Roots

“It was here,” Abigail muttered as she paced back and forth over the clearing.

“You should have seen it, Jesse. The branches were so thick that you couldn’t even see the sky when you sat by the trunk.” She paused, wiped away a tear, and looked up at the sky.

“I left a piece of my soul here,” she whsipered, and sat down in the dirt.

I looked down at my watch. Dusk was beginning to fall around us. A lightning bug flashed to my right, and a mosquito bit into my arm.

“We only have a little longer before it’s too dark to see anything, Abby. Maybe we should just head back,” I said.

She didn’t respond at first–just stared at a blade of grass she twirled in her hand. When she began to speak, her voice trembled with sadness.

“This place was so different a decade ago. I used to come out here all the time by myself in the summer. I always preferred to be alone. There is something about the sound of the forest when you are the only human in earshot. When you are still for a while, the animals begin to trust you. They emerge from their hiding places and walk right by you like you aren’t even there.”

“Except the mosquitoes,” I muttered bitterly.

“Yes, except those.”

She sighed and I sat down next to her, surprised to find the ground hard beneath me. Before I could say anything, she continued.

“One morning, in my early twenties, I came out here with a mission. A man who claimed to love me had given me a necklace with my birthstone in it. I remember thinking it odd since he always forgot my birthday. When he left me, I kept it for weeks, hoping he would return. He didn’t, and with each passing day it became heavier around my neck.

I buried it at the base of my favorite tree with a note for the person who found it that said something like, ‘I hope this necklace brings you joy, because it has only brought me sorrow.’

I left, and life began to move so fast that I forgot to visit again until I saw you sitting in the coffee shop last week. I couldn’t take my eyes off your necklace. I knew I’d seen it before, but I had to be sure.”

My hands instinctively went to my throat and touched the small charm. She turned to me, her eyes searching mine for an explanation.

“The tree isn’t here, Jesse. I left the necklace, and every trace of who I was is gone.”

I took her hands in mine, fighting the urge to cry myself. I did not owe her, an almost perfect stranger, any explanation. Yet, we both spoke the language of heartbreak, and letting go was a choice I could not make for her.

“I’ve only had it a few years,” I began. “It was a gift from a hiking buddy of mine. He always wanted me to go on long hikes and camping trips with him. He couldn’t stay in one place. On his last trip, he decided to spend a few weeks on the Applachian Trail. It was right after the first hurricane of the season, and the trails were damaged in several spots. He wasn’t prepared for that and got lost. They found his body a couple of weeks after he was supposed to check in around Bristol. This is the last thing he gave me.”

I lifted my hands to unclasp the necklace, and passed it to Abigail.

“And as for your tree,” I added, patting the ground, “It may be gone, but the roots are still buried beneath us.”

Abigail’s eyes widened and she placed one hand on the soil next to her, frantically feeling the remaining roots of the missing tree. Then, she threw her arms around me and pressed her face into my shoulder. When she pulled away, the necklace was around my neck once more.

“I’m so glad,” she whispered, “that everything with a past has the opportunity to start again. How blessed are we, Jesse, to witness that?”

We left, hand-in-hand, both stunned to silence. The stars balanced on branches in the night sky as we made our way back to our cars. Crickets sang, fireflies danced, and the heart of the forest continued to beat.

 

(Writing prompt from http://www.thinkwritten.com: Pick a few words from the start of an article in a magazine and write a story or poem about it. This story was written in response to an article in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic (page 26) that began, “A fallen tree in a forest may seem unremarkable…”.)

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Sanctuary

Iridescent lights play a game of tag with the cars passing through the wet supermarket parking lot.
I am six years old, sipping a Dr. Pepper in the backseat of my grandparents’ Oldsmobile. Winter has arrived in all of her splendor and chaos, and my grandpa is smoking a cigarette outside the car while my grandmother chats on about the upcoming snowstorm and how she hates to drive at night.
I stare out the window, looking for the stars until my grandpa’s face suddenly appears in front of me. His thumbs are in his ears, his fingers are wiggling, and his false teeth are protruding from his mouth.
I let out a squeal of delight, and my grandmother nearly jumps out of her seat. She catches sight of him and yells, “Allen!” in mock admonishment. He winks at me.

I don’t want to leave.

____

I have a silly habit of forgetting my jacket this time of year. The store where I work is warm, and my heater in the car works better than the AC. On any given day, I can be found rushing from the vehicle to a building in school clothes or my work uniform, cursing the 30 degree temperatures.
I will never be more alive than I am at this moment, waiting on a text from some guy I want to believe will be around for the rest of my life, but who I secretly dread will forget me within the next couple of years.
I will also never be more alone.
Snow begins to fall from the sky just as my shift ends. I race across the pavement, snow stinging my bare arms and face, and shiver as my car heats up. My phone buzzes, and I check it, hoping it will be the boy wanting to see me before my curfew.
It’s my grandmother. Text us when you get home. We love you.
I cry off and on for the thirty minute drive home, past his darkened house. I can’t remember the last time I called them, but I can remember all the times he didn’t answer his phone when I called. I pull into my driveway, wondering if he thought at all about me as the snow began to fall.
I text them from my car, dry my eyes, and run across my snow-covered lawn into the safety of my home.

________

“I have to go away for a while,” I say aloud to the Taco Bell sign.
It’s February, and the parking lot is mostly empty.
The supermarket is now a Kohl’s, and the shoe store that taught me how to rebuild my life from all its broken pieces stands empty.

Everything changes.

I’ve told nearly everyone about my upcoming move, including my grandparents, but I couldn’t just vanish without telling the ghosts.

I don’t want to leave.

I know that before I pack the first box. I know it, in fact, as soon as my husband says his job has transferred him halfway across the country.
Yet, leave I must.
I know now what I did not know at ages six, seventeen, and even twenty-five. The world does not revolve around me.
It’s a simple concept, but it has taken me years to understand that this is not my story alone. I am background character to every person who has passed through this parking lot in the last twenty-eight years.
And for my greatest roles thus far–the wife, the grandchild, the daughter, the friend, the happy little redhead in the back of a big, grey Oldsmobile?
Well, there is a lot left to write.

I climb out of my car and sit directly on the pavement. The parking lot breathes. It’s library of fascinating and heartbreaking stories. The cold creeps into my bones and I close my eyes to drift once more.

I am six.
I am seventeen.
I am twenty-eight.

A page in a book, a loved one’s sleepless night, or a car in the parking lot. It’s all part of the same storm.
“Stay,” the ghosts whisper, but it’s more comfort than invitation or plea. There is a restlessness in the air that feels both dangerous and familiar.
It’s time to go.
The writer in me aches for the chance to drop stories like bread crumbs across the miles, and races against a clock I cannot see–if only for the chance to remain rooted in the ground long after the asphalt is gone.

 

Prompt: Creative nonfiction about a writing sanctuary (www.pw.org)

 

 

Coward’s Play

A preacher once told me that the bible says, “Fear is the absence of love.”*

Maybe that’s why I am so afraid to apologize, to remember, to forget, and to forgive Thomas for what he put me through. Because the truth is, I never really loved Thomas, and I don’t think he ever loved himself. If I could rewrite his obituary now, maybe I’d say that instead of the fluffy nonsense about how he would be missed. No one misses that boy, not even his own mother.

Sometimes people are so reckless, they awaken demons just for the entertainment. Thomas was one of those people. He was too young, or too stupid, to know what he was doing. He burned all his bridges on the way to hell, just to feel the warmth.

A few nights before a search party discovered his body in the swamps, he stumbled up onto my front porch. His blonde hair was crusted with dirt, and he was trembling despite the summer heat. His shirt was torn, but that was nothing new. It was unusual, however, for him to be missing a shoe.

I sighed and placed my book on the porch table.

“What did you get into this time, Tommy?” I asked.

His eyes were wild, red, and puffy. He scanned the front yard as though he were a cat, trapped in a corner.

“How long,” he stammered, “How long have I been gone?”

“At least a week this time,” I replied, studying him closer. “The sheriff is looking for you.”

He kept one hand on the railing, and slid down to sit on the top stair, facing out into the darkness. Less annoyed than curious, I moved to sit next to him. When I touched his back, he stiffened. 

“What did you get into this time?” I repeated.

At first, I thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then, he turned his head to look at me. I’d never seen him so frightened. 

“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he whispered. “Hell, I think I’m crazy.”

“Thomas, you’ve been drinking for days. I smell it all over you. I’m sure you just had some sort of dehydration-induced nightmare. Why don’t you go inside, shower, and then we will talk.”

“There’s no time!” he shouted and stood. “We are in danger, and it has something to do with those damn coyotes I killed last summer. They’re back, and they brought someone, or something, with them.”

“What do you mean ‘they’re back’?” I asked, incredulously. “You said you killed the whole pack. I saw the ones you used for bait strung up in the trees by the pond. I smelled the smoke when you burned the rest of the remains. We may have coyotes again, but come on, Tommy, you know they are not the same ones.”

In the distance, I heard the unmistakable sound of a howl. It was unusual to hear them in broad daylight. I felt chills rush down my spine.

“They are the same ones,” he said, quietly. “I saw their shadows circling by the pond in the twilight. I’d just woken up, thirsty, and reached for my last beer. I heard a rustling sound in the bushes. When I saw their shapes, I grabbed my gun and fired off a few shots. That’s when I heard the laughter.”

He wiped his brow and continued, “I asked the person to show themselves. ‘Come on out,’ I said, ‘unless you’re a coward!’ Then the calmest voice I’ve ever heard replied, ‘I’m no coward, Thomas. I do not run from my mistakes. You, on the other hand, know a little something of running, don’t you?’”

“In the silence, I could only hear the dogs panting and my own heartbeat. Then, the bushes began to move, and a woman came out. At least, I think she was a woman. I couldn’t see her face. She was wearing a mask made of bones. Her hair was long, tangled, and matted with blood. She had a dog on both sides of her, and these fangs that glistened in the moonlight. I could see them from the boat.”

“Thomas, I…”

“No, listen. She said she couldn’t swim, but she invited me to the shore. When I refused, she said she would give me a choice. She called it the ‘Coward’s Play.’ I could pay for the blood I’ve spilled with my life or the life of someone I love. She gave me two nights to think it over. I stayed on the boat until sunrise, and then I came straight here.”

“Thomas, it sounds like you had a hallucination or a bad dream,” I began. “Either way, you need to go see the sheriff to clear up a few things. He had questions about a hit and run on the outskirts of town on the night you went missing. I can’t get you out of this one, kiddo, and neither can some silly ghost story.”

He closed the distance between us, and put his hands on both sides of my face. 

“This is real, momma,” he whispered. “She’s going to come for one of us.”

Sirens echoed just down the road. He bolted up, my frightened rabbit, and looked at me with a mixture of genuine fear and sadness. He said nothing more before he ran off, back to his sanctuary in the woods. 

I waited for the police car, my eyes following him as it pulled into our driveway. Too old to chase my son, and too young to bury him.

I sometimes wonder if Thomas was more afraid to live than to die. Either way, he was right. The coyotes are back. They howl outside my bedroom window every night. In the end, I guess we all pay for our sins. The thing I fear most now is not knowing which ghost will come for me.

 

 

*1 John 4:19

Midwinter (Spoken Word, Words3)

Cold concrete bit through the denim on my skin, and travelled through my veins, sinking straight into my bones. The lifeless football field felt fragile in February. A stadium filled with nothing but echoes of all the other people who shared the same foundation. I closed my eyes, and it was like nothing had changed. So many mistakes were left untouched, relationships unmarred, and people unbroken.

When the stadium is exclusively mine, it is a sanctuary. On this day, however, the peace was cut short by the sudden realization that I was not alone.

“I bet you’ve never even seen someone make a touchdown on that field,” interrupted a voice behind me.

I opened my eyes and turned to see a young man wearing a letterman’s jacket, his thick, dark brown hair ruffled by the wind. He began a descent to my spot on the bleachers, and held up a finger when I started to speak.

“I didn’t mean to startle you. My name is John,” he said, extending a hand. “You’re Rebecca’s daughter, right?”

I nodded slowly, trying to place him. His cold hand met mine and I shuddered.

“May I sit?” he asked, but did not wait for a reply before doing so. He leaned in a little, smirked, and asked, “Do you come here often?”

Our laughter broke the silence and eased some of the tension.

“No,” I began, “only when it makes sense, or maybe when nothing makes sense.”

“Which is it now?”

“The latter.”

He placed both hands on his knees and stared at the bleachers across the field.

“Your mother and I used to meet here all the time,” he began. “How is she?”

Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice on the phone only a month before, asking when I would visit, when I would bring my husband, and when she would have grandkids.

Then telling me she was sick, but assuring me she would get better. She knew I was busy. And finally, quietly, asking me to come visit when it was convenient.

“Mom has seen better days,” I said softly.

“Haven’t we all?” he asked, but I didn’t feel like I should answer.

“You know,” he continued, “when Rebecca was pregnant with you, she used to come here to sit and figure things out too. Sometimes she would cry. Other times she would just talk to me about how scared she was to be a mother, and how much she wanted you to know that you were loved, that you were the most important thing in her life—even if you found yourself not quite as important to other people. I told her then, and have told her often since, that she should also make sure you also understood that her sacrifice to raise you alone was not your debt to be repaid.”

“What do you mean?”
“The best gift you can give to Rebecca is a life that carries her memory, but does not change or diminish as a result of her absence. You must keep building on the foundation she gave you, and you owe her nothing except to live your best life.”

Once again, I searched my memory for John. My mother spoke of her friends often, and rarely kept secrets from me, but the grief of her own upbringing was a shadow that she could never introduce. My curiosity was beginning to get the best of me.

“John, how did you meet my mother?”

He smiled, and his eyes grew misty.

“I met her on the top of that mountain,” he said, pointing behind us. “One day, I jumped the fence, like I did almost every afternoon. I climbed the trail all the way to the top. She was just sitting there by herself. She had a backpack with her, and she was staring off at the town, but she was miles away.

I had seen her before, but we never really spoke until that day. I made a lot of noise approaching her, and she turned around to look at me. She seemed angry, as though she had been caught doing something wrong. I held up my hands and said, ‘I’m not here to bust you.’”

“For trespassing?” I asked, incredulous.

“And skipping school,” he said.

I was stunned. “Skipping school? You knew her when she was in school?”

He ignored me and went on.

“When she realized who I was, she smiled and let me sit next to her. ‘John, right?’ she said. I nodded and she went on, as though we were always friends. ‘John, do you ever just want to run away? I thought I was going to today, but I am beginning to wonder if maybe I am trapped—like one of those figurines in a snow globe.’ She looked down at her feet and added, ‘I must sound crazy.’

‘Not at all,’ I said. We talked until the sun went down about how maybe one day we would leave this town and start over. It wasn’t romantic or weird. It was simple, like we were destined to be right there at that moment for each other. We were inseparable after that—that is, of course, until the accident.”

“The accident?”

“Listen,” he said, turning to look at me. “The only thing you’re responsible for is making sure she knows you love her. Never stop talking to her. Because the truth is that love knows no borders.”

He reached out to touch my cheeks where tears had started to fall. I closed my eyes in anticipation, but when I opened them, John was gone.

I stood, shakily wiping my own face with my gloves, and descended the concrete stairs. Within moments, I scaled the old iron fence behind the stadium and began a slow climb up the mountain, touching the small portion of my mother’s ashes held in a tiny box in my coat pocket.

“Momma,” I whispered, “I brought you home.”

Battles (Spoken Word, Words3)

She does better sleeping in the room across the hall. From there, she can use the old desktop computer to read the obituaries and scour the internet for breaking news until she gets too tired to keep her eyes open. I say scour loosely, of course. She can’t get very far with the parental controls. It drives her crazy, getting the message that a site has been blocked.

The computer is old, I tell her. Someone else put those rules on there and I can’t get them off. I’ll talk to someone about it soon, when we have more money to fix it. Mercifully, that explanation works every time. But it doesn’t stop chaos from chattering away through her brain. I keep an eye on her through the open door. Terrorist attacks, car crashes, and natural disasters fill monitor. I never fight with her about it.. The truth is, she probably won’t remember it by tomorrow, and chastising her may end with a door closing in my face.

I know from experience, that the anxiety will always find a new fixation, and we will start it all again anyway. As horrible as it sounds, she might as well fixate on a disaster that isn’t ripping apart her life so she doesn’t have to face her disease every waking moment.

She spends more time watching the computer screen than she does watching her soap opera, The Young and the Restless, which is on five times every week for one hour every day. A few months ago, I got my hands on some old recordings from the early 90s. Between the new episodes, I occasionally trick her into watching the reruns. Her eyes are glued to the characters, and it is the only time when she becomes distracted from all of the ways her brain is trying to suffocate her. These are the happiest moments, where the demons lurk in the shadows and wait their turn to play. Sometimes I like to picture this as my personal journey to Mordor. We go over the mountains of triumph and hold hands as we cross through the dark valleys in her memory together. While the disease erases precious things so often, like the memory of teaching me to read, or even the fact that I am her granddaughter, it hasn’t completely extinguished her fire.

On a better day, while she sipped on sweet tea in her rocker and watched a drama unfold before her on television, I suggested that Victor Newman should really end up with Jack Abbott. The writers had gone everywhere else. She whipped her head around at me, and her eyes were wide.

“Victor Newman does not go for both women and men. And if he does, then I’m getting to him before he spots your grandpa in heaven,” she quipped, moving one hand over her bouffant hairdo. “This is no competition for that shiny bald head.

That sent us both into fits of giggles that brought tears to our eyes. We settled down, and her eyes went back to the screen.

I’m not sure what is worse anymore: when she forgets, or when she remembers. A few moments after our laughter died down, she wondered aloud where he was—not Victor Newman, of course—my grandfather.

The tears came back behind my eyes, and I was relieved that she didn’t turn to look at me. I cleared my throat and did what I do best. I lied.

Gesturing towards the television in front of us as if to indicate time by her soap opera, I replied, “It’s the middle of the day, Gran. He’s at work.”

She nodded, moving her rocking chair slowly back and forth. Never mind that we were not in her house, or that it was dark outside, or that he had been dead for five years. In the ground before he knew that she would grieve him anew almost every day for the rest of her life. By the time the episode ended, she wanted to know where she was, and why she couldn’t go home.

“I know you don’t think I can take care of myself, but I can,” she said to me, as I escorted her down the hall. I turned on the light in her room.

“I know you can,” I replied. “But it’s too late to go home now. You may as well get some sleep, and we can talk about it tomorrow.”

She nodded and walked to her bed, found her housecoat and slipped her arms through it.

“I’m just going to check the news first. Can you help me get this thing on?”

I sighed, and shuffled to the computer on the desk in the corner. The next morning, she woke and cried softly through dawn like she always does. She pulls herself together before she leaves the bedroom for breakfast. I don’t ask her why she cries, or even acknowledge it. Gran presents herself with an air of dignity that is a last little grasp she has on the life she led before her memory began to fail her, and her anxiety moved in to consume the rest of her waking hours. She still combs her hair. She still brushes her teeth. When we go out, she takes two hours to dress for the occasion, even if it’s just to get her hair reset.

When my mother or uncle call, they never believe me when I ask how she’s doing. Which is fair, because I never tell the truth.

“She’s fine,” I say. “We’re okay.”

“Miranda,” my mother says slowly, “she’s only going to get worse. We need to get her set up in a nursing home. You can’t spend the best years of your life taking care of her.”

Of course, what neither of us say, but both of us understand, is that the odds are not in our favor. One day, this will be our mountain to climb too. And yet, beneath shattered debris of her past, my grandmother is alive and she’s fighting. If she only has one memory left before it ends, I want it to be of me fearless by her side, ready to carry the light when she no longer can.

City Girls

Written for February Words3
Theme: “Love”

(Author’s Note: This piece began in response to a writing prompt at a conference I attended in January. The goal was to focus on a souvenir and form the story around it. I used an actual souvenir from a trip I took years ago and wove a short fictional story that may become a memory for a character in a sequel to The Huntsman. I’ve changed the title since I first read it in February.)

We were a little tipsy by the time we saw the sign for the record store. I can still remember your hand on my arm, guiding me to it through the crowded sidewalks. It was snowing that night in Boston, and we were a few blocks from our hotel.

Between the buzz of my anxiety just beneath the alcohol and the hum of the city around us, I could barely hear your insistence that this place looked like a sanctuary for punk rockers and anarchists. You, who wanted to buy your way into both worlds with your parents’ money. And me, who really just tagged along for free plane tickets and hotel rooms.

The cold pushed us down a stairwell and through the glass door to a bright, open room with white walls. The cashier barely glanced up at us over his rimmed glasses, and I marveled at the thought of him pushing his tiny frame against the wind to wherever he called home once his shift was over. He wore a blue plaid shirt and jeans, but I know you don’t remember. Irony was always lost on you unless it helped you in an argument.

My hands were shaking, but it wasn’t from the lingering cold in my bones. I could feel my stomach clenching in the new silence of the store. I felt around in my pocket for the little pink pill my doctor told me to take for my panic attacks, and when my fingers found it I remembered what the bottle said about mixing it with alcohol.

I weighed my options as you sifted through Iggy Pop and Gogol Bordello albums for the little piece of treasure you believed, with all your heart, had to exist beneath the city streets. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a table filled with books. For the first time on our week-long journey, I found something to distract me from making sure your needs were met. The pill fell back into my coat pocket.

I crossed the room, past photos of Prince and Johnny Cash that stared back at me with what could have been indignation. The table was small—no bigger than the nightstand in our hotel room. A giant book featuring a cover with a tattooed Marilyn Monroe was propped up on top. Various other titles were stacked together next to it. On the shelf beneath that one, local publications were strewn carelessly, almost covering a stack of tiny bright green pocket-sized books covered with illustrations of protestors.

I picked one up, and flipped through the pages enough to realize that it was not exactly a book, but a planner filled with quotes from people who had protested different forms of injustice throughout history. I was fascinated, and I felt a smile cover my face as I read through them. It was at this point that you realized I was not right behind you waiting to be lectured on the imposters of punk rock and the artists that mattered to the genre.

“Are you ready to go?” I heard you ask from over my shoulder. I turned sharply, book in hand, and saw that yours were empty.

“This place doesn’t have anything good,” you added, loud enough for the guy behind the counter to raise an eyebrow as he thumbed through a magazine. “Let’s go grab another beer.”

I looked at you then, sickly pale in the fluorescent light. Your blonde hair was sticking to the sides of your face. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw you completely sober.

“I’m just going to get this,” I said softly.

You took it from my hand and flipped through it before laughing and spitting out, “A planner? Really?”

I felt heat flood my face, and my stomach turned once more. I thought I was going to be sick. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply and took it back from you.

“I’ll be outside,” you said, pulling out your phone as you left to text someone more vibrant than me. Someone who needed less so they could be more for you. Someone who didn’t need some silly green planner to feel better about their free ticket to Boston.

Except it wasn’t actually free, was it?

After almost two years of watching you drown yourself in alcohol and self-medicating to the point of disaster, that trip to Boston was when we both realized that I was not capable of truly loving you, because you made me hate myself every time I tried.

I barely looked at the cashier when I bought that planner—just like you barely looked at me when I joined you on the sidewalk. We drank that night, and the next. On our last evening there, you roamed the city alone while I packed for the trip home. Somewhere between you falling off your barstool and stumbling to a taxi, I was making a list of all the things I needed to do to move out of our apartment when we got back.

I can’t remember much about Boston—all the streets rich with history, the tiny shops, or the people who lived there. What I remember instead is the chipped nail polish on your fingernails, and the way you painted on your face like a mask every time we left the hotel. I think of you only when I see lipstick stains on cigarette butts. In those moments, I realize you are still out there somewhere in search of the perfect record, the perfect girl, and the perfect distraction. Our ghosts, on the other hand, haunt those cobblestones with all the other memories of love and war.