Monday, July 13, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 8: One Day in the Park

Every day she came and sat on the bench beneath the oak tree at the edge of the playground, ate her lunch, and watched the children play. No one sat with her. No one intruded. It was as if she had this wall around her that kept everyone out. She never spoke to anyone or sat anywhere else. The only days she didn't show up was when it rained or the temperatures were too cold to allow children to play outside.

It was June and the weather was usually nice this time of year. She must have come early today. When she finished her lunch, she sat back, crossed her ankles, folded her hands in her lap and with a small smile, she watched the half dozen children clamber over monkey bars, swings, and spin on the merry-go-round. They screamed and yelled and giggled, but she just kept smiling.

I'd watched her for several years now and I knew no more about her today than I had when I'd first seen her one hot August day. She never seemed to notice me. I don't remember what drew my attention but after a few weeks of seeing her, I found myself trying to figure her out. Weeks grew into months and months into years. I still hadn't figured her out.

A friend of mine asked me once, after I'd told them about her, why I didn't just walk over and talk to her. I couldn't explain it to them. I just said I couldn't do that. I wasn't embarrassed, well maybe I was a little, but that wasn't it. There was something about her, something... that felt fragile or... oh, I don't know. That wall I sensed, maybe it was more like a bubble, a glass bubble, that would shatter in a million pieces if I approached it or touched it. So, as she watched the children with a smile, I watched her with a frown.

Today was a rotten day. Most days, like the lady on the bench, I was just here to enjoy my lunch. Today, it lay unopened on the seat next to me. It didn't matter if I ate it or not. I'd lost my job and there was no rush to get back to work. So, I just sat there and stewed and fumed over the unjustness of the universe. I'd worked so hard to get that job. It had taken me ten years to reach upper management and in less than two, I was canned. I still didn't know why they fired me.

Oh, they had all the right phrases to hand me. They said it was the economy. They said I was talented and they hated to lose me. They said they'd give me a great reference. Sadly, my job was zeroed and I had to go.

I sighed and watched the children going down the slide. They laughed out loud and cheered their friends and slapped them on the back for their success at conquering the mountain. Today they had no worries. Today they could enjoy the freedom to spend the day in laughter with friends. Someone would feed them, shelter them, and kiss them goodnight. They'd enjoy worry-free security.

Something else was different today. The lady on the bench was absent. Of course, I was early so perhaps I'd just beat her here. That rarely happened on days like today. I looked around the park. There were lots of mothers seated on benches or on blankets on the ground. A few brought lounge chairs and were reading with their children nearby. She was nowhere to be seen.

I got up and walked around for a few minutes, never losing site of her bench. She should be here by now. I ran my hands through my already disastrous hair. I rubbed them on my skirt and crossed my arms. I walked back to my bench and sat down on the edge, clutching it on each side of me so tightly that my fingers hurt.

I relaxed them. I was overreacting. I was way early. She'd show up any minute, walking sedately to her bench where she'd sit down very carefully. She'd open her bag and take out her sandwich and eat it while watching the children. She'd sip her water.... I got up and walked a dozen yards and came back.

Where was she? She had to show up today. I stared at the toes of my shoes. Why was this even an issue? What did I care if some strange woman came to the park?

To be continued.......



Friday, July 10, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 7: The Party

Courtesy Pixabay.com
"I don't like this, Johnny." I pulled my jacket close around my neck and slipped my arm through the crook of Johnny's arm, clinging as if my very life depended on it.

He scowled down at me, at least, I thought it was a scowl. It was so dark I could hardly see where I was walking.

"Then why didn't you wait in the car?"

"Because I didn't want to be alone, in the car, in the dark, miles from nowhere."

I scanned the area to my right with straining eyes. The moon came out now and then and bars of light would flood the drive with tangled bars of moonlight, but it was only a temporary help and did nothing to light the woods that surrounded us on every side.

He chuckled. "Dummy. How can you be miles from nowhere?"

I punched him in the shoulder with my free hand. "I'm not a dummy. And if you're a long way from nothing, you are miles from nowhere."

I stumbled and clutched at Johnny to keep from falling. I don't know why I'd agreed to come out here with him. We were thirty miles from town, but it had sounded fun. I'd heard about the Truesdale mansion all my life, but no one ever brought me here. There were rumors, of course, about ghost and midnight parties attended by long-dead guest but I didn't know where the story originated or any details about the house. My parents trusted me and I suppose it never occurred to them that I'd even attempt to come here because they'd never forbidden it. I felt bad about it now, but the excitement had been too much for my 17-year-old brain to handle. Johnny was attractive and persuasive.

He stopped and hissed at me. "Listen."

A rustling to our right sent me into Johnny's side and I held my breath.

"Do you hear music?" He smiled down at me.

I shook my head vehemently. "Why would I?  No one lives here."

"Nope. No one has lived here for decades."

"Why is that?"

He started walking again and I was dragged along. I could have let go, but that wasn't going to happen.

"The story is that old Truesdale threw a huge surprise party for his only daughter's return from Europe on the evening of her 18th birthday. She'd gone on some kind of world tour, you know the kind the Victorian elite took back in the day."

I didn't know, but I nodded anyway.

"Anyway, they had this huge party with all their rich friends. People came from as far away as New York and Boston."

He shifted his shoulders and covered my hand with his. It was warm and I snuggled against him.

I prompted him. "What happened?"

He looked down at me. "What? Oh.. well, old Truesdale went all out. He ordered a small orchestra to play music and tables with all kinds of food. He'd invited at least a hundred people and they were dressed in fancy dress, men in their tuxes and the ladies with their jewels. His daughter's girlfriends stood around giggling with their boyfriends on their arms. People were dancing and laughing and talking. It was amazing. At least, that's the story."

"And?" I prodded him. It was like pulling teeth to get the story out. It was fascinating because I'd never heard this part.

He glanced at me, his excitement suddenly dimmed. "She never came home. Her ship sank and she drowned."

"Oh, Johnny, that's so sad. So, they waited all night for her, dancing and partying?"

He didn't answer the question but said, "I think it is right up here. They said at the end of the drive there would be a light."

Courtesy Pixabay.com
I squinted into the darkness. I didn't see any light but then, we rounded a slight curve in the path and there it was, a pole topped by what looked like carriage lamps. Ahead I could see there were several such fixtures at intervals and I sighed.

Johnny laughed. He started walking faster.  "Looks like they're expecting us."

I looked up at him, considering telling him to slow down. His excitement seemed out of place for the story he told me.

The tunnel of trees that surrounded the drive gave way to a broad expanse of lawn with grass nearly waist high. Trees still lined the drive but were much further apart than what we'd just traversed. Beyond, I could make out a looming blackness that I presumed was the house but I couldn't make out any lights.

I stopped and cocked my head to one side, listening. "It is music!"

He laughed and dragged at my arm, tugging me toward the house. "Come on. The party's already started."

The lanterns were stationed along a walk that ran the full length of the front of the house and I could make out a few structural details. It was a huge Georgian mansion with a gabled roof, Corinthian columns, and a full second-floor balcony. I halted in the middle of the drive and stared, open-mouthed. Johnny moved forward a few steps but stopped and turned to smile at me.

"That's impossible," I whispered. From every window, and there were many, dim flickering lights now shone. Shadows moved across the large windows at one end of the house. I rubbed my head.

Johnny laughed. "Come on, silly."

I stared at him. "What is going on? Is this some kind of joke? No one has lived here for decades."

He caught my hand and tugged me along as he moved toward the front door. "No. Let's go see what's inside."

I gave a token resistance, lagging behind him as he strode up the steps to the door. Something didn't seem right, but I couldn't see what. I'd heard the place was abandoned, dilapidated, and some tragedy had happened here but since I'd never had any interest in such places I'd never bothered to get details. Obviously, they held parties here and Johnny had brought me along.

I held back. "I'm not dressed, properly, Johnny. I don't know these people."

He ignored me and opened the carved wood door and pulled me into the hallway.

Music swirled around me like a breeze and there was a smell of some kind of flowers. At my expression, Johnny leaned close and whispered, "Lilacs."

I could hear laughter and there were several people coming down the stairs. They smiled and waved at us, and drifted through an arched doorway to our right. Johnny caught my elbow and led me in that direction. We stopped in the door and stared.

It was just as he described it. A small orchestra was at the back of the room and tables along the wall were ladened with food. On one was a fountain and people filled their glasses from it. Jewels glittered at the necks of beautifully clad women dancing with suited men. A group of girls passed us, giggling and giving Johnny flirting glances.

"You want to dance."

I couldn't speak, but I stared at him. "What is this?"

"What?" He frowned down at me. "A party. For Eliza. She'll be home tonight."

I stepped back. "Johnny. Who is Eliza?"

A booming voice caused me to jump and I whirled. "She's my daughter. This party is for her." He shook Johnny's hand. "Glad you could make it, my boy. So glad you brought another friend for Eliza."

My hand flew to my mouth and I smothered a sob. 'Oh my God." I was in a house of crazy people. I glanced toward the door. Straightening my back I started toward it. "I'm sorry. I have to leave. I forgot I told my Mom I'd be home by nine."

I nearly made it before Johnny caught my arm. "You can't leave. We just got here. Eliza will be home any minute."

"No." I jerked my arm away. "She won't be home any minute. Remember, you told me she never came home."

He laughed. "This party is for her. She'll be here."

I whirled away and raced for the door and pulled the brightly polished knob. The door opened and I started to move forward only to find myself facing a brick wall. I slid my hand along the surface and felt the rough brick and mortar joints scratch my palms. My breath rasped in my throat. No. This isn't right. I turned to stare at the two smiling men standing behind me.

"Let me out."

They smiled. The older man held out one arm and said, "Come, my dear, and enjoy the party. When Eliza gets here, Johnny can take you home."

I could hear the blood rushing in my ears and my heart pound so loud it sounded like drums. I rushed to the nearest window. I could just open it and step onto the porch and be gone. Once I made it to the highway, someone would give me a ride. Or maybe a farmhouse was nearby and I could get help there.

With shaking hands, I tore at the curtains and reached to open the window. Through the reflections in the glass, I saw the same brick that barricaded the doorway. I pounded on the frame. My heaving breath left fog on the glass and I turned away and ran to another window, and then another. Every window was bricked. Sobs tore at my throat and I stumbled back into the hallway. Perhaps upstairs I could find a window or the doorway to the balcony. I could jump down. I'd seen a small tree in one corner near the railing.

They still stood in the hallway, smiling and watching me.

I clutched Johnny's sleeve. "Let me out, please Johnny. I want to go home."

"After Eliza comes home." He caught my hand. "Let's dance."

I could feel my eyes grow wide and my mouth open. I wanted to scream, but no sound came. Music flowed around me like a breeze and the scent of lilacs fill the room. Eliza never came home. She drowned at sea.










Wednesday, July 8, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 6: Sandcastles

Courtesy  Pixabay.com

Five-year-old Scotty looked up at me with beautiful scowling blue eyes. It wasn't the first time that day.

"You told me I could play in the sand all day."

"But it has been all day, Scotty. We have to go home."

He kicked the sand, sending a spray of wet grains over my feet and into my shoes. "Don't want to go home."

I winced and counted to five. Ten took too long and I was tired. I shifted the lounge chair to my opposite hand, ruffled the silky blond locks and forced a bright smile on my face.

"Mama will be home soon and we're supposed to be there when she gets home."

Scotty plopped down into the wet sand and picked up his blue shovel and began to shovel sand into the red bucket. He ignored me.

I squatted down and watched him. "Scotty, maybe we could stop for ice cream."

He hesitated and then looked up at me, that same scowl on his face. "You said we could get a hamburger."

"Well, yes, I did. But I didn't know they didn't sell them here at the beach."

"You passed McDonald's."

"I know, Scotty. I'm sorry." Even I could hear the strain in my voice. It had been a long day. We'd left home at noon and I had packed a lunch for us, but as we pulled out of the drive he'd asked for McDonald's and I'd promised. I thought there'd be a one near the beach. There wasn't and we'd long passed Mcdonald's before I knew it.

"It was lucky we had sandwiches in the car, wasn't it?" Again I ruffled his hair.

He pulled his head to one side and slapped a shovel of dirt into his bucket. The scowl greeted my tentative smile.

"You said you'd buy me a soda." He packed the sand into the bucket, smoothing the top off the way I'd shown him.

"I know. I didn't know the machine was broken, Scotty. But the water we brought stayed cold in my little cooler. It was very refreshing."

He upended the bucket next to him and gently pulled it up, leaving a small castle beside him.

"Scotty, we need to go."

"I'm working." He began to fill the bucket a second time and turned out another sand castle.

"I know. We can do this again one day."

He ignored me and started to fill his bucket again, digging deeper into the wet sand. A wave rushed us but didn't quite reach our spot. The tide was coming in. The sun slipped a bit as I watched. He flipped out his third small castle.

"Scotty, we can't stay until it gets dark. I promised Mom we'd leave before that. And pretty soon the tide will be covering this area."

This time the small face didn't scowl at me. Instead, he turned his head to one side and studied me through squinted eyes for a long time. I smiled at him, a sincere smile this time. He was so cute and really not a bad child at all. He'd inherited my sister's blond looks, but those piercing blue eyes were completely his father's.

"You make lots of promises."

For a moment, I didn't know what to say. Was he asking me or telling me. "Well.... I try... I just... " I thought a few more seconds. "What are you trying to say, Scotty?"

"I have to finish this."

"But what are you making?"

"A castle."

Courtesy Pixabay.com
"You've made castles all afternoon." I glanced over where he'd lined up a row of sand castles. The waves rolled over the area and hardly anything was left. "They're all disappearing."

He glanced to where I pointed and then looked at me for a minute. Finally, he put his shovel in his bucket, stood up and picked it up. "I reckon you just can't depend on anything these days."

I watched as he marched across the sand toward the parking lot. Waves washed over my feet and I looked down. Scotty's sandcastles crumbled in the waves.


Monday, July 6, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 5: Flight

Courtesy Pixabay
I peeked around the frame of the window into the yard. Night would soon fall and I wouldn't be able to see but for now, I could clearly see them.

Dressed in black from head to foot, their faces shadowed by wide-brimmed hats, they stood about a dozen feet apart, all the way around the house. I knew they did because I'd gone to every window and checked. For days they had stood, not moving a muscle. I estimated they were maybe 50 yards from the house. It was as if someone had drawn a circle around the building and they stood on the line. Initially, I'd been puzzled by it but that wore off and I only felt relief that they approached no closer. And curiosity.

Why didn't they move? What did they want?

I removed my glasses and shoved them into my skirt pocket and  smothered a sob, swiping at my face with the tattered rag I held in my hand. It was barely larger than my hand. I'd have to wash it soon. It was the only thing I'd brought with me when I ran away. I shook my head. I had nothing else to replace it with and so I clung to it, a filthy scrap that held all the tears I'd cried for weeks.

There wasn't much left in the house. I'd boarded myself in days ago. I'd run as far as I could and when I'd stumbled across this refuge, I'd slammed the door and used everything I could to block the exits. My body ached and I was so very tired of running and hiding. I wanted to rest. My throat hurt from my sobs and breathing through my stuffy nose was difficult. I sniffed and wiped the cloth over it again, wincing at the rawness.

I knew blocked doors wouldn't really stop them. Nothing could. They'd eventually capture me and devour me. Day and night, for so long I couldn't remember when it started they'd stalked me. I sighed. I had no place to run, now. I just wanted to sleep. I didn't dare. They'd gain entry and be on me in a second. I had to stay awake, stay vigilant.

With burning eyes, I sought out the tightest corner of the room and backed into it, sliding down the wall until I sat, pressed into the floor and wall. I pulled my knees up and wrapped my arms tightly around them and buried my head in my arms. I clutched the now sodden rag tightly in my fist  and the last of my strength drained away with my tears. Here is where I would stop. I could go no further.

I heard the door as it gave way, the windows as they shattered. I looked up and screamed as they rushed at me, a cloud of black with hate contorted visages. In one final feeble attempt as salvation, I threw up my hand with its dirty, tattered rag waving like a small, battle-worn flag.

An explosion shook the house to its foundation and spread into my bones. I clutched at the walls. Instantly, the figures turned and literally clambered over one another in their haste to escape. A second explosion caused dust and bits of plaster to shower around me. My heart beat so hard I thought it would rip through my chest. I covered my head with my arms and waited for my destruction.

It never came. Instead, a deep silence fell around me. Not a bird, a cricket, or a squirrel could be heard. There was no wind and not even the house creaked.

I don't know how long I waited. Slowly I pushed myself up, my back still pressing into the corner. I waited, but all was still. I sensed no sound, no movement. Were they waiting until I stepped outside? My body shook so hard I was afraid to move, but I couldn't stay here. I had to leave. I knew that, but I took my time and went to the window. After a moment's hesitation, I peeked around the frame.

There was no one there. The yard was empty. I frowned. Where were they? I moved to each window and it was the same. The yard as far as I could see was vacant. A huge sigh of relief flowed from me and I closed my eyes. Thank, God.

But why? Why had they run? What had driven them out? They were nasty, horrible things with droning voices that never ceased their harassment. And yet, they'd run as if something pursued them.

From me?

I rubbed my forehead and the rag slapped me in the eye. My frown deepened. I'd been running for weeks to evade them. Then, when I'm backed into a corner and waiting to be eaten alive, they run like cowards. I'd even raised a white flag.

I smiled as I looked at the nasty piece of cloth. Well, sort of white. I turned it over and studied it. The hem was gone, most of the fabric worn into shreds, threads dangled here and there. It was filthy from my repeated use. I wrinkled my nose. It smelled of dirt, sweat, and tears. I flipped it over to examine the opposite side and stared.

Someone had embroidered something... no, it was a word into the fabric with a glossy white thread. Originally it probably had been virtually undetectable. Now, against the dingy fabric, the thread stood in stark contrast. I squinted at it. Such tiny stitches, perfectly formed but so small I could not make out what it said.

I pulled my glasses from my pocket and slipped them on as the letters sprang into view, my vision blurred and tears splashed against my lens. In beautiful, swirling letters I read the single word that had sent my tormenters to flight.












Sunday, July 5, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 4: The Trip

Courtesy Pixabay
Emily stared into the thick fog at the end of the pier. She was told to arrive early and she had, a whole hour early.

She attempted to glance around without being obvious. It was a wasted effort since there wasn't anyone to see. The thick forest behind her was devoid of any human presence as far as she could tell, but the wildlife seemed to be very vocal. Birds chirped and warbled and squirrels chattered.

She wasn't used to the forest. A city dweller since birth, the sounds of the forest were alien to her and gave her chills. The gravel of the shoreline crunched beneath her foot as she stepped onto the pier. She felt better with some distance between her and the forest.

There weren't even any cars around except her own yellow VW, the only bright spot in sight but the smiling face on the hood seemed to be mocking her today.

Emily took a deep breath, sat her suitcase down on the rough boards, and peered toward the end of the pier. The fog was impenetrable, just like the forest that lay behind her. She glanced again over her shoulder.

In the same moment, birds and squirrels fell silent. She went still as well, her instincts telling her this was not normal. She scanned the surrounding area, seeking the source that would cause such silence. She was the only living thing as far as she could see in any direction.

With one hand, she rubbed her neck and swiped it on her skirt. She was sweating. It wasn't hot, perhaps a bit humid but not really hot.

A crunching noise caused her to jump and whirl around to her right. She tottered as her foot slipped over the edge of the pier, but she caught herself and stepped back to the center. There was no one there.

"I don't know why you're so jumpy, girl. You came here all on your own. It was your idea. People told you not try this."

The sound of her own voice calmed her a bit. Rubbing her hands together and then up her arms in a hug, she took a deep breath and let it out. It trembled as it left her. She repeated the process as her counselor had taught her. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe  out. In a few moments, she felt her heart slow and her trembling cease. She nodded.

"See, it does work."

I know it works. Stop talking to yourself.

She walked a little farther onto the pier and squinted into the fog again. "I don't think I've ever seen fog that thick. It looks almost solid."

A few more steps and she halted. The fog had moved.

She shook her head. That's silly. She chuckled but she didn't feel amused.

"No, look. It's moving, like ... almost as if it's boiling."

Emily leaned forward, straining her eyes to break through the gray soup. It was impossible. But it was true. The fog undulated. She could see it bulging and swirling and whirling in strange contortions, as if ...

She stepped back.

"May I help you?"

She screamed and would have jumped off the pier if he had not caught her arm.

"Do be careful, my dear. We can't have you falling in."

With a gentle jerk, she extracted her arm and stepped away from him, careful to stay in the center of the pier. "Who are you?"

"You were speaking to someone." He wasn't asking her.

With a vehement shake of her head, she stuttered her answer. "N-n-no. I was merely observing and talking to myself."

He smiled and clasped his hands before him. "I see." He looked past her. "As if what?"

She frowned. "What?"

"As if what? The fog. What were you comparing it to?"

Emily blinked and tried to reorient herself. "I'm not sure.. I don't understand."

He closed his eyes and chuckled and then looked at her with eyes the color of the fog behind her.

She took another step back. She hadn't realized how very tall he was, a good foot taller than she. The clasped hands were merely skin-covered bone. Shoulders beneath the black jacket seemed more like a stick holding the coat up.

Emily started. Like a scarecrow. He looked like a scarecrow.

Breathe in, breathe out.

"You seem nervous. Why?"

Her laugh seemed very brittle and loud to her own ears. "No, no, I'm fine. What time will it arrive?"

He shrugged. "Oh, any moment. But really, I was curious to know about the fog. Your analogy seemed as if it were going to be very picturesque."

A quick look behind her and she turned back, her heart pounding and sweat beading her brow. "I was thinking ..."

He leaned forward slightly, his eyes boring into her own. "Yes?"

She couldn't breath. Breathe in, breathe out.

"Yes?"

Breathe in, breathe out. "I was thinking it was bulging and swirling and whirling as if ...." Her eyes wide with terror, she looked once again at the bulging, swirling, whirling mass of fog. "As if someone was trying to get out."

She faced him. He leaned forward, grinning with large, pointy teeth, and his breath was fetid and she cringed away.

"Yessss, it does, doesn't it?"

And then he reached for her.

***********************************************

Larry slammed the car door and walked to the edge of the water. "What we got, Bernie?"

Bernie turned, writing something on the notepad he held. He pointed with the end of his pen. "Abandoned VW." He turned back to the pier and pointed again. "Suitcase. No name on that but we haven't unpacked it. Registration on the car says Emily Brown, Las Vagas, age 23."

"What's she doing way out here?"

Bernie shrugged. "No idea. This is the fifth one in as many months."

Larry scratched his head and looked out at the placid surface of the lake. The day was sunny and the reflection of the blue sky was disorienting, causing a rounded sensation. Were it not for the forest on the opposite side of the lake, he'd think he was in a snow globe. He turned in a circle, studying the layout. He hated this lake.

"I hate this lake." Bernie echoed his thoughts.

"Yeah. Me, too."

"Larry, where'd she go?"

Larry shrugged. "Maybe she got picked up."

Bernie stared at him. "Man, this lake is 15 miles from anything on a dead end road. No one comes here. Locals won't set foot past the turnoff. Who'd pick her up?

"We got five cars and five suitcases and no bodies."

Larry stared at the lake. "I know."

"Someone knows something."

Larry threw up his hands and turned away, headed for his car. "Only happens every ten years for 12 months, Bernie. We only have seven more months to worry about it. Send me the family info and I'll inform 'em."

"Inform them of what?"

The car door slammed and Larry headed back to civilization. Bernie scowled and turned to stare at the lake. He hated this lake.

He picked up the suitcase and turned toward his car. "Hook up that car and take it in, boys. You don't want to be here at sunset."














Saturday, July 4, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 3: The Fourth

Courtesy PublicDomain.net
The smell of smoke drifted across the yard and titillated my nose. I opened my eyes and stared up at the blue sky dotted with drifts of white clouds. I could hear burgers sizzling on the grill. Shifting my head slightly I looked in that direction.

On the patio, John stood at the grill, his flag apron flapping gently in the breeze as he stood watch over his burgers. The table was spread with red, white, and blue linens. A few feet away a second table contained condiments, utensils, and brightly colored plates, cups, and bowls. Fruit, cakes, pies, veggie trays, and packs of buns staggered throughout. I sighed and looked back at the sky.

Half a dozen children were giggling and playing in the sandbox and on the swing at the far back of the yard. My lounge chair was near the side yard, between the house and the play area. I could relax here, in slight solitude with my book, currently on a small table at my elbow, and a glass of iced tea. Eventually, chaos would ensue, once the children decided they wanted the sprinklers on. My own children were inside watching a movie while their children enjoyed the more common pursuits of a summer holiday.

I looked at the flag flying high over my house. It was such a beautiful thing. John had insisted on a flag pole that was higher than the roof. Upon his return from Vietnam he'd been disillusioned with his country, angry at her betrayal of the men who'd sacrificed their youth, their families, their health, and their lives because they elected leaders who didn't share their ideals. He had been one of the last sent over and one of the last to come home and  had not experienced as much trauma as many of his friends. But it had been enough.

He'd left the military with bitterness and regret. But when the towers came down and the reaction of the country was indignation and swift reaction to terrorism on American soil, John had put up his flagpole and the Stars and Stripes flew over our home. For a time, it had flown over virtually every home in the country. It would always fly over whatever land John resided on. It has saddened him that much of the nation folded many of those flags and stuffed them in drawers, forgotten, like the men who fought for it for 200 years.

Now they were burning it and John was ready to go back to war, this time with his own nation. He was so sick of the disrespect and dishonor heaped on that flag hourly. The latest images on the news had nearly caused him to have a stroke. For days he'd stomped around the house, snapping at everyone who irritated him. Our oldest son lived up the street and was so worried about his father that he came everyday at sunset, when his dad took the flag down to assist him.

I watched him flip the burger and he turned to smile at the children and then, waved at me. I waved back.

I wondered what other people, non-military people, thought when they looked at military families. Did they see the fierce love of country it takes to serve for years in strange places where you have no family, no friends, no home?

Did they know the fear in those men as they sat in dark shacks, in strange lands where they were hated and despised and would be killed without a moment's thought? Did they know the grief they felt when they looked at the dirty, torn photos of their families?

Did they see the fear of the wives, sometimes husbands or parents, sending their loved ones to places from which they may never return? Did they know the terror of possibly never getting even a dead body back?

How could anyone even guess? We protected them from the realities. We never talked about it. We don't have marches, protests, parades spouting our fears, hates, and frustrations. We, the ones left behind fight as well. We, too, are the strong, the proud. Did those outside understand that we were lying awake at night praying that our husband or child would not drive over a bomb, get hit by missiles, shot by a sniper, or have their head cut off by an insane animal?

Did they even have a clue as to why we accepted the risks? Anyone would do it, right? We were Americans. We stand for all that is good and right. We fight when the oppressed won't fight for themselves. We die for people we owe nothing. Did they really think there was enough money in the world to compensate us? Did they really think we reaped enough financial benefit for all we dealt with to serve them?

Did they wonder what we see when we look at them? The ungrateful, the unappreciative, the criminals, the mobs of fools? No. We knew those existed. We did it for a land that was worth saving, that many had already died to shape. We did it to give hope to those who sought freedom and safety. We did it because there were some things worth fighting and dying for and this nation contains much of that within its borders. That despite the bad, it contained so much that was good.

I sighed. At least, it used to. I wasn't sure anymore. I think John was beginning to question it as well. Was anything worth fighting for anymore? We watched the things we'd held dear crumble, hatred burning up cities. And I watched my husband crumble with it. Men like him had bleed out in muddy fields around the world for that scrap of cloth on a pole and the people she represented. Now, those people would take her and turn her to ash. What fools.

My children poured out the back door, demanding food. My husband laughed and received the slaps on the back from hungry sons. Grandchildren raced to the tables. Mothers gathered their chicks under their wings. I watched and wondered.

Above it all she snapped in the breeze and I looked up. Our time of service was over but one never forgot the value of those who served and we never forget what that symbol represented. We knew the value of this nation as no one else. We knew what it cost in blood, tears, and grief. We knew as long as that lady flew, we could enjoy another 4th of July with our family.

Long may she wave. God bless America.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

30 Days of Shorts - Day 1: The Guardians

The pressure of the storm weighed on her with relentless force, increasing the already pounding pressure in her head. Pilar Edmunds hated days like this. Of late, they'd come more often and she'd begun to think the sun would never come again.

This morning the sky had darkened even before the sun came up and if it were not for the mantle clock she would never have guessed it was near sunset.

She peered through the rain-spattered glass across the field to the thin streak of gray-blue on the horizon. Was it going to clear? She hoped so.

The pot on the stove boiled over and she rushed to remove it from the heat. All the windows were opened several inches, but the room was still hot from the cooking. She's tried to put them all the way up, but the rain had poured in at an alarming rate and she'd spent an hour cleaning the mess.

The pot had calmed and she returned to stare through the glass. She hated this view. It was as if she stared into a mirror. The flat grassland with its blasted trees stretching to a bleak horizon was a mirror to her soul, her life in grayed shades.

Just beyond the lone pine, she could see the white standing stones, standing like sentinels in the rain, guarding her treasures. The iron fence surrounding the small plot of ground protected it from foragers. No one ever passed those gates but her. Every day she walked to the gates, passed between the guards, and sat on the small bench placed there just for her.

Pilar sighed and pulled the rocker to her and sat down. With a gentle push, she began to rock. She took the basket from the small table beneath the window and pulled her knitting into her lap. Her needles clicked and she stared out into the rain, at the guardians.

She smiled at that. Jacob named them that. He'd hauled the stone from a quarry over a hundred miles away on a borrowed freight wagon. He carved them with the skill he'd honed over two decades. On moonlit nights, when she sat here staring at them, she almost believed that they marched back and forth, before the gate. She's shared that with Jacob one night, in the darkest hours when he'd made her go to bed. He paused before putting out the light and looked at her with fear in his eyes.

"Pilar, they're stone markers. They can't move."

She laughed. "Silly, I know that. It just gives me comfort, Jacob."

Another moment's hesitation and he'd plunged the room into darkness.

Curling against his side, she placed her head on his shoulder. "They protect them, Jacob."

He lay very still. "Get some rest, Pilar.

She's never mentioned it to him again, but he often watched her as she sat before the window rocking, his eyes dark and worried.

The needles clicked and she frowned. She'd dropped four stitches. Tugging gently, she unraveled to where she'd made the error and restarted. A shadow fell across the room, a tiny flicker of fear causing her heart to skip a beat. She looked up.

The sky had darkened and the room with it, but the guardians seemed to glow from within. Jacob was late. She lay the knitting aside and went around the room, lighting the lamps. She closed all except two windows and she placed bars over them so they couldn't be raised any higher.

Returning to her chair, she resumed her knitting, glancing up to stare into the darkness beyond her window. There was no moon tonight. She wished there were neighbors close by so, at the least, there would be lights in other windows to show her that other people were out there, but they were ten miles from the nearest farm.

He had expected her to go with him. That last night, as she'd sat here knitting, he'd told her to go to bed early so she would be rested.

"Pilar, we've got a long drive tomorrow." He  leaned over her, frowning and afraid.

Her heart pounded. "I don't want to go, Jacob."

"I can't leave you here, Pilar. I'll be gone for a week."

She kissed his cheek and whispered. "I'll be fine. You go on without me. I can manage and it isn't really that long. I'll ride over to the Wilson's for church on Sunday."

Lightening flicked across the sky and thunder rumbled in its wake. She looked up. It wasn't clearing after all. She stared across the field at the horizon. He'd be back soon.

The world exploded in blazing white light and the blast of thunder rattled every window and dish. She clutched her knitting. Another explosion of light and sound and she threw it into the basket.

It was just such a night at this when her life had become like the blasted view from the window. Her heart pounded and she realized she was panting. Standing and peering out the window, she could see the guardians glowing in the flashes of light, even more brightly than ever. They knew. They knew what night it was. She'd forgotten. They had not.

Pilar felt beads of sweat running down her temples and her hands were clammy. She wiped them on her skirt, clutching the rough cotton and wringing it into ropes. It was so dark out there. The guardians were barely visible, but thankfully, they were still there. Her heart pounded. If something happened to them . . . . She needed to check on them. Her treasures. She really needed to make sure everything was all right. Once she did that everything would be fine.

Rain began to pound on the metal room and Pilar looked up. It never leaked. Jacob had made sure of that. She was dry and safe here. She looked around at the braided rugs, the upholstered chairs and sofa, the warm chintz curtain fluttering at the window. Everything was so clean and pretty. Home. They'd made it home. She never wanted to leave it. When Jacob came back, it would be warm again and his smile would light the darkest corners.

She turned back to stare out at the raging storm. She couldn't see them. Her chest tightened and her heart pounded so hard she thought it might burst from her chest. She placed her hand on her chest to calm it. She had to check on them.

From beneath the sink, she pulled the hurricane lantern and set it on the counter and pulled the matches from the tin nearby. Her hands shook so hard she could hardly get the wick to light but finally, it flared up and she adjusted the flame and lowered the chimney. Usually, the lantern worked fine in a storm but the wind was blowing fiercely now, rattling windows and making the metal roof pop. She took her shawl from the hook and threw it around her shoulders.

For only an instant did she hesitate, pausing to glance out once more. They were dark. The guardians had gone dark. Gasping, Pilar whirled toward the door. After fumbling at the latch with numbed fingers, she finally managed to fling it back. It slammed into the wall, knocking her wedding picture to the floor. She didn't hesitate but stepped onto the rain-soaked porch.

Thunder exploded around her and the world seemed to glow in the blinding light flash that followed. Wind slanted across the porch and snatched at her clothes, dragging her shawl from her shoulders and carrying it away, into the fields. The lantern light flickered and nearly went out, but she shifted her body and blocked the brunt of the wind.

Fear raked at her heart. They were dark. She couldn't see them. Her treasures were unprotected.

With her free hand, Pilar picked up her skirts and stepped into the yard. Hunching her shoulders against the rain that pelted her like stinging nettles, she hurried toward where she knew they should be. Her feet splashed into puddles she could  not see, soaking her dress and weighing it down. The light in the lantern flickered and sputtered but held. She raised it higher, but it was as a spark in the dark corridors of a raging hell. The violence of the storm roared around her, deafening and blinding her. Still she stumbled along, leaving the path, crossing the road and stumbling into the grassy field.

The hay was nearly knee high and smelled sweet in the rain, but she didn't stop. She felt the gravel path rather than saw it. Soon, soon she'd reach the gates. Lightening gutted the heavens and she recoiled from the glare.  When she could see again, she stopped and looked up.

They stood where Jacob had placed them, on either side of the iron gate. Six feet in height, they towered over her, and the breadth of Jacob's shoulders. She had wanted to name them, but Jacob had forbidden it. She sobbed and stumbled toward them, reaching out with her free hand to touch the nearest.

The cold rough stone scratched at her palm and she closed her eyes. The fear evaporated and a calm settled over her. She was soaked to the skin and the rain still poured in great torrents, but she felt the warmth of the day seep into her bones from the guardian. A small flash of lightening streaked across the sky and the guardians began to glow. She pushed at the gates and the hinges resisted her at first before giving way with a howl of  protest.

He'd not mown the grass here in weeks. He  hated to come here but for her, he kept is smooth, even tending the flowers she'd planted along the fence. She stumbled along the path until she reached the bench and sat down.

A deep sigh slipped from her and she closed her eyes and raised her face to the heavens. Nowhere on earth would she ever feel so safe, so much at  home. She meant it when she told Jacob she couldn't leave.

"Pilar!"

Through the storm, she heard him and looked up, a smile lighting her face. She stood up. "Jacob!"

He came toward her from the gate. "Why are you here?"

"Oh Jacob, I had to check on them. The guardians, I couldn't see them. I had to make sure everything was all right."

He held out a hand toward her. "Pilar, you have to come with me. You can't stay here."

The smile faded as if washed away by the rain. She stepped back and shook her head. "No. No, Jacob. I won't."

A sadness fell over him like a cloak. She could see it, dark and heavy and tears spilled over his cheeks. "Pilar, it is time to come away. You must. I can't keep doing this."

Her heart cracked and she could feel it as it split in two. Her vision blurred and she sobbed. "NO. Jacob, please. Don't. I can't leave now."

He stepped up to her and she closed her eyes and leaned against the warmth of his body.

She felt the whisper of his breath against her cheek. "Pilar, you must come now. You must. Please."

From the moment she'd met Jacob Edmunds, she'd wanted nothing more than to spend eternity with him. He was all she desired. He had filled her life with unbelievable joy. She never felt safer than in his arms and nothing gladdened her more than his smile.

She sighed and stepped back. "I want to stay here, Jacob. I  have to. I can't leave them alone."

The storm came to an abrupt end. The rain stopped and the clouds rolled and thinned. The sky lightened and she saw stars begin to appear.

He gazed at her, his face wreathed in sadness and his eyes dark with grief. "I love you, Pilar. But I cannot."

She smiled. "I love you, too, Jacob."

He turned and she watched him disappear into the darkness as he moved between the guardians.

The sun rose in a brilliant blue sky and white trains of clouds hurried across the heavens. Pilar breathed in the rose-scented air. She smiled down at the smaller white stones before her, one on each side of the path and read the inscriptions.

"Madaline and Matthew Edmunds, born 1875, died 1877. Joy unspeakable. Pilar Edmunds, born 1856 & Jacob Edmunds, born 1855, died 1899."

The guardians glowed in the sunshine.




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