1850 – The Rising Phoenix – San Francisco

October 28, 1850 

Dearest Wife ~ 

There have been two more fires. San Francisco, like a phoenix, continually rises from the ashes. The damages, this time, are thought to exceed $15,000,000. I can comfortably speak of the numbers. Not so—of the personal toll.

Too many friends have been taken by fate or by their own hand.

Remember the Patterson family? After their home burned, Mr. Patterson shot his wife and their baby daughter in the street. He was found lying dead on top of them.

Thomas Maguire – who owns the Jenny Lind Theatre – has lost everything six times! He jokes that one day he will write a play about it. I appreciate his candor and I admire him for not succumbing to hopelessness.

1906 earth quake

Our warehouse fell to the flames. We had to have guards at the burn site every hour of the day and night so that no one would build on our ground.

There is much talk about forming a fire company with volunteers and of construction methods that will withstand conflagration.  

I ache with missing you, but I am glad that you have been spared the agony and upheaval here.

 All My Love, Reece

William_Coulter_-_San_Francisco

_______________

Writing Prompt: 200-Word Tuesdays – June 2016 prompt theme: Wrinkled Paper

This letter is an excerpt from a book in progress. Haylee is a monster story with scene settings that are historically accurate.

Haylee is a mysterious and rare Traveler. She is time shifted from 1984 to San Francisco in 1850. While there she meets and marries Reece Keener (Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone). Having returned to her own time – Haylee and the Crystal Carrier’s Consort (working title) – Haylee discovers a series of letters that her husband wrote.  This letter is one of that series.

History of the San Francisco Fire Department – Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

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Only the Treehouse Knows – 200 words

treehouse cover

“T’was an ‘venture coming ‘her when we was kids.” Bill parked his diesel pick-up at the road side.

Sweltering, moist heat engulfed them when they stepped out of the air conditioning.  Bill’s crooked finger pointed at something over the rooftops. “Ya can jus make out the tree over ‘ther. Was jus open fields back then.”

“Is that where it happened?” Shayden asked as he took off his mirrored aviator sunglasses and squinted.

Bill said, “Some thirty years ago, now.”

Shayden pulled his phone out of his pocket, zoomed in on the tree and started snapping. “Do you still live around here?”

“Yep, ‘bout four miles away.”

“Have you heard of any unusual things happing in the area?”

“Ya might could say that,” Bill snorted. “It’s not some’thin people in these parts like to talk about much.”

“Would you show me what it was that you wrote in about?”

Bill scanned the road for traffic, then with his mouth pressed in a harsh line, he began unbuttoning his work shirt. He pulled the fabric back to reveal the lumpy spot in his side.

Shayden’s eyes opened wide, he swallowed audibly. He looked to Bill and held up his phone; Bill nodded.


Story Prompt: @200WordTuesdays on Twitter

Theme: Empty fields & nostalgia

Guest Post – Inseparable – Part 1

Guest Post by Will Maguire

copyright 2016

When I was 17 and living on my own…certain that I knew more about anything than anyone around me….I took a job for a few months as a janitor at an old folks home.

My friends and I called it the Home for the Nearly Dead.  It was at the edge of town like it was slowly being pushed out there to the precipice of living, far from view.

It was a sad and decrepit little place with peeling paint and linoleum floors and a funeral home next door. That part of town had its own zip code…and some of the townspeople called it the Hereafter, like it was a rest spot between living and whatever comes later.

I was dating a girl out in the sticks so I would regularly go thru the Hereafter to get near her…the way a teenage boy will for any girl.

Passing through one day I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign and answered it.  They hired me on the spot.

When I told my friends I had gotten a job at the Home for the Nearly Dead they all laughed.

The people there were so old we thought they were another species. Kind of human…but not like us. Not revving to run thru the days, not trying to make some girl, not getting loaded or sleeping on the beach, or trying to figure a way to make the world their kingdom.

That’s what life is like at 17. The world becomes a simple matter of speed.  And I was chasing things with all my might full of only the certainty that they would be caught.

I became the groundskeeper at the Hereafter. This meant I was a janitor and a painter for the aged and the dying. Trying to make the world look neat and trim, trying to make the calamity of isolation seem orderly, and trying to forever mop up the dread that seemed to settle in its halls.

lawnmower-384589_1920

I had to cut the lawn too. I would do it at night …after I got off my other job.  And then after midnight, I’d mop floors and try to make the place feel a little less lonely, like it could be washed away.

The lady who ran the place never gave me a hard time about when I did it…as long as it got done.

I can recall cutting the lawn at night a few times.  Drunk once or twice. I think I even snuck my girl in a time or two to some empty bed on the ward. The Hereafter was as good as any place to chase love…or at least the 17-year-old version of it.

I remember they didn’t pay much but I needed the money so we were a match. I guess they liked having someone around whose heart could still race instead of merely meander.

There was this old man on the main floor. His grown kids had abandoned him there.

That’s really what it is…they drive by a couple times, sign the papers, then drop an old man or woman at the far edge of town into the Hereafter.

This guy’s kids would come by once a month and, because he was hard of hearing, holler at him in a loud voice….. like he was a thousand miles away. I suppose in a way he was.

But he wasn’t an idiot…and I could see how much it humiliated him. To be yelled at by his kids…who felt like they had to make this pilgrimage every once in a while just so they could look into the mirror. I watched it a few times. It was like watching some bad rerun.‘How are you, Dad? Can I get you anything Dad?’

You know the routine. It was merely obligatory…like he was a stranger who just happened to have the same last name.

It was like they had a bill that said they owed love and respect ….but had forgotten the actual debt.

This guy was a plumber. He had crawled around under kitchens and basements on his hands and knees in tight spaces for 50 years. Whenever someone called and was drowning in their own houses he would grab a wrench and go. So he knew a busted pipe when he saw one.  And proud.  Fixing things for decades makes a person self-reliant and proud. And he truly believed there was nothing in this life he couldn’t fix.But he could barely walk anymore.

And try as he might there was never any way to fix the pipes of time he had left.

They were just worn out, stripped at the nut from so many days coursing through them. He was crawling under his last days and knew it.

He had spent years on his hands and knees and now just wanted to stand and walk. He wanted to wrench his way forward instead of staying stuck in the bed where they expected him to die.

So every night, very late… he’d angle himself off his bed and unsteadily grab one of those walkers with tennis balls on the legs and slowly drag himself one tiny uncertain step after another out into the hall. He’d only do it at night…when there was no one to holler at him about how he shouldn’t be up, shouldn’t be trying to move, shouldn’t be doing anything but lying in a bed  waiting on Death to finally find his room.

And late at night, we would meet unexpectedly sometimes.

The 17-year-old kid racing from job to job mopping the floors late at night and the eighty something plumber who, once again in a tight space, was trying to stand on his own two feet and walk through the hallways of the Hereafter.

I’d watch him some nights creep down the hallway. It was excruciating. The steps were so small. We got so we would nod and not say anything. I really didn’t know what to say to him.

I was a little afraid he would slip and fall on my mopped floor.

And I was afraid that Death was so close to him that it might take a hard long look at me if I got too close.

So I would watch him …not to help so much as to try to save my own ass if he went down.

And I got into the habit of waiting for him to make his great escape each night and to watch him struggle against his own failing flesh. I could see how much it hurt him to make those tiny steps…and how much it hurt him not to. And caught between those two kinds of pain each night he summoned up the will to demonstrate he was still living…to himself.

I found him one-night leaning against a wall in the dark. He had slipped….and could not quite regain his footing. I remember I was drunk…and so was unsteady myself. It was after midnight so the lights were off…except his room light with an open door at the end of the corridor. I saw him there…a shadow in the darkened hall….and stumbled over and grabbed his arm trying to lift him up. The unsteady 17-year-old and the unsteady 80 something leaning for a moment on each other.

His arm felt like a twig in November. Not really bone anymore, more like the memory of it. He hoarsely whispered to me “No, No, No,…I’m fine…’

Brave……  Self-reliant.

So I let go…like a person building a house of cards lets go of the last card…and moves his hand slowly away…certain it could all come tumbling down any second.

Then in that darkened hall, that old man…a shadow in the dark crept away toward the light.

This was the first time I ever saw courage. And though at 17 I could not name it, I remember being in awe of it. Much later I came to understand it is usually found in the darkened hallways of any person’s days. It appears when the floor is slippery and when a soul is most unsteady.

courage graphic

I still think of him sometimes when I am not quite sure if I am steady enough.

I suppose that’s a kind of immortality. I suppose the best part of us, seen even at a distance can echo like that. Echo on for years.

The old man died a few days later. There was never a pipe he could not fix, except of course Time’s. It leaks in ways that cannot be repaired. He was a plumber.  A fixer of the leaks of life. Filled with a common kind of courage. So common it is hard to see.

And his kids…. who hollered at his deafness each month came and stood in his room… without a word… at last.

An old man loses his legs and he grows courage in their place. The torrent of it runs faster because there’s a hole in the pipe.  

There is some strange arithmetic at work in the human heart. Take away something …something you cannot do without …subtract it…and the sum somehow becomes larger.

They grow together.

Inseparable.

 

—————–
Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter.  His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers. It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post – Inseparable – Part 2

Guest Post by Will Maguire

copyright 2016

My boss, an old lady with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo, asked me to fill in one month on the morning shift.

This was a problem because I had a couple other jobs and I liked to finish late and drink beer until I couldn’t remember how poor and stupid and full of myself I was.

But she was insistent. So I found a way. I’d show up around 8 a.m. with my head aching and smelling, I’m quite sure, like I had spent the night face down in a puddle of stale beer.

Early each day I began to notice his old man in the visitors room. He was always the first one there. Always wore a white shirt and tie, combed and shaved and neat. cravat-987584_640He walked with a cane and when they opened the ward for visitors he would always check himself in the mirror. Like he was going on a date, like he wanted to look his best.

 

His wife of 60 years was in the ward.

She had started falling…and then started forgetting. Little things at first…misplaced keys, misplaced glasses.

And she would ask him, ‘What did I do with them? Would you remember that for me?’

Then one day she got lost coming home from the grocery store. And then a week later he found her lost and frightened in their own cellar.

He took her to a doctor finally and listened as the doctor explained that the past…every bit of it …would eventually disappear.

He tried and wrestled with the doubt and guilt but it became clear in a few months that he could not care for her.

So he found this place at the edge of the Hereafter, sold their house and took an apartment as near as he could.

He made all the arrangements, all the time fighting down the growing panic at the thought of being apart.

When he signed the papers and walked her in, he felt like a traitor to every secret vow a man’s heart can make to itself.

I was there that day mopping the floor. He was stricken…with loneliness I suppose and dread. I saw it in his face, though I’m sure I didn’t understand what I was seeing. How could I?

What did I know at 17 of having your heart cleaved in two, hollowed out at the prospect of what you know with certainty is crawling toward you?

She cried when he left that day. And without him near seemed to lose her bearings. It can happen like that…a heart can become unmoored.

And mopping the floors some nights I would hear her calling out that she didn’t know anyone or where this place was…. or even sometimes who she herself was anymore.

I would civilian-service-63616_640stand outside her door listening and trying to translate that kind of terror into something my 17-year-old pea brain could understand.

It was like listening to the foreign language…of loneliness.

But the old man would show up every morning…and would stand in that very spot outside her door …..steeling himself.

Day after day, he would paint a smile on his face and turn in to her room and in a loud voice brightly say good morning and how beautiful she looked again.

She would always brighten at the sight of him. Like a young girl in love for the very first time. And he would sit by her side and each morning say,  “Do you know who I am?”

Somedays she would laugh and respond,  “Of course…what a silly question…you think I could ever forget who I love….my husband of 60 years?”

And he would retell her things she had forgotten…a trip to the Cape each summer…the time he asked her to marry him…that first house before the kids.

family memories

Sometimes she would understand and ask,  ‘We did all that?’ in real wonder. And sometimes she would not…could not understand. Like the glue of memory had gotten so old that it cracked and fell away.

“Never mind…never mind  that darling,’ he would say.…’I’ll remember it for you.’

Near the end of the month, I watched him again…cane in hand, dressed like he was going on a first date, stand in that spot outside her room then, once again, turn inside. I went and stood in the spot, mop in hand and listened.

Once again he was gently asking,  “Do you know who I am?”

There was no answer. And he put his face close to hers so she could see him clearly and he whispered again, “Do you know who I am?”

Her eyes searched his face trying in vain to summon some forgotten landmark in her heart she might recognize. Then she whispered to him, “ I don’t know where this place is…or who I am.  I know I should…I know I should…” trying to  recover what had already leaked away.

He was trying to quiet her. “Hush…hush now…it’s alright.  I’m here.’

‘I know I should,’ she protested.

Then- ‘…… I don’t know your name…sir,’ all the time searching his eyes with her own. ‘..But I know …I can rely on you … I always will. I don’t know your name ….but I know who you are.’

If a heart has ears I felt mine begin to burn. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I never wanted to hear anything again. I stumbled away, back down the hallway of hereafter. I remember I threw the mop and I kicked over the bucket. What was the point. How could the world ever be clean again?

I quit that morning and I never went back.

 

The world is a beautiful place. It is a terrible place.

They grow together.

Inseparable.

Scrape a sorrowful thing and you expose the beauty. Scrape a thing of real beauty and there’s always some sacrifice…some sadness at the heart of it. They require each other.

 

A husband and wife of 60 years facing certain loss… …makes their love not smaller but larger.

And it humbles me still to think of it…to realize how little I understand.

I was 17 …and a poor boy with only a glimmer of understanding. Standing there listening, I felt some part of me quiver…and since then that quivering, like a small earthquake only I can feel, has never stopped.

I feel it shaking some nights in my dreams. I feel it sitting wordlessly in the dark on my shoulders whispering its tremor into my sleeping heart. It tells me again and again there is something larger….something hidden at work.

And some nights it whispers to me about this life and the Hereafter. It tells me it is more beautiful and more terrible than my heart’s clay foundation can bear.

__________________

Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter.  His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers.

It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.

 

Numbers Cruncher

Alberto had everything a man could wish for ─ notoriety, beautiful women, and Numbers Cruncher smflashy cars. His biggest problem was a father who expected perfection.

When Alberto was in fifth grade, he scored 100% on a math quiz. He remembered his father standing proudly, while proclaiming, “When you are older, you will work for the family as a numbers cruncher.”

Four years after graduating from UCLA, Alberto continued to work as an accountant in his father’s office. Last year, he’d been, ‘number one.’ His coworkers constantly pestered him to hold up his finger so that they could laugh.

Alberto sat in the hushed waiting room. He shoved his hands deep into his armpits and settled his forearms over them like a chicken adjusting its wings.

Tony, his cousin, sat opposite him drumming on a case that sat in his lap. He smirked at Alberto.

To Alberto, Tony looked like a sausage stuffed into a three-piece-suit. They’d been best friends when they were kids. Once puberty hit, Tony spent time bulking up at the gym and training to become an EMT. Tony steadily climbed the ladder in the family business because he was good at carrying out orders and cleaning up messes.

Alberto found it difficult to breathe. The seat of his chair felt like it was made from a pin cushion with the pins sticking in his ass. They were waiting for the tax preparer to check Alberto’s work.

His father strode into the room like a general about to address his troops.  Not making eye contact with Alberto, he gestured in Tony’s direction. The sound of the zipper releasing its teeth had Alberto pushing against his backrest and shaking his head.

“No! No! No!” he screamed.

Tony opened the case. Nestled in a velvet lining, gleamed a razor sharp chef’s cleaver. Tony lunged for Alberto as his father lifted it and adjusted it in within his grip.

The struggle to free Alberto’s left hand was over quickly. Bracing it flat on a nearby table, Tony nodded to indicate that he was ready. Alberto’s one remaining finger ─ his index ─ lay exposed and vulnerable.

“Father! I beg you!”

His mouth formed a grim, straight line and he responded while raising his arm, “It’s our way, son. This is the price for making mistakes.”

 

————————–

Story Prompt: @GHowellWhite1 Twitter Prompt

Theme: Pen a story from the point of view of an accountant. Genre: Horror

Author & Character Dialog

As I write, it’s like I am watching a movie, except that it involves all the senses. I see everything from each characters’ point of view. I hear, touch, smell and taste the surroundings. I feel all the feelings.

The characters seem very real as they are doing what they are doing. But having one of them interact with YOU is a very different experience!

In this writing exercise, it was the first time that I ‘talked’ to my main character. Her responses came instantly and naturally – just as if we were really having a conversation with one another.

Give it a try, it will add another level of dimensionality to your peeps.

____________________________________

 

Wake up Haylee.diagol cover sm

“Go away Joey, I am trying to sleep.” Haylee flung a warm pillow out from under the covers. With no specific direction in mind, the soft projectile was meant to disrupt the cat’s plan to get her out of bed.

I thought we could talk for a few moments.

“Joey! Come on!” Haylee complained.

This isn’t Joey.

“Huh?” Haylee responded. She cracked her eyes into thin slits and scanned the room.  Accustomed to hearing voices in her head, she took a moment to assess the quality of this particular one. It was not totally foreign; she’d heard it before…

Now that she was focusing on it, she understood that it was not Joey or any other animal.  Animals didn’t form words and complete sentences. They sent a series of flowing visual images with emotions attached.

It wasn’t a thought from any of her victims either.  After being absorbed into her mind during Haylee’s unusual feeding process, they were mere memories. When she was finished with them, they didn’t make new ones.

Re-asserting her tight clamp-down on those, Haylee was suddenly wide awake.  She threw back the blankets and scrambled out of bed. Already wearing sweats, she threw on a jacket, slipped into a pair of shoes, and ran a comb quickly through her dark, curly mass of hair.

She was out of the apartment in less than ten minutes.  The streets of Berkeley, California were not as busy as they usually were at this time of day, but there were enough people around to make Haylee feel part of something larger. Thinking that the voice was a dream remnant, she let relief trickle down her spine.

You are going to Josh’s office aren’t you?

Haylee stopped in mid stride. A forty-something, dark skinned man carrying a to-go coffee grumbled, “Watch where you are going, Miss!”  He extended his hot cup away from his body while barely avoiding a collision.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“Who are you?” Haylee asked, looking up and all around. The coffee man, glanced over his shoulder, frowned, and picked up his pace.

I can’t tell you that, but I want you to know that I am someone who cares.

“Are you my mom?”

Not exactly.

“Alright, whoever you are, what do you want and why are you talking to me?”

A pair of female students, seeing the young woman gesturing and speaking out loud, crossed to the other side of the street.

I want you to know that when I kill you, you won’t suffer and that your time here has had a much bigger purpose.

You are going to kill me? I don’t think so. I’m dying because all of the women in my family have some weird inherited thing that happens after they give birth. “

A husky blonde came out of a store with her son. They emerged near where Haylee was standing. The precocious boy pointed. “Mommy, that lady is talking to a ghost.”

The mother shushed him and hurried them toward their car.

That’s right. Why do you think that is?

A suspicious look crossed Haylee’s face. “I don’t know….  Do YOU?”

People are staring Haylee; you should keep walking. Yes, I am the only one who does.

Instead of walking, Haylee began to jog.

“Are you saying that it was your idea that I die at the age of twenty-three?”

You could have lived for a few years more if you hadn’t returned the souls that you stole.  But it was the right thing to do.

“Not that I believe you, but did you also have something to do with my time jump to 1849 and…Reece?” her voice broke a little on the last word.

Of course. That is part of the story arc for the women of your lineage and the crystal fragments that you possess.

“Then you know about the Travelers and why they do what they do?”

Yes, and you will too before too much longer. 

Haylee, who had started running at top speed, stopped to rest when she felt the energy of the voice begin to pull away.

“Wait! Are you saying that I’m not real? That my dad, Gori, Josh and Serena aren’t real either?

You’re real to me and I love you all. You are like my children.

“I don’t accept this.”

I’m sorry.

“If this is true, why do I have to die?  I don’t want to die! There’s so much more that I want to do!”

I know.

“Josh needs to know about this! He thinks he can help. He’s started a research project.”

That is exactly what he needs to be doing. His work is going to be an important part of what happens next. But you won’t be able to tell him about this conversation because I have to wipe it out of your mind.

“What? Why?”

I need you to go into Haylee and the Last Traveler with no memory of it having taken place.

______________________

 

 

Haylee: Period of Change – 1st Place Short Story Winner

 

short story title ribbon

1982

 

Most of the girls Haylee’s age started getting their periods at thirteen. Haylee was well aware of this because those who were, “on the rag” didn’t have to shower in gym class. It was almost an honor, and a sign that a girl had moved into womanhood.

When Haylee turned fourteen and was practically the last girl not to have gotten her period, her schoolmates started talking about it.

At fifteen, still periodless, and showing no signs of physical maturation, the gym teacher called Haylee into her office and started asking embarrassing questions. Mortified, Haylee quietly informed the teacher that the women in her family had always been very late bloomers — she was grasping at straws — and that she was sure that it would happen any day.

The teacher, who was quite fond of the quiet, intelligent girl, looked doubtful. She empathized with Haylee’s discomfort, and she knew that with Haylee’s mother gone, the girl probably had no one to confide in. “Haylee, I’m not trying to embarrass you. It may be true that you are a late bloomer, but it could also be that something’s wrong, like a hormone imbalance. I’ve discussed it with the school nurse and —”

“How could you talk about this with someone else? It’s none of your business!” Haylee shouted. She felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“It is my business, Haylee,” the teacher replied sadly. “Teachers have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their students. If it appears that a parent is neglecting —”

“What? You’re saying my father is doing something wrong because I’m not…” her brow furrowed.  Haylee searched for the right words,“…growing up?”

“This is important, Haylee. You are not progressing normally; I have to call your father to make sure you see a doctor.”

“No! Just leave me alone and stay away from my father!” Haylee yelled as she practically jumped for the door. She felt trapped and needed air.

~ ~ ~ ~

Even before her talk with her gym teacher, Haylee had wondered if there was something wrong. At first, she was convinced that she had cancer eating away her insides, keeping her from growing. As she got older, she worried that she had a congenital disorder that stunted her growth.

Not long after what Haylee thought of as “The Big Period Incident,” she ordered herself a bra through a catalog and started stuffing herself. She also became an expert at avoiding gym class.

Despite her worries, Haylee stayed bal­anced. She enjoyed learning and took pleasure in her classes, easily outshining the other students.

When all of her chores on the farm were done for the day and she’d fixed her father dinner, Haylee would go outside and climb up on the old tractor. It sat rusting behind the barn. From there, she’d watch the sun set.

The cool, evening air, as it caressed her face, had her smiling. She thought about how much she loved caring for their pigs, chickens and horses. The pictures and thoughts that they shared with her made her feel accepted as part of them. They saw her…really saw her. This was something that Haylee desperately needed.

~ ~ ~ ~

Seventeen-year-old Haylee was sure that she had a migraine, even though she’d never had one before. The excruciating pain started at her temples and radiated out like pinpoint pricks of burning sparks that crackled through her bloodstream. With eyes squinted into slits, Haylee, had to draw in deep breaths to keep her stomach contents where they belonged. Haylee gently managed the half-mile walk from the bus stop to her house.

The cool interior darkness that enveloped her as she crossed the threshold offered a fleeting sense of relief. Within moments, she was clammy and trembling again.

She held onto the walls to make her way to the bathroom. Once there, she let her book bag drop and crawled like a suffering supplicant toward the porcelain deity. After twenty minutes of dry heaves, she thankfully welcomed its cool countenance along the side of her face as she crouched there, embracing it for another ten minutes.

When it appeared that her world had ceased its sickening gyrations, Haylee gingerly moved a few inches to test her theory. I think it’s getting better, she thought. Although the agony persisted, the nausea had lessened.

Stooping carefully to retrieve her bag, Haylee didn’t bother to glance in the mirror as she shuffled toward her bedroom. Returning shortly in her bathrobe, she reached into the shower to turn on the hot water. If she had not been so preoccupied, she would have been shocked by what the mirror revealed. Dark hair hung limply around an ashen face. Her lips were gray. Her straight, angular body had become more rounded.

Shakily, she stepped over the edge of the tub. The cascading water soothed her, but only temporarily. Lost in a dull haze, but not knowing what else to do, Haylee stood there, eyes closed, remaining as still as possible.

At some point, her father started knocking on the bathroom door.  Feebly, she responded. She was relieved when he finally left. Long after the water had turned cold and the house had become silent, she stepped out of the shower.

Laboriously, she slipped on her robe. The mirror reflected even more startling changes. Her hands and arms had begun to take on pronounced lines. Her neck, shoulders, hips, and legs had developed a graceful quality. The hurt she experienced blinded her to all else, but somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that her robe was too small.

Without turning on the lights, Haylee went to her room. Feeling for the electric blanket controls, she cranked the heat up to high. Crawling under the covers, she curled into a ball.

~ ~ ~ ~

Frequently, with only the hum of appliances and the ticking of the clock for company, Haylee wished that her dad would linger for breakfast ─ but not today. She was grateful that he had left at first light. Rushing to put on baggy sweats, she raced to the kitchen driven by fierce cravings.  She was ravenous!

Barely able to contain her desires, she opened the refrigerator and grabbed the first thing her hand landed on — milk. After a half dozen lusty swallows, the empty carton landed with a dull thud in the middle of the kitchen floor. Empty cheese wrappers followed by cold cut wrappers, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup bottles, an empty pickle jar, Tupperware containers that had held Tuna Helper leftovers, a tray from what was left of a pineapple upside-down cake and an empty egg carton were added to the pile.

Haylee paused to survey the bare refrigerator shelves for anything else of interest. A deep burp, that tasted like mustard and tuna, bubbled up her throat. Not a bad combination… Haylee rejected the horseradish and jalapeno condiments.  Resting one hand on her stomach while wiping goo from her face with the back of the other, Haylee thought.  I don’t feel like puking after eating all of that! Another belch erupted, followed by more hungry gurgles.

Haylee began riffling through the cupboards next. Soon the plinking of empty tin cans sounded as they hit the floor. With a glassy look in her eyes, she licked food remnants from the dirty dishes in the sink. Consciously, she had stopped herself from tossing the Corel plates and bowls into her heap. Although the advertisements claimed that they were unbreakable, Haylee knew this was not true. Everything even remotely edible that could be gleaned from the trashcan was added to the increasing refuse pile in the middle of the room.

Haylee took a deep breath and sighed. She wandered over to the couch. What a relief not to feel starved! Her head barely landed on the cushion before she fell fast asleep.

~ ~ ~ ~

Something roused her from her nap shortly before her dad was due to come in for lunch. Yawning, Haylee sat up, arched her back and stretched. She opened and closed her mouth, testing it’s parched, cottony texture. Cupping a hand over it, she expelled hot breath while taking a whiff to see if it smelled. The scent of fish, sour milk and onions made her frown. Thinking that she needed to brush her teeth, Haylee stood up. It was then that she noticed the state of the kitchen. “Did I do ALL that?”

It looked like a cyclone had gone through and pulled everything out of the shelves except for the plates, glasses, and silverware. A tingling underneath her skin had Haylee absently scratching her extremities. Something else felt funny. Reaching up to her chest, Haylee found sensitive mounds that filled her hands. She pulled the neckline of her sweatshirt away so she could look inside, “Holy!….” Her heart pounded as she explored that rest of her new contours. With a sense of wonder and delight, Haylee let out a sigh. So I was right!

Her eyes darted back to the mess in the kitchen. Dad’s going to be here soon! Leaping into action, she pulled out a roll of garbage bags. Haylee began shoving loose items into them. In under thirty minutes, she’d filled five! After hauling the trash bags outside, she returned to mop and wipe down the counters. At least, it smells fresh, Haylee thought as she surveyed her handy-work.

~ ~ ~ ~

The slam of the screen door announced her father’s arrival. He was greasy from crawling around under the walnut shaker. Not saying ‘hello,’ he paused at her side, took a quick sniff, raised his eyebrows, then continued striding toward the kitchen. Hesitating, he turned back, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?”

Knotting her fists in the fabric of her sweatshirt, Haylee hid most of the stains from her recent activity  ─ as well as a few other developments ─ “Ahhh….. I wasn’t feeling good, so I stayed home.”

“Huh,” Eugene muttered before turning around to continue.  Haylee held her breath as he reached for the refrigerator door.

“Aw, crap!” his voice sounded hollow coming from inside the appliance. “I don’t have time to go shopping today.” He straightened and looked at Haylee. “How can we be completely out of food?”

She smiled sheepishly, “A couple of friends from school stopped by to bring my missed assignments. They were hungry, so I told them that they could raid the kitchen.”

Nodding, he sighed. “They did. Going to have to wait till tonight before I can run into town. Make a shopping list?”

“Sure.” Haylee wondered how he could so easily accept her made-up story.

“I’ve got some beef jerky in the truck. Want me to bring you some?” he asked as he breezed past. The screen door slammed again before she had a chance to reply.

“I’m feeling better, Dad. Thank you so much for asking.”

~ ~ ~ ~

That night, Haylee slept fitfully. A headache had started again. By midnight, she was curled into a ball, feeling nauseous and dizzy. What’s wrong with me? her mind screamed.

After spending more than three hours in agony and terror, Haylee’s body suddenly jerked as a piercing, sharp pain ripped through her abdominal area. With swelling eyes, she opened her mouth to scream and found that she couldn’t breathe. Her heart was pounding so hard and fast, she thought it would burst. She panicked and clawed at her throat, leaving angry red marks. Her eyes rolled back in her head.

Some time later, she roused. The pain was still with her, but she was able to move. She noticed that her legs felt warm and slippery. She reached over to turn on her bedside lamp. Looking down, she was horrified to find that she was lying in a pool of blood. Inhaling a shaky, ragged breath, her throat constricted. Daddy, …please help me, I’m so scared.

After a struggle, Haylee managed to get herself onto her feet. She could see thick ribbons of dark red snaking their way down her legs. “Daddy,” she croaked, starting to weep. Holding onto the furniture and swaying, Haylee slowly inched her way to the bathroom. Once there, she collapsed unceremoniously into the bathtub. Sinking into a blessed darkness where the pain didn’t follow, Haylee felt sure that she would never wake up.

~ ~ ~ ~

Usually a heavy sleeper, Eugene woke with a start. A glance at the clock on his nightstand told him the time was 4:00 a.m. Fuzzily, he wondered what roused him. A strong smell of gardenias brought him fully awake. He wondered if it was left over from a dream he’d been having about his late wife, Doris.

He fumbled for the switch on his bedside lamp. Temporarily blinded by the illumination, Gene’s eyes squeezed shut. He scrambled to put on his clothes.

Flipping on the hallway light, he immediately spotted the dark pools of liquid and what looked like dragging footprints on the floor. When it dawned on him what he was seeing, Gene’s heart thudded. “Jesus in Heaven!” he muttered as he ran down the hall. Bursting into Haylee’s bathroom, Gene took in the scene.

His daughter lay in a heap in the tub, looking as white as a corpse. The bottom half of her nightshirt was soaked with blood, and her legs were smeared with it. “Haylee!” he cried. A fresh, steady stream was pooling and dripping down the drain.

Falling to his knees, he grabbed her shoulders. “Haylee! Haylee! Can you hear me?”

She was limp. He felt for a pulse. It was there, but it was fast and weak. Reaching for a towel, he stuffed it tightly between her thighs to stanch the flow. Gently gathering her up in his arms, Eugene ran to his truck, saying all the way, “Dear God, I beg you, please don’t take my girl away from me too!”

Stretching Haylee out on the bench seat, Gene cradled her head in his lap. With unsteady hands, he struggled to put his key in the ignition. He looked at them and saw them covered with blood. It was almost his undoing. Closing his eyes, he told himself that he had to stay calm.

Arriving at the hospital, he raced around the truck to scoop her up. The towel he had used to staunch her bleeding was soaked through. “Argh!” he exclaimed. Hastily, he ripped off his shirt to replace the sodden towel. When they burst through the emergency room door, Gene’s eyes were wild.

Immediately, Haylee was whisked away. Gene made a move to follow, but a nurse blocked his way. He would have fought to get past her but stopped when she told him that if he wanted to help, he would have to stay out of the doctor’s way.

Looking down, he saw a petite, redhead with intense blue eyes regarding him. In a firm but hushed tone, she said, “She’s in good hands.”

He nodded, “She has to be alright.”  His voice was strained.

The nurse directed him into a quiet, empty treatment room where she had him sit on a table. Coming back from closing the door, she brought tissues, rubber gloves, and moist towels to clean him up. As she reached out to hand him a tissue, she found herself caught in his grasp. He pulled her close and laid his head on her chest. His large body shook with deep soul-shattering sobs.

Gene realized his tears were more than just fear of the danger that Haylee was in. They were self-loathing for ignoring Haylee after her mother’s death, and dread that he would never have a chance to tell her he was sorry.

~ ~ ~ ~

Feeling euphoric, Haylee noticed a light, floating sensation. Hearing muted voices, she struggled to become fully conscious.

Her dad’s face came into view. She wondered why he looked so tired. There were deep lines on his forehead and around his eyes.

He reached out to brush the hair off of her forehead. Seeing her eyes focus on him, he turned to speak to someone. “I think she’s coming around.”

A woman’s face appeared. A bright light was di­rected in one eye and then the other. The woman spoke to Gene. “She’s stronger.”

Haylee could hear muted voices from a distance. Then her father was back. His hand felt warm and strong when held hers. “Haylee, do you know where you are?”

Frowning, she moved her head slightly. “You’re in the hospital. I brought you in early this morning.”

Closing her eyes, Haylee nodded.

“You are going to be just fine.” He rubbed her hand. “You need to rest. Go back to sleep. I’ll be right here.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Sitting in a chair next to her, Gene watched his daughter. For the first time, he noticed that she was looking a lot like her mother. Now, instead of cringing, that thought brought on a resigned smile.

Gene could tell that the doctor felt uncomfortable informing him that, “The only thing we can determine at this point in time is that she was having an unusually heavy menses.”

Dr. Lester was a tall, dark-haired woman in her fifties. “Her bleeding has stopped on its own. She appears to be out of danger, but I’d like to keep her for observation.”

Gene pushed the doctor for answers. With a few short, icy words, she told him that they would do everything they could.

Feeling unsettled but relieved to have made it through the crisis, Gene returned to Haylee’s bedside.

~ ~ ~ ~

When Haylee woke the next morning, that insatiable hunger had returned. Confined in a situation where she wouldn’t be able to satisfy it, she began to panic. She had to get out of there!

Between nursing shifts, Haylee asked her dad to go buy her a magazine. As soon as he was out the door, Haylee was out of bed and buttoning his jacket up over her hospital gown. Peeking into the corridor, she waited until it was clear. Spotting a laundry cart, she grabbed it and wheeled it away while searching for a sign that would direct her to the staff locker room.

In street clothes, it was easy to exit the building. Once free, Haylee ran, and ran, and ran. She made one stop, in a dumpster behind a grocery store. Hunger satisfied, for now, she burped forcefully. Her hands hurt ─ they ached deep down in the joints and had begun to feel hot. Making the decision not to worry over, yet, more weirdness, Haylee resumed her run.

In her front yard, Haylee stretched, feeling abundantly strong and powerful. There was another sensation there also, something strange and different. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Just then, a bug landed on her arm. When she moved to swipe it away, she heard a —thwap. She stared in astonishment. There was web­bing between her fingers!  She wiggled them noticing the increased resistance. She flicked the other hand—thwap! Now this hand had the webs too! They glistened and sparkled. When the webs were out, she felt a potent energy humming just below the surface of her skin, as if it were waiting to burst forth.

She flicked both hands at the same time—thwap! The webs were gone! She practiced making them appear and disappear until her fingers grew sore.

~ ~ ~ ~

Her dad had let her wear some of her mother’s clothes since none of her own fit anymore. Wearing a halter dress and sandals instead of jeans, cowboy boots, and snap-up shirts, Haylee’s classmates didn’t recognize her when she returned to school.

Speaking to no one in the corridor, Haylee shyly met many of the eyes trained on her. She saw interest in the boys’ faces and looks of scorn on the girls.

When she answered, “Here,” to roll call in homeroom, silence fell as everyone turned in her direction. Scrunching down as far as she could, Haylee shut her eyes and willed everyone to stop gawking.

Regaining his own composure, the teacher cleared his throat, “Well, Haylee…you are looking well.  I mean…did you have one of those glamor make-overs?”

The highlight of Haylee’s day had been Curtis ─ a boy she’d loved since fifth grade. He’d never looked twice at her. Recently broken up with his latest in a long list of girlfriends, he’d sought her out. “I heard that you suddenly turned ‘hot.’ I had to come to see for myself.”

Thirty minutes later, he’d asked Haylee out for her first date.

~ ~ ~ ~

 The night was clear and the stars twinkled brightly as Curtis drove his Ford pick-up. Haylee sat close to him on the bench seat. She willed herself to relax. When he turned the truck onto a deserted levee and parked about a quarter mile off of the main road, Haylee’s heart began to beat quickly. She could feel herself starting to perspire.

“This is my ‘get away’ place. I’ve never brought a girl here before,” he said as he hopped out of his door.

“Oh,” Haylee responded, feeling pleased.

Holding hands, they walked a little way. Turning a corner, they came upon a train track that went out over a trestle with the river flowing below. Helping her onto the railroad ties, they sat down on a rail. Curtis fished a couple of pennies out of his pocket showing her that the two coins had the current year. “I thought we could put them on the tracks to have the train fuse them together so we could remember our first date,” he explained as he put them in place.

Haylee was touched. “How nice!”

He leaned toward her to plant a soft kiss on her lips. It was over before she realized what he had done.

“We’ll have that memento before too long,” he whispered. He returned to kiss her again. This time lingering and gently coaxed a response.

Small rumbles began then, in Haylee’s core and the ones on the tracks.

Haylee was so absorbed, that it was a few moments before she realized that Curtis’s hand was on her breast. Shocked, she moved so she could push him away. Tearing his mouth from hers, Curtis whispered, “Don’t!”

Wedging her arms between them, Haylee complained, “Let go!”

Curtis held her tightly, “Relax. I won’t hurt you.”

Haylee could hear annoyance and frustration in his tone.

“I said stop!” she yelled. On its heels, another wave of quivering radiated through her middle, stronger this time.

“What the….?” Curtis said.

The train lights appeared a few miles out. Curtis jumped to his feet, pulling Haylee with him as he started walking quickly toward the river.

“Where are you going?” Haylee asked. Her voice was several octaves higher than before.

“Kick off your shoes,” he directed as he kept tugging her onward. The ground beneath them dropped away as they started across the trestle.

Bending over to grab a shoe in each hand, Haylee could feel herself trembling. Glints of moonlight undulated on the surface of the water.

Jumping from railroad tie to tie, they jogged between the iron tracks. Curtis urged her to hurry. Looking behind them, she saw the train approaching ─ fast!

“Curtis!” she shrieked.

Run!” He clutched her wrist and squeezed. He smiled with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Haylee’s heart hammered wildly. The tracks shook. She pulled her arm away from him, so she could focus on running.

The sound of the high, plaintive whistle was ear shattering. Curtis laughed, but Haylee couldn’t hear it.

They were about twenty yards from the far edge of the bridge when the train rolled onto the trestle. Running for her life, Haylee screamed. Adrenalin effectively masked the tremors that had her quaking from the inside out. The heavy rumble from the massive amount of iron and steel breathing down their necks had Haylee thinking about how her dad would feel when he found out how she had been killed. Haylee was preparing for the impact when she was roughly yanked at a right angle. She went flying, before tumbling down a grassy embankment.

It took a few moments to realize that she was still alive, that she had stopped moving, and that the engine and its cars were rolling past them. Nothing appeared to be broken. A white-hot anger flared up. Locating Curtis, she crawled toward him. He was laying on his back, laughing and shouting about how great that was!

Cursing, Haylee hit him with balled fists.

While holding her hands, he dragged her over to him and began kissing her. She struggled. He rolled on top of her. Between wet kisses, he kept repeating, “You are so awesome!” Curtis held her in place while grinding his hips into her pelvis. Haylee could feel his excitement.

The vibrations within Haylee intensified. Something shifted in her mind.

She ceased to be afraid. A foreign desire had taken over. It was something that didn’t care about boys with busy hands and dangerous senses of humor. It didn’t care about the physical act of intimacy. It wanted something much deeper than that.

Haylee lay beneath him, unnaturally still.

Curtis noticed that the fight had gone out of her and paused to look. Alarmed at what he saw, he rolled off her.

She sat up abruptly, considering him with a steely gaze.

Unnerved, Curtis scrambled to back away, he looked all around as if searching for an escape route.

Haylee stood up, still holding his eyes with hers. She unfastened her belt, letting it drop. In one simple movement, she removed her dress. Clad only in her underwear, Haylee wasn’t shy or embarrassed. “Is this what you want?” she asked in a slow, sultry tone.

Curtis couldn’t take his eyes off her now. He inhaled deeply, nodding. His breath caught in his throat, he reached out, bringing her to a kneeling position. He began kissing her again. Haylee did not resist. She made encouraging sounds. She did not want to frighten him again.

His hands roamed in places that would have had her fighting against him if she’d still been in her right mind. Greedily, Curtis clawed at her clothing. When Haylee felt the hooks of her bra let loose, she violently flipped him over.

An ‘oof’ escaped him as he slammed against the ground with a thud. With a detached point of view, like she was watching someone else, Haylee observed as her fingers, the webbing, in particular, molded themselves perfectly around the contours of his face.

Struggling furiously, Curtis tried to peel it away. His eyes bulged as he battled using every ounce of strength to save his life. The more he thrashed the tighter the webs adhered.

Witnessing the gruesome process was fascinating. As was the fact that it barely took any effort to hold him down. At the moment that Curtis accepted his fate, Haylee closed her eyes.

A feeling of indescribably sweet euphoria filled her. Infused with a glowing liquid light, all tension dissipated. With sparkling eyes, Haylee raised her weightless gaze to the stars. The webbed hand that had been bonded to Curtis’s mouth and nose released. Slowly and delicately, she lifted it away. She took a deep breath and stood—stretching languidly. In a daze, Haylee stood up and walked around to get used to this new sensation. Her lungs filled and expanded with breaths that drew in more air than she ever thought possible. Her thoughts came as swift as lightning. This is what all the strange things were leading up to!

After a while, Haylee wandered back to where Curtis lay, pale and trembling. Her eyes grew wide as she realized that she now knew a lot of things about him.

A surprise — since he always seemed so cool and confident — were the many nights he’d spent alone and afraid in an empty house when he was too young to fend for himself. His parents drank too much and fought too viciously. A distasteful look crossed her face when she learned that he planned to have sex with her and then describe it in graphic detail to his buddies at school.

Haylee dressed slowly. When she finished, she stood over him, watching. His pink skin glowed against the dark grass. He squirmed weakly reminding her of a maggot removed from its food source.  How did I ever think that I loved him? she wondered.  Haylee picked up his clothes and threw them in a heap near his feet. “Get dressed!” she demanded. When there was no response, she squatted next to him, shaking his shoulder. “Put your clothes on!”

He turned toward her. Haylee was startled to see the look on his face — or rather, the lack of a look on his face. It was as if he were asleep with his eyes open. In that instant, she understood that he was a shell emptied of its contents. Those…were now inside of her.

Haylee realized that he was not capable of putting his clothes on without help. Muddling through that awkward task, Haylee got him to his feet and tugged on his hand. His mechanical actions smoothed out and began to look almost normal once they got going. She led him back across the trestle.

On the other side, Haylee relived those awful moments running across the bridge and the shock of what she’d done to him.

Reaching the spot where he’d placed the pennies, her eyes scanned the area. Not far away, they lay on the track, blended together into one. Haylee picked up the fused metal. Her first thought was to put it in his pocket, but then she changed her mind.

______________

Story Prompt:  January-February 2016 Short Story Contest

SFF world

Theme: My Sweetest Downfall

Word Count Limit: 5000

Inspiration: This short story is an adapted excerpt from Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone.

Resources:

Haylee: Period of Change PDF download

Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone free (6+hr) audiobook download

Haylee web page