Archive | Stories – Fiction

Not Exactly Persephone by Melissa A. Bartell

Forest Hat via Flash PromptIn the end, it was his hat that clinched it.

She’d taken the short-cut through the forest for as long as she could remember, maybe even longer. As a child, she’d skipped down the path, heedless of what the brambles might be doing to the hem of her blue dress, or the ruffles on her white pinafore.

Who sent a child out to play dressed in such frippery anyway? Mary-Janes were great if you wanted to tap-dance down the circular stairway in the entrance hall, but they were next to useless on a dirt path, and even worse if it had rained the day before.

Black patent-leather and squelching mud puddles did not mix well.

As she grew older, and could dictate her own wardrobe, she chose more appropriate attire – hiking boots and jeans with duster-length cardigans were her unofficial uniform.

She still cut through the forest, though, breathing in the scents of earth and leaves and growing things on her way to work every morning. She carried her laptop in a messenger bag slung across her body, and tucked her hair up into one of her many berets, a different color almost every day.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

The met in the forest several times after that, never speaking.

Sometimes, he would beckon her closer, and point to a small bird sipping from a puddle, and they would watch together in communal rapture.

Sometimes, she would offer him a piece of fruit leftover from her day – an apple, maybe, or a banana – once it was half a pomegranate and a plastic spork – and he’d grinned at her, and called her Persephone.

His voice was like the ripples of water flowing over stone.

That one word, the name that wasn’t hers, but should have been, opened the floodgates of conversation. He was an art teacher at the local magnet school, he said. He came to the woods for inspiration.

When he learned that she owned the local café and was also trying to write a novel, he asked to read her pages.

She finally relented when he came into her workplace with a sketch of her on a purple beret day, sitting on a rock, surrounded by dragonflies. (In reality there had only been one or two, but she liked his enhancement.) Looking at the sketch, she realized she’d never thought of herself as being pretty, but that she looked so, at least when depicted in pencil-strokes.

Let me take you to dinner, he asked.

She demurred. She didn’t have time to date, she said.

In truth, she knew that it wouldn’t be just a date, or even just dinner. There was something about this man whom butterflies trusted that made her heart flutter like papery wings.

When you’re ready, he told her, I’ll be here.

She avoided the forest for days, after. Embarrassed. Attracted. Confused. She took the longer route to work. She even drove there, on the day it rained.

She missed him, she realized.

She returned to her usual path the next morning, and when she stepped into a puddle, she laughed at the squelching sound her boot made.

He appeared, as if from nowhere, with a green top-hat covering his dark, curly hair. You’re back, he didn’t say. I’ve missed you, his lips did not utter. But his eyes were shining, and his smile was like a ray of sun cutting through fog.

His hat looked as though the forest had gifted it to him, as if it were made from leaves and branches. It wasn’t, of course. It was only felted wool. But the effect caught her attention.

Nice hat, she said.

A student’s project, he explained. They were supposed to capture nature in an ordinary object.

I hope they got an ‘A,’ she replied.

He assured her that they had.

When he appeared in her café the next day, she accepted his invitation to dinner.

She had to, you see.

She’d always been a sucker for men in hats.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Wax Lips by Anita Marie Moscoso

Milo and his wife Jingle were riding the 377 Commuter Bus into Seattle, just before nightfall last Halloween.

The 377 made a special run on Halloween Night through Chestnut and Post Street where, according to the Weekly Entertainment Guide, Wax Lipsthere were over 50 “Spooktacular” Halloween Attractions to choose from for a night of “Blood Chilling” fun.

The bus was nearly full of Witches, Pirates, Vampires, Mummies, at least three Frankenstein’s monsters, a variety of aliens, and one guy who had “Beer” written on his forehead and tinfoil wrapped around his head.

Then there was Milo and Jingle.

Jingle was sitting next to the window, and when she sighed it frosted up a bit and he watched her take her finger and draw a frowny face into it.

“Feeling a little down, Jingle?”

She shrugged.

“Come on Jin, cheer up, it’s your favorite day of the year!” Milo reached into the front pocket of his worn, soft brown leather jacket and he fished around for a bit.

“Your favorite.” He held up a set of big red wax lips. “Look it says they taste like cinnamon.”

Jingle looked at the wax lips and then she went back to drawing on the window.

After a minute or two she held out her hand. “Give.”

He handed her the bag and she tore it open with her teeth and popped the lips into her mouth and started to chew.

“So, what should we do first? The Haunted Morgue? The Haunted House on King Street? Oh. No wait. I know. The Haunted Fun Run.”

Jingle stopped mid slurp and smack. “What the hell is that? A Haunted Fun Run? What do they do –  get dresfiery pumpkin - moscososed up like Sexy Nurses and Vampires and run from Bar to Bar?”

“No. It’s this bicycle club. They get dressed up and decorate their bikes and ride around town. How’d you like to race around town for a bit? It’s a great night for it. We can hop on a couple of those Ride Free Bikes and -”

The Bus turned a dark corner and bumped down a poorly lit street and thumped along neglected train tracks.  “That’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard of in my life. Who started that one?”

Milo slid away from Jingle a few inches and said, “Gracie Frost.”

Jingle spat the wax blob out of her mouth and it hit the floor with a very unappetizing splat. ” Why is that old cadaver organizing anything for Halloween?”

“Well. It’s a free country for starters.”

Jingle glared at him and didn’t stop until he looked away. “She’s trying to fit into the Halloween scene.” he almost whispered.

“I wish she’d fit herself into a body bag and leave the work to the professionals.”

“I know, Jingle. I know. But you know. Gracie Frost cramping your big night aside, I’d like to check out the Haunted Morgue. If you don’t mind.”

Jingle shrugged.

“Or. We could check out the Haunted House on King Street. I heard that this year they’re going to have a Paranormal Team show up and film everything. It won’t air till next year of course. But it would be fun to show up and try to get on camera. Don’t you think?”

“I think you are a simple creature Milo. However, you do come up with some great ideas.”

Jingle was visibly starting to cheer up. ” It’s a shame what happened to that Paranormal Team at the Haunted Morgue last year. I’ve heard they STILL haven’t found all of their, you know, parts.”

Jingle burped behind her hand and Milo shook his head. ” Don’t DO that Jingle.”

“Well. If it wasn’t a Haunted Morgue before, it sure as heck is now. I’d bet Snickers Bars to Caramel Corn Balls on that.”

There were two Princesses sitting behind Milo and Jingle and they looked at each other and then back down into their phones.

Street scene- moscosoWith a hiss and a thump against the curb the bus came to a smooth stop in front of

SEATTLE’S MOST TERRIFYING HAUNTED HOUSE

and everyone got up with their own special Halloween battle cries and started to file down the aisle.

Just before they got to the doors, the alien with bright silver paint on her face and “BEER” stopped Milo and Jingle.

“Love the costumes man and” Beer said to Milo and then he took a look into Jingles dark orange eyes and slightly down turned smile set in her heavy jaw and he said, “Ma’am.”

“You guys are going to win the Costume Competition for sure. Those are the BEST Werewolf costumes I’ve ever seen.” The Alien reassured them.

Jingle stood there with her mouth open, her long white teeth turning a little blue under the lights shining from above them. “Son of a bi- what is your problem E.T.”

“Happy Halloween.” Milo trilled as he shoved Jingle out the door and down the steps to the sidewalk.  ” There’s a costume shop around the corner. I can’t believe we forgot to dress up AGAIN.”

About the Author: Anita M. Moscoso

Anita Marie Moscoso Anita Marie Moscoso was nine years old when she decided to become a Writer/Pirate/Astronaut. She is now so far away from the age of nine that it’s comical, but it turns out that she did become a writer, and she’s told stories about Pirates and Astronauts. Anita has also worked in a funeral home, explored the cemeteries of New Orleans alone, and has a great dog named Hamish and had a cat named Wolfgang.

More about Anita (in parts) can be found at her blog: Enduring Bones.

Direct Hit by David Bontumasi

This was trouble. The front lobby door was locked and it had just started to rain. Douglas wasn’t due back for another couple of hours – two maybe – and I would lose my light by then, anyway. I stood on the small step at the base of the doorframe and leaned my shoulders flush against the door, trying to stay dry. The overhang above the door was short, and water dripped from the corners in streams as steady as the rain. Across the street and into the park, the rain glinted and shimmered in the deep black night. It hadn’t even sprinkled, the sky opened and it just started coming down. Hard. I watched the rain and tried to catch my breath. I could hear a woman’s laughter above me, from an open window somewhere in the building, in conversation with a man whose words I couldn’t quite make out. Sounded like the guy next door. Big mouth, big talker. I’m sure he was telling some stupid lie of a story — his hands tied, fighting a tiger in the African plains with only two toes on his left foot and his manly wits. I heard her giggle and moan as I watched the drops spear the night. The night sky was ugly and wet. I just hoped Douglas has his key this time.

I shook my head. I should have known better. I should have never let myself get into a situation like this. Seriously. I was old enough to avoid shit like this, I had told myself countless times. I’m too smart for this. No cell phone, no connections to family, and having a roommate at the age of thirty-nine with a tiny apartment in a rundown neighborhood on the far southwest side, drinking too much, spending too much time alone — not wise moves. Hell, I knew that.

It wasn’t until after midnight that I realized the rain wasn’t going to let up any time soon. No Douglas, no apartment key and I was stuck. I was wet, angry and a little drunk. A losing combination, I know, but it was a fact I couldn’t change. Not then. The streets were relatively free of cars and besides an errant city bus plowing through the black puddles, the only foot traffic was couples, crouched under their own outstretched coats or umbrellas, moving between the lights. My head pounded. The sound of the rain was deafening, an echo so loud that I had to close my eyes to concentrate. My brain wouldn’t move and I had to roll it and knead it to get it going again. I pushed my thumbs against my temples, rotating, erasing any errant thoughts. Who else had a key? Who had a key and how could I get it? I needed it now. Right now. Fuck man, no one had a key. It was useless. I was clean now and part of being clean is trying to control the flow of people in your life as much as possible. So I had made a point of that – no friends, no family, no one beyond Douglas Mac, and even he didn’t have a key half the time. He was useless, though his name was on the lease.

I saw Kaz Kajinski out of the corner of my eye, a solid black figure coming down the street. He had a way of walking on his toes, almost bouncing, that always made me leery. It was as if he couldn’t wait to get where he was going and he was ready to pounce, left or right, once he got there. He didn’t seem to care that it was raining. His hands were shoved into his front pockets, and he held his head up, letting the rain drip along his cheeks. I could not hide, the doorway was too shallow, and besides, I was sure he would see me anyway. And he did.

“Hey Curtis, man, whatcha doin’?”

“Nothing,” I said, defensively. “Hey Kaz. What’s up, man?”

He stopped and faced me. The rain poured over him, falling from his eyebrows, water streaking around his cheeks and under his chin. He stood in the night with a glow encircling him, like an apparition. Or a god. It freaked me out. I hunched my shoulders and started to shiver as I wrapped my arms tighter across my chest.

He cleared his throat and cocked his head a little. He asked if I had seen any action tonight.

“No, man. I haven’t been looking though. I’m done, man, you know that. I’m doing well, feeling good.”

His eyes flickered and he shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said and I could tell he was high. His eyes darted around and his head bobbed, repeatedly. I knew he was anxious to keep his groove going. The first lesson on the streets is that a junkie can’t be a junkie on his own. It was all about “keeping the next high close by.” You had to know who to know, and which cluckers could get you in contact with some good stuff. Quickly and safely. I used to have great connections, and junkies knew that. I was never a junkie. I used, yeah, of course, but I wasn’t a junkie. I didn’t have the same needs they did. I brought people together, bridging the gap between those in need with those who had the goods to fill that need. But everything can change in three and a half years, man. Two years in prison was bad enough but, I’m telling you, you lose everything on the streets when you try to go straight. You may as well be dead. You’re like a man with no arms. Kaz knew that. He scratched at his shoulder, and looked right through me like I didn’t even exist.

Kaz gazed down the street and then turned and looked up, past the dimly lit shops to my right. Man, he was geeked. He was searching but nobody was coming to save him, no quick fix suddenly appeared. I could feel his rhythm, and I knew that feeling. The high was just starting to come down and the panic was kicking in. He had to score quick to continue to ride. He had to reverse the slide and he had to do it quick. His panic fed my own. I could feel it. I could feel my skin tighten, my veins beginning to jump. I had an itch all over my body.

“Yeah, you try Peanut?” I asked, running the back of my hand against the small of my back.

“Huh?”

“Have you seen Peanut? He usually has something.”

“No. No, last time I saw him,” he started shaking his right hand, down near his side, flipping it from side to side. “No, he fucked me up, man. He went bad. Zoomer and shit. And when you do that shit, it comes back fast. He fucked up way too many people. He’s probably dead by now, anyway, for all I know.”

“Oh shit,” I said. “Well, what about Barrio? You seen him lately?”

“No, no,” he mumbled. He stopped shaking. “Barrio? No, man.” He ran his fingers through this hair and squinted. “Barrio? Is he still around?” He looked at me and then up at the rain, his expression taking in each drop. He ran his hands over his face.

“Shit, man. It’s fucking raining. I am on an inter-planet-ary mission and it is fucking raining on me. All I know is that I need to score some jum. I need to score now.”

“Yeah.”

I could feel the itch, his need — that’s all he was thinking about. I missed that feeling of going from high to high, connecting the dots, keeping it going, never touching down. Of knowing what you needed, even if the need quickly escalated to desperation. When you’re clean, you don’t have the same drive, that singular goal – just score some scratch, some money, somehow, and keep your bedbugs close by, keep the next hit skin deep. It was all you had to think about, all you had to do. Being straight was hard, man. I hated to admit it. It was really hard. I missed having that focus.

The rain continued to fall in sheets beyond Kaz and I felt my skin tighten with a dampness that went deeper than my pores. Christ, I wish I could slide past this door, climb those stairs and get into my apartment, climb into my bed. I thought of my couch, two floors up. Comfortable and dry. Well, it wasn’t a couch, really. It was the backseat from some old car but it was warm and dry and that was what I was thinking about when Kaz leapt at me. His right forearm jammed into my chest and his right fingers gripped my chin and cheek. The weight of this illiterate meatball forced me back, the force slamming me against the door.

“I need to score, man! I need it now!” he cursed into my cheek.

I tried to push him, but his full weight was flush against me and I couldn’t get my arms in place. I couldn’t budge him. He was much further gone than I thought and I remembered what my old man used to say, “Never fight with an ugly man, he has nothing to lose.”

This man was not only ugly but this man was high and this man was desperate. And he had me pinned, my back against the door. I don’t know what my old man would have said about that. I had no intention of fighting but I didn’t want him passing out on me either or throwing up or totally freaking out. I couldn’t keep him away from me, instead he collapsed on top of me. I couldn’t budge this dumb fuck, not an inch.

“Kaz, come on, now, man, I know what you want, I know what you are going though man, but I’m trying to help you, man. I tell you, I ain’t got nothing. I’m clean now.” I tried to push again but he was still too heavy. “Shit man, get off me.”

“I’m trying to help you think of someone. I’m on your side, man.” I had to keep talking, saving my strength. “Okay, what about Peterson? Peterson, little black guy over on Longrove? He’s good, he usually has something. C’mon man, I’ll take you. Let’s go, c’mon, get off me. You gotta move if you wanna groove. That’s what Mac says, right?”

Kaz took his weight off me, and I lightly pushed him the rest of the way back. His lips were curled, his eyes were closed and his face was contracting in a wince. The liquor in my body was beginning settle and I sensed his high was stating to slip away too, literally oozing out of his pores.

“Ah fuck,” he said, without moving his lips. He rocked back on his heels, his arms at his side.

Something was not right. I didn’t know what was wrong with him or what he wanted. He seemed to have given up.

“Ah, man.” His eyes opened just a sliver. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

I looked down and saw that his right hand was covered in blood, all the way up his arm, over his sleeve. Kaz stood in front of me, his body weaving softly left and right, his face in a pained grimace.

When I looked to my stomach, it too was drenched in a red so deep it was black. The stain spread up my shirt in a definitive line like ink, and yet, there was a softness to it, soaking the fabric, inching its way up to me, welcoming me to sleep. I hadn’t felt the knife at all, but knew instantly what had happened. I couldn’t understand it. Why now? I’m clean now. I’m doing good. Why now?

Kaz turned quickly and ran down the street, disappearing in a sheet of rain and darkness, as I slid down the front of the door, my butt resting on the stoop. I tried to just breathe. My lids got heavy and the sky turned light. I closed my eyes.

About the Author: David Bontumasi

David BontumasiDavid Bontumasi’s short stories have been featured in several publications, including HyperText Magazine, The RavensPerch, Black Mirror Magazine, ETA, The Deadline and Back to Print. His novella Of This Earth, set in Sicily and Michigan in the 1920’s, was published in 2015. He is hard at work on his second book, a collection of short stories. Originally from Flint Michigan, David now lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.

Grocery Store Flowers: Crosswords and Sunflowers by Melissa A. Bartell

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

The old man’s eyes were growing dimmer with each passing year, but he still completed the crossword puzzle in the paper every day – and the big one in the Sunday Times – as if it was some kind of a ritual. He needed a magnifier, now, to see the grid, but he didn’t seem embarrassed to use it in public.

Daisy knew this because he often worked his puzzle sitting in the café at the front of the grocery store on Wednesdays, while his wife did the shopping. “Nita doesn’t like it when I help her shop,” he’d shared. “She says I do it wrong, just because I want to go up and down every aisle and see what’s new.” He’d tried to seem insulted, but she could tell he loved his wife, and didn’t really mind having an hour or so to sip a decaf coffee and ink in – he always used ink – the letters, fitting them into the correct boxes.

Daisy had gotten into the habit of taking her break at the same time the old man – Frank was his name – showed up. At least, she did so whenever she could. Some Wednesdays there was a rush at her kiosk, people needing flowers for birthdays or anniversaries, Secretary’s day or back-to-school. There were any number of reasons, and, she made a point of asking each customer who they were shopping for and what that person liked, doing her best to find the perfect blend of giver, receiver, and occasion.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker'>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>She was surprised, therefore, when Frank beckoned her over one Wednesday morning, and said, “You’re the flower girl here, aren’t you?”

From anyone else, being called a ‘girl,’ would have caused Daisy to respond with a correction that she was over eighteen and was the floral manager, yes. But Frank was sort of a friend, and he was from the generation where ‘girl’ wasn’t meant offensively.  Context, she remembered a line from a favorite miniseries. It’s the difference between roadkill and a nice dinner.

She dropped into the other chair at Frank’s table. “I am,” she said. “What can I help you with?”

“Two things,” he answered. “First…what’s a five-letter word for ‘how daisies bloom?'”

Daisy grinned. She knew this one, being based on her name, and all. “Aster,” she said. “Daisies are asters. It means the flowers are star-shaped.”

Frank penned the letters into their blanks, and grinned. “Perfect. And second… Nita’s been a little blue lately. Our granddaughter was supposed to visit, but she got into a special music program for the summer, and won’t be able to come until later.”

“Aww, I’m sorry to hear that,” Daisy interjected. “I mean, you must be proud of her, but still…”

“We are proud of her,” Frank assured, “but Nita, she was really looking forward to some girl time. It’s hard for her – our daughters are all over the country, and don’t visit much, and most of the other grandkids don’t want to hang out with old folks anymore. But she and Katie have always had a special bond… I think because Katie’s the only one who went into music.”

“Was Nita a musician?” Daisy asked.

“She was. She still is. Plays piano for the church choir at St. Agnes. But when we met she was singing in her father’s restaurant. You’re probably too young to remember it – the opera café down on fifth?”

“I’ve heard of it,” Daisy said. “It closed before I ever had a chance to go. Tell me how you met?”

“Well, now… Nita was singing and I was there with my buddies. It was a counter serve place – you made your order at one end and took a tray and picked up your food at the other. Like that Frenchy place all the kids go to now… the one with the girl’s name?”

“La Madeleine?”

“That’s the place. Anyway, it was spaghetti night, and I took my order – spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and the best garlic bread that was ever on this earth, and I was walking to a table, when all of a sudden, this dark angel – black hair, eyes the color of cinnamon toast, warm olive skin – opened her mouth and started singing, and I was overcome… I stood stock-still right in front of her, just staring, and my buddy Jack came crashing into me.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Daisy observed.

“No, it wasn’t. My tray went flying, and landed upside down all over her feet. Good thing it had cooled off some while I was dumbstruck or she would’ve been burnt.”

“But she wasn’t…?”

“Naah, she was fine. Madder than a wet hen, but fine. Her father came running, even replaced my meal, but she glared at me for the rest of the night.”

Daisy chuckled to herself. She could just imagine. “So, what did you do?”

“Well, after we finished eating, my buddies and I left, but I knew I wanted to see Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_onepony'>onepony / 123RF Stock Photo</a>her again. So, I told them I’d catch up with them at the pool hall, and I picked a bunch of yellow sunflowers that were poking out of someone’s fence on the corner. Then I went back to the café and gave them to her. Asked if maybe I could take her to dinner somewhere to apologize.”

“And she said yes?”

“Actually, she said she’d think about it. So, I showed up there on spaghetti night every week for a month, bringing sunflowers every time. After a while she gave in. We’ve been together ever since. Had three daughters, seven grandchildren, and more dogs and cats and parakeets than I care to count up.”

“That’s so sweet,” Daisy gushed. “So, you want to get her flowers today?”

“If I could, yes. But not roses or anything. I get her roses for her birthday and our anniversary, but… I saw you had some sunflowers in a bucket?”

“I do,” Daisy said. “Do you want me to put together a bouquet with some baby’s breath or stock?”

“Well now, that’d be just perfect,” Frank responded, giving her a cheeky grin. “Let me just finish the puzzle and I’ll be over there to pay for them.”

Daisy grinned right back at the old man. Getting up, she leaned over to peer at his puzzle, and poke a finger at one of the clues. “That one – seventeen across – ‘still waters do this?’ The answer is ‘run deep.’

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

High Heels by Selena Taylor

Shoes in Shop Window by Connel Design via 123RF.com

For a few years I had been keeping an eye out for a new pair of shoes. High heels, in fact.

I told my soon-to-be husband that I was on an endless hunt for the perfect pair: the color that would look best against my skin, the heel that was neither too high nor too low, the toe that was either open enough to give the precise amount of ‘toe cleavage,’ or closed, but not too round or too pointy.

He asked, “How will you know?”

It was a fair question.

It was early afternoon, but I paused and looked toward a sunset only I could see, searching for an answer that would make sense. Finally, sighing, I said, “I will just know.”

He followed my gaze. “What are you doing?” he asked, confused. (It did look like I was staring at nothing.)

“Giving a dramatic answer, accompanied by the view of a fake sunset,  with a fake  slight breeze to move a couple strands of hair.”

He was skeptical, mouthing, Okay. But then he smiled at me and pointed out, “The sunset, um, fake sunset, would be behind you. A soft chuckle escaped his throat.

I moved to the correct position. “Thank you.”

It went on like that for a couple years. Every shopping trip would find me staring into shoe-store windows, and touring the shoe sections in each department store.

Then, one day at the mall, something caught my eye: a shimmer – no, a sparkle.

I shifted my gaze to look directly at that heaven-sent sparkle. Above it, there’s a beautiful gold and black animal print – perfect. The heel was skinny, but not pencil-thin.

I could not hear anything, and my vision had become impaired – blurry. Could these be my shoes?

I moved closer to the shoe display, and stood right in front of that pair of heels, gasping for air.  to the heels. I stood before them gasping for air. My hands shook with anticipation. My left pointer finger gently, no – teasingly –  stroked the satin fabric. Ohhhh! My vision became even more blurry. I felt wetness on my cheeks, and, reaching up, I realized I was crying.

As if at a distance, I heard my fiancé ask the store clerk if the shoes were available in my size. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but the clerk disappeared, and I was left with the agony of waiting for his return.

Finally, he was standing in front of me, and offering a box.

I was guided to a chair. Seated, I slipped my foot out of the shoe I was already wearing, and removed my sock, replacing it with a clean stocking. I feel dazzled. I want these shoes!

The clerk knelt before me with one high-heeled shoe in his hand. Gently, he placed it on my foot, and I pressed down, adjusting until it was firmly in place. We repeat the process with the other shoe, my other foot.  Oh, the thrill and ecstasy!

I stand and then I take the first steps, trying them on, trying them out. Glancing to my side I walk with new-found confidence to the mirror. I wiped my tears away, and saw myself in all my high-heeled glory.

Oh! Was that my butt? Is it just a bit more perky? Why, yes, it is! And oh! Look at my calves. It was as if those shoes were magic. (I tell you, I just about died.)

I don’t know how long I stared in the mirror, but eventually my fiancé reminded me that we had to leave, that the shoes had to go back in the box. A tearful goodbye started to happen; I wanted to wear them forever.

With a small groan, I sat back down and took them off, closing them into the darkness of the box.

I expect the clerk to reclaim them, but instead, my fiancé said we were taking them. He bought them for me, and presented me with the bag, looking at me expectantly.

I crushed the bag to my chest, holding those shoes to my heart. “I told you I would know.”

That was seven years ago. My then-fiancé  is my now-husband.

And the shoes? They’re still the greatest pair of high heels ever. I haven’t replaced them. I couldn’t if I tried.

About the author, Selena Taylor

Selena TaylorSelena Taylor is a wife, a mother, and a woman who strives to tell the many stories that occupy her mind. She is active in the Rhett & Link fandom and appreciates dark humor.  She and her family live in Illinois, where she takes every opportunity to lose herself under the stars and let her imagination run wild. For more from Selena, check her out on Facebook.

Grocery Store Flowers: Jack by Melissa A. Bartell

Photo by Neirfy via 123RF.com

Daisy Morris ran a tired hand through her long red hair, grimacing when the ring on her left hand caught in her braid. The day before Mother’s Day was always crazy-busy, and her flower kiosk had been the epicenter of a steady buzz of traffic. She lowered her hand to glance at her wristwatch. It was four-thirty and the kiosk didn’t close until seven.

Taking advantage of the brief lull, she walked through the seasonal fruit and pastry display to the espresso bar in the grocery store lobby. “Our Daisy isn’t looking to fresh,” quipped Jolene, the wrinkled, gray-haired woman who claimed she could ‘still sling espresso shots with the best of them.’

“Not feeling so fresh, either,” the younger woman admitted. “Every year it’s the same thing… all these men and boys coming to buy cards and flowers as if Mother’s Day is some kind of surprise. Makes you wonder how they cope with the rest of their lives. Can I get a – ”

“Grande soy no-water chai,” Jolene finished with her. “Sure thing, honey. As to Mother’s Day… at least they’re getting something. My husband was a soldier… so many years holidays went by without any kind of acknowledgement because he was deployed. These days, these youngsters in the service have email and facetime and skype and sat-phones but in my day… ”

Daisy grinned, listening to Jolene’s mini-monologue as she watched the older woman expertly crafting her drink. “Oh, come on, Jo – you are not that old.”

“I’m older than you think,” she replied, handing over a cardboard-wrapped paper cup. “And this one’s on me. You have a customer waiting, and I think you’re going to need the fortification.”

Following the barista’s gaze, Daisy turned to her flower stand, and saw a boy who looked like he was about ten hovering around the carnations and daffodils. “I’ll be right there,” she called to him. “Thanks, Jo. Really.”

“Aw, it’s nothin’ but a thing,” Jolene said. “Now, scoot!”

Laughing around the rim of her cup, Daisy took a swig of her drink, savoring the spiciness of the chai and the comforting warmth of the steamed soymilk. It had been a wet spring, and a chilly one, at that, and she was constantly in and out of the refrigerators where the more delicate flowers shared space with prepared arrangements.

The boy was still hovering as she returned to her station. She tucked her cup behind a roll of ribbon on the work-desk below counter-height and smoothed her apron. Then she went to check on the kid. “Hi,” she said gently. “I’m Daisy. Are you looking for something special?”

They boy’s gray eyes betrayed the kind of hurt that was usually only evident in older faces, but he managed a faint smile. “I’m Jack,” he said. “I need to get flowers for my mom,” he said, with a hint of a quiver in his voice. “But I only have eight dollars.”

Daisy did some quick accounting. For that money, the boy could get a bunch of mini-carnations, or five irises or… “I think we can work with that. Do you know your mom’s favorite flowers?”

“Dad used to get her roses, when I was little.”

She swallowed her grin. She’d initially thought the boy was ten, but now, noticing the softness of his sandy-brown hair and the sprinkling of freckles across his cheeks, she thought he might be eight or nine. Definitely an age that still qualified as ‘little’ in her estimation. “Is your mom with you in the store?”

“She’s paying for groceries. I said I’d meet her at the door.”

“Okay,” Daisy said. “Well, for eight dollars we could do three roses and some baby’s breath and greens…” She could see the boy deflating in front of her. “You don’t want to do roses?”

“Sometimes when Mom sees roses, she gets sad,” the boy said.

Daisy couldn’t help it; she started inventing scenarios in her head. Maybe this boy’s father had been a soldier, like Jolene’s husband, and had died serving his country. Or maybe it was something much more prosaic: a separation or divorce. She shook her head, realizing that the kid was still talking.

“… and it’s been a year since he moved out, and I just want her to smile.”

Her smile was soft and wistful. “That’s very sweet. Well, okay, no roses. Do you know her favorite color?”

“Yellow.”

“Yellow,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Hmm. Yellow. Okay, Jack, how about we do a bunch of these…” She led him around the stand of fresh flowers to the bucket of daffodils. They were on special – only a dollar. “Or maybe two bunches. And then add an iris or two for a little punch of color.”  She went to the fridge and drew out two of the long-stemmed purple flowers, glanced at the boy, and then added a third. “Three would look better,” she explained. “Does your mom have a vase at home?”

He nodded. “She has lots of vases.”

“Good. Let’s wrap these in tissue then.” Daisy paused a moment. “Do you want a card to go with these?” Before the boy could answer, she tacked on. “The floral cards aren’t very big, but they’re free.”

The boy nodded, grinning. “Yes, please.”

Daisy took the flowers to her work-desk behind the counter, pausing to sip from her all-but-forgotten chai. Still warm, she thought. Good. Selecting a handful of small cards, she handed them to the boy.

He handed most of them back. “This one,” he said, holding up a card that had yellow tulips and the words Happy Mother’s Day printed on the front.

“Do you need a pen?”

“Yes, please.”

Jack was too small to reach the service counter. “Come around here to the opening and you can lean on the end of my workbench to write, okay?”

“Thanks.”

Daisy grinned, and resisted the urge to reach out and ruffle the boy’s hair. Softly, she said, “Jack, do you mind me asking… you said your dad used to bring roses to your mom?”

“They got divorced last August,” he said. “He has another family now.”

Oh, poor kid.

“I’m sure he still loves you,” she assured the boy.

The boy shrugged, the way young people sometimes do when a concept is just too big for them to truly understand. “I guess.” He put down the pen. “I’m done.”

Daisy took the card with its topsy-turvy lettering, and slotted it into a plastic card-holder which she tucked into the tissue wrapped flowers. She cut two lengths of ribbon – yellow and purple – and tied the bundle together.

“Alright, Jack, let’s ring you up.” Daisy punched buttons on the register, then looked up to see Jack’s stricken expression. The total had come to $8.64.

“Can we put one of the bunches of daffodils back?” he asked quietly.

Daisy hesitated. “We could, or… hey, Jack… do you think you could lift that empty bucket… the one near the sign that says, ‘Mother’s Day Bouquets?’ Because if you could bring it to me, you’d be helping out, and I could give you my employee discount.” In a conspiratorial tone, she added, “It would bring the total down to just under seven dollars.”

The boy didn’t answer. He just ran to get the bucket, and bring it back to the counter. “Here.”

“Well, thank you, Jack.” She punched another button on her register. “Six dollars and ninety-two cents, please,” she said.

Jack counted out seven wrinkled dollar bills. “I’ve been saving my allowance,” he said.

Daisy grinned. “I wasn’t very good about doing that, when I was your age. It’s nice that you’re getting flowers for your mom.” She handed him the nickel and three pennies that were his change, and then came around the counter to present him with the wrapped flowers.

“Tell your mother, she’s lucky to have you,” she told the boy.

Jack grinned. “Oh. She knows.”

She watched him turn and catch the eye of a woman standing near the door with a cart of bagged groceries, saw him place his tissue-wrapped bundle in the child-seat part of the cart, and smiled broadly when his mother, tired face suddenly suffused with delight, pulled her son into a rough embrace right there in the grocery story lobby.

Yeah, the day before Mother’s Day was always crazy-busy, and she was pretty sure there was going to be another rush between five-thirty and seven, but sometimes… sometimes she got to see love in action, and that made everything worth it.

Image Copyright: neirfy / 123RF Stock Photo

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Orion by Selena Taylor

Orion by Ian C. Grey

She runs her fingers through her hair, making sure to pull it back in a lazy bun. As she pulls her hair up, she checks that her children are snuggled under their blankets, pretending to sleep. Smiling, she turns the lights off and says goodnight one more time.

When she enters the living room, her husband is starting to get up. He gathers his cup, which is in need of a refill, and his phone. He walks to the kitchen with her right behind him. He places the items down and reaches for his jacket.

They stay quiet – no need fill the silence.

He opens the garage and walks out to the chill spring night.  His jacket is quickly zipped up. She, on the other hand, finds the cool air refreshing.

A cigarette finds its way to his mouth. She turns as he brings a flame to the end. The warm glow gives way to a small orange tip. With his first puff taken, she turns away and tilts her head up to the night sky.

The stars begin to whisper their stories to her and she relays them to him. He stands quiet, only taking puffs every so often, but with a small smile. He does not question her stories; he only lets her go wild with them.

As the short stories come to an end she points up and quietly says “there he is.”

He knows what she means. Her favorite constellation, Orion.  Her other love. Her stars.

Spinning quickly, she watches him flick the cigarette.  Stomping out the cherry, they both shuffle to the house.

Soon, Orion will be gone for the summer, but she will always have her husband.

She will always have the man who will quietly listen to her stories, under the supervision of the stars.

Image Credit: Ian C. Grey

About the author, Selena Taylor

Selena TaylorSelena Taylor is a wife, a mother, and a woman who strives to tell the many stories that occupy her mind. She is active in the Rhett & Link fandom and appreciates dark humor.  She and her family live in Illinois, where she takes every opportunity to lose herself under the stars and let her imagination run wild. For more from Selena, check her out on Facebook.

 

Stirring & Settling, by Melissa A. Bartell

https://unsplash.com/@ornellabinni(Part IV of the Tea series, follows Stewing)

“Where are you taking me?” Sarah asked. She was in the front passenger seat of David’s car, one of his neckties forming a blindfold. She could have peeked around the edges – the knot at the back of her head wasn’t that tight – but her boyfriend had really wanted to surprise her, and she hated to ruin his fun.

“You’ll see,” he said, laughter coloring his tone. “Just be patient a little longer.”

“Just promise wherever we’re going has food,” she responded. “I’m starving.”

David didn’t answer.

The car kept going, with David humming lightly as he drove. Sarah could tell they weren’t in town any more – there hadn’t been any stops for traffic lights in quite a while – but she wasn’t sure which direction they’d been going. She’d have to trust him.

Just as she was taking a breath, preparing to ask how much longer they’d be driving, David stopped humming. The car turned off the pavement and onto a gravelly surface, finally rolling to a stop. “Okay,” he said. “We’re here.”

Sarah removed her blindfold. “The Japanese gardens?” she queried, reading the sign in front of their car. “I thought we were going for a late lunch. As far as I know, they don’t serve lunch here.”

“Trust me,” David suggested his tone warm with affection. He turned off the car, removed the keys and got out, moving around to open her door. “Please, Sar?”

She slid out of the car, glad she’d listened to his wardrobe suggestion. Her nautical-stripe sweater, khaki crop pants and navy espadrilles weren’t the most fashionable of outfits, but they made her feel neat and crisp, and she’d be comfortable even in the cool breeze that always seemed to linger along the river walk.

“I do trust you,” she said.

“Good.” He offered his arm, and she took it. “This way.”

Together, Sarah and David walked down the wide ramp that twisted and turned through the blossoming cherry trees. They paused on the little bridge that crossed the koi pond, laughing at the hopeful fish crowding to the surface. “We should buy some food for them,” Sarah said.

David grinned. “Right, because clearly they’re emaciated.” But he fished a couple of quarters from his pocket – he’d also worn khaki pants, Sarah notice – a change from his more typical weekend choice of jeans – and waited for the cup of fish-food to drop from the vending machine affixed to the far end of the bridge.

“Here…”

He held the cup and she pinched up some of the food, casting it into the water, and the fish waiting in it. “They remind me a little of hungry puppies.”

“All animals are adorable when they’re begging for food,” David joked. “It’s a rule.”

Sarah laughed. “I think it must be.”

When the cup was empty, they continued their walk, down the stairs of the terraced hillside, to the lantern-lined sidewalk along the riverbank.

“You alright?” David asked, when Sarah paused for no apparent reason.

“Fine…” she said. “Except… do you hear music?”

He made a show of listening. “Sounds like pan-flutes,” he said. “I think they’re coming from over that way.” He pointed in the direction of the gazebo that sat on the water-side of the walk, at the top of a curve. “Let’s find out?”

Sarah decided she was never going to get the lunch she’d been promised, and simply agreed with him, “Sure. Why not?”

Hand in hand, they kept walking, following the curving path along the water until they reached the gazebo, where, instead of the empty space Sarah had been expecting, there were paper lanterns and a trio of people playing different wind instruments.

“I don’t remember anyone advertising a musical event here,” Sarah said.

“They didn’t,” David answered. “Come with me.”

Gently, he led her up the steps and into the octagonal building, where a single, set table and two chairs were waiting for them.

Against one wall was a man in a chef’s uniform working on a portable outdoor stove. “Ah, you’ve arrived,” the dapper man said, turning to greet them. “Please sit. Lunch is almost ready.”

Sarah dropped into the chair David had pulled out for her, taking in the bouquet of daisies in a glass vase, and the vaguely tea-pot shaped item sitting on a trivet and covered by a quilted cozy. “You arranged this? For me?”

“No,” David corrected. “I arranged this for us.” He lifted the cozy from the pot and set it aside. “Shall I pour?”

Over hot tea and plates of seared beef, salmon and yellowtail sashimi, steamed rice, and cucumber salad, the couple engaged in their usual banter.

“I’ve always thought these gardens would be the perfect setting for a wedding,” Sarah said as they finished their meal.

“They have an events coordinator for things like that,” David explained. “My friend Ryo and his wife were considering it, but then her parents insisted they do a church ceremony instead, and since they were paying…”

“I guess that makes a difference,” Sarah agreed. “But still…”

The chef interrupted them long enough to clear their dishes and deliver two glasses and an open bottle of champagne.

“Personally,” David said, after they’d been left alone once more, “I’ve always imagined this as the perfect location for a proposal.” He didn’t leave his chair to kneel in front of her, but he did remove a small, black box from his pocket and place it in front of her.

“David?” She could feel her lips curving into a goofy smile, could tell that her cheeks had gone hot and pink.

“Sarah, ever since we ran into each other at the café on that day, I’ve felt like there was something stirring inside me – ”

” – inside me too – ” she interrupted.

” – and ever since you moved in, I’ve been thinking, ‘this is what life is supposed to be. Two people sharing a home and a life… fighting over their favorite sections of the newspaper, taking turns cooking dinner or making tea…” Sarah heard his voice go choky as he trailed off.

“Oh… David…”

He swallowed reflexively, and opened the box. Inside was a tea-bag, but instead of the usual paper tab, the end of the string was affixed to a delicate gold ring with a diamond that was the perfect proportion for Sarah’s slender fingers.

“Will you marry me, Sarah?”

She lifted the ring from the box, and tugged slightly. The string fell away, and she turned the piece of jewelry in her hands, holding it up to the light to catch the reflections. “Put it on for me?” she requested offering it back.

David held the ring, poised over her left ring finger. “Is that a yes?” he asked, his tone equal measures of wry uncertainty and tenderness.

“It’s an ‘absolutely,'” Sarah said. “I love you. I love the live we’ve been building together. This just… this feels like everything’s settling into exactly the places they’re supposed to be.”

Each of them half-rising from their chairs, they leaned over the table to seal their engagement with a kiss that only ended when the chef and the wind players applauded.

Laughing, Sarah and David returned to their chairs, and David poured the champagne into their waiting glasses. “I love you too, Sar,” he said, lifting his glass to salute her. “You’re my best friend, and my muse.”

“And flattery will get you everywhere,” she teased.

They carried their glasses to the part of the gazebo that looked over the water, and as the sun set, and the lanterns began to glow softly in the darkening sky, they held each other, and exchanged whispered dreams for their future.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

 

 

 

Flight by Selena Taylor

 Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_steffe82'>steffe82 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

She watched the horizon. She did not stop looking to it.

For months, she had helped her child learn to spread his wings and fly. Her barn was filled with insane contraptions that mimicked wing stretches, wing lifting, and gliding motions.  As a mere human, inventing machines was the only way she could teach her child.

The first time they tried to fly, all she saw was her child falling off the barn. She reached the edge and looked down to see him lifting his head from the pile of hay where he’d landed. He shook it back and forth trying to get hay out of his scales. It was a funny moment, one of many.

There were also moments of great frustration. Her limited knowledge of the mechanics of flight made the process difficult. The fails kept piling up until the morning when a large hawk appeared over the cliff that was out beyond the boundaries of her property.

Together, they watched the bird soar and glide over the land.

Her child began to walk toward it. She wanted to stop him, so that she could be the reason he learned. But, no, she couldn’t.

Smiling, she waved him off to follow the hawk. Within a day, she saw her child fly in the sky.

They both rejoiced, each in their way.

Now she was waiting – staring at the distant horizon, waiting for her child to return home. And praying that he would. Towards the horizon…

She knew the tradition, of course. Once those who had wings had learned to fly, they traveled to the island of Draflo. There, they would receive more magic, absorb more knowledge.

Her aging mother and her younger brother had come to see her child off, sharing her delight in the moment he had achieved true flight. But they were not his mother. They did not join in her vigil by the cliff.

The weather turned.

A fierce wind came, bringing with it dark clouds. Her mother left the shelter of their house to beseech her with gentle words: Come inside. Rest. The older woman could feel it in her bones, she said, deep cold and heavy rain were not long off.

She only shook her head, no.

The rain did come, and it was cold, and it was heavy.

Her clothes were soaked. Her hair stuck to her neck and back, the wet weight of it chilling her even further.

Still, she stayed on the cliff.

Her brother came to join her, imploring her to go inside. She would surely die, if she remained at watch.

Another storm came, larger than the first, with winds strong enough that part of the barn was damaged. For a moment, she panicked, concerned for the machines, only to remember that they were no longer needed.

Her brother changed his approach, becoming angry with her. He argued that the child was not worth the price of her life. He insisted it wasn’t even truly hers.

She spoke no words aloud.

But in her head, she was seething: Not hers? Of course the child was hers. Did they bear the same blood? No. But he was hers nonetheless.

The storm that raged around them now was just like the one that had brought her child in the first place.

She had been running, chasing the killer of her husband and infant son. The storm that hid the murderer led her to the cave that sheltered her new child.

He was near death when she found him. His breath was weak and cold. There was no meat to him. His scales were falling off.

Maternal instinct kicked in, and she knew.

She knew.

He was hers.

Her brother turned to leave her, and she let him go.

She caught sight of an object coming over the cliff. She squinted her eyes and lifted her hand to shield them from the rain.

It was him. She was certain of it.

She ran toward the cliff-edge to meet him, but the lightning came closer, the strikes coming more frequently.

She did not fear it.

All that mattered was that her child was coming home.

It was the last bolt that hit him. It was bright and fast. Her scream boomed over the thunder.

Not her child!

She searched the sky: nothing.  She searched the sea: nothing.

Her sobs racked through her.

Not again.

No!

Not again!

When the earth became loose, she did not step back from the edge. She let herself fall.

The air scoured her skin as she plummeted toward rocky shore below, but she embraced the pain. Another child was gone. Physical pain couldn’t touch maternal grief.

She never felt the rocks or freezing water. She only felt warmth and a pulsating wind. Soon, she was back at the cliff-side, surrounded by scales, and wrapped in leathery wings.

Opening her eyes, she met his: black as ebony, with tiny gold flecks.

She knew those eyes; they belonged to her child.

She smiled, and took stock of him. He was different somehow… Stronger, maybe? And when she took a closer look at his scales she noticed blue lights darting across them.

She put her finger in the path of the light, and felt tingles down her arm.

Lightning.

Her child was not only flying, but he had lightning coursing through him.

Her child.

Her dragon son.

About the author, Selena Taylor

Selena TaylorSelena Taylor is a wife, a mother, and a woman who strives to tell the many stories that occupy her mind. She is active in the Rhett & Link fandom and appreciates dark humor.  She and her family live in Illinois, where she takes every opportunity to lose herself under the stars and let her imagination run wild. For more from Selena, check her out on Tumblr or follow her on Twitter.

Birthing at Hitchcock House by Bernie Brown

Ezra turned and reached for Orelia, who was doubled over in pain. “Come on, baby, I’m here. House is just up there. See the lights in the windows.” They scrambled up the bank, and the small boat paddled away, making its way through the icing creek. “Mrs. Hitchcock she ready for us. We in Iowa now. They’s a free state.”

“How do you know, Ezra? Ohhhh . . .” Orelia doubled over again.

He didn’t answer her. Ezra knew he had to get her through the snow, up to the house, and down in the cellar. All as quiet as mice. And her having pains so early.

Orelia slid down again as another pain hit her. “Ohhhhh,” she moaned.

“Honey, can you be quiet now? We don’t want to get anyone hearing us.” He pulled her to the top of the bank where they sat in the snow waiting for her pain to subside.

Ezra wadded up a faded blue kerchief. “Here now, next time a pain hits, you bite this.” He tried to stuff it into her mouth while she sucked in air.

She spit it out.

“No, baby. You gotta do it. You listen to Ezra now. There can’t be no hearing us or this whole trip for nothin’. We’ll never reach the promised land.” He stuffed it back in and barely pulled his fingers out in time not to get bit.

Orelia struggled and ran in a painful lop-sided way, holding her belly, the holes in her homespun shawl lit up by moonlight. A distant owl hooted. A quiet growl came from the brush.

A lump of hurt choked Ezra as he watched his wife, at least that was how he thought of her. They’d get married proper when they got to Canada.  He couldn’t stand seeing her run that way.  She stumbled and he put one arm behind her knees, another on her back and tipped her up. He grunted. She was usually so small, but the baby made her off balance and clumsy to hold. She buried her face in his shoulder.

Up ahead he saw the flicker of three lanterns in the windows. That meant they was expecting three runaways. Old Simon had fell out the boat into the icy black river. He didn’t bob up, not even once. So there was just him and Orelia and the baby.

The sight bucked him up. He staggered faster. Orelia screeched into the cloth, into his shoulder. Her teeth sunk into his flesh, and he winced. At last he reached the open cellar door, ready to receive them.

The steep, uneven steps tripped him up, and he bumped Orelia’s head against the frozen dirt wall. Orelia’s pain made her punch him hard on the arm in return.

At last they were in the cellar. He had to put Orelia down on the dirt floor. “Just for a minute, baby.” Around them, jugs of preserved foods lined crude shelves. Dusty bottles of wine lay on their sides in a rack. Above, he could hear a piano playing a lively Christmas tune. “It must be Christmas Eve,” Ezra said.

Thumps on the floor be dancing. “That party noise keep ‘em from hearing us.” Even so, he moved the shelves ever so carefully to reveal the safe room. He didn’t want to leave no marks in the dirt floor. Then he returned to Orelia, panting now, and helped her to a straw pallet. He found matches and lit the candle before lifting the shelves back in place.

“Baby’s comin’,” Orelia spluttered between pains. Then she pushed so hard her whole body shuddered as she groaned a mighty, low groan.

Ezra had to open her legs to see. He hated doin’ that, but they was beyond being shy now. It was a necessary thing. He’d seen his mammy birthing babies back on the plantation.

A bloody bony head appeared, almost purple. Joy wiped away the struggle, the fear, the constant fear. “Baby’s head,” he whispered.

Orelia thrashed, grunting and shuddering and clawing into his shoulder.

He grasped the slippery roundness and pulled best he could, slow, steady.

Out it slipped, a wiggly bloody little one.

It were the baby. It were born. “Orelia, honey, it be here. It’s a little girl.”

He took Orelia’s shawl and wrapped the baby in it.

Above, the music had changed tempo. He recognized “Silent Night.”

The baby gave out a newborn mewing cry, and they exchanged their scared look. Could such a little sound be heard upstairs? They might be in a free state, but it was still illegal to hide runaways.

“Let’s call her Christmas,” Ezra whispered.

Orelia smiled down on the bundle and whispered, “Christmas. Our very own Christmas.”

The shelves moved. Had somebody heard them? Come to arrest them? Take them back South? Both Ezra and Orelia sucked in breath.

A lady stood in the flickering candlelight. “I’m Mrs. Hitchcock.” She came to the straw pallet. “Oh, dear God, it’s a baby. A baby on Christmas Eve. Oh, she’s lovely.”

Orelia said, “She cried once. We was afraid y’all heard.”

“We did hear. The mayor was here, but he said the night was so magical he had heard the newborn Jesus cry.”

“Praise be to God,” said Ezra.

Mrs. Hitchcock left to bring water to wash the baby, and food and blankets to keep them warm.

“Orelia, honey, our baby, she born free.”

“Free,” Orelia repeated what Ezra had said. A fierce, proud light shone in her eyes as she looked down on the tiny child.

It were a holy night. Oh, holy night.

About the Author: Bernie Brown

I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress. My short story, Same Old Casserole, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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