Starlight — Free Short Story

Photo credit: (c) Ironika on Shutterstock

Angie hasn’t been feeling like herself for a long time. In fact, it’s fair to say she’s lost her mojo. And then one night, a starlit visitor gives her a chance to start again at life—and at love. (A paranormal romance short story.) This story will be available free on this website for a limited time.

Starlight

by Catherine Mesick

“Star light, star bright,” Angie Hamoncourt murmured to herself.

She looked at the single star in the twilight sky—the first star of the evening—but she couldn’t bring herself to make a wish.

There were no more wishes left in her.

As she watched, the sky deepened into night, and more stars came out. Angie sat on a soft blanket in the grass and watched the dark sky fill up as if with diamonds. As she breathed in the warm summer air deeply, she saw a shooting star streak across the sky and fall toward the earth.

Again, once upon a time, Angie would have made a wish.

But that time was long past.

And that feeling that would have been a wish remained locked inside her heart.

She watched for a few, fleeting seconds until the falling star—a tiny pinpoint of light—disappeared from her sight.

Then she went inside her house.

Lately, she’d been spending a lot of nights sitting alone in her back yard, and this Friday night was no different.

Somehow, it was easier than spending time with other people.

Angie went into her bedroom and looked around at all her familiar, cherished things and felt the same aching distance from them—from herself, even—that she experienced every night. She looked at her own image in the mirror—her face, framed by her long, dark hair, was youthful and unlined—the face of the original Angie. But somehow her eyes had lost their spark, and she felt as if a stranger was staring back at her.

She turned away.

She got ready for bed, and as she turned out the light, she felt as if she was turning out the light in her own soul.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Angie was aware of a bright glow in her room.

She sat up, and she saw a woman standing in front of her.

She stared in wonder.

The woman’s hair shone as if it were made of a thousand tiny stars, and it cascaded around her shoulders, lighting up the dark bedroom. She was clad in a dress that also seemed to be made of thousands of tiny lights—winking and twinkling like stars in the night sky.

The woman stared at Angie for a moment, her bright eyes enhanced rather than dimmed by her brilliant hair, and Angie stared back.

Then, in the next instant, the woman was gone.

Angie looked around her dark room. The red numbers on her alarm clock were the only light that was visible now.

She wondered for a moment if she could be cracking up.

Then she shrugged the illusion off as the remnant of a dream and went back to sleep.

In the morning, Angie was tempted to text one of her friends about the oddly realistic dream she’d had about a starlit visitor, but in the end, she decided against it.

It had really been too fleeting to be worth mentioning.

Angie went on with her Saturday. She went to her usual places, did her usual things, but somehow something was missing—a light had gone out in her.

When friends invited Angie out to dinner that night, she turned them down.

She sat instead on her porch in the evening and watched the sun setting, eschewing the grass, which was damp from a light summer rain. Once again, she watched as the sky darkened to inky black. But there were no stars on this night—the cloud cover was too heavy.

At no time in particular, Angie went inside, and eventually, she went to sleep.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, a bright light fell on her face, and Angie woke up again.

Then she sat up and clutched at her covers, startled.

Standing in front of her once more was the woman dressed and crowned in stars.

Angie stared at her steadily, and this time the woman didn’t disappear.

“Hello,” the woman said, her voice as musical and silvery as a bell.

“Hello,” Angie replied.

“My name is Maia,” the woman said. “I’m here to be your guide.”

“My guide?” Angie asked.

“I heard your wish yesterday. I’m here to help you fulfill it.”

Angie shook her head. “I didn’t make any wish.”

“You most certainly did,” Maia said, her voice tinkling like crystal in her indignation.

“No,” Angie replied. “I didn’t have a single thought in my head that could remotely be called a wish.”

“You didn’t wish with your mind. You wished with your heart.”

“I didn’t—”

“Never mind the protests,” Maia said briskly. “Your wish was received, and I’m here now.”

“This is a very strange dream I’m having,” Angie said.

“It’s not a dream,” Maia replied. “Now get up. We—or rather you—have a lot to do.”

Against her better judgment, Angie got out of bed, a little self-conscious in her T-shirt and sweatpants, and stood next to the starlit woman.

“Now then,” Maia said. “I have two-and-a-half tasks for you to complete.”

“Two and a half?” Angie said.

“Yes. And you mustn’t neglect that half. It’s just as important as the two full tasks.” Maia fixed her with a piercing stare. “Task One. Find the letter ‘J.’ ”

“Find the letter ‘J’?” Angie echoed.

“Yes,” Maia replied. “Now let’s go.”

She held out a slender, delicate hand, and Angie, after a slight hesitation, took it.

In the next moment, Angie found herself floating in the air. She twisted around, startled, but Maia’s small hand held her safely aloft. As Angie watched in astonishment, she and Maia floated right up to the wall, and then soared through it, out into the night air.

They hovered for just a moment, and Angie could see her own lawn below her.

Then, without warning, they flew off into the dark sky.

Angie could see the ground streaking by below her and the stars streaking by above her. She should have been terrified by the height and the speed, but somehow all she felt was a great sense of exhilaration.

Maia and Angie flew on, and before long, they were zooming up to a white house with dark-green shutters.

And then they flew through the walls of the house.

They floated gently to the floor in a dark room.

Even in the dim light, Angie could tell the room looked familiar.

“This is my old room in my parents’ house,” she whispered.

“Yes,” Maia replied in her soft, silvery voice. “What you need is in here.”

“The letter ‘J’?” Angie asked uncertainly.

“Yes.”

“But I don’t have any idea—”

Angie turned to see Maia walking up to a wall, and then disappearing casually through it.

Angie went to follow her.

Instead, she bumped face-first into the wall.

She went to the door and found that it was locked.

Angie rattled the knob and pounded on the door. “Maia! Let me out! This door must be stuck or something.”

“The door will open when you have found what you’re looking for,” Maia said from the other side. “And not a moment before.”

Angie pounded on the door again. “Maia!”

There was no reply.

Angie sighed heavily. Then she turned to her old room and switched on the light.

Her bed and desk and trophies—from photography competitions when she was in high school—were still there, so the room still looked familiar. But now much of the floor space was taken up with cardboard boxes.

Her parents were apparently using the room for storage.

Angie tried the door one last time but found that it still wouldn’t open.

She turned back to the boxes—she supposed she’d better start looking.

She began opening the slightly dusty cardboard lids. Many of the boxes belonged to her parents. But some of them were hers—and they were labeled as such.

Angie decided to focus on those.

They seemed the likeliest place where she would find the letter “J.”

She dragged her boxes to a corner and began to open them.

Some of them held childhood items—toys and books and clothes. And some of them were from later years—college and her first job.

As Angie began to sift through all her old things, memories came bubbling up to the surface.

She found things that made her smile, a few things that made her cry, and even a thing or two that made her laugh out loud.

And then she found a box with her old camera and several long manila envelopes full of photographs.

Angie felt a pang in her heart as she gently touched the camera’s nubby, black surface.

It had been years since she’d lifted that camera—or any camera.

Somehow she’d pushed the feeling that taking photographs had once given her to the back of her mind.

It had been stashed away in a dusty, forgotten mental storage box.

She turned to the envelopes.

The first one Angie opened contained her earliest photographs—the very first she ever developed herself. There were photos of her parents, her parents’ house, her high school friends, and one beautiful photo of jasmine blossoms.

Angie paused as she took that one out—it had always been one of her favorites.

The photo depicted the jasmine bush that grew at the back of the house. The white flowers and their dark leaves looked lovely in the black-and-white photo—each highlighted the others’ stark beauty.

Even though it was one of the earliest photos she’d ever taken, Angie had always felt there was something special about this one. There was power and mystery in it.

She paused. Could this be the “J” Maia had asked her to look for?

She wasn’t sure.

Angie continued to look through the other photographs and opened more envelopes. She found many more pictures of friends and family, trips and vacations, and quite a few more studies of flowers. But nothing really stood out to her.

And then she found the picture of Jason Delbruck.

It felt like ages since she’d last seen him—a lifetime at least. In reality, it had only been about two years since they’d broken it off. But a lot had happened while they’d been together.

Angie set everything else aside and took a long look at the photograph in her hand.

Jason was smiling, looking away from the camera, and even though the photo was black and white, Angie could see with her mind’s eye just how blue his eyes were.

She’d loved his sense of humor. She’d loved his ready wit.

She’d loved him.

Could he be the “J” she was looking for?

Angie continued to look at the photo of Jason. She really had loved everything about him.

But he certainly couldn’t have said the same about her.

Jason had always said that he loved her, but he hadn’t liked her friends.

They had been the first to go.

Then he hadn’t liked her hairstyle or her perfume.

He had gotten her to change those, too.

And even though he’d consented to the photo Angie held in her hand, he hadn’t liked her interest in photography, either. He’d told her that she was no good—she had no eye for a picture—and that photography was frivolous anyway.

He’d told her she should be focusing on a serious career instead.

So Angie had given up on photography—let it disappear from her life.

And even though she’d done everything he wanted, Jason had eventually disappeared, too.

As she looked down at his smile, Angie realized there was no way he could be the letter “J.”

She didn’t know what the letter “J” was or what it was supposed to represent in her life.

But she knew it wasn’t him.

Angie sifted through her photographs until she found the picture of the jasmine again. She held it up, and she was amazed once more by the power in this simple photograph.

Somehow she had captured something special in this moment.

Angie felt something stirring in her that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

If anything was the letter “J,” it was this jasmine photo. It was the best work she’d ever done.

At that moment, the door opened, and her mother—tall, angular, her dark hair mussed from sleep—entered the room. The hall behind her was dark, and she blinked blearily in the light of the bedroom.

“Angie?” her mother said, startled. “I thought I heard someone rustling around in here. Honey, what are you doing here?”

“I—was just looking through some old things,” Angie said, equally startled.

Her mother frowned. “How did you get in the house?”

“I—uh—” Angie thought back to Maia.

She could hardly tell her mother that a starlit woman had flown her through the sky.

“You must still have that old key,” her mother said, inadvertently saving her. “Anyway, it’s good to see you, even if this is a little unusual. Sun’s coming up. Come with me, and I’ll get you some breakfast.”

Her father—bald, bespectacled, and clearly pleased to see her—soon joined them at the breakfast table for eggs, pancakes, and bacon.

Angie spent the entire Sunday with her parents. She hadn’t seen them in ages—in fact, it had been nearly a year—and it felt good to spend time with them.

While she was with them, she felt something—a little bit of warmth in her heart.

She remembered how nice it was to spend time with family.

When evening was approaching, and it was time for her to go, Angie had a little trouble explaining her travel arrangements. She hadn’t brought her car, and she lived twenty miles from her parents’ house.

She clearly hadn’t walked.

Angie just told her parents that a friend had brought her over—and that that friend would pick her up.

As she stepped out of the house to wait for her “friend,” she certainly hoped that was true.

She stood on the porch and watched the sun set in brilliant colors of red and pink and yellow. Soon, the first star of the evening appeared.

After that, more stars studded the sky.

Angie began to feel anxious. She knew her mother would come to check on her soon, and she wouldn’t have a good explanation for why she was still standing on the porch.

The night continued to darken, and suddenly a bright light appeared by her side.

Maia had materialized next to her in all her starry glory.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Angie breathed. “I wasn’t sure if—”

“There’s no time to talk,” Maia said, her voice musical but curt. “You’ve found the letter ‘J.’ Now you have one-and-a-half more tasks to complete.”

Maia took her hand.

Suddenly, they were floating in the air, and in the next moment, they were flying through the night.

“But tomorrow’s Monday,” Angie protested. “I have work in the morning—and I haven’t slept. I can’t go on a task tonight.”

“Then you’ll have to work quickly,” Maia replied briskly. “Task Two. Combine fire and water.”

“What?” Angie said, startled. “What does that mean?”

“That’s what you have to find out,” Maia said.

They flew on, and before long, they were floating into a large, square building and settling on a tiled floor.

Angie looked around at the bright lights and the shelves laden with produce.

They were in a supermarket.

“What are we—”

Angie turned around.

Maia was gone.

Angie looked around the supermarket in some trepidation.

She wondered if she would be trapped in the store like she’d been trapped in her old room.

She didn’t relish the idea of spending the night in a supermarket.

Angie glanced around again. She was standing near a display of cantaloupes, their round, tan forms piled high like little boulders.

She thought idly that she really liked cantaloupe, but she couldn’t eat a whole one—not by herself.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” said a voice by her side.

Angie looked up.

A young man with reddish-brown hair was standing next to her.

“When you’re single,” he said, “you’re really better off with half a cantaloupe.”

Angie stared at him.

The young man blushed, and Angie noticed that his eyelashes were the same reddish-brown color as his hair.

“Not that I’m saying you’re single,” he stammered. “I am. But that doesn’t mean you are,” he added hastily. “I’m just looking for half a cantaloupe—that’s really all I’m saying. But I don’t see any, do you?”

Angie looked around. “No, I don’t. But I do know what you mean.”

The young man brightened. “You do? I live around here. Do—you live around here?”

Angie frowned. “I’m not actually sure.”

She paused and looked down at her clothes. She was still wearing the T-shirt and sweatpants she’d worn to bed on Saturday night.

She must look as if she’d just run out of the house to grab a few things from the store.

The young man nodded. “That’s cool. I understand if you don’t want to tell me where you live. I’m Brian, by the way. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Nice to meet you, Brian,” Angie said. She looked at him. He had a friendly, handsome face, and he seemed like a nice person.

Under ordinary circumstances, she might have liked to stop and chat with him a little.

But right now, she had something she had to do.

“I’ve got to go,” Angie said, her tone apologetic. “Have a good night.”

Brian gave her a sad look, and her heart went out to him.

Angie knew what it was like to be interested in someone who didn’t seem to have the time of day for you.

But she really did have to go.

She moved off quickly.

Angie walked up and down the aisles in the supermarket without really finding anything.

How was she supposed to combine fire and water? Put tabasco sauce with cereal and milk?

Make a smoothie out of jalapeño peppers and frozen bananas?

Nothing in the store seemed like it could be any help.

Angie continued to wander, and eventually she found herself near the cash registers and the automatic doors that led out of the store.

She stopped and watched people entering and exiting with shopping carts and baskets.

Getting out looked so easy—surely the automatic doors wouldn’t refuse her.

She waited until a family was heading out together, and then Angie hurried forward and walked out along with them.

She sighed in relief as the big, glass doors opened with a soft shush to allow them all out, and then closed behind them with an equally soft sound.

Angie stood out in the cool night air and looked around gratefully. She hadn’t fulfilled the second task, but she wasn’t trapped. As she continued to look around, she realized that the front of the store looked familiar.

She was actually at a supermarket in her own neighborhood.

Angie felt another surge of relief. She wouldn’t have to spend the night in the store, and she could now go home and get ready for work as if this were a normal Sunday night.

Angie began to walk the few blocks to her house.

The night passed as many Sunday nights had—in chores and preparation for the workday tomorrow—and as Angie climbed into bed at the end of it, she began to wonder if she would receive a visit from Maia.

But no starlit visitor showed up to scold her for not fulfilling her task, and eventually, Angie fell asleep.

She went to work as usual on Monday and then came home. Once again, Maia didn’t appear that night, and Angie slept peacefully—without any interruption—until her alarm went off in the morning.

Tuesday passed the same way, and Angie began to wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing.

However, she had mysteriously shown up at her parents’ house on Saturday night in her nightclothes without a car—something her mother had remarked on quite a few times over the phone.

So something had happened that night, and Angie was unable to explain it all away.

As the week wore on, Angie found herself going back to the supermarket where she’d magically appeared on Sunday night. She would wander the aisles, looking for something to jump out at her, but she saw nothing that could reasonably be construed as the combination of fire and water. But Maia—if she did exist—had wanted her to find something in this particular place.

What could it be?

Angie didn’t know.

She kept going back to the supermarket, and she began to remember how much she used to love to cook—something else Jason had told her she was no good at.

Angie fondly recalled the times when she used to have all her friends over, and she would cook something simple—like a big pot of pasta. And then they would all talk and laugh and have a great time.

And then sometimes, when a friend was going through a difficult time, she would make her special soup—her own recipe—and they would talk it out.

Angie began to wonder—should she try to contact her old friends? Maybe make her special soup? She had friends now, of course, but they were mostly friends she’d met through work. She liked her new friends, but she missed her old ones—the ones she’d had before Jason.

Maybe she could invite them over—see if they might come back into her life.

The more Angie thought about it, the more she liked the idea.

Another week went by, and then Angie decided she would do it. She found old email addresses for three of her best friends and sent them an invite—she didn’t even know if the addresses were still good. Then she went to the supermarket and bought ingredients for her special soup. Angie decided she would make it even if no one wanted to come.

A day went by, and then an answer came in. Her friend Nina Gayle said she would be happy to come. Angie was overjoyed. Then another day went by, and two more replies came in. Both Joy Zyma and Eva Martinez said they would come, too.

Angie spent Friday night cleaning her house. Then Saturday morning she got up early and began to prepare her soup—time was needed for the flavors to meld properly. She began chopping herbs—basil, oregano, and thyme—and vegetables—parsnips, carrots, and celery. Then Angie turned the dial on her gas stove and got one of the burners clicking. A moment later, a blue flame with an orange tip sprang to life. Angie placed a pot full of spring water on the flame and waited for it to boil. Then she began adding ingredients and let the whole thing simmer.

Later on, she would add some minced turkey and some noodles.

Once it was done, she would garnish it with mint and a dollop of sour cream.

That evening when the doorbell rang, Angie jumped up to answer it.

Nina, Joy, and Eva had all arrived together, and when they saw Angie, the three of them wrapped her in a big hug.

Angie stepped back to look at them.

Nina—a friend she’d known since high school—was staring at her with her big, soulful brown eyes.

Eva had been her friend even longer—they’d known each other since childhood—and she was looking at Angie as if she couldn’t really believe she was seeing her again.

And Joy—a pal from college—lived up to her name just like she used to. She beamed, and her bright green eyes sparkled.

Angie found that there were tears in her own eyes.

Angie and her friends sat around her kitchen table and ate her special soup just like they had in the old days. They laughed a lot and cried a little, and Angie found that it seemed like no time at all had passed—they were all still friends.

They talked well into the night.

At the end of the evening, Nina made them promise that they would all come to her house next Friday for a movie night.

As Angie stood by her front door, watching her friends depart, she felt a warmth in her heart that hadn’t been there in a long time. She glanced around at the dark night studded with stars and admired its beauty.

Nina, Eva, and Joy all waved one last time, and then they got in the car. The thunk of their car doors closing was loud in the quiet night air, as was the roar of Nina’s mustang as it started.

Angie watched her friends’ car until the red taillights disappeared.

Then she went back inside.

As Angie closed the door, she found she was enveloped in a dazzling, golden glow.

A woman in a dress made of tiny stars with starlit hair appeared right in front of her.

It was Maia.

She stepped forward and hugged Angie, and her embrace was as delicate and ephemeral as a butterfly’s kiss.

“You did it!” she exclaimed, in her silvery voice. “You completed Task Two!”

“I—what?” Angie said.

“You combined fire and water,” Maia said, stepping back and taking Angie’s hands. “You made your special soup!”

“I guess I did combine fire and water to make that,” Angie said, feeling disoriented. “I didn’t even think of it that way.”

Maia beamed and squeezed Angie’s hands lightly. “My job here is done. You’ve completed both your tasks, and now your unspoken wish is fulfilled. You’ve gotten yourself back.”

Angie frowned. “Both my tasks? You said I had two and a half.”

Maia winked. “I’ll let you in on a secret. You really only had to do two to fulfill your wish. The half is just for you—if you want it. It’s entirely up to you.”

Maia let go of Angie’s hands and began to float toward the ceiling, which Angie also found disorienting.

“Goodbye, dear Angie. I don’t believe I will see you again, but it was lovely to meet you.”

“Wait!” Angie cried. “What do you mean, the half is just for me?”

But Maia was already gone.

Angie went back to the kitchen to put away her soup.

In the morning, Angie got up early to catch the golden hour and take some photos with her phone—she didn’t have a new camera yet, but she was planning to get one this week.

After a very satisfying nature shoot in her own neighborhood, Angie returned to her house, and she realized she’d only bought ingredients for her special soup the last time she’d gone shopping.

She was perilously low on breakfast foods.

She hurried to the supermarket.

Angie picked up some cereal and milk, considered eggs briefly, and then drifted over to the produce aisle—she figured she could use some fruit.

The bright-red strawberries and dark, almost purple blueberries both looked good, but then Angie spied what she really wanted—a half cantaloupe, its orange center and tan rind wrapped in plastic.

She hurried over to it.

Just as she reached it, she saw another shopper moving toward the cantaloupe, his hand outstretched.

Angie stopped and looked up at the approaching figure—the tall man with the reddish-brown hair looked familiar.

She studied his lean face—which was intent on the cantaloupe—and she noticed that his eyelashes were the same reddish-brown color as his hair.

Then she recognized him—it was Brian from the night she’d been magically transported into the supermarket.

His hand touched the half cantaloupe, and then he looked up and noticed Angie standing nearby.

He broke into a grin when he saw her.

“I was hoping I’d see you again,” he said.

“Hi, Brian,” Angie replied, cheered by how happy he was to see her.

He lifted his long, lean hand and gestured to the plastic-wrapped fruit. “I see we’re both after the same thing—the legendary half cantaloupe.”

Angie glanced at the fruit. A half cantaloupe.

The half is just for you, Maia had said.

Angie glanced up at Brian. He seemed like a nice person.

She figured it couldn’t hurt to get to know him a little better.

She held out her hand. “My name’s Angie, by the way.”

Brian took it. His hand was warm and strong.

“Nice to meet you, Angie.”

He looked over at the half cantaloupe. “I’m happy to relinquish my claim on this particular piece of fruit. It’s all for you.”

He picked it up and held it out to her.

“Thanks,” Angie said, as she accepted the melon. “The next one we see will be for you.”

Brian glanced at her shopping basket. “Looks like you’ve got a few perishable items in there, so you probably want to get going. But would you like to meet for coffee some time?”

Angie looked at Brian. His smile seemed genuine, and she felt stirrings in her heart that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I’d like that,” she said.

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

© 2018 by Catherine Mesick

Thanks very much for reading! You can pick up my book Pure free here: https://catherinemesick.com/books/.

Everyday Magic — New Short Story

Image courtesy of Free-Photo, Pixabay

Olivia is feeling under the weather—and more than a little sorry for herself. She wishes there was a magic cure for her illness and her current solitude. Can she dream her way out of her predicament?

Everyday Magic

by Catherine Mesick

Olivia King was not feeling well.

She was twenty-five years old, living in a tiny apartment by herself, and trying to battle a severe cold.

And she was wishing that she wasn’t all alone.

Her light brown hair was piled in an untidy bun on the top of her head, and her cornflower blue eyes were rimmed with red and drooping as she tried valiantly to stay awake.

She lay on her couch in front of the TV, listening to its vague burble, but she wasn’t really sure what was on.

Beyond the TV, she was aware of the bright, sunny day outside. It was June, and the weather was probably lovely, but Olivia wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Her head was swimming, and her whole body ached. Somewhere, she knew, there was a box of extra-soft tissues that might offer comfort to her sore, stuffy nose. But as she searched blearily without lifting her head from her pillow, she couldn’t find it in her immediate environs.

Then Olivia saw it.

The blue box with the fluffy white tissues was on the table at the other end of the couch—down by her feet.

She raised her head for a moment and then decided against trying to move her aching body.

She figured she could live without the tissues for right now.

Olivia rested her head back on her pillow and pulled her red fleece blanket up to her chin. Within moments, she was asleep.

She found herself in a beautiful dream.

Above her head was a dark sky filled with stars, and below her bare feet was a sandy beach that sloped down to gently plashing water. The air was warm and soft and filled with the tang of salt. And the water itself was wondrous—in its dark depths it appeared to have as many gleaming stars as the sky above.

As the surf washed up onto the beach and then rolled away, it left the glittering, golden stars on the dark sand.

Olivia marveled at the stars’ beauty. Then she waded out into the waves and scooped up a handful of the warm, sparkling liquid.

She brought her cupped hands to her lips and gingerly tasted the water, which was warm and salty and somehow very wholesome—like a rich, savory broth.

She drank it down and was amazed at how soothing the star-filled water was.

Moments later, a strange, melodious chime rang out across the dark beach, and Olivia looked up.

At the same time, she started awake, and she mourned the loss of her dream-concocted broth.

The chime rang out again, and Olivia realized her phone was ringing.

She blearily scanned the room for it.

Unfortunately, she discovered that the phone was on the table at the other end of the couch—along with the blue box of tissues.

Reluctantly, Olivia levered herself into a sitting position and then pushed her aching body until she could stretch just far enough to reach both phone and tissues.

She clutched the box of tissues to her body and then fell back against her pillow with her slim, dark phone pressed against her ear.

“Hello?” Olivia croaked.

She hadn’t had the energy to glance at the luminous number that had popped up on her screen and therefore had no idea who was calling.

“Hi, hon.” It was her mother, her voice warm and soothing. “How are you doing?”

“Not great,” Olivia admitted.

“Do you feel as bad as you did yesterday?”

“I’m afraid so,” Olivia replied, wondering how the simple act of talking could require so much effort.

“I wish I could be there.” Her mother sighed softly. “You’re so far away now.”

Olivia could picture her mother sitting in her sunlit San Diego kitchen, while she herself languished on her slightly lumpy couch in her postage stamp of an apartment in the New Jersey suburbs.

It was the price she paid for getting a coveted position with a fancy New York law firm.

“You could bring me some of your famous minestrone soup in a matter of minutes,” Olivia said, feeling her eyes watering as she smiled.

She had a vague notion that she was telling a joke of some kind, but now that she thought about it, she wasn’t too sure what it was.

“I would definitely bring you some soup.” Olivia could hear a smile in her mother’s voice, so maybe she had succeeded in saying something amusing. “I wish I could do a little magic, snap my fingers, and send you some right now.”

“What kind of magic makes soup?” Olivia asked. She chuckled—a dry, rasping noise that sounded more like a cough.

“Everyday magic,” her mother said with sympathy in her voice. “I don’t want to keep you talking, honey. I just wanted to check in and see how you were doing. Try to get some sleep now.”

Olivia put the phone down and wished that everyday magic was a real thing.

Then she fell asleep.

She found herself in another dream.

This time, she was standing on a towering mountain with a green valley below. The view was beautiful, but the air was cold, and a biting wind whipped around her. Olivia could see dark clouds roiling as a storm brewed close by, and soon she was enveloped in sharp, icy rain.

Olivia searched frantically for shelter and, instead, found a pair of silver wings nearby on the ground. The feathers were long and soft and shining, and somehow, the rain slipped right off them.

She placed the wings on her back, drawing them on like a cashmere sweater, and they unfurled behind her—strong and gleaming.

She gave her new wings an experimental flap, and soon she was soaring up into the bursting sky.

She hurtled up through the storm as lightning flashed all around her, and she kept flying upward until she found herself above the dark, churning clouds. She flew in the direction of the warm, life-giving sun until the clouds disappeared and she could see the green earth below.

Olivia fluttered down to the ground and set her feet down on the lush grass of a beautiful garden. There was a thick blanket of blossoms just in front of her—a riot of color with flowers in red, pink, lavender, gold—even blue.

She let the silver wings slip off her shoulders, and they fluttered away—off into the bright, sunny sky.

Olivia stepped forward and lay down on the bed of flowers—their petals soft as silk—and felt herself relaxing as their sweet fragrance enveloped her in a healing cloud and the sun high above warmed her skin.

Just as she felt the last of the rain-borne chill drifting away, a strange chime rang out, shattering the garden and the warmth.

Olivia jolted awake.

Her phone was ringing again.

Luckily, it was lying right by her side this time.

She pressed it to her ear.

“Hello?” Olivia drawled.

“You sound terrible.” It was her best friend, Ellen Stanhope, her voice kind but a little startled.

“I’m afraid I feel terrible,” Olivia admitted.

“You poor thing,” Ellen said. Olivia could picture her friend’s warm, brown eyes brimming with sympathy. “I wish I could be there for you, but we’re going to be in Chicago all week.”

“I’m glad you and Jim finally got to go on vacation,” Olivia said, making an attempt to sit up and sound normal. “You don’t need to think about me at all. You guys just have fun.”

“What about the new guy—Travis?” Ellen asked. “I’m sorry, but I’m blanking on his last name. I only met him the one time.”

Olivia smiled despite herself, and for a moment the aches and the chill in her body seemed very far away.

“Travis Haberly,” she murmured.

His handsome, good-natured face rose in her mind’s eye. She could picture his curly black hair, his green eyes, the way his cheeks dimpled when he smiled.

“That’s right,” Ellen replied, a hint of apology in her tone. “Any chance he’ll stop by to check on you?”

“We’ve only been dating for a few weeks,” Olivia said with a twinge of wistfulness. “I think it’s too early for that. Taking care of a sick girlfriend is a later stage.”

“Does he know you’re sick?”

“Yes,” Olivia said regretfully. “I had to break our dinner plans tonight. I’m just not in any shape to make it.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.” Ellen’s voice was soft and soothing. “Take care of yourself. I’ll check in on you again tomorrow.”

Ellen hung up, and Olivia settled back down on the couch. Her eyes drifted to the TV.

She was vaguely aware that a cooking show was on.

As Olivia watched fresh green herbs get chopped expertly and then dropped into a steaming pot, she felt another twinge of regret over her lost evening out with Travis.

It was also a lost opportunity to see that dimpled smile.

As the TV pot began to bubble, the green herbs roiling in a golden-brown liquid, Olivia felt her eyelids growing heavy.

She closed her eyes and opened them in a dream.

Olivia found herself standing in a kitchen. She wanted to make something delicious for Travis, who—she thought hazily—was coming to see her soon. But instead of ingredients, utensils, and mixing bowls, all she had was a bare wooden table and a magic wand.

She waved the magic wand once, and a bronze goblet appeared in front of her. She waved the magic wand again, and a handful of gems of all colors and sizes appeared in front of the goblet.

Olivia scooped up the gems and dropped them one by one into the goblet—first yellow, then green, then blue, then violet, and finally ruby red.

Every time a gem touched the metal of the bronze goblet, it began to fizz and disolve into a liquid. Soon the goblet was full to the brim and warm to the touch, and Olivia breathed in the delightful aroma of hot mulled apple cider.

She was just raising the goblet to taste the drink when there was a terrible sound of thunder—as if someone were breaking down the walls of the kitchen in which she stood.

Olivia’s eyes flew open. There was indeed a loud sound in her apartment, but it was just someone knocking on the door.

She pushed herself to stand with reluctance and shuffled to the door, clutching a tissue.

She looked out through the peephole.

Standing in the hallway outside was a tall, lean figure clutching a brown paper bag.

Olivia felt her heart flutter.

It was Travis.

Olivia opened the door a crack and peered out at him.

“Hey, Travis,” she said. She was excited to see him but horrified by how she must look.

“Hey,” he said, dimpling at her. Olivia felt her heart give another little flutter. He was wearing black trousers and a white dress shirt with sleeves that were rolled up, revealing his tanned forearms.

“So what are you doing here?” Olivia asked, trying to smooth out the croak in her voice.

“I know you’re not feeling well,” Travis replied, sounding a little uncertain, “so I took off work a little early. I thought I’d bring you some soup.”

He held out the paper bag, and Olivia stared at it in surprise.

“I know it’s a little soon,” Travis said quickly. “We’ve only known each other a little while. But I really wanted to bring you something to make you feel better. Sorry if it’s weird.”

“No, it’s not weird at all,” Olivia said, feeling warmed by his smile. “That’s very thoughtful.”

“It’s chicken noodle,” he said. “From Lisa’s Deli. I’m afraid it got a little cold on the way over. I can come in and warm it up if you like, and I promise I’ll only be here a few minutes. And then I’ll leave and let you rest.”

Olivia glanced down at the paper bag. She loved Lisa’s Deli, and she’d told him that once.

And he’d remembered.

“Thanks, Travis. That’s exactly what I’ve been wishing for.”

He stepped into the apartment, and Olivia settled back onto the couch.

Travis went into the kitchen and bustled around for a few minutes, and Olivia could hear the beeping of the microwave.

Then Travis brought her the chicken noodle soup in an oversized mug with a little side of saltines.

Olivia sipped the soup gratefully, inhaling its healing warmth, and looked up at Travis.

She realized that there was such a thing as everyday magic after all.

And it was even better than she’d dreamed.

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

© 2021 by Catherine Mesick

Thanks very much for reading! You can pick up my free novel Pure here: https://catherinemesick.com/books/.

Mae Wedding–Free Short Story

Dani is running late for her sister’s wedding. As she hurries to the wedding site—far out in a mysterious stretch of woods—she runs into her ex, Gabe. Can Dani and Gabe rekindle their lost love? Or are they fated to remain on separate paths? (A paranormal romance short story by Catherine Mesick.)

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.

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

Thanks very much for reading!

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.

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Piviso/Pixabay

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

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.

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© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Ria Cocoparisienne/Pixabay

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Thanks very much for reading!