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.

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/