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

Reunion - Word count 473 (Prompt: gun)

The last time I saw Jeremy he was striding away from me, spine unnaturally straight. The tails of his long sweeping overcoat flapped in the November rain. I’d offered him a ride home but he said he’d rather walk. What he meant was I wasn’t getting into his apartment come hell or high water.

We’d had one of our usual fights. Words are important to me and it bugs me when anyone—but especially a bright guy like Jeremy—uses them wrong. He’s like a singer who’s always off-key.

The first thing he said to me that day was, “Give my regards to old Parkway” because I was going to New York for a week. If he said that as a joke, it would’ve been okay but he just doesn’t pay attention. I think if you’re going to use the words of great people you should try to get them right. Plus where the hell is Parkway?

“Broadway,” I said and stepped away from him. He’d just planted a big kiss on my mouth, right there in public. It’s no secret I hate that.

“Broadway, Parkway. Same-same.”

“It’s not the same, Jeremy. Broadway exists, it’s the live theatre capital of America. Probably the world. If you can’t get the words right, why not keep your mouth shut?”

Okay so maybe I went a little far. He sulked for a while but when we reached the box office, I paid for both our movie tickets. That cheered him up and of course we didn’t talk for the next two hours. Afterwards we went for drinks and I paid the first round and he got the second. When we walked out of the bar he shivered and said, “Wow this is real bronze monkey weather isn’t it?”

The way he lifted his chin said he knew he’d got it wrong.

“Pardon me?”

“You heard me.”

“Jeremy, you are probably the smartest idiot I’ve ever known. If you could think just once before you opened your mouth, you’d be a genius.”

After that, things got nasty. We ended up yelling insults at each other, right there outside Tony’s Bar and Grill. Then he was gone.

It’s been a dark cold winter without him. At Christmas he FedEx’d me a box of silk underwear. I sent him a single Cuban cigar. He loves Latinos.

So now it’s Valentine’s Day and we’ve agreed to meet, back at Tony’s. “Let’s kiss and make up,” his card said.

He walks towards me, super model slender, ruggedly handsome. I stand, smooth my new wool trousers, and hope he doesn’t notice the way I suck in my gut.

A megawatt smile lights up his face, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

“Jeremy,” I say through clenched teeth, “the word you want is pistol.”

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Broadway Theatre by Luigi Novi

 

Cornered - Word count 419 (Prompt: club)

Terry has been sitting for most of the afternoon, staring at the recipe book. He lights one Marlboro Light after another until the pasta bowl beside him overflows with butts. The whole time he thinks about Georgia, she of the thick braid that hangs to her waist. He sees himself beside her, trotting to keep pace with her long, impatient stride. He falls asleep with this image in his mind. When a cigarette burns his fingers, he shakes himself awake.

Hells’ bells it’s 6:00 and he’s promised her dinner. Optimism had inspired him to list gourmet cooking as one of his interests on his Plenty Fish in the Sea profile. Yes, he’s interested in it, but just from the eating point of view. When she asked him to cook for her, he was confident he could meet the challenge.

But look at this stupid recipe: start with a Sicilian eggplant. Sicilian for crying out loud, like it talks with a different accent and idiom than a regular eggplant. This is why people give up on fancy cooking. Every single recipe in this Easy Epicurean cookbook calls for at least three ingredients that he either doesn’t have or, worse still, hasn’t even heard of.

Now it’s too late to get the skills he needs before dinner.

Georgia is bringing Marjolaine, a dessert he has eaten once, in Paris. The flavours of  nutty meringue, chocolate ganache, and coffee-flavoured buttercream rise in the back of his throat and his mouth floods with saliva. Terry wanted to make a dinner to complement Georgia's family recipe.

He tips his cigarette butts into the rubbish bin and gargles with mouthwash before snatching his keys and running, breakneck, to the gourmet restaurant down the street. He phones ahead so they expect him. Only favourite customers can order takeaway and Terry qualifies. There is enough time to wait for the cassoulet, so fragrant it makes him want to cry, and get back home before Georgia arrives. He takes his usual seat at the back of the dining room and plays Candy Crush on his phone to pass the time.

“Excuse me, are you a member of the club?”  Georgia smiles down at him. Her loose hair curls and tumbles over her shoulders, past her elbows, like an auburn cape.

“The club?”

“The takeaway club.” She glances to where the maître d’ holds up a glass dish topped with dusty meringue. She waves at the host and turns back to Terry. “I hear there are very few members.”

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Ganaché de chocolate by Luisa Contreras

Played Out — Word Count 435 (Prompt: ice)

“Get that ice or else no dice,” Tanya sings in a sweet soprano voice. She looks up at the portrait of her guardian angel, Marilyn Monroe. Photograph by Bruno Bernard. (Archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inch, $3,700, bought online.)

“You were born too soon,” Tanya flashes her large rock (two karats set in platinum, $10,000, Argosy Manufacturing Jewellers) at the portrait yet again. “If you were a twenty-first century woman like me, you would’ve bought your own stone.”

“And you would’ve chosen your own husband, when you were good and ready.” Tanya uses the hem of her linen sundress (Eileen Fisher colour-block, $315, Nordstrom) to wipe a fleck of dust from the champagne flute (Waterford crystal, $99 each, Bloomingdales) at Neil’s place at the table.

Tonight is a special dinner celebrating the forth anniversary of when they met. Neil promised her a special present. Even as she straightens a steak knife (Wüsthof classic $75, Williams-Sonoma) at his place, she contemplates the text he sent from the parking lot: “Just say yes.”

She smiles up at Marilyn. “He’s the one, isn’t he?”

Marilyn’s image shimmers for a minute and Tanya nods. Yes, brainac Neil is the one. After the first time Tanya brought him home, Marilyn’s portrait glowed approval for days. Dr. Yates mightn’t earn as much as Tanya but he’s loyal, super fit, and a tenured professor.

After all this time, he is going to propose. She’s been hinting for the past few months that this is what she wants. So far she’s pulled the train in their relationship but now it’s his turn to take control.

Tanya fluffs her dyed blonde hair and perches on the side of a dining chair (Billy Haines, circa 1950’s, $2,500, Best Choice Antiques). When Neil blows in he pauses for a moment, as always, and looks from her to Marilyn and back again, as if he can’t tell which is which. Tanya loves this game.

In one hand he carries a bottle of champagne. Her smile broadens (Dom Perignon, 1955, $1,100, Vintage Cellars). In the other he brandishes an envelope.

“Happy anniversary,” Tanya says in a throaty, practised whisper.

“Happy anniversary.” Neil kisses her on the neck so he won’t smear her lipstick (Serge Luten, Mise a Mott, $75, the Beauty Spot). When they step apart, he slides the envelope into her hand.

She tears it open to find a card with a picture of Marilyn on the front. The legend looks unusually buxom as if someone has photoshopped her image. A thin slip of paper slides into Tanya’s hands. On the wall Marilyn’s portrait clouds over.

"This certificate entitles Tanya Monroe to a surgical breast augmentation to the value of $10,000."

© Maggie Bolitho


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Barris Marilyn Monroe by George Barris

Descent — Word Count 143 (Prompt: heat)

amigraine.jpg

It wasn’t the baby crying from dusk til dawn.

It wasn’t her name on the shortlist but not on the winner’s line.

It wasn’t the heat.

It wasn’t the clinging smell of the vinyl in the new car.

It wasn’t the Visa bill, $500 over limit.

It wasn’t the caffeine.

It wasn’t losing her grandmother’s ring, only to find it behind the jam jar.

It wasn’t cycling at the front of the pace-line in the relentless sun.

It wasn’t the chocolate.

It wasn’t the whine of chainsaws in the forest behind her house.

It wasn’t the stack of work, already two weeks late.

It was everything.

She looked at the small, pharmaceutical wonder in her hand: $30 a pop. She hesitated only a minute before she swallowed in. Soon the migraine’s light and thunder would recede and she’d sleep almost comatose for hours.

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Sasha Wolff from Grand Rapids

Indelible Ink — Word Count 395 (Prompt: Ink)

It was one year, six months, and three days before Miranda stopped driving past David’s house every day. She gave up reading his stupid blog about deep-sea fishing a month after that. Finally she discarded the last unwashed t-shirt he’d left behind.

The following Friday she joined a dozen coworkers in the bar and ordered Tequila shots turbocharged with Cointreau chasers. Near closing time, she declared, “My addiction to the most toxic person on earth is cured and I’m getting a tattoo to celebrate. Who wants to join me?”

The skinny kid from payroll slid another shot glass her way and winked at her. When the pub closed they wound their way to the part of town that never shut down.

Miranda woke the next morning and lay statue-still, afraid that her head would crack if she lifted it off the pillow. Fragmented memories of the night before flitted across her brain: a fish and chips shop with hookers out front. A tattoo parlour with biker gang designs in the window. She’d bargained the tattoo artist down in price. The kid got a 3D bat on his shoulder. Everything after that was a blank.

She wanted Chapter 2 inked across her right wrist, to remind her that being a divorcee at twenty-five wasn’t the end of her life. She held up her right arm. Bare. Her left arm was uninked too. Maybe she’d changed her mind.

On shaky legs, she fumbled her way to the bathroom, stripping as she went. She glanced in the mirror as she turned on the shower. What was the black track that wrapped around her right breast and snaked down her stomach? Grabbing her phone she snapped a selfie and squinted at it. Spidery cursive script read: Whatever doesn’t kill us only makes us stranger. Stranger?  She stretched the photo larger. It definitely said stranger. In two-inch high letters. In fact it looked like the tattoo artist had gone over the letter ‘a’ twice, to emphasize it.

When her phone rang, David and a picture of her ex-husband flashed on the screen.

“Yes?” she answered tentatively.

“Hi Babe.” David’s deep melodic voice still made the hairs on her arm stand up. “Can you forgive me? I realize what a total idiot I’ve been. How about we go out for dinner some time and see if the flame is still burning?”

© Maggie Bolitho


Image from Wikimedia Commons: Toulouse Lautrec, The Tattooed Woman, 1894 (uploaded by Petrusbarbygere)

Barramundi Bet - Word Count 452 (Prompt: gamble)

Sienna squatted low under a scrubby bush. The sun had barely cracked the horizon but it already singed the red earth outside her small circle of shade. As she scraped the stubborn scales off the fish, she listened for sounds of anyone sneaking up on her. Those Shackleton boys had stolen her catch for the last time.

When Sienna had complained about their thieving, Gran lifted her eyes from the pile of math quizzes she was marking and said, “You can’t beat bullies, love. Find somewhere else to fish. It’s a long river. Just watch out for the crocs.”

Thinking about Gran’s live-to-fight-another-day logic, Sienna snorted. She’d fished at this spot for the past five years and knew every nook and cranny of the riverbed. It belonged to her.

She ignored the bruises on her forearms where Kris Shackleton had held onto her the day before. Purple circles marked where he’d dug his fingertips into her skin while his scabby brothers had rifled through her cooler bag and found her freshly-caught prizes. When she walked past the shops later, she saw her catch laid out in the fishmonger’s window. There was the big barra with the cut she’d made to release the hook. The boys probably got loads of cash for her patient work.

What if someone stole all Gran’s math papers, and took the money paid for marking them? She’d change her tune then.

Loud shouts rose from the road next to the river. Sienna shoved the last fish into her bag and ran to the top of a nearby dune. She flattened her body in a trench she’d dug out before sunrise. A row of thick grasses hid her from view. From where she lay, she watched the boys tear down the rough path on their bikes, tyres spitting up dirt.

“Stupid bitch has been and gone,” said Jamie, the small one with the bitten nails and high thin voice. He kicked a blob of fish guts at Kris but missed and hit Troy’s brand new boardies instead. Jamie giggled when a red stain appeared. “Oh look. Troy’s on the rag!”

Troy lunged at Jamie and knocked him to the ground. They rolled and flopped, throwing ineffectual punches and cursing like drunks. When they tumbled closer to the river, Sienna held her breath. Maybe she’d gambled wrong. Maybe they’d find her hiding place after all.

They hit the edge of the water and kept wrestling. Kris stood on the beach above them, howling for blood. Seen only by Sienna, a long brown snout glided along the muddy river, metres away. She waited for nature to prove Gran wrong. You could fight bullies. You just had to lay the right trap.

© Maggie Bolitho

Photo from Wikimedia Commons — Barramundi with Barcoo Grunter © Nick Thorne