Flight of Fancy — New Short Story

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Flight of Fancy

Catherine Mesick

Sara smiled to herself as she stepped out of the house.

The morning was bright and clear and warm, and though it was early September, fall felt a long way off.

This morning it felt like summer would last forever.

She stooped down to double knot her sneakers, and as she did so, she happened to glance at the local paper, which was lying on the step.

The front page of the Daily Brew showed a picture of a little girl who looked just a bit like Sara had at the same age. She had curly dark hair and dark eyes and a big smile on her face, and even though the photo was in black and white, Sara could see a bright sparkle in the girl’s eyes.

According to the caption, her name was Melissa Miller, and she was eight years old.

And she had just seen a unicorn.

As the article below the picture detailed, Melissa was not alone—numerous other children also claimed to have seen a unicorn. And if the accounts could be believed, they’d all seen the same one—slender and stately with a shimmering white body and mane and silver hooves.

Not to mention the spiraling silver horn that rose from its noble head.

The author of the article took a gently amused tone when describing the children and their stories, and Sara found herself smiling, too.

But even as she smiled, Sara felt a distant tugging at the back of her mind, like an old memory.

She saw a sunlit meadow, a riot of flowers, and a shining white figure—a horse with a horn—standing in a silvery haze.

Sara pushed the image away. It felt like a memory, but it wasn’t one. It was—as her mother would have said—a flight of fancy. She’d had them ever since she was a child, and as she’d reached her twenties, they’d become less and less frequent.

But apparently they still weren’t gone.

Sara sighed to herself. She knew that the false memories—like the sightings of the unicorn by the children—were just figments of their respective imaginations.

She knew very well that the images in her mind weren’t real.

But she thought that it would have been nice if they were.

Sara knew there was no point in wishing—fantasies belonged in fantasy land.

She paused for a minute to put the paper in the house.

Then she went out on her run.

Sara jogged along a path that wound through leafy trees, and she passed by a tiny, trickling creek. The path was popular with joggers and cyclists alike, but this early in the morning, there was no one out on the path but her.

She continued on, enjoying the beautiful weather and the equally beautiful scenery, and then she passed into a tunnel that ran underneath a busy road.

Sara ran just a little bit faster—her favorite spot was on the other side of the tunnel, and for some reason on this particular morning, she couldn’t wait to see it.

It was, in fact, the same spot where many of the children had seen their unicorn.

As she ran through the tunnel, however, she thought she saw someone following her. There was a side entrance to the tunnel that came in from a nearby park, and people sometimes used that entrance to join the path Sara was already on.

She glanced behind her, but no one was there.

There would have been nothing wrong with it if someone had been behind her—plenty of people joined the trail that way without nefarious intent. But she still felt as if someone was watching her, and she turned around again.

The tunnel had quite a few large, concrete columns that supported the heavy roof overhead, and Sara thought for just a moment that she’d seen a sudden movement near one of them.

But no one stepped out from behind the column, and Sara stood for several long moments staring at it.

Then she moved on.

Soon she broke free of the tunnel, and she plunged into a little wooded area.

Up ahead was the best part of all.

She ran through the trees for a little while, and then the trees gave way to a broad meadow.

The meadow was lush and green, and wild flowers of all kinds grew as far as the eye could see.

It was in just such a meadow that Sara had seen her imaginary unicorn. And it was in this very place where she now stood that a number of the children had seen their own unicorn, too.

She paused for just a moment to take in the lovely view.

There might not have been any magic in the meadow—but it had a charm all its own.

As Sara gazed over the broad, flower-dotted expanse, she thought she spied something white and shimmering off in the distance.

She squinted at it—it looked very much like a horse.

There was a sudden rustle behind her, and a man emerged from the trees. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, which really weren’t ideal for jogging, and he was clutching a camera—not a phone—but an actual camera.

“So you’re the one behind this,” he said.

He raised his camera and snapped a picture of her.

“Behind what?” Sara said.

“Behind the unicorn hoax.”

He snapped another picture.

“Stop that!” Sara’s hands flew to her hair. “Don’t take pictures of me! My hair gets frizzy when I run.”

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “You look beautiful. And the curly hair just makes you look more goddessy.”

“Goddessy?” Sara said. She stared at the man before her, incredulous.

He had light brown hair and gray eyes that seemed as if they could see right through everything.

And he wasn’t bad-looking, either.

Still, Sara couldn’t quite tell if he was making fun of her or not—the steely, intent look on his face blotted out all potential signs of humor.

But his face did say one thing very clearly.

He thought he’d caught her at something.

The man snapped another picture.

“Look—who are you?” Sara asked.

“My card.”

The man took out his wallet and extracted a small, cream-colored business card.

Sara looked it over.

“Greg Chapman,” she read aloud. “Award-winning, international journalist.”

She looked up at him. “And you work for the Daily Brew?”

She let the words hang in the air.

“It’s a better paper than people realize,” Greg said quickly. “And anyway, I’ve just caught you.”

“Caught me at what?”

“Doing that.” Greg pointed behind her. “How does it work? Do you glue the horn on somehow?”

Sara turned. The horse-like shape that she had glimpsed earlier was coming toward her.

She could see now that it was undoubtedly a horse.

And there was a spiraling silver horn rising out of its forehead.

“But that’s a unicorn,” Sara said, startled.

“Yes—that’s what you’d like us to think, isn’t it?” Greg said. “Now I need to get a few facts. What is your name?”

“Sara,” she murmured. “Sara Segal.”

The horse with the horn continued to move toward her.

A wondrous sense of peace and happiness radiated off the creature, and its silvery hooves barely made a sound as they trod the grass. Its silky white mane seemed to float in the air as if carried by a soft, unseen breeze, and its large dark eyes were full of mildness and kindness.

But most amazing of all was that horn.

It really was a unicorn.

Sara was having trouble wrapping her mind around that.

A memory stirred—she saw the old meadow once again, heard silvery laughter.

But Sara shook her head. This was no time for a flight of fancy.

Not when there was one right in front of her.

Greg was just raising his camera to take a picture of the magnificent creature when a white mist began to rise up around them.

As the mist grew thicker, the unicorn suddenly bolted.

Then Sara disappeared.

When she reappeared, she was standing in a different place.

It was now night. She was standing in a dark meadow—though whether it was the same meadow she had just left, she couldn’t have said.

There was a ring of tiny lights around her in the grass—red, blue, and green, and standing next to her was Greg.

He looked very startled.

Sara heard the rustle of soft cloth behind her, and she turned.

A woman in a gold-colored gown was walking toward her.

The woman had long golden hair and pink rosebud lips. She wore a rose-colored jewel around her neck that shone as brightly as the lights in the grass, and her face was so radiantly beautiful that it, too, seemed to shine.

Beside her walked two children—a girl and a boy with tight, coal-black curls and cherubic faces.

The mist that had surrounded Sara and Greg was gone.

And Greg continued to look more and more startled each minute.

The golden-haired woman and the two children reached the new arrivals, and all three of them bowed.

Then the golden-haired woman straightened and fixed Sara with her brilliant blue eyes.

“Welcome to our meadow, my princess. I am Queen Rina, and my attendants are Princess Xia and Prince Storm.”

Uncertain what to do, Sara bowed also.

“Thank you—your majesty. How did we get here?”

The curly-haired children covered their mouths and giggled.

The silvery sound seemed very familiar to Sara, and she frowned as a memory tugged on her mind.

“Why, the mist brought you, my princess,” the queen replied. “That is how we always travel between realms.”

“And why are we here?” Sara asked. She hoped the question sounded polite—she wasn’t sure what the protocol was when talking to a queen.

This time there was no laughter.

The queen’s lovely eyes grew sad, and the two children bowed their heads.

“For many moons,” Queen Rina said, “a unicorn has graced our meadow. But lately she has gone missing.”

“Missing?” Sara said. “But she’s right here.”

She glanced around.

The unicorn was no longer with them.

“Oh,” Sara said. “She was right here—she was walking up to us.”

She glanced at Greg for confirmation, but he just gave her a bewildered look.

Sara turned back to the queen.

“Why didn’t you bring her along with us?”

“Alas, we cannot,” the queen replied. “The unicorn has powerful intrinsic magic, and if she doesn’t wish to go, then she will not. She can shrug off any spell she wishes.”

“Oh,” Sara said. She wasn’t sure how to frame her next question. “So then she’s avoiding you?”

The silvery laughter returned.

“No,” Queen Rina said. “It’s nothing like that. She’s looking for something, and she won’t return until she finds it.”

“Do you have any idea what she’s looking for?”

Queen Rina fixed Sara with a piercing stare. “None whatsoever. We were rather hoping you could tell us.”

“Me?” Sara said, startled.

She looked over at Greg, who was now staring up at the sky with his mouth open.

Sara turned back to the queen.

“How could I possibly know?”

“You’ve met before.”

“We have?”

“Yes. You and our unicorn are old friends. She visited you several times when you were a child.”

Sara drew in breath to deny it, but she suddenly stopped.

A memory tugged at her mind again—the same one as before.

It was the memory of the meadow—and the unicorn.

“I had sort of a dream once,” Sara said slowly.

“It wasn’t a dream.”

“What do you mean?”

“It really happened,” the queen said. “The unicorn chose to show herself to you. Amongst my people, that makes you royalty.”

Her eyes shifted to Greg.

“And he must be your prince.”

Sara glanced over at Greg, who was now staring open-mouthed at the queen.

“Who? Greg? He’s no prince—he’s a reporter.”

The queen frowned just a little.

“He looks like a prince. But perhaps he has forgotten his crown.”

“I’m sorry—your majesty,” Sara said, still uncertain how to address the queen. “But you seem to have made a mistake. I don’t think we can help you.”

“But of course you can. The unicorn chose you. She has shown herself to you, and now only you can help her.”

“Forgive me for disagreeing,” Sara said, selecting her words carefully again, “but what about all the children that have seen her recently? We can’t all have been chosen to help her.”

“No indeed,” the queen said. “When children see the unicorn, it is a great benediction—as I said, they become royalty. But when a grown human such as yourself sees one, it means she has chosen you for a quest.”

“A quest?”

“Yes. You must help her find what she is looking for. And now farewell, my princess. Your quest has begun.”

“Wait!” Sara cried. “Who are you exactly? What are you queen of?”

But the mist was already rising around Sara and Greg, and the next thing she knew, she disappeared.

When she came to herself again, Sara felt as if no time had passed. She was lying somewhere soft and warm, and she heard someone murmuring.

She realized she was the one doing the murmuring, and she sat up quickly.

“Wait!” she cried again. “What are you queen of?”

“Queen?” said a nearby voice. “Sara, are you okay?”

Sara looked around quickly.

The queen, the children, and the meadow had all vanished.

She was sitting in a hospital bed, and her best friend, Janelle, was sitting nearby.

It was Janelle who had spoken, and her large, dark eyes were full of concern.

“Sara, are you okay?” she repeated.

“Yes, I’m fine. How did I get here?”

“You were found in a meadow near a bike trail, and there was a—”

“Greg!” Sara said suddenly.

“A man lying nearby, also unconscious.” Janelle frowned. “What were you doing out there?”

“Well, there was this mist—and a unicorn. And the mist took us to see a queen. I think she may have been queen of the fairies.”

“Queen of the fairies?” Janelle looked doubtful.

“Yes—and she wanted me to go on a quest. Or was it both of us?”

Sara looked around.

“Where’s Greg?”

“The guy you were found with?”

“Yes.”

“Well, they’d hardly put him in the same hospital room with you,” Janelle said. “I imagine he’s got his own room somewhere else.”

Sara started to get out of bed.

“I’ve got to find him.”

Janelle rushed to her friend’s side.

“Whoa. You should get back in bed. You’ve only just woken up.” She paused. “Who is this guy anyway?”

“Greg? I have no idea. I think he’s a reporter.”

“You don’t know who he is?”

“No.”

“Then what were you doing out in a meadow with him?”

“I think he was following me.”

Janelle looked concerned. “He was following you?”

“Yes.”

“And you want to find him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Sara sighed softly to herself. As she looked around her surroundings, doubt was rushing in. The white sheets, the smell of cleaner, the murmur of voices in the hall—everything seemed so normal that she was finding it harder and harder to believe in the little scene in the meadow.

Maybe she’d just been having another flight of fancy.

But a little sliver of hope still remained—the slenderest thread.

“I’ve got to find Greg,” she said. “If he remembers it—”

She let the words hang in the air.

She started to get out of bed again.

“Just wait a minute,” Janelle said. “Sit back, and I’ll go find the doctor. Let somebody take a look at you before you go running off.”

Sara grumbled a little, but she got back into bed and waited while her friend hurried off.

Janelle soon returned with a white-coated physician, and after an examination and a few tests, Sara was free to go.

The first thing she did was head straight down the hall, looking for the nurses’ station.

“Hey, wait,” Janelle said. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to find Greg!”

Sara heard Janelle muttering to herself, but she kept going.

She did soon find the nurses’ station and inquired after Greg Chapman.

He had already been discharged.

“Come on,” Janelle said. “I’ll take you home.”

“But—”

“You can look for your friend from the meadow later.”

“But I don’t know where to find him,” Sara said.

“Maybe that’s for the best,” Janelle replied.

It was Saturday, so Sara had the entire day to rest and recuperate from the “incident” as Janelle called it. Her friend stayed with her for a little while, and Sara received quite a few texts and phone calls from people Janelle had called from the hospital.

She even got a call from her mother, who was concerned that she’d had another “episode.”

But though Sara tried to push her flight of fancy away, it stayed with her, and she became convinced that it had really happened.

That night she dreamed of unicorns.

In the morning, Sara was more sure than ever that it had all really happened.

She found Greg’s business card in the little zip-up purse that was attached to her key ring, and she stared down at his name and address. There was a phone number, too, but Sara thought it might be better to talk to him in person—she wasn’t sure how he was going to react to what she had to say.

For Sara had decided that she was going to take up the unicorn’s quest.

And Greg, she felt, was part of that quest.

So that was why Monday morning found her driving up to the offices of the Daily Brew.

She’d passed the rest of the weekend impatiently, waiting for the opportunity to see Greg, but now that the moment was here, Sara was nervous.

It was early—dawn hadn’t yet lit up the sky—but Sara figured that newspaper people started work early.

Or at least she hoped they did.

The Daily Brew was housed in a long building, all one level, and Sara was a little surprised at the size—she wouldn’t have thought they’d have the circulation to support a large staff.

But then again, she figured maybe they had a printing press onsite—if newspapers still used those—or maybe they had warehouses or storage space in there.

Whatever the building harbored, Sara paused as she went up to the glass doors at the entrance. She wondered if access to the building was controlled, and she looked around for a key reader. But there was no little panel by the doors, so she pushed on them, and they opened easily.

Sara went inside.

There was a reception desk, but no one was there this early.

So Sara kept going.

She found herself walking into a large open space, and she was immediately hit by the strong scent of coffee. A counter nearby boasted no less than six coffee pots, all busy percolating.

It seemed that the Daily Brew lived up to its name.

Sara kept going.

There were desks everywhere in varying stages of disorder, but most of these, like the reception desk, were empty.

A few were occupied, however, and Sara soon spotted a familiar face.

His light brown hair was rumpled, as if he’d been running his fingers through it, and his gray eyes were focused intently on the screen in front of him.

There was no mistaking the look of determination on his face—Sara remembered it well.

She had found Greg.

She walked over to his desk and came to stand in front of him.

He looked up at her.

For just a moment, he looked puzzled.

Then his face transformed.

He stared at Sara in wonder.

“You’re real.”

Greg’s voice was barely a whisper.

Then it became a shout.

“You’re real!”

He stood up and hurried around his desk.

He reached out his hands toward her, and Sara took a step back.

“Whoa, Greg!” she said. “What are you doing?”

He stopped abruptly. “Sorry. I just wanted to make sure you were real. I thought you were a vision.”

“A vision?”

“Yes.” Greg’s eyes roamed over Sara’s face. “You were so—”

He stopped. “But never mind. You called me Greg. How did you know my name?”

Sara had brought his business card with her, and she held it out to him.

“So I really did give that to you.” He looked up at her. “And your name is Sara?”

“Yes.”

Greg sat down on the edge of his desk. “Wow.”

He looked really stunned, and he continued to stare at Sara.

“Don’t you have the photos you took?” she said. “You took enough of them.”

Greg glanced behind him—the camera he’d used was sitting amongst the clutter on his desk.

“No—there were no pictures. Nothing at all. Just a white haze.”

“But you do remember, don’t you?” Sara said.

Greg laughed a little and looked away.

“I don’t know what I remember. But I do remember you.”

He looked at Sara again, and it seemed to her that he was very different from the way he’d been back in the meadow. He wasn’t nearly so sarcastic or accusing.

“Do you remember why you were there?” Sara asked.

“I, uh—yeah.” Greg laughed a little again. “I was there trying to figure out who’s behind this unicorn hoax.”

He glanced at her sharply. “Why were you there?”

“What if I told you it wasn’t a hoax?”

Greg ran a hand over his hair, rumpling it further still.

“I would have to disagree with you,” he said. “Politely, of course.”

“Politely?” Sara said. “You certainly weren’t polite when you jumped out at me with your camera.”

Greg went just a little red. “I can get very—intense—when I’m pursing a story.”

“Come with me,” Sara said suddenly—she surprised even herself.

“What?” Greg said.

“Come with me and we’ll look for the unicorn together.”

Greg glanced around. “There aren’t many people here, but maybe you shouldn’t say that so loud.”

Sara’s face lit up with an impish smile. “Does that mean you’re afraid to come with me?”

“No—it’s just—” Greg paused. “Don’t you have to go to work or something?”

“I do. But not just yet. We have plenty of time to head over to the meadow and take a look around.”

Greg sighed and pushed away from his desk.

“All right.” He grabbed his camera. “You know, I have a terrible feeling that I would go with you anywhere.”

Sara and Greg walked out of the office, and they got into Sara’s car.

They drove off.

“So we’re going over to the meadow where we first met?” Greg said.

Sara smiled. “What a lovely way to put it.”

“And you really think we’re going to find a real, live unicorn?”

“Yes.”

Greg glanced out the window. “I thought of looking for you back at the hospital.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I thought you couldn’t possibly be real. I thought I dreamed you up.”

“I looked for you,” Sara said.

Greg turned to look at her. “You did?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I believe we’re meant to find this unicorn together.”

Greg sighed. “You say that so matter-of-factly. What makes you so sure?”

“I’ve been told all my life that I’ve been dreaming things up,” Sara said. “But this time I know I’m not. This time I know it’s real.”

She expected Greg to laugh at that, but instead he just looked thoughtful.

He was quiet on the rest of the ride.

Soon they reached the little side path that led into Sara’s usual trail, and she parked the car.

The two of them got out and walked through the tunnel.

Sara glanced around at the pillars that supported the roof.

“The last time I was here,” she said, “I thought someone was following me. That was you, wasn’t it?”

Greg, who still seemed pensive, looked up, embarrassed.

“What? Oh, yeah. That was me. I’m really sorry about that. I realize now that I was acting like a stalker.”

“That’s okay,” Sara said. “You were just doing your job—or what you thought was your job.”

She frowned. “Though you did seem a bit zealous about it. Why were you so determined to disprove the stories of a few little kids?”

Greg was silent for a time.

“Did you say you’d seen a unicorn as a child?” he said at last.

“Yes,” said Sara promptly. “Or at least it’s true that I saw a unicorn when I was a kid. But I don’t know if I said that or if it was the queen who brought it up.”

They had reached the meadow, and Sara stopped and looked out over it.

It was still early morning, and a delicate white mist was lying over the wide, grassy expanse of the meadow.

Sara thought it looked more magical than ever.

She glanced over at Greg, and from the look on his face, she could tell that he felt the magic just as she did.

“Why do you ask?”

Greg frowned. “It’s just that—”

“Yes?”

“I’m starting to remember something. Something I had thought I’d only imagined. I remember the queen a little. And I remember—”

Sara waited patiently.

“I remember that I saw a unicorn as a child, too,” Greg concluded. “I was told I only imagined it—that it wasn’t real.”

He turned to Sara. “I think that’s why I was so determined to prove that those other children hadn’t seen one. I was treating them just as other adults had treated me. I wanted to convince them that there really was no magic.”

“The queen did say that you were a prince,” Sara murmured. “And that you had lost your crown.”

“And those who see a unicorn as a child are royalty,” Greg murmured back. “At least among the queen and her people.”

He smiled suddenly. “You know, I’m really glad I met you. You’ve given me back something I thought I had lost.”

“I’m glad we met, too.”

Sara reached out and took his hand.

They stood for a moment, gazing at one another in the early morning mist.

Then there was a sound of soft footfalls, and the two of them turned together.

The unicorn was walking toward them out of the mist, her body shining and silver pale.

She came to a stop just beside them and regarded them with her mild, dark eyes.

A sense of peace radiated off her, and Sara reached out a hand to stroke her noble neck.

Soon Greg did the same.

“This is what she was looking for,” Sara said softly.

“What?”

“Us.”

They smiled at each other.

The light mist around them suddenly grew thicker, and then Queen Rina and her two child attendants, Princess Xia and Prince Storm, stepped out of it.

The queen approached the unicorn hesitantly.

When the unicorn didn’t run away, the queen became bolder and walked right up to her.

After a moment she, too, placed a slim hand on the unicorn’s neck.

“Thank you,” she breathed, her lovely eyes shining. “Thank you for finding our unicorn.”

The children giggled and ran over to the magnificent creature. They threw their arms around her neck and stroked her shining mane.

In a twinkling, all three of them were on the unicorn’s back, and the unicorn turned toward the heavy, swirling mist.

She galloped into it, and in an instant, all four of them were gone.

The heavy mist disappeared along with them.

Sara and Greg were left standing in the meadow with its now-delicate mist blanketing the grass like the traces of a dream.

The two of them looked around, stunned.

Then they turned to each other.

“What do you say, Princess Sara?” Greg said. “Would your highness care for some breakfast?”

Sara laughed, and hand in hand they went to her car.

******************

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Cocoparisienne/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!

New Release — A Maryland Witch

A Maryland Witch OTHER SITES

Shortly after Chloe Bartlett returns to her hometown, her family’s greatest secret is revealed—she and her sisters are witches. While the town is still reeling from the news, Chloe’s high school rival is attacked, and another young girl is placed under the infamous Sleeping Beauty Curse. Suspicious eyes soon turn to Chloe, and the whole town believes she is guilty.

As Chloe investigates the attacks, with a little help from the handsome but irritating Professor Mike Fellowes, she discovers that there may be a deeper and deadlier plan afoot—one that’s focused on her.

Can Chloe unravel the mystery in time? Or will she fall prey to the malevolent figure lurking in the shadows?

A Maryland Witch is now out! Read Chapter One below…

Chapter One

“Good afternoon, miss. Can you tell me what this symbol is?”

I looked up into a pair of dark eyes. The eyes were matched by equally dark hair, and both hair and eyes belonged to a handsome man—he would have been extremely handsome if not for the look on his face.

He seemed skeptical—and challenging—as if he’d caught me at something.

I looked down at the piece of paper the man had placed on the desk. It showed a symbol drawn in black ink—it looked like an uppercase L intersected by another, upside down uppercase L:

Symbol-cropped

I drew in my breath sharply.

“No,” I said. “I have no idea what that is.”

The man raised one mocking eyebrow. “Isn’t this the library?”

I glanced around me, as if to reassure myself. Between the man’s good looks and the shock of seeing the symbol, I was momentarily disoriented. But the study tables were full of our regulars, and our books sat on our slightly dusty shelves in quiet repose like they usually did.

We were indeed in a library.

“Yes, this is the Crabtree Bay Public Library,” I said a little unsteadily.

“Oh,” the man said. “I thought the library was supposed to be a repository of knowledge. And I thought librarians were supposed to be smart.”

“Well, we don’t know everything,” I said, feeling myself bristle. “And just because you’ve doodled a mark on a piece of paper doesn’t mean I can tell you what it is.”

The man persisted. “Aren’t you Chloe Bartlett?”

“Yes,” I said. Despite the man’s sneering tone, hearing him say my name made a little tingle run through me. “Yes, I am.”

“And you’re still saying you don’t know what this is?”

The man tapped on the piece of paper, and I glanced down at it.

“No,” I said firmly.

“You’re lying,” he said.

And he was right—I was. I just couldn’t help it. The symbol was secret—and sacred. It wasn’t the sort of thing you discussed with strangers, and I hadn’t expected to see it. Denying that I knew about it was instinctive—I was just protecting my family.

“Let me explain myself, Miss Bartlett,” the man said. He drew himself up to his full height, which was considerable—he wasn’t short. “I am Mike Fellowes.”

“Who?” I said.

The man looked disappointed. “Mike Fellowes. Professor Michael Fellowes of Henrietta College. Surely you’re heard of me?”

“You’re a professor?” I said, startled. “You don’t look much older than I am. And I’m twenty-three. And besides, you’re too—”

I stopped myself quickly. I’d been going to say “too handsome,” but there was no way I was going to admit to something like that now.

I looked at the man before me, who still seemed to be struggling with the idea that I didn’t know who he was.

“Oh, I get it,” I said suddenly. “You’re a TA, and you’re trying to make yourself seem important.”

I winced a little on the inside as I said the words—I hadn’t meant to sound quite so sharp. But then again, I was still reeling from the sight of the symbol, which he kept waving around.

“A teaching assistant?” Mike said. “Me? I’ll have you know that I’m twenty-seven years old and a full professor.”

“Congratulations,” I said. I meant that sincerely, but somehow it came out sounding a little sarcastic.

“And do you know what I’m professor of?” Mike said.

“No,” I replied. “I thought we’d established that I’d never heard of you.”

Mike’s mouth hung open.

After a moment, he recovered himself. “I’m the new Professor of English and Folklore Studies. I’ve published several folklore books—all of which are available at Fogerty’s Bookstore downtown.”

“Well, they’re not available here,” I said.

Mike scoffed. “And you would know?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “I know my library. There are no books by a Professor Mike Fellowes in the folklore section. It’s Dewey Decimal number three hundred ninety-eight right behind you. Check it out if you don’t believe me.”

Mike glanced around at the shelves I’d indicated.

As he did so, I noticed that several of our patrons were frowning at the two of us—our discussion had grown a little loud.

Mike turned back to me. “That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?” I asked. “And please keep your voice down. People are trying to read in here.”

“The point is,” Mike said, “that you believe you’re a witch. Deny that!”

He said the words in a loud, ringing voice and then crossed his arms across his chest.

“Shhh!” Mrs. Ludlow hissed. She was one of our regulars, and she was glaring at the two of us over the top of her glasses.

For my part, I was too stunned to say anything.

Nobody knew I was a witch.

Nobody.

That was a secret we had guarded for three hundred years.

Everyone in the library was looking at us now.

I found that I was having trouble breathing.

Mike went on. “You also have two sisters—Alberta and Rafaela Bartlett. And they’re also harboring the delusion that they’re witches. Is that not right?”

I looked around at all the eyes that were staring at us.

This isn’t happening, I said to myself.

Just then, I caught sight of a swift movement nearby.

I turned and saw a familiar figure rounding the corner of the stacks in the graphic novel section. It was Joe Osgood—tanned and muscular, with long, light brown hair that was streaked with gold. He had a bit of a crush on me, and he was often to be found lingering near the comic books and pretending to read them, while actually peering around the corner to look at me. Most days, Joe’s presence was a little irritating, but today it seemed as if it could actually be a good thing.

“You haven’t answered any of my questions,” Mike said, still speaking loudly. “Do you or don’t you believe you’re a witch?”

“Dude, back off!” Joe said. Suddenly, he was at the circulation desk, and he was wedging himself in between Mike and the desk.

Mike was blocked from my sight for a moment, and then he took a step back. I could see he was startled.

“Did you just call Chloe a witch?” Joe asked.

Mike folded his arms once again. “Actually, that’s what I’m here to ascertain. But so far she hasn’t said a word.”

His eyes darted to me. “So I’m going to take her silence as confirmation.”

Joe blinked at Mike. “Look, I have no idea what you just said. But nobody comes in here and calls Chloe a witch. She’s my girl—I mean, she’s my friend. She’s a girl who’s my friend. And nobody can talk about her that way.”

“So you’re the boyfriend, are you?” Mike smirked. “It figures. You’re both good-looking and empty-headed.”

“Wait,” I said, startled once again. “Did you just say I was good-looking?”

Mike threw me a scornful look. “Of course that’s what you’d hear. I rest my case.”

“What case?” I said.

“Shhh!” Mrs. Ludlow said.

“What I’m trying to demonstrate here is this,” Mike said. “You’re a bubbleheaded girl who believes she has magic powers, and I’m here to debunk this for the nonsense it is.”

“Dude,” Joe said, “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mike stabbed a finger in my direction. “She believes she’s a witch. And her sisters believe they’re witches, too. It’s absurd, and it’s got to stop.”

Joe’s expression grew stormy. “I told you not to call her a witch.”

Mike waved the scrap of paper with the symbol in Joe’s face. “It’s what she calls herself. Just ask her.”

I was back to finding it hard to breathe again. Every time I saw that symbol, I felt a fluttering in my stomach.

“You know what?” Joe said. “I’m going to call you Professor Mike.”

“That’s good,” Mike said. “Because that’s my name.”

“Yeah?” Joe said. “Well, that’s what I’m going to call you. Professor Mike, Professor Mike! Hey, everybody, we’ve got an egghead here. Say hello to Professor Mike!”

“Well, you know what I’m going to call you?” Mike asked.

“What?”

“I’m going to call you ignorant.”

Joe’s face suddenly went brick red. “What did you call me?”

“Ignorant.” Mike repeated the word, but he looked a little nervous.

“Are you calling me stupid?” Joe asked. Somehow his face had gone even redder.

If there was one thing Joe hated, it was being called stupid.

I hurried around the circulation desk and stepped in between the two of them.

“Okay, guys,” I said. “Let’s simmer down now. Nobody here is ignorant or a witch, and please let’s try to remember that we’re in a library. No shouting or fighting in here.”

Mike ignored me. “Being ignorant doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It means you lack knowledge. And you know nothing about what’s going on here. You haven’t seen my research—you are entirely ignorant in this situation.”

Joe seemed to swell up. “Did you just call me ignorant again?”

I grabbed Joe by the arm and pulled him back a few steps.

I found myself wishing—not for the first time—that the library had some security. If things got really rowdy in here, there wasn’t anybody else to take care of the situation but me. I was working alone today.

“Yes, I did call you ignorant,” Mike said. “But you’re not alone. Society as a whole is ignorant. This town is ignorant.”

I kept hold of Joe and looked over at Mike. “You know, you’re really not helping.”

“But this town isn’t the problem,” Mike said, clearly warming to his subject. “There are pockets of ignorance everywhere. Pockets of superstition everywhere. And intend to expose them. I’m going to expose everything. I will reveal all!”

Joe grimaced in disgust. “Dude, I don’t think you should be talking about exposing yourself. That’s just not right.”

“I’m not talking about exposing myself,” Mike said. “I’m talking about exposing the ignorance and superstition in this town. When you live in a place where the librarian believes herself to be a witch, you’ve got a problem.”

Despite my best efforts to hold him back, Joe took a threatening step toward Mike. “Where did you hear that anyway?”

“Yes, where did you hear that?” I asked. “And how did you find that symbol?”

Mike smiled smugly. “That’s easy enough to answer. I’ve been receiving emails from a man named Charles Tyndall. He spells out everything about you and your sisters—if you’ll forgive the pun. I did a little digging, and it turns out he’s right. I found corroboration for all of it—every last detail.”

“Charles Tyndall?” I said.

“You’ve heard of him.”

“Yes.”

“I’m not surprised,” Mike said. “In his emails, Mr. Tyndall did indicate that he was rather a prominent citizen.”

“When did you get these emails?” I asked. “Was it a long time ago?”

“No,” Mike said. He stopped to consider the question, and for the first time he didn’t look angry or smug—he just looked thoughtful. “Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by a long time. I received the last email about a month ago. I’ve been researching his claims ever since.”

The smug look returned as he continued. “As it so happens, I’m a very quick researcher. I was able to substantiate many of his claims about your family’s peculiar superstitions in very little time. I doubt many other scholars could have completed the work as swiftly as I did. I’m both quick and accurate.”

“And yet you miss the bigger picture,” I murmured.

Mike frowned. “And what does that mean?”

“It means that couldn’t have received emails from Charles Tyndall a month ago.”

“And why is that?”

I took a deep breath. “Because Charles Tyndall died about ten years ago.”

Mike looked at me in surprise. “What?”

“It’s easy enough to check,” I said quietly. “You won’t need any great research skills to find out.”

Mike stared at me. “You’re saying I received emails from a dead man?”

Joe snickered. “You got punked. The emails are fake. Chloe’s no witch and neither are her sisters.”

“You’re saying the emails aren’t real?” Mike said. “You’re saying my research was based on a prank?”

“It looks like it,” I said.

Mike’s face went as red as Joe’s had earlier.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter who sent the emails. Even if it wasn’t Charles Tyndall, it was probably from someone who wanted to remain anonymous. And my research is still good—the facts still stand. And I’m going to prove that you and your sisters believe you’re witches and that you’re at the center of a conspiracy of ignorance to keep this town mired in superstition.”

“So,” I said. “You’re going to prove that my sisters and I think we’re witches.”

“Yes.”

“And then you’re going to prove that even though we believe we’re witches, it’s not actually true.”

“Yes.”

“In that case, you could save yourself the trouble and just skip to the end. Just tell everyone it’s not true. Or better yet, don’t bother.”

“You’re impossible,” Mike said. “But I’m going to get to the bottom of this. I’m going to bring your crazy beliefs out into the open.”

He stormed out of the library and slammed the front door behind him.

Mrs. Ludlow was still glaring at me over the top of her glasses.

“Shhh!” she hissed.

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Thanks very much for reading! A Maryland Witch is now available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

 

 

Maze of Mirrors — New Short Story

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Maze of Mirrors

“Come on, Jessica,” Charlie said. “You used to love the fair.”

He was right—I did. I used to love a lot of things.

Now I wasn’t so sure.

The sun was setting, and the lights were coming on at the state fair. Neon lights in red and blue were blinking into life on all of the rides, and the merchants’ stalls and concession stands were lighting up in shades of white and gold.

I could smell the powdered-sugar scent of funnel cake, and from somewhere distantly, I could hear cries of delight from one of the rides—possibly the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Charlie took my hand and smiled at me, and I was suddenly aware of my engagement ring on that same hand—somehow it seemed heavy.

I glanced around me. It had seemed to me once that there was magic in the air at the fair.

But I could no longer feel it.

“Come on, Jessica,” Charlie said again.

I allowed myself to be pulled forward, and we went up to the long row of turnstiles where we would buy the little blue paper wristbands that would grant us entry.

We passed through the turnstiles, and Charlie stopped to buy a roll of tickets that would get us onto the rides and into some of the other attractions.

I tried to tell him not to bother, but Charlie simply smiled and bought some anyway.

“Just in case,” he said.

Since I wasn’t interested in the rides, we decided to just walk and take in the sights.

As we walked along the dusty paths that wound between the stalls in the August heat, I glanced up at Charlie.

His handsome, classic profile was outlined in the waning sunlight, and his light brown hair had picked up just a touch of gold from that same fading light.

He looked much the same as he had when we’d first met three years ago—and maybe he was the same.

Maybe I was different.

“Would you like any food?” Charlie asked.

“No thanks,” I said. I smiled up at him and tried to feel the same way I used to feel about him—but it just wasn’t coming.

We continued to walk, and soon we came in sight of a booth where you could win a prize by shooting a target.

Charlie let out a whoop and ran over to it.

“Come on, Jessica! I’ll win you a prize!”

Charlie’s enthusiasm had once really charmed me—now I found myself feeling slightly irritated.

But I followed him, and I smiled politely at the tired-looking teen who ran the booth.

Charlie paid for his three chances with tickets, and I stood beside him as he aimed the little gun on a swivel at a row of moving yellow ducks.

He was a terrible shot, and for just a moment, I was reminded of why I fell in love with him.

His enthusiasm as he aimed for duck after duck and missed made me laugh.

“I’m going to do it, Jess! I’m going to win that prize for you!”

But try after try, Charlie kept missing. His enthusiasm never waned, and he also wouldn’t give up.

My interest began to fade, and I found my attention drifting to other things.

But Charlie kept trying for that prize like he was trying to win me back.

Perhaps he was.

Not far away was a mechanical fortune-teller—the kind in which you inserted a few coins and it told you your future.

I drifted over to it.

In a big glass case sat the upper half of a metal woman with black hair and a star-spangled kerchief. She was clad in a red blouse, and her fingers were covered in rings. Those same fingers were stretched out over a crystal ball, and her dark eyes looked vaguely down in its direction.

When Charlie and I were first dating, we’d come to this same fair, and I’d purchased a fortune from a machine very much like this one—in fact the one in front of me might have been the same one.

I fished two quarters out of my purse and plugged them into the coin slot.

Lights went on in the glass box, and a mysterious jingle began to play. The fortune-teller sat up a little straighter, and a recorded voice intoned, “I see all! Here is your fortune!”

A slender white slip of paper dropped onto a tiny tray.

I picked it up and stared at it.

The first time I’d been here with Charlie, my fortune had promised true love—it had seemed prophetic back then.

This time I turned the little slip of paper over and over in my fingers, but the result was the same.

It was blank.

Charlie came bounding over to me with his hands behind his back. Then he brought his arms around to the front and produced a stuffed animal—a purple bear with a heart-shaped nose.

“For you, Jess.”

I took the bear and looked up into Charlie’s smiling face. He looked really happy, and the evening sun outlined his handsome face, bathing him in a golden glow.

But for me the glow was gone. Our wedding was in six months. And I was having doubts.

Yes—I was having doubts.

“It’s very thoughtful of you,” I said. “Thank you for winning this for me.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Charlie said, his grin wide and boyish. “I fought those ducks right up to the end.”

I smiled despite myself, and Charlie glanced over at the mechanical fortune-teller.

“Oh, hey—I remember this! Did you get a fortune?”

“I don’t think it’s working,” I said.

“Well, that’s okay,” Charlie said. “There’s plenty of other stuff to do.”

His face suddenly lit up.

“How about the Maze of Mirrors? I know you love the maze.”

Charlie took my hand, and before long we were standing in front of a gaudy building done up in shades of gold and silver. A sign at the top proclaimed it to be the “Maze of Mirrors,” and yellow lights flashed all along its border.

A couple walked up to the elaborate front door and went inside, and a soft light came into Charlie’s eyes as he watched them disappear.

“Do you remember this place?” he said.

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

On that early date when we’d come to the fair, we’d also gone to this same Maze of Mirrors.

And this was where we’d shared our first kiss.

The memory was a happy one, but it was distant and hazy—like something I’d tucked away to be treasured on a rainy day.

It no longer felt like part of the present.

“Yes, I do,” I murmured again.

“Would you like to go inside?” Charlie asked.

“Sure.”

He gave my hand a little squeeze, and we went in through the ornate door.

There was a big, heart-shaped mirror in the entranceway, and I stopped to look at us.

This mirror held no distortion. It simply showed the two of us standing in the shadowy hall—Albert tall and golden-haired in his polo shirt, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes. And I saw myself—dark hair, equally dark eyes, clad in a white sundress and sandals.

We were much as we had been on that day a few years ago when we’d first come here.

And yet we were very different now—or at least I was.

Charlie looked over at me and our eyes met in the mirror.

“Jess,” he said softly, “I feel like I’m losing you.”

I smiled back at him, but I said nothing.

We moved on into the maze, and I could hear the laughter of the other couple somewhere up ahead of us.

Charlie and I examined ourselves in all the mirrors—one made us tall and thin, another made us short and fat, and still another made us curvy in all the wrong ways.

I found myself giggling and enjoying myself despite my misgivings, and I hurried on ahead.

Eventually, I realized I was alone, and I looked around.

“Charlie?”

I hurried back the way I’d come, but I couldn’t find any sign of him.

I stood still and listened, figuring I’d hear him—or someone else—moving around, but there was only silence—I couldn’t even hear the couple that had come in ahead of us.

“Charlie?” I said. “Charlie, where are you?”

But there was no answer.

I decided to go back to the entrance—surely he was waiting for me there.

I began to hurry, running past distorted images of myself, but the mirrors seemed to stretch on and on, and somehow I couldn’t find the way out.

I was well and truly lost.

Figuring that someone else would have to come along eventually—the evening was still young, and this was a popular attraction—I spied a little bench and sat down on it.

The bench was covered in thick, red cloth and was as ornate as the mirrors all around me. At the very least, I had a comfortable place to wait, and I was sure that someone would be along in just a few minutes.

But time stretched on, and eventually, my attention began to wander.

And then there was a flicker in the mirror that stood opposite me—just the barest hint of movement—and I found myself staring into it.

Like the mirror in the entranceway that Charlie and I had first encountered, this mirror seemed to have no distortion in it. I saw myself reflected back very plainly—I was sitting on a bench with a purple stuffed bear at my feet.

There was another flicker from the mirror, and then I suddenly saw Charlie reflected in it very clearly.

I stood up and turned around.

“Charlie! Where have you—”

But there was no one behind me.

I turned back to the mirror.

Charlie was still there—but as I peered closer, I realized that the Charlie in the mirror wasn’t wearing the same clothes he’d had on a few minutes ago. And instead of a dimly lit hall of mirrors behind him, there was a bright, sunny day.

Somehow this was a different Charlie.

He was laughing, and he was looking at someone far off in the distance—someone I couldn’t see.

And he was holding something in his hand—a football.

I looked closer, and I realized that I recognized the wide swath of green field where Charlie was standing. There was a ring of trees beyond him, and I could see a few picnic tables nestled close to the trees.

This wasn’t just a different Charlie.

It was Charlie on the day we met.

My cousin had dragged me to a picnic I didn’t want to go to, and as I walked across that same grassy filed to sneak out early, a football—not thrown by Charlie—had hit me squarely between the shoulder blades.

But Charlie was the first one over to help me up, and I still remembered the concern in his eyes as he’d looked at me.

He’d wanted to drive me to a hospital, but I’d insisted I was fine. We’d ended up talking and laughing for hours and rather than leaving early, I ended up staying until the sun set and most of the other picnickers had gone.

I stood up quickly and walked away.

As I hurried along, I saw another flicker of movement in a mirror, and despite my misgivings, I stopped to look.

This mirror showed no sign of distortion, either, and as I watched, another image of Charlie appeared within its glassy depths.

This time, Charlie was seated at a table in a restaurant, looking slightly uncomfortable in a suit and tie. The table was next to a window, and I could see a dark lake stretching beyond it.

The were candles on the table, and his face was bathed in a soft light.

I recognized this Charlie, too—this was how he had looked on the night of my birthday dinner—the first celebration we’d shared after we started dating. Charlie had put on a pair of oversized green plastic glasses, and then two waiters had wheeled out a cake that was completely covered in candles. The blaze from the cake was bright, and Charlie had belted out an off-key version of “Happy Birthday.” I’d been overcome with laughter, and diners at the neighboring tables had laughed, too. They’d even cheered and clapped when Charlie had finished singing.

Charlie was always ready with a joke and always trying to make people laugh.

He was entertaining—but it took a lot more than that to build a life.

And that was the trouble really. Charlie wasn’t serious enough to depend on.

But even as I hurried away from the mirror, I realized that I wasn’t being entirely fair to Charlie.

He had a serious side, too—and there was more to him than just jokes and good times. A lot more.

As if in answer to my thoughts, the nearest mirror flickered and showed me yet another image of Charlie.

This time, he was standing in a hallway—my hallway, in fact.

It was the hall that led to the apartment I was living in when I’d first met him, and he was standing in front of my door.

His back was to me, and he was wearing a thick winter coat. And in one gloved hand, he was clutching a brown paper bag, while the other hand was raised to knock at my door.

I knew exactly what was in that bag.

That first winter after we met, I had a terrible case of the flu.

I was lying on the couch in my apartment, feeling all alone in the world, when Charlie showed up at my door with a big thermos of chicken noodle soup.

The soup was steaming and hot, and it was just the thing I needed to soothe my sore throat and aching body.

I’d warned Charlie that he should stay away—I didn’t want him to get sick, too.

But he showed up every day for the next three days to bring me more soup and to make sure that I was okay.

I knew very well that Charlie had a serious side—and that he wouldn’t disappear when times got tough.

Charlie was fun, but he was also solid and dependable.

No—he wasn’t frivolous at all.

Something else was wrong.

I hurried away from the mirror.

As I ran along the shadowy hall full of mirrors, I saw my own swift figure reflected back to me in dark glass after dark glass. I continued to watch my own fleeing form, and I realized that I could already see what the problem was.

It was me—running.

I stopped.

I stared at myself in the mirror and watched my chest heaving from my recent exertions. I could hear my own breath echoing raggedly in my ears, and I knew that the running wasn’t the only reason I was having trouble breathing.

I was panicking.

I was scared.

And as I looked into my own eyes, I realized that this was the real reason I was having second thoughts about Charlie.

I wasn’t different.

But I was afraid that I would be.

Right now I was still me. I still had my own space—my own separate identity.

But after the wedding, I would be part of an Us. I would be Charlie and me together forever.

I wondered—would I still be me?

And that’s what I was really worried about—not Charlie, not his personality, or how responsible he really was.

I was afraid to lose myself.

I continued to stare into my own eyes, and I began to breathe in and out very slowly.

I realized that I didn’t need to worry.

I would always be me.

I saw other images then—this time in my mind’s eye and not in a mirror.

I saw Charlie and me sharing our first kiss right here in this Maze of Mirrors.

I saw Charlie on another day running out to me in the pouring rain with an umbrella to shield me from the deluge.

I saw Charlie kneeling before me on a bright sunny day with a black velvet ring box in his hands.

And I heard myself saying, Yes, I will marry you. I love you.

Then Charlie had stood, and I’d thrown my arms around him.

I love you, too, Charlie had said. And I always will.

I realized then that I didn’t need to be worried about myself—or Charlie.

He was good, loyal, loving—in good times and in bad.

He would always support me.

And I would always be me.

I stared into my own eyes in the mirror.

“You can do this,” I said to myself. “You both can.”

Then I turned and ran again.

But this time I wasn’t running away from something—this time I was running toward something.

I was running toward Charlie—and our life together.

I called out his name as I ran.

“Charlie! Charlie!”

As I hurried along the shadowy halls full of mirrors in ornate frames, I felt a new twinge of worry. What if I couldn’t find Charlie? What if this crazy maze had somehow conspired to take him away from me?

I couldn’t let that happen.

I ran and ran, this time glancing at the mirrors on either side of me, hoping to catch a glimpse of Charlie once again, but the mirrors remained stubbornly blank of anything except my own fleeing figure.

I ran faster.

Just when I thought I couldn’t run anymore, I spied a light up ahead.

I’d found my way back to the entrance.

I ran past the mirror where Charlie and I had stopped to take a look at ourselves, and I burst through the ornate doors at the front and ran out into the early evening sunshine.

I was free.

I looked around. A crowd of people was standing around the entrance to the Maze of Mirrors, and Charlie detached himself from the group.

He hurried over to me.

“Jess, are you okay?”

I threw my arms around him. “Charlie! Charlie! You’re here! You’re okay!”

He hugged me tightly and then stepped back.

“Of course I’m okay. The question is are you?”

“I’m fine. What happened? Why is everyone out here?”

“The fire alarm went off,” Charlie said. “The whole place filled with smoke. I looked everywhere trying to find you, but the firefighters pulled me out.”

He pointed, and I could see firefighters standing in a cluster not far away. They were all dressed in yellow with reflective stripes, and many of them held masks which I assumed protected against smoke inhalation.

I glanced behind me. The Maze of Mirrors looked fine—there was no smoke and no sign of a fire.

“But there’s no smoke,” I said. “Did they put the fire out?”

Charlie glanced over at the firefighters. “They haven’t said anything yet, but I’m thinking there was no fire. I think some kids pulled the fire alarm and then set off some smoke bombs.”

He glanced at me searchingly. “You’re really all right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You didn’t hear the fire alarm?”

“No.”

“What happened in there?”

“I found myself,” I said. “And I found you.”

******************

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Sopala/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!

Bound by Love — New Short Story

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Bound by Love

When Bridget heads to a quaint resort town for a business meeting, she doesn’t expect to run into Antonio, a handsome Italian stranger. They seem to hit it off, but there’s a snag—his nonna’s prophecy is standing in their way.

This story was available free for a limited time. If you’ve missed it, there are other free stories available on this website. Just have a look around! 🙂

The ebook is also available here.

 

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© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Stefan Keller/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!

A Good Catch — New Short Story

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A Good Catch

“I heard the concession stands have brought back a lot of old favorites,” Ashley said. “Including that lemonade ice cream you used to like. And—”

Charlotte heard her friend sigh, and she turned to look at her.

Ashley was standing on the steps behind her. The slightest of breezes ruffled her light brown ponytail, and the sprinkling of freckles across her nose was barely visible in the shady stadium. It really was a bit gloomy this high up, and Charlotte wondered if her friend was having trouble negotiating the steps.

“Something wrong, Ashley?”

Ashley, who had already been frowning, frowned even harder, and Charlotte followed her gaze.

A man seated a few rows away was staring at them.

Charlotte looked at him, and the man sheepishly looked away.

Charlotte glanced back at her friend.

“It’s just a guy looking at us. And you look totally cute. I can’t blame him.”

“It’s not just that one guy,” Ashley replied. “It’s that one and that one and that one.”

Charlotte looked where Ashley pointed. There were indeed quite a few guys looking in their direction as they descended the steps.

Ashley continued. “And they aren’t looking at us. They’re looking at you.”

Charlotte glanced around. It was very shady, and a lot of the guys were wearing baseball caps, which shaded their eyes even further.

“I don’t see how you can tell.”

“Oh, I can tell all right.” Ashley broke into a mischievous grin. “It’s always you they’re looking at. With your gorgeous black hair and your flashing dark eyes, not to mention your—”

“Ashley!” Charlotte said quickly.

Ashley’s grin grew wider. “Don’t worry. I was just going to say ‘great figure.’ You’re pretty much the textbook definition of a perfect ten.”

“Oh, Ash—”

“I’m not jealous,” Ashley said. “I’m happy for you. You’re beautiful and successful. It’s just—”

“What?”

“You never really look at anybody. You float above everything. You need someone who will give you a challenge.”

“A challenge?” Charlotte said.

“Yes.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know exactly.” Ashley sighed. “Let’s just find our seats.”

Charlotte and Ashley continued down the concrete steps until they broke out into sunshine.

Charlotte turned her face up to the sun’s warmth and ran her fingers through her glossy, dark hair.

Ashley tapped her friend on the shoulder.

“They’re doing it again.”

Charlotte looked around. Several pairs of eyes, all belonging to men, were turned in her direction. One of the men had a female companion who turned to follow his gaze. When she saw who he was staring at, she poked him in the ribs.

Ashley giggled a little, and Charlotte tried not to smile.

She couldn’t help it if she caused a stir everywhere she went.

Instead, she focused on the sight before her.

There was a blue sky with a bright sun above her, and below her was a baseball diamond with rich green grass and terra cotta-colored dirt.

It was a beautiful summer evening at the ballpark.

Their seats were down by the field, so Charlotte and Ashley continued descending the steps in the sunshine.

They sat down in blue plastic flip-up seats, and Charlotte looked out over the field.

She could see the players jogging and stretching as they warmed up.

“These are great seats,” Ashley said wistfully. “I suppose that’s just a perk of being you.”

Charlotte smiled at her friend. “Actually, that’s just a perk of having my job. Everybody gets a chance to go to a ball game, and everybody gets the same seats.”

There was a slight movement, and Charlotte glanced down the row of seats next to them.

The man seated at the end had turned to stare at her.

“I’m not sure everybody who sits here gets the same looks, though,” Ashley said.

“He’ll forget about me once the game starts,” Charlotte replied.

Ashley stared at her for a long moment. “You’re what they call a ‘good catch,’ Charlotte. You’re beautiful and sparkling—but you won’t give anyone a chance.”

“A good catch?”

“Yes.” Ashley tapped her chin. “You know, I think I might know someone who would be good for you.”

Charlotte smiled. “A challenge, you mean?”

“Yes. His name is Chad.”

“Chad?”

“Yes.”

Charlotte frowned. “I don’t know how I feel about that name.”

“Oh, all right. Never mind.” Ashley sighed. “Sometimes I think you’re above love.”

“Hey,” Charlotte said. “That’s not true—I’m not above love.”

Ashley’s phone buzzed then, and she looked down at it.

An impish smile lit up her face.

“I’ve got a surprise for you. Be right back.”

She stood up.

“Wait,” Charlotte said. “Where are you going?”

Ashley flashed her mischievous grin. “Like I said, it’s a surprise.”

She turned and jogged lightly up the steps.

Charlotte watched her friend for a moment and then sat back in her seat.

Ashley is wrong, Charlotte thought to herself. I do want to find love. Why else would I have worn this pin?

She looked down. She was dressed in plain white shorts and light blue T-shirt. But pinned to that T-shirt was an antique stick pin with a real ruby at the top. The deep red gem and its elaborate setting contrasted with her otherwise simple clothes.

The pin was a recent gift from her great-aunt Elaine, and the present had been a complete surprise.

Her great-aunt had also included a handwritten letter with the pin, and a few phrases from it drifted through Charlotte’s mind.

You’ve got a fiery spirit like I have. And that makes it hard for you to find a romantic partner.

Aunt Elaine had gone on to say that the ruby pin had mysterious properties, and that she herself had been wearing it the day she met the love of her life.

She’d said she hoped the gem would bring Charlotte luck.

Charlotte looked down and touched the pin lightly.

She really did hope it would give her some luck.

Time passed, and the players went into their dugouts.

Then two flag-bearers and a singer with a microphone came out onto the field.

The game was about to begin.

Charlotte stood for the national anthem and then looked around for her friend.

Ashley was nowhere in sight.

As Charlotte sat back down and rummaged in her purse, she heard someone sit down next to her.

She was relieved.

“Ashley, there you are. I was just about to call—”

She stopped.

The person sitting next to her wasn’t Ashley.

Instead, a man had taken her friend’s seat. He had bright blue eyes and dark hair that curled ever so slightly as it peeked out from under his baseball cap. He had a deep tan and an impressive, athletic build—so much so that he actually looked like one of the baseball players.

He was handsome—but he was in the wrong place.

Charlotte leaned over to him. “I’m sorry—that seat’s taken.”

The man looked at her, and as his eyes met hers, she drew in her breath sharply.

His eyes were really beautiful.

“What was that?” the man said.

Charlotte gave him her most winning smile to cushion the bad news she was about to give him.

“That seat’s taken.”

“Yes,” the man said. “By me.”

He turned his attention back to the field.

Charlotte was stunned.

Men seldom turned away from her.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I don’t think you understand. That’s my friend’s seat.”

The man glanced at her for a moment and then looked back at the field again.

Charlotte held out her phone.

“I’ve got our tickets right here. You can see that I’ve got both my seat and the one you’re sitting in.”

The man looked over at her and smiled.

His smile was truly heart-stopping.

“I get what you’re doing,” he said.

“What?”

“You’re trying to get my attention. Ladies do it all the time. Usually, I play along a little, but this time I’d really like to just watch the game. Okay?”

Charlotte stared at him in shock.

“You—you—”

“I’m just being honest,” the man said. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not interested.”

Charlotte continued to stare at him.

In the meantime, the game had started.

A player walked up to bat, and then there was a pitch—and a swing and a miss.

The man clapped. “That’s it! That’s what we want! Come on! Three strikes!”

“Listen,” Charlotte said. “My friend will return very soon, and she’s going to need her seat back.”

“Sorry, lady. You’re not my type.”

“Not your type?” Charlotte said. “Of all the conceited—”

The man continued. “No—not my type at all. I like hot girls—you know, a perfect ten? And you’re not really in that league.”

Charlotte sputtered. “Not in that league? I’ll have you know I get lots of attention from men everywhere I go. I turn a lot of heads.”

The man glanced over at her. “Eh. You’re not bad.”

“Not bad?”

There was a crack! from out on the field then, and the man turned back to the game quickly.

Charlotte saw a ball flying high, headed toward the wall—but a player in the outfield made a spectacular leap and caught the ball.

The batter was out.

The man clapped. “Good catch! Good catch!”

He turned to Charlotte. “That really was a good catch.”

“A good catch,” she murmured to herself.

“Yes—a good catch,” the man said. “Do you not understand how baseball works?”

“Oh, I understand how baseball works,” Charlotte replied. “And I understand what’s going on here, too. I see now that there’s a reason Ashley disappeared—and there’s a reason you’re sitting in her seat.”

She looked around. “She’s watching us from somewhere, isn’t she?”

The man looked puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“You can drop the act. Ashley said I was a ‘good catch,’ and that she knew somebody who would challenge me. Then she mysteriously disappears. And then you oh so casually drop into her seat. You’re Chad, aren’t you?”

“Chad?” the man said. “Are you serious?”

“I’m perfectly serious. Just admit it—you’ve been caught.”

“My name is Foster,” the man said. “I know nothing of this Chad.”

He shifted, and something bright red winked in the sunlight. Charlotte looked down and saw a ring with a red stone on a chain around his neck.

She also saw a pair of sunglasses hanging from the collar of his shirt.

“Foster?” Charlotte said. “Like the sunglasses?”

He glanced down. “Yes, I do like the sunglasses.”

“No—I mean is your name Foster Grant? As in the sunglasses company?”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning,” Charlotte said, “it’s a fake name.”

“Right. Because my name is supposed to be Chad. Well, my name’s not Foster Grant, either. It’s Foster Urbani. Sorry to disappoint you. And these are actually Ray-Bans.”

“And I could say my name’s Charlotte Price,” Charlotte said. “But it’s actually Charlotte Hayden. You can say anything you want.”

Foster fixed her with his bright blue eyes.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You think the only reason I came here today was to try to get a date with you? You think all of this was just for you?”

“Sounds like a pretty accurate description to me,” Charlotte said.

Foster smiled his breathtaking smile. “Now who’s conceited?”

“I’m not conceited at all. I’ve just uncovered your little plot with my friend.”

Charlotte turned in her seat and waved.

“Where is she? Ashley! Ashley! You can come out now. Sorry, but it didn’t work!”

Foster stood up. “You know what? This is too weird for me. You and your friend enjoy the game. I just hope she doesn’t turn out to be imaginary.”

He disappeared up the steps, taking them two at a time, and Charlotte sat back in her seat, stewing.

“The nerve of that man,” she muttered to herself.

She waited, expecting Ashley to appear and own up to her little scheme.

But time passed, and nobody showed up to take Ashley’s seat.

Still fuming, Charlotte got up to find her.

The area at the top of the stadium that housed the concessions was quite shady and breezy, and Charlotte was thankful to get out of the hot sun.

She stood looking down the long row of food stalls and other merchants, but she saw no sign of her friend. There was a bit of a kerfuffle down at the other end of the hall, but it didn’t look like anything Charlotte needed to be involved in.

Instead, she walked through the cool halls that circled the entire stadium looking for Ashley.

Charlotte couldn’t find her anywhere.

Eventually, she decided just to stop and get a drink.

She walked over to the nearest concession stand and looked up at the menu board. They had beer and wine, but Charlotte was in the mood for a good, old-fashioned iced tea.

She paid for her drink and then walked over to a railing to look down on the game below.

“I don’t believe it,” said a voice next to her.

She looked up into the blue eyes of Foster Urbani. He was leaning on the railing with a glass of beer in his hand.

“You’re following me, aren’t you?” he said.

“No,” Charlotte replied. “I didn’t even see you there.”

“You didn’t see me?” Foster scoffed. “I find that very hard to believe. Everybody notices me. Just admit it—you’re following me.”

“If anything, you’re following me,” Charlotte snapped.

“How would that even be possible? I got here first.”

Charlotte frowned. She realized he was right—but she didn’t want to admit it.

Foster glanced around. “Where’s your imaginary friend?”

Charlotte felt a twinge of worry. “You know, I don’t know.” Her eyes happened to fall on the ring that hung around his neck, and she noticed once again that the ring had a red stone—just like her pin.

“I don’t know,” she said again, “but you might. Did Ashley tell you about my pin? Is that why you’re wearing that red ring? Was that supposed to be some kind of ice-breaker between us?”

Foster looked down and wrapped his fingers around the ring.

“This ring—this ring is something special. I—”

He looked away, and Charlotte waited.

Then he turned away from her.

“Fine,” Charlotte muttered to herself. Then she got out her phone and called Ashley.

She was going to get a hold of her friend and get some answers.

But Ashley’s phone rang and rang and then went to voicemail.

Charlotte then sent her a text.

Ashley, where are you?

She waited a few moments, but there was no answer.

Charlotte felt another twinge of worry, but she told herself to wait—maybe Ashley would answer in a few minutes.

She looked up and glanced around—Foster had disappeared.

Charlotte sighed. Maybe it was just as well—he didn’t seem to be very helpful.

She drank the rest of her iced tea and then went back to her seat.

With any luck, Ashley would have returned there already.

But Ashley’s seat was empty, and Charlotte sat down dejectedly.

She was really started to get worried now.

Then she told herself that Ashley hadn’t really been gone that long and there was probably a perfectly good reason for her absence.

She could hardly call the police because her friend had been missing for an hour in a ballpark.

Charlotte tried to watch the game, but her mind kept racing.

She decided to get some dinner.

As she wandered the breezy halls at the top of the stadium again, she realized that she wasn’t in the mood for a concession stand snack—she’d really rather have some proper food. She decided to go to one of the full-service restaurants.

Charlotte found one and walked in.

But as she looked around, she realized that the restaurant was full and there likely wasn’t any place even for a party of one.

A young hostess approached her and confirmed as much but offered her a seat at the bar.

“That works,” Charlotte replied.

She was seated at the bar in the only available seat, and as she looked over the menu, the couple seated next to her got up and left.

Soon someone else sat down next to her.

Charlotte glanced over the top of her menu.

It was Foster.

“So now who’s doing the following?” Charlotte asked.

Foster glanced over at her. “Oh. You again.”

“You’re perfectly free to leave,” Charlotte replied.

“No—I could use a burger. And a drink.”

“I thought you already had one.”

“Yeah, well, I need another.”

Foster glanced around.

“I see your imaginary friend hasn’t returned yet.”

“She’s not imaginary,” Charlotte said. “And I’m starting to get worried about her.”

Foster looked at her, and Charlotte was surprised to see a flicker of genuine concern in his eyes.

“Why are you worried?”

“I can’t find her for one thing. And then she’s also not answering her phone. I’m starting to think something’s happened to her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Foster said—and for once he didn’t sound smug or self-satisfied.

Charlotte stared at him for a long moment. “You really don’t know who Ashley is, do you?”

“No,” Foster replied.

“And this really wasn’t a setup?”

“No.”

The young hostess suddenly appeared by their side.

“This almost never happens,” she said. “But a small table has opened, and no one is waiting at the moment. Would you two like to have it?”

“Oh, no,” Charlotte said quickly. “We’re not together.”

Foster rubbed his chin. “Still—a table in this place is hard to get, as the young lady said. How about it? Would you like to have dinner with me?”

Charlotte stared at him in surprise. “Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not afraid to spend more time with me?”

Foster had the good grace to look embarrassed.

“No. Sorry about all that. How about I stay with you till you locate your friend?”

Charlotte gave Foster a speculative look.

“All right,” she said at last.

The hostess led them to a tiny table in a corner, and a friendly young waiter soon arrived to take their order. Foster did indeed order a burger, and Charlotte ordered a turkey club sandwich.

Then the waiter departed.

“So,” Charlotte said. “I’ve finally accepted the fact that you and Ashley aren’t in cahoots.”

“And I appreciate that,” Foster said.

“So isn’t it time you finally admit that you were sitting in the wrong seat?”

Foster’s jaw took on a stubborn set. “I don’t know about that. I’ve been coming to this ballpark for quite some time, and I’ve never sat in the wrong seat.”

“Would you please just look?” Charlotte asked.

“Oh, very well,” Foster replied with a loud, affected sigh.

He got out his phone. “What seats do you have?”

Charlotte looked down at her phone and tapped on her screen.

“I have seats eleven and twelve in row F, section one hundred twenty.”

“And I have—” Foster paused, and a look of embarrassment crossed his face.

He cleared his throat and went on. “Seat twelve in row F, section one hundred twenty-two.”

He looked up at Charlotte. “Okay. So I was wrong.”

“Thank you for admitting that.”

Foster smiled. “You’re stubborn—you know that?”

Charlotte smiled back. “I may have heard that once or twice.”

Their food arrived then, and as Foster leaned back to give the waiter some room, Charlotte happened to glance at the ring with the red stone that hung from his neck.

It looked like a woman’s ring—the red stone was set in a delicate gold band that could only fit over a slender finger. Charlotte glanced down at her own ruby pin, and she realized now that there was no way Ashley could have told him about it ahead of time. She hadn’t told Ashley about the pin or its significance, and she wasn’t even sure Ashley had noticed it.

Charlotte remembered the way Foster had reacted when she’d asked about the ring, and she felt bad about her accusation now.

As the waiter walked away, Charlotte eyed it curiously.

“You never did finish telling me about the ring,” she said. “It seems like something very important to you.”

Foster looked down. “Yes, it is. It was my mom’s.”

“Oh, wow,” Charlotte replied. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken about it so casually.”

“That’s okay. You didn’t know.” Foster wrapped his fingers around the ring. “My mom died when I was in high school. I’ve been wearing it ever since.”

“Oh, Foster. I’m so sorry.”

“I’ve got a lot of good memories, though. My mother was a very special person. I guess I’ve spent my whole adult life looking for someone who can love me like she did.”

“Oh, Foster,” Charlotte said again. The words came out like a gentle sigh.

Foster looked up at her, and his grin was a little sheepish.

“I’m used to women chasing after me who aren’t really interested in getting to know me, and I thought you were like that, too. I can see now that this was all just a big misunderstanding. And for the record, you’re better than okay—you’re really lovely.”

Charlotte smiled. “Thank you. And I know what you mean. I have guys chasing after me all the time. And they aren’t interested in me personally. They just see me as some kind of trophy.”

“Would you like to start over again?” Foster held out his hand. “Hi. I’m Foster.”

Charlotte took his hand. “Nice to meet you, Foster. I’m Charlotte.”

“Do you like baseball, Charlotte?”

“Yes, I do. How about you?”

“Yes. Funny you should ask.”

The two of them had a nice dinner and an even nicer conversation, and as they walked out of the restaurant at the end of it, Charlotte realized that she hadn’t had such a pleasant evening in a long time.

As they walked along the breezy hallway once again, Charlotte glanced out at the field below.

“Sorry you missed so much of the game,” she said.

“That’s okay,” Foster replied. “There are one hundred sixty-two games in a major league baseball season, and at least half of them are at home. I’ll have plenty of chances to see another game. Besides, I couldn’t leave you while your friend was still missing.”

Charlotte looked down at her phone a little guiltily. Ashley had slipped her mind while she’d been spending time with Foster.

But there was still no call or text from Ashley, and Charlotte tried calling her again.

Once again, there was no answer.

Suddenly, two police officers went by with a big red object that had two handles on it.

“I think that’s a battering ram,” Foster murmured.

Charlotte glanced around. This was the same section of the hallway where she’d seen a commotion earlier. She and Foster drew aside and watched the police from a distance.

The two officers hurried up to a door, and the one with the battering ram stepped up to it and shouted.

“Please stand back as far as you can, ma’am.”

Then the officer got to work on the door, while his partner stood by.

Within moments, the door was bashed in with a bang, and a young woman sprang out.

“Ashley!” Charlotte cried.

She ran toward her friend.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” Ashley cried to the cops. “Thank you for getting me out of there!”

Charlotte wrapped her friend in a hug. “Oh, Ashley. Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I’m fine. Just a little exhausted—and embarrassed. I walked into a closet thinking it was restroom, and then somehow I got locked in there. And nobody seemed to have a key.”

Ashley’s cell phone began to buzz then.

“And my phone wouldn’t work.”

She tapped at her screen. “Looks like you’ve been trying to reach me for a little while. Oh, Charlotte. I really only came up here to get you some of that ice cream that you like. And then everything went horribly wrong.”

Charlotte gave her another hug.

The police checked to make sure that Ashley was okay, and she assured them that she didn’t need any medical attention. She also reassured a nervous stadium representative that she wouldn’t sue and waved off the offer of free tickets.

As the commotion around Ashley died down, Charlotte looked up and saw Foster still hovering nearby.

Ashley followed her friend’s gaze. “Who’s that?”

“That’s Foster. He’s been waiting with me while I tried to figure out what happened to you.”

An impish grin sprang to Ashley’s lips. “An actual guy that you actually talked to? I’m amazed. I think I might faint from shock.”

“Shhh!” Charlotte hissed. “He’ll hear you. And speaking of shock, how do you feel? Do you want to go home?”

“I’m okay—but I think I’d really rather go home. I’ve had enough of baseball stadiums for today.”

“Okay,” Charlotte said. “I’ll take you home.”

Foster approached them then with a little bit of hesitation, and Ashley nudged Charlotte in the ribs.

“No,” she said. “You stay here, and I’ll go home by myself.”

“So I suppose you two ladies are headed home now?” Foster asked.

“Yes,” Charlotte said.

“I am. She isn’t,” Ashley added.

“I am taking you home,” Charlotte said firmly.

“Well, you ladies have a good night.” Foster hesitated. “And if it isn’t inappropriate, I was wondering—”

“Yes,” Ashley replied. “She’d love to give you her number. Give her yours, and she’ll text it to you.”

Charlotte and Foster exchanged numbers, and he grinned as he looked down at his phone.

“This is good,” he said. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Then he flashed his heart-melting smile once more and disappeared.

“Wow,” Ashley said. “How about next time, we lock you in a closet, and I get to be the one who meets the hot guy?”

Charlotte laughed and took her friend home.

Two weeks later, on another bright summer evening, Charlotte and Foster sat side by side at the ballpark. As the two of them talked and laughed, Charlotte marveled at how easy he was to talk to and how much fun he was to be around.

A sudden homerun attracted his attention, and Charlotte watched his handsome profile as he stared out at the field. She was wearing her Aunt Elaine’s ruby pin in honor of the night she and Foster had met, and she found herself musing that in a strange way the pin really had brought her good luck. If not for Ashley’s bizarre mishap, Foster and Charlotte would probably never have met.

“Oh, Aunt Elaine,” Charlotte murmured to herself. “Did you know something like this would happen?”

As she looked down at the pin, the red jewel seemed to wink at her.

Charlotte took that as a yes.

******************

Thanks very much for reading!