March Madness — New Short Story

The-Madness-Cafe

March Madness

“Do you come here often?”

I looked at the man sitting next to me. He had black hair and hazel eyes that had something of the wolf about them. I was about to give him a hard time about using such an old line on me, but something in his expression made me stop.

His eyes were serious—and concerned. He seemed to genuinely mean the question.

He also wasn’t bad-looking.

I had a sudden urge to check my lipstick in the metal napkin dispenser that sat next to me on the counter. I checked the impulse, however—there was no way I was going to be able to do that without his noticing—and I glanced down at my coffee cup instead. I could see a red half-circle on the white china cup. I pressed my lips together and hoped I hadn’t smudged my lipstick too badly.

“I’ve never been here before,” I said seriously, matching my tone to the look in his eyes.

The man nodded and glanced over his shoulder. “I thought not. Which begs the
question—”

“What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?” I supplied.

“Something like that.” The man smiled a little, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“A place like this,” I murmured to myself. What kind of place was it? I glanced around. There was a counter, where customers sat eating, there were booths around the perimeter, where people also sat eating, and there were big windows all around us that gave us a good view of the dark, snowy March night outside. In short, it was a perfectly normal diner—I didn’t see anything that should have been cause for concern to the man sitting next to me.

And yet, he was worried—of that I was certain.

I gave one last look around, and as I did so, I glanced as surreptitiously as I could at the metal napkin holder next to me. I could just make out my reflection, and my red lipstick didn’t seem to have been too badly smudged by the apple pie and coffee I’d had. I sneaked another peek and saw that my dark hair didn’t seem to be too badly mussed, despite the high winds outside.

I turned back to my new friend.

He was staring at me steadily. It was starting to unnerve me.

“So do you come here often?” I asked.

“Yes,” the man said. “Unfortunately, I do.”

He glanced around. “I’m Nate Devereaux, by the way. May I ask your name?”

Having a stranger ask for my name felt a little funny, but I instinctively felt like I could trust him.

“Rebecca Marbury,” I said.

“Well, Rebecca, may I ask further how you got here?”

Again, it was the kind of question that I wouldn’t usually have answered when asked by a stranger, but Nate somehow inspired confidence in me.

“I took the interstate,” I said. “Then I took my usual exit. I kept going till I hit this little country road here, and then I stopped at this place—I’ve always been curious about it.”

Nate’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Do you live around here?”

“No,” I said. “I was visiting my—”

I stopped.

“I’m visiting,” I finished.

Though I wasn’t wary of Nate, it did occur to me that it was a little strange to ask about my route.

“Why do you want to know? Are you concerned about the roads?”

Nate glanced around again, and I noticed that his eyes were fringed by dark lashes—they were very nice eyes.

“No,” he said. “I’m not actually interested in the roads. I mean, how did you get in here—in the diner?”

I was even more puzzled. “How did I get in? I just walked through the door.”

“So you can see it?” Nate said.

“Of course I can.”

“What’s the name you see on the outside?”

“The Madness Café,” I said.

“That’s the name, all right,” he said. “It’s been earned, too.”

I glanced around. “Nobody in here looks that crazy to me.”

“That’s because you don’t know them,” Nate replied. “And with any luck, you won’t get a chance to.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” he said, “that you should really get out of here right now.”

I looked down at the remains of my late-night snack. “But I haven’t paid my bill yet.”

“That’s all right. They don’t take regular money in here anyway.”

“They don’t take—” I began. “What are you talking about?”

I began to look around for the stunningly beautiful waitress who had served me. I spotted her on the far side of the diner, and I held up my hand. I thought, as I had when I’d first seen her, that there seemed to be a slight greenish tint to her hair and skin—a trick of the light, probably.

I wanted to pay my bill—not so much because I believed that Nate was right that I needed to leave the diner—but because I thought it might not be a bad idea to get away from him.

He’d seemed nice at first, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“Oh no,” Nate said, following my gaze. “No, no, no. You’re lucky you got past her this long. If she sees you take out human money, they’ll all be after you.”

He grabbed my hand and hauled me to my feet. “Come on. You’ve got to go right now.”

I just had time to grab my purse before he dragged me off.

We were headed toward the exit very quickly.

“Now wait just a minute,” I said.

“Sorry, Rebecca,” Nate replied. “This is for the best.”

Just as we were nearing the door, the lights went out.

“Oh no,” Nate said. “No, no, no.”

There was a flash of light then, and I saw three people standing very close to me—a beautiful woman with brilliant sea-green eyes, a very handsome man whose eyes seemed to glow amber, and then another man, who made a vague, gray impression before disappearing.

The flash disappeared also, and the diner was plunged into darkness.

Nate tugged on my hand. “This way! The exit’s blocked now.”

“What was that flash?” I said.

“That was me,” Nate replied. “Come on!”

We ran through the dark, and I heard a sound as if Nate had pushed open a set of swinging doors. I heard the doors close behind us, and then I heard a loud, clattering sound as if a number of pots and pans had fallen to the floor. We ran on, and soon I felt myself being pulled down a short set of stairs.

“We’re almost there,” Nate said. “Hurry!”

Suddenly, a light turned on, and the beautiful woman with the sea-green eyes was standing before us—it was the same woman who had been my waitress. Now that I had a chance to really look at her, I could tell that the greenish cast to her hair and skin was really there—I wasn’t imagining it.

I also realized that she was standing in front of a door.

“Please let us go, Saskia,” Nate said. “She stumbled in here by accident. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Saskia’s eyes darted to me. “I know what she is now. She’s valuable.”

“My name is Rebecca,” I said.

Nate ignored me. “Please, Saskia. She’s a person—not a commodity.”

She stared at us for a moment, looking from one of us to the other.

“All right,” she said at last. “You know I have a soft spot for lost innocents—kittens and humans and the like.”

“Humans?” I said.

“Thanks,” Nate said. “I won’t forget it.”

But Saskia continued to stand in front of the door.

“You can’t go out this way,” she said. “There’s a whole crowd outside waiting to grab you as you go out.”

She began to run. “Follow me.”

She led us to another door and opened it. A staircase led down into darkness.

“Just follow the stairs down,” Saskia said. “And then run through the cellar—there’s another way out. It leads into the forest. Quickly now! More are coming—I’ll distract them.”

Once the door was closed, we were in total darkness—but Nate grabbed my hand, and somehow we made it down the stairs without stumbling.

Nate seemed to know the way.

As we reached the bottom, he struck up a lighter, and a tiny flame flared to life.

A vast, dark space stretched before us.

Nate was still holding my hand.

“Stay close to me,” he said. “This cellar stretches a long way, and there’s a lot of stuff down here. But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way. I’ll get us out safely.”

“What’s going on here?” I asked. “Why is everyone in the diner suddenly after us? And why did Saskia say she has a soft spot for humans?”

I could sense Nate smiling in the dark. “They’re not after us. They’re after you.”

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“You’re different, like me,” Nate replied. “Well, actually you’re different in a different way than I am. You’re much rarer.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I’m a seer,” Nate said, and I could see a him flash a grin in the light from the lighter. “I have second sight.”

“Second sight?” I echoed. “You mean you have visions? You can see into the future?”

“Something like that,” Nate replied. “But it’s not very reliable—I can’t summon it whenever I want to, and what I see is often hard to interpret. It does, however, make me more sensitive to the supernatural in general—I can sense things other people can’t.”

There was a clang then as Nate stumbled up against something in the dark.

“Except for that,” he said ruefully. “I didn’t sense that coming.”

He stepped around the object, and we moved on through the cellar.

“So are you the seventh son of a seventh son?” It seemed to me that I had heard a phrase like that once before.

Nate grinned once more in the dark. “No—I actually have two sisters, and no brothers at all. I don’t know how the ability came to me—I just know I have it.”

“So what does that make me? Do you think I’m a seer, too?”

Nate shot a glance over at me. “No. You’re definitely something different. I’m pretty sure you’re an immune. You don’t run across those very often.”

“An immune?” I said. “I’ve never heard of that before.”

“It basically means just what it sounds like. You’re immune from all magic—that’s why the illusion spell cast on this diner doesn’t work on you.”

“Wait. What spell?” I said.

“The diner is invisible to most people—they can’t see it at all. And if they do happen to stumble close to it, there are wards that will keep them away. But you just waltzed right in—that’s probably why the others didn’t notice you at first.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Why would anybody open an invisible diner? Besides, I saw a ton of people in there—so it could hardly be invisible.”

“People?” Nate said. “I suppose you could call them that. Ordinary folks have other names for them.”

“Like what?”

“Vampire, werewolf, fae—”

“Stop,” I said. “That’s crazy.”

“I know,” Nate replied. “I agree with you. They really are just people—no need for special terms. We could just call them ‘people with special characteristics.’ ”

Nate was clearly teasing me, but at the same time I had a terrible feeling he was serious.

“So wait,” I said. “You’re saying that all of those people upstairs are actually supernatural creatures?”

“Yes.” I could hear amusement in his tone. He was clearly enjoying my shock.

“And you’re saying further that this diner is some kind of magic diner and that only supernatural creatures can get in. And somehow I can get in because I’m immune to magic.”

“Yep.”

“And you can get in because you’re a seer?”

“Yep.”

“What is Saskia?” I asked. “Is she a seer or an immune?”

“Saskia is a siren,” Nate said.

“A siren?” I said. “As in she lures sailors to their doom?”

“That’s putting things a little bluntly,” Nate said. “But, yes. You can always tell by the greenish hair.”

“I’m having a hard time believing this,” I said.

“I can see that,” Nate replied. “Well, no matter. We’ve reached the door, and we’ll be on our way out. Then you can go back to your normal existence and forget all about the Madness Café.”

He held up his lighter, and I could just see the outline of a door in front of us.

“Ordinarily, I’d say ladies first,” he said. “But under the circumstances, I think it might be better if I go first—just in case.”

He eased the door open, and instead of the snowy outdoors, we were confronted by another black expanse.

Nate swore under his breath.

“I must have gotten turned around in the dark.” He glanced over his shoulder uneasily. “However, I don’t think it’s safe to go back the way we came. We’d better keep going—I know another way out.”

We walked out into the new darkness, and Nate reached for the door behind us.

I watched as the flame from the lighter flickered just a little as the door slipped from Nate’s grasp and shut with a heavy clang.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said reassuringly. “Just a little puff of air.”

He took my hand, and we began to walk. After a moment, he paused and glanced behind him.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

We hurried on through the dark.

“Why is this place so big?” I asked. “Why would a diner have such a huge cellar?”

“Some of it is storage,” Nate said with another of his firelit grins. “The Madness Café uses some unusual ingredients. And some of it is actually tunnels—so customers can travel in and out without being seen. It might look a little strange if customers were seen traveling to a certain spot and then disappearing. But some do simply drive.”

“So people travel down here?” I said.

“Yes, ‘people,’ ” Nate replied.

He glanced over his shoulder again.

He went on quickly. “I’ve been doing a lot of talking about myself. What about you? You said you were visiting someone?”

“Yes,” I said. “My grandfather.”

I hesitated to go on.

Nate looked over at me. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s just—my grandfather—he’s not doing well. He lives up here all alone, and my parents have been coming up every weekend to check on him. They couldn’t come up this weekend, so I decided I would come for a visit.”

“You’re worried about him?”

“Yes,” I said. “He’s not sick—not physically sick, that is. But his mind is going. He has delusions—he sees things.”

Nate drew in his breath sharply. “What kind of things?”

I sighed. “Monsters. He thinks they’re trying to get in his house.”

“Monsters?” Nate said. “Vampires? Werewolves? The fae?”

“Something like that,” I replied wryly. “He’s never been that specific, though. He just calls them ‘monsters’ or ‘creatures.’ He says he can see their faces looking in his window at night.”

“Where does your grandfather live?” Nate asked quickly. “I mean, what does his house look like?”

“It’s a blue house with white trim,” I said. “Why do you want to know?”

Nate went on in a hurry. “And you said it’s close by?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled. “It’s in the woods not far from here—probably two miles away. It’s a pretty lonely spot. This diner is the only building I pass on the way.”

“Is your grandfather’s name Mitchell?” Nate asked.

“Yes,” I said. “How did you know that?”

Nate suddenly stopped, and he held up his lighter.

Not far away, I saw two points of red light gleaming back at us in the dark.

I could feel Nate freeze, and he gripped my hand more tightly.

“Don’t move,” he hissed.

“What’s—”

Nate interrupted. “Whatever happens, do not run. Stay right here next to me. You’ll be safe as long as you stay close.”

The red points were suddenly right in front of us, and I could see that they were actually eyes. The eyes were in a pale face, fine-boned yet masculine, that was framed by sleek black hair. A pair of pallid lips parted to reveal gleaming white teeth.

“Out of the way, Vlad,” Nate said. “You know this is no ordinary lighter. I can turn this little thing into a flamethrower and convert you to ashes.”

“My name is Roger.” The man sounded injured. “And I wasn’t after you anyway.”

He leaned toward me just a fraction and sniffed. “An immune. I never touch their blood. It gives me the most appalling headaches.”

“Even if you don’t want to drink her blood,” Nate said, “you might want to sell it.”

“Not at all,” Roger replied. “I have money enough as it is.”

“Then why are you down here?” Nate demanded.

“I was just stopping into the diner for the evening,” Roger said with dignity. “I have no interest in you or your friend whatsoever.”

He glanced beyond us. “I can’t say the same for him, however. Ta!”

Roger suddenly zoomed past us and disappeared into the darkness.

I looked behind us. “Him? Who’s he talking about? Do you see anyone?”

Nate peered into the black expanse behind us. “No. We’d better keep moving.”

“So what did you mean,” I asked as we started walking again, “when you asked Roger if he wanted to sell my blood?”

“I meant exactly that,” Nate replied. “The hair and blood of an immune are valuable. They can be used in all kinds of potions and spells.”

He glanced at me. “Other stuff about you might be valuable, too. That’s why we have to get you out of here. Once you’re clear of the diner, I’m confident you’ll be safe.”

“And Roger?” I asked. “What was he?”

“You really have to ask?” Nate said.

“Are you trying to say that he was a vampire?”

“That’s exactly what he was.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “The red eyes, the sharp teeth—it wasn’t just a costume?”

“You saw how fast he disappeared,” Nate said. “No ordinary human being could do that.”

There was a growl behind us, and I turned quickly.

Suddenly the man I had glimpsed in the diner—the one with the handsome face and the amber eyes—had appeared right behind us.

“Ulf!” Nate said in a cheerful tone. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

Ulf growled again. “Give me the girl and no one gets hurt.”

“Just go home, Ulf,” Nate said. “We don’t need to do this tonight.”

“I’ll wolf out,” Ulf said. “You don’t want to see me do that.”

“I’ve seen it before,” Nate replied.

The man in front of us suddenly began to grow gray hair on his face. His nose and mouth became longer, and as I watched, his teeth began to grow longer and sharper.

I stepped back in alarm.

“Now, now,” Nate said. “You’re upsetting my new friend here.”

Ulf’s growls began to grow deeper and more wolf-like, and Nate stood before the rapidly transforming creature with only his lighter.

He swiftly pulled something out of his pocket and held it up in his other hand—it looked like a ballpoint pen.

Ulf suddenly stopped growling.

“That’s right,” Nate said. “This little thing is full of liquid silver. One little spritz, and you won’t be feeling very well.”

The half-wolf, half-man creature glared balefully at Nate for just a moment. Then he turned and loped away into the darkness.

Nate turned to me. “Now you’ve met a werewolf and a vampire—as well as a siren. This is turning out to be quite a night for you, Rebecca.”

“I’m having a little trouble accepting all of this,” I said.

Nate’s gaze softened. “Don’t worry. You aren’t going crazy. You’ve really seen what you’ve seen.”

“I’m not sure that helps,” I said.

Nate took my hand, and we started walking again.

“You know,” he said, “I think it’s good you got to see this. As I was saying, I think I know your grandfather. You did say his name was Mitchell, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“Mitchell Marbury,” Nate said musingly. “That’s a good name. I’ve never heard his last name before—he just told me to call him Mitchell. And there’s a mailbox outside his house, but it doesn’t have a name on it—just a number.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’ve been hanging out with my grandfather?”

“Blue house, white trim, right?” Nate said. “In the middle of the forest with no one else around? Yes—I’ve stopped by his place on a few occasions and chatted with him. Mostly when the regulars at the Madness Café get a little too rowdy and start prowling around his house.”

“What?” I said, startled. “These people—like Roger and Ulf—have been bothering him?”

“Unfortunately, yes. But luckily your grandfather’s a tough old bird. He can take care of most of these guys on his own. But every once in a while he needs me to step in, and I do.”

Nate stopped walking and looked at me by the light of the lighter flame.

“Your grandfather’s not going crazy,” he said quietly. “He says he’s seen monsters, and he’s right. I can’t promise that his health will be good forever, but at the moment, at least, he’s not seeing things. Everything he’s reporting is real.”

I was alarmed. “So then, he’s in danger?”

“No,” Nate said. “Like I said, I can take care of these guys—they’re no problem. In fact, there’s only one denizen of the diner that I’m not sure of, since I haven’t really encountered him yet—though I did think I spotted him tonight.”

“Who is it?” I asked. “Is it another supernatural creature?”

Nate frowned. “I’m not sure exactly. He’s sort of gray and nondescript—he’s known as the Philosopher. He collects people and creatures, and he’s said to have great power.”

“He collects them?” I shivered. “How does he do that?”

“I don’t know,” Nate replied. “But luckily, I don’t think we’ll have to find out.”

He stopped walking and put out a hand in front of him, and I could see we’d reached a door.

Nate grinned. “We’re almost out. We just have one more storeroom to go through, and then we’re free of this place.”

He opened the door, and we both walked through.

Inside was darkness once again.

Suddenly, the lights came on, and I found myself blinking in the brightness.

When my eyes adjusted to the glare, I saw a man standing before us, and floating around him were three glowing spheres that were giving off a bright, golden light.

Despite the light show, the man himself was unremarkable. He was middle-aged, about average height, and his hairline was receding. He was wearing a plain, gray suit that seemed to be designed to disguise the fact that he was gaining weight around the middle. All in all, he was rather gray and ordinary, and it seemed to me that his were the final pair of eyes I had seen staring at me back in the diner.

I glanced over at Nate, who was eyeing the newcomer warily.

“Is this the Philosopher?” I said.

“I’m afraid it probably is,” Nate replied.

The man before us chortled. “Yes, yes—I am the Philosopher. How kind of you to recognize me, children. And, young man, thank you very much. I knew you would bring this charming young lady down here, and you did exactly what I’d hoped. I’ve headed you off at the pass, as it were.”

The Philosopher beamed.

“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Nate said. “Rebecca isn’t going with you.”

“Oh, but she most definitely is,” the Philosopher said.

“If it’s a fight you want, you’ll get it.” Nate moved to stand in front of me.

“Oh my, no,” the Philosopher said. “I never engage in fisticuffs. I have a bad back, you see. I dare say that if you knocked me down that I wouldn’t be able to get up again. I have my friends to fight for me instead.”

He reached into a small, gray bag he was carrying and rolled three more spheres out onto the floor. They were also gray in color, and they made a sharp, clear noise as they rolled that made them sound as if they were made of glass.

The Philosopher smiled malevolently. “My beauties will take care of you.”

The spheres stopped rolling, and I thought I could see something moving inside them—something with fur and sharp teeth.

“Wolves,” the Philosopher said by way of explanation. “Red wolves from my collection. All I have to do is break the glass to release them, and they will do my bidding.”

He lifted a hand and gestured up at the glowing spheres above us. “Just as I have harnessed the power of sunlight to follow my whims, all of the beasties in my menagerie have been ensorcelled to follow my commands.”

I stared at the snarling wolves in their little globes. Then I looked up at the strange, gray man.

“Is that what you’re planning to do to me? Put me in one of those things?”

“No, my dear.” The Philosopher smiled. “That magic won’t work on you. I really don’t know what I’m going to do with you yet. But there are so many possibilities with an immune—this really is exciting.”

I glanced beyond him. I could see a door not too far away.

I looked over at Nate. He was eyeing the door also.

The Philosopher turned to glance at the door himself.

“You are quite right, my lovelies,” he said. “That is the way out—the door to freedom as it were. But you’ll never make it. All I have to do is crack open my spheres like eggs, and the wolves will be on you in seconds.”

“You have a bad back, you say?” Nate said musingly.

“Yes, I do. It bothers me terribly. Sometimes I can barely even move.”

Nate nodded and then suddenly lunged forward. He held his forearm out in front of him, and he struck the gray man squarely in the chest.

The Philosopher fell down heavily, landing flat on his back.

“Rebecca, run!” Nate shouted.

We both ran toward the door.

Nate kicked it open, and I glanced back quickly.

The Philosopher was lying on his back, rocking from side to side like a turtle, unable to get up. The three spheres of light were swirling around overhead, and the three spheres with wolves were lying quietly on the floor.

I ran out through the door, and Nate ran after me.

“You come back here!” The Philosopher shouted after us. “You’d better not—”

Nate pulled the door shut.

The two of us were standing out in the snowy night. We had traveled pretty far from the diner, but I could see it off in the distance.

I glanced around. We were in amongst the trees, and a metal door stood behind us. It was set into a large, square building, and the building itself eventually tapered off and turned into a tunnel that led into the ground.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I never noticed that we were walking back up from the cellar.”

“Well, the ascent was pretty gradual at first,” Nate said. “And of course, you were occupied with other things.”

I looked at the closed door. “Should we run or something?”

“We don’t need to run,” Nate said. “But we should probably head back to our cars.”

“But won’t he come after us? Aren’t we in danger?”

“No, we’re good now. The Philosopher’s not going to follow us. Anything goes, pretty much, inside the diner, but outside of it, everybody has to be more careful. And someone theatrical like this guy has to be really careful. If anybody sees him and his floating spheres, an angry mob would be on him in a flash. And a group of regular people could take on him and his wolves any day. All the police would have to do is get some tranquilizer darts.”

“But what about my grandfather?” I said. “Didn’t you say supernatural creatures have been bothering him? They aren’t being careful outside the diner.”

“Yes—but they should be,” Nate replied. “And if word got out about what some individuals are doing—those same individuals might disappear in the night. They’re lucky they have me to scare them off.”

He grinned. “Besides, the Philosopher himself told us what he would do—he said there was freedom on the other side of this door. He’s the kind that follows the rules. He won’t be after us tonight.”

I took a deep breath. “We’re safe?”

“Yes.”

“That was weirdly easy—at least at the end.”

Nate grinned again. “Sometimes the direct route is the best.”

The two of us turned and began to walk back toward the diner—and our cars.

“So would you like to stop in and visit with me and my grandfather?” I said. “I know it’s late, but you could come by in the morning—maybe have breakfast with us?”

Nate glanced at me. “You don’t have to do that, you know. I help out anybody who’s in trouble. You don’t owe me anything.”

“That’s sweet of you to say,” I said. “And I have to admit, I have an ulterior motive—I’d like to see you again. And it sounds like you’re already friends with my grandfather.”

Nate chuckled. “Well, if your grandfather doesn’t mind, I’d be happy to.”

We walked on through the snow and the trees, and I suddenly had something I needed to do.

I stood up on tiptoe and kissed Nate on the cheek.

He looked startled—and pleased.

“What was that for?” he said.

“That was for looking out for my grandfather,” I said.

We continued walking, and a moment later, I kissed him again.

“And what was that for?” he said.

“That was for looking out for me.”

Nate grinned. “Here’s hoping I get a chance to look out for you again.”

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Read Chapter One of Firebird

FIREBIRD - BOOK COVER 2 - FRONT

 

Firebird is now available in paperback! Read the first chapter below:

Chapter One

 

It was Sunday morning, and I was going to meet William.

And I was nervous.

A feeling of uneasiness had been growing on me steadily within the last month, and just as steadily I had pushed it aside. But the feeling was stronger than ever this morning, and this time I couldn’t block it out.

And so I hesitated before the door.

Things are normal now, I said to myself sternly. You no longer have visions. All of that is over.

I wasn’t having a vision, but there was a feeling—a barrier—something solid but invisible standing in my way. The way this strange feeling overwhelmed me reminded me of how I had felt when I had had visions—it overpowered my senses and threatened to blot out the reality in front of me.

This particular feeling warned me not to leave the house.

But I was determined to go—I wasn’t going to let fear run my life—no matter what had happened in the recent past.

All the same, I couldn’t help stepping quietly back to my grandmother’s office at the front of the house and peering in through the open door. GM was sitting with her back to me, her head bent as she perused a letter, her long silver braid flowing like liquid silk down her back. I had already said goodbye to her, but I had a strong urge to say it again—as if it would be the last time I would ever see her.

Don’t be ridiculous, I said to myself. What could happen in a sleepy small town like Elspeth’s Grove?

But my own memories of a little more than a month ago rose up like an uneasy spirit to answer me.

I saw a livid face, burning eyes—I heard inhuman cries—

I shut my mind against the memory and hurried out the front door before I lost my nerve.

The morning was clear and cold—it was just past Thanksgiving—and a brisk wind kicked up, whipping my pale hair across my eyes. I pulled the strands of hair away from my face carefully.

As I pulled my unruly hair back and secured it, I wondered what advice my mother would have given me on a day like today—a day on which, if I admitted it to myself, I could feel danger in the air.

I tried to close my mind to it, but the strange feeling remained.

I hurried on toward Hywel’s Plaza, which was surrounded on all sides by trees, and as I entered the wooded area, I was struck by the eerie calm of the place. There were no sounds of birds or other animals—it was as if the woods were watching, waiting for something. There were no people or houses nearby, and I broke into a sudden, panicked run.

What do you think is in these woods? I asked myself, and I found I couldn’t answer my own question. I just knew that I wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as fast as I possibly could.

I ran for what felt like an eternity before breaking out suddenly on a clearing.

Stretched before me was a vast sheet of ice surrounded by a low wall. A roof made of pipes and angles, supported by thick metal poles, extended protectively over the ice, and black matting had been laid down between the ice rink and the skate house. The rink was brand-new and had only been open for about a week.

Loud, cheerful music suddenly filled the plaza, and I could see that skaters were already out on the ice. All of the sound and motion was a pleasant contrast to the watchful silence of the trees. As I stood looking out over the big white sheet of ice, the sun dipped behind a thick bank of solid gray clouds, and its harsh glare was blunted, suffusing the area with a muted, gentle glow.

The area around the rink was fairly crowded, and the atmosphere was cheerful, happy, relaxed. And in the midst of the crowd, I spotted a familiar, well-loved figure.

I hurried forward.

William turned and smiled his crooked half smile.

A casual observer would describe William as tall, lean, dark-haired—maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. The only thing that might be said to be unusual about him were his eyes—blue was not an unusual color, but the intensity of the color in his eyes wasn’t quite human. There were other words, too, that had been used to describe him—cursed, damned, outcast—words that had real, if melodramatic meaning. There were still other words that described him—fantastical words but real nonetheless. On this particular morning my mind shied away from that last group of words—as if thinking them could somehow bring about disaster.

“You had me worried, Katie,” William said as I reached him. His voice was colored as always by an accent that I could never quite place. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of tension in it.

I glanced at him sharply, and I could see faint lines of strain around his eyes. I was late, and that was unusual for me—but it seemed to me that William was anxious over more than just my lateness. Or was it my imagination? I shrugged the feeling off—I figured I was just projecting my own recent paranoia onto him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just got started a little later than I meant to.”

William held out his hand, and I took it, marveling anew at the tingle that ran through me whenever he touched me. His skin was warm, and his hand was pleasantly calloused. I didn’t want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to be with him. As I had done for the past month, I decided not to tell him about the strange feeling of dread that had stolen over me.

We started toward the skate house.

“Were you worried about trying to skate today?” William asked.

“No,” I said, making an effort to be relaxed. “I wasn’t worried about skating.”

A strong gust of wind swirled around us then, causing me to stop and turn toward William. He slipped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.

There was laughter out on the ice, as skaters found themselves pushed around involuntarily by the wind.

We stood together until the wind died down, and then I went closer to the ice to watch the skaters for a few minutes—I had never actually been ice-skating before.

A little girl with braids and red mittens went flying by on miniature skates, her cheeks flushed with happiness. An even smaller girl with equally pink cheeks gave a tiny shriek and chased after the bigger girl. I wondered if the two of them were sisters.

The atmosphere at the rink seemed so happy and normal that it was hard for me to credit my fears of only a few minutes ago. Surely there was nothing dangerous in the woods that surrounded us.

“Do you think you can do that, too?” William had come up to stand beside me, and he was smiling at me now.

I glanced over at the two little girls who were now on the other side of the rink.

“I think so,” I said, smiling back at him.

We turned once more toward the skate house.

As we reached the door, William stopped and looked around suddenly, as if he’d heard something. His eyes narrowed warily.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. He gave me a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m positive—it’s nothing.”

I knew William could hear things I couldn’t, and I felt a flash of panic that I quickly pushed aside. I told myself to relax—just because William had heard something that had distracted him, didn’t mean it was something dangerous. I would have to make an effort to get my imagination under control.

We continued on into the skate house and emerged a short time later with skates on our feet.

A gate stood open in the rink, and I walked over to it and paused with one hand resting on either side of the gate. The ice stretched out in front of me, white and unforgiving.

Now that I was about to step onto it, the rink suddenly seemed much bigger than I had realized, and the ice itself seemed to glow faintly, as if it were pulling all available light into its depths. It almost didn’t seem real.

I was seized powerfully by nerves.

At the same time, I felt something like relief. The fear I was currently feeling was born of the moment—it had nothing to do with the fear that had very nearly prevented me from leaving the house that morning. It was a perfectly normal fear.

As I stared at the ice, however, I suddenly saw a dark figure appear in the white surface—right by my feet. The figure was black and shifting and vaguely human in form. It looked like a human shadow, but it wasn’t mine—and it was definitely something that shouldn’t have been there. At first there was only one—and then there was another and another. The figures seemed to swim under the surface of the ice itself—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, as if they were trying to escape.

I backed away from the ice.

William was standing right behind me, and I bumped into him.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He took my arm, and we stepped away from the gate.

“There’s something out there—under the ice,” I said. “I can see—things.”

“Those are just shadows,” William said reassuringly. “It’s nothing to worry about. The ice can play tricks on your eyes if you’re not used to it. You’ll adjust.”

I looked back out over the ice again, and the strange shapes I’d seen had disappeared. Maybe William was right—maybe I’d just seen shadows.

“Go on out, Katie,” William said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here to catch you if you fall.”

There was more laughter from the ice rink, and I looked around. Out on the ice there were parents helping their young children, older children racing each other, smiling couples holding hands. Everyone and everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth that I wanted to join them.

For just a moment, I wished that I could be normal, too.

I stepped back to the gate. Two skaters suddenly zipped past me at what seemed like alarming speed, and I felt a little tingle of nerves again. I told myself I would be fine as long as I didn’t see any more dark shapes in the ice.

“Like I said, I’ll be right here to catch you,” William murmured.

I waited till the way was clear, and then I stepped out onto the ice. Almost immediately I began to slip, and I grabbed frantically for the wall, catching it just in time to prevent myself from falling.

I clung to the wall, my heart pounding.

William glided around to my side and leaned against the wall, his lips twitching suspiciously.

“You’re laughing at me,” I said.

“No, no, I’m not,” William said, but his smile grew broader. “I’m not laughing at you, really.”

I continued to cling to the wall.

“So, what do I do?” I asked after a moment. “I don’t actually know how to move away from here.”

William reached over and helped me to prize my hands away from the wall. Then he pulled me to a standing position. As he did so, I noticed with some irritation that his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

Over the next hour—with William’s help and with much stumbling on my part—I managed to make it all the way around the rink several times—and I even managed to move away from the safety of the wall. We kept going, and eventually, I raised my head and looked around. I realized I was moving along with everyone else on the ice and having a good time.

William gave me his crooked smile. “You’re glad you did this now, aren’t you?”

I could feel the cold air nipping at my cheeks, but the rest of me was comfortably warm. And William was beside me.

“Yes,” I said quietly. “I’m happy I did this. And I don’t just mean the ice-skating.”

William bowed his head, so I wouldn’t see his expression, but I could tell he knew what I meant.

William and I were together now, but it hadn’t been easy to get to this point—and we hadn’t been together for very long. But even though we were officially a couple, he kept limits on our time together. I still didn’t know very much about him, and that included the things he could tell me—I didn’t even know where he lived.

But he was here now—and that was all that mattered at the moment.

When William and I were done out on the ice, we went into the skate house and sat down on the benches to unlace our skates.

I could feel William’s eyes on me, and I looked up at him. There was something forlorn in his expression.

“You don’t want me to go, do you?” I said.

“No.” His voice was quiet.

“We can spend more time together, you know.”

“No, we can’t.” William was suddenly stern. “We have to limit our time together. No matter how much I wish things were different.”

“Because you think you’re cursed,” I said.

“Because I am cursed,” he replied. “All I can do is savor the time I have with you before you find someone of your own kind.”

“My own kind,” I said, shaking my head. What was my kind exactly? William insisted on seeing me as a normal girl—but I was far from normal.

The two of us put our shoes on and walked out into the cold. I was warm from my recent exertions, but a gust of wind kicked up, and I shivered. William put his arm around me.

We left the rink and entered the woods nearby. Another shudder ran through me as I thought once again of the fact that I didn’t know where William lived. What if he had no home? What if he slept outside in the frozen night? Of course, I didn’t know if William ever actually had to sleep. And I didn’t know if he felt the cold—though somehow I doubted that he did. But I still didn’t like the idea of William’s not having a proper home.

“William, why won’t you tell me where you live?” I asked.

“Because you don’t need to know.”

I felt frustration welling up within me—William gave me that same answer whenever I asked him anything about himself. I knew today would be no different, but I suddenly felt very stubborn.

I persisted. “Do you have a job? Where do you go while I’m at school?”

“Katie, it’s not important for you to know these things. You know we need distance. You’re too young to get deeply involved. I’m much, much older than you are, and I can barely remember my past. Like I said, someday you’ll leave me for one of your own kind. Leave the heartache to me.”

“William, answer my questions,” I said. “Answer just one. Tell me what neighborhood you live in.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this territory before. Why are you bringing all of this up again?”

“I worry about you,” I said. “I want you to live somewhere safe and comfortable. I want to know you’re okay.”

William gave me a searching look. “It’s your grandmother, isn’t it? She’s uncertain about me. You must have told her by now that I don’t go to school, and she wonders what I do with my life. She must wonder if I’m good for you.”

I felt a brief stab of guilt when he mentioned my grandmother.

“It’s not GM,” I said.

“She doesn’t ask about me?”

“No.”

William looked puzzled. “Are you telling me that your grandmother has never had any questions about me?”

“I wouldn’t say she’s never had any questions about you,” I replied.

“But?”

“But she hasn’t had any questions about you since we returned from Russia.”

“Why not?” William demanded.

“Because GM doesn’t know you’re in Elspeth’s Grove. She thinks you stayed in Russia.”

“What?” William stopped walking and stared at me, incredulous.

He continued to stare at me.

“Your grandmother doesn’t know I’m in Elspeth’s Grove,” he said slowly. “So she doesn’t know that we’ve been meeting?”

“No—I was afraid she would forbid me to see you.”

“Katie, I insist on seeing your grandmother,” William said sternly. “I want her to know I’m here. I need to—”

He stopped suddenly. He turned to look behind us.

I turned too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone. William held up a hand.

As I stood looking around me, I noticed that the surrounding woods were quiet and somehow watchful—just as they’d been when I’d walked through them earlier.

I thought once again of the fact that there were no houses nearby.

William continued to stare at a fixed point somewhere off in the trees.

“William, what’s—”

“Katie, get out of here,” he whispered. He didn’t turn to look at me.

“William?”

“Katie, go! Run!”

I turned to do as he asked, panicked by the tone in his voice.

I had not gone very far when someone stepped out of the trees and blocked my way.

I looked up and found myself staring into the calm, pale eyes of a vampire.

His name was Innokenti, and I had last seen him in the Pure Woods in Krov, Russia.

He was friendly. Sort of.

“Hello, little one.” His voice, as I remembered only too well, was silky and just a little superior. His brown hair fell in a straight line to his chin, and his clothes were as picturesquely antique as they had been the last time I’d seen him—he appeared to have stepped out of the Middle Ages.

Innokenti’s presence here in these woods was deeply disturbing. I had believed that I would never see him again after I left Russia—and I certainly hadn’t expected him to show up today. Seeing him again was like being revisited by a nightmare.

“Innokenti,” I said, taking a step back. “What are you doing here?”

He bared his teeth in a smile that was far from reassuring—especially since it allowed me to see the unusually sharp outline of his teeth.

“My friend and I,” he said, “have traveled thousands of miles to pay you and William a visit. How fortunate we are to find the two of you together.”

Innokenti sent a significant nod over my shoulder, and I turned.

Standing next to William now was a man I didn’t recognize—young, tall, dark of hair and eye, dressed all in black. William was staring at the young man with dislike, his body tense, his expression set into harsh lines. For his part, the newcomer was smiling malevolently at William.

Innokenti gestured to the young man. “Shall we go over so I may make introductions?”

As Innokenti and I walked over to them, I had to remind myself that Innokenti had never actually done me any harm—but no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.

As we reached William and the stranger, I could see a muscle working in William’s jaw, and the stranger’s smile deepened as he looked me over with unpleasant scrutiny. His eyes met mine, and I was startled by just how dark they were—they were eyes with the depth of night in them.

“Innokenti, get out of here,” William said angrily. “And take him with you.”

“Now, now, William,” Innokenti replied mildly. “This is a friendly visit.” He gestured to the stranger. “The two of you know each other, of course. But introductions are in order for the young lady.”

Innokenti gave me another one of his unnerving smiles. “Katie Wickliff, may I present my associate, Anton. You’ll have to forgive us—we don’t go in for surnames much in our community. Many of us don’t like to dwell on the past.”

I looked to Innokenti. “Is Anton a—”

“Vampire?” Innokenti said. “Yes.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Katie,” Anton said. His voice was dark and smoky, and I had the feeling that he was laughing at me.

He lifted my hand with his ice-cold fingers and kissed it, and then he stared at me steadily as he let my hand drop. He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

I found myself momentarily at a loss for words.

Anton’s amusement deepened. “Too stunned to speak? I have that effect on a lot of women.”

William grabbed Anton’s coat and shook him. “Leave her alone.”

Malice lit up Anton’s dark eyes. “I’m simply saying hello.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Innokenti said. “I believe you’re upsetting young Katie. Our mission here is a benevolent one. We should all be pleasant to one another.”

William rounded on Innokenti. “Why did you bring him? If you wanted things to be pleasant, you should have left him at home.”

“William, your attitude isn’t very charming,” Innokenti admonished gently. “You should put your antagonism aside as Anton has done. This mission we are on is one of the gravest importance. Anton knows that, and that’s why he very graciously volunteered to come with me.”

“Why did he have to come at all?” William said angrily. “If you truly need to speak to me, you should have come alone.”

“William, you weren’t listening,” Innokenti replied patiently. “We have come here to see you and the little one, and this is no routine visit we are on. I am a messenger here. Anton has accompanied me in order to look out for my welfare.”

“He’s your bodyguard?” William said derisively. “What do you need protection from? Me?”

“Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that. And the situation is a dangerous one—for both of you.”

William’s face grew grim.

“Say what you need to say. But leave Katie out of this.”

Innokenti spread out his hands apologetically.

“I’m afraid I can’t leave Katie out of anything,” he said. “She is involved no matter how much we all might wish otherwise.”

William folded his arms. “Make this quick. Then get out of here.”

“Very well.” Innokenti’s pale eyes grew hard. “You both have your duties, and you’re both avoiding them. This is unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable to whom?” William asked. “To you?”

“William, you know I do not speak for myself,” Innokenti replied. “I speak on behalf of others. You, William, belong in Krov in the vampire colony there. You have special abilities—you alone amongst our number can fight the kost.”

“Are you being troubled by a kost at the moment?” William asked.

Innokenti gave William a mirthless smile. “No—not at the moment. But our kind grows thirstier. You know what that means.”

Innokenti’s pale eyes shifted to me. “And you, little one, you too, have a purpose. You are the Little Sun, and you are also destined to fight the kost. You owe us no particular allegiance, but your heritage confers certain obligations and responsibilities—ones that cannot lightly be ignored.”

“Little Sun?” Anton said with a mocking lilt. “So you’re the one. How about I call you ‘Sunshine’?”

“It’s true we can both fight the kost,” William said, ignoring Anton. “What do you want from us?”

“I propose that you and Katie return with me now,” Innokenti replied. “You can return to the colony, William, and Katie can live in the house that was vacated by her cousin, Odette. You can live near one another, and possibly even work with one another whenever a kost rears its ugly head. But I would recommend that you put an end to your romance. Such a relationship will not meet with much approval.”

“And what if we refuse to go with you?” William asked.

Innokenti sighed. “I would advise against it. But in the event that the two of you refuse, I would return to the colony and explain to them, with a heart full of regret, that I was unable to make you see reason.”

“You would not attempt to force us to return with you?” William asked.

Innokenti’s eyebrows rose. “William, we are vampires. We are not barbarians.”

William shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. You’ve admitted that the kost is not an immediate threat. And I can return to Russia any time I wish—you know that. And you’ve also admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance. So what does it matter to you where she lives? This must be about something else. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Innokenti fixed William with a piercing stare.

“William, you may not believe this, but you matter to us, and we know that this human girl here matters to you. Anton and I are here to help you both. Forces we don’t entirely understand yet are gathering. And the two of you would make convenient pawns.”

William was unmoved. “Then tell me what you do know. Give me all the information you have, and maybe I’ll consider coming with you. Katie isn’t to be involved in this—at all.”

Anger flashed in Innokenti’s cool eyes. “Katie will be involved in this no matter what you want. There’s a price on the girl’s head, and there are two separate groups after her. I am telling you that she is not safe.”

“Who’s after her?”

“I cannot tell you that, William. I am merely a humble servant of a greater power—and I have told you too much already. I have only been authorized to tell you that it’s in your best interests to return with us.”

“Then the answer is ‘no,’” William said. “I’m not going with you and neither is Katie.”

Innokenti’s eyes flicked to me. “Perhaps you should let Katie decide for herself. After all, she is the one in the greatest danger.”

William took a step toward Innokenti. “I won’t allow Katie to be tricked into anything by you. That cousin of hers that you mentioned so cavalierly a few moments ago tried to kill her. If Katie goes back, her cousin may return, too, and try to finish what she started. Krov is far too dangerous for Katie. She’s safer here with me.”

“What do you say, little one?”

There was a strong hint of warning in Innokenti’s voice, but I met his pale gaze unflinchingly.

“I want to stay here with William.”

Innokenti suddenly seemed to radiate rage. He turned toward William.

“I’ll give you one last chance. The girl doesn’t really know enough of the world to make a reasonable decision, but you know something of the true darkness that exists out there. If you don’t care about your own safety, then you should at least consider hers.”

“We’re not going with you,” William said curtly.

Innokenti spread out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As you wish, William. But remember this: I tried to help you.”

He backed up a few paces, and his eyes flicked to me once more. “You cannot remain with him, little one. They will not allow it.”

He melted into the woods. Anton gave me a wink and a smile, and then he, too, vanished into the trees.

I looked up at William. He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood, and his face seemed set in stone.

After a moment, he looked around at me.

“We need to go to your house now. I need to be able to protect you.”

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Firebird is now available for the first time in paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s also available in eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple (iBooks), and Google Play.

Caught by Cupid — New Short Story

Red_Heart_with_Cupid_Bow_PNG_Clipart_Picture

New fiction. ❤️

Caught by Cupid

“Did you hear that?” Cassie asked.

Her friend Shelby turned around.

“What?”

“That sound like something just hit the wall behind us,” Cassie said.

Shelby turned to look.

“There’s nothing on the wall.”

Cassie turned to look herself. The two of them were in a sporting goods store shopping for a present for Cassie’s baseball-loving brother. They were standing by a rack of team jerseys, and the wall behind them was indeed blank.

Cassie sighed—it was always blank.

Shelby frowned. “So you’re still hearing random noises?”

“Not random,” Cassie said. “It’s always the same sound. Like someone’s thrown a tennis ball at the wall behind me—it’s a low thunk.”

Cassie felt eyes on her then, and she looked up. A gorgeous, dark-haired man was looking at her. Their eyes met, and he smiled at her. The man kept going, however, and exited the store.

Cassie felt a little twinge of disappointment as he disappeared. The man had seemed interesting—like someone she’d like to get to know. But somehow she never got to talk to the guys she was interested in. Why did they always pass her by?

Shelby followed her gaze. “Did you know that guy?”

I wish, Cassie thought.

“No,” she replied.

“Seriously, Cassie,” Shelby said. “How long have you been hearing these noises?”

Cassie sighed. “I don’t know—a few months now?”

“Have you told your doctor?”

“No—she’d just think I was crazy. It’s just one brief sound—just one loud thunk. And I only hear it occasionally—although lately it’s been growing more frequent.”

Shelby sighed and glanced at her watch. “Lunch is almost over. You have to get back to work, and so do I. Promise me you’ll have dinner with me tonight. We’ll get to the bottom of these strange sounds you’ve been hearing.”

Cassie sighed also. “I don’t think it’ll do any good, but sure. I’ll have dinner with you.”

Shelby glanced around at the racks of jerseys. “Did you find anything for your brother?”

“No,” Cassie said. “But I’ve still got time.”

“Not this afternoon you don’t,” Shelby said, moving toward the door. “Come on—let’s go.”

Cassie followed her friend out of the store, and they both paused on the sidewalk.

“Text me later,” Shelby said. “Let me know where you’d like to go for dinner.”

“I will.”

“Oh Cassie,” Shelby said suddenly, “I’m worried about you.”

“Because of a couple of loud noises no one else can hear?”

“I don’t know,” Shelby said. “I just don’t know. See you tonight.”

She walked away.

Cassie watched her friend disappearing down the sidewalk. Then she turned to go herself. As she did so, she noticed a little flutter of movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned to look in the store window behind her, and she could see the reflection of a blond man staring at her.

He was frowning.

She turned quickly, but the man was gone.

Cassie turned back to the store window, but the man’s reflection had also disappeared.

“Oh great,” Cassie said to herself. “Now I’m seeing things, too.”

She shook her head and turned in the direction of her office.

Toward the end of the work day, Cassie sent Shelby a text and asked her if she wanted to go to a well-known Italian restaurant for dinner.

Shelby sent back an enthusiastic yes.

As Cassie packed up her things for the evening, she noticed someone standing by her desk.

She looked up to see Parker, from two cubicles over, hovering nearby.

“Hey Cassie,” he said. Parker had light brown hair and eyes that were just a little bit darker.

“Hey,” Cassie replied.

“I just wanted to say have a good night.”

“You, too.”

“Do you have any plans for the evening?” Parker asked.

“Yes,” Cassie said. “I’m going to meet a friend for dinner. How about you?”

“Me?” Parker said. He looked a little sheepish. “No—no plans. I’ve got a new dog—a beagle. So I have to hurry home most nights to let him out.”

“A beagle?” Cassie said. “I love beagles. My grandfather had one when my brother and I were little.”

“Yeah?” Parker said. “They’re great. They’re the best dogs—I love mine.”

Cassie noticed that his eyes crinkled a little when he smiled.

“Well, I just wanted to say good night,” Parker said. “I hope you have a good time at dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” Cassie replied.

As he walked away, Cassie thought she heard a muffled thunk against the cubicle wall behind her.

“I hope this isn’t getting worse,” she said to herself.

Cassie hurried out into the chilly evening and arrived just in time to meet Shelby. The two of them were ushered into the warmth of the restaurant and were swiftly shown to a table.

“It smells wonderful in here,” Shelby said as she slid into her seat.

Cassie inhaled as she took off her coat and sat down, also. The aroma in the air was indeed wonderful—she could smell garlic bread, tomato sauce, and warm, savory pasta.

Shelby glanced over at her as the two of them looked over their menus.

“Any more incidents today?”

Cassie took a sip of water as she glanced up at her friend.

“Yes,” she replied. “I heard another thunk right before I left to meet you.”

“Oh Cassie,” Shelby said.

They soon placed their order, and as the waiter walked away with their menus, Shelby stared at Cassie, incredulous.

“Seriously?” she said. “You’re getting a grilled chicken salad?”

She paused. “I didn’t even know they had one on the menu.”

“I always get a salad when we go out,” Cassie replied.

“Yes—but that’s usually lunch,” Shelby said. “I’ll give you some of my lasagna when it arrives. The portions here are huge.”

“No thanks. I don’t—”

“Like cheese,” Shelby finished. “That’s right—I forgot.”

She blinked. “If you don’t like cheese, why did you suggest an Italian restaurant for dinner? There’s parmesan on everything—even the spaghetti.”

“I know,” Cassie said. “but you like Italian food—that’s why I chose this place.”

“Oh Cassie,” Shelby said.

Their food soon arrived.

“So tell me more about these sounds you’ve been hearing.”

“Well, they used to be only occasional,” Cassie said. “But lately I’ve been hearing them all the time—it’s gotten so that it’s almost every day. And I only hear them in public places—like in a store or at work. I never hear them when I’m home alone by myself.”

“Have you heard any sounds in here?” Shelby asked.

“No—at least not yet,” Cassie said.

Shelby made her promise to go see a doctor, and she said she would.

Then they turned to other topics—a change for which Cassie was grateful.

Soon they were talking and laughing just like they usually did.

By the end of dinner, Cassie was feeling like her old self again.

They paid the check and then headed through the restaurant to the door at the front.

As they did so, Cassie happened to spy her brother’s friend Jason at a nearby table. She raised a hand in greeting, and Jason waved back.

Suddenly, Cassie heard a loud thunk on the wall behind her.

She turned quickly—there was nothing on the wall.

Shelby turned to follow Cassie’s gaze.

“What is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong.”

“It’s nothing,” Cassie said. “I just saw someone I knew.”

She breathed a sigh of relief as Shelby turned back around and kept walking.

Cassie really didn’t want to talk about the sound any more.

The two of them went outside.

Shelby glanced down the street.

“I’m parked down this way,” she said. “So have a good night. And take care of yourself.”

“I will,” Cassie said. “You have a good night, too.”

Shelby gave her a reassuring smile and then walked away down the street.

Cassie waited until her friend had disappeared, and then she peered into the big front window of the restaurant.

She could still see Jason inside talking and laughing with his friends.

As she watched him, she had to wonder—why had seeing him made her hear that strange sound?

As Cassie continued to gaze into the window, she saw a flutter of movement behind her, and once again she saw the reflection of a blond man in the glass. He was staring at her.

Cassie turned quickly, and this time the man was still there.

“Cassie, Cassie, Cassie,” the man said. “What are we going to do with you?”

He snapped his fingers.

Suddenly, the dark street disappeared and was replaced by a bright, sunny garden. Gone, too, was the chill of the night air. The atmosphere was warm and comfortable—just as if she’d suddenly stepped into summer.

Cassie looked around. She was standing on a marble porch with marble columns. Flowers twined up the columns and ran down the steps in front of her. There were flowers as far as the eye could see.

Cassie turned back to look at the man behind her.

“Where are we?” she asked.

Then she caught her breath in surprise.

The man behind her was the most stunningly gorgeous person she’d ever seen in her life. His golden hair curled slightly and framed an absolutely perfect face. His muscular body was outlined by a tight, white T-shirt and jeans, and most amazingly of all, he seemed to have a pair of feathery white wings peeking over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” Cassie said. “Are those wings?”

“Yes,” the man said.

“You have wings?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” Cassie said. “How? What’s going on here?”

“I am the one and only Cupid,” the man said. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but it really isn’t. You’ve caused me a lot of trouble.”

“Cupid?” Cassie said incredulously. “I thought you were a cute little baby with chubby cheeks.”

Cupid sighed. “I was a baby once—but I grew up. Why does everybody think—”

He stopped. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. We have work to do here, and the sooner we’re done, the better.”

“Where are we?” Cassie said.

Cupid gave her a pitying look. “Don’t worry about that. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cassie’s eye was drawn to a glittering object not too far away—it was a golden bow with a quiver of arrows.

She looked at the man before her.

“You really are Cupid, aren’t you?”

He shook his head. “Mortals—so slow.”

He walked over and picked up the bow and arrows.

“Now listen up,” Cupid said. “Everyone wants to fall in love—except for you.”

“I want to fall in love,” Cassie said.

“No, you don’t.” Cupid walked back toward her. “You’ve put up a shield—something my arrows can’t get past.”

Cassie looked around. “I don’t see a shield.”

“It’s invisible to you,” Cupid said. “But I can see it. Here, I’ll show you.”

He began to fit a golden arrow into his bow.

“Wait a minute,” Cassie said. “You’re going to shoot me?”

“Relax,” Cupid said. “These aren’t real arrows. The only thing that would happen if you got struck is that you would fall in love with me. Besides, they won’t work anyway.”

“Fall in love with you?” Cassie said. “Is that what this is about? You brought me here to fall in love with you?”

Cupid snorted. “Are you kidding me? I’m married to the most beautiful lady in the entire world—literally. And she’s a princess. I would never be interested in an ordinary mortal like you.”

“That’s right,” Cassie said slowly. “According to the legend, Cupid is married to Psyche. You’re married to a woman named Psyche.”

Cupid looked a little surprised. “Yes—very few mortals remember that these days. Maybe there’s some hope for you after all.”

He stepped back several paces. “Now watch this.”

He pointed his arrow toward her shoulder. Then he let it go.

The arrow flew toward her and then veered away at the last second as if it had bounced off something solid. Then the arrow struck one of the marble columns with a loud thunk.

“That’s the sound I’ve been hearing!” Cassie said. “You’ve been trying to shoot me with arrows, and they keep bouncing off. That’s what the noise is.”

“That’s it exactly,” Cupid replied. “And it’s very frustrating. You’re supposed to get hit by the arrow and then become infatuated with the first person you see.”

“So I’m not crazy,” Cassie said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Cupid said. “But you weren’t imagining things.”

He paused. “Your friend Shelby is concerned about more than just the sound, you know.”

“What do you mean?” Cassie asked.

“Your attitude is bad,” Cupid said. “You expect to be disappointed. Take these three near misses you had today. And by ‘near misses’ I mean when my arrows bounced off your shield. First was Ian.”

“Ian?” Cassie said.

“The dark-haired guy in the sporting goods store.”

Cassie thought back. “He was good-looking, but I don’t know him—I didn’t even know what his name was.”

“And then there was your co-worker Parker.”

“Parker? But he’s more of a work acquaintance than anything else. I only kind of know him.”

“And finally,” Cupid said, “there was Jason in the restaurant just now.”

“Jason, my brother’s friend?” Cassie said. “I’ve known him since I was eight years old. I couldn’t possible fall in love with him.”

“So to recap,” Cupid said. “You can’t fall in love with one guy because you don’t know him. You can’t fall in love with the next guy because you only kind of know him. And you can’t fall in love with the last guy because you know him too well. That doesn’t leave any other options. You’ve ruled everybody in the whole world out.”

“Oh,” Cassie said. “I guess that’s true.”

She paused. “Do you shoot arrows at everybody this often?”

Cupid sighed. “No—I’m just trying to get through to you with something—anything. But you turn everybody away. Parker, for instance—you say you kind of know him. But did you know he’s a health nut like you are? The two of you could go have salads together.”

“What about Ian?” Cassie asked. “Is he a health nut, too?”

“No,” Cupid said. “But neither is Shelby. You can be friends with people who are different from you, and the same is true with romance. You can fall in love with someone similar or with someone different. What matters is the person behind the habits—not the habits themselves.”

“So I’m pushing people away,” Cassie said. “And I’m putting up a shield?”

“Yes.”

“Then what do I do?”

“You have to put the shield down,” Cupid said. “Because love will never find you otherwise.”

“And if I do put the shield down,” Cassie said, “then you’re going to shoot me?”

“No,” Cupid said. “Then you’re going to be free to find happiness. I just nudge couples along a little—but I don’t make them fall in love. I’ve struck couples with my arrows who eventually drifted apart and others who stayed together forever. Ultimately, the choice is theirs. It’s really up to you.”

He held out his hand, and on his palm was a little blue candy heart.

Cassie took the candy heart and read the tiny message that was printed on it: “Be Mine.”

“Give someone a chance,” Cupid said.

He snapped his fingers.

Suddenly, Cupid and the sunny, pillar-filled garden were gone.

Cassie was standing once again in front of the restaurant, staring in through the window.

She thought for a moment that she’d imagined everything that had just happened. But then she looked down and realized that she was clutching something in her hand.

It was a blue candy heart.

She hurried home.

For the next few days, Cassie looked at the blue “Be Mine” heart every day before she left the house. The thunk noises had stopped, and she realized that Cupid meant what he said—she was free to choose.

So Cassie looked at the heart each day and wondered where she should start.

Give someone a chance, Cupid had said.

And then one day, Cassie decided she would take a chance on someone—even if she couldn’t be sure it would work out.

At the end of the work day, she stopped by Parker’s cubicle. He was just packing up.

“Hey,” she said.

He looked up at her. “Oh hey, Cassie.”

“So,” Cassie said, “I know you usually have to go home to let your dog out right after work.”

Parker looked sheepish. “Yeah, that’s true.”

“But I was wondering if you might like to go for lunch tomorrow.”

Parker’s face lit up. “That would be wonderful! I mean that would be good—great. I would like that.”

Cassie smiled. “I would like that, too.”

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

Thanks very much for reading!

The Warmest January — New Short Story

coupes-de-champagne

New flash fiction! ❄️

The Warmest January

“Hayley, can you hear me?”

I glanced over at the beautiful blond woman next to me.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said. “What did you say?”

She smiled. “I said it’s really cold—even for January.”

I glanced out the window next to our table.

There was a blanket of snow on the streets, and people in hats, coats, and scarves hurried along, as if to escape the cold.

I blinked a little, wondering if I’d looked that way as I’d arrived at the restaurant.

“I guess it is,” I said. “Somehow I didn’t notice.”

My mom—Pam Whittle—laughed. “That must have been some party.”

She raised a hand and nodded at someone behind me, and I turned to see a handsome, silver-haired stranger smiling at her.

I wasn’t surprised—that sort of thing happened everywhere I went with her. Everyone noticed my mom. But I didn’t mind—I was proud of her.

“So about this party,” Pam said, returning her attention to me. “Did you meet someone?”

“What?” I said. “No. I’m not even sure what party you’re talking about.”

“New Year’s Eve,” Pam said. “You’ve been in a dreamy fog ever since then. A mother notices these things.”

“New Year’s Eve?” I thought back. “That was two weeks ago.”

“Well, something must have happened. Like I said, you haven’t been the same since then.”

I looked up into my mom’s clear blue eyes. There was a mysterious twinkle there.

“So?” she said. “How about it?”

I thought back again—the night was hazy, but more because it had been a little dull than for any other reason. I was pretty sure nothing special had happened.

And then an image flashed in my mind’s eye—a golden glass of champagne and a man’s black sleeve.

The image quickly faded—but somehow it felt like I’d remembered something important.

“Are you all right?” Pam asked, her forehead crinkling with concern. “You looked a little funny just now.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I was just remembering how uneventful New Year’s Eve was.”

Pam sighed. “Oh well. I was really hoping something nice had happened for you—I was hoping you’d met some handsome mystery man. The next party you go to will be better, I’m sure.”

She gave me a wink.

In that moment, basking in my mom’s good humor, I couldn’t help but think she was right.

After lunch, I headed out to my car in the swirling wind. Everyone else had their shoulders hunched against the cold, but somehow I didn’t feel it.

I figured I was just warm from the restaurant—and the walk to the car hadn’t been too far.

I stood for just a moment, watching a little patch of snow swirl in the wind.

The swirling snow made me think of another swirl I’d seen not too long ago—a cascade of bubbles in a champagne glass. Beyond the bubbles, I saw other glasses of champagne—all filled with swirling amber bubbles. And beyond the bubbles was a room full of people—graceful women in gowns of all different hues—men looking very square-shouldered in their black tuxedos. But there was one set of black-clad shoulders that somehow seemed out of place. His tux was just as elegant as everyone else’s, and yet he seemed ill at ease in it—as if he wasn’t used to wearing that type of clothing. I looked up into his face and—

The image faded as quickly as it had come. I was once again standing in a snowy parking lot in front of my car.

I got in quickly and drove home.

That night, as I sat down with my laptop, I found myself googling the party I’d attended on New Year’s Eve. It had been a big party thrown by one of the fashionable hotels, and it had been open to anybody who had enough money to buy a ticket. The party had attracted a fair amount of media coverage—social and otherwise—and I scrolled through pictures looking for something that might jump out at me. I found pictures of people I knew, and I even found one of myself, but I couldn’t find the owner of those square, uneasy shoulders. I tried to remember the man’s face, but it just wouldn’t come to me.

I decided that if it were important, it would come back to me. I went to bed.

I didn’t think about the New Year’s Eve party again until two days later when I was out walking with my best friend, Lauren, and her boyfriend, Todd. We were on our way to a restaurant.

“I can’t believe you’re not cold,” Lauren said, looking at me through the small gap between her hat and the red scarf that covered the lower half of her face.

“I know it’s cold,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” Todd said. “You’re not shivering. I’m shivering and I’m a big guy—this cold cuts right through me.”

I glanced over at him—Todd was indeed a big, sturdy guy, and he looked even bigger in the puffy coat he wore.

“I don’t get it,” Lauren said. “You’re the one who’s always cold. You’re the one who keeps your house at seventy-three degrees.”

“I feel it,” I said. “I’m wearing a coat, hat, and scarf just like you two.”

But as I watched them, I could see what they meant—I was pleasantly warm inside my winter gear, and I didn’t seem to feel the extra nip in the air that had both of them quaking.

I suddenly saw an image of a glass of champagne, and I stopped. I looked around—I spied a coffee shop and a clothing boutique.

I quickly chose the boutique.

“I’ll be right back!” I shouted. I ran toward the little shop.

“Hayley, wait!” Lauren called after me. “Where are you going?”

I hurried on—I didn’t want to lose the image.

I ran inside the shop and grabbed the first dress I saw.

“I’m just going to try this on!” I cried.

Then I ran for the dressing room.

I hung the dress on a hook and closed the door behind me. Then I closed my eyes and focused on the glass of champagne, which was still floating in my mind.

The image stayed with me, but I couldn’t get it to go any further.

Instead, my mom’s words from lunch a few days ago floated through my mind.

“—some handsome mystery man.”

I opened my eyes then and looked at the dress I’d grabbed—it happened to be a sequined evening gown. It wasn’t the sort of thing I usually wore—except at the very occasional party—and this one was the same color as the one I’d worn on New Year’s Eve—

Suddenly, I was back at the party. Standing before me was the man in the tuxedo. I looked up into his face. His features were finely chiseled, and his chin was maybe just a touch too angular—but it was a handsome face. His eyes were blue, but there were flecks of brown and green in them—somehow his eyes were every color all at once. And his hair was so black that it shone silver in the light. He was obviously a stranger, but somehow I felt like I had seen him before.

“You don’t like the cold, do you?” he said. His voice was rich and musical.

“No.” I shivered. It was New Year’s Eve, and it was cold outside. That wasn’t surprising—it was always cold on New Year’s Eve. The party itself was well-heated, and all of the other guests seemed to be perfectly comfortable. But somehow I still seemed to feel a chill swirling around my bare shoulders.

The man sighed and I sensed that he was deeply amused.

“A child of summer,” he said. “That’s what you are.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” I said. I’d been born in the summer—but how could he know that?

“A child of summer and a child of winter,” he said. “If they wanted to be together, where would they live?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

The man smiled. “That’s okay, Hayley. That’s really okay.”

He paused. “If you ever need to find me, you can find me in the winter woods. Any woods will do.”

“Why would I need to find you?” I said. “And how do you know my name?”

“How could I not know your name?” the man said. “You’re all I’ve thought about since I saw you last winter shivering in the forest.”

“In the forest?” I frowned. “Do you mean last year when I was in Maine?”

The man simply smiled again, and I sensed his amusement once more.

“Look here,” I said. “Who are you?”

“You may call me Sam—”

The party faded suddenly, and I found myself back in the dressing room staring at a sequined evening gown.

I hurried out into the boutique.

“Sorry,” I said to the confused shop clerk as I quickly pressed the dress into her hands. “It’s not quite what I’m looking for.”

I hurried outside.

I was actually supposed to be going to lunch with Lauren and Todd, and there was a worried text from Lauren waiting for me.

I quickly texted back an apology, and then told her that I had something I had to do right away.

I ran to my car.

I didn’t know where I was going exactly—but there was still snow on the ground, and there had to be a forest somewhere nearby.

As I pulled out of the parking garage, I remembered there was a park a few miles from my house. I didn’t know if it would qualify as a proper winter woods, but there were certainly trees there.

I drove over and parked just beyond the little gate at the entrance to the park, and then I followed the snow-covered trail into the forest.

The trail soon became clearer thanks to the shelter of the trees, and I looked around at all the evergreens cloaked in a dusting of white.

It certainly seemed like a winter woods to me.

There was no one else around, and though a cold wind blew, somehow I didn’t feel it. I felt as warm and cozy in the woods as I would have standing in my own well-heated house.

I wandered for a little while but didn’t see Sam.

Once I reached a spot that was remote enough, I decided to try calling out his name.

No one was around, so no one would see me acting crazy.

“Sam!” I said. “Sam!”

I fully expected nothing to happen. But almost immediately I heard a rustling in the trees, and a tall form moved toward me.

He was dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, but his hair was still silver-black and his eyes were still blue and yet all colors at once.

It was Sam.

“I can’t believe you’re actually here,” I said. “So I didn’t dream that whole night—I actually met you.”

Sam smiled. “Of course.”

He paused. “Did you need me?”

“I just needed to know you were real.” I glanced at him. “Aren’t you cold?”

Sam shook his head. “I live in winter—it’s natural for me. A cold winter’s day for me is like a perfect summer day for you. It’s exactly where I belong.”

“So you said you’d seen me before,” I said. “Did you come to the party to find me?”

“Yes,” Sam said.

“But how did you know I’d be there?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just knew. Sometimes Nature tells me things. This time she told me where you were. She knew that I was drawn to you.”

“And you first saw me in the woods?” I said.

“The winter woods, yes. And I have thought of nothing but you ever since.”

“You’re not like me, are you?” I said. “You’re something different entirely.”

“You’re right,” Sam said. “I’m something different.”

“Is your name really Sam?” I asked.

He smiled. “Not exactly. But it’s close enough.”

He looked at me for a long moment. “Do you want to see me again?”

I looked into his amazing eyes. “Yes.”

“I’m glad,” Sam said. “I want to see you too.”

He sighed. “At the moment, it’s difficult. I’m not sure how to get to your world and stay there. Right now I can only come for short visits. But you can come to the winter woods any time you wish to see me, and I can stay for a little while.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Is that all?”

“That’s all for now,” Sam said. “But I’m working on it. Who knows? Maybe Nature will grant me this wish. But in the meantime, I have a gift for you.”

“A gift?” I said.

“You will always be warm when it is cold,” Sam said. “You will never feel the bite of the wind or the chill in the air. Winter will always feel to you like a warm embrace. I’ll find a way to be with you someday—until then you have my love to keep you warm.”

He smiled. “That is my gift to you.”

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

Thanks very much for reading!

The Snow Globe — New Short Story

Santa-Claus-Snow-Globe-Merry-Christmas-Ho-Ho-Ho-Bring-On-The-Snow-40-Christmas-Snow-Globes-article

 

New flash fiction. 🙂

The Snow Globe

“Oh, no!” I said.

“What’s wrong, Hope?” My sister’s voice floated up to me.

“It’s our old snow globe,” I said. “It doesn’t light up.”

I heard Kristen’s footsteps stomping up the stairs to the attic.

“What are you doing up here anyway?” she said.

I brushed some dust off a box and set the snow globe on top of it.

It was old—probably an antique by now, and it held a little snow-covered house with Santa and his reindeer flying over it. The water inside it had started to evaporate, and Santa, who hung from the top of the globe, was no longer submerged.

“I’m getting out Mom and Dad’s old decorations,” I said.

“I can see that,” Kristen said, surveying the dusty artificial wreath and Christmas ornaments I had unearthed. “What I mean is what are you doing up here right now? You’re supposed to be getting ready for a date.”

“I know,” I said. “I just really wanted to put this snow globe out before I left. I always believed it was magic—it brings Christmas cheer.”

“Why do you need Christmas cheer right this moment?” Kristen said.

“I just need it,” I replied.

“You’re stalling.”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

I didn’t reply. I turned my attention back to the snow globe. I turned it over and checked the little box on the bottom. It still had a battery—it just didn’t light up.

“Hope,” Kristen said, “Mark Frye is the most eligible bachelor in the city. You’re super lucky that he likes you. You need to get ready.”

I still didn’t move.

Kristen took the snow globe out of my hands.

“What do you want with this old thing anyway? It was Mom’s, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was Mom’s,” I said. “And it was her mom’s before that. It’s an heirloom—and it reminds me of our childhood.”

Kristen set the snow globe down on a dusty shelf.

“Well, Mom and Dad moved to Florida,” she said. “They moved on. You should, too. If you really want a snow globe, I’ll get you a new one.”

She steered me toward the attic stairs. “Now you need to go.”

Kristen sighed as I skirted around her and grabbed the snow globe. Then I let myself get dragged out of the attic.

An hour and a half later, I was as ready as I was ever going to be, and I was just leaving the bathroom when the doorbell rang.

I hurried downstairs.

Kristen was already waiting by the door.

“It’s him,” she said. “You look great by the way.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Did you seriously come down here to watch me as I answered the door?”

“Of course not,” Kristen said. “I just happened to be here.”

I shooed her away as I opened the door.

Tall, dark, and sleek, Mark was waiting for me on the doorstep.

“You look lovely, Hope,” he said as we headed out into the night.

We went to a new, trendy restaurant, and everybody there seemed to know Mark.

We were ushered to a great table, and the food was excellent. We fell into conversation easily, and as the evening progressed, I realized that Mark was fun to talk to.

Eventually the conversation turned to Mark’s political aspirations—he was going to run for city council and maybe even mayor someday.

“Forgive me,” he said as dessert arrived, “but you don’t seem very excited about my upcoming campaign. Most people really light up when I mention that.”

“I’m excited for you,” I said. “I really am. It’s just that I can’t stop thinking about something silly—something small that’s bothering me.”

“What is it?” Mark asked.

“It’s this old snow globe of my Mom’s. It used to light up and now it doesn’t. I feel like the light has gone out on my childhood Christmas memories. That’s not true, of course, but it’s how I feel at the moment.”

Mark nodded. “I understand. You remember how things used to be, and you feel nostalgia. What I’ve learned in my career is that it’s better to let go of the past and keep moving forward. Get yourself a new snow globe. Or better yet, forget about it and move on.”

“My sister said something like that, too,” I murmured.

“She’s right,” Mark said. “Look to the future. That’s what I do.”

The rest of the evening was pleasant, and I returned home in a good frame of mind.

As I walked into my house, my sister pounced.

“How was the date?” Kristen said.

“It was good,” I said. “Nice.”

“Nice?” Kristen said.

“Yes.”

“But?”

“But something’s missing,” I said.

“I knew it!” Kristen said. “You find something wrong with every guy who takes an interest in you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Mark,” I said. “He’s wonderful. But somehow I don’t feel a spark.”

Kristen shook her head. “Any girl in town would kill for a date with Mark. I would kill for a date with him. At least tell me you’re going to see him again.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It didn’t come up.”

Kristen opened her mouth to answer, and the doorbell rang.

She looked around. “I bet that’s him. He’s come to ask you on a second date. Answer it!”

She pushed me toward the door.

“All right, all right,” I said. “I’m going.”

I opened the door, expecting to see Mark’s tall, dark silhouette, but instead there was a scruffier figure dressed in jeans.

“Owen!” I said.

Owen had just moved back to town after several years away—he was working for his dad’s construction company.

“Hey, Hope,” he said. “I was just in the neighborhood, and I noticed that you’ve got a string of Christmas lights out. I’d be happy to take a look.”

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”

I grabbed my coat and followed Owen outside.

The night was cold and crisp and very dark. But there was plenty of light thanks to the bright Christmas display in my yard. Owen was right—there was a string of lights out in the middle of an evergreen bush. The lights were still on above and below it, so the dark spot was pretty noticeable.

Owen began fiddling with the darkened string of lights.

“I’m pretty good with these,” he said. “I’ll find the broken one in no time. It only takes one bad bulb to put the others out.”

I watched Owen as he worked. I had known him just a little in high school—and lately I had been seeing him around town. There was something intriguing about him.

After a moment, the string of lights in the middle sprang to life.

“Voilà!” Owen said.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“You just find the burnt-out bulb,” Owen replied, “and replace that one. Then the others will be good as new.”

“Where did you find a replacement bulb?” I asked.

He ran a hand over his hair. “I might have had one with me. I noticed yesterday that those lights were out, and I thought I’d stop by some time and see if you were in—see if I could offer some assistance.”

“It looks great,” I said. “Thanks.”

Owen nodded. “Well, I guess I’ll be going. It’s cold out here, and I don’t want to keep you.”

He turned to go.

“Owen,” I said.

He turned back.

“I’ve got an old snow globe,” I said. “It has a battery in it, but it no longer lights up. Maybe it’s silly, but it’s important to me, and I’d like to get it working again. Would you mind taking a look at it for me some time?”

“I don’t think that’s silly at all,” Owen said. “I’d be happy to take a look at it. I can stop by tomorrow if you’ll be in.”

“I’ll be here,” I said.

Owen smiled and ducked his head. “Good night, then.”

“Good night,” I said.

I went inside.

“Okay,” Kristen said as I closed the door behind me. “Two gorgeous guys come looking for you on the same night. How lucky can you get?”

“It’s no big deal,” I said. “Owen was just being nice.”

My phone buzzed then, and I went to pick it up.

“It’s a text from Mark,” I said. “He wants to meet again.”

“You’re going to have to choose,” Kristen said. “Which one is it? Mark or Owen?”

“I don’t even know if Owen likes me,” I replied. “And I barely know either of them.”

“Just humor me. If you had to choose based on first impressions, who would it be?”

I smiled at Kristen and turned for the stairs. “Good night. I’m going to bed.”

“You drive me crazy sometimes,” Kristen said.

Up in my room, I got ready for bed, and as I went to turn off the light, I picked up the broken snow globe that sat on my bureau. It was still dusty, but I gave it a little shake and watched the snow swirl around the house as Santa and his sleigh flew overhead. Kristen’s parting words came back to me, and I smiled to myself. Though I had given her a hard time, I knew whom I would choose—if I had the chance.

“I choose Owen,” I whispered to the snow globe.

And just for fun, I flipped the broken switch to “on.”

The snow globe instantly lit up, illuminating Santa and the house.

“Guess I chose right,” I murmured.

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

Thanks very much for reading!

The Perfect Boyfriend — New Short Story

Christmas-Presents

 

New piece of flash fiction. 😉

The Perfect Boyfriend

“So what are you looking for exactly?” Abbie asked.

Her friend Michelle continued to stare into the shop window and sighed.

“The perfect boyfriend,” she said.

“There’s no such thing as the perfect boyfriend,” Abbie replied.

“I know,” Michelle said. “But could you just imagine how great that would be? You’d get a big shiny box with a bow, and the love of your life would just jump out.”

She continued to stare at the glitzy display in the window in front of her.

“I’m not sure that’s a healthy way to think,” Abbie said. “Seriously though—I thought you said you wanted to go Christmas shopping. Where’s your list? All we’ve done so far is stare into windows.”

“I know,” Michelle said. “It’s just so hard to go through the holidays without your sweetie.”

“You broke up with Lucas six months ago.”

“I know,” Michelle said again. “But it all comes flooding back to you when the decorations go up.”

“Come on,” Abbie said. “Let’s actually go into a shop for a change.”

Michelle let herself get dragged inside.

Abbie and Michelle did end up getting some Christmas shopping done, and afterward, Abbie dropped her friend off at her apartment.

“Have fun wrapping your presents up,” Abbie said as Michelle exited her car. “And no more mooning over Lucas.”

Michelle gave a little wave and disappeared into her building.

Two days later, Michelle hadn’t shown up for a planned brunch with Abbie, and Abbie found herself in front of Michelle’s building again.

She went inside.

Abbie took the elevator to Michelle’s floor and then went down the hall and knocked on her door.

There was no answer.

Abbie noticed then that Michelle’s door was open just a hair, and she pushed on it.

It swung open.

“Hello?” Abbie called. “Michelle? Are you home?”

Swift footsteps approached her, and Abbie stepped back in alarm.

A light in the apartment turned on, and the door opened wider.

Suddenly standing before her was a man who looked familiar. He had black-rimmed glasses, and Abbie was sure she’d seen him somewhere recently.

“Are you—”

“I’m Michelle’s brother, Zach,” he said. “You’re one of Michelle’s friends, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m Abbie,” Abbie said. She remembered now—she’d seen Zach at a party Michelle had thrown last month.

“Do you know where she is?” Zach demanded. “No one in the family’s heard from her in two days.”

“No,” Abbie said. “I dropped her off here after we went shopping on Friday. I haven’t heard from her since.”

“Shopping?” Zach said. “Do you know anything about this big box?”

“Big box?” Abbie echoed.

“Maybe you’d better come in,” Zach replied.

He stood back so Abbie could enter, and then he led her to the living room.

In the middle of the room stood an enormous red-wrapped box with a gold bow. It was long and tall, and it was just the right size to hold a person.

“What is that?” Abbie asked.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Zach said. “Michelle didn’t buy that when the two of you went shopping?”

“No.”

Abbie went closer. There was a tag on the box that read, “From your sweetie.”

“I didn’t know she was dating anyone,” Zach said.

“As far as I know, she isn’t,” Abbie replied.

She reached out for the lid of the box, which was facing them, and she found that it swung open like a door.

Inside was gloom that stretched a long way—it appeared to be a hallway.

Zach stared at it in surprise. “Do you think she went in there?”

“I think we’d better find out,” Abbie said.

She stepped into the box, and Zach followed her.

Soon a figure came toward them out of the gloom. There was a glow around the figure like candlelight, and Abbie soon found herself standing face to face with a tall, handsome man with thick, dark hair and mesmerizing dark eyes. He was wearing tight jeans and an even tighter black T-shirt that emphasized his well-muscled torso.

“Hello,” the man said in a deep, smoky voice. “My name is Ryan. I don’t believe we’ve met, but I’ve been looking for you all my life.”

He lifted her hand to kiss it.

“I’m Abbie,” she said, temporarily spellbound.

After a moment, she shook off her daze.

“What are you doing here?” Abbie said sharply. “And where is Michelle?”

“I go where I am called,” Ryan replied in a sultry undertone. “It’s a special call from the heart. And I have no idea who Michelle is. I only have eyes for you.”

Zach rushed forward. “Listen, creep. You’re going to tell us where Michelle is right now.”

Ryan stared at Zach, startled. “Whoa. A boyfriend. That’s an unexpected twist.”

“Where is she?” Zach demanded.

He reached out to grab Ryan by his tight shirt collar, and Ryan abruptly disappeared.

He reappeared behind Zach.

“I’m beginning to get the picture,” Ryan said. “You two are here looking for that pretty gal I picked up earlier.”

Zach turned on Ryan once more, and once again Ryan disappeared—only to reappear a few feet away.

“Relax,” Ryan said. “I’ll take you to her.”

“And you’ll let us leave with her?” Abbie asked.

Ryan flashed Abbie a rakish grin. “Sure. If you can convince her to leave me. Gotta warn you, though—it won’t be easy.”

He winked and placed a guiding hand on both Zach and Abbie’s backs.

“Follow me to the garden.”

Ryan led them through the gloom.

Soon a pink glow appeared in the dim light, and Abbie could see a wide cluster of rose bushes—it did indeed look like a garden. And in the middle of the rose bushes sat Michelle.

“Michelle!” Abbie and Zach cried together.

They ran toward her.

Michelle was staring straight ahead with a dreamy look on her face, and she didn’t appear to notice Abbie or Zach when they reached the little garden.

Abbie swiftly waded through the roses and sat down on a stone bench next to Michelle.

Zach sat on the other side of her.

“Michelle,” Abbie said urgently. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Michelle, can you hear me?” Zach said.

She made no reply.

Ryan followed more slowly, and as Abbie was shaking Michelle’s shoulder, Ryan’s candlelit glow caught up with them.

For the first time, Michelle stirred.

“Is that you, my love?” she said.

Ryan smiled—a truly glorious sight. “I’m here, babe. I’m always right here for you.”

“My sweetie,” Michelle sighed.

“What have you done to her?” Zach demanded.

“Nothing,” Ryan replied. “She’s in love.”

“With you?” Zach said scornfully. “I don’t believe it.”

Ryan shrugged his magnificent shoulders, and the glow moved along with him. “You can call it infatuation if you like. Whatever it is it works.”

“We’re leaving here right now,” Abbie said. “And we’re taking Michelle with us.”

Ryan laughed. “Go ahead and try.”

He turned and began to walk away. As he disappeared, his glow grew smaller and smaller.

“Three for the price of one.” His voice floated back to them. “My lucky day.”

Soon his glow was gone, and Abbie and Zach were left with Michelle in the soft pink light of the rose garden.

“Come on, Michelle, we’ve got to move,” Zach said urgently.

Michelle didn’t answer.

Abbie snapped her fingers and then waved her hand in front of her friend’s face.

“Michelle!”

No answer.

Abbie turned to Zach.

“She only seems to respond to that Ryan guy.”

Zach looked around.

“She doesn’t appear to be restrained in any way. Do you want to try to move her out of here?”

Abbie nodded. “Good idea.”

They each grabbed one of Michelle’s arms and pulled.

Michelle didn’t move.

And neither did they.

“I can’t stand up,” Abbie said, startled.

“I can’t either,” Zach replied, equally startled.

“We’re stuck to this bench,” Abbie said. “All three of us.”

“Three for the price of one,” Zach murmured. “He’s got all of us trapped now.”

Abbie looked around. “How do you think this is happening?”

“Maybe it’s some kind of spell,” Zach said grimly. “Nothing about this is normal.”

“But we could move until just a few minutes ago,” Abbie said. “Something changed.”

She drew in her breath sharply. “The flowers!”

She began to grab at the roses, breaking them off by their stems.

But the flowers grew back as quickly as they were picked.

“That’s not a good sign,” Zach said.

“We have to do something!” Abbie cried in frustration.

She continued to pull more flowers—which quickly grew back.

“Wait, Abbie,” Zach said. “There’s something on your back.”

Abbie twisted around, trying to see.

“I’ll get it,” Zach said.

He reached around Michelle and just managed to pull off a label that was stuck to Abbie’s coat.

He held it out, and Abbie could see a white label with red letters that read, “Property of Ryan.”

“The nerve of that guy,” Abbie said. “Turn a bit—let me see if there’s one on your back too.”

Zach turned as much as he could, and Abbie spied a white square on his back.

“Yep, you’ve got one,” she said. “I bet he stuck these on us when he led us over here. Just a moment—I’ll get it.”

Abbie reached around Michelle, as Zach had done, but she couldn’t quite touch the label on Zach’s back. She stood without thinking about it.

“Zach, I’m free!”

“It must be the labels,” he replied. “Help me, and we’ll free Michelle too.”

Abbie quickly pulled the label off Zach, and he stood.

The two of them looked Michelle over—they couldn’t find a label.

“Now that we can stand,” Zach said, “maybe we can just carry her.”

Once again, they pulled on Michelle’s arms. She remained stuck fast to the stone bench.

“There must be something,” Abbie said. “What are we missing?”

“Ryan wasn’t expecting us,” Zach said. “So he had to improvise. Maybe he did something a little more substantial for Michelle.”

“Makes sense,” Abbie said.

She looked her friend over again. Nothing really stood out. Michelle was still wearing the outfit she’d had on when Abbie had last seen her—in fact, she was even still wearing her coat. Ryan must have kidnapped her shortly after she’d walked into her apartment.

Abbie sighed to herself. Something must be different—but what?

And then she spotted a little bit of sparkle on her friend’s wrist—just a little piece of gold peeking out from under the cuff of her coat sleeve.

“Michelle wasn’t wearing a bracelet,” she said.

Abbie quickly pushed Michelle’s sleeve up and examined the bracelet. Sure enough, there was a little gold charm on it engraved with the words, “To my sweetie, love Ryan.”

Abbie fumbled with the clasp and soon had it undone. She pulled the bracelet off Michelle and threw it into the flowers.

Michelle began to stir. She looked up at Zach and Abbie blearily.

“Hey, guys,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“Come on,” Zach said. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”

A voice drifted over to them from somewhere far away.

“Is that you, babe?” It was Ryan. “Having trouble sleeping, sweetie?”

“We have to go now,” Zach said.

Zach and Abbie helped Michelle to stand. The three of them soon made their way out of the rose garden, but beyond it, all they could see was gloom.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Ryan’s voice came to them again. “Why aren’t you feeding my flowers?”

“Just keep moving,” Abbie said.

The three of them stumbled through the dim light, leaving the rosy glow of the garden far behind them.

“There!” Zach shouted after a moment. “That looks like normal lamp light over there.”

Abbie looked where Zach was pointing. Far in the distance she could see a yellow rectangle—it looked like light pouring out through a door.

“Come on, Michelle,” Abbie urged.

The three of them ran on, and Ryan soon called out again.

“Where are you going, babe?”

Abbie turned to look back. A candlelit glow had appeared behind them, and it was gaining on them.

“He’s following us,” Abbie cried. “Hurry!”

Zach and Abbie ran as fast as they could, carrying Michelle between them.

“Were almost there!” Zach shouted. “Come on, Michelle!”

They hurried up to the yellow rectangle of light, and the two of them quickly pushed Michelle through the open door into her apartment. As they did so, Ryan caught up with them.

He caught both Abbie and Zach by the collar and lifted them into the air.

“I may have lost my lady love,” Ryan said, “but you two are mine.”

He stared at them with his big brown eyes. “Are you sure that you don’t want to stay with me?”

Abbie found that she couldn’t look away from the mesmerizing dark eyes. She was aware dimly that Zach had also ceased to struggle.

“That’s it,” Ryan said softly. “Come with me. I need you. And no one else will love you like I do.”

Abbie felt herself being carried away.

“No one else will love you like I do,” Ryan said again.

Ryan loved her, Abbie thought. He needed her.

She was happy to be going with him.

But something tugged at the back of her mind. She had come here for a different reason.

Someone else needed her.

Abbie turned her head and looked at Ryan’s handsome profile.

“Ryan,” she said softly.

He looked at her and smiled.

“Yes, babe?”

“I think we need to see other people,” Abbie said.

Ryan looked startled, and Abbie quickly aimed a kick at his middle.

He disappeared.

Both Abbie and Zach dropped to the ground.

“Run, Zach!” Abbie shouted.

The two of them ran for the yellow rectangle of light as Ryan reappeared behind them and chased after them.

Just as Ryan was reaching out a hand for Abbie’s collar again, she and Zach reached the door and jumped through it.

The two of them sprawled on the floor of Michelle’s apartment and looked back to see the tall wrapped present with the lid hanging open. The lid abruptly snapped shut, and the wrapped box with the gold bow promptly disappeared.

Michelle was sitting on the floor not too far from Abbie and Zach.

“Seriously, guys,” she said. “What’s going on?”

An hour later, Michelle, Abbie, and Zach were all seated in Michelle’s living room drinking coffee.

“So that’s what happened,” Abbie said. “And in conclusion, allow me to say that there’s no such thing as the perfect boyfriend.”

Michelle was staring at her steadily. She seemed skeptical.

“Well, thanks very much for saving me,” Michelle said. “But you’re wrong.”

“I know it’s hard to believe,” Abbie said.

“That’s not what I meant,” Michelle replied. “I totally believe the story.”

“Then—”

“You’re wrong that there’s no such thing as the perfect boyfriend,” Michelle said.

“Michelle,” Abbie said, “that kind of talk is how you got into this in the first place.”

“Not for me,” Michelle said. “For you.”

She raised her eyebrows and nodded pointedly in her brother’s direction.

“You and Zach,” she whispered.

Abbie glanced at Zach, and he looked back at her.

Zach’s eyes were also big and brown behind his black-rimmed glasses, but other than that, he was a world away from Ryan.

Zach looked a little sheepish. “I think I’m worth a shot,” he said.

Abbie smiled. “Why not?”

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

Thanks very much for reading! 🙂

You can check out my books on AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, Google Play, and Apple.