This short story was written for Dan Antion’s (No Facilities) Thursday Doors Writing Challenge. It was inspired by a painted door I saw at a local artists’ village. A little warning, this story is a bit darker than the other ones I’ve shared.
Under the Rainbow
Dorothy shifted uncomfortably in her hard plastic chair. The air in the room was stale, smelling of early morning coffee breath. She looked down at her watch and was irritated to find that she still had 15 minutes left of this slow death.
Edmond, the insufferable little English prig was droning on and on about his brother and sisters, a closet (or, as he called it, a “wardrobe”), and some people who were turned into stone. We all have problems, Dorothy thought, why should I care about yours? She was about to fake a heart attack just to get out of there when Edmond said something about a lion and a witch. What the heck? Had he been there too?
When the group leader ended the session with his usual feel good, namaste BS, Dorothy made a beeline for the door. As soon as she stepped outside, she lit her fourth cigarette of the day and inhaled the fumes as if they gave her life. Scanning her surroundings, she felt as flat, dusty, and depressed as the landscape. “I flipping hate Kansas” she mumbled under her breath.
“What’s that?” Damn, it was that new girl. Pretty, blonde, and another English accent. “What did you think of the session?” Miss Priss asked smiling.
“I’ve been coming for three years and still haven’t gotten anything out of it,” Dorothy answered, hoping to cut the conversation short.
“Alice, my name is Alice,” Miss Priss said, extending her hand. “I feel like I’ve been chasing down rabbit holes my whole life and would really like to stop. I hope these meetings can fix me.”
“All of us are here for the same thing but I’m starting to wonder why we would want to leave those other worlds and exist permanently in this one,” Dorothy replied. “They might have contained dark magic and evil forces, but at least they were interesting.”
“You’re right,” Alice replied. “It wasn’t all Red Queens and madness. I had some opportunities for personal growth too.”
“Well, good luck,” Dorothy offered as she stubbed out her cigarette on the side of the building. “I hope you find what you need. I think this will be the last Rentering Reality support group I’ll attend.” Dorothy walked away without a backward glance.
As she headed home, she thought about her sad, miserable life and how everyone she loved was now gone. First, Auntie Em wasted away from cancer, then Uncle Henry drowned in bottles of cheap gin. Toto One—her only witness to her adventure—was dead. Even Toto Two had the good sense to run away and never come back. Why bother sticking around this god-forsaken place? she asked herself. Why exist in a black and white world when you can live in color?
Approaching her house, Dorothy fully grasped the property’s decay for the first time. The garden, once Auntie Em’s pride and joy, was covered in weeds. The barn and livestock pens—where the terrifying pigs had been kept—were almost as flattened as the Kansas topography. Her house was headed in that direction too; missing roof shingles, rotted siding, and dangerously uneven front steps. The sudden wash of guilt Dorothy felt nearly brought her to her knees.
Once inside, Dorothy knew exactly what she needed to do. Before she could change her mind, she headed for the cellar. As she descended the steps into darkness, she could see a faint red glow in the corner.
The ruby slippers were waiting for her, just as they had been for many years. Dorothy carefully put them on, not surprised at all that they fit perfectly, despite her shoe size changing over time. Looking down at her feet, Dorothy started to click her heels together: one… two… three…
“There’s no place like Oz, there’s no place like Oz, there’s no place like Oz.”
His deep, accented voice flowed over me like warm honey, pulling me out of my slumber. As much as I wished I could stay snuggled in my warm bed, I knew I had to get going. Today’s meeting with my biggest client could make my career.
As I drank my favorite morning blend and thought about my upcoming presentation, he read little snippets of news to me. Mixed with international stories was the latest celebrity gossip and updates on the rainstorm that was headed our way.
“Don’t forget to bring your brolly.” Brolly? Oh, yes, umbrella. Once again, I was struck by how much he cared about me. So different from my last relationship.
Back upstairs, I took a quick shower and dressed in my power suit. I needed just a few moments to run through my notes. I had been practicing all week, often with him as my audience; giving me his total focus. I felt confident. I can do this.
Gathering my umbrella and laptop, I glanced down at my phone to make sure I had the client’s address. Last night I had briefly mentioned that I needed the directions and here they were on my phone. He not only exuded sex appeal, but he knew how to make my life easier. He’s definitely a keeper.
I was just about to leave for my meeting when I had an idea. Turning towards him, I said in what I hoped was my most sultry voice, “I’ll see you tonight. If all goes well, I’ll order a pizza at 6:00 to celebrate.”
“Setting the alarm for 6:00,” Alex affirmed.
As I unlocked my car, I smiled to myself. Switching my virtual assistant’s voice from the all-business Alexa to my sweet, hunky Australian, Alex, was the best decision I have ever made.
This bit of fluffy flash fiction was inspired by a recent post of Kate’s (Views and Mews by Coffee Kat), where she wondered about changing Alexa’s voice to something more… ummm… appealing.
This story was inspired by a writing challenge hosted by D. Wallace Peach, who blogs at Myths of the Mirror. Her challenge: write a poem or story about a TBR (To Be Read) pile – those books many of us have accumulated but haven’t read yet.
I am also submitting my story to the What’s on Your Bookshelf? blog link-up hosted by Donna, Deb, Jo, and Sue. Hopefully fictional book collections qualify 😊.
To Be Read
It had taken nearly eight months, but Jane finally made it through the TBR pile that had been stacked by her bedside. As she picked up the remaining book from the floor, she could see the ring of dust her pile had created on the carpet like the chalk body outline in a crime novel. Her daughter would be pleased that she could finally vacuum the floor properly, but Jane couldn’t help feeling the loss of her friends.
She opened her book and started to read.
At first, when Anne invited her mother to come live with her, she had resisted. Jane valued her independence and knew that their individual daily habits could cause friction. But when Jane’s health deteriorated to a point that even she realized that she could no longer live alone, she consented. Within a few weeks, Jane’s home had been emptied and put on the market. Anne told her mother she could keep anything she wanted, but Jane knew her daughter’s house was small, and space was already at a premium. A few items of clothing, her favorite teacup, and her pile of books was all she brought with her.
A few weeks after Jane moved in, Anne realized the large stack of books by the side of her mother’s bed would be a permanent fixture. Clean, orderly spaces calmed Anne and gave her a sense of control. Books should be on shelves and floors kept clear of clutter. Knowing that her mother would bristle at her beloved books being referred to as clutter, Anne tried to appeal to her practical side.
“Would you like me to find space on my bookshelves for all of your books? That way, you can see each one easier.”
“No, thank you, dear. I love to see all my books out in the open, patiently waiting their turn. They give me something to look forward to.”
“But, what about your safety? Books on the floor could be a hazard. You could trip on the pile and break your neck.”
“What a novel way to die,” Jane replied.
“Very funny Mom, but I do worry about you.”
After several similar conversations, Jane finally agreed to read her way through the stack of books and not add any more. Anne assured her, after the pile was gone, she could check out all the books she wanted from the library or download them to her Kindle. Knowing that this was probably the best compromise she could hope for, Anne willed herself to stay silent despite her continued dismay at the pile. She vacuumed around it as well as she could and – when her mother wasn’t looking – she tried to neaten the stacks.
Over the next several months, Anne was happy to see that her mother was keeping her word. Slowly the TBR pile shrank in size and the floor around her bed started to clear. Anne was confident that, once the pile was gone, her mother would see the wisdom of keeping the area clear.
Before going to bed, Anne opened her mother’s bedroom door to say goodnight. She wasn’t surprised to see that Jane had fallen to sleep reading. She was still wearing her glasses and the bedside lamp was on, casting a ring of light around her. The book she was reading had tumbled out of her grasp onto the comforter. She looked so peaceful. Anne marveled at her mother’s joy of reading and was happy that, despite her poor health, she was still able to do what she loved.
As Anne crossed the room to her mother’s bed, she smiled when she noticed that there were no more books on the TBR pile. She made a quick mental note to make a trip to the library as promised. Anne reached for her mother’s glasses and was startled when her hands brushed Jane’s cold face. She quickly tried to find her pulse but felt none. Her mother was dead.
Anticipating this time would eventually come, Anne knew what she had to do. Holding firmly against her grief, she picked up her phone to call 911.
Anne sat down on her mother’s bed to wait for the paramedics and allowed herself to feel the full weight of her loss. Through her tears, she looked around the room and hoped that her mother had been happy living with her. Curious to see what her mother had been reading, she picked up the book from the bed.
She was surprised to see that it was the book by Mitch Albom she had given her mother when her dad died. Anne had hoped the messages found in The Five People You Meet in Heaven would provide her mother some peace after losing her husband.
“Oh Mom, you knew, didn’t you?” Anne cried. “You knew it was at the bottom of your stack, and you saved it for last.”
Anne saw a pink post-it note peeking out of the book and opened it to the marked page. A paragraph had been highlighted and her mother had drawn little hearts and stars around it.
“Lost love is still love, Eddie. It just takes a different form, that’s all. You can’t hold their hand… You can’t tousle their hair… But when those senses weaken another one comes to life… Memory… Memory becomes your partner. You hold it… you dance with it… Life has to end, Eddie… Love doesn’t.”
When Anne heard the knock on the door, she closed the book, kissed her mother’s forehead, and tousled her hair one last time. Before going to the front door, she walked into her bedroom and placed the book on the floor by her bed, to be read later.
This story was inspired by a recent blogpost by Deb, The Widow Badass. Her post (if you missed it, you can read it here… but don’t forget to come back!) told of finding a cookbook in a thrift store and discovering a cake recipe tucked between the pages. Speculation about the women – whose name was on the recipe – ensued in the comment section. Secret Ingredients is a story about that woman, her dear friend, Lettie, and how the recipe ended up inside Deb’s thrift store find.
It had been a week since Lettie had attended the funeral of her best friend, so she was quite surprised to receive a package addressed in Violet’s hand with her return address affixed to the corner. Judging by the package’s shape and size, it most likely contained a book but Lettie was baffled. Why had her friend, knowing that she was close to the end of her life, made the effort to wrap, address, and mail Lettie a book?
Lettie carefully slipped her fingers under the tape and slowly unwrapped the package. When she saw what was inside, a flood of memories washed over her. The Christmas Cookbook had been an often-used and much-loved reference when Lettie and Violet were young mothers. They spent many enjoyable hours in their kitchens baking for their holiday celebrations. Lettie couldn’t recall if she or Violet purchased the book originally but it had been passed back and forth countless times. The last pass must have been to Violet before she and her husband moved across the country, and now she had returned it to her friend.
Through tears of loss, Lettie began to page through the book. Just about every recipe reminded her of happy times in their long friendship. The Edible Cookie Ornaments had delighted their young children and decorated their trees every year. The Black Forest Trifle disaster that had covered Violet’s kitchen in splattered chocolate and dissolved the two of them into fits of laughter.
When Lettie reached the cookbook’s index, she was surprised to find an envelope inserted between the pages. She held her breath as she retrieved the paper from the envelope, then let it out in a gasp. It was Violet’s recipe for her Christmas Cake, stained and wrinkled from years of use and with several barely legible handwritten notes in the margins.
Lettie and Violet had been best friends since high school. Almost from the moment they met, they knew theirs would be a special friendship – the sister neither of them had. They shared freely with each other: their hopes and dreams, clothes, makeup, and, best of all, the confidence that they would tell each other everything. No matter what.
After graduating high school, they attended the same college and, four years later, settled down in the same small town. When each eventually met the man they wanted to marry, they were relieved when the other gave her full approval. As close as they were, their husbands had to be friends too.
The only bump in their three decades of friendship happened about 15 years ago when Violet brought a cake to Lettie and Jim’s annual holiday open house. Lettie had worked hard getting ready for the party. She had been cooking for several days and was proud of the results. Despite all of the beautiful decorations and delicious food, it seemed that the only thing her guests talked about afterward was Violet’s amazing Christmas Cake. Everyone, including Lettie, asked her for the recipe but she declined, saying it was an old family recipe that needed to stay in the family.
It was the first time Lettie could remember that Violet wouldn’t share something with her. The fact that she said that it was a secret family recipe made the hurt even worse. Lettie considered Violet to be family and thought that her friend felt the same way.
Lettie knew that she was being overly sensitive so she did her best to talk herself out of her hurt. Violet was her best friend and a silly cake recipe shouldn’t come between them. When Violet brought the cake to other gatherings, Lettie joined in the praise. When her cake won second place at a holiday baking contest, Lettie congratulated her. Lettie liked to think she had completely moved on, but she knew that wasn’t true.
Now, years later, here was Violet’s Christmas Cake recipe. As Lettie looked over the ingredients, she couldn’t see what was so special about it. Flour, butter, eggs, sugar, dried fruit. Big deal. She read the handwritten notes carefully to see if there was any secret combining or baking techniques. Nothing.
Feeling a little let down, Lettie refolded the recipe and was about to tuck it back into the envelope when she noticed another piece of paper inside. Pulling it out, she saw that it was a letter written in Violet’s tiny, neat handwriting.
I have been going through my things when I’ve felt strong enough, putting aside items for the special people in my life. When I came across our old Christmas cookbook, I knew that I had to get it back to you. I hope you have as many fond memories of us baking from it as I do.
I’m also sending you the Christmas Cake recipe. I’m not sure if you remember, but years ago I brought the cake to one of your fabulous holiday parties. As you can see, the recipe is a simple one. Truth be told, I had found it in a magazine. After making a few minor changes, I claimed it as mine but it really wasn’t “my” cake. When you and several of your guests said they loved it and asked for the recipe, I was flustered. Out of embarrassment, I made up the story about it being a secret family recipe that I couldn’t share – even with you. Though you didn’t say anything at the time, I know that hurt you very much.
I should have shared the recipe with you years ago and I am so sorry. You are my sister and my family, and I hope you can forgive me. I also hope you think of me when you make it and maybe laugh a bit at my silly vanity.
Lettie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked over the recipe again. She realized that she had all of the ingredients on hand to make the cake. As she gathered everything together, she could feel her friend standing beside her. For the first time since Violet’s funeral, Lettie found that she could not only smile but laugh – at her friend’s vanity, at her own mistaken assumptions, and at the memories of all the fun they used to have together in the kitchen.
A few days after she finished the last bite of cake, Lettie decided to type a clean copy of the recipe, incorporating Violet’s handwritten notes. She was about to hit Print when she reconsidered. She moved her cursor to the top of the page and added her friend’s name to the title. It really is your cake, Violet, she thought. You always added the most important ingredient: your love. Feeling the warmth of her friend’s embrace, she inserted Violet Burke’s Christmas Cake recipe between the pages of The Christmas Cookbook and carefully closed the cover.
The picture in the Airbnb ad was the first thing that caught his attention. While most hosts feature the home they have for rent, this ad only pictured a dry desert landscape. Perfect, Greg thought. As he scrolled through the reviews, he become even more intrigued. Many were in a language he didn’t recognize but the reviews in English were positive. “This place is out of the world!” one gushed. “You’ll never want to leave!” said another. The review that finally convinced Greg to book the house read, “If you are looking for an environment that is both peaceful and life-changing, this is it.”
There had been little peace in Greg’s life since he and Lydia had broken up three weeks prior. After four years of living together, she told him it was over. No yelling, no tears: just, “I don’t love you anymore and you have to leave.” Even as Greg felt his heart being squeezed between her well-manicured fingers, he couldn’t help admiring her calm composure. Lydia dumped him as if he was one of her underperforming employees.
There was no question about who got to stay in the apartment and who had to leave. Lydia’s name was on the rental agreement and, ever since he lost his job back in August, Greg hadn’t contributed to the rent.
As he gathered his things under her watchful eyes, he was shocked at how little he actually owned. The furniture, TV, and kitchen appliances were all hers. Everything he had thought of as “ours,” really belonged to Lydia. When he had taken what was his, the apartment looked the same, as if he had never been there.
Now that he was essentially homeless and had to rely on friends to put him up, Greg tried to convince himself that being able to travel light was a good thing. He only needed his beater car and a small backpack to carry his possessions from sofa to sofa. Even so, he couldn’t help but think a man his age should have more to show for himself.
Greg knew that he would have to find a job and more permanent housing soon – two things that weren’t easy to come by in the current economy. He also knew that he needed to have a clear idea of what he wanted his new, post-Lydia life to look like. As much as he appreciated his friends’ generosity, he had very little privacy and craved quiet and solitude so he could figure things out.
A few days in the high desert was just what he needed. While many people sought vacation rentals at the beach, Greg longed for the peace and quiet of the desert. He also knew that he could afford to rent a house there for a few days. Unlike at the coast, the prices in Morongo and Yucca Valley wouldn’t make too much of a dent in his meager savings. Ignoring Lydia’s voice in his head telling him how irresponsible he was being, Greg booked the desert house for a three-night stay.
As Greg drove out of town, the lush green lawns, imposing security gates, and faux lakes of Palm Springs started to give way to natural desert landscape without the injection of imported water. He could feel his shoulders relax more with each mile, and the pain of Lydia’s rejection began to ease. He knew that he was spending money that he should be saving, but he also knew what he was doing was the right thing for him.
A half-hour later, Greg’s GPS indicated that he was close to the address of the rental. He carefully followed the prompts up a narrow, dusty road, doing his best to avoid the large ruts on either side. When the GPS told him that he had arrived, Greg slowed to a crawl and started to look to his left and right. No house. Crap, Greg thought, I hope I haven’t been taken. Not willing to give up and hear the Lydia living in his head tell him what an idiot he was, he considered his next move. He remembered passing a small convenience store a few miles back. Maybe they knew something about the house or owner.
The bell over the door announced his arrival but the man behind the counter continued to stare at his phone. Greg picked up a bag of chips, hoping a purchase would help break the screen’s spell.
“Hi. I’m looking for a house up the road, but I can’t seem to find it,” Greg said as he slid the chips and a piece of paper with the handwritten address towards the clerk.
The clerk looked at the address and smirked. “Yeah, that’s the Martin place. It’s not visible from the road; you have to park and walk up the dirt path. Once you clear the hill, you’ll see it.”
Feeling much better, Greg thanked the man and paid for his chips. As he walked out of the store, the clerk called out, “Look for the blue door.”
Greg carefully retraced his route and, once again, found himself where the GPS insisted there was a house. He parked in a little dirt lot he hadn’t noticed the first time and looked around until he saw the path the clerk had mentioned. He opened the trunk to retrieve his backpack and, as he slung it over his shoulder, wondered again how he got to the point where most of his worldly possessions could fit in such a small bag.
The path leading up the hill was partially overgrown by shrubs and covered in loose rock and dust. When Greg reached the top, he looked around for the house. Still nothing. Then, over to the right, nestled among some trees, he saw a door. No house, just a door.
Greg walked over to get a closer look. The door was set inside a frame and stood straight up with no visible signs of support. The robin’s egg blue paint looked new, but the brass doorknob was tarnished and showed signs of wear. As he slowly circled around the frame, he could see that it was no thicker than a typical door that might be found in a normal home. But, there was nothing normal about it. At all. Feeling a little ridiculous, he cautiously knocked. When he heard footsteps approaching from the other side, his first instinct was to run.
Before Greg could turn away, the door was opened by a small man whose bald head barely reached the middle of Greg’s chest. Although the man’s unnaturally small mouth held no hint of a smile, his large eyes looked friendly.
“Are you Mr. Martin?” Greg asked cautiously. “I’m Greg Trent. I have reservations for your Airbnb.”
“Oh, yes! I have been expecting you. Come in.” The little man opened the door fully to reveal black and white tile covering the floor of what appeared to be a large room. Greg quickly stepped back from the door and looked behind it. Nothing. He looked inside the room again and saw that the space was so vast no walls were visible; he could only see the checkerboard floor stretching off into the distance.
Greg hesitated to step inside and tried to stall for time as his mind worked to find the logic of what he was seeing. “Um… my reservation is for three nights. What is the check-out time on Wednesday?” he asked, even though he knew the answer.
“Oh, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” the man replied.
As Greg drew a startled breath, Mr. Martin let out a laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldn’t resist. It just cracks me up to see people’s expressions when I say that. Check out time is 10 a.m.” Then, he added, “But, really, you may not want to leave. Many have chosen to stay. Let’s see how you feel on Wednesday.”
As the man spoke, Greg noticed a wave of peace flowing throughout his body and he realized that his stress from the last few weeks had disappeared. He had sudden clarity that there was nothing behind him to lose and endless possibilities ahead. He hitched up his backpack and, after taking one last look over his shoulder, crossed the door’s threshold and followed the odd little man towards wherever the black and white tiles led.
This story was written for Dan Antion’s (No Facilities) Thursday Doors Writing Challenge. The door that inspired my story can be found here.
This is the fourth short story I’ve written that has the current pandemic as an underlying theme. The other three: Lost and Found (in five parts), Be the Change, and Gathering Storm, can be found by clicking on the category Short Stories and Poems, above.
I hope you enjoy it.
Who Needs Who?
The quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes was just what Jen was looking for. After spending most of her 20s and early 30s living in the beach area, she had been ready for a change. The traffic, noise, and loud weekend parties—things that she energized her when she was younger—had started to wear on her. Then, Covid hit, and it all became too much. Her friends acted as if they were immune and continued to gather, unmasked and in large groups. She grew tired of complaining, and she knew that her friends weren’t going to change, so she decided to move to an area where she felt more comfortable.
The cute, two-bedroom, one-bath, bungalow she found was perfect. The house was big enough to have a separate work-from-home office but small enough so she could afford the rent by herself. The days of dealing with roommate drama were over. Her move in November was more than just from one abode to another; she felt like she finally had transitioned from her unmoored youth into adulthood.
Jen knew that she was one of the lucky ones. Her job as a project manager was easy to do from home; in fact, she preferred working there. The windows in her office allowed soft light into the room and offered a relaxing view of her front yard and the street. Although she hadn’t had a chance to meet any of her neighbors face-to-face, she was starting to recognize a few familiar faces as they walked by or worked in their yards. She was relieved to see that they were careful to wear masks and keep their distance when interacting with each other.
Jen was especially intrigued by the woman who lived directly across the street. She reminded Jen of her grandmother who, at nearly 80, was a tiny ball of energy topped with a puff of gray hair. The woman even used a cane like Gram, although, from what she could see, her neighbor’s brightly-colored cane looked to be as much of a fashion accessory as a walking aid.
One Saturday morning in mid-January, as Jen was cleaning her office, she glanced out her window and saw her neighbor walking down her driveway to retrieve her newspaper. Jen’s thoughts turned to her Gram and how hard the Covid restrictions had been on her; how lonely and isolated she said she felt. Jen kept in touch as much as possible, but she lived several hours away and Gram’s facility still didn’t allow visitors. Despite their distance, Jen was happy to have been able to help her grandmother get her first vaccine appointment the prior week. As Jen navigated through the convoluted and frustrating process, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for anyone who wasn’t internet-savvy and didn’t have assistance.
As she watched her neighbor, it occurred to Jen that she might need help signing up for her Covid vaccine too. Offering assistance to her neighbor would give her a great excuse to introduce herself and, perhaps, do a good deed. Jen figured that her neighbor probably felt as unsure of the process as her grandmother had.
Later that morning, Jen put on her coat and walked across the street. She didn’t know why she felt anxious, but she put on a big smile to cover her nervousness and knocked.
After a few moments, her neighbor opened her door.
“Hi! I’m Jen. I moved into the house across the street a few months ago.” Jen smiled brightly, before putting on her mask. “I haven’t had the chance to meet any of my neighbors yet, but I’m really happy living here. This is the first time I’ve lived alone and, although I miss my roommates, I’m starting to appreciate the quiet.” Oh, gawd, I’m babbling like a nervous suiter, Jen thought to herself.
“Oh, hello, dear. I’ve been meaning to introduce myself and welcome you to the neighborhood but, well, you know, this virus makes those things so complicated. My name is Cora.”
Cora put on her mask, opened her screen door with her cane, and stepped onto her porch.
Jen’s confidence faltered a bit as Cora looked at her with questioning eyes. “Um, well, I was wondering if you might need some help setting up your vaccine appointment. The online process can be pretty confusing and there are a lot of forms to complete. I was able to help my grandmother, so I’m familiar with the procedure.”
“That’s so sweet of you. That would be lovely. I’m anxious to get vaccinated but I understand it can be difficult to get an appointment.”
Jen breathed a sigh of relief. “Great! I can either help you on your computer if you have one, or you can come over to my house and use mine. You can enter all of your personal information yourself, so you don’t need to worry about privacy.”
After some discussion, Cora agreed to meet later that day at Jen’s house. Jen assured Cora that they could do the work on her laptop outdoors in her small backyard. As Jen walked back across the street, she was filled with satisfaction. Not only was she helping someone who needed her assistance, Jen was also hopeful that she had just met her first friend in her new neighborhood.
That afternoon, sitting at a small table on Jen’s postage-stamp-sized patio, Cora and Jen worked together to find a vaccine appointment at a nearby facility. With Jen’s help, Cora filled out all the necessary information and, when they got to the screen that announced her success, they both spontaneously let out a cheer and clapped their hands. They both felt like they had won the lottery.
As Jen walked her new friend back across the street, she offered to drive Cora to her appointment the following Thursday. Although she knew Cora had a car, she figured her apparent leg injury might make driving difficult. Besides, if there was a long line or any other complications once she got there, Jen wanted to be able to help. Cora accepted her offer gratefully.
On Thursday morning, Jen sat in her tiny kitchen sipping her coffee. She had arranged to take the morning off from work and was looking forward to spending an hour or two with Cora. Jen knew that her Gram enjoyed their conversations and she imagined Cora would also appreciate having someone to talk to.
A half an hour before they were due to leave, Jen went out to her car to tidy it up. She tended to use the passenger seat as a desk and there often were notebooks and file folders strewn about. As she opened the passenger door to grab her stuff, she saw a neighbor walk towards her waving.
“Hi, there! I’m so happy to finally have a chance to meet you. I’m Lisa, I live in the blue house two doors down.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jen replied, smiling. “Sorry I don’t have my mask with me, but I was just getting a few things from my car. I’m driving Cora to her first vaccine appointment this morning.”
“That’s so nice of you! She is recovering well from her bike accident, but I know she still has trouble now and then.”
Bike accident? Suddenly Jen’s perception of her new friend shifted. As far as she knew, her Gram never cycled, and, even if she had, it would have been well before Jen was born.
“Um, yeah. I helped her get her appointment. It can be difficult if you aren’t comfortable with the internet… you know, dealing with the various websites and forms. I helped my grandmother too.”
Jen was surprised to hear Lisa laugh. “You helped Cora get an appointment?”
“Yeah?” Jen didn’t mean for that to come out as a question.
“Cora and her late husband used to own a computer consulting business before he became ill and they had to sell it. She knows Macs, PCs, and the internet better than anyone in this neighborhood. In fact, if any of us have an issue, she is the one we go to for help. We are lucky to have our very own Geek Squad on our block.”
Just then, Cora stepped out of her front door and waved. “Good morning! I’ve been looking forward to this day. I’ll be over in ten.”
“Well, you two have a nice time,” Lisa said. “I envy her. My appointment isn’t for a few weeks.”
Jen went back inside her house to dump her notebooks and grab her purse and mask. When she came out, Cora was standing by the car. Jen opened the passenger door and waited as Cora climbed in and settled her cane on the floor. After closing the door, Jen walked around to her side, got in, and turned towards Cora.
“Lisa tells me that you hurt your leg biking.” Jen cringed a bit at the accusatory tone of her voice.
Cora sighed. “I should probably give it up at my age. My grandkids and I love to ride in circles around their cul-de-sac. It was a way to spend time with them outside. I fell several weeks ago and got a bit banged up. My son tells me that I’m nuts, and he is probably right.”
“Lisa also says that you used to own a computer consulting company.” There was that tone again. “That you are always helping your neighbors with their technical problems.”
Jen could see Cora winch behind her mask. “Oops,” she said with a slight giggle. “I guess my secret’s out.”
“You probably didn’t need my help making your appointment.”
“No, I didn’t. But I was so touched by your offer, I couldn’t say no. You also seemed a little lonely and I thought you could use a friend.”
Jen turned back and started her car. Her face flushed with indignation. She felt foolish. How dare Cora take advantage of my generosity? And, then to make it sound like she was doing me a favor?
As Jen drove a few blocks further, she began to reconsider her initial reaction. She was the one who made the offer, after all. She had assumed Cora needed help because her Gram did. Besides, she thought, I am lonely, and I really could use a friend.
As she waited for the light to change so she could turn onto the main thoroughfare, Jen looked over at Cora and smiled. “How about after your appointment, we stop for coffee? I’d love to get to know you better.”
This short story was written last year for a local writing competition, The Decameron Project. Entries, limited to 1,000 words, were to be previously unpublished and based loosely around the theme of the current pandemic. Genre, tone, and content were left up to each author.
I’m pleased that my story was chosen as a finalist and was published in an online collection. I am now able to share it on my blog.
As Sarah walked through the house collecting her shopping list, keys, and purse, she glanced out the window and saw rain clouds forming. Where is my umbrella? Thinking that she probably left it in her office, she entered the small room off the front entry.
She wasn’t surprised to see her grandson nestled in her favorite reading nook, his nose buried in a book. At 12, Jack was bright and inquisitive. Sarah loved having him stay with her while his parents were at work.
“Hey there, I’m looking for my umbrella. I’ve got to go out for a bit, but I’ll be back before your father comes to pick you up. Whatcha reading there?”
“In school today, my teacher talked about a pandemic back in 2020, and I wanted to read more about it. Mom was just a kid then, right?”
Sarah put her purse down on the desk and sat next to Jack. “Yes, your mother was a little older than you are now, about 15. Your dad must have been 16 or 17. They, of course, didn’t know each other back then.”
“What about Grandpa, was he alive then?”
“Yes. I wish you two could have known each other; you would have been great friends. Before Covid, your grandfather was the picture of health. In fact, we were going to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary by hiking the Camino in Spain. Those plans, like so many others, were put aside when the virus hit.”
“Well, at first many of us thought it was no big deal. Avoid crowds, wash our hands, that sort of thing. The outbreaks seem to be happening elsewhere, to other people. Then, your grandfather started to feel feverish and he lost his sense of smell. When his symptoms became severe enough, he went to the hospital. Since I couldn’t go with him, the last time we saw each other was as he was being loaded into the ambulance. He had turned 45 just two months before. I think that experience might have been what convinced your mother to become a doctor.”
“It says here that a vaccine was developed towards the end of 2020?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t widely available until later the following year. There were also mutations of the virus that were harder to fight. In the end, we lost almost 4 million people worldwide, close to one million in this country alone. There was so much controversy: mask, no mask; shut everything down, open it all up. Scientists and medical professionals were being drowned out by politicians and conspiracy theorists.”
“That doesn’t sound much different from today.”
“You are right about that,” Sarah said, patting Jack’s leg. “Well, I have to get going if I’m to get back in time.”
“Thanks for talking to me about it. I’m sorry I never met Grandpa but I’m glad you and Mom and Dad didn’t get sick.” Jack closed his book and looked up. “Can I go to the store with you, Grandma?”
“Oh, I wish you could, but you know you can’t. Unlike the 2020 virus, this one seems to be harder on younger people. We need to keep you safe.”
Sarah picked up her purse and checked to make sure her mask was inside. Then, she grabbed her keys and umbrella. Giving Jack a quick kiss on his forehead, she said, “We can talk more about this anytime you want. It’s your history too.”
As Sarah left the house she looked up at the sky, hoping the promised rain would come soon. The response to the latest virus, coming just twenty years after Covid-19, was playing out much the same as before. She knew that the protesters would be out, without their masks, yelling about their freedoms. She thought about her late husband and her precious grandson and said a silent prayer that the rainstorm would make it too inconvenient and uncomfortable for the angry crowds to come outside.
This is part of the poem, The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman. Gorman will read this poem today at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Gorman, 22, is continuing a tradition that includes poets such as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, and is the youngest poet in recent memory to deliver a poem at a presidential inauguration. She is a force.
Here’s my latest short story to start the new year. I hope you enjoy it!
Be the Change
Crystal burrowed down into her comforter and peeked out, scanning her room. She wasn’t sure what she hoped to see, but clearly nothing had changed. The same mess of papers were scattered on the top of her dresser and yesterday’s clothes—and maybe clothes from the day before—littered her floor. Sighing her disappointment, she closed her eyes and rolled over.
At midnight, the whole world had collectively kicked 2020 to the curb. Leading up to the last day of a dreadful year, Crystal’s Facebook feed had been full of words of hope and clever memes heralding the dawn of a healthier, happier, kinder year. Crystal had her doubts, but she was willing to play along.
As she debated the merits of staying in bed where it was warm and cozy versus getting up and starting her day, Crystal’s mind drifted to her best friend, Annie, and the huge argument they had two weeks before. The force and ugliness of the words that were exchanged still stung but Crystal felt a satisfying comfort as she basked in her righteousness. A friendship that began in college was most likely finished.
When the need for coffee won over the warmth of her bed, Crystal threw back her covers and shook her head, trying to clear it of the unpleasant memory. If Annie was so pigheaded that she adamantly dismissed the facts and figures of Crystal’s argument, then she wasn’t worth thinking about. Annie could continue on her stupid path, and Crystal would continue on hers. Screw her.
Later, as Crystal worked on her first mug of coffee, she opened her laptop to begin her morning ritual of perusing her favorite news sites. Even though she knew better, she hoped that—somehow magically—the world really had turned over a new leaf at midnight. What if, suddenly, the political discord stopped, Black lives really did start to matter, and people chose to listen to scientists over talk show hosts? Yeah, right. Her news feed looked very similar to the one from the day before. The only difference was the pictures of large, boisterous crowds ringing in the new year; unmasked and close together. Idiots.
As much as she tried not too, Crystal thought once again about her blow-up with Annie. The harsh words they said to each other couldn’t be taken back or forgotten. It was clear that Annie wasn’t the person Crystal thought she was, so maybe it was best to part ways. How could she continue to be friends with someone so obstinate?
They both had kept pretty close to home since the original lockdown in March. Each had made occasional trips to the grocery store and pharmacy, but their interactions with friends and family were only by phone, text, or Zoom. Crystal had missed seeing her friend in person, but they agreed that it was for the best—not only for their safety but, the sooner this thing was over, the sooner they could resume their lives. Crystal knew this was especially hard on Annie because she had a granddaughter that she ached to be with.
Their blow-up happened mid-December when Annie let it slip that she was planning to spend Christmas with her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.
“How could you do something so stupid?” Crystal asked incredulously. “You’ve sacrificed for so long and now you want to throw it all away?”
“But I need to see them,” Annie replied. “All three of them have been isolated for a week so we are pretty sure everyone is safe.”
“PRETTY SURE? What if they aren’t? What if one of them is asymptomatic? What if you get sick and end up in a hospital, alone and on a ventilator? Are you pretty sure you’ll survive?”
That was the most civil part of their argument. From there, it devolved into heated accusations, personal insults and, finally, tears. When Crystal and Annie ended their phone call, their parting words held no hope of reconciliation. Crystal spent the next two weeks nursing her anger and disappointment. How could she have been so wrong about someone she thought she knew so well?
Stop thinking about it! Crystal admonished herself. Her ex-friend was stupid, selfish, and definitely not worth her time. She had plenty of other friends to hang with when this was over.
Crystal forced herself to re-focus on the New Year news. Among the stories of continuing virus surges, political fighting, and vaccine distribution challenges, a local story caught her eye. A young boy was in the hospital clinging to life. Covid, of course, Crystal thought. But, as she continued to read, she realized it wasn’t the virus, at least not directly. The boy had attempted suicide. According to his grief-stricken parents, the months of isolation, during which he wasn’t able to be with his friends or extended family, had made him depressed. Although he was expected to survive, his parents were distraught, knowing they had to continue to keep him away from others because of underlying health conditions.
Crystal was surprised at the sudden, overwhelming sadness she felt for this family she didn’t even know. She also thought about her own solitude, that of her parents’ who lived two states away, and Annie’s desire to see her granddaughter. On this first day of a new year, at the beginning of a new decade, Crystal thought about the kindness and empathy everyone was hoping for and realized that it could start with her.
After two rings, her friend answered, “Hello?”
“Annie, this is Crystal. I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me.”
(This is the final part of Lost and Found, a short story posted in five parts over five days. You can find Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 by clicking on the Short Stories and Poems tab in the menu bar.)
The next morning, Eleanor attached the dog’s leash to his collar and grabbed her tote bag, mask, some tape, and the flyers she had made the night before. Originally, she planned to drive over to the housing tract but decided at the last minute to walk. “The exercise and fresh air will do us good, huh, boy?” Judging from his delighted yelps and dance around her legs, he agreed.
Eleanor knew there were just two ways in and out of the neighborhood. She planned to enter on the road nearest to her, follow the streets as they looped around through the neighborhood, and finish at the other end. She would post the flyers wherever she could and ask anyone she ran into if they knew who owned the dog.
After about a half hour of walking the neighborhood, Eleanor was almost done. She had managed to post most of her flyers and talk to several of the residents, none of whom recognized the dog. Approaching the final block, she saw a group of boys walking her way (all wearing masks, she was relieved to see). Before she could ask them if they knew the dog, they enthusiastically gathered around him and showered him with nuzzles and hugs, which he just as enthusiastically returned. Eleanor was sure this was it; they knew the dog and his owner and Eleanor would have to give him up. “Do you know the dog?” she asked quietly, already feeling an almost unbearable sense of loss.
“No, ma’am,” said one of the boys. “We see your dog sometimes when we play in the field, but we didn’t know who he belongs to. I’m glad to know that he has an owner and a home.”
Eleanor felt giddy with relief. She assured the boys that he had a good home and was well-loved. As she walked away, one of the boys called out to her, “I like how it looks like he’s wearing a mask like the rest of us. What is his name?”
“Ranger; like the Lone Ranger,” she replied over her shoulder. Then, she looked down at the little dog happily walking beside her and said, “Except you aren’t so lone, are you? You have me, and I have you.”
A week later, just before the scheduled Zoom meeting with her son, Eleanor prepared herself and Ranger for the call. They had taken walks in the woods just about every day and, yesterday, she gathered more flowers. The vases competed with her books for table space. Her hair was loose and fluffed up like she had been wearing it lately, and Ranger was newly brushed after having had a bath that morning. She wanted everything to be perfect. “You are going to meet my son today,” she murmured as she held Ranger’s face between her palms and nuzzled her nose against his. “I’m sure he’ll love you as much as I do.”
Douglas Jr. had also been looking forward to the call. He had some news that he was anxious to share with his mother.
“Hi, Mom!” As upbeat as he tried to sound, Douglas Jr. couldn’t help feeling worried as he took in what he saw on his screen. Her living room still looked unorganized, her hair and clothes were much too casual, and her general demeanor was, well, a little erratic. “I have some good news for you!”
“Me too!” she exclaimed. “But why don’t you go first.”
Douglas Jr. took a deep breath. “My company is letting me work from home. Now that Max isn’t in school and Wendy is home full-time, we have all agreed that you should come to stay with us.” Not getting the reaction he expected, Douglas Jr. continued a bit more cautiously, “You must be getting pretty lonely in the big house all by yourself. It’s probably hard to keep up with the housework and cooking for just yourself must be boring. You won’t need to shop for your groceries and Wendy could also help you with your clothes and hair. She’s good at that type of thing.”
Rather than the enthusiastic response he hoped his announcement would receive, Douglas Jr. saw that his mother’s earlier smile had faded. “Before you tell me what you think, why don’t you share your news?”
Eleanor hesitated, taking a breath deep into her lungs and blowing it out slowly. She knew what she was going to say would surprise and, probably, disappoint her son, but she had to say it.
“I want you to meet someone special,” she began. “His name is Ranger. I was lost, and he helped to find me.”