Living (Fiction)

8-31 Leap

Two months ago, I had an epiphany of sorts… a life-changing moment that happened in the midst of the ordinary.  In the timeline of our lives, it isn’t often we can identify those moments at the exact time we breathe them, but here’s the story of my moment.

I sat on the sun-baked rock clothed in Capri pants and a t-shirt.  I didn’t hike to the waterfall to jump in; I came to clear my mind and watch the crazy people leap into the murky unknown.  And the pool of water had turned an icky shade of brown after the last monsoon storm.  My mind never slowed as it ran through all the things that could go wrong.  You could slip off Lloyd’s Log and bust your head open.  I mean, the log was probably named for Lloyd after he did just that.  Lloyd’s body could have still been there for all I knew.  The old log could break and impale you as you plummet into the water.  You could over or under-shoot the leap and break your legs on rocks jutting out that are obscured by the muddy brown pool.  You could belly flop and drown after the wind is knocked from your lungs.  The list went on.

I held my breath every time a child leaped from the carved log and exhaled each time their head bobbed back to the surface.  In between, I’d shake my head and wonder why the parents didn’t protect their children.  If I had a child, I would never let them do something so dangerous.  I scanned the dozens of people around me and tried to match the offspring.  I grew bored with the game when the string of unmatched jumpers grew too long for me to manage.

My attention turned to the children and the way they would just jump, arms spread wide, legs tucked, into the unknown.  They had no fear.  I wondered what it was like to not be restrained by the shackles of consequences.  How did it feel to experience flight, even for just a few seconds before plunging into the water?  I puzzled over how an anyone could jump without knowing for certain it was safe.  But they did.  Some hesitated, but eventually they leaped.  I imagined their eyes squinted closed, but still, they jumped.

I looked down at my faded brown pants and the realization came to me:  at least they came prepared to let go.  In that moment, I saw my street clothes as an outward representation of my abundant supply of fears.  A more alarming thought surfaced:  I breathed, but I didn’t live.  

On impulse, I unlaced my shoes and set them beside me.  I peeled the damp socks from my pale, hardly-seen-sunshine feet.  I stood and took a deep breath before walking toward the water.  I gasped as the shock of cool water met my hot skin.  Thigh-deep in the unknown, I considered turning back.  But I’d gone this far.  I continued until my feet no longer touched the bottom, then I swam toward Lloyd’s log.  I shimmied up the submerged log and crawled up the crudely-carved stairs.  With shaky legs, I stood on the last step.  Things that could go wrong began to cloud my mind, but I jumped before they could paralyze me.

I didn’t hit my head on the log.  The log didn’t crack and I didn’t break any bones.  Lloyd’s corpse didn’t reach up and pull me under.  I wasn’t afflicted with flesh-eating bacteria.  The silt washed off my skin in a warm shower.

The thing is, my outward appearance is no different than it was before, but the moment I leaped from Lloyd’s Log with my arms stretched like a bird in flight, I lived.

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This story is fiction but was inspired by some real thoughts and introspection that I’ve had.  At church on Sunday, they talked of faith.  Faith is often believing in something we cannot see or prove, and trusting that the outcome will be for our good.  Fear is the exact opposite of faith. When there is fear, faith is a risk.  Like the character in this story, I tend to see all the harmful/dangerous things that could come from any given situation.  I recognize that I need to lean on my faith more.

Still, I did not leap into the nasty murky water from a carved log. There are certain things I couldn’t work past… like, where do all these beer-drinking people go to the bathroom?  Oh, I knew….

Baby steps :)

Finally Some Fiction Here! Someone Else’s Dream, With Photo by Emilio Pasquale

Each month, I team up with Emilio Pasquale – he gives me a photo and I write a story inspired by it.  What follows is the photo he chose- FOR MAY! (yes, I am that far behind), and then my story.  His photography is impressive, so if you haven’t checked out his site, you really should :)

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Photo by Emilio Pasquale
Photo by Emilio Pasquale (story by me!)

Someone Else’s Dream

She leaned her bare elbows on the iron railing. The still-warm metal transferred a day’s worth of heat to her skin. The sun had set about an hour ago; she’d watched it sink below the horizon.

“She comes out here every night.”

Ingrid heard the whispers behind her, annoying like gnats swarming in dusk air.

“It’s like she thinks he’s coming back.”

She closed her eyes and bowed her head. They didn’t know what they spoke of, but she let them think what they wanted. Her momma had always told her that gossip was like a raging wildfire. Truth only fanned the flames until all that remained were embers glowing among the ashes of destroyed lives.

“It’s sad, really. At her age, to be tossed aside like that; I heard he found someone else.”

Ingrid turned to face the women behind her. “Sadness… joy… life brings some of both, doesn’t it?” Ingrid smiled as their eyes widened. The yellow glow of the lamplights did nothing to conceal their reddened cheeks. At least they had the decency to be embarrassed, even though it wasn’t because of what they said, but rather, that she’d confronted them. She gained some satisfaction in their discomfort as she watched them scurry like roaches seeking a dark corner.

Alone again, Ingrid returned her attention to the canal below. Specifically, the boat tethered to the railing. That boat wasn’t much to look at on the surface, but it held the answers to many of her life’s questions. She felt that if she spent enough time in the presence of the boat bearing her name, mysteries of life would be revealed to her.

As a young woman, she’d dreamed of a simple life spent on the countryside. She’d imagined growing her own produce, maybe even a small vineyard where she could practice the art of making wine. When she first met Gary, she thought he’d shared her dreams. She later realized he had his own dreams of owning a boat and living on the water.

Fifteen years ago, he bought a canal boat and named her Ingrid’s Sunset.

“You bought a boat? Without talking to me about it first?”

He’d held her hands in his. “But honey, she’s perfect, just like you.”

She shook her head. “The wood needs refinished, the leather seat is weather-beaten, and it’s taking on water. It’s a wonder the thing floats.”

Gary grinned. “Give me time and you’ll see the beauty too.”

His excitement had softened her toward the dilapidated vessel. For a few years, he did work on the boat in his spare time. The leather seat had been replaced and the leaks plugged where the floor boards remained dry. His attention drifted, though, to bigger, more elaborate boats. He wanted to travel the ocean and knew the canal boat would never get him there.

Ingrid stared down at Ingrid’s Sunset, the irony, bitter in her throat. Like the boat named after her, she could only carry him so far before he realized he needed more. Like the boat, she had been nurtured and cared for in the beginning. Without thought, she’d let go of her countryside dreams and adopted his dream as her own. She’d believed him when he told her she’d always be his co-captain.

She closed her eyes to the grit carried on the warm breeze. She despised this place. It served as a constant reminder that she was trapped in the nightmare of living in someone else’s dream. For nearly two years, she’d spent her evenings with Ingrid’s Sunset looking for answers, searching for direction. Abandoned, she lingered in the purgatory of realization… unable to let go of his dream, yet unable to pursue her own.

“It’s getting dark.”

Ingrid didn’t turn toward the voice behind her. “It’s been dark for some time.”

“I have to go home soon so I can make sure mother gets her nighttime meds.”

“Sarah, you can go. I can see myself in just fine.”

“You know I can’t do that,” she whispered.

Annoyance filled the wrinkles scrunched between Ingrid’s frowned eyebrows. She knew the rules and had no regard for them. However, Sarah was no longer bound by them. For six months after Ingrid’s breakdown, Sarah had been the caseworker assigned to monitor her re-acclimation, or whatever it was they called it. Basically, Sarah hovered to make sure Ingrid didn’t go off the deep end again. After six months, the state department of mental health services deemed Ingrid able to live on her own in society with medication. But Sarah continued to check on her every day.

“Why do you still come here?” Ingrid asked; gaze fixed on the tethered canal boat bobbing in the water below.

“The water calls to you.”

Ingrid glanced over her shoulder. “What do you mean?”

“You come out here every night, as if you are waiting for him to return. Even though you know he isn’t coming back, I fear you’ll answer the water’s call.”

Ingrid studied the deep creases that spanned the length Sarah’s forehead. Under the street lamps, the pale skin stretched across her cheekbones looked thinner, almost crinkly- like wadded tissue paper. She suspected painful stories settled in each of the furrows. “You think I’m going to drown myself?”

Sarah shrugged. “Maybe not intentionally, but once the water wraps itself around you, I’m certain it will suffocate you. I’ve been left before and I know the lure of needing to know why.”

Turning back to the canal, Ingrid looked into the murky water. Instead of her reflection, she could only make out mottled patches of reflected light. “I used to dream of the countryside.”

“You should go there.”

Several minutes were swallowed in silence before Ingrid broke her grip on the railing and took one step back. “You keep saying that. I’m thinking maybe you’re right; maybe it’s time to move on.” She turned to Sarah and noticed her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “You want to come in for a snack before you go?”

Sarah shook her head and glanced at the watch strapped to her wrist. “I have some things I need to do yet tonight.”

She didn’t ask the time, but suspected it was later than she thought, as the canal walk had grown deserted. “Goodnight then.” Ingrid smiled. “Thank you for everything.” She felt Sarah watching her as she strode away from the canal. Once she passed through the archway to the gardens, she stepped aside and ducked behind a flowering Texas Ranger shrub. Peeking through the space between clustered branches, Ingrid watched as Sarah kneeled down at the railing. Even before the first rope slithered from between the rails and dropped into the canal, she knew what was happening. Ingrid could have stopped her, but didn’t. When the third and final rope disappeared, a lengthy exhale escaped.

Sarah stood and brushed her knees off before reaching into her pocket. Ingrid squinted but still couldn’t make out what she held in her hands. She gasped when she saw the first flames flicker. Again, she could have intervened, but watched in silence as Sarah tossed the flaming object over the railing.

“Goodbye, Gary.” The words slipped from between parched lips, like a breeze whistling between bare branches.

Ingrid stared, transfixed, as the first tendrils of smoke drifted skyward. In the periphery of her consciousness, she sensed that Sarah had disappeared into the darkness outside the lamp-lit walkway. A hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her lips as the wisps grew into billows of black smoke. She knew this would be her last visit to the canal; the hold on her now broken.

Just as leaves bud in the spring, Ingrid felt the first stirring of life in her once-dormant soul.

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When I started this story back in May, I stopped writing just before where Sarah was introduced.  I finally realized my hesitation with the story – the ending I had in my mind was too obvious.  That’s where Sarah came in.  Instead of Ingrid coming to the conclusion of letting go and moving on herself, Sarah helped her along.  A part of me thinks that Gary might actually have been stored in that canal boat, possibly under the seat (hmm… perhaps I’ve thought about this waaaaay too much!) but I left that open… Ingrid’s goodbye to Gary could have figurative or literal, depending on how you- the reader- choose to see it.

Thanks so much for reading!

Emilio – you want to try another photo for September?  Hey, I could have a story by Christmas, haha!  Seriously though – I’ve missed writing for your photos :)

Already Gone (Fiction) & Photo by Emilio Pasquale

Each month, I team up with Emilio Pasquale – he gives me a photo and I write a story inspired by it.  I barely made it for April, but what follows is the photo he chose, and then my story.  His photography is impressive, so if you haven’t checked out his site, you really should (but I hope you will read the following story too – it’s less than 500 words :) )

Photo by Emilio Pasquale (story by me)

Photo by Emilio Pasquale (story by me)

ALREADY GONE

I shift my weight to relieve the pressure throbbing in my heels. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing here because I lost all concept of time… well, I don’t know how long ago. Minutes, hours, days and weeks carry no meaning for me anymore. I hear muted voices and whispers at my back, a brush fire threatening to consume me. I lean toward the porthole window so I can’t see any metal in my peripheral vision. Had it not been for the scraping of forks on plates behind me, I could imagine being alone on a raft drifting into the ocean. As it is, I feel the shoreline pulling away.

“Has she eaten today?”

“Probably not. She’s been standing there for hours.”

I have a name. My thought doesn’t translate into words because I deem it unworthy of the effort.

I squint and focus on the clusters of palm trees. I start counting, just to prove to myself I’m not completely gone. My vision always blurs around eleven; that’s when I cease to differentiate tree trunks from sailboat masts. I begin counting again, my unblinking gaze moving across the horizon.

“I don’t think she’s right.”

A laugh. “None of ‘em are. It’s called job security.”

I’m not crazy, I’m lost. Again, my thought doesn’t earn the privilege of spoken words.

I can’t discern if I am running away from or toward something. I decide it really doesn’t matter as I lean forward until my forehead rests on the glass. The drumbeat in my chest grows to such intensity that little room remains for my breath. I take what I can get. The glass warms beneath my skin until it feels like an extension of me. I’m mesmerized by the fogging and un-fogging caused by the interplay of my breathing and evaporation.

I hear shuffling feet behind me and voices fade. Isolation envelops me, clutching my insides in a twisting grip.

“Dinner’s over.”

My muscles twitch beneath the hand resting on my shoulder. I close my eyes and inhale, although I can’t claim much air. I want so much to take in the dampness and taste salt from the ocean. Instead, I realize that hopelessness smells like meatloaf and Pine Sol. Desperation has a taste: the sour bile that creeps up my esophagus and stings the back of my throat.

I don’t resist the tug on my arm and we both stumble. My right hand knocks the picture off the wall and the glass shatters. Shards dig into my bare skin when I land on the ground. I don’t feel anything. My muscles spasm, as if separate from me. I watch, intrigued. I hear a panicked call for help. I don’t care. My eyelids grow heavy as I search for white light or shadows. I see nothing. I half-expect to feel fear or anticipation. Instead, I’m indifferent toward death and life. Commotion surrounds me and I almost pity them.

Why can’t they see the futility of saving what is already gone?

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This time Emilio almost stumped me.  I was drawn to the obvious with this photo, and if you have read my fiction before, you know I do try to avoid obvious!   It’s not exactly an uplifting story, but I thought finding out the character was lost in a picture and not out to sea may have been unexpected, although clues to the setting are there.  Thanks so much for reading :)

I Know Why They Stay

04-13 Butterfly

On the bench I sit, in the middle of the park,

frozen in time, while the world bustles around me.

I watch life happen, but don’t dare take part

for I know what many others can’t see.

I spy a young girl, no older than seven or eight,

bouncing toward her weary mother.

She squeals, “good things come to those who wait!”

I see the butterfly perched on her outstretched finger.

As the girl nears the woman sitting beside me,

The butterfly’s damaged wings capture my attention.

“She won’t fly. Doesn’t she realize there’s a world to see?”

Her brow now furrowed, she poses the question.

The mother sets an open magazine upon her lap,

“The butterfly must feel at home on the finger of my sweet girl,”

“Perhaps she’s tired, so she’s decided to take a little nap?”

The response, obvious shelter from the ways of the world.

I avert my gaze, should it betray knowledge of the disappointing truth,

I’m not a butterfly expert, but I know exactly why they stay:

It matters not whether they rest or move,

Death befalls them either way.

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Here’s where I share inspiration for my poetry.  This will be short!  The thought occurred to me that sometimes no matter what I do, the outcome is the same, so why bother.  (I know, that is isn’t very hopeful of me.)  Then, I decided I wanted to write a story poem with that theme.  The butterfly was simply the captured creature of opportunity, as I had a photo that I’d taken a couple years ago during a visit to Shenandoah.

Where The Stream Ends (Fiction)

03-30 Woods Canyon Lake1

July, 1989

Lucy grasped the back of Aaron’s t-shirt, the fabric twisted in her sweaty palm, as she stumbled to keep pace. “Slow down!”

Aaron grinned, even though- or maybe because- she couldn’t see him. “I’ll tell you when you need to watch your step.” He laughed. “Trust me.”

“I want to take the blindfold off.”

He stopped. With his hands on her shoulders, he said, “I know you don’t understand yet, but you will. If I remove it, you’ll know the surprise too soon.”

She sighed. “Okay. But how much longer?”

“Maybe ten minutes.”

She held her hand out and searched for his shirt. She gasped when she felt the warmth of his fingers intertwine with hers. The tingling traveled up her arm; an unexpected shockwave that triggered a flutter in her chest. She had been friends with Aaron since fifth grade, when he stole the ribbon from her ponytail during recess. He’d held it high above her head and with him being a good six inches taller, she was certain he hadn’t expected her to lunge at him, knocking him to the ground. She’d dusted her knees off and plucked the purple ribbon from his fingers and then offered her hand to help him up. He’d refused, and pushed himself up instead.

“Come on, Fridge… we’re almost there,” Aaron said.

She could hear the smile in his voice. For seven years, she’d been known as “Fridge,” the nickname Aaron started calling her after she’d tackled him near the swings. William Perry had always been one of his favorite football players. She’d protested because Perry was a large, imposing figure, while she was on the short side and rail-thin. It didn’t take long for others to join in and she found that undoing a nickname was just as impossible as getting an “A” in Mrs. Foster’s English class.

“Okay, we’re here.” Aaron untied the blindfold and stood beside her, shoulders nearly touching.

“Oh! It’s beautiful. Where are we?”

“Where the stream ends.”

Lucy tilted her head and furrowed her brow. After contemplating for several seconds, confusion melted away into understanding. “From that story you wrote sophomore year?”

Aaron nodded. “Yep. This is it. I go fishing here with my dad. Been that way for as long as I can remember.”

“It’s nice. That was the most romantic story I’d ever heard.”

“Shut up.”

She smiled when she noticed the tips of his ears redden. “Come on, it was sweet.”

“I didn’t know Mr. Cleary would read it to the class.”

She laughed. It really didn’t help the tough guy persona he’d been trying on at the time. “Girls love that stuff, though.”

He shrugged.

“So why did you bring me here?”

“Just thought you’d like to see it before you leave for U of A, is all.”

Lucy tossed a pebble into the water. “Life is a meandering journey,” she said as she watched the ripples widen and then disappear . In her peripheral view, she saw his head turn and sensed him studying her.

“You remember that line?”

Avoiding his gaze, she responded, “Of course. You can recite monologues from The Godfather, why wouldn’t I remember it?”

Only the cawing of birds soaring overhead interrupted the quietness that stretched between them.

“I got in. I go to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in November.”

It took a few seconds to absorb his words. “That’s great! You were really hoping for that.” She was happy for him, so she couldn’t explain the feeling she had deep inside. Was it disappointment?

“I hope I’ll get to see you on leave,” Aaron said as he nudged her shoulder.

Tears moistened her eyes and she turned her head away to hide them. “Sure, of course. We’ll definitely stay friends.”

Lucy felt like he had something else to say. She waited for conversation, but instead, they steeped in silence a while longer before trekking back to the main trail.

***        ***        ***

March 2015

Lucy followed the dirt path, side-stepping brush that had overgrown in some places. The last time she’d been to the lake was when Aaron told her he was going into the Army.

That thought brought a pang of sadness because they had not remained friends. Sure, she saw him a couple times, but that was it. And then she heard from Joanie Graeber that he’d gotten engaged a few years later. A year after that, Lucy married Scott Trimble and moved to Chicago. She’d marveled at her fortune; finding her prince and a Disney fairy tale life.

She frowned. She discovered that beyond the endings in the pages of a book, after the “I-do’s” and happily-ever-after, a tarnished reality lurked. Instead of bringing them together, time spun them in circles and sent them in separate directions. Glancing at her naked ring finger, she admitted that being forty-three and single was not a truth she’d considered.

A smile crossed her lips when she spotted the end of the stream. Twenty-six years evaporated like rain in the desert as she stared at the same muddy banks she’d stood on with Aaron. She noticed something in the cluster of trees on the other side of the bank, so she made her way around the water’s edge, her sneakers sinking and sliding in the mud.

Lucy paused when she made out the shape of a bench. Not a regular wooden bench, but a marble one, placed under the protection of the tall pines. She inched closer, pine needles crunching beneath her feet. She noticed that the seat had not accumulated pine needles, so someone had to care for it, even though she hadn’t seen anyone yet today. Standing in front of it, she ran her fingers over the engraved message on the back:

In loving memory of Aaron McCarthy, 2014. You will always be here.

Numb with shock, and dizzy, she lowered herself onto the bench. Once the tears began, they flowed like they would never stop. She leaned forward, face in her hands, and succumbed to the emotions she thought she’d given away long ago. She wailed for God to save her and to ease her pain.

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

The voice startled her and when she looked up toward the voice, she realized her need for a tissue. “I, uh- well…”

He dropped his fishing pole and tackle box kneeled down beside her. “Lucy? Is that really you?”

Her eyes widened. “Aaron?” She shook her head, “But you… I saw.” She pointed to the inscription.

A familiar smile returned to his face. “My dad died last year. I’m junior.”

“How come I never knew that?”

He shrugged. “You never asked, I guess.” He slipped off his nylon fishing shirt worn over a t-shirt and handed it to her. “You might want to dry your face.” He slid onto the bench beside her.

She felt her cheeks color as she accepted the offering and followed his advice. As she wiped her face, she breathed in his scent that lingered in the fabric. She brought the shirt back to her lap.

He leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees. “I hope your life turned out to be everything you wanted it to be.”

Unsure how to respond, she watched him as he stared at the receding water. “I’m sorry about your dad, Aaron.”

“I come here most Saturdays, so he doesn’t feel so far away.”

Lucy’s fingers played with the silky fabric of the crumpled shirt in her lap. “It is a beautiful place to be,” she whispered, somewhat distracted by the warmth of his thigh barely touching her leg.

Like it had twenty-six years ago, silence surrounded them as they retreated into their own thoughts.

He sighed. “I’ve never forgotten you, Lucy.”

Tears welled again. His words triggered the memory of the words he’d written all those years ago. Life is a meandering journey. It takes us where we least expect it and changes up the future as we planned it. But through it all, I never forgot that where the stream ends, love begins.

“You okay?”

She took a deep breath. “Was that story about us?” She rushed the words before fear changed her mind. As soon as the words tumbled out, she wished she could take them back. Listening to his measured breathing for several seconds did nothing to ease her regret.

“It’s always been about you,” he whispered.

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I don’t normally write romance-y type stuff, which is why I decided to stretch myself and write this.  It’s much easier to write some twisted story where someone dies or something freakish happens!  Thanks for stopping by to read.  I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend!