The woman stepped back from the chipped and smudged mirror in the service station toilets. Her mismatched ensemble – navy blue pants, black jacket and plain white blouse – felt like an extension of her discombobulated self. She blotted at the sheen of sweat on her face and neck, and hurried back to the bus.
Brown and wrinkled as well-worn leather, the driver made a show of looking at his watch, and opened the door for her. She had barely sat before the bus pulled away. She was the only passenger. He did not think her worth the trouble.
After several hours, during which the woman napped fitfully, she was dropped off at the gate. The afternoon sun blasted her as she walked up the drive and into the building.
The security guard was stout, balding. 'Photo ID,' he barked. She passed him her drivers licence. He looked through her as he passed it back. Pointed to a small camera. 'Iris scan,' he said, slightly more gently.
The next guard gestured her through a metal detector, her belongings X-rayed, then she was made to walk down a corridor where air puffed at her body for concealed drugs. The doors slammed shut behind her, making her jump. Finally, she was patted down and allowed into the Visitor Reception Centre.
'Sorry, no food allowed,' said the receptionist.
'But it’s sealed in plastic, it’s a gift,' said the woman. 'I've carried it all day, I can show you the receipt.'
'Doesn’t anyone read the website? No food without prior approval.' He passed her a key. 'Put your stuff in a locker. You’ll be called soon.'
Summarily dismissed, the woman scanned the rows of moulded plastic chairs, and found one that faced away from the television.
'Meredith Black,' called the receptionist, after half an hour. 'You can go through that door now.'
She walked into a controlled hubbub, a young mother trying to soothe a crying baby, two toddlers and an older woman, a priest, an elderly couple. The walls were painted in an uninspiring shade of beige, a handful of children’s drawings providing welcome splashes of colour. It reminded her of an eighties school classroom. She sat at the remaining free table and waited.
She knew it was him even though it had been years. He shuffled towards her, lean and lanky, and sat opposite her. His back was hunched, head bowed, palms down on the table.
'Joe,' she said, gently placed her hand over his cold one.
He did not look up. She could see his breathing was quick, shallow.
'It’s okay, I don’t know what to do either. Here’s the deal. We’ll muddle along together, all right?'
He slipped his hand away, stole a furtive look around him, then returned to his slumped posture. He looked even younger than his thirty years.
'How’re you doing?' Silence. 'You hungry?'
'You want something from the vending machine? I brought you a cake but the bastards took it away for themselves.' She whispered the last part, and her heart leapt when he grinned shyly back at her. 'Chocolate, soda?'
He seemed to be more relaxed when she returned to the table with a small mound of snacks and a can of Coke.
'Thanks,' he said, and proceeded to tear open a chocolate bar wrapper.
'You eat,' she said, 'I wanna say something, all right?'
END OF PREVIEW
I hope you enjoyed this preview.
To support writers like myself, who love writing and sharing our stories, please get excited and click the link for your own copy of this anthology.
@AliceLamWriter @littleamiss #Fiction #ShortStory #FacingTheMusic #Anthology
Geoff had been on his feet all day, and his arthritis was taking its toll on him. He swallowed a handful of aspirin with a cup of the vending machine’s scalding muddy water, and let his gaze drift back to the window. There had been few customers since morning, and now it was nearly supper time. Friday night always meant fish and chips and a can of Guinness in front of the telly. His stomach growled and he was just checking his watch to see if he could knock off a bit early when a shiny silver sedan pulled up and a woman got out. She started fiddling with the petrol pump nozzle.
‘Oh bugger it,’ he said under his breath. He flicked the bowser on and waited. After she’s done, home.
Out of habit, he watched her movements to check for any suspicious behaviour. He was a little paranoid as there had been a spate of people driving off without paying. Everything she did seemed jerky and fast, her foot tapping to an inaudible beat as she watched the numbers go up on the pricing display. Geoff looked away as she slammed the car door behind her, and less than a minute later, she entered Fast ‘N Friendly with a face as dark as the asphalt on the forecourt.
“Evening,” he said quietly, hoping to diffuse whatever bad energy she was carrying in with her.
She slapped her credit card on the counter. “Know any mechanics around here?’
‘Not till the next town,’ he said. ‘Problem with the car?’ He passed back the card and a receipt, trying his best to look sympathetic while battling visions of crunchy golden battered cod on a mound of greasy chips and a large side of mushy peas.
He didn’t much like her tone, customer or not. ‘There’s a garage at Bright, but they’ll be shut for the weekend by now, I’m afraid,’ he said.
She muttered something as she shoved her purse into her handbag. He saw her draw herself up and take a deep breath, then her eyes met his. ‘How far is this town, Bright? Please?’
Her name was Elaine, she was supposed to be attending a very important conference tomorrow and what was more, she was the keynote speaker. Whatever that meant. He grunted occasionally, but as he was driving her to Bright out of the goodness of his heart – her car refusing to start again was now his problem, she would have to put up in Bright overnight, and get the train to her conference, while he had said he would look after her car till the mechanic came on Monday. – his patience was fading fast, as was, no doubt, the likelihood of getting his chip dinner.
Finally, they navigated through a series of dizzying roundabouts leading to a supermarket, a railway station and to Elaine’s relief, a hotel. Geoff dropped her off after she promised she’d get a mechanic out first thing on Monday. Driving away, he thought she looked rather insignificant standing there on the pavement with her overnight bag beside her.
Elaine marched through the sliding glass door towards the receptionist, a young man with a touch too much hair gel, plus an earring, but despite her prejudices he smiled warmly as she approached. ‘Good evening, welcome to Happydays Inn. How can I help you?’
‘I’m after a room for tonight,’ she said. ‘I don’t have a reservation.’
‘Not a problem, Miss,’ he said, still smiling. ‘We always have a few rooms free, not exactly London here… Here you go, room twenty-four, first floor. Will you need one or two keycards?’
She was disgusted at the insinuation that she might be expecting a visitor and quickly shook her head.
He nodded. ‘Need a hand with your bag?’
‘No, I’ll manage,’ she said.
‘We don’t do food, but there’s a great restaurant on the high street which does everything from pizzas to -’
‘Thanks, I don’t need anything,’ she cut him off. ‘I don’t eat after six.’
‘Very good, Miss. Reception is always open, so please ring through if you need anything.’
She spent several hours reading over her notes, then decided to check on her work emails before turning in. Usually her smartphone would be beeping with numerous messages by this time. But there were no missed calls; in fact, there was no mobile reception. Which explained why she didn’t have any new messages. Irritated, she lay back on the bed, still her in her work clothes, and decided she would just have to catch up when she got back to the city on Monday. For now, it was probably best to get a good night’s sleep so she could get the first train to Nottingham to make it in time for the Annual Psychiatrists’ Symposium. Suddenly she felt quite tired, and quite out of character, forgot to brush her teeth or even change out of her clothes. Soon she was fast asleep on top of the bedspread.
Elaine took a brisk cool shower as soon as she awoke. This was not unusual for her, as she had been brought up to be frugal and grateful. She found an iron but no board, and made do with ironing her shirt and trousers on the chipboard desk. Her curly raven hair was secured with pins, and she was ten minutes early for the train, according to what Geoff had told her.
When no train came, she waited for another ten minutes, and returned to the hotel. The girl at reception informed her that there were no rail services at the weekend. Elaine felt her face grow hot and made her repeat what she had just said.
‘This won’t do,’ she said, her foot tapping involuntarily on the tiles. How would they manage without her at the conference? And what would they think of her is she just didn’t turn up? ‘I will need a taxi,’ she demanded.
The girl obliged and appeared to speed-dial using the reception landline. Elaine tried her best to wait patiently, but after several minutes had passed she could not hold back her agitation. ‘Look, I have to get to Nottingham. I have a conference, I’m the keynote speaker at nine o’clock, I’m the moderator for the discussions, it’s very important I get there early. What’s going on?’
The girl looked rueful. ‘I’ve tried the taxi firm but they’re not answering.’
‘Well, try another.’ She had a sinking feeling when the girl shook her head. ‘Don’t tell me, only one taxi company in Bright?’ The girl nodded. ‘Well, can I please pay someone to drive me there? It’s only two hours, and I’ll pay for the driver’s return trip too.’
‘I don’t know,’ said the girl as she shrugged. ‘I wish I could help but I don’t own a car yet, and I don’t know anyone who could drive you at this hour.’
‘For goodness’ sake,’ said Elaine, more loudly than she intended, ‘do you have any helpful suggestions? This is the twenty-first century! I can’t believe this is happening.’
‘Can I get you a cup of tea, Miss Sealby?’
‘No, you can’t. I want transport.’ She looked out of the window at the hotel car park. Empty. Of course.
Just then the telephone rang and Elaine’s heart leapt. But instead of giving Elaine’s pickup and destination details, the receptionist was nodding solemnly. She sucked in her lower lip, which was pierced by a stud. What was it with young people and piercings, Elaine wondered briefly. ‘Miss Sealby, I have some bad news.’
‘What now? Are we going to burn down? Or flood? Or is it the pestilence?’
The girl looked taken aback by Elaine’s retort. ‘The road out of Bright is not… accessible.’
Elaine smacked her palm against her forehead and then stamped her foot. This was worse than her worst nightmare, or was this a bad dream after all? She pinched herself and winced. No, this was a very real situation. ‘Please explain what that means.’ Don’t hyperventilate. Yet.
‘Emergency roadworks, apparently there’s been a gas leak and they think it’s a broken pipe.’ She didn’t look too bothered. Maybe this news was the most exciting thing that had ever happened around here, Elaine thought, despair beginning to set in.
‘At least let me ring the conference and tell them I may be late arriving,’ she said at last.
The girl shook her head and held out her hands, palms up. ‘I’m afraid this is only connected to local numbers, in Bright, I mean.’
‘Can I borrow your mobile?’
The girl said she didn’t have a mobile. Elaine didn’t believe her. What about the young man who was here last night? No, he wouldn’t be in till next week. No, she didn’t know where he lived.
‘Well, who’s in charge? I need an adult. This is ridiculous.’
‘I am the manager.’
‘What are you talking about? You don’t look more than sixteen.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said the girl, fixing her with a look that was not exactly hostile, but was less friendly than before.
Elaine decided to take a walk before she lost her cool completely. It didn’t matter that she knew more than twenty different ways of de-escalating angry patients. When it came to herself, nothing seemed to help when she got angry. Nothing.
She walked into town to think. Surely someone would be out and about and she could borrow their mobile, maybe even tempt them to drive her out of town once the road reopened. Although it was nearly nine, there was no one about, even on High Street, though it was lined with the usual shops and cafes. She decided that a large cup of tea and perhaps a bowl of muesli would help her think straight. No doubt she was low on blood sugar, burnt off in all the stress of the past day.
Something moving in one of the windows caught her attention. She felt a spark of hope. Normality would soon be restored, she told herself, as she entered the cafe to the sound of a tinkling bell above the door. There was an enticing aroma of coffee and warm croissants. Just this once she would allow herself a little luxury. She needed a lift, in more ways than one. Ha.
‘Good morning,’ beamed a slender redhead wearing a white apron over her T-shirt and jeans. ‘What can I get you?’
Elaine allowed herself to enjoy the sight of the croissants, cinnamon rolls, apple turnovers, and a variety of muffins that burst zealously and rudely over their paper cases. ‘Wow,’ she said, which made the woman’s mouth turn up even more. ‘I can’t decide. I usually go for muesli, but this…’
The redhead stood patiently, wiping down the counter, taking all the time in the world.
END OF PREVIEW
To support writers like myself, who love writing and sharing our stories, please get excited and click the link for your copy of this anthology.
@AliceLamWriter @littleamiss #Fiction #ShortStory #TheBrightSide #Compositions #Anthology
I had walked through the Vermont Retirement Village at various times of day, and I knew that the women lived alone and appeared to have no regular visitors. After many months of patient waiting, one morning I woke to the sounds of falling maple leaves brushing against my bedroom window.
Opening my eyes, I watched the russet flurry fly in fits and starts. My mind lazily wandered back to a biology class, where Miss Keneally had eagerly imparted to us (for she really loved her high school students) everything we could wish to know about the phenomenon of changing seasons.
I smiled when I recalled her perched on a lab bench, resplendent in her vintage tweeds and white lab coat, her hands waving animatedly in the air. It was the only class that caught my attention for any length of time, her delicate Irish cadence entrancing me further.
“So, girls, we all know that Americans call autumn, ‘fall’. But did you know that ‘fall’ comes from the Old English word ‘feallan’ which means ‘to fall’ or ‘to die’? Deciduous trees conserve their precious energy by sensing the darkening of the days, and stop producing chlorophyll, and so the other pigments become more prominent. That’s what gives autumn leaves very different colours.
But how do they know to fall?
It’s not just about saving energy. Those leaves have been damaged by age, the weather, disease, or insects, and they are ready to commit hara-kiri!”
A few of us giggle at this notion.
“During autumn, a layer of cells called the abscission zone forms, right where the leaf stalk meets the twig. This layer of tissue then strangles the food and water supply to the leaf, causing the stalk to break, and the leaf sheds.”
I remember looking around, but I think I was the only one who had her jaw open. Miss Keneally was so cool.
After Mummy’s third admission with psychotic depression (apparently the result of being landed with a surprise baby at age forty-five), I was farmed out by my disinterested father to my grandmother and I believe she did her best to raise me. She didn’t know much about modern parenting techniques, let alone how to cope with a toddler, but what she did know was good old fashioned tough love. Eve (I was not allowed to call her Grandma) never let me forget that I had ruined her retirement and that it was only out of pity and Christian charity that I was in her care. My mother eventually succeeded in suiciding, and soon after that my father moved to the States where he married and had two girls with his new wife. He would send us Christmas cards which sometimes included a happy-snap of his new family, but never came to visit me.
For as long as I remember, Eve had a strict mandate of two hours of Bible stories and discussion before bed, followed by the five a.m. church service before school, a timetable that was never broken, except for when I was sick with chickenpox, and another time when I had to go be rushed to hospital with appendicitis. During my recuperation after those illnesses, my grandmother left me alone in my room, where I was able to blissfully lose myself in library books, or simply gaze out through the skylight at the carolling magpies in the ancient oak tree. As soon as I was well enough, Eve had me performing my usual chores, including the Sisyphean task of sweeping the dead leaf litter.
If I failed to learn my passages fast enough, she would bark, “Proverbs 13:24! Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him!” whilst striking one palm then the other with a wooden ruler. Once I dared retort, “Proverbs 17:6 Grandchildren are the crown of the aged -” to which she gasped in fury and I was made to kneel on pencils for an hour and was sent to bed without supper. It made me wonder what century she thought we lived in.
As soon as I finished high school, the world beckoned. I took on part-time jobs, sometimes working three shifts in twenty-four hours, so I could afford a tiny bedsit of my own. I was too tired to go to church, let alone read the bible, but I prayed every night that I could find some shred of happiness, away from under the great shadow of my grandmother.
Once I had my independence, I would visit Eve for Sunday lunch. It was a mutually beneficial agreement; I got my one decent hot meal a week, and she got to play at being a matriarch in whatever fucked up universe she lived in. I think it gave her some purpose, something else in her life that wasn’t stifled loneliness, disconnect, maybe she thought she was actually doing some good, who knows.
Same M.O. worked for all of them. Here’s how it goes.
I knock on the woman’s door, late evening but still light. I am smiling, holding a big parcel wrapped with thick twine in my white gloved hands. I am wearing a brown polo shirt, black slacks, a fluoro vest onto which is pinned my fake name badge (Eileen Warnes, an homage to Aileen Wuornos; Wheely Good Couriers; email@example.com). I also wear a beanie which covers my shaved head.
Me: Hi, Mrs Josephine Edwards? I have a parcel for you. [Prior surveillance included checking her mailbox.]
Mrs Edwards: Oh, hello. I’m not expecting a parcel.
Me: Well, it says “Mrs Josephine Edwards, 11a Springfield Court.” Am I at the wrong place? I’m new to the company, sorry for inconveniencing you.” I make a big show of squinting closely at writing on the package.
Mrs Edwards: Let me see, dear.
I show the woman the printed address label on the brown paper. Easily visible are the little details of what looks like a prepaid sticker, and even a couple of red inked stamps (which are actually of circles enclosing a garland of flowers, but I have smudged it well so it looks like an approximation of a depot timestamp).
Mrs Edwards: That looks right, dear.
Me: Shall I carry this in for you? It’s awfully heavy!
Mrs Edwards: That’s most kind. Come this way.
I edge in and close the front door quickly. I follow her to the kitchen or lounge. The hallway is usually carpeted, last furnished fifty years ago, with an old-person odour that permeates everything and makes me want to puke.
I am not lying when I say the parcel is heavy.
Once I start swinging it across the back of the old girl’s head, the momentum keeps it going hard and heavy. She may cry out with pain or surprise, but only once. Her doddery legs and poor sense of balance allow her to fall easily, gracefully. Once she languishes on the floor, I say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” as I deftly remove the string from around the parcel. The makeshift noose is then tightened around her scrawny neck until she stops struggling and her eyes go quiet, some four or five minutes. Some die with their eyes open, some closed, I wonder why. One lost control of her bladder, which required a rather intimate clean-up before I could continue onto the next step.
I lift her with reverence up onto the sofa. I prop her up so her head is supported by cushions. If needed, I dress any bleeding wound. I spray Lily In The Mist onto her neck and wrists; that sickly sweet scent of my childhood, a heady remembrance of talc and unaired wardrobes. I gently tie a navy blue silk scarf around her neck. There. There now.
Then I lie down, curling my legs up onto the sofa if there is room, and place my head in her lap. She doesn't mind. I bring her arm around me into an in embrace, her lovely old hand in my gloved one. I wish I could remove my gloves, and let our skin touch, but I cannot risk sharing my DNA. I can feel her smiling down at me, her immense love almost crushing me in a suffocating avalanche of lily-talc-mustiness.
We remain like this for a long time. I am at peace, and want this to last for eternity. “I love you, Grandma,” I whisper.
“I know,” she soothes. Her fingers squeeze mine back.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a good girl.” I have always needed her absolution.
“You try your best, my love,” she says. “Remember, to him who lacks might He increases power.”
“Do you love me, Grandma?”
She doesn’t need to answer. I can feel her love, through the heat from her thighs, her belly, her hand in mine. I may even sleep briefly.
A long while later, I force myself to rise. The loss of her warmth stuns my mind and body.
My hands trembling, I remove the scarf, inhale it one more time, and pack it away into my backpack. I take care not to look directly at her face.
The parcel unwrapped, I remove a hand-held Hoover and cleaning products. After I have vacuumed and scrubbed every surface with the oxy-cleaner bleach, I let myself out the back door into the dark. I leave nothing behind but the aura of perfume lingering enticingly around the body.
One Sunday in springtime, it was my thirtieth birthday but of course Eve didn’t believe in celebrating that pagan nonsense, so it was just a regular visit. She was blathering on about the latest sermon she had enjoyed. I was mostly ignoring her as usual, but interjecting just enough mm-hmms for her to feel listened to. Suddenly, mid-forkful of grey runner beans, my ears pricked up.
“My bed hard hat. Fall thing help!”
I looked straight at her. Drool was dribbling out of the corner of her miserly mouth. In her plate was a new addition, her gnarled, wrinkly, liver-spotted right hand, slumped on the mashed potatoes. She started to resemble a wilting willow branch, and I leapt up to catch her from capsizing from her carver chair.
“What’s going on?” But I knew right away; all those Stroke Foundation infomercials had paid off in this household.
So, cut to a week later, dear Eve now sits propped up in a grey PVC winged recliner in a high care nursing home. She wears a brown dress and beige knee-high stockings with ugly tan sandals with thick velcro straps. Around her delicate neck is draped a navy blue silk scarf, which I had bought for her on a whim from charity shop across the road. Her contracted right arm rests upon a pillow, a soft sponge ball in her vestigial hand. Once harsh, her face is now soft and placid, flaccid. The asymmetric droop would have delighted Salvador Dali. Her speech has become just one word. Would you like me spray on your perfume, Grandma? Yes. Are you happy? Yes. Do you like it here? Yes. Do you love me? Yes.
Six weeks later, my soft, beautiful grandmother succumbed to a cough that defied multiple courses of antibiotics from the visiting doctors. I held her withered, warm hand in mine. Do you want to go to God, Grandma? Yes. I kissed her cheek and inhaled the fading Lily In The Mist scent on her scarf, deep into my lungs, deep, deep into my memory.
I thank God for bringing her back to me over, and over again.
If you enjoyed this story and would like more 15-minute reads, why not get your own copy today?
The first three stories are FREE in the Look Inside section. 😊
The Atlantis Short Story anthology contains 26 stories to spice up your imagination, and is available in Kindle and paperback.
@AliceLamWriter #Lilies #AtlantisShortStory #Anthology
Please note, your purchase through links on this website is a huge support me as a writer (and gives me a small commission as an Amazon affiliate with no extra cost to you).