The Loop

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To his horror, he realized he’d been this way before, but it had been a dream then, and it was very very real now, as the road curved to the right and then to the left.  He slowed his car down to look, and yes, there was the burned out building on the left, with the business sign on a 20 ft pole by the street, the front cracked and mostly missing, except for the silhouette of a black cat on one corner. Now there was going to be a grimy local convenience store on the right, and there it was.

He wasn’t sure why he had chosen to take this particular road home from the business meeting.  He’d been preoccupied with thoughts of what his wife was going to make for dinner and trying to remember if there was a basketball game on tonight, just simple thoughts really, although he’d also thought briefly about the peculiar mole the man he’d met had above his left eyebrow. It was darkest brown and large and in the shape of a gum drop, and it kept moving as his potential client talked. It was quite distracting, actually. He’d tried to put the mole image out of his head, because it mildly repulsed him and the man was very nice, otherwise. He’d like to have him as a client. Perhaps mostly by phone and computer though.

He could turn around and go back to find his normal route home but his car had only a quarter tank of gas and he had no idea where there was a gas station in the area. It was probably just a coincidence that he’d dreamed about driving this road. What was up ahead? Ah, yes the same row of apartment buildings, with kids playing ball in the parking lot. And right there–was an L shaped single level business complex, with most of the windows empty. There were no other cars on the road, just like in his dream.

A feeling of dread grew in him as he saw familiar landmarks to the right and to the left and to the right again.  And up ahead, if things continued like this….the bridge over the river. And after he crossed over the bridge, he’d see the same burned out building again, and the convenience store and he’d drive and drive and drive on an endless loop with no way out.  He’d always wake up from this dream sweaty, his heart pounding, and his wife murmuring half awake soothing sounds.

Was there a way off this path? Could he turn down a side street and break free? He wasn’t sure, and was afraid to try. What if there was something worse waiting for him down a dark side street?

He kept driving.

There was the bridge ahead. It was the moment of truth and his heart felt like it was going to leap out of his chest. The car tires hummed as he drove over the bridge and then he was on the other side. Was there going to be the burned out building ahead?  Could he bear it?  He stopped the car on the side of the road.

What is the worst that can happen? he asked himself. There might be the burned out building ahead, which means he is stuck in a loop. But maybe there isn’t. There was only one way to find out. And maybe if he IS in the loop he only thinks he’s not dreaming. Maybe he’s in the dream….and then he’ll wake up with his lovely wife lying next to him. And he loved waking up next to her.

“I’m on my way to you, one way or another, Margo,” he said out loud.

He moved his car back onto the road and began to drive.

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Casper and the Lamb

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She held the baby lamb in her arms. It was cold in the barn stall and she could hear the rustling of horses in the other stalls. The lamb was growing cold too.  It had died the hour before. She held the lamb and thought about the fresh grave in the family cemetery up on the hill. She’d lost the baby just shy of 6 months along in the pregnancy and the pain was still raw and ferocious. She held the lamb and rocked from side to side, crooning under her breath.

Her husband had gently tried to coax her away from the dead lamb but she wasn’t ready. Life is just endless letting go and letting go and letting go, she thought. “I need just a bit more time,” she said and he’d kissed the top of her head and eased out of the stall. She knew he was standing outside the barn, his hands tucked into his wool jacket, waiting for her.

She needed to go into town, she needed to buy supplies for the farm, she needed to start getting back into life, but the first time she’d tried it went okay until she saw the Easter baby outfits in the window of the children’s store. It took her breath away and she bent over in pain. She’d had to get back in the truck and wait for her husband to finish the shopping.

She heard a shuffling noise behind her in the stall.

“I’m guessing that’s you Casper,” she said. A little snicker sound of reply.

She rocked back and forth slowly. “One of these days you’re going to show up when everything’s just fine and dandy,” she said softly. “I’d like that. You listening, Casper?”

Another little snicker, a bit closer and then she could feel a warm breath on her ear. A horse muzzle was lightly resting on her shoulder and she could hear him breathing. She stopped rocking and sat there several minutes, her eyes shut. It was as close to a hug as a horse could give.

She reached up to pat the muzzle and it wasn’t there.  She sat for another moment, then got up on her knees to lay the lamb in the little box her husband had built.

“Jon?” she called.

She heard the barn door creak open.

“Yes love?”

“I’m ready. I’m ready to bury the lamb now.”

 

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Word of the Year 2019

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Particles in Space

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Space always looked so beautiful from inside the spacecraft but now it had a whole different feel, he thought. He gazed out the window at the stars. There were so many millions of them to see, when one was floating miles above the earth and away from light pollution. He touched his swollen abdomen again and grimaced. They were sending a doctor up to him, but the weather was stormy at the cape and there was no knowing when it would clear enough to be able to launch. All the signs indicated that he had appendicitis, and it was growing worse by the hour.

He loved looking down at the earth from spacecraft. He never grew tired of it. There was so much clarity in space. Everything was crystal clear and close and yet far. The dichotomy intrigued him and led his mind down spirals of poetic thought. Every politician should be required to spend a month in space, he thought. It would change every single one of them for the better. How could it not? You lose your ego in space and realize just how small you are. You see how you are just a wee particle in the grand scheme of things and how all particles either repel or attract. That all particles have their role to play.

He knew he needed to drink something but he didn’t feel like it. He felt dreamy and wanted to float so he unlatched his harnesses and drifted. There was something new out the window and he languidly kicked his legs in that direction. There was a woman floating just outside the window, her long red hair like a rippling burning lake around her face. She was smiling at him. There was part of him that knew she was just a hallucination but she was beautiful and he really didn’t care. He waved to her. She pointed to something off her left side. He drifted closer to see. There was a spaceship coming towards him. She motioned towards her ear. He tapped his own ear. She motioned again. He put in his earbud that had fallen out.

“Mission control calling. Come in please. Mission control calling. Readying to dock. Ready all at your end. Please confirm.”

He knew he needed to do something. What was it again? He glanced at her. She made the motion of putting on a helmet. He put on his helmet. She motioned to push buttons.

He floated over to the docking control panel. There were so many buttons and he was tired. Maybe he could close his eyes for a bit and do it later. He looked at her. She lifted her arm in an exaggerated motion to her right and pretended to push five buttons in a row. He looked down at the panel and pushed the five right side buttons that were blinking.

He could feel a whoosh in the air pressure of the cabin. There were more noises in his ear. He was so tired.

“Mission Control, we’ve docked and are going in.”

He looked at the window. She blew him a kiss and began to drift away. He closed his eyes and what seemed like hours later he felt someone grasping him from behind.

 

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The Woman in the Lake

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She lay exhausted staring at the still wet canvas. It stretched around three walls of the room. She’d pulled all the furniture out of the home office so she’d have room to staple the canvas to the walls.  She was beyond caring about staple holes and paint on the wood floor. Anything could be fixed, repainted, holes filled in. Those things didn’t matter. What mattered was the image she’d painted. The image of the woman swimming in the lake. It had been hard to capture the essence of the forest surrounding the lake, but she was pleased with how the lake turned out and the expression on the woman’s face.

She’d thought long and hard about where to hang the canvas. The lecture hall was long and narrow, and curtains hung across the back of the stage. It would be difficult to hang the canvas from the curtains…the weight might just pull them down. And she wanted Jonathan to see the painting as he gave his talk on his latest book The Crow’s Dinner.  Would the lights be turned low in the hall, with just the spotlight on the author? She wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps part of this was just leaving it up to chance. He’d see it, either before, or after. Maybe it didn’t matter. She tried to convince herself of that.

The lecture was scheduled for late afternoon and she snuck into the hall in the early morning, using a friend’s key and carrying the large rolled up canvas slung under one arm. There was ample space on the back wall of the hall for her to hang the painting and she was able to attach it quite easily to the light fixtures that were spaced a few feet apart. It hung fairly high so she was sure that he’d see it from his spot on the stage.

She returned about an hour before the lecture was to start. People were already entering the hall and there was a quiet buzz about the mysterious painting. Several people took pictures of themselves standing in front of it, or just pictures of the painting itself.

“Do you recognize the scene?” one man asked another, standing close to her. “It’s from one of his books. A woman goes swimming and is pulled under the lake into another world.”

“Oh, that’s right,” the other man replied. “She comes back completely changed. I remember that.”

“It’s quite a wonderful metaphor,” the first man said. “I love how he takes such liberties and yet it all works and is so believable. I can’t wait to hear about his next book.”

“I wonder who painted it?”

“Perhaps it’s his,” the first man said. “Maybe he tours with it.”

She smiled to herself and found a seat towards the back of the hall.

The lights dimmed as Jonathan walked onto the stage to large applause. He read a couple of chapters from his book and talked about the book he was currently working on, and shared some stories about writing. As he looked out into the audience he’d occasionally shade his eyes and look towards the back. Finally the lights were brought up so members of the audience could ask questions.

He stood still as he clearly saw the painting across the back wall. And then a wave of delight washed across his face.

“How marvelous,” he said. “There must be a true fan here.” Several people applauded.

“More than one,” someone called out.

“I’d like to meet the painter,” Jonathan said. “Are they here?”

There were lots of murmurs and stirrings, and then she stood up. She walked down to the microphone that had been set up for audience questions.

She leaned towards the microphone. “I painted it,” she said.

Applause was immediate and she waited for it to die down, looking at Jonathan.

“That woman in the painting is me,” she said. “That’s how I feel every time I read one of your novels. I am swimming in a lovely lake and I sink into another place, another world and the immersion is exquisite. So this painting is a gift for you, a thank you. For gifting all of us with that pleasure.”

Jonathan bowed to her. “Thank you.”

“Thank YOU,” she said.

 

For JC

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The Well in the Garden

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There was a legend about the well in the garden and he knew about it from whispers here and there but his grandmother told him that he would be told the whole legend when he was ready.

“When am I ready?” he asked, spooning another dip of cereal into his mouth.

“Well, Saraf, ” his grandmother said, looking sternly at him. “It’s not a matter of when. It’s a matter of If.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sit and eat, child. Don’t stand there and chew. Sit at the table like a proper young person.”

Saraf sat at the table and started moodily at the flowered tablecloth. It really was rather unfair. He knew he was ready.  Why didn’t she?  He was 13 and very mature for his age or at least that’s what everyone told him. His older sister already knew. She was 16 and she had known for at least a year. He wanted to know too.

He cornered his sister in the drawing room.

“Come on, tell me, sis,” he hissed urgently. “It’s not fair that I’m the only one who doesn’t know.”

She looked at him gravely. “You DO know that it’s a family secret, don’t you? That nobody outside our family has even been told? It’s a sacred secret. Perhaps that’s why you haven’t been told yet. They don’t think you can keep a secret.”

“That’s just not true,” he said hotly.

“It’s up to our Grandparents,” she said. “They are the passer of the legend. You’ll have to wait until they think you are ready.”

He fumed for a moment and then went out to the garden to look at the well. It was in the far shady corner of the large garden under a bower of blooming fruit trees. As he’d done many times before he peered down into the deep shadow and dropped a pebble in. It was a deep well so it was a few seconds before he heard the little splash below.

“Hello hello hello,” he called down into the well. “Hello hello hello” his voice echoed back up. He saw a glimpse of his sister walking down the path towards him and he skittered back behind some bushes.  She went to the well and looked into the depths. She took an object from her skirt pocket, kissed it, and tossed it into the well.

“Clear skin!” she called into the well. “Clear skin,” the well echoed back. As she rested her hands on the edge of the well the charm bracelet on her left wrist came loose, and with a clatter it fell into the well. “Dang!” she said. “That was quick!  Oh well, a small price to pay to get rid of these awful zits.”

Saraf jumped out from behind the bushes. “What the hell was that?” he said.

His sister shrieked. “Why are you hiding! What did you see?”

“I saw everything. NOW you have to tell me.”

“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she said. “You have to SWEAR that you won’t tell anyone. And act surprised when Gran or Gramps finally tell you.”

“I Swear!  I do!” he said, excitedly.

“This well grants wishes,” she said. “Really, truly. You have to bring a silver dollar and kiss it and drop it in the well and your wish will be granted. But there’s a catch.  You get something and you lose something. And the size of what you lose depends on the size of what you ask for. So be really really careful. Promise me. Be super careful.”

“I’ll be very careful,” he said. “I probably won’t even wish for anything for a while.”

And true to his word, he didn’t. He had a silver dollar that his Grandpa had given him for his last birthday tucked away in his shirt drawer, and while he’d take it out occasionally and hold it in his hand, dreaming about things to wish for, he never used it, until one evening at dinner. His mother was talking excitedly about an upcoming lecture at the college where she taught when she suddenly stopped talking and began to choke, her face turning red. There was much screaming and yelling and people jumping around trying to help her and he ran to his room and grabbed his silver dollar.  He darted out of the house and down the path to the well as fast as he could. He stood at the edge and kissed the silver dollar and threw it in.

“My mother healthy for 30 years,” he called into the well. “My mother healthy for 30 years,” the well called back.

He ran back to the house and into the formal dining room. He saw his mother across the room and she was standing and breathing but she was also crying and looking down behind the dining table and there was his grandfather lying on the floor, his face quiet, his eyes open and not moving.

His sister came over to him, tears streaming down her face. “It all happened so fast,” she said. “Mom was choking on a piece of steak and Gramps got up to give her the Heimlich and he just suddenly fell over…it was awful. Where did you go? Why did you run……oh god. Oh no. Oh you didn’t.” Her eyes widened as she looked at him.

He looked at her and he looked at his grandfather and he looked at his father in a wheelchair and everything clicked into place. The bus accident which paralyzed his father but gave him a million dollar settlement. It all made sense now.

Be careful what you wish for.

 

 

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Mermaid Girl

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Bacon sandwiches always reminded her of her very favorite vacation as a child. Her dad had borrowed his cousin’s trailer and their family had stayed two weeks at a campground at the beach. Two weeks was a lifetime for a ten year old girl and she had such happy memories of that trip. Her younger brother was going through a phase where he only wanted to eat bacon and their mother indulged him on the trip by making them bacon sandwiches every day for lunch. They’d wrap the sandwiches in wax paper and walk with them through the campground and across a little bridge that spanned a creek that ran down to the ocean bay. There was a children’s playground on one side of the sandy beach that curved around the bay and they’d sit on the swings and eat their sandwiches, watching the little birds that hopped around on the wet sand close to the mild surf.

Her younger brother Sam didn’t mind hanging around with her on these vacations although he wanted little to do with her at home. He was a rough and tumble little kid, even at eight years old and was always busy plotting nefarious adventures with his best friend who lived across the street. Oh the trouble he’d get into! But on these trips, away from his buddy he was a friendly companion.  She liked to make up little stories for him and on that trip she’d made up a series of stories about a mermaid girl who lived in the bay where they were staying. She had him half way convinced that the mermaid girl actually existed.

There were several other families staying in their campground, with kids around their age. They’d wave to each other as they passed by their campsites. Sometimes she was too shy to wave but she’d smile and duck her head a bit. There was a boy around her age that she thought was cute and she wrote entries about him in her diary. It was especially thrilling on days when he smiled back at her.

On one of the last days of the vacation she was sitting on the swings as usual with Sam and she started telling him about the castle family and the pirates that were threatening them. There was a climbing apparatus in the playground and in the center of it was a large structure that looked like a tree house tower about ten feet off the ground and she told Sam that the castle family and their loyal guard lived there. While she was telling her story she noticed that other children from the playground were drawing closer to listen and she had an idea.

“Do you want to play castle tower?” she asked all the kids. The cute boy was there and she made a point of looking at him. There was something about being on vacation far from home that made her brave in ways she usually couldn’t be at home because of usually being so shy. The ten kids or so wanted to play so she explained how they were all part of the castle family or one of the loyal guards and she gave each kid a role to play. They all climbed up to the tower and she began to issue commands.

“The pirates are coming soon,” she called. “Gather up all necessary weapons!”

“They’re coming up the beach….first guards go down and fight them!”

“More are coming……second guards join the fight!”

“They’re climbing up to the castle…everyone fight!”

The kids all jumped around, swinging imaginary swords and having sword fights up and down the beach. They yelled and whooped. She watched, laughing, and then ran across the sand and into the waves up to her waist.  She turned back to the beach and began to slowly walk out of the water, holding her left arm high, clenched around an imaginary sword.

“Here comes the Mermaid Girl,” she called loudly. “Coming to fight the Pirate King!”

With the water fizzing to and fro around her ankles, she moved her left arm dramatically in several lunging sweeps. She staggered for a moment, clutching her side and then swung her arm again. “Got you Pirate King!” she yelled triumphantly. Everyone hooted  and when she looked at the cute boy he was looking at her with such fierce admiration on his face she could still see it thirty years later.

His family left the campground the next day and she never saw him again. She thought about that look from time to time, and much later in her life realized that she was waiting to see that look again on the face of a good and fiercely loyal man, who’d then be her one and only true love.

 

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