Fun House of Nightmares and Pancakes

Gareth woke and rolled over on his side. He stared at Abbie, soundly asleep, as the scene from his nightmare dissipated. This is real, he whispered.

He slowly sat up, not wanting to disturb his girlfriend, and looked around his bedroom. This is real, he whispered again. He hunched over and closed his eyes. Nothing but blackness. He lay down and drifted back into sleep.

The smell of coffee and bacon roused him the next morning. Abbie, of course. She just gets it. No better way to overcome a bad night than a large breakfast. Thick strips of bacon, fried eggs over-easy, on top crispy hash browns and Tabasco sauce dribbled over all of it. Gareth took in a deep breath. And sourdough biscuits, or maybe pancakes?

He asked Abbie once how she knew. She said something casual, like she just felt like it, but she lied. Gareth’s mother. Whatever. Only one of the many smoke and mirrors games couples sometimes play with their relationship.


UnOLWG prompts this week: she just gets it; she lies; all done with mirrors

Helen’s Dawning

I’m enjoying the rediscovery of posts from a former blog. As with almost all of my posts, they start from writing prompts. Maybe they’ll inspire you as well?

The OLWG prompts were: Neither have I; An impeccably dressed transvestite; The birds at dawn


The morning dawned clear and cold the day Helen left. Smoke from the wildfires the next county over turned the sunrise into a lurid magenta and orange. Somewhere a tractor started up, sending a swarm of Starlings high into the sky. They swirled this way and that, circling the farmhouse as if to herd her along her way.

Helen sat in her car, staring at the home built by her great-grandparents. The home where her grandfather and father were born and raised; where she and her sisters were born and raised, and where she gave birth to and raised her three children. Helen and William’s wedding was held in the living room. Leaving was audacious and terrifying.

The morning sun revealed the place for what it had become. The window trim she painted blue the year her youngest left for college was already peeling. The sign William placed on the stairs to the front porch, warning of rotted wood, had sunk down into the gap between the boards. The cracks in the living room window were not as visible from the outside, but Helen could see them. From the inside, the cracks looked as though someone took harsh, angry strokes of black spray paint to the picture-perfect view of the river valley.

The bedroom light came on, jarring Helen out of her melancholy. She started her car’s engine, rammed the stick into reverse, and sped backward down the drive. As she whipped around and pulled out onto the road, she compulsively glanced in the rear-view mirror. William was jogging down the porch stairs. He kept running down the drive, stopping just before Helen cleared the crest of the hill, and raised a hand.

###        ###

An impeccably dressed transvestite greeted Helen at the hotel reception counter. “Have you been to Denver before?”

Helen shook her head.

“Neither have I. HA!” Helen was not sure what to make of the man’s joke.

As he tapped away at the computer, Helen stared at the man’s attire. He had manicured hands and translucent pink polished nails. A tuft of chest hair peeked out from the neck of his pristine white linen blouse. Small solitaire pearl stud earrings dotted his ear lobes. He had bushy eyebrows and did not wear a wig, but what most fascinated her was the man’s waxed, jet-black mustache with tiny pin curls on each tip. She smoothed her sweater and slacks and ran her fingers through her uncombed hair.

“It’s none of my business, of course,” the man said as he handed her the key to her room, “but, I work here, right? I take note of these things.”

Helen did not understand what he was getting at. She waited for him to continue.

“I noticed you booked an extended stay,” he said. Helen nodded.

 “I can give you a list of relatively inexpensive apartments in town, if you like. That is, I mean, I assume. You moving here?”

Helen nodded again. “For school. I’m going back to school.”

“That’s great! Good for you.”

“Yeah. Hard decision to make, but…” she finished with a shrug.

“What school?”

“The Art Institute of Colorado.”

“No shit!? Oh, excuse my language, HA!” the man rolled his eyes and folded his hands neatly in front, then smiled. “No kidding? Really? I teach there. Great place. You’ll love it.”

Helen set her bags back down. “What do you teach? I’m getting my degree in music. I want to teach. I mean, of course, naturally, I want to play, but teaching…that’s the goal. Maybe write music.”

“What’s your instrument?”

“Piano. Some guitar. But I really want to learn to play the saxophone and the harp.”

“Wow. Ambitious.”

“Yes, well. It’s now or never.”

The man held up a finger and walked away. He returned holding out a business card.

“Here’s how to reach me. When you’re settled, we’ll go to lunch. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.  I’ve been teaching at A.I.C. for twenty years. Love it. Really, it’s a great place. I wish it paid the bills, but, well, anyway, HA!” the man waved his hands in the air, “Here I am.”

“What do you teach? You didn’t say,” Helen glanced at the card, “….Jeff.”

“Oh, right! HA! How’dya do!  I’m Jeff, the Executive of Everything! HA! No, no…seriously…I’m in the visual arts program. I teach most of the 101 classes. Hey, so, it’s actually a requisite for most of the programs at the university to take the 101 courses I teach, regardless your major, so you’ll probably end up in one of my classes!”

###        ###

In failing health and wheelchair bound because of a botched hip replacement, getting ready for a day out and about was an ordeal for Helen. She had to keep her mind focused on a can-do attitude in order to make it through the laborious task of bathing and dressing, something she did not always get around to these days. But on this day, she had to rally her strength.  The transport assistance van would be by in two hours to pick her up. She did not want to miss Jeff’s memorial service.

When asked if anyone wanted to share a story about Jeff, Helen raised her hand. A nice-looking young woman Helen did not recognize handed her a microphone.

“There I was,” she began, a little thrown by the sound of her quavering elderly voice coming out of the speakers. “There I was, every bit the frightened kid away from home for the first time, regardless the fact I was a grown woman my fifties.” She paused, taking a moment to see Jeff in her mind’s eye. “And here was Jeff, in his quintessential pearl earrings, Kate Spade print skirt and Ralph Lauren linen blouse… and his weird sense of humor… and his perfectly coiffed mustache.” Helen mimed twirling the end of a mustache. The room let out a soft, knowing chuckle.

“He saved my life. Jeff saved my life. I don’t know where I would have been if it weren’t for his unabashed kindness and hospitality.  The luckiest day of my life was the day I met Jeff.”

Helen paused again, this time to halt the tears. “The past thirty years of my life are all the sweeter for having Jeff to call my nearest and dearest friend.” Helen blew a kiss to Jeff’s family in the front pew.

In her apartment afterward, Helen sat gazing at the painting Jeff made for her years before. It hung in a prominent place over her mantle.

The subject was the farmhouse on the day Helen left for Denver. Jeff perpetually asked Helen to tell the story of that morning, pressing her to describe what she saw. At the time, Helen did not understand why Jeff asked her to recall the most bitter-sweet moment of her life, again and again. She remembered growing perturbed at his repeated requests, begging him to stop pestering her. The memory made her smile.

Each time she looked at Jeff’s painting, it was as if she was there again, too terrified to turn the ignition of her car and put behind her all she had ever known. When that old fear arose, as it almost always did, Helen would quickly turn away, just as she did that morning backing out of the drive.

This time, she let herself become lost in the paintings magnificent purples, oranges, pinks and blues; the way Jeff made the hillsides behind the farmhouse seem as soft as giant pillows, and the warmth he imbued in the glow of the light from the bedroom. The usual memory of fear and trepidation did not arise. This time, the scene was peaceful, almost welcoming. This time, as she visualized William stepping out of the front door and onto the porch, she didn’t turn away.

She kept looking. At the house, the sky, the hills, the peeling blue trim, broken stairs, and the cracked window. She kept looking, even as her memory of William jogging down the stairs and onto the drive came back. This time, Helen saw what she refused to see all those years ago. William, with a resigned, and deeply sad smile, raising his hand to wave good-bye and mouthing the words, “Good luck. I love you.” 

Just Who is Ariel Jamison and What Does She Want?

Created from TBP Redux #7 and OLWG #181 prompts


You asked about Ariel?  Here, I’ve got a picture. That’s her, there. In the middle. That’s her husband, Dan, with my husband. That’s me, can you believe? And that’s Aaron and Jan. Hm. Betsy and Sam aren’t in this photo. Don’t remember why. Lots of happy times, back then. We were quite the group!

These days, Ariel keeps pretty much to herself. You have to understand why that seems so strange. Ariel and Dan used to be regular fixtures in town. The pair of them; a couple of go-getters, day in and out.  They were at every town meeting, every event, every party, every special occasion. Volunteered on just about every committee.  It exhausts me just to think about it!

When Dan unexpectedly died, Ariel disappeared into her own world. None of us saw much of her for a while there. Her neighbors said, right after Dan’s death, at night, regardless the weather, she would slowly walk in circles in her backyard, sometimes well into the middle of the night. They said she wore a path into the grass that looked something like those labyrinths you see in some church yards.

Then, that next year, she went away for a long time. If you’re wondering, that’s when the rumors started that she went to India to become a Buddhist monk, or some such nonsense. She didn’t go to India to become a Buddhist! I mean, yes, for a while, just after she came back, she took to wearing kaftans and a large scarf around her head, which was, I admit, odd. But I think all that was just Ariel finding out who she was outside of her marriage to Dan. I mean, that movie, “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, was so popular at that time, and that was just after “Eat, Pray, Love,” had been on all our must-read lists.

No, Ariel didn’t become a monk. She went to stay with her son Alec, who had just moved to Kentucky. She wanted to help him and his new wife and their brand-new baby boy get settled, and they were more than happy to have her. See, she had a dream as a little girl of becoming a racehorse jockey, and ever since then, wanted to visit the Bluegrass state. I mean, Dan was dead and gone, so why not pull up stakes for a while? Cross something off your bucket list, as they say. At least she wasn’t walking in circles in her backyard.

But, my guess is you really want to hear about the fire. Of course, that was the other rumor about poor Ariel; that someone in the family started it, or that, of all things, she deliberately set it. I tried to deflect as much of that b-s as I could, but you know people. I mean, losing your home is bad enough that people have to go around outright lying about how it happened.

It makes me sad, because, for one, Ariel was never one for gossip. And after all she and Dan did for the town, you think people would be grateful and leave it at that. At least have some sympathy for the poor woman! But my friend is a strong lady. She just puts on that Cheshire Cat smile of hers and rises above it. Yes, it was arson, and no, they still don’t know who did it or why. But, I can attest to this: Ariel knows exactly who started the fire.


A genuine challenge to figure out a story that goes with an ending! From Redux #7, I selected, “Though she wasn’t one for gossip, Mrs. Jamison knew exactly who had started the fire.” The UnOLWG prompts are bluegrass; the center of my world; seeking Amrapali.

Ursula’s Den

The UnOLWG prompts from the past 2 weeks stewed together with TN’s preamble story. The prompts are: playing a poor hand well; not a sound for miles around; like a poem without words; call him out; a matter of magic; the carousel only makes you dizzy.


Jasmine wandered aimlessly around the large, empty family room and kitchen while her children darted from room to room upstairs staking their claims. That was the deal: She would stay out of it and let them decide who would get which room. She knew it was only a matter of time before the wrangling would come to an impasse and she would, as always, have to step in as decider-in-chief. So, she listened and waited.

Evan impatiently negotiated with twins Sonja and Clara about who got the large room. The girls pushed back with their best argument that they were willing to share a room. Evan being the eldest held no sway. Marissa whimpered about the unfairness of it all and Michael, the youngest, was silent. Jasmine guessed he had slip-streamed his way through the tangle of his siblings’ bickering to zero in on the room no one seemed to want. As she predicted, he was the first downstairs.

“Why aren’t you taking the big parents’ bedroom?” he asked her.

“Because, like I said, I’m getting us a live-in and the master bedroom is going to be their room.”

“Why?” Michael was still at the age at which children cannot fathom an adult’s logic.

“I can only pay a nanny what I can. So, giving them the largest room, with their own bathroom and a separate entrance will make the deal sweeter. Anyway, that’s the idea.”

Evan was next down the stairs. Like the hormonal automaton he was these days, he went directly for the refrigerator.

“It’s empty, stupid,” Michael grumbled.

“Since when, with the ‘s’ word, huh!?” Jasmine scolded Michael with a gentle smack upside the back of his head.

“I’m going to check out the yard.”

Evan brushed past Michael, giving him a quick, soft warning shove against the wall. Jasmine watched Evan as he walked down the long dirt drive that lead away from the house. She sent him a text, if only to make sure he had his phone on him. He pulled his phone from his pocket, read the message, and put it back without replying.

Marissa called for Jasmine from the top of the stairs. “Evan and Michael took the rooms I want, and I don’t have a room!”

Jasmine took her daughter’s complaint as her cue to finally intervene. As she headed up the stairs, Michael rushed past her, down the hall, and disappeared into the room at the end. The twins were in the larger room mapping out a floor plan. Marissa stood in the middle of the hall wearing her ever-present look of despair.

“OK, so, it’s this one or that one,” Jasmine pointed to the two rooms on either side of the hall. “Which one do you want?”

Marissa pointed to the room to her left. It had a stunning view of the hillsides and the orange and red leaves blanketing the emerald ground beneath the trees in the yard. The morning’s cloud cover was giving way to blue sky and the mid-day sun streamed all the way into the room.

Jasmine took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She knew moving to the country may prove she had succumbed to some sort of utopian idealism. After all, a spinning carousel, with all its bright colors, gilded adornments and twinkling lights, only looks like some sort of magic joy ride, when it really is just a dull, dizzying, and never-ending trek to nowhere. A move to a farmhouse situated in an idyllic country valley might be no better than just another muddy rut in which to get stuck.

Nevertheless, given the hand dealt her, Jasmine was reasonably confident she had played it to the best possible advantage. The change in her children’s lives would be hard on all of them, regardless the setting. She had nothing else to offer any one of her children other than her faith in the hopes and dreams for their future, and for each of them, a bright, sunlit bedroom all to themselves.

“Mom?”

“Yeah, sorry, kiddo. Fine with me! You like it?”

Marissa nodded.

“Then, this one’s yours.”

“When’s our stuff getting here?”

“They said today. My guess is it will be late.”

The sound of two-steps-at-a-time up the stairs announced Evan’s return from his tour of the outside. He looked at his mother and sister in the room in which they stood, then looked at the room across the hall. An equally stunning view of the valley made that room’s window seem all the larger. A good place for a seventeen year-old, Jasmine thought, to stare out to the horizon while listening to the siren song of the big, wide world calling him away.

“OK, that’s done!” She paused, waiting for a reaction. No one put up a fuss. “Let’s get the stuff out of the car and then we’ll drive into the town to look for a place to eat.”

“Does Dad know where we are?” Sonja asked. Jasmine turned back to see all five of her children staring at her with the exact same look; a combination of sorrow and fear.

“He does. Text him, let him know we’ve arrived. But guys,” Jasmine put up a hand of caution, “I need you to understand, OK? Your dad probably won’t come here. I’m not saying ‘never,’ but, you have to accept, he probably won’t…want to. He may say he will because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, but he won’t. Again, it’s not that he doesn’t love you, or that any of us did anything to make him…whatever. OK?”

“It’s because he’s with that lady and them,” Sonja replied.

“He’s not with anyone at the moment, honey. Look, when he said you can visit him, he meant it. He is your father and he’ll always be around for you. OK? Anyway, we’ll figure all that out later, you going for visits. All I ask is that you give this place, your new home, a fair shake. You aren’t that far behind in school and you’ll make friends soon. And don’t forget, Grammy, Gramps, Nona and Grandpop…and Uncle Mack, Aunt Jeanne, Geoff and Allie… they all  live really close, just, like, only ten miles away. We’ll get to see them way more often now.”

Her children gave her consolatory smiles. Jasmine knew what she offered was only a cold comfort. She kissed each one on the forehead and headed downstairs. She called back over her shoulder, “Evan, you want to drive?”

“Sweet,” Evan said as he vaulted past his siblings, snatching the keys from Jasmine’s hand.

“Wallet?” she asked. Evan patted his back pocket.

“Do we get to learn to drive this year?” Clara asked.

“I suppose. Sure.”

The twins jumped up and down, applauding. Marissa and Michael looked at each other wondering if they got a special offer, too.

Jasmine said, “And, when we get the TV set up, Marissa and Michael get to choose the first two family movie nights.”

The result was as hoped. The two youngest siblings high-fived and then chased after the others.

As the family made their way to the van, Jasmine suddenly felt like she was in a scene from the Planet Earth documentary series; the ones where bear cubs stumble and play alongside their mother as she leads them across the open fields to some yet unknown source of food. The image made Jasmine smile. If wildlife’s single mothers can hack it, she thought, so can I.

In a French Villa

Abigail and Bailey hailed an airport cab and handed the cabby the note written in French with directions and the address of their paternal grandparents’ villa in Beaumont-sur-Oise.

“I hope Aunt Rachel wrote down the right sur-Oise town,” Bailey whispered to her sister. “I looked on a map and there’s a bunch of them.”

The cabby locked eyes with both women in his rear-view mirror. Not certain if Baily’s comment offended the cabby, the sisters remained silent for the remainder of the trip.

The drive through the Parisian suburbs eventually gave way to open fields, contained villages and homes dotted along the way in between. Finally, the cab slowed and took a right turn.

“Mesdames, c’est l’adresse. C’est beau, oui?” the cabby said.

The villa was just as described. A large multi-storied structure built by their great grandparents a hundred years ago, it looked like something out of a gothic novel. It had been vacant a while but was otherwise in good shape.

“This is where daddy grew up? Wow.”

“Far cry from our home, huh?”

—————–

“What’s all this stuff?”

Bailey stood in a corner room on the top floor, lit by a single floor lamp and small a porthole window under the eave. She stared at a wall of cardboard boxes covered in dust and cobwebs. She could not make out the writing.

“What stuff?” Abigail called back from somewhere down the hall.

“All these boxes. I can’t read the writing.”

Abigail came into the room and tried reading the writing, too.  “Well, it’s not French. Dad said his grandparents were from Belgium…so, Flemish maybe? Must be things of theirs.”

“Should we, what…open them? See what’s in them first?”

Abigail grabbed a box and pulled. Dust showered down, filling the room in a fog and subjecting Bailey to a fit of sneezing.

“This one’s got clothes, looks like,” Abigail said as she pulled garments out and dropped them on the floor.  

Bailey held up the garments, one by one. “They look vintage, for sure. Hey!” She held a military jacket up to her chest. “It looks like a woman’s uniform.”

 “Are those medals?” Abigail asked, pointing. Bailey flipped the coat around to look.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Abigail turned her attention back to the open box. She held up a small brass object. It was scalloped shaped with a hinged lid and a handle. The top was decorated with beading and filigree. Something rattled loosely around inside. She opened the lid and took out a pearl and gold beaded bracelet.

“Pretty,” Bailey said. “Anything else in it?”

“No, that’s it. Is this a box, or a, what?”  Abigail held the object this way and that. She put the bracelet back into its curious container.

Bailey reached into the cardboard box and took out a book and a pair of pink ballet toe shoes. “Ever hear of a dancer in the family?”

“Yeah, remember? Grandpa used to tell stories about his sister, the ballerina. She was with some famous company in Paris. Hobnobbed with famous people. What’s the book?”

“It’s in French.”

“Give it here,” Abigail gestured. Baily handed over the book.

“It says, Letters from the Earth. Oh! It’s by Mark Twain. Huh.”

“I know that book. Had to read it in college. I thought all this stuff was generations old. What’s it doing in the box?”

Abigail opened the cover. “It has an inscription…” she silently mouthed the French words. “It says, To Adrian, uh, que ce livre vous aide à comprendre la nature du deuil. Something about grief. Nature of grief. Doesn’t say who wrote the note.”

“We have a cousin named Adrian. Somewhere here in France.”

“Yeah. Huh.”

The last two items in the box were a broken teacup and a framed photo. “Oh, my god, Abigail, look!”

Bailey held out the photo to her sister. A woman in the same military jacket they found in the box posed with a rifle. “Those are the same four medals, look!”

“She looks like Aunt Rachel, doesn’t she?”

“Wow. You think that’s our great grandmother? Was she a soldier? What army? I thought women weren’t allowed in the army.”

Abigail pried open the frame, pulled out the photo and flipped it over. “A message to a Lucas.  It’s in Flemish, I bet. I can’t read it.”

“Who’s Lucas?”


In response to Objects in a Box writing prompt

Stage Stop, California

It’s autumn now. The overnight temperatures have dropped to just above freezing and the mountain sides seen from the small town of Stage Stop, California, are dotted in bright yellow, red and orange.

Located in the Klamath National Forest, Stage Stop recorded 102 year-round residents in the last census, which included Roddy Zahn, his wife Zelda (Zany Zelda Zahn, as she is called by the locals) and their eldest daughter May (short for Mayflower, because Zelda swears both she and Roddy have family they can trace back to the pilgrims). The three are the current owners of The Black Horse Inn and Tavern, a hotel and eatery built in 1834 by Irish immigrant Ephraim Jonas McComber.

Stage Stop is the only civilized base in the region for outdoor enthusiasts who partake in all the hiking, camping, river rafting and mountaineering the Klamath National Forest has to offer. It’s a great place from which to launch an adventure into the wilderness, or a sort of resort town to recoup afterward. Roddy and Zelda bought The Black Horse in 1983, right before the publication of the memoir by a well-known mountain guide, titled “Meet Me at The Black Horse.” It became a bestseller and put The Black Horse and the town of Stage Stop on the proverbial map. For the next three decades, the whole region flourished as a result.

Then, about 10 or so years ago, the droughts took hold. Popular hiking trails and campgrounds were routinely closed due to fire hazards. Winter and spring remained okay. The visitors still came around. But the rest of the year, the busiest time, business dropped way off. Even those who built vacation homes in the area all but abandoned their places, opting to go to the coast instead.

Roddy, Zelda and May made the most of the changing circumstances by turning a section of the building in The Black Horse into a sort of hostile for wildfire crews and park volunteers. Then came 2020, with its double-whammy of COVID-19 and constant wildfires, one after the other. The Zahns cancelled what few reservations they had and turned The Black Horse into an evacuee, park ranger, first responder and volunteer’s boarding house. The rangers set up a make-shift office in the back corner of the dining room next to Cal Fire’s relay desk. The evacuees created a similar set up in one of the rooms on the top floor where folks could sit at a desk to use a computer, make a call or fill out paperwork.

No one is a guest, at least not in the typical sense. They help the Zahns prepare and serve meals, as well as help with the laundry and housekeeping. A group of park volunteers cleared out the parking lot on either side to make more room for all the cars, trucks, and trailers people arrived in, as well as for the responders’ large vehicles and equipment. One of the Bridal Suites was turned over to make a quiet room and nursery for the very little kids. A couple of families helped a local rancher build a makeshift kennel and corral for the various pets and farm animals that came along with folks, or somehow found their way to Stage Stop on their own. The Cal Fire folks even worked a deal with the state and the Red Cross to get better satellite service and supplies like, pens and paper, diapers, food, bottled water and clothing.

The Black Horse may look more like a refugee camp these days than a quaint nineteenth century inn in the middle of national forest country, but as Roddy, Zelda and May see it, a rising tide will lift all boats. If they can share their good fortune with those in need, then those in need will maybe not need anymore.


Prompts this week from Unofficial Online Writer’s Guild are: What I write; rising tides lift all boats; I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern


I cut the following out because it wasn’t necessary to the story above. “Murder your darlings,” as the writerly saying goes. But I enjoyed writing it, so decided to post it separately:

Stage Stop was settled on a stagecoach line that once fed into the famous Butterfield Overland trail from San Francisco to St. Louis. Life in Stage Stop in those days was dictated by the hour: The stage to Yreka left The Black Horse Inn and Tavern precisely at 1:30pm. At 9:00pm, a returning coach arrived across town at The White Horse Saloon. In between those times, folks went about their business getting ready for the next departure or arrival.

Times changed and trains took over as the preferred mode of transportation. For forty or so years, a single track lead a twice-weekly train in and out of Stage Stop. The White Horse, located nearby, changed its name to The Iron Horse during those years, and though it was closest to the terminus, The Black Horse remained the preferred lodging. The owner of The Black Horse at the time, a former Canadian fur trader named August DuBois, used one of the former stagecoaches to taxi patrons to and from the train platform, which, as the story goes, was a bone of contention for the owner of The Iron Horse. The many ways the competing owners tried to poach each other’s patrons are well documented in the town’s history files.

Then came the automobile. Gravel from a nearby quarry still in operation was used to pave over the deep wagon wheel ruts left from the stagecoach days, though it didn’t make it all that easier to drive a vehicle over. A couple of locals took to laying out two long sheets of wood planks in front of the tires of a vehicle, then drive the vehicles over the planks, stopping when it rolled off the wood, and repeat the whole process again, until, hours later, they reach the main road. It gave the townsfolk the idea to build a sort-of promenade over the road, which worked for a while, but proved to be expensive and labor intensive to maintain. Fortunately, the train still came up the mountain, but only once a week now, and only a couple of times in winter, weather permitting.

Suffice it to say, everyone welcomed the first asphalt paving crew when the State finally deemed the region worthy of such a luxury. Everyone turned out to welcome the crew, as if was a Founder’s Day parade. And the advent of a paved road marked the final run of the train. Somewhere, someone has an 8mm home movie of the last train to pull out of Stage Stop, rolling off into the distance like the end of some old Western. They used to run it on a video loop at the Ranger’s Visitor’s Center for years.

Getting to and from Stage Stop was an ordeal in automobiles, prone to overheating as they once were. Couple that with the end of mining, logging, and hunting for material gain, and by the 1950s, Stage Stop transformed from tiny, busy nineteenth century regional hub to a mostly isolated mountain community. Regardless the improvement in car engines in recent decades, if you aren’t located near the Interstate, then you are nowhere. And the people of Stage Stop have been just fine with that for the past seventy some-odd years.

What has kept the town alive has been the generations of visitors looking to escape the city. Not only is that old stagecoach route passable now, they can hike or mountain bike in to town from Yreka along the old rail line, the tracks now removed, leaving a solid, clear trail they named The Iron Horse Trail. A little cottage industry centered around summer and winter vacationers grew into a decent economy, and Stage Stop was ordained a “gateway,” as the state touted it, to the “wild and wonderful wilderness of Klamath National Forest.”

The Fork in the Road at Ralph and Dorothy’s

Casandra curled up in a blanket on the rocking chair on the front porch of her great-grandparent’s home. Their Labrador Retriever sauntered over with a shy tail wag, fishing for a pat on the head and settling down at her feet after its request was met.   

The cool, gray October morning’s only bright spot was the cluster of golden-leaved trees in the front yard. Birds called to one another as they darted back and forth, a cozy sight that Casandra found consoling after so many years of living in the heart of a loud and chaotic downtown. In the distance, the hum of traffic on the freeway reminded her that, in spite of the pandemic, the world was still in motion; still breathing.

The front door opened and a tray with a coffee mug and a bowl of oatmeal appeared, presented by the ever-smiling person of Casandra’s great-grandfather, Ralph.

“It ain’t fancy, but it’ll warm you up.”

Still a very tall man at 98 years, Great Ralph, as Casandra and her siblings and cousins called him, defied the notion that aging was a debilitating process. He was healthy, fit and full of energy.

“Is that bacon I smell?” Casandra asked as she eyed the tray.

“Grams insists we have the full breakfast spread this morning to celebrate the end of your quarantine but didn’t want you to wait, out here in the cold. Wanted to get you started with something hot.”

Casandra unwrapped an arm from her blanket and took a spoonful of the oatmeal. Plain, unsweetened and without milk, probably the instant variety, but gratifyingly warm, as promised. She unwrapped the other arm and took the coffee mug in both hands up to her nose, breathing in the rich smell of roasted beans before taking a sip.

“A girl could get used to all this service, ya know.”

“Best room service in the country, no doubt!”

“I can’t thank you guys enough for letting me stay here.”

“Enough of that. We’re here for you, and all you kids. We’re fortunate we can still help in any way we can. We’re just so happy you reached out!”

“Well, again, thanks. So much. I’m sorry the quarantine thing has been so weird.”

“It’s so damned strange to not be able to touch people. Give a hug! And staying in the guestroom like that? You could have come out, you know. Seemed a ridiculous business.” Ralph said.

“I’d never forgive myself if I brought the virus into your house. It’s the only way to make sure.”

“Well, let’s not worry anymore about that,” Ralph leaned forward and gave Casandra a kiss on the forehead. She smiled at Ralph and then turned to the opened front door.

“Grams? You need help in there?”

“No, no, honey,” the distant voice of her great grandmother Dorothy replied. “You keep visiting.”

“She remembered her hearing aid!” Ralph chuckled.

Dorothy stepped onto the porch with a thermos and another mug. Quick on her feet with an equally charming smile as Ralph’s, Dorothy was in as much defiance of her advanced age as her husband. They were quite the pair, Ralph and Dorothy. Always grinning and laughing, as if nothing could ever phase them, and still very much in love. It was a mystery to Casandra how people like her great-grandparents managed to make the happily-ever-after thing actually work.

 Dorothy handed Ralph the mug and topped Casandra’s coffee off from the thermos. “You certainly are a night owl, sweetie”, she said.

“I like working at night, I guess. In the city, nighttime is the best time. It’s quiet. I’m sorry if I kept you up, though!”

“No, no,” Dorothy shook her head, “not at all. I just noticed your light on when I get up to use the bathroom, is all. Well,” Dorothy continued, “I’m going to finish up in there. How ‘bout you two come in in a bit, OK?”

An easy silence passed between Casandra and Ralph as they drank their coffees. It felt good to Casandra to just sit still without the worry that she should be somewhere else doing something else. She allowed the dog to finish her oatmeal.

“Don’t tell Grams,” Ralph teased.

“Great Ralph, do you mind if my plans are still indefinite?”

“Of course not. Love having another person around the place. Been kinda lonely these past months, just me and Grams. But, don’t they don’t need you at work?”

Casandra shook her head. “No, still have a work-from-home-until-further-notice order.”

The two sipped their coffee, again in silence. Ralph fidgeted in his chair and cleared his throat.

“Honey, you know you can tell us anything,” he finally ventured. “Of course, your folks are worried about you, but we wouldn’t betray your confidence.”

Casandra watched the dog lick the oatmeal bowl clean, avoiding Ralph’s gaze. She knew she owed her great grandparents a full explanation in return for their generosity, especially given the risk they took that she might be one of those with the virus and not know it.

“Garrett’s OK, he’s just not…It’s not like he’s a total jerk. I made mistakes, too.” Casandra gaged Ralph’s reaction. He only offered the same smile he perpetually wore. “Coming here, I know it’s like running away, but, the past two weeks, holed up in the guestroom, no distractions? It’s forced me to take stock. To be honest, I don’t know if it was lust or love. I mean, it was something. We care about each other, I guess. Anyway, I’ve thought it through and I’ve decided he can keep the condo and all our stuff. He can even keep the cat, if it comes to that. I just need a fresh start.”

“My darling girl…” Ralph began, when Dorothy interrupted, calling for them to get a move-on before breakfast got cold. As they stood to go, Ralph held Casandra back.

“My girl, if you have to ask that question, ‘bout whether it’s this or that? Then the answer is plain as the nose on my face. Now, Grams and I have no problem you staying here as long as you like. We’ll get a desk up in the attic for you and Grams will make the guestroom all yours. Besides, it’ll give me a legit reason to get internet cable installed, which will finally get everyone off my back!  No, you take all the time you need. In fact, why don’t you just plan to stay through Christmas. That’ll make Grams so happy!”


A couple weeks’ of prompts: The dog in you; rocking chair; night-time is the best time to work; the world breathing; it ain’t gonna be pretty; lust or love, plus the image I found online.

https://aooga.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/olwg-175-the-girl-from-oscuro/

Sometimes, you’re gonna have to own up to your mother

Not even the poets could put a shine on this situation, mm-mm. I understand you and believe you aren’t lying. Your sincerity is a good thing, honey, and you have always been honest, almost to a fault, but you can be sincere and still be stupid.

Now, here’s the thing. Nothing you learned in school from those rocket scientists, in the long run, is going to deliver you from this. It may be sunny southern California, with its beaches and Hollywood la-di-da, but shady people are anywhere you go. You are old enough to know this. You must know this sort of crap happens all the time, to good people as well as bad, right?

No, you’re wrong. There’s no other way to see something that should be as plain as the nose on your face. Sorry kiddo.

Call it quits. Hm? Walk away and leave the whole thing in the gutter where it belongs. Come home, apologize to Dad, and move on. Rise above it.


Three weeks’ worth of prompts, rolled into one:
throw it in the gutter; learned in school; long term; the nose on his face; can’t there be another way?; rocket boys; you can be sincere and still be stupid; sunny place/shady people; not even the poets

https://aooga.wordpress.com/2020/09/20/olwg-156-the-pavilion/

Where the Heart Is

I started this LONG story (fair warning) last week as a response to OLWG171 prompts. But, once again, I was inspired instead by TNKerr’s preamble story and its title. That, and a scene from a movie I recently watched of a man and woman walking through an abandoned house reminiscing about their childhoods.

——      ——      ——      ——

It was a bright, clear-sky summer afternoon when Helena pulled off Interstate Five into Chehalis. The valley’s sun-scorched grasslands glowed gold against the dark greens and blues of the tall trees and foothills. Helena rolled down her windows, letting the warm breeze wash over her.

Your destination is ahead on the left, GPS declared.

The large bungalow was weather worn and waist deep in an overgrowth of blackberry, morning glory, cheatgrass, thistle and heather. A monstrous rhododendron on one side of the house looked more like a tree with its thick trunk and branches. Three-foot tall dandelion and coltsfoot sprouted up from the myriad of cracks in the concrete driveway. Heavy moss covered practically the entire roof. The windows were boarded up and the graffiti that sprawled across the front of the house read Tina Chopp is DEAD. Helena shook her head. Last time she saw a Tina Chopp tag was sometime in the 80s.

She entered a search for Lewis County Sheriff in the GPS and headed back into town.

—–       —–       ——      —–

“Hello. I’m here to meet Sheriff Aldridge.”

“Name?”

“Helena Stockbridge.”

The Police Clerk gave Helena the once over. Her appraisal made Helena wonder if should have worn a suit and blouse instead of a t-shirt and jeans. Maybe even curled her hair instead of going with the plain bob she’d grown accustomed to over the years. She brushed her bangs off of her forehead. The clerk punched numbers on her phone.

“Yeah,” a baritone male voice answered.

“Someone’s here to see you.”

There was a pause and then, “Dammit, don’t make me guess. Who is it?”

“Boss, you’re on speaker.”

The call disconnected.

“He’ll be out in a sec.”

The clerk indicated a bench across the lobby with nod her head just as the door next to the front desk opened. Holding the door ajar, Sheriff Aldridge impatiently asked, “Yes, hello, ma’am, how can I help you?”

The Sheriff was shorter and a much more handsome man than Helena expected. She felt awkward when she realized she was staring, but then recognized he was giving her the same once-over as the clerk had. Now she really wished she had worn her dark suit and done something with her hair.

“Sorry if this a bad time, but you said I could stop by when I got to town today.” Helena stepped forward, holding out a hand. “Helena Stockbridge.”

Sheriff Aldridge’s expression changed and he visibly relaxed. “Yes, yes. Sorry,” Sheriff Aldridge said, this time with a broad smile as he shook Helena’s hand. “Come in, come in.”

Aldridge stepped aside to allow Helena pass. As he closed the door behind them, he leaned over the half wall that separated the front desk from the rest of the office. “Next time?” he said in a rough whisper to the clerk, “Please ask the person’s name and announce them, right? And, no more speaker phone. A little effort goes a long way with me, OK?”

“Is she new?” Helena asked as she took a seat in a chair in front of the Sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff rolled his eyes and gave a dismissive wave in the Clerk’s general direction. He took the seat next to Helena, which surprised her. The expression on her face gave her away.

“Um, hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Making folks talk to me from across a desk is a cheap power play in my book. Either they respect me and the authority of the office, or they don’t.”

“I never thought of it in that way, but I agree. It’s friendlier.”

“So, Ms. Stockbridge, your email said you need help from the Sheriff’s office with your parent’s property. How so?”

“Helena is OK, Sheriff,” she said, “since we’re being friendly. The property is actually still in my grandparent’s name, which is the problem.”

“Gil is OK with me, too. As you can see, I’m not that formal.”

“Not Gilmore?”

“Gil is fine.”

“Actually, I remember you. We called you Gilmore in those days, right?”

“At my mother’s insistence, yes, when I was a kid.”

Gil sat back, and this time, he really took Helena in. There was something about the obsidian colored eyes and similarly colored hair set against the virtually glowing alabaster skin. Was she one of the Offenbach family? People said you always know an Offenbach just from the look of them. Her hair might be colored, though, Gil thought. A woman her age would probably color her hair. He guessed Helena to be at least as old as he. Then his eyes brightened.

“Hells Bells? You’re little Hells Bells!” he exclaimed, sitting forward again.

Helena smiled. “That’s me!”

“Well, I’ll be damned…You look…ha! I was going to say, ‘all grown up,’ but then, of course you would be!”

“You as well!”

Gil smoothed his grey hair and gave the bit of middle-aged paunch a sympathetic pat. “Happens to us all. Jesus. How’s your folks? Damn. Caleb? How’s your brother? My God, haven’t thought about Cabe in a long while.”

“I’m sorry to tell you, but none of them are with us anymore.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Huh. Cabe, too?”

Helena nodded. Gil took a moment to process the news. Caleb was one of his favorite boyhood friends. “Well, then. That’s too bad. Sorry to hear. But, tell me, what did Cabe end up doing with his life, anyway?”

Helena shrugged, not really wanting to go into details. “He was a sales director at Boeing for a long while.”

“Impressive. Married? Kids?

“Not really. Just about everyone worked for Boeing or Weyerhaeuser back then. But, yes. He did marry, eventually, for a while. They split up. They have a daughter. She’ll be 12 this year, I think.

“Boy, that would have made him pretty old, as a father.”

“He was forty-three when they had her.”

Gil whistled. “By forty-three my youngest was just about out the door. Tell you what,” Gil stood up. “Let’s go to Bakers for a cup of coffee. We’ll finish catching up and you can tell me what I can do to help. Carl and Helen Offenbach’s place. Of course! I was wondering what property you were referring to, since you didn’t mention it in your email. I’ll take you the scenic route to Bakers.”

The drive through Chehalis old town was certainly a treat. While Gil talked on his cell phone to someone Helena assumed to be a fellow officer, she happily took in the passing sights of the places where so many of her childhood memories were formed. As they drove by one block after another, her early life came back to mind as vividly as if she had never left.

“Oh my God!” Helena suddenly exclaimed, “Swenson’s Confections is still here?” She turned to look at Gil, who smiled and nodded, then pointed at his Bluetooth earpiece.

‘Sorry’ she mouthed.

As they pulled into the parking lot of Baker’s Pancake Haus, Gil finished his call and then asked Helena, “Remember this place?”

 “I don’t think so. Actually, no.”

As the waitress showed them to a booth in the back, Gill continued. “Well, not everybody came to Baker’s, I guess. Just a couple of large coffees, Trish, thanks.” The waitress gave Gil a wink, which Helena pretended not to see. “Mostly truckers come here, come to think of it. And the kids, of course, on Friday and Saturday night, as always. Families and such mostly went to Mary McCrank’s, I suppose.”

“Oh, now, I remember that place. You had to drive a while to get there. At least it seemed like it. Somewhere on the way to Rainier?”

“That’s the place.”

Gil thanked the waitress when she set down the two large mugs of coffee. Helena guessed Gil was being quick about cutting the waitress off from an attempt to make conversation. The woman walked away with a wry smile she flashed at Helena.

Gil continued, “The last folks to own Mary McCrank’s tried to change it up, make it a steak house, and, well, it was also the recession, so,” Gil shrugged.  “Simple fact? People loved the old place as it was. Can’t mess with the history of a place like that. A local couple bought the property a couple of years ago. I know them. He was a county prosecutor, retired now. Anyway, they turned it into a wedding venue.”

“You are right about the history of a place. I can hear all four of my grandparents turning in their graves.”

Gil nodded. “But, we should get to why you’re here. Your family’s property.”

“Yes.” Helena took a moment to refocus her thoughts. “As Sheriff, you probably know the place has been vacant for years now.”

Gil nodded.

“Can I say, I’m surprised no one ever tried to contact anyone in our family about it.”

Gil did not reply. He had transformed from being chatty to circumspect. Helena reasoned it was his professional demeanor, now that they were talking business, and a good skill to have as an elected law and order official. Still, it made her uncomfortable. She preferred him talkative.

“Caleb was looking after the place, or so I thought,” Helena continued. “I assumed, when our dad died, that the place was left to him. I really didn’t know. I didn’t talk to my family for a long while. We…sorry. Never mind. I won’t go into all that. Anyway, my point is, Caleb named me his executor. I didn’t know he’d left the place vacant, and now I find out he’s not even the owner.”

Gil remained silent. He kept his gaze on her with a polite expression that gave away nothing of what he was thinking.

Helena shifted in her seat. “So, the reason why I contacted your office, is, I didn’t find the keys to the place, I mean, for starters. Initially I thought I’d just come down here and, well, break in, I guess. But then, I thought I better come armed with the deed. That’s when I discovered that the place is actually still in my grandparent’s name.”

“So, you want me to let you in the place.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m asking. Better to have an official escort.”

“What are your plans for it?”

“Well, I guess I’m in for some sort of litigation because the title is in my grandparents name. If they ever had a Will, I couldn’t find it. It’s so strange to have this thing that is your family’s home, but not legally yours. I did find records of property tax payments Caleb made. Not that that would make a difference.”

Gil looked out the window, clearly sorting through whatever thoughts he had on the matter. Helena wished she could read what he was thinking. He turned his attention back to her and cocked his head.

“Why’d they call you Hells Bells?”

Helena sat back. The non sequitur threw her off. “Uh, well, because I was kind of a rambunctious kid. So they tell me.”

“I don’t remember that. I recall, you seemed OK to me.”

“I doubt you gave me that much notice. Caleb’s kid sister? And, what, four, five years younger? I can tell you that a little girl is nothing more than some strange alien being that just happens to be in the same place at the same time as her big brother. An annoying gnat, at best.”

Gil laughed. “OK, fair enough. My youngest is a boy, so, what do I know. Tell me about Mr. Stockbridge.”

Redirecting the conversation back to the personal was frustrating. Helena glanced at her watch. She hoped to be back to her hotel shortly, preferably with a plan in hand. “He left. I kept Stockbridge for the kids’ sake, I guess.”

Gil waited for Helena to continue.

“Three boys and a girl. Which is the other reason I know older brothers and their friends don’t notice much about a little sister, except that they are annoying.”

“Do they all live near you?”

“Sheriff…”

“Gil. Please.”

“Gil. I would like to get back to my folks place if you don’t mind.”

“Yes, of course. Sorry. Um, so. The problem is that you don’t have legal access.”

 “What are my options?”

Gil frowned and then waved, as if telling someone to leave. Helena realized he was looking somewhere behind her. She turned to see the waitress, coffee pot in hand, standing stock still in the middle of the aisle between the rows of tables. The woman frowned back and walked away.

“She’s a friend, I assume?” Helena asked.

“This is a favorite place of mine. I am here a lot.” Gil hesitated and then chuckled. “She probably thinks you’re a date.”

Helena noticed Gil did not wear a wedding ring. “You mentioned your kids. Mrs. Aldridge is…?” Helena ventured.

“She racks up ex-husbands for a living. Back to your problem. Actually, I have a solution. Let’s go see someone at the courthouse.”

——      —–       ——      ——

The next morning, Sheriff Aldridge picked Helena up at her hotel. The warm, sunny weather had turned to a typically cold, damp, and gray Northwest day.

“Got you a latté, hope you don’t mind,” Gil said as Helena got into his cruiser. He handed her a large white cup. “Didn’t add anything, so I had them give me some sugars.”

“No sugar. This is actually perfect. Thanks.”

As they drove off, Helena said, “You are very good to take all this time with me. I’m sure you have more urgent, and definitely more important things that need your attention.”

“Here’s the thing about being Sheriff: I have a staff of pretty great officers, most I hired myself. Besides, the number of times I’ve covered for them…” Gil drifted off with a shake of his head. “Let’s just say, a few of them owe me.”

“Is that how you got the, whatever, warrant? Someone owed you?”

Gil smiled. “No, ma’am. I have a legitimate reason to search the premises. You called, concerned about trespassers, and property damage. Worried that the place might be a meth lab. Asked we take a look.”

“Which goes back to my question yesterday. Why hadn’t anyone from the county ever contact any of us about the place being empty for so long?”

“If an abandoned place isn’t a nuisance, then there’s not much we can do. It’s private property. Look, I know the place my whole life. One of my boyhood best friends lived there. I spent time playing there. Of course I drove by from time to time. For a while, a family I know lived there. About 10 or so years ago. They said they paid rent to a Mr. Offenbach.”

Helena frowned. “Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?

Gil shrugged.

—–       ——      ——      ——-

When they arrived at the old house, Gill pulled the cruiser all the way up to the front, driving over the tall weeds in the driveway. Helena got out and took closer look around. This time she noticed that nothing much had changed about the surrounding neighborhood. While the rest of Lewis County experienced growth, change, and modernization, the neighborhood around her childhood home remained pretty much the same as when all the bungalows were built in the beginning of the last century.

“Shall we?” Gil asked.

They picked their way through the overgrowth that shrouded the stairs to the front porch. Gil expertly picked the lock and opened the door. He instructed Helena to stay on the stoop while he checked things out. Helena noticed he had unlatched his holster and the safety on his gun. She waited until he returned, about ten minutes later.

“Well, the place is trashed, I’m sorry to say, but no one is here, and from the looks, it’s been a long while. No worries about squatters.”

Helena began to cry when she saw how damaged the house was. It was in that moment she realized the tears were for the memory of how happy her family had been during the time they lived there; how happy hers and Caleb’s childhood had been.

What she could not recall was how tough things were back then for her parents. They never gave away their fears or concerns. It was not until well into adulthood that she learned what her parents were up against. What Helena couldn’t understand is why they felt so strongly that their only choice was to leave.

Nothing after her family left Chehalis went right. They moved to Seattle for what her mother said would be a fun adventure in the big city. Her mother got regular work as a school bus driver, but her father bounced from one part-time minimum wage job to another. He slipped into alcoholism. Then her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and they tried to survive on her mother’s disability benefits and welfare. After her mother’s death, Helena deliberately lost touch with her father and brother, until the day Caleb called to say their father had passed away.

“You haven’t told me what you do for a living,” Gil said, pulling Helena abruptly out of her reverie.

“You know, you have a bizarre knack for changing the subject,” she snapped.

“Hmm. OK, then, tell me about the accident.”

“What?”

“How Caleb died.”

Helena looked for a place to sit, but of course there was none. She walked into the kitchen and Gil followed. Helena took a swipe with her hand at the accumulated dirt on a corner of a counter, brushing the residue off on her jeans. She leaned back, wiped her residual tears off with the back of her jacket sleeve, crossed her arms and took a long look at Gil.

“How’d you find out Caleb died in an accident?”

 “After I dropped you off yesterday, I looked up the record of his death. It shouldn’t surprise you have access to that sort of thing.”

“Not that it’s any of your business. Look, Gil, I am grateful for letting me in to the house, and taking all this time with me, truly, but now I have to figure out what to do…” Helena buried her head in her hands, only to instantly remember they were covered in god-knows what. She furiously wiped her face again with the sleeve of her jacket.

“I am a bank manager, since you asked. And a really good one, too. Raised my children on that job, no thanks to their father. Of course, they love him to bits. He’s fun! But, my eldest, Denny, he’s finally wised up. Keeps his father at a distance, as he should. As they all should.”

Gil repositioned himself opposite Helena against the other counter. “I’m sorry. Life always has a habit of getting in the way of living. And I’m sorry about Caleb.”  Gil paused. “I also looked up the accident report. I just want to say that I’m sure you weren’t deliberately reckless.”

“But possibly criminally liable, only there wasn’t anyone to press charges because Caleb was dead, and my parents were dead, and his ex…. she didn’t give a crap…” Helena gasped. She let out a long moan and slid down the cupboard to the floor in sobs. “What business is any of this of yours, anyway? Just because my brother was your childhood friend? Because I came here, asking for help?”

Gil crossed over and sat on the floor next to her. He placed a gentle hand on her arm. After a while, Helena calmed. She lifted her head, rubbed her face again with her sleeve and tried to smile.

“OK. That day. It…it had been…” Helena began, but the tears came back.

Gil pulled off his coat, took off his badge and gun belt and placed them on his coat. He pulled his legs in and wrapped his arms around his knees.

“It’s just me now. Me, Gilmore, your brother’s friend, sitting in your parent’s kitchen, on the floor, on a soggy, cold day, talking with little Hells Bells. Pretend I just bullied you into telling me a secret.”

“Asshole,” Helena grumbled.

“Every bit of one, my entire life. Makes me the best Sheriff a man can ever hope to be.”

“And single one, apparently, which goes with the territory, I bet.”

Gil deflected Helena’s insult with the same flat, professional, non-expression she noted the day before.

Helena took in another deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

“It goes with the territory,” Gil joked, which made Helena laugh.

Helena reached out and gave Gil’s arm a squeeze. “Caleb really missed you. Your gang of boys. I think he missed Chehalis, too. Maybe that’s why he kept paying taxes on this place. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe he thought he’d retire here? But then, why let it go like this?”

Gil sighed. “I thought a lot about those days in this house last night. I wondered why neither Cabe nor I ever got in touch. I suppose, for my part, I just got too used to people moving away. Moving on…”

“I was driving. That night.” Helena interrupted, “which you would have read in the report, I guess. We were on our way home from my college roommate’s birthday party. She throws one every year. It was the first time I went by myself, without my kids, and I hadn’t seen Caleb in a while and was worried how he was holding up after his divorce, figured he needed to be around people, so I asked if he wanted to come along.” Helena shook her head to fight back the tears. “How do you flip a car six times?”

 “You would have been going pretty fast. And, January? Probably icy roads, though there was nothing in the report about that.”

“They said he had massive internal injuries. I was pretty badly injured, too. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.”

“Yeah, but he had a bad brain aneurysm, so….”

“A what?”

Gil looked surprised. “You didn’t know? The autopsy found a burst brain aneurysm.”

Helena was stunned. “Is that what they mean by massive internal injuries?”

“No. He had that, too, but the Coroner could not conclusively determine whether the injuries sustained in the accident or the aneurysm was the cause of death. It’s possible he died before the accident.”

“He…. had a lot to drink that day. He was out within minutes after we left. I thought he’d passed out. And then the next thing I knew, we were tumbling over and over across over the road.”

Helena stared at Gil for what seemed to him as entire lifetime. He took it all in, remembering every time the girl with the dark brown hair and nearly black eyes set against alabaster skin looked up at him, wide eyed, inquisitive, and so, so pretty… before punching him playfully in his gut and running away in peals of laughter.

Everything about Gil’s first crush came back to him, and it warmed him through and through. No one ever since caught his attention, or his heart like her.

Helena. All these years, he never knew her name was Helena.

Elsa, part one

A hot, thick, wet breeze swaddled Elsa in an uncomfortable blanket. The second she stepped off the plane, her desperate wish was for a breath of cool, dry air. How do people live like this; like they are underwater? The days of the masked pandemic had nothing over tropical summer humidity.  

The drive was long to her sister’s place, as Elsa remembered. A rain forest to one side, and the Pacific Ocean to the other, all along a winding two-lane highway. The open car window blasted relatively cooler air in her face, which gave Elsa the time needed to adapt to the climate. She took in one deep breath after another and slowly exhaled after each one.

Finally arrived at her destination, Elsa dug around her carry-on for the set of keys sent to her, then thanked the Uber driver.

“You good?” the driver helpfully asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I don’t have another ride. Happy to walk in with you if you want.”

“No, thanks,” Elsa told the woman. “I’m fine.”

The exterior was a different color than before, but otherwise, Elsa’s sister’s house was much as she remembered it. But, the months of vacancy, especially in a tropical climate, showed its wear. Ants crawled in long lines on just about every countertop and cupboard door. Green Geckos scurried across every wall. Elsa remembered an aggressive spider, smaller than your garden variety, with short legs, bulky girth, and a bite that would make a mosquito envious. The memory made her wince.

That time before, when she came to visit, by the time she arrived at her sister’s, she was covered in bites from any number of venomous vermin. Elsa’s sister quickly ushered her to the bathroom, insisting she immediately shower with citronella soap, then get lathered up with her husband’s black goop (a concoction he brewed up to draw out the venom of any number of tropical insect bites), and afterward come curl up on the couch beside her with a G&T and watch some TV.  

“Just what you need, baby girl.”

Sitting on her sister’s couch that time, a short 45 minutes after her arrival, in an agitated state of itchy discomfort, Elsa silently wept. Staring out at the magnificent panoramic view of the Pacific from her sister’s home high atop an ocean bluff, Elsa thought, whomever it was that first sold the idyllic version of an exciting, exotic trip to Polynesia? What a fucking bastard.

So, here she stood, a twelve years later, in the middle of that unpleasant memory. This time, however, every centimeter of her body was covered in a rich citronella lotion.

“OK house!” Elsa yelled. “Your new mama is here! And, I’m having none of it! Umm-umm. No sir.”

Two geckos scurried to the corners of the walls. Elsa turned her gaze downward and stomped at a group of ants, who also scurried. She scanned the room for those damn spiders.