Location is vital in all facets of our lives. Comfort, convenience, commute, and community are essential considerations when selecting where we wish to reside. When writing, it makes sense to consider the impact of where we have our characters live.
Location can be more than the physical terrain in which we set a story, although some places can take a back seat to the plot. However, the setting is another tool in the author’s arsenal to add depth to the story. The choice of locale sets the period of the story, when and where it takes place. It affects how the characters behave, speak, and reflect on the society where they live. More importantly, when needed, the setting can become another character creating a mood and emotional tone.
A few inquiring minds have asked me what is so appealing to me about New Orleans and why I set so many of my stories either there or in Louisiana, where my upcoming novel, Crescent City Lies, is set. After all, I’m from South Carolina, a beautiful state with its own vibrant culture and uniqueness. It also has faults, as do all places, and those faults in a community can also add depth to your story.
When deciding on a setting for a story, the flavor of Louisiana draws me into its spell. Nothing like the sultry summer heat in the south, when life slows down, and the humidity rises. The spicy aromas and comforting palate of Cajun food and the smooth sounds of New Orleans jazz are alluring and set a mood that seems to touch my writer’s passion. Wicked antagonists, flawed heroes, and enticing strong women seem to belong in the bayou or the French Quarter.
In reality, I love the beach. Ribbons of sand lapped by waves, air tangy with salt, majestic pelicans soaring against a cornflower blue sky. My heart lies on the shore, rejuvenated by the sun’s heat. My soul rests in the bayou.
I am fortunate to live in an area that some people call paradise—if you consider heat, humidity, sun, and ocean paradise. I do! As the photo shows, expansive sky, lush vegetation, a body of water, and a bench to enjoy the quiet beauty sets a mood just outside my door. Not to mention, there are ducks, sea birds, and two resident alligators to add to the ambiance.
I suppose we choose where we want our stories to unfold for a myriad of reasons. Genre certainly plays a role and can dictate the amount of world-building necessary to create the foundation you need. A cozy mystery often occurs in a small town, a detective murder mystery in a city setting, but let your creativity decide what works for your story. How descriptive you should be depends on how important the location is to your storyline. For instance, a city with the ambiance of a New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, or San Antonio becomes a character within the story, adding depth and mood by using the uniqueness of the environment to enhance the plot. The same for small towns that can provide coziness and character to the story.
My thoughts always seem to be on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Battery in Charleston, or an Atlantic beach in Florida, all locations which spur my muse. Let those places you love inspire your muse and your stories.
This short story is based on the April 2021 image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s project. I hope you enjoy it!
A Thousand Nights
D. A. Ratliff
Amir Farsi was a happy man.
Blustery icy wind from the churning Irish Sea sprayed the sleepy village, empty of summer tourists. The winter weather was so unlike the warmth of his homeland, yet he was happy.
He sat at a table next to the window watching the sea and the few souls braving the outdoors, with Finn, his five-year-old Golden Retriever, at his feet. The pub would open at eleven a.m., and he still had an hour before the regulars arrived. While revenue during the summer tourist season kept the pub in business, Amir loved the winter months with the lads who lived in the village year-round and came by for a pint and a chat. In the forty years he had been in Ireland, he remained enamored with everything Irish.
He smiled as he turned to look at the portrait hanging over the bar. The Red Fox was the pub’s name, but the painting was of his beautiful wife Colleen as she was when he met her—fair of skin and red of hair. Lovely then and lovely now, and he loved her as much as the first time he met her. He missed her as she had left the day before for an archeological symposium in the States. He poured another cup of his favorite Bewley’s Dublin Morning Tea as his mind wandered to the day his fate changed.
Colleen O’Hara was an archeological student on a dig in his homeland when they met. He had been passing through the valley when he found the dig site. He had been alone for so long, enduring a life not worth living. Then he emerged into daylight and found his Irish beauty.
She had been a sight that day. Knee deep in a trench, face soiled with dirt and sweat, bright red tresses contained in a red bandana. Curious, he approached the trench to see what she was doing, and the moment she looked up at him, her eyes the color of sapphires, she captured his heart. A warmth he had never felt swept through him, only deepened when she spoke, in an accent he had never heard and one that gave him joy. He closed his eyes and remembered.
Amir hadn’t realized he had kicked dirt onto the area she was sweeping with a brush. She stood with her hand on her hips. “Feck off…don’t be bothering me work.”
He had taken an awkward step backward, never taking his eyes off of her. “I am sorry. Forgive me for disturbing you.”
She continued to stare at him as a grin crossed her face. “You can stop gawking.”
He responded, confused. “Gawking?”
She laughed. “Not from Ireland, are ya?” She reached out a hand. “Help me up out of this hole.”
He pulled her up, and for a second, they were standing close. At that moment, he understood love. At a loss for words, he muttered his name. “I am Amir Farsi.”
“Glad to meet you, Amir. I am Colleen O’Hara.” She wiped the sweat from her brow. “Your country is scorching hot. I need a cold drink—come with me.”
He had followed her that day and would for the rest of his life.
Lost in thought, he jumped when Ray, his bartender, tapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry, guv, but time to open. You look like you are a thousand miles away.”
He rose and grabbed his tea mug. “This weather will do that, lost in the sea.” That was only partially true. He had been lost in time as well. “Come on, Finn, time to go to work.”
Amir unlocked the front door a bit after one a.m. With Colleen gone, he had remained at the pub until it closed. Finn ran toward the trees as soon as he jumped from the car, and Amir stood in the doorway waiting for the big dog to make his rounds.
He shivered but not from the cold. The shiver emanated from his core, and he attempted to shake it off, but the tremors remained, leaving him anxious. He yelled a bit louder for Finn than usual, and once he had the dog inside, he closed the door quickly.
There was never a question that he felt as if part of him was missing without Colleen, but this was different. Something else was happening, a sensation creeping into his soul that he didn’t recognize, and it filled him with fear.
Finn whimpered and nuzzled his hand. “It’s okay, boy. Let’s go to bed. I’m likely just tired.”
He woke at five a.m. from a restless sleep. He thought perhaps the storm awakened him, but he knew better. Dreams had invaded his rest, blurred images, random sounds, nothing clear, and nothing made sense. He lay in bed until nearly six before a persistent Finn managed to get him up and outside.
When they came in, Amir was making tea when his mobile rang. It was Colleen.
“Amir, good morning, my love.”
“What time is it there?”
“Almost eight-thirty in the evening. We just got back from dinner, and I am exhausted. Going to try and sleep. I will call you later.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. Oh, something came up at the last minute, and I need to tell you… Hold on.” Amir could hear muffled voices before she came back on the line. ”Darling, gotta go, just found out an old colleague is here. I haven’t seen him in many years. I’ll call you again as soon as I can. Love you.”
He held the phone to his ear for a few seconds before he put it down. He missed Colleen. Perhaps that was why he felt so out of sorts. Maybe it was loneliness. He needed to shake off his doldrums.
“Finn, let’s have breakfast, and then off to the pub.”
His day was long and tedious. At least it was delivery day, and he insisted no one help him put away stock. His skin was tingling and felt as if there was a coiled spring inside him. He hadn’t planned on staying late to close and clean the place, but he sent everyone home again and did everything himself.
Driving home, pellets of icy rain struck the windshield, and despite turning the heat up in the Land Rover, he shivered. Finn, asleep in the passenger seat, stirred and turned his belly toward the warm air blowing from the vent. Amir chuckled. That dog loved his creature comforts.
Turning onto the narrow cobblestone drive leading to the house, he shook off a feeling of dread that washed over him. The reason he should feel so anxious wasn’t apparent. He missed Colleen, but she had gone on digs for weeks at a time before, and he had not felt this way. He hated to go to the doctor. Always in fear that they would discover…. Well, they hadn’t yet. If he didn’t feel any better soon, he would go.
The imposing stone house loomed in front of him. A sight that always made him feel warm inside but not this time—if anything, he was colder. He and Finn dashed to the front door, the dog much faster and pawing at the door by the time he reached the stoop.
“Finn, you are one spoiled dog.”
Once inside, Amir decided a hot shower might help. He poured a double of Irish whiskey and headed upstairs, surprised how winded he had become when he got to the top of the stairs. He stripped and turned on the faucet. As the bathroom steamed up, he glanced in the mirror, surprised to see how pale his olive skin appeared—his crystal green eyes dull. He shook off his worry, downed the whiskey, and stepped into the shower.
Fifteen minutes later, Finn beside him, Amir slipped into sleep.
For the second morning in a row, he woke after a restless sleep, but this time in a cold sweat. He struggled to sit up, his head was spinning. Finn was gone, no doubt gone outside through the doggy door. He pulled on a robe and made his way downstairs to make tea.
The light in the kitchen drew Finn back inside, and as his tea steeped, Amir fed the ravenous Golden Retriever. A pang of hunger hit him, but he shuddered at the thought of food. However, he had to eat and pulled a hunk off of a loaf of soda bread, poured his tea, and sat at the breakfast table. Images from dark dreams floated in his memory.
The images were fuzzy but familiar ones from his youth. Why would his past be haunting him? It had been forty years since he left that existence, never expecting to relive it. He missed Colleen more than usual and thought that had to be the reason for his unease. He finished his tea and hurried upstairs to dress. Better to be at the pub and busy than sitting around the house brooding.
As he left the house thirty minutes later, Finn didn’t follow him. He ducked back into the house. “Finn, where are you?” He walked into the front parlor, where the dog sat in front of the library door. “What are you doing? Mum’s not in there, she’ll be back in a couple of days, and all will be well. Come on, let’s go to the pub.” He turned to leave, and Finn followed but not before looking back at the library door. Amir shook his head—yes, boy, I miss her too.
By mid-day, Amir was so weak he couldn’t take another step without nearly passing out. He told his staff that he hadn’t slept well, and he was going home to take a nap and would be back. On the drive home, he wished Finn could drive. Arriving home, he could barely crawl out of the Land Rover, and when inside, knew he would never make it up the stairs. He stumbled to the parlor, dropped onto the couch, and fell asleep immediately.
His ringtone shattered his sleep and he awakened abruptly. In the darkness that had fallen, he groped toward the glow of his phone screen. He exhaled —it was Colleen. He had been avoiding her calls because she would know he was not feeling well from the sound of his voice.
“Darling, how are you? I hate that we keep missing each other and voice mail is not enough.”
Mustering all the energy he could, he responded. “Been busy, love. Sorry. How’s the meeting going?”
She hesitated, uttering a short grunt as if she wanted to say something else but spent the next few minutes telling him about her presentation. He was getting weaker by the moment, and when she finished, he decided he needed to end the call. He managed to say, “Darling, no problem here. Let’s… talk tomorrow.”
“What’s wrong, Amir? Tell me.”
“I’m fine, just been busy.” He took a breath. “You know me, love, hate the cold, but I have to go.”
“Okay, but I want to talk to you later.”
“Of course, I love you.”
He fell back against the cushions, his breathing shallow when he realized that Finn was sitting in front of the library door, nose against the door frame. He struggled to stand. “Finn, she isn’t in there. I’ll show you, boy.”
Opening the door, Finn’s reluctance to enter surprised him. The dog sniffed the air, a deep growl coming from this normally gentle creature. Amir flipped the switch to turn on lamps and walked in, Finn close on his heels.
The house they lived in had been Colleen’s ancestral home for several generations. She loved this house and this room in particular. Bookshelves lined the walls, leaving only a few spaces for family portraits. Amir stood in the middle of the room as hairs on his neck bristled. Something felt wrong—something was missing.
Amir turned toward the one thing in the room connected to him—the earthenware jug. It was gone.
The alcove Colleen had constructed to hold the vessel was empty. He had told her it was a precious family heirloom, an earthenware water jug handed down through generations of his ancestors. It was not.
That it was aged was a fact Colleen confirmed, but he had hidden the actual use of the jug from her. It had not housed water. The jug had been his prison.
He stumbled to an armchair, sagging onto the seat as fatigue overcame him. Where was the jug? Did someone steal it? Was that why Finn seemed so interested in the room? He glanced at Finn, now leaning against his legs, the hair on his back ruffled. What did Finn sense?
His head felt too heavy to hold up, and he rested it against the chair back. He should have told her. The Master warned him that he needed to remain connected to the jug. He could be gone from its proximity for short periods, but the transformation would dissipate if too long, and the jug would trap him forever. He had feared traveling with Colleen as she begged him to do, until one day, when cleaning the jug, a small piece of the handle chipped off. He dropped the piece into the jug for safekeeping.
Colleen was traveling to his old home and pleaded with him to come. How could he tell her that he could not go unless the jug went with him and not tell her everything? Then he thought of the small fragment of the jar—would it be enough to protect him? It had been. Now he traveled with her to digs, they vacationed, and all was well. When he returned, he hid the small piece in the jar until the next time he needed it. Now, everything was gone.
Memories overwhelmed him as he thought back to those days—when he was a jinn or genie as some knew them. Amir was a mischievous spirited genie, often in trouble because he loved to create havoc by possessing humans or haunting the places they dwelled or worked. He had relished the fact that humans were afraid of him, but once he took his revelry too seriously, and the Master imprisoned him in the jug as punishment. Once granted his freedom, the Master required that he keep the jug with him at all times as a reminder to behave.
Then he met Colleen when he was on a walkabout, trying to stay out of mischief. He had never been in love. Although jinn could live as a human, marry, have children, and die, he had never found anyone that made a settled life seem more exciting than his wanderings.
Colleen changed that with one look into her blue eyes. He wanted to spend his life with her, grow old with her, but he feared his jinn ways would lure him again, and he couldn’t risk losing her. He petitioned the Master to banish his skills, and the Master had agreed but warned him. The jinn soul was powerful, and his life only sustained if his jinn essence remained close. Amir had agreed, and the Master cast out his jinn and entombed it in the jug which he must keep close.
Exhaustion overtook him, and he fell to sleep. Finn’s guttural growling woke him up hours later. Moonlight streamed through the trees, casting shadows in the room, and for a moment, he didn’t see the figure standing near the alcove. When he did, his blood ran cold.
Amir shushed Finn, who obeyed but continued to lean against him as he rose as if to offer support. He bowed.
“Master, I am honored to stand in your presence.”
The figure stepped from the shadows. Tall, muscular, his olive skin glistening in the moonlight, the Master folded his arms across the silk vestment covering his chest. Adornments of gold and silver disks jangled as he moved.
“Amir, you were warned. Explain yourself.”
“I have little to explain, Master, as I do not know what has happened. I have honored your command that I keep the jug close by, but I will admit, I tested its limits to find out how far away I could travel. Then a small piece chipped off the handle, and by keeping it with me, I was able to travel anywhere I chose. I do not know where it has disappeared or why.”
“You were always quite resourceful, Amir. You could have continued to live as jinn and accepted a moral life without the purge of your spirit, but I understand your fears. We have changed over the eons and allowed others to rewrite our story. We would have never caged our kind in vessels if that French writer had not translated the mythology of our kind and added his special twist. Since we are shapeshifters, the idea of a tiny genie in a bottle was humorous. Thankfully, we do not do it often. The stories of a thousand Arabian nights were enough to tell our history, but as myths to many, embellishment is expected.” The Master sat in the other armchair and motioned Amir to sit as he continued.
“I have maintained a connection to you all these years. I came to warn you, but I can do little to help you. You have forty-eight hours at best to reunite with your jinn spirit, or the life that it sustains will cease to exist.” As he began to vanish into the air, the Master said, “The jug is not lost. That I do know.” With that, the Master of all jinn was gone.
Amir struggled to get to the couch in the living room, and as he collapsed on the cushions, he noticed his phone. A missed call from Colleen, but she left a voicemail.
“Darling, I am worried about you. Please, please call me. I have so much to tell you. I tried to tell you the other night that I took the jug with me to show to my colleagues on a whim. They were so excited and impressed with the artifact. Call me.”
His heart seized. Colleen had the jug. Perhaps there was hope. He called, nearly too weak to talk, and when she answered, he stopped her. “Bring the jug home, now. I need it to survive.”
The fright in her voice was evident as she reacted. “Survive? What do you mean? Of course, I will be home as quickly as I can. Amir, I love you. What is wrong?”
“Just bring the jug.” He hung up and willed himself to last long enough for her to arrive.
The sunlight was glaring in his eyes as he slowly raised his lids. He was breathing and felt stronger. Finn whimpered, and he realized the dog was lying next to him on the couch. But who was holding his hand?
He turned his head to look into the beautiful blue eyes of his love. “Colleen, you made it.”
“Yes, and I have the jug right here.” She picked it up to show him, and he brushed the fingertips of his free hand across it, feeling his energy rise.
“Thank you… I needed it here.”
“I don’t understand. What is happening? Why do you need this jug with you?” Her voice trembled and her eyes wide with distress.
He smiled as relief washed over him. “I will tell you all, my love, but it will take a thousand nights.”
A second story from the image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sDecember 2020project. I hope you enjoy it!
A Special Ride
D. A. Ratliff
It was a fluke. Jake Riley was supposed to be at this friend Will’s house for the afternoon, but Will’s mom was baking Christmas cookies and said she needed their help. A phone call from the hospital sent his mom, a Cardiac Cath tech, to work for an emergency, so Will went to his grandparents, and Jake walked home.
Icy snow was spitting in the air, and he picked up his pace, hoping his mom would take pity on him and make cocoa. He was a few houses away when he saw a delivery van from the local sporting goods store parked in front of his house. The driver raised the truck’s roll-up door as his mom walked out of the garage to join him. He ducked behind a tree, hoping his mom wouldn’t look around.
Jake’s heart thumped in his chest as he saw a bicycle in a rack on the truck—not just any bike. It was the black mountain bike he had wanted for months. The driver took the bike out and rolled it into the garage. His mom signed a receipt and closed the garage door. He waited until the truck left and then continued home.
He dropped his school bag on the entry floor. “Mom, I’m home.”
His mother appeared at the kitchen door. She appeared flustered. “What are you doing here? It’s only six. I thought you were at Will’s making cookies?” She glanced toward the door to the garage.
“She was on call and had to go to work. She dropped Will off at his grandparents, and I walked home. We never got any cookies baked.”
“Oh… well, so sorry, no cookies, honey. Maybe we can make some tonight or tomorrow. Take your bag upstairs. I know you left it in the entry hall. Your dad will be home in a bit, and we’ll order our usual Friday night pizza since you’re here.”
Jake trudged upstairs, took a quick shower, and managed to play a bit of a video game. When he heard the garage door come up, he knew his dad was home. He closed his laptop and headed downstairs.
He stopped short of the kitchen door when he heard his father. “He came home early? Did you get it hidden?”
“No. I came in to check the washer, and then go back to put it in the storage room, but I didn’t want to go into the garage and have him come looking for me. So, I thought better to wait until one of us can keep him out.”
“Yeah, smart move, Leigh. Glad we decided to get him the bike this year.” He paused. “I remember when I was fourteen, I got a new bike for Christmas. My dad and I took a ride together after breakfast. He died the following winter, and we never got to ride again.”
“Jeff, we should’ve gotten you a new bike too. Jake would love it if you rode with him.”
“I don’t need a new bike. I guess I should drag my old bike out of the shed, but….” He took a deep breath. “Never rode it again after my dad died. Just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.” He smiled and kissed Leigh. “Gonna change now… order that pizza, I’m starving.”
Jake raced up the stairs and into his room before his dad had a chance to leave the kitchen. His heart raced as he thought about his dad’s words. He had seen that old bike in the shed—chain rusty, seat cracked, and tires flat. He had no idea his dad hadn’t ridden his bike since his grandfather died. He sat down on his bed, angry that he rarely thought of his biological grandfather. His grandmother had remarried, and Pops was the grandfather he knew. Pops had adopted his father when he was sixteen, and he changed his name to Jeffery Dawson Riley to keep his real dad’s name too.
Thinking back, he always thought his dad didn’t have time to ride bikes with him. He was just a kid, and he had Will to ride with, so he’d never considered his dad might want to ride with him. Will’s dad was a doctor and rarely home, so it worked out for both of them.
He went back to playing a video game when his mom texted him. Pizza will be here in a bit. Come on down. He found his mom in the kitchen.
“Hi, honey. Can you take the plates and napkins into the den? We’re going to eat in there and watch a movie.”
“Sure, Mom. Where’s Dad?”
“Uh…. He’s in the garage, putting away the paper towels and toilet paper I bought this morning.” She reached for her purse, which was sitting on the small desk in the kitchen. “Here is five dollars for the tip. After you take the plates in, wait for the pizza. Should be here any moment.”
The pizza arrived as Jake heard his dad enter the kitchen. His mom told him to take the pizza to the den, and his father followed with drinks. They settled on a new action thriller movie on a streaming site while they ate.
Jake’s thoughts kept drifting to the mountain bike in the garage. He was excited. He wanted to join a bike club at school, and the bike was perfect. But his dad’s words echoed in his head. “Never rode it again after my dad died. Just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.” He wished he could ride with his dad.
Late that night, as he drifted to sleep, what he needed to do came to him. Sleepily, he decided that tomorrow, he would put his plan into motion.
Will followed Jake into the kitchen. “What was so important that I had to get over here now?”
“You have to help me get Dad’s old bike out of the shed.”
“Because he got it for Christmas when he was fourteen, and he only got to ride it once with his dad. Then his dad died, and he never rode it again. I want to fix the bike up so he can ride with me.”
“Why don’t you get him a new one?”
“I can’t afford a new one. Not even sure I had enough money to get this one fixed. But I wanna try. Come with me and help me get it out while Mom and Dad are gone shopping.”
They left footprints in the dusting of snow on the ground as they walked to the metal storage building sitting next to the rear fence. Jake had taken the key from the keyboard in the laundry room, and after fiddling with the lock for a bit, he got the door open.
“Darn it, dark in here. Will, turn on your phone light. I think the bike is in that back corner.”
The light showed Jake that he was right, but there was a lawnmower, snow blower, and a lot of garden equipment in front of it. “Gotta move this stuff. Help me. We need to do this quickly.”
After a few cuss words that their moms would yell at them for and a skinned knuckle or two, the boys managed to get the bike out and everything put back. Will had leaned the bike against the shed while Jake relocked the door.
“Man, Jake, this bike is a mess. It’s rusty, paint peeled, tires cracked.”
“Yeah, I know, but I want to get it to the bike shop and see if Mr. Mason can fix it.”
“It’s a week until Christmas! He can’t fix this in a week.”
“Gonna try. Now, how do we get it downtown?”
“No… how about Ray? He’s home from college, isn’t he? You think he would take us? Can you ask, please?”
Will made the call and twenty minutes later, his brother Ray drove up in a red pickup. He helped them load the bike, and they headed to town. On the way, Jake texted his parents they were going to get burgers with Ray.
The City Bicycle Shop sat on a tree-lined street on the outskirts of town. Jake and Ray got the bike out of the back and went inside. A small brass bell attached to the door tinkled, bringing the owner out from the back room.
“Hey, boys, what can I do for you?”
“Mr. Mason. This is my dad’s old bike, and I want to get it repaired before Christmas. Can you do it?”
Mason didn’t say anything as he walked around the bike. Jake’s heart was beating out of his chest. He had $247 in his savings account, and he was scared that he wouldn’t have enough money. He managed to eke out, “How much will this cost?”
The shop owner smiled. “You getting this fixed up for yourself?”
“No, sir. It was my dad’s. He got it for Christmas when he was fourteen like I am now. But his dad died, and he only got to ride with him once. I accidentally found out that I got a new bike for Christmas.” Jake took a breath. ”I want to get his bike fixed so he can ride with me.”
“You got a budget you can spend?
“I have 247 dollars.”
A slight smile crossed Mason’s face. “I can probably do it for under 200. Want the original color?”
“Yes, sir. Can you have it done by Christmas Eve?”
“Gonna be tight, but I’ll try. Let’s get some info before you leave.”
Christmas was in two days, and he was supposed to pick up the bike on Christmas Eve. Ray was going to drive him, but he needed to get the money from his savings account, which meant going to the bank. Since he was on vacation from school, he didn’t have to worry about skipping, but getting downtown was another. He told his mom he was going to Will’s and then walked seven blocks to the main road and waited for a city bus to take him to a branch bank.
He walked into the lobby, his stomach churning. He had never been to the bank by himself, but he was here for a reason. He stepped up the teller window and presented his bank book and his school ID. As grown-up as he could, he announced his intentions. “I would like to withdraw the money from this savings account.”
The teller looked up the account. She shook her head, a woeful smile on her face. “I am so sorry, but your father and mother are on the account, and it requires one of their signatures to withdraw these funds. I am sorry.” She pushed the bank book and ID back to him. “Perhaps one of them could come with you.”
Jake’s heart was in his throat. He only nodded, grabbed the items, and fled the bank. Once outside, he sat on the curb, fear overwhelming him. He had to figure out how to pay for the bike. But how…. He was staring into the distance, racking his brain for what to do. He didn’t hear the soft footballs of someone approaching.
He looked up to see Pops standing over him. “Pops, I uh…“ He scrambled to his feet. “Hi.”
“I don’t see your parents’ cars. Are you here alone?”
Jake could only nod, and his grandfather pressed him. “What are you doing here?”
Tears welled in Jake’s eyes, and the story spilled out. His grandfather listened without comment until Jake finished.
“So, the bike is now at the shop, and you are going to need to pay for it?”
“Yeah, I—I just wanted to do something for him so he could ride with me.” Finally, the tears spilled from his eyes, and Pops pulled him into a hug.
“Let’s go see what we can do. I’m your grandfather. Maybe I can be the other signature.”
Inside the bank, Pops told him to sit in one of the chairs while he talked to the manager. To Jake, the wait felt like an eternity as fear overwhelmed him. The sense of dread faded a bit as Pops motioned him to join him at the same teller window. Pops was smiling.
“I told the bank manager the money was for you to buy a present for your father, and it was a secret, so he’s going to let me sign with you.”
Five minutes later, they walked out of the bank with the money Jake needed and his nerves intact.
“Let me take you home. But before we do, do you have a present for your mom?”
“I got her a scarf and hat. Haven’t done any more shopping, and I don’t have the spare money.”
“Get in the car. I’ll spot you the money for another gift for your mom.”
Jake was pacing the floor. Mr. Mason told him that he would have the bike ready at four-thirty and be there on time as he closed the store for Christmas Eve. He told his Mom that Will’s mom wanted him to stop by and get his present and some cookies, and Ray and Will were going to come to get him. Fact was the gifts were already in Ray’s truck.
It was just after four when Ray pulled up. Jake called out. “Ray’s here, back soon,” and rushed out the door. He nearly slipped on the side as an icy rain was falling. He jumped in the cab.
“Wow, thought you weren’t coming?”
“Sorry, dude. This weather is getting worse. Let’s get there so we can get back.”
A sinking feeling came over Jake, scared they had waited too late. The icy rain turned into sleet, and the road was becoming slicker by the minute. As they passed by the park where there was little traffic, the truck began to slide. Ray tried to keep the truck under control but hit an icy spot. It careened off the curb and over the embankment into a thicket of bushes, landing on its side.
Pops and Jeff’s mother, Emily, arrived, followed shortly by Leigh’s parents, Gordon and Cheryl. They were placing gifts under the tree when Jeff’s phone rang. His shocked expression told all something was wrong.
“That was the police. Ray’s truck skidded on the ice near the park and landed on its side. Officer said the kids are fine but on the way to the hospital.”
Leigh began to cry, and Jeff hugged her. “They’re fine, a few scrapes and bruises, but fine. Just taking them to the hospital to get checked out. We need to go get him.”
Pops spoke. “We’ll finish dinner and get the rest of the presents under the tree. You go get our boy.”
The grandmothers busied themselves with finishing dinner while the granddads got all the presents under the tree. They had finished when the doorbell rang. Pops opened the door and smiled broadly. “I am happy to see you.”
An hour and a half later, Jake and his parents returned. He was sporting a bruised shoulder and cheek and a small cut above his eye. His grandmothers fussed over him until he blushed bright pink and pushed them away.
“Stop, I’m okay. It wasn’t Ray’s fault. The roads were getting icy.”
His mother nodded. “We know it wasn’t his fault, but we don’t know why you were out near the park?”
Jake glanced toward Pops. “Ray was going to pick up something.”
She hugged him. “Just glad you are okay. Hungry?” He nodded. She kissed him gingerly on the forehead. “I’m so glad you are okay.”
Jake held back as the family headed to the dining room to talk to his grandfather. “Pops, we didn’t get to the shop in time.”
Pops put a finger to his mouth. “I have it on good authority that Santa took care of it.”
“Mr. Mason had to go home, but he wanted you to have the bike, so he dropped it off here. I hid it in the bedroom we’re sleeping in.”
“Pops!” Jake threw his arms around his grandfather. “Thanks.”
Christmas morning was a surprise for Jake. The bicycle he expected was not under the tree, nor was his dad’s. He woke up and remembered he hadn’t paid for the repairs, so he had tucked the money from the bank into his robe pocket. He suspected Pops had paid Mr. Mason.
They opened presents, and Jake was pleased but confused. When there were no more presents, we looked toward Pops, who only winked at him. Then his mother approached and handed the savings bank book to him, which he had returned to the drawer without marking the withdrawal. He swallowed hard. He was in trouble.
“Jake, we know that you were saving money to get a new bike, but we had other ideas. We want this savings account to go toward a car for you in a couple of years. Your dad and I and your grandparents have contributed to the account. You now have a thousand dollars in the account, and all of us, plus what money you earn, will keep depositing to the account so that we have a down payment for a car for your senior year in high school.”
He couldn’t breathe. “Mom, no—no, I can’t…”
Pops interrupted, “Jeff, Leigh, don’t you have something to show Jake?”
“I believe we do.” Jeff left the living room and returned with the shiny, black mountain bike adorned with a red ribbon. “Merry Christmas, son.”
Jake hugged his parents and sat on the bike. “Wow, I love this. Thanks.” He looked for Pops, who had left the room.
“Dad, Mom, I have a confession to make. I overheard you talking about the bike last week and Dad, about how you got a bike for Christmas when you were fourteen but only rode with your dad once. So…” His voice broke. “I decided to do something… I took your bike from the shed and had it fixed.”
Pops rolled Jeff’s bike into the room to surprised gasps. Jake was shaking, so afraid his dad would be angry. He watched as his dad walked to the bike and ran his hand along the handlebars. “It looks like it did when I first got it.” Tears streamed down his face, and Jake ran to his dad, who hugged him tightly. Jeff looked over his son’s head toward his stepfather. “Pops, you have been my father longer than I had my real father. You have given me nothing but love and care over the years, and that means so much. Please forgive me for this moment when I can bring my father’s memory to my son.”
“Jeff, you are my son, but this is the right thing to do, and know that this was Jake’s doing.”
Jeff hugged his son again. “Might be a bit icy this morning, but it’s going to warm up this afternoon. Then we go for a ride.”
After breakfast, Jake found Pops. “The money, that day at the bank…” He pulled the money from his robe pocket. “This was from you and not my account, wasn’t it?”
“They weren’t going to let me help you, so I did the next best thing.”
“You paid Mr. Mason last night.”
Pops laughed. “No. When he found out you didn’t get there because you were in a wreck, he told me he never intended to charge you. He was a boy who rode bikes with his dad, and you brought back those memories for him.”
Jake handed Pops the money. “Hold this for next Christmas. Who knows what we might need to buy?”
The sun was out around two p.m., and father and son rolled their bikes to the sidewalk.
From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sJuly 2020prompt. I hope you enjoy!
The Way Station
D. A. Ratliff
Mason Henley rocked back and forth as the camel he was riding followed their guide. The herky-jerky motion of the enormous beast wore him out, and he never forgot to take ibuprofen before getting on one. He valued his back too much to ignore.
The caravan stretched the length of twelve camels. In addition to the guide and his two assistants, a radio astronomer and two research assistants accompanied him with five camels laden with equipment and supplies.
Three days ago, he and his team had flown into Algiers, where they met Dr. Bernedetta Clark. The next day, they flew into the L’Mekrareg Airport in Laghouat, with connections in Ghardaia, which took them to In Salah, where their guide, Sami Taleb, was waiting. After they loaded the camels, the expedition set off for their destination, Jabal Alharam—Pyramid Mountain.
Mason chuckled, after ten hours in overcrowded planes, he was happy to be on a camel, back pain or not.
The trip was going to take nine hours, and they had knocked out six of those already and agreed to stop for the night. As Sami and his crew set up tents, he and his two assistants, River Monroe and Jackson Stewart, built a campfire and got dinner started.
He was tending a grill laden with strips of beef, while River was making couscous. He watched as Dr. Clark approached, her eyes on the food. He cut off a small piece and held it up to her. “Wanna taste, Doctor?”
Her nose wrinkled. “What is it? Not camel? My colleagues told me that’s all the Algerians eat.”
“Had you dined with us last night, you would have feasted on the best Tandoori chicken I have had.”
“That’s Indian food.”
“Yes, it is. Welcome to the internet and modern travel. River and Jack had pizza.” He held the bite of meat up again. “This is beef, strips of sirloin, to be exact.”
She took the morsel and tried it. “That’s good. Did you bring a spice cabinet with you?”
“No.” he held up a plastic zip bag. “Made my famous spice mix and brought it with me.”
“Quite resourceful, but as an archeologist, I guess you are used to being out in the middle of nowhere.”
Mason smiled. “Been on a few digs in my time. Spent a lot of time in some ancient place somewhere.” He flipped the beef on the grill. “Did you get your equipment set up, Dr. Clark?”
“Yes, part of it, and please call me Etta.”
“I’m Mason. Same signal?”
She nodded. “The same tones repeated over and over. Just as they have for the last two months.”
“And you guys suspect it’s a signal. For what?”
“That is for us to find out. The signal is originating from here.”
River stood. “The couscous is ready. I’m going to go get Jack and the others.”
The group ate dinner as the sun was setting. Sami and his team retired to their tents and rotating guard duty. Jack and River both had work to do and excused themselves. They had been scouring over the topographical maps of the area to become familiar with Pyramid Mountain.
Mason sat by the fire. He was tired but too restless to sleep. The desert night was turning chilly. He added more wood to the fire from the bundles Sami brought. Watching the wood ignite, he felt some satisfaction that at least he could make fire.
“Is there coffee left?”
Clark’s voice startled him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Yes, there is coffee.” He reached behind him to retrieve a cup from a box of supplies and poured her a cup.
Taking it from him, she sat on a camp stool. “I am sorry that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk last night. The trip from the US exhausted me and, well, our mode of transportation made it difficult to talk. You have been to the mountain before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I was part of a team that came here nearly twenty years ago. I’d just earned my Ph.D. at Columbia when a professor of mine heard from an old friend, a geologist he has known as an undergrad. The geologist, Dr. Hemsford from the University of Johannesburg, had traveled from South Africa to the Sahara in Algiers with a group of students to study the rock formations.”
“They found the hieroglyphics?”
“They certainly found what they thought to be hieroglyphics at the time. He contacted my prof, Dr. Riegel, and Columbia provided the grant for us to take a look.”
“They weren’t hieroglyphics?”
“No, at least not related to any previous glyphs or symbols we had ever seen. To be honest, I took another career direction and concentrated on historical indigenous archeology in the Americas. I haven’t looked at those old reports until I got a call from my department head at Columbia, who asked me to lead the expedition to the mountain.” He paused. “I wasn’t expecting to find out a radio astronomer would be part of the team.”
“I never expected to be in the middle of the Sahara Desert on a camel.” She rubbed her shoulder. “Not the most comfortable ride.”
“No, it isn’t.” He poked the fire. “What do you think we will find?”
She sat up, back straight. “I don’t know. Not even sure why they sent me to find out. I noticed the sequence first, but there are far more experienced people at the observatory.” She huffed a short breath. “I think I might have been the expendable one.”
“I read your bio and some reviews of your work. I don’t think expendable is an apt word to describe you.”
“Newest member of the team, so who knows.”
“The signals are coming from the mountain?”
“They appear to be. I have some portable equipment with me, and the signal is still cycling.”
“Well, we won’t know anything until we get there. Get some sleep. We need to start early in the morning. We were lucky today. The winds kept us a bit cooler—tomorrow, not so much. “
Sweat poured down Mason’s back, and he was decidedly uncomfortable. His camel lumbered along as if it was a day in the park, just not his idea of a park. Wiping sweat from his brow for the umpteenth time, he gazed around the area. The flatter terrain of yesterday had given way to mounds of hard compacted sand with deep trenches where the wind had eroded the surface. Wouldn’t be long before they would have to resort to walking to the mountain.
His eyes never strayed far from the mountain looming ahead. The cornflower blue sky was cloudless, allowing the sun to beat down relentlessly. He chuckled. The mountain reminded him of a large soft ice cream cone, twisted as if someone spun it like a top.
Lost in thought of his last visit, he nearly fell off the camel when it halted suddenly, and he grabbed the saddle horn to stay on. Sami was dismounting his camel and walked to him.
“We go no more on camels. Too dangerous.” Sami tugged on the reins to Mason’s camel, and the animal began to drop to its knees. He dismounted and went to help Etta from hers.
She looked over his shoulder toward Pyramid Mountain. “We walk from here?”
“Yep, afraid so. It should be about a thirty-minute hike to the base. Jack and I will carry your equipment, Sami and his people will carry food and water. You and River will take the rest of the tools we need.”
“Are we going to camp there?”
“Not sure. If we decide to, Sami and his guys will come back for the tents.”
“They are going to leave the camels here?”
Sami overheard her. “We leave food here. They are good camels. They know to stay.”
Mason headed toward the camels carrying their equipment. “Let’s get loaded up.”
An hour later, they stood at the base of the mountain that loomed over them. Etta was setting up her portable radio telescope, opening the small satellite dish. Satisfied she had everything in place, she flipped the switch on the battery pack, and static began emanating from the speaker.
Mason listened with his head cocked. “There is a pattern there.”
“Yes, and it repeats every nine seconds.”
“So, if it’s coming from here, where is it going?”
“The observatory has the entire array focused on the direction it’s beaming. Listening for incoming signals. So far, nothing.”
“Okay. Let’s hike around the base. The spot where we saw those symbols is around the east side.”
Leaving their guides with the equipment, Mason and Etta started toward the area where the symbols were located. River and Jack began a cursory review of the site, comparing it to the photos from the dig many years before. They were looking for any sign of an opening, if such a thing existed.
The footing was treacherous as they left a level area. What Mason remembered struck him as odd when he was there before. He gazed up at the mountain’s pentacle, wondering how the flat round rocks that capped the mountain formed. He had puzzled about the structure on his first visit, and it puzzled him now. A climb up the mountain might shed some light, but he was not in the mood for rock climbing.
They reached the area where Mason remembered finding the symbols carved. At least, he thought they were in the right place. A rockslide covered the place where he remembered the carving.
“I think the symbols are here. Help me move these?”
After some effort, they rolled away a couple of large rocks, revealing sand covering the slope. Mason pulled a brush from his backpack and swept away the sand. The symbols appeared.
“I had seen photos of these, but I didn’t expect they would be so precise—such sharp cuts in the rock.”
“Yeah, that’s what Dr. Riegel thought, definitely precise cuts. We’ve seen that before in the pyramids and at Puma Punku in Bolivia. I was fortunate enough to work on that site. The builders of that temple used interlocking stones so precisely cut when assembled you can’t get a razor blade between them. The skills existed, but we aren’t sure how or the tools they used to make them.”
“No idea what they mean?
He shook his head. “Nope. Again, I didn’t stay with the project long, but I followed up with Dr. Riegel after NASA contacted me. He said they found no reference points at all to these symbols.”
“They have to mean something.” Etta took a 35mm digital camera from her backpack and took several shots of the symbols and the surrounding area. She slung the camera around her neck and laughed. “Anyone tried pressing the symbols?”
Mason raised his shoulders and grinned. “No idea, but it couldn’t hurt.” He pressed the first symbol, and nothing happened. He pressed the rest just in case, then placed his palms against all nine symbols and pushed at once—nothing.
Etta sighed. “It was worth a try.”
“We’ll figure this out. If the signal is coming from within the mountain, there has to be a way inside. Let’s find River and Jack and see what they found.”
They decided to camp next to the mountain. Sami and his men retrieved the tents and set them up. Before returning to spend the night with the camels, Sami left a flare gun in case they needed him. Dinner was bread, cheese, and coffee brewed over a fire. River surprised them with cookies she brought.
The sky was magnificent, dusted with glittering stars from the Milky Way, its luminous and dark streams hanging above them. They dragged their sleeping bags into the open and lay on their backs, staring at the mysterious sky.
River asked Mason to recount his first trip to Pyramid Mountain. He talked about his first look at the symbols.
“I was enthralled, thinking that the symbols could be Egyptian hieroglyphics this far into the desert. Dr. Hemsford was a geologist but thought the symbols looked Egyptian. Dr. Riegel determined quickly that the symbols were not Egyptian, but I will never forget the first time I saw those nine symbols. I….”
Etta bolted upright. “Nine symbols. The signal repeats every nine seconds. What if….”
Mason bolted upright as well. “What if the signal represents those symbols.”
Her voice excited, Etta responded. “Maybe the signal is the key to opening a way inside.”
“What I don’t get is why the signal just started out of the blue.” Mason shook his head. “It makes no sense.”
“I might know.” Jack jumped up and grabbed a tablet sitting on his backpack. “Not knowing what we would find, and after being in that earthquake in Mexico last year, I downloaded a file about seismic activity in the Sahara.” He pulled up the file. “Dr. Clark, when did the signals start?”
“About two months ago, on the fourteenth.”
Jack was silent for a moment as he searched. “Got it. The same day, two months ago, there was a 5.2 mag earthquake with an epicenter about ten kilometers from here and only a half mile down. What if it triggered something?”
“It had to have.” Etta rose. “We need to go check this out.”
Mason stood. “Not until the morning. We’ll break our necks trying to get to the symbols. Get some sleep. We will do this in the morning.”
Dawn was breaking as Mason heard Etta and Jack talking. He shook off his grogginess from waking up and joined them. River handed him a cup of coffee.
Etta smiled. “Nice to have Jack along. I was trying to figure out how to lug this equipment to the symbols, and he suggested I record the sound on my phone. Haven’t used it since I left the hotel, so I have power. Can we go now?”
“Let’s stay until the sunlight is brighter and I get some coffee. Then we will go.”
She looked disappointed but agreed. While he finished his coffee, they made plans. River and Jack were to stay where they camped. Mason had a nagging thought that the flatness of the rock there meant something—an entrance perhaps. Once they agree on how to proceed, he and Etta headed for the symbols.
“Well, no time like the present. Hit play.”
Etta turned on the recording, and after it played through twice, the symbols began to glow. Both of them uttered a gasp. “It worked, Mason. It worked.”
“Yeah, but what did it do.”
A flare soared over their heads, a signal from the others. Something was happening at the camp. As quickly as they could cross the rough terrain, Mason and Etta raced back.
Pyramid Mountain had opened.
Jack ran toward them as soon as they appeared. “We heard a crack like the rock was breaking. The sides slid away, and the opening appeared.
His heart pounding, Mason walked toward the perfectly square opening. It was nearly ten feet tall, and while dark beyond a few feet, it was evident from the shiny dark blue polished floor that mother nature wasn’t responsible.
He jumped when Etta pushed past him, heading for the door, and managed to grab her arm. “Hey, no, not yet. We’ll go in, but let’s get a flashlight first.”
Etta frowned but nodded and hurried to her backpack. “I have a flashlight, water, and an energy bar. I’m ready.” Turning to Jack, she handed him her phone. “Keep this. You can open the door again if we can’t.”
Mason grabbed his backpack and turned toward Jack and River. “If we don’t come out in one hour, try to open the door. If it doesn’t, get back to civilization and contact NASA.” He joined Etta. “I’ll go first.”
They were no more than ten yards into the corridor when the opening closed. They could hear Jack and River’s anxious calls behind them but couldn’t get back to the door. Etta started to say something, then stopped when a door opened farther into the mountain, dim light spilling into the passage.
“Looks like an invitation to me, Etta.”
The opening revealed a large circular room. Their flashlights revealed murals on the walls and an empty chamber except for a round dais sitting in the chamber’s center.
“What is this place?” Etta’s voice quivered.
“I don’t have a clue. Let’s walk the perimeter.”
They were feeling their way around the wall when bright light filled the room. Stunned, they gazed at the panels depicting what could only be humanoids adorned on the walls.
“My goodness, Mason, this has to be alien.”
Mason didn’t have time to answer. A fluorescent circle of red light dropped from the ceiling over each of them, scanning from head to foot then retreating into the domed ceiling. Before either could speak, a tall, slender figure dressed in a gray tunic appeared on the dais.
“Greetings, travelers. Welcome to the Orbis Way Station. May I ask your destination?”
Etta approached the figure. “Who are you?”
“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”
This time Mason spoke. “Could you tell us where we are and how you can speak to us in our language?”
“You are on Orbis and seeking transport. My scan revealed you are natives of Tanus. I translated your language, although you do speak an obscure dialect. Do you wish to return to your homeworld?”
Mason and Etta exchanged glances. She responded to the attendant. “No, we would like to leave the station to remain on this world.”
“Entering the station activated the portal for departure. You may not exit again. Please state your destination.”
“Could you give us a minute.” Mason waited until the attendant deactivated. “Jack will open the door in one hour.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then, they’ll get help.”
“And we’ll be in here for a long time.”
Mason looked at the dais, then back at her. “There is an alternative.”
“Go through the portal? You can’t be serious.”
“Etta, I get the feeling we are not going to get out of here any other way. If there is a chance we can travel somewhere and then turn around and come back here, this might be our only way home.”
“I don’t know. What if we can’t get back?”
“If we can’t leave here, and the door doesn’t open in one hour, then it’s not going to open. We will die here.”
“But our families, our friends…”
“Is there someone close to you, someone you love?”
Etta dropped her eyes. “No, no one anymore.”
“Well, me either. I’ll miss my parents, but if we don’t do this, we’ll never see anyone again. This is an ancient way station that must have been offline until the earthquake. I don’t know what we will be walking into but it’s history making. Let’s wait to see if the door opens. If not, we go through the portal.”
Etta gave him a wan smile. “The book we’ll write—bestseller, guaranteed.”
They waited an additional hour before Mason summoned the attendant.
“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”
Mason responded. “Tanus.”
Behind the dais, the portal, a swirling kaleidoscope of blues and greens, opened. The attendant stepped aside. “Enjoy your transport.”
Mason took Etta’s hand, and they stepped through together.
Musings of a Southern author. I chose that line because I love the area where I grew up and want to celebrate it in words.
These days, identifying as a Southerner is not always easy. I do not intend for politics to play any role in this blog, but I want to say one thing. I love my country, all of it, from New York City, where my parents lived for many years, to San Francisco where I left my heart in wine country—so beautiful—to the beautiful beaches of South Carolina and the glitz, glamor, and traffic that is Miami. There is not a part of this country that is not worthy of our admiration for its culture and beauty.
There is also not a region of this country without some embarrassing history. Heaven knows we cannot deny that the Southern United States has such a past. A past which I abhor.
I was fortunate to grow up with parents who were civil rights advocates, and they taught me that all men and women are equal. I have attempted to live my life following their example. But proud of where I grew up? Yes, I am. The good, the bad, and the horrendously ugly exist there as it does everywhere, but it is home.
I will be writing a few thoughts about the town where I grew up, Aiken, South Carolina, and it will include some observations on the South as it was when I was small. I am thankful that the South of today is moving past the mistakes of the past—not quickly enough, but it is happening.
Look for a tour around my childhood and how the places that I love influenced not only me as I grew up but my writing as well.
From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sJune 2020prompt. I hope you enjoy!
D. A. Ratliff
Bastard had to be here. He had to be.
Evan Brand pushed his way through the crowd waiting on the platform as the rumble of the incoming train drifted from the tunnel. He had to move quickly. Otherwise, everyone died. Again.
The sleek gray train slowed and stopped. As the doors swished open, he spotted his target waiting to enter the car. Dropping his shoulder, he plowed through the passengers trying to push their way onto the train. Yelling for everyone to get out of the way, he was a foot from the door when it slid shut.
His quarry heard his yells and turned, smiling as the train began to move. The blinding flash from inside the tunnel barely registered as Evan pressed the button on the device strapped on his arm, and his world went black.
Seven Hours Earlier
The starkness of the research compound never ceased to amaze him. Granted, he was an astrophysicist/engineer and not the most design enlightened guy. That still didn’t make the rough tan concrete walls of the low buildings scattered across the desert, with no vegetation to break up the monotony, anything but boring. He knew all the arguments that the ‘design’ was to help keep them unnoticed. Not to him, just boring.
The only item to break up the monotony was the graffiti scrawled across the exterior of the building that housed his lab. Don’t interfere with nature. It’s Earth’s Time. Earth needs to be allowed to die—all the ramblings of the Natural Earth Society. The NES didn’t believe in intervening technology. Problem was, if they didn’t intervene, Earth would die. No. Not on his watch. They could fix this.
At his building, he pressed his eye against the scanner and waited for the click of the lock to grant him entrance. A nod to the guards, and he took the stairs to his second-floor lab. Today was a big day.
Niles Whitmer, the other astrophysicist/engineer on the project team, was already at his workstation. He looked up. “Bitoo, bring the droopy man some coffee.”
A whirling sound behind him told Evan their resident robot was complying. Within thirty seconds, a hot mug of coffee was in his hands. He watched as Bitoo rolled away. “Ahh—I want one of those at home.”
“Yep, the perfect companion. It gets you what you want, cleans up the mess, and doesn’t talk back.”
Evan took a sip of coffee. “Did you see the new graffiti?”
“Yeah, maintenance power washed it yesterday. How are they getting on the compound, and better yet how are the secvids not picking them up?”
“I don’t know. At the meeting with the director last night, IT was at a loss. No evidence that anyone altered the security cams, but the NES is ramping up the damage. Talked with Kelly on the train, and he said someone trashed his lab last night. Didn’t destroy anything vital, but it’s a mess.”
“Wow, man, someone messing around in the anti-matter lab could have blown this compound off the planet. Gotta protect Dr. Kelly, he created the synthetic anti-matter that allowed us to have the power to develop the time warps and to juice up this laser.”
“I hear you, that was lucky.”
Niles held up his arm to show the four-inch-wide nylon band, which held a flat square box about an inch thick. His pride and joy, the miniature time travel device on his wrist. He had spent three of the seven years they had been developing time travel perfecting the small device.
“That is why my friend, when at work, I keep this on my wrist, and put it away at night where no one can find it.”
As Niles spun his stool around, Evan allowed a little smile. Niles thought it made him look cool. His cohort pointed to the wall-sized monitor behind his bench. “Data is nominal. I verified the target on course. Beam should be a go for test firing at 1500 hours.”
“You know, Evan, if this works, we can save the world.”
“That sounds melodramatic, Niles.” Evan chuckled, but his nerves were raw. Niles was right. A successful test would bring them hope. “Maybe we can.”
“And then, Dr. Brand, we get back to our real job.”
“You are itching to jump around time again, aren’t you?”
“I will admit our forays into the past have been fun.”
“Yeah, I thought as much. So, let’s go over the data. Test firing in six hours.”
In less than three hours, everything changed.
Evan was reviewing data from the earlier firing tests when his phone beeped. Aggravated, he jerked it from his pocket and tapped the screen. Chills swept through his body as he read the text.
The fate of the world must be as intended. You cannot stop fate. We are here. We will stop you. -The Natural Earth Society
He sucked in a breath. “Niles, get security.” He pressed a contact on his phone. “Director, the NES just sent me a text. They say they will stop us.”
Fifteen minutes later, Evan sat in the director’s office. Dr. Harvey Irwin was on a call to the White House. He had known Irwin long enough to know that when his ordinarily ruddy complexion was pale, there was trouble.
He ended the call, then pinched the bridge of his nose before looking at Evan. “We go. The President said no one was going to keep this test from firing.”
“Then, we go.”
“We have already doubled security, and more are on their way. This damn fool group can’t pull this off.”
Evan scoffed. “They are here. I know you’ve done security after security sweep, redone background checks, but they are here. The vandalism everywhere, labs trashed, no video. Whoever is behind this is very clever.”
Irwin shook his head. “They may be here, but they cannot stop us. Security is tighter than hell. They cannot get within 1000 yards of the tower. Drones, electric fences surround the compound and security has all the roads blocked. Not to mention the military closed airspace within twenty-five miles.
“Don’t be so cocky to think they can’t.”
“We have to do this test. This is the only live target we will have before that bloody asteroid gets here. Evan, we have to make certain we have enough power to move it away from Earth’s path.”
“I know.” He glanced at a photo on Irwin’s desk. “Nancee and the kids, did they get on a transport?”
Irwin picked up the photo. “Yeah, Eva and Cary cried because they had to leave Inky behind. Stupid cat. I think he misses them more than I do.”
“They’ll be back. The moon base is only temporary housing.”
“You know, they aren’t going to survive if we don’t. Either from debris thrown out by the collision will kill them or food and water will run out without supply runs.”
“All we can do is give them a chance.”
Irwin nodded. “Yeah.”
“I better get back to Niles. If we are going to fire this baby, then we need to get ready.”
They finished their prep review and left for the tower, located in the center of the compound. The research compound covered many square miles as it contained a particle collider and many other large-scale experimental research projects. Again, to keep prying eyes from noticing too much, the government built a subway system for travel. Employee parking was twenty miles away to hide where they were going.
The optimum site to locate the powerful laser was close to the center of the compound. The subway ride was quiet. With the test looming, most of the compound’s personnel were in their labs and not wandering. Neither spoke until they reached the door to the tower and paused.
“Niles, your genius got us here. If this works, I want this laser named after you.”
A brief widening of his eyes was telling, and Evan knew he was pleased. Niles nodded. “Thank you.” He opened the door and looked over his shoulder. “And if it fails, we name it after you.”
There wasn’t a seat or a place to stand in the room except for the two command console seats reserved for them. A large satellite maneuvered into the same trajectory as the incoming asteroid was the target. They had one chance to blow it out of the sky.
They took their seats and began their checklist. They were in a planned ten-minute hold at t – minus five minutes to check sensors on the laser, when Irwin received a call, then asked them to step into the hall.
“Radiation was detected at a perimeter sensor but nowhere else yet. Enough radiation for it to be a small nuclear bomb.” Irwin paused. “We have drones in the air but…. that’s not the worst news. Dr. Kelly did an inventory after the break-in. He’s missing four grams of synthetic anti-matter.”
It took a hard swallow for Evan to be able to talk. “So, they can stop us.”
“We don’t know where they are, but I don’t see how they could. If they have a small nuclear device, the anti-matter will… Well, you know. Catastrophic. Evan, they can’t get near the laser, so the test goes on. I am going to order an evac of the surrounding buildings. We should have enough time to get everyone in the area out of here and on the trains.”
As Irwin put the evac in motion, Evan and Niles returned to the command console. As the countdown was about to resume, it hit him. He knew how they would stop the test—the trains.
“Niles,” he kept his voice low. “The trains, they pass directly under here… remember one of the reasons we chose this spot. The tunnels provided a reinforced foundation.”
“Oh geez, that would work. A bomb that powerful would take us out easily.”
“Keep going. I’m heading to the station.”
He turned to leave, but Niles grabbed his arm. When he looked back, Niles was punching numbers into the time warp device. He unstrapped it, handing it to him. “Only chance we’ve got if you don’t get him this time. I have this set for you to return here now. If it starts to go sour, you will have five seconds to get out. Hit the button, don’t hesitate.
Evan nodded. It was a chance.
The evac siren was blaring as Evan forced his way through the crowd descending the steps to the subway station. They were orderly but, in a hurry, and shoulder to shoulder. If anyone panicked, it would become a stampede.
Crap. Never going to spot the target in the crowd this large. The only thing he knew is that he would have to be carrying a large bag. While unfortunately, nuclear bombs were smaller than before they were still heavy. Likely he would be wearing a backpack to carry the bomb easily.
He pushed his way down the stairs to the platform, now crowded with people. A train pulled in and the announcer, now live repeated. “Please be orderly. The evacuation is only a precaution. There are two more trains immediately behind this one, plenty of space for all. Please be orderly.”
The crowd surged onto the train, but the backup on the stairs flowed into the space—more people than the first group. Sucking in a deep breath, Evan stood on tiptoes to see over the crowd. Frantic seconds passed. He could hear the rumble of the next train heading to the station. There wasn’t much time.
Shifting position, he was about to look to his right when he saw him. Large black backpack, heavy he thought as the man stood bent over, his hands gripping the straps. He’d seen that face before but couldn’t place him. All he knew was he had to get to him.
Shouting for people to get out of the way, he shoved bodies aside as the second train slid to a stop. He only had seconds as he saw the man cross the threshold and board the train. He was a foot away from the doors as they shut. The man on the train smiled at him as the train pulled away and disappeared into the tunnel.
He saw the flash of light before he heard the rumble of the explosion. Niles had said—don’t hesitate. He pushed the button on the device and descended into darkness.
Bright light blinded him, and his heart racing, he sucked in a lungful of air. Gradually the noise in his ears became Niles’s voice.
“Evan, Evan… wake up. What happened?”
“I saw— saw him. Whoa… woozy.”
“That will pass and get less with each time trip. Who was it?”
“I’ve seen him but can’t think of what department. He has the bomb in a black backpack. I couldn’t stop him. It went off. Thank you.” He held up his arm. “This gives us a chance. I have to go back.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“No time. Just show me how to set this. Send me back five minutes.”
“Just show me.”
“Okay, this is the date selector, this sets the coordinates, and this is the time for past time travel. I have several locations built in that I traveled to, like the desert outside the compound and the lobby. Access them here. This pad is for the return trip. Don’t touch it until you need to use it. It will always bring you back here.”
Evan pressed the time forward icon and vanished.
He had hoped arriving earlier would help. It didn’t. Instead of a thinner crowd, there were more people as the first wave of evacuees heeded the blaring evacuation siren. At least, as Niles promised, the wooziness was not as bad.
He maneuvered through the crowd and managed to get to the location where he had spotted the target before. The throng rushed in and trapped him against the wall as the first train arrived. He had fifteen seconds once the doors opened.
Frantically, he searched for the man. Where was he? He should be close. As the doors opened, he saw him—twenty feet away. Reacting quickly, he pushed people out of the way, until one man pushed back, and he went to the deck. Struggling to get on his feet, he heard the doors close.
He hit the return icon and vanished.
“Damn it!” He yelled as he arrived back in the control room after two more tries.
Niles grabbed his arm and led him into the hallway. “What happened?”
“Going early didn’t work. More people in the way. I don’t know how I can get to him.”
Niles walked away and leaned against the wall. “Do you remember The Langoliers?”
“Niles, this is no time for your Stephen King fetish.”
“No, listen to me. Stephens was ridiculed for his bizarre time travel theories, but he was more correct than he realized. Michu Luhan and I got to tinkering with equations one night and well… we think time is linear. We think there is a void before and after time. That time is fluid and only exists with reality, or at least when consciousness is present. Otherwise, time is stagnant. Structures once built always exist, but conscious time as we perceive it is fluid.”
Niles dropped his head, bobbing it a few few times. Evan knew that quirk—his friend was about to tell him something profound.
“I’ve been there—for only a couple of seconds, but I traveled ahead of time. Not sure how but I was there as time arrived. I can send you there to get in place before he arrives.”
Evan was breathing hard. “We’re dead anyway if I can’t stop him, so why not…”
Niles grabbed his arm and inputted a code. “This is the screen. It is now controlling time forward. The return program is the same.”
“Wish me luck.” He vanished.
There was no one in the lobby. It was silent. Even his footsteps were silent. Did this work?
He raced down the stairs, finding the platform empty. He had never felt so alone, so hollow. Running along the safety strip, he stopped at the location where his quarry had gotten on the train and waited.
A thought began to form, a way out of this. He was reprogramming the device when his skin began to prickle. He concentrated on the device and then looked up. His vision distorted as first blurry images appeared, accompanied by a soft roar.
Time was catching up.
He waited, hoping the man wouldn’t notice him. He stood his ground during the first train, his nerves raw. The second train pulled in, and within seconds the man was there, his name badge ID—Dr. Jason Lee, Astrobiology. Before Lee could react, he threw his arms around the man and hit the time forward button.
The intense desert sunlight blinded and disoriented Lee, which Evan had counted on.
“So sorry, doc.”
He pulled the trigger device from Lee’s hand and pressed it with his left thumb while his index finger hit the return home icon. He appeared in the control room again. Niles was staring at him wide-eyed.
“Wait for it.”
They were silent as the countdown for the test continued. At t-minus 30 seconds, a powerful explosion rumbled in the distance. Neither spoke before the beam fired.
The building rumbled, and from the monitor, the intense white light of the laser appeared to burn the screen. Minutes passed as the projectcomm continued the countdown to impact. The satellite, the size of and weighted to approximate the asteroid, disintegrated.
As celebration erupted around them, Niles looked at him. “The explosion?”
“Dr. Jason Lee and his bomb. I transported us to the desert location and then got the hell out of there.”
Nile’s grin was huge. “It worked? You got there before time?”
Evan nodded. “Yeah. You and I need to talk.”
“Man, we saved everything. The compound, people, and probably Earth.”
Evan slumped deeper into his chair as the adrenaline faded. “We did.”
Author’s Note: When I first saw this image it reminded me of a scene from my favorite Stephen King novella, The Langoliers, which appeared in the novella collection, Four Past Midnight. I have referenced his concept of time in this story. The Langoliers might not be credible on its science according to some, but it’s a fine read and it certainly inspired one of my characters to save the day. Thank you, Mr. King.
From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sApril 2020prompt. I hope you enjoy!
D. A. Ratliff
Harper Anderson turned onto the street where her parents lived, hoping she was wrong. She wasn’t. Cars lined the normally quiet residential street along the river, giving no doubt that the wedding festivities were in full swing. She found a spot to park three houses past her destination and decided her suitcases could wait. It was July in Beaufort, South Carolina, and too hot to drag them that far down the street.
Two years had passed since she had been home for Christmas. Two years since her divorce. She shuddered in the afternoon heat not from remembering the stupidity of her marriage but why she had fled Beaufort in the first place. At least the reason she left town nine years before was no longer around.
Opening the gate, she walked around the side of the house, following the laughter. It was Saturday, and her “personalized” wedding itinerary said this was the first of two bridal showers she would have to endure this week. As she turned the corner into the backyard, she took a deep breath. Were there enough Bellinis in Beaufort to get her through the next eight days.
A squeal coming from the garden room stopped her, and she braced her body as the bride-to-be, her younger sister Hannah, ran out the door. “Harpy.” Hannah leapt and flung her arms around Harper.
Footsteps echoed on the sidewalk as she hugged Hannah before pulling away. “Do not call me Harpy.”
“But I love calling you that.”
“You heard your sister, please don’t call her that.” A gentle hand pried her from Hannah and drew her into an embrace.
“Thank you, Mom. Good to see you.”
“You too, darling. Where are your suitcases?”
“I had to park in front of the Clowers’s house, too hot to drag them.”
“Well, give your keys to your father when we get inside. He’ll get them. Now, Grandma Ester and Nana are waiting to see you.”
Harper looked toward the glass-enclosed room, and her mother laughed. “Don’t look so anxious. There’s wine punch, we’ll get through this.”
It had been a long time since she woke up in her parents’ home alone. She stretched and sat up, gazing out the window at the broad river flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico. A sight she had treasured since she was a little girl and no longer had to share a room with Hannah.
She plopped back on the bed. So many thoughts running through her head. The last time she was in her old bedroom, she had a terrible fight with her now-ex. That fight continued during the return trip home to Atlanta, and three days later, she filed for divorce. She had not been able to come home yet, but Hannah’s wedding changed that.
Her phone dinged. Her mom. Get down here, breakfast is ready. Leaving for church in 90 mins. She laughed. Just like the old days, summoned by Mom. She got out of bed to start the busy day.
Coming down the stairs, she heard children’s laughter, which meant her brother and sister-in-law were there with their kids. She stepped through the kitchen door, hearing Aunt Harpy as her niece and nephew ran to hug her. At Harpy, she glared at her sister, who just smiled.
“Clarise, good to see you!” She kissed her sister-in-law on the cheek then turned to her brother. Older by two years, he had always been her rock when growing up, and she felt that security wash over her as he hugged her.
He whispered, his eyes twinkling. “Harper Anderson, good to see you.”
“Hampton Anderson, good to see you.”
Her mother shooed everyone to the dining room, and as they headed there, Hampton pulled her aside.
“Harp, you okay? We’ve all been worried since you kept refusing to come home. I think Hannah just got engaged to get you here.” Her shocked look must have surprised him. “No, no, not really, but we were all happy when you said you would come.”
“I couldn’t stay away. You know that. Besides, I’m in the wedding party, so I had to come.” She grinned. “Now that might have been by design. And to answer your question, I am fine. I realize now that I am here, it was foolish to think this would be hard.”
“We’ve always got your back, Harp. Nothing that happened was your fault. You married him for love, but he wasn’t capable of loving anyone but himself.”
“And maybe every other woman in Atlanta. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t love. Maybe just the hope for love, but I have learned my lesson. I won’t stay away any longer. Let’s get in there, I’m starving.”
Hannah’s fiancé, Allan Stapleton, joined them for church services where the couple received blessings on their upcoming marriage. After the service, Hannah walked her through the decorations planned for the sanctuary, every minute detail. Thankfully, her mother intervened, there were lunch reservations.
Lunch was at the Beaufort House, a converted residence setting along the river. The Federalist-style antebellum house was 180 years old and beautifully maintained. Turned into a bed and breakfast and restaurant, the beautiful setting was the site of the wedding reception the following Saturday night.
Harper was enjoying Bellini while nibbling on a cheese and bacon omelet as Hannah went on about decorations for the reception. She tried to zone out and not listen to the joy in her sister’s voice. Her wedding reception to Jacob had been a quiet affair in her parents’ backyard, but then she didn’t marry a congressman’s son as Hannah was. Listening to her sister, she came to the realization that she had never felt that joy when she married. She should have. Maybe it was just the wrong person—definitely, the wrong person. But that was over too.
Hearing her sister call her name—actually, Harpy—interrupted her self-imposed inattention. She refocused on her sister’s beaming face catching her in mid-sentence. “…. love the photos we have planned here. We are going to take a lot of photos on the river path where you used to read.”
She could swear her sister’s eyes were taunting her, but Hannah would never be that cruel. Everyone knew why she avoided the river path. The memories of the small picturesque cove and the bench that sat there hovered in her mind. A sigh escaped her, it was a beautiful spot, and her sister had the “Martha Stewart” flair of wanting everything perfect. Photos taken there would be magical. Time to face the past and maybe the nagging hurt would finally go away.
Excusing herself, Harper walked out onto the wide veranda that wrapped around three sides of the house. She leaned against a post on the east side of the porch and gazed out at the broad river. She could see the path winding along the water’s edge, and she allowed herself to walk it in her memory.
Her mother’s parents lived about equidistant from the cove in the opposite direction of the Beaufort House. She, Hannah, and Hampton went to their grandparents after school and in the summers while her parents worked. She discovered the bright blue bench at the cove the summer she turned fifteen. The blue was ugly, and she had always wanted to paint the bench her favorite color, red. It became her chosen place to read. It was there that she met him.
Harper sighed. No need to dredge up the past, it was over. She turned, intending to rejoin her family in the dining room, but stopped in her tracks. The last person she hoped to see was blocking her way. Her ex-sister-in-law, Lucy Blakely Watson.
‘Harper Lee,” Lucy paused. “… Anderson. Momma was so happy to hear you had gone back to your maiden name.”
Taking a deep breath, Harper debated whether to simply walk past the woman or slap her. She decided slapping someone was generally frowned upon regardless of how tempting.
“Glad to know your momma is happy about something, I didn’t think that was possible. Now if you will excuse me.” She attempted to brush past Lucy, who stepped in the way.
“You stay away from Jacob. He was devastated after you threw him out, but he has remarried, in case you hadn’t heard. I don’t want you making trouble for him.”
Seething with anger, Harper wanted to scream, I threw him out because he was having an affair, but she didn’t. Hands clenched, she smiled. “Did he marry the one he had an affair with when married to me or cheat on her too?”
Jerking her hand away, she walked away as Lucy called after her. “You heard me, stay away from him.”
That evening was another shower given by Hannah’s sorority sisters. The house was full of laughter and squeals as it was a lingerie shower. Sitting with Clarise in the corner of the front parlor, she was surprised when her sister-in-law commented.
“Honestly, Harper, I didn’t even know they did these kinds of showers anymore.”
“I know, and well, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“I hate to admit it, but I’m not certain what some of those toys are.”
They both laughed, but Harper sensed Clarise was staring at her.
“From where I was sitting at lunch, I saw you talking to that vile Lucy, and I was wondering what she had to say.”
“She warned me to stay away from her brother. Like that would be an issue.”
“When he returned here after the divorce, he went to work for his dad. Hampton heard his dad has caught him a few times with his hand in the till. I’m glad you got rid of him.”
“I never expected him to move to Atlanta to work for the same sports PR company where I worked. Handsome, charming, and well, I was lonely, and prime for the picking. He only wanted my connections. The fight we had here at Christmas was not only about his latest conquest, but I found out he had stolen two of my large accounts. Went to my boss as soon as I returned, and he was livid. Jacob had presented him with forged documents showing I had released the accounts to him. You know I filed for divorce the same day the company fired him for his actions. He tucked tail and ran home to mommy and daddy.”
“Harper, I think you should know…”
Hannah interrupted. “Harper Lee, Clarise, get over here. I am about to open y’all’s presents now. I am sure hoping they are silky cloth and not silicone.”
As they rose to join the others, Harper paused. “What were you going to tell me?”
“It’s okay, it can wait.”
Monday and Tuesday passed in a whirlwind. The days filled with last-minute fittings for all the bridesmaids, a minor catastrophe with the florist—the centerpiece roses were not peachy enough. Wedding presents were arriving by the truckload, and Harper and two sorority sisters oversaw cataloging them. Harper collapsed into bed on Tuesday night, exhausted, hoping Wednesday would be a quieter day.
After breakfast on Wednesday morning, were last-minute seating arrangements for the reception before they dressed for the family luncheon at the country club. Harper had seen little of the men in the family and was looking forward to spending time with them.
Her hope for a quiet Wednesday ended when, near the end of the luncheon, her grandpa Franklin collapsed.
The nine-mile trip from the country club on Lady’s Island to the hospital felt like an eternity to Harper. Her father driving, her mom quiet, but her eyes never leaving the ambulance carrying her father.
She sat in the backseat, texting with Hannah, who was riding in the car behind them with Allen and his parents. Her brother was in a third car with her dad’s parents and Clarise and the kids. Allan’s brother stayed behind to deal with the restaurant.
As the ambulance pulled into the emergency bay, her dad parked at the curb. “Harper, take your mom in. I’ll park the car and be right there.”
The emergency room was quiet. Her mom joined her parents as soon as he was in a room. As the minutes passed, the rest of the family arrived. They waited.
When her mom came to the waiting room, the look of relief on her face allowed everyone to breathe easier. “Not a heart attack, or a stroke. The doctor,” she paused and glanced at Harper, “believes a new med his doctor just put him on is the culprit. Doctor… uh, the ER doctor… is calling Dad’s doctor now. I think we should…”
Harper’s grandmother appeared at the ER door. “Your dad is asking for you.”
“I’ll be back in a bit.” She gave Harper a quick glance before she returned to her dad.
Harper felt the unease in the room. It was more than Grandpa Franklin’s health. She was about to ask Clarise what she was going to tell her earlier when the answer walked into the lobby. She was certain from the chill that flooded her body that all blood had drained from her face. It was him. The man she loved. The man who had left her.
Dr. Garrett Frazier’s eyes darted around the room until he found her. Harper was rooted to the floor, keeping her from running. When he spoke, the voice that she loved so much flooded her with heat.
“Good to see all of you and glad that I have good news. Franklin had a reaction to a new prescription, and I have spoken to his doctor, who is calling in a new drug for him.”
Hannah was beaming. “Then, he’s going to be able to come to the wedding?”
Garrett smiled. “Yes, I want him to rest for the next couple of days, but he’s cleared to attend your wedding.”
As Hannah hugged Garrett, Harper spun and ran from the emergency room.
The afternoon passed, and in the early evening, Harper was in her room, staring out the window. A knock on the door brought a sense of dread. Someone wanted to talk about Garrett. It was inevitable, so she called out—come in.
Her mother and Hannah walked in, and her mother started the conversation. “Darling, we have a confession to make.” Looking nervously at Hannah, her mom continued. “We knew Garrett was back. He accepted the position of Medical Director of ER and came to see me shortly after he arrived. He wanted to know about you. His mom told him you had divorced, and well, he was hoping you would talk to him. He said he missed you a great deal.”
Hannah took a deep breath. “It was my idea to surprise you at the wedding. He’s invited, and well, we were hoping at the reception you would talk to him.”
Harper didn’t speak for a moment, and she could tell it made them nervous. Good. They should be. “You should have told me. When Garrett decided to turn down the residency in Atlanta for the hospital in Chicago, he broke my heart. I had already taken the job in Atlanta, thinking he would be there. He didn’t even discuss it with me.”
“Harper, we should have. I am sorry.”
“Mom and I talked about this, if you are uncomfortable with him being there, I will ask him not to come. His mom was coming with him, but I am certain she will understand.”
“No, don’t do that. I can deal with this. No more talk about it.”
The next two days passed in a whirlwind of more final fittings, last-minute details regarding the reception, the bridesmaids’ luncheon and rehearsal, and dinner on Friday night. Their Saturday morning consisted of a family breakfast, then off to the salon for hair and makeup. It wasn’t until she was waiting to precede her sister down the aisle that she allowed herself to take a breath. All she had to do was get through the next few hours, and tomorrow she could go home.
As the music started and the procession began, she promised herself that she wouldn’t look for him. Three steps into the church, and she spotted him. He was staring at her, and she felt anger that morphed into desire. She wasn’t over him, but she was going to be. She had to be. Taking a deep breath, she concentrated on her sister’s ceremony. Her problems could wait.
Next came the photoshoot along the river path. She was dreading it as the memories were now very raw. As they approached the cove, her heart skipped a beat. The blue bench—it wasn’t blue. It was red. Her favorite shade— red pepper red. When did….? She turned to Hannah, who smiled. “A little surprise for you.”
“I remember how you always wanted this bench to be red.”
Garrett. She turned. “Did you do this?”
He stepped closer. “I have a confession to make. I did. It helps to have a mother on the city council. She got approval, and I bought the paint and painted it.”
“Because I never forgot you or what I did to you. You were so proud of your job in Atlanta and angry with me for changing my mind at the last minute that I just walked away. I wanted you to be happy, and I thought the job was what made you happy. I was hoping this would make you happy.”
“I was never happy when you left. But you never came back.”
“I thought you didn’t want me.”
Harper clenched her fists. “I always wanted you. You broke my heart.”
Garrett placed his hands on her upper arms. “Well, I am a doctor. Maybe I could put your broken heart back together?”
“Are you that good a doctor?”
She leaned against his chest. “Then start healing me.”
Author’s Note: I am going to attribute this story to a Hallmark moment. Try as I might, this red bench just spoke romance to me. As I don’t normally write in the romance genre, I asked my best friend for some assistance. The main character and the good doctor’s name and profession came from her, and the story followed. Stacy, I wrote this story for you to enjoy. I think I will return to mysteries!
From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sFebruary 2020 prompt. I hope you enjoy!
Flight of Fancy
By D. A. Ratliff
Aristotle Elena Rossi stepped off the bus and promptly sat down on the bus shelter bench. She was half a block from home, an apartment above her family’s restaurant, but was reluctant to face them. No one would be happy about her news. Not anyone alive anyway.
She leaned back against the glass shelter wall and gazed toward the sky in time to see a commercial jet appear in the space between the giant skyscrapers. Seeing a plane always tore at her heart as it represented both tragedy and hope.
How was she going to tell them? She uttered a nervous laugh. It wasn’t certain, but it was possible, and she had to tell them. As the plane passed beyond her view, she closed her eyes as her thoughts drifted to the meeting with Dr. Bryant, her advisor, who messaged her to see him after her last class.
“Sit down, Aris. I have some news.”
He handed her a document, and upon reading the heading, she gasped. The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, School of Philosophy. She raised her eyes to Dr. Bryant, afraid to read further.
“Yes, you are a finalist for one of the fifty positions in the program. Congratulations.”
Aris sucked in a breath. “I never thought I would get this far.”
“I know the odds were long, but your grades are excellent, your knowledge of the Greek philosophers as strong as any faculty member at CUNY, and your submissions essay outstanding. I’m not surprised.”
“I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. Thanks.”
“My pleasure. It’s my understanding the committee will meet shortly after the semester ends, and the finalists’ grades along with a recommendation from faculty will count toward the final selection, which should be announced by July 1st.”
As she rose, Dr. Bryant added, “Aris, I hope your family realizes how important this is to your future.”
“I hope so, too.”
Looking again at the now-empty sky, she dreaded what awaited her. No time to linger, she headed down the block to her fate.
Papa Nico’s Greek Restaurant, known as one of the best Greek eateries in Manhattan, was preparing for dinner. She shoved open the door and stepped inside, the spicy aroma of tonight’s special wafting toward her.
Her ya-ya Sofia sat behind the cash register. “Ah, Aris, my favorite granddaughter.”
She kissed her ya-ya on the cheek. “I’m your only granddaughter, but I love it when you say that. Where’s Mama?”
“She’s in the office with Dorothea, tallying up the lunch receipts.”
“Thanks. I need to talk to her, and then I’ll be back to take the phone orders.”
Walking along the corridor past the restrooms, she faltered and nearly ran but remembered her father’s final words, which gave her strength. She rapped on the office door.
Her mother, Medina, beckoned her in. “How was school? Hard to believe you almost finished with your freshman year.”
“Good.” She paused. “Mama, I need to talk to you.”
She glanced at Dorothea. She wanted to talk to her mother alone and hoped her aunt would catch on. Her aunt did, but her mother shook her head. “No, stay. We are family.”
“Mom, last semester, Dr. Bryant talked to me about a program that offered a semester of study in philosophy. I decided to pursue it and filled out the application and submitted the required essay. Dr. Bryant informed me this morning that I’m among the finalists for one of the fifty slots in the program. I’ll know in July if they select me.”
“Darling, that’s wonderful! Why didn’t you tell us?”
Here it comes. The moment she feared. “The program is at the University of Athens, in Greece.”
The color drained from her mother’s face. “In Greece? You would have to fly there. No, no — you’re not getting on a plane. That’s final.” Her mother fled the office.
Tears spilled from Aris’s eyes, and Dorothea rushed to hug her. “My little one, I know it’s difficult, but your mother has never gotten over your father’s death. You know that planes frighten her, and she is only trying to protect you.”
“She has to stop. All of you have to stop keeping me trapped because of what happened to my dad. It’s not fair.”
“You’re still a child and…”
“I am eighteen and old enough to make my mind up.”
“My precious Aris, they only want what’s best for you.”
“No, all of you want what’s best for yourselves. That’s to keep me here, in the restaurant. Pappouli only agreed to pay my tuition if I studied business and forgot philosophy.”
“You are studying both. Papa allowed you to follow your whim.”
“He only wants the family’s dream for me, not my own. No more.” She spun and stormed out. They were not going to defeat her dreams. Her father’s dreams.
Her shift ended at eleven p.m., and after she helped clean the dining room, all Aris wanted was to escape upstairs to her room. She was gathering her coat and books from behind the counter when her grandfather called to her.
“Aris, come here.”
She followed him into the dining room, where her family waited. The rattling of pans and the sound of the industrial dishwasher told her that her uncle Zander, Dorothea’s husband, and their son Alex, who was still in high school, remained in the kitchen cleaning up. Zander rarely involved himself in family squabbles. Her mother, grandmother, and aunt sat together at a table.
Nico Persopoulos stood before an empty chair and motioned for her to sit down. Years of habit spurred her to obey.
“Aris, your mother tells me you have applied for some study program at the University of Athens. As you know, I willingly pay for your education in business so that you’ll take over the restaurant when I am gone. This foolish wish to study philosophy will get you nothing in life. I am only looking out for your best interest. And for your mother. She suffered a great loss. While I never thought your father was good enough for her, he was a successful restaurant equipment salesman and helped in here in our restaurant when he could.”
Her chest hurt as if her grandfather had punched her. “I lost something too. I lost my father. All I ever had of him are the philosophy books he left me. He was going to take me to Greece to see where Aristotle, Thales, and Zeno lived. He wanted us to walk where they walked. He told me how much fun we would have…”
Her grandfather interrupted, his voice agitated. “Your father was a dreamer. Always had his head in the clouds and his face in those books. Your mother was foolish for naming you what he wanted, and now every day, you’re reminded of his obsession. This foolishness is not practical, and I forbid you to go on this flight of fancy.”
Her heart shattered, and she clenched her fists until her nails pierced her palms. “I’m over eighteen. You cannot stop me.”
She rose and picked up her books. Running toward the back staircase, all she could hear was her mother’s sobs.
Spring semester exams were a week away, and mid-morning, Aris grabbed a coffee and pastry for breakfast and sat at a bare wood table in the dining room. She was reading from a textbook on ancient philosophies.
The doors from the kitchen opened, and she raised her eyes to see her mother entering with fresh tablecloths. She had avoided her family as much as possible since she told them about the program, citing a need to concentrate on her studies. Being alone with her mother was the last thing she wanted.
Dropping the tablecloths onto a nearby table, her mother sighed. “I thought you would be at school by now. You’ve been hurrying out of here every morning for a month.”
“You know I have an early morning class, Mama, but canceled today because of exams.” She got up to get more coffee. The kitchen was busy prepping for lunch, and the smell of cinnamon and Greek oregano was filling the dining room. A wave of nostalgia swept over her. This restaurant had always been her home, but it was time for more.
As her mother busied herself spreading the tablecloths, Aris continued to read, waiting for the shoe to drop. Her mother would say something. She knew it. She did.
“Aris, you owe your grandfather an apology and an explanation of your behavior.”
“I did nothing wrong. All of you knew what I wanted to study since I was a child.” She took a breath. “For your information. I spoke to the scholarship department. There is a good chance I can secure an academic scholarship. If so, I’ll be changing my major to philosophy only. If the University of Athens program chooses me, the scholarship will remain mine for when I return.”
“I forbid you to go to Greece.”
“It’s one semester, Mama. Then I’ll be back.”
“No, I won’t let you travel that far.”
“You can’t stop me. I am old enough to do what I want.”
“You remember what my father said. You played it for me when I was little. I memorized every word. But when you realized that I shared his passion for Greek philosophers, you hid the tape. Never let me hear his voice again.” She was shaking so hard that she gripped the edge of the table. “You kept the only thing I had of my dad from me. He died one month before I was born, and all I had was a recording of his voice and his books. And you hid the answering machine from me.” She picked up her book, plate, and coffee cup. “I’m going. If I get the opportunity, I am going.” Turning toward the kitchen to take her dishes, once again, she heard her mother sobbing.
Aris was covering as cashier while her aunt took a break. With their relationship strained, the family spoke only when necessary regarding the restaurant. Only her grandmother had asked her how her exams had gone. Thankfully, they had gone well.
Dr. Bryant had called with news that he had sent her grades and recommendation letters from three of her professors to the selection committee. His contact assured him the committee would decide by July 1st so that the students could deal with personal issues and make travel arrangements. Now they waited.
Daydreaming about Greece, Dorothea startled her when she returned. “Sorry, and sorry, I’m late. I had something to do. Listen, when you get off tonight, come to my apartment. I have something to show you.”
It was nearing midnight when Aris knocked at her aunt’s third-floor apartment. Opening the door, Dorothea grabbed her by the arm and pulled her in.
“I don’t want anyone in the family to know you’re here. I have done something that will get me into a lot of trouble with my parents and your mother.” She smiled. “To be honest, I don’t care if they know but not until you know everything. Sit.”
They sat on the couch, and Aris noticed her aunt sneak a nervous glance at a small cardboard box sitting on the coffee table.
“First, I want to tell you about your mother. When your father died on that terrible day, your mother lost part of her soul. Papa didn’t like Theo because he didn’t want to work in the restaurant. His grandparents owned one, and he grew up working for them. He took his skills and began working for a company that sold equipment to restaurants. It was how he met your mother. Papa bought a new oven from him.
“Then 9-11 happened, and our world came to a standstill. Aris, your birth five weeks later was the joy we all needed but short lived because of your mother’s illness. Medina was already in a deep depression from losing Theo, and it only became worse after you were born. You don’t remember, and we never told you, but she spent eight months in a private hospital. Mama and I used to take you on the train to Queens to the hospital, hoping she would react. She developed such a phobia to planes that they installed blackout curtains in her room so she couldn’t see the planes from LaGuardia.”
“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?” Aris hoped her voice didn’t sound as shaken to her aunt as it did to her.
“Because Papa wouldn’t let us. She was his baby, and I never faulted him for protecting her more than any of us. The love between your parents was deeper than any I have ever seen, and as much as I love Zander, our love couldn’t compare. Your mother lost part of her soul that morning and never recovered. Her fear of planes and flying is deep seated now and why she is fighting you, but I also think that she feels that she is losing you to the same things that Theo loved. She is losing him again through you.”
Her aunt took a deep breath. “I heard you tell your mother that she had taken your father’s voice away from you. I knew you needed to have this with you and that we all need to face the fact that you are also Theo Rossi’s daughter, and his passion lives on in you.”
“I will not forgive her for that.”
Dorothea picked up the box and handed it to her. “I knew where Papa hid the answering machine.” As Aris opened the box, she continued. “I thought you should have the message from your father. I checked. It works.”
“I can hear him again?”
Dorothea nodded, and Aris threw her arms around her aunt. “Thank you.”
Leaving her aunt’s, she snuck into her apartment and quickly got ready for bed. Plugging the machine in, she slipped under the covers, pulling them over her head. She turned the volume down as low as possible and listened to her father’s final words. She was crying in her pillow as she heard her mother come in.
The next night after closing, she summoned the family to the dining room. After wrestling with her emotions, she had decided what to do.
“What did you want to say to us?” Her grandfather stood defiantly with his arms crossed.
She reached into her school bag and removed the answering machine. She heard her mother gasp but calmly plugged the machine in.
“Mama, I know this will be difficult, but all of you need to listen.” She pressed play. The tape was old with a bit of static, and her father’s deep voice was raspy and labored.
“Medina, by now, you may know what has happened, but my love, I won’t be coming home. A plane struck the Tower, and there is no way out of the restaurant. I need you to tell my parents that I love them. Nico, Sofia, Dorothea, Zander, thank you for bringing me into your lives. I beg you to take care of my Medina and our daughter.
Please, Medina, know I will love you for eternity. You are the love I wanted, and you have given me joy. I am sorry I will not be there to raise our daughter. Please give her the name we discussed. Aristotle Elena and call her Aris and play this message for her when she is older.
Aris, this is your father. I am so sorry I am not with you, but my love is with you always. Your mother will tell you of my passion for the ancient Greek philosophers. I want you to share that love. I have many books for you to read and had hoped one day to take you to Greece, where we could walk where Aristotle and the others walked. You must do that someday and know that I walk with you. I love you.
Medina, live your life and make our daughter happy, I will always lov…”
Silence met the end of the message. Aris paused before she spoke.
“This is why, if I am accepted, I will go to Greece — for my father.”
Aris took the answering machine and left hearing not only the tears of her mother but the tears of all.
Summer school started as Aris nervously awaited the committee’s decision. Two weeks had passed since she played the tape for her family, and tensions remained strained, but she was resolute. Her decision was made.
It was July 3rd and no word. Riding home on the bus after class, the lack of news discouraged her. As the bus rolled to a stop, she vowed that she would go to Greece regardless. Lost in her thoughts, she stepped off the bus, shocked to find her family waiting for her.
Her grandfather stepped forward, handing her a letter. “Dr. Bryant is a kind man. He allowed me to bring the news to you. Go ahead. Read it.”
Aris ripped open the letter to read the words. Congratulations, you are among the students selected for the program. Tears welling, she raised her eyes to her smiling grandfather.
“You were right all along. We were trying to protect you and your mother and failed you both. Your mother is going to see a psychologist so she can come to terms with what happened.” He handed her another envelope with an airline logo. “You are going to Greece.”
Medina hugged her. “I’m frightened for you to go, but it’s what you should do.”
Ya-Ya Sofia clapped her hands. “We made your favorite cake, yiaourtopita, to celebrate. Let’s go home.”
They walked toward the restaurant, her arm linked in her grandfather’s, as her mother, grandmother, and aunt excitedly discussed buying new clothes for her trip. Aris glanced up to see a plane passing above her.
She smiled. She was going to Greece to walk among the philosophers with her dad.
When I first saw this prompt, the events of 9-11 didn’t resonate until other authors mentioned it. Their comments triggered a memory, and once that memory surfaced, I needed to honor it.
A friend was a union organizer for the restaurant workers union and shortly before that day, had organized the workers at the Windows On the World restaurants atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center. After the attack, she spent the day with friends as no one wanted to be alone. When she returned to her apartment that evening, there was a message waiting for her on her answering machine.
The restaurant worker she had worked closely with during organizing had left her a message. He told her he called his wife to say goodbye. His message to my friend was to say thanks for her friendship, dedication, and hard work for their organizing effort. He wanted her to keep up the good work.
I have never forgotten his story and thought this was a way to honor all the victims of 9-11.
Over many months, I have been devoting most of my time to a writing group on Facebook. With 57,000 + members, a blog, and publishing several anthologies, the admin team has been busy. I have been posting a lot of stories and articles written by the talented members of Writers Unite! but time for me to focus a bit more on my writing.
My first novel should ready for publication in Spring 2020, and I will be posting a bit about that as time passes. The book entitled Crescent City Lies is a murder mystery set in my favorite city, New Orleans.
An excerpt from Crescent City Lies:
It was too quiet.
Emeline Drake climbed the steps onto the front porch of her newly inherited New Orleans home, goosebumps prickling her skin. No one rushed onto the porch, arms outstretched to greet her as there had been so many times before. She peered through the stained-glass front door, hoping her great-aunt would appear, but she knew better. Olivia Rivard was dead. All the rational reasons not to relocate, reasons she had chosen to ignore, rushed back as she pressed her forehead against the glass, still warm in the early evening.
“What were you thinking?” She whispered to no one but wished someone would answer.
Over the next weeks, I will talk about more about the book, about my favorite city and look for the serial western that I have been posting. I had fun writing The Last Chance, and although I never planned on publishing it, I wanted to share it. You can find to story to date on under The Coastal Library on the menu bar.
Wade McCord left his past behind and wandered westward, looking for a fresh start. A stopover in Wickenberg, AZ brought him face to face with an evil land baron and a beautiful woman who was in mortal danger. Was this McCord’s last chance to find his destiny?
I have written a lot of stories that I will likely not publish but enjoyed writing and decided I wanted to share them. First up is The Last Chance, a western, which is a genre I do not normally write. However, I loved writing this story.
I have been posting it as a serial and just added Part Five to the page. Click on the link below and scroll down to Part Five.