Can I simply call it “Ugh?”

It’s one of those days/weeks…

What do you do when you find yourself in a slump you can’t seem to shake? Chug more caffeine? Force yourself out the door for a walk? Delve into the pile of yet un-opened self help books? (I can’t be the only one who has one of those TBR piles, can I?)

I’m sick, which isn’t helping. The kids have seen fit, as a precursor to Christmas giving, to gift me with their germs. Maybe I’ve been fighting it for weeks, I know the exhaustion of caring for them hasn’t helped my melancholy. It lowered my immune system’s battlements and allowed the little assholes to march right in.

Add to that the fuel of all the unfinished crap I need to do, and the fires of my frustration are roaring. Instead of doing something though I’m laying here listening to the slush like snow dripping off the roof, and writing a post where I’m mostly bellyaching. It wasn’t my intention. I genuinely would like to know; how do you shake it when life gets you down?

Maybe it’s motherhood, maybe it’s winter…the days have been so gloomy I woke at 7am this morning (I slept in!) and assumed it was the middle of the night… There’s other reasons I won’t lament on…but please, tell me your secrets, or join me in a round of complaining, sometimes there is call for that as well.

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A “Once Upon a Classic” Snippet

Here I am again with a few weeks behind me since my last post. Between work, birthdays, the winding up of the Christmas season, and some cherished time with my love while he was home from camp, the time has flown once more. Drifting, my nose in my book, I can’t find the energy to write tonight, but I decided I should share at least something. Then I realised I had not shared even a line or two from my book!

It is growing close to a year since I held the first printed copy of my novel in my hands, but I will never forget the feeling. The solid, ink smelling epitome of my hard work and dreams. I am sharing now the first chapter from my book, Once Upon a Classic, and hey, if you like it and feel like heading over and supporting an Indie author at Christmas, well…who am I to argue?

💙

“Not now you… you rat bastard!” I pushed up the deck lid of my 87 Volkswagen Beetle and glared at the mysterious world beneath. The mound of baffling mechanics choked a couple of times then sputtered into silence.

“Oh, no, please. I’m sorry!” I wiggled a few wires in futility. Why hadn’t I paid more attention when my father tried to teach me about cars?

Pressing my damp brow against the sharp metal, I closed my eyes. In through the nose, out through the mouth. What now? With a slam that reverberated off the wooded hills around me, I forced the lid closed and stepped away from the car.

“Shoot.” I turned in a circle on the road, taking in the forested rise and fall of land around me, and shoved my hair from my face. Zero houses in sight and no amount of neck craning brought any into view. The sun hung fat and low in the sky, steadily losing its interest in the day. How long since I passed anything resembling civilisation? Lost in my rampaging thoughts, I’d been content to just drive, knowing I was at headed in the right direction.

I retrieved my cell from my back pocket and scowled down at the screen. The thing struggled to open its search engine, growing hot in my palm before prompting me to switch on my GPS. I did so, then typed in tow trucks/garages/mechanics and closed my eyes with a silent plea to the gods of cell phone service and technology to stay with me.

Stevenson and Sons Garage

The name and number topped the list in bright blue. With a breath of relief, I pressed my finger to the link. A call option came up.

“Hello?” A man’s voice answered abruptly on the first ring.

“He—” My voice shook. I cleared my throat and tried again, “Hello, is this the garage?”

A pause, “This is.”

“I could use some help. I don’t know exactly where I am and my car quit. Your place came up as closest to my location.”

Another pause. The man on the line must have heard the restrained panic in my voice for his softened somewhat, “How long since you went through town?”

“ I’m sorry, I’ve never driven this way before. I’m not sure.”

A long-suffering sigh sounded on the other end. “Alright, what direction were you headed?”

I thought for a moment. I knew this. I’d mapped out the route to my brother’s before I left Vancouver.

“North, on the highway.”

“I’ll leave now. Hope it doesn’t take me too long to find you. It’s almost dinner time.” The line went dead.

“Top notch customer service.” I clicked off the screen and threw the phone into my purse.

An hour later a plume of dust announced the arrival of the tow truck moments before it came into view. The driver, eyes intent on his rearview mirror reversed towards me. I stood back as the arm swung low over my car with an ominous rattling of chains.

A middle-aged man unfolded himself from the truck and extended a broad palm to me, “Dan Stevenson. We spoke on the phone.” His eyes went to my cheek, and one dark brow rose a fraction, but he made no comment.

I nodded and shook the offered hand, ignoring his look as I had the others received over the last couple of days. “Carmen Maclean. Thanks so much for coming. You’re my hero.”

As big in stature, as he was short on small talk, Dan grunted and with a nod, walked away. He circled my car once, stopped to stroke his close-trimmed salt and pepper beard with two fingers, then, with another grunt, set to work connecting the automobiles for transport.

After he had finished, Dan went to the passenger side door and held it open. “Climb in.”

I inclined my head to him and slid into the seat, “Thank you, sir.”

As he shut the door behind me, I was sure a smile twitched in the cover of his facial hair.

Dan had a calm, paternal presence. His gruff, comforting silence soothed me as we drove, reminding me of my childhood. The well-worked smell of male and truck with underlying notes of coffee and beer. The familiarity of it made my throat ache with longing for my father. As we bumped along the empty road, memories bubbled to the surface.

The grinding of gears as we ventured around in my dad’s old Chevy pickup on a Saturday morning. Going for ice cream with the four of us all packed in the cab. Space had grown tighter with each year as the three of us kids grew, and when my brother hit six feet tall, we’d made him ride in the bed of the truck. Evenings we had often escaped to the beach when my mother had gotten too far into her bottle. How many hours had my father and I sat in shared silence, buoyed by the rush of waves and the grey expanse of ocean?

I wanted to call him now with all the desperation of those moments where a person would give anything to know the same comfort from their parent’s arms they had as children.

Leaning my head against the warm glass of the window I swallowed. Unfamiliar pine-choked landscape passed in an eye-numbing blur. The dying sun painted the serpentine curves of asphalt in bright oranges and pinks. The beauty of the scene at complete odds with my anxious mood. The long days of stress chose that moment to strike full force. My hands started to shake. I squeezed my lids shut and pushed back against the nerves. Focused on the hum of the engine, the whir of the AC I blocked all thoughts of Billy and the last few days from my mind. Took long focused breaths as I sought to still the clamour of all I needed to do before my skull could begin to throb. Dan glanced sideways when one of those breaths caught and emerged suspiciously close to a sob. He remained silent, and so did

Chapter Two

Sawyer Stevenson sank down on his couch, pulled back the tab of his beer and breathed a sigh at the hiss of released pressure. The sweetest time of the day. The time when he could shower, scrub the grease from his nails and settle into the spot where his butt had made the perfect groove.

He raised the can to his lips as a loud bang from the bay doors echoed up the stairwell. Sawyer looked up at the clock. Six twenty p.m. He groaned. Throwing back a long swallow to fortify himself he stood and headed back downstairs.

Sawyer pushed into the garage in time to watch his father manoeuvre the tow truck inside; a ratty old VW bug hooked to the arm. The motor cut and Dan stepped out before he noticed his son.

“I didn’t realise you were still here.” Sawyer raised a brow. “You went out late.”

His dad shrugged. “She needed a hand.”

Sawyer chuckled, “Ya big softy. I could have gone with you.” He grabbed his coveralls from the hook by the office door and pulled them on. “What can I do?”

“Help me get this heap off here for now.” Dan jerked his chin towards the cab. “She fell asleep. Looks like she’s had a rough go. May as well let her be.”

With an efficiency born of long practice, they unhooked the car and settled it near the jacks. Once they’d finished, Dan beckoned Sawyer over to him. “Hey, before she wakes up I wanted to warn you. She’s got a bruise on her face.”

“Really?” Sawyer glanced over. “Did she hit it when her car quit?”

Dan frowned, his lips tight. “No.” He looked over his shoulder at the window. “No, it’s at least a few days old.” His brown eyes found Sawyer’s. “Probably none of our business and could well be nothing but still doesn’t sit right.”

A sharp creak of rusty hinges echoed around the garage. Both men looked over at the girl who hopped down from the truck. She glanced around and scrubbed a hand over her face. Sawyer froze.

The glare of the fluorescent overhead lights glinted in the mess of thick cinnamon waves falling in disarray around her shoulders. With one hand she gathered the long strands and pulled them away from her face.

“I can’t believe I slept.” She yawned as she came towards them her long, pale legs displayed by a pair of cut off denim shorts.

The bruise branded the freckle-dusted arc of her left cheekbone. A mottled patch of bright green and blue like an oil spill across her fair skin. Sawyer’s fists clenched at his side. Dan was the first to speak.

“Carmen, this is my son Sawyer.” He smiled at the girl. “I’m too old for grunt work, he’ll be doing the labour on your car.”

Carmen turned to Sawyer and extended her hand, the corners of her generous mouth lifting. “Nice to meet you.”

Her eyes held his, and a sensation akin to a gut punch seized him. Forest. They were the colour of the forest. A mix of earthy greens and browns far too intriguing for the word hazel to encompass.

Swallowing, Sawyer relaxed his hand from his side and took hers. The bones of her fingers were long and narrow, her grip firm. Heat crept up his arm towards his chest and his tongue thickened in his mouth. Suddenly self-conscious of his calloused palms he broke the contact and rubbed his hand against his thigh.

“Hey, uh, nice to meet you too.” He stopped his gaze from inching to the bruise. “So, beautiful summer so far, eh?” Nodding in answer to his own question Sawyer picked up a wrench from the tool chest. Fiddled at the metal while awkward silence suffused the room. “Should we have a look at it?”

Carmen shook her head. “No, no, you’re closed. Please, don’t worry about it now.” She cast her smile to Dan who stood with his hands tucked into the pockets of his tattered overalls. “I truly appreciate your coming to get me.”

“Wasn’t a problem.”

Sawyer could swear colour darkened the skin just above his father’s whiskers.

“To be honest, I’m not sure what to do now?” Carmen glanced between them, cheeks flushing.

“I’ll get your bags,” Sawyer blurted, thankful for the chance to assist her. “We can run you to a hotel and get you settled for the night.” He moved towards the car, but a noise from Carmen stopped him.

“Doesn’t work.” She scrunched her nose, compressing her freckles. “The latch is broken. Everything is in the back seat.”

“We can look at that as well,” Dan assured her.

“You’re not just saying that because you’ve got a body stashed in, there are you?”

Carmen stared at him long enough Sawyer was sure she would call him an idiot. Dan rolled his eyes, but Carmen’s lips turned up in one corner. “Not presently. I’ve been saving the space for nosey mechanics.”

Sawyer scratched his chin and then held up his hands as if to measure the width of the trunk. “I don’t think my dad will fit in there. But, maybe if you wrapped him tight enou— oww.”

Dan swatted the back of his head. “Smart ass,” he growled.

Carmen laughed. The sound brought heat flooding back through Sawyer’s veins. Suddenly, it was essential to hear the sound again. Often.

“Mom is going to be worried.” He pointed at the tire clock on the wall. “Should I tell her you’ll be home after you drive a beautiful woman to her hotel room?” He took out his cell and swiped at the screen, humming to himself. Then paused and looked sideways at his father, “Or should I give Carmen a ride?”

Dan narrowed his eyes as he unzipped his overalls and hung them from their peg by the door.

“Behave yourself,” he said under his breath as he walked by Sawyer.

“Yes, father.”

Carmen’s gaze moved over Sawyer’s face and neck as he drove, distracting him.

“Any hotel in particular?” His voice emerged in a husky croak when he spoke. He wanted to make Carmen laugh again, see her smile. Instead, he seemed to have lost the capability of stringing words into coherent sentences.

“The cheapest one, please.”

He caught her wince from the corner of his eye.

“Good,” he grinned, desperate to lighten the air, “Cheap is the only kind we have.”

H wished he’d tied his hair back. Damp clumps stuck to the stubble on his cheeks and made it harder to see her across the dark cab. Would it look vain if he pushed it away? He should have shaved, but he’d never expected to meet her today.

“Did you grow up here?” Carmen asked after a stretching moment of quiet.

“I did. Born and raised.”

“There’s a hospital in this town?”

“Nope. Closest is a half hour.” He shifted so he could glance at her without losing track of the road. “My brother works there actually.”

“How many siblings do you have?”

“There are three of us in total. My Mom had us all at home with a midwife. Over nine pounds each.” Why had he said that?

Carmen whistled under her breath. “Tough lady.”

“The toughest.” He did not try to disguise the pride in his voice.

“So which are you?”

Her eyes moved over him again. His skin tingled wherever they landed. “Sorry?”

“Which kid? Middle? Oldest and wisest? Or are you the baby?”

Sawyer laughed, “The baby. Or, as I tell Sam and Sasha, the one my parents finally got right.”

“Ahhh,” Carmen bobbed her head, “Not because you were the worst and they couldn’t bear the thought of another like you?” Her face was to the window, but a smile coloured her voice.

“Hey now.” Sawyer pulled into the parking lot of the hotel. “I’m an angel. My Mom tells me all the time.”

There was that laugh again, at last. The rich sound fanned the heat in his chest from a smoulder to a blaze that licked at his extremities and burned his face.

“I’m the middle child if that helps.” She glanced at him, her smile glinting in the dark of the truck’s interior, “You know what they say about us.”

The street lights played through the strands of her hair. When she blinked, it sparked in her green eyes.

“Yeah,” Sawyer nodded, pulling the keys out of the ignition. “Trouble, nothing but trouble.”

Sawyer helped bring Carmen’s bags into the lobby. Waited with the small pile of her belongings while she checked in. All she had with her was a battered duffel that looked on the verge of bursting at the seams, a small carry on with a pair of sneakers tied to the strap, and her purse.

Sawyer wasn’t used to women who packed light and wore little makeup. The minimalism suited Carmen. She was earthy and sweet. On the ride over, she had braided her thick red hair. The floral scent suffused the truck, obliterating the smells of oil and coffee.

An image flashed behind his lids, his hand with the rope of hair wrapped around it, pulling her to him. Her full lips lowering to his. What would it feel like to draw the braid apart with his fingers? Set it loose and spread it like a cloud around her. Sawyer shook his head and slid further back on the stained couch.

“Have you eaten?” Sawyer asked when she strode across the lobby to where he sat.

“I enjoyed a delightful granola bar I found at the bottom of my purse. Does that count?”

Sawyer laughed, “If you’re not too full, there’s a bar tacked onto this place that sells abhorrent sandwiches but since they serve a wide variety of alcohol we tend to overlook their sandwich crimes.”

“I’ll be sure to tell them about your rave review while I’m there.”

“Unless you’d like company?”

“I, yes sure. Thanks.” She ran one finger over the faded handle of her bag.

She seemed surprised by his offer.

“I’ll help you take them up first.” Sawyer’s phone beeped, and he took it from his pocket. “Damn it.”

 

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Haven Cafe

I couldn’t say why I chose Andy’s Place that day. I suppose it seemed as good a place to hide as any. The joint was a throwback, a tip of the cap to the cafes of old with their vinyl seats and lacquered table tops. The atmosphere balanced upon the thin line between retro and seedy. I didn’t take much note of the decor that first time through the doors. Broken, on the hunt for something, anything, to hold myself together, I ducked inside. Later, when my mind cleared, I would contemplate the mysterious workings of life and spirit and wonder if more had been at play.

I couldn’t say why I chose Andy’s Place that day. I suppose it seemed as good a place to hide as any. The joint was a throwback, a tip of the cap to the cafes of old with their vinyl seats and lacquered table tops. The atmosphere balanced upon the thin line between retro and seedy. I didn’t take much note of the decor that first time through the doors. Broken, on the hunt for something, anything, to hold myself together, I ducked inside. Later, when my mind cleared, I would contemplate the mysterious workings of life and spirit and wonder if more had been at play.

Two hours and my second cup of coffee in, my hands still trembled with the need gnawing my soul like rawhide. I tightened them around the mug and stared into the black depths of the liquid, counting the rainbow oil slicks on its surface. Determined not to see my mother’s face, or the last look she had given me from over my hospital bed. The look of defeat after a long struggle.

The weight of eyes fell on my bowed head every few moments, and once I jerked my face up fast enough to catch the gaze of the man behind the counter. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that framed his eyes like paintings and studied mine unabashedly. After that, I began watching him back, not out of admiration, or even curiosity, but for a distraction from the mental flailing I’d been doing. I still jumped in surprise when he slid into the seat across from me.

“Hello,” he said after a second. That was all. Hello. When I looked up, he studied my face with a bright hazel gaze.

“Hello,” I murmured back.

“Anything else you need?”

My eyes snapped back to his. “Coffee is fine, but thank you.” I wondered if he thought I was loitering.

The edges of his lips turned up. “I meant, can I do anything to help?”

Blood beat a hasty path up my neck and pooled in my cheeks. “I don’t need help.”

He didn’t press, just sat back, the motion accompanied by the creaking of the seat, and steepled his hands on the tabletop.

“My name is Andrew.”

I wet my chapped lips. “Sandy.”

“I ordered us some sandwiches, Sandy. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

Sweat broke out in the small of my back. “I…” I had enough change in my pocket for my coffee, nothing more.

“Don’t worry.” He flapped a slim hand in the air between us. “I don’t like to eat alone, so you’re doing me a favour.”

That smelt like a load of crap. The sort of fluff someone said to appease the pride of someone like me. But, pride would only carry a person so far. My stomach sat up and growled at the prospect of food. “Thank you. I am hungry.”

Neither of us spoke until the sandwiches were reduced to a few crumbs upon the chipped plates before us. Andrew crumpled a napkin between his fingers and sighed. “So, is it booze or drugs?”

I flinched, and my hands tightened to strangle the porcelain mug between them.

Andrew nodded as if I had given him an answer. “Booze.”

I jerked my head up and down. “I just got out of the hospital. Again.”

“Are you working?”

I was surprised enough to meet his gaze again. “No, not presently.”

“I want to offer you a job.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what I do.”

“You give jobs to drunks?”

“No, I help people when they need it.”

I looked around. The server who brought our food stood chatting and laughing with a customer at the counter.

Andrew followed my gaze. “Heroine. He’s been here three years.” Pride coloured in his voice and showed in the tilt of his chin, the kind a parent takes on when their child excels. I took the opportunity to study him, to soak in the calm he exuded.

“Sometimes all someone needs to heal their soul is someone else who is willing to listen.” Seeing my confusion at his words, Andrew opened his mouth, hesitated, then nodded to himself.

“Someone who gives time from their day, and in doing so tell the other person, ‘you are important’.” He drew a deep breath, turning his attention to the window a moment. “Many of us find it easier when we have the crush of our own lives upon us, to ignore the pleas of others, be they verbal or otherwise. It is easier to protect ourselves and go about the day I’ve never been able to tune it out.”

The prickle behind my eyes surprised me. I blinked, staring down at my scuffed hands with their broken nails. “Can I work tomorrow?” The words spilt out of my mouth before I understood my brain had formed them.

“Be here at eight Am.”

“I will.”

I didn’t sleep that night laying on my mattress under the weight of thirst and thought. For the first time in a long time, I had a plan extending past the question of where would I get my next drink. A place to be. I found a spot in the world, however small. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted my breaths, waiting for the next day to begin rather than dreading it.

The next morning Andrew greeted me with a quick, side-armed hug. My skin crackled under the weight of his limb. The last touch I felt was my mother’s hand slipping from mine the day she left the hospital.

After giving me a tour of the cafe, Andrew explained my work in quick, simple terms. He introduced me to the others; I couldn’t help but think of them as his collection.

“There’s only one rule here, Sandy.” Andrew pushed his glasses up his nose and leaned back against a countertop. The others left us to go about their business. Through the kitchen’s swinging doors I could hear the bustle of patrons as the day began.

“I’m listening.” My hands shook, but now from nervous excitement.

“You come to us when you need to. When those moments come, and we know they will, you come to us before you allow a drop to cross your lips.”

I nodded, swallowing. “I understand.”

“Good, let’s get to work. Remember to listen, Sandy. Listen to their stories, and you are taking the first step to help them.”

Andrew was a magnet, and those of us who entered the cafe doors were scattered iron shards. Andrew with his hands that formed ideas and spread them in the air like maps ever ready to give us direction. He always had a plan, and he wore peace about him like a cloak.

As weeks, then months passed, I watched him release my coworkers, my new family, back into the world, one by one. I comforted him when at the end of the day I found him with tears on his cheeks after those goodbyes. I helped clean up the new ones when they came through our doors, chipped and broken like the plates Andrew couldn’t afford to replace.

I renamed it Haven Cafe in my mind those first months, and so it remains to me. I asked Andrew once how he identified those who needed him. He said, when the people who were meant to be there came in, a feeling would strike him. A hollowed out ache in his chest he believed to be an echo of their pain. I knew the term for it, for someone who tuned in to the intense emotions of others. Empath.

A year went by before Thomas came in. He sat in the booth where Andrew and I met the first time, and something drew me forward. A wildness in his demeanour. He was a brewing storm caught in a glass jar. Pain and fear pulsed from his sunken blue eyes. The grubby bill he shoved across the table at my approach spoke of a need to prove himself before I could reject his presence. I turned, hands tight at my sides and found Andrew watching me.

“Your turn,” he mouthed with a crooked grin, his chin tipped and his framed eyes bright with pride.

The weight of eyes fell on my bowed head every few moments, and once I jerked my face up fast enough to catch the gaze of the man behind the counter. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that framed his eyes like paintings and studied mine unabashedly. After that, I began watching him back, not out of admiration, or even curiosity, but for a distraction from the mental flailing I’d been doing. I still jumped in surprise when he slid into the seat across from me.

“Hello,” he said after a second. That was all. Hello. When I looked up, he studied my face with a bright hazel gaze.

“Hello,” I murmured back.

“Anything else you need?”

My eyes snapped back to his. “Coffee is fine, but thank you.” I wondered if he thought I was loitering.

The edges of his lips turned up. “I meant, can I do anything to help?”

Blood beat a hasty path up my neck and pooled in my cheeks. “I don’t need help.”

He didn’t press, just sat back, the motion accompanied by the creaking of the seat, and steepled his hands on the tabletop.

“My name is Andrew.”

I wet my chapped lips. “Sandy.”

“I ordered us some sandwiches, Sandy. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

Sweat broke out in the small of my back. “I…” I had enough change in my pocket for my coffee, nothing more.

“Don’t worry.” He flapped a slim hand in the air between us. “I don’t like to eat alone, so you’re doing me a favour.”

That smelt like a load of crap. The sort of fluff someone said to appease the pride of someone like me. But, pride would only carry a person so far. My stomach sat up and growled at the prospect of food. “Thank you. I am hungry.”

Neither of us spoke until the sandwiches were reduced to a few crumbs upon the chipped plates before us. Andrew crumpled a napkin between his fingers and sighed. “So, is it booze or drugs?”

I flinched, and my hands tightened to strangle the porcelain mug between them.

Andrew nodded as if I had given him an answer. “Booze.”

I jerked my head up and down. “I just got out of the hospital. Again.”

“Are you working?”

I was surprised enough to meet his gaze again. “No, not presently.”

“I want to offer you a job.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what I do.”

“You give jobs to drunks?”

“No, I help people when they need it.”

I looked around. The server who brought our food stood chatting and laughing with a customer at the counter.

Andrew followed my gaze. “Heroine. He’s been here three years.” Pride coloured in his voice and showed in the tilt of his chin, the kind a parent takes on when their child excels. I took the opportunity to study him, to soak in the calm he exuded.

“Sometimes all someone needs to heal their soul is someone else who is willing to listen.” Seeing my confusion at his words, Andrew opened his mouth, hesitated, then nodded to himself.

“Someone who gives time from their day, and in doing so tell the other person, ‘you are important’.” He drew a deep breath, turning his attention to the window a moment. “Many of us find it easier when we have the crush of our own lives upon us, to ignore the pleas of others, be they verbal or otherwise. It is easier to protect ourselves and go about the day I’ve never been able to tune it out.”

The prickle behind my eyes surprised me. I blinked, staring down at my scuffed hands with their broken nails. “Can I work tomorrow?” The words spilt out of my mouth before I understood my brain had formed them.

“Be here at eight Am.”

“I will.”

I didn’t sleep that night laying on my mattress under the weight of thirst and thought. For the first time in a long time, I had a plan extending past the question of where would I get my next drink. A place to be. I found a spot in the world, however small. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted my breaths, waiting for the next day to begin rather than dreading it.

The next morning Andrew greeted me with a quick, side-armed hug. My skin crackled under the weight of his limb. The last touch I felt was my mother’s hand slipping from mine the day she left the hospital.

After giving me a tour of the cafe, Andrew explained my work in quick, simple terms. He introduced me to the others; I couldn’t help but think of them as his collection.

“There’s only one rule here, Sandy.” Andrew pushed his glasses up his nose and leaned back against a countertop. The others left us to go about their business. Through the kitchen’s swinging doors I could hear the bustle of patrons as the day began.

“I’m listening.” My hands shook, but now from nervous excitement.

“You come to us when you need to. When those moments come, and we know they will, you come to us before you allow a drop to cross your lips.”

I nodded, swallowing. “I understand.”

“Good, let’s get to work. Remember to listen, Sandy. Listen to their stories, and you are taking the first step to help them.”

Andrew was a magnet, and those of us who entered the cafe doors were scattered iron shards. Andrew with his hands that formed ideas and spread them in the air like maps ever ready to give us direction. He always had a plan, and he wore peace about him like a cloak.

As weeks, then months passed, I watched him release my coworkers, my new family, back into the world, one by one. I comforted him when at the end of the day I found him with tears on his cheeks after those goodbyes. I helped clean up the new ones when they came through our doors, chipped and broken like the plates Andrew couldn’t afford to replace.

I renamed it Haven Cafe in my mind those first months, and so it remains to me. I asked Andrew once how he identified those who needed him. He said, when the people who were meant to be there came in, a feeling would strike him. A hollowed out ache in his chest he believed to be an echo of their pain. I knew the term for it, for someone who tuned in to the intense emotions of others. Empath.

A year went by before Thomas came in. He sat in the booth where Andrew and I met the first time, and something drew me forward. A wildness in his demeanour. He was a brewing storm caught in a glass jar. Pain and fear pulsed from his sunken blue eyes. The grubby bill he shoved across the table at my approach spoke of a need to prove himself before I could reject his presence. I turned, hands tight at my sides and found Andrew watching me.

“Your turn,” he mouthed with a crooked grin, his chin tipped and his framed eyes bright with pride.

Playing The Blame Game

So, I’ve been floundering hard with my writing, I’ve been blaming life, lack of time, etc. All those things we use to prop up our towers of excuses, but the truth is, it’s only my fault. I’ve fallen into that cycle of waiting for “time” that elusive, faceless, weightless thing we all seem to put so much emphasis on. But I know, I know from experience that time is never going to be plentiful, it’s never going to call out “yoo-hoo, I’m over here.” How often had I quoted Gail Bowen, repeating her insightful advice to “Write in the cracks of your life.” Time is a real bitch and she ain’t waiting for no one.

And again I tell myself, I’m going to reset the cycle. I WILL get my poop in a group as the saying goes. I’ve had the itch to write, to learn and grow, it’s gnawing at me, making me restless with my life, and that’s the last thing I want. My life is good. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I have healthy, hilarious, pain in the rump kids, and I promise to be thankful.

My first step was deleting my Facebook app, the actual black hole where time goes to die, and you know what? I haven’t missed it yet. My second was to finally tackle the 6ft stack of writing books collecting dust bunnies like they are going out of style. What I picked up first, was one my creative writing teacher from couple years ago swore by Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. And thank goodness I did!

Writing Down the Bones is one of those rare books that spoke to me the minute I sunk into its pages. It was as if she was taking thoughts from my head and smacking some sense into me with them. She teaches, suggests, and amuses all in one 170 page book. And above all, it stirred that itch in me until I could no longer handle pushing it away. I type this blog with ink-stained fingers, determination rampant in my veins, I am going to do better. No more back burner for my passions, no more excuses. Full on, the burner at the front for this girl.

Pick up Writing Down the Bones. Join me in shrugging off the weight of our own made up excuses!

 

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Summer of Anna

 

   I met Anna in the opening days of the summer I turned sixteen. She’d come with her mother and stepfather to stay in a cabin on the small lake near the town where I lived. I saw her from across the street, standing lost, in a pool of sun, scowling at the “closed” sign on the corner store. Like the first pages of a beloved book, she grabbed my attention.

First loves, notorious for blooming fast and hard, proved no different for Anna and I. Freedom reigned during the long days. The slow darkening nights became our playground. We measured time by the gradual browning of her smooth skin.

I was young, uncouth, and dangerously bored, Anna the brightest point, the north star of my floundering existence. Two years older than I, it seemed too good to be true when Anna noticed me. She, a reminder there was more to life than a single, dirty main street, a handful of punk kids, and my father’s firm hand. She opened my eyes.

Anna assured me I was beautiful as often as I told her the same and my luck astounded me. She stroked pale fingers over shorn black hair and played them across stubble still foreign to my cheeks. I wanted to argue. How could she think so? My limbs were too long, too skinny. My nose crooked from an accident in childhood.

When in Anna’s presence, I balanced on the knife edge of shrinking with nervousness and bursting with joy. The strawberry lip gloss, clean sweat and coconut scent of her made my head spinning worse than pilfered sips of my father’s vodka.

By our second week together, Anna and I discovered our “spot”, and we snuck away from our prospective families at every opportunity to meet in the embrace of the tiny, sand-lined cove.

Let’s swim.” She called from across the beach. I jogged to her, heart in my throat, and Anna tossed herself into my arms with a rush of kisses powered by mischief.

Waves beat a steady rhythm against the water stained sand. Anna released my hand and pulled her tank top from her body with deliberation, watching the slow revealing register in my eyes.

When the fabric freed her face, the bright silk of her hair cascaded around her bare shoulders, I swallowed, my pulse kicking like a shotgun against my ribs.

Alright.” I removed my shirt. Stood before her pale, and resisting the urge to cross my arms over my unformed chest.

Your shorts too, silly.” She hooked a finger in the waist of my trunks and pulled. Skin and muscle executed an equine ripple under her touch. A blush burned across my cheeks.

I want to see all of you.” Anna’s lips stretched into the impish grin of the unabashed. She reached behind her and caught the ties of her swimsuit top, holding it like a promise.

Can...can we go in the water first?” The heat of my blood threatened to combust my veins. Implode my entire being.

Anna reserved no patience for bashfulness. Wordless, she allowed her arm to fall. The neon yellow strings pulled taught before releasing.

There, now you saw mine, you have to show me yours.” She let out a peal of laughter, her smile compressing the sprinkle of freckles across her nose.

Nick.” She turned my common name to music with her breath. “Don’t be shy, not with me. Never with me.

You don’t understand.” I shifted on the balls of my feet.

She took a step closer. “How are we supposed to make love if you won’t let me see you?

Make love?” The words ground out of me, hopeful as a prayer.

You do want to? Don’t you, Nick?

My body’s answer did not go unnoticed by Anna. She held out a hand, I unclenched my fingers and threaded them through hers. Allowed her to pull me closer until the warmth of her breasts pressed against my skin.

The water met us with cold welcome. We sank below the surface, drowning in each other and the naivety of our love. Roaming touches grazed places unexplored until now. Our feet sought purchase in the shifting silt beneath the waves. Flesh slipped and slid as we struggled for balance. The contact proved too much. I lost control, spilling myself with a gasp and a jerk.

Anna feigned ignorance. Kissing away the flare of my shame she held me and guided my fingers downwards, showing me the tricks of her pleasure while sweat beaded and mixed with lake water.

The press of her body remained on my flesh stark as a hand-print on winter glass, as she swam away. I wanted to begin anew, pull her close and show her I paid attention to her lessons. Instead, we stumbled to shore and lay entwined, content and languid in the tickling grass.

That cloud looks like an ogre.” Anna pointed. Her wet hair coiled in ropes across my chest. Absently I toyed with a strand, half asleep.

Like Shrek?” I murmured. She didn’t answer; something had captured her attention.

Nick. Look.” She reached a hand to cup my chin, turning my head in the direction her gaze strayed. Inches past her nose a snail hung from a blade of grass, plump as a dewdrop. Anna extended a finger to trace the cluster of mottled spirals. “How cute.” She snuggled deeper into me, and together we studied the intrepid creature as it went along, its trail glittering in the summer sun.

Can you imagine leaving a mark everywhere you travelled? A path to lead others to you?

You leave a mark, Anna.” I imagined the one remaining upon my heart when she left for her city home in two short weeks. Would it shine like the snails? Or, like gnarled scar tissue, would it be pink and raw?

I hope mine leads you to me, Nick.” She tipped her gaze back to me, her voice thick.

It will. I’ll follow it until I find you.” It was against the rules to acknowledge the departure that loomed. “Best of all, Anna... your trail isn’t made of slime.

She giggled and pressed her lips to mine.

Will you come back next summer?The echo of my heart flooded my ears as I waited for her answer.

I hope so. I want to, but it depends...” Anna’s voice faded like the ribbon of the jet stream above.

Depends on what?

Roland.” The name left her with the violence of a curse. “My stepfather. I hate him, Nick.” She shivered against me.

I sat up, protectiveness locking the muscles against my bones. “Does Roland hurt you?

She glanced at me through the screen of her lashes. “He scares me.

Anna,” My voice turned masculine with the urge to protect her. “What did he do?

Only small things. Once I was late coming home from school, and he screamed at me. Grabbed my wrist and left a bruise there, like a bracelet.” She held up a slim wrist, and the sun-bleached hair on her arm danced in the breeze. “I showed my mother, but she didn’t believe me. She said I done it myself and tried to blame Roland.

What else?” I prompted, seeking fodder for the new intensity flaming between my ribs.

He tries to kiss me. When he’s drunk.

The jerk of my body startled a bumble bee from its dinner. Anna’s eyes met mine, and I drowned as they filled with tears. I held her to my chest as she soaked my skin with her fear and sorrow.

##

Nikola Ivanov pushed away from his metal desk, wincing at the shriek emitted by the scrap of the chair’s feet across the gritty floor. The noise sent goosebumps crawling across the surface of his skin.

His hands ached, and the memories that bubbled and throbbed became insistent as the blisters on his fingers. He yawned and rubbed his sticky, dry eyes, struggling to break the spell of remembering,

He was not prepared to face the paragraphs of Anna’s death. Her name ran free on the pages of his work, despite the assurances he gave his editor. It didn’t matter; no one would lay hands on this piece. Nikola couldn’t leave her nameless, unarmed and alone to fade among the faceless. He never told Anna his full name, giving her only ‘Nick’ as he preferred in the arrogance of youth.

Nikola gazed out through the tiny, brick of a window and watched the snowflakes pirouette through the night. An ache, familiar as his limbs, clenched in his chest. Sleep wanted to claim him. He wanted to allow it, but Anna waited from him there. Waited to taunt him with her supple body and chiming laugh. Waited with blood and screams and endless torment. Nikola prayed the writing would help set her memory down and free it. The dreams never faded.

He stood and went to his cot, dropping onto it fully clothed. Closing his eyes, he let the sigh and creak of old timber and brick lull him. Anna met him as he knew she would. At least it would start sweet. It always did. Nikola shivered and pulled the thin blankets around him.

Damn it he was cold.

##

My legs are so tired I feel like Bambi stepping onto the ice.” Anna giggled, clinging to my arm as I lead her up the path. Before us the squat shape of their rented cabin glowed, casting orange on the thick weave of branches beyond the sills.

I smiled and tightened my fingers through hers, reliving the afternoon. We walked for a few moments in silence before the crash of breaking glass shattered the peace of the night.

Beside me, Anna tensed. I caught the flash of white as she looked at me, her eyes wide. She broke into a run, her sweat-slick hand pulling from mine, rubber legs ignored as she raced up the hill.

The door sat ajar when I arrived seconds behind her.

I didn’t mean to.” The man’s deep voice frayed at the edges from drink. “It was an accident.

A bull of a man, he stood in the middle of the room, facing Anna, who was nothing more than a silhouette. The light from inside fled past her through the door, blinding me. I laid a hand on her shoulder, snapping her from the shocked trance. She screamed. Loud and long. The sound choked the breath in my lungs, chilling my soul from the inside out.

Mama!

Anna launched herself into the cabin, not at the prostrate body of her mother but toward the bulk of her step father’s hunched, swaying form. “What have you done!” A creature of grief she clawed at his face, fingers seeking to gauge his deep-set eyes. For a moment I stood frozen, too stupefied to act. Adrenaline flooded my veins and powered me forwards after, Anna.

Though half his weight I staggered Anna’s step-father with the force of my attack. I drove a shoulder into his solar plexus. Felt the damp, hot rush of his breath across the back of my neck as it exited his body. Through the sweat that ran in a deluge down my brow, I saw Anna crawl across the swaying, worn floorboards to her mother. Scooping the older woman’s limp form into her arms, Anna began to sob. Nonsensical fragments of her broken heart, verbalised. I looked away too long. I didn’t see the blunt object he drove into my skull. The world washed away in the darkness.

##

Sleep was a fickle and unkind companion. An hour after he, at last, allowed his eyes to drift closed, Nikola reared up from his narrow bed trembling and drenched. The line between reality and dreamscape so warped by his sleep-starved mind, a long moment passed before he could recall where he lay. When at last his thoughts cohered into functional strands he went back to the desk and picked up his pen.

##

Red and blue pulsed an ominous tattoo of illumination against the night and their strobbing echoed in the confines of my battered skull until I leaned forward and retched stomach acid onto the trampled grasses. The cold steel of the handcuffs bit the tender skin of my wrists. I clung to the slippery naivety of childhood with the tenacity of a pit bull. Refused to admit the truth that lay before my eyes. Maybe the blood did not belong to her.

I saw it every time I blinked. The black bag on the stretcher. The blond hair caught in the zipper. My mind hoarded the images in snapshots. The clinking bracelets pulled tight at my arms, and I was on my feet. They held my head and tucked me into the police car.

They found traces of my semen. Enough to keep me for a time, though there was no explaining the lump on my skull. Witnesses who’d seen the young couple, madly in love, attested to our acquaintances but could provide nothing more. All facts pointed to a crime of passion. But even the small town cops, unused to such gruesome scenes, turned up enough evidence to see the killer had not been the skinny kid they arrested that night.

The idea of incarceration never concerned me. My life yawned before me, a blank slate — a pit of loneliness. Not until the seed of revenge furrowed deep and bloomed in my chest did existence take on meaning once more.

He scares me, Nick.

##

They ended the hunt so long ago. They had all forgotten except Nikola. Within a month he knew Roland’s full name. Then he found a face to match. He had no memory of the man other than shadowed, fleeting impressions.

Five years of waiting led him here — five long years of nightmares and patience. Nikola would write the end to Anna’s story, and the blood of her killer would be his ink. Nikola played the scenario through his mind as he had every day since the first. The knife sat sharp and ready. People assume it to be an easy thing, but Nikola practised. Skin and arteries, corded muscle; they were tough. Stubborn against the blade. Killing required proper force.

Two days later Nikola woke with a prickling in his intestines and itching on his palms. All he could remember from beginning to now was written, and nothing remained but to end it. A faint sheen of sweat greased his brow despite the chill as he took the knife case to his dented Toyota.

Roland Brown drank whiskey Friday nights at the Broken Antler. In all the months, Nikola followed him that fact never shifted. Brown carried himself like a bull, head forward on sloped shoulders. A paunch hung low and prominent over the scant resistance of his belt. He was drunk and the shadow he cast down the sidewalk when he exited the bar’s double doors swayed along with his steps like a lousy dance partner.

Nikola was calm. Life brought him through the blank years and deposited him on the doorstep of this moment. He was strong. He was focused. He rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the satisfaction of settling vertebrae.

Brown moved away in the lolling sideways gate of the inebriated, whistling to himself. Slipping on his gloves, Nikola pulled a steadying breath. Never taking his eyes from Brown through the mist created by his exhale. The car door squawked at the disturbance and reverberated through the night, but his prey took no note.

Nikola lifted the knife from its case and, leaving the car door open, glided down the sidewalk.

##

You’re a good kisser, Nick.” Anna’s voice sweet in the dusk. “Have you practised tonnes with other girls?

I flushed. No boy or man wants to admit to his first love he was a social pariah. “Not much,” I mumbled, entranced by the soft blond hair on her arms dancing in the summer breeze.

I could kiss you forever. Never forget me, alright?

Never.” I held a pinky finger skyward, and she hooked her own slender, red-nailed one through its crook.

##

The hairs on Nikola’s arms rose. Brown smelt of stale sweat and booze. Cheap perfume and false hope. The knife blade grabbed the moonlight and flung it far in a single beacon of warning. It disappeared into Brown’s back, just above his kidney’s. There would be no clean death for Roland Brown.

The noise was garbled — the bubbling, wet grunt of a pig on a butcher’s block. Nikola pulled the blade free and slammed a hand over Brown’s gaping mouth. The pillowy lips pushed moist and hot against his palm. The impact of knees against sidewalk jarred through them both.

Nikola pressed the knife’s tip against the man’s thundering jugular with his other hand. “Remember me?

The bite of urine perfumed the air. Brown shook his head. A string of drool crept out from under Nikola’s palm to hang in a long, shiny chain.

Well, I remember you. I remember you standing over the body of the woman you killed. I remember the sound of her daughter’s heart when it broke. I remember you trying to kill me.” Brown went still in Nikola’s arms.

You left a loose end.” Nikola laughed, a grating rumble from deep in his chest. “This loose end is here to fucking hang you.

Brown started to struggle. The greasy strands of his thinning hair rubbed and caught against the stubble on Nikola’s cheeks. The big man’s trembling made its way through the hilt of the knife into Nikola’s palm. Travelled up his arm and festered in the joint of his shoulder — the night stank of acrid fear and the metallic tang of blood.

Time slowed to a blissful crawl. Nikola counted the plunking drops of Brown’s life draining onto the cracked cement. At one hundred it was time to finish. Draw the chapter to a close. He wrapped a hand around Browns sweat slicked brow and forced his head back. Exposed a wobbly, unshaven neck. The steel bit through the pillow of flesh. Nikole stared deep into Brown’s eyes. Watched the panic, followed by acceptance as the blade travelled through muscle and tendon before coming up short against the spinal column. Brown never uttered a sound.

Nikola stepped away, allowing the body to fall, entranced by the languid river inching its way to the pavement’s snacking cracks. Tiny crimson streams, flowing like arteries until the chill slowed them, and at last, froze them solid.

The air held a tang: a fecund mix of earth and death and life and rot. Rain waited for release — electricity boiled in the belly of the grey-blue clouds above. Sweat pooled in the small of Nikola’s back, clammy as an unwelcome hand on his skin. The last shovel weighted the most. In a mockery of the impending rain, the dirt escaped sprinkling against bits of exposed wood.

I brought him to you, Anna.” Unheeded tears wandered down Nikola’s dirt coated cheeks. He lowered the black bag, letting it drop the last few feet to the surface of the coffin. “Here’s your gift. It’s all over now.

Throat closing, he stared at the wooden box. The deceptively small container held the vivacity, the beauty that had been Anna. A final shudder worked its way from the tips of his toes, up his spine, and came to a prickling rest in the wild strands of his hair. Nikola mopped his face with the frayed sleeve of his coat. Picked up the shovel. Time passed faster, filling in the hole. Maybe it was the volume taken up by Brown’s corpse. Perhaps the possibility of discovery, looming like a raven on his shoulder, sped his movements.

After smoothing the mound Nikola dropped to his knees and spread the papers of Anna’s life across her grave. They were for her, but also for those who found them and so they were laminated and bound. Others should know what the world lost. What ugliness they harboured with their failure to act.

Purposeful strides carried him from the grave and down the trail to the road. If anyone asked him, Nikola would have told them he had no idea now, what his life held in store. He was empty. He was newborn. There was no one to ask him, and so, Nikola walked.

Dawn’s inquisitive rays broke through the storm fresh sky and stroked his cheeks. Examined the tears path’s left there, as Nikola turned his face up to greet it. The thoughts and memories, the burden of the years spent in revenge lifted. They left him, at least for the moment, to the peace of the birds’ joy, and the crunch of his worn boots on the gravel.

Another two hours passed before the truck rumbled to a stop behind him. “Need a ride?” The farmer in the cab was nearly as dirty as himself, “you look like you’ve been in the fields for a week.

Nikola swallowed back a bubble of obscene laughter. “Yeah. I guess I could use a lift.” He held his arms to the side, looking down at his clothing for the first time, “I just finished up on the graveyard shift.

Dominick and The Witch

The first realization Dominick experienced upon waking was that something was immensely wrong. Despite the conviction, he was helpless to place just what. There was a strange feeling below his ribs as if he were hollow as a barrel. He blinked up at the blue expanse of sky. How odd to wake among the squat, bobbed trees with their garland of fruits and not remember why.

Raising his hands, Dominick studied them, entranced by the pull of tendon and muscle beneath their coating of flesh. His fingers twitched in memory, and his mind followed suit, struggling to place the sensations. There had been a woman. A woman like silk beneath his hands. Hair dark as a river coiling over his arms. Recalled glimpses slipped like minnows through his thoughts, darting and impossible to catch. Dominick remembered being afraid, then… not.

She’d taken something from him. But what? A multitude of questions bubbled, filling a portion of the emptiness. He would find no answers laying here among the rotted fruits and long-dead leaves.

Chilled and cramped, his muscles screamed in protest to standing. Dominick winced. Sun shone through the foliage creating a dappled mosaic on the ground before him, yet, failed to warm his skin. As he moved down the path, the trees in his wake seemed to shudder, dropping their fruit in a unified tumble.

He would return home. Those memories were the strongest. Warmth, food. Companionship when he desired. That seemed the thing to do, the soundest plan, but when he began to walk it was without direction. His feet lead him by their will into the darkest recesses of the tree-choked woods. It was on the side of the shadowed, serpentine path he found the man.

Perched upon a log as twisted as if waiting, knobby fingers curled about a wooden walking staff, he looked up, unsurprised. Eyes obscured by tumbling brows tracked Dominick’s approach.

As he drew nearer, the hairs on the back of Dominick’s neck rose. He made to move past, but the old man’s staff flashed out and struck him across the chest.

“You’ve made an abhorrent mistake,” he said in a voice like old parchment.

“Begging your pardon?” Dominick stared at the staff across his chest, seeking the wherewithal to be angry.

“The Witch. You dallied with the sins of the flesh and paid the price.”

“She’s done nothing to me.” Dominick move to push past then paused. “Witch, you say?” Tumult memories began to ease into their rightful places.

“Aye, and not a white one. You wouldn’t be the first to wander into her garden.” One wild eyebrow rose, and Dominick caught a glint of the blue beneath. He forced his placid features into a scowl. It seemed the appropriate response.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Words often hide the truth behind the obvious meaning.”

A prickling sensation slithered down Dominick’s spine. The old man settled back, confident now, of his audience. “I can help you regain what she’s taken.”

Out of instinct, Dominick’s palms smacked at his trouser pockets. He’d noticed nothing missing. The old man surprised him by releasing a laugh that snapped like twigs.

“Always so concerned about the material aren’t we? What Meredith has stolen from you is more precious than coin.”

“Why would you help me retrieve my… my… whatever it is she’s taken?” Dominick could find no word to match the growing suspicion he was forming. She’d done something, carved him out and left him as a shell.

“Because, what she’s taken from you is precious, and belongs only to you. What she’s taken from me is priceless. Not only do I need your help, but it will also satisfy my want of revenge.”

Dominick gazed back, unsure. “And how will you gain this revenge?”

“You will gain it for me. At the same time as you gain my granddaughters their freedom.”

Dominick began to shake his head, “I’ll not buy into your trickery. I suppose I must do some task for you? Bring you prizes like a well-trained dog.” He moved away, stepping across the path, far from the reach of the old man’s staff, and continued down the trail.

“You feel it, do you not? The gnawing hollowness. Though you are empty, you can do naught but dwell on that emptiness. Memory assures you it was not always this way yet you are hopeless to feel anything? Is that correct?”

The wire thin rasp of his voice, scarcely more than a whisper, reached Dominick’s ears and froze him in his tracks. “What. Has. She. Taken?” he ground out.

A humourless laugh echoed up the path. “Your soul, man. She’s eaten your soul.”

For the first time since the orchard, Dominick experienced something. His stomach kicked and twisted until he feared he would retch up the acid churning inside it. With unflagging doubt he knew the old man spoke true. Dominick swallowed, “Why? Why would she do that?”

“The same reason anyone does anything. Power. Survival.”

“I’ve no power. I farm. I grow food.”

“Your soul is as strong as your body.” He waved a scrawny, encompassing hand at Dominick’s strong, broad body. “She preys most often on the weak; they do little to sustain her.”

“How is it you know so much?”

“Every breath of the last two years of my life, since I discovered my granddaughters where missing, has been devoted to learning Meredith’s ways and seeking the means to end her.”

The old man had moved closer without Dominick noticing. He placed a fingertip between Dominick’s eyebrows. Images slammed against Dominick’s memory. Long, slim hands grazing his chest. His body pulsed, his guttural cries thumped in his ears. Every breath tasted of joy and freedom and burning desires. Then, pain, the pain he should have remembered but did not. Two girls, their faces unknown, though he searched his memories for them, radiant in their fear. Finally, darkness. Empty, lonely, cavernous, darkness.

“I can grant you a second chance if you swear to me a vow.”

“Go on.”

“Vow to me you will kill her and free my granddaughters, and your soul will be returned to you.”

“And if I fail?”

“You will be stuck, destined to repeat the day you failed, over and over until the end of your life.”

“Alright,” Dominick rasped. “Where is it you will send me?”

“One year into the past, from this moment. Remember, you must kill Meredith.” The old man pressed something into Dominick’s hand, chanting under his breath.

“Hardly something I’m apt to forget,” Dominick muttered.

“Oh, and you only have one day.”

“What?” Dominick managed to exclaim before he was slammed backwards by an invisible hand. When his senses returned, the old man was gone.

His head hurt. Every muscle and bone in his body ached as if he’d been torn to shreds and stitched back the wrong way. Swallowing back the dry ache in his throat, Dominick turned. He stood before a wrought iron gate twice as tall as himself. Black metal twisted in the dangerous curves of a serpent and when he extended his hand to test the latch, he found both handles to be the beast’s head. The fangs gaped, ready to draw unsuspecting blood. Gingerly lifting the bar, he seized the snake’s heads and pushed the gates inwards with a shove.

The mansion within the gates perimeter was staggering. Turrets pierced the night sky, seeming to poke more stars into its inky expanse. Windows glinted like a predator’s eyes at night. The towering set of doors perked at the top of the winding entrance stairs, offered no more resistance than the gate had. Dominick pushed them open and stepped inside.

If the outside was impressive, the inside was pure opulence. It was staggering to the senses, incomprehensible in its grandeur. Stone walls dripped glistening tapestries.So intricate in their execution it seemed as though they moved with him. Dominick shifted his gaze from the finery. He felt unsettled by the richness as if his eyes were unworthy of the pleasure of drinking it in.

With his ears tuned for stray voices. Dominick made his way down a hallway, with ceilings higher than his imagination, towards where he believed the dining room would be.

The room was cavernous. A sky blue ceiling reflected on the polished marble floor. Pillars so thick Dominick could wrap his arms around them, and his fingers would not touch each other created a ring about the room. Dominick gaped for a moment, awestruck before the voices reached him. He tucked himself behind the nearest pillar.

The girl moved on a path of smoke and ether. Dominick blinked, needing to clear his eyes before he stooped to believing them. It was one of the old man’s granddaughters, and her feet did not touch the floor as she moved. Tears quiet as death perched on her pallid cheeks. Try as he might, Dominick could not tell if she breathed. Her mouth formed words as she circled the room in aimless rings but left them unvoiced.

Dominick straightened, deciding to snatch the girl on her next turn around the room. Perhaps, being freed from the mansion and the Witch’s influence would shake her from her stupor.

“Elsbeth.” A voice sharp as flint rang across the room. Dominick dropped behind the pillar as another woman stepped below the archway doors a few feet away, bringing with her a blast of chilled air and the dizzying scent of summer roses. Meredith.

“Foolish child.” The witch snapped her fingers in front of the girl’s face. Dominick blinked as Elsbeth came alive before him in a flood of colour and breath. Her cheeks and lips pinked and the swell of her breasts began to rise and fall. Her feet touched down to the marble.

“Mistress,” the girl blinked meadow green eyes and dropped into a curtsy. “What is it you desire?” There was a rustiness to her voice as if it had been long unused.

“I’m hungry. And not for the slop, the cook brews up.”

Elsbeth paled further. She pressed a fist to her stomach. “Please, don’t ask it of me again.”

“Do not be so disgustingly frail, child. I didn’t keep you this long to have you wilt like a flower now.” The tongue she used to wet her lips was long and serpentine. “Tell me, how is the child growing? Surely, your sister’s womb has cooked the little creature long enough.”

“She’s too skinny!” Elsbeth seized the hem of Meredith’s gown, eyes rolling in panic. “She needs more food, more time.”

Meredith brushed the girl’s hand away like an errant spider, her sculpted features growing wistful. “Two souls at once, I’ve never experienced such a treat.”

“I’ll give you my soul.” Elsbeth dropped to her knees, her dark head bowed. “I’ll give it freely if you’ll spare my sister and the babe.”

Meredith threw her head back, releasing a laugh crafted of thunder and chimes. “How amusing. It’s almost as if you truly believe you have a choice. Now, stop your blithering and tell me, what is that delicious scent?” The Witch’s delicate nose tipped upwards, scenting the air.

“I smell nothing.” Elsbeth remained a bright smudge on the marble floor, pools of her dark curls gathered about her knees.

Meredith frowned and raised a hand. “Hush, somebody’s here.”

Steeling himself, Dominick stepped away from the stone’s shadow and revealed himself. “I’ve come for your heart,” he said.

Meredith dragged her vibrant gaze over the length of his frame. “Is that so?” One corner of her lips tilted into a seductive leer, “I’m afraid you will be unsatisfied in that quest, though, perhaps satisfaction in another sense is not beyond question.”

She raised a red tipped finger and tapped it against his chin. “It is rare to find a treat that looks as delicious as it smells.”

Goose pimples crawled over Dominick’s skin. She’d said such a thing to him only last night, a year from today. “Touch me again, and I’ll separate you from your hand as well as your heart.”

“My, my, my do you hear that Elsbeth? Our beast has quite the growl.” Click. Her fingers snapped in front of his face. White light scorched Dominick’s eyes until they blurred and gushed tears.

In front of him, though he hadn’t seen her move, Meredith growled. “What sort of trick is this?” A clap of thunder outside shook the window panes.

Dominick shook his head, struggling to clear the buzzing within his skull. Elsbeth, at the snap of Meredith’s fingers, had collapsed back into her comatose state and resumed her pacing.

“Interesting.” Meredith walked around him; her head tipped as she studied him. “I do enjoy a challenge.”

Dominick reached for the knife at his belt just as the witch thrust her hand towards his chest, fingers curled into a red tipped claw. Chains of agony snaked around his heart, drawing tight as Meredith’s hand twisted in the space between them. Black licked at the edges of his vision. Dominick fought to remain upright. His fingers strained for the hilt of the blade he’d never quite reached. A crack echoed, not from within the room but from within him. His ribs buckled under the strain of her magic. Dominick crashed forward, his knees singing with pain as he tumbled to the cold embrace of the marble floor.

He woke to the sound of sobbing. Dominick raised his face from the dank, wet stone and grunted. The pain came alive in his body at the movement.

“Hello?” he called. The crying softened.

“Who’s there?” The voice, small and breathless, emanated from the shadows.

“I mean to rescue you.” The words held little assurance, uttered as they were in his pained voice, but he spoke them anyway, for what more could he say?

“Truly?” Such hope suffused the word it caused a stir in the empty cavern of Dominick’s chest.

“I’ll see you freed,” he whispered to the dark. There was something; a sliver ingrained so deep in his conscious it was apart of him and not his absent soul. Empathy. The memory of what it was to be chivalrous and kind. Dominick rose to his feet. His ribs bellowed in protest, but he pushed through with slow, shallow breaths. Across the pitch black room, the girl continued to sniffle.

“What’s your name?” he asked in an attempt to distract them both.

“Katherine.”

‘Nice to meet you’ seemed absurd given the circumstance, so he settled for, “Dominick.”

He busied himself with running his hands along the walls, searching for anything that would reveal a weakness in the room’s structure. Without warning a door opened.

Golden illumination revealed the girl in the corner. Dainty as a china doll she sat still, the round hill of her belly protected beneath delicate, folded fingers.

“Elsbeth?” Katherine’s face lit with devoted love and a renewal of that terrible, crippling hope. “You look like yourself this evening.”

“Hush, please. I’ve only so long before she draws me back.” Elsbeth dropped to her knees before her sister and gathered up her hands. “Are you alright?”

At Katherine’s nod, Elsbeth pushed the straw-hued hair back from her sister’s smooth brow. “You must escape. Tonight. She has asked to–” Elsbeth gagged and turned her face into her shoulder, hiding it from her sister.

“Asked what?” Katherine stroked a hand over her sister’s cheek until the other girl straightened.

“No matter. Simply trust me when I say it is time. It must be tonight. There’s a man, and he’s distracted her. Once she finishes with him, she will turn her sights back to you with renewed vigour.”

“When you say I must escape… you, of course, mean both of us?” A note of doubt soured the surety in Katherine’s voice.

“I shall… I shall try.”

Katherine’s spine straightened with hidden mettle, “I will be going nowhere without you, Elsbeth and if you think–”

“Quiet! You must do as I say. Tis’ no longer a matter of us, you must consider the babe.”

“But, sister–”

“I’ll present her with the man. It’s been some time…” Elsbeth’s voice rasped, and she cleared it, “She shall be eager. While she is preoccupied, you will sneak away. If it is possible for me to do so, I will follow.”

Katherine opened her mouth to speak but closed it with a sharp click when Dominick stepped out of the shadows. Seeing her sister’s eyes widen, Elsbeth spun around.

“You! You’re awake. You shouldn’t have heard that.” Elsbeth took a protective step in front of her sister.

“I did, and I agree with your plan. I’ll take care of the witch while you both escape.”

The girls stared at him. One fair as a dove, the other dark, light-catching up blue streaks in the raven strands of her hair.

“Why?” Elsbeth asked at last.

Dominick shrugged, “I’ve come for her heart. I may as well save two young maids in the process.”

Elsbeth stared at her sister a moment. The other girl had gone silent. Her eyes slid closed, and she seemed to turn inwards, both arms around her distended middle. Without another word, Elsbeth pressed a kiss to her sister’s brow, then stood.

“Come with me. Please hurry.” She tucked one cold hand into the crook of Dominick’s arm and pulled him towards the stairs. “She will be confident now that she’s beaten you once. Tell me, how did you repel her magic the first time?”

“I’ve… I’ve thought perhaps it’s because she’s already stolen my soul. She simply does not realize it yet.” The ease with which the confession slipped from him surprised Dominick. Elsbeth didn’t answer, and for a long moment, only the whisper of their feet filled the time.

“That explains how you entered with such ease.” She spoke at last. “The wards on this place are meant to guard against a man’s intrusion. As you’ve no soul, they didn’t recognize you and allowed you to enter, unheeded.”

“That, perhaps, is the only luck I’ve had these past days.”

“That’s not the morsel I requested.” Meredith glanced up from the tome in her hands. A faint line formed between her winged brows, fracturing the porcelain skin. “I’m not sure why I keep you. Stupid girl.” She raised her fingers into the air.

“I begged her to,” Dominick said in a rush, stepping forward. Keeping one eye on the hovering hand, he continued, “I dreamt of you. Of your power. Of what we could be together.”

The fingers lowered to tap the shining wood of her chair’s arm. “Go on.” she coaxed her eyes still narrow as she studied him. Dominick moved closer, placing himself between the Witch and Elsbeth.

“There are those who don’t yet fear your power. I could go forth, be your embassy.” He cracked his knuckles in emphasis. “Make them see reason.”

“Intriguing.” Meredith murmured. “It is true that brawn sometimes has its uses.” Her eyes dropped to the worn shirt stretching across his chest. “What else did you have in mind, Farmer?”

Dominick dared another step and meeting her gaze he lifted his hands to the buttons at his throat. “My dreams where most haunted by memories of your beauty. Of the taste of your power on my skin.”

Meredith wet her lips. The only hint his words had affected her in any way. Dominick forced his gaze to her mouth. “It was… intoxicating.”

He stood directly before her now. Her rose scent toyed at his nostrils and filled his head. Memories of the night in the future flickered and flamed. Dominick drew on them. Recalled what it had been before she absconded with his very essence. She read the flare of desire in his eyes, and he allowed it. He needed her to see the truth there. Logic told him he should feel nothing but disgust, yet with no emotion to hinder it, the desire raged, empty and consuming.

Meredith rose and stepped from the parapet on which her chair overlooked the room. “You speak the truth, Farmer. I can smell the lust on you. She pulled an exaggerated breath through her nose. One finger came to rest at the hollow of his throat against his heartbeat. Behind him, Dominick heard the barest scrape of slippers across the stone. Elsbeth had run. Meredith frowned. Her slim, pale neck flexing as she turned her head in the direction of the doors. He must act.

“I’m yours, mistress.” He ducked his head, bringing her gaze back to his. “Direct me.” His fingers itched to wrap themselves around that long neck and squeeze. But no, he must give the girls enough time to make good their escape.

“Oh, such cooperation. Are you seeking some reward, My Pet?” her fingers still lay at the base of his throat, and with this, she pushed, sinking her nail into the soft flesh. Seering, foreign heat flooded Dominick’s body. His bones threatened to turn to liquid while every muscle clenched simultaneously. He gasped, his hips jerking violently. Meredith leered, pressing her lithe body against him. “I thought you’d enjoy that.”

Dominick shook against her, helpless until she removed her finger from his skin. Sticky, wet heat oozed downward, dampening the scattering of hair below his opened collar.

“Come,” Meredith seized him by the shirt, “Let us retire to a more comfortable chamber.”

Dominick followed with one last glance down the hall toward the dungeon before following Meredith up a winding staircase.

Finding a weapon was paramount. Dreaming of killing the witch was one thing, obtaining a means to do so, and enough surprise to accomplish it was another.

“I must warn you, Pet, if you are considering betraying my trust, I’ll incinerate you from the inside out.” Meredith tossed a sly smile over her shoulder. Dominick pushed all thoughts of violence from his mind and settled on watching the sway of her hips as she ascended the steps. He couldn’t afford to fail and be trapped at this moment.

The chamber she led him into was opulent beyond measure. Candles floated along the elaborately carved mouldings that framed the painted ceiling. Dripped light onto a vast four-poster bed in the centre of the room. Meredith flapped a hand at the cavernous fireplace dominating the far wall and flames roared to life, baying at the heels of the quickly receding chill.

“Undress,” she commanded without preamble, crossing her arms over her chest. Dominick faltered long enough for her to arch one raven brow, then lifted his hands to the ties at his throat. “Forgive my sluggishness, my ribs hinder me.” He let the words hang between them as he made ponderous work of his shirt.

When at last he shrugged it off and made no other move, she scowled. “The trousers as well.”

After the last stitches fell away from his body, one corner of her mouth curved upwards, “You’ll do nicely.” She turned away, allowing her robes to float to a pool at her booted feet. As soon as her back was to him, Dominick glanced around the room. The curved iron head of the fire poker caught his eye. It would have to do; there was no other option. Before she could hear his thoughts, Dominick returned his eyes to her. Forced himself to concentrate on the contrast of her black hair on her milk-white skin. When the time came to act, he must do so in a single moment. From thought to action, nothing was more crucial than speed. Meredith stepped towards the hearth. Dominick’s heart leapt, but he remained still. The fear of her seeing the intentions flickering at the corners of his mind left him more naked than his lack of clothing.

Meredith stepped past, trailing on finger across his hips as she passed. Glasses chimed, there was a pop and the warm scent of liquor clouded the air. Dominick wet his lips. Food and drink seemed a faded memory. She poured in silence, the flames turning her naked flesh the warm colour of butter.

With the force of a spark from a flint knowledge flared in Dominick’. Now! Now! It screamed. He drove himself forwards, grasping the iron in his left hand. The poker was hot from the fire, and he passed it into his right hand as he spun. With all the strength in his powerful thighs, with all the momentum he’d garnered from the movement, he drove the iron stake into the back of Meredith’s rib cage. A gut-churning crunch echoed around the room. Tendons strained and ground in his shoulder as the metal tip drove into the stone walls. The only sound from the Witch was the abrupt expulsion of air as her final, shocked breath left her body.

Dominick stood, head hanging. Long strands of hair clung to his face and ruffled in the wind from his raging lungs. His ribs were blazed, the pain so sharp it took on a life of its own. Sweat beaded and rolled off his cheeks joining to rhythmic plops of Meredith’s draining blood. She was dead. He almost feared to believe killing her had been so easy. The fire held her body to the wall like a pinned butterfly on a collector’s board.

Burning gorge rose from his empty stomach. Dominick swallowed, shaking his head. A sound gnawed at his ears, incessant and high-pitched. It started as a whine then picked up in volume, amplifying and spreading, folding in and around him until Dominick dropped to his knees and pressed his hands to his ears. Blood began to leak from between his fingers. A scream broke from his lips and to be lost within the wailing. Wind scoured his naked skin, sending him forward onto his belly. Shaking, he forced his eyes upwards to the witch’s corpse and screamed once more.

Faces, translucent and frail as mist poured by the hundreds from the wound upon her back. They rushed him. Swirled around his body, screaming, screaming endlessly. Dominick wrapped his arms around his head, hiding from the onslaught. Something rained down, peppering his back and showering him with durst. Another sound joined the voiceless screams of the souls, a deep rumble originating from the bowels of the castle and spreading up through the walls.

Dominick looked upwards. Fissures raced along the fine, painted ceiling. They splintered the moulding and shattered the scenes depicted upon the stone walls. A chilly, all-consuming dread filled him. When a touch landed on his shoulder, he thought his heart would fail him. He whirled falling over himself to get back amidst the rubble. Glass shards bit his palms. Then he stilled, and the world focused on one thing, the face of the soul before him. His face. Spectral, ethereal as smoke yet more substantial than the rest had been, it took a step, then tipped his grey face skyward. Instinctually, Dominick followed the gaze, looking up in time to see the section of the ceiling buckle inward.

The first thing Dominick became aware of was the fact he was no longer empty. As his thoughts began to flow, he wondered how he’d ever failed to notice the absence of his soul when until the point of its loss he’d suffered such a cacophony of emotions and sensations.

He hurt from his hair to his toes. Every inch of him was sharp with pain yet it was the emotions that threatened to engulf him. He closed his eyes, and the image of Meredith waited behind his lids. His stomach rolled. He pushed his thoughts instead to the girls; Katherine and Elsbeth. The promise of Katherine’s round womb. The hope in her voice. His chest tightened.

Over the pounding of his heart and the agony of the blood it poured through his veins, Dominick heard a sudden sound. After a moment it increased. Footsteps were moving over the rubbish. Excitement opened his lips, but then, fear stayed his tongue. He knew nought who crept their way through the ruins. A clang, the scuffle of feet and a feminine voice mumbling something that could have been a curse.

Dominick raised his head, straining to see through the thick blackness.

“Hello? I seek the man whose freed me. It’s Elsbeth.”

Dominick raised his hand toward the voice. Elsbeth, sweet and fierce. The memory of her face flashed through his conscious. “Here.” His voice was a broken thing, dried and cracked as fallen leaves. The girl heard him.

“There you are!”

Two hands caught his face between them. Dominick cried out, his body bucking upwards with fright. How could she see him when his eyes showed him nothing but darkness.

The answer was there for the taking, but Dominick skirted it stubbornly. Elsbeth ran her hands over his arms and chest, taking stock of injuries. He whimpered, unintentionally, and the girl’s hands quit their journey and returned to his cheeks.

“What pains you the most? Tell me the worst of it. I’ll do what I can.” Fingers stroked and plucked debris from his hair. It was a comfort.

“Can’t… can’t see you,” he rasped.

“Hush,” The fingers traced along his eyebrows and down the length of his nose. “Shh, allow me to help you.”

Silence, then. “I can see nothing wrong with your eyes. Truly. They look as they did before. Do not relinquish hope so soon.”

Dominick’s heart still beat a wild tattoo against his ribs, but he nodded.

“Can you stand? I’ll steady you.”

“The witch?” Dominick managed, though speaking split the skin of his swollen lips.

“Dead as a doornail. I knew it to be true when the castle crumbled. Meredith built all but the foundation with an intricate web of magic. Without her power to sustain it, the entire thing turned to dust.”

“Good.”

“Are you ready?” Hands, small but firm wedged themselves beneath his armpit and levered him upwards. With the last vestiges of strength, Dominick managed to gain his feet. He stank of salt and rancid fear. For the first time since he’d woken he realized he was naked. Heat crawled up his face.

He knew it was daylight when the treacherous ground beneath their feet cleared, releasing them from the last vestiges of Meredith’s evil, and the sun greeted them with gentle heat. Dominick turned his face toward the warmth. Around them, birds sang out in happy oblivion.

“Come,” Elsbeth’s arm tightened around his waist, “You’ll be returning home with me.” He followed her, glad for the direction. Fear sat like a stone in his belly, burning with every blink of his blank eyes.

From nowhere a thought bloomed sudden and unwanted. Dominick faltered, stomach flipping. “Elsbeth, if I should disappear… I live on a farm outside Huckleberry Hollow. I would like very much, or I will like it if you were to… to come and find me, should my sudden vanishing occur.”

The girl was silent for a long moment, then a hand cupped his cheek, surprising him once more. “You’ve my word. I shall find you.”

The End.

 

Canadian Spirit by L.E. Ellington

Every morning Captain Sterling rose at dawn, strode through the waking streets of Halifax and came to settle behind his desk amongst the hulking crates of the warehouse. There he remained, back bent, eyes roving over yellowed pages until the sun reached the middle of the sky. Then, he would push from the desk and step through the doors.

“Good day to ya, Cap’n.” Mrs Maclaren flashed her dimpled smile, her hands already busy packing the bundle, even as she asked, “The usual?”

“Yes, thank you.” Captain Sterling returned her smile, tamping down the bloom of warmth in his chest. “Tis a fine day.”

“Isn’t it?” Ms Maclaren freckle kissed face tipped to greet the warmth before she passed his dinner over. “Here ya be. I hope you enjoy the view.”

“I always do.”

The rhythm of those days, the rise and fall of life, was his comfort and his prison. The ridge where he ate every afternoon allowed him to peer past the corner of his world. For a sliver of time, the ridge harboured Captain Sterling while he allowed himself to dream.

The summer sun graced the land with heat and Sterling carried the memory of those beams caressing Ms Maclaren’s upturned cheeks as he walked. An image he would cling to with avarice until he returned home where Margaret waited to greet him from her place on the wall. At the door, he would tuck away thoughts of green eyes and step inside his home with a faithful heart.

This day was different. A boy was perched on the weather-smoothed boulder where Sterling always sat. Knees protruding as sharply as a cricket’s, the youth huddled with his back to the wind. The threadbare cloth of his shirt, too thin to keep secrets, stretched across shoulders as bony as the ridge itself.

The thought flitted through the Captain’s mind, to turn and leave. Make his way back to the noise-choked docks and his smothering office. The lingering fug of man and beast in his nostrils stayed him. “Good afternoon.”

The boy on the rock jerked, hands rising to scrub at wind ravaged cheeks as he turned from the cloud pillowed expanse. “Go–Good af’ernoon.” Blue eyes blinked up at Sterling, so large they threatened to swallow the rest of the thin face.

Sterling took a step forwards and thrust out a hand. “I’m Captain James Sterling.”

The lad glanced down at Sterling’s palm then down to his grubby fingers. A crab-apple sized lump bounced its way down the column of his throat, but he scrubbed his hand against the leg of his equally dirty trousers and took Sterling’s.

“Hamish, Sir. Hamish Macdonald.”

“Enjoying the weather?”

“Aye, I suppose.” Hamish flapped a hand in the direction of orange mass, “No’ mucha tha’ at home.”

“And home is Scotland?”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Did your parents bring you to Canada?”

“Ma was gone afore The Clearance; Da did’nae make a fortnight on the boat.”

“I’m sorry.” Sterling stared down at the pale nape bent before him.

The boy trembled, his smooth jaw bulging with the effort to quell the tremors. Reverberations of grief echoed in Sterling’s chest. “I wonder, would you share my meal? I’ve more than I can eat.”

The mention of food brought the boy’s head up. Blue eyes met grey, full of trepidation, and something richer. Determination. Hamish unfolded himself from his stony perch.

“I would like tha’ verra much.”

“What’s this?” Sterling jerked his chin towards the boy’s chest. Pressed to the nearly concave expanse was a smudged sheaf of paper.

“A wee drawin’ of Ma.” He held the paper to Sterling. The greedy fingers of the wind snatched at the sheet. It fluttered like the battered wings of a moth.

Eyes as large as Hamish’s burned from the parchment with fierce intelligence, stark lines assembled a rough sketch of sharp features and full lips.

Sterling took the paper and held it so the sun might brush illumination over the charcoal strokes. “You drew this?”

“Aye.”

Those eyes. Sterling’s heart ached to know the light had faded from those eyes. Words of comfort fell short, and his throat was too thick to utter them. Sterling unwrapped the food and passed most to the boy, hiding his share in the cloth. Instinct assured him Hamish wouldn’t appreciate the excess generosity. For a time they ate in silence, consuming the spectre of the land along with their sustenance.

“It’s beautiful. I was aboard tha’ ship so much time, yet I did’nae realize.”

Sterling bobbed his head, chewing as he stared over the expanse. The sea sparked light with all the blinding intensity of an infinite gem. “You’ll come to love this place, near impossible not to.”

“Da dreamed of our lives here for so long–” The boy’s voice broke. He drew a breath, stretching the material of his shirt across his shoulders. “Soaked up every story anyone was willing to tell him.”

“Stories tend to expand over time and distance,” Sterling remarked. “Though I’m certain they bloom from seeds of truth.”

“Is it as large as they say?”

“Larger. Vast and so wild she’ll make you understand your insignificance while convincing you, you were put here for something important.”

“And if I don’t ken why I’m here?”

“Your father saw what he wanted for you; now you must also. Freedom, opportunity, a man must not fear to reach out and seize what he wants.”

Hamish nodded, incomprehension and imagination warring across his features. “Tis true then, a man can do what he wishes? Even purchase his own land?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never thought much about what I want. Someone always did tha’ for me.” Hamish’s long nose wrinkled at the effort of contemplation. “Is that what ya did when ya came, Sir?”

“I…” Sterling glanced at the boy and wondered when he forgot the dreams and ideals he’d carried from England. After Margaret’s death? She’d believed more passionately in this country than anyone. “No. I lost my wife, and I think she took my aspirations with her to the grave.”

Hamish digested Sterling’s words for a moment. “I did’nae know her, but I believe she would’nae want ya to feel tha’ way.”

Sterling stared at Hamish, wondering at the ability of youth to see so deeply into the soul. At the Captain’s unease, Hamish bounced to his next question.

“Have ya visited all of it?”

“No,” Sterling broke a blade of grass and placed it between his thumbs, “And I doubt I ever shall. Canada wears a hundred faces.” He brought his hands to his lips and blew. A piercing squawk tore the dusk air. Hamish laughed and plucked a blade of his own, inspecting it.

The pair sat in thoughtful silence while the sun melted into the ocean, lending the waters a molten glow. A breeze, crisp as the waves reached out to slap their cheeks.

“I’m afraid I must return.” Sterling folded the squares of cloth from their dinner and tucked them into his jacket. It was long past the time he usually returned to work. Hamish remained quiet. Sterling stared at the boy as an idea flickered and ignited.

“You’ve nowhere to go?”

Hamish shook his head, avoiding Sterling’s gaze.

“Do you think you could trust me?”

Hope, brief and hot as Hamish glanced up. “Aye, Sir.”

“Come with me.”

Mrs Maclaren was hooking her cart to a sway back donkey when they approached. “I help ya, Cap’n?” She pressed a hand to the back of her hips as she straightened.

“Mrs Maclaren, there’s someone I wish to introduce you to.” Sterling placed a hand on Hamish’s back and urged him forwards. “This is Hamish Macdonald.”

Bowed lips curved and she held a chapped hand to Hamish, “Mara Maclaren, pleased ta meet ya.”

Hamish glanced up to Sterling once, uncertain. At the Captain’s nod, he placed his palm in Mara’s. “Hello, ma’am,” he stood straight, delivering his greeting with great formality, “Tis nice ta make yer acquaintance,”

“Hamish has had a painful time,” Sterling began, alarmed at the thickening of his voice as he stared down into Mara’s face, “The thought occurred…well, you’ve more work than you can do on your own. I don’t suppose–”

“Aye, I’ll take ‘im.” A smile split Mara’s face. She turned to Hamish, gathering his hands into her own. “I’ve plenty of hard work laddie, but I’ll put a roof over ya, and food in yer belly.”

“Thank ya, I…” Hamish looked up once more to Sterling, eyes luminous with tears he refused to shed, “I can’nae possibly repay ya, Sir.”

“No need.” Sterling clasped the boy’s shoulder.

An hour later, Captain Sterling sank back into his chair. The bowels of the empty warehouse loomed around him, cavernous.

“Hodgkins?” Sterling called out.

A mussed blond head appeared, “Yes, Captain?”

“I won’t be in tomorrow, please see to it everyone is informed.”

Hodgkin’s’ brows surged upwards, “Truly, Sir?”

“Truly. I’ve a social call to make.”

First blog post

Hello and thanks!

Recently I’ve been lucky enough to have some of you lovely people interested in reading a story I wrote. The short story, titled Canadian Spirit, received an honourable mention in a contest for a local writing workshop and was written in celebration of the upcoming 150th birthday of our beautiful country.

With the posting of photos of me receiving my certificate and prize, came requests to read the story and, thanks to a well-placed WordPress add, on Thesaurus.com, I decided to create this blog.

I am immensely lucky in the support I receive as I pursue my goals of becoming an author. You all know how to make a girl feel good. I hope you will follow, and leave comments, good or bad, and allow me to accept your help in growing every day as a writer. This is what I love to do

.

Thank you!

L.E. Ellington