No One Left Behind - 438 words (prompt - family)

This story picks up where last week's story ended....

When the news reaches Shayla, she sets down her cup of spiced tea and goes straight to the cellar. The mountain passes are open. At last it’s time for family to reunite.

The bountiful summer filled her barrels with apples, pears, and nuts. She adds smoked meat and fish to the provisions and the saddle bags strain under the load. The pony whinnies as Shayla tightens the cinch of the pack saddle.

She shrugs on a heavy knapsack and leads the pony to the overgrown track that winds up the side of the mountain. A golden dog, tall and slender, trots at her side. Overhead, a small crow flies, tracking their progress.

At the end of the first day, they stop at fading light. A thin layer of snow covers the ground at this altitude and Shayla builds a small lean-to. She feeds the horse and dog, settling them under the temporary shelter. The crow struts just out of reach. When she invites it to join them, it caws and flutters away from her. It scoops up the nuts and bits of dried meat thrown its way.

At the streak of dawn, the crow walks into the shelter and pecks Shayla’s face gently and persistently. She opens her eyes and the crow flaps its wings and squawks. 

“What is it?” Shayla asks. Somewhere in the distance more crows answer in fractious alarm.  

The dog stands rigid, hackles raised, staring into a curtain of falling snow. The horse snorts and shakes its head. Shayla leaps to her feet and straps the packs on herself and the pony. As fast as they walk, their footprints are covered. All sounds are muffled by the blanketing snow.

Deep in the forest she finds shelter under a rocky overhang. Leaving the dog to guard the pony, Shayla slips back toward the trail. She shimmies up a tree for a better view. Heavily-armed troops emerge, ghostlike, out of the white storm. Some are injured. One, eyes wrapped in bandages, is led by another in a blood-stained jacket. She has no doubt if they saw her perched there they would shoot her for the simple sport of it. 

As if he senses her presence, a soldier peers up to where she sits. The crow dives at him, scolding and angry. The soldier smashes the bird with the butt of his rifle and walks on. It falls to the ground, as still as a stone.

Shayla waits for five, ten minutes before descending the tree. 

“I will heal you.” Shayla rocks the bird close to her body. “You are family. Ohana. No one gets left behind.”

 

 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Traces of crow in snow by Ramessos

Ringing in the New Year - word count 415 (prompt - wood)

A heavy fog crept over the woods in late July, pressing the sky down against the earth. In the valley the sun stayed hidden all summer. Over the months that followed, crops failed, people grew thin, and the wild animals lay down in the forest and died.

No one believed the corporations would go that far. First they stole the crystal-clear water that used to flow through the village, keeping the pastures green and lush. Next they levied a user-fee on the clean air that the forest breathed over the land. Villagers refused to pay it and heavily-armed corporate soldiers, once paid to protect the citizens, blocked the roads out of the valley. When the fog machines rolled into place the, town started to suffocate.

As winter solstice approaches, the faint light that breaks the tedium of the villagers’ lives grows shorter and fainter. Elza and her band of blooded friends are the last line of defence. They scrounge through their grandparents’ trunks for bright clothing. Neighbours bring the last scraps of food for the ceremony.

Hand bells are set in a ring on the table. A fire is stacked, ready for a match. One large candle, made from the scraps of many hoarded candles is positioned in the centre of the rings.

“It’s time,” Elza says, looking at her watch. Blackness surrounds them but they know the exact minute that starts the longest night of the year.

The red-haired girl to Elza’s right says, “Let us take a minute to honour the Sun and all She brings us. May she return to our skies soon.”

In the silence, hope rises. Elsa picks up the first bell and a small boy steps forward and lights the candle. His twin brother puts a match to the fire.

Each young woman opens her heart and speaks of celestial blessing, asking the Mother Sun to return to their valley. She ends with three sweet notes from her bell. When all have spoken, the young women ring the bells in unison to celebrate their connection with Nature and all life everywhere. The gathered villagers bring out their bells and ring them with new hope and optimism.

The sound reaches the passes in the hills. The music is the last thing the soldiers hear before the explosives detonate. As the solstice ceremony concludes, the fog machines shatter and the roads to the outside world open again. The next morning, the sun filters through the wood and winterberries start to grow.


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Seattle Sugarplum Elves by Joe Mabel

By Any Other Name - word count 165 (prompt: tinker)

Krystle stirs her latte. “Harper?”

Chelsea scoffs. “You want to saddle our baby with a name that refers to a harp player? What if it’s a boy?”

“Cooper?”

“Makes barrels. You’ll doom the kid.”

“Carter?”

“Someone who drives a cart.”

“I guess Hunter is out too?”

Chelsea makes a face and takes a bite from her vegan muffin.

“Dakota?”

“An American state.”

“Ditto Montana?”

Chelsea shakes her head.

“Mason? I really like Mason!”

“Someone who has to work with stone for a living? I hope any baby we have is going to be a great artist. Not working in a pit.”

“Kashmir?”

“That’s somewhere in Asia. Not the best handle for a baby with two white mommas.”

“I give up, Chelsea. We finally find a sperm donor and now we can’t agree on a name.”

Chelsea leans across the table and covers Krystle’s elegant, manicured hand with her own. “Why don’t we go with my suggestion? TinkerBelle it it’s a girl. Tinker if it’s a boy.”

 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Rose hybrid by Aftabbanoori

Limited Resources - word count 215 (prompt - bone)

Ever since the mining company, SilverKiss Inc, forced his family off the land, Jayson has lived in a cave at a barren corner where even the hungriest cattle wouldn’t wander in search of food. If there were any cattle left, which there aren’t. SilverKiss’s enforcers shot all the livestock the day they arrived.

Jayson’s Elders taught him the art of survival long before they were loaded into the vans headed to city internment centres. Now it is his job to see, but not be seen, on this sprawling property. Five generations of his people have eked out a living here. It’s Jayson’s job to document what happens next.

One sultry summer day he shadows the drilling team to its latest test spot. He trains high-powered binoculars on them. The bore has barely touched the ground when the jubilant dance of the miners announces that the mother lode has been struck.

The bone necklace around his neck clatters as he lifts the camera and records their discovery.

He knows what they have found and knows its presence will be classified top secret. Here, under the graves of his grandparents and their parents before them, is a vast reservoir of the world’s most precious resource. SilverKiss has found one of the planet’s last basins of clean, potable water.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Photograph of the first oil district in Los Angeles. Circa 1895-1901 from USC Libraries.

http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll65/id/16225

 

Visiting Doris - word count 357 (prompt: gum)

“Ring the bell three times and Doris should appear,” says Henry.

Tessa snaps the bubble she has just blown and clenches the bell in her pocket. A heavy marine fog is settling in and already the foghorns are moaning. The green lawn is turning black as the last traces of daylight fade from the sky. A half moon crawls over the horizon, lighting the way.

Henry  moves toward the rocky shore, where the waves batter the kelp-laced granite.

Tessa runs to catch up. “Has anyone actually seen her?”

“Lots of people! She wears a white dress and floats above the ground. Sometimes she runs across the road, a silvery blur. Other times she only manifests as a coloured orb. I wonder how she’ll show herself tonight?”

“Oh.” Tessa chews a little harder.

“Dooooooooris! Where are you?” Henry calls in a high-pitched voice. “Ring the bell, Tess.”

Tessa folds another chunk of Double Bubble into her mouth and works it for a minute. The damp fog curls around her legs, reminding her that ballet flats were a bad choice for this dewy field. With wet, cold feet, she wants this night to be over. She pulls the bell from her pocket and rings it three times.

Immediately the smell of lavender encircles her, strong and overpowering. The sound of someone—a woman—gasping and calling for help fills Tessa’s ears. She is frozen to the spot by an icy chill. Then, nothing. Darkness.

“Are you okay?” A man leans over her. He is backlit by watery moonlight. Beside him a small dog sits and watches them.

“I’m fine I think.”

“I was out walking Lady and I saw you come in here. Then you just stopped dead in your tracks and collapsed. You were choking on your gum and I dislodged it. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“I’m a little whoozy.” Tessa forces herself up on one elbow. “Where’s Henry?”

“Who’s Henry?”

“He’s my guide for the ghost tour. I paid him $15.”

“Lady I’ve been watching you for the past ten minutes. You came alone. Is there someone I can call for you?”


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Cara Mjuer uploaded by Cesar Tort

Time Lapse - word count 325 (prompt - chocolate)

If a person orders a small tea at the shop near the bus exchange, the guy with the orange Mohawk always says, “Medium is only 25¢ more.”

Danny always answers, “Make it a medium then” as if 25¢ is worth nothing at all.

When he does that on the day of the ultrasound, Kayley pokes him in the ribs. He ignores her, orders a slice of banana loaf, and settles himself at the table near the back.

“We’ve got a baby on the way,” she says, sliding in across from him.

He studies his phone and remains silent.

“We shouldn’t be having $2.00 cups of tea in the first place, let alone crap like $3.00 slices of cake. We need to save our money for bottles and formula.”

“Starting tomorrow,” he says and kisses her on the cheek.

***

Kayley takes Hunter to the tea shop to see his father. The marriage failed the test of children. Danny hasn’t seen either of them for years.

Six-year-old Hunter barely remembers his father but he skips along at Kayley’s side.

“A shop can’t just sell tea, can it? There’ll be other things, won’t there? Cakes and cookies?” Wistfulness colours his voice.

She tries to lower his expectations. “You know we don’t have money for stuff like that.”

She pushes open the door and sees Danny at the back, like always. In front of him is a cup of tea and three chocolate cupcakes. Kayley feels her mouth tighten into a frown. She warned him about Hunter’s allergies. She sighs at the thought of a night easing her son through joint aches and stomach pain.

When she stops at the counter, Orange Mohawk is still there. He has gone Rastafarian but she recognizes his deep blue eyes and wide smile.

“A cup of oolong, please. Small.”

He pushes a dreadlock behind an ear, revealing a row of diamond studs. “$2.75,” he says. “But medium is only 50¢ more.”

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Tea in different grades of fermentation by Haneburger

The Date - word count 350 (prompt: carmine)

When the doorbell rings, Lil is standing in front of the hallway mirror. She has three lipsticks in her hand which she holds up against her flaming crimson dress.

“It’s open.” She looks over her shoulder as Thomas lets himself in.

“You ready? Traffic’s a mess.”

Lil selects the brightest lipstick and crayons a layer over her wide mouth. She blots it, adds another layer, and blots it again.

Thomas frowns. “Do you know what’s in that crap?”

“Let me guess.” Lil applies a topcoat of gloss. “Snakes and snails and puppy dogs’ tails?”

“To start with, the base of the colour probably comes from cochineal beetles. They are soft-bodied, flat insects whose bodies are boiled to extract the carmine dye that makes red lipstick red. Add to that some castor oil and…”

 “Why are you being a downer on my big night?” Lil struts out the door, high heels clicking.

Thomas races after her. “Because I think this award your company is giving you is as toxic as the muck you put on your face.”

***

When they arrive, only five minutes late, the ballroom is jammed with people. Lil queues for an hour to receive a Certificate of Recognition. The CEO hands her a large brown envelope while looking tiredly at the long line of people behind her.

Lil trots down the stairs to Thomas who watches her open it with shaking hands. There is a department store gift certificate in the amount of $100 and a parchment-like piece of paper that says she has made a significant contribution towards the BigTel values.

“What the hell are BigTel values?” Thomas wants to ask but the glow in Lil’s eyes stops him. Even though she’s worked hundreds of unpaid hours for a cranky, sarcastic boss, she treasures this computer-generated chunk of paper. She finds the good in every situation.

She even manages to love a hardened pessimist like him. A small swell of optimism and gratitude sweeps over Thomas. Before he has a chance to think about it, he holds her in his arms. He’s kissing that scarlet mouth.

BigTel Certificate.jpg

© Maggie Bolitho

Document from personal files

Ancient Wisdom - word count 444 (prompt: chest)

After the funeral, Zahra kisses the old ladies and cycles to the tea shop on the far side of town. Only the most notorious people meet in the falling down shack. It is one of the few places Zahra can go without being scrutinized by prying eyes. She was the last female born in this town of 1,500 people. Since her first menses, the citizens have waited for her to conceive, everyone praying for a girl child. Seventeen years have passed since then. Patience is wearing thin.

She sits at a table by the window and thumbs through the book inherited from her Auntie J, the woman who stood between her and the mobs who want to imprison her like a breeding mare.

The sweet smell of hot chocolate fills her nostrils as she tries to separate J’s theories from her own experiences.

Theory: put horse chestnuts around your doors and windows to keep spiders away. Fact: the spiders make webs over and around the chestnuts.

Theory: carrots are good for your eyes. Fact: beta carotene reduces the risk of macular degeneration later in life.

Theory: don’t watch TV while wearing rubber-soled shoes or you’ll go blind. Fact: untested. Zahra has never worn shoes in the house.

Theory: chicken soup will cure a cold. Fact: it reduces the inflammation of the lungs.

Theory: ice cream gives you nightmares. Fact: how could ice cream be anything but good?

Here’s what Zahra is looking for:

Theory: if your skin clears during pregnancy, you’re expecting a girl. Fact: Zahra’s skin has never been clearer.

Theory: if you pee on a spoonful of baking soda and it doesn’t fizz, it’s a girl. Fact: Zahra’s baking soda did not fizzle.

Theory: if a pregnant woman is craving sweets, she is carrying a girl. Fact: Zahra has been sneaking spoonfuls of sugar out of the storage bin.

Theory: if you have morning sickness, it’s a girl. Fact: Auntie J’s funeral was postponed until the afternoon because Zahra said she had to finish her field chores before she could attend.

Theory: if the father packs on a little extra weight during the pregnancy, it’s a girl.

Zahra looks up as the dark-haired man enters the café. A smile splits his face when he sees her sitting there. He nods, a brief acknowledgement that her escape plan is safe. Today he will take her through the mountains, to the city on the far side. They will be married and he will protect her from her enemies in the valley.

As he sits across from her she notices the way his belt strains over his rounded stomach. He used to be so slender.

© Maggie Bolitho

Aesculus_hippocastanum_fruit.jpg

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: the fruit of the horse-chestnut tree. They are not true nuts but rather capsules. By Solipist.

Girl - word count 463 (prompt - rich)

On Christmas Eve, Tessa arrives at the Heads Up salon an hour before opening. Her first errand of the morning is to walk seven blocks to the patisserie and collect the savoury and sweet treats that she will offer to clients all day. As Hair Salon Assistant she does all the jobs nobody else wants. Minimum wage. Tuesdays and Sundays off.

By noon, all ten chairs in the salon are occupied. Clients arrive with gifts that the stylists hand to her to stash in their lockers in the back. No one brings anything for her and that is what she expects.

“Girl!” calls Charles from the front of the salon. When it is just the two of them he calls her by her name but in front of clients he likes to show how unimportant she is.

“Yes, sir?” She trots to his side and flashes her most obliging smile.

He nods at a large parcel on the table in front of his client.

“Dr. Hamish has brought me this lovely present.” Neither he nor Dr. Hamish even glance at Tessa as he speaks. “Please put it in my office.”

Tessa picks up the silver box up and finds it’s very heavy. Probably some sort of exotic grog. Two-hundred-year-old wine. Scotch filtered through organic peat. Rum made from sugar cane handpicked by virgins. Rich people blow their money on any manner of stuff.

She is sweeping the floor next to Charles as he sprays a cloud of style fix-it over Dr. Hamish’s golden highlights.

Dr. Hamish touches her ear. “My earring!” she gasps. She pushes her hair behind her ear as if that will make it reappear. Then she pushes the hair behind her other ear to reveal a ruby and diamond Christmas wreath, the size of a nickel.

“Girl,” Charles says quietly, “go through all the hair you’ve swept up and find Dr. Hamish’s earring.”

Tessa spends the next hour thumbing through a giant bag of floor scrapings. While she is doing that, Dr. Hamish is soothed with Crystal champagne and promises that her precious jewels will be found. Charles takes a photo of the remaining earring and helps Dr. Hamish into a cab. She is flying to Maui that night.

By the time Tessa leaves at seven, every single towel in the salon has washed and folded. The floors have been swept and re-swept. The u-bends under the sinks have been taken apart and emptied.

No earring.

The hour-long bus ride home stretches into two because of heavy traffic and swirling snow. Tessa crawls up the stairs to the small apartment she shares with her sister. When she stops at the door and removes her shoes, she finds a ruby and diamond earring lodged in the tread of her thick-soled shoes.

ahair.jpg

© Maggie Bolitho

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Mosaic in Jerusalem by zeevveez from Jerusalem

Nine Tenths the Law - word count 484 (prompt - running stitch)

The squat was the grandest thing Willa had ever seen. With its sagging roof and silvered walls, it looked like it was waiting for the kiss of life. It was Willa’s first time out of the city, off the mainland. She hadn’t seen a deserted farmhouse before.

She’d met KJ that morning at a Street Art Festival, waiting in line to pay for a spot where a person could busk or sell crafts. After two hours, neither of them got a place.

“One girl told me she’d been here since six,” Willa said.

KJ shrugged. “I’m on my way to Spirit Bear Island tonight anyway. I know a special place there. Wanna come?”

Willa, who’d run away from home with a sack of knitted clutch purses, two changes of underwear, and her life savings of $250, said yes.

On the deck of the ferry, KJ sang lively verses about new days dawning and better times ahead. Willa perched beside her, knitting needles marking time to the music.

They hitchhiked to the top of a steep hill and KJ led the hour-long trek through the bush to the deserted house. There were sleeping bags left from some other squat which they dragged into the sun to air. KJ had almond butter and crackers. Willa had bags of raisins and peanuts. In the neglected orchard, the branches of the trees bent under the weight of rosy McIntosh apples.

The next day KJ busked at the Sunday market in the bustling tourist town. Willa spread a towel on the ground under a cherry tree and laid out her purses in tidy rows of rainbow colours. After three hours, all of Willa’s purses were sold and KJ had hauled in over $200. They also sold apples. Plus: $30. They’d scored groceries, weed, yarn, and guitar strings. Minus: $187.

Spurred by success, KJ wrote and practiced new songs every day. Willa bought golden thread. She joined the two sides of her clutches with it, using a decorative running stitch.

The following Saturday KJ doubled her take and Willa sold forty clutch purses.  

The first of the autumn rains rolled in under a black cloak. Willa looked up when a raindrop landed on her forehead. More drops tap danced around the kitchen floor. KJ swore and stowed her guitar in its case.

“Put your purses in the bag or they’ll be ruined!” she yelled at Willa.

They covered their packs with a tarp and hitched to town. The double-sided tent they bought was guaranteed waterproof and fit into the vacant living room as though engineered for the space. KJ drove the pegs into the floorboard with a large mallet.

That night Willa drifted off to sleep, warm and dry.

KJ spoke into the darkness. “Do you like it here, Willa? Do you? My gran left me this place when I was sixteen. We could stay forever if you wanted to.”

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: McIntosh apple tree in Harvard, Mass by ashstar01

 

Detour Ahead - Word count 471 (prompt: guess)

I’m sitting in the Hungry Rosh waiting for my almost-ex-mother-in-law to join me for lunch. I’m halfway through my sabich, a pita stuffed with eggplant, hardboiled egg and tahini, and she’s not here yet. When she called this meeting I reminded her that my lunch break is only thirty minutes. The other flagman is waiting for me to come back so she can get something to eat on this pissing wet day.

Yep, thirty years old and I’m a flagger. That’s one of the reasons I’m a soon-to-be-divorced man. Beth thought she could make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. She likes a good home improvement job, Beth does. Originally she said it didn’t matter that she was a teacher and I had no ambition. The only thing I really enjoy is drawing comic strips for my own amusement. Beth said all she wanted was company, someone to make a home with.

We’d been married about a year when Beth came home with an application for art school.

“You should develop your creative talent.” She pushed the paperwork toward me on the sofa.

“Nope.” I tossed it on the floor. “I hated school. Never going back. My comics are revenge on the idiots who almost kill me at least once a day.”

At that moment I'd captured perfectly a guy in a Beamer giving me the finger as he raced through our construction site.

“Look at this fool.” I held up a masterful caricature. “He can’t see the cops waiting at the other end of the block. They had a blitz on road safety today and this loser caught a $250 fine.”

Beth didn’t even glance at my sketchpad. She stomped out of the room and slammed the bedroom door behind her.

A bulky SUV squeezes into the parking spot right out front of the Rosh. I recognise it as Millie’s. That’s what I call Beth’s mum: Millie, short for Mother-In-Law. I’ve got fifteen minutes to visit with her which is a relief. I figure she wants to talk to me about going back to Beth. It wouldn’t be the first time and my answer never changes. No. I’m not someone’s makeover project.

“So how are you?” She kisses my cheek and sits down across from me, doesn’t even bother to order lunch at the counter.

“About the same.” I shove the last of the sabich in my mouth and make a production of checking my watch.

“Sorry I’m late!” she says. “You’ll never guess what kept me.”

I shake my head because my mouth is full.

“Remember I told you I went to school with the guy who started the Dilbert comic strip? We skyped this morning and I showed him some of your strips. He wants to syndicate them. Are you ready for a career change?"

© Maggie Bolitho

Flagger_on_M-124.JPG

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Flagger on M-124 Walter J Hayes State Park near Brooklyn Michigan by Dwight Burdette

Reflection in an Alley - Word count 490 (Prompt: key)

“Now let all your images and thoughts dissolve like a cloud in the sky. Let your mind rest and when you’re ready, gently let your attention come back to the present.” The teacher breathes the words and a ripple of wakening energy rises over the crowded room.

Nick visualizes the sign on the wall: Yoga’s greatest gift is the vulnerability that fills your tender heart after a deep practice. When he opens his eyes he feels tenderness and vulnerability like no one had ever experienced it before. Good bye Mr. Corporate Raider. Hello Mr. Loves-his-Fellow-Man.

He tucks his silk scarf into the collar of his cashmere overcoat and shoulders his way out of the meditation studio. An icy wind whips his trouser cuffs around his ankles. Nick remembers to smile.

He marches straight to the bank machine a block away. With $400 in his pocket, Nick heads to the Artsee Java Joint. Sure enough, the homeless guy is still out front. The beggar rarely shows his face, just sits there, knees pulled to his chest, and head bowed. Between his feet sits a baseball cap with a few loose coins in it. A crudely-lettered sign beside it says Please help.

The guy has been there for as long as Nick can remember. Nick used to badger the owner of the coffee shop to get him moved but she said the guy was harmless. Nick almost stopped going to Artsee after that but no one else got his crema just right. Instead, he sometimes nudged the guy with his toe as he walked past. One Christmas, when the man seemed particularly unresponsive, Nick scooped a ten dollar bill out of the ratty cap.

Today Nick is making amends. He kneels beside the guy and touches his arm.

“Hey buddy. It’s going to be cold tonight. Here’s some dough. Get yourself a warm room.”

The man lifts his head and piercing blue eyes meet Nick’s.

“Wow, thanks, man!” The guy snatches the money from Nick. “I’m going to call it a day.” He struggles to his feet and hobbles away.

Nick has made a difference in the world and satisfaction rushes through him. Maybe he can do more. He might be able to find the guy a job. He runs after the man who has ducked down an alley. The beggar’s limp is gone now and he walks fast.

The guy pulls something shiny from his pocket and Nick halts. Is it a weapon? No. It’s a silver key chain. The guy points to a Mercedes Benz at the end of the alley and the trunk opens from a distance of twenty feet. Nick stops dead. As he watches, the beggar wipes the dirt from his face and hands. He changes to clean jeans and a leather jacket. He slides into the car and starts the engine. Before he drives away, he looks in the rear view mirror and waves to Nick.

 ***

ahomeless.jpg

Image from Wikimedia Commons: psyberartist—haunts of solitude—uploaded by russavia

Protected - Word count 472 (prompt: visual - see below)

Sylvia’s mother’s house is so big it takes five minutes to walk from the conservatory on the west side to the library on the east. Not that anyone uses the library much. Every sunset a hostile, keening presence arrives in the room and the temperature drops five degrees. All of the servants leave before four in the afternoon.

Sylvia’s mother waited for years to buy the house, watching the price drop and drop. Finally she scooped it up for little more than land value.

“Stupid, superstitious people.” She talks with a mouth full of coq au vin. She has opened a bottle of fine champagne to celebrate their first night in the stone mansion. Sylvia pats her mouth with a linen napkin and says nothing.

After dinner, Sylvia’s mother leads her through all the ground floor rooms. “One day, my darling, this will all be yours. You will never want for anything in your life.”

Sylvia would like to remind her mother that the one thing she really wants has already been denied to her. Her courage fails and she follows her mother’s mincing footsteps through room after room. At the entrance to the library, she balks.

“Don’t tell me you’re as silly as these peasants!” Sylvia’s mother says crossly. “Okay I’ll close the door and we’ll never go in here.”

An icy laugh echoes from the darkness and the door slams shut before Sylvia’s mother can touch it. She glares at it. “These old houses are prone to drafts. I’ll have the carpenter fix that door tomorrow so it can’t be shut. Then we’ll show the world who really owns this place.”

When then they walk up the sweeping staircase to their bedrooms, the sound of that laughter reverberates in Sylvia’s ears. Does the ghost know her mother has brought her to this isolated place to keep her away from the world of music and laughter? Does it feel her pain and longing for the daring and beautiful Charlotte?

That night Sylvia’s mother sleeps soundly on her king-sized bed, happy in the knowledge that she is the richest woman in the land.

In Sylvia’s dark dreams Charlotte has climbed a tall tree. Sylvia hears her calling and follows the voice outside. The bark of the Garry oak scrapes Sylvia’s hands and bare feet as she climbs the gnarled trunk.

“Come closer, my love,” Charlotte coaxes. She’s in plain sight now, hovering over the end of the branch. Sylvia stretches, anticipating the warmth of her lover’s kiss.

“Sylvia! What are you doing up there?” her mother yells from the ground below. Sylvia wakes with a start and twists as she falls. She catches a low branch and her arms almost wrench from her sockets.

“You can let go now.” Charlotte’s voice swims in her head. “I’m waiting for you in the library.”

 

From the series Anonymous by Argentinian photographer, Sofía López Mañán

 

http://humanfilesjournal.com/2012/03/16/sofia-lopez-manan-anonymous/

 

 

Boundaries - word count 123 (Prompt: pillow)

On my pillow, another woman’s earring. Her Bolt of Lightning perfume, mixed with the heavy scent of sweat from vigorous exertion, assails my nostrils. I touch a long silken hair that cuts a black line across the white pillowcase.

Acrid frustration dries my mouth. Swallowing is an effort. I hate working night shift, leaving my side of the bed empty. It’s an invitation to injury.

From the bathroom I hear her singing. She throws open the door and races to me.

“Sally! Love!” She throws herself into my arms. We hug like sisters reunited after decades apart, not lovers separated by a graveyard shift.

“Mei,” I sigh. “If you have to sleep on my side of the bed, could you please shower first?”

 

© Maggie Bolitho

The first line of this story is a ‘6 word story’ that I wrote for a twitter challenge by Sherman Alexi about 3 years ago.

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons ‘Austrian Postcard 1901’ uploaded by Szczebrzeszynski.

Random Luck - Word count 394 (prompt: paper cut)

‘Paper cuts rock?’ Oakley’s shoulders tighten and he wishes he’d stayed with scissors.

‘No you moron, paper covers rock. Either way, you lose.’ Jacob punches the air. ‘Now go ask old man McKinnon to give us our ball back.’

The other kids shuffle their feet in the dust and laugh nervously. No one really likes Oakley. First of all there’s his name. Then there’s the garlic that he eats like apples and the purple sweat pants he wears almost every day. Lastly there’s the weird way he speaks English, even if he is a maths genius.

Still, no one should have to disturb balmy Mr. McKinnon. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t walk up the faded stairs to his peeling front door. The cricket players look at the sagging house, almost hidden behind tall trees. The donkey drop sailed over the thorns of the wild blackberry bushes. When the boys climbed up the hill, they spotted the ball sitting in a weed-infested window box at the back.

Jacob shoves Oakley. ‘Hey tree boy—go get it.’

The rumours say the old man hasn’t left the house since his wife walked out on him about a million years ago. Groceries are delivered to the warped garage door and people claim to have seen a claw-like hand drag them inside. Everyone knows McKinnon is seven foot tall, skeleton skinny, and his orange eyes glow in the dark.

Oakley knocks loudly and the rapping sounds like gunfire in the quiet street.

‘Go away.’ A voice thunders deep inside the house.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ Oakley says through the keyhole. ‘Sir, I’m sorry to be a bother but our ball landed by your back door.’

His pulse pounds in his ears as rattling and thumping echoes inside. He peers through the keyhole down a long hallway. From a room faraway the blue flicker of an old TV or computer monitor offers the only light. Then a short, rotund figure darkens everything. Oakley leaps back before the door is ripped open.

‘You—boy.’ A Santa-like man steps onto the porch. He wears a white t-shirt stretched over the top of purple sweat pants. ‘You called me sir?’ He juggles the ball in the air.

Oakley swallows. ‘Yes.’

‘I’m sure you’re a decent lad. But don’t ever call anyone sir, unless you’re in the military. It makes people think you’re a freak.’

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Cricket Ball on Grass by Matthew Bowden www.digitallyrefreshing.com


Cover Story — Word count 288 (Prompt: slowpoke)

Ainslie runs a thin finger along the spines of the old books. “Take as many as you want,” Gran said. Ainslie frowns. There must be a kajillion books here and not a single graphic novel or zombie story in the entire mess. The shelves overflow and more books erupt from cardboard boxes. Some are stacked into a side table for the worn armchair.

“C’mon slowpoke.” Her mother’s hectoring voice booms up the stairs.

Gran’s downsizing or, as she calls it, getting ready to die. She wants her only grandchild to take some of her most prized possessions, her books. She’d let Ainslie take all day but Mum has less patience, with everything.

“Don’t rush her,” Gran says, her tone soothing. “I want her to make good choices.”

Ainsley upends one of the boxes. Frankenstein ! This is more like it. The pages crackle with age and someone has scribbled their name on the inside but it’s the best thing she’s found so she tucks it into her backpack. Below that is a copy of Peter and Wendy  with old-fashioned black and white plates. The hinges are split in places but she likes the pictures and bags that one too.

“Get a move on.” Mum’s words prickle with irritation. Next she’ll be threatening to leave Ainsley behind. She’s done that before today and it took Ainslie an hour and a half to get home by bus.

Ainslie flips the books fast until one with a plain cover catches her eye. The Story of O  by Pauline Réage. At last, something modern. She’s played The Land of OOO  at her best friend’s place several times. She’ll have to stop there on the way home and show her this prize.

© Maggie Bolitho

Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. Steel Engraving in book 93 x71 mm.

Author: Theodor von Holst


Playing Possum - Word count 395 (Prompt: school)

Just because you shoot something doesn’t mean it dies right away, thinks nine-year-old Diego as he plays dead in the gravel of the schoolyard. He counts to thirty slowly because that’s the rule when you’ve been hit in this game of zombies vs soldiers.

Three years ago he crossed Guatemala into Mexico. He was on his way to America, looking for the mother who’d been forced to leave him as a child. Along the way he saw many other kids, alone and vulnerable like himself. The lucky ones were only beaten and robbed. He saw two boys shot and left to die from their wounds. They didn’t grab their throats and fall over in crumpled heap like his classmates do. The iron crush of death tightened much slower. He held Felipe’s hand for hours as life seeped out him and the ground stained red. That’s where La Migra, the Mexican immigrant officer, found him before putting him on El Bus de Lágrimos* back to Honduras.

Diego closes the door on the nightmare memory and tries, yet again, to be a normal American boy. He plays the silly game where everyone lives to eat brain-food snacks at mid-morning recess. He wants to belong. He wants to bring honour to the kind-hearted woman who adopted him.

The first bell of the day rings and Diego jumps to his feet, happy to shrug off the pantomime of violence. While the other kids chatter around him, Diego takes one last look at the list of words for the morning’s spelling test. He’s ready for another perfect score.

At ten o’clock shots ring out in the hallway, just as Diego is dotting the i in the word kindle. His head flies up, his eyes round. He knows the sound of gunfire. At the front of the class, the teacher’s stands, ashen-faced.

‘Everyone—behind me—under my desk,’ she yells.

Diego flies to the floor and the others pile on top of him.

When the shooting is over and the emergency responders have removed the injured and the slain, they find the limp body of a small Hispanic boy. His pulse is strong and his eyes are responsive but he does not acknowledge their words.

Finally his adoptive mother is there, holding him, stroking his hair. ‘It’s okay now, Diego,’ she says. You’re safe. You don’t have to pretend any longer.’


© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: boys at play from Hampshire and Solent Museums

* the bus of tears

Footnote: this story was inspired by the nonfiction book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. 

Champ - Word count 383 (Prompt - owl)

“Send me an owl,” Josie said and, with a flip of her long dark cape, vanished. That’s how she saw it anyway. Sniggers from her schoolmates reached her ears. Despite her most fevered efforts, she couldn’t raise a bedazzling hex to hide herself in the background.

Heart pounding, she sprinted away from the pick up zone where parents double-parked to wait for their darling children. Darling children like Summer and Britany who called her freak and pinched her arm until it was covered in bruises.

Just when she thought another day of torment was behind her, Summer had sidled up to her, smelling of grape-flavoured bubble gum.

“Wanna come to my birthday party on Saturday?” she said, her voice sweet and slick.

“Um. Maybe.” Josie stared at her feet, noticing a green sock on one foot and a yellow on the other.

“Give me your phone number. I’ll ring you tonight and give you all the details.” Summer shoved a bright purple pen and a piece of paper at her.

That’s when Josie blurted the first thing she could think of and dashed away. Running was the one thing she was really good at. If running was magic she would have disapparated a hundred times already this week. She raced into the woods, to the small lean-to where she kept spell books and a collection of herbs. When daylight started to fade, she stashed her cauldron and camouflaged the entrance to her hideaway with branches and leaves.

At home her father was working with his office door shut. On the kitchen table sat a golden treacle tart.

“It’s better with custard,” said a tiny voice from the hallway.

“Britany! How’d you get in?” Josie edged toward the back door.

“Alohomora.”

The unlocking charm. A sickening wave on envy washed over Josie.

“I’ve been waiting for ages. I thought your dad would catch me.”

Josie studied the pie. Was it poisoned? Was this some new trick?”

“I brought you this to say sorry.” Britany stepped a little closer. “Summer's had an entrancing enchantment on me all term. Can we be friends again?”

“I guess.”

“Then maybe would you tell me how you did that this afternoon?”

“Did what?”

“Are you an animagus? How’d you change into a jaguar and run away so fast?”

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Treacle tart with custard by Peter Smith