy. “Won’t be any secrets kept, packed in that way. Like animals in a cage. No way to live.”

“What does it mean for us?” June looked over at me. “Will things change?”

“Things don’t change for us,” I told her.

I looked out ahead of us. Over the years, we’d seen young trees grow old, seasons and seasons of bluebells and snowstorms. We’d seen children play, and later return to play with their own children. That had been hardest for Marie. We’d watched, we’d witnessed, and no one knew. Now, we’d watch this, this seemingly endless sea of houses, and all of the people who lived in them. I didn’t know what we’d see, but we’d watch, as we always had, and we’d be here, and just like always, no one would ever know.

“Things don’t change for us,” I repeated, “and we’ll certainly be here longer than they will.” I thought for a moment, remembered the early days and the days after, and added, “Hopefully they’ll at least be quiet neighbors.”

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

Thank you for reading! This is the fourth 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

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 May.

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.

2021 Short Story Challenge Theme!

You guys, I have agonized over this. And I’ve gotten some really good suggestions. I’ve looked at quotes and poems, at nouns and verbs and adjectives, at artwork. I wanted to pick a theme for 2021 that feels accessible, not esoteric, and that will lend itself to lots of different stories from lots of different people with lots of different life experiences.

So, here it is, the theme for my 2021 Short Story Challenge:

Home. A place of comfort for some, a place of anxiety or fear for others. For many of us, a place we’ve seen plenty of in the last several months. A physical space, or a feeling, a certainty or a longing, a boon or a burden.

I feel like home has plenty of stories to tell. I hope you’ll join me in telling twelve this year. Let’s see where home takes us.

My story for January will be up next Friday, January 29th. (And then I’ll resume the regular Found Friday feature.) I…haven’t started writing it yet, but I’m excited to see what it will become.

And, if you want to write along and post a story for each month this year, I’m excited to see what you’ll create.

Let’s make 2021 a year for stories.