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Prompt: Death has come to steal you away. But you are not ready to go, and decide to fight back in whatever way you can…(with photo)

Negotiation

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The galloping hooves echoed throughout the courtyard seconds before the fiery horse appeared. By fiery, I don’t mean a red horse, but a horse that appeared to be flaming. I could totally see him painted across the side of an F-150 or the rear window of a vintage Bronco. He was fabulous!

With skeletal hands and the predictable black, hooded cape, the rider had to be Death. He pulled the steed up short, making it snort black smoke, and dismounted with an impressive leap to the asphalt. I returned to my story on the computer. These daydreams of mine are so freaking vivid.

It was a few moments before I realized that the knocking was on my apartment door. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Whoever was rapping was quite eager for my attention. I don’t normally hear anything from my office. Peeking through the peephole, I couldn’t believe it. Death was rapping at my door.

“Death?” I stage-whispered.

“Yes,” he replied, staring straight into my eye, his own black as anti-matter, or so I imagined. “Please open your door.”

I shook my head, though he couldn’t possibly see me.

“Yes.”

I stopped shaking my head.

He continued, “I prefer you open your door, so that I don’t have to rip it off. I didn’t come her to commit vandalism.”

I nodded.

“Good.”

He stood still and quiet while I opened the door slowly. Probably I needed to invite him inside, so I waved my hand in a vague, step inside gesture. He dropped his head in a gentle, thanking motion, and walked down the hall into my living room, settling on my purple sectional. Death pet my couch and nodded, with a skeletal grin. “Nice sofa. Purple is my favorite color.”

I stared at him. Then I asked him if he wanted something to drink. He requested milk, so I poured him a tall glass. Death wanted his milk warm, so I transferred it to a large mug and nuked it. When he placed his finger bones on his skull chin, I wondered out loud what he needed, and he requested hot sauce for his milk. After I handed him his milk, he dumped in a shitload of hot sauce, stirred it briskly, handed the bottle back to me, and sipped his milky, orangesicle-colored drink.

He gestured to me to have a seat, so I sat on the edge of my yellow-print, slipper chair across from him. Death grinned, which looked like a grimace, but I could tell he was getting comfortable, sliding down and leaning back into the fluffy pillows, tilting his drink carefully. A conversation was looming—I could feel it like a storm coming. As I watched him sip his fiery drink, I realized Death had no smell.

“Well,” he said after finishing his milk and smacking what should have been his gums, “Clack, clack!”

“Do you have to take me now?” I asked, mentally calculating what I could resolve before I was snatched away by Death: call my mother and tell her I love her, feed the cats, start a load of laundry for the hubs, and sillier stuff, even locking the cats in another room so they wouldn’t eat me.

He sat up and clasped his bony fingers. “I’m afraid so.”

“But can’t we talk about it? Like in the movies, negotiate…you can take my husband. Hahaha!” I’m a shit wife, but I was only joking, right?

“I could, but it’s not really a fair trade, since he has three more decades allotted him, and you’d be those three decades without him. Is that what you want?”

I shook my head. That would be awful. I was not the best at taking care of myself, an epiphany that rattled my brain in that moment. Think, think, think! “What else can I offer?”

“You have four cats. I could take one. Choose.”

I actually gasped. “But-but-but they’re my babies.” My mouth hung open and I couldn’t close it.

“I know. Negotiation requires sacrifice.” He placed his glass on a coaster and leaned back into the couch. “No worries. I have time. My next appointment is this evening at six.”

One tear rolled down my face and onto my hand as I snurfled to contain myself. I could feel my chin quivering, which I absolutely hated. Loathed is the word, I told myself.

“You’re not even thinking about it. Self-loathing is pointless, in any case.” He stood up. “Ah, I do love high ceilings. Those eight foot ceilings suck, don’t they? I hate scrunching down, kills my back.” He walked to the hall as I held my breath in disbelief that Death was leaving my home without me. Large cracks startled me and I turned to see the excessively tall, dark-cloaked skeleton twisting and turning.

Prompted to continue being the hostest with the mostest, I jumped up and followed him to the door, where he turned to me and informed me, “You’re smart. Cats are a great bartering tool. One cat gives you not only forty more years, but it adds that extra decade to your husband’s life span to match yours, so that you’ll die days apart. Romantic, eh?” He winked. He actually winked at me. Like a joke.

That evening, I asked the hubs, “If you had to give up one of our cats, which one would you choose?”

“Why would you ask me that? What a stupid question!” He turned back to his book, holding it up in front of him to emphasize the fact that he was now ignoring me purposely. I sighed and returned to my own reading.

Three weeks later, my littlest muffin was hit by a car. Four weeks later, my sweetest muffin contracted leukemia. I held my breath mentally all the time, fearful of losing all of them. Death was cheating me. He was a cheater. Death was a cheater. Cheater, cheater, cheater! I told everyone. They agreed.

When I finally stopped expecting Death to visit my home again, the hoofbeats cannoned into the courtyard, and the fiery steed was brought to an abrupt halt. Half a minute later, the knock on my door told me Death was here to have another conversation. It took all my effort to not wet my pants. I strode swiftly to the door before I lost my nerve.

“I’m sorry. I won’t say it again. I’ll do whatever you say. Just please stick to our deal.” Tears were flying everywhere as I screamed apologies and begged him to just go away.

“May I come in?”

I nodded and moved aside. He strolled to the living room and plopped on the sofa.

“Ah, that’s nice. I do so wish that I could come for a real social visit. Your home is so welcoming.” He gestured to the yellow chair, so I sat, sniffling up mucus noisily, choosing not to care at all of propriety. Death pointed to the fridge; well, his finger bones sort of curved down in the direction of the fridge. Using his other hand, he straightened the finger and waved it again.

I heated some milk and brought it and the hot sauce. He stirred the hot sauce longer than he needed to, while he sighed and groaned and moaned. He set everything on the coffee table and leaned forward, picked up the drink, glugged it, and proclaimed, “Fantastic!” Setting it down, he said, “Listen, I don’t cheat. It really pisses me off that you’re telling everyone I’m a cheater. It’s a goddamned job. I’m not an asshole. It’s just my fucking job, okay?”

I nodded, but heard myself say, “But you took two of my babies,” continuing to nod like a dope.

Death sighed heavily, puffing air from what or where I don’t know—he had no lungs that I could see, and I could see through him to his cloak. He pulled it closer around him. Could Death be self-conscientious? I nearly giggled. Lordy, I was easily distracted. “Look, it was Sassy’s time. I had nothing to do with that. It was her fate to die last week from leukemia, for which, by the way, I’m truly sorry. She was a lovely cat, a stately queen in an earlier life, and likely royalty in a future life. Humans won’t be aware of this, of course, since we’re so ignorant.”

“You’re human?”

“Was. Where do you think Death comes from? Another species? That’s another story, one for a more relevant time, when you need such information, and you will need it, I guarantee it.”

Did Death just threaten me? Warn me? Was I to be the next incarnation? Holy shit! No way!

“Focus!” he said.

I jumped.

“I came here to tell you that I followed our deal by cutting two seconds off Lulu’s leap across the street. She was the sacrifice, not Sassy. I have another appointment, so I can’t linger. Please stop casting aspersions upon my name. It’s fear-mongering, untrue, and can hurt only you in the future. Trust me.”

I nodded and Death left my home quietly, groaning and moaning and twisting and turning to crack his spine. He touched two bony fingers to his browridge and clumped downstairs to fly away on his fiery steed. I watched long after they were gone, contemplating his mysterious words and feeling a bit better about Sassy, who wasn’t cheated after all. Then I wondered where the spicy milk went when he drank it.

Prompt: Writing Bad photo

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Never Touch It

I couldn’t stop looking at it. None of my friends had cell phones. Dad had argued that a ten-year-old didn’t need a cell phone, especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. My mother was a smotherer and had been working Dad for years, and now I had a Smartphone.

“Jimmy, put that stupid thing away and come on!” Ronak screamed back at me as he raced down our street toward the forest.

I stuffed the phone in my shorts pocket and rode after him, feeling the bulk of it banging my thigh as I pumped. It felt like I had the world in my pocket. The forest surrounded me when I hit the edge of the road at the T and bounced along the dirt path to our treehouse that Ronak and I built two years ago.

After dropping my bike next to his, I climbed up the rope ladder to find Ronak waiting impatiently. He too loved to play Angry Birds on my phone and hated that I always played first. It was my phone. I settled into the pile of pillows next to him and pulled out my phone. The game icon was on the screen. I poked it and started level 34, which was killing me. Because of the challenges at certain levels, we’d instituted a new rule of all lives lost before switching if we didn’t level up.

“Dude, you suck!” he yelled as he punched me, bumping my arm, which caused me to miss my target and lose my last life. He snatched the phone from me.

“That’s not fair! You made me lose my last life!” We wrestled amongst the pillows, pushing them out of the way, scraping our elbows and knees on the rough wooden floor from the unfinished wood planks. A tingle-a-ling-a-ling announced a text. “Give me my phone. That’s a text from my mom. If I don’t answer it, she’ll make me come home.”

Ronak handed me the phone with a sigh and rolled onto his back to inspect his elbows. I looked at the text. Mom didn’t usually text so soon after I left. Mostly just to let me know to come home for lunch.

“Look. It’s not from my mom.”

“What? Who else would text you? I though only your mom had your number?”

We read the text together, “Don’t touch it! Never touch it!” There was no number, only a blank space.

That was the first communication from Lorena, who explained that she lived in a parallel universe. Even though they could read her texts, my parents called her my invisible friend throughout my entire childhood, convincing my best friend, though he’d been there for the first message.

For years, I had no clue what “it” was, for she was not forthcoming with an explanation. We discussed everything else. Her responses came always a day later, apparently due to some time-space interference that I still don’t fully comprehend. She had no clue why we could communicate by text, just that it was a rare phenomenon which made her a minor celebrity in her town and me a weirdo in mine.

In a new home way out in the country, my dad decided to get satellite TV, and a dish hung off the southwest corner of our house. We got some new stations, some in different languages, intriguing my dad, who watched despite the language barrier. He especially loved Bollywood films in Hindi.

“Dad, that’s the doll! In the left corner on the dresser.” He spit air through his teeth and changed the channel. “There it is again! I swear—on the bookshelf next to the blue book.” Another channel.

Before I could point it out on top of the fridge in the soap opera, Dad burst out with, “Stop it! Just stop it!” He took a deep breath and continued, “Son, it’s not there. You’re old enough to give up these games. No one sees it. It’s not there. No connection with your invisible friend. It’s time to let her go, Jimmy.” He held out his hand to me, man to man. “Deal?”

I shook his hand and said, “Deal,” and mentioned it not once more, though it appeared on every show.

Again and again, Lorena texted, “Don’t touch it! Never touch it!” Why, I don’t know. It was on TV. I couldn’t touch it.

Until I was 21 and saw the little, pinkish, angelic papier-mache doll in a store, sitting on a shelf next to toothpaste. Then another store, right by the candy I was choosing. I noticed it as I was picking up the bag, and I dropped the bag at my feet, picked it up, and went on my day. It was unnerving to be so close to a forbidden object from a parallel universe that no one else here could see.

I married in my mid-30s a widow with two children, children I adopted and love as my own. Lorena knows about my wife, yet she remains my secret. I’m still in the dark about her connection to the freaky, papier-mache doll that I’m now seeing everywhere. My wife knows nothing.

Last Tuesday, the doll appeared in the fridge behind the milk. I spilled milk all over the floor when I saw her. I cleaned it up, but I did not cry. Honestly, I wanted to cry. I mean, in the fridge…really?

Lorena chose to stay with the woman who was selected as her youth partner after school. She says this often happens. I’m glad she’s happy. I know that throughout her life she has continued to be a recognizable figure for her unusual connection to me. I, however, may be going mad from it. That freaking doll is everywhere, and I’m not supposed to touch it. I don’t know the consequences of such an action, but my lifelong fear of accidentally doing so keeps me on edge as she proliferates in my life. I have no one to talk to about this. Not even Lorena.

I now stand still in my living room, staring at my little girl as she gradually morphs into a little, pink angel.

 

Prompt: Writing Bad photo

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Sharon watched the teenagers approach, knowing the helmet screen was a 2-way mirror. She screamed and banged the metal with her fists and stomped her feet, but cushioning absorbed the sounds. The girl jumped back, startled. The girl asked the boy a question, but he shook his head. The girl blinked a couple times and laughed when the boy poked her and thrust his hands at her to scare her.

Hope died like a candle extinguished. She recalled when she and her boyfriend had come out to the deserted shack deep in the forest, where the inexplicable astronaut suit stood. Rumors held that it came from a defunct amusement park. It had no real functionality, made from metal and heavily solid, as evidenced by the girl tapping on it and pushing it.

Sharon’s boyfriend had gone into the shack while she had investigated the suit. A hand had clamped over her mouth, holding her head tight to someone’s chest as another hand reached around to open the astronaut with a little key that had not been obvious to her. The hands shoved her into the astronaut so quickly that she’d not even thought to fight back yet. She was positioned in a flash and the astronaut suit closed. She didn’t hear the snick of the key, but once she recognized her situation, she found that the suit was securely closed.

Her boyfriend wandered out of the shack, shrugging as though there were nothing to worry about inside. She’d been looking forward to this new adventure—outdoor sex in a forbidden area. Now she witnessed her own disappearance through her boyfriend’s behavior. He called her name for hours, beat the hood of his car, and drove away. Returning with him were her parents and police officers, who searched the premises with flashlights, had a head-hanging conversation with her parents, and also drove off well before morning.

Sharon watched volunteers meet in front of the shack to search for her. When the search party was clearly over, she slumped in the suit waiting to die, wondering if she would succumb to thirst first, as she’d always read. She didn’t know how long she’d been in the suit when she saw the teenagers, who now were fucking in the shack, oblivious to her distress.

She cried without tears.

Prompt: Writing Bad photo

Writing Bad

Watching from my third story window, I caught a picturesque moment–a couple canoodling inside an umbrella in the seductive drizzle of a Paris afternoon.

I hummed to myself, “I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles,” and began the process of separating myself emotionally from my second husband and oldest daughter…who were kissing in full view of the hotel.

Prompt: He visits the same bench every single day.

Singing woke Anthony each morning. He went to bed anticipating the morning serenade. Of course it was in Irish, so he didn’t catch all the words, but the clear voice of his wife Aisling urged him from bed with a yearning to touch her and hug her and kiss her and call her his precious. Life began for him when he saw ash-blond Aisling working in a public house on his visit to Ireland to meet long-lost cousins found through his ancestral investigation. One of the cousins knew her name, but that was all. Not even a summer romance; no words exchanged, only a smile that stopped the world for Anthony.

He returned to the village of his cousins as a Christmas gift to himself. He went to the public house each evening for supper. Until she spoke more than business with him. He met her parents, promising them to care for her until the end of his days, promising as many trips home for her as possible. Aisling came home with him to Connecticut the following summer, after an Irish wedding in her hometown, which all of his cousins attended.

Within a year of marriage, Anthony was working from home, while Aisling attended college to become a kindergarten teacher. In October, she became pregnant. In December, she was no longer pregnant, returning to school hollow-eyed and trembling, but looking forward to the internship at a nearby elementary school in the spring.

The next autumn, the second baby died. Grief carried over from the first child, her sorrow sung out to the world. By the end of spring, Aisling was ready to try again. Alas, she could not bring a child to life. Unable to console his wife, Anthony brought her mother to Connecticut. Mama made no difference, as Aisling weakened, listless, refusing to eat. True melancholy ate her from the inside out. Her kindergarten class missed their student teacher. The family of every child attended her funeral.

Between the school and Anthony’s home is a park where the children claim they hear singing, but not in words. They don’t know Aisling speaks Irish. This is why Anthony brings his work to the park. He visits the same bench every single day, listening to Aisling sing until her voice becomes wind.

Prompt: “The bridge is icy.”

Sarah ran through the crowds downtown, shoving and apologizing the entire seven blocks. Reaching the bridge, she turned right and heaved a great sigh at seeing the bridge empty. Run-walking let her catch her breath as she tried to figure out why Johnny would be late. He’s never late, punctuality only one of his expectations to which he held her to his own strict standards. Maybe he finally stepped in front of a bus. She laughed in her head, hearing that silent voice actually saying “ha, ha, ha.”

From behind the second pillar of the bridge, Johnny stepped in front of her, admonishing her, “You’re eight minutes late. Early is best, Sarah. Late is never okay.” He grabbed her upper arm and walked swiftly across the bridge, pulling her back into a run-trot.

“Let me go, Johnny!”

“The bridge is icy, Sarah. I don’t want you to fall.” He gripped her arm tighter. “You were late. We must walk faster. I have only so much time for lunch and you’ve already wasted eight minutes of it.”

“Rawr!” She screamed to the winter white sky and karate chopped his hand.

He let go. “Christ, Sarah, what is wrong with you today?”

She pushed him. He shoved her back and turned away, walking on, stating his case, “If you act like that, I don’t even want to have lunch with you. You’ve wasted far more of my time than the eight minutes you were late. Go on back to work, Sarah. You don’t deserve lunch with me.”

“Rawr!” Sarah shouted out to the world and gave Johnny a bigger shove than before.

He slid sideways, hit a cable in front of the railing, fell over on his side, and slipped under the bottom bar, clunking his head a couple times, scrabbling at the end with glove-less fingers before flailing toward the East River.

Sarah screamed after him, “The bridge is icy, Johnny!”

Prompt: She watched the blood-stained dress burn, as I watched her.

Cheap Sparkles

Mama stood in the already blistering heat of the Nevada desert we both loathed. She watched the blood-stained dress burn, as I watched her. Black Irish, my mama looked like a Disney princess, with her long dark hair and fair skin. But she was no princess. Not that she was evil. It’s the ridiculous nature of the princesses that I deny in her. Practical to her core, does what she’s gotta do.

She had to do this.

Podunk, Kentucky was founded in 1842, boomed with forty-niners, and exploded with railroad and river travel. Then it slowly died. I lived in a dead town. Mama worked in the big chicken farm, like most everyone else. Smelled like shit every day. Whole town smelled like shit.

I heard Mama making call after call one day when I got home after school. I lingered in the doorway to the kitchen, so I could get the gist of it from her side of the conversations. They all sounded the same.

“So you work for Harley? Uh-huh. I see. Oh, really? It pays well? Higher than most? Oh, that’s good. You like living there? Gotta be better than Podunk, Kentucky.” She didn’t have to laugh that loud, and not every time. I could even hear the other women laughing loudly with her. Whoever they were, I didn’t want anything to do with them. After the fifth phone call, she turned and saw me. I faked like I was just coming in, threw my backpack on the table.

“Hey, Suzi Q, how are you?” I grinned. Though she said it every day, that phrase made me feel loved. Maybe it was the continuity of it, the expectation fulfillment. “My precious girl.” Mama kissed my forehead and pulled out a chair. “Sit down. I’ve got big news.”

“Yeah?” Why was I suspicious? Was it the phone calls, all them women laughing at my home town? Mama sat next to me, held my hands, and took a deep breath.

“We’re leaving this chicken shit town.”

“What?” She placed her hand on my cheek.

“Mr. Harley, the guy I met yesterday? He’s legit. He does own a club in Vegas. I called all nine of the dancers on his list who work for him.”

“Mama, you ain’t been a dancer since before I was born.”

“Ain’t that kind of dancing, sweetie. it’s all a show of fancy costumes and bright lights, with easy dance steps. Mr. Harley told me I’d fit right in.”

We piled everything we especially wanted in our old pickup and drove west on the advance from Mr. Harley. Two days later, we pulled into Vegas near midnight. It was glorious. Sparkles everywhere, even from the fountains. Huge fountains of sparkling water in the desert. Crazy.

On Mama’s first night, I went with her. The club was way off the strip, with a couple bars on both sides. Harleys filled their parking lots. Inside was busy, women wearing extraordinary costumes. We passed a wall of photos across a map of the US. I pointed out Mama’s picture to her and she grabbed a passing dancer.

“Why’s my photo on this map?” The woman looked at the photo and back at Mama.

“Rosalie!” She hugged Mama. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m Donna. Let’s get you a costume. You’ll be in next week’s show, so you’ll be backstage tonight. But you gotta get used to the heavy costume.” She took her by the hand, but Mama didn’t budge.

“Tell me about the photo.” Donna turned around with a blank face.

“Oh, that’s how Mr. Harley chooses his dancers. He’s got a whole system of traveling salesmen and tourists giving him pictures of beautiful women. He’s rescued all of us from dead boring little towns across the country. Isn’t that wonderful?” Mama snake-eyed her, then followed her to costuming. On the way, Donna explained, “When someone leaves, we dancers get to pick the next one on the map. We chose you. Anyone else goes, you get to help choose our next dancer.”

Mama’s look told me she didn’t give a crap. She smiled and shrugged at me, whispered, “Whatever.”

In the costume room, Donna helped Mama pick out her size in the white dress covered with rhinestones, with slits up the sides at the waist. Mama handed it to me. Man, was it heavy. Then she tried on the headdress and nearly fell over.

“Yeah,” Donna said, “Practice at home. That’s what we do. Each costume forces a different center of gravity. Just a matter of focus, really.” She stopped and looked at me. “Hey, if you’re interested, we can get you a costume for backup. I mean, it’s not regular pay, but…..you’re still in high school, right?”

“She’s 13,” Mama snarled.

“Holy geez! I thought you were at least 17. Sorry.”

Everything went okay, I guess. I wandered through the casinos every day after school before I did my homework. Mama made more money and nobody smelled like chicken shit. Vegas had its own stench. The desert, however, had no scent of its own, which freaked me out. Mama didn’t seem too much happier here than in Kentucky. Still didn’t date, said cuz of me, how I didn’t need no one messing up my childhood.

About three months into Vegas, on a Tuesday, the only night I was allowed, cuz of low traffic, a dancer’s boyfriend touched me.

Mama danced on stage as I watched from the sidelines. She was gorgeous in the rhinestone dress with the feathered headdress that doubled her height. Just before she came offstage, Ella’s new boyfriend stepped close to me and breathed into my ear lewd suggestions that I didn’t understand. Then he latched onto my butt cheek and I screamed. I didn’t mean to. I’d never been touched like that before.

Like Mama says, all hell broke loose. The music went louder. Mama and Ella crashed through the other dancers. Mr. Harley was yelling on the other side of the stage. Mama launched herself at Ella’s boyfriend. Ella jumped me. I went down easy, the breath knocked out of me. Mama hauled Ella off me. Then the weirdest thing happened. Ella reached into her dress. I swear I heard the “snick” of the switchblade, though I know I couldn’t have. Out of the tussle, Ella backed away with big eyes.

Mama’s dress was shifting to red, like a wave coming in. The boyfriend snatched Ella by the hand and dragged her out the back door. I helped Mama to the truck. For the first time in my life, I drove. I felt bad for every jerk and lurch that made my mama gasp in pain. I doctored her up and threw everything we especially liked in the truck. By sunrise, Mama claimed she was rested enough.

“One more thing,” she said.

The rhinestone dress sat in a bucket in the bed of the truck as we drove into the desert. We watched it burn together.

“You and me, babe.” We held hands.

“I hate this fucking town,” she said.

“We going back to Podunk?”

“Hell, no.”

“Let’s go to California, Mama.”

“Yes, my love, let’s go be beach bums.” She smiled and we hit the road.

Prompt: Start your story with a sentence that is genuinely happy and upbeat . . . . .

The glorious sunrise shone down upon my face. I daydreamed of vacations on the beaches of North Carolina, a different one each summer, and after 17 years, plenty to visit. They were all perfect, golden hot sand, like his golden hot body. Blonde hair so thick and luscious, super sexy when wet and curling around his ears. Oh, God. I love him so much even though he’s no longer perfect. It’s so bizarre that he looks exactly the same, but needs me to move him, feed him, care for every little personal need. One riptide and my love is mute and still. Mother Nature is a bitch. She took his essence and left me his body. Which is why we were walking in the stupid, fucking woods. Walk. Pfft! He’s so noisy in his all-terrain wheelchair. I stare at the remote for the wheelchair next to my unnaturally bended knee. It looks fine. I could probably reach it. I could probably move him around. But what would be the point? I mean, who the fuck digs a 20-foot hole in the middle of the forest? Three sunrises and no one has come to see what’s been trapped. I’ve vowed to stay positive until the end. The glorious sunrise shone down upon my face.

Prompt: You take an old book off the shelf in a used bookstore. When you open it, something falls out.

We went down to the basement level, to the far corner of the room, with its ceiling-height bookshelves. All of the books were pre-20th century, light earth tones, very serious in their appearance. The curator climbed a ladder and picked from the penultimate shelf a pink-tinged book with a young girl on the front.

“Now this is about the fairies that everyone has determined were a hoax, but let me tell you-,” he was saying on his way down, interrupting himself by a slight misstep on the ladder.

Finally, he reached the bottom and handed me the book. It was heavier than I expected, with a silky finish. In the photo, the girl was gazing at what appeared to be a paper cutout fairy. The curator took the book back and opened it gently, turning pages slowly. When he stopped, it seemed that a tiny creature fell from a photo in the book.

“Aye, now we have to catch the little bugger. I was being so careful, too, You’ll soon see that this was no hoax.” He pulled a flashlight from his vest pocket and shined it under the bookcase.

A shimmering of tiny wings flashed by as the creature flew out and up. “We’ll just leave this here,” said the curator as he placed the book on the floor, open to the photo matching the front of the book, except the fairy was missing. He pulled me behind the adjacent bookcase. We peered around the corner for a few minutes. “It never takes her long. She likes to show off.”

Slowly, like a feather falling, and with the slightest fluttering sound, a light green fairy dropped into the photo as though she’d never been gone from it.

Prompt: someone goes to extreme lengths to return something borrowed.

Begrudger

“Mother, I swear!” I looked around the pantry, though there could be no one to hear me. Who else would willingly clean up after my mother? She had so many grudges, and she kept everything related to them. In every room of her home, I saw the evidence of her inability to let go of circumstances, accidents, basically any incident where someone disagreed with her perception or somehow slighted her by not following her expectations. This book in my hand had to be the longest running grudge in the history of grudges, with more animosity on both sides than the Hatfields and McCoys.

That may be why I decided to return the library book that my mother had vengefully held onto for 52 years to the librarian who refused to let it go. If she was still alive, I would find her and hand her the god-damned book that had boomeranged around my childhood and beyond. Everyone else had let go of whatever trophy Mother chose to keep to emphasize her point, socks that actually did belong to my cousin and my mother had accidentally packed with my stuff, the lighter she said my father had given her, though he’d not recognized it and asked her to return it to his friend, so many other stupid, little things. Letters were written and phone calls were made, where arguments ensued, with no one as relentless as my mother.

I went directly to the address on the most recent letter in the box on which the book sat. Miss Habscomb apparently still lived in our town. Alas, this was not true. The new tenant informed me that she had moved three years prior, but gave me the name of her son, who lived in the neighboring state. The next weekend, I knocked on his door. When I explained my mission, he gave me the name of a cousin in Germany who’d taken her in, since he and his mother weren’t close. I took an indefinite sabbatical from work to fly to Germany. The cousin passed me on to his brother in Amsterdam, who sent me back to the US, Ohio specifically. Three weeks later, I had traveled most of the country.

Suffering signs of early dementia meant round the clock care, but her family passed her around like an unwanted pet. I was feeling sincerely sad for this woman. More than once, I had doors slammed in my face and thus returned to the previous kin to brainstorm her next possible move. Once I found out that she was in a nursing facility, I thought my journey was over. But they had sent her to a specialized hospital for an acute something I couldn’t pronounce. She then moved around from assisted care facilities and various nursing homes, depending on which relative was paying.

I found her in a California rest home, sitting in a bay window, scowling at the sunny beach. She waved me to sit down.

“I don’t like people hovering over me.”

“Sorry.” I set on the sofa next to her wheelchair.

“Do you need something?”

She still scared the little girl in me returning a book late. I swallowed and persevered. “Miss Habscomb?”

“Mrs. You’re not a child. Call me by my proper name, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I found this book in my mother’s pantry. There were several letters between the two of you.”

“I don’t know your mother, child. I don’t even remember you.”

“Oh.” I tapped the box on my lap. “Of course.”

“May I see the book?”

I opened the box and handed her the book. “Here you go. She kept all your letters, and even the ones of hers that you returned.”

Miss, er, Mrs. Habscomb’s eye widened and brightened. Lucidity shone like beacons.

“This book! This book! I do remember this book!”

“You do? That’s great. I’ve spent a long time and traveled a long way to return it to you. My mom died this last summer.”

She gripped the book tightly in her arthritic hands and held it up, looking at it with glee. “It’s too bad your mother died, dear.”

“Thank you.” I sniffled, holding back tears I hadn’t expected.

The book floated down to her lap and she pet it as though it were a cat. “But I have to tell you something.” She leaned forward, holding herself in the chair by placing her forearms along the wheelchair arms. The twinkle in her eye was alarming. “I win!”

I snatched that damn book from her lap and hissed at her, “No, you don’t!” and drove home.