There’s something to be said for sticktoitiveness, besides the unpleasant beating-a-dead animal simile. I’ve just about wrapped up a beast of a short story that algally bloomed into my (ahem, first) novella, aka “Undelivered Valentines.” Here’s a link to Part 3, and I’m providing a synopsis to sprint my memory and yours. I’m splitting Part 4 up because it’s hovering around 16K in sum; I will have it all posted by tomorrow (21 January), come hellish unedits or high watering-down. Thanks again for bearing with me on a gut-grinding-into-hopeful-diamonds process of creativity. Both this story and the blog.
. . . Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” —Stephen King, On Writing
SYNOPSIS of the STORY SO FAR
It happened one summer . . . Jamie and her teen-aged daughter Emily (not to mention their mutt, Rusty) have moved into a large, old, in-need-of-TLC house in rural Indiana that was used as pest house in the past. Jamie is a widow and an academic. Emily is a somewhat shy teen, but she’s made a new friend named Jud, who works as a page at the town’s library, and he figures into the story more as time passes, although the story proper plays out in a less-than-one-week period. The girl at the center of the story feels she has made contact with a being inhabiting her new (old) home, and she proceeds to try to convince her skeptical mother that ghosts do exist. Set in approximately the early 1990s, this yarn limns elements of grief and loss, race and identity, forgiveness, life and the beyond-life, hope, and hearts hardened and whether they can be made malleable again. All this froth flows into a speculative (paranormal) historical novella that’s oddly romantic and that leads several characters toward illnesses, risks, and, ultimately, some epiphanies in the challenge to find out who wrote a mystery love letter, signed only Thomas, some 80 years ago and found by Emily.
Undelivered Valentines, Part 4, Section A
By Leigh Ward-Smith
They shared ideas over a thick-crusted pepperoni and cheese pizza at one of the three eating establishments in town, Alighieri’s Pizzeria, which was not yet busy on a Saturday afternoon.
“So, di’ja find anything interesting, Em-an-Em?” Jamie asked as she picked off the globular meats.
Resisting the urge to flinch at her mother’s silly sometimes-nickname for her, Emily replied, “Yeah. A few things. For example, did you know that
in Japanese folklore there’s a tale about a clam that grows so giant that it rises to the sea surface and exhales a mirage made of cities or that there’s a mystical incense that can call up the spirits of the dead or—”
“That’s all very interesting, but I meant did you find something relevant to our Mr. Mysterious Letter-Writer?” Continue reading →
Part 1 of this story is here. Part 2 is here. And without further ado, here is Part 3 . . .
Undelivered Valentines: Part III
A Serial Story
by Leigh Ward-Smith
She found Emily sitting idle on the front-porch swing reading Watchers by Dean R. Koontz. Her back was sloped Thinker-style, elbow triangulating with her knee and propping up her chin.
An untouched peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich sat on the small table with a couple cans of soda, one already empty.
Jamie pictured a Lilliputian Snoopy piloting one of the insects that buzzed in an endless elliptical pattern around the sandwich and open-mouthed can.
“Super, you found the sandwich and the sodas.”
“You know, we both should cut down on our soda consumption.”
By that point, Jamie knew the teen had tuned her out, so she decided to inject some fun into the conversation.
“I was thinking of getting a Mohawk in my hair and a skull tattoo as well. Would they look good on me?”
“Mmm-hmm.” Emily nodded slowly.
“That President Bush sure is a hot guy; I think I’ll steal him from Barbara. Will you help me?”
The clicking of nails on a wooden floor skittered to a stop just inside the front door entryway of the house. But only a trebled yelping jangled their attention, just as a dog-blur slapped the screen door open a moment later and bolted out. Continue reading →
Photo copyright Björn Rudberg. Björn is also an amazing poet and fiction writer.
WORD COUNT: 183 words
GENRE: Paranormal, horror
If Megan Beuchanan had been the type of person to take the figurative temperature of a potential home, she’d have discovered the Turner House was zero at the bone.
Clinging to the cusp of the ravine, every bit the Victorian-era vulture, the now-dilapidated residence was everything the single mother sought: cheap.
It also, then, wouldn’t have come as such a shock when daughter Ava found the small sachet of letters stuck behind a swatch of old wallpaper in her closet. The letters spoke with the ghost-tongue of long-lost lives and lovers. Thomas would come back for Gladys, somehow. His illness—and confinement in the Turner pest house—would be only temporary. She was to pay no mind to the purported mystique of the manor. Indian haints* did not roam the grounds, nor could they be heard screeching as the diseased husks of their bodies were rolled into the waiting arms of Brine River below.
If only Megan could have steeled her psyche for the night Chief Swift-as-Hare John Harris’s smallpox-addled corpse came calling. Ready to reclaim the feathers of his people’s whisked-away souls.
*A Southern United States (dialectical) word meaning ghost, specter, or spirit.
This flash fiction is humbly submitted for Rochelle’s weekly Friday Fictioneers photo-prompt challenge, though it comes in a bit too long (as usual). If you enjoy writing or reading (or both), I encourage you to take part with your own story or to follow along by absorbing the brilliant fiction out there in Rochelle’s quadrant of the WordPress-iverse. Cheers!
Hello, and thank you for visiting or returning to this little experiment I’m tentatively thinking of as the fiction junction (I’m sure the name is already taken, however). Here on my Wordsmithery blog, I hope to present at least one fiction piece weekly, making use of varying lengths, a gaggle of genres, a menagerie of styles, and so on. Right out of the box with the second post–and the first fiction presentation after the “Fiat Lux” introduction, I probably bent my already-plastic rules a bit by undertaking a cliff-hanger as part of the challenge presented by WordPress’s Daily Post, then evidently I missed their deadline for pingbacks for the second part of the cliffhanger. I also came to their challenge a bit late as well. All that said, I was already committed to finishing or at least advancing this young adult fantasy with possible paranormal elements, and I enjoyed reading other posts besides. I’m a new-old blogger (for a little mystery, you can parse that one!), for those who don’t know me. So, I am still navigating all the elements to a modern blog using WP; this is a roundabout way of saying that I might throw a poll at the end of the story if I can get it to work correctly and the demands of parenting will allow. See what you think with this follow-up story (after acquainting yourself with part I if you haven’t already), and I welcome any and all fruitful feedback, as ever. I’m even thinking this week of posting a self-critique of both parts, because there are definite stumbles in each section of the story.
And now, without further ado, here is the second part of Sam’s story:
N.B.: Contains mild profanity and possible triggers for susceptible persons
from Part I: As I stoop down and reach for the book, The Faerie Queene, which is turned upside-down and looks like the roof of a gingerbread house dreamily decorated with a myriad of animals . . .
This painting is titled “Ängsälvor” (“Meadow Elves” in English; by artist Nils Blommér in the 1850s), and it was obtained via Wikipedia, through which it is in the public domain as a photograph.
. . . the menagerie in book form seems to undulate on its own. You should have seen me jump! I mean, already I am the kind of person who’s more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, but then add on top of it all this unexistence crisis. I bumped another stack of books as I scooted back and fell on my butt. Amazingly, the books didn’t topple like dominoes. A funny thing happened, though, and I wasn’t on the way to any forum—as far as I could tell, anyway. From that vantage point I could just peek under the “roof,” but what I saw made me rub balled fists into my skeptical eyes and blink the dust away. What appeared to be a miniature human-like creature huddling, a bit stooped itself, was smack-dab in front of me. A sniffing interrupted my astonishment, and I became aware K.B. had nosed in after me, which catapulted a kind of panic to land solidly inside my already coiled-up gut. The little figure let out a muffled squeal for the both of us, and then I saw a little blur dart out away from the dog’s direction and mine. Its blue garment fanned out and long brown hair spiraled back, which led me to believe it wore a dress of some kind. Is it a girl . . . elf? What would that be, a gelf, maybe? That’s the best word I could come up with at that spurred moment.
Snapping fully back to this gnarly reality, I quickly realized I had to catch it before K.B. did. K.B. wasn’t vicious in the least, but she sure wouldn’t hesitate to play with a squirrel or other little critter if she could get her paws on it. Playing, of course, meant vigorous head-shaking, mouthing, critter-tossing, and an altogether bad time for any small furry I’d ever seen her encounter. So I hoped the training we’d done back in the fall would kick in when I needed it, for something made me think this . . . whatchamacallher . . . might be important to the mystery of what was happening to me. And not just for the “wow, that’s awesome!” aspect of finding a mythical creature. What I mean is, nobody expects to find a unicorn munching clover in his backyard or an ogre next to the rubber ducky in her bathtub. Nobody outside of Piers Anthony, anyway. (A Groucho-esque voice intruded just then in my head: “Outside of Piers Anthony, it’s a reeeealllly dark and depressing place”! What a uni-CORNY joke, another part of my mind half-way teased, then snickered.)
I clicked in my cheek and gave the “sit” command just hoping. K.B. whipped her head around, whimpered, and then sat her wiggly, stub-tailed bottom almost to rest on the dried blood–brown carpet. I moved around the first disturbed pile to where the creature had run, and left of K.B. But she had moved out of sight again. Smart move! I wondered if I’d be able to find her among the tight and not-so-neatly stacked piles. I’m guessing there was a good 500 or so books shoehorned into the room, even below the blinded window, and interrupted only by a small walk-in closet where Grandma’s cat, Pepper, had hid seven mewling kittens just a couple months ago. I loved those little puffballs, but, still I wished Grandma would get her cat fixed. Drifting, my mind fixed on a distant buoy, one where I was a veterinarian performing life-saving surgeries and routine exams; a hero to people who loved their pets. If I chased my dream of working with animals, all the way to vet school . . .
“Woof!” K.B. hardly ever barked, but this muffled outburst was enough to bring me back. The closet door was closed, and I moved over to open it just in case. Nothing I did seemed to budge it, though, so I figured something must be keeping it latched. Weird. But I didn’t have time to deal with it now. The gap under the door was so low and slender, I doubted the girl-creature could get under it anyway, so I hopefully scanned the nearby stacks. Nothing. Damn! Despairing, I let my skinny legs sink me low. It had been that kind of a day—one big ol’ letdown—and finally the tears dropped. I noticed they were real as they fell but seemed absorbed instantly into the tide pool of carpeting.
For better or worse–mostly beyond the latter—as I grew up, it seemed that this was my family and the circumstances were never going to change. The family would keep disintegrating around my ears, never mind what I did or how I felt about it, laying an ugly, unexpressive ash over my dark curls. My Fate was kind of the Road Runner to the Wile E. Coyote that was me. It would jet out its tongue in derision, then run, leaving me a loser or at least none the closer to self-knowledge.
I guess there was some comfort, a tiny security in the chaos. The family was as certain as Pisa, and though it leaned at an odd angle, it stood. Good, bad, or otherwise, it was always there, tilt and all. Now, I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t Vesuvius itself. Or, if not, at least in the encircling shadow of that epic ancient volcano that sealed its neighbors in a powdered, airless death pose.
What did I do to deserve this? I began to wail and rock myself. From a distance where my outburst couldn’t be heard, I thought I probably looked like a farmer greeting the rain during a drought, with the broad, flat plains of his palms parallel to the sky and his eyes sprinkling happy tears of their own. But joyous tears were ancient waters, running deep and curving enchantingly away, receding from the hell of what shared the table, couch, bed, and bath with us. Or was us, maybe.
K.B. began to whine, probably in response to my distress, and if she’d had a full tail it might have thudded the carpet in nervous abandon. Just then, “shut up, dog!” echoed from another room. It was Momma. I was surprised she heard, because she was usually so involved with a book or writing numbers—or out at a bingo place. She was even gone most schooldays this year when I had almost tumbled off the bus and slogged in with way too many books in my backpack. I saw a program tucked in among the random papers a couple days ago announcing an event for this weekend, printed on neon-pink paper:
$$$50 pots, crazy &/wild bingo—free (yes FREE) hotdog’s, and coffee; come, one, come all!!!!!! Bing-Ohhh!!!!!!!
It screamed with its abundance of unnecessary punctuation. Mrs. Hendrix’s head would have snapped off at the neck to see such “abysmally horrific grammar,” as she put it. I was secretly glad I didn’t have to diagram or rewrite any sentences that Jack’s Bingo Parlor had cooked up for their fliers. Mom had dragged me there a few times instead of letting me stay home. The days-old coffee was okay; the hotdogs, I don’t know, since I don’t like those. I guess the coffee made me feel more adult, so I tolerated it, but it always felt like drinking cigarette ashes because it was so bad at Jack’s. About the only thing going for the place was that it had fewer people, which meant the mushroom cloud there was only at threat-level seven for my asthma. I felt sorry for whoever owned the stores on each side of this parlor, because it must have really stunk to high heaven with all the smoke and smokers everywhere. The entire atmosphere made it seem like the perfect place for hope and luck to choose for a murder-suicide.
It took me by surprise when Momma came through the doorway to berate K.B. again. “What’re you whining at, you fool dog!?” And K.B., like many intelligent dogs, seemed to take it to heart in some way—if nothing else, it was the tone. She slid down onto her shaved pink belly, her muzzle between outstretched paws but curled away from Momma, as if wishing that by not seeing Momma, Momma wouldn’t see her. Nor would her outstretched hand be able to swat K.B. or hook onto and then drag her out by the collar. “I don’t know why we don’t ship you to the pound,” she concluded over saucer-sized spectacles when the dog didn’t rise to her sneers. She also didn’t notice me. Nor did she bother picking up the spilled books. I was glad for the junkiness of it all this one time.
“Please come out,” I tried again, falling into a puddle of strength, somehow. I was now more convinced that no people in the house heard or saw me, but I was less sure whether that applied to mysterious or mythical creatures. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.” I waited as long as I could stomach the patience, but nothing happened except a faint rustling I couldn’t locate in the room, though K.B. turned her head in the direction. “My dog’s name is K.B., and she won’t hurt you either. See? She’s sitting because she does what I command, so she won’t move until I tell her to.” Now there was no sound. “My family call me Samuel, but I like Sam better,” I spoke to the silence.
It was only a moment until a quiet-seeming “I know” punctuated the air. It definitely sounded like a girl’s voice.
“If you already know me, how come I don’t know you? I mean to say, please tell me what your name is.” The silent treatment again.
But trust seemed to be building, for she spoke again, with a briefer silence separating us. “I am called Flora. Flora Mae Jacobs. Or I used to be.”
She was surprising me already. I didn’t know small, potentially magical people had last names.
“Who . . . I mean, what are you, Flora, if you don’t mind my asking?” I ventured the question, hoping she wouldn’t take it as rudeness.
“I think I am just like you, Samuel Osric Blinn.”
“Please, it’s Sam. Just Sam . . . Sam-I-am, thank you, ma’am!” I tipped an imaginary cap and grinned in the direction from which her voice had come, edging ever so slightly closer.
The silly joke hadn’t seemed to register. Either that, or she was as petrified as I was. She was still hiding, after all, but at least she had poked the rounded ends of what seemed to be two black shoes from behind a stack of books on the right wall, adjacent to the closet door. In that area, the four or so stacks that moved out away from the wall had some separation from some of their neighboring stacks, at random, so that on one side, they were cross-hatching with nearby books, then on the other there was a small canal separating them from other stacks. It seemed to be just enough that a small creature—uh, person—could walk between some of them.
I tried once more. “Will you come out, please? If you’ve watched me enough to know my middle name, which I hate and never, ever use, you know that I’m honest, right? And if I’m honest, then you should believe that I will keep my word. And I really will. K.B. and I won’t hurt you, Flora. Can we talk face-to-face, or at least face-to-top-of-head?” I smiled politely, hoping she’d understand I meant that in the best way possible. I never thought I’d be taller than just about anyone; so far, I took after my five-foot-six dad, or five-foot-zero mom, in that regard.
“It is not you,” she began low then stepped from behind the books, “that I am . . . concerned about. It is the others in this house. As for your dog, we used to have one, too. My brother, Milo, and I found him back out there near the pond, with a ripped paw. We named him Charlie, after one of my favorite movie stars. Milo and I used to . . .” Her voice trailed away, so much so that I was afraid she was going to bolt. “So I am not scared of your dog. Besides, I have watched and even petted her before. I know she is friendly.”
As ambient noise floated in from outside, I think we all became aware of movements out beyond the small living room in the open house: the distant sound of the refrigerator door closing more than a little too hard, then ice cubes propelled into a glass, and bits of a conversation. “Report it . . . I don’t have . . . my husband collects . . . take it, then, see if I give a . . .” I could tell Momma was on the phone and pacing around like penned-up tiger who hadn’t eaten in a week.
Meanwhile, K.B. again whimpered and wiggled where she sat, not moving otherwise, as the voice ballooned and shrank, finally rising and coming closer at once. She looked from me to the girl in blue, like she didn’t want to let either of us out of her sight. Just then, the door swung fully open, quickly, and Dad plunged in, in a hurry. Looking straight through me as I looked into his eyes, he instead went over to K.B. and hovered menacingly. The way I see it, he was goaded into the display by Big Momma, the evident silverback in human-female form. “Look, Dog, you can’t make a mess in here or be so annoyingly loud. She’s on the phone with somebody in there. Another bill collector, from the sound of it. She sent me in here to keep the peace, but you better believe she won’t hesitate to take a piece if she storms in—and it’ll be a piece of your ass, not mine! So, BE QUIET!” he shouted as he wagged a short, stoutened index finger at the cowering dog. His sallow blue eyes had seemed to both dull in the irises and narrow overall from a rounded-semicircular shape to a half-moon one. Except in this case it was the moon rising over a small, fleshy mound; I always wondered if I’d have eye baggage once I got older, if it kind of went with the territory of being an adult and having “responsibilities,” whatever they truly meant. The way some adults said it, reeeee-sponsibilities, lengthening the word to practically double its normal size, which was already massive, made it seem like a fakey code word. A wink from adult to adult that only they were in on the joke and calculated to scare us kids into good behavior. Well, I always was one to mind them pretty well most of the time. It was either that or the hickory switches came out of the woodwork (pun intended, I thought), “just like my daddy used to do to make me mind him,” as Momma would say.
It was probably a good thing that Flora had ducked back into the stacks as she heard footsteps coming in. Our conversation so far made me wonder if she had been poking around the house a while, maybe even longer than we had lived in it—for close to the last six years. We didn’t know a lot about the place, but the seller had told us her “old-maid aunt” had owned it since at least the early forties and that the house was built sometime around “the Great War,” in 1915. Even at my age, I wasn’t too sure why any sane person would think a war was great, but I guess they couldn’t very well call it the Big-Assed Disagreement, or BAD, at least not officially or for history books anyway.
As swiftly as he had entered, Dad moved out of the room with a bit of a wobble, but he left the door so it was agape. The conversation from outside had ceased for the time being. I realized I’d been biting back my breath and didn’t even know it just then. But would Flora ever come out again? I didn’t want to lose her—a potential friend, if nothing else, as I went through this crisis.
“Yes, Samuel?” She moved shyly from behind the stacks and came almost to stand a foot or so away. “Can we go somewhere else to talk? I hang out in the basement area a lot. It’s kinda my playroom and sanctuary all rolled into one. Are you able . . . I mean, do I pick you up or . . .?”
“I am able to move on my own quite nicely, thank you. I guess you do not realize it, but I have lived here for awhile—in the cabinets, in the walls, whisper-quiet. But this is not the first time I have been overlooked.” Her last word was almost inaudible.
I hated tense moments like this. Her tiny head dipped down and to the side, revealing the yellow ribbons at the nape of her neck. I figured her to be probably my age, but she was very oddly dressed. That is to say, most teenage girls, in my limited experience, wore shorter dresses. But blue jeans or leggings were more the norm at my school. Or at least they were; I had just gotten my latest—and last—report card for Purvis Middle School (yes, we were not only “purvs” but got the unfortunate PMS acronym, too, much like my horrific string of names). I was getting ready for the next grade, which included a larger school and probably even bigger obstacles than finally asking out Ashley or telling off Richie, if I ever percolated the gumption to do either.
“Let’s go,” I enthused, hoping I covered up any momentary awkwardness. We were at the stage that I didn’t want her to feel bad or to know that I knew she was feeling bad. I practically drifted through the house and down the wooden stairs as I kept turning back to watch her run from hiding spot to hiding spot. K.B. probably provided a pretty good diversion, too, loping through the small rooms. And I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think she was visible to Momma and Dad either. Sometimes, I reckoned then, it was good to have someone in your life—even if you were currently no one.