Flash-fiction: I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_fotoall'>fotoall / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know
It’s a long road back
I promise you

 “Hi, sweetie. I’m checked into the hotel, and I’ve got The Nutcracker on the television. I’m sorry we couldn’t see it together, but I know you’re having a great time at the ballet with Grandpa. I miss you, sweetheart, and I love you.”

The voicemail system wouldn’t leave her leave a message that was any longer. It was the 20th of December, and instead of being home with her daughter, putting up their apartment-sized tree and watching cheesy Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel, Rose was in yet another hotel room, in yet another city, preparing for yet another sales presentation in the morning.

Being a single mother was tough enough when she was home full time, but with her recent promotion, Rose was on the road nearly two weeks of every four. It was only temporary, of course. A new sales rep was coming on board after the holidays.

Until then, there would be four more nights of hotel sheets and hotel shampoo and hotel food, and the knowledge that she was missing all the holiday traditions she and her seven-year-old daughter had established in their life together.

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree

“Hi, honey. I’m sorry I missed you. I’m sitting in the lobby of the hotel listening to a man play Christmas songs on the piano, and sipping peppermint hot chocolate. Grandpa promised to record your choir concert tonight – did you get the flowers I sent? Did you like the chocolates? – We can watch the video of your show when I get home, okay? I love you.”

It had to be the Peterson account that made her late for her evening call with her daughter. They were one of the oldest clients her company had, but they demanded special care. Sure, they’d provided a lovely meal, but the filet mignon had tasted like sand, especially when they were eating it in a restaurant decorated with a chocolate Christmas village. (She snapped a picture with her phone to show Daisy.)

“Is this seat taken?”

Rose looked up to see a man about her age, maybe a little older. Brown hair with a touch of gray at the temples, expensive suit with a whimsical Christmas-themed tie (Peanuts? Really?) and brown eyes that twinkled pleasantly. Any other night, she’d have said no.

“How can I say no to a man who’s willing to wear that tie in public?” she said, by way of an answer. “I’m Rose.”

“Michael,” he said, trading his name for hers. He settled into the seat across from her, adding, “My son picked out the tie.”

“You have a son?”

“Charlie; he’s eight.” His expression grew slightly sheepish. “I have to confess: I overheard you leave that message, and thought another parent would be a safe person to share a table with.”

Rose softened toward him. “I was trying to reach my daughter, Daisy. She’s seven. Her school’s winter concert is tonight, but my meeting ran late, and then there was dinner and…” she trailed off. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I wish I were home with Charlie, probably about as much as you want to be home with your daughter. I had to leave him with my sister.”

“You’re divorced?” It was a safe bet. Single fathers always went for the silly child-provided ties.

“Widowed,” he answered softly. “My wife died last January. This is our first Christmas without her.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rose said. “That can’t be easy.”

Michael shook his head. “We’ll manage. We have to. What about you? You mentioned a grandfather…”

“Divorced. Daisy’s father and I dated in high college, got married too young, and ended things when she was one. He’s a good father, but he’s active duty army. Deployed.”

“Wow. Do you… is he safe?”

“I hope so,” Rose said. “He usually manages to get time on the satellite phone on Sundays, but this Sunday is Christmas, so…” She paused, and sipped from her drink. It was peppermint hot chocolate, as she’d told Daisy in her voice message, but the mint came from a healthy shot of peppermint schnapps. “I’m sorry; I don’t usually talk this much to total strangers.”

“We single parents have to stick together,” Michael said. “Don’t apologize.” He stared at her cup. “What are you drinking?” She told him, and he grinned and flagged down the server. “I’ll have what she’s having… and a plate of those butter cookies.”

It was a pleasant hour or so, Rose reflected later, sipping the beverage that warmed her in more ways than one, and sharing the lightly-lemon flavored half-moon cookies with her new… friend? Acquaintance? It didn’t really matter. She likely wouldn’t see him again.

Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

“Hi, Daisy. I’m at the airport but there’s snow here in Chicago, and my flight is delayed. I know tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, and I promise I’ll be home in time for pancakes and seeing Santa at the firehouse. Remind Grandpa to ask Anna to have your red velvet dress ready for tomorrow night.  I love you.”

The weather had caused the delay or outright cancellation of so many flights, but Rose had gotten lucky. She was flying away from the storm, not into it, and even though her original flight had been scratched, they’d found a seat for her on the ten p.m. to Denver. She wasn’t thrilled about having to drive the hour-plus home after midnight, but at least she’d make it home for the holiday.

And they’d bumped her to first class for her trouble.

Settling into her seat, Rose accepted the offer of a single glass of red wine, and arranged her neck pillow so she could look out the window and still be comfortable.

They were about to close the aircraft door when there was a flurry of activity and a brown-haired man appeared in the aisle. For a moment, she wasn’t entirely certain he was her companion from the other night, but then his tie – Calvin and Hobbes this time – swung free, and she smiled.

“Rose,” he greeted. “We meet again. Is Denver home for you?”

“Michael,” she responded. She sipped her wine before sharing, “I live about an hour away from the airport, in the mountains. Georgetown.”

“Oh, I know it well. Quintessentially cute, tucked in at the bottom of the switchbacks before Guanella Pass.”

“Okay, no one knows that…”

“They do if they live in Silver Plume.”

She couldn’t help it; she goggled at him. “Silver Plume kids go to school in Georgetown.”

“They do.”

“So if either of us were ever home…”

“We’d probably have met at parents’ night. I’m loving the irony.”

The plane had pushed back from the gate while they were chatting, but Rose barely noticed. What would have been one more excruciating flight had become a pleasant interlude in a month of disappointments and frustrations.

They chatted amiably from take-off to landing, parting ways in the parking garage, though Michael had insisted upon walking Rose to her car before going to find his own.

Inside her vehicle, Rose texted her father an update on her status while she waited for the engine to warm up. She’d forgotten to ask for Michael’s last name, but she could always ask Daisy about a boy named Charlie, one grade ahead of her.

Or not.

She saw him stowing his suitcases – like hers, one was full of presents for a waiting child – in the trunk of his car as she drove through the nearly-empty parking structure toward the exit. Impulsively, she pulled over and rolled down the window. “Hey, Silver Plume!”

“Georgetown!” he grinned at her. “We’re not using first names anymore? If you call me ‘Colorado’ does that mean we’re breaking up?”

She laughed. “Tomorrow morning, nine-thirty, the Happy Cooker. Daisy and I do ritual gingerbread pancakes and then see Santa iat the fire station down on Main. You and Charlie should join us.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah!” She hesitated. “Make sure  he chooses a really good tie.”

They exchanged numbers, just in case, and then Rose put her car back in gear and headed home. The Christmas lights on their vintage Queen Anne-style home were switched on, waiting to welcome her back, and she smiled as she wheeled her luggage up the stairs.

Inside, her father was sitting at the kitchen table working a crossword puzzle. “Hey, traveler,” he greeted, rising to enfold her into a flannel-clad hug.

“Dad. You didn’t have to wait up.”

“Now, you know that’s not true.”

“Okay,” she said. “Would you mind heating up some water for tea? I want to peek in on Daisy.”

“She was out like a light, last I checked.”

Rose smiled, but she climbed up the stairs anyway, and kept her footsteps as quiet as possible as she moved down the hall to the end room where her daughter slept. The door was cracked open, as usual, but she pushed it wider so she could see her child’s still form.

She’d kicked the covers off again.

Rose moved into Daisy’s room and settled the sheets and blankets back over the little girl’s shoulders. Then she placed a gentle kiss on her daughter’s forehead.

The child stirred in her sleep. “Mom?”

“Yes, Daisy. It’s Mom. I’m home.”

“Good. Love you.” And she was asleep again, just like that.

“Love you too, sweetie,” Rose whispered. She retreated to the doorway where she remained, watching her sleeping child, until she heard the low whistle of the tea kettle.

Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

 

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, based on a poem by Buck Ram.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash-fiction: They Grow Up So Fast

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_gpointstudio'>gpointstudio / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

They had just pushed the button to illuminate the Christmas tree when the power flickered out. It came back a few seconds later, but the blackout had lasted just long enough to disrupt the time on every digital clock in the house.

“Mom, I think we lost internet!” Her son was leaning over the upstairs balcony railing.

“That happens when the power goes out,” her daughter shouted upwards. “Anyway, you were standing next to me when the lights went out… you teleported didn’t you.”

“Geez, Sam, rat me out, why don’t you?”

“Patrick, do not blame your sister for your own actions. The internet will reset in another minute or so. Please come back down here – and use the stairs. Samantha, tattling on people only makes people resentful.”

“But you know the power glitches every time he does it.”

Helen sighed. “I know. But your brother is starting puberty and his power is fluctuating.”

“You mean he’s getting hormones?” The ten-year-old imbued the word with a sense of wonder. Well, really it was affectionate mockery and wonder.

“Yes.”

“Didja have to tell her that?” Patrick had returned to the first floor of their house.

“It’s a fact of life, Patrick. And at least you’re a boy. When Samantha gets to that stage a few power fluctuations are the least we’ll have to worry about.”

Patrick glanced at his sister. “Wow. That kinda sucks.”

“Yes,” Helen agreed. “It ‘kinda’ does. In any case, we’ve talked about this before: no big magic in the house – it alters the electrical fields and affects all our technology, not just the power grid.”

“Teleporting isn’t big magic.”

“Maybe not for you,” Helen countered. “But displacing the mass of a human, and then reintegrating that mass in a new location takes a lot of power, even if you’re not feeling the effects yourself.” She paused letting her words sink in.

“So, how do I practice?”

“Well, you’re thirteen now. I think it’s time you started Magical Education Classes. When the winter break is over, we’ll see about getting you enrolled.”

“Is it true there are all-wizard schools, like in Harry Potter?”

Helen chuckled. “Oh, if only. Just think how much easier life would be without your friends constantly asking if you could just make their homework appear or speed the time ahead so they didn’t have to go to gym. No, Magical Education is sort of like… you have friends who do their Confirmation or Bar Mitzvah classes after school, right?”

“Yeah, sure. Zachary Schwartz has been bragging that Lady Gaga is performing at his party.”

“Well, this doesn’t come with pop singers, but Mother Margery at the Episcopal church teaches a Coming of Magical Age class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You’ll be doing that.”

“Mother Margery’s okay,” Patrick allowed.

“Mom, are we ever gonna light this tree? Dad’ll be home soon.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry,” Helen apologized. “Yes, let’s do it right now.”

Mother and children gathered around the decorated tree, and Samantha grabbed for the remote with the button that controlled it.

Helen put a loving hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Would you mind if we let Patrick do it his way, just this once?”

The younger of the children took a beat to think it over. “I guess,” she shrugged. Then she glared at her brother. “But if you make the lights go out again, I’ll tell Josie Frye that you like her.”

For a moment, Helen thought her son was going to argue the point. Instead, he said. “I won’t. I promise.”

Patrick faced the tree and closed his eyes, just concentrating. After a moment, the lights on the tree began to glow, softly at first, then more brightly, one at a time, from the light on the bottom row in the back, all the way through the circuit.

“Did it work?” he asked, a bit uncertainly.

“It’s beautiful,” Samantha breathed.

Patrick opened his eyes. “The regular power will keep them on,” he said. “I just got them going.”

“That was cool,” Sam pronounced. “Dad’s gonna love it.”

Helen stepped away from the tree to dim the room lights. Her husband would be home from work shortly, but she was enjoying this precious moment. All too soon, Patrick would be too old for tree-lighting, and Samantha’s magic, when it manifested, would likely have nothing to do with electricity.

They grow up so fast, she thought.

Image Copyright: gpointstudio / 123RF Stock Photo

Flash-fiction: Poinsettias

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_barbamauro'>barbamauro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

“They say that things just cannot grow
Beneath the winter snow,
Or so I have been told.”

 – Sarah Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson, “Winter Song”

The signs on the greenhouse doors warn against the use of magic in six different languages, but even so, it’s tempting to do just a tiny warming spell to ward off the chill. Inside, Ophelia knows, the air will be warm and humid, but outside it’s Deep Winter, and she resents having her fingers go numb on the walk from the main house to the greenhouse where the Work is done.

With a mittened fist, she presses the button for the intercom, waits for the buzz, and then announces. “Ophelia Bloome. Incoming.”

Hold for retinal scan.

She peels her hat away from her eyebrow and lowers her scarf just enough to give the scanner an unobstructed view of her right eye.

Scanning… scanning… scanning…

It always seems to take longer when the weather is cold, Ophelia thinks, but if she mentions that to Gran the old woman will tell her it’s Nonsense and remind her that Everyone Knows Cold Makes Computers Work More Efficiently. (Gran always spoke as if every word was capitalized and amplified, the result of a lifetime of living with a husband who excelled at situational deafness until age finally took his hearing away for real.)

Identity confirmed. Good morning, Ophelia. Please come inside.

It’s her imagination, isn’t it, that the computerized security system is always much more polite once the scans are complete? It doesn’t actually have a technopixie working inside it, imbuing it with personality, does it? That would be dangerous for the plants.

The outer doors swish open, just like the doors on Star Trek, and Ophelia steps into the airlock. Vestibule, she corrects herself. It’s just a vestibule. This is real life, not science fiction.

With the outer doors closed behind her, she strips off her outerwear, trading her snowsuit and boots for denim overalls and sneakers. Then she triggers the inner doors, which don’t so much swish as creak.

The inside of the greenhouse is a technological marvel, with heat lamps and misters and every kind of measuring implement ever invented to track growth rates and division patterns, to determine optimal climate zones and confirm hardiness. Even the ceiling was programmable on a section-by-section basis so that day-lilies could thrive next to night-blooming cactus if the Gardeners so desired.

“You’re A Bit Late This Morning,” Gran announced too close to Ophelia’s left ear.

“The coffee maker was infusing every cup with Daydreams,” the younger woman explained. “Alex had to shake me out of them twice, and then I had to return the favor, before we figured out it was time to descale the thing.”

“Magic Builds Up Just Like Minerals,” Gran explained. “Your Grandfather Is Supposed To Maintain The Kitchen Gadgets.”

“Well, maybe you can remind him of that,” Ophelia suggested with only a hint of a smirk. “What’s on schedule for today?”

“Poinsettias.” The old woman pointed a gnarled finger at the farthest corner of the mile-square space (like many magical edifices it was bigger on the inside), under an arch of candy canes. “You Know They Call Them Flors de Nochebuena In Spanish?”

“Yes, Gran. But I didn’t know we Worked with them.”

“Of Course We Do!” The old woman had a way of making Ophelia feel like a six-year-old more often than not, and her loud speech didn’t help. “Come, Child.”

Dutifully, she trotted along behind her grandmother on the moving sidewalk that ran down the center of the building. There were golf carts, as well, but Gran preferred to walk, and on the days Ophelia had to Assist her, she walked, too.

At the poinsettia grove, both woman stopped, and the older one activated one of the touch panels and called up a recipe. (She preferred that term to ‘spell,’ but really, the two were interchangeable.) “Read That Out To Me, Child.”

“One part Spirit of the Season, one part Hospitality, and two parts Pleasant Dreams,” Ophelia read from the digital display. “To be Worked by someone in the first third of life, and someone in the last.” She looked up, understanding, suddenly, why they would be doing this project together. “Oh… Gran.”

The old woman didn’t speak, just took up her position at the Working station, and jerked her head to the left so that the younger one would follow suit.

It took two or three hours of concentration, but when they were through, the red, pink, and white plants glittered faintly in their foil-wrapped pots. They’d been infused with Holiday Magic, and were ready to be loaded onto the conveyor belt that would take them out of the Shielded greenhouse and onto the loading dock, where Alex would ensure they were packed into temperature controlled trucks for delivery.

Hours later, Ophelia was curled up in her favorite chair in her cottage on the family property. The winter storm had killed the electricity again, but she’d Enhanced her Roku-TV so that she could get Netflix without it, and with cheesy holiday movies playing on the 40-inch screen, a pot of spiced tea, and a crackling fire, she couldn’t imagine being any cozier.

The holiday season had officially begun, and Bloome and Greene Florists was looking at a banner year.

Once Upon a December

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_michaklootwijk'>michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo</a>This is not a #MusicAdvent post. It’s also not a #Holidailies post.  Oh, and it’s not a #DecemberReflections post either.

This is an admin post warning you about what’s going on with the Bathtub Mermaid this December.

Because I like to challenge myself (or because I’m insane, possibly both) I’m doing a triple cocktail of Holiday Blog/Twitter/Instagram projects, and may (or may not) be combining them.

(Actually, I may be doing a fourth project at the same time, but that will only be 12 days, and not 25 or 31)

So, here’s the lowdown on what to expect.

Today (1 December 2016) is the first day of MusicAdvent, in which people share a song every day from now til Christmas. This year, the challenge is to chain the songs together, so that each song somehow connects to the previous one. I came this|close to using “The Alphabet Song” or  “Alligators All Around” because that way the instant connection would be that they’d be in alphabetical order, but that would be cheating. So, you’ll have to go follow me on twitter (see my link in the sidebar) to find out what song I start with.

Today (1 December 2016) is also the first day of Holidailies, which I’ve been participating in for over a decade now. If you visited this space, or listened to my podcast, in October, you know I also participated in the darker version of that project, #HorrorDailies. But this month is for the original.

And finally, today (1 December 2016) is the first day of December Reflections  which I’ll be doing mostly on Instagram (link in sidebar).

Oh, and that fourth project? It will be a 12-day podcast thing, like a mini-version of Dog Days of Podcasting, and you’ll be able to follow that at BathtubMermaid.com when it begins.

Now, if this all sounds a bit ambitious, please remember that I reserve the right to skip days when necessary. (12/21, for example, I’ll be on a plane).

I hope you’ll take the ride with me this month. Some blog entries may incorporate the music or photo from that day; some may not. Let’s see what happens.

Oh, who am I kidding. This is totally a holidailies post.

Shameless Self-Promotion – Volume II

Copyright : Andrey Bortnikov (Follow)

 

Happy Halloween!

Thanks to my friends Nuchtchas and Mark, and my husband (who kept the dogs quiet), there’s a special Halloween episode of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Tub.

It’s an audio presentation of three of the stories I’ve written for HorrorDailies this month (Lips, Under Glass, and The Ghost Waltz), and  the run-time is about half an hour.

Where can you find it, you ask?

Click here: http://www.bathtubmermaid.com/2016/10/tbm-1610-31-spooky-short-stories-vol-ii/

 

 

Flash-fiction: The First Time

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_keleny'>keleny / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.

He wasn’t convinced. “If you’re not ready, we can wait.”

“No, I’m ready, I’m just a little nervous.” Her voice shook a little.

“I get that. I was nervous too, the first time.” His tone was reassuring.

“Will it hurt?” Her dark eyes were huge in her pale face.

Honestly, he answered. “It shouldn’t. Not if you do it right.”

“And if I want to stop?”

“Then we’ll stop. No harm, no foul.”

“Okay, I’m ready.” Her words were full of quiet confidence.

He was honored that she was trusting him with this. “Remember, lick first, then suck.”

He heard her moan of pleasure as her fangs pierced the neck of her first victim, and he smiled, sharing her joy.

 

Flash-fiction: Whispers and Some Kind of Understanding

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_markusgann'>markusgann / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I’ve never seen a ghost, exactly, but I’ve heard their whispers for as long as I can remember.  Maybe even longer than that.

When I was a little girl, I thought it was normal for my imaginary friends to introduce themselves by name and have real conversations with me. Mama would listen to me prattling on about Audrey from Maine who lived in a lighthouse with her father and thought the fog horns were singing just for her, or Joshua from Florida who warned me never to let my poodle outside alone when the hawks were in the sky.

“He said his neighbor’s dog was taken by a real live ‘gator!” I exclaimed as I climbed into the front seat of our ancient Dodge. Mama hated that car, but I loved the way it always smelled like summer inside, probably because we never got all the beach sand out of the ridges in the seats. “And Giselle said we hav’ta put lots and lots of sunscreen on when we go down the shore, because our skin is an organ, too.”

“An alligator, really? Where do you come up with these things?”

But Mama never believed me when I told her that my invisible friends told me these things. She’d just tug on one of my braids and tell me I was lucky to have such a vivid imagination, and maybe I’d be a writer someday.

~~~

The whispers faded as I got older. I guess the more you know about the real world the harder it is to hear the voices that emanate from the not-quite-real. It’s like the Peter Pan thing – you get old enough and you stop believing in magic and fairies and friends you can talk to but not see.

Oh, they still managed to grab my attention when it was important.

Joshua was the one who warned me that Paul Sanchez wasn’t as sweet as he wanted me to think. He was the second-hottest boy in the junior class when I was a sophomore and I was so excited when he asked me out. We saw a movie and got drive-through burgers and fries and went to the cliff over the ocean… and I knew – I knew – he was gonna kiss me, and I couldn’t wait to find out what all the fuss was about.

But he tasted like stale soda and cigarettes and after we kissed a couple times, he slid his hand under my shirt, and started to push me backwards on the bench-seat of his Daddy’s old Ford pickup, and when I told him “Stop!” he refused.

Joshua was there though. He told me to lift my knee at exactly the right time, and then he whispered into Paul’s ear, and Paul apologized and took me straight home.

After that, he never talked to me again, but sometimes when we were both in the quad during lunch he’d look at me funny, like maybe he thought I was touched… or he was.

~~~

Of all my ghost friends, Joshua was the oldest. He’d been twenty-three when he passed, he said. He’d been studying marine biology at Florida State, and he’d been stupid and gone on a bender the night before a boat trip. He didn’t remember all the details of his dying – or he never shared them with me, anyway – but he made me promise that if I was ever gonna get super-drunk I’d do it in the safety of my own space, and not ever go driving or sailing after.

It was an easy promise to make. Booze and weed only ever loosened my tongue to the point where I’d forget that not everyone was as gentle and kind as my Mama about the stories that got whispered to me.

When I was twenty, and in my third year at Bennington working on a self-designed course of study involving folklore and fantasy and creative writing, it finally clicked in my head that Joshua had a kind of crush on me, and I knew I had to send him on his way.

I’d done that for Audrey, when I’d turned ten and she couldn’t follow. And I’d done it for Giselle when I’d turned fourteen and realized I liked boys (she didn’t). And I missed them fiercely, especially when I was alone at night in my chilly dorm room and I hadn’t made any friends yet.

But Joshua… he was the boy I wished I could kiss, kind of like Cristina Ricci did in that Casper movie, when Casper makes himself solid for her.

Except Josh could never be solid.

And then I met Aurelio.

Aurelio was the son of the Ambassador from Spain, and he was made of sweetness and sex appeal, inside and out. He wrote poetry and played guitar, and he had this thick, curly hair that just begged to be finger-combed, and he let me do it with my fingers. He had soulful blue eyes and this accent that was kind of like Mexican Spanish mixed with French and when he kissed me, it felt like coming home.

Joshua was jealous.

Joshua said I was too young for a serious relationship and I’d end up being hurt and why wasn’t I listening to him.

Joshua started whispering to me about girls Aurelio was hooking up with behind my back, but I could tell he was making it up, because I’d known his voice since I was a little girl, or longer, and I knew what lying sounded like.

Finally, I locked myself in the bathroom and ran the shower at full pressure and I called Joshua to come talk to me.

He’d never been there when I was naked before, and he whispered that I shouldn’t let my boyfriend know about him, or he’d have to kill him.

And that’s when I told him to go.

“You’ve always been a friend,” I told him. “You kept me safe when I needed a guardian and you nudged me to write and explore and you saved me from being lonely during my darkest times, but I’m a grown woman now, and there’s a reason people my age don’t have imaginary friends anymore.”

He yelled at me, and he made my Gillette Swirl Razor pop its suction cups and fall off the shower wall and he ran his chilly ethereal hands over my bare skin, and I forced myself not to react to any of it.

“I’m gonna step in the shower now,” I told him when he’d had enough. “And by the time I’m finished, you need to cross over. You’ve done your duty by me, Joshua.”

He didn’t have any choice but to agree.

~~~

Aurelio arrived home just as I was wrapping my hair in one towel and the rest of me in another. He had a bag of Chinese food from the place that made the good kind of pot-stickers and he’d stopped at the flower stall on the corner and picked up a bouquet of purple carnations that smelled like innocence and cloves.

We sat on his second-hand Oriental rug in front of my ratty eggplant-colored couch and pigged out on moo shu pork while we watched The Artist, and then he took me to bed and we satisfied a totally different kind of appetite.

And afterward, he pulled his guitar into the bed with us, and leaned against the leather headboard, strumming lightly as he recited his latest poems to me.  In between stanzas he told me nonchalantly, “It’s nice to be alone with you, finally.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Joshua and Bianca finally moved on,” he said,  as if I’d known he’d had a whispering friend, too.

As if people talked about their invisible friends every day.

And who knows?

Maybe they do.

Inspired by Selena Taylor

And the song “Whispers and Some Kind of Understanding,” by GhostLight

 

Just Like Us?

Copyright: arinahabich / 123RF Stock Photo

“Mom! Harry’s chewing with his mouth open again!”

“Harry, mind your manners. Becky, stop tattling on your brother.”

“But Mom!” both children chorused, their voices utterly failing to harmonize.

“I couldn’t help it,” Harry said. “I got a toe caught under my tongue.”

“Yeah, that’s what you always say,” Becky countered. She mimicked him. “I got a hand caught in my tooth. There was hair in the back of my throat.” She rolled her eyes skyward. “You’re eight hundred not eighty. LEARN TO CHEW!!!”

“Stop picking on me!” Harry roared back. “You almost got caught during your Haunting last night. Charlie told me that Mara told him you tickled a Child’s Foot and she kicked you!”

Becky’s eyes – all five of them – went all slitty and her nose squinched up and her face deepened to an almost-forest green. “Don’t you dare tell Mom about that. Don’t even think about it.”

Harry’s voice was only a soft roar when he said, “I’m sorry, Becky.”

Both of the young monsters were quiet for a bit, as they picked up Human Cookies and dunked them in their Curdled Milk, and then ate them.

“So, I heard Charlie wants to dress as a Child for Halloween.” Becky said after a bit. It was clearly a peace offering. “I was thinking we could come up with something even scarier for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Becky grinned, showing off her rows of sharp, gleaming, recently unstraightened teeth. “I think you should go as an Adult.”

“That’s not so scary.”

“A Human Adult.”

Harry couldn’t help giggling, which meant his sister got a lovely view of partially masticated cookie and frosting.

“Mom! He’s doing it again!”

 

 

Flash-fiction: The (von) Brunt of it All

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_kirkikis'>kirkikis / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

“Autumn in New York is so lovely,” they said. “The colors of the leaves are so vibrant!”

Sure, sure they’re lovely when they’re still suspended from the branches. They’re vibrant when they first land on the ground. All those yellows and oranges and bright reds.

You’d get sick of them surprisingly quickly if all you could do was lie in a pile of the rotting things and stare at the sky with one eye and the ground at the other, for days at a time. Don’t believe me? Trust me, I know.

After all, that’s my life.

You all know the story, I’m sure. Mild-mannered school-teacher Ichabod Crane comes to Tarrytown to lead the charge for education, falls in love with Katrina, and has a series of run-ins with a Hessian on horseback, a soldier name of Brom Bones who lost his head – quite literally – by a single, spectacular, sword-stroke. Goes around now with some squash or gourd tucked under one arm.

Calls himself the Headless Horseman.

Makes a show of being all scary and magical.

Truth is, magic’s got nothing to do with it. It’s Daredevil that gets Ol’ Brom where he wants to go.

Daredevil… now that was a horse. Bred in Spain, brought him over to the colonies from Seville. He’d been trained by the same folks who  taught the Lipizzan stallions all their cool tricks. Blind as a bat – blinder, really – Brom didn’t need a head to get around as long as he had that horse.

But I digress.

You all know the story of the Horseman, but did you ever stop to wonder what happened to his head?

It’s okay. I know how it is. Man riding around without a head – that’s a scary thing. Head rolling around without a man – that’s just unfortunate.

At least the grin without a cat was still welcome at tea.

But me?

Leaves. Leaves and mulch and dirt and worms. Rain, mud, snow, ice, grass, and leaves again. On and on through the wheel of time.

Wheels go round.

Heads go rolling.

The Horseman, he’s Brom Bones… he’s got the stories and the screams and the flickering firelight that makes the shadows shrink and grow.

Me? I’ve got a name too, you know.

I’m Brunt.

I used to be Abraham von Brunt, but that’s a name that requires legs and arms. And a chest. And broad shoulders.

At this point?

Well, my hair is dirty and matted, my eyes are filled with grit and I cannot get the taste of old dirt and rotting leaves out of my mouth or nose.

Well, at least until the next rain.

I’ve managed to see a bit of the world, though.

Figured out that wiggling my ears and scrunching my nose could give me a bit of mobility.

Find the correct angle on the right ground, and heads will roll.

And every once in a while some kid who wants a disgusting keepsake will use a stick to shove me into a satchel, and carry me around for a bit. I don’t have vocal cords anymore, but I can project my voice into a willing person’s head, give them directions.

Instructions really.

Or… suggestions, I guess.

I’ve given up any hope of reuniting with Brom.

My new goal is to make it back across the pond. Not to Austria or Germany, though.

Nope. I aim to make it to Scotland.

I’ve heard there are whole clans of Scotsmen lopping each other’s heads off like it’s some kind of  Game.

Pretty sure one of those bodies could use a spare.

And if not?

One option is to become a willing participant in that other game – the one with the brooms and the ice.

Team could make a pretty penny if they had a stone that could Suggest that the opponents miss some shots.

And option two? That’s the one with less pain and more dignity.

See, the people of the Isles are closer to real magic than they are here in the Colonies. Maybe they can build me a strawman body, like the ones they prop up in fields to keep the pests at bay.

It’d have to be pretty well packed though… to bear the brunt of it all.

Inspired by Fran Hutchinson.

Flash-fiction: Blue Teardrops

The Sad Clown by Zsofia Daniel

Jack kept his focus on the dressing room mirror as he smeared white makeup over the entirety of his face, ears and neck included. He used black make-up to draw on his eyebrows – large inverted V-shapes half-way up his forehead – and blue to color in the space underneath. More blue around his mouth, red inside the blue making his lips into a garish slash in the lower third of his face. Red dots on the apples of his cheeks, and the iconic red ball on his nose.

Clown faces were supposed to be living grotesques, animated faces in the funhouse mirrors, but Jack didn’t feel particularly animated that afternoon. He was exhausted from traveling on the circus train nine months a year, stop after stop where fewer and fewer people lined the streets to see the animals march from the train yards to the arena where they’d be performing. He was fatigued from doing show after show for dwindling crowds, for children who were more interested in watching videos on their smartphones than in the acrobatic and comedic feats he and his colleagues enacted every Wednesday through Sunday afternoon, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.

Now, instead of kids wanting to join the circus and live a life of travel and adventure, they were more likely to parrot their kale-eating, coconut water-drinking, hipster parents: Circuses are evil. Animal acts are cruel. Acrobats are anorexic. Tightrope walkers seek danger.

And clowns? Clowns aren’t happy-go-lucky jesters, they’re lewd men hiding behind gross caricatures of the human face.

Clowns lured mis-behaving children to their doom, they said.

They had sharp teeth and black souls, like that guy Tim Curry played in that old Stephen King miniseries.

They ate you, if you tried to run away.

None of that was actually true of course, but still, they played to fewer and fewer people in every city.

And more and more clowns came out of the rings with blue teardrops on their cheeks.

No one knew how the teardrops got there, but it happened with the younger clowns first, the kids who were new to the circuit, eager to put their juggling, tumbling, and mime skills to use. These kids didn’t come from the Clown College – that itself had closed over a decade before – not enough applicants to keep it open – but they had the bug – the drive – the need to entertain.

But when the crowds were thin, when the children screamed with fear instead of laughter at their antics, the blue teardrops appeared at the corners of their eyes, their faces were updated in the Registry, and they disappeared. Some said they were going back to college; others found jobs as buskers in zoos and amusement parks, but every single one left the Alley, left the life.

Jack hadn’t come up from clown college either, but he was no kid. At sixty, he probably ought to be thinking about retirement, but he’d been born and raised in the circus. He was the last in a line of clowns that dated back to the first American circus.

He was a headliner among clowns; his name – Jacko – was on all the posters.

“Hey, Boss, five minutes.” Carlos, the lead roustabout came into view in the mirror.

“How’s the crowd?”

“Quiet.” Carlos’s tone was grim. “Concession says they’ll be lucky to break even, and souvenirs are only running half the booths.”

“Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”

Jack pulled on his wig and hat, the last steps in his transformation into his Jacko persona, and went to join the other clowns for the opening parade.

The music began, and the ringmaster led the march out to the arena floor, circling through the three rings arranged in the center. The horses and dogs were next, then the acrobats and aerialists, the fire eaters and sword swallowers, and all the other performers, and finally, the clowns, twelve of them, tumbling and bobbing, racing into the stands and returning to formation.

Jacko stopped in front of a crying child, and knelt down to be at eye level with him. He pulled at the white handkerchief in his pocket, and offered it to the boy, who tugged and tugged, his tears finally turning to a smile, and then laughter as scarf after scarf came of the clown’s pocket.

He gave a big thumbs up to the boy and his mother, and made his way around the circle, honking the tin horn in his hand, and scattering colored streamers as he went.

Carlos had been right; the spectators were a quiet bunch, but Jacko managed to make some real connections with a few of the children.

The show went on.

The lights and sounds eventually faded into nothing, and the show lights turned off, replaced by normal fluorescent bulbs high in the arena ceiling.

The roustabouts were already dismantling the safety nets and trapeze rigging, loading sections of the rings onto the trucks that would carry them back to the train.

Two days later, just outside Cedar Springs, IA, Jack got the call on his cell phone, while he was resting in his compartment in the clown car. The tour was over budget and ticket sales were slumping. They’d close down at the end of the season, three months in the future.

In the last few minutes before the final performance, Jacko surveyed himself in the mirror. He’d had offers from Circus Vargas and Ringling Bros, but the life he’d loved for so long was no longer holding him so tightly. His children had fled the circus life decades before. His grandchildren seemed embarrassed that their grandad was a clown. It was time, he thought, to head back to the Florida condo he’d finally paid off the year before, but had barely spent any time in.

“Five minutes, Boss,” Carlos warned.

“How’s the crowd?”

“Sweet,” the roustabout answered.

Jacko smiled as he adjusted his hat. Sweet crowds were the best.

This time the crying child was a girl, and she finally cracked a smile after he gave her a flower that sprayed silly string from the center. She was about the same age as his youngest granddaughter, he thought.

He was about to leave her, to push himself up from his knees and rejoin the fracas in the ring, but the child reached out and touched his cheek, just below the corner of his left eye. “Why so sad, Clown?” she asked in her little-girl voice.

Jacko mimed a shrug, and then smiled broadly, and implied that he was sad because he had to leave her.

In reality, he was terrified – the little gir’s finger had come away with blue paint on it.

They took his new photo for the Registry the next morning, but Jacko never looked at it, and when the circus left Cedar Springs, the number of clowns in the Alley had dwindled to eleven.

Six months later, Jack hosted Christmas for his family, all of them, but it was only Anissa, his youngest granddaughter who climbed into his lap and touched his cheek, right below the corner of his eye. “Sad Granddad,” she said. “Why blue teardrops?”

He hadn’t worn clown paint since June, but somehow, when the little girl’s finger came away stained blue, he wasn’t surprised.

Someday, he might have an answer the child would understand.