Category: Stories & Excerpts Page 1 of 6

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An Unexpected Union

Most of my recent short stories have fallen on the dark side. I’m not sure why that happens, and my friends like to tease me about it. So I was determined to write something sweeter, a cozy romance, perhaps. It was a little harder than I expected but I was ready for a writing challenge.

One of my favorite things about following prompts from this book, Write the Story, is that I can curb my fondness of going down writing rabbit holes. I tried to keep this romantic short story simple and I hope you like what I ended up with!

Title: An Unexpected Union

Words: brothers, potato, common, hands, boyfriend, alphabet, scribble, hydrangea, sandwich, tug-of-war


Julie Lillis wiped down the counter in the deli she’d worked at since high school. Kelly’s Deli was the go-to lunch spot in the small town of Pinto and most of the residents came through the doors for their famous roast beef sandwich or a bowl of vegetable alphabet soup any given day.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is.” A tall, lanky young man with waves of dark hair falling into his brown eyes leaned over Julie’s shoulder, making her jump.

She swatted at him with her towel and he poked her in the ribs. “Damn it, Shawn, what’s wrong with you? You’re gonna get an elbow to the nose one of these days.”

“Yeah, right,” he drawled with a smirk. “Anyway, I don’t get what’s so wrong with sticking around here one more year before you run away from home.”

Rolling her eyes, Julie tucked a blond curl behind her ear then put the chairs on the tables so Shawn could mop the floor. “Don’t be so dramatic. I’m not running away from home, I’m running toward my future. There is no way to get around the fact that my prospects are severely limited around here. It’s already been three years since graduation, I’ve got my associate’s degree from the community college, it’s just time for me follow my dreams.”

Shawn Flores leaned on the mop handle and stared at the floor while she talked.

“You know I won’t quit until I’m working for the Smithsonian Institution in some aspect. One of the museums in DC would be ideal, but I am not picky.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes, noticing Shawn’s forlorn expression.

They’d been like two peas in a pod since they were eight years old when Shawn moved into the house next door to Julie’s. It had been in the deepest heat of the summer, the kind of oppressive humidity that made daylight unfit for man or beast. At first, they wanted nothing to do with each other. His family had moved into the house that had been vacated by Julie’s first best friend, Annie, and her eight-year-old brain blamed him for making Annie leave.

First thing on summer mornings, Julie and her mom would work in the yard, pulling weeds from the small vegetable garden and watering the flowers. Julie’s favorites were the hydrangea bushes under her window. She’d picked out the first one when she was five and had gotten to buy a new one each year. The result was a collection of thriving blooms in blue, purple, and pink that mesmerized her every time she looked at them. One such morning, she’d been daydreaming over the flowers when Shawn’s mother came barreling over, dragging him behind her, to introduce herself. Julie glared at him. He stuck out his tongue. They maintained their crossed-arm standoff for nearly five minutes before she noticed his Power Rangers t-shirt.

“Hey! Do you like Power Rangers?”

Shawn had narrowed his eyes and answered, “Maybe. Why? Do you?”

Within another five minutes, Julie had dragged him to the shed where she kept her collection of morphers, swords, and laser blasters and the rest was history. Their bedroom windows faced each other and they spent the next ten years talking to each other through those windows after bedtime or taking the time to scribble a secret note before folding it into a paper airplane to shoot across the yard.

But looking at his mopey face in the middle of the darkened deli, Julie felt a pang in her chest. She talked a big game but she was nervous about leaving alone and not having him to talk to and lean on every day.

“Shawn?”

“Hmm?” he mumbled as he started swishing the mop back and forth on the black and white tiles.

“You could come with me, you know.” The way his head whipped up and his eyes locked on hers wasn’t the reaction she was expecting. He’d always refused to talk about going to college with a snort and a wave but this was very different.

“What do you mean?”

Hopping onto the counter behind her, Julie swung her legs and shrugged. “What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean you don’t have to stay here in this nowhere town and work at this old deli for the rest of your life. Let’s pick out a college together, one where I can get my history degree and museum curator’s license and you can take art and music classes.”

He frowned into the bucket of soapy water. “Don’t be dumb. First, how the hell am I going to afford college? After dad left, mom and I couldn’t even afford the community college here in town. Second, I can’t make a living with art or music. I’m better off staying here and managing the deli in another couple of years.”

Julie dragged her hands down her face and groaned. “Oh my god, Shawn. You know Joe isn’t going to retire. Like, ever. You will have to pry that set of manager keys from his cold, dead hand, and even then it’s not a guarantee. You are so talented, you could do anything you wanted! You deserve so much better than this.”

His smile was sad as he rolled the mop and bucket past into the back room. “You think so? Sometimes I wonder.”

“Hey,” she whispered, placing her hand on his arm. “Your dad’s an asshole and your folks were wrong to play tug-of-war with you during the divorce. They were both in so much pain they couldn’t see what they were doing to you and I’m so sorry.”

Without looking up, Shawn placed his hand on top of hers and sighed. “I want to believe you, Jules, I really do. And I try to. But there are only so many positive affirmations I can tell my mirror before the words mean nothing.”

Julie’s other hand slid into the longer shaggy locks at the back of his neck while she tried to think of what to say. When he was about twelve, his dad began an affair with a woman he met on the golf course and his attitude at home turned to shit. He was rude to Shawn’s mom if he acknowledged her at all, and he had zero kind words for Shawn when he realized that football and baseball weren’t in his future. Instead, singing and art were Shawn’s true and outstanding talents, but his dad never accepted that. He left a year later. She knew she shouldn’t, but Julie felt guilty that her parents were still married and happy together.

Leaning into her touch, Shawn started to relax. He turned to lay his forehead against her shoulder, wrapping his arms around her waist. It was a common pose for them, taking comfort in each other without words or judgments.

Shawn took a deep breath and pushed back from Julie’s embrace. “Thanks, Jules. You always know how to make me feel better. And you know what? I’ll think about it. There are worse things than running away with you.”

The way she gasped when he said that made his heart skip a beat. She knew he would do anything for her, so why would she look so shocked and confused?

Just then, there was a loud rapping on the front door. Julie’s face lit up as she jumped off the counter but Shawn’s whole posture deflated and he muttered, “Like spending any time with him, for instance.”

“Hush, you,” Julie laughed as she unlocked the door to let in her boyfriend and resident town stud, Troy Hawkins. After she set the lock behind him, he immediately crushed her against his chest, his hands roaming all over her. “Woah, hold up there, tiger – we’re not alone!”

Without letting go of Julie’s butt, Troy sneered at Shawn and flipped a bro nod his way. “S’up, man.”

Shawn hated him. He was one of a set of athletic, handsome, all-American brothers who were virtually worshipped in Pinto. Somehow, they were blessed with good looks, strength, and sports ability, but not one of them had a higher IQ than a potato.

From the time they were thirteen, Troy had decided that Shawn needed a shove into the lockers or a friendly trip in the cafeteria pretty much every day. Once they graduated, Shawn thought he’d finally gotten rid of that douchebag and was ready to live his life free from the Hawkins brothers’ bullying tactics.

But no.  Julie had crushed on Troy all through school and he’d never given her the time of day, instead dating the head cheerleader, Allison Bernhard. Then Allison left for college. After burning through the rest of the cheer squad, Troy had finally noticed Julie a couple of months back and Shawn was forced to play nice for her sake.

Yep. With the burning passion of a thousand suns, he despised Troy Hawkins.

“Not much, Troy. What are you up to tonight?”

Eliciting a squeal from Julie as he lifted her off the ground with one arm, Troy sauntered into the deli, tracking dirt behind him on the floor Shawn had just cleaned. “Gonna take my best girl here out on a date. You’ve had to wait long enough for me to have some free time, I thought I’d surprise you.”

She pressed a lingering kiss to Troy’s lips and Shawn tried not to barf.

“Give me just a minute to change out of my uniform and we can go. Where are we going?” She gazed up at Troy with shining eyes, then shook her head. “No, don’t tell me. It’s your surprise. I’ll let it be a surprise.” Then she dashed into the back room leaving Troy leaning against the counter while Shawn rolled the bucket back toward the door.

Neither of them acknowledged the other. With Julie out of the room, they didn’t need to pretend to be civil. In fact, Shawn was pretty sure that Troy had forgotten he was even in the room, which was fine with him. The last thing he wanted to do, short of gouging out his own eyes, was to make small talk with Troy freaking Hawkins. Thankfully, Troy’s phone rang just then and Shawn was saved.

Because he was a moron, Troy answered the phone on speaker and a female voice filled the room. “Babe, where’d you go? My bed is lonely.”

Shawn froze and tried to shrink into the shadows. What the hell was he hearing?

“Allie, I told you not to bug me about what I’m doing. I had something to take care of, and that’s all you need to know. I’ll come back when I feel like it.”

Allie? Was he talking to Allison?

She purred from the phone, “I miss you, that’s all. And here I am, all alone, lying in my bed without a stitch of clothing on me.”

From his vantage point, Shawn watched Troy rearrange his stance and grin. “Yeah? Send me pics to get me through until I can get back there. I gotta take my little cousin to a ball game then I’m all yours. Love you, Bernhard.” When he disconnected the call, he noticed Shawn was in the room. He frowned and his face darkened, fists clenching at his sides.

“What the hell, Flores? You spying on me? Do I need to put you in your place? Again?”

Fury pulsing through him, Shawn pushed the bucket out of the way and drew up to his full height. “Nope, not spying. But I sure heard enough to keep you from taking Julie anywhere tonight. Or any other night, for that matter.”

“Oh yeah? What do you think you heard, shithead? You didn’t hear dick.”

“Mmm, I beg to differ,” Shawn countered. “I heard, loud and clear, you lying to your old girlfriend Allison Bernhard, asking for nudes and promising to be back in her bed as soon as you were done with your ‘cousin’. All that while you’re waiting to take your current girlfriend on a date. Sound about right?”

Taking a couple quick steps toward Shawn, Troy brandished his fists and snarled, “You better keep your damn mouth shut or I’ll knock your teeth down your throat.”

Shawn laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Troy, you stupid, simple gorilla. I’ve let you push me around for half my life, let you threaten me and make a fool of me and it was no big deal. I could take it.” All humor drained from his face and his voice dropped to a deep, low tone that didn’t hide the menace behind his next words. “But Julie means everything to me. Everything. I have been in love with her since the day I met her. She deserves the sun and the moon and all the stars in the galaxy and the next and you are a speck of dust on the bottom of her shoe. And I won’t let you hurt her, ever.”

“Ha. What’re you gonna do, Flores? So what if I get a little piece of ass on the side, ain’t no big deal. Allison is a fantastic lay – you should take her for a ride sometime – and since Julie won’t give it up quite yet, I’ve got every right. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, anyway.” A growl emanated from deep in Shawn’s throat as he advanced one step at a time. Troy tried to hold his ground, but the flash of fear behind his eyes was unmistakable. “You gonna tattle on me? Who do you think she’s gonna believe? Her loser neighbor or her hot boyfriend?”

“Oh, definitely the hot boyfriend.” At the sound of Julie’s voice from the darkened doorway to the back room, both men jumped and stared at her. Then Troy smirked over his shoulder at Shawn and sauntered toward the pretty blonde. Shawn’s heart broke and he hung his head.

“I knew you would, baby,” he gloated, reaching for her.

But Julie avoided his touch.

“Yeah, when my boyfr- excuse me, I mean my ex-boyfriend, himself, says that he’s sleeping with someone else why wouldn’t I believe him?” She crossed her arms and glowered at Troy until he was forced to take a step backward. “I think it’s time for you to leave, Hawkins.”

The grin on Shawn’s face as Troy skulked from the deli was more pride in his best friend’s gumption than the fact that Troy Hawkins had finally gotten caught in his own lies. Although that was pretty sweet.

His face burning red, Troy stopped at the door and fumbled with the lock. “Yeah, well, you both are losers. Julie Lillis, you’re a prude and I am way out of your league. I was doing you a favor!” When Julie stepped up next to Shawn and rested her arm on his shoulder Troy nearly came unglued. “Whatever. You two deserve each other!” He finally yanked the door open and stormed out into the night.

The two friends didn’t move or speak for a moment. Shawn knew that couldn’t have been easy for Julie. One part of him wanted to whoop and laugh at the humiliation on Troy’s face but the other part could sense that his best friend was unusually quiet and still and was probably embarrassed, herself. He turned toward her and squeezed her hands.

“I’m so sorry Jules, you didn’t deserve that.” His whisper sounded far too loud in the silent restaurant. “And Troy didn’t deserve you. You know I’m glad he’s gone – I’ve never hidden how much I loathe him – but I’m so sorry that he hurt you like this.”

Julie kept her eyes trained on their joined hands, her eyebrows drawn together. Then suddenly her scowl eased and the corner of her mouth lifted. “Don’t worry, he didn’t hurt me. I knew what he was a long time ago and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Shawn started to laugh but Julie’s head whipped up and she fixed him with an accusing glare, freezing him in place.

“But you, on the other hand, I am pissed at you right now!”

“Wait – what? Why? I didn’t trick him into outing himself, I didn’t start anything with him! I didn’t do anything!” He stumbled backwards as Julie jabbed him in the chest.

“That’s right, you didn’t do anything,” she yelled. “All this time, all these years – wasted – because you didn’t do anything!”

Shawn’s back hit the counter and he couldn’t retreat any further. With anger still written all over her face, Julie marched closer, pressing him back until their faces were only inches apart. Then, with an exasperated huff, she captured his lips in a passionate kiss.

At first, he didn’t understand what was happening, but then realization dawned and he wrapped his arms around Julie’s waist, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss. Every moment of his life had been leading up to this moment, every fiber of his being had yearned for this, and he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming. But he didn’t care.

When they separated, both of them panting and cheeks flushed, they stared at each other for a stunned moment. Then they laughed before holding each other tight.

“I heard what Troy said, Shawn, but I heard what you said, too,” Julie murmured against his cheek. “You’re an idiot. So am I.” She tangled her hands in his thick, dark hair and pulled back to gaze into his eyes. “All this time, you felt the same way I did and I never thought to tell you that I love you. That I’ve always loved you.”

The warmth and joy spreading through Shawn’s chest was something he’d never experienced before, a sense of pure joy and acceptance and love. Looking into his best friend’s crystal blue eyes he knew deep in his bones that he’d never be without that feeling again.

Chasing the Enemy

When I start on one of these prompts, I write notes about where I see the story going. The funny thing is that it’s very rare for those ideas to make it into the story…For instance: one of the original ideas for this prompt was a man with a special parakeet that could identify demons. 🤔😈

I hope you enjoy this story – leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts!

Title: Chasing the Enemy

Words: demon, bystander, escaped, parakeet, destiny, hammer, singing, ash, cathedral, heels


Cigarette smoke curled into the night air in the circle of light cast by the lone street light. Outside of that circle, however, the shadows writhed with everything dark and dangerous. The gloom concealed the thieves, the prostitutes, the murderers. At least until an unsuspecting bystander got caught in a snare and was swallowed by the night.

Damien was no stranger to these shadows. In fact, he often sought them out. He dropped the spent cigarette and crushed it with his toe, brushing the ash from his jacket lapels. How many nights had he held vigil on this corner? Two? Three? Rubbing his eyes, he yawned. Too many nights, that’s how many. But he’d been chasing leads and suspects long enough to know that sleep would only come once his quarry was caught and neutralized. Then he could safely trudge home and sleep in his own bed, under the same roof as the one he’d sworn to protect.

Shaking a new smoke out of the pack, he pulled it free with his lips before touching the bright flame of his lighter to the end. No spring chicken, Damien was gruff and scruffy, loud and bossy. He wasn’t bad to look at even though his jet-black hair was now streaked with a dirty gray and he couldn’t seem to keep his chin free of whiskers for more than an hour. It was the way he carried himself that had kept him alone for nearly a decade. He was aware of  his permanent scowl and his hunched shoulders and his angry tone of voice if anyone dared show him kindness.

He knew he didn’t deserve it.

Taking another long drag from his cigarette, he turned his eyes to the lighted windows of the cathedral across the street. His friends, when he’d had them, tried to get him to find peace in the church. Any church. After his wife had been murdered and the perpetrator escaped into obscurity, however, Damien felt that God was mocking him. He was being punished, his destiny twisted and mangled until he had lost all traces of humanity.

Their argument that day had been entirely his fault. Jeannie had been asking him for months to pick up his hammer and finish building the bookshelves he’d promised her when they bought the little craftsman-style house. He’d picked out the perfect oak and lovingly stained and treated it, carving intricate designs for accents. But for some unknown reason he was unable to assemble the pieces. Not physically unable, but some kind of mental block stopped him any time he thought about finishing them. His insecurities had convinced him that the one person he loved more than life wouldn’t need him anymore once those shelves were built.

She’d begged him that day, teasing, bribing him with a vacation or tickets to his favorite band. But he refused everything. Jeannie had tried to be kind and he’d been a complete ass. Yelling, calling her names and telling her to get off his back, he’d slammed out of the house and peeled away in his stupid Chevelle SS. An image in his rearview mirror, standing on the front porch looking heartbroken, was the last time he’d seen her alive.

If only he’d been there. If only he’d apologized and kissed her. If only he’d just built those damn bookshelves, she’d still be alive.

Damien didn’t remember anything from the moment he pulled onto his street, singing along to the radio and saw the police cars until everyone was gathered at his house after Jeannie’s funeral. When he came back to himself, all his neighbors and family patting him on the back and vomiting platitudes at him when he was drowning in self-loathing, he checked out. Without a word, he walked out the front door, climbed in his stupid muscle car and drove away. He had no idea what happened to his house or any of his other property – and he didn’t care.

He shifted his weight and stretched his back, lighting another cigarette with a scowl. Ten years. It had taken ten years of traveling, of taking odd jobs just so he could drink himself into oblivion, to bring him to Ellen. He exhaled with a small smile and a shake of his head. How they’d found each other was a mystery and why she stayed with him, well…that was simply a miracle. If it hadn’t been for her parakeet yellow raincoat he wouldn’t have paid any attention to her and she might have gotten away with it.

He had been stumbling down the sidewalk, using the buildings he passed to keep him mostly upright, when she materialized in front of him. At 15 years old and barely five feet tall, Ellen had popped up and caught his attention in that damn coat. When he stopped to stare at it, she offered to help him make his way home. It wasn’t until they were almost at the door of his motel room that he felt her hand in his pocket.

They’d been taking care of each other ever since.

Movement at the cathedral doors caught Damien’s attention and he melted back into the shadows, snuffing out his cigarette. The man exiting the church strolled down the steps and across the street, whistling a jaunty tune to the rhythm of his heels striking the pavement. Damien’s hands curled into fists: it was him.

Counting to twenty, Damien calmed his breathing and slid the knife from its sheath on his hip. He stepped off the curb, his gaze trained on his prey. With quick, silent steps, he drew closer to the demon who had destroyed his life, following him down the steps to the near-abandoned subway platform.

Damien tightened his grip on the handle of the blade and grinned with the knowledge that he’d sleep well that night.

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Drama In and Out Of the Lab

This story prompt was a lot of fun for me and could potentially be drawn out to a novella or something. I’m intrigued by the characters that developed…

Standard disclaimer: This isn’t edited other than for spelling and punctuation so I apologize for any glaring errors.

I hope you have as much fun with it as I did!

Title: Drama In and Out of the Lab

Words: microbiologist, telephone, hidden, bystander, trench, inside, international, shoe, heights, persuade


“No, no, no!”

Carl threw his hands up in frustration. This was all wrong. Again. The samples had been contaminated, resulting in an outcome that would have been impossible if the experiment had been clean.

“Damn it, Isaac,” he murmured.

Slamming through the inner door to the decontamination chamber, Carl was having a hard time keeping his cool. His ‘partner’ Isaac was in the main part of the laboratory, oblivious to everything around him except for the ear-splitting metal screeching he was air drumming to.

“Isaac,” Carl said, once he was out of his clean suit. When the boy didn’t respond, he lost his temper and let loose a bellow to shake the rafters. “ISAAC!”

The boy spun around, eyes wide, slapping at the speaker to make it stop. “Yo, Carl, man, you can’t sneak up on a guy like that! What’re you yelling about anyway?”

Carl pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Isaac. Did you prep the samples the way I showed you?” When the boy nodded enthusiastically, Carl folded his arms. “Really? Are you sure? You did it all inside the sterile chamber, wearing all sterile gear, protective gear over your eyes?”

The way the color blanched from Isaac’s face told Carl all he needed to know and it was the last straw.

“You are impossible! I don’t know what else I can do to teach you how to work in the laboratory! There are standard operating procedures posted nearly everywhere, plenty of equipment and personal protective gear, and I have personally walked you through the procedures a dozen times.” Carl raked his hands through his hair and paced the small space, trying to control his anger. When he felt he was able to speak without shouting, he turned back to Isaac.

Isaac, who was now standing perfectly still, his head hanging and his shoulders slumped, his headphones hanging limp from his hand. Carl felt a pang of remorse for being so hard on the boy. He was just too damn frivolous and didn’t seem to realize that what they were doing was of the utmost importance and there was no room for careless mistakes.

Approaching the forlorn figure, Carl placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look, kid, I’m sorry for blowing up. But the validity of this research is imperative if we are going to make a difference. If we can isolate the bacterium that is wreaking havoc in China as we speak, we can save millions – maybe even billions – of lives.” Isaac looked up with red-rimmed eyes, his mouth turned down. “Perhaps it’s time for you to reevaluate your desire to become a microbiologist. There are many other worthy sciences that might be better suited for a young man such as yourself.”

With a shrug, Isaac started clearing the clutter he’d accumulated on the desk. “I know, Carl, and I’m sorry. Microbiology is my passion, I swear it! I think I just get too excited and have a hard time being patient enough to go through all the steps. Give me another chance – I’ll do better, I really will!”

“Fine.” Carl ran a hand down his face and shrugged out of his lab coat. “Let’s give it up for today. Go ahead and clean everything up and I’ll see you in the morning.”

In the locker room, Carl stared at his reflection. How did he get here? Mid-thirties, not quite balding but certainly thinning, with a little paunch and an overabundance of tweed in his closet, he had envisioned a much different life for himself. When he got into microbiology he dreamed of saving lives on a massive scale, like in the movies. Where was his opportunity to create and distribute a life-saving vaccine, secreting the vials across international borders, defying evil overlords and corrupt governments? No, instead, he was teaching inept children like Isaac the very basics of just working in a laboratory without even so much as a minor breakthrough.

Carl smoothed his hair back from his forehead and straightened his bow tie. If forced, he’d admit he was lonely, too. The last date he’d been on was with a beautiful divorcee with bangs and a turtleneck sweater who’d been too nervous to keep up any form of conversation. And the worst part was that most of his dates were like that. The women he met were generally timid, intellectual, and sweet – but where was the fire? Everything was so clinical and boring with them. Carl didn’t fancy himself any kind of a playboy or full of thrills, himself, but he yearned for some excitement. Not the emotional drama type, but at least something to get his blood racing. Was that too much to ask?

Tucking a newspaper under his arm, he ventured into the early afternoon sunshine to sit in the park for a little while before heading home. Alone. Again. At least sitting on a bench in the park, Carl could watch all the people and feel like he was part of something. It was a short-lived relief but it would have to do. He settled along the tree-lined path and opened the paper. He didn’t really care about reading any of the articles, it was a prop so he could watch people without being creepy about it. The role of innocuous bystander worked well for him and he imagined the lives of some of the characters who passed by.

There was a man in jeans and a polo shirt strolling with a younger man in khakis and a colorful button-down shirt. The way he kept straightening his collar and touching his hair told Carl that this was more than a friendly chat. The polo man was very interested in the younger man. Was this a first date? Looking at the younger guy with his pink cheeks and inability to make eye contact with his companion for long screamed yes. If not a date, a precursor. Carl smiled. Good for them.

Over the top of the newspaper, Carl scanned the people milling around and frowned. Pretty tame today, full of the same folks he saw frequently. Mothers pushing strollers with toddlers, men and women taking their dogs for walks, couples holding hands or smiling as they rode past on bikes. With a sigh, Carl thought about swinging by the store on the way home and grabbing a frozen pizza and a pint of ice cream. Hopefully tomorrow would be better.

Before he could fold up his paper, he saw her. Dark auburn curls, aviator sunglasses, wearing a trench coat as she stood under a tree across the path. She seemed to be watching him, but it was hard to tell from this distance. Lifting the paper a little higher, Carl took her in, hoping she couldn’t tell. The way she stood so still, her hands in the pockets of her coat, she definitely stood out from the activity buzzing around them. This woman was beautiful and intriguing and no one else seemed to notice her. As he watched, she slid her glasses down her nose, making a point of meeting his gaze, and smirked.

“Shit,” he muttered. He thought he’d been hidden enough to not be caught but she sniffed him out immediately. Peeking again, Carl was mortified to see that she was making a beeline for him, striding confidently across the park, oblivious to the traffic around her which stopped or simply flowed around her. Folding up the paper, he floundered. Was she going to yell at him? Call him a pervert for watching her? God, he hated confrontation. It was one thing when dealing with the drama in his lab – that was where he was comfortable, where he belonged – but out here in the real world? If there was a way to avoid drama out of the lab Carl was one to grab it with both hands and run.

He jumped up from his seat as she drew near but she grabbed his shoulders and swooped in to kiss both of his cheeks. “Don’t panic, darling,” she cooed in his ear. “Just sit back down and act natural. I don’t think I was followed.”

All Carl could think was how amazing she smelled, like summer rain and lavender, but he sat with her anyway. When she pulled off her glasses he tried not to gasp. She was exquisite: deep blue eyes, almost violet, perfect smile with a dimple in one cheek. Sliding under his arm and nestling next to him, she kept talking under her breath and Carl was far too stunned to do much else but go along with it.

“I wasn’t sure you’d show up. You weren’t answering your telephone and I got worried. There is no way for me to stress enough how important this mission is and the role you will play in it, yourself.” Snatching the paper from his hand, she pretended to read the articles, pointing to a story as though discussing it with Carl. “For today, you may call me Natasha but I am not at liberty to reveal my true identity. You will be Kraven for now. No,” she held up her hand when Carl opened his mouth. “You must not tell me anything about yourself. That way, if we get caught, we can’t reveal anything they can use, no matter what torture we might undergo.”

Carl stopped moving – almost stopped breathing – and tried to wrap his head around what she’d just said. “Torture?” His voice squeaked and he cleared his throat, repeating in a deeper tone, “Torture? What are you talking about?”

Glancing around furtively, she took his face in her hands, her eyes boring into his soul. “You know how dangerous The Shoe can be – many of our best agents have gone missing after following her trail of crime and corruption. But together, you and I can bring that vile woman down to meet justice.” She trailed her fingertips along his cheek, a smile trying to burst forth from her lips. “I must leave now, but you must find me again in an hour. Come to the rooftop restaurant at 27th and Elm. Bring a passport and a weapon. I’m worried that we may have already been compromised.” Natasha pressed her lips to Carl’s, drawing him into a deep and passionate kiss. After his initial shock at the contact, he melted into it, wrapping his arms around her, but she abruptly pulled away.

“Not now, darling. There will be plenty of time for that when the syndicate is stopped, once and for all.” Without another word, she rose from the bench with an elegance Carl had only read about, and she disappeared into the crowd.

Carl remained in place on the bench, gaping after her. She may have been a hallucination, something he’d dreamed up and created for himself. But what if she wasn’t? His mind was chasing itself to the point of complete inaction.

On the one hand, he had just been craving ‘excitement’ hadn’t he? This – Natasha – was nothing if not exciting. Women like her never noticed men like him. It wasn’t an intentional snub, it was just that he and others like him tended to blend into the background. Not only had she noticed him, she had called him ‘darling’ and kissed him in a way he’d only dreamed of. And she wanted to meet him again.

Was he seriously considering this? Sure, Natasha was gorgeous. But the word ‘torture’ had come out of her mouth in reference to a possibility in his future. That set off major warning bells and threw red flags all over the place. Not only was there the chance that he could be hurt or killed, but it was also probable that this beautiful woman was completely unhinged. Did he want to invite that into his neat little world?

Carl’s hand floated to his lips, the feel of her lips still lingering. In the lab he only had the drama of Isaac to deal with, predictably negligent Isaac, and the same failed experiments day after day. But here, outside of the lab? An adventure had fallen into his lap, an adventure named Natasha. Well, no, not really. That was only her code name.

Could he be ‘Kraven’, the persona she’d given him? Alluring and dangerous, ‘Kraven’ was a man who ate adventure for breakfast, washing it down with a glass of aged Scotch. ‘Carl’ was a man unironically wearing a bow tie and a tweed jacket, ready for a beautiful woman to persuade him to chase after his own potential death.

Glancing at his watch, Carl knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was going to meet Natasha. How long had he been sitting there? Did he have 45 minutes left? Only 30? He jumped from the bench and dashed home to collect his passport and – what did she say, a weapon? The only weapon he could think he possessed was a police baton he kept for protection and a handful of throwing stars from when he’d been obsessed with Bruce Lee movies. Yes, they would do. Small, compact, easily hidden.

Carl dressed the best he could to fit what he thought ‘Kraven’ might wear. All he owned was a gray turtleneck from his Carl Sagan days and a black leather jacket from…he had no idea where. With everything he needed tucked in pockets, he slicked back his hair and left his apartment, destiny leading him to the rooftop restaurant perched on the tallest building in the city.

Nevermind that he was afraid of heights.

A Family Mystery Uncovered

This is the second story prompt from the book I got for Christmas and it took me several versions to get something I didn’t hate. The title was given to me and the words that had to be included are underlined throughout the text. I haven’t edited this story, either, so I apologize for anything repetitive, misspelled, or just plain idiotic. 

Enjoy!

Title: A Family Mystery Uncovered

Words: Sunday, secret, wallpaper, swap, sister, curiosity, island, notebook, marathon, demand


I laid in my bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, and held very still. Even breathing seemed too loud and made my heart race at the thought that I’d be heard and the ghost would come for me.

Every night for as long as I could remember, there had been unexplainable sounds that woke me up and kept me paralyzed in fear until exhaustion simply won out. I was only fifteen but I didn’t know a time when I wasn’t living in terror. When I complained to my mother about the moans, taps, and scratching I heard throughout the night she shushed me, declaring it all a bad dream. She even took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ‘night terrors’ which was absurd. Did you have to sleep to have those?

My sister, who had the attic bedroom, never heard a thing – or so she claimed. She was two years older and so close to graduating and leaving home that we rarely even saw her. But every now and then she’d invite me to her room to hang out or for what she called a sleepover. We’d roll sleeping bags onto the floor and lie awake, gossiping and making up scary stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Those were nights that I cherished and would miss when she was gone.

“Do you think mom will let me swap rooms with you when you leave for college?” We were sprawled on the couches one Sunday in the throes of a massive rom-com marathon. “I can’t sleep in that room at all and I’m worried that whatever is in there is going to finally come for me. It seems like your room doesn’t have the noises and stuff.”

Angie glanced at me quickly and popped a chip in her mouth. “Seems that way, huh? Did it ever occur to you that you just don’t notice it when we’re both in there?”

I paused the movie and sat up. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I hear the same shit you do, it’s just not as loud all the way up there.”

Gaping, I tried to wrap my mind around what she was telling me. “Wait – so you’ve been hearing the same stuff all this time? I was forced to doctors and psychiatrists who tried to convince me it was all in my head and you’ve heard it too?”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes and started picking at her fingernails. “Come on, Mel, what do you think would have happened if I’d said anything? The folks would demand that I get my head shrunk, too. You were already going: if it was determined that you were insane it could be surmised that I was, too, right?”

Just then, our mom walked into the kitchen, tossing her keys on the island and pulling bobby pins out of her hair, letting it hang loose around her shoulders. “You were what, Ang? What are you two lazy bones talking about?” She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms.

Angie and I exchanged a quick wide-eyed glance before answering.

“Oh, you know, Mel’s worried about getting accepted to college. I was just telling her that I was worried, too, but she doesn’t have to worry about it.” She tugged at my hair playfully. “She’s smarter than I am, anyway.”

Mom cocked her head and smiled at us with soft eyes. “Oh, you girls! It makes me all warm inside to see how close you are!” She dashed across the room and wormed her way to a seat right between us and reached for the bag of chips. “So what are we watching tonight? Are we on a romance or horror kick right now?”

*****

The noises were particularly upsetting and my hands were trembling as I clutched at my comforter. I couldn’t keep my eyes still; too afraid to move at all and possibly draw attention to myself, my gaze was constantly flitting from one shadowy corner of the room to the next, certain there was something crouching in the darkness.

Whatever was keeping me awake had moved on from taps and moans to bangs, thuds, and outright muffled screams. How was my mom not racing through the house right now, making sure we were safe? It sounded like someone was being murdered.

There was a creak outside my bedroom and my heart tried to jump out of my chest when the doorknob turned. I pulled the covers over my head and chanted in my head, Go away, just go away!

“Melissa?” my sister whispered from the doorway and I was so relieved I almost burst into tears.

“Angie!” I hissed back, lifting the edge of the covers so she could jump in and we could huddle together for at least the illusion of safety. “Do you hear it, too? It’s so much worse!”

“We have to do something, Mel,” she said. Her hand flashed out from under the blanket and clicked on the lamp next to my bed.

“What are you doing?” I tried to climb over her to douse the light but she held me back.

“Whatever is going on isn’t going on inside your room. Don’t you think if movement or light drew it to us that I would’ve been caught on my way down here?” She pulled a notebook out from under the sheets and placed her palm on the cover. “I’ve been writing down every event over the past year, documenting what I heard, what time, what day, and I think there’s a pattern.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying, my nerves were shot and adrenaline was at an all-time high. “A pattern? What does that mean?” I pulled my knees up to my chest and tried to slow my breathing and my racing brain. With my eyes I traced the floral pattern on my wallpaper as the vines and leaves wound around the room, over and under, through and across.

“I mean, there are thumps and bangs nearly every night but things get really crazy every three weeks or so.” She tapped her finger on her chin. “What is going on every three weeks to ramp activity up so much?”

Before I could formulate a hypothesis, something caught my eye. The wall above my desk was moving, almost breathing. I watched a spot bow out and back flat, out and back until I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Angie was still thumbing through her notebook, trying to figure out what the pattern could mean so she didn’t notice when I climbed off the bed. My curiosity overwhelmed my fear and I advanced on the wall, walking on tiptoes until I could reach out and touch it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A hand settled on my shoulder and it immediately had a calming effect. I loved that my sister was right there, offering her support and letting me know I wasn’t in this alone. I straightened my spine and lifted my hand once more.

“I don’t know that you want to do that.” My mother’s voice sounded in my ear and I spun around to find her right behind me, a serene smile on her face.

Her blood-spattered face.

“Wha-what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Angie?”

I leaned around mom to see Angie lying across the bed, unmoving, her notebook flung to the floor. Mother waved a hand and said, “Oh, don’t you worry about her. Your sister will be just fine. I only gave her a small dose. She’ll wake up with a doozy of a headache, but nothing a little aspirin can’t sure.”

Pressing my back against the wall, I was horrified at the calm vision before me. My mom’s hair was pulled neatly back into a ponytail that swung against the shoulders of a red track suit. After closer inspection, it wasn’t meant to be red. Her hands and her clothes were drenched in red, carrying with them that distinct metallic smell of blood.

“What have you done?” I barely choked the words out, fear gripping my chest as I stared at this monster who looked like someone I loved.

She clucked her tongue and stroked my cheek, saying, “Oh darling, I hadn’t intended on revealing our little secret quite yet; it’s far sooner than I had hoped. I didn’t think you’d be ready for another couple of years, to be honest.”

My mouth hung open even as I tried to escape her gentle touch. “I don’t want to know your secret!”

“Oh, it’s not my secret,” she chuckled. “This is a tradition that has been handed down through the generations of our family, from mother to daughter, for centuries. Once you see it in motion, actually get to perform the rituals with your own hands, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”

She reached for me as though to gather me in her arms but before I could slap her hands away, the wall behind me exploded outward, showering us all with plaster and dust.

“Save me!” a voice rasped out as a bony claw clamped onto my shoulder. I screamed and my mom’s eyes lit with a blood lust I never could have imagined in my worst nightmares. She calmly stepped forward and peeled the fingers off me, bending them back until they cracked and the voice in the wall emitted an inhuman screech of pain, before the hand and the voice disappeared in a series of muffled thuds.

I dashed to my sister’s side as she began to wake up, groaning, and I could think of nothing but trying to protect her. Mother smoothed her stained hands down the front of her suit and took a deep breath.

“You two stay put and I promise I’ll explain everything when I get back.” She leaned in to peck a kiss to my cheek and winked. “But right now I’ve got a man to catch.”

END

A Strange Request in a Piano Bar

My older son’s girlfriend gave me a writing prompt book for Christmas and I’ve decided to use one each week just for fun. Each prompt comes with a title and a list of words to use in the story. It was a bit of a challenge, it’s largely unedited, and I had to do a little research – but it was definitely fun!

Title: A Strange Request in a Piano Bar

Words: carnival, sprained, mask, oxidation, awkward, apple, juvenile, controversy, twirl, sassafras


Sitting in the corner, trying to hide in the shadows, I watched him. He was handsome, a little awkward as he sipped a cola and tapped his fingers in time to the music. But he’d do nicely.

This hotel piano bar was one of the best places to find what I needed. People were always coming in and out of town, rarely staying more than a couple of days. And on any given Sunday night, this watering hole was full of the lonely, desperate souls looking for any form of affection.

He glanced around, looking at every face, perhaps trying to determine who he might approach for a little anonymous fun. Poor dear. Smooth skin, fidgety, he couldn’t have been more than 21, if he was even that old. Recklessness emanated from him in waves, giving off the stench of a juvenile delinquent. I tapped a finger against my chin. Was it worth the trouble he would undoubtedly give me?

I leaned forward just enough for the light to hit my eyes and his head whipped around in my direction, his aura glowing as he offered me a shy smile. Oh yes, he would be worth every ounce of headache that came with him.

Melting into the dark, I waited. He’d come to me – they always did. These children who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, thinking their stones were bigger than any who had come before them. I loved being the one to teach them a lesson and make a little money along the way.

“Ahem.” The voice yanked me out of my thoughts and I was surprised to see the bartender standing in front of me, brandishing a tall glass full of dark liquid. “This is from the…gentleman…at the bar.”

I peered around him and the young man lifted his own glass in salute with a waggle of his eyebrows. Ugh. Disgusting. But I accepted the drink and raised it, winking as I took a sip.

“Jesus, what the hell is this?” I spluttered.

The bartender snorted. “That, dear lady, is a bona fide sassafras root beer.” He glanced over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at me, wagging a finger. “Don’t be too rough with him. He’s young and stupid and naïve. Actually, you should just leave him alone.”

“Fat chance,” I murmured. Giving the bartender a glare, I waved him away, watching the young man approach. He rubbed his hands on his slacks, steps unsure as he drew closer. “Hello,” I called to him. “I’m Delphine – won’t you join me?”

The smile that lit up his face was darling and I had a moment’s pause about what I was about to do. My life has seen its fair share of controversy and many would call me a witch or a whore or just a criminal. Growing up, my entire family lived this way. Luring in unsuspecting men and women with a coy look and the hint of a promise of love – or sex, at the very least – just to enchant them into giving up anything we wanted. Sometimes it was cash or a vehicle, other times it was information and their deep, dark secrets. It was how we survived. We never devastated anyone, left him or her destitute or in danger. We weren’t monsters.

“I’m Jim,” he gushed, taking my hand and pressing his lips to the back of it. “I saw you over here and I swear on all that’s holy that I’ve never seen anything as wondrous. Do you believe in fate, Delphine?”

I raised an eyebrow. Very interesting. He was already enamored of me without a drop of magic being used. Perhaps this would be easier than I anticipated. As I fully took in his features – the blond curls, plush, soft lips, caramel colored eyes – I realized I would enjoy this much more than usual, at the very least.

“I do indeed believe in fate, Jim,” I cooed. “I see no other reason we would have both turned up at this dingy piano bar on this very night unless the stars were aligned in my favor. Thank you so much for the drink. It was quite unusual but very refreshing. Sassafras, it is?”

He scooted closer to me and picked up the glass, holding it to the light. “Oh, yes. Truly a magnificent plant, you know, and delicious to boot! Now, I know what you’re thinking,” he drawled. “Wasn’t this stuff banned in the 1979? It was, but don’t you worry a bit; you see, the safrole is the only thing that was potentially dangerous and this root beer contains a specific oxidation of the bark that is absolutely safrole-free. We are free to consume as much of the stuff as we want!”

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” I replied. He handed the glass back to me and raised his own, clinking them against one another. Taking an enormous glug of his drink, he seemed surprised when I only sipped at mine.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Don’t you like it? I should have asked before sending it over.” Jim raked his hands through his hair and frowned. “I’m so stupid, always doing things like this. Not everyone likes this kind of drink. You’re so beautiful and sophisticated I should have ordered you something much classier, like a martini or a glass of champagne. I’m so terribly sorry.”

He looked so distraught I was afraid I’d lose him before I’d even had a chance to begin. Laying a hand on his knee, I tried to reassure him. “Oh that’s not it at all, I adore sassafras! See?” I choked down a big swig of the garbage but he still looked unsure I downed the rest of it in one swallow. It gurgled in my stomach but the brilliant light was back in his doe eyes so perhaps it was worth it.

“Oh, Delphine, I’m so glad you like it!” He looked down at my hand on his knee and his cheeks blazed pink, but he didn’t move my hand. Instead, he wriggled his chair even closer and threw his arm across the back of my seat and leaned in close. “Did you know that the sassafras plant has been used for centuries by many diverse cultures?”

His breath was warm on my cheek and although the topic of plant usage through time sounded boring enough to almost make me abandon this mark, I found myself being drawn toward him. “You don’t say? That sounds fascinating. How was it used?” What the hell? Did I actually say that?

Titling his head to the side, he narrowed his eyes as his smile grew broader. “You know, I think I’ll wait a little bit longer to share that information.” Glancing around he lowered his voice, asking in a deep, gravelly tone, “How’d you like to get out of here?”

Now he was talking my language. “What did you have in mind, Jim?”

He sat back and slapped his hands together. “Hoo, boy, have I got just the thing! Across the street, there’s a little traveling carnival that comes through here every few years.”

“A – a carnival?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve never been to one, my parents wouldn’t allow it when I was growing up. But I’ve always wanted to try it! The rides, the food, the games – it all looks like so much fun and I would like nothing more than to win you a prize, Miss Delphine.”

I frowned. What the hell was this nonsense? Throughout my life there had been many men that asked me to do many odd and degrading things, but a carnival? My initial assessment of this mark had been that he was adorable and young and taking him to bed to get what I wanted would be a distinct pleasure. Had I been wrong about him? I shook my head: I was never wrong.

“That sounds wonderful! Are there any games you think you’ll be particularly good at that you’d like to start with? Perhaps the milkcan toss or climbing the rope ladder? I was always a fan of the ones where you shoot water at a target to make you horse run faster than the others.”

Jim threw his head back and let out a guffaw loud enough to make all the other patrons shoot annoyed looks our way. “Gosh, no, Delphine! When I called it a carnival, that wasn’t really the right word. It’s more of a medieval fair than what you’d strictly consider a carnival. Oh no, these games are a bit different – and require a bit more skill than luck. There is one that I’m most excited to try out, if you’re up for it.”

A medieval fair? Well, shit. When I said I’d been doing this for a number of years, the number is much higher than one might expect. I look to be in my late twenties – early thirties at the very most. But the truth is that I remember the true medieval fairs of the world, the ones that involved true knights and deadly feats of strength and prowess. Those were also the days when many of her loved ones were lost to the fear and ignorance regarding witches. While there were those who had sold their souls and their bodies to satan, Delphine and her kind were more closely related to Wiccans. The difference was that they used their affinity for nature to punish the evil and stupid men and women who deserved a little retribution.

“Oh honey, I’m up for just about anything,” I told him. “You only have to ask.”

Now his cheeks started to burn a darker pink and he cleared his throat. “Okay, but it’s going to sound like a strange request…” He took a deep breath. “You’ve heard of William Tell, right? There’s a booth that lets you shoot an apple off your partner’s head with a bow and arrow and I’ve been dying to try it! I know I’d be good at it if I just had the chance! But so far, I haven’t been able to convince anyone to come with me. How about it, Delphine? Will you be my mark?”

Before I even truly registered what he’d said, I was nodding my head and laying my hand on his cheek. Wait – did he say mark? There was a pinprick of concern at the back of my mind but it was quickly overshadowed by something else, something lighter and joyful and accepting of anything he said.

“Oh Jim, I’d be delighted!” I threw my arms around his neck and pressed my cheek against his. Oh, he smelled so good. My fingers found their way into his curls and having him in my arms lit a fire in my belly that I hadn’t felt in…well, in centuries.

He stood, bringing my hand to his lips yet again as we made our way to the door. I was enthralled with the shift of his shoulders and the way the light played across his smooth skin and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had a vague understanding that we were going to do something dangerous but somehow I knew in my bones it would be okay if I was with Jim.

The lights of the carnival flashed and glowed as we approached hand in hand and I honestly felt giddy. He wasn’t lying about this being a medieval setting. There were wenches and knights, jesters, lords and ladies. A small group was gathered around a booth where they were throwing axes at a target. Badly. There were shops and stands selling everything from chainmail to swords to trinkets and the people milling about were eating it up.

“Oh, there!” I pulled Jim’s hand and tried to drag him to the line of archers I spotted on the edge of a lighted field to the right. The workers were dressed as you would expect Robin Hood’s merry men to be but the patrons were in shorts and sundresses, rubbing the skin on the inside of their arms as ugly purple bruises jumped to the surface from where the string landed in the wrong place.

Pulling me against his side, his warm arm wrapped around my shoulders, I felt rather than heard him chuckle as he steered me away. “No, no, sweet Delphine, that’s not for us. That attraction is for the weak and the childish. People like you and me are destined for excitement and deserve so much more.” Jim stepped back and raised his arm, leading me in a little twirl and bringing a giggle out of me.

Good lord, a giggle? I was nearly 400 years old and a powerful being; I was not supposed to giggle. Somehow, in the middle of the spin, I stumbled in a hole and painfully twisted my ankle. “Ow!”

Jim immediately stopped and scooped me into his arms. “Are you all right, Delphine?”

The lights around me began to waver and wobble and I thought to myself, That’s odd. There were wards and protections put on me to keep me from getting injured – or inebriated. But there I was, my ankle throbbing and swelling even as my head swam. “Do you think it’s broken?”

Pressing a kiss to my cheek Jim replied, “No, I doubt it. It may be sprained, but I think you’ll be just fine.”

“How am I supposed to be your mark if I can’t stand on it?” Were my words slurring?

Laughter rumbled up in his chest as we drew closer to a dark tent filled with flickering candlelight. “I wouldn’t worry about that, darling Delphine. You have been a delightful mark already tonight.”

Once the tent flap closed behind us, all other sounds ceased. It was almost like we were in a different plane of existence, separated from the real world by that relatively thin stretch of canvas. My head lolled back against Jim’s shoulder as he carried me to the center of the tent.

“Remember I was going to tell you more about the sassafras and how it was used throughout the centuries? I think now is a good time for that.” He set me down and with a gentle pressure leaned me against what I thought was a wall. I stumbled a little and gasped from the pain in my ankle. “Oh, of course,” Jim mumbled. Then he leaned down and wrapped his large palm around the wounded area. With a quick squeeze, there was a sharp pain then nothing. I rolled the joint around, testing it, and found that the swelling was gone. His lips were next to my ear and he whispered, “Better?” before kissing my cheek.

The daze I was in faded but, it appeared, just a bit too late. As my faculties returned and I was once again in control of myself, I realized that my wrist and ankles were secured to the wall, allowing zero movement. My hands were wrapped tightly in gauze so I couldn’t move my fingers. Well, that was inconvenient as I needed to move them to cast any spells.

“Sassafras was used widely to build ships and furniture, the twigs for oral hygiene, and the leaves have long been used in cuisine around the world. Did you know that you can cure meat and treat wounds with a certain concoction made with the leaves, too? Burning the bark has been known to protect and ward off evil and my family has used it this way for many, many years.”

I watched him back away, one side of his enticing mouth curled up. With surprise I noted that he no longer looked young and naïve, inexperienced and awkward. Those golden brown eyes had a wisdom deep in them that hadn’t been there earlier.

“Okay, that’s enough now, Jim. I agreed to come play your game with you but I’m not comfortable with being lashed to the wall. What kind of game is this, anyway?” I batted my lashes in an attempt to turn the tables back to my favor. “I know some other games involving bondage that we could play…privately.”

That made him pause, and I could see the idea taking root and starting to grow. I had no idea what he had planned, but I’d survived much kinkier and more dangerous incidents than this one. Before I could say anything else to encourage him to let me go, he shook his head and smirked, wagging a finger at me.

“Ah, you are very good, Delphine. I was warned about you but I had no idea just how enticing you could be.” He turned to me, tossing an apple in the air and catching it with one hand, a swath of fabric in the other. “My family used sassafras frequently, but most frequently it was used on and by the people of the villages we lived in. You see, it is a very potent ingredient in love charms and potions. While we were persecuted for being…magical…the same people who feared us also wanted to use us to their own ends. The recipe for the love potion was handed down through centuries and perfected through trial and error. You, my sweet witch Delphine, drank down a small dose earlier tonight, just enough to let your guard down so I could get you here. Alone.”

He stopped directly in front of me, his eyes searching my face with wonder before he leaned in and captured my lips in a searing kiss that left me breathless with my toes curling in my shoes. When he pulled back and I could see his face again, I gasped. No longer was I looking at the awkward young man with blond curls I had tried to pick up in the piano bar. Instead, I was staring into the violet eyes of an aged warlock, the aura I had spied much earlier blazing wildly around him.

“Shoot, has my mask fallen away?” He clucked his tongue and checked my binds. “I was never very adept at maintaining such a façade when my ire – or passion – has been riled up. And you, Delphine, have definitely tested my limits.”

My lips were on fire, tingling unpleasantly. That bastard! He’d had a potion on his lips when he kissed me, I knew it well. It rendered the recipient immobile and unable to speak. So I glared with all the hatred I could muster.

“We’ll have none of that, dear,” he grumbled. “This has been long coming, you must know that.”

I felt the apple as he perched it on my head and I willed my muscles to move and shake it off, but I had zero control over any part of my body. Jim – or whatever his real name was – turned away, no longer afraid to take his eyes off me and retreated to a table a good twenty feet away. With a grin, he knocked an arrow in the bow and took aim.

“Let the games begin.”

 

 

Return To Me: Part 7

Too terrified to move, Emma could only stare, mouth agape. She couldn’t make out any facial features, hair color, or clothing, but the outline of a man was evident. The shape didn’t move or make a sound, just sat perfectly still at the head of the table.

Where Justin always sat.

The exhilaration that coursed through her veins was unlike anything Emma had felt before. It had worked. Justin was here.

A sob escaped her before she could stop it. This was everything she had wanted, her most fervent wish come true! Her knees were suddenly soft and threatened to give out on her, putting her at risk of falling to the floor in a blubbering heap.

“Justin!” She called his name in a breathy laugh and took a step forward, ready to rush through the night into his arms.

As she watched, the figure silently began to stand. That wasn’t quite right, she thought. The motion more closely resembled a mist rising from the floor than anything a human body could do. There was no rustling of clothing, no squeak of the chair on the floor, nothing to indicate actual movement.

A small whisper of air blew past Emma, lifting the strands of hair that lay against her damp cheek. Her muscles tensed and she found herself holding her breath.

There was a palpable difference in the room. The air felt charged with electricity, crackling with latent power about to explode. Emma’s heart was racing but the pounding in her ears drowned out everything else. It was as though the whole world was holding its breath along with her.

Her stomach in knots, Emma took in a shaky breath and whispered, “Justin?”

She looked more closely at the shadow and realized something was wrong. Very, very wrong. The street lights were bright enough that the rest of the room was lit up, the furniture illuminated in stark relief. But somehow the light didn’t touch the figure. All the brightness seemed to be swallowed as soon as it touched the shape, like being sucked into a black hole. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t make out any features – there weren’t any.

A terrifying realization fell over Emma. Whatever this thing was, it was NOT her husband. It was shaped like Justin, as though his shadow was being cast into the room, but that was the only similarity. This was so much more than a mere shadow. It pulsed and breathed and moved in a way that was wholly unnatural and set her nerves jangling in alarm. Where her husband had been sunshine and love, this emanated darkness. All the warmth in the room was overrun by a chilling sense of dread.

She had been tricked.

The cold understanding of the manipulation took her breath. All the dreams had been visitations, there was no doubt. But the truth of who – or what – had been visiting her in her sleep was chilling.

Emma took an involuntary step backward and watched in horror as the shape stepped – no, not stepped: floated? drifted? – through the dining room table, advancing on her at a languid, relentless pace. All the air was suddenly sucked out of the room, the pressure in her ears making her wince.

What had started out as a desperate prayer for happiness had turned into a living nightmare. Every second brought the menacing figure closer and closer, the sense of impending danger growing. Emma cast her eyes around her, looking for an escape or a weapon or something to rescue her from the situation, but she was pressed against the wall at the end of the hallway. In a panic, she dodged to the side, intending to dive back into her bedroom. But before she had taken more than a step, the door slammed shut, nearly catching her hand in the process. Ice water filled her veins and she turned her gaze back to the entity’s imminent progression.

Her brain was a jumble of static and fear and she was no longer able to make sense of what she was witnessing. The shadow continued to glide through the space between them, insistent and unhurried. Emma wanted desperately to run, to try to dash through or around this dark figure and escape into the night outside but her limbs refused to obey her. On the verge of collapsing physically and mentally, a memory poked at the wall of fear surrounding her brain, begging to be seen.

YES. That Emma had prepared for exactly this scenario was a fact that had been forgotten in her state of pure terror. The cautions from the old crone at the shop prompted Emma to do a little research. She had come across numerous warnings about meddling with the afterlife, about the unpredictability of the spirit world and the likelihood of inviting in something unwholesome and possibly evil. While she had trusted Dream Justin, she hadn’t been entirely convinced the conjuring incantation was going to work in the first place. But she reasoned that it couldn’t hurt to have an idea of how to protect herself. Just in case.

Her hands flew to her hips looking for pockets that weren’t there. Patting down her backside and her stomach and her chest, Emma was somehow shocked to realize she was barely dressed. She was in her pajamas, the handwritten spell discarded somewhere else, out of reach.

Clutching at her hair, pushing down the scream that gurgled in the back of her throat, Emma racked her brain in an attempt to draw out the words she needed. The dark entity proceeded inexorably forward, but its substance had changed. Where it had started out as only a shadow, it appeared to have gained some substance, a roiling mass. There was depth to it now, like a billow of black smoke, writhing and twisting in on itself. The shape was swirling faster and faster as Emma watched, almost as though its excitement at overtaking her was manifesting in movement.

Words flashed into Emma’s mind, jumbled together randomly, nonsensical. She floundered, her overwhelming anxiety making it impossible to snatch anything useful from the whirlwind in her head. The darkness was closer now, churning and reeling, licks of shadow bursting forward, just feet from Emma. She pressed herself against the wall. There was nowhere for her to go, and watching the determined progression pulled a scream from deep inside her.

She raised her hands in a futile attempt to ward off the evil now close enough she could hear the swishing and buzzing its rolling motion created. With a burst of reckless urgency, she shouted the first words that rose to the front of her internal maelstrom.

“You are not welcome here, you have no power to cause me harm! I call upon all the powers of light and love to drag you far from me, back to the depths where you belong!”

The shadow stopped its forward movement, shaking and gyrating with more speed, getting louder and louder, a high-pitched keening adding to the noise. It began to expand, filling the hallway and blocking all light seeping through the windows. Emma clamped her hands over her ears, shouting the words over and over again, battling the roar of what could only be the entity’s rage.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE! YOU HAVE NO POWER TO CAUSE ME HARM!” A fierce wind blew through the hallway, making it hard for her to breathe, but she persisted. “I CALL UPON ALL THE POWERS OF LIGHT AND LOVE TO DRAG YOU FAR FROM ME, BACK TO THE DEPTHS WHERE YOU BELONG!”

Emma flailed one hand at the wall next to her, searching for something, anything, to save her. Her hand landed on a light switch, the incantation continuing to flow from her lungs with her last breath. The malevolent phantom redoubled its growth, raising the cacophony to unbearable levels, freezing air now whipping all around Emma. Certain that her death was upon her, she forced herself to face the attack with eyes wide open, knowing that the last thing she would ever see would be the sudden burst of forward movement just before the darkness swallowed her, body and soul.

She flipped the switch under her palm by instinct, shrieking from every cell of her being. As light flooded the space around her, she was hit with an ice cold explosion of air followed by a deafening silence.

Emma stood in the bright hallway, chilled to the bone, but unharmed.

And completely alone.

Return To Me: Part 6

The rest of the day was spent poring over the summoning book, looking for just the right words and symbols necessary for what she was about to attempt. Many variations of the incantation were written and discarded. Eventually, she ended up with a chant that she felt was powerful and to-the-point. She practiced drawing the sigil Justin had told her to use, finding it in the book. She drew it over and over until it was perfect. She cleared off the dining room table, placing a dark purple cloth at the head and smoothing the sigil drawing on top of it. She traced the shape on the paper with the powdered elderberry, her hands surprisingly steady. Settling the candle at the top of the cloth, she stood back and surveyed her work. Perfect.

Once the table was ready, Emma poured herself a glass of wine before turning off the lights throughout the house. She perched on the edge of Justin’s favorite armchair and gazed out the large bay window into the quiet night. All the trick-or-treaters had come and gone, leaving the street empty.

Next to the chair stood the end table that held the reframed photo of the two of them on their wedding day. Justin’s warm brown eyes smiled out at her, sparkling with mischief. She picked up the photo and gazed at her husband’s face. He looked so alive in this picture, so vibrant and warm it was disorienting. How could he be dead?  Justin had been larger than life and brought light into every room he entered. You could feel the kindness and joy radiating off him any time you were within ten feet. Emma wasn’t the only one who felt it. But she was sure she was the only one who experienced the absence of that sunshine so acutely. His recent nighttime visitations had only served to dig that emptiness bigger and deeper and more painful. It didn’t matter if they were real or merely wishful dreaming. Justin was still gone.

Trailing her finger along the shape of his cheek, she kissed the glass and set the frame back on the table. She finished her wine, rinsed the glass and took her place at the end of the table in front of the makeshift altar.

It was time.

Pulling a small folded piece of paper out of her pocket, Emma lit the candle. She smoothed the paper on the table, so she could read the words, and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes, taking a bracing breath.

“You who lived yesterday, I call you from my mind to yours. Come back from the shadows into the light.” She glanced at the paper before cupping her hands and wafting the candle smoke over her face. “I feel the warmth of your body, the warmth of your spirit. This sigil of summoning calls you to me and I hold you in my arms, my heart, and my soul. I bid you return to me.”

She choked back a sob, overcome with the desperation she felt for this to work. “Please,” she whispered, dropping her hands, clenching and unclenching them at her sides. “Oh god, please return to me, Justin. Please.”

Repeating the incantation three times – for good measure – Emma let the candle burn and stood perfectly still. She closed her eyes and tried to relax her body and mind, listening to every creak and sigh the house made around her. How would she know if it had worked? Would the air in the room feel different? Would he appear in front of her, fully formed, flesh and bone, like in her dreams?

She stood quietly for what felt like an eternity, waiting. Hoping. One silent tear after another fell from her closed eyes. It was foolish of her to have believed this would work. The dreams were just that – dreams. Wishful thinking, a manifestation of her broken heart. Justin was dead. Period.

Tonight, All Hallows Eve with the house silent and dark, she understood how people believed in things like this. If they felt even a fraction of the pain Emma felt right now – had felt for the better part of the last year – they would be nothing short of desperate to believe their late loves were somehow still with them.

Swallowing the sob that bubbled up in her throat, Emma pictured Justin’s face in her mind, heard his laugh in the deep quiet of the room. Ten years. Ten short years of the purest happiness Emma had ever known. He had been her rock and her guiding light. Without that beacon of love in her life she had been floundering in the world and didn’t know if she’d ever find her way again. That’s why she’d been so lost without him. Why she’d let her dream self be convinced this absurdity could bring him back.

Disappointed tears now dry on her face, Emma let her shoulders slump in defeat. Nothing had happened. She didn’t know if she honestly thought something would, but if this nonsense was ever going to work then it would take the one night when the veil to the spirit world was thinnest to breathe it to life.

Opening her eyes and letting them adjust to the near-darkness in the house, she smoothed out the incantation on the table, over and over again. A passing car cast shadows that danced and bounced off the walls. It was silent and still and empty in the house, just as it had been every night since the end of her world. Justin was gone. That was the reality Emma had to live with now. Heaving a defeated sigh, Emma snuffed out the candle and trudged to her bedroom. Perhaps she would dream of him again. Perhaps not, now that she knew it had all been in her head.

Emma drifted in and out of a restless sleep. She was too hot, she was too cold, it was too quiet, she couldn’t get comfortable. She was beyond exhausted and she should have fallen into a deep sleep, but it eluded her, keeping her always just outside the circle of peacefulness. She even had taken 3 full sleeping pills, for good measure, but she still tossed and turned.

With a jolt, Emma sat straight up in bed, suddenly wide awake, any hint of fatigue long gone. Her breathing was ragged and shallow and she was covered with a sheen of sweat, as though she had been running. Sitting motionless, she tried to recall what had woken her. She glanced around the bedroom looking for an explanation, but nothing stood out to her.

The one thing clear in her mind was that she needed to go out to the dining room. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. In the pit of her stomach she felt a knot, the pull of a thread drawing her out of her bed and toward the door.

Her feet hit the cold floor and she paused. Through the crack of the partially-opened door Emma saw only darkness. Something was calling to her. Nothing audible, nothing she could hear, but a call that she could feel in the middle of her chest. She rubbed her wet palms on the legs of her pajamas and licked her lips, trying to get the courage to move.

On shaky legs, she rose and took a few tentative steps across the room. Cloaked in a sensation of unreality, everything around her seemed to glow and pulsate. Was she dreaming again? This was nothing like the lucid dreams of Justin she had been experiencing. Instead, there was a menacing nightmare quality in the air. Only the rough boards beneath her feet and the manic pounding in her chest grounded her in the certainty of wakefulness.

She watched her hand tremble reaching for the door. The ominous squeaking of the hinges made goosebumps break out over every inch of her and she came close to turning back. The urge to slam the door and dive under her covers until the sun came up nearly overtook her and she hesitated in the open doorway. But the invisible thread drawing her out was stronger than her apprehension and she leaned into the hallway.

All the air in her lungs turned to sludge and she was unable to take a breath. Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, the remnant of whatever nightmare had woken her so forcefully a moment ago. She blinked over and over, trying to clear her vision but nothing changed. Stepping fully into the hall, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as the realization of what she was seeing fully formed.

A silhouette was visible at the dining room table, backlit by the street lights through the window.

Return To Me: Part 5

There had been other dreams about Justin, especially right after his death. But this one…this one was different. Real. So real, in fact, that Emma woke up expecting to find him waiting in the kitchen for her, holding out a steaming cup of fresh coffee.

In the dream, she had rolled over to see him sleeping next to her. She shot upright, had nearly fallen out of bed, and startled him awake. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and smiled at her.

“Expecting someone else?”

When she only managed to clap a hand over her mouth, failing to stifle a sob, he had gathered her to his chest and smoothed her hair.

“I’m here, Em. Shh, shh. I’m really and truly here.”

Emma had clung to him, a thousand questions in her mind, but unable to make her voice work. After several minutes, she pulled back just enough to look at him, and nearly fell apart again at the bright smile on his face.

“Justin…” she murmured. He leaned into her and feathered his lips against hers. “Oh my god, Justin…I thought – how are you here? You can’t be here.” Tentatively, Emma stroked his cheek. “I thought I would never get to see you again. How is this possible?”

Laying back in the bed and propping himself on his elbow, the smile never left Justin’s face as he patted the space next to him.

“I don’t know,” he answered cheerfully. “I just am. God, you’re so beautiful, Em. I could stare at you for the rest of eternity and see something new every day.”

When he ran his fingertips along her cheek, wiping away the tears, Emma melted into his touch. “Can you stay? Are you here for good?” A thought suddenly occurred to her and she sat up, her eyes wide. “Am I dead?!”

Justin threw his head back and laughed. “No, babe, you’re still very much alive. You are, however, asleep, and I won’t be here when you wake up. Come here.” He pulled her to him, laying her head on his chest.

Lulled by the impossible sound of his heart beating, Emma closed her eyes and snuggled tighter against him. It felt so good to hold him again, even if it was just a dream. He was warm, and comfortable and here. That was all that mattered.

The next time she opened her eyes the sun was streaming through her curtains and she was alone. Even though it had been a year since he passed away, Emma could never bring herself to take up the whole bed. Every night, she left his side tucked in and neat. And this morning it looked no different than it had for the last 365 mornings.

He visited her in similar dreams every night for the next week. Sometimes the two of them got up and went into the living room, sitting across from each other like they used to do, telling stories and laughing. Other nights they only laid in bed and gazed at each other, not needing words to communicate what they were feeling. But morning always came, and Justin wasn’t there.

On the tenth night after these dream dates started, Emma eagerly climbed into bed, nestling down under the covers. This had become her favorite time of the day. Her excitement was making it harder and harder for her to fall asleep, however, so she had started taking sleeping pills. It was a half a pill for the first couple of nights, then a whole one. But it was taking longer and longer for her to drift off, so she was up to two and a half pills at this point. She knew she was pushing the threshold of safety, but to her it was worth it.

Once sleep overtook her, Emma rolled over in bed and opened her eyes with a smile, expecting to see her husband grinning back at her. But on this night, the pillow next to her was empty. Sitting up abruptly, Emma scanned the dark room.

“Justin?” When there was no response, she slid out of bed and started looking for him. “Justin? Are you here?”

As she reached the dining table at the end of the hallway, movement from the living room made her jump. Justin was sitting in his favorite armchair by the window, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him. Relief coursed through Emma and she skipped toward him.

“There you are! You had me worried.” The nervous tightening in her stomach only worsened when Justin didn’t look up as she approached. “Babe? Is everything okay?”

When he finally looked up at her, Emma was shocked at the sadness on his face. His sunny smile was turned down and his bright eyes were dim and full of distress. She rushed to him, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers.

Shaking his head, Justin sighed. “I can’t stay, Em. This will be my last visit to you.”

Emma’s stomach dropped and a cold wave washed over her. She stroked his cheek and said, “No. No, it can’t be. I just got you back! You can’t go away again. You can’t!”

Justin grasped her shoulders and pushed her back from him before standing and pacing to the fireplace. He leaned against the mantle, refusing to look at Emma.

“It’s not my decision, Em. It’s out of my hands.”

Standing defiantly in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips, Emma asked, “Well, whose decision is it then? If there’s someone to make the decision, there must be someone to talk to, some way to change their mind. I’m not letting you go. I won’t.” She chewed her lip to keep it from trembling. “I can’t.”

Justin whirled around and was suddenly in front of Emma, her hands gripped in his. “There is something you can do, Emma. There is a way I can stay with you…if you want me to.”

“Anything!” Emma’s heart began beating so fast she was sure it was going to burst out of her chest. “You know I will do anything to bring you back to me. Tell me what to do.”

Brushing her hair back off her forehead, Justin flashed Emma his most charming smile. He kissed her tenderly then pulled her close and whispered his instructions in her ear.

When Emma opened her eyes to the bright sun once again, she felt lighter and more hopeful than she had in more than a year. She had a plan. She had a goal. Something to do, to work for.

Something that meant everything to her.

She showered and made some breakfast, taking her coffee in a travel mug as she bounded out the door. There was research to be done, a couple of items to buy, certain arrangements to make and there was no time to waste. It was Halloween and Justin had been adamant everything had to be done tonight, or it wouldn’t work.

And it had to work.

After driving an hour outside of town, Emma pulled up outside a ramshackle shop. The sign read Wayward Cosmos and the website said she could find everything from books and candles to talismans and crystals. She had never been in a shop like this before and something about walking through the door set her nerves on edge.

It was dark and a little musty, the shelves close and full of odds and ends. The space had looked much larger from the outside and claustrophobia began to set in for Emma. She had to turn sideways to walk between tables. One wall was full of bookshelves overflowing with tomes of varying size. The opposite wall’s shelves were covered in crystal balls, statues of dragons and fairies, and lots of charms and totems that Emma had never seen before. The tables scattered throughout the shop held makeshift Wiccan altars, vials of different substances with names like mugwort and poke root. There was a giant pentagram painted on the floor and a large glass case full of animal skulls in different sizes.

The store was hushed, no sounds of an air conditioner, a fan, a radio. The lights were on and the door was unlocked, so Emma felt fairly confident that the shop was open, but the stillness around her was eerie and had her checking over her shoulder frequently.

She made her way to the bookshelf, looking for something that might help with the task at hand. Justin had told her what kind of book to look for, but no exact title. All he could tell her was that she’d know it when she found it. She perused such titles as The Green Witch, Wicca Book of Spells, The Complete Book of Witchcraft, The Crystal Bible. Letting her fingers trail over the spines, Emma felt a quickening in her stomach. There had to be a book to help her. If not here, where?

Her eyes fell on a title that caught her attention: The Magical Art of Summoning Spirits. Pulling it off the shelf, she knew immediately this was what she had been looking for. Her hand smoothed over the words etched on the cover and she felt an electric tingle run up her arm. Clutching it to her chest she turned and was shocked to find an old woman standing directly behind her.

“Oh!” She was so surprised, she stepped back and stumbled against the bookshelf. “I – I didn’t hear you! Jesus, you scared me!”

The figure stood perfectly still, saying nothing. Emma took in the old woman’s long, flowing gown and bare feet, noting the sound of the sparkling bracelets piled on both of her wrists. Her hair was pure white, curling almost to her waist, framing a wrinkled face with bright green eyes. Brow furrowed, she stared at Emma long and hard, freezing her in place. The eyes…there was something about her eyes that made goosebumps rise on Emma’s skin. Intelligent, calculating, and regarding Emma as though she was reading every thought in her mind – and didn’t like what she saw there.

After what felt like several minutes of being scrutinized, Emma cleared her throat and tried on a feeble smile.

“Uh…is this your shop? I – I was looking for a couple of items. Maybe you could help me?”

The old woman leaned closer as though to say something, but instead drew in a sharp breath. Then her eyes fell on the book clasped in Emma’s hands and her eyes darkened.

“Your intentions are good, but your methods are dangerous,” the woman croaked. “That book should not be read lightly.”

Emma swallowed and tried to smile. “Oh, uh, thank you. It’s actually for a friend. He does this stuff all the time and knows what he’s doing.” She slid sideways, trying to extract herself from the closeness of this encounter. “Do you sell candles, too? There was a specific one he wanted.”

With a grunt, the old woman spun away toward the back of the store, making Emma rush to catch up to her. Her speed and agility didn’t match her appearance at all.

“Do you also have some powdered elderberry?”

At this question, the old woman pulled up short and cast a suspicious look over her shoulder. “Elderberry, eh? And what candle did your…friend…ask for specifically?”

“Uh…purple? Dark purple, to be exact.”

The woman snorted and shook her head. “Your friend is meddling in things…he…shouldn’t. This is powerful magic and can have very unexpected repercussions.”

Chewing on her lip, Emma held the book closer against her chest. “You do have the items, though, right? I mean, you have them here, today, that you can sell to me?”

A shiny black cat that Emma hadn’t noticed before leapt onto the counter and sat protectively in front of the crone. Absently stroking the cat, she watched Emma closely. Without looking away, she reached under the countertop and produced a fat amethyst-colored candle, setting it down with a thud. Emma could feel a bead of sweat trickling down the back of her neck and she had to wipe her sweaty palms on her jeans over and over while the shopkeeper glared at her.

Finally breaking away from the uncomfortable eye contact, the old woman turned to a drawer set in the shelving behind her and pulled out an old apothecary bottle. She removed the cork stopper and shook a measure of dark powder into a small baggie. When she returned her attention to Emma, the look on her face was kinder, her forehead wrinkled not in anger but concern. She rang up Emma’s items on an ornate old cash register and captured Emma’s hand between both of her gnarled ones when handing back the change.

“Use caution, my dear. This is unpredictable magic you’re meddling with here. You may get far more than you bargained for if you follow through with this rash plan.”

Emma grimaced, startled by the strength of the old woman’s grip. She pulled her hand away and picked up her items.

“Um, okay, I will – I’ll be careful. I, uh, I know what I’m doing – I mean my friend knows what he’s doing – but I thank you for your concern. Have a nice day!” She turned and made a hasty retreat to the door.

Return To Me: Part 4

Fear clutched at her chest and froze her muscles in place. Slowly, carefully, she rose from the mattress. She had no idea what she might find but she wasn’t about to wait for it to come find her. She padded silently on bare feet to the bedroom door, straining to hear any further movement. There was no sound, so she ventured further into the hallway, inching along with her back pressed up against the wall.

When she reached the entrance to the living room she peeked around the corner in an attempt to assess the situation from a safe distance. She could only see a sliver of the room, and she couldn’t be sure it was empty. No shuffling or other signs of movement carried to her through the quiet. Cautiously, she stepped through the doorway.

No one was there. Nothing looked disturbed. The front door was still locked as was the sliding back door. So…what had made that noise? No windows were open. It was definitely inside the house and it hadn’t been the wind blowing something over. She passed her gaze over every part of the room; over Justin’s favorite armchair, the couch Emma slept on more often than not, the end tables, the coffee table, the fireplace and the mantle.

As she turned to search the kitchen, something caught her eye. She froze.

On the hearth, shattered and broken, was the 8×10 photo of Emma and Justin’s wedding day. Their faces smiled up at her with so much hope and joy that she would have crumpled to the ground if it hadn’t been for the fact that the photo had been, just a few minutes ago, sitting peacefully on the end table.

On the opposite side of the room.

She had spun around, making sure she wasn’t imagining things. Maybe this was a different photo that had simply fallen off the mantle. Emma had been a little singularly focused recently and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for her to have moved something and forgotten. But no, there were no empty spots above the fireplace. She knew where the photo had come from. How it got here, on the other hand…

“Justin,” she’d whispered again, this time in wonder. “Justin!” She called his name louder and stood still, holding her breath. Was it possible? Was he here? Her heart raced in anticipation. Eyes wide, searching the shadows in the corners of the room, she had expected to see him standing there with his arms open, his signature bright grin splitting his face. He had stopped her. He had saved her. He was still here, watching and protecting her.

That realization had washed over Emma with a tidal wave of tears. Justin wouldn’t have wanted this for her, she knew that now. No matter how much she missed him there was no way he would have condoned taking this kind of permanent action. He had always accused Emma of being too reactionary, of jumping to a major solution for a minor problem. While the despair that had taken over her life wasn’t necessarily minor to her, she realized her resolution wasn’t going to fix anything.

She had picked up the crumpled frame carefully and carried it to the kitchen. Removing the broken glass piece by piece, her eyes stayed locked on the picture, on the face she loved more than anything. Contradictory emotions flooded through her: she felt the joy and the promise of that day shining out of their faces, the anguish of being forever separated, the rage of him being taken from her. She stood in the kitchen, memorizing every line and curve of his face, letting the tears flow. When exhaustion finally overtook her, she left the photo on the counter and made her way to bed.

Walking into the bedroom, she started undressing but stopped dead in her tracks.

Lying forgotten on the floor, dull and cold, the gun suddenly filled Emma with dread. Her hands flew to cover her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified.

What had she been about to do?

Slowly coming out of her reverie, Emma found herself still in the kitchen, holding the finished casserole. She had no idea how long she’d been standing there, lost in her thoughts, but at least she’d had the presence of mind to put on the oven mitts first. With a sigh, she reluctantly continued preparations for her dinner guests.

“Sweetheart, everything was simply delicious!” Lois smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I know it was hard, but you did a great job. And I know the Bakers were thankful to have this chance to talk about their son with others who knew and loved him.”

Emma squeezed her mother tight. “You’re right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’ll never be easy, but it was…oddly comforting.” The Bakers and the few neighbors who had been able to come had already left, leaving just Lois and David May with their daughter.

“Proud of you, kiddo,” David said. “You did great. Justin would have loved this.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Emma laughed. “You’re right. He loved telling his old stories and liked nothing better than to be the center of attention.” Her heart ached. “God, I miss him.”

Looking around, Lois started picking up glasses. “Let me help you clean all this up…”

Emma stopped her with a firm, “No. Mom, no. It’s okay. I like cleaning up. It lets me unwind from the stress of trying to be interesting all night. You guys go home. I’m fine.”

David raised an eyebrow at his daughter.

Kissing him on the cheek, Emma amended, “I’ll be fine.”

Once the door shut behind her parents, Emma set to the task of cleaning. She turned the radio on to fill the silence. After so much laughter and conversation, the house seemed empty all of a sudden. Singing along with the radio, Emma tried to keep her mind from wandering into the sadness that was left behind with the mess. A nice mindless activity like washing dishes coupled with the nonsense of current pop songs should do the trick.

When everything was washed and put away, she poured herself a glass of wine and leaned against the counter. Talking with everyone about Justin had brought him a little bit closer tonight. With only the light from the candles still burning on the table, Emma sat in what had been Justin’s favorite armchair.

“I miss you, baby,” she whispered. “You would have had a blast tonight. There was so much love in this room…and it was all for you.” Emma let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. It sounds like such a long time when I say it out loud, but it feels like yesterday.”

Tucking her hair behind one ear, she sipped her wine and settled back into the chair. “Our neighbor Lisa was here – without James.” She quirked an eyebrow in the dark. “So much drama, babe. I have to say, I’m glad he’s gone. It was nice to see Lisa, though.”

She shot up out of the chair and started pacing the room, suddenly agitated. “Oh, I know, I know. I need to get out more, I need to be around people again. God, you sound like my mother.” Emma stopped and stared out the window. “You were the only way I tolerated people, you know that. Nothing is any fun without you, Justin.”

Draining the last of the wine in her glass, Emma set it in the sink and blew out the candles. She stood in the middle of the dark living room and smiled sadly as she wiped a tear from her cheek. “I will never not miss you.”

Emma got ready for bed and found herself looking through Justin’s jewelry box. She hadn’t touched it since his effects were given to her after the funeral.

She picked up the watch she had given to him for their last Christmas together. He had been a watch fiend, having a different one for every day of the week. But after Emma gave him this one, it was the only one he wore. It wasn’t fancy or expensive. It wasn’t even particularly attractive, to be honest. But on the back, Emma had added an engraving: You and me, forever. Love, E.

After sifting through his old chains and the pile of business cards he had somehow accumulated in the jewelry box, her fingers brushed against his wedding band. Shiny gray tungsten, it was still perfectly round and smooth as though she had just taken it out of the box. Emma was a little sad that the tungsten didn’t show any signs of wear. Made it seem like it hadn’t been worn in love for ten years. The little infinity symbol engraved on the inside was still pristine. And was as true that day as it had been the day she exchanged rings with him. Needing to feel close to Justin, she slipped the ring on her middle finger and pressed it to her lips. She returned all the other trinkets to the box and turned out the light. The emotional night had taken its toll on her, and Emma drifted off to sleep, clutching Justin’s ring tight.

That was the first night he visited her.

Return To Me: Part 3

One year later, the pain was no less. The loneliness had only grown exponentially. And the isolation had become far more pronounced. Identifying Justin’s body had been the single worst experience Emma had ever lived through. She tried to erase that image with alcohol for the first couple of months afterwards, crying until she threw up then washing down all the pain and guilt and solitude with another bottle of wine.

There had been some even darker days that she had somehow made it through. She had a vague recollection of getting out of bed and showering every day, of leaving the house and nodding woodenly to friends and family as they offered their condolences but ultimately didn’t know what to say. Emma knew she must have eaten at some point. The only memory that stood out in stark relief was the night, six months into her life as a widow, that she had stared down the barrel of a loaded pistol.

Literally.

Emma lit the candles on the dining room table and looked over the settings once more. She had never told anyone about that night. It was the darkest moment she had ever experienced. The only thought in her mind had been that she needed to be with Justin. Without him, there was nothing in this world for her. Until the moment she realized he was really gone, Emma had considered herself an independent woman. She didn’t need a man to make her happy, to take care of her. She loved Justin and they had an amazing partnership in which they were happiest together, but she could survive alone if necessary.

At least that’s what she thought until being alone became her reality.

Thinking back as she checked the oven, she was surprised at how easy it had been to make that deadly decision. There was no weighing the pros and cons, no contemplating the ramifications to those she’d leave behind. It had been as simple as thinking there was nothing left in this world for her and she didn’t want to stay in it anymore.

She had been at lunch with her mom when it presented itself as the only solution for her, but she said nothing. Her mother had been relaying how Emma’s friends were always inquiring about her, sending their well-wishes and love. She had tried not to roll her eyes at that. Her closest friends had come to the funeral to show their support. They made donations to the local homeless shelter in Justin’s name. They brought beautiful cards with flowery poetry scripted on the inside. Some brought her casseroles – really, what was a now-single woman going to do with six pans of lasagna? – while others sent flowers or cookie bouquets. Her best friends even made a few tentative phone calls with half-assed invitations to get together when Emma knew that was the last thing they actually wanted.

Sadness and loneliness that couldn’t be alleviated hung like a lead weight around Emma’s neck every day, every night, every waking moment. Her mother encouraged her to get out, to do something, even if it was just taking a walk. Lois meant well, but Emma had been sunk so far in her grief there was nothing her mom could say or do to pull her out. Emma had let her mind wander over the last few months. The awkward lunch dates with her mother, her father’s clumsy hugs and stilted conversation because he simply didn’t know what to say. The long days and even longer nights that left her wishing for a gas leak or some other disaster to kill her in her sleep.

In that moment, at that thought, it all became so clear. Emma’s eyes were wide and clear for the first time in a long time. She felt a little guilty when her mom perked up, too, thinking her daughter was taking her well-meant advice to heart. In reality, Lois was witnessing the beginning of a plan that would ultimately end her daughter’s life. It was simple, really. Her parents were going out of town for the next week, a trip that had been planned even before Justin’s accident. If she used her time wisely, Emma could start the wheels in motion and be free of this nightmare before they returned.

Sure, her parents would be devastated for a while. She felt some remorse for that. But they would be so much better off without worrying about Emma every day. She would be at peace and that would bring them peace.

After a three-day waiting period, Emma picked up the small 9mm pistol she had selected. It wasn’t fancy. It was used and cheap, but she was assured by the salesman that it was reliable and easy to handle. She had lied to him, saying that she had just moved to town and, living alone, she wanted something to keep in the house, just in case. She had turned it over and over in her hands, admiring the compact size of the solution to her misery.

A concise note explaining her actions had been left propped up on the kitchen counter. She owed her parents that, at the very least. The house was clean and neat. The food from the refrigerator had been thrown out two days before. Emma wasn’t eating much these days anyway. All of her bills were paid, all of her services had been canceled.

She was ready.

Sitting on the edge of the bed she had once shared with Justin, Emma took a deep breath. This was the moment. Six months of missing the piece that had made her whole, made her who she was and gave her the strength to face anything, was long enough. Soon she’d be reunited with Justin and they would be together forever.

With a sense of calm she hadn’t known in what felt like eons, Emma contemplated the weapon, deciding what would be the most efficient way to take her life. She’d heard about some who shot themselves in the chest, right into the heart, but she wasn’t confident that would do the trick. Head, it was. Should she press the muzzle against her temple or place it firmly between her teeth? She frowned. There were stories of both methods going horribly wrong and only maiming the shooter. While she had never contemplated suicide before and certainly wasn’t an expert, she knew that if you were going to do the deed you’d better make sure it took.

She held the gun up and pointed it squarely between her eyes. The muzzle stared back at her, the black void promising her peace at last. This was it. She pressed the gun against her forehead, positioning it so there was no way to miss, and closed her eyes.

“Justin…” His name came out in a reverent whisper and she pictured him in her mind’s eye.

Soon.

Suddenly a crash sounded from the living room making Emma jump. She hadn’t put her finger on the trigger yet and the gun fell from her hands, clattering to the hardwood floor. Emma sprang up from her bed, her heart pounding loud and frantic in her chest.

Someone was in the house.

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