Christmas Morning

Boy Christmas Tree

Ella settled onto her blanket, squirming with excitement. She could hear her heart beating -almost as loudly as Baby Mia’s breathing, from the crib.

Ella knew, when morning came, there might not be presents under the tree.

When she and Jake wrote letters to Santa forever ago, Mommy had said, “Don’t expect too much.”

When they had gone to the stores to see Santa, Daddy had said, “Now, don’t expect too much.”

That night, they had read about Jesus. “Jesus was the greatest gift,” Daddy said. He had looked at them, reminding them what was important.

Then, they had unwrapped the pajamas Mommy made. Ella wondered why Mommy kept crying. “Don’t expect too much, Mommy,” she’d said.

Ella heard a knock. She scampered to her door. She could see Jake’s dark face, peeking.

Mommy opened the front door. There were happy voices. Daddy turned, and scolded, “Ella, Jake! Get back in bed or Santa won’t come!” Jake’s nose went back into his room. Ella went back to her blankets.

Who is at the door? She wondered, as she drifted off to sleep.

Soon, Jake was shaking her. “Ewha! Chwismas!” He danced around the room, shouting. Mommy came in, looking tired. She scooped up Baby Mia.

Ella jumped up and followed Jake to the family room. She stopped, toes curling in carpet. There were boxes and boxes in bright, shimmering colors. Slowly, wondering, Ella walked forward.

She stopped, then looked happily at Mommy. “I guess I should have expected too much!”

 

Susanna Hill’s 7th Annual Holiday Contest

Advertisements

Ladies First

“I’ve got to shop for pants today,”
She told the stingy traffic lights.
She told the grocer and the pump;
And then, the quickly-coming night.

“I’d love to try this recipe,”
She said, as they drew near to home;
With only time for Mac ‘N Cheese,
‘Midst whining, falsely-crying tones.

“A bath would be a lovely break
Whilst reading Lover’s Passioned Call.”
Alas, the heated water drained,
Whilst splashing children took it all.

The lights were off; he found her there,
Her loving, all-day-working man.
“I thought you wanted time alone.”
She sniffed; she said, “And, here I am.”

 

Flash Fiction Entry

Party of One

Woman

Don’t be afraid of you. Others want to know you. She glanced up; scanned the oblivious guests.

“Excuse me,” a sexy voice said. She turned, her finger marking the text. “I need to get to the bathroom,” he nodded, beyond her.

“Oh,” she said, embarrassed. She moved. He went past.

She opened to another, dog-eared entry. The surest way to make friends is to listen. She moved near a chattering group.

“Excuse me?!” A woman asked angrily. “This is a private conversation!”

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

This was hopeless. Before exiting, she carefully tucked Surefire Social Success! into the garbage.

 

Flash Fiction Entry

Let’s Stay in Bed Today

Snow1

“Snow! Snow-snow-snow-snow-snow! Mikey, snow!”

Small padding thumps descended the dirty stairs and crossed the short space to Mike’s sleeping head. Their accompanying arms pushed, insistently, at his body. Mike groaned and rolled from the thin camping cot. Cold, solid boards against his back completed his abrupt awakening.

He cracked open an eye to acknowledge the bouncing child. “No, Tommy, not snow,” he croaked, squinting.

“Yes, snow, Mikey!” Impatient toddler legs ran back across the room and up to the thick, semitransparent Plexiglas at the end of the tunnel. Mike turned his head against the floor. Tommy was pressing his face eagerly against the plastic, to see what he could never clearly see.

Good thing Dad has the access key to the door, Mike thought, then swallowed. Though, it hasn’t worked out with Dad not being here now. He pushed the thoughts away quickly, and groaned again. He stretched his hands up till they nearly brushed against the splintered boards just above his reaching arms.

“Mom! Mom-Mom-Mom-Mom!” Tommy stumbled down to push at the sleeping woman, instead.

“Mmm?” she queried.

“Mom, snow! Can we go play?” Mike sat up to watch from an obliging elbow, amused, as his brother leaned over her. Tommy’s tiny nose barely touched their mother’s. He breathed in her face expectantly.

“Mom, Mom! Mikey says it’s not snow, but it is. Can I go play?”

Her eyelids fluttered, opened. She made out the blurry, impatient face and sighed. “Oh Tommy, sweetheart. Come here.” Pulling her arms from their sleeping bag, she lifted them to either side of her crouching son.

“No, Mommy!” He pushed her arms; sat back. “I want to play in the snow! Open the door!”

“I can’t honey. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can! Make Daddy come back and open the door!” Tommy started crying, punching at her arms and bouncing on her body.

Mike quickly heaved off the floor, stooping; came over, stopped Tommy’s arms. He lifted his flailing, sobbing brother against the low ceiling.

“I’m so sorry, my Tom Thumb, we can’t. We can’t.” The tears ran slowly down their mother’s face. She sat up and reached out her arms still, wanting to hold her son.

Mike bumped against the roof boards, straining against the angry child. “Hey, Tommy,” he said, on inspiration, “Did you know snow is really cold?”

Tommy stopped resisting. “Cold?”

“Yes, very cold. Remember?” Mike saw he had Tommy’s attention. Tiny mental wheels were turning as Tommy’s face scrunched in the dim lighting. Mike loosened his grip and they sat together on the dirt-covered floorboards.

Mike continued. “Remember when we played in the snow and you got wet and your fingers hurt? They were red.” Tommy stuck a finger in his mouth, remembering.

“But I want to play,” he spoke, plaintively, around the finger. Tears ran down their mother’s face.

“I know,” Mike said. The muffled silence filled their ears as Tommy thought.

“I’m sorry, mommy,” he whispered, finally hugging her. She sniffed, wiping her nose against her shoulder, trying to smile.

“I love you, Tommy.” Together, they rocked. Their slow-moving forms slowly swept the shushing sleeping bag against the floor.

“Come help me make breakfast,” she offered. He nodded and moved to the side. Carefully, she peeled her legs free and hunched upright. They padded over to the wall of shelves.

Mike sat, watching them open the cache in the floor, pulling out the cans, hunting for the opener. Then he turned again to the end of the tunnel; the only source of natural light, watching the swirling, dancing storm of particulates drifting by.

 

Particular

3ish-Paragraph Story: Cash Reward

Gone. It was all gone: the house, the car, the television, even her KitchenAid mixer. He was gone, too -of course. He’d taken everything. The only things he’d left behind were her sweet, innocent halves-of-him. She looked over at them fondly; sleeping so obliviously, so trustingly.

She ran a tired hand through her tangled, fried hair. It was really suffering from the cheap “shampoo” she had been using: watered-down hotel-labeled body wash. She’d just used up the last of the last of what could still be called suds, and had tossed it across the hole-ridden floor in a fit of depression. It sat spinning slowly, emptily.

It stopped; it pointed. The dim night light caught a glint just beyond it: a reflected surface mirroring shadows from a crack in the crumbled bathroom wall. Desperately curious, she crawled toward it. She pawed at the wall, dislodging bits of drywall, paint, wallpaper, and linoleum. They dusted onto and around the brushed metal cover of her possible treasure, or a possible hidden stash of contraband items.

But, no! it was treasure. It was an old steel cash box, stuffed to the brim with various bills. She hugged it, covering her old t-shirt and shorts in wall detritus; crying.

Word-Pruning

I wrote something Saturday for a writing competition.

If you, like me, sometimes need a little kick (or, very large boot) to start your writing engine, then you know that 100 word stories are a great motivation.

Properly nudged, therefore, I began my little story.

“Hey, this is turning out well,” I complimented myself. Gears turning, I added details. I named my character. She did cute little gestures with her face.

Then, I remembered my limits. I stopped, counted. I was at 88 words and little Sadie was still on the couch. I was not going to fit my planned end dialogue from a candy corn man in just 12 words.

I began trimming. Sadie’s lips no longer pursed thoughtfully as she scowled impatiently. Her comforter didn’t swish to the floor; then, it was no longer mentioned at all. The candy corn people originally came from a dish of various confections, but “Mellowcreme pumpkins” was two extra words too many.

Like a manic killer, I slashed adjectives, actions, and prepositions. Two descriptive sentences became one of a somewhat less interesting run-on sentence.

There! I counted again. Argh! 115 words.

I pored through any possible excess, one word at a time. Initially happy at the prospect of creating a workable masterpiece, I now cursed the word limit in frustrated whispers.

Finally, I gathered my remains, stuffed them into a somewhat-coherent form, and clicked Publish.

Staring round at the dismembered body of my original story, I vowed to never again write such a restrictive theme -at least until tomorrow.

A Quick Witch Trip

pexels-photo-547264

“What wond’rous thing, this shopping cart,”
Grismelda said, to Shadow cat.
The cat looked bored; he licked a paw.
A cart, wond’rous? He’d pick a rat.

“Eek!” Gris screeched. Shadow looked up.
“What are these monstrous gold things?”
“You mean the corn?” A worker asked.
He hated Hallowe’ens.

Curious now, she tried a taste
Of yellowed, husk-wrapped coblet.
“Ugh!” She spat. Her cat hissed back.
“These corns taste worse than carpet!”

“You’ll have to buy that now, you know,”
The worried worker noted.
Gris sneered, but dropped it in her cart,
“We’ll make it candied corn,” she voted.

A second (and last) entry for The 7th Annual Halloweensie Contest.

Midnight

Candy Corn Men.jpg

Tick, tock, said Grandma’s mantel clock, pointing to ten.

Sadie watched it, frowning. It would never be Halloween at this rate!

She sleepily scrambled to the sofa arm. Perching unsteadily, she stretched shadowed arms to retrieve the clock. A bowl of candies knocked loose and spilled to the floor.

She stopped, listening. Only the clock said, Tick.

Prising open the monstrous, creaking casing; she nudged both hands to point up: midnight.

Ching, it said, then, tock.

“Hello!” a cheerful voice greeted. She looked down. The spilled candy corns were moving. A tiny hand waved.

“Hello!” It repeated, “May we eat you?”

Crafted for The 7th Annual Halloweensie Contest.

The Garage Between Worlds, Part II

Continued from yesterday

Sean stepped away, running his hands down her goose-pimpled arms. He held each of her hands and looked intently into her large hazel eyes. He hadn’t seen Rose clearly without glasses for many years; but still had not recalled her eyes ever shining with such radiance, such depth of emotion.

“I will never leave you alone,” he told her sincerely. Rose smiled, and looked away shyly. A lovely, long, brownish sheet of hair coyly obscured part of her face. He brushed it to the side and secured it behind her left ear. He ran a finger gently down her cheekbone till she returned his gaze again.

Rose nodded; said, “Okay, Sean.” He nodded as well. They smiled.

Together, they turned and started across the sliding sand toward the music. A drum now faintly accompanied the lively guitar chords. Rose thought she could make out a rustling maraca or two.

“A path,” Sean suddenly said. Rose started at the interruption, and so did a tiny bird that had been resting near them in a small pineapple bush. It flapped in consternation, then took offended flight into a plant a little farther along.

Rose looked down at where Sean indicated and saw that, yes, a few round stones poked through the sand of the beach. Looking up, they saw the foliage carefully curved around the open space above the stones. A veil of swishing flowers hung from a tree on the left a few feet ahead. Beyond it, an unlit tiki torch sat where the trail seemed to end.

Cautiously, they walked forward into the arched jungle tunnel. Rose’s feet tickled in the sand and cooled on the wave-rounded stones. She ran a timid hand across a hanging leaf as they passed.

Sean stopped at the torch, so Rose paused just behind him. “What is it?” She whispered.

“It’s the end of the trail,” Sean told her, also in a whisper. Where they had assumed the rock-path ended, it had instead curved. He looked ahead at something, his face showing uncertainty.

On tiptoe over his shoulder, Rose saw the real trail’s end. A few yards ahead, the stones continued to a bamboo enclosure of sorts. She could see a small fence of braided palm leaves, strings of lights, flowers; and could hear the music more clearly. She heard laughter.

Sean turned his head. Rose saw concern in his ocean blue eyes, concern for her. She thought of the old shed door and its safety.

Then, Rose remembered what was beyond the door into their poky garage: A dirty kitchen. A cluttered front room. Her own bedroom, barely traversable. Then, there were the children’s rooms. The children themselves. She loved the children, but always felt so tired when they came to mind. She bit her lip again, and swallowed.

“Let’s get a little closer,” she decided. Surprised, Sean nodded. He reached down with his left hand to protectively hold her right. They started forward again.

Their bare feet barely shuffled across the sandy walkway. Rose’s long hair barely swished against her back. The upbeat instruments continued, with punctuations of talking and more laughing. The sounds of both grew louder as Sean and Rose slowly drew closer.

“A sign,” Sean quietly announced. He stopped; Rose looked where he pointed. A windworn sign hung casually from the end of the palm-leaf fence, just under a bright wreath of tropical flowers and multi-colored lights. Black, friendly paint spelled the words: Annual Parents’ Getaway.

Sean looked at Rose. He rubbed his bottom lip with his right hand in consideration. Rose looked at Sean. Her left hand found a few loose strands of hair to twist as she deliberated.

“Ah, I see you finally arrived,” A new voice said.

Sean and Rose jumped. Rose pulled at Sean’s hand in an effort to run back down the trail. Sean pulled at Rose, in an effort to free his hand in case he would need it to defend them both.

A tall, smiling, Polynesian man stood next to the sign. He managed to make his dazzlingly white grin even larger. It was he who had spoken, they realized. A deep, affable chortle sounded from his faux animal print-clad midsection. “No need for that, you two,” he assured them.

Rose stopped pulling; Sean retained his defensive stance. “Oh?” He asked. “Why not?”

Impossibly, the man smiled wider. “I am Stephan,” he said with a small bow. “You are late. If you’ll calm down, I will be happy to explain about this place.”

Sean barely relaxed. He pulled Rose close to his side. “Okay.” He said, trying to sound calm.

Stephan laughed again. “This is a magic place,” he began. He swept a hand around to indicate the trees, path, birds, sand, and ocean. “We are here for you. We are not a TV show, timeshare gimmick, or even a dream.” He allowed this information to sink in, then continued. “You have earned an evening here.”

A throat cleared behind the divider, behind Stephan. They could barely hear it over all the party noise beyond. A hand thrust a clipboard near Stephan’s muscular arm, which he hurriedly read as he frowned slightly. He raised his left hand, using his right to count each finger. He did so two or three times, then shrugged and cheerfully gave up. The other hand and clipboard retreated.

“Well,” Stephan smiled, “You really are late. It would appear you’ve been needing to come here since about five years ago.” He chuckled.

Rose looked at Sean, confused. “What do you mean?” Sean demanded. “What are you talking about?” Rose squeezed his hand, gratefully.

Stephan sighed, still managing to look unbelievably happy and helpful. “This place is a magic place,” he repeated. “Besides existing just for parents, we enjoy certain time benefits here.” He met each of their gazes to be sure they were paying attention. “When you are done, you will come back to the same time you left.”

“That’s impossible,” Rose automatically responded. She was surprised, however, at how hopeful her accusatory tone sounded. Stephan chuckled again, reassuring.

“It’s true,” he simply told her. “Plus,” he added, straightening, “You earn your time based on the number of children who are waiting for you at home.” Here, Stephan laughed outright. “And,” he said, wiping a happy tear from his eye, “that means you two get to stay at least all night if you wish.”

Rose blushed slightly. Sean looked unconvinced.

Their host was unaffected. “Come in and see for yourself!” He invited, stepping back and gesturing to his right, to the music and the laughter.

Hesitantly, Sean walked forward. Rose was still holding his hand, or his hers. They paused at Stephan’s side, and saw he spoke the truth. On the other side of the papery wall was a veritable mob of couples talking, joking, smiling, drinking, eating, embracing, lounging, or even swimming.

Yes, Rose saw, there was a gorgeous pool just beyond a stage of tireless musicians and dancing couples. Waterfalls ran down lava rocks amidst rain forest foliage, terminating in a huge swimming area of varying depths. It was the sort she had seen people post online, saying how they’d go somewhere like that someday. She had known better when she saw them; known she would never see a paradisaical setup like that in person.

Yet, here it all lay before her. “Wow,” she breathed. She looked to Sean, to gauge his response, and saw the affable Stephan just behind him.

“Go right ahead,” Stephan supplied. “Everything is open to you: the swimming pools, the bar, any food…” He coughed a discretionary sound, then added, “Even some private rooms, once you get more comfortable.” Sean turned quickly to look suspiciously at Stephan, who shrugged a pleasant shoulder in innocence.

“Sean,” Rose said, “I see Tiffany and Michael!”

Now Sean turned quickly to Rose. “What?! Where? Did they follow us here?!”

“Oh, not our Tiffany and Michael,” she quickly explained. “Tiffany and Michael JONES, our neighbors.” She pointed, near a vivaciously-red flower topiary near the closest waterfall.

Sean looked, squinting, then his face cleared. Still, he hesitated.

“Look,” Stephan said, startling them, “No one is actually an alien in human suits or something. I promise it’s all exactly as it appears.” He smiled ever wider. “Go on, and ask your friends you just saw.” He gave Sean a friendly push, laughed uproariously, and walked off toward the private buildings he’d mentioned earlier.

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to at least go ask,” Sean told Rose, reassuring himself. She nodded. They stepped forward together, Rose timidly keeping very close to his side. Everywhere they looked they only saw happiness, relaxation, love. They skirted the dancing group near the music. They walked past candlelit tables of men feeding women tidbits on forks, or women spooning bites past their husband’s waiting lips.

Soon enough, they reached their lounging neighbors. Tiffany noticed them first. “Rose!” She exclaimed, overjoyed. She and Michael stood to meet them; Rose and Tiffany hugging while Sean and Michael shook hands and patted arms.

“We’re so glad you two made it!” Tiffany exclaimed. She looked over at Michael, who nodded and smiled. She treated the encounter like an accidental run-in at the grocery store.

“So, this is real?” Rose asked, shyly. It seemed an odd question to pose with the physical evidence of their friends nearby. Tiffany and Michael, however, only laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Michael said to Sean. “We didn’t believe it when we got here two years ago.” He shoved Sean playfully on his arm. “Too good to be true, huh?” Sean smiled weakly.

“He nearly punched Stephan when we first found it,” Tiffany added solemnly.

“Oh. Yeah,” her husband remembered. He looked down. “That was embarrassing.”

“Anyway, it’s real. It’s true.” Tiffany reassured Rose. She turned to Sean. “Some couple set it up years ago, according to what we can find out. Stephan says it’s not like a TV show, but there’s gotta be something sci-fi about how it all works!” She laughed.

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. He looked thoughtful. “Honestly, we don’t really care anymore. It’s just nice to have a break.” He reached back to pick up his drink. Condensation ran invitingly down the sides, and a small umbrella rested on its very top. He raised it in mock toast, and added, “Go on, and enjoy yourselves. If you remember us, we’ll head back together when you’re done.”

“But, Michael,” Tiffany reminded him, “We only have three children. We can’t stay as long as they can.”

Rose blushed again. Sean looked indecisive.

Michael chuckled a bit, and drank a sip from his fluted cup. “Well, if you want to head back in a few hours, let us know and we’ll go together.” He winked at Sean.

Dismissed and convinced, Rose waved a friendly goodbye. “Thank you,” she told them.

“Enjoy!” Tiffany and Michael chorused, then smiled at each other, sat, and continued their private conversation.

“Sean,” Rose said, as they meandered toward the inviting pool. “Hmm?” He asked.

“I’ve been thinking that we could spend an hour or two here, then go back.” He paused, and his eyes met hers as his left hand found her right. A million questions flitted between them. “That way, we could have fun, and be sure we get back to the kids in case there is no time thingie,” she explained.

Sean thought it over, then said, “I say we try to make a run for it and see if anyone stops us now.” He looked around furtively, as if the swaying trees and happy couples were set to pounce at any moment. “Ready? Let’s go!” He took off toward the fence with the sign, pulling Rose and her flying hair behind him.

They reached their goal unmolested. In fact, except for a few entertained glances their way, no one had seemed to even notice. Rose shrugged, but then Sean was off running back toward the beach.

She followed, caught in some of the flying sand of his barefoot sprint. He reached the cave with Rose puffing somewhat just behind. The door to the garage was still ajar. Rose could see their battered minivan skulking in the shadow of boxes beyond. Sean reached out to the door.

“Sean?” She ventured. He turned, and paused at her flushed face, disheveled hair, and pleading eyes. Automatically, he stepped closer and put his arms around her again. Rose reddened, but caught her breath to continue.

“What if it’s all real, and it disappears if we go through the door again?” She searched his face, practically begging for assurance.

He considered. “If it all goes away, I will take you somewhere like this as soon as we possibly can,” he promised. She smiled and looked shyly away, curtaining her face. He once again gently brushed her flowing hair aside; gently kissed her lovely cheek.

“Okay?” He asked. Rose nodded.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled out of his arms and walked toward the dilapidated brown door. Sean hurried to walk beside her. They entered the musty garage, then immediately turned to look back. The beach was still there, the palms were still swaying, the ocean still shushing against the shore.

“Quick, go check the time!” She told Sean. Realization entered his eyes beneath mirrored lenses, and he sprung to the door of the house. His movements were impeded slightly at the return of his former bulk. Peeking through the garage side of the kitchen door, he announced, “Eleven o’clock. Is that what time it was when we left?”

Rose considered, then remembered the beeping clock as they crossed the kitchen. “Now it’s Eleven-oh-one,” Sean amended.

“Then it works!” Rose called. “Unless it’s been twelve hours or something,” she added, thoughtfully. Sean looked back at her, then ran to join her again.

“Let’s try it, then,” he said, nodding toward the waiting beach. “It’s worth it to me to make you happy.” She looked up at his face, so familiar and so loving.

“I’m happy just to be with you,” she said. He smiled a half-smile in response. “But, I do like how I look on that side of the door,” she added playfully. Sean’s smile spread.

“Me, too,” he laughed. “I mean, about me, too.” He took her hand. “Maybe we should check out one of those rooms before running back this time,” he teased. Ignoring her scandalized look; he walked through the door once again, pulling Rose happily along.

The Garage Between Worlds, Part I

“Mahm! Maaahhhmm!” A bump jarred the pictures against the wall, and a boy squealed.

Rose sighed, and tried to keep reading. She was unable to actually see the words on the page, however, as the noises next door escalated.

“Gimme back Staceeeeey!” A girl screamed. Rose heard audible scrambling, and thudding. Crying. Footsteps.

Her door burst open, hitting a well-formed groove on its splintered surface against her dresser. The baby in the nearby crib hiccuped in his sleep at the sound.

Rose lowered her book to see Johanna’s wet, red face and frustrated body standing in the doorway. Sighing, Rose set the open pages onto her crumpled bedspread. She nudged her long, brownish hair off a shoulder.

Jackson came up quickly behind his sister, also angry and crying. “Mom, Johanna wouldn’t get off my -” he immediately began.

“That’s not true! You had my Stacey! -” Johanna defended loudly, as Jackson cut her off with,”I wouldn’t’ve had your doll if -” Their accusations mingled rapidly, shrilly.

Shoving toys, clothes, and the comforter aside, Rose sat up and pushed herself off the bed. Two steps across the crowded floor brought her within reach of the caterwauling children. She gently pushed them apart, whisper-yelling, “Jack, Jo! Quiet! The baby’s sleeping!”

Jackson and Johanna stopped yelling, contenting themselves with making faces when they thought they could get away with it. Rose sighed, and pulled them into her room somewhat. “Where is your dad?” She asked them.

Jackson shrugged and looked at the TV, mutedly flashing a commercial from the worn dresser-top. “He went downstairs,” Johanna supplied, also turning like a moth to the screen. She pulled a raggedy plastic doll from her brother’s limp grip. Rose sighed again.

“Jackson,” she began. He grunted. “Jack, why were you even in the girls’ room?” He didn’t respond. Tugging at his arm, Rose repeated her question.
“I dunno,” he supplied.

She tried Johanna. “Johanna?” Her daughter turned, questioningly. “Jo, why was Jack in your room?”

Johanna paused, seeming to search inside her brain for an answer. She also shrugged. “‘Cause he’s a jerk,” she concluded.

“Am not,” Jackson countered, distractedly.

“Are, too,” Johanna responded.

“Am not. You are,” Jackson said, never taking his eyes from the screen.

Rose walked over and switched the television off, breaking the spell. The two children looked up at her in surprise. “It’s way past bedtime,” she announced, “And you have school tomorrow. And, your brothers and sisters are sleeping.”

Her son made a disgusted face and cast around for something else to look at. He flopped on the bed, on top of her book. “Okay, Mommy,” her daughter said sweetly. She skipped around a shoe pile and out of the room, Stacey Doll swinging from her side.

Rose looked down at Jackson for a minute, hands on tired hips. He didn’t shift.

“All right, all right,” she said. She sat next to his pretendedly-prone body. She saw his face automatically grin, though he squinted his eyes closed. Rose ran a hand tiredly through her locks, loosening a few knots and positioning it out of her face. Leaning down, she reached around his middle and added, “Let’s go to bed, Jack.”

Grunting, sighing, and heaving, she managed to slide him off and onto his feet. He teetered, threatening to fall back down. “Jack, stop,” Rose chastened, in her best Mom Voice. He opened innocent eyes to check how serious she might be.

Some seriousness, tiredness, or hopelessness got through to him. With the air of an always-obedient child, he smiled, wriggled from her grip, said, “’Night, Mom,” and ran from the room.

Rose blinked, then realized something. She walked to the doorway. “Your room, Jack,” she yelled as quietly as she could. Giggling, Jackson retreated from the end of the hallway and into his own room. Hopefully, Rose thought, he’d actually make it to bed.

She paused, lingering. She looked back at her bed where One Man’s Desire lay closed and crumpled on the blankets, thanks to Jackson’s intentional resistance. She suddenly didn’t want to continue reading about people with no responsibilities, who somehow managed to travel to the Caribbean, and had endless spending money. The book couldn’t yell louder than children, smell better than the dirty clothes piles, or paint a picture of spaciousness amidst her bedroom clutter.

She scanned the clutter. Shoes rested in unmarried clumps near dropped pants, clumped socks, and old toys. Clean shirts and underwear hugged dirty friends between and beneath the shoes. A recent attempt by three-year-old Missy to feed herself had left everything with a light sheen of Cheerios.

Rose considered cleaning, again. Her eyes moved past the floor to the bed, the crowded dressers, to Luke’s sleeping form in the old crib. She distractedly combed at her head with her fingers again. Luke was such a good sleeper, and so peaceful to watch. Exhaustion won out for Rose.

She decided to go find Sean. He was supposed to have been to bed an hour ago, and she missed him.

Rose turned her bedside light off and headed out toward the stairs. It wasn’t an easy journey in the dark, but she didn’t want Johanna, Jackson, Luke, or the other sleeping children to suddenly wake. “Ouch,” she whispered; then, “Ooh;” then, “Uh,” as various invisible floor litter poked her feet through their fraying socks.

She felt along the wall of the hall, listening for any non-sleeping sounds from the two kids’ rooms on this level. They seemed silent.

A sudden gap beneath her outstretched foot told Rose she’d reached the stairs. Her groping hands found the wall just inside. She flicked the dim, bare bulb on. There was no use putting her life at risk for sleeping children when it came to the stairs.

She carefully navigated the maze of puzzles, dolls, socks, dress-up heels, and forgotten food crumbs that led downward. Her long hair fell from one side to the other as she peered ’round her midsection to see where each foot would land.

Her slow descent brought her to the crowded, dark family room. Squinting, she realized she’d left her glasses upstairs by the lamp. She peered around the old bookshelf, cringing as she stepped solidly on a Lego piece.

There, at the end of the room: a small light; a phone screen backlight reflecting from eyeglasses. Sean.

Her heart fluttered at the sight and her stomach flipped. Though they both looked a bit different now, Rose still felt those fleeting feelings she first had when she was sixteen.

He had been seventeen, studiously watching some game on television -just as he was studying a different sort of game now. When she’d walked in with his younger sister, he’d turned immediately. Their eyes had met. He’d smiled.

Sean continued staring at his phone.

Rose picked her way over a carpet of toys toward him. He sat slouched, his body curved and sunk against the couch. His phone was propped atop his bulging stomach. His face frowned at what it was watching.

Rose waited. Sean watched his game.

“Sean?” She finally ventured. His shrouded blue eyes blinked and looked up in surprise. A thousand potential phrases crossed Rose’s mind as she saw the tired lines of Sean’s face, the strained state of his gaze. She smiled, to comfort him, and decided on, “I just wondered if you were outside because the light’s on in the garage shed.”

Startled, Sean frowned. “No, I’m here,” he said. “I didn’t even go out there after work.” He glanced back at his screen for a few seconds, then lifted a strong, heavy hand to the side of his phone. The family room dimmed to near-darkness in the sudden absence of backlight.

“Maybe it was Daniel,” Rose suggested. Despite wishing for undivided attention, she felt sorry for interrupting Sean’s down time.

Sean hefted his large frame from its cushioned groove. He pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. Pocketing the phone, he then took Rose’s hand. He smiled at her in the half-light sneaking down from the stairwell. “Don’t worry, Rosebud. I’ll go turn it off and lock up.”

“Thanks, Dear,” she responded, relieved. She really did think Daniel had left the light on, or maybe Sharon. Since it was the tool shed in question, she suspected Daniel more. He’d been talking about building a pinewood derby car already.

Down the basement hallway leading away from the family room, however, the lights were dark. Daniel, the other boys, and the other girls’ bedroom lay in that direction. If Daniel had been outside, it hadn’t been recently.

Sean and Rose navigated the staircase upwards, the tiny great room, and then the kitchen. Sean’s steel-toed work boots creaked and clicked as the sticky laminate flooring complained of people crossing it at such a late hour. Rose’s socks stuck softly, without accompanying groans.

All was silent in the sleeping house besides the floor they’d just crossed. Rose sighed in relief.

Sean peered out the flimsy curtains that separated the kitchen door from its neighboring garage. A door with a window should not lay between a garage and house; it was just another quirk of the old place.

Sure enough, a sliver of light ran beneath the shed door in the corner. Sean could see it between boxes and the minivan, just barely. Rose peered over Sean’s broad shoulder. She smelled his Old Spice; she shivered at teenage summertime memories.

“I was going to go turn it off, then I got busy with dinner and the kids…” her voice trailed off.

The tiny digital clock on the counter beeped as the hour changed to 11:00 p.m.
“Don’t worry, Rose. I said I’d be happy to lock up.” Sean unlocked the deadbolt and carefully pulled the door open. The loose handle threatened to come out in his hand. “Gotta fix that,” he mumbled, as he had for the last month.

He clumped down the cement stairs, his mind on loose doorknobs. Rose tread quietly just behind, looking furtively left and right in the crowded garage space. She pulled the door closed carefully, to avoid fumes getting into the house. They squeezed between the van and wall, ending just in front of the shed door.

It was shut. “Sean,” Rose began. She hadn’t remembered the light inside being orange. Had one of the kids changed out the bulb? Douglas, perhaps?

“Hm?” Sean answered absently, as he turned the knob and pushed inward.

Whatever Rose had intended to ask him flew completely out of her mind as she stepped closely behind him again, and stopped. They both stared.

Where a narrow, gas-fumed space had before housed paint cans, tools, and dead spiders; Sean and Rose now saw -the mouth of a cave? They stood in their garage, yet also stood at the entrance of a small, round, rocky cavern.

Sean stepped forward in shock, Rose gripping his elbow. The cave opened onto a wide, shaded swath of sand. Palm fronds swept above and around their startled figures. A brightly-colored bird soared across the sunshine in surprise. Gently moving air brushed across their skin in a lightly warm embrace. The endless, engaging song of forever-lapping ocean played just a few hundred yards down the beach from their toes.

Their toes? Unconsciously, Sean had continued into what had been the shed. Rose had followed, not wanting to let go of Sean for anything. Simultaneously, they looked down at their feet -and could clearly see them.

Not only were Rose’s feet bare, but she was wearing her swimsuit with a wrap. Not only was she wearing her swimsuit and wrap, they appeared brand-new. She appeared brand-new. “I’m skinny!” She exclaimed in excitement.

“Well,” she amended, as she turned this way and that, sweeping each shoulder with her hair in process, “I’m skinnier.” She smiled at Sean, and realized she could see him clearly although she was still not wearing her glasses. He, too, was thinner, and not wearing glasses or day clothes. But what struck her first was how much more awake he appeared. The tired lines were gone, the slumping manner, the hopelessness he’d often seemed to walk around with -all gone.

“Sean, you look …handsome,” Rose said, and blushed. Sean smiled, and took her hand. He brushed some of her hair away, and tucked it gently behind her ear. “You look beautiful,” he told her sincerely, and made the blush run more deeply. Rose was certain even her neck was red.

She turned and looked back at the door they’d come through, biting her lip in indecision. Sean followed her gaze. The door was still ajar, and still the shed door. Its peeling brown paint was comforting, though this derelict condition had reminded them of necessary repairs in the past.

Just then, they heard the faint sound of actual music. A guitar, perhaps? Rose now looked at Sean, a question written in her trusting eyes and worried eyebrows. Sean shrugged, then said, “I’ll go check it out.”

He pulled away from Rose, but she tugged at his arm. He turned back. “Don’t leave me here alone,” she pleaded.

Sean stepped near, closing the space between them. Drawing his arm from her light grip; he put it around her back, around her soft, flowing hair. He could feel her body; smell her fresh, young scent he knew so well. Rose felt the tension of passion in his strong arms as Sean pulled her abruptly into his embrace and kissed her deeply.

Rose relaxed in the tropical breeze. The sand warmly cushioned her tired feet and the birds, waves, and rustling leaves sang only of paradise. She drank his love.

To Be Continued Tomorrow…