AWAY FROM IT ALL - 182 words (prompt - beyond)

Beyond the stinking factory floor, there is clean air.

Beyond the body-checks of strangers on teeming sidewalks, there is personal space.

Beyond the din of cars, sirens, and heavy equipment there is silence.

That’s what the advertisement said.

The hammock, weighed down by Lada’s inert body, hangs motionless between two palm trees. She refuses to move, lest the hammock swing and its leather straps creak like they did when she first climbed in. A warm breeze skips over her and silent waves lap the shore.

All year she saved for this holiday, often going without protein, always wearing her mother’s old clothes and shoes stuffed with plastic bags.

She has to soak up this vacation because it will be another year before she can come again. Drowsiness threatens to drag her under but she fights it. Not a single second of this break will be wasted in idle sleep.

A loudspeaker crackles and a voice booms over her private section of the diorama. “Lada XD356, your time is up. Please vacate your position or deposit $500 for ten more minutes.”

 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Hammock on a tropical beach by Micky


Back to Nature - 313 words (prompt - rake)

“Are we ever moving back to the city?” Hank moves the hose along the line of watermelons, being careful to water around the plants.

“Why would we want to do that?” Arlene leans on her rake and watches him.

“I dunno. Friends. Restaurants. Theatre. Jobs. Life.”

“This is living. And we’re out from under the heel of the corporate masters. We know what’s in the food that we eat. We have friends.” Arlene motions across the valley where small farms dot the landscape. “The kids are healthier than they’ve ever been and they’re learning self-reliance. How much more do you want for them?”

“It was easier in the city.”

“Was it? Never knowing where our food came from or how it was grown?” She shakes her head and goes back to raking the mulch over the watermelon hills. “Is it easier when someone else controls the food supply? Tell that to anyone who’s ever been in a disaster zone and had to wait for the army to deliver inedible MRE’s.”

A howl pierces the air. Down by the beehives one of the twins shrieks like he’s being eaten alive. They’ve been told a dozen times not to play there.

Arlene bends over and cuts a watermelon off its shrivelled tendril. “Here, take this to the house. First one of the season. As soon as the kids see this, they’ll forget about whatever disaster has struck.”

She tosses Hank the fruit but it slips through his wet hands. With a dull thud, it lands on the ground and splits open.

“Oh my god.” He slaps his hand over his mouth. “We can’t eat that.”

Arlene looks down at the fruit, her ears still tuned to the boy whose cries have become increasingly melodramatic. “Why the hell not?”

“It’s infested with bugs.”

Arlene smiles. “Those are seeds, city boy. That’s what real watermelons look like.”

 


Picture from Wikimedia: "Bauernmädchen mit Heurechen und Sichel". 1857, 84 x 69 cm, signiert "A Küster

Culprit - word count 185 (prompt: ignite)

‘I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me!’ Sam races past brightly-lit cottages, into the town centre. In the hills above, explosions rock the mountain pass. People flood the streets. Yule fires burn unattended in the grate and mulled solstice wine sits untouched beside empty chairs.

A tall man with a bushy beard catches the breathless boy in his arms. “What is going on, son? What’s that noise?”

“It wasn’t me, Pa! Honest. I was sneaking up to the guard house and suddenly the ground started bursting around me.”

The crowd surrounds him like a human wall and the boy tries not to feel trapped. Some people stare up at the hills where bombs seem to ignite the sky itself. Others look at him with narrowed eyes.

“It’s the Resistance.” A rare smile splits Pa’s face. “The bombs are destroying the blockades. At last our valley cousins will be free.”

Sam relaxes in his father’s embrace. Finally someone else will be blamed for all the mischief on this side of the mountain. Maybe they’ll even blame the Resistance for the cakes stolen from Widow Shayla’s cellar.

 


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burning sun-wheel at Yule by Amon Amarth

Stain - word count 251 (prompt - whisper)

“It gives me great pleasure to present this honorary doctorate to Samantha Ripley for her work with homeless youth.” Chancellor Montague steps back from the lectern and smooths the yellow flashes on her gown.

Samantha takes a deep breath, willing herself to rise from her seat and move forward. She didn’t want this honour but others had worked hard behind her back. The moment the letter arrived from the university, she was unable to untangle the process.

As she walks between the rows of freshly-hatched graduates, she hears the whispers.

Ugly as sin.

A two-bagger.

Sammy, fatty, two-by-four.

I’d gnaw my own arm off.

What a porker.

Moooooo.

Shame burns up her cheeks and tears prick her eyes. She steals a glance at the students looking at her. They are smiling. Clapping. Someone says, “Way to go, girl.”

Why are the barbs of her childhood so much stronger than today’s accolades? Will old wounds never heal?
As she reaches the podium, the audience is on its feet, cheering. People are saluting her. They don’t see the girl who hid in the corner of the school ground. They don’t see an ungainly, chubby child whose tongue tripped over words, splicing them into staccato stutters.

They see Samantha Ripley, an almost anorexic, tireless fighter for the underdog. If they knew who she really was, their cheers would turn to taunts. They’d tear up that doctorate and send her back to where she belongs, to the slums with the rest of society’s cast offs.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Bookszlater

Double-Edged Sword - 461 words (prompt: Janus)

Two weeks after Alec’s funeral, Beatrice Hunt finally found the ring of keys he’d hidden. They were stashed in a hollowed-out Bible, in the bottom of a box of oily rags, on the top shelf of the garage. She pulled on her thin gumboots and slogged through the mud to the shed behind the silo. Four tries later, a rusty key coaxed the lock open. The door groaned shut behind her as Beatrice entered the dusty sanctuary.  

By the wan light of the naked bulb she looked at the world she’d been forbidden to enter for over forty years of marriage. A threadbare armchair nestled close to the cast iron stove. Beside it, an old hubcap overflowed with cigar butts on top of a leaning side table. Beatrice pulled her patched winter coat closer and stared at a lifetime’s worth of hoarded finds. Alec had foraged for books and magazines everywhere: garage sales, school fêtes, waiting rooms, library sales, recycling bins. How many loads would she have to haul away in her broken down Datsun before the door to the shed would open fully?

The real estate agent told her to clear out the house and all the outbuildings. Leave only the essentials. She sensed that the realtor meant the less of her shabby furniture around, the better. She wasn’t sensitive about how poor she was. Anyone could see the crumbling front steps and the window fixed with plywood.

The town people moving out here didn’t care. They were buying places that had been in families for generations, regardless of condition. These people needed plenty of room for their cars and boats and weekend visitors.

Beatrice had been begging Alec for over ten years to sell but he refused. Now it was all up to her. The kids didn’t want the place. They had smart city jobs in faraway countries. They weren’t coming back to plough the land and pick the crops.

She sank into Alec’s chair and the cigar-sweat smell of him wreathed her like a hug. She picked up the hubcap and emptied its contents into the stove. A few strong tugs opened the drawer of the side table. Beatrice jumped back as if slapped. Piles of erotic magazines bulged inside. Well-thumbed magazines.

She grabbed a handful and shoved them into the stove. With trembling hands she struck a match and lit them on fire. When they were almost burnt to an ash, she reached for another stack but they slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor. Business-sized envelopes drifted out of two of them. Return address: Janus International.

The most recent one was less than a month old and it showed that the investment account of Alexander Raymond Hunt was valued at $516,423 on that day.  

Cast_Iron_Wood_Stove.JPG

 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Cast Iron Wood Stove by Victorgrigas

 

Longing for Home - 462 words (prompt - fireworks)

Outside the glass and steel tower, fireworks explode, drowning the roar of the constant traffic. Anka moans, squeezes her eyes tight, and remembers the soft, welcoming darkness of home.

She can feel the embracing cold of the long Arctic nights. When she walked through the crunching snow, hungry wolves would nudge her pockets looking for food. Above the glistening ground, the Northern Lights danced.

“Soccer players,” Aama, her mother, explained. “All the dead people who have gone before us play in that curtain across the sky.”

“Even Daddy?” Anka asked.

“Especially Daddy.” Aama pushed the platter of bannock closer. “Eat, child. You’re too thin.”

Anka took the smallest piece and nibbled it slowly. “Can Daddy see me?”

“Not until you join him.”

“What if I whistle, can he hear me?”

Aama snatched the platter back. Her eyes blazed. “You must never, ever whistle at the lights! If you do that the curtain will touch the earth and the world will explode.”

When Aama died, Anka no longer cared if she lived another day. She took the last of the dried caribou meat and gave it the wolves. Looking up at the shimmering ghosts, she whistled and whistled but the world did not end. The wolves heard her pain and howled their sympathy.

The next day Anka climbed into a Falcon 10/100 jet and flew south to her new life in a concrete village. She met a man on the plane who drove her to his condo in a fancy German car.

“You can stay with me until you get on your feet.” He lifted her battered backpack out of the cavernous trunk of his car. He was kind and gentle. When he made love to her he asked, ‘do you like this?’ and ‘what about this?’

He looked up her name and told her it meant fertile and that he wanted to make babies with her. She shook her head. Babies were not part of her plan.

It’s New Year’s Eve. She has lived with him for a month now but the dim pink light of Northern midday beckons. He declares his love for her and begs her not to go. When she shakes her head again, he points to the fireworks display. “Look—there’s a chrysanthemum.”

Bright red flowers bloom in the night. She stares, slack-jawed.

“That one’s a peony,” he adds.

The bouquet brightens and fades.

“This is a kamuro. It’s named after a Japanese hairstyle.”

It looks like Aama’s hair: a spiky cap that burst out of her parka whenever she pulled back the hood. It is the sign Anka has been looking for.

“Maybe I can stay a while longer,” Anka holds his warm hand in hers. “As long as I can see fireworks in the midnight sky.”
 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Northern Lights at the North Pole, C

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/