Maple Syrup Magic — New Short Story

Maple Syrup Magic Cover

Maple Syrup Magic

Catherine Mesick

Afterwards, she was never quite sure why she’d thought of it.

As Beth Taggart sat in her tiny kitchen, gazing out the window on one frosty Tuesday morning in November, she suddenly thought of brownies.

She wasn’t actually thinking of baked goods—instead she was thinking of the pixies or imps or whatever they were that her grandfather had told her about when she was a child.

According to Granddad Ian, if you left milk out for the brownies overnight, they would be very grateful and clean your kitchen and do your household chores in return—particularly ones that involved caring for the animals in your barns.

Granddad Ian had emigrated from Scotland, and he’d said that the brownies had followed him. But Beth had never seen any sign of them, and there weren’t any animals in her barn—at least not yet.

She smiled as she sipped at her coffee.

A man came into view, and Beth caught her breath. He had sandy hair and an honest, open face, and he looked very sturdy in his flannel shirt and jeans as he trudged across the backyard carrying a toolbox and a big block of wood in his ungloved hands.

Beth knew it was cold outside—very cold, in fact—but the man wore no coat and didn’t seem to feel it.

He paused and smiled at two men who came up behind him and then nodded his head briefly in greeting.

He was young—about Beth’s age—and she knew his first name was Dean—she’d heard some of the other men calling out to him.

Dean was there with Ashe Construction Company to refurbish her barn. It was nearly two hundred years old, and it wasn’t really fit to house animals in any longer—the roof leaked in more than a dozen spots, and the wind whistled through the walls as though there wasn’t any barrier there at all.

Besides, Beth needed something more than an ordinary barn. She intended to keep animals from her practice there—the ones who were sickest and needed the most care—and she needed proper heating in the winter and cooling in the summer—not to mention excellent lighting, ventilation, and floors and surfaces that could be kept properly clean and sanitary.

Bales of hay and straw-covered floors wouldn’t be enough for her patients.

Dean turned abruptly and began to walk back toward the house. As he did so, he happened to glance toward the window, and his eyes met Beth’s.

Beth started and nearly ducked down below the edge of the window, but she stopped herself just in time.

Dean smiled and nodded his head at her, and Beth raised a hand in greeting.

Then he continued on past her and disappeared from view.

He’d probably forgotten something in his truck and was just going to get it.

Beth could feel a blush rising to her cheeks, and she berated herself for acting like a schoolgirl with a crush, but she couldn’t help lingering by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dean when he returned.

He did indeed return after a moment, this time carrying a bucket that had the block of wood sticking out of it, and Beth stood by the window and angled herself so she could watch Dean without his seeing her.

As he walked away from her, Beth realized that there was something about him that reminded her just a little of her granddad. Dean didn’t look anything like him, of course—Granddad Ian had had coal-black curls that Beth herself had inherited, and a long, rangy frame that was quite different from Dean’s sturdy muscularity—but there was something there.

Somehow, Dean gave her the same sense of safety and serenity that her grandfather had once given her—even though she’d barely spoken four words to him.

Dean disappeared into the antique barn with the other men, and Beth sighed softly to herself.

She’d give a lot to be able to talk to Dean.

But she just didn’t know how.

Beth finished her coffee, and as she was putting her breakfast things in the dishwasher, the phone rang.

She answered on the second ring, and a breathless, panicked voice poured out of the little device.

“Dr. Taggart? Is that you?”

Beth recognized the anxious tones of one of her clients—it was Mrs. Davis, the owner of a cat named Bluebell, who had just undergone surgery.

“Yes, Mrs. Davis, I’m here.”

“How is Bluebell? Is she okay? Did she survive the night?”

Beth’s voice was soothing. She calmed Mrs. Davis’s fears and promised that she was going in to the office to check on Bluebell right now.

Then Beth said goodbye to her own cat, Peyton, and her English bulldog, Growler, and hurried out to her car.

As she drove, she thought of the brownies again. She didn’t know if Dean’s vague resemblance to her grandfather had put them in her mind, or if she simply wanted something else to care for while she waited for her animals. She had Peyton and Growler, of course, but they were both hale and hearty and didn’t need her medical expertise at the moment.

But brownies were mysterious and shy—maybe she could draw them out.

She didn’t need any housecleaning done, but she could test her granddad’s stories—see if she could catch sight of one of the little creatures.

Beth smiled to herself. She knew very well nothing would come of it, but she resolved to put out a little dish of milk that evening anyway.

She would do it in honor of her granddad.

Somehow the idea made her laugh, and she was in excellent spirits as she arrived at the office.

She went first to check on Bluebell, and the blue-gray cat blinked blearily and yawned, showing a pink tongue, when Beth turned on the light.

A dog in a nearby kennel began to bark excitedly, and Beth went to check on all of her overnight patients.

Beth was able to call Mrs. Davis and reassure her that Bluebell was doing well. But she cautioned her that the patient needed to stay in the office for one more day—first, so that she could get proper rest after surgery, and second, so that Beth could keep an eye on her feline charge.

She didn’t expect any complications, but she wanted to be sure.

And that was really the purpose of the barn at her house—she could keep surgery patients and difficult cases out there. That way she could check on them late at night and first thing in the morning.

She might even move her whole practice out there eventually and give up the office space she was renting.

But that was a little way in the future yet, and right now, Beth needed to work.

She put on her white coat and looked over the day’s appointments.

She had a thriving practice, and as soon as her doors opened in the morning, people and animals started to stream in.

Beth loved her work, and she got ready to start another enjoyable and fulfilling day.

That evening after the practice was closed, Beth was met at her house by her cousin, Rosalie. Rosalie was a tall, striking brunette with thick, lustrous hair that bounced and gleamed like she was in a shampoo commercial, even when she was doing something as simple as getting groceries out of her SUV.

Beth and her cousin loved to bake, and the two of them were planning to cook up a storm for the local community center’s bake sale. As the two of them walked toward the house, Beth caught sight of a burly construction worker heading toward her barn.

Rosalie cast her cousin a slyly inquiring look. “So who’s he?”

Beth frowned a little in thought. At one time or another she’d caught the name of just about everyone who was on the crew.

“I think that’s Lyle.”

“And who’s Lyle?” Beth cast an appreciative eye over him.

“He’s helping to fix up the barn—get it ready for my patients.”

Rosalie continued to watch him. “He’s working late. Any particular reason?”

“Yes—he is working late. They start early in the morning and keep going until well after dark. I think their owner might be pushing them to work around the clock.”

Rosalie’s eyebrows rose. “Their owner?”

Beth felt herself blushing. “Sorry—I think I’ve got my mind too much on work. I mean, the guy who owns the construction company might be pushing them.”

“And why would he do that?”

Beth could feel her blush growing redder. “I think maybe he likes me.”

“Oh—oh—” Rosalie made the word one long singsong syllable. “And what’s his name?”

“His name is Leo Ashe. But there’s nothing there,” Beth said hastily.

And there really wasn’t. The two of them had met at a fundraiser for a local animal shelter, and then at a few other events, and while Leo had clearly been interested in her, Beth couldn’t say that the feeling was mutual.

At that moment, Dean walked by, and he glanced over at Beth.

He gave her a shy smile, and she raised a hand in an equally shy, silent greeting.

Then he walked on.

Rosalie eyed her cousin. “And who’s that?”

“That’s Dean.” Beth felt herself blushing again. “I’m sure I told you about him. He kind of reminds me of Granddad Ian.”

Rosalie watched Dean as he disappeared into the barn.

“I can see it. He doesn’t look anything like him, but I get the vibe. Kind of old-fashioned.”

She cast a speculative eye over Beth.

“For a girl who claims to have her mind on work, you sure do seem to have been paying a lot of attention to this construction crew.”

Beth blushed yet again.

The two cousins soon got to work in the kitchen. After a long night of baking, they had a kitchen table full of cooling cookies, cupcakes, and both Rosalie’s famous pumpkin pies and Beth’s equally famous maple scones.

They put everything into plastic containers once it was all cool enough, and Rosalie gave Beth a hug before she headed for the door.

“I’ll be back tomorrow night to help you cart all this stuff over.”

Then she departed.

Beth stood looking over their handiwork, and Peyton and Growler came to sit by her feet and stare up at her.

“Nothing for you guys here,” she said. “You’ve got a well-balanced diet already. The last thing you need is too-rich people food.”

Growler licked his nose expectantly, and Peyton simply continued to stare up at her with his big yellow eyes.

“All right, you two. It’s time for bed.”

Then Beth paused—she’d nearly forgotten about the brownies.

She smiled to herself as she poured out a shallow bowl of milk and placed it on a high shelf.

“Okay, guys,” Beth said. “This is for the brownies. Promise me you won’t touch it.”

Growler licked his nose again and gave a soft whine. Peyton continued to stare.

Beth wasn’t actually worried about the two of them getting to the milk—the shelf was so high and awkwardly placed that even Peyton couldn’t get up there.

She turned out the light and went to bed.

In the morning, Beth was up before dawn as usual, and as she went out to her car, she caught sight of Dean.

He paused. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Beth said.

Then the two of them stood, staring at each other uncertainly.

Eventually, Dean raised one ungloved hand and turned toward the barn.

As Beth watched him walk away, she berated herself for her shyness.

Then she drove to work.

The day was a busy one, and Bluebell, along with a little terrier named Sancho, were now well enough to go home, much to the delight of their human companions.

The day flew by, and before she knew it, Beth was heading home to meet her cousin.

As she stood in the kitchen, looking over the table full of baked goods, she suddenly noticed that the baking pans she’d left to clean in the morning—and had forgotten to do—were somehow sparkling clean and sitting in the dish drainer.

Beth frowned.

Maybe she hadn’t forgotten to do the dishes—maybe she’d just forgotten that she’d done them already.

She thought then of the brownies and climbed up on a step stool to retrieve the bowl of milk.

But to her surprise, the bowl she expected to be heavy and full was actually light and empty—and very clean.

It looked as if it had been washed.

Beth climbed down and looked at Growler and Peyton, who were sitting on the floor by the stool and staring up at her.

She tipped the clean bowl toward them.

“Do you guys know anything about this?”

But the dog and the cat just stared at her innocently.

The empty bowl was soon forgotten, however, as Rosalie bustled in, and she and Beth bundled almost everything up and drove over to the community center.

Beth got to keep one of Rosalie’s pumpkin pies as a thank-you for the use of her kitchen.

Later that night, Beth returned home happy but exhausted.

As she prepared to go to bed, she thought once again of the empty bowl and eyed her furry companions.

Growler, she knew, was completely incapable of climbing up onto that high shelf—he was broad and squat and climbing really wasn’t his thing. And Beth had believed that Peyton was also incapable of climbing up onto that shelf, but it seemed to her that she must have been mistaken—the cat clearly could reach it despite its awkward position.

She decided to put out something she knew Peyton wouldn’t touch, and this time she knew it would still be there in the morning.

Beth got out a dish and put a scoop of peanut butter in it. Peyton hated peanut butter and would wrinkle up his nose and run away from it. A little voice in Beth’s head reminded her that mice loved peanut butter, but she pushed that objection aside. Then a sudden thought made her get out another bowl and pour a little maple syrup—left over from the scones—into a thin layer on the bottom.

“The brownies will love this,” she thought to herself, and then she pushed that idea aside also.

The point was that Peyton wouldn’t love it, and it would still be there in the morning.

Then she placed both bowls on the high shelf and went to bed.

In the morning, Beth hurried to get the dishes.

The bowl with the scoop of peanut butter was untouched, and Beth smiled in satisfaction to herself. But as she lifted down the bowl of maple syrup, she saw that it was empty—and scrupulously clean. As Beth glanced down, it seemed to her that the kitchen floor was shinier than usual, too.

She stepped down and set the two bowls on the counter, and stared at the empty syrup bowl again.

Then she turned to Peyton and Growler, who were once again watching her with interest.

“I know you guys didn’t do this,” she murmured to herself. “And if a mouse had gotten to the maple syrup, surely it wouldn’t have left everything so clean.”

The empty bowl, however, couldn’t give her any more answers, so she set it in the sink and got a quick breakfast for herself and her pets.

Then she stooped down to scratch Growler and Peyton behind the ears, and then she was out the door.

Dean happened to be passing, and Beth wondered if he knew what time she usually left the house—he often seemed to run into her—and she thought—hoped even—that it might be on purpose.

She hoped even more when he stopped and looked her full in the face.

Dean smiled and Beth could see that his eyes were green. She could also see that they crinkled nicely when he smiled.

“Hi, Beth,” he said. “It’s nice to see you. How are you this morning?”

Beth gasped—that was the most he’d ever said to her.

“I—I’m good—great,” she replied. “How are you?”

“Good.” Dean hunched his flannel-clad shoulders against the early morning cold and put his hands in his jeans’ pockets.

He seemed to be waiting expectantly.

“Well, I—I—” Beth racked her brains, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I—should be getting to work,” she concluded.

Then she turned to her car and drove off, burning with embarrassment.

Dean was so handsome, so confident, so perfect, she lamented to her cousin later that day at lunch—was it any wonder that she hadn’t known what to say?

“Oh, just ask him out already,” Rosalie said.

“Ask him out?” Beth squeaked.

“Yes—do something low-key, like go get coffee.”

Beth shook her head. “I can’t. What if he says no? What if he doesn’t like me?”

“Oh, he likes you all right. From what you’ve described he’s trying to talk to you, just like you’re trying to talk to him. You’re both shy.”

“I don’t know,” Beth said. She knew Dean’s smile was a little shy, but she really couldn’t picture him being nervous about anything—or even picture herself ever talking to him again after that disaster.

But Rosalie made her promise that she would at least consider it.

The rest of the day was busy for Beth, and she stayed late to soothe some ruffled patients.

When she finally got home, the construction crew had left for the night, and Beth didn’t have a chance to see Dean.

She was relieved—she’d have the night to rest up before she tried talking to him again.

But before she went to sleep that night, she put another dish of maple syrup up on the high shelf.

Beth was wondering if the previous night was just a fluke—or if something would make the contents of the bowl disappear again.

She went to bed, and her last thoughts were of Dean—and whether she would see him tomorrow.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Beth woke up in her dark room.

“Thank you for the dark syrup,” whispered a voice. “We love it. We didn’t like the sticky paste so much, but the syrup is wonderful—we’ve never tasted anything like it. And we’d like to offer you a gift in return.”

“How about you send me a friend?” Beth murmured.

She smiled dreamily—she knew which one, too.

She fell asleep again.

In the morning, Beth had a vague recollection of a tiny voice in the night—but now she doubted it.

As she took the bowl down from its shelf, however, she saw that it was empty once again, and her heart fluttered just a little.

Maybe she’d get that friend after all.

But Dean wasn’t outside when Beth left the house, and she even hung around outside for a few minutes trying to spot him.

Eventually, she had to give up and go to work.

Her day was busy in the best kind of way—everything seemed to go right—and she found herself in the unaccustomed position of finishing all of her appointments early. She sent her staff home, and made sure to forward the office phone to her cell—in case of emergency.

Then Beth went home herself.

Since it was still daylight, she had a look around outside the house, hoping to spot Dean—but she didn’t see him.

Disappointed, she went inside.

Beth was just fixing herself a cup of hot chocolate when there was a knock on her door.

She caught her breath—it was Dean. She just knew it.

She hurried to the door and opened it.

But instead of Dean, it was a different familiar figure.

It was Leo Ashe, the owner of the construction company Beth was using.

He gave Beth his smarmy smile, and she had to sigh in disappointment.

Then Beth upbraided herself—his smile wasn’t smarmy, and she shouldn’t be judgmental—many women in town found Leo extremely attractive.

But as he continued to grin at her, Beth couldn’t help but feel that there was something insincere about him. She’d met him at a number of charity functions, and despite his obvious interest in good works, his mind always seemed to be on money—and appearances. Beth got the feeling he did charity work because it made him look good.

She chastised herself again for her decidedly uncharitable thoughts. She didn’t know anything of the kind, and she didn’t have any right to judge him like that.

She didn’t really know what he thought.

“Hi, Beth,” Leo said. “How have you been?”

And then there was that voice—it made shivers run down her back, and not in a good way.

Leo’s voice was deep and rich—and also oily and unctuous. He’d asked her out before, and she’d turned him down because of it.

She couldn’t trust anyone with that voice.

Beth caught herself being judgmental again, and she made herself stop.

She didn’t have to go out with him—he probably just wanted to talk to her about the barn.

She made herself put a pleasant smile on her face, and she prepared to answer him politely.

But Leo went on before she could say anything—it was almost as if he hadn’t noticed her lack of response.

“How do you like the progress on your new medical wing?” Leo asked.

“It’s wonderful,” Beth replied. She’d gone out every night after dinner—and after the crew had left—to inspect the barn. It did indeed look wonderful—and it looked like it was nearly finished.

“Yes, it is marvelous,” Leo said, “even if I do say so myself.” He gave his wide grin again. “I’ve got my men working around the clock, just for you.”

“Thank you. Thank you all.”

“Of course, I choose good people, and they benefit from my leadership—and my expertise. As good as they are, I doubt they could do a thing without me. It’s almost as if I’ve done the whole thing myself.”

“Ye-es,” Beth said. She wasn’t so sure about that. “Well, thank you again. I’m sure my patients will appreciate it once it’s done—and I know I will.”

Leo continued. “That’s what I like about you. You’re an entrepreneur like me, and you’re expanding your business.”

“Well, I’m not exactly expanding it—I’m just trying to make my patients more comfortable—and I’d like to be able to keep an eye on them overnight.”

“Exactly right. You’re thinking of the customer experience.”

Beth stiffened just a little. “They’re not customers—they’re my patients. I’m a doctor of veterinary medicine.”

Leo smiled. “Yes—a businesswoman and a doctor. You’re absolutely perfect for me. Which is why—”

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out two paper tickets. “I’d like you to go with me to the Harvest Ball next week. It’s for a good cause, and we’d look great together.”

Beth groaned inwardly. The Harvest Ball was a fundraiser for the local children’s hospital, and she already had two tickets herself. She hadn’t been planning to go—but it was, as Leo had said, a good cause—and she’d bought the tickets just to support the hospital.

She groaned because she felt bad about turning down an invitation to a charity ball—and she felt bad about turning Leo down—again.

But she had to do it.

Good cause or not, she just couldn’t go out with him.

“Leo,” Beth said. “I’m really sorry. I just can’t—”

He held up a hand. “Swamped with work. I understand. But you haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll be back again, Dr. Beth Taggart.”

As Leo walked away, he looked back at her and winked, and there was a twinkle in his eye.

Beth felt herself groaning inwardly again.

As she watched Leo disappear, she felt another eye upon her. She looked up to see Dean standing a few feet away—and he didn’t look happy.

Beth wondered if he’d heard the whole conversation, and she hoped he had—then he’d know that she’d turned Leo down.

But Dean gave her a glance that looked suspiciously like a glare and then slouched off toward the barn.

Beth thought about going after him, but then she stopped herself. She’d barely spoken to Dean, and she had no real reason to believe he might be jealous—or to believe he might want to go out with her himself. Maybe he just didn’t like his boss.

If so, Beth couldn’t blame him.

She caught herself being judgmental yet again, and turned and went into the house.

That night, as Beth was clearing up the kitchen before she went to bed, she paused as she held an empty bowl. She considered filling it with more maple syrup—again for the brownies—and then she wondered what she was doing.

First of all, brownies weren’t real—something else must have drunk the syrup.

And second, they’d sent her the wrong “friend.”

Beth shook her head. She was crazy to even be considering this. But she filled the bowl with a shallow layer of maple syrup and climbed up to reach the high shelf.

“You brought me the wrong one,” she whispered fiercely.

Then she set the bowl down.

She climbed down and headed to her room with Peyton and Growler following at her heels.

It was Friday night, but Beth didn’t feel like attempting to go anywhere. Instead, she watched TV for a little while with her two furred companions, and then, feeling tired and irritable, she went to sleep.

Somewhere, in the middle of the night, Beth woke up, and she thought she heard a tiny voice whisper in her ear.

“No, we did not!”

Beth went back to sleep.

In the morning, she was pleased to see a light dusting of snow on the ground, and after Peyton and Growler were happily chowing down on breakfast, Beth got herself a cup of coffee and went to stare out the kitchen window.

The snow was white and clean and perfect—as yet untouched by the events of the day—and the first golden rays of the morning were breaking out of a rosy sunrise.

There was a bird feeder by the window, and Beth was glad she’d remembered to fill it last night. A tiny little flock of yellow-and-black birds was feasting at the feeder, and one little guy had strayed away from the others and was perched on the windowsill.

Beth soon saw why—across the thin white coverlet of snow that blanketed the windowsill was strewn a line of birdseed—little kernels of red, yellow, and gray.

The lone bird had them all to himself, and he hopped amongst the little colored nuggets, choosing the red ones and leaving the yellow and gray ones behind.

Beth suddenly felt a lightbulb go on in her head.

The bird was choosing which seeds it wanted…

Just as the brownies had chosen maple syrup over the peanut butter…

And now she had a choice, too.

Dean had been around every day for weeks, and she hadn’t been talking to him. She didn’t know how long the brownies had been observing her, but even if it was only a few days, they would have seen Beth passing by Dean, just as they had passed up the peanut butter.

So they had brought someone else.

Beth suddenly realized how crazy her thoughts were, and she glanced behind her as if Growler and Peyton could tell what she was thinking.

But they, of course, were occupied with their food, and they had no idea that their legal guardian was a crazy lady.

Maybe she was crazy. But crazy or not, she would choose.

The weekend went by more slowly than she would have liked, but eventually Monday morning rolled around.

Beth waited by the window in the kitchen until she saw Dean’s flannel-clad form—still without a coat—appear.

Then she hurried out into the cold.

“Dean!” she cried. “Dean!”

He stopped and turned toward her.

His face was wary—even suspicious.

“Dean!” Beth said. “I need to talk to you!”

He waited where he was, and Beth rushed up to him.

“Your boss—Leo,” she said breathlessly. “He asked me out on Friday.”

Dean’s expression tightened just a little, but he said nothing.

Beth continued. “He asked me out to the Harvest Ball. But I don’t want to go with him. I want to go with you.”

A look of astonishment spread over Dean’s face.

Then a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth, and a twinkle gleamed in his eye.

Beth felt relieved—and elated.

Dean wasn’t unhappy at all—he was pleased.

Beth took out the tickets that nestled in her coat pocket.

“I’ve got tickets to the ball, too. It’s next week. And I’d like you to go with me. What do you say?”

Dean’s face went very blank, but there was still just a hint of a twinkle in his eye.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Beth found herself smiling in response.

She liked his sense of humor already.

The two of them ended up going out for coffee after Beth finished at the office and Dean got off work for the night.

The low-key date was a success, and after Beth got home, she left out a slice of Rosalie’s pumpkin pie for the brownies.

She felt they deserved it.

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© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Piviso/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!

Spooky Tricks — New Short Story

Spooky Tricks

Spooky Tricks

Catherine Mesick

On Halloween night, there was a knock at the door.

This wasn’t unusual—there had been knocks on the door all evening.

I stopped at the mirror in the hall, adjusted my tall black witch’s hat to a more rakish angle and smoothed the tresses of my long, black wig.

“Johanna, you are one terrifying witch,” I said to myself.

I adjusted the wart on my nose for good measure and then grabbed up my bowl of candy and hurried to the door.

I threw the front door open and gave my best witch’s cackle.

But instead of a group of trick-or-treaters in adorable costumes, there was a grown man standing on my porch, apparently all alone.

I stared at him.

He was tall with thick dark hair and very dark eyes. He was wearing black jeans and a very tight T-shirt that showed off his muscular physique.

Not that I noticed.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Dave.”

“Hi, Dave,” I replied. “You look a little old to be trick-or-treating.”

He appeared to be about my age—in his mid-twenties—and though he definitely wasn’t old, he was too old to be going door to door for candy.

“Oh, no—I’m not trick-or-treating.” His smile was boyish, and it lit up his whole face.

He paused expectantly, and I tried not to get distracted by that smile while I racked my brain trying to figure out what this handsome stranger was doing on my porch.

He was good-looking, so it was possible he was selling some product or other. Or maybe he was stumping for a political candidate.

Whatever he wanted, I wasn’t interested in buying anything.

Reluctantly, I began to close the door.

“I’m sorry. Not today—”

Dave held out a hand. “Wait! I—I’m Dave.”

“You already said that.”

“But I thought you would understand.”

He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I’m a witch.”

He smelled really good—like the woods and the outdoors—but I ordered myself not to be distracted.

“You’re Dave the witch?” I said.

“Yes.”

“Oh—okay. I get it.” I opened the door a little wider and stepped out onto the porch.

This was clearly some kind of prank. He was some teen’s older brother or somebody’s uncle or something.

“Very funny, kids!” I said. “You can come out now!”

As I looked up and down the darkening street, I could see the pink and orange of the setting sun, and a few streetlights were popping on. There was no one on my street at the moment, but I could hear the shouts of children in the distance. My lawn was strangely full of fireflies, but other than that, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

I did remember that there was a hiding place nearby, however.

I turned to Dave.

“Are they under the porch?”

A look of bewilderment crossed his handsome face.

“Is who under the porch?”

“Your accomplices.”

“My—what?” He shook his head. “I’m Dave. I’m a witch.”

He said the words as if they explained something.

“All right, Dave the witch,” I said. “I can’t figure out what’s going on here, so I’ll take the bait. What do you want?”

It was a night of fun after all—I figured I could play along a little.

Dave’s eyes roamed over my face, and I found myself wishing that I wasn’t wearing green makeup and a fake wart.

“You really don’t know, do you?” he said softly.

“I’ve got to go with no,” I said.

Dave sighed. “I just assumed. I thought you would be one of—”

He sighed again. “Never mind. I supposed I should begin with an introduction. I’m Dave Crespo.”

He held out his hand.

I took it. It was warm and strong.

I hesitated for just a moment, but Dave didn’t seem threatening—just intriguing.

“I’m Johanna Bee.”

“Bee?” Dave said.

“Yes—it used to be something much longer and hard to pronounce, so my grandfather cut it down to just the first three letters. Now it’s just ‘Bee.’ ”

“I see.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, so I just waited for what he would say next.

Dave seemed lost in thought.

“Johanna,” he said at last, “could I tell you the whole story? It’ll be quick, I promise. And maybe you could help me make sense of it all.”

I glanced around. A group of kids that had already been to my house ran down the street—I recognized the little girl with the elaborate, orange-and-white Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. Behind the children came two moms pushing strollers.

“All right,” I said, closing the door behind me. “I have to admit I’m interested now. And I guess I’ll be safe enough with you out on the porch.”

“Of course you will. I’m a witch and a gentleman.”

I glanced at Dave’s face to see if he was kidding, but he seemed to be perfectly serious.

“No spooky tricks?” I said.

“No spooky tricks.”

I took my candy bowl and sat down on my porch swing.

As Dave settled his sleek, black-clad form next to me, I wished I weren’t wearing such a ridiculous costume.

I thought longingly of the skimpy, sexy costumes I’d seen hanging on pegs at the Halloween store.

I wished now that I’d bought one of those.

Almost.

As surreptitiously as I could, I removed the wart from my nose.

Then a sharp breeze kicked up and swirled around us, and I was glad I wasn’t wearing a tiny, barely there outfit. We’d been lucky enough to have a pleasant Halloween night, but it was still October, and it wasn’t exactly balmy—plenty of the children were wearing jackets over their costumes.

Dave shifted a little, causing the swing to creak, and I glanced at his marvelous, T-shirt-clad torso.

“Would you like a blanket or a jacket or something?”

Dave shrugged. “I’m good. I spelled myself against the cold.”

“Naturally.”

Dave sighed. “So here it goes. I’m a witch—”

“Which you said already.”

He shot me an irritated glance.

“Sorry,” I said. “No more interruptions.”

“So to make a long story short,” Dave said, “there’s a curse on my family, and I came here tonight to break it.”

I frowned. “A curse?”

I was startled—that wasn’t at all what I’d expected to hear. I didn’t know what I had expected, but somehow that wasn’t it.

Dave nodded grimly. “A curse was placed on my great-grandmother many years ago. Any witch in our family line is incapable of falling in love.”

I was startled again.

“You can’t fall in love?”

Dave shook his head. “I have no idea what it feels like.”

“So you can’t get married?”

“Oh, we can get married—we just won’t be in love.”

I blinked. “That’s awful.”

Dave simply nodded.

“What about your parents?” I said. “Weren’t they in love?”

“My dad is most definitely—at least he says he is. But he’s not the witch—my mom is. And I know she likes my dad. ‘Like’ is something I can understand—and she can, too. But she’s always said she wishes she could be truly in love with him.”

“Are you sure—” I said suddenly.

Then I stopped.

“What?” Dave said.

“Are you sure it’s actually a spell and not just something normal? Unfortunately, there are a lot of couples in which one partner is more invested than another. Maybe they just need some counseling.”

Dave shook his head vehemently. “No. It’s a curse—like I said. Another witch—a male witch—placed a curse on my great-grandmother when she spurned his advances. He said if she didn’t love him, she would never love another—and neither would her children. There was a hole in her heart ever after that. She knew something was missing. They all did—and so do I. I can feel it right now—it’s like something I’ve lost that I desperately need.”

“All right,” I said. “I believe you.”

And I really did. There was a desperation—and a desolation—in his eyes that was hard to discount.

He truly did believe he was missing something he needed.

And he still didn’t seem dangerous—or crazy—just intriguing.

In fact, he was just the type I usually fell for—soulful.

Or not so soulful, since he couldn’t fall in love.

I sighed. “So what makes you think I can help you?”

Dave gestured to the lawn.

“Well, the fireflies.”

The front yard was indeed still full of fireflies—and none of the neighbors’ houses were similarly lit up.

“Walk me through it,” I said. “Just in case I don’t get the fireflies thing.”

“I went to a seer—someone who can see things that are…beyond.”

“Like the future?”

Dave nodded. “Yes—the future sometimes and also the past—and the present. Someone who can see truths in a realm beyond this one.”

“I see.”

Dave gave me an ironic smile. “I can see that you don’t. But let’s just say the seer has mystical powers.”

“Is she a witch, too?”

“No. A seer can be a witch. But in this case she isn’t.”

“And your seer saw fireflies?” I said.

“Yes, she did. She said I should follow the trail of them. They led right from my house to yours.”

Dave frowned. “You’re not a witch, are you? Despite the costume.”

“No, I’m not a witch.”

“You see, this complicates things. The seer said I would find someone at the end of the trail tonight who could help me. And then she said, ‘Someone must sacrifice for a witch.’”

Dave turned to look me full in the face. “I thought that meant you would be a witch, and maybe you would sacrifice something, like a crow.”

I made a face.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said quickly. “I didn’t like the idea, either. I’m not the kind to sacrifice anything—not even birds. I definitely don’t do that stuff. But the curse was placed by dark magic, so I thought maybe dark magic might be required to lift it. Or, if not dark exactly, then at least murky.”

He gave me a small smile. “I was hoping for murky rather than dark.”

“Well, I can’t do anything like that,” I said. “Fireflies or not. So what do you suggest?”

“Maybe you could show me what love is.”

“That is the worst pick-up line ever.”

But his face was sincere, and it seemed to me that it grew a little red.

“So you can feel embarrassment,” I said.

“Of course I can feel embarrassment,” Dave said. “And—other things. Just not love.”

I sighed.

“Maybe I can help you think of something tomorrow. Perhaps over coffee or lunch?”

Dave shook his head. “It has to be tonight.”

“Why?”

“Tonight is a special night. Many things are possible on Halloween night that aren’t possible at other times. The spiritual energy is different tonight—more powerful. If the curse is to be broken, it must be tonight.”

He paused. “Can you help me?”

I didn’t see how, but I felt a strange tug toward this so-called witch.

“Well,” I said. “I do have a yard full of fireflies. Let’s see if we can come up with something together.”

Dave smiled.

“So what next?”

I glanced around. “I doubt we’ll solve much of anything sitting on my porch. Let’s go for a walk.”

The two of us left the swing and the porch, and as we walked down the short path to the street, I had a sudden urge to take his hand.

But I didn’t.

The fireflies still glimmered softly in my yard as we began to walk, but the sunset was fading fast and the sky was rapidly deepening to black.

There was plenty of light, however, as the streetlights were coming on, and each one threw out a welcoming arc of illumination.

The light apparently wasn’t quite enough, as Dave soon stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk, and nearly tumbled face-first into the street.

I held out a steadying hand. “Careful.”

Dave quickly righted himself, but he looked shaken.

“Thank you, Johanna. I, uh, I don’t usually—”

“No explanation necessary,” I said. “Sometimes accidents happen.”

He grinned sheepishly. “They do indeed.”

I happened to notice once again that he had an extraordinarily nice smile.

“So is there anything else you can tell me about the curse?” I asked as we started walking again.

“Like what?”

“Like—did the seer tell you anything else about how to break it?”

Dave shook his head. “Her advice was basically just to find you, and then—”

He shrugged. “Well, I was kind of assuming you would know what to do.”

“I see,” I said.

“But there is one other thing. The seer didn’t tell me about it, though. It was my grandmother.”

“What is it?”

“My grandmother heard it from her mother—my great grandmother—the one who was originally cursed. She said that the curse can be broken retroactively.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

Dave frowned. “Maybe I’m not phrasing that properly. If the curse is broken tonight, it will be broken all along the timeline. All those relationships in my family in which one person was in love and the other wasn’t will be fixed. All those marriages will become true love matches. And my mom will finally be free to love my father for real.”

“Wow,” I said.

“That’s why I have to do this,” Dave said. “It’s not just about me. I’ll be saving generations of my family.”

“Wow,” I said again.

We walked on, and Dave suddenly tripped once more. This time I didn’t see a crack in the sidewalk—it looked perfectly smooth and even. But Dave went tumbling face-first and nearly cracked his head on the concrete.

Luckily, he took a few stumbling steps and put out a hand just in time.

I hurried over to him, alarmed. “Are you okay?”

Dave reddened and straightened up. “Yes, of course. I just—”

He glanced back and saw, as I had, that there was nothing on the sidewalk to trip over.

“I guess I just tripped over my own feet,” he finished.

“Please be careful,” I said. “That’s the second time you nearly face-planted into the ground.”

Dave grew even redder and then he went unexpectedly pale.

He stopped walking, and his face was serious in the lamplight.

“There’s one other thing. Something my grandmother and the seer both said.”

“What?”

“They said the curse will seek to protect itself. They said it knows when one of our line is working to end it, and it will work to destroy us rather than allow itself to be broken.”

I felt a chill run through me.

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said quickly. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

But Dave and I turned as one to look back at the smooth, unmarked sidewalk.

“We’ll both be more careful from now on,” I said. “I’m sure it won’t happen again.”

We walked on.

“So what’s in your repertoire?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“When you’re not guarding yourself against the cold and following fireflies, what kind of spells do you do?”

“Well, I’m on level three of my training. I guess that wouldn’t mean much to you since you’re not a witch, but it means that I’ve advanced to learning the highest level of magic my particular group practices. I’m adept at potions, incantations, rituals, and spells involving the use of wands and familiars. I’ve even begun work on levitation and psychokinesis.”

“Levitation? Psychokinesis?” I said.

“You know—using my mind to move myself and other objects.”

“Sounds useful.”

“It is. But I’m only just beginning.” Dave glanced at me. “Why the interest in my spells?”

“Since I’m the chosen one,” I said, “at least for the night, I thought I should try to figure this out. Maybe find out what’s in your arsenal that we can use.”

Dave looked startled. “What do you mean for the night? I am a witch and a gentleman. I don’t go in for casual…anything. You were chosen because you’re special. And you have a special purpose far beyond tonight.”

He looked at me, and his face was again serious.

“If not for this curse, I could see myself—”

He broke off.

“It’s just that I find myself drawn to you in more ways than one—”

He stopped again.

“But you couldn’t love me?” I said.

“No. Johanna, I—”

“Yes?”

“I should tell you—there’s another reason why this is so important tonight. I can’t—I’m not like the others in my family. I’m not even like my parents. If this doesn’t work out—if this curse can’t be broken, then I’ll never get married myself.”

“Never?” I said.

“No. I can’t get married if I’m not in love. Even if I don’t actually know what that is.”

“I can understand that.”

Dave looked at me. “You can?”

“Yes. And you—and I—are not alone. There are other people like that. They’re called hopeless romantics.”

Dave chuckled. “I’ve heard of those.”

“So let’s say this does work out tonight,” I said. “And somehow we manage to break the curse. How will you know it’s broken?”

“Both my grandmother and the seer said there will be a sound like the breaking of chains.”

I smiled. “And then you’ll be free to fall in love with the first person you see?”

Dave smiled back. “Something like that. Actually I wouldn’t mind if—”

There was a breaking sound then, and I looked around, startled.

But it wasn’t a curse breaking. Instead, the glass in the streetlamp next to us suddenly shattered, and the bulb inside it shattered, too.

Glass shards flew everywhere, and Dave and I turned to shield our faces.

Then there was an ominous creaking sound.

Dave had just enough time to jump out of the way before the entire lamppost came crashing down toward him.

“Whoa,” he said.

He was visibly rattled.

I rushed to his side.

“Are you okay?”

Dave nodded. “That was just—unexpected.”

I placed a comforting hand on his arm. “That’s certainly something you don’t see every day.”

I looked down at the fallen streetlamp, and an unpleasant thought popped into my head.

“It’s the curse,” Dave said, giving voice to my fears. “It’s trying to protect itself.”

“No,” I said hastily. “It was just a really strange accident.”

Dave looked at me. “You think it’s the curse, too. I can see it in your eyes.”

“No—” I said again.

But Dave gave me a wry smile.

“At least I know you believe in the curse now.”

“Maybe we should get off the street,” I said.

“I think that would be an excellent idea,” Dave replied.

“Let’s go to a coffee shop or some other public place,” I said. “I feel like the curse is more likely to attack if we’re isolated. A crowd might be safer.”

I glanced around. There were fewer and fewer trick-or-treaters all the time, and other passersby were becoming rarer, too.

Dave looked a little embarrassed. “I, uh, didn’t drive here—I actually walked.”

“That’s okay. We’ll go back to my house, and we’ll take my car. I’ll get my phone, too. Maybe we can do some internet research on how to break a curse.”

Dave paused in a driveway we were passing and looked at me in the lamplight.

“I really do appreciate this. You don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me, and you’re still going to help me—even though this whole curse thing is new to you. I have to say—”

There was a screech then as a car came careening around the corner.

It was headed straight for us—and more specifically toward Dave, who was still standing in the driveway.

The car surged toward him, and he seemed rooted to the spot, staring at it.

The car’s headlights made right for him, and I acted without thinking.

I pushed him out of the way.

I watched the headlights zooming up to me.

And then they suddenly stopped.

I glanced over.

Dave was standing with his knees bent and his arms outstretched.

He appeared to be under great strain.

“Hurry,” he gasped. “I can’t hold it much longer.”

I glanced at the car—it was completely motionless, just a few bare inches away from me.

I quickly scrambled out of the way.

Dave pulled his hands back, and the car leaped forward, bouncing over the driveway and careening over the lawn of a nearby house.

Then the car lost its momentum and came to a stop.

There was no one inside.

“What?” I said. “How did you—what just happened?”

At the same time, there was a tremendous cracking sound.

Dave rushed toward me and grabbed me in a hug.

He spun me around.

“You did it!”

“Did what?”

Dave set me down, and I stared at him breathlessly.

His eyes were shining, and there was a glow about him that hadn’t been there before.

He looked like a man transformed.

I looked back at the stationary car.

“Dave, what’s going on?”

“You did it! You broke the curse! The curse threw everything it had at me, and your sacrifice shattered it.”

“Sacrifice? What sacrifice? I’m fine.”

“Yes—but you’re only fine because I saved you right back. You pushed me out of the way when I surely would have been killed and saved me. And you put yourself in harm’s way. You sacrificed yourself—for a witch. Just like the seer said.”

“But then—” I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around what had just happened.

Dave took my hands. “You did it. You really did. You’ve saved me and my entire family.”

“The curse really is broken?” I said.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“But how do you know?” I said.

“Because I feel like I’m in love right now.”

He looked at me in the lamplight, and there really did seem to be love in his eyes.

“But how can you be sure?” I said. “Especially since you’ve never felt love before?”

Dave grinned. “I know it—I really do. And I’m perfectly willing to take a chance that I’m falling in love with you.”

“You are?” I said.

“Yes. I’m totally sure about that.”

“No spooky tricks?” I said.

“No spooky tricks.”

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Irina Alexandrovna/Shutterstock

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Flight of Fancy — New Short Story

unicorn-cropped

Flight of Fancy

Catherine Mesick

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

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

This morning it felt like summer would last forever.

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

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

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

And she had just seen a unicorn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But apparently they still weren’t gone.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she went out on her run.

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

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

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

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

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

She glanced behind her, but no one was there.

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

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

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

Then she moved on.

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

Up ahead was the best part of all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raised his camera and snapped a picture of her.

“Behind what?” Sara said.

“Behind the unicorn hoax.”

He snapped another picture.

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

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

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

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

And he wasn’t bad-looking, either.

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

But his face did say one thing very clearly.

He thought he’d caught her at something.

The man snapped another picture.

“Look—who are you?” Sara asked.

“My card.”

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

Sara looked it over.

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

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

She let the words hang in the air.

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

“Caught me at what?”

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

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

She could see now that it was undoubtedly a horse.

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

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

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

“Sara,” she murmured. “Sara Segal.”

The horse with the horn continued to move toward her.

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

But most amazing of all was that horn.

It really was a unicorn.

Sara was having trouble wrapping her mind around that.

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

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

Not when there was one right in front of her.

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

As the mist grew thicker, the unicorn suddenly bolted.

Then Sara disappeared.

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

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

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

He looked very startled.

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

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

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

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

The mist that had surrounded Sara and Greg was gone.

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

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

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

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

Uncertain what to do, Sara bowed also.

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

The curly-haired children covered their mouths and giggled.

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

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

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

This time there was no laughter.

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

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

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

She glanced around.

The unicorn was no longer with them.

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

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

Sara turned back to the queen.

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

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

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

The silvery laughter returned.

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

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

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

“Me?” Sara said, startled.

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

Sara turned back to the queen.

“How could I possibly know?”

“You’ve met before.”

“We have?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t a dream.”

“What do you mean?”

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

Her eyes shifted to Greg.

“And he must be your prince.”

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

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

The queen frowned just a little.

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

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

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

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

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

“A quest?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara looked around quickly.

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

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

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

“Sara, are you okay?” she repeated.

“Yes, I’m fine. How did I get here?”

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

“Greg!” Sara said suddenly.

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

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

“Queen of the fairies?” Janelle looked doubtful.

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

Sara looked around.

“Where’s Greg?”

“The guy you were found with?”

“Yes.”

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

Sara started to get out of bed.

“I’ve got to find him.”

Janelle rushed to her friend’s side.

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

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

“You don’t know who he is?”

“No.”

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

“I think he was following me.”

Janelle looked concerned. “He was following you?”

“Yes.”

“And you want to find him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

She let the words hang in the air.

She started to get out of bed again.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to find Greg!”

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

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

He had already been discharged.

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

That night she dreamed of unicorns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least she hoped they did.

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

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

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

Sara went inside.

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

So Sara kept going.

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

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

Sara kept going.

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

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

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

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

She had found Greg.

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

He looked up at her.

For just a moment, he looked puzzled.

Then his face transformed.

He stared at Sara in wonder.

“You’re real.”

Greg’s voice was barely a whisper.

Then it became a shout.

“You’re real!”

He stood up and hurried around his desk.

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

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

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

“A vision?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg laughed a little and looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Greg said.

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

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

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

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

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

Greg sighed and pushed away from his desk.

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

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

They drove off.

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“But you didn’t?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

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

“I looked for you,” Sara said.

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

“Yes.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

He was quiet on the rest of the ride.

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

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

Sara glanced around at the pillars that supported the roof.

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

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

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

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

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

Greg was silent for a time.

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

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

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

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

Sara thought it looked more magical than ever.

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

“Why do you ask?”

Greg frowned. “It’s just that—”

“Yes?”

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

Sara waited patiently.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad we met, too.”

Sara reached out and took his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

Soon Greg did the same.

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

“What?”

“Us.”

They smiled at each other.

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

The queen approached the unicorn hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heavy mist disappeared along with them.

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

The two of them looked around, stunned.

Then they turned to each other.

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

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

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Cocoparisienne/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!

Maze of Mirrors — New Short Story

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Maze of Mirrors

Jessica and Charlie’s engagement is on the rocks. And then Jessica finds herself in a maze of magical mirrors—and what she sees there will change their relationship forever.

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

The ebook is also available here.

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© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Sopala/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!

Bound by Love — New Short Story

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Bound by Love

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

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

The ebook is also available here.

 

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Stefan Keller/Pixabay

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

Thanks very much for reading!

A Good Catch — New Short Story

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A Good Catch

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

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

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

“Something wrong, Ashley?”

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

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

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

Charlotte glanced back at her friend.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see how you can tell.”

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

“Ashley!” Charlotte said quickly.

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

“Oh, Ash—”

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

“What?”

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

“A challenge?” Charlotte said.

“Yes.”

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

Ashley tapped her friend on the shoulder.

“They’re doing it again.”

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

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

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

Instead, she focused on the sight before her.

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

It was a beautiful summer evening at the ballpark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A good catch?”

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

Charlotte smiled. “A challenge, you mean?”

“Yes. His name is Chad.”

“Chad?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

An impish smile lit up her face.

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

She stood up.

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

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

She turned and jogged lightly up the steps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte looked down and touched the pin lightly.

She really did hope it would give her some luck.

Time passed, and the players went into their dugouts.

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

The game was about to begin.

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

Ashley was nowhere in sight.

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

She was relieved.

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

She stopped.

The person sitting next to her wasn’t Ashley.

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

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

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

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

His eyes were really beautiful.

“What was that?” the man said.

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

“That seat’s taken.”

“Yes,” the man said. “By me.”

He turned his attention back to the field.

Charlotte was stunned.

Men seldom turned away from her.

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

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

Charlotte held out her phone.

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

The man looked over at her and smiled.

His smile was truly heart-stopping.

“I get what you’re doing,” he said.

“What?”

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

Charlotte stared at him in shock.

“You—you—”

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

Charlotte continued to stare at him.

In the meantime, the game had started.

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

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

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

“Sorry, lady. You’re not my type.”

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

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

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

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

“Not bad?”

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

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

The batter was out.

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

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

“A good catch,” she murmured to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meaning what?”

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

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

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

Foster fixed her with his bright blue eyes.

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

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

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

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

Charlotte turned in her seat and waved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still fuming, Charlotte got up to find her.

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

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

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

Charlotte couldn’t find her anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foster looked down and wrapped his fingers around the ring.

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

He looked away, and Charlotte waited.

Then he turned away from her.

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

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

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

Charlotte then sent her a text.

Ashley, where are you?

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

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

She looked up and glanced around—Foster had disappeared.

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

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

With any luck, Ashley would have returned there already.

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

She was really started to get worried now.

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

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

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

She decided to get some dinner.

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

Charlotte found one and walked in.

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

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

“That works,” Charlotte replied.

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

Soon someone else sat down next to her.

Charlotte glanced over the top of her menu.

It was Foster.

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

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

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

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

“I thought you already had one.”

“Yeah, well, I need another.”

Foster glanced around.

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

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

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

“Why are you worried?”

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

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

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

“No,” Foster replied.

“And this really wasn’t a setup?”

“No.”

The young hostess suddenly appeared by their side.

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

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

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

Charlotte stared at him in surprise. “Seriously?”

“Yes.”

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

Foster had the good grace to look embarrassed.

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

Charlotte gave Foster a speculative look.

“All right,” she said at last.

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

Then the waiter departed.

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

“And I appreciate that,” Foster said.

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

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

“Would you please just look?” Charlotte asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for admitting that.”

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

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

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

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

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

As the waiter walked away, Charlotte eyed it curiously.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Foster. I’m so sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like baseball, Charlotte?”

“Yes, I do. How about you?”

“Yes. Funny you should ask.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, there was no answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ashley!” Charlotte cried.

She ran toward her friend.

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

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

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

Ashley’s cell phone began to buzz then.

“And my phone wouldn’t work.”

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

Charlotte gave her another hug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Charlotte said.

“I am. She isn’t,” Ashley added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte laughed and took her friend home.

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

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

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

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

Charlotte took that as a yes.

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

Thanks very much for reading!