Tag: Short Story

Jac and Jiles – Short Story Sunday

Jac and Jiles – Short Story Sunday

*cough cough* Oops. This is late. Hopefully it’ll be the only one. :P This is something I decided to write because in several writing books and articles I read they used Jack and Jill as an example and expanded on it a little bit, so I started thinking about ways I could put a spin on it. This is what I came up with, and I hope you enjoy it. :)

 

Jack and Jill went up a hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jacalyn tightened the strap of her travel bag to her saddle and looked over at Jiles, who was saying farewell to his sisters. He finished and embraced each of them before mounting up on his black stallion. Jacalyn mounted her own chestnut stallion and patted its neck.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

Jiles nodded, tears shimmering in his eyes.

They left the small village and Jacalyn pulled out the map from her saddlebag. It was sixty miles from their current position to the Red Hill that they were headed for, and they’d packed provisions enough for six days, which should be plenty if everything went according to plan. She tucked the map away again. It was a big if.​

“Hey,” she told Jiles, “It’ll be okay. We’ll come back.”

Jiles nodded, but his eyes revealed the same doubt that ate at her own heart. Two and a half days travel each there and back, and a simple climb up the hill to fetch the water from the Traitor’s Well, but the Well itself could be a challenge. Only one person had ever come back from the Traitor’s Well, and he with severe injuries covering his whole body.

“Jac,” Jiles said.

“Yeah?”

“Will the water really be able to save my mother?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”

“Yeah,” Jiles muttered, “To go to the man-eating Well.”

“I’m sure it will. The legends say it will.”

“The legends. Yeah. Those are trustworthy. They’re bedtime stories, Jac. They’re used to entertain children. Who knows if they’re really true or not?”

“Jile, you’d do anything to save your mom, right?”

Jiles looked down at the reins he was holding. “Yeah,” he muttered reluctantly.

“Then do this for her.”

“But if it doesn’t work than I could never come back and my sisters would lose my mom and me.”

“I know it’s risky. But we have to try, right?”

Jiles nodded. “Yeah.”

They rode in uncomfortable silence for a long while, Jacalyn focusing on the movement of the horse beneath her and the direction of the path before them. The path would only last until they reached the Elmanor Woods; beyond that, they were on their own, trusting Jacalyn’s navigational skills to get them safely to the Well. They passed few travelers on the road, and Jacalyn wasn’t surprised. Their little corner of the world wasn’t well-traveled. There were a few hamlets sprinkled around, and most people kept to their own homes instead of going on mad men’s quests for man-eating wells.

Jacalyn pulled the map out again just to give herself something to do and looked over the faded lines. The labels near the Red Hill and the Traitor’s Well repeated the message of “turn back” and “DANGER!” and Jacalyn tried to skim over them, but instead her eye was drawn to them. She forced her gaze to the small well drawn on the map. It was colored in black on the map, and Jacalyn wondered if it was actually black or regular stone. The one survivor was long dead of old age, so there was no one to ask.

Jiles yawned and Jacalyn tucked the map away again.

“I’m bored,” Jiles said.

“I know.”

“What games can we play?”

“Like… twenty questions?”

“Or storytelling. Anything but speculation about our quest.”

“We can do twenty questions. Who’s going first?”

“You can.”

“Okay. I’ve got something.”

“Is it smaller than a house?”

“Yes.”

“Is it red?”

“No.”

When the round was solved, it was found to be Jacalyn’s horse, Gilbert. They played several rounds before Jiles stopped.

“This isn’t helping,” he said.

Jacalyn didn’t bother to answer.

“How much longer until we reach the forest?”

Jacalyn pulled out the map and looked it over. “Not long. Maybe about half an hour.” She looked up and saw the sun sinking toward the horizon. “We’ll make camp at the edge of it and go in tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll want to be stuck in the forest past dark.”

Jiles nodded with another yawn. “I’m getting sore.”

“You don’t ride enough.”

“There aren’t really many places to ride.”

“You could just ride around town.”

“That would look silly.”

Jacalyn shrugged. “After my first hunt or two and finding it makes one sore to ride for a long time, that’s what I did.”

“And you looked silly.”

“But it did the job. I got used to the ache.”

Jiles kept his mouth shut.

 

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after

Jacalyn’s time estimate was nearly spot on, and they arrived at the edge of the forest only a few minutes later than estimated. Jacalyn swung down off her horse and Jiles moaned as he did the same. Despite being comfortable in a saddle, Jacalyn was still glad to feel the solid ground beneath her feet after so many hours.

“We’re going to be riding that long every day of this trip?” Jiles asked.

“Yep. Get used to it.” She unharnessed her saddlebag and took a seat on the ground, opening it up to grab two apples from inside, one of which she tossed to Jiles.

“Thanks.” He took a seat across from Jacalyn and she set the bag aside as she took a bite of her apple. The sour juice filled her mouth and she longed for the sweet apples that rarely grew to full size back home.

It began to drizzle as they began another game of twenty questions and Jacalyn put her hood up, wrapping her cloak tight around her to ward off the chill. After only a couple of rounds spent growing miserable with boredom and damp, Jacalyn said it was probably time to go to bed and lay down on the hard ground, her cloak the only thing between her and rocky soil. After at least an hour of speculation about what might happen when and before and after they reached the Well, she finally succumbed to sleep.

Jacalyn rose with the sun, and she had eaten and put the saddlebag back on the horse long before Jiles awoke. She shook him awake and handed him a piece of cheese and a carrot before wrapping her cloak around her once more.

“We need to get going,” she said.

Jiles nodded and took a big bite of cheese before mounting his horse. “How big does the map say the forest is?”

“Thirty miles in each direction.” Jacalyn didn’t have to refer to the map, but knew it by heart from numerous hunting trips. “We should reach the other side at dusk, or maybe a little earlier.” She mounted and looked over at him. “Ready to go?”

Jiles nodded and Jacalyn snapped the reins.

It was still drizzling for the rest of the morning, and by midday it had developed into a downpour.

“Even the weather doesn’t want us to the go to the Well,” Jiles said with an awkward chuckle.

Jacalyn didn’t answer, keeping her eyes on their surroundings.

The forest floor turned to mud, and wet branches snapped at them as they traveled. Both of them had to duck numerous times under some of the lower branches and of course there was the unstopping rain pounding down and soaking through their cloaks all the way to the bone.

Why can’t it rain this much where the crops need it? Jacalyn thought, her mood as dark and dreary as the forest around them.​

A few squirrels could be seen here and there skittering for shelter, but otherwise the forest was quiet and still. Only a hint of sunlight was able to filter through the clouds and trees to reach them, leaving them in near-darkness. There were no birds singing to liven up the consistent pulse of the rain, and no bright flowers to break the dreary dark. Jacalyn could tell it weighed on Jiles’ mood as well. He slumped in the saddle, and his expression held very little sign of life.

For a whole day they rode in silence through the dark, until finally they emerged on the other side. But this wasn’t much better. The sky was still grey, it still rained, and they’d passed from a dark forest into a ruined city that was silent like a tomb.

“This is so much better than the forest,” Jiles said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“At least we’ll have more shelter tonight than last night.” The sun was only faintly visible through a thick veil of clouds, but Jacalyn knew it was setting. She dismounted and tied her horse to a ruined stone gatepost before unfastening the saddle bag and stepping across the threshold of the city. Jiles followed her example.

It took her a few minutes to find what she was looking for, a half-collapsed stone building with a ruined floor. She lowered herself into the cavity that was once the basement and stepped into a corner where the floor above was still mostly intact and only a little bit of the rain dripped in, sitting back against the wall. Jiles sat next to her and she handed him the saddlebag, wrapping her heavy, wet cloak around herself.

“You pick dinner,” she offered.

A roll of thunder rumbled through the encroaching night and she held back a shiver from the cold. Jiles handed her a piece of bread, which she accepted gratefully. She ate it slowly, finding it to be just as bland as she should have expected.

“Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow,” Jiles said.

Jacalyn nodded silently, focusing on nothing.

“Are you okay?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “It’s just the weather, I think.”

“I’m not sure. I feel it too. This overwhelming blanket of hopelessness and dread. I don’t think weather can do that. I’m trying to think nicer thoughts to shoo it away, but there aren’t many happy thoughts to dwell on.”

“You have lots of happy memories with your family.” Jacalyn felt a pang of envy. She’d never had family. She’d always been the black sheep of the village, always an outcast, but never officially, so she never left. That and she cared about Jiles and his family. She knew they needed her hunting and other support, so she stayed to take care of them.

“And you.”

Only the smallest of smiles reached Jacalyn’s lips. “I’m sure you have more with your family. I don’t tend to leave happy memories. No one likes me much. Or trusts me.”

“You’re just different than what they know. People don’t tend to trust what they don’t know and aren’t familiar with.”

“I’m not even all that different. I’m only more willing to go out of the village. And somehow that makes me untrustworthy?”

“Beyond the village are only the ruins and people they don’t associate with. They don’t trust your comfort with those places. They think you’re dangerous.”

“Do I look comfortable here to you?” She hugged her legs to her chest. “I’m freezing and this place gives me the creeps. I’ve only been here twice, and in the daylight, and I’ve always felt a crawly creepiness. I wouldn’t exactly call that comfortable.”

“But the people back home don’t know that. They just know you venture outside of what they know.”

She turned toward him, her dark eyes shining. “Do you think I’m dangerous?”

“Jac, you know I don’t. Not the way they think you are.”

“Then in what way?”

“You’ve trained yourself to fight. No one else in the village has. If someone or something attacked you you’d have them lying dead on the ground in a heartbeat.”

Jacalyn snorted and turned away. “Not really.”

“Maybe not, but it certainly seems that way. We need the kind of dangerous you are. We need someone who knows how to protect us.”

“But if they don’t trust me then why would they let me protect them?”

“Because even if they don’t trust you they know they need someone to protect them. They know they can’t do it themselves. They’re not entirely blind to their lack of skill in that area.”

“Still. If I’m so ‘comfortable’ out here in these ruins, maybe I should just leave and stay here.”

“Jac, you know you can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because even if most people don’t trust you, there are still people who need you and care about you and would miss you if you left.”

“Yeah. Four of them. And one of them is dying.” Jacalyn bit her lip. “I’m sorry. That was entirely rude and uncalled for.”

“You’re probably right. But would you leave if there was even one person who wanted you to stay?”

Jacalyn arched an eyebrow at him. “What question are you veiling under that one?”

“I’m just saying I care about you.”

“And asking if I care about you enough in return that I’d stay if you were the only one who cared. I know you too well for these things to work.” She smirked a bit. “I suppose I might stay if you were the only one who wanted me to, but you’d have to be very convincing.”

“Of course.”

Jacalyn rested her head back against the wall. “Goodnight, Jiles.”

“Goodnight.” He lay down on the floor and she closed her eyes, but sleep didn’t come.

She opened her eyes after a while and looked over to see Jiles’ chest moving up and down in a steady rhythm. Asleep. She turned back to face the wall opposite her – not that she could see it in the dark – and sighed. Jiles was desperately trying to get closer to her, and always had been, but she kept pushing him away and distancing herself from him, certain that one day he’d see like all the others that she didn’t belong. He wouldn’t trust her, either, and he’d turn away. But it grew harder and harder as time went on for her to keep herself distant from him. He really did care about her, and he was the only one. Sure, his mom and sisters didn’t mind her, but neither did they care about her like he did.

With a million thoughts swirling in her mind, her eyes finally drifted closed and she slept.

 

Up Jack got and home did trot

As fast as he could caper

Jacalyn awoke and squinted against bright morning sun. She stifled a smile and looked over to see Jiles already awake. He handed her an apple.

“Good morning,” he said with a smile.

“Morning.” She took the apple and bit into it. It almost seemed sweeter than most, but she knew that couldn’t be. She rose from her spot on the floor and moved to the edge of a strong section of the upper floor, straining to reach it and lever herself up onto it. Jiles tossed her the saddlebag and she set it aside before helping him up.

“How many times have you practiced that?”

“Three times, now, but I pull myself up onto high tree branches fairly often.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

Jacalyn led them back to the entrance and saw that both horses were gone. “Uh oh.”

“We can still make it without them, right?”

“Yeah, but it’ll be a day longer to get there and two days longer to get back.”

“We can do it.”

“What’s made you so optimistic all of a sudden?” She slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

“For one thing, the weather’s a lot nicer. For another thing, this place is actually kind of pretty. And for a third thing… I actually have no idea. I just have a feeling things are going to be fine.”

“And feelings are always trustworthy.” Jacalyn sounded incredulous, but she felt a bit of that optimism, too. Which just made her distrust it all the more. “Let’s just go. We want to get as early a start as possible. There’s still twenty miles of ruined city, if I remember correctly, and we’ll have to hurry if we want to make it out before nightfall.”

They started through at a brisk pace and as Jacalyn walked she realized the ruins actually were kind of beautiful. Moss grew in the cracks and crevices of the stone walls and pillars scattered throughout, both those standing and those fallen, and vines curled around everything, displaying delicate white flowers that shimmered in the bright sunlight. Against her better judgement, she began feel comfortable as she walked. It didn’t seem like there could be anything dangerous, even as a tiny voice in the back of her mind nagged at her that something was definitely wrong.

Despite the nagging worry, they crossed the ruins without any problems and talked for a long while after nightfall before going to sleep.

 

Jacalyn awoke and woke Jiles, tossing him an apple as he sat up. Sun still shone bright, but Jacalyn’s feeling of security was no longer so overwhelming.

“How long before we get there?” Jiles asked, taking a bite of his apple.

“We should get there late in the day today.” Jacalyn slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

Jiles nodded and stood up, taking off his cloak and draping it over his arm. “Let’s go, then. Almost there, right?” He smiled.

Jacalyn returned the smile, but her worry and reason was beginning to creep back, along with the same sense of dread that she’d had in the woods and their night in the ruins. Instead of giving voice to her concerns, she started walking, with Jiles right beside her.

Their travel that day was uninteresting, mostly across grasslands with the sun shining down on them. Jacalyn squinted against the bright light and wished for a hat to block it.

Finally, as the sun began to lower in the sky, she saw a hill in the distance, and a dark shape on top. The grass on the hill was unnaturally green, and Jacalyn wondered if there was anything they could do to make the soil back home that fertile.

“There it is,” she said, her voice quiet. She still wasn’t entirely comfortable that everything would turn out okay, but as they arrived the majority of the weight of worry lifted from her shoulders. They’d gotten this far, at least.

They climbed the hill and Jacalyn let her gaze roam the well. The stone was an ordinary color, the inside bearing a bit of a reddish cast to it, not the black portrayed on the map, and the depths were shadowed. The sun didn’t reach the liquid below, blocked by a cap over the well. There was a bucket attached to the winch, already lowered into the darkness.

Jiles started to turn the winch, and it creaked as he did so. In a moment something began floating up from the depths, an orb of dark red. As it neared the cap, it stopped and formed into the rough shape of a human.

“You seek the healing water of the Well,” the thing spoke, shimmering like liquid. It was not a question, but a statement.

“Yes,” Jiles said.

“Do you know the price of the Well?”

“No.”

What might have been an amused smile caused the thing to shimmer and shift. “Then you may find yourselves unable to pay. Or rather… unwilling.”

“Why? What’s the price?”

“First, why do you want the water?”

“My mother is dying.” Jiles bit his lip. “Please. Tell us what the price is.”

“Dying, eh?” It was hard to read the thing’s expression, but Jacalyn thought it might have shifted its gaze from Jiles to her and back. “Well then… a steep price indeed. You see, the power of the water requires that the injuries to be healed be substituted onto another.”

“You mean… Instead of my mother dying, I’ll have to?”

“You or your friend.” The thing’s gaze seemed to shift to Jacalyn again, lingering for a moment before swapping back to Jiles.

“I’ll do it,” Jacalyn said. The words came unbidden to her lips, but she knew she had to do it.

“No,” Jiles protested, turning his gaze toward her. “You can’t.”

“Well you certainly can’t.” Jacalyn’s dark eyes rested on Jiles. “You have people who need you. I doubt that anyone in your family would approve of you substituting yourself for your mother. I, on the other hand, don’t have anyone holding onto me. Except you.”

“Yes, and I can’t bear to see you go.”

“It’s me or your mother, and you know there’s only one option to that choice.” She removed the saddleback from her shoulder and offered it to him.

Jiles pressed his mouth closed, his eyes pleading. “Don’t do this,” he whispered after a while.

“I have to, Jiles. I won’t let you do it.” Jacalyn dropped the saddlebag on the ground and turned toward the floating thing. “How does it work?”

“Well, since the mother’s dying you’ll have to forfeit your life.” The creature seemed almost amused. “Your blood will be added to the soil here.”

Jacalyn didn’t like the sound of the word ‘added’ in that sentence, but she nodded. “Do it, then.”

“You’ll have to plunge into the well.”

“Jac, please don’t do this.”

Jacalyn ignored Jiles and stepped onto the well’s edge, sitting on the ledge and letting her legs dangle. She looked down into the dark depths and took a deep breath. She turned toward Jiles with an apology in her eyes. “Goodbye, Jiles. Take care of your mom and sisters, all right?”

Jiles shook his head, tears beginning to shimmer in his eyes. “Please don’t, Jac. Please don’t.”

Jacalyn let her gaze remain on Jiles as she slipped herself off the stone wall of the well into the darkness below.

“JAC!” Jiles screamed her name, gripping the edge of the well so hard the stone cut into his hands and looking down. “No…” He fell back from the well and clapped a bloody hand over his mouth, muffling the sobs that racked his body. “Jac…”

“Don’t let her sacrifice be for nothing,” the Shimmer said. “Draw the water.”

Jiles couldn’t move for a moment, staring at the well that had taken his best friend with wide eyes. Finally he staggered toward the well, his mind entirely blank, and winched the bucket upward. It passed right through the Shimmer and Jiles rested the bucket on the edge of the well, recoiling when he saw that the liquid within was red.

“What is this?” he choked.

“Blood, of course. It fuels the magic.”

Jiles gagged and turned to retch into the grass.

“Unless you’d rather lose both the girl and your mother…”

Jiles stood with his hands on his knees, shuddering uncontrollably. “None of this happened how I imagined…”

“It rarely does.”

Jiles stumbled back to the bucket and struggled not to gag again. He opened the waterskin he’d brought and filled it with the blood. “Please let this work,” he whispered.

“I make no assurances.”

Jiles’ eyes flicked to the Shimmer, wild with rage and pain. “You mean my best friend just died and you can’t even promise it was worth anything?”

The Shimmer giggled and shattered into red droplets that fell back into the well.

Jiles screamed, allowing the rage and pain to surge out of him. He imagined the scream leaving angry red marks in the air, like jagged lightning bolts.

When the scream was done, he collapsed to the ground, his eyes closing, and tumbled down the hill. The waterskin fell from his fingers and spilled out in the grass, and he fell down beside it. He didn’t care about the bumps and bruises, dwelling on the physical pain to avoid the pain of losing Jac. A strangled sob passed his lips and he just lay there for a long time. The sun sank and left him there in the dark, until finally he opened his eyes and looked up at the sparkling stars. He’d ordinarily find them beautiful, but now their twinkling seemed to mock him. They seemed almost joyful and so out of place amidst his pain.

He got up, ignoring the twinkling lights above. He picked up the waterskin and capped it, shaking it to make sure there was at least a little bit of liquid remaining inside. He climbed the hill and picked up the saddleback, slinging it over his shoulder before shoving the bucket back into the well. The winch spun loose with the weight and he picked up his cloak, which he’d dropped after Jacalyn tipped herself into the well.

His torn hands stung in the cool night air as he trudged back toward the ruins.

He barely kept track of the time it took him to get home. He didn’t stop until he collapsed at the border between the ruins and the forest, and after that didn’t stop until he was home and he was collapsing on the doorstep. His sister Marie helped him inside and into bed and asked him what happened, but he was too tired to answer. He succumbed to sleep.

 

When Jill came in how she did grin

To see Jack’s paper plaster

Mother vexed did whip her next

For causing Jack’s disaster

Jiles awoke and staggered into the kitchen, taking a seat at the table to find a bowl of porridge already set out for him. His mother was up and about in the kitchen, cleaning things up and looking quite well.

“You’re better,” Jiles said.

“That water you brought me did wonders.” She smiled at him. “It didn’t taste like water, but I suppose magical water wouldn’t.”

Jiles swallowed. “No, I guess not.” His stomach flipped as he looked at his porridge, and he shoved it away.

“Are you all right? And where’s Jacalyn? I haven’t seen her yet this morning. Ordinarily she’d be here by now.”

Jiles choked as he held back a sob. “She- She didn’t come back.”

His mother’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“She had to- She-” He couldn’t continue, nor could he hold back his tears any longer. He broke, feeling like a pottery jar that shattered into a million pieces and let its contents pour out.

His mother came over and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s all right. You can tell me when you’re ready.”

 

It took a long time for him to be ready to tell her. It was a full week before he finally gathered up the courage to go to her. He stood by the garden gate, on the opposite side from his mother as she planted a new bed of petunias she knew wouldn’t grow. Finally she looked up and must have seen the stricken look on his face for she set her gloves aside immediately and came over to the gate.

“She’s dead, Momma.”

His mother came through the gate and wrapped him in her arms. “Oh sweetheart. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“The Well, it- One of us had to take your injuries. She gave herself up.” He swallowed hard. “She said I have more people who need me. But… But I need her, Momma! I miss her so much…” He choked and buried his head in her shoulder. “I want her back, Momma.”

“I know, sweetheart. I know.” She stroked his hair. “Oh sweetheart… If I’d known I would never have let you two go. Never.”

“I know, Momma. Neither would I.”

Jiles disappeared into the tears and grief, allowing himself to be swept away. Jac was gone.

Friendship Bracelets & Seashells – Short Story Sunday

Friendship Bracelets & Seashells – Short Story Sunday

Y’all remember Keslie from Sea Glass & Pressed Flowers, right? Well… I might have gotten attached to her and planned a whole series of short stories with her as the main character. This is the second of currently five planned short stories following her and her friends (as will be introduced mostly in this story), and hopefully you like them, because there are going to be several, lol. Enjoy. :)

 

“Keslie Bardell, would you please pay attention when I’m talking to you?”

Keslie’s gaze snapped up to the front of the classroom and she turned beet red. This was at least the fifth time she’d been caught gazing out the window in class today. “Yes, Miss Pieterse.” All eyes turned to Keslie, but as soon as the teacher started talking again they looked away.

“Thank you. Now as I was saying, the correct way to shade a sphere is to….”

Keslie’s mind wandered again. She was missing her dad again, as usual. She drew her gaze away from the window for the umpteenth time and decided to set her attention to listing off as many things as she could about each student in the room.

Dominic Cole. Running back for the school football team, best friend since who-knows-when, barista at the Piano Shoppe Cafe.

Teresa Kyle. Cheer captain, semi-friend semi-acquaintance, loves painting.

Her gaze stopped on the new girl. Livi Brooklyn? She didn’t really know much about her, but she seemed quite absorbed in her classes all day. Unlike Keslie… The girl had silky black hair that fell in waves to drape around her shoulders, and her Asian features were quite pretty. She wore bright yellow Converse, which immediately made Keslie think of Dominic; they were his favorite kind of shoe.

The bell rang and Mrs. Pieterse gave them their assignment. “On Friday I’d like a piece of work that shows any pencil techniques you remember from last year. You’re dismissed.”

Keslie hurriedly stuffed her supplies into her backpack, making it even heavier than it already was and hurried out of class to find her mom. The red SUV wasn’t at the sidewalk yet, which surprised her. She saw someone skip up beside her, bright colors catching her vision out of the corner of her eye. She turned to see Livi standing beside her, a pink floral backpack slung over her shoulder, bright yellow top almost neon and pink skirt the color of bubble gum.

Livi turned to Keslie and extended a hand. “Hi,” she said with a bright grin. “I’m Livi Brooklyn. I’m riding with you to dance class.”

Keslie shook her hand. “Keslie Bardell.” She almost winced. Of course Livi already knew that. She’d been called out several times by name. “You dance?”

Livi nodded, dropping Keslie’s hand. “Since I was little. It reminds me of my mom. She was a dancer. She died when I was five. It almost makes me feel like she’s here again when I dance.” Another bright smile. Her teeth were almost perfectly white.

“That’s cool,” Keslie said, at a loss for words. Livi was more talkative than anyone she’d met before, and she was shocked she spoke so freely of her deceased mother.

“What does your mom do?”

“She’s a journalist. She’s working on writing a book right now, too.”

“That’s cool. Does she write for magazines or the paper?”

“The paper.”

“I’ll have to buy one later. What about your dad?”

“I’m not sure, actually. I think he’s a piano teacher. He lives up in Nebraska.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” Keslie gave a wry smile. “What about your dad?”

“He’s an architect.” The red SUV pulled up. “Is that your mom?”

Keslie nodded.

Livi skipped over to the car and slipped into the back seat, and Keslie walked around the other side and got in. “Hi mom.”

“Hi sweetie. Hello, Livi.”

“Hello, Mrs. Bardell.”

Livi talked Keslie’s ear off the whole drive, and Keslie tried to pay attention. In truth she was a little overwhelmed, but she didn’t want to be rude. Livi rode home with them after dance and skipped up to the door after Mrs. Bardell.

“My dad won’t be home until six,” she explained, “So your mom offered to let me stay until he gets back.”

“Dominic and I actually were planning on studying together this afternoon…” Keslie said, looking at her mother.

“Oh. Well I can stay out of the way if you need me to. Or I could help out? Either one works for me. You live right on the beach, so I could certainly amuse myself while I wait.” She grinned.

“Um…”

“I’ll get you girls some cookies,” Mrs. Bardell said.

“Thanks!” Livi said.

“I’ll see what Dominic says,” Keslie said with a polite smile. “Do you want to leave your backpack in my room?”

Livi nodded and followed Keslie up the stairs to her bedroom at the end of the hall. Keslie set her backpack on the bed and Livi tossed hers with it, but her attention was on the sea glass sun-catcher in the window. She brushed it with her fingers.

“This is beautiful! Did you make it?”

Keslie nodded.

Livi’s attention was riveted on the sun-catcher for several more minutes before it was drawn to a framed piece above the bed, pressed daisies on a bright blue background. “This one too?”

Keslie nodded again. “My dad and I pressed flowers up in Nebraska when we went to visit my grandparents one year, before he and my mom split up. I kept them in a tin for a long time.”

“They’re beautiful like this.”

“Thank you.” The doorbell rang. “That’ll be Dominic. I’ll be back in a minute.” Keslie rushed down the stairs and opened the door. Dominic stepped inside, his backpack over his shoulder.

“Hey, Keslie.” He smiled, making his blue eyes sparkle under a crop of black hair.

“Hey, Dominic. Livi Brooklyn is here, so she might be studying with us.”

Dominic nodded. “She seems cool. We talked a bit in the hallway before class today.”

“She’s very chatty.”

Mrs. Bardell came out of the kitchen with a plate of fudge-striped cookies on a plate. “Hello, Dominic. Would you like some cookies?”

“Yes please.” He took a couple of cookies. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Bardell looked at Keslie. “Is Livi upstairs?”

Keslie nodded.

“Here, take this up with you.” She handed her the plate.

“This is dangerous, Mom.” A teasing smile came onto Keslie’s face.

“I trust you.” Mrs. Bardell winked and headed back through the kitchen to the dining room, where she’d had her laptop set up for the past several days.

Dominic took a bite of cookie and followed Keslie upstairs. Keslie set the plate on her desk, across from the bed, and Livi rushed to grab cookies like a magnet drawn to metal.

“Hi, Dom,” Livi said with her mouth full of food. She waved.

Dominic waved back with a smile. “Hello, Livi. How are you?”

“Excellent, now that I have cookies.” She gave a crumb-filled grin.

“I’m sure it was just unbearable before that,” Dominic joked, his eyes dancing.

“Oh yes. Absolutely.” Livi swallowed the cookie and grinned.

The study session flew by, Livi and Dominic joking and teasing the whole time and Keslie keeping them on track as necessary.

Livi looked at the digital clock by Keslie’s bed. “It’s seven o’clock already! I’m surprised my dad hasn’t come to get me.” She laughed.

“I guess you’d better get home,” Keslie said, a little disappointed to see her go.

“Yeah. I just live a few doors down. 221.”

The three of them collected their supplies back into their respective backpacks and headed downstairs. Keslie heard chatting from the living room as she neared the bottom of the stairs and saw Mrs. Bardell and a middle-aged man with dark hair talking in the living room. She assumed it was Mr. Brooklyn, and her suspicion was confirmed when Livi headed in and hugged him.

“Hi, Dad,” she said, taking a seat on the couch next to him.

“Hello, Sweetheart. Did you have fun?”

Livi nodded. “Dance was awesome, and Keslie and Dominic are a lot of fun.”

“Dominic?” Mr. Brooklyn turned toward the doorway and Dominic waved.

“He and Keslie were studying this afternoon, and Dominic invited me to join them.”

Mr. Brooklyn nodded. “It’s nice to meet you. And you must be Keslie.”

Keslie nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you, too. I’m Zach Brooklyn. You can call me Zach.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Come on in,” Mrs. Bardell said. “You don’t have to stand in the doorway all evening.” She smiled. “Zach and Livi are staying for dinner.”

“We are?” Livi said, her blue eyes lighting up.

“Mrs. Bardell was kind enough to invite us to stay,” Zach replied.

“Lilah is fine,” Mrs. Bardell said. Oh, but I should go check on the meatloaf. I’ll be right back.” She disappeared into the kitchen and Keslie rubbed her arm.

“So you’re sixteen?” Zach asked.

Keslie nodded.

Zach turned to Dominic. “And you’re…?”

“Seventeen.”

“You have a job?”

“I work at the local cafe with Keslie.”

Keslie shifted her weight.

Zach nodded as Lilah came back into the living room. “The meatloaf’s ready.” She beckoned them toward the dining room.

Dominic leaned toward Keslie as they walked. “If I didn’t know better I’d almost think he was testing me.” A slight smile played at his lips.

Keslie bit the inside of her lip to hide a smile of her own before answering. “I’m sure he was just asking.”

They took seats around the table, grabbing the desk chair from the study and one from the desk in Lilah’s room to give Zach and Livi something to sit on.

Dinner was eaten over casual conversation, and Keslie found that her mother was acting rather strange. Not badly, but strangely. Uh oh…

“You noticed that, right?” Dominic asked as they headed to the door.

“You mean that my mom is acting in a way she hasn’t for over two years? Yeah.” Keslie bit her lip. “I really hope it’s not what I think it is…”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine if it is. Zach seems like a pretty cool guy. And you already know his daughter is awesome.” He smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be fine.” He headed out and put up his jacket hood as he found it was drizzling.

Keslie closed the door behind him and took a deep breath before heading back toward the dining room. ​The other three were standing in the kitchen talking.

“Dinner was delicious,” Zach said, “But we should probably be getting home. I’ll see you tomorrow evening? We can stick with this setup? Not necessarily dinner, since I don’t want to inconvenience you, but…”

“It was no trouble.” Lilah smiled, and Keslie saw a distinct sparkle in her eye. “I loved this setup, actually.”

“All right. Tomorrow evening, then.” He put an arm around Livi’s shoulders and Lilah walked them to the door.

“Wait!” Livi said as they reached the door. She hurried over to Keslie, who was standing on the boundary between the living room and study. “Could I have your phone number?”

Keslie nodded and Livi pulled a flower-shaped notepad and neon yellow pen from her pocket, handing them to Keslie. The number was scrawled onto the pad and the writing tools were handed back.

“Thanks.” Livi hugged Keslie before hurrying back to her dad, tucking the notepad and pen away in her backpack again.

“Goodnight, Lilah.”

“Goodnight, Zach.”

The Brooklyns headed out into the rain and Keslie headed up to her room, flopping on the bed and closing her eyes, trying to banish what she knew was beginning to happen.

“I have to go to work,” Keslie said as Livi bounded into the house ahead of her.

“Okay. I can keep myself occupied.” Livi smiled and opened the fridge to grab the jug of milk.

“Yeah, make yourself at home.” Keslie still wasn’t sure what to make of her cheery neighbor. She was a lot of fun, but she was certainly boisterous. “I’ll be back around four, and of course mom is here for the rest of the afternoon.”

Livi nodded and poured herself a glass. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

Keslie left her backpack on the island and headed back out the door, grabbing her bike and riding to the cafe a few blocks down. She docked her turquoise bike alongside a black one she recognized as Dominic’s and headed inside, a bell above the door heralding her entry.

“Good afternoon, Keslie.”

Keslie waved to the man behind the counter, who was drying out a red ceramic mug, and headed behind the counter, grabbing an apron and tying it around her waist. She headed to the cash register just as a customer entered.

Dominic stepped behind her, filling a cup from the containers along the back wall. “Hey, Keslie.”

She finished taking the order before turning to Dominic. “Hey. Large mocha for here.”

Dominic nodded and set down the cup he’d just filled on the counter. “Green tea with extra honey for Lacy.” The customer came and got her drink, her departure rung from the door bell.

Keslie’s shift seemed to fly by and she hung up her apron with a sigh at four o’clock. Dominic hung his next to hers and turned toward her.

“Are you still up for studying this afternoon?”

Keslie nodded. “Yeah. Livi will probably be joining us again. Her coming home with me is now a normal thing.”

“Sounds good. I’ll ride home with you, then.”

They rode their bikes to Keslie’s house and Keslie spotted Livi out back on the beach, unmistakable in a bright pink bikini.

“I’ll go get Livi,” Keslie said.

The next week followed much the same way, and Keslie saw a distinct relationship growing between her mother and Mr. Brooklyn.

She was in bed Friday night when her phone chirped. She grabbed it from the bedside table and opened a text from Livi.

You see what I see, right?

Keslie took a deep breath before tapping out her reply. Yeah. Love is in the air.

We could be sisters!

Keslie couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. She may not be crazy about her mom being in a relationship, but having Livi as a sister wouldn’t be bad. That would be cool. How do you feel about it?

There was a short lapse before Livi replied.​ I’m not sure. I think I’m happy for them.

Keslie hesitated, looking past her phone at the wall opposite her bed. Yeah. But it hasn’t been very long since she entirely cut things off with my dad. Only about a month.

Mm.

They were divorced two years ago, but he came back to visit about a month ago to see me. She told him to leave again.

I’m sorry. What do you think of my dad?

He’s cool, I guess, but he’s not my dad.

Yeah. Same with your mom. She seems pretty cool. It’s been a long time since I lost my mom, but I still remember her. She was a bit like your mom, actually, but she was a dancer, not a writer.

The conversation went on for another hour or so before Keslie glanced at the clock and saw it was already midnight and told Livi goodnight. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The phone rang and Keslie picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hey, Kez. It’s Livi. I was wondering if you wanted to come over today and hang out.”

“Sure. I’ll ask mom.”

“Dad already talked to her last night. She said it’s fine.”

“All right. I’ll be over in five minutes.”

“Cool! See ya!”

The connection clicked and Keslie hung up, heading up to her room to slip on a pair of sandals before heading two doors down to Livi’s house. She had barely knocked when the door opened and Livi’s beaming face greeted her.

“Hey! Come on in!” Keslie stepped inside and Livi closed the door. “I invited Dominic over, too. He’ll be here in just a couple of minutes.”

Keslie nodded, biting the inside of her lip to keep from smiling. Livi’s joy was contagious.

Livi chattered at Keslie before the doorbell rang and Dominic came in.

“Hey, Dom! How are you?”

Dominic grinned. “I’m doing well. How are you?”

“Fabulous as always!” Livi twirled, her yellow skirt spinning around her. “Come on, we can chat in my room.”

The two guests followed Livi up the stairs and into a room that was painted – surprise, surprise – bright yellow. Prisms were set up all over the room to reflect rainbows on everything, and there were numerous bright paintings hanging on the walls.

“Did you do all those?” Dominic asked, pointing to a painting of an autumn forest next to the window.

“Yep! Those were a lot of fun. That one’s my favorite. I painted it last year when I went to visit my grandparents for Thanksgiving. They live on a farm with a lot of wooded areas behind it, and I always have a lot of fun exploring. I update the painting every year, sometimes with paints, sometimes with pencil. It depends on my mood that year. I’m looking forward to going again this year. Maybe you could come.”

“That sounds like a cool place.”

“The coolest. They grow pumpkins, apples, and corn, mostly. They have a couple of horses, too, and Jake has a cat named Pumpkin.”

“Who’s Jake?” Dominic asked.

“He’s their only employee. They’ve kind of adopted him as a grandson, too, so he’s part of the family now. I think you’d both like him. He has a really cool accent.”

“These are cool,” Dominic said, flipping through a collection of vinyls that sat in a box next to a record player.

“Thanks! I’ve collected them for years. I love retro stuff. Records, polaroids, stuff like that.” She grabbed a polaroid camera from her desk. “I keep meaning to get you guys together so we can get a picture. We should do that today. We should head onto the beach and get a picture. I don’t actually listen to those super often, though. I tend to listen to my iPod instead. It’s got a lot of good music on it, too. And I have, like, five pairs of headphones.”

“You’re really into music, aren’t you,” Dominic asked with a chuckle.

“Yep. It’s an escape of mine. Ooh, you know what? I think I have some string around here. We could make friendship bracelets!”

Keslie grinned and Dominic laughed.

“You’re such a flibbertigibbet,” Dominic said.

“I know. My dad calls me that all the time.” Livi rolled her eyes with a grin. “One of his nicknames for me is Gibby, for that reason.” She dug through one of the drawers in her desk and pulled out a package of string. “Here we are. Come on. We can sit on the beach and make them. Maybe we can find some seashells to add on.” She grabbed her camera and rushed down the steps and through the living room to the back door. Dominic and Keslie followed, and Keslie closed the sliding door behind her.

Livi was already to the very water’s edge by the time Keslie got there, and Dominic was only a few steps ahead of the blonde.

“This is a nice spot. I’m glad Dad picked it.” Livi plopped down on the sand and opened the package of string, pulling out the brightest colors she could find and handing the package off to Dominic, who was sitting between the two girls now. “Aw crab-apples! I forgot to grab a pair of scissors!” She jumped up and ran inside, rushing back a moment later with a small pair of bright pink scissors. There were happy face stickers all over the handle.

Livi got up and looked around for seashells several times as they were weaving their bracelets and had soon amassed a small pile in front of them. It took her almost twenty minutes to finish hers, because she kept getting distracted, while Keslie had two done in that time. It helped that Keslie had drawn from Livi’s pile, with permission of course, instead of having to hunt the beach for them.

“There we go!” Livi held up her rainbow-colored bracelet with a broad smile on her face. “All finished!” She handed it to Dominic. “Here you go.”

He tied it around his wrist and handed her the one he’d finished, a bright pink and yellow one.

“Aw, it’s perfect!” She tied it one with a grin and started to work on a second bracelet.

In two hours all three of them had wrists covered in bracelets, each one unique.

“Now we have to get a picture of our wrists,” Livi said, “Because this is cool.”

She got a picture of their arms and tucked it into her pocket so the sun wouldn’t ruin it.

“Let’s get some goofy pictures,” Dominic said.

“I don’t make good silly faces,” Keslie protested.

“Oh it’ll be fine,” Livi said. “And even if the faces aren’t great, it’ll still be fun.” She grinned. “Let’s do it.”

Keslie followed them onto Livi’s back porch, pretending to be reluctant but truthfully trying not to grin. Hanging out with Dominic and Livi had quickly become one of her favorite things to do because they were such fun to be around and were always up to something. They were basically the twins while she was the responsible older sister who pretended to be stern but truly loved watching them tease and play around.

Dominic wrapped his arms around both their shoulders and went into a cross-eyed grin, while Livi stuck her tongue out and winked. Keslie felt lame doing nothing more than sticking her tongue out, but she wasn’t creative when it came to silly faces.

“Awesome!” Livi said. “Now we just have to wait for them to develop.” She grinned and wrapped her arms around their necks. “You guys are awesome.”

“It’s cool how we’ve become like siblings in so short a time,” Dominic said with a grin. “I mean, Keslie I’ve known forever, but still. We didn’t tend to joke around this much.”

Keslie smiled. She definitely wouldn’t mind having Livi for a sister. This was a family she could get used to.

This Is His Story – Short Story Sunday

This Is His Story – Short Story Sunday

This is a short story I wrote around Valentine’s Day. It’s sad, sweet romance told mostly in flashbacks. I’m pretty proud of it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

 

I held out my wrist to be scanned before boarding the train and finding Marie, my wife, in the far corner of the car. I sat next to her and she pointed to a man who was boarding.

“I wonder what his story is,” she said.

The man was an interesting character, to be sure. He slipped into a seat and turned immediately to looking absently out the window, fingering a deep red rose in his left hand. He was elderly, probably well into his seventies, and his chin was rough with grey stubble.

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

A young man stood on the porch in the rain, a deep red rose in one hand and an umbrella in the other, waiting for his fiance to come outside. She slipped out the door and he held the umbrella over them both as they stepped out into the rain and rushed to the car.

He opened the door for her and she slid in. He rushed around to the other side and got in himself, closing the umbrella and setting it in the back seat.

“How are you?” she asked, running a hand over her short brown hair.

“I’m good.” He smiled at her as he started the ignition and buckled up. “How are you?”

“Always good, with you.” She smiled back and buckled.

They drove off toward the auditorium, where Valerie would be singing in an hour.

They arrived and he grabbed the umbrella, unfolding it and walking around the car to open the door for her and hold the umbrella over her. He’d set the rose on top of the umbrella and picked it up at the same time, and now he held it out.

“Oh, this is for you. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She smiled and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

He offered his arm and they walked inside.

“I have to go get ready,” she said, pulling away.

“I’ll see you on stage,” he said with a smile.

She returned it before entering a rehearsal room.

He walked into the performance room and took his seat, looking up at the stage. He’d seen Valerie sing on that stage many times, and she never ceased to amaze him. Her voice was the most beautiful he’d ever heard.

He sat and waited as others filed in and took their seats. A couple of violinists were tuning up on the stage. His toe tapped as he waited, silent, for Valerie to take the stage.

She came out of the wings at precisely seven, and people clapped as she headed to center stage with a broad smile on her face.

“Thank you,” she said. “Welcome. I’m glad to see you all here. I recognize the majority of you. But in this small town, how could I not?”

A ripple of laughter fluttered through the auditorium.

“Anyway, you’re not here to listen to me talk, so I’ll get started. My first song is one that my brother wrote specifically for this occasion, and I’m happy to share it with you. Without any further ado, here is Valentide.”

The violinists gave an intro and Valerie eased into her part, starting soft and growing stronger as she reached the chorus. Her voice was clear and beautiful, and the young man smiled as he listened and was put in awe yet again at her beauty and talent.

He sat in dumbstruck admiration for the entire concert, and barely managed to shake out of it when she left the stage. He headed over to the rehearsal room, where he knew Valerie would be flooded with fans giving her flowers and some even asking for an autograph so they could brag about it when she was famous.

For all their faith in her, she didn’t want to become famous. She only wanted to make people happy with her music. She could be famous, everyone knew it, but he loved her even more for her humility.

He stepped into the room and looked around, spotting Valerie in the middle of a mass of people. They were respectful of personal space, thankfully, but there were a lot of them. He waited at the back until they’d dispersed, watching her gracefully accept bouquets and compliments.

She set the flowers on the piano and slipped on her coat, walking over to him as she did so.

“What did you think?”

“You know what I thought. It was absolutely beautiful. You’re absolutely beautiful.”

She blushed.

“Thank you.”

She picked her flowers back up and he offered her his arm, which she accepted. They walked back outside to see that the rain had faded. Starlight glittered overhead and made the world glisten from its recent rain.

“It’s beautiful,” Valerie murmured.

They walked around to the back of the auditorium, where red and white lights were strung up between lampposts for Valentine’s Day, and he brushed the worst of the water off of a bench for them to sit on.

“I almost forgot!” she said. “I got you something.”

She pulled a small box from her coat pocket and handed it to him. He opened it and pulled the watch from it. He put it on and grabbed a nearly identical box from his own coat pocket and handed it to her.

“I have something for you, too.”

She opened it and lifted the necklace from it, careful with the delicate chain. A heart locket hung from it, and she smiled.

“Thank you, Tristan.”

“Open it.”

She set the pendant on her hand and opened it. There was a picture of the two of them in one side, and the other side was engraved. She read the engraving.

“February fourteenth, five-thousand fourteen. Yours forever, Tristan.”

He held his hand out for the necklace and she handed it to him, turning so that he could place it around her neck. He clasped it lovingly and smiled softly.

“I love you, Valerie.”

“I love you too.”

*****************************​

​I jolted awake as the train stopped. I glanced over at the man for some reason. He was still there, and still just looking out the window absently.

“Good morning,” Marie said.

“It’s morning?”

She nodded.

“We left at midnight, so yeah, it’s morning.” She chuckled.

“He was awake the whole time?” I asked, wondering.

“I don’t know. I fell asleep, too. We passed several stops while you were asleep.”

“Where are we now?”

She pointed up and as if on cue a voice came over the loudspeakers.

“Disembarking at Aneta.”

No one from our car got up to leave, and the man kept gazing out the window as if he’d never heard. Was he deaf, or just entirely lost in thought?

“All aboard!”

A few passengers entered our car and took seats. A little girl waved to us, and we waved back. I saw her look at the old man as she took her seat. Her gaze lingered on him and became interested, almost concerned. After a moment she turned and whispered something to her mother. Her mother nodded and she got up and walked over to the old man, taking a seat next to him and putting a hand on his.

He turned to her and smiled wearily.

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

“Hello, sir.”

The old man turned to the little girl and gave her a weary smile.

“Hello, my dear.”

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Tristan. What’s yours?”​

“Kasey. Are you okay? You look sad.”

“I am a little sad. It’s Valentine’s Day, you know, and I’m going to see my wife.”

“Then why are you sad?”

The train started moving.

“Because my wife isn’t alive anymore.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Where are you headed?”

“Vacation with my parents.” She pointed. “We’re going to Alexandria Bay.”

“Oh? That sounds fun.”

“Yeah. We go every year whenever Daddy gets time off work. That’s not very often. He has to be careful how he spends it so we can go on vacation. He told Momma.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

She shrugged.

“I’m used to it. And I won’t be too disappointed if we can’t go on vacation one year. It’s no biggie. Do you ever go on vacation?”

“I do sometimes. Not very often anymore.”

“Where’s your favorite place?”

“For vacation or in general?”

“Either one.”

“I like Alexandria Bay for vacation, too, but my favorite place is Abbotsville. That’s where I first met my wife.”

“That’s cool. What was her name?”

“Valerie.”

“Did you and Valerie have any children?”

“No. We both wanted them, but we couldn’t have any.”

“That’s sad.”

“Yes, it is. But we loved each other, and that was enough.” He gave a small smile. “Do you have any siblings?”

“Not yet. But Momma’s gonna have another baby soon. I’m hoping for a baby brother.”

“Brothers are a lot of fun.”

“I think so. My best friend has an older brother and a baby brother and they’re both fun to play with.” She smiled.

“That’s nice. I had an older brother, but he passed away several years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Are your parents missing you?”

“No, they said I could stay over here. How did you meet your wife?”

He smiled at the memory.

“We met a long time ago, in choir.”

“Choir. That’s for singing, right?”

“Yes. And she was the most amazing singer I’d ever met. I still haven’t heard any better, actually. She had a beautiful voice.”

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

“Who would like the solo for Path of Moonlight?”

A girl in the back raised her hand, as did a couple other people. She had brown hair cut shoulder length, and her brown eyes sparkled with life.

“Valerie. Would you do it?”

She nodded eagerly and the director beckoned for her to come to the front.

“Let’s take it from the top,” the director instructed.

Tristan could see that Valerie was preparing herself for her solo as she sang by the way she tapped her finger against her thigh and the extra deep breaths she took between lines.

When it came time for the solo, Valerie sang rather softly, but as she gained confidence her voice expanded in power.

Everyone in the choir was awestruck. Her voice was beautifully light and clear.

The solo ended and Tristan stumbled back into the song. The song finished and the director smiled at Valerie.

“Thank you, Valerie. That was beautiful.”

Valerie smiled shyly and blushed down at the floor.

After class, Tristan walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped and turned around.

“Sorry,” Tristan said. “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful your voice is.”

“Thanks.” She gave him a shy smile. “I can always hear you in the bass part.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“No, no, no! It’s cool! You have an amazingly deep voice! It was a compliment.” She bit her lip a little.

“Oh. Well in that case, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

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

“We became friends not long after that, and we were engaged by the end of high school,” Tristan said with a smile.

“Did you two keep singing?”

“She did. I didn’t, really. I was a lot more into the writing of music than the singing of it, although I still enjoy singing to this day.”

“What kind of songs do you like to write?”

“Different things, depending on my mood. Some are sad, some are sweet, some are powerful and loud. It all depends.”

“I’d like to hear your music sometime.”

“I might just have to share it with you sometime.”

She smiled and he returned it.

His stomach growled.

“Oh! I suppose it’s time to refill the tank.”

She giggled.

“I guess so. Do you mind if I eat with you?”

“Ask your parents.”

She nodded and skipped off to ask, returning in a moment and sliding back into her seat next to him.

“They said it’s fine.”

“You have very trusting parents.”

“Do they have any reason not to trust you?”

“No, but if I were them I might not be so trusting.”

“They’re just right over there.” She shrugged. “They can see us, they’ll know if you do anything bad. And I know you won’t. You’re a good guy.”

“Well, thank you.” He smiled and hailed the attendant as she moved to leave the car.

“Two breakfasts, please.”

She nodded and left, heading for the dining car.

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

“You made pancakes?” Valerie asked, coming down the stairs in her pajamas and slippers.

“It’s our first morning as husband and wife, I figured it was worth celebrating.”

He smiled and gave her a kiss.

“You didn’t forget the chocolate chips, did you?”

Tristan gasped in mock hurt.

“Me? Forget the chocolate chips? Never!”

He held out the batter bowl, which held perhaps a few too many chocolate chips.

“It looks perfect.”

“Yeah, let’s just hope it tastes perfect. I’m not the most amazing cook in the world.”

“Here, let me help.”

“No, that’s okay. I’ve got it. You just sit down. This first batch is almost done.”

She smiled and took a seat at the table.

“If you insist.”

He scooped the first three pancakes onto a plate and handed them to her, grabbing a fork for her as well.

“There you go. Enjoy.”

She took a bite and nearly spit it out.

“Tristan! This is completely raw in the middle!”

“I’m so sorry!”

She spit it into a paper napkin and threw it away.

“How about letting me do the rest, okay?”

He nodded and stepped away from the stove as she chuckled.

“Well this is why,” she said. “You’ve got the stove turned up too high.”

She turned it down.

“Sorry, Valerie.”

“It’s okay.” She smiled. “I completely understand. I’m actually a little surprised you didn’t burn them, turned up like that.”

“Was that a backhanded compliment?”

“Yes, that was a backhanded compliment.”

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

Tristan smiled at the attendant as she placed a plate in front of each he and Kasey.

“This looks delicious!” Kasey said, picking up her fork to dig in.

“Now aren’t you forgetting something? Or don’t people say grace anymore?”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

“That’s all right.”

She closed her eyes and folded her hands and he said grace.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for this trip and for the time we get to spend with each other and for this delicious breakfast we’re about to eat. Amen.”

She opened her eyes and got straight to work on her pancakes.

“Is it good?” he asked.

She nodded vigorously.

“Don’t nod so hard you choke.”

She held back a laugh so as not to spew pancakes everywhere, but her eyes gave it away.

​”Thank you for breakfast,” she said when she’d finished her bite.

“No problem.” He smiled.

“So, why couldn’t you and your wife have children?” She took another bite.

“The government wouldn’t let us.

“Why not? That seems silly.”

“I think so. But I suppose it makes sense. She had a terminal illness and I am not the most emotionally stable person in the universe. They didn’t think we were suited to be parents.”

“What does ‘terminal’ mean?”

“It means they already knew she would die from it.”

“How did they know?”

He shrugged.

“Something in her blood or something, I guess. I don’t know for sure.”

“I’m sorry. What would have happened if you’d had a child anyway?”

“We would have had to put him or her up for adoption.”

“I was adopted.”

“Oh really? That’s interesting. How old were you?”

“About two, I think. I don’t really remember. I’m six now.”

He nodded.

“You’re a grown up young lady then.” He smiled.

“Not really. I’m not as old as my Momma yet.”

He chuckled.

“Well, good luck catching up.”

“Thank you.”

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

“Tristan?” Valerie whispered, easing open his office door. He was asleep in his chair, a book in his hand. “Tristan.”

His eyes opened and he looked over at her.

“Yeah?”

“I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

“I’m…I’m pregnant.”

“What?”

“I said I’m pregnant.”

“But we’re not allowed-”

“I know. So we’ll have to give up the baby.”

“Oh Valerie.”

He stood and embraced her as a tear ran down her face.

“I don’t want to give him up.”

“I know sweetheart. Neither do I.”

“Is there any way we can avoid it?”

“Not one that we’d be comfortable with doing.”

“You know they’ll encourage us to abort.”

“I know. But we won’t.”

“I know.”

“We have to go tell them.”

“But why? They’ll find out soon enough anyway, won’t they?”

“Yeah, and we’ll get in trouble if they do. They’ll think we tried to hide it or something. We have to tell them now.”

“Tristan, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to.”

“I know that, I do. And I don’t want to go either. But we have to.”

She nodded, wiping tears from her cheeks as they were replaced by fresh ones.

“Let’s go then,” she said. “In the morning.”

Tristan nodded.

“Let’s go to bed.”

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

The attendant cleared away their dishes.

“I need to scan your chip, sir,” she requested.

He held out his wrist and she scanned it.

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you. Breakfast was delicious.”

“Well I didn’t cook it, but you’re welcome.”

She headed out of the car.

Kasey leaned her head against Tristan’s arm and closed her eyes.

“Eating made me sleepy.”

“That’s okay. You can rest.”

He smiled down at her softly and she was soon asleep.

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

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Marie asked.

“Me too,” I replied.

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

The doctor entered the hospital room with a clipboard in his hand.

“So, you two are ineligible to become parents, correct?” he asked.

“That’s correct,” Tristan replied.

“Then I’d encourage you to abort. If you don’t, you’ll have to give up your baby as soon as it’s born.”

“We’re aware. And we won’t be aborting. It’s a human life, and we won’t be taking it.”

“Very well. But I will warn you that the next nine months will be very uncomfortable for you.”

“You think we don’t know that?” Valerie asked, tears running down her face. “We’re pregnant with a baby we’re not supposed to have, and you think we don’t know that carrying a baby that isn’t allowed to be my own is going to be ‘uncomfortable’? It’ll be worse than uncomfortable! It’ll be nearly unbearable! It will probably be the most pain I’ve ever been in! We know it will be ‘uncomfortable’!”

“I’m sorry ma’am. I understand.”

“Do you?” she croaked, her voice overtaken by tears.

“There’s more news,” the doctor said.

“About what?” Tristan asked.

“About Valerie’s illness.”

Valerie looked up at the doctor.

“What about it?”

“It’s begun to develop sooner than we expected.”

“How long do I have?”

“Two years, more or less.”

She nodded.

“Is there anything you can do to slow it down?” Tristan asked.

“I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” Valerie said.

“I’ll leave you alone now.”

The doctor left the room and Valerie collapsed into tears again. Tristan didn’t say anything, just sat next to her on the hospital bed and put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him and holding her close.

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

Kasey stirred and Tristan looked down at her as her eyes opened.

“Hello, sweetheart.”

She smiled up at him.

“Hi, Mr. Tristan.”

She sat up and glanced over at her parents. Her father was absorbed in a book, and her mother gave her a smile.

“What do you think each of these passengers are like?” she asked. “That girl over there, for instance.” She pointed to a teenage girl with blonde hair cut short. She had earbuds in her ears and was doing something on her tablet.

“What do you think she’s like?”

“She looks lonely. She also looks like she likes music, and music is always good.”

“Not always, but nearly always, yes.”

“Your turn. Pick someone and tell me what you think.”

“I don’t think I should. What if we assume something completely wrong and they hear us and are offended? We don’t want to hurt anyone, or to make assumptions.”

“Don’t you make assumptions automatically? Doesn’t everyone?”

“I suppose so, but there’s no need to say those assumptions out loud. Let’s do something else, all right?”

“All right. Like what?”

“Can you read?”

“Of course I can read, silly! Why? What are we going to do?”

“There’s a newspaper stand over in that corner.” He pointed. “Let’s see if we can find a crossword, shall we?”

She nodded with a smile and headed over to the stand, grabbing a newspaper and bringing it back to Tristan, taking her seat. He pulled a pen from his pocket and uncapped it, flipping to the crossword.

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

Valerie held a newborn in her arms. The baby was completely healthy and smiling up at his mother, but Valerie was pale and had dark rings under her eyes.

“We’ll be taking the baby now,” the nurse said. “I’m very sorry.”

The nurse held out her hands for the baby, but Valerie didn’t hand him over.

“This is my baby.”

“Yes, but you and your husband have been told you’re not allowed to have children. We have to take the baby and send him to an orphanage. It’s protocol.”

“I know, but he’s mine.”

A tear rolled down her face and dripped onto the baby’s. She brushed it away with a trembling finger.

“I understand the pain you must be feeling. If you knew you weren’t allowed children, perhaps you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant.”

Valerie’s head snapped up and she glared at the nurse.

“How dare you make this out to be our fault! So I have a terminal illness. So what! While I lived I would still love the baby. And Tristan would take perfect care of him both while I was living and after I died. As for his ’emotional instability,’ who knows? Maybe the baby would have helped him with that!”

“Or it might have made things worse. Mrs. Wickersham, hand over the baby.”

“No!”

Her defenses collapsed and she began to sob. The nurse wrenched the baby from her arms.

“No! Please, no…”

Tristan held her, allowing her to cry into his shoulder as his own tears dripped into her hair.

“I’m so sorry, Valerie.”

“Me too.”

Her eyes fell closed and she went limp. He laid her down, beginning to panic.

“Nurse! Nurse!”

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

“Four across is ‘potato,'” Kasey said, pointing.

“So it is.” Tristan filled in the word. “And that completes the puzzle.” He smiled at her and she smiled back.

“What now?”

Tristan glanced out the window a moment.

“It’s getting rather late. You should probably go have lunch with your parents.”

Kasey nodded a bit, disappointed, and headed back to her parents’ table, taking a seat next to her mother.

What a sweet girl, Tristan thought, gazing out the window as he thought back to the last night he’d had with his wife.

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

Tristan held Valerie’s hand, tears threatening to spill down his face. She was unconscious and had been for hours, but he hadn’t left her side.​

“Valerie. You might die tonight, and there are some things I want to tell you before that happens. I don’t know if you can hear me or not. First, I love you. I always have and always will, and ‘even death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.'” He chuckled a bit and a tear escaped. “You introduced me to that movie. Even if you do die tonight, I know I’ll see you again. The best thing you ever did for me was lead me to Christ.” A few more tears streamed down and he wiped them away with his free hand. “I honestly don’t know what to say. The love of my life is dying, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m helpless.” He shuddered with a sob. “I love you, Valerie.”

He cried until he fell asleep, and the last thing he heard before he fell asleep was a weak, “I love you too, Tristan.”

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

Kasey came back over to Tristan an hour or two later.

“Tristan, Abbotsville is on the way to Alexandria Bay, and I was wondering if I could come with you to see your wife. My momma and daddy already said it was okay. They said I should keep you company.”

“You’d like to come with me?”

Kasey nodded, her blue eyes earnest.

“All right. Are you sure it won’t hold up your vacation?”

“No. It’ll be fine. Daddy said so.”

“Well all right then.”

Kasey smiled and skipped back over to her seat with her parents.

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

When Tristan woke up, Valerie’s hand was cold. He glanced at the monitors. Nothing. Flatlined.

A tear slid down his face, releasing a series of sobs like a floodgate.

The doctor came in a few minutes later.

“I’m sorry Mr. Wickersham. We left you alone for the night so as not to disturb you.”

“You should have woken me.” Tristan’s voice was husky.

“I’m sorry. And I offer my deepest, heartfelt apologies. I’m afraid we have to handle the body now.”

Tristan fought down another sob at the words. ‘The body.’

“I’m going to need you to leave, Mr. Wickersham. We’ll let you know when the funeral is arranged.”

Tristan nodded, leaving the room. He gave one last look over his shoulder at her peaceful face, nearly as beautiful in death as it had been in life.

“Goodbye, Valerie.”

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

“Embarking at Abbotsville!” the conductor announced over the loudspeaker.

Tristan got up, grabbing his bag from under his seat. Kasey skipped over to him and slid her small hand into his.

“It’ll be all right,” she said.

The rose he had brought was beginning to wilt by now, but it was as deep red as ever.

“Are your parents coming?” he asked.

“Yeah. They wanted to give you some space, though.”

“Tell them we’re going to Lindenfall Cemetery so they can follow us.”

She nodded and walked back to tell them before returning and slipping her hand back into his.

“Let’s go, then,” Tristan said, stepping out of the train with her and walking over to the shuttle deck. He paid for a shuttle and the two of them slid inside.

“Lindenfall Cemetery, please,” he instructed the shuttle. It gave an affirmation in a mechanical voice before moving off onto the road.

They arrived at the cemetery in ten minutes and stepped out of the shuttle.

“Wait,” Tristan instructed the vehicle.

He led Kasey between the cold stone grave markers to one made of marble. It was collecting dirt, and moss was growing in the letters. Tristan knelt down and wiped it off, pulling the moss away.

Valerie Peterson Wickersham.

May 27th, 5617-February 14th, 5658

“She died on Valentine’s Day?”

Tristan nodded.

“I’m sorry.”

She got on her knees next to him as he rested the rose against Valerie’s tombstone and gently fingered the lettering. Tears slid down his face and she placed a hand on his shoulder. She saw her parents come up a few feet behind and stop out of the corner of her eye.

“I still miss you,” Tristan said. “Always. But I know you’re home now. I just wish I was home with you, sometimes. I love you as much as ever.”

Kasey sat quietly and listened as he spoke, giving him silent support.

A few minutes later they rose and headed back to the shuttle to drive back to the train station.

“I’ll miss you, Tristan,” Kasey said.

“I’ll miss you too, sweetie.”

She smiled a little.

“I’ll see you around, won’t I?”

“Maybe. Maybe I’ll come to Alexandria Bay sometime and see if you’re around.”

“That would be fun.”

“Kasey really connected with you today,” Kasey’s mom said. “She’s usually rather shy. You helped her come out of her shell.”

“I was glad to do it. You have an amazing daughter. She’s very tenderhearted.”

“She is.”

“Goodbye,” Kasey said, hugging the old man and kissing him on the cheek.

“Goodbye, Kasey,” he replied, embracing her back and kissing the top of her head.

Kasey and her family boarded the train.

“Departing Abbotsville!” the conductor announced.

As the train pulled away, Kasey leaned out the window and waved to Tristan. He smiled and waved back before turning back toward the shuttle deck and heading to his hotel. Kasey was a girl he’d never forget.

Sea Glass & Pressed Flowers – Short Story Sunday

Sea Glass & Pressed Flowers – Short Story Sunday

Image by JSpiess (JSpiess – photography shot in Eastern PA) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a short story that I wrote just for my blog, and to practice writing internal dialogue (I may or may not have forgotten that was the aim of the story halfway through.) Enjoy. :)

 

Keslie sat on the beach with a pen and paper in her lap. She wasn’t focusing on that, though, but instead looked out across the ocean with glistening brown eyes. Her blonde hair was full of salt and whipped around in her face to tangle itself into terrible knots, and she didn’t bother to brush it out of the way; she knew it would just find its way back into her face in another moment.

The beach held so many memories, and she’d been trying to write them into the music she held on her lap, still half unfinished. Unfortunately, they merely stuck in her head and played over and over, like a living chronicle of her whole life. Keslie saw herself in her mind’s eye a toddler, swinging down the beach between her mom and dad. They both had the same blonde hair as she did, and it was just as constantly salt-filled as hers. Growing up in a house right on the beach meant daily trips to go swimming in the ocean.

As a little girl of seven, she was still skipping down the sand dunes to the water’s edge. Her parents came behind her, hands clasped with each other’s, fingers entwined. She’d longed to have a love like theirs, so sweet and carefree. Her white cover-up danced in the ocean breeze, and she grinned as the salt taste hit her lips. A giggle bubbled up in her, and she allowed it to escape.

At thirteen her dad joked about buying a shotgun and she laughed at him, her brown eyes dancing with delight at her father’s adoration of her. He taught her all he could of the piano, and after that paid for classes to take her to the next level. She had him to thank for her love of music.

From a young age she could hear that music in everything. It was in the waves, in the wind, even in the shift of the sand beneath her feet. It had been a wish to put that natural music into her piano playing that had started her in composing. Not that she did much of that, at least not officially. She played with melodies and harmonies when she played, but rarely wrote her compositions down. It was an escape from reality, nothing more.

Keslie looked down at the paper in her lap, snapping herself out of her thoughts. She looked at the notes on the page, trying to concentrate. She hummed out the tune and just kept going, jotting down the notes as they came to her. She stopped when the page ran out and looked over the melody again. Several notes were erased or changed, and she hummed it out again. It sounded good, but it would sound better on the piano, with harmonies laced in.

Rising from the sand dune she was sitting on, she turned away from the shore and up to her house. Her sandals clipped on the steps onto the back patio and she knew they heralded her return to her mother, who was no doubt in her bedroom working on her book.

The sliding door keened as it opened, and she stepped inside, closing it behind her and leaving her sandals on the woven mat.

The room she stepped into was an office, and a sharp pain shot through her chest as she looked at the walnut desk. No one had sat at that desk in two years. Her father’s impression on the seat was almost entirely faded, despite the millions of times he had sat there.

She turned away from the desk toward the piano in the opposite corner, just a small standing instrument. She set her music and pencil on top of it before heading through the living room to the stairs and heading up to her room. Keslie glanced at her mother’s closed bedroom door as she passed. There was no sound coming from the room except that of the large metal fan that she knew took up the space next to the desk, and the click of keys as she typed out her book. There was no greeting as she passed.

Keslie stepped into her room and closed the door behind her before heading to the closet and changing out of her blue floral bathing suit into a flowing white tanktop and skinny jeans.

As she started back for the steps she hesitated at her mother’s door, considering knocking. She just wanted to see if her mom would reply. If she would be the cheery woman Keslie missed so much. But she knew that wouldn’t happen. Lilah Bardell hadn’t been happy in two years.

Keslie turned away from the door and headed downstairs, little reminders of her father flitting past as she walked. She could hear his heavy steps on the stairs as she walked, their laughter mingling as he swept her off her feet at the front door. As she stepped off the bottom stair and turned into the living room she could see all three of them sitting around the coffee table, laughing and talking as they played their favorite board game. Walking into the office she could see him everywhere; he was at the desk, playing the piano, browsing the books on the shelf. She gave herself a bittersweet smile and took a seat on the piano bench, pulling the music down from on top and setting it on the music holder in front of her.

The ivory keys were familiar and smooth under her fingertips, but she still played the first notes a bit hesitantly. She took a deep breath and started again, allowing herself to be swept into the music like an ocean current. She watched her fingers dance across the keys as she played, working in harmonies and chords as she went. Some of the notes didn’t mix and nearly jolted her out of the music, but she just took a breath and closed her eyes, falling into the music once again.

Music was one of the few escapes left to her, a protective wall to ward her from the harshness of reality and the pains that came with it.

She could lose herself in her playing and not have to feel anything but the music surrounding her.

She didn’t know how long she’d been playing when a hand touched her shoulder and startled her. Keslie looked up to see her mom standing over her, a bittersweet expression on her face. Keslie tried not to stare at her mother. She’d accumulated so many wrinkles over the past two years, and so much pain was reflected in those blue eyes of hers. Those eyes almost seemed faded, like a worn photograph.

“It’s time for lunch,” Lilah said. “I fixed you an egg sandwich.”

Keslie nodded, removing her fingers from the piano keys. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You’re welcome.” Lilah stroked Keslie’s hair once before heading into the kitchen.

Keslie hesitated a moment before heading through the kitchen to the dining room, looking over the music that rested on the piano, just one note at a time so far. She’d have to add in the harmonies after lunch.

She reluctantly stood from the bench and headed into the dining room, finding her sandwich set at her place at the small oak table. She took a seat in the cushioned dining chair that was hers and said a quick prayer before taking the first bite of her sandwich.

She ate rather slowly. She always ate slowly these days. She was supposed to be recovered by now, she told herself. She was supposed to be over it. Dad was gone and he wasn’t coming back.

She should just cut him out of her life completely, her mother had said when she received the first letter. When Keslie had insisted on reading the letter, Lilah had frowned and set a rule in place that Keslie would be allowed to read any letters her father sent her, but not send anything in reply.

Keslie had agreed, though she was of course disappointed, and Lilah had handed her the letter. Now all of her father’s letters sat in a tin under her bed, along with flowers she had pressed from their trip to Nebraska and some sea glass she’d found after he was gone. She’d cried when she found it, remembering when he used to point out sea glass buried in the sand any time they’d walk along the beach.

Finishing her sandwich, she took her plate into the kitchen and set it in the dishwasher. Her mother sat at the island looking over a stack of papers, one hand on her temple and the other tapping a pencil against the sheets. Keslie looked at the paper and saw it was part of her mother’s book. She was glad it was that and not bills, though the Bardells were well enough off that she didn’t expect to see her mother stressing about the bills anytime soon.

She headed back into the office and looked out the sliding doors. The waves were rolling up cerulean on the beach, but she was rather tired of sand and water. She suddenly realized something and glanced at her waterproof watch.

“Oh crap,” she muttered, grabbing the music off the piano and slipping into her sandals before heading out the front door.

She grabbed her pink bike and tucked the music into the front basket before hopping on and pedaling as fast as she could for the local cafe. It took her five minutes to reach it, everything around her going by in a blur, and she almost ripped the pages of music as she grabbed them from the basket and rushed inside, leaving her bike lying on the pavement outside the front door.

“Sorry I’m late!” she gasped.

The man behind the counter frowned a bit, but nodded over to the piano in the corner. It was the same style as the one at home, and she slid comfortably onto the bench, tidying her music before setting it on the stand. She took a moment to catch her breath before starting into the song. She was taking a risk playing something new here, but her trembling fingers pressed the keys and soon she was swept away once again.

She played uninterrupted, not even noticing when people left her tips, until someone set a cup on top of the piano. She looked up, her fingers falling still, and looked at its contents. Rose tea with cream and sugar, her favorite. She looked after the barista who had delivered it.

“I didn’t order this!” she said.

“No, but I did.” The voice was familiar, and her breath caught in her throat. She turned to face the speaker, almost afraid to see who it was. There stood her father, with a bittersweet smile on his careworn face. He dropped a five into Keslie’s tip bowl.

“Daddy.” Her voice was barely a breath, as if she was afraid she’d vanish. And maybe she was. This couldn’t possibly be real. He’d been gone for two years, and there was no reason for him to come back. Mom would just push him away again. But maybe if he cared enough about her, about mom…

“Yes.” He smiled, and there were tears glistening in his eyes. “It’s good to see you again, Kes.”

She bolted off the piano bench to hug him and nearly knocked him over, tears forming in her own eyes. “Daddy. I missed you.” Her voice was a small whisper, though in her heart she was shouting with all the joy in the world. A million emotions spun through her mind like a whirlpool, dancing and darting like seagulls.

His arms were strong around her, just as she remembered them. After a long moment he pulled away and she almost tried to hold him back, but let him lean away, not bothering to wipe her tears.

“I missed you too. More than I can say.”

“You have to come see Mom.” Keslie wasn’t sure why she said it. She knew a meeting like that would never go over well. But she knew they needed to see each other just once more.

Any hint of a smile drained from her father’s face, and immediately she regretted her words. “I can’t, Kes. You know that. She’ll kick me out again. She won’t let me see you again.” He brushed her hair out of her face. “Can we please walk for a while together? I want to talk to you. In person. It’s been so long.”

“But my shift-”

“I already talked to Gordon. He’s all right with it. You only had half an hour left, anyway.”

Keslie nodded. “Okay. I just have to get something from the house first. I’ll be right back.”

Her father nodded, though she saw a reluctance in his eyes to let her go, like he thought she wouldn’t come back.

Keslie slipped out the door and mounted her bike, riding back to the house and rushing up the stairs sounding like a herd of elephants. As she passed Lilah’s door, there was still no sound from within other than the whooshing and the clicking. She stepped into her own room and reached under the neatly-made bed for the tin that held her memories. It was about the size of a journal, with a scene of Victorian England on the top. It had been an heirloom, given to her by her grandmother.

She rushed back down the stairs and out the door, setting the tin carefully in her bike basket before heading back to the cafe. She took more care of her bike this time and carefully took the tin from the basket, cradling it protectively. She’d never taken it out of the house before. Her father hadn’t moved, and she tentatively took his hand as she reached him, like she had when she was a little girl.

He smiled down at her with another bittersweet smile. “Ready to go?”

Keslie nodded.

“Before we go, let me just tell you I’m not trying to kidnap you. I know some family members kidnap younger family members, and I’m not going to do that. I still love your mom, and I wouldn’t take you away from her. I think she probably needs you more than I do.”

Keslie nodded again. “I wasn’t worried. You were thinking the southern edge of the beach, right? Where we always built sandcastles together?” Her eyes misted at the memory.

Her father smiled, and this time there was less sorrow in it. “Perceptive as always, Kes.”

They left the cafe, heading down an embankment behind down to the beach. The sand was soft under Keslie’s steps, sliding on her feet around her sandals. They didn’t have to walk very long before they reached where they were going. It was a quiet spot, somewhat secluded with a cave behind it. Keslie had always loved the people on the beach, but she equally loved spending time with her parents in the quiet. A pang went through her chest as she felt a distinct gap. Her mother should be here. Her mother was always here when they came down here.

“You’ve gotten better with your piano,” Keslie’s father said as he took a seat on the sand.

She sat down next to him, curling her legs up under her and settling the tin on her lap. “Thank you.”

He nodded, then glanced at the tin. “My mom’s tin. What’s in there?”

Keslie tipped open the lid and was met with the faint aroma of old paper and dry flowers. The flowers sat on top, daisies and roses, mostly. The daisies were from a field her father had shown her and Lilah that he loved to play in when he was younger, and the roses were a gift she’d gotten from her grandparents when she played piano for the family reunion. That had been when she got the tin, too.

Under and around the flowers were shards of sea glass in various shades of blue. Under everything was a stack of handwritten letters that were worn from multiple occasions of rereading.

“What’s the sea glass for?” her father asked.

“I saw it not long after you left. It made me think of you and how you always pointed it out on the beach. She smiled a bit, looking fondly down at everything. She handed him the tin, feeling a bit nervous giving it even to him.

He looked at everything, flipping through it reverently, careful not to damage the fragile flowers. “You kept them all,” he breathed.

“Every last one,” Keslie replied, her own voice soft.

“I’m honored.”

She shrugged. “You’re my dad. Of course I kept them.”

They sat there on the beach for a while, talking about music and life and Keslie’s classes. At one point her father asked if she had a boyfriend, to which she replied with a blush and a no. Then talk had drifted to other things and they talked almost until sunset.

“I should get home,” Keslie said, reluctance evident in her voice. “Mom will be wondering where I am.” She stood, tin in hand, and looked down at him. “You could come too?” She was tentative to suggest it, but she did so anyway.

He shook his head. “Not yet.”

“You can’t put it off forever.” Keslie bit her lip, blue-eyed gaze falling to the sand.

He was silent for a long moment before nodding slowly. “You’re right.” He rose, brushing the sand off of himself. “I’ll come see her. But I don’t expect it to go well. She kicked me out.”

“Maybe she’ll be glad to see you. She hasn’t been the same since you left.”

“I didn’t leave. You know that.”

“It just… sounds more gentle than saying she kicked you out.”

He shook his head. “No. Just say she kicked me out.”

They walked along the beach as the sun set and after several minutes arrived at the house. As they came to the base of the back porch stairs Keslie’s father stopped.

“Come on,” she said gently. “You have to see mom.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes you can. You survived five years with her before she kicked you out. You can face her once now. Please?”

He looked at her with almost pleading eyes before taking a deep breath and nodding. “Okay.”

She led him inside, her stomach doing flips. What if Lilah really did kick him out again? What if she had to listen to them fight? She took a deep breath as she left him in the living room and ran upstairs. She lifted her hand to knock on Lilah’s door and hesitated. This would be the first time in a long time she’d knocked on her mother’s door. Her knuckles rapped against the wood and she heard the clicking of keys stop. Footsteps approached the door and it opened.

“What is it, Kes?” Her voice was as weary as the rest of her, and she raked an almost trembling hand through her tousled waves.

“I need you to come downstairs with me for a minute.” Keslie struggled to keep a nervous tremble from her voice.

“Why?”

“Just trust me.” Keslie reached a hand out and Lilah hesitated for a moment before taking it and following her daughter downstairs.

Keslie felt an unexpected wave of relief when she saw her father still standing in the living room. She hadn’t realized she was afraid of him running away from this meeting. Lilah stiffened behind her as she entered the room.

“What is he doing here?” she asked, her voice a harsh, tired whisper.

“He came to see me. I insisted he see you, too.”

“That… Was a bad idea. A very bad idea.” Lilah turned to leave, but Keslie held onto her hand.

“Please, Momma. Just talk to him? For me?” She turned her pleading eyes from Lilah to her father and back again. For a terrifying moment she was afraid Lilah would leave, but she turned back  and stepped further into the room.

“Julian,” she said, her voice tight.

“Lilah.” His voice was tender, filled with held-back tears.

They were silent for several minutes, just looking at each other. Julian’s expression was filled with pain, doubt, and love. Lilah’s was filled only with a tired mix of pain and anger, which slowly faded only to tired pain.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Lilah finally said.

“I wanted to see you and Kes.”

“It was a bad idea. I don’t want to see you.”

“I can’t just not see my daughter for the rest of her life.”

“Yes, you can. You didn’t seem to care about her before I kicked you out.”

The pain that shot through Keslie at her mother’s words was reflected in her father’s eyes. “Lilah, you know that’s not true. I always took care of her. I always took time for her.”

Lilah shook her head. “You were constantly buried in your work.”

“Yes, I was, but I always stopped when you or Keslie asked me to. Always. You know that. And I’ve learned from that. I want to do better by both of you. I won’t let myself be swallowed up by work this time.”

Lilah shook her head again. “No. There won’t be a this time. Get out. Leave me and Kes alone. I don’t want you to hurt her again.”

Another shot of pain went through Keslie. Her father had never hurt her. She only wished that he and Lilah hadn’t gotten into a fight that resulted in him leaving. She missed him. That loneliness was the only thing hurting her. That and watching her parents fight again. She knew that her father would leave again. He wouldn’t want to hurt Lilah.

Julian looked at the floor, trying to hide the pain on his face, and nodded slowly. “I’ll leave, then. If you don’t want me around, I’ll leave. I don’t want to hurt you.”

He turned for the front door and Keslie watched, feet rooted to the ground, as he left. She stood there paralyzed for a heartbreaking moment before the tears began and she ran up to her room, slamming the door.

She slumped down to sit on the floor, burying her face in her knees. She knew she should have expected things to go poorly, but she’d been so hopeful that her parents would reconcile and she’d have a normal family again. She knew she shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up. She only had a few moments of quiet before she heard a soft knock on the door.

“Kes…”

“Don’t call me that!” Keslie screamed, raising her head. “That was Dad’s nickname for me, not yours!”

There was silence on the other side of the door, and then a gentle sigh. “I’m sorry, Keslie. I’m sorry that your father and I can’t get back together.”

“No you’re not. You said you didn’t want him to hurt me, but that alone hurt me. He has never once hurt me, Mom. Not once. He always took care of me and spent time with me. He’s the one who taught me how to play piano. You hurt me when you drove him away. You hurt me when you sent him away again just now. You hurt me every time I pass your bedroom door and the only sounds I hear are clicking keys and the fan. You hurt me mom, not him.”

Another silence. “I’m sorry.” Lilah’s voice was softer this time, and Keslie knew she’d hurt her mother. A pang of guilt went through her, but she fought it down. She’d only said what she felt. “I’m sorry.”

After a lengthy silence Keslie heard her mother’s footsteps retreating. She heard Lilah’s bedroom door click closed and buried her head in her knees once more as hot tears spilled down her face.

After a long time Keslie lifted her head again and glanced at the clock on her bedside table. The glowing blue letters read nearly seven thirty. She stood, wiping her eyes, and stepped over to her dresser, looking into the mirror on top. Her eyes were glossy, as she’d known they would be, and she glanced down at the top of her dresser, grabbing a ponytail holder and her hairbrush. She quickly brushed her hair and pulled it into a ponytail before heading over to the door and opening it slowly. The usual sounds were coming from Lilah’s room, and Keslie struggled not to lose it again.

She kept her footsteps quiet as she headed down the stairs and out the front door. For a moment she just watched the passing cars on the road in front of the house, trying to decide what she wanted to do. She could try to find her father, but he could be anywhere, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway. Her mother had officially cut ties with Julian. She could go to the beach, but that would only remind her of her father more.

Keslie took a deep breath and headed toward the cafe, where she realized she’d left her bike. She walked slowly, hearing the rush of cars as they passed and the cry of seagulls on the beach. It took her almost ten minutes to reach the cafe, and she stepped inside quietly. A bell above the door heralded her entrance and she took a seat in the corner, looking out the front window to watch the cars.

“Good evening, Keslie.”

Keslie looked up and saw the other barista standing above her. She attempted a smile. “Good evening, Dominic.”

“Are you okay?”

She nodded and looked back out the window. Dominic had been a good friend of hers for a long time. She knew he wouldn’t believe her lie. “I’m fine. Just get me a rose-” She stopped.

“Rose tea with cream and sugar?”

Keslie shook her head, wiping away a stray tear. “Never mind.”

Dominic took a seat across from her at the table and set his notepad and pen on the table. “Keslie, you’re not okay. What’s the matter?”

Keslie shook her head again. “Nothing.”

“Okay.” Dominic stood again and picked up his pen and pad before heading back toward the kitchen.

Keslie almost lost it again. Dominic was always thoughtful and respectful. He would leave because she’d made it clear that she didn’t want to talk about it, but he wouldn’t stop worrying.

In a couple of minutes Dominic returned and took his seat again, pushing a mug toward her. It smelled of cinnamon, and Keslie immediately knew what it was. She turned back toward the table and took the mug, letting the warmth seep into her fingers. She looked into the mug, seeing her reflection in the apple cider within.

“Thank you, Dominic,” she said, her voice quiet.

“You’re welcome.”

She took a sip of the hot liquid and immediately burnt her tastebuds. “I’m sure this is delicious, but after that I won’t be able to taste it.” She chuckled a bit.

“Well don’t drink it so hot, then!” he said, putting a pretend reprimand in his voice.

Keslie couldn’t stop a smile from escaping. “You’ve got to stop doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Making me smile when I’m miserable.”

Dominic smiled, lighting up his blue eyes. “I don’t think I will.”

Keslie smiled and lifted the red mug to her lips again.

They sat in silence for a couple of minutes before Dominic broke the silence. “So what’s the matter?” His voice was gentle, telling her he wouldn’t press too far.

Keslie set her mug down and took a deep breath. “My dad came into town.”

“I saw him.”

“We hung out for a while and then I insisted he come see Mom.” She took a deep breath, glancing out the window and shaking her head ever so slightly. “I really wish I hadn’t.”

“She kicked him out again?”

Keslie nodded, tears welling in her eyes again. She swallowed past a lump in her throat. “I just want him back. I wish he and Mom could get back together. But I know that’s hoping for too much.” She looked down into her mug.

Dominic didn’t say anything, understanding the need for silence.

The silence lasted for a long time, and Keslie finished off her cider, setting the mug aside. Another several minutes of silence passed before she rose from the table and walked across the cafe to the piano. She took a seat on the bench, the leather seat comfortable and familiar under her, and rested her fingers on the keys. She considered playing the memory song, but she quickly dismissed the idea and started playing something new. The notes flowed with a melancholy ring as her fingers danced across the keys. Before long she closed her eyes and let herself drift away, letting the notes come from somewhere within her instead of from her mind.

She didn’t know how long she played, only that she was stopped when Gordon, the owner of the cafe, rested a hand on her shoulder.

“That’s beautiful, Keslie, but we’re closing.” Regret was evident in his eyes and tone.

Keslie nodded and rose from the piano bench, heading over to the corner table again, where Dominic was still sitting. “How long did I play?”

“About half an hour. It was beautiful.”

Keslie smiled gently. “Thanks.”

Dominic stood and grabbed her mug. “I’d better clean up here.” He rested his free hand on her shoulder. “Go home. Take care of yourself. Take care of your mom.”

Keslie nodded. “I will. Thanks for the cider.”

He headed for the back and she headed for home.

 

Keslie stands on the beach, the waves lapping at her toes. She looks out over the ocean, watching the sun sink toward the horizon. She hears her name from down the beach and turns to see her father walking towards her. Her heart does a flip and she runs toward him, but just when she’s about to embrace him a wave crashes over her and tugs her into the ocean.

She screams for her father, but not because she’s frightened of drowning. She’s frightened of losing him. She screams for him over and over, blowing bubbles in the water, but when she’s thrown back onto the shore and looks around, he’s gone. She calls for him again, but there’s only the sound of wind and waves, and suddenly it’s a very lonely sound.

 

Keslie woke up with tears streaming down her face. She hugged her pillow to her and let herself cry for several minutes before getting out of bed. She dressed in a pink tank top and skinny jeans, slipping her feet into her sandals.

As she passed her mother’s door, she was surprised to only hear the fan. She headed downstairs and found her mother sitting at the table with a bowl of cereal. Keslie poured herself a bowl and sat down across from Lilah, shifting uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry about last night.” Lilah was the first to speak.

“Me too.” Keslie twirled her spoon around in her bowl.

“You were right. I’m not helping you any.”

“But I was wrong to lash out at you.”

Lilah nodded. “Can you forgive me?”

Keslie nodded.

“I’d like to do better.” Keslie was silent. “Would you like to read my book?” Lilah’s voice was hesitant.

Keslie looked up at her mother, hiding her surprise. No one had read Lilah’s book. It was something she kept secret. “Really?”

Lilah nodded. “I’d like you to see it.”

Keslie nodded slowly in return. “I… I’ve always wanted to know what it was about.”

“After breakfast I’ll bring it down for you to look at.”

They finished eating slowly, still mostly in awkward silence, and Keslie took care of the dishes as her mom went upstairs to get her book. When Lilah returned, it was with a giant three-ring binder in her hands. She set it on the table and slid it toward Keslie.

Keslie opened it tentatively, glancing at Lilah as if to make sure it really was okay, and looked at the title page. It read: Broken. A novel by Lilah Bardell. Keslie glanced again at her mother, who gave a pained smile.

“You have your escape, I have mine.”

Keslie turned to the first page and started reading. She wasn’t surprised to find it told Lilah’s story, beginning with her wedding day. As Keslie read she got a glimpse into her mother’s mind, and she finally began to understand how her mother’s thoughts worked. She marveled at her mother’s willingness to show this book to her daughter when it bared so much of her heart.

It took Keslie hours to finish reading, and her mother brought her laptop down to continue writing while she did. When Keslie did finally finish, she looked up at her mother, who looked up from her computer screen to give her daughter another pained smile. “What do you think?”

Keslie didn’t answer, just hugged her mother. “I’m so sorry I didn’t do anything to help you.”

“It was never your job,” Lilah replied, resting her hand on Keslie’s back. “But it was my job to help you, and I’m very sorry I didn’t do so.”

“You were dealing with your own problems. But why did you push Dad away?” Keslie pulled away and looked into her mother’s weary blue eyes.

“I don’t know.” Lilah looked down at her keyboard. “I wish I hadn’t. Maybe then neither of us would be in such rough shape.”

“We can do better now, though. Both of us.”

 

A week later Keslie stood laughing in the kitchen with her father on the phone. After she and her mother had reconnected, Lilah had allowed her to correspond with Julian again. He was back in Nebraska, but Keslie made their phone calls a daily occurrence, and she treasured every minute of it.

She glanced at her mother, standing in the doorway with a smile on her face, and mouthed a “thank you” just before another comment from Julian set her to laughing again.

This was how she remembered her time with her father: carefree and full of laughter. Another grin split her face as she realized she was starting to regain that. Her family might not be quite whole yet, but it was a family again.

The Dust Thief – Short Story Sunday

The Dust Thief – Short Story Sunday

This is a short story I wrote a while ago as a backstory for one of my characters. It has a sad ending, fair warning.

 

Chapter 1

He stepped into the bustling tavern, looking around at everyone and looking for one man in particular. After a moment he saw him, sitting alone in the corner, his hood pulled low over his face. Leo walked over to him and took a seat across from him at the table.

“I have the dust,” he told the go-between, pulling a vial from his cloak and handing it to the man.

The man took it and looked it over.

“This is not what the master requested.”

“What do you mean? It’s the Glowmine Dust. I got it for him just as he requested.”

“No. He asked for the barrel, not the vial.”

“I’m sorry. I must have misheard.”

“There is no mishearing when it comes to the master, understand? If you mess up, he is not forgiving.”

“I will make it right.”

“You’d better. You have half an hour to retrieve the barrel of Glowmine Dust. That is all. After that I must return to the master. I will either have what he wants or I will not. You better hope that I do.”

“Half an hour?! That’s impossible! It cannot be done!”

“And yet it must. If I were you I would leave now so that you have the most time possible. Go.”

Leo nodded and rushed out of the tavern toward the Glowmine where he’d gotten the vial. He’d have to steal a barrel, and he’d have to be quick about it. But it was mining hours, and the miners would be everywhere. He’d just have to hope that they weren’t alert. They were usually absorbed in their work, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but Leo still worried.

He entered the mine and crept along the wall toward the Dust chamber. He reached the chamber without running into any Miners, which seemed odd. There should have been someone on that route, yet there wasn’t. He reached the Dust chamber door and peered in through the keyhole. That was why he hadn’t run into anyone. All of the mine council members were assembled in the Dust chamber. When there was a council meeting, all the miners were sent to the Delta section.

“…Gone.”

“Why’d they take a mere vial of Dust? Why not more?”

“The stuff is potent. They wouldn’t need much. Probably they didn’t want to go to the trouble of getting a larger container.”

Leo sucked in a breath. They’d found the vial missing. But why? It was a mere vial.

“Potent stuff” the one council member had said. But it just glowed. Right? Maybe not…

Leo jumped as the council members began heading for the door and ran off down the corridor, exiting the mine and running all the way back to the tavern to talk to the go-between.

“Did you get it?” he asked.

Leo shook his head, out of breath.

“They found the vial missing. They’re going to come after me. I couldn’t get the barrel.”

“The master will be very disappointed in you. I’ll just have to tell him you were sloppy. I wouldn’t want to be you when he finds out.”

The go-between stood up and prepared to leave.

“Wait! Please! If the miners find me they’ll kill me! You can’t just leave me!”

“I can, and I am. The miners are your problem. You were sloppy, now you’re paying for it. Now if you’ll excuse me I must inform the master of your failure.”

Leo watched as the go-between left the tavern, leaving him alone to sort out his problems.

 

Leo headed home, stepping in the door to see his little brother Axel running up to hug him. He smiled as the little boy wrapped his arms around Leo’s legs.

“Hey there, buddy.”

“Hewwo, Weo. I wuv you.”

“I love you too, buddy.” Leo patted Axel’s head.

“How was work?” Leo’s mother asked, walking in, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“It didn’t go so well. I think I got fired.”

“You think?”

“It’s a long story.”

His mother nodded and placed a now-dry hand on his shoulder.

“It’ll be all right.”

Leo nodded, not so sure.

“Thanks, mom.”

She gave him a reassuring smile and picked up Axel, carrying him with her into the kitchen.

“You want to help me fix dinner?” Leo heard her ask Axel.

“Yeah! Cooking!”

Leo smiled and headed to his room, taking a seat on his bed and picking up a notebook and opening it. His schoolwork for the day was written in black ink and he sighed. The work never ended.

“Leo, would you like to help with dinner, too?” his mother called.

“Will it get me out of schoolwork?”

His mother laughed.

“Just for tonight, since you had a rough day. But this is a one-time deal.”

“Thanks, mom.”

Leo closed the notebook and set it aside, heading into the kitchen. Axel was standing on a stool mixing up a salad, half of which was ending up on the floor, and his mother was kneading bread dough, flour dusting her apron, face, and hair.

“What do you need me to do?”

“You can put the cake in the oven.”

“Cake? What’s the occasion?”

His mother laughed.

“It’s your father’s birthday, silly.”

“Oh, it’s his birthday already? I didn’t realize.”

“Obviously.”

He smiled and picked up the cake pan, sliding it into the oven.

“When is dad getting home, anyway? He’s late.”

“I asked his boss to assign him some extra work and keep him busy until supper’s ready. I didn’t want him to see the cake too soon.”

Leo nodded and walked over to Axel, tickling him.

Axel laughed and almost knocked the salad bowl off the counter.

“Oops,” Leo said, laughing and picking up the toddler, swinging him over his shoulder, and tickling him some more.

“Don’t forget to let him breath in between,” his mom said with a smile, grabbing the rolling pin and starting to roll out the dough.

“I won’t.”

He let up on the tickling for a moment and then started at it again, loving the sound of his brother’s laughter.

“Stop it!” Axel said through his laughter, “Please!”

Leo stopped and set Axel on the ground.

“I wuv your tickles, Weo.”

Leo smiled.

“And I love tickling you.”

Axel smiled, lighting up his whole face.

“I wuv you.”

“I love you too, buddy.”

Leo kissed Axel on the top of his head and turned to his mother.

“Anything else?”

“Can you grab the tomato sauce?”

“Are you fixing pizza?”

She smiled.

“Your father’s favorite.”

Leo kissed his mom on the flour-covered cheek and walked over to grab the tomato sauce from the cupboard, glancing out the window as he did so. He started. There were half a dozen black-clad men looking in.

“Mom, are we expecting company?”

“No, why?”

“No reason.”

He handed her the tomato sauce, forcing a smile, and headed for the back door, stepping into the yard and walking over to the men.

“Who are you?”

“We work for the master.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Waiting.”

“For what?”

“You’ll see. Go back inside before we’re forced to hurt you.”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that. Go inside.”

“No!”

Leo heard the back door open and fear gripped his chest. They couldn’t come outside. It wasn’t safe.

He ran back to the door and almost collided with his mother. She put a hand to her chest.

“Goodness! What’s the matter?”

“You can’t come out here.”

“Why not?”

“You just… You just can’t.”

“But I need to pick my oregano for the pizza!”

“I’ll do it. You go back inside.”

She looked at him, befuddled.

“All right…”

She turned to head inside, glancing back at him in confusion before entering. He let out a sigh of relief.

He walked over to the oregano bush, trying to keep an eye on the men at the same time, and picked some of the herb, heading back inside with one last look over his shoulder. As he stepped inside, one of them smiled. It was a smile that chilled him to the core, and as the door swung shut he shivered.

 

Chapter 2

“Here’s the oregano,” he said, handing it to his mother.

“Thank you,” she replied with a concerned smile. “Why did you want me inside so bad?”

“No reason. I just didn’t want you out in the cold.”

“Leo, it’s March. It’s not particularly cold.”

“Still, it’s chilly, and I know how easily you catch cold.”

She pursed her lips.

“I do not, and you know it. I very rarely catch a cold, or any sickness for that matter. What’s going on, Leo?”

“I’ll explain it all later. Let’s just enjoy the evening, shall we? There’s no reason to worry dad. Or for you to worry, for that matter. It’s nothing. Let’s just forget the whole thing.”

She looked at him suspiciously for a moment more and went back to the pizza.

“Who are the men outside?” Axel asked.

Oh no. He saw them.

“What men, honey?” their mom asked.

“The men in black that are standing in the yard.”

She looked out the window.

“Oh dear. I’m not sure.” She turned to Leo. “That’s why you didn’t want me to go outside, isn’t it? Who are they?”

“I’m not entirely sure, but I have a bad feeling about them and I didn’t want you to be put in danger.” It was almost the truth.

“Thank you for trying to protect me, sweetheart.”

She smiled over at him, a tight smile that told him she was still worried.

“Of course.”

“Can you get Axel cleaned up and take him over to see your father? Maybe you three can go to the market and keep your father busy.”

Leo hesitated.

“But what if the men decide to attack you? I can’t leave you alone.”

“I can take care of myself. Run along. You don’t want your father coming home early.”

“I’d rather he come home early than you be hurt.”

She sighed, opening the oven and sliding the pizza onto the rack.

“All right. But can you please get Axel cleaned up anyway? Maybe the two of you can play a game while I finish supper.”

“A game! Can we pway Hunters and Knights? Can we?”

Leo smiled down at Axel, who was jumping up and down next to his legs.

“All right. Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Axel beamed and skipped off down the hallway to the bathroom. Leo glanced back to his mother, who gave him a reassuring smile, before dutifully following.

 

Leo finished washing Axel’s hands and face just as the front door opened.

“Daddy!” Axel yelled, running out of the bathroom and back toward the kitchen. Leo followed, though at a significantly slower pace, and saw his father entering the kitchen with a smile and picking up Axel, while his mother gave him a disapproving look.

“You’re not supposed to be home yet,” she said.

“Sorry.” He sniffed the air. “Is that pizza I smell?”

“Pizza and chocolate cake.”

“Thank you, Mia.”

She nodded.

“It’s the least I can do for a man who’s put up with me for fifteen years.” She smiled.

He set Axel down and walked over to her, kissing her forehead.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Leo looked down at Axel.

“I’m not sure this will ever not be awkward.”

Axel looked up at him and nodded.

“Yeah.”

Leo chuckled.

“Do you even know what that means?”

Axel shook his head.

“Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes. Why don’t we do presents while we wait?” Mia suggested.

“That’s a good idea,” Leo agreed, picking Axel up and carrying him into the living room.

Mia and Xavier followed, taking a seat on the couch next to their sons. Mia reached over the arm of the couch and picked up three packages, handing them to Xavier.

“Here you go. Axel got excited and wanted to give you two presents. Leo forgot it was your birthday.”

Xavier gasped, feigning shock.

“How could you forget?!”

Leo laughed.

“Sorry, dad. I knew it was coming up, but I didn’t realize it was so soon.”

Xavier reached over and ruffled Leo’s hair with a smile.

“It’s all right, son.”

He looked down at the packages.

“Which one should I open first?”

“Save mine for last,” Mia requested.

“The wittle one! The wittle one!” Axel said, bouncing up and down.

Xavier opened it with a smile to see a rolled up piece of paper. He unrolled it and started to read the scrawled print.

“No, daddy! I sing it!” Axel took the piece of paper and began to sing the song he’d written.

“Daddy, I wuv you. I wuv you a wot. I’m so happy it’s your birfday, and I wanted to sing you dis song. I wuv you, Daddy. I’m glad you’re my daddy. I hope you’re wif me fowever. I wuv you.”

Xavier smiled over at Axel as the song finished.

“That’s very sweet. I love you too.”

He reached over and hugged the little boy, who was beaming.

As he began to tear open the second gift, the back door slammed and several sets of footsteps sounded in the kitchen, coming toward the living room.

“What on earth?” Xavier said, setting the packages aside and standing up, facing the kitchen as the men from the back yard stormed in, each with a dagger in his hand.

“Do not mess with The Master!” the lead one declared, walking over to Xavier and attempting to slit his throat. Xavier caught his hands just in time and held them back.

“Protect your mother and brother!” he yelled to Leo, who was already standing beside his mother, clutching Axel close.

“Resistance is futile!” one of the men said, walking around to Mia and cutting her throat.

Leo stared at the blood in shock and clutched Axel tighter.

Xavier’s arms began to give.

“Protect him! Protect Axel!”

Then his arms gave way and his throat was cut.

Leo stared at his parents’ still forms and then looked at the men, who were closing in.

“No. This can’t be happening.”

The men stepped forward and tried to wrench Axel from his grasp.

“No! Weo! Don’t let them take me! Weo! Hewp! Pwease!”

Leo had tears running down his face as he tried to keep a grasp on his brother. But he wasn’t strong enough. The men took Axel and cut his throat, discarding him on the couch and sneering at Leo before leaving.

Leo screamed and fell to his knees next to his brother, sobbing.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t save him. I let him down. I let them all down. I wasn’t strong enough. It’s my fault…

He sat there crying until he couldn’t take it anymore and then ran out of the house and didn’t stop running until his legs gave out a couple of miles outside the city.

I have to get away. I have to leave.

He sat there only as long as he had to and then started running again, never looking back.