Apartment #404 Error

Toni stepped back out into the hall to double check the number on the door. She shook her head. Of course it was her apartment. Her key would not have worked if it wasn’t.

“Oh, there you are! This cake is fantastic, honey, you want some?”

An older woman and man were sitting comfortably on Toni’s couch. The woman had a wide, warm smile. The man, with an equally pleasant smile, placed his empty plate on the coffee table and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Darn good!” he replied.

Wildly confused, Toni looked down the hallway to the apartment building exit, contemplating if she should make a run for it. She looked back at the couple in her apartment. The woman was standing now, holding out a plate with a piece of cake.

“Well, come on in, honey!,” the woman said. “Look! I got us some cake. Have a piece!”

Toni walked cautiously into her living room, leaving her front door wide open as a precaution and clutching her purse and coat against her chest as if it was armor.

The man asked, “Have a good day?”

“Uh, can I…”

The woman stepped toward Toni with the slice of cake. Toni back up a couple of steps, waving the woman off.

“No, I don’t…”

“Oh, come on, now, don’t be like that. Have a piece! We got it from the bakery you told us all about,” the woman said.

Toni thrust her hand out to stop the woman’s further approach. “Excuse me, but…what…how the hell did you get into my place?!”

The man huffed, “Well, you didn’t leave us a key, so what’ya think? We had to find the manager!”

“What? He just let you in?!”

Toni took out her phone and dialed the building manager, retreating back into the hallway to wait for him to answer her call.

The man and woman exchanged disbelieving looks. The woman walked into the kitchen. Toni heard her throw the plate with the slice of cake she had been holding into the sink. The woman came back out, and in a low, angry tone that sounded almost like a growl announced to the man that they were leaving. The man shot Toni a look, which she thought seemed strangely sad.

The man and woman left the apartment, slamming the apartment door behind then and aggressively brushing past Toni where she stood in hall. As they cleared the apartment building exit, Toni heard the woman curse a blue streak.

Toni’s call to the building manager went to voicemail. She sent a text instead, trembling as she keyed in her message. She then went back into her apartment and started to go through all her belongings to see if anything was missing. Maybe the man and woman were burglars. A sweet old couple like them? The manager would never suspect them of being anything other than her parents, or an aunt and uncle.

A couple of hours later Toni overheard her neighbor talking in the hallway to another resident.

“John finally found his grandparents at a hotel downtown. They said I threw them out! I was so confused, like, how could I throw them out when I hadn’t even seen them!”

“But you left them a key under your mat, right?” replied the other.

“They said they didn’t find the key and so they had to get the manager to let them in.”

“Have you talked to the manager?”

“No, he hasn’t returned my calls. God, they are so pissed. Now they won’t even answer the phone. John’s gone to the hotel to talk to them. It’s just so screwed up!”

Toni shyly opened her door and approached her fellow tenants. “Sorry, um,” she began, and then gave out a little laugh. “Hi. I’m Toni. Yeah, uh, I think I know what happened.”


In response to TBP Redux #14

Care to play a game?

The OLWG #193 prompts are:

just shallow socializing

and then I heard this …

she’s already cooler than me

The following two stories have all three of the above prompts, but they are not literally spelled out. Can you spot them? Give it a try!


Good Fences

Lee Radcliff continued to work in silence for the better part of ten or fifteen minutes, fully aware he was being watched as he weeded his flowerbed. Lee knew who was watching him and he did everything possible to point his attention in the opposite direction.

“Mither Ra-ciff?

The meek four year-old voice was far enough away that he could justify not hearing the little girl call out his name.

“Mither Ra-ciff? ‘cue me Mither Ra-ciff?”

Please kid, Lee thought, go away.

“Lee!”

Lee looked up to his wife Marianne standing in their door. She nodded toward the little girl. Lee turned around to see their neighbor’s youngest child Jenny standing as she usually did on her side of the low chain link fence with her fingers twisted around the thin metal and her face pressed hard against it.

“Little Jenny, don’t do that,” Lee grumbled. “You’ll get a mark on your face.”

Jenny pulled back from the fence as Marianne made her way across the yard.

“Where’s your mommy today honey? Is your daddy home?”

“No,” Jenny said, then offered, “Daryl went to Mickey’th.”

“Who’s Mickey, honey?” Marianne asked.

That poor, damn kid, Lee thought. He shook his head and went back to weeding.

Marianne asked again, “Jenny, sweetie, who’s Mickey?”

“Daryl’th friend.”

“Does Mickey live nearby?”

Jenny shrugged a quick, sharp, sort of spasm with her shoulders.

“Sweetie,” Marianne continued, “Where’s your mommy?”

“She went to work.”

“OK, your brother is at Mickey’s, whoever that is, and daddy? Where’s daddy?”

Jenny nodded her head, up and down repeatedly, like a horse frustrated with its bit, followed by her little spastic shoulder shrug, and then the two together, then finally replied, “Daddy’ thleep.”

“Well, then, hm.” Marianne turned to wage Lee’s response, but he was ignoring the conversation.

“Why don’t you come on over here, honey.” Marianne gestured toward the gate of Jenny’s yard with a sweep sweeping her arm over the sidewalk, and then circling her wrist as if waiving Jenny in. “C’mon. You come spend the day with me and Mr. Radcliff.”

Lee shot a scowling look at his wife. It was difficult to get anything done with the kid underfoot. Lee decided it was high time he had some words with Jenny’s folks. That poor damn kid.

Marianne walked up to Lee with Jenny in hand. Lee dropped his head to his chest in frustration and defeat.

“Let me finish in the yard,” he pleaded, “and then some lunch, and I’ll set up the train, OK?” he said.

Marianne smiled and Jenny jumped up and down, squealing, “Train!! Train!!”


When I’m 64

At sixty-four, Ken knew he was fortunate. He was, for the most part, in good health, comfortable, and though he never pictured himself single, and living in a small town in the mountains, he knew he shouldn’t have any complaints about his lot in life. He had several good friends and plenty of work as the town’s only general contractor. So, as long as his the old bod’ could hack it, he’d keep building homes, mending roofs, remodeling kitchens and live out his days where he was.

Ken had not always been a bachelor. He had two ex-wives. No children, hence, the two ex-wives. His first wife, Marcie, was actually the one to say she didn’t want children. Ken knew she was perfect for him. But, two years later, over dinner one night, she announced she had a change of heart. She filed for divorce the next day. Losing Marcie was a hurt that never did heal.

Abigail, his second wife, figured Ken was just a typical guy afraid of kids. She was sure that, once she was pregnant, he’d be OK with being a father. Ken cared about Abigail enough to agree to think about it, meaning, he would think about getting a vasectomy. She was gone as soon as Abigail landed a lover who, when learning she was having his baby, promised to marry her (and believe me, she tried her luck with more than a couple of men).

Ken quit his job as a foreman shortly after Abigail left. He moved to the small town in the mountains and hung his shingle out as a general contractor. Here, he could not only start over, he was far away from his failed marriages and the rest of his disappointed family. It was a fresh start with new people who knew nothing about him, and time to rethink his prospects.

That was almost 30 years ago.

“Hey, Ken!” John Capshaw called out when Ken came through John’s hardware and feed store door. “You made it in, and in one piece!”

“It’s not as bad as the last couple of years. Even found a place to park.”

John finished ringing up a line of people purchasing various Christmas decorations and supplies. He thanked the last of them as they left and then went looking for Ken, who was contemplating items in the plumbing aisle.

“This town during the holidays, I tell ya. Man! Anything I can help with today?”

“Don’t think so my friend. Just making mental notes. I promised the Fairchilds I’d do some work on their place. You know Don’s still laid up.”

“No, didn’t know. Figured he’d be up at back at it by now.”

“He’s had some complications. Not sure what, but Alice called last week and asked if I’d see to a few things around the place while he’s recovering. Their bathroom’s in pretty poor shape.” Ken placed a hand on John’s shoulder, “You have a good Thanksgiving?”

“Oh, sure. Always good to have the family around. Too much food, as always, but you get my grandmother and Carol in the same kitchen? It’s gonna be a cook-off!” John patted his stomach. “You go to your sister’s this year?”

“No. If I’m going to sit around with nothing better to do than watch the game, I might as well stay home. I’ll see her in summer.”

Ken selected a couple of pipes and fittings from the shelf and followed John up to the register. “And a bag of popcorn, and that’ll do it.”

His purchase tucked under his arm, Ken walked slowly back to his truck, munching on his popcorn while taking in the spectacle the little town’s business district magically transformed into a scene from a Christmas card. The merchants and Street Department colluded each year to wait until fairly late in the evening on Thanksgiving to completely decorate the stores and streets. Locals and visitors alike stream in the following day to see the decorations with the same excitement they had as children when they rushed from their beds to see what Santa Claus silently slipped in their stockings the night before. The town would be jammed with people from now through the first of January.

Ken’s phone chirped. He looked to see who it was before answering. It was his sister. He took in a sharp breath and answered the call.

“Hey Tina.”

“Hey yourself!”

“What’s up?”

“What’s up? It’s Thanksgiving! I meant to call, but things are just crazy here. Donovan and Cheryl’s baby was not having a good time of it, and, well, you know…crazy! I’m sorry I didn’t call yesterday. What’d you do?”

Tina was an affable, warm hearted woman. Ken’s senior by eight years, Tina looked very much like their mother. So much so, it sometimes gave Ken a bit of a start. Their mother died when Ken was nineteen and during those first years after her death, Ken looked to Tina more as a parent than a sibling. Tina never quite kicked the habit of playing the parent ever since.

 “Did you go somewhere? Thanksgiving with friends? Anything?” Tina proded.

“I was at the Lutheran church for a couple hours in the afternoon. Helped them clean up after their annual community turkey feed. They sent me home with leftovers and I watched football the rest of the night.”

Ken and Tina finished their call with Ken promising to consider Tina’s invitation to come to her place for a visit sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. He climbed into his truck and drove home.

For a long while Ken stood on his back porch and watched as the afternoon wane into twilight. The temperature made a sharp drop, but Ken did not move to get a coat. He was too deep in thought to take much notice.

It was always the holidays that made the bachelor life rub him a little the wrong way. From time to time over the years he would think about pursuing something with one woman or the other he met along the way, but inevitably ruled out the idea. But each year with the advent of the holiday season came the keen reminder of how lonely he truly felt.

As the twilight gave way to nightfall, Ken could barely make out the black silhouette of an owl, the female who nested somewhere nearby, slowly sweeping by, on her way to her favorite perch in the tree next to his house. Ken marveled at the grace of her flight, and grateful for her company.

Mack and Officer Dink

worms eyeview photography of coconut trees

Mack woke to the sound of waves gently rolling onto the beach. The sand was cool and damp, and the air was still. The morning’s sunlight penetrated his eyelids, but he was not ready to open them. Sunburned and hungover, he had no desire to leave his darkened cave of sleep to face whatever carried over from the antics of the night before.

“Hello sir. Time to get up. C’mon.”

The voice startled him, and he sat up. He had to shade his eyes from the sun that was now high in the sky. The person who spoke was uniformed police. Mack looked around, surprised to be on a beach he did not recognize.

“Are you Mack Steadman?” the officer asked. Mack nodded.

“C’mon. Get up.”

“Am I…” Mack gagged on his dry mouth and coughed. The officer handed him a bottle of water. Mack nodded his thanks and gulped down the entire thing.

“OK, I’m taking you to the station. We’ll have your wife come get you there,” the officer held up his phone. “Smile!”

“Rather you didn’t do that,” Mack said.

The officer smiled. “I’m sure you don’t. I have to send it to your wife so she can confirm it’s you, though from the picture she gave us, I’m not sure she’s going to recognize you.”

Mack dropped his head in humiliation. The sudden change in posture threw off his balance and he stumbled.

“Whoa, there, big guy.” The officer reached out to keep Mack from falling down.

 “How’d you find me, anyway? I don’t even know where I am.”

“Oh, I’ve been with this precinct for many years. When we get a call from a frantic wife, girlfriend or parent, all we have to do is look at the incidents and complaints filed the night before, check in with the beat cops along the boardwalk and follow the trail from there.”

The officer’s phone beeped. “OK, your wife confirmed its you. Let’s go. You got shoes?”

Mack looked down at his bare feet. “I, uh, did…”

“Nevermind. I keep flip-flops in the trunk. Don’t suppose you got your I.D. on you.”

Mack patted himself down and shook his head.

“Well, not surprising. We’ll take care of reporting your wallet stolen when we get there.”

The two men walked off the beach to the promenade. Mack was aware of the dirty looks he was getting from the people they passed.

“Probably should get you cleaned up. Beach shower is just over there,” the officer pointed to a drab cinder block structure a few feet away. “Don’t want to have to clean all that sand out of my cab. Make you a little more presentable for the wife.”

“Officer, it won’t make a difference, but I certainly appreciate you being a good guy about all this. A fair dinkum cop is not something I deserve.”

The officer let out a laugh. “That’s not what people typically say to me when I tell ‘em I have to bring ‘em in.”

“Hey, um, mind if I ask if there were any other, what’d you call them, frantic phone calls, yesterday, about anyone else?”

“No. Why?”

“I’m wondering where my friends got to.”

“Oh, I’m guessing they managed to make it back to their hotels, Mr. Steadman.”


Prompts from UnOLWG this week are: Sunburned and hungover; fair dinkum; smiling cameras.

Always comes up with stuff I have to look up! Thanks for intro to “fair dinkum”.

The COVID Shag

Shawna frowned at her beaming husband, Carter.

“I actually got used to you with long hair.”

“Really? I thought you hated the COVID shag look. I sure did.”

“No, I said I don’t like it on me.”

“Oh. I love your hair long.”

“It itches my neck. Can’t wait to cut it.”

“But, you are waiting.”

“I’m waiting until I get vaccinated.”

“Why? If it’s bugging you, get it cut.”

“Why can’t I just do what I want, how I want, hm? You wanted to get yours cut, fine. I don’t. Not yet.”

“You going to cut it short, like always?”

“Like I said, I don’t like long hair on me.”

“I do.”

“Well, I liked you with longer hair, but you didn’t ask me.”

Shawna and Carter stared at each other, unsure what the next move should be. If there is one thing this year cooped up together demonstrated, it’s that it is best to just let the conversation freely wander around the trivial things, rather than piling them up into burning pyres of marital discontent.

“Why’d you like my hair longer?” Carter asked.

Shawna shrugged. “Oh, I guess it made you look… I don’t know… not exactly sexy, but, yeah. Sexy. Sexier.”

“Huh.”

“Not so buttoned-up, I guess.”

“Huh.”

“Why do you like me with long hair?”

Carter took a moment before replying. “This’ll sound weird because you’ve always had short hair. But, it makes you look… more feminine.”

“How’s that weird?”

“Well, because… OK. I’ve always thought that you’re pretty, right? Long hair makes you… different pretty.”

“Different pretty.”

Carter smiled, “Yeah, whatever that means.”

“So, you’d like me to be different.”

“No, that’s not what I said.”

“Do you want someone different?”

“Shawna, please don’t do this. We agreed. I love you just the way you are. I don’t care if your hair is short. I just happen to really like it long. That’s it. I don’t want someone different. Please, please, don’t do this.”

Shawna gave Carter a quick hug around the waist, then walked out of the room. Carter sighed. It was going to be another one of her sulky days.


The haircut prompt made me laugh. All three prompts this week are: Let it wander around; Burning pyres; I don’t like your haircut

The House of Magic Products

I did it! I got all 15 of the recent Un-OLWG prompts in one post…and, I wrote it on the fly! Me so proud. The prompts are in bold. Easier to spot that way when there are so many. A few are tweaked to better fit the story. And, the story? It is inspired by a true event! Not something I typically do.

“This is the oldest district of Chinatown,” Brent announced to the group of twenty or so people who signed up for the walking tour of downtown. He smiled a grin so wide, it exposed almost all of his teeth. The people gathered looked at him in anticipation, as if he was about to deliver a punch line.

Brent was an unlikely Chinatown tour guide. A thirty-two year-old Irishman (regardless his grandmother’s protestation that the family was English) and community college basketball coach (a job that supported his fanciful dream of one day being a celebrated poet) who would be taken for an authority on nothing other than what was important to the average millennial. He walked the group a few blocks, making casual conversation along the way, before beginning his presentation. He stopped on the corner of Jackson and 4th.

“Now, most who write about Chinatown dismiss these four blocks north of Juniper Park as your classic red-light district, with girls loitering on street corners lit by neon restaurant signs, opium dens, and drug lords infamous for shooting their victims between the eyes, stripping them naked and burying them in vats of grease. That sold a lot of Hollywood movies and mystery novels over the years, but it’s a little too retro and cliche characterization, in my opinion. Not surprisingly, too, it’s inaccurate.

“What you actually have here are no less than ten different association houses, just in this area. An association house is an integral part of most Chinatowns around the world. It was a place of refuge, business, and, in a way, governance. When you lived in a world that shuts you out, or exploits you, the association house was your lifeline, and definitely a fairer arbiter than City Hall.”

A hand came up from the group. “But, there was crime, wasn’t there? It isn’t all B.S.” The question was inevitable on almost every tour Brent led.

“Yes, yes. Of course. No society or culture is without their share of crime. They did traffic in illegal goods and services, and fights would erupt, typically out in the street between two rival gin joints, but mostly, they did everything else right by their community. They provided housing, employment, temples for worship, schools, legal representation, traditional medicine as well as western health clinics and hospitals, excetera, excetera.

“Any questions? No? OK, let’s walk to the next spot.”

Brent led them through a narrow, perfectly kept alley, complete with a public art installation that looked like hundreds of large, colorful kites sailing above them. One of the cables anchoring the installation in place had come loose and was dangling enticingly close overhead. A couple of teenagers in the group jumped to try and grab it.

Leave it alone,” a woman, presumably their mother, hissed. “Show some respect!”

Brent ignored the comotion. He thought the tour guides who scolded people in their group, or barked orders, took all the fun out of it for the others. He simply pressed on, which tended to keep everyone on task to reach their next destination. He stopped in front of an old brick building and waited for everyone to catch up.

“We are standing in front of one of the last fully operational association houses. Up there,” Brent pointed to a brightly painted and decorated balcony three floors up, “written in character, of course, is the phrase, ‘The wind carries both good and bad to your door.’ It’s a sort of motto of this family association. I think it was, well, actually, still is meant as a warning that bad behavior is not tolerated here, and that only those pure of heart may enter.

“Travelers, visitors, new immigrants, upon reading that slogan, would know exactly which family association house this was. If you were of the same family, or had ties to the family name, then this was an appropriate house for you to find a bed for the night, something to eat, assistance, guidance, whatever your need.”

“What does that say?” asked a man holding a camera with a long telephoto lens and pointing to the terracotta archway over the main doors. Brent wasn’t sure what the man was indicating, until he stepped closer to the entrance and took a close look. He had not noticed the characters before. They were very small. So, unless, like the man with a telephoto lens, you had some sort of magnification, you would miss them entirely. The little bit of study Brent had made of Mandarin in college and in the years since helped him decipher the translation. But as he worked out the words, the thought came to him that it might be Japanese.

He stepped back to take in the building. The storefronts and businesses had signs in Mandarin, but he noted the building was just a block off of the predominantly Japanese neighborhood that stretched westward up the hill toward Little Saigon, something he had not taken into consideration before.

“Well, my friend,” Brent said to the man, “you managed to show me something I’ve never noticed!” The group chuckled. A woman said in a low voice to her companion, ‘thinks he’s such an expert…’ As with the comotion with the teenagers, Brent ignored the comment.

“What I can tell you is it says something to the effect, ‘Don’t pray for me, pray for them’, but what is fascinating is that I believe it’s in Japanese.”

The group stared at their tour guide, awaiting explanation. Brent flashed his big smile. “Not surprising. I mean, I will have to check out the ownership records to be sure, but we are on the border of the neighborhood that’s historically Japanese, so it’s possible a Japanese family or company owned the building at some point. Anyway…if you are interested, give me your email or number and I’ll let you know when I find out!”

At just that moment, Brent’s phone text beeped. He looked at it, but he didn’t need to. He knew it was the visitor’s center with a reminder that it was time to escort a tour back to Juniper Park.

“Sorry, folks, that text means we’re out of time! Before we head back, I want to thank you for coming along. I hope you enjoyed the tour and maybe learned something you didn’t know before. In conclusion, I wish all of you safe and happy travels, and encourage you to patronize any of the shops we pass by on our way back. My favorite is the little novelty shop across the street.”

Magic Products? What a weird name for a store,” the same snarky woman from before said. “Sounds like a snake oil sales pitch, if you ask me.”

“A literal translation of ‘Magic Shop’. Come on!,” Brent encouraged, “I’ll show you. It’s a great place!”

Ricochet

This post is merged stories “C U Then” and “Mandy”, with some changes and edits. I originally wrote “C U Then” to develop a story for a scene I had knocking around my head . I subsequently wrote “Mandy” to reveal why Chris was saddled with her, and as a response to OLWG #169 prompt, which I thought fit with their story. But as I wrote “Mandy,” the story veered off in a direction I did not intend. You know the funny saying, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader”? That is what I felt about Mandy’s story. I had no idea where she was heading, and since she did not reveal anything more to me, I stopped writing.

Fast forward to my recent Blog Propellant prompt to interview someone, real or fictional. I do not always respond to my own writing prompts, but this one I thought fun. I rolled around a couple ideas in my mind and Chris Morriston popped up. He asked, “Can we please demand that Mandy tell us why she came looking for me? You guys just left me here, in the hotel restaurant, with no answers!”

So, first, the following are the re-written Mandy and Chris stories, followed by Chris’ interview with me.

++++++++++

Mandy set the canvas bag bulging with the stacks of cash on the floor behind the passenger seat. She scolded herself for not doing a better job of packing it. It was too obvious. It also was heavier than she expected. Anyone who may have seen her could tell she was clearly carrying something other than an oversized purse.

She pulled onto the street as casually as her nerves would allow. She meandered through her neighborhood on streets she never drove before in order to avoid anyone recognizing her or her car. Once on the main thoroughfare, she moved into the inner lane of the four-lane boulevard, keeping tabs on who was behind her through the rearview mirror, and keeping her speed steady with the traffic. She knew where the street cameras were downtown, so she avoided making turns at those intersections. Getting to the freeway took more time as a result, but the effort to avoid detection bought her some time.

How much time Mandy had before anyone put it together that both she and the cash were gone, she could not tell exactly. Hopefully, they would first notice that she was gone. Her absence would not be particularly concerning, thanks to her habit of disappearing on drunken benders. So, as long as no one noticed the missing cash before they were aware of her absence, she had at least a couple of days ahead of them. But, once Danny learned the safe had been emptied, from that point on, she would be racing against the clock.

Seattle was at least three days’ drive away.

Mandy’s eyes welled up with tears as she thought of her children. She was desperate for things to play out as she planned. If it worked, she could not only see her kids again, but maybe be a part of their lives. If it all went as she hoped, she could live life honestly and in the open.

The exit sign ahead indicated a Rest Stop. She looked at the time. Ahead of schedule. Mandy pulled off the freeway to call Christopher Morriston.

The Un-OLWG #169 prompts are: Let them go; bulbous; bandit cash

++++++++++

Chris Morriston sat in his car, head in his hands. A gentle knock on the passenger side window jerked him back into the present.

“Hi…” the older man standing outside his car said, with a wave. “…you OK, there?”

Chris looked him over and decided it was OK to turn the ignition to roll down the window.

“Yeah. Just…a rough day,” Chris replied.

“OK, well, as long as you’re OK. I’m just getting to work. Night clerk at reception,” the man pointed to his name badge, “Roger. So, if you need anything, dial zero, OK? What room did you say you are in?”

Chris understood the man was just doing his duty by making sure Chris was not using the parking lot to sleep it off, or whatever was best done somewhere other than hotel property.

“Yeah, thanks, um… I’m in 404. Morriston. Christopher Morriston.”

Roger the hotel clerk gave him a thumbs up and walked away. Chris watched him enter the lobby, waited a couple of minutes, then went back into the hotel.

Chris slid the keycard into the hotel room and unlatched the door, giving a gentle knock.

“Hello?” he called out.

The lights were on, but the room was quiet. Chris’s pulse shot up. A sudden, excited notion hit him that maybe, just maybe, she took off. He walked in and called out again.

Mandy was face down in the first bed. An empty pint of vodka was on the bedside table. The bag she said was full of cash was tucked under her arm. The lower half of her body was uncovered, exposing purple lacy underwear that rode up one cheek. Chris stared, longer than he should; surprised at seeing something unexpected, or the terror of urgent attraction, he could not tell. He grabbed the edge of the blanket and yanked it over her legs, not caring if it woke her.

She did not budge. His pulse raced again. He bent over her looking for signs of her breathing. A muffled, gentle snore emanated from the corner of her open mouth. Relieved, Chris sighed. A dead Mandy would have been one complication too many.

If her story was true, then he was in a world of hurt.  What to do still eluded him. He could only stay holed up here with her for so long, and now that Roger the night clerk had a name with a face, he would have to put next steps in motion sooner than he was ready to do.

He saw Mandy’s purse on the chest of drawers. It was open. He peered into it. He was not worried about a weapon. She would have used it from the first if she had something on her. He lifted out a wallet and looked through it. Three dollar bills, four credit cards, all with different names, a Starbucks gift card, a few coins, a receipt for LED bulbs and plumbing pipe from an ACE Hardware, and her license: Amanda Anne Andersen with an address in Phoenix. He wished he took time to check her ID before he rushed them out of town.

He looked at the ACE receipt again. It was badly faded, but he could make out a date from two years prior. No store address or phone. He unfolded it and discovered his office number and his name scrolled on the back.

Chris put all the contents of the wallet back then peered one last time into the purse before returning it. Another pair of underwear, a phone, a tampon that had clearly been in the purse for some time, a pen, lipstick case, more loose change, and a pill bottle poking out of the fold of the bag’s lining. With a careful finger, he pulled the fold aside to read the bottle. Ambien. Washed down with the pint, no doubt. No wonder she was sleeping like the dead. Curious she wasn’t concerned about staying alert, he mused.

His cell phone vibrated. He did not need to see who was trying to reach him. It was Bella Obviously, his text of several hours before did not do the trick.

***

Roger the night clerk waved when he saw Chris. “Everything better now, sir?”

Chris shrugged. “ ‘bout the same, I guess.”

Roger bobbed his head in an understanding nod. “The restaurant’s open, twenty-four-seven. Late night menu until five-thirty, then breakfast. Oh, and today’s paper’ll be here in about an hour.”

Roger the night clerk genuinely belonged in the hospitality industry, Chris thought with an inward smile. Too bad for me, if anyone comes looking.

“Thanks. I’ll head in.”

Chris took a seat in a booth around the corner of the entrance and sat where he had a view of most of the place. A young waiter brought over a single sheet menu. Chris quickly perused the late-night offerings and ordered barbeque pork sliders, whatever was on tap, and a shot.

“I am so sorry, sir,” the young man said in a curious lilt that made Chris wonder what sort of affectation the young man was trying to emulate, “but the bar is closed. No spirits after one A.M. So, just a beer OK?”

Chris nodded, handing back the menu. As the young man walked away, Chris found himself watching him go. Force of habit, he assured himself. But truth was, since Mandy showed up, he had been on high alert; “show mode”, as he called it. Everyone was a potential threat or suspect, even the unassuming types, like friendly Roger the night clerk and the young waiter with the curious lilt in his voice.

His phone lit up again. This time a hard-edged angst knotted his gut. He had never given Bella any reason to fear for his safety, nor need to question him when he said he would be away for a while but could not discuss why.

It was not as though he was an operative. Not anymore. That stuff was a young, single man’s game. Bella knew that. Life as an analyst was cushy, with regular hours, uninterrupted days off. The few times he was called away were never a risky business.  

He sent her a text: I’m ok but can’t talk. Shit went down today. Will have to see this thru. Promise to call as soon as it’s ok.

Seconds later a reply came through. Thinking it was Bella, Chris was surprised to see a coded message from his boss: fyi all set for fri C U then

“Ah, shit,” Chris muttered.

++++++++++++++++++++

Hey, Chris, I’m here! You have questions?

Oh, hi! Yeah, uh, wow. OK! Uh, please, have a seat.

(I slide into the bench across the table from Chris) Right where I left you, looks like.

Yup. Want a beer?

Sure.

Wait, is that one of the questions?

No (I catch the attention of the young waiter with the lilt, pointed at Chris’ pint and then to myself).

OK, well, I have only one question: What is Mandy to me?

Do you want her to answer that, or me?

Uh, you, I assumed. Don’t you know?

I do, I do. But, Mandy knows as much as I do (my beer arrives, along with a refill for Chris). How many of those have you had?

Well, you left me here since, what, October?

Just so you know, that’s three questions.

Shit. Well, I guess I do have more questions. Let’s see. Wha… no, wait. Umm…OK, like this: Whoever said, only five questions are allowed, has not walked an inch in my shoes. And, while we’re at it, that’s two of your three follow up questions.

(I laugh) Good catch.

So, OK, allow me to guess! Conserve my rations.

Good idea.

Right. OK. So, Mandy. She’s from my previous life. Statement, not a question.

Yes.

(Chris throws up his arms in a referee ‘touchdown’ gesture) So, why don’t I know her? Oh, shit! That’s four. Damn!

(I laugh again. Chris is someone I’d actually like to know. Too bad he is only a figment of my imagination). Chris, think in degrees of separation.

How many degrees?

And, that’s your fifth and final question.

Damn! (Chris shakes his head. He takes a long draw on his beer and sets his glass down). Well, that’s it, I lose.

Yeah, but, you do get an answer: Just one.

OK! Then she is… a child; a daughter. Of someone I know?

Is that a question?

Oh, who the hell cares.

(We both laugh)

Well, Chris, I guess our time’s up. Too bad. I would have enjoyed helping you figure this out.

Help me? Are you kidding? No, no…forget I’m over the question limit. Seriously, it’s your job, my friend, to get back to that laptop of yours and write me out of this mess you got me in.

(I slide out of the booth and stand to go. Roger the night clerk sees me in the doorway of the restaurant and waves. I wave back).

We’ll figure it out, Chris, eventually. Together. Keep asking questions. As you say, who cares about the number of question rule.

(I suddenly look away, as if I’ve heard a noise).

What is it?

Mandy’s awake.

The Yin and Yang of it

The Neumann family tradition on Saint Nicholas Day was a weekend long get-together. It was an annual reunion everyone looked forward to, but more to the point, it was a generations-old, clever solution as how to get everyone together without the obligation of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a typical summer gathering.

For Clarisse, however, the week before held the prosaic and boresome job of baking ten dozen Lebkuchen and of painstaking application of tiny icing swirls to each cookie. To say the least, it was a laborious task resulting in hand cramps, an aching back and regular doses of Tylenol.


Thought I’d jump into the two-prompts game with this one. First is this week’s UnOLWG prompts: prosaic; laborious; boresome. The second prompt comes from this week’s Carrot Ranch flash fiction challenge: In exactly 99 words, write about family holiday tradition.

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.