No Strings Attached

I prefer to work behind the scenes as a Puppet Mistress because I’ve had my fill of being controlled. Yessir, up to ‘ere, I tell ya! I’m only a meter and a half high so that’s a bloody lot! No more headlining in Freak Shows for me.. full time anyways. Gotta start somewheres, I guess. I’d rather create me own fantasies than live in this depressing reality, as a freak. Ya see, I was born with a facial deformity and bowed legs, which me own Mother capitalized on by sending me away to a traveling Circus Freak Show when I was a wee lass, just six years of age, for a whoppin’ two shillings! Me Mum never looked back, I only remember seeing the back of her bright blue and yellow floral sundress and wide brimmed straw garden hat as she strolled away from the railroad station.. away from me. I wonder if she ever missed me, her one and only daughter?

The Ringmaster took me in as his own, but he’s a businessman at the end of the day and I’m not the only orphan in the Circus Freak Show. His time’s spread thin with booking shows, breaking down and putting up tents, traveling here and there, everywhere really, kissing audience members’ arses, wrangling the performers, hiring and firing the crew, refereeing quarrels, and of course.. putting up with us freaks. The Ringmaster, we call him “Burly Burke,” he’s the closest to kin I’ve had for the past two decades. Even though he’s the lad is charge and I’m just one of his many workers, we get on just fine. I can’t say the same for the naughty kids, they call him “Burke the Jerk” behind his back. I don’t believe any of their hogwash about Burke being a jerk though. I choose to believe this unsavory nickname came about because Burke is always chewin’ on beef jerky.

One day soon, I hope to be promoted from Puppet Mistress (like an Apprentice) to Puppet Madam; I just gotta prove my stuff first, impress Burke and Gertrude, win over the audience, and not muck up too much. If I do all that, I just might transfer from Freak Show to Puppet Show. I’d have more creative responsibility as a Puppet Madam: writing scripts and crafting the puppets, which is much better than untangling the puppet strings. What a shite gig! Seriously, a monkey could do it. I mean, we do have a thirty-three year old chimp named Marmalade, we call her Ol’ Marm, she doesn’t seem to mind, as long as you don’t look her in the eye. Her full time job is being the Ringmaster’s right hand. She follows Burke around carrying a satchel with anything he may need. Rumor has it that Ol’ Marm is a retired undefeated boxing champ. I cannot imagine Burke putting her in the ring with a drunkard for three shillings a round! Well, I guess if this is all true, that would make her Burke’s unofficial bodyguard too. I read in a mustard stained, ale soaked National Geographic magazine that I found in a bin that a chimpanzee has 1.35 times the strength of a human being.

Reading seems to be the only escape I can get from this place. The Puppet Madam, Gertrude, begrudgingly taught me how to read and write a couple years ago. I think she saw potential in me because she’s never taught anyone else before or since. Crippling arthritis robbed her ability to write Puppet Show scripts and craft the puppets. Her previous illiterate pissants were able to memorize the scripts from her dictation. She still dictates, but now I’m beginning to write for her. I’m still learning how to craft. Gertrude has quite a few strict rules. Top of the list is: “No Improvising” as she thinks it mucks up the whole production.

“Bloody hell Deirdre! What’d I tell ya?” Gertrude demanded while stomping her cane with one hand and wiping her twisted fingers across her face with the other. “Rule number thirteen: “Do Not Be Seen.” We’re meant to be invisible to the audience because it creates a sense of believability that the puppets are performing on their own.”

“S-sorry M-mum,” the new puppeteer, Deirdre, quickly apologized, avoiding eye contact and shuffling her feet, ready to retreat. “A-anything else before I g-go?”

“No child,” Gertrude softened with a tight lipped smile. “Off with ya,” as she waved her moth eaten handkerchief and plopped down on an uneven footstool. Deirdre vanished before Gertrude finished her second syllable. I don’t blame her because when an elder comes at you like that, we expect to be beaten, and if you can outrun ’em.. You might as well give it a go.

“Brilliant show tonight, Mum,” I said while pouring two cups of hot tea and handing one to Gertrude.

“Eh. We still have two more to go,” she muttered with a sip and a yawn. “I don’t think I can muster through.”

“Oh, w-well, I-” I began, gathering all the courage to continue. “Y-ya know, I-I could take over for ya so you can r-rest?”

“That’s awful kind of ya,” Gertrude breathed with a sigh, her wrinkled face relaxed as she leaned against a splintered tent post and closed her eyes; teacup still in hand.

I carefully wiggled the warm teacup out of her tight grip and tucked a frayed quilt around her. She started to snore and drool, which were signs she was out. Over the years, I’ve learned the saying: “The wise man doesn’t poke a sleeping bear with a stick.” Wonder if there’s a story behind that? Maybe someone published their unpleasant experience in an issue of National Geographic? Which reminded me that I needed to rummage through the bins later for something new to read.

“Well done, mate,” I said, patting Deirdre’s shoulder as we both stood from kneeling on footstools for what seemed like hours.

“Thank ya?” Deirdre hesitantly replied, motionless, waiting for more to come.

“I mean it,” I continued, handing Deirdre the puppets and props one by one. She placed each of them into a steamer trunk. “I think you’re gonna fit in here. Don’t worry about Gertrude. She’s a tough ol’ broad, but she grows on ya.”

“If you say so,” Deirdre replied, locking the trunk and sitting upon it. “So, what’s your story?”

“M-me?” I asked, not expecting the conversation to turn. “Oh, ya know, um, classic runnin’ away to join the circus story. I heard something about you stealing some bread from one of our tents? Couple weeks ago?”

“Yes’m, I’ve been on the streets for as long as I can remember,” she reminisced while twirling her short greasy golden locks between her stubby fingers with one hand and pocketing the steamer trunk key. “This traveling circus gig seems to go with my nomad lifestyle, so we’ll see how it goes..”

“So, you’re a gypsy?”

“More or less.”

“More of a thief? Less of a gypsy?”

“Jury’s still out on that one,” Deirdre said with a quick grin. She shifted her weight to the edge of the steamer trunk and her shiny penny-less loafers rhythmically tapped the ground. “Anything else before I go?”

“Uh, aye,” I started, clearing my throat, and leaning against a tent post. “Those are some nice shoes ya got there.”

“Thank ya?” Deirdre questioned the compliment, as she crossed her legs and arms.

“Lookit, I live in a grey world,” I put my hands up in surrender. “I was just gonna ask if ya could maybe be on the lookout for a size three and a half for me?”

Deirdre uncrossed her arms, leaned back resting her palms on top of the steamer trunk, stretched her still crossed legs out, and squinted her blue eyes up at me.

“I-I’m way overdue for a new pair. I g-gotta hole in each sole. These damn bowed legs need b-better s-support. W-whenever it rains, I c-catch a cold. I can’t a-afford losing anymore work.”

“What’s in it for me, eh?”

“I’ll put in a good word for ya with Gertrude and Burly Burke?” I proposed while absentmindedly thumbing through the puppet show scripts in my burlap apron.

And teach me how to read?”

“Think you’ll be around long enough to learn?”

“I’ll see to it that I do. Haven’t had nothing to look forward to in- -,” Deirdre trailed off, averting her gaze, and quietly chuckled to herself. “I’ve never had nothing to look forward to.”

“Got yourself a deal,” I agreed.

“Aye,” Deirdre leaned forward to her feet and extended her hand towards me.

I slowly lifted my hand out of my pocket, Deirdre firmly shook my hand, and I instinctively winced.

“You okay?” Deirdre loosened her grip and looked me in the eye. “Didn’t mean to hurt ya.”

“O-oh, n-no, um, it w-wasn’t t-that,” I began, voice trembling, and letting go of her hand. “I-I, uh, d-don’t have a lot of p-physical c-contact.. with a-anybody.”

“Not even Gertrude? Y’all seem friendly,” Deirdre’s assumption prompted me to shake my head. “Burke?”

I slowly shook my head again, feeling uncomfortably awkward.

“I’m sorry,” Deirdre whispered, grabbing my hand again, and squeezing it gently.

“Blimey! Look at the time,” I blurted to end the lingering silence, disconnecting our hands. I fumbled to open my cracked pocket watch and closed it in my jittery hands.

“Are you turnin’ in?”

“I think it’s best. I’m knackered,” I excused myself in a hurry and stumbled out from behind the dusty maroon velvet curtain into the twilight air. “Oi! Watch it,” I exclaimed as I bumped into a wee lass.

“AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!” the toddler screamed, her eyes wide as saucers. “A-a m-monster!”

“Oh, bugger.. I’ve been called worse,” I mumbled under my breath, as I attempted to bend down to her level and comfort her. This only made matters worse. She shrieked again and scurried off towards a woman wearing a faded blue and yellow dress and tattered straw hat. Safe to say, her Mum.

“Aw, what’s the matter, love?” the woman calmly asked her distraught daughter while tenderly stroking her hair. The wee lass hid behind her Mum’s leg, peering out with one eye, and pointing her index finger in my direction. The Mum locked eyes with me, she tilted her head, mouth agape.

“Apologies, Miss,” I stepped forward. “Didn’t mean to give her a fright- -,” I trailed off as I witnessed the Mum guiding the wee one away from me towards the exit. Thrice, the woman glanced over her shoulder back at me before she disappeared amongst the crowd.

“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” Deirdre flew to my side, checking her surroundings, wondering what the commotion was all about. “Thought you turned in?”

I didn’t hear her. I was lost in thought. Replaying what just happened. That woman’s bewildered face.

“She looked familiar,” I murmured as I stared after the departing visitors, hoping to catch one more glimpse of her. “Vaguely, and yet.. still familiar.”

“What are babbling on about?” Deirdre beseeched, still looking around for any clues to piece together.

“I accidentally bumped into a kid and when she ran screaming to her Mum- -” I cut off, remembering where I’d seen that dress and hat.

“Then what?” Deirdre pressed, holding onto my shoulders and trying to make eye contact.

“I-I t-think,” I sputtered, repeatedly blinking and my knees began to buckle. Deirdre caught me before I tripped over myself.

“What? C’mon, spit it out,” Deirdre demanded, repositioning her hands on my shoulders, not letting go.

“I think that w-was m-my M-Mum,” I said, my mind whirling with uncertainty, but my gut gurgled with assurance.

“Did you really?” Deirdre asked, unsure how to respond to such monumental news.

“A-And m-my s-sister,” I stated, surprising myself, finally putting the pieces together.

“Wicked!” Deirdre celebrated, patting me on the back with one hand, and resting the other on her hip.

“N-No, no, it was h-horrible- -,” I divulged, deciding whether to share my past with her.

“Oh, so, uh, those weren’t screams of a happy reunion, then?”

“No, no, definitely not.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“C’mon then, let’s go for a pint,” Deirdre insisted, while putting her arm around my shoulder and we walked side by side.

“Don’t be daft! It’s almost curfew.”

“Bollocks! Curfew, shmurfew.”


“It’s Gibberish or Pig Latin,” Deirdre chuckled, while bumping her hip into mine.

“You’re thick. Those aren’t real languages.”

“Rubbish! Says who?”

“I, for one. And I’m sure everyone at the pub will agree,” I stated matter-of-factly as we entered O’Sullivan’s.

“You’re on,” Deirdre declared with a wink and squeezed my shoulder as we approached the bar.

“What’ll it be lasses?” the bartender asked with his back to us.

“Two pints, please,” Deirdre said, holding up her thumb and index finger.

“I’ll put it on your tab,” the bartender stated, now facing us, taking two coasters from.. Ol’ Marm who popped up out of nowhere from behind the bar!

“Burke?” I asked, while positioning myself on top of a sticky barstool. “What brings you two here?”

“Oh, well, y’know, when somebody’s a no-show; we gotta pick up the slack,” Burly Burke expressed with pride while gently petting Ol’ Marm’s head. Like an assembly line, Ol’ Marm filled two pint glasses and she handed them to Burke. He slid one full pint glass across the shiny walnut bar top into my hands. Then to Deirdre.

I smiled while lifting my sweaty pint glass in agreement with him. Burke half-smiled back at me and was off in a flash to take the next patron’s order.

“That chimp’s a cheeky bastard,” Deirdre teased in a hushed tone. She abruptly cleared her throat and raised her glass towards me. “Cheers, mate!” We clinked pint glasses, took long sips, and “aahhh-ed” with satisfaction.

“So, what’s your real story?” Deirdre craved for the full scoop on my life.

“We’re gonna need another pint,” I admitted, while downing the rest of my beer. “Burke! Fill ‘er up?”

“That good, eh?” Deirdre followed suit.

“Settle in. It’s gonna be a long night,” I burped and we both burst into laughter.

Side Hustle & Bustle

I joined a new writing community called The Narrative Method (TNM), which is a nice change of pace in regards to agenda, structure, timing, and group dynamic. Whilst in the Zoom waiting room, a silent short video played on a loop explaining TNM’s mission statement, rules, and what to expect. The TNM Host was engaging, intelligently versed, and to-the-point. The one hour Zoom session was thoughtfully planned out to maximize the literary and interactive experience.

The TNM Host promptly commenced by greeting as many attendees as possible, then they quickly summarized their mission statement, rules, and what to expect. They briefly shared their screen with an image as inspiration (I was fast enough to take a screenshot for my reference), then they verbally announced the first writing prompt (as well as writing it in the Zoom chat) and we wrote silently for seven minutes. Once time was up, the TNM Host verbally announced the second writing prompt (as well as writing it in the Zoom chat), we again, wrote silently for another seven minutes. The TNM Host separated us in small Breakout groups, of 3 or 4 people for about 15mins, to share with one another.

We re-joined the entire group (of about 45people) and I believe the TNM Host stated that whomever would like to share the first sentence or their favorite sentence from their writing could do so by “raising their [Zoom] hand.” I didn’t hear this possible announcement or instruction, most likely due to technical difficulties, time delay, &/or because I am hard of hearing.

The first person to share asked: “Can I cuss?” and the TNM Host replied: “Fuck yes!” which tickled me more than it should have, haha! Another person who shared said: “I noticed my writing turned dark and I became uncomfortable so I just stopped writing, reading.” The TNM Host replied: “It’s okay that you felt that way! I, personally, like the dark because the depths is what’s real and rich. Embrace who you are!” Later the TNM Host said: “Share what’s inside you, if it offends someone.. [shrugs] ..oh well!” This was refreshing to hear because while I do understand the reasoning behind giving “trigger warnings” before sharing, I feel this somehow “censors” and prohibits creatives to fully express themselves. We should be able to create and share without boundaries. Without judgment. Let’s just color outside the lines! If you can’t be yourself here or there.. then where?!

The TNM Host was also open to hearing feedback in regards to suggestions to improve The Narrative Method writing sessions. There were quite a few attendees who commented on how the below inspiration photo was pixelated, fuzzy, blurry, difficult to decipher, etc. I quietly wrote in the Zoom chat that this added to the mystery of the corresponding writing prompts. This unclear image forces you to fill in the blanks. Some agreed with me. Others were neutral, I suppose. I wasn’t trying to sway anyone in particular, because everyone is entitled to their opinion. As a graphic designer, I totally understand, however sometimes clarity and high-quality imagery isn’t always obtainable when it comes to a.. free writing workshop. I did however, give some suggestions at the end:

"You could include the prompts on the image (in lieu of verbally repeating & writing in the chat because when others write, you have to scroll to see the prompt(s)), however I recall the TNM Host mentioning they didn't want to have the image on the screen the entire time (~14mins of writing prompts).

Another suggestion could be creating a Google Slide deck (or Microsoft PowerPoint presentation) with three individual slides showcasing:

1st slide = Image
2nd slide = First writing prompt
3rd slide = Second writing prompt

This may help those who are hard of hearing, like me, and eliminate the scrolling up and down in the Zoom chat to see the writing prompts."

The TNM Host seemed to appreciate my suggestion(s) and replied something to the affect of: “Oh, not to make light of your hard of hearing, but you have made me see the light!” something like that, I can’t remember exactly what she said. It was funny that she didn’t seem to take herself too seriously. I could see she thoroughly enjoyed interacting with a diverse group of creatives. This group seemed to be courteous of others time and brought it to the TNM Host’s attention if they skipped over someone by mistake.

The TNM Host briefly shared the above image as
inspiration for the below prompts

Prompt #1: What secret past is unknown to his colleagues that they’d never suspect? (~7mins of writing)

In the Muggle world, he’s a Concierge at a four star hotel in downtown London from June to August. In the off season, he is the Caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. His name is Argus Filch and no.. he’s neither Witch or Wizard. He’s a Squib, he was born to at least one Witch or Wizard parent, however he cannot perform magic. A dud, if you will. Nonetheless, his scholastic wage barely covers living expenses so he needed another job to make ends meet.

Prompt #2: What one small slip breaks his cover? (~7 mins of writing)

On a long, dark, and stormy humid summer night, Argus was escorting two hotel guests from the lobby; his 48th trip during his double shift. “Merlin’s beard! Ten more minutes to go and I’m off,” Argus thought to himself with a yawn as he ascended the last step and turned the corner into the hallway. The tall slender lady handed her portly gentleman companion something from her pocketbook and he handed it to Argus. They tipped him Muggle money for carrying their luggage to their room.

“Yessir, thank you, Headmaster,” Argus automatically replied, pocketing the tip.

“H-hang on, w-who?” the male hotel guest replied, glancing to Argus, and then to his lady.

“Oh, a thousand apologies, s-sir,” Argus blurted, he slowly realized he slipped up, and attempted to recover. “I-I’ve m-mistook you for s-someone e-else.”

“I know very well who you mistook me for- -,” the middle-aged man sternly stated, unwavering, stepping closer to Argus.

“Ahem,” the lady interrupted, tip toeing in between the two men, resting one hand on her companion’s shoulder, and the other on the hotel room door knob. “I’m sure it was an honest mistake.”

“Yes, Mum,” Argus whispered, with his head low, eyes fixed on the floor. As he slowly backed away from them, he heard the man make an indistinct remark with a grunt.

“C’mon Vernon, Mummy needs to be oiled and spoiled!” she squealed, while pulling his necktie like a dog leash toward her.

“Oh, Petunia!” he pleaded, panting and whimpering; they disappeared behind the hotel room door.

Bloody Muggles! It’s time to clock out,” Argus thought to himself with a sigh of relief as he began to descend the stairs to the lobby.

Struck a Chord

Looking back, it could have gone either way. It didn’t work out, which makes it look like fate, or a stupid decision, or both. But at the time, I did have a few things in my favor. I had everything in my name, sole access to the vault, and a clear conscience. The ending of a business partnership is taxing: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. It feels just like a breakup: arguments are spat, tears are shed, and the yearning for closure. My mother warned me about the risks of running a business. I’m not looking forward to hearing her say: “I told you so.” Ugh, just save it and give me a hug. A silent hug is what I need. Maybe it’ll mend all the broken pieces inside of me and I’ll feel whole again. I’ve cut off all contact with my business partner per my lawyer’s advice. Better be worth something for three hundred dollars an hour! Jiminy Christmas!

Calliope and I first met in 1984 when we were both sixteen years old. We attended Juilliard together. We were assigned dormmates during our first year. We only had common core classes together because we were in different majors. She was an instrumentalist, specializing in cello. She knew how to play all the string instruments and then some! I was a vocalist, specializing in opera. Calliope’s dream was to be in the Philharmonic. My dream was to be on Broadway. We were both bookworms and abnormally dedicated to our studies. I mean, our folks were shelling out eighteen grand per year for our tuition, not including housing costs! We had to take it seriously. Neither of our families were rich by any means, but we weren’t poor either. Our parents worked and so did we. I was thirteen when I got my first job, at a corner market down the street from my house in Hicksville. Yes, that’s a real city, look it up! I rode my purple banana seat bicycle there every weekend. If I remember correctly, Calliope’s first job was bagging groceries at a Mom and Pop Shop in the Bronx.

Our high school and college years weren’t stereotypical such as attending pep rallies, football games, or frat parties. We went to concerts, comedy and/or improv shows, or hung out at local coffee shops for Open Mic nights. Neither of us ever drank, but we did socially Puff the Magic Dragon. We casually dated several people, but nothing serious because we’d encourage each other to take advantage of our unique experience at Juilliard. Boys were dime a dozen. Hell, you could get a guy for a nickel on 66th and Amsterdam Ave. And I don’t mean the Red-light District! Haha.. Calliope and I used to alternate hosting Game Nights, Movie Nights or Book Club meetings in our common room. Mostly because we were the only students who had large collections of board games, VHS tapes, and books! We would also have jam sessions and help each other record our own audition tapes! When we turned eighteen, Calliope became part of the Professional Apprentice Program and I became an RA. The free room and board helped cut costs when my dad became sick with Asbestosis and was put on disability. Our time was stretched thin with our new collegiate jobs and responsibilities. We were still friendly, but we gradually drifted apart towards the end of our educational careers.

As I was checking in at the front desk and putting a “Hello, My Name is” sticker name tag on my coral peplum dress; I thought about how society forces us to relive our youth by creating school reunions. What a concept. I wanna meet the person who invented this social event. Were they socially unpopular way back when? And then.. they wanted to rub their current successes in their enemies’ faces? I mean, I get it, but still.. unhealthy.

“Piper!” I heard a boisterous yet familiar voice behind me. “Piper, is that you?!”

I turned around and gasped, “Oh. My. Poseidon! Girl, you haven’t change a bit!”

“Oh, right back at ya,” Calliope squealed as she twirled me around. “Yep, still got that bubble butt!” She smacked my behind and gave me a tight squeeze.

“Oh, stop,” I blushed, swatting at her playfully. “Calliope, this is my husband, Joel. Joel, Calliope.”

“Lovely to meet you Joe,” she daintily extended her hand.

“Joel,” I corrected.

“Isn’t that what I said?” she asked, exchanging confused glances with Joel and I.

“She’s hard of hearing,” Calliope’s date chimed in. “All those loud concerts really have done her in.”

“What?” Calliope shouted, cupping her ear towards him.

“I’m Ed. Calliope’s fiancé,” he shook my hand and then Joel’s.

“Oh! Yes, this is Edwin,” Calliope re-introduced us, still shouting. “Shall we get a drink?”

We all agreed and made our way over to the open bar, which was starting to get busy. A big blue banner hung above the stage that read: “Welcome Juilliard Alumni!”

“So, what’ll ya have?” the lanky bartender asked me, placing a cocktail napkin in front of me.

“Sex on the Beach, please,” I said, strumming along to the beat playing throughout the crowded banquet hall.

“Oh, my Poseidon?” Joel asked me, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” I answered, rolling my eyes. “You know I don’t like to say the G-O-D word so I improvised with another deity. He may be Greek, but hey.. So am I!”

“You’re not Greek,” Joel corrected, putting his hand on my hip. “You’re Italian. Unless your 23andMe lied.”

I stuck my tongue out at him.

“Here ya go ma’am,” the bartender said, placing my pink beverage down.

“Thank you,” Joel said, placing a fiver in the tip jar. “Guess you’re in a nautical mood tonight.”

“What?” I asked, in between sips of my drink.

“Your Sex on the Beach,” Joel answered, tapping my glass. “And.. your bubble butt!” He breathed in my ear, discreetly rubbing my ass.

“Oh, right,” I giggled and snuggled his neck, we made our way over to a quiet table.

“What’ya drinking, Ed?” Joel asked.

“Oh,” Edwin fiddled with his olive sword. “Dry martini. How about you?”

“Scotch on the rocks.”

“So, what’ya do for a living, Joel?”

“I, uh, am a chef.”

“No shit? I need some cooking lessons! You teach?”

I nudged Calliope, “Looks like the boys are just fine talking amongst themselves.”

She nodded whilst sipping her red wine, “They’ve hit it off! Hey, maybe we can double date sometime!”

“Oh, for sure!” I instantly agreed, fiddling with my straw. “So, tell me,” I reached out and touched her forearm. “What have you been doing with your life for the past.. twenty years?!”

Calliope smiled, putting her hand on top of mine, “Oh, ya know, this and that!”

“No, I don’t know,” I laughed lightly. “That’s why I asked, silly!” I tilted my head, sipping my drink again.

“Well, I did get in with an orchestra after graduation. Traveled the States and a little in Canada- -“

“That’s exciting,” I interrupted, patting her forearm. “I knew you’d achieve your dream of being in the Philharmonic!”

“Thank you,” she replied, adjusting in her seat closer to me.

“So, what are you doing now? Still playing cello here in New York?”

“Oh, no, I’m a freelance music teacher.”

“Oh, fancy!” I exclaimed, holding my pinky up as I finished my drink. “You’re your own boss. Calling the shots! I can dig it.”

“Yeah,” Calliope agreed, twisting her necklace. “It has its ups and downs being self-employed.”

I straw slurped my drink dry, catching the guys’ attention for a split second. “Excuse me,” I apologized, then reverted back to Calliope. “How so?”

“Well, you gotta wear many hats: teacher, human resources, therapist, market strategist, and accountant. I’m not good with.. money.”

“Oh, I understand that,” I blinked slowly, nodding my head. “I let Joel balance the checkbook.”

“Ed is the same way,” she declared, zoning out into the crowd.

“Oh, yeah? What does he do?”


“Ed. Your fiancé.”

“Oh, yes, um, Ed is a retired Naval Officer.”

“You always did love a man in uniform!” I winked at her. “How did you two meet?”

Calliope looked up, trying to recall the moment. “We met about two years ago in Atlantic City. Ed was celebrating his retirement with his Naval buddies at the Golden Nugget, where I was performing- -..”

“What’s the Golden Nugget?” I interrupted again.

“It’s a hotel casino at the marina.”

“Gotcha, sorry go ahead.”

“Yeah, so we met there. He caught my eye because of- -..”

“The uniform,” we said together.

“I guess he was checking me out too because he put a large tip in my tip jar and winked at me,” she said with a sigh, reminiscing that moment. “So, I slipped him my spare hotel room key and the rest is history!”

“Girl, you didn’t waste any time!”

“You gotta test drive the car before ya buy it!”

“Too true, too true,” we clinked empty glasses. “Looks like we’re due for a refill!”

As we waited for our second round at the semi-empty bar, I updated Calliope of my short-lived, yet successful Broadway career.

“Wow, you toured with Andrea Bocelli?!” her jaw dropped. “Sounds like you achieved your dream too, huh?”

“Yeah, I suppose so. Ten years was a good run with Andrea.”

“So, how’d Joel handle you touring all over Europe without him all those years?”

“Oh, no, Joel and I met on tour. He was our gourmet chef.”

“Aw, that’s adorable! Who asked who out?”

“I worked up the courage one evening after dinner and asked him if he’d like to get some.. dessert.”

“Well, well.. Look at us, we were assertive as hell. Going after what we wanted!”

“Yeah,” I said. We laughed lightly, averting each other’s gaze. “What happened to us?”

We rejoined the conversation with our men, drank another round, and wandered onto the packed dance floor with our classmates. The end of the night turned into a blur. I blame it on having too much Sex on the Beach. At least I didn’t wake up with sand in my undies!

I did wake up in our hotel room above the reunion banquet hall. I slowly rolled over to check the time. Wow, it’s half past twelve! I had received a text from Calliope:

"Morning Pipes! How ya feeling? Hungover? Yeah, me too. Last night was so much fun! C'mon down to the café, I gotta mimosa with your name on it, and I'll pitch you my business idea over brunch! 💡 See ya soon!" 12:16pm

Hmm, business idea? I don’t recall her mentioning anything about a business idea, but.. how much do I really remember? Not much. Joel was still sleeping beside me so I left him a note by the night stand. Wonder if Edwin will be with Calliope? Guess I’ll find out when I get there and I’ll call Joel to join us, if need be.

I washed my face with cold water, wiped off my makeup from last night, rubbed on some lotion, brushed my teeth, flossed, mouth washed, rolled on some deodorant, spritzed some perfume on my neck, and slipped into some sweats. Hope the café doesn’t have a dress code because I am not in the mood to argue with a maître d’ this morning.. I mean, afternoon.

“Pipes! Pipes, over here,” Calliope shouted, waving her hand over her head. “Morning sunshine, how ya feeling?”

“Good afternoon,” I drowsily greeted. “Edwin still sleeping too?”

“Yeah, he’s more of a night owl. You know me, I’ve always been an early bird!”

“I remember,” I said, popping an Ibuprofen with a swig of ice water. Our waitress came over, I ordered an omelet with hash browns and a cinnamon roll. I noticed Calliope either already ate or was on a liquid diet. I didn’t bother to ask. She always had odd eating habits, so I brushed the invading thoughts aside.

“So, what’s this business idea you got?” I asked, sipping the mimosa Calliope ordered for me.

“Right,” she answered, shifting in her seat across from me. “You mentioned last night about how you’re craving a creative outlet since you became a stay-at-home Mom. I understand how you feel because my freelance gigs haven’t been a steady enough income. Ed has had to pick up the slack for our expenses and I don’t want to deplete his retirement or take his social security. So, I propose we.. you and I.. go into business together!”

I choked on my mimosa and dribbled all over my sweat pants. “And what would be the business?” I asked, dabbing my sweat pants with a cloth napkin.

“A music studio! We’d both teach. I’d give instrumental lessons and you’d give vocal lessons!” Calliope exclaimed, propping her elbows on the table, holding her head in her hands as if she was daydreaming about this business already.

“I- -I,” I began. “D- -don’t know, Calliope. I’d have to discuss this with Joel.”

“Oh, Joel seemed on board last night!”

“Really? What’d he say?” I asked, digging into my omelet that had just arrived. “Last night’s kinda hazy to me.”

“Joel said that you deserve to reignite your passion for music. You’ve been in a rut lately and that you miss being a contributing member of society. Not just contributing to your son, Reed, and the household. You crave to contribute more!”

“That sounds- -” I trailed off, pulling on my earlobe. “About right. Well, I still need to talk to Joel about this.”

“Of course,” Calliope agreed, swishing her mimosa glass around. “Ed’s already agreed to be an investor so there’s little to no risk, financially speaking.”

“I’ve never been a business owner or partner before. What would we call this music studio?”

“Oh, I got the perfect name,” she paused, gesturing with jazz hands. “Freshen Expression!”

“Whoa, I love the rhyme! Music is a form of expression: rhythmically and vocally- -”

“And our teaching, their learning is freshening up one’s skills,” Calliope finished my thought.

“Right! I’m in. Let’s do it!” we shook on it.

“Mommy,” Reed said, pulling on my dress. “Mommy?”

“Yes, honey?” I asked, shuffling a pile of sheet music on my desk at the music studio.

“I find jell-wee beans” Reed answered, clapping his hands in excitement. “Check it wike my Hallo-wee candy!”

“You did? Show me what ya found,” I said, following his lead as he held my hand.

“What happened, Reed? Where did you find the candy?”

“I help sweep floor ‘n I ass-identall-wee knocked ova tuba ‘n jell-wee beans falled out!”

I picked up half a dozen little baggies full of multi-colored pills.

“Gimme, gimme!” Reed squealed, jumping for his “candy.”

“Oh, no, sweetheart,” I raised them out of his reach. “I checked these jelly beans and they’re bad. Someone poisoned them. They’d make you sick.”

Reed cried, pouted, and decided to put himself in Time-Out near the other wind instruments. He turned around aggressively to yell at me some more and knocked over another tuba. More baggies spilled onto the wooden floor.

“Jell-wee beans!” Reed exclaimed, reaching for the baggies.

“Reed! No!”

“All rise for Honorable Judge Panicucci,” the Bailiff announced, booming across the courtroom.

“Let’s do this,” I muttered to myself, shaking like a leaf as I stood up.

“The court calls Mister Edwin Ripa to the bench,” the Prosecutor stated.

“I discovered the Defendant, Calliope Lotto, was not attending her weekly Gamblers Anonymous Meetings,” Edwin testified, tightening his tie. “But she was meeting with her Bookie at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City- -..”

“Please officially state the Bookie’s name for the court,” the Prosecutor requested.

“Rufus Vizzini,” Edwin continued. “I noticed our joint bank account was overdrawn more often than not. I confronted the Defendant and she confessed to gambling away my entire retirement fund. That was the last straw, our relationship was already on the rocks, so I called off our engagement, and demanded the ring back. She pawned it..”

Ed continued and completed his testimony, then a couple witnesses gave their testimonies, and the Judge called for a short recess for lunch.

“The court calls Mrs. Piper De Luise to the bench,” the Prosecutor stated.

“Three days after I reported the drugs to the police, I was approached by the DEA to go undercover, along with the defendant’s fiancé, Edwin Ripa, to find out who her suppliers were- -..” I testified, shaking in front of the jury. I continued and told my entire side of the story.

“Thank you for your official statement, Mrs. Piper De Luise,” the Judge said, pulling on her robe. “You may step down. The jury will now deliberate and we’ll reconvene to deliver the verdict.”

I received a text from my lawyer that the jury had come to a decision and I needed to return to the court room.

“Your Honor, the members of this jury, find the defendant, Miss Calliope Lotto,” the Juror paused, making eye contact with Calliope. “Guilty on all counts of drug trafficking. The defendant is sentenced, under NY law, to twenty-five years imprisonment.”

The gallery erupted in gasps and scattered applause. Edwin and I hugged, celebrating that justice had been served. Calliope appeared to be sniffling as she was being handcuffed. She looked our way as she was being escorted out of the court room.

“Members of the Jury, this Court dismisses you and thanks you for a job well done,” the Judge said, banging her gavel.

“So, what’ll you do now?” I asked Ed, walking to the parking garage.

“I think I’ll teach,” Ed replied, showing his validation ticket to the parking vendor.

“Really?” I asked, opening my car door. “What would you teach? A Naval course on base?”

“Oh, no. My sister helped me get a job at PS 118 in St. Albans.”

“That’s nice! What’ll you teach there?”

“You know what they say: those that can’t do, teach and those that can’t teach, teach gym!”

I laughed out loud with a snort, “I have heard that!”

“We both needed a good laugh,” he chuckled in between words.

I sighed deeply, pulling out my sunglasses to mask my tears, which were a mixture of sad tears and laugh crying tears.

“My sister said they’re also looking for a new music teacher,” he said in my ear as we hugged goodbye. “I think you’d be perfect.”

“Sounds like a challenge to me,” I said with a smile. “Count me in.”

Chasing Moonbeams

A persistent voice faintly echoed. It sounded like a foreign language. Could be Yiddish or Gibberish, hell if I knew. I only knew that I felt wet. I tried to wipe the dripping liquid from my brow, but my left arm was.. numb. I couldn’t lift my arm. I concentrated with all my might. I still could not move my arm. I grunted in frustration as my eyes remained closed. I finally managed to decipher the relentless voice, “Ma’am, can you hear me? You’ve been in an accident.”

I moaned in despair.

“I know that hurts. We’re going to help you feel better.”

I woke up in a brightly lit room and noise that could wake even the dead. I whimpered as I attempted to shield my blue eyes. I noticed my dominant left arm was wrapped in a sling, still numb, but I was able to move my right arm somewhat. I peered through my pale fingers and saw only fuzzy images. “Has my lazy eye gotten.. lazier? C’mon, jeez.. Or could it be my Nystagmus.. Ugh,” I thought to myself as I concentrated on focusing my vision. I closed my eyes tight as if to “restart” my peepers, I gently shook my head, and blinked them open a couple times.

“Well, there she is!” I heard a familiar, yet groggy voice on my left. “Opal, how ya feeling?” It was my younger brother, Onyx, who always wore a smile and forever smelt of Bod cologne and stale coffee.

I smacked my lips to respond, but had the worst case of dry mouth and could not utter a syllable. I weakly pointed to a water pitcher near Onyx’s Styrofoam coffee cup. He quickly picked up what I was putting down and started to pour me some ice water then abruptly stopped.

“Opal, I- -I, um,” Onyx fumbled to find the words. “I- -I don’t think I- -I’m allowed to g- -give you a- -anything.. just yet. Um, let me go ask a nurse real quick. They need to know you’re awake anyways.” He stood slowly, stretched with a yawn, and shuffled out into the busy corridor. My hospital room just happened to be near the Nurses’ Station, which explains the noise that woke me up. He returned with a glum look, “They said you can have ice, but no water.” His famous smile reappeared, he gave me a playful wink, and skipped back over to my bedside.

“Hey! I’m sure you have lots of questions, so I’ll give ya the gist, okay?” He asked softly yet eagerly.

I nodded weakly as I guzzled down a couple ice cubes he spoon fed me.

“Okay, cool,” he talks with his hands.. a lot.. so it was “dinner and a show” for real. “Well, you.. fell asleep at the wheel.. again,” he rolled his eyes and shook his index finger at me. “But this time you rear-ended a taxi. You hit them pretty hard because your, pardon my unintended joke here, your dead weight hit the gas and accelerated your speed, which the cops estimated at about 60mph.”

My mouth opened with a light gasp and the melting ice cubes almost escaped my chapped, white lips.

“I know right?! Good to know your airbags work!” Onyx touched my wrapped left forearm lightly. “The taxi driver and their passengers weren’t hurt because they, again pardon my unintended joke here, they had too much junk in their trunk to make a dent!” He toppled over slapping his knee as he roared with laughter.

I aggressively cleared my throat while side eyeing him. I opened my mouth for more ice cubes, Onyx obliviously obliged and continued on, “You fractured your collarbone, dislocated your left shoulder, broke three bones in your left wrist, severely bruised your elbow, and a broken finger.. hence the arm sling!” He dramatically gestured towards my mangled body. “Girl, you’s a hot mess!” I fiddled with my long, white dreadlock strand that dangled in front of my face. Onyx absentmindedly placed the strand behind my left ear. “You’re welcome, sis,” he carried on as he fixed his own hair of short black dreadlocks. “Your insurance will cover all the damages to your car. It’s in the shop right now, they expect it to be ready in two weeks. You’re eligible for a rental car, but- -” he trailed off and averted his gaze from mine.

“Wh- -what,” I hoarsely whispered. “Onyx?”

“I- -I don’t think you should be driving anymore,” he solemnly admitted as he looked at me with tears in his big brown eyes. I knew he was right. This was my third Asleep at the Wheel car accident. “There are so many public transportation options here in New York City, Opal. Subway, taxi, Uber, Lyft,” he held my pale, IV-ed, scratched hand. “You used to ride your bike everywhere! Why’d you stop?”

“G- -graveyard s- -shift,” I muttered with a cough.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” Onyx said. “That’s another thing! You need to get more sleep.”

“Yeah, right.. in The City That Never Sleeps!” I thought to myself.

I clutched a wrinkled business card my brother gave me against my chest in hopes to calm my supersonic beating heart. I methodically closed my eyes, inhaled deeply through my nose for five seconds, and exhaled through my mouth for five seconds. I gradually opened my eyes, adjusted my shirt, and carefully stuffed the business card inside my left arm sling. I sighed and rhythmically rapped on the door with my right hand. “This is it,” I muttered to myself.

The natural wood grain door opened to a short, slim, stylish señorita who spoke softly, “Good afternoon. You must be Opal Whitley, I presume?”

I nodded weakly.

“Swell, I’m Amber. Please come on in. Make yourself comfortable,” she stepped aside and motioned with her arm towards a plush peach couch with a dozen throw pillows.

I cleared my throat and removed my sunglasses. “Shall I lay sit or.. lay down?” I hesitantly asked as I hovered around the couch.

Amber chuckled as she adjusted her asymmetrical tortoise eyeglasses. “Whichever makes you feel most comfortable,” she sat beside me equipped with a clipboard and pen in a gradient armchair. “If you do decide to lay down, I do ask of you to please remove your shoes first.” She crossed her slender legs and I admired her sequins sandals with perfectly pedicured toes.

I slipped off my beaded moccasins, laid down with my head toward Amber, and stared at the ceiling. I was pleasantly surprised to see there were tree and cloud diffuser covers on the fluorescent lights, which seemed to help my sensitivity to light. “Oh, wow, I really like these,” I pointed up.

“Thank you, I’m glad to hear that! My other patients seem to like them too. I find they help create a calming, safe environment,” said Amber. I could hear her flipping through the clipboard papers. “So, I see you were referred to me by- -,” she paused. “Onyx Whitley. How do you two know each other?”

I adjusted a throw pillow under my head and crossed my ankles. “I’m his older sister,” I automatically responded. “I don’t take the role lightly either.” I forced a laugh to break the ice. “Get it? It’s an Albinism joke!”

She chuckled, “Oh, that’s clever! You have a witty sense of humor, Opal.”

“Thank you. Onyx has the dark sense of humor in the family.”

“You’re two for two, Opal!” Amber giggled. “Hey, I just realized we three have mineral names.” She pointed at me, “Opal.” Then pointed to her clipboard, “Onyx.” And pointed to herself, “Amber.”

“Well, how about that! Oh, I got one. Why do people trade with minerals?”

“Hmm,” Amber pondered carefully. “I don’t know. Why?”

“Because they take everything for granite!”

“Good one!” Amber giggled again. We both gradually fell into silence and averted each other’s gaze.

“Awkward!” I thought to myself. I’m sure it read all over my face.

She cleared her throat and straightened her posture, “So, why are you here today, Opal?”

I explained my three Asleep at the Wheel car accidents, how my most recent accident caused my injuries, which put me on short term disability and of course.. Onyx’s concern for my well-being. He strongly, annoyingly is more like it, suggested I seek professional help.

“I see,” she paused. “Why do you think you fall asleep at the wheel?”

“Well, I- -I think it’s because- -,” now it was my turn to pause. “I work the graveyard shift. I requested to change shifts because of my Photophobia. Guess my sleep schedule is all messed up,” I trailed off.

“How many hours do you sleep per night?”

“I don’t know,” I calculated in my head. “About four or five, maybe. If that.”

“Did you know drowsy drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers?”

I gasped and wrung my hands together.

“Opal, this is your wake up call, no pun intended. Can you describe your incubation site for me?”

“My what?” I asked. “Oh, you mean my bedroom. I live in a tiny studio apartment. Ya know Harry Potter’s room? The cupboard under the stairs?” I craned my neck to see Amber and she nodded while she scribbled on the clipboard. “About the same size, but New York City style: includes a singular window and a fire escape.”

“Your homework tonight is to create a space that’s relaxing and comfortable. Try burning incense. Purchase black out curtains or a sleeping blindfold. Splurge on luxurious bed sheets. Get a white-noise machine. Kick out your snoring partner,” she laughed at herself.

I joined in on the laughter, “I don’t have a partner.”

“The less obstacles the better,” Amber continued. “Sleeping in a colder environment helps. Try taking a nice hot bath before bed. In lieu of taking Melatonin, you could drink a glass of milk, it’s rich in tryptophan. Turkey is too. That’s why you fall into a food coma on Thanksgiving Day!”

I gobbled and flapped my one good arm.

“Oh, masturbating releases endorphins, which are hormones that relax you, making it easier to fall asleep. These are just some suggestions. Feel free to utilize any of them to incorporate into your lifestyle.”

“Welcome back, Opal! How have you been sleeping since we first met?” Amber inquired during our next appointment.

“A lot better!” I sighed with relief as I adjusted in my seated position on the couch. “But- -” I trailed off, fiddling with my long white dreadlock strand in between my pale petite fingers.

“But what?” Amber posed.

“I’ve been.. dreaming.”

“Do you normally not dream?”

I shook my head no, maintaining eye contact.

“Why do you think that is?”

I shrugged, “I- -I don’t know.”

“What was your childhood like?”

I stifled a laugh, “How much time we got?”

Amber checked her watch, “Fifty-nine minutes.”

I sighed deeply, “Well, my father left when I was born because he didn’t think I was his- -“

“Because of your Albinism? Or because he thought your mom was unfaithful?”

“All of the above.”

“Did you dream as a child?”

I nodded.

“What did you dream about?”

“The usual stuff, I guess. Flying, showing up to class naked, and monsters in my closet.”

“Have you been having those types of dreams again recently?”

“No,” I shook my head. “I’ve been dreaming of my teeth falling out, being stalked by a shadow creature, and being trapped in an elevator.”

“I see. How do you feel when you wake up from those dreams?”

“I feel,” I paused and twiddled my thumbs. “Humiliated. Scared. Anxious.”

“Understandable emotions,” Amber scribbled on her clipboard. “Do you feel humiliated, scared, and/or anxious on a regular basis under normal circumstances?”

“Sometimes, I guess, but not regularly, no.”

“Tonight’s homework assignment is to start a dream journal. Keep it at your bedside. Write the dates for the next two weeks on the first several pages. As soon as you wake up, write down everything you remember. List three adjectives for how the dream made you feel. Immediately after jotting down your dream details and feelings, create a one or two line title for it. At the bottom of your dream details, note the associations you have to the dream.”

“Okay,” I unintentionally enunciated. “How is this going to help?”

“I think you’ll begin to notice certain elements, symbols, and feelings that crop up in your dreams. This is one way to begin to name your dream themes.”

“I still don’t get it. I’m sleeping better,” I began to get defensive. “Why does it matter if I dream?”

“I think it matters because,” Amber adjusted in her armchair. “You hesitated to share that you’re dreaming.”

“So what?”

Amber set her pen and clipboard aside, removed her glasses, and scooted to the edge of her armchair closer to me, “We spend a third of our lives asleep; if we’re lucky enough to reach the age of ninety, that’s thirty years! On average, we have several dreams each and every night, so over the course of our lives, that’s a hundred thousands dreams.”

I made a non-committal noise.

“I think deep down, you suspect these unique dreams you’ve been having recently express something very important about you. You can feel it, but you can’t seem to articulate it. Am I right?”

“I suppose. I mean, I don’t know. I do find it interesting that I’m dreaming again since I’ve been sleeping better.”

“As do I, Opal, as do I,” Amber returned to her regular sitting position. “Let’s just see how this goes. Who knows? You may learn something new about yourself.”

February 24th

Outta This World

I was outside playing with a Smurf and Swamp Thing, who was deaf. It was too hot. The Sun had a distorted face. I was angry with the Sun for burning me into a deep purple. Smurf and Swamp Thing didn't seem bothered by the Sun. Before we knew it, day turned into night with the Moonlight shining upon our faces.

I felt confused, angry, and helpless.

I used to watch Smurfs as a kid.
Swamp Thing is my favorite movie.
I do burn easily because of my Albinism.
I enjoy the moonlight far more than the sunlight.

“Do you have any other associations to your dream?” Amber asked after I read my most recent dream journal entry to her.

“Nah, not really,” I sighed with frustration, handing her my journal. “This is my thirteenth entry. I don’t think I’m getting the hang of it.”

“I’d have to disagree with you,” Amber quickly stated.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked cynically.

“I think you’ve made great progress thus far.”

I scoffed and shook my head into my hands.

“What’s your mother’s name?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I spat.

“Opal, please,” she peered over her glasses at me. “Indulge me.”

“Fine,” I scoffed again. “Topaz.” My eyebrows shot up and I met Amber’s gaze. Her eyebrows rose too.

“If I may?” Amber asked, tapping her clipboard with a pen.

I nodded, “Please.” I slid closer to her armchair, propping myself up on the couch’s armrest, and held my chin with my right hand.

“I theorize the Smurf represents your mother, Topaz. Swamp Thing could be your br- -” she began.

“But Onyx isn’t deaf,” I interrupted. “Onyx isn’t green either. He’s black. It’s black. Ya know, the the- -” I snapped my fingers trying to think of the word. “The mineral. Onyx, the mineral, is black.”

Amber glared at me, “Please allow me to finish.”

I nodded and waved my right hand in the air.

“Swamp Thing could be your brother, Onyx,” she continued. “Not everything is so literal, Opal. “The Sun had a distorted face.” Hmm, that’s interesting,” she paused. “This is called personification, which is the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman.”

“Okay,” I said. “So, I gave my arch-nemesis, Albinism, a face.”

“No, I think the Sun represents your.. father.”

My white lips parted and I let out a soft gasp.

Amber nodded at my non-verbal response and continued, “His face is distorted because you’ve never seen him, correct?”

I nodded.

“You’re angry with your father, the Sun, for burning you. Burn could represent disrespect. He disrespected you.. because he left you.. and your mother.”

I shook my head and rolled my eyes at the ceiling in disbelief.

“There are a lot of colors at play here. A Smurf is blue, your mother, Topaz. Swamp Thing is green, your brother, Onyx.”

“Yeah, the sky is blue and the grass is green,” I muttered under my breath.

Amber paused, lost in thought, “The Sun is yellow. Blue and yellow make green, Swamp Thing, your brother, Onyx. You are burnt to a deep purple. Blue and yellow don’t make purple. This “discoloring” could, again, represent your father leaving you.. and your mother.. because of your Albinism and his accusation of her being unfaithful.”

“This is some deep shit,” I admitted, rubbing my right hand across my forehead.

Amber exhaled softly, ““Smurf and Swamp Thing didn’t seem bothered by the Sun.” Do your mother and brother talk about your father?”

“Nope, it’s like an unspoken thing,” I confessed.

“I see,” Amber stroked her chin. “Did your mother ever remarry? Presuming your mother and father were married, of course.”

I nodded, “Clay.”

“When did they marry?”

“When I was five years old,” I clicked my tongue and looked out the window.

“Okay,” she began wiggling in her armchair with excitement. “Okay, okay.. I think the Moon represents your step-father, Clay.”

“Well, I’ll be damned!” I exclaimed, smacking Amber’s armrest.

“I believe we may have unearthed some deep seeded abandonment issues here,” Amber declared as she astutely placed the end of her glasses’ arm in her mouth.

“Girl, ya mean I got daddy issues!” I exclaimed.

Sanctuary, eh?

The yellow lines on the highway sped by in a blur, and we flew through the night, and we felt free. But we weren’t, and we knew it. We were running away from something, and running away was never the path to freedom. I thought about telling John to turn back. I thought about suggesting to stop at the next Rest Area because I really had to piss, but I know he’d just toss me an empty container and sarcastically say: “You’re welcome, dude.” Besides, I’m sure all the Rest Areas were closed. I decided to bypass that conversation with him, so I just wizzed in an empty Gatorade bottle. He turned up the radio with a scoff to drown out the sound of my tinkling. An oldies station was playing Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees, how fitting! haha.. I barely made it without spilling it all over the Cadillac’s purple velvet upholstery. Luckily, we didn’t hit any potholes, or I’d be hearing John’s wrath. I noticed my urine color was a healthy shade of pale yellow, so I felt a rush of relief knowing I was hydrated. We had to ration our limited drinking water. Well, Gatorade was our closest alternative. Tastes like watered down juice to me. Not my first choice, but as my Granny always says: “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Her wise words of advice couldn’t ring any truer than right now.. hope my sister and brother-in-law are taking care of Granny. She’s a gem. She lived through the Great Depression and I’m sure she’ll just add this hiccup to her Survival Stories to entertain us grandkids and great grandkids.

As John stopped at a red light in Seaford, I took this opportune moment to empty my piss bottle. How I differentiate between my piss bottle and drinking bottle is one has a label wrapper and the other doesn’t. Kinda like a spit bottle, haha.. but not. Fortunately, I never touched the stuff. Tobacco that is. Well, I’ve never drank piss either. Not my bag. No golden showers for me either. As if on cue, John absentmindedly adjusted his ballsack with a grunt and then blew a puff of Black & Mild cigar smoke in my face. I coughed into my bulging bicep and gave him the death stare. My phone alarm went off to remind me to take my vitamins, fiber supplements, and probiotics. As I silenced the noise, I muttered to myself: “Ugh, time doesn’t exist anymore..” As I began to open the childproof cap, I remembered that I cannot take these on an empty stomach, so I broke into my stash of MREs and grabbed the one on top.

I prepped my makeshift food station by wiping down my seat area with 90% rubbing alcohol because.. anti-bacterial wipes/sprays are sold out everywhere. My dinner tonight: veggie burger in BBQ sauce cooked with a flameless heater, lemon tea brewed with a hot beverage bag, dried fruit, chocolate banana muffin top, wheat snack bread, and a piece of gum. I leisurely consumed the contents. Under normal circumstances, I naturally engulf any food in front of me, but now.. I savor every bite. It was quite satisfactory. Surprisingly not bad. I’d give it a solid C+ on the Taste-O-Meter. I stared out the car window at the passing street lights, their luminescence was hypnotic, and the soft sultry song soothed my soul into a swift slumber.

We hit a pothole that disturbed my dream of having a round of drinks with the guys at a random dive bar. Suddenly, I felt an unexpected pressure on my protruding abdomen. Ugh, I had to make. I grabbed a stack of my old Auto Trader magazines. These will have to do.. doo.. because TP is outta stock everywhere!

“Hey, yo, man, I gotta build a log cabin. Pull over, dude,” I thumbed to the shoulder.

“Make it quick, Dick,” John said with a yawn as he put the Caddy in park. He then realized he unintentionally rhymed and choked laughing at his impromptu joke.

Rule 32: Enjoy the little things,” I chuckled to myself.

I decided it was time to break out my N95. We just happened to park next to an empty bus stop with a trash can so it helped when I needed to change my blue nitrile gloves. I cautiously finished up my business and returned to find John drooling all over himself. I nudged him with my elbow across the long front bench seat and whispered, “C’mon, my turn to drive.” We did a midnight Chinese fire drill and John fell back asleep as soon as he closed his eyes. His deafening snoring prompted me to crank the music, which didn’t seem to stir him at all. I decided to take the scenic route so I could have the windows down and feel the chill air. I’ve always found driving to be relaxing. Before I knew it, the Sun began to rise. My stomach growled, which oddly awoke John. Guess he was hungry too. Our internal clocks were the only things on time nowadays.

“Coffee?” John asked with a yawn and a stretch.

I ducked out of his stretched reach. Guess he’s just thirsty. “I see a drive thru cafe up ahead,” I said as I pointed to an orange brick building down the street. As I pulled around, I noticed a chalk outline of a woman with a steaming cup of o’ joe. Go figure the cafe was closed, as was almost everything else around, so we had to make do with MRE instant coffee. It just wasn’t the same. We utilized this time for some recreation. John decided to walk around the block a couple times while I stayed inside the Caddy. I listened to some Miles Davis on my iPod and organized my scrapbook. I took a photo of the chalk woman with my Polaroid camera and slid the picture into the designated corner slots. I wrote a couple sentences about our pitiful breakfast.

I could hear birds chirping and the wind whistling. The world was alive, but silent with the absence of homo sapiens. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. She’s restoring balance. Letting nature repair itself while we, neanderthals, re-evaluate our priorities. This was our reminder to “Slow down and be grateful.” I finished scribbling my Mother Nature thoughts in the scrapbook. Since John wasn’t back yet, I decided to venture about for a bit, stretch my legs, and take more photographs.

I remember passing through Dover, Delaware yesterday afternoon because we got stuck behind a horse and buggy. John recited some fun facts about Dover’s Amish community to me as we decreased our speed. I voiced my concern for the Amish’s well-being considering they are cut off from the modern world and may not know about what’s going on. As we slowly maneuvered around the horse and buggy, we noticed they had handkerchiefs tied around their faces, covering their nose and mouth. Kinda like Amish robbers.. especially since they were toting several large packs of.. TP! We determined they were indeed informed and well aware of the current state of the world. We simply waved and drove ahead of them. I think that was the first time I heard John laugh!

As I exited the vacant parking lot, I walked upon a patterned path, half concrete and half grass: where nature and man intertwine. They seem to be shaking hands. This analogy reminded me to change my gloves and to bring an extra pair along with me.. just in case. A parking pass dispense machine caught my eye on the way back that I didn’t notice before. I looked around and thought: “Hmm.. Meter Maids have bigger fish to fry right now than to give me a parking ticket.” But you’d be damn sure, I locked up all of our provisions in a large charcoal trunk in the backseat. I locked the car doors too. I decided to take a different way out of the parking lot the second time round. A dirt path led toward a bridge that I just had to cross. A plaque on the side of the stone entrance read:

"The town of Crawford in Washington County, Maine, United States was incorporated in February 28, 1828. Named after William H. Crawford, the Secretary of the Treasury. Population 105."

It wasn’t saying much that we upped Crawford’s population to 107. We.. I haven’t seen a soul.. yet. Well, I ain’t counting the chalk woman, haha.. Whoever drew her may be around here. Hiding. Or they perished from the pathogen that’s sweeping the nation.. the world. John and I were the only soldiers to escape the Seaford National Guard Military Base.. alive. We’re MIA, we’ve gone AWOL, Desertion; whatever you wanna call it. John’s only family lives in Nova Scotia on a remote island. His aunt, Zoe Lucas, has spent more than 40 years living on Sable Island, a large smile-shaped sandbar measuring around 26 miles long. The only other residents on the patch of land are around 400 horses, 300,000 grey seals and 350 species of bird. She has assured us our health and safety there. The closest thing to freedom we’ll ever get. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity.. to survive. You cannot put a price on that.

After I walked the bridge twice, I explored their quaint “downtown” area; I snapped a photo of an alluring segmented three story building. One section was cathedral-esque stone with a triangular top. Another section was a newly renovated rectangular modern white storefront. The end section was rounded and red bricked. What a unique cluster of architecture! The street was deserted, the potted plants were wilting, and the traffic lights were still changing. Guess they didn’t get the memo, haha.

“Hey, yo, dude,” a booming voice echoed through the empty street.

I jumped and turned around, while almost dropping my camera. “Dammit, John!” I exclaimed as I clutched my chest and sighed. “Don’t do that!”

“Sorry, Dick,” John apologized as he patted my back a little too hard. “Did ya know we’re only twenty minutes from the border?”

“Ya don’t say?”

We gathered together to look at his wrinkled Maine state map. “Yeah, look,” John pointed with his index finger. “If all goes well at Customs and Border Patrol.. it’s about a.. six hour drive to Nova Scotia. Aunt Zoe said she’ll meet us with a boat when we’re about.. an hour out.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied as I put my Polaroid camera strap back around my neck. “I feel like a real tourist now.”

“You sure look the part. Let’s go,” John and I exchanged looks and he shook his head. I bet he smiled under his N95.

I took a final scan of our surroundings as John was unlocking the Caddy. I snapped one last photo of a nearby building. I lowered the Polaroid camera from my eye slowly.

“J- -John?” I stuttered.

“Dick?” John mocked.

I pointed up. “Do you see that top middle window?”

John gasped.

“It’s open.”

“And the Christmas lights are on.”

We exchanged looks again. “L- -let’s g- -go,” I stuttered again. I unlocked the large charcoal trunk in the backseat while simultaneously conducting a routine check. “Whew. Rule 31: Check the backseat.”

“What?” John asked in a panic.

“Nothing,” I breathed. “Let’s go.”

Two Canadian officers in bright red uniforms with tan ranger hats approached our vehicle, one on each side, and they both motioned for us to lower the windows. We obliged.

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” John greeted them as he presented his dual citizenship paperwork.

I followed his lead, “Afternoon, gentlemen.” I presented my US Passport.

Each officer thoroughly inspected our documents and handed them back.

“Sanctuary, eh?” the younger officer asked us in a hushed tone.

“Yessir,” I politely answered.

“Godspeed, gentlemen,” he replied with a salute.

We drove through the gates, over the border, with the United States in our rear view mirror.


Reporters are trained to develop a sixth sense, a nose for when a story smells fishy. And something about this one wasn’t right. First of all, the only witness changed their statement multiple times. Second, the witness’ estranged family presented damning evidence: psychological issues. Several psych ward stays. All of them where the witness left against medical advice. And third, this is my first job out of college. Need I say more?

“What was the witness’ initial statement?” my boss asked as she swiveled in her chair and clicked a blue Bic pen.

“The witness, a neighbor, in summary, stated – – and I quote: “The house was raving like it was 1999,”” I responded, trying to say it with a straight face.

“And their most recent statement?” my boss inquired further.

“The witness stated the house’s activity was because the occupants were aliens from planet.. Lunarous,” I stifled a laugh.

“How many differing statements did the witness give?”


“Lois,” my boss swiveled to face me. “Looks like you’re back at square one.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m on it!” I gathered the case files in a bankers box, snatched a protein bar out of my snack drawer, and picked up my thermos of leftover coffee from my cluttered desk. “It’s gonna be a long night,” I sighed to myself as I headed out the door.

I struggled with my apartment key as I juggled everything in my arms. My jingly keys cued loud yowling and cries on the other side of my front door. “I hear ya, Coco!” I breathed in the door crack. I finally managed inside without dropping the box.. or spilling stale coffee all over.. my case files. “Little successes count too,” I thought to myself. I need a win. In life and at work.

I clapped on the lights once my hands were free. Coco silently scurried under the coffee table because of the startling sound of my clapping. “Oh, you scaredy-cat!” I teased as I tossed a handful of food into his.. or.. her bowl. I haven’t had the time yet to take Coco to the vet to determine what Coco is. I found him or her at my doorstep last week and we became instant friends. Hell, I sure needed one. Funny how that works out, huh? Animals just know when humans need.. company.

“Now, it’s my turn,” I said to myself as I opened the fridge. Unfortunately, there were only condiments. Expired at that. I rested my head on top of the fridge door and lightly banged it in frustration. I sure am hangry. My cell phone rang and vibrated in my jeans back pocket. I answered it without looking at the caller I.D.

“This is Laney Lois, how may I help you?” I undeniably needed a new greeting. I sound like a customer service representative at a department store. I rolled my eyes at.. myself. “Another residential explosion in Kew Gardens?! I’ll be right there.” I shut the fridge door, patted Coco’s little chocolate head and mentally mapped where to grab a quick bite on the way.

“What do we know, Terry?” I unofficially announced my presence as I came across the police tape.

“Sheriff. Sheriff Bayard. We’re on the clock, Lois,” Terry retorted as she scribbled on a pad of paper and met my gaze.

“What do we know, Sheriff?” I correctly asked. “Same as the last explosion?”

“Looks that way,” Terry nodded towards the smoking remains. “Another vacant house, due to be demolished, exploded.”

“Oh, my,” I muttered in awe. I expeditiously cleared my throat and straightened my posture. “Mind if I interview the neighbors, Sheriff?”

“No, g’head. One less thing I gotta do. Make sure to share their statements with me before you leave. I’d appreciate it,” Sheriff Bayard ordered.

“Yes, ma’am. Will do,” I replied. “Thanks Terry.”

Sheriff Bayard scowled at me. I flashed my cheesiest grin at her as I walked away and back under the police tape. I noticed she eventually cracked a thin smile, shook her head lightly, and returned to her scribbling.

I knocked on a couple doors across the street with no answer. Either these neighbors worked the graveyard shift or were heavy ass sleepers. Locals know to cooperate (new residents are educated by the locals) when an incident happens around here. Sixty plus years ago, a homicide occurred where over three dozen witnesses saw or heard the attack but none of them called the police or came to their aid. This infamous incident helped create the 9-1-1 system.

Third time’s a charm because the third house and after the third knock, the inside lights flickered on. “W- -who is it?” a drowsy old timer with a Southern accent answered their side door in camouflage pajamas with matching slippers.

I hurried about the wrap around porch from the front door to greet him. “Hello, sir. I’m Laney Lois, a reporter from Queens Chronicle. Sorry to disturb you at this time of ni- -,” I began as a nearby train whistle interrupted my professional spiel.

“W- -who? What?” he shouted while cupping his ear in my direction. I could see a hearing aid in his ear. The train’s wheels squeaked on the track.

I loudly repeated myself and in the middle.. I determined he couldn’t have heard anything, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t see anything.

“Oh, yeah, hell of a sight! Felt like I was at a disco. All those colors!” he exclaimed while gesturing with his hands toward the crime scene. The nearby train’s farewell whistle echoed as it retreated down the hill.

“A disco? You don’t say?” he nodded, so I continued. “What do you think the colors were?”

“Ya know, I don’t know. Now, I wish I did. I just closed the blinds and hit the sack,” he concluded.

“Thank you, sir. Please call me if you remember anything,” I handed him my business card. “We’re going to figure out what’s going on around here,” I guaranteed as I stepped down from his lopsided porch.

“Godspeed kid,” the old timer saluted before he closed the door between us.

I had better luck with the neighbors on the same side of the street as the taped off house. I wrote down their statements of what they saw, however they didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.. especially since, one neighbor pointed out, that they have noisy railroad trains passing through regularly during the night.

How could I have missed this important detail?! Whoever is behind these crimes could be utilizing the loud railway to muffle their activities in this otherwise quiet, quaint neighborhood. I kept this theory to myself as I shared the neighbors’ statements with Sheriff Bayard before I headed home.. to my lonely queen size bed. Oh, and Coco. I’m sure they miss me too!

“Ugh! Could you not?” I whined as Coco licked my hand and then.. savagely demanded their breakfast. I literally rolled out of bed onto the dusty hardwood floor. I leisurely crawled the short distance to the kitchenette, and sprinkled some kitty chow on the tile floor. Totally missing the bowl. Oh, well. I’m not a morning person. That’s why they invented coffee. Java. Cup o’ Joe.

I began rifling through the case file.. again.. hoping to find something I may have missed. I took a bountiful sip of bean water and sighed deeply at its dark, dangerous deliciousness. This moment of bliss was short lived because I noticed a fresh, wet coffee ring on one of the case file papers.

“Ahh, shi- -,” I exclaimed as I dabbed it with my over-sized brown bathrobe. As I examined the damage, the stain encircled the word: “barefoot.” I read the entire paragraph and noticed a detail from my most recent interview with the only witness that somehow didn’t add up. I had noted: “The witness, Veruca Knutt, was barefoot at the time of the interview. She mentioned she had thrown her shoes at the house in question because that’s all she had to defend herself from the “alien attack.”

“How odd.. Huh, Coco?” I asked my oblivious cat who was still munching on their breakfast throughout the kitchenette’s nooks and crannies.

“Alright, Coco,” I leaned back in my chair and twiddled with a packet of sugar.

“Veruca Knutt must’ve had other items inside or outside her house to throw,” I couldn’t break the habit of thinking out loud.

“W- -wait,” I paused. “Did I simply assume she was a next door neighbor?” I sat upright at my revelation.

"You know what assume stands for, Lois?" I faintly heard my late journalism professor and mentor, Dinah Preston, quizzing me on my error. 

“Yes,” I answered back as I looked around the kitchen. It was just me and Coco. They meowed and pawed at the empty chair next to me.

“You’re haunting me, huh?” I laughed nervously.

“It’s called rest in peace, ya know,” I mockingly impersonated her posh British accent.

"When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me," Dinah continued. "Have I taught you nothing? C'mon Lois, think!"

I sorted through Veruca’s thick pile of psychiatric records. All of her Doctors stated that Veruca’s family showed grave concern for her well-being because she’s been a long term vagrant. I couldn’t dial Terry Bayard’s phone number fast enough.. well, maybe I could’ve just dialed 9-1-1.. No, no time for any of that nonsense.

Sheriff Bayard confirmed Veruca does not have a residential address, however has a registered P.O. Box downtown. Terry did mention Veruca has been arrested and convicted numerous times for drug related charges. I cross referenced this with her psych diagnoses: “bipolar, bulimia, depression, drug-induced psychosis per positive test of methamphetamine use and withdrawal.

“What was Veruca doing in Kew Gardens?” I pondered aloud as I ran my hands through my greasy black hair.

“She couldn’t have been visiting her family because they’re estranged.. have been for years,” I rhythmically tapped my favorite purple Paper Mate pen across the case file piles.

"Keep going, Lois," Dinah's raspy voice encouraged me.

“Okay, okay.. maybe, m- -maybe she was visiting friends? Do drug addicts have friends? Maybe. Until she had worn out her welcome; couch surfing or bumming off them for a ride. She could have been servicing a john?” I gagged at the thought of having sex for money.

"Keep going, Lois," Dinah repeated. 

I took another sip of coffee to keep from vomiting and regain my focus. “Perhaps.. she was trying to score s- -some m- -meth?” I forced the words out. It was a long shot.

"Keep going, Lois," Dinah echoed.

“Drug addicts do stick together. Drug dealers are.. drug addicts’ friends!” I stood up from the table and started pacing.

“I gotta go take another look at that place!” I announced to Coco who was still preoccupied with attacking the empty chair.

I arrived just before sunset; the recent daylight savings time change made the day fly by. Kew Gardens was empty and eerily silent at 5pm. My theory of residents working graveyard shifts seemed to be dead on. Pun intended! Haha.. I decided to retrace my steps: first stop was at the first burnt down house where I interviewed Veruca Knutt about the explosion. I grabbed a long, sturdy stick to poke around the ashes. I felt something move. It was a shoe. I examined it closer: no laces, holes in the toe, blackened on the tongue, and.. the handwritten letters “VK” on the sole.

"Yahtzee!" Dinah cheered her cheesy catchphrase.

I sprang forward at the sudden shrill of my cell phone’s ringtone and vibration. “Hello?” I hesitantly answered in the dark and felt as though I was being watched.

“Is this, uh, what does that say? Huh.. Lucy Lewis?” a familiar voice asked.

“Uhhh, no, this is,” I paused. “This is Laney Lois.”

“Oh! Well, apologies. I can’t seem to find my glasses,” the Southern accented man continued. “This is Hogarth. You woke me up last night.”

“Yes, yes, again, I apologiz- -,” I began. “W- -wait, what’s your name, sir?”


I slapped my forehead and popped a squat on the curb. How could I be so stupid to forget to ask his name? Hell of a reporter I am..

"We learn from our mistakes." Dinah reminded me.

“Yes, yes, Hogarth, I remember you, sir,” I squirmed on the concrete to remove my notepad from my back pocket. I added his name to the address number, 5649. “How may I help you?”

“Ya said I should call ya if I remember anything.”

“Yessir, I did,” I lingered onto his every word as I sat on the edge of the curb.

“Well, go figure in the middle of my Hungry-Man dinner,” he coughed. The anticipation was killing me! “Excuse me. I, uh, remembered that my son setup a security camera a couple weeks ago.”

“Really?” I stood up, slid my notepad in my back pocket, and started walking across the street.

“Really,” he continued. “And uh, a couple of ’em just happen to point toward the two houses that exploded.”

I knocked on 5649’s door.

“Hold on, Miss, someone’s knocking on my door,” he accidentally hung up on me as he put the phone down.

“Evening, sir,” I smiled as he opened the front door. “May I come in?”

“Boy! You got here awful fast!” Hogarth blurted. “Well, you surely may! Would you like some coffee?” He was sporting an Army t-shirt, black sweats, and the same camo slippers.

“I’d love some, thank you,” I followed him through the living room and into the kitchen. I gasped and clutched my chest because I was caught off guard by a handsome young man sitting at a round table typing on a laptop.

“Oh! I didn’t expect to see anybody else in here,” I extended my hand while lightly laughing and introduced myself. “Excuse me, uh.. I- -I’m, uh, Laney Lois.”

“I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Hogarth’s son, Judge,” he spoke with a British accent. He stood up to shake my hand and flashed a beautiful smile.

“Judge? After.. Judge Reinhol- -?” I chuckled as I lingered in his personal space.

“No, no,” Hogarth interrupted. “After Judge Judy! My wif- -.. my late wife and I loved that program.”

“Really?” I inquired as I sat down to join Judge.

“Really,” Judge answered softly as he shrugged his shoulders. “You know what they say? You can’t choose your parents.”

“What’s that?” Hogarth shouted while cupping his ear in our direction.

“I’d like some sugar, please,” I answered for Judge.

He mouthed: “Thank you,” as he resumed typing and clicking on the laptop.

I smized at him as I sipped the mug full of instant Folgers coffee.

“I’m still trying to figure out the security camera program,” Judge admitted as he went back and forth between a paper manual and the laptop. “I should have the last couple week’s worth of video feed up soon.”

“Okay, great,” I wandered about the quaint kitchen. “So, um, where are you from, Judge?”

“I’m currently studying at York College in Jamaica Bricktown for my Masters in Architecture,” Judge replied.

“Oh, n- -no, I- -I meant- -,” I fumbled over my words.

“Oh, you mean my accent?”

“Yeah, do you get that a lot?”

“I do,” he laughed lightly and pushed away from the table. “I was born in Ipswich, England; when my Father was in the service. That’s where he met my Mother.”

“Sorry to hear she’s passed,” I said sincerely.

“Thank you,” Judge said as our eyes became transfixed on one another.

I cleared my throat. “You have a magnificent magnet collection, Hogarth,” I complimented the old timer, who seemed left out of the conversation.

“Why thank ya kindly, ma’am,” Hogarth joined me to admire the eclectic fridge magnets.

“Is this your wife?” I asked as I pointed to an obituary newspaper clipping.

“Yes, it is,” Hogarth breathed. “My Dinah.”

My stomach dropped. I lost the ability to speak. I couldn’t believe it.

“♪♫ Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” Judge softly sang.

“♫ Someone’s in the kitchen I know,” Hogarth joined in.

“♪ Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” they sang together. “Strumming on the old banjo, and singing. Fie, fi, fiddly I o! ♫”

I applauded when they finished the chorus.

“Thank you, we used to tease her by singing that song every time we were in the kitchen together,” Hogarth commented.

“This is a small world,” I announced.

“How small, my dear?” Hogarth inquired.

“Small,” I uttered as Judge’s eyes met mine again. “Dinah was my college professor and mentor. She taught me everything I know about journalism, which inspired me to be a news reporter for the Queens Chronicle.”

“Wow.. you’re.. you’re Little Miss Firecracker?!” Hogarth gave me a tight squeeze around my shoulders. “Dinah talked about you all the time! She called you a firecracker because you were gonna light your way in this world.”

“We feel like we know you. Mother talked very highly of you. She admitted you were her favorite pupil,” Judge added as he stood to join Hogarth and I at the fridge.

“This is crazy! I’ve been hearing Dinah’s voice all day today,” I blurted.

Judge and Hogarth exchanged concerned glances.

“No, no, I mean.. I’ve been feeling her presence all day and remembering the wisdom she pounded into my head,” I rephrased so I didn’t seem insane. Especially in front of Judge. By the way, I didn’t see a ring on his left hand.

A loud computer ding startled all of us and we gathered back around the kitchen table. Judge at the helm. I at the ready with my notepad. Hogarth supervised and sipped his instant Folgers coffee.

“Here it is,” Judge announced as he swiveled the laptop toward me so I could see the video feed.

“Thank you, Judge. Thank you, Hogarth. I really appreciate all your help!” I squealed in excitement for solving my first case. “I emailed the video to my boss and to Sheriff Bayard. They said it’s enough to arrest the local squatter who wasn’t just a witness, but.. who was responsible for exploding the two houses because they were cooking meth.”

“You are everything Dinah said you were and more,” Hogarth beamed ear to ear as he hugged me again.

“Thanks again, Judge. I- -,” I glanced over at Hogarth. He looked at the two of us and sensed we wanted to be alone so he left the kitchen and fiddled with the living room TV.

“Congratulations, Laney,” Judge said. “I’m glad to hear you solved the case. Now, you can write your article about what happened. I hope you make the front page.”

“I was wondering if- -,” I continued. “If you’d like to have dinner with me tonight? To celebrate? My treat.”

“Uh, yeah, I’d like that,” Judge answered. “Ya know, my Mother did say, more than once, that you and I would be perfect together,” Judge smiled. “I’m starting to see why.” He winked at me and grabbed my hand. “Let’s go, I’ll drive.”

"Keep going, Lois," Dinah cheered me on.

The Gift Exchange

The wind whispered through the dark, empty trees like a warning in a foreign language. Winter was coming, and with winter came Santa Claus! I have been a good girl all year.. Well, except when I was at a pool party over the summer. A girl named Ingrid pushed me into the deep end on purpose.. because she’s jealous! So, I put a water beetle in her ice cream. She deserved it. No regerts! I skipped three grades last year. I have a robust vocabulary, sure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my immature moments. I don’t have many friends in my high school AP classes. I am all the teachers’ favorite, though, so that’s something, I guess.

“Franny, are you ready to go to the mall?” Mom called from the bathroom as she carefully applied her scarlet lipstick. I lost track of time staring out the window! I was admiring the dripping icicles and sipping on my hot cocoa (with mini marshmallows!) while I was writing my letter to Santa. I got sidetracked because of.. Ingrid Petrillo. That brat. Bet she’s on the naughty list!

I signed my letter, shoved it in my pocket, and shouted, “Coming!” I slid out of my room in my Christmas penguin socks and down the hall towards the bathroom. I rhythmically frolicked about while singing Jingle Bell Rock to my Mom’s back. She smiled at me through the bathroom mirror. She sang along with me and booped me on the nose with her makeup brush. “Hey! Can I put on some makeup too?” I asked.

“Wh- -, no, not til you’re in high sch- -,” she trailed off.

“I. Am. In. High. School.” I stated matter-of-factly.

“No,” she laughed in between words. “I mean.. Y- -yes, you are.. b- -but I- -I meant when y- -you’re.. older,” she replied.

I paused. “Sooo… how about now? I’m older!” I teased as I checked my watch.

“Very funny, young lady!” She bent down and pinched my cheek.

“Mooooommm!!!” I swatted her hand away. I loathed being treated like a child. I put my hands on my hips and gave her the look.

“What? Oh! C’mon..” She teased and resumed applying her makeup. “How’d your letter come along? Did you write it in crayon or with a feather quill from your new calligraphy set?” She winked at me and bumped my hip with hers.

“I wouldn’t recommend submitting my letter to Santa for the Nobel Peace Prize, but yet.. it is satisfactory,” I plopped myself down onto the tub’s ledge and plucked loose strings from a towel hanging up nearby.

“Aw! I’m sure it’s more than satisfactory! I bet it’ll be deemed Fridge Worthy. I shall make a copy of your letter and showcase it properly for all to see in the kitchen!”

“Abigayle Lynn Brighton!” I threatened.

“Francesca Lily Bri- -” My Mother mocked.. me.

“You two ready to skedaddle?” My Dad interrupted from the hallway.

“Hey yo, Daddy-O!” I sprung up and gave him a tight squeeze.

“Oh! I missed ya Franny! Ready to see ol’ Saint Nick?”

“I am, but I don’t think Mom is,” I announced.

Mom froze mid-stroke while applying her mascara and leered at me.

I whispered into my Dad’s ear, “She’s been naughty and Santa’s planning to put coal in her stocking.”

“I heard that!” Mom blurted and stuck out her tongue at the both us.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the line to meet Santa Claus was shorter than it was last year! My parental units bid me farewell and wished me luck whilst they shopped nearby. As I tried to calculate the estimated time that I would reach the front of the line.. I noticed.. Ingrid Petrillo and her gaggle of Mean Girls were there without any parental supervision. Maybe their folks were shopping nearby as well? Who knows..

“Well, well, well.. look who it is! Franny the Tranny!” Ingrid chortled as she and her posse got out of line and surrounded me.

“Well, hello Ingrid.. and ladies. I’ll have you know that that is politically incorrect. The appropriate term is “transsexual,” which.. I am not because I emotionally and psychologically feel that I belong to the sex I was born, female. Thank you very much. If you could be so kind as to step aside so I may rejoin the queue,” I stated as I folded my arms across my chest. I maintained eye contact.

“What a freak! I mean, like.. you don’t even know how to speak American,” Ingrid spit back.

“It’s called English, but how would you know? You failed fourth grade.. twice,” I muttered under my breath as I pushed past Ingrid and her fellow comrades.

“What did you say to me?!” Ingrid barked as she grabbed my shoulder and swung me around to face her.

“Hey! I don’t want any trouble, okay?” I pleaded with my hands up.

Ingrid scoffed and stepped closer. “Listen here, you little dork,” she grabbed my collar. “You better watch your smart mouth because.. Santy don’t visit the funeral homes.”

I cowered while thinking about what she said. It sounded familiar. “Isn’t that a line from Home Alone?”

“Ugh! You’re gonna get it!” Ingrid raised her right fist back at a forty-five-degree angle towards my squinty face.

I prepared for the worst. I thought about the defrosting steaks in the fridge at home.

“Santa’s not real,” Ingrid breathed in my face as she let go of my collar.

I fell on my buttocks and yelped as I met the tile floor. I finally opened my eyes and felt tears streaming down upon my fire red cheeks.

“C’mon girls,” Ingrid called as she glared at me. “Later dweeb. Go cry yourself a river.” They disappeared around the corner towards the Food Court.

I eventually managed to stand up on my unsteady feet, dusted myself off, and wiped my wet face. I sulked over to watch all the other kids take turns sitting on Santa’s lap and telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Oh, my.. Ignorance is bliss. Those poor kids. I hope they find out the truth in a better way than.. I did.

A voice behind me interrupted my internal dialogue, “Honey, why aren’t you in line?.. Or did you already see Santa?!”

I steadily turned around to face the fabulists. “Is it true?” I whimpered.

“Oh, sweetie, what’s the matter?” My Mother.. Gayle bent down to comfort me.

“Is it true?” I loudly repeated.

“What? Is what tru- -” Gayle shook her head in confusion and caressed my wet cheek.

“She knows, Gayle,” my Father.. Wallace interrupted.

“Aw, Franny,” Gayle whispered as she guided me away from the crowd to a bench.

“Why? Why did you lie to me?” I cried and pounded my fist on my thigh.

“Well, I- -” Wallace hesitantly exchanged a glance with Gayle. “We. We wanted to treat you like any other eleven-year-old kid.. not like a prodigy. We wanted you to experience the joyous Christmas spirit because Santa is.. a special figure who represents the religious holiday.”

“That’s right,” Gayle took over. “Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings formed the basis of Christianity.”

I pondered this new information I was fed and paused with a finger on my chin. “So, Jesus Christ isn’t real either?”

Wallace and Gayle exchanged another glance. Their mouths were agape. Their lack of response made me feel uncomfortable. The longer it went on, it became unnerving, so I had to break the silence. I straightened up, wiped my face, inhaled, and exhaled deeply.

“Ooookay.. I’ll do my own research on the subject and let you know what I’ve concluded,” I gingerly rose from the bench, and headed towards the Food Court. “I could go for a high fructose corn syrup confection.”

I twirled around and asked, “You two coming?”

They nodded.

“Okay, it’ll be your treat,” I said over my shoulder as I trotted along.

“How was your day at school, Franny?” Gayle asked absentmindedly as I entered the house shivering off the snow from my hand-me-down parka, mittens, extra large scarf, over-sized hat, earmuffs, leg warmers, and galoshes.

“It was enlightening to say the least, Gayle!” I announced.

“Mom. Franny, please call me Mom,” Gayle pleaded. She still couldn’t even look at me. Disappointed in herself, I’m sure. “I’ll take Mother at this point.”

“Okay, Mother. I’ll have you know that I’ve completed my research, calculated all the data, and have come to a conclusion about the Santa Claus debacle.”

“You have? And?”

“I consulted with my Science teacher. I interviewed my high school classmates. Chatted with Mrs. Farley, you know her. The lunch lady, I sit with.”


“Mister White stated that his religious beliefs conflict with his Scientific findings, therefore he declined to comment.”


“My high school acquaintances shared their stories of how their guardians deceived them as well. They had various theories as to why. Some believe their parents felt obligated to conform with societal expectations or pressured by commercialism to taint their offspring.”

“Wow, okay. And what’d Mrs. Farley have to say?”

“She simply stated that adults utilize the mythical Santa Claus to trick adolescents to.. behave.. all year long!”

“Oh? So, what have you concluded?” My Mother, Gayle, finally turned around and noticed my rough condition. She gasped with both hands over her mouth.

“I concluded that,” I paused for dramatic effect. “I will be naughty whenever I please!” I cheered and pumped my bloodstained mittens in the air. I smiled widely with ichor smeared across my teeth and it spewed down my scratched chin.

“Francesca Lily Brighton! Wh- -what happened to y- -your mouth?!” My Mother exclaimed in sheer terror.

“I ran into Ingrid on the way home. She was alone. I decided she needed to meet Coal and Stocking,” I responded, still holding my fists in the air.

“Coal and Stocking?” Mother inquired as she tilted her head curiously and examined my fat, bloody lip from afar.

“Yes!” I kissed my left fist. “Coal.” I kissed my right fist. “Stocking.” I roared into laughter and victoriously pumped my fists in the air again.

“Just wait til your Father sees you, young lady.”

“Oh, relax, Gayle,” I pulled off my over-sized hat, brushed aside my long bangs, and unveiled my black eye. “Wallace will be proud.”

Knotting and Cutting Ties

“How did you know?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer. I thought I had been careful. I thought she bought all my excuses for working late, extended business trips, and being stuck in traffic. I was caught. She caught me. Not red-handed but caught in one too many lies.

“You butt dialed me and I heard everything,” Winifred responded with her arms folded across her chest.

I knew I should’ve turned off my phone instead of putting it on silent. Rookie mistake. This was my first time cheating.. on.. anyone.

“Why?” Winifred asked, her voice shook, and tears swelled in her hazel eyes.

I shoved my fidgety hands into my pockets, shuffled my feet, and looked at anything but her. I thought about our wedding night and how madly in love we were. How hopeful. Then it all changed. The sudden shrill of screams from down the hall interrupted my thoughts. I closed my eyes and sighed. Winifred turned around, mumbled something, wiped her face, and disappeared down the hall into our toddler’s bedroom. I could hear faint whispers that turned into a soft lullaby song.

I plopped myself down into a brown leather armchair and buried my face into my shaking hands. My swimming thoughts escaped me as I felt something rub against my leg. I cautiously peered through my fingers and saw our Italian Greyhound. She was giving me the puppy dog eyes. I sighed again. “You’re not helping, Freckles,” I whispered playfully as I patted her head.

“Leon, why?” Winifred had swiftly returned, which startled Freckles and I.

“Winnie, I- -I,” I stammered, unsure how to put my feelings and motives into words.

“You’re unhappy,” Winifred simply stated.

I nodded and dropped my head.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Winifred continued.

“I- -I didn’t know where to start. I- -I couldn’t find the right time.. or place.. I- -I,” I trailed off.

“You’re a coward,” Winifred shot back.

I deserved that because it was true.

“Do you want a divorce, Leon? Do you want to be with her?”

My silence amplified the tension between us. Winifred impatiently tapped her foot on the hardwood floor. Freckles scurried over to her because she thought this was an invitation to play. Winifred bent down and rubbed behind Freckles’ ear; she itched at her ear with her hind leg, and tumbled over. I smiled faintly. I thought about how innocently easy a dog’s life is compared to the complicated human’s life. This was a prime example. I shook my head and forced myself to remember the seriousness of the situation I was in. I finally managed to look at Winifred. “I- -I don’t know. I- -I don’t know what I want.”

Winifred stood with a sigh. “Well, you better figure it out, Leon,” she sniffled, and tossed a throw pillow at me. “It’s late. You can sleep in here. We’ll continue this in the morning.” She tippy toed down the hall and softly closed the master bedroom door behind her. The loud turning of the door lock made me jump. Freckles came over and nuzzled up against me.

“What am I gonna do, girl?” I breathed to Freckles. She curled up into a ball at my feet, she looked up at me, again, with her puppy dog eyes and whined. I couldn’t help myself. I stifled a laugh and covered my mouth. “You’re so lucky you’re cute!” I reclined the brown leather armchair and stretched out my feet. I patted my leg and Freckles jumped up to join me. “Will you get settled already!” I playfully ordered Freckles. She circled my lap three times, sniffed my crotch twice, licked my face once, and finally settled down.

I checked the time on my Seiko wristwatch. It wasn’t that late. Just past midnight. “Wanna go for a walk, girl?” Freckles’ ears perked up, she leaped down and ran for the front door. “I’ll take that as a yes. C’mon then.. Let’s go!” I wasn’t tired yet. I thought, maybe some fresh air will do us some good. I put on our matching ponchos and headed out into the brisk night. We made a couple pit stops before reaching our destination, Cock ‘n Tails, a corner bar around the block that I knew was dog friendly.

“What’ll it be?” a heavyset, hairy, rugged masculine bartender politely asked while drying a beer mug with a towel and then throwing the towel over his shoulder. Stereotypical bartender move.

“An Old Fashioned, please,” I automatically answered while I removed my soaking poncho and set it beside me. Freckles licked the water drops off the poncho.

“You got it,” he poured the whiskey in slow motion. Or so it seemed. I was mesmerized by the smooth transitions in his preparation process. He twirled a shiny tool from his black leather pants pocket and began peeling the orange into my glass. He topped it off with a cherry and slid the glass toward me.

“What’ll the pooch have? An Evian?”

I chuckled lightly, “In a dirty martini glass.”

“Sure thing,” he even garnished it with a toothpick of olives! “Here ya go,” he handed me the drink with a wink.

“That’s very kind of you,” I laughed in between words. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Hey, even a dog’s gotta hydrate!”

“You got me there,” I carefully set down the full martini glass between my bar stool and Freckles. She was lapping up the water and splashing it onto the sticky hardwood floor. I discreetly removed the olives from the toothpick and put the toothpick in my mouth. She’s still a pup and doesn’t know the difference between edible and inedible things yet. Better safe than sorry. I sure as hell didn’t want to be spending the rest of the night at an emergency vet clinic.

I sipped my Old Fashioned and exclaimed, “Aaahhh.. this has to be the best Old Fashioned I’ve ever had! You’re a master at your craft, sir.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that,” the bartender replied. “I didn’t go to Bartending School. I’m self-taught.”

“Really? That’s impressive.”

“Really. I had to teach myself,” he admitted. “Nobody will teach a fag how to make cocktails.”

“Oh.. th- -that’s a sh- -shame,” I paused. “Hey! Bet you could teach your own Mixology class!”

“That’s a hell of an idea,” he pondered aloud.

“Hell to the yes, Nico!” a patron shouted from a nearby booth with his buddies. He was dressed in only suspenders, Daisy Dukes, and knee high boots. “You would totally rock it!” They all raised their glasses to toast, with their pinkies up, and clinked their glasses together in unison. “To Nico!”

I raised my glass as well and turned back around to face the bar. “Well, sounds like you have the support of the community,” I extended my hand. “I’m Leon.”

“As you heard, my name’s Nico.. it’s short for.. Nicodemus,” he shook my hand firmly and then rolled his eyes. “My parents named me after- -.”

“Hey, Nico! The usual,” a feminine voice interrupted from behind me.

“Hey, Reggie, how’s it?” Nico asked as they did an elaborate handshake that included finger guns and pounding the rock. I half expected paper and scissors to be involved.

“Same old, same old. Ya know.. In between clients,” Reggie flailed his French manicured hand about and held his wrist limply. He redirected his gaze towards me as he settled into the swiveling bar stool. “Do I know you?” He looked me up and down. He rested his head in his hand and squinted.

“Mmm- -I- -I,” I was choking on my cocktail. “d- -don’t think s- -so.”

“Yeah, you’re one of my regulars,” Reggie started snapping his fingers. “Levi, Leo, Liam..”

I shook my head after each name, “N- -no, y- -you must have me confused with s- -someone else.”

“Luke, Lewis, Leon! It’s Leon, right? How ya doing?”

“Sir Reginald?”

“That’s me,” Reggie exclaimed as he flipped his non-existent long hair over his shoulder. He batted his eyelashes at me. He was sporting bedazzled false eyelashes.

“Wow! You sure look different outside of your royal garb, scepter and crown.”

“Well, I only wear that getup for my role-play clients,” Reggie winked and caressed my forearm. He leaned closer, snatched the cherry out of my glass, seductively bit it off the stem, chewed and swallowed the cherry while maintaining eye contact the entire time. “Wanna see a party trick?” He waved the cherry stem around my face like he was trying to hypnotize me.

I gulped. “Y- -yes, Y- -Your Majesty.” I bowed my head toward him.

Sir Reginald put the entire cherry stem in his mouth. Half a minute later, he pulled it out of his mouth slowly and placed it on a white cocktail napkin between us. It was tied in a knot!

I gulped again. I was transfixed with his charisma and exuding confidence. Borderline cocky.

“You wanna get outta here? I can show you more of my tricks.”

I nodded with my jaw on the floor.

“I’m in room 813 at the Sparkling Swan downtown,” Reggie warmly purred into my ear as he rubbed my inner thigh. “See ya there, peasant.” He patted Freckles’ head as he twirled out of his bar stool. I followed his gaze as he elegantly floated out the door into the drizzling moonlight.

“Check please, Nico,” I downed the rest of my Old Fashioned.

“It was nice meeting you Leon. Have a good one.”

“You too. Good luck with your Mixology school,” I left him a big tip and scribbled my signature. “C’mon Freckles.”

I hurried home. No pit stops this time. Freckles shook the rain droplets off, stretched, yawned and got comfortable on the denim love seat. I rummaged through the infamous junk drawer in the kitchen. All I could find was a pad of pink post-its and a purple metallic pen. I wrote a Dear John letter to Winnie, which included my cheating secret.

I knocked three times on the hotel room door, number 813. I anticipated Reggie to open the door, but ’twas Sir Reginald standing there in all his Royal Glory. He took my breath away.

“Please join me in my Royal bed chamber,” Sir Reginald gestured toward the king size bed with one hand and with the other gave me a drink.

Fit for a king,” I declared as I took a sip.

“I order you to disrobe, peasant.”

“Anything for you, Your Royal Highness,” I downed the entire drink and dropped to my knees in front of the bed.

“You shall be Knighted,” Sir Reginald announced while straightening his jeweled crown. I bowed my head. I felt being tapped on my shoulder and then on the other by his gold scepter.

The next morning, I woke up alone, naked, and confused in the cheap pastel hotel room. Ow, my head was pounding! I felt wet. Was I sweating? Nope. Blood was streaming down my face. “Son of a bitch,” I screeched because my mouth was parched. Knighted and knocked out. I looked around through a crimson blur. I couldn’t see my wallet, keys, watch, or clothes anywhere; but it seems that Sir Reginald was kind enough to leave me my grass stained tennis shoes. Thanks asshole.

There was a soft knock at the door. “Housekeeping!”


Winifred was carrying her tot on her hip into the kitchen and notices a pink note on the counter. It was in Leon’s handwriting. What she read was shocking. “Son of a bitch,” she scoffed. The toddler wiggled in her arms to be let down and burst into tears. Freckles decided to go into a barking fit. The phone rang and rang and rang.. Winifred blinked, sighed and forced herself to snap out of it. She picked up the receiver and almost dropped it because her hands were sweating with great fervor.

“Hello?” Winifred answered.

“Good morning, this is Officer Winslow from Seattle Police Department. Are you Winifred Linkovich?”


“Okay, we have been notified by the Sparkling Swan Hotel manager that your husband, Leon Linkovich, was found by housekeeping.. tied up to a bed. Can you come downtown to collect him?”

“Oh, no, that’s my ex-husband, sorry,” Winifred hung up and cackled like a villain. “Karma’s a bitch, Leon.” She dialed her attorney’s number.

Living the Dream

Perhaps it was a dream, she thought. Perhaps if she pinched herself, she would wake up. But she didn’t want to wake up. She wanted to stay in this dream world where pain didn’t exist. Where she could soar and fly with the rest of the flock. Where her wings never tired. She could do whatever her heart desired. Sure, she overlooked her random encounter with an overly chatty walrus named Wallace over a bowl of sea salted peanuts at a Tiki Bar. She knows this is a dream, but she’d rather stay here forever if she could. She felt an urgent pressure all of a sudden, which woke her up from her pleasant yet odd slumber. The pressure was a.. full bladder. Nature calls. Her body decided it was time to get up. Mhmm.. there’s the pain she didn’t miss. Living with chronic widespread pain is something she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy.. if she had any.

Mildred was well liked and respected in her small retirement community, however she felt disconnected since she recently became a widow. She’s always been a homebody. She frequently seeks refuge in her colorful, wild garden and quaint in-ground pool. The warm weather does wonders for her mood and productivity. She smiled with her eyes still closed as the Florida sun crept through the fuchsia curtains upon her tan face. As she stretched and rolled over, her smile widened because her emotional support Goldendoodle, Rover, greeted her with a slobbery kiss and zoomed around the bedroom.

“Guess it’s officially time to get up outta bed and start the day, huh?” Mildred finally opened her eyes and giggled as Rover whined at her. She opened the floor length curtains to a picturesque view of her backyard that was littered with nature: squirrels, birds, insects, daisies, carnations, rhododendrons, Big Beef tomato plants, and orange citrus trees. She sighed with pride and opened the sliding door. She walked outside with Rover, who chased the critters about and hiked against a stone bird bath under a Weeping Willow. She took a deep breath in and out, closed her eyes, and quietly counted: “One. Two. Three. F- – -.”

“Good morning Milly! How ya doing?” Rosalee cheerfully announced with a wave from the other side of the white picket fence. Her enthusiastic motion almost knocked her large sun hat off her petite head.

“Morning Rose! Oh, ya know.. I’m.. living the dream,” Mildred fibbed. “How about you? Your petunias sure do look beautiful!”

“Ain’t we all,” Rosalee gleefully gestured with both arms wide holding pruning shears in one hand and a batch of plucked weeds in the other. “I woke up this morning so I’m doing grand,” she chuckled lightly. “Thank you! Just trying to keep up with your green thumb!”

“Aw, Rose! You’re doing great! Keep it up. How are your lemons coming along this year?”

“Thanks Milly! I learned from the best,” Rosalee brushed aside some gray strands of hair from her freckled face and winked. “Ya know if Spike would leave the dang tree alone, there’d be a couple shoots by now and we could share a glass of lemonade!” They both cackled. Her three-year-old gray Great Dane galloped along with Rover and they gave each other an Eskimo kiss between the fence panels. Ya know how they say dogs and their owners look alike? That’s Rosalee and Spike. Gray haired, gentle, and practically the same height!

Mildred’s wavy golden gray hair did happen to resemble Rover’s. They recently celebrated his ninth birthday with all the cul-de-sac doggies, which makes him sixty-three in dog years so they’re more alike than she originally thought! She descended the wooden deck stairs to join Rover, Spike, and Rosalee. A ladybug landed on her fluffy floral fleece robe sleeve.

“Wow, look here, Rose! A ladybug!” Mildred lifted her arm to get a better look at the spotted insect.

“Milly, did you know that when a ladybug lands on you.. it’ll bring you luck?!”

“I have heard that before.. Jeepers.. I’m overdue for some luck!”

“Me and you both,” Rosalee teased. “Mind sharing that lucky ladybug? I hope some of its good juju will rub off on me too.” Rosalee reached out her wrinkly hand over the white picket fence to retrieve the insect. Mildred carefully stepped into her garden’s mulched area, in between a couple plants, and noticed another little garden critter, a snail; it seemed perfectly content in the middle of the chaotic garden as it took it’s morning stroll. As quickly as the ladybug crawled off Mildred’s arm onto Rosalee’s delicate hand; it fluttered away just as swiftly. They both watched the ladybug fly off until it disappeared into the distance.

“Goodness gracious, look at that,” Mildred pointed up. “Not a cloud in the sky, but you can bet your bottom dollar we’re going to get a Floridian rain shower sometime this afternoon!”

“But of course! Sure saves me having to water my garden every day. Saves me money on the water bill too. I’m glad and grateful that Mother Nature steps in and picks up the slack for me!”

“You said it, Rose,” Mildred sighed and then flinched because a nearby bird splashed her on the ankle from the stone bird bath. “Well, there’s Mother Nature again.. Guess I don’t need a shower! Now, I’m saving money on my water bill!”

“Aw, that little Brown Thrasher is having a good ol’ time over there,” Rosalee excitedly stated.

“What d’ya call it?”

“A Brown Thrasher.”

“What an odd name! It sure is.. thrashing about,” Mildred snorted at her own joke.

“Haha, it sure is! Felix and I used to go Birdwatching. It was something we really enjoyed doing together,” Rosalee solemnly admitted.

“I’m sure,” Mildred paused. “Hey! Ya know, I’d love to learn more about wildlife. Maybe we can go birdwatching together sometime. I’ve been- -” she paused again. “I’ve been itching to get out more. I’m sure you are too, eh?”

“Why Milly, that’s a swell idea! I’ve been wanting to see the Herons before they migrate North for the winter!”

“Sounds like a plan, Rose. I’m looking forward to it,” Mildred promised and pivoted. “Rover! Come. Rover,” she called. “Where are you?” She noticed some dirt scattering up into the air near an overgrown aloe plant, she peered past the stone bird bath, and there she found her curly rascal digging a hole. “Whatcha doin’ pup? Whatcha got there? You little troublemaker..” Mildred strategically snatched a hard object out of Rover’s dirty, slobbery mouth. It was a gold pendant with black, white, and yellow gems. She dusted off the dirt and unveiled a brooch. A bumblebee brooch.

“What’d Rover dig up now, Milly?”

“Did you happen to lose a bumblebee brooch, Rose?”

“No, I sold all my jewelry when.. Felix died.. so, I wouldn’t lose the house,” Rosalee dropped her head and frowned.

“Think the previous owner misplaced it years ago?” Mildred asked while closely inspecting the brooch and counting each gem.

“No, I don’t think so. The previous owner was the original owner. He was a lifelong bachelor. Yeah, Bachelor Bennett. He was a strange bird. Lived here for twenty-five years. How long have you lived here now, Milly? Ten years?”

“It’ll be eleven in October.”

“Think one of your visitors misplaced it?” Rosalee asked as she tilted her head.

“No, I don’t think so. We always visited inside.. where the air conditioning is,” Mildred smiled at the thought of enjoying a cup o’ joe in her cool kitchenette. Her stomach growled, Spike heard it, and growled back through the white picket fence.

“Maybe Magnus next door can help ya out.. See how much that baby is worth. He used to be a.. ya know.. a whatchamacallit.. ya know.. someone who looks at jewelry and quotes a price of what it’s worth..” Rosalee trailed off with frustration.

“A jeweler? An appraiser?”

“That’s it! He’s been retired for a decade or so, but he was the best in town. I’m sure he can help ya out.”

“Good to know, thanks. I’ll pop over to his place after breakfast and see if he’s in.”

“Let me know what ya find out! Now, I’m curious!”

“Will do.”

“I’ll make lunch for us and we can chat about it.”

“Sounds lovely. See ya then, Rose!”

Rosalee whipped up some bologna ‘n butter sandwiches with cottage cheese, sliced tomatoes from the garden, and poured some prune juice for lunch. Mildred rang the door bell with her canine companion in tow. Spike squeezed past Rosalee to greet Rover when she opened the door. They went gallivanting down the hallway side by side.

“Hey there! Uhhh,” Rosalee stammered. “W-what’s with the metal d-detector, M-Milly?” She gestured for Mildred to enter and they sat down at her wicker dining room table and chairs under the skylight.

“Oh! I ran into our other neighbor, Leon, when I left Magnus’ place,” Mildred said while putting her sunglasses back on. “I told him about finding a piece jewelry in the backyard and he insisted that I borrow his metal detector. We could check your yard after lunch!”

“Oh, yes, lets,” Rosalee blurted, she hurriedly chewed her food and continued with her mouth full. “So, tell me.. what did Magnus have to say?”

“Rose, I felt like I was on Antique Roadshow! Get ready for this,” Mildred paused for dramatic effect, cracked a sly smile, lowered her sunglasses to look directly into Rosalee’s eager eyes. “Quarter of a million dollars!”

Rosalee’s eyes widened as big an owl’s. “I do declare! My, my, my.. Oh, Milly! What ever will you do with that kinda money?!” she squealed and fanned herself.

“I think I wanna open a senior citizen center.. for widows.. to help women like us.. who feel.. alone.. and lonely. Where we can have a support group to talk to and get the financial assistance we need. What d’ya think?” Mildred inquired.

“Milly, I think that is a superb idea! Can I be your Vice President?”

“Rose, I wouldn’t have it any other way! You’ve been such a Godsend to me ever since.. Mortimer passed,” Mildred’s voice trembled. “Us.. widows.. gotta stick together,” Mildred sniffled. She reached for and held Rosalee’s petite hand. They gazed into one another’s teary eyes.

“Aw, Milly, you’ve done the same for me since.. Felix died,” Rosalee whispered. “I’d be honored to help you with this.”

They wept in each other’s arms for what seemed like a long time. The cuckoo clock chirped above their heads and it startled them back to reality. Mildred helped Rosalee clear the table, they freshened up their faces, and relocated outside to the picnic table for dessert: tapioca pudding. Mildred noticed a little black spider on the edge of the wooden picnic table and gave it have some room. “Table for three,” she thought in an Italian accent and stifled a laugh. Rover slowly approached to sniff the arachnid and tried to lick it, but was simultaneously distracted by Spike’s booming bark at a grasshopper that sprung onto the brick house. The doggos were running all over the place exploring the yard, chasing each other, and getting to know all the little garden creatures. One creature in particular remained undetected by the curious canines: the Praying Mantis. It became one with the foliage and slowly traveled from leaf to leaf, branch to branch, and then vanished.

“Boy, I’m stuffed!” Rosalee announced while patting her stomach.

“Rose, you eat like a bird,” Mildred teased while sipping the last bit of prune juice. “What d’ya say we give that metal detector a try?”

Rosalee sarcastically snickered while standing up, “I say, what are we waiting for?! There could be another fortune back here! After all, ’tis our lucky day!” She gave Mildred a wink.

“Alright, so, Leon said to press this button and wait for the green light to turn on. There it goes. Well, that was easy peasy lemon squeezy.”

“Hear that Spike?! I may be able to afford bottled lemonade after all so you can use my lemon tree as your own personal peeing post!” Rosalee and Mildred giggled. They walked to and fro with the metal detector over Rosalee’s backyard. Spike and Rover followed closely behind. They barked, whined, and tilted their heads when the machine began to beep. The beeping began to rapidly increase.

“Milly, I think we got something!” They carefully placed the metal detector against the white picket fence and started digging with trowels. Spike and Rover joined in on the fun and dug alongside their owners. “Whatcha got boy?! Gimme that,” Rosalee pleaded with Spike as he started to swallow it. “Spike. Out. Now!” He froze, gave her the biggest puppy dog eyes and dropped it onto the grass. “Cripes! It’s a little lizard,” Rosalee shrieked in disgust and tossed it to Mildred. “Ugh, is its guts hanging out, Milly? I can’t look.”

Mildred wiped the debris off the large dark chocolate gems and the shiny gold sparkled across the green lawn. Rover tried to catch the reflecting light like a cat would with a laser pointer. “Rose, it’s not alive.”

“Aw, I was ‘fraid of that.. Should we bury it? We already dug a hole,” Rosalee suggested quietly with a light laugh. She uncovered her eyes and finally examined the item.

“It’s a lizard pendant,” Mildred stated. Their eyes met, Rosalee excitedly tackled her with a strong hug, which knocked them both over into the infamous puny lemon tree. Rover and Spike jumped on top of them and licked their faces in celebration. The foursome became an official dogpile.

Eighteen months later

Mildred and Rosalee were on their way to the ribbon cutting ceremony at the grand opening of their senior citizen center for widows they decided to call: Treasure Gardens. They were also due to receive the key to the city from none other than.. the Mayor! They were tickled pink! They decided to take a detour first.

“I still can’t believe Felix and Mortimer are only a couple plots away from one another,” Mildred told Rosalee while putting the car in park. “These bouquets you put together are gorgeous, Rose. Flowers are something we should incorporate around the office. It’ll help liven up the place. It’ll feel more inviting and homey. What d’ya think?”

“Absolutely. I think that’s a grand idea, Milly! I did pick ’em from your garden, so you did half the work.. Partner,” Rosalee winked at Mildred. They awkwardly hugged over the car’s center gear shift. Spike and Rover both barked out the car window at a squirrel climbing up a nearby tree. The ladies laughed in unison at their playful pups. “Can’t take ’em anywhere without causing mischief,” Rosalee teased and rolled her eyes. Rosalee and Mildred parted ways with their dogs as they exited the vehicle.

Mildred placed the bright botanical bouquet onto a knee high headstone. “Hi honey,” she whispered. “I miss you. Today.. is a good day. It will be a good day, I’ve decided. Today will be.. The. Best. Day. Next to our wedding day, of course,” she pursed her lips together and made a smooching sound. “Oh, honey.. I’m.. living the dream!” She pinched herself and smiled.

Normally, I have an idea and/or photo(s) first and let that inspire the piece I write. This week, I decided to reverse my creative process: write first and let it inspire the photo(s) because I recently purchased a journal called Complete the Story. I admit, it was initially difficult to do, but I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and creating.. differently!

I’m glad I took an alternate path because I think variety is important for a creative person. Keeps you on your toes and keeps your work fresh. I admire those who think outside the box and stray from their comfort zones. I hope the next time you find yourself in a creative funk and can’t seem to feel inspired; that you’ll take the time to explore alternative methods to help you create and achieve your goal(s). Don’t give up! Please share your dreams, fantasies, inspirations, muses, and/or creative processes in the comments. I’m eager to hear about them!

Don’t Have a Cat Attack!

My pet calls me Hex, but I don’t answer to it. I was rescued many moons ago when my pet found me soaking wet under a pallet. I’m a tuxedo goth teen. I’m an only feline now. My brothers from another mother met their tenth lives; Phil was half Maine Coon, half tabby, and he taught me everything I know about being wild because he survived outside without any front claws! Fur real! I ain’t kitten.. My other brother couldn’t have been more opposite! He was an obese ginger and he was rightfully named Fat Boy. He was such a softie! Oh, how my pet misses those boys. It’s been just me and my pet until.. he fell in love with one of his own kind and they decided to move in together. So, I’ve reluctantly taken in my pet’s stray as my own.. she’s growing on me.. I have to say.

When my pet first transported me to our new dwelling, I instantly felt uneasy, the place gave me the creeps.. all three realms of it! My pet and stray have been easily confused because they’re only used to being within one realm, so I just meow to guide them back to me. Oh, how happy they are when they find me! They’ve settled in nicely and everything’s seemingly purrfect.. but if they only knew.. that this place is infested with.. ghosts! Of course, I’m the only one who can see them, so it’s up to me to keep the phantoms at bay.

I earn my keep around here that’s fur sure.. I’m pulling quadruple duty! Not only am I an Exterminator, Therapist, and Security Guard.. but now, I’ve been assigned a new job: Ghost Hunter! I haven’t received any extra food or treats for the overtime I’ve put in. I repeatedly remind my pet every morning and evening that I deserve more food. Hell, I take full advantage of every opportune moment I can get: whenever he goes in the kitchen or near my bowl.. I scream that I deserve a bonus! He’s a tightwad and never delivers. I’ve even beseeched the stray, she just whispers sweet nothings in my ear, pats my head, and scurries away; I’m wearing her down though.. she’ll crack soon.. I can feel it in my bones.

I’ve lost weight traveling through these three realms day and night. I put my nine lives on the line to protect my pet and stray against these meddling spooks who haunt their dreams.. Or shall I say nightmares?! I tuck the stray into bed every night with my freshly sharpened claws in hopes to keep her and my pet safe. She winces in pain because blood needs to be sacrificed so I can cast a Protection Spell so the apparitions won’t savagely suck out her soul! I don’t want to have to devour her face if she perishes. Of course, I’d be ever grateful for something extra to eat, however.. I don’t know where this stray came from, if she’s been vaccinated, or if she’s even had a recent flea dip! I just can’t take that risk. Ahhh, so tempting though.. I need to remember my mission: Protect my pet and his stray. I cannot let my pet lose his new stray. He’s lost so much already. I must secure her well-being at all costs.

Once my pet and stray are surely asleep, I clock in to work the night shift:

  • Cast the Protection Spell
    • smear the crimson life liquid along the wooden snooze frame
    • check under frame for any Boogey Monsters
    • meow the sacred song of my ancestors
    • frolic around the slumber chamber
    • hiss at the Flying Particle Ghouls to retreat back in the ducts
    • tickle the stray’s face with my whiskers
    • seal it with a sandpaper kiss on the stray’s elbow
  • Conduct a Perimeter Check
    • rub against every entryway
    • scratch loose threads on every carpeted floor
    • shake my loose hair follicles onto the hardwood floors
    • sprinkle every rug with my regurgitated fur
    • slink under every piece of furr-niture
    • pounce up and down every staircase between realms
    • scour behind the wet transparent curtain and utilize this time for re-hydration at the leaky faucet
  • Secure the Exterior
    • setup guard post on the windowsill for optimal position
    • if view is obstructed, squeeze through the thin horizontal window panels
    • be on the lookout for Squirrel and/or Bird Zombies per the nearby jungle graveyard
    • overturn every potted botanical specimen and spread the soil around because this traps all Supernatural Manifestations in their tracks
    • chase and swat any Flying Bug Specters and squish their entrails about
    • knock every dish off the kitchen counter into sharp shards of glass and cut down the Sanctimonious Spirits
    • inspect discard bins for any food scraps because..


When the bright ball in the sky appears and my pet arises, my day shift consequentially begins:

  • Break the Protection Spell
    • lick the dry sacrificed blood
    • check for Boogey Monsters
    • meow the sacred song of my ancestors
    • circle around my pet until he steps on my tail
      • wail in agony

[PAWS for dramatic effect]

My pet finally spills food into my bowl and loudly exclaims about the remnants of my back-breaking work I left during the night. I’m glad to hear my pet appreciates the amount of time I invest to keep him and the stray safe. I am extremely flexible, and I always land on my feet. Luckily, all I need is an eight-hour catnap to recover so I can work another night shift!

I hope the next time you notice your pet’s behavior, especially when their life drastically changes, that you’ll be inquisitive enough to research possible explanations. You may learn something new to help them adjust. If you do, please share any fun facts and/or funny stories you may have in the comments below! I’d love to hear about them! I’m sure my other readers would too!