Sacrifice (Fiction & Emilio Pasquale Photo)

Photo by:  Emilio Pasquale
Photo by: Emilio Pasquale

I made myself small in the space between the beat up sofa and the metal TV tray that served as a table. Hunched with my knees pulled to my chest and arms wrapped around them, I strained to hear the hushed conversation between Mama and Aunt Celia. From this vantage point, I could only see Aunt Celia’s back and sometimes caught a glimpse of Mama’s face.

“I can’t do it,” Mama said.

“It’s been six days. If she’s not better tomorrow, you have to.”

“She’s my baby!”

“But the spirits ravage her.” Aunt Celia lowered her voice. “The ceremonial drapes have hung outside for six days. If Ariana isn’t released tomorrow, the spirits will claim the entire household.”

“She’s only three.” Mama leaned into Aunt Celia, sobbing into her shoulder. Her muffled cries echoed against the concrete floors and adobe walls of the sparsely furnished room.

Aunt Celia put her hands on Mama’s shoulders and set her upright. She then picked up a bundle that had been tucked under her thigh, the white cloth wrapping stark against the darkened room. Slivers of sunlight managed to sneak in between seams of fabric covering windows and through the warped door jam. I watched the back of my aunt’s thick arms move as she fiddled with the object in her lap and then extended her arms to present something to Mama.

Mama gasped. “No!” Metal clanged against the concrete floor.

I glimpsed the ornate silver handle, but my gaze settled on the long blade. I didn’t realize I’d broken my silence until I saw both women looking right at me.

“Mija…Cristina!” Mama and Aunt Celia exclaimed in unison.

“Mija, I thought you were outside playing with the other children.”

I slid out from the hiding place and stretched my legs. “Mama, I’m twelve. I don’t play anymore.”

Aunt Celia moaned as her eyes fluttered closed. “The premonition. It is true.” Her chin dropped to her chest and a string of words in an unfamiliar language tumbled into the otherwise silent room.

My eyes widened and I looked to Mama for direction. She appeared just as frightened. Lines creased her forehead and fear clouded her brown eyes.

“Go,” she whispered. “You should go play outside.”

Aunt Celia continued her chanting as if in a trance.

‘Alternate sacrifice’ were the only two words I understood. The hair prickled on my arms and a tingling sensation ran from my neck all the way down my spine. I sprinted for the door, not bothering to correct Mama that I’d passed the age of playing. Once outside, my toe caught the edge of one of the pavers making up the tiny porch. Stumbling into the adobe half-wall surrounding our house, I gulped several breaths while thinking of what to do. I knew my baby sister, Ariana, was in trouble. I stared at the ceremonial drapes; woven murals in bright colors that mocked life. I always thought that death slithered through night shadows shrouded in black, but the dawning came that death wore vivid hues of turquoise, yellow, red and purple. My eyes zeroed in on the skulls. Smiling skulls. They looked all too happy to rip souls from failing bodies.

I pushed off the wall, vaulting myself toward the brilliantly colored drapes. I screamed as I grasped and pulled at the fabric, tearing the cotton from nails that held them in place. I knocked statues and candle holders from the offering table butted up against the house. I dodged shards of ceramic that were intended to appease the spirits. I didn’t care. It was all just a tangled mess of superstitions, myths and wives tales. I didn’t agree with Mama and Aunt Celia; angry demons wouldn’t materialize and vengeful death wouldn’t steal the souls from healthy bodies in retribution. I believed Ariana would still be writhing in bed, face glistening from fever just as she had done for the last six days.

Aunt Celia bolted out of the front door, followed by Mama.

“No!” she shrieked and her hands flew up to cover her face.

“Oh, mija, what have you done?” Mama whispered, shaking her head.

I dropped shreds of fabric and stumbled a few steps backward. Silence descended; a heavy, stifling quiet that suppressed all noise, except the drum-like pounding of my heart against the bones in my chest. My pulse throbbed inside my head, but I resisted the urge to cup my hands over my ears.

“The alternate sacrifice,” Aunt Celia said.

I stood with my chin up. I didn’t believe in the death spirits, but still prepared for them to take me, just in case. Even in the balmy heat, a chill came over me and produced a dramatic shiver. My heart fluttered and then resumed its normal beat pattern. I sensed death spirits were among us, choosing souls like Mama selected meat from the market. God, please protect me.

Aunt Celia dropped to her knees. An anguished cry escaped her dry lips. “I am ready!” She reached toward the sky.

I stared in shock.  Aunt Celia collapsed into a heap and convulsed.

“Look away, Mija!” Mama called over her shoulder as she turned her back on her sister.

I obeyed and turned away from Aunt Celia. On my eighth birthday, Mama had explained that eyes were the windows to the soul. Mama told the story of her great-great grandmother, Anne, who had been caring for her sick brother when she watched him gasp his last breath. She witnessed his struggle and his eventual surrender, only to die minutes later. It was believed that the death spirits entered Anne’s body through her opened eyes, like a burglar slipping through an unlocked window.

Aunt Celia’s body stilled, but I kept my eyes clenched, too afraid to look.

“Mama, I hungry,” a timid voice called from the house.

Mama and I both whirled around to find Ariana peeking around the door. She had been bed-ridden and near death for six days.

“How about macaroni?” I asked. Ariana smiled and nodded her head vigorously before disappearing into the house.

Mama kneeled down beside Aunt Celia and gently tugged her eyelids shut.

Drawing the curtains. All the women in town knew this duty. After death, the eyelids had to be closed to prevent spirits from moving through the body. Male hands weren’t allowed to do this.

As I walked inside, I knew this would be a story told to my great-great grandchildren: the day Aunt Celia took my place as the alternate sacrifice.

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This was another collaboration with Emilio Pasquale – he provided the photo to write whatever I could come up with for a story.  Be sure to check out his photo blog, if you haven’t already been there :)

Oh, Dear (Fiction inspired by Emilio Pasquale photo)

This story is inspired by Emilio Pasquale’s photo. I didn’t ask permission to post the photo here, but you can view it in another window by clicking the link on the first sentence. (Trust me, you should see it!)

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“Yes, Mr. Collins. The cabin will be set just how you requested. I took excellent notes.”

Samuel tapped his fingers on his desk. “You’ve got the dozen pink roses and the box of truffles in the bedroom?”

“Yes, sir.”

He exhaled. “Thank you, Josie. Everything has to be perfect; exactly like it was twenty years ago.”

He hung up the phone and rested his forehead in his hands. He knew his future depended on the success of the upcoming weekend. Twenty years ago, he had taken Deana to the rustic cabin on their honeymoon. They hadn’t had much money and, although the cabin was only two hours north of Phoenix, the climate was a world away. Three weeks ago, Deana moved out. Now, he had to prove to her that he still loved her. Recreating our honeymoon for Valentine’s Day is perfect!

He picked up the phone again and pressed the first programmed call number.

“What do you want?”

He gulped. “Listen, Deana. Just give me a chance.”

“I’ve already given you too many.”

“Please, just meet me at the Ponderosa Inn and Cabins on Saturday.” When the silence dragged on for several awkward seconds, he continued, “Cabin 9. Just one more chance. Please.

“That’s where we spent our honeymoon.”

“I remember.”

“I don’t think-”

“Don’t think, just show up.”

She sighed. “Fine.”

He exhaled and his shoulders slumped with the release of tension. “The room is ours at two, if you want to head up early. I have a couple things to take care of, but I’ll be there by four.”

She snorted. “Another one of your business weekends, huh? Never mind. We’ve been through-”

“No!” He took a breath to calm his panic. “No, wait, it’s not like that. I’ve reserved two hours of spa time; you pick the services.”

“Oh.” She paused. “They have a spa now?”

“They added it a few years ago.”

“Okay.”

He smiled. “You won’t be disappointed.”

He hung up the phone and dialed the Ponderosa Inn.

“Hi, this is Samuel Collins,” he said once the front desk picked up the line. “I need to schedule two hours of spa services for Saturday.”

“I’m sorry. The spa is fully booked until Sunday afternoon.”

“How much would it cost to make it happen?”

“Sir, it’s Valentine’s Day. The schedule is full.”

“Okay, okay.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Can you call people who are scheduled between two and four to find out if they will sell their appointment? I’ll pay any price.”

“Sure, Mr. Collins. I’ll see what I can do.”

“I appreciate it, Josie.”

***        ***        ***

On Valentine’s Day, Samuel called Deana. “Yes, the spa appointment is all set. When you check in at the front desk, ask for Yolanda and she’ll get you started.”

“I’m impressed. I didn’t think you could pull it off. I always planned our vacations.”

“I’m full of surprises.”

“Wait a second; you didn’t have your assistant set everything up, did you?”

“Actually, no.” That would’ve been smarter. “I’ve made our dinner reservations for 6pm, so that should give you enough time to get ready.”

“All right.”

“I love you, Deana.”

The line disconnected. She’d avoided saying she loved him for months. He didn’t pick up on it at first. A twinge of pain ran through his chest. He should’ve asked questions. He counted out twenty-three one hundred dollar bills; enough to cover the spa appointment and tips. He folded the wad in half and shoved it into his blazer pocket. He grabbed his overnight bag and headed to the car.

At four-twenty, he parked his car in the dirt parking to the left of the main building. He patted his pocket and strode into the lobby. The heat from the fireplace across from the front desk enveloped him as the door eased closed. He detected a sweet smell commingling with the pine scent, and just then, he noticed the plate of chocolate chip cookies on counter.

A brunette with large eyeliner-rimmed brown eyes greeted him with a smile. “Good afternoon.”

“Hi. You must be Josie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m Samuel Collins. I wanted to thank you for your help getting this weekend set up.” He pulled out the wad of bills and peeled four bills away. He handed her the cash. “This is for you.”

Her eyes widened. “No way!”

“Do you have an envelope?”

Josie reached into a drawer to her right and pulled out a letter-sized envelope with three green pine trees stamped in the upper left corner.

He took the envelope from her manicured fingers. “Are the Davenports dining in the main room tonight?”

Josie’s nails clicked the laptop keys. “They have a six-thirty reservation.”

“Perfect. I owe them for the spa appointment.” He stuffed a few bills into the envelope and tucked the rest into his pocket. He handed the envelope to Josie. “Please see that this gets to those who attended to my wife today.” His phone vibrated in his pocket and he checked the screen. Deana. He tapped the screen. “Hi, hon-”

“What is wrong with you?” she shrieked.

He pulled the phone from his ear and turned away from Josie after catching sight of her perplexed expression. “I have no idea.” He didn’t know how to answer. “How was the spa?”

“Nice, until I got back to the cabin!”

“Why? I had them set it up exactly how it was for our honeymoon.”

“We didn’t have two deer in our bed on our honeymoon!”

“What?”

“Two deer. In our bed!”

“Hold on.” He turned to Josie. “She says there are two deer in our bed?”

Josie nodded. “Yes sir, just as you requested.”

“I didn’t ask for that!”

She pulled out a manila folder and flipped through some papers. “Right here.” She handed the paper to him. Scrawled in purple ink was, ‘two deer for our anniversary.’

Samuel rubbed his forehead. “No!  It was supposed to be a card that read, “To my dear for our anniversary.”

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If you didn’t check out the link to Emilio’s photo at the beginning of the story, here’s a second chance. You really should see the photo that inspired this story – it’s awesome!

I purposely left the ending open so you can determine how it plays out. If you’re a romantic, then she ended up finding the mixup “endeering” (sorry, that was really bad) and laughed at the mishap and they lived happily ever after. If you are a cynic, then she was so mad she drove home that night and reconciliation hopes were dashed :)

I still have a lot of “stuff” going on, but I couldn’t resist this distraction from the weight of life. I appreciate all the kind comments and prayers that many of you have sent my way. You all rock! I hope to be back more regularly soon.

What Lives Within (Fiction)

Dead tree trunk in our yard... my imagination frightens me with possibilities of what has made this home...
Dead tree trunk in our yard… my imagination frightens me with possibilities of what has made this home…

I went inside a beehive for the first time last night.

You think I’m crazy; I see it in your eyes. I know, because it’s the same look my husband gave me when I told him about it this morning.

But it’s true. Even as my husband scans the Yellow Pages for a psychiatrist (doesn’t he know the internet is much more efficient?) I stand by my claim. I have a bee sting on my neck to prove it.

Well, Larry (that’s my husband) says the flaming red welt doesn’t prove anything- except that I’m a raving lunatic with an allergy to bee stings.

In defense of Larry’s skepticism, it seems logically impossible for a woman my size – five feet-six inches tall, one-hundred-forty pounds…. okay, five-foot-four; one-hundred-sixty pounds- to be able to fit inside even the largest of hives. Near as I can figure, the bee sting must’ve shrunk me in some way and they carried me in.

I made the mistake of supposing this scenario to Larry.

One eyebrow raised, he’d studied me for a few seconds. “You seriously believe bees carried you into a hive. Just how many bees did it take to do this?”

***          ***          ***

He looks up at me and reaches for the phone, left index finger marking a number on the yellow page.

The light in the room dims and we both turn toward the window behind him.

“What the-” Larry’s jaw hangs slack.

I walk to the window, almost in a trance. I place my palms on the dual pane glass separating me and the thousands of bees. “They came back,” I murmur.

I hear the chair scrape on the tile. The window grows warm beneath my palm and outstretched fingers. Burning, as if a flame flickered beneath my bare skin.

“Hi, yes, I would like to have my wife evaluated.” Larry pauses. “Well, she says she was in a bee hive last night.” Another pause. “Yes, inside the hive.”

The heat radiates up my arm. I want to scream.

“Um, yeah, that’s her.”

I must have screamed.  His voice is more audible, so I know he’s turned toward me.

“I’m not sure what’s happening,” Larry says in a quivering voice.

I want to tell him it’s okay, but I sense otherwise. I gasp for breath.

“She’s collapsed on the ground clasping her stomach.” Another pause. “Yes, I’ll call 9-1-1.”

“What the-?”

I hear the phone drop to the floor before I cry out in agony.

For a second time, words escape  him. I hear his footsteps retreat and the front door slam. The skin on my abdomen tingles so I rub my hand across it. Puzzled by the moistness, I look and am shocked by the smear of blood and the dozens of bees clustered around my fingers. Gasping for breath, I crane my neck to get a better look.

Hundreds of bees pulse in my abdomen, visible through several holes in my skin. As their energy increases and they venture further from me, my strength weakens. I’d read about the spread of hybrid cleptoparasitic bees in an article on MSN but chalked it up as sensationalizing to get clicks (it worked.)  Now, I know the threat is real.  They have chosen me.

I also know it will be a matter of time before they leave me an empty shell.

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This was a story I started for a writing contest, but missed the deadline. This week of Christmas, you might expect a feel-good story… which is why I decided to finish this creepy/bizarre tale. I’d hate to become too predictable :)

Inspiration:  A few fears came together for this one.

First, there is my fear of bees in general, heightened by the increased presence of Africanized honeybees (a result of hybrid breeding), which are generally more aggressive than European honeybees.

Second, in doing some research on bees, I read about some cleptoparasitic bees, which use a host bee’s nest to thrive, eventually killing off the host.

Third, I remembered the horrifying ways of the tarantula hawk. This wasp actually overtakes the tarantula and lays the egg in the spider’s abdomen. Several months ago, I’d watched some YouTube videos of tarantula hawk wasps in action, and found a National Geographic video that gives me nightmares. (Click the link, if you dare… bwahahaha!)

Bringing all these fears together, I wondered, “since humans like to muck around with nature, what if further cross-breeding resulted in bees that thrived in human hosts?”

Normal people don’t think this way, do they?

On that note, have a wonderful holiday! I may not be online much for the rest of the year.  Just wanted to warn you that any absence is only temporary.  I will refrain from typing the obvious 3-word Terminator catch-phrase.  (You’re welcome.) :roll:

Burned (Fiction)

scroll down to the inspiration notes for a link to the photo that REALLY inspired this story :)
scroll down to the inspiration notes for a link to the photo that REALLY inspired this story :)

I leaned on the rickety horse fence an’ stared at the only standing wall of my home. My gaze settled on the sheer fabric flappin’ in the wind. Mama helped me sew them curtains when I got married an’ moved here with Roy fourteen years ago.

“I been sayin’ that one of these gosh darn days you’d burn the place down. Well, ya’ finally gone and done it,” Gertie said with arms folded across her ample chest. Her already thin lips pressed into an even thinner line.

I knowed Gertie ever since we was knee high to a grasshopper.  She meant well, but bein’ two years older, she tried to be the boss of me. She shoulda asked Roy- I don’t need nobody to be my boss.

“So what was it this time?” Gertie asked. “Lamp tipped over? Quilt caught fire after burnin’ loose thread? Log rolled outta the fireplace and caught yer rug on fire?”

Me an’ fire went back a long way. I useta steal papa’s flint and would spark grass after school. No amounta Gertie’s scolding could make me stop. Like men at a saloon on Saturday night, my relationship with fire tended to get outta hand an’ somethin’ always got burned. “No. Not any those things,” I mumbled.

“You gonna make me pull it outta ya? What happened?”

“Stove burnt up.”

She furrowed her brow. “Stove burnt up? How in the-” She paused and took a deep breath. “Even fer you, that’s a stretch. How in tarnation could ya’ burn up somethin’ that’s supposed to hold fire?”

“My potholder caught fire gettin’ biscuits.”

“And Roy couldn’t snuff it out?” Gertie threw me a skeptical look.

I focused on the billowing white cloth, rather than Gertie’s scrutiny. “It burnt too fast. No way he coulda stopped it.” On account of I’d already knocked him upside the head with my cast iron skillet an’ threw lard on the flames. I didn’t say that part, though.

“How come you got out an’ he didn’t”

I sighed. “I dunno”. I din’t wanna say no more, but my tongue kept goin’. “Maybe ‘cause I wasn’t hung over after boozin’ all night and rompin’ with Angie Flowers.”

Gertie gasped. “Roy wouldn’t do that. Mighta been a dim-witted fool, but no man could be that daft.”

“Ernie was.”

Gertie’s eyes narrowed. “I oughta slap yer smart mouth!”

“Just statin’ fact. Yer husband was a daft fool, indeed.” I nudged her elbow. “Why else would Ernie dally with her an’ leave you waitin’ alone?”

Gertie let out a sigh and a wistful smile played on her lips. “S’pose so. Prob’ly got what he deserved with that plow, ya’ know.”

I smiled. ‘S’pose he did.” I’d never tell it wasn’t no accident.

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Inspiration:  The photo at the beginning of this story wasn’t actually what inspired this story - this one was.  Writing a story for Emilio’s photo was kind of a side challenge, and I’m all for anything that distracts me from what I should be working on.  Squirrel!!

Seriously, though, this was a nice break from some other projects, but it’s back to work now.  Oh- if you are feeling the stress of the holidays, I’m going to share the secret to surviving in my next post.  I discovered this “secret” last Christmas from an elderly woman who lives in town.  I hope you’ll stop by and check it out :)

The First Supper (fiction) & Emilio Pasquale Photo

Photo courtesy of Emilio Pasquale (click photo to view his site)
Photo courtesy of Emilio Pasquale (click photo to view his site)

Mackenzie Walters stood in the center of the large ballroom, soaking in the rays streaming in from the windows that made up the better part of three walls. For several minutes, she stood, transfixed by the lush gardens surrounding the banquet hall. The resort had touted itself as an oasis in the desert and she had to agree – nowhere else in Phoenix could she be transported to the tropics. She almost forgot it hadn’t rained in fifty-three days.

“Are you okay, Mackie?”

She glanced over her shoulder and saw her best friend, Heather, lingering in the doorway. She shrugged. “Yeah, I think so.” She turned to a nearby table and tugged at one of the white napkins to give it a taller peak. A flicker of memory made her smile; something her mom would say about busy hands and idle minds.

“I’m not so sure.”

“I appreciate your concern, but this is exactly what I want to do.”

“I think you’re in shock,” Heather said. “I mean, your parents died only four weeks ago and immediately you started planning this extravaganza.” She made a sweeping motion with her left arm.

Mackenzie nodded. “Yeah, there wasn’t much time to pull it together, but I think the place looks nice.”

“It should, for what you’re paying for it.”

She closed her eyes and inhaled. “Do you smell that?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s chicken piccata, pasta and fresh green beans, but it might as well be filet mignon and caviar.” She nudged a glass to line it up with the knife at another place setting. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the experience.”

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