Friday, October 14, 2005

The Other Side of the Mountain

This was the last story I wrote for the AOL Short Story Contest. That Contest is now history and this posting concludes the series of stories written for that. Any further stories, and hopefully there will be some that I feel I can and/or should post here, will be for other things or just my enjoyment. The theme this week was "Whispers". It was written the first week of May in 2005. It's one I kinda like but don't expect anybody else to and so far what little reaction I got to it bears that out.

    Marc walked warily through the milling party crowd. As he neared knots of people engaged in conversation inevitably they fell silent and watched him until he moved on. The room seemed filled with people in whispered conversation shooting occasional glances at him. He could not seem to find Callie and felt the raw edge of panic begin to set in. He began to move faster and more urgently. No one offered to help him and instinctively he knew it was useless to ask. As hard as he worked to fight it down the panic rose until he was frantic.
    Marc jerked upright in bed, covered in a cold sweat.

    Callie rolled over and looked at him sleepily. "The nightmare again?"

    Marc merely nodded.

    Callie pulled him down to her and he let her hold him. She quickly drifted back to sleep as always. It was not as easy for Marc who lay there thinking replaying the whirlwind events of the last year.

    This wasn't the way it was supposed to work, Marc thought. But then nothing about their life had been quite mainstream since they'd agreed together 20 years ago that Marc should be the one to stay home with the kids. The one thing they'd been sure of was that one of them had to fill that role. It was also, Marc thought, possibly the last correct decision he'd ever made. That elicited a sigh since he knew that Callie would vehemently disagree with him on that.

  Two very active children had kept him occupied very well. The problems began as the children reached their teen years, which brought on the rebellion and independence of that age. They began to need him less and less just as Callie's career began to really gain momentum.

  He'd not meant for it to happen at first. He'd found he was not alone feeling as he did when he was talking to Helen after running into her at the mall one afternoon. Helen and Jason had been friends of his and Callie's for years, ever since the kids had been in the same schools and on the same sports teams. It had been natural for Helen to invite Marc over to swim and talk.

  Talk they had. They'd also had a few beers with the lunch they had before slipping into the pool to avoid the early September heat that Central Florida was famous for. Helen began to tease Marc playfully and he'd responded. The next thing he really remembered was waking beside her in the bed with her tracing her finger up and down his chest. He remembered how shocked he was to realize what he'd done.

  Helen had smiled at him for that and had gone on to tell him she thought he deserved it. She told him how she'd decided if Jason was going to be too busy for her then she'd just make herself happy however she could. Marc had been shocked and asked what would happen if Jason found out.

    She'd shocked him yet again when she told him that Jason knew full well what she was doing. Marc couldn't believe it until she'd picked up the phone to call him, apparently fully planning to have Jason tell Marc himself.

  That had not been their only time together but Marc had avoided more times than he'd taken her up on. It had started something though that, while it began slowly did snowball over the years. Marc never told Callie, he could not bring himself to. For her part she never seemed suspicious. He had not been sure if she didn't care or if he was just good at hiding his tracks and being discreet.

    Then almost exactly a year ago it had began to unravel. Somebody he thought was a good friend and very discreet turned out to want more than he could give. She'd startled him by telling him that she was leaving her husband and wanted Marc to leave Callie so they could be together.

  Scared, Marc had tried to cut it off with her but she began threatening to tell Callie on her own if Marc didn't. Apparently she also talked about their affair a lot. While she and Marc didn't have any common friends the whispers started.

  Oddly the first to come to Marc had been Helen. She'd told him what she'd heard and asked if she could help him someway. He'd told her no, since he could think of no way anybody could help.

  The whispers grew louder and more pervasive. Marc still could not bring himself to tell Callie and it was eating him up. He'd stopped sleeping well and had lost weight.  Callie had repeatedly asked him if he was ok and if he wanted to talk about something. He knew then she'd heard the whispers but he could not bring himself to talk about it. She'd accepted that in her stoic way and had just insisted he go to the doctor to make sure nothing was wrong. He'd done that for her and of course the doctor gave him a clean bill of health.

  The whispers turned into a howl then as the woman publicly announced she was leaving her husband who was a prominent local attorney and frequent target of the local media. They gleefully picked up on the story and quickly dragged Marc into it and inevitably Callie as well.

  Marc had finally had to tearfully confess, long after he knew he should have. Callie had cried with him. Then she'd sat him up and told him she'd known about it for a long time. She'd asked him why he thought she kept asking him if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Astounded, Marc had asked her why she hadn't made him stop. Callie had replied that it seemed to be making him happy and he was giving her everything she wanted. She'd then apologized to him for not being able to give him all he'd needed during those years and for focusing so on building her business.

  Marc sighed deeply then and rolled over holding Callie tight. She snuggled deeper into him as he looked out the window at the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains coming alive in the sunrise.

  Maybe Callie was right Marc thought and this was a godsend. Their children were grown and on their own. They had just each other now. Marc had been stunned when Callie had come home and announced that she'd sold the business and even more stunned when she told him how much she'd gotten. It had gotten them this snug place on the side of a North Carolina mountain, always a dream of his, and enough socked away to take care of them for the rest of their lives if they so desired.

  Marc felt Callie's arms tighten on his and heard another whisper. This whisper he liked. "I love you Marc, forever and always. Please make love to me."

  Once again the whispers of his past were forgotten as they made up for lost time.


This is a relatively new story. I also posted this one in my regular journal but am reposting here for completeness. It was written for the AOL Short Story Contest but is longer than most of the others because they changed the rules to allow up to 2000 words. I'm not sure if I like this one or not. It had potential but I am not sure I quite hit what I intended. The theme was "Attic" and the story was written in late February of 2005.

  Toni sighed and trudged up the stairs. "You've got to get a grip," she told herself as she plopped down in her desk chair. Flipping on the computer she started some upbeat music playing hoping to brighten her mood. She gave a weak smile as the music began to play and typed in the password to open the word processor file that contained all her meager email correspondence with Brock. She sighed again and close the file, sure if she read through it she would get depressed again.
  Again she wondered how, exactly, it had happened. Here she was, a 33 year old happily married mother of two wonderful girls. She was at a loss to explain how she'd ended up having an affair. Or was it an affair, she wondered. She'd only seen Brock face to face five times at intervals no closer than a month apart and sometimes three months apart. She told herself that was more like a series of flings. "Maybe I'm just going nuts", she said, laughing aloud.
  Toni picked up a deck of cards from one corner of the desk and looked at the Bellagio logo. Brock had brought them to her from one of his trips to Vegas. She idly shuffled them thinking of how they'd met.

  That Wednesday Toni had felt a little bored and frustrated with the idea of doing housework. She'd decided that she deserved some time for her so she'd gone to the casino intending to play poker for long enough to get her food comp and have a late lunch before going home in time for the girls to come home from school.
  As she'd made her way toward her seat Jake, one of the regulars she knew, stopped her. "Watch out for the guy in the eight seat Toni, he's good, real good. I'm pretty sure he's a pro."
  As she took her seat she used the time while she took her chips out of the rack to look over at the man Jake had mentioned. She felt her heart do a little flip-flop and wondered why. She'd played with professional players before and knew if she was careful it was ok. She thought he was fairly good looking but in sort of an average middle aged way. There just seemed to be something about him that drew her eye back. He caught her eye and gave a small nod, his face giving away no other expression. She felt her heart do the flip-flop thing again and wondered why. She heard the dealer tell her that the action was on her and, embarrassed, realized she'd been thinking about the man across from her and hadn't even realized she had cards to play. She looked at them, quickly folded and settled down to play.
  Toni had done her best to just play but her concentration was not all it should have been and when she cashed out to go to her late lunch she was down more than she liked. In the nearly empty restaurant she'd taken a seat by a window overlooking the water. She thought about how poorly she she'd played, knowing it had been because she'd been thinking about that man at the table and wondering what was wrong with her. She played with different people all the time and had never lost concentration like that before.
  "Excuse me, I wondered if you'd mind sharing your table. We played at the same table for a while this morning and I thought you might not mind a little company and I really would rather not eat alone."
  She was quickly brought out of her trance and looked up startled to see him standing beside her. "Oh, why sure. Have a seat. I remember you from this morning of course." She kicked herself mentally, feeling like she was acting like a silly schoolgirl.
  They'd introduced themselves as he sat down and Toni had learned that his name was Brock Piper. She thought, as they began to talk after ordering lunch, that he seemed a bit nervous too. But she may have imagined it. She got him talking about poker and they mostly talked over hands they'd played that morning and he gave her some good insights both to her play and how he'd played. She did learn that he was a pro but he down played it and didn't seem to want to talk about it.
  She'd looked at her watch and gasped, "Crap! I've got to go! The girls will be home soon and I've just got time to make it. I had no idea it was so late!"
  He'd told her that he was leaving Friday morning and asked if she ever played in the evening or if she was going to play again the next day. She thought he'd looked a little disappointed when she'd said no, that today was just a day she took for herself but that she didn't play all that much anymore.
  She'd left then but had not stopped thinking about him that night and when she was still thinking about him Thursday morning she decided to go back after all. They'd not played at the same table but he'd come to the restaurant again and had smiled to see that she'd already had the waitress set out the unsweetened ice tea that he'd told her the day before he preferred.
  The conversation that time got into more personal topics and she told him about her husband, her children, how much she loved the big old house they'd moved into a few years before when Donovan had taken the position in Gulfport. He'd told her a little about how he'd come to be a professional poker player.
  When it was time, once again, for her to go pick the girls up she'd been reluctant to leave but had to tell him that she didn't see how she could come play that evening. She was sure Donovan would expect her home with him and the girls.

  Toni put the cards down, stood up and began to pace. Her hand went to the exposed beams that were the low ceiling of her attic sanctuary. Donovan had surprised her for her birthday by having a contractor renovate the attic for her as place for her office, her craft activities and her exercise equipment. It had become the place she came when she needed to be alone to try to sort out her feelings. Why was she doing this? How could she justify the potential pain she was causing Donovan or the risk she took in possibly losing her two girls who were so dear to her? She sighed then, looking out one of the dormer windows at the Gulf across the street. She could remember feeling powerless to stop it almost from the beginning.

  That Thursday at dinner Donovan had been surprised she'd gone to play poker two days in a row. She'd done it frequently when they'd first moved here but she'd gradually begun playing less. Then he'd shocked her by telling her that he had brought some work home and while she was on a roll why didn't she go play that evening if she wanted since he knew she'd liked to do that when she could in the beginning. She'd gladly accepted but then worried that he would wonder why she was so eager.
  She'd gotten to the poker room and been disappointed to find that Brock was not there. She wondered if, since he was leaving early in the morning, he'd decided to go to bed early. She needn't have worried because about a half hour later he sat down across from her when a seat opened up. She smiled at him and then when he gave her only a small nod in return looked around to see if any of the other players, most of them locals she'd played with before at one time or another had noticed the big smile she'd given Brock. They all seemed to be looking at him though. Obviously word that he was really a professional had gotten around. Again she wondered if that was all her interest in him was. He had given her some great tips during their talks that had already helped her play she thought.
  Donovan had told her not to worry how late she stayed but she didn't want to push it so she decided to quit around 10:30. After she cashed out she took her time outside the poker room putting her money away, wondering if Brock would follow her out.
She smiled when she saw him.
  "You know if I keep leaving every time you do people are going to start to talk," Brock had said with the crooked smile she liked so much but she could tell he was serious.
  "Don't worry about it. We're just friends right? I'm married after all."
  He'd hesitated and then said, "Yeah, you're right."
  They stood there talking for a little while and then he said, "It's a really nice night, would you like to take a little walk down the beach while we talk, if you don't need to get home to your family that is. I know it's getting late."
  She'd known then she should say no because the first thing that popped into her mind was how romantic that would be and how it was something she and Donovan almost never took the time to do even though they lived right across the street from a beach just as nice. Yet she'd said yes.
  They'd left their shoes by the hotel's seawall and walked slowly barefoot in the sugary sand talking. She commented on how romantic it was with the nearly full moon hanging over the water. Brock had looked at her and then replied that he agreed. A little later their hands had brushed together for the third or fourth time when he tentatively took her hand in his. She felt her heart give a lurch and stopped walking. She felt him start to withdraw his hand and she'd quickly grasped his to stop him.
  They looked at each other then and she felt herself melt. Her heart had been pounding as he bent slowly toward her. She'd thought to herself then, "No Toni, you can't do this." But she'd met Brock halfway. Their lips had touched and instantly their arms were around one another and their kiss had gone from tentative exploring to deeplypassionate at a rate that frightened her.
  How long they had kissed she was not sure. She went through every emotion during that time. Toni marveled at how he seemed to take her to heights she barely remembered. Then it had become too much and she'd climaxed. The feeling washed over her, at first wonderful and then as she began to come down from the high the horror of what she'd done hit her. How could a stranger bring her to this state? How could she allow a stranger to do that to her?
  She'd flung herself out of Brock's arms, crying and saying how sorry she was and how horrible she felt. Brock had looked devastated and apologized telling her it was all his fault. She'd fled then, straight to her car arriving home only then realizing she had been so panicked she'd even forgotten her shoes.

  Tears filled Toni's eyes again as she thought of it. There was so much more as well for her to think about. It had not stopped there, as it should have. That had been entirely her fault she told herself. Brock had given her every opportunity to walk away from it. She leaned against the wall looking out into the attic, glad that nobody would come up here without calling up the stairs, knowing how she regarded the attic as her private space, her sanctuary. Now if only the walls could talk and tell her what to do.

The Gift of a Memory

I've posted this story in my regular journal because I really like it. I'm reposting here to have all my AOL Short Story Contest stories together in one place and because it belongs.

The theme, the last week in December of 2003 when I wrote this was "Sojourns". I wrote it not exactly FOR a friend but definately based on what a friend told me about a relative.It is, and will forever remain, one of my very favorites.

         I'm sitting here in the window seat with the sun bright and warm on my back, gazing out with tear filled eyes on the winter scene outside my window. I'm not seeing it though. Dee Dee's photo album is in my lap but I now know that's not all she gave me for Christmas. Yes, it's full of pictures of us together, as children, as teenagers, pictures of the four of us, taken at my wedding. It brings back memories and now is doubly important to me but it was the smallest part of her present to me this year and I only now appreciate that what I thought was a terrible inconvenience was her greatest gift.
    It was just after Thanksgiving when the phone rang and it turned out to be Dee Dee. After all these years we still talked regularly but had not seen each other for over ten years. Living on opposite sides of the country will do that.
    In typical Dee Dee fashion she started in with what she had to say with no preamble. "Sharon, it's time we got together. It's been too long. Why don't you come back home here and see us for a while."
    "Dee Dee, I can't just drop everything and come out there now. The holidays make things so crazy." I was already being defensive, wondering why I had to go there.
    "Sharon, I know it's inconvenient for you but it's really important to me."
    "Why don't you come here then Dee?"
    "I would Sharon but I want you here with me. I want to walk through Metro Park with you like we used to, shop in all the old places, visit old friends, walk through the high school together."
    "But why now Dee?" I asked impatiently. "Can't it wait until after the holidays at least?"
    "Sharon, please. I know through the years you probably feel like you've always felt you ended up doing what I wanted but this is very important to me. Please do this for me, ok? Think of it as a grand sojourn back home, to your roots and your friends."
    Something about the way she asked made me give in. It was not like Dee Deereally. Maybe it was the way she asked. Maybe it was just the fact that she asked me and didn't just tell me to come.
    So I took that sojourn back home. I'm afraid I didn't go with a good attitude. My husband didn't help pointing out that the kids were old enough to not need me if I was gone for a week or so and that there was nothing I really had to do for the holidays that wouldn't wait or that he and the kids couldn't take care of.
    So I went back home. We did all the things she wanted. We talked for hours. She never did really explain why she wanted me there so badly right then. I thought maybe she and Frank were having problems but when I saw them together I knew that wasn't it. I watched him when he didn't know I was and saw the love and caring in his eyes, along with something else that I couldn't figure out then.
    Gradually she thawed the ice princess and I began to relax and just be glad I was there. By the end of the week I was wishing I had more time. She'd gotten me to relax and have fun like I'd not done for years. I remembered why we were such good friends and why I put up with her quirks all these years.
    I went home then to the best Christmas I'd had in years. Everything seemed brighter and cheerier somehow. We talked on Christmas day, Dee Dee and I. She sounded very tired, I thought, but when I asked she just said she was a bit under the weather but not to worry about her.
    I didn't hear any more until that February day when the doorbell rang and I answered it to find Frank standing there.
    "Well hello! What are you doing here?" I looked around him to see where Dee Dee was. "Is Dee Dee with you?"
    "Can I come in Sharon?" He asked without his usual carefree smile.
    I knew there something was seriously wrong. "Is everything ok? You and Sharon aren't having problems are you? Is that why she wanted me there?"
    Frank reached out, took my hands and looked down into my face. "Sharon, Dee's gone. She died yesterday. She was so happy to have held on past Christmas, and to have gotten her one last visit in with you. She made me promise to come to you and tell you in person right after she died and not to tell you before then. It's one of thefew things we ever fought about Sharon but she felt strongly that she wanted you to remember her just as she was, not to have your last visit be marred by you knowing it would be the last."
    I just broke down and cried then. Dee had been Dee to the last it seemed. Right away though I saw she was right. I realized that there would have been nothing I could have done, that I did the best I could just doing what she wanted one last time.
    So as I watch Frank walk down the drive toward the waiting taxi I sit here tears in my eyes holding that photo album, filled with memories of Dee Dee and thanking God that she talked me into what I will always truly remember as a grand sojourn back home to see my friend.

The Real Prize

I've got a lot of favorites among my stories but this one ranks high. Other stories had better writing, stronger plots, more memorable characters but I just plain like this story. The theme was "Heavenly Bodies" and I wrote the story in mid August of 2000.

I've always hated wasting time on awards banquets and this one was no different even if I was supposed to be the guest of honor. As the speeches droned on I found myself daydreaming. I'd always been interested in Astronomy even as a young boy. I loved nothing better than to find a field to lie down on my back in and stare for hours as the heavens paraded by.

That's where I was on the fourth of July on the year I started college. While everybody else was enjoying the festivities I'd gone off to just stare at the stars and dream. Had I stayed I'd not have really fit in. I was a nerd and I had long ago accepted that. I didn't have the easy going way with the ladies like most of the guys seemed to but I'd pretty much resigned myself to that and to being picked on for looking the part of the nerd as well.

"Hello," I heard somebody say startling me out of my dreams and causing me to spill the drink I was holding on my shirt.

"Hello," I said, blotting at my shirt and looking up to see who was there. I was surprised to see Samantha Jakes. She was to my mind the prettiest girl in school. "What brings you out here?"

She knelt and dabbed at the soda on my shirt and said, "I'm sorry I startled you. You did look deep in concentration, are you ok?"

"I'm fine, I was just sitting here looking at the stars and thinking."

"Why aren't you at the party? There's lots of good food and dancing."

"I'm not much for dancing I guess, or for parties. I'm just a nerd who loves to stare at the stars."

"You are NOT a nerd," she said in a tone that made me look over at her. Pretty as ever, long kinky red hair and a nice sprinkling of freckles and wearing a white bathing suit that showed she had plenty going for her.

"Oh come on Samantha, yes I am. I stopped kidding myself long ago. I am a nerd and I always will be. I'm different than most people.

"Ok I will grant you that you're a nerd but you know what? That doesn't mean you can't socialize, that people don't like you. You ought to be at the party."

"Why, who cares? They all have someone and are enjoying themselvesand I am happy out here staring at the stars and dreaming of possibilities."

She sat down beside me and I felt her leg against mine and found myself looking into her eyes as she said, "Well there is somebody who cares, somebody who wishes you were at the party to dance with her and yet here you sit."

"Who? None of the girls has every paid me any mind"

"Well you never pay them any mind." She said and then sighed. "You really have no clue do you?"

I just shook my head and she smiled and went on, "Remember last year in biology you let me be your lab partner? Why do you think I picked you?"

"So you'd get a good grade?" I ventured.

She laughed and said "That was just a benefit you idiot, I wanted to spend some time with you. Remember near prom time this year I kept saying hi every morning and trying to talk to you?"

"Well yeah, but I…. Well I thought you and your friends were…. Well picking on the nerd."

"Do you really think I'd do that to you?" She asked softly.

"Well I didn't want to but its what seemed to happen, one of the guys with you would always make some kind of crack."

"Oh God I guess it might have seemed that way." She said. "Well it wasn't. I wanted you to ask me to the prom"

"Really," I squeaked and remember vividly beginning to sweat even though it was relatively cool that evening.

She didn't say another word for a long time. She just pushed me back and kissed me. I grew up a lot that night and found something more important to me than stars.

I was brought out of my reverie of that wonderful evening by loud applause and realized I'd been introduced and was just sitting there with a silly grin on my face. Looking out I could see people whispering to each other. Oh well, I was used to it after all these years. I went to the podium and don't even remember what I said just wanting it to be over. Getting the award was nice but I had all I needed in my life.

Then blissfully it was over and I could work my way out and go home. I looked around and then heard behind me, "I'm proud of you." I turned and she kissed me, making me blush just like it always does when she kisses me in public. Then quietly she said in my ear the words I first heard that night so long ago and still love to hear today, "you're my favorite nerd in the whole world and I love you."

With a grin on my face, knowing I'd won the grand prize years ago, I walked out with her on my arm still looking as stunning as she did back then with her red hair flowing down and the low cut evening gown glittering like the heavens and getting the attention of every man there.

Walking by some reporters, I smiled at her and she chuckled as she looked in my eyes with her eyes full of love and we heard one of them say to the other "Now THERE is a heavenly body, how did HE ever get her?".

Prisoner of Hate

This was a weird one. It is not my usual type of story. I'm not sure if I was experimenting or was in a dark mood. It's one you may want to skip. The theme was "Prison" and the story was written at the end of July of 2000.

Panting and out of breath, not to mention being hungry, wet, and miserable, the convict stopped at the edge of the clearing around the ramshackle cabin. There was a soft glow of light from the windows and a wisp of smoke from the chimney so it must be occupied. He crept up to peek in a window and saw a man of indeterminate age sitting in a chair facing the fireplace. The man's face was deeply lined and he could have been an old 40 or a normal 80. He showed no signs of awareness and there was no weapon to hand so the convict went to the door and stepped inside.

"Come in, what took you so long to decide to come in? It's not like you had anyplace else to go to get out of the rain and get warm," the man said without getting up.

"What do you mean? You knew I was there? No way!" the convict snarled, nervously looking about but seeing nothing that worried him.

"I could feel you out there believe me. I imagine they are looking for you pretty hard from the prison. They know about this place so if expect to stay out you'd better not stop here." The man said.

When the convict tried to protest the old man answered, "Oh come on! Are you that stupid? Not only do you radiate enough hate and anger for me to feel you a mile away but what about those clothes. They'll have you back in soon enough."

"Oh no they won't! It was horrible there! You don't understand. Its hell in there, the other prisoners beat me and raped me and treated me like crap all the time. I'm never going back." Then, wondering, "How do you know so much about me old man? I've never seen you before. Is it on the news?"

"Look around, do you see a TV or a radio? I know all I need to know about you because I can't help it. The hate, fear and anger you have in you is very palpable. I feel it stinging like having a jelly fish wrapped over my whole being. There are many kinds of prisons, not just the concrete and steel one you were in and will go back to. My own personal prison is that I feel all the hate and negative emotions people generate. Imagine if you had to feel all the hate and anger and jealousy in the world 24 hours a day seven days a week. You can't shut it off to sleep, it is always there pressing on you."

"I felt you coming long before you got here. I can feel you now. I know and you know what you did to all those little children. You deserve to be in prison and deserve what your fellow prisoners do to you. Death would be far too kind."

The convict, thoroughly shaken and confused blustered, "You better shut your mouth old man or I'll just slap you into next week."

Laughing the old man stands up and moves closer to the convict who despite himself backs up a step.

"I'm not one of those little children you piece of crap you. There is not one thing on this earth you can do to hurt me." The man says in an amused yet menacing voice.

The convict swings but feels like he hit a brick wall and is not even sure if he touched the old man who just laughs. Panicking he picks up a stool and throws it at the man only to see it splinter with no visible effect.

"How does it feel to be powerless slime ball? Maybe that's how those kids felt." The man says, shaking his head.

The convict runs for the door and scrabbles with it frantically as the man approaches him grinning. "Oh its far too late for that. You're here and you won't leave until I finally get my peace and you go back to prison." The man says reaching for the convict.

Cowering back against the door he screams as the old mans hands grasp either side of his face. He is vaguely aware of a strange light, brightest white with swirls of deepest black. And then, just before passing out, he hears the old man saying with relief in his voice, "Finally, finally after all these years I'm free, free…"

Waking, the convict finds himself on the floor with the body of the old man who's lips have a peaceful smile forever frozen on them. Then he begins to be aware of a terrible burning, stinging sensation.  He first thinks it's the old man but just as he staggers to his feet he realizes its outside somehow. The door crashes in and prison guards and sheriff's deputies flood the room, guns drawn. The sensations the convict feels builds to a level that has him on his knees whimpering senselessly, "don't hate me, please it hurts so. Oh God it hurts."

"I don't know what happened to him while he was outside but he was like that when we brought him back. He keeps going on about an old man and feeling the hate and how it's not fair that he be in two prisons at once." One of the doctors said as they looked atthe man curled in a fetal position in a padded white room.

"They said he was alone when they found him. They don't have a clue about any old man." The other doctor shrugged.

They left and the convict was aware that he was alone again, a prisoner not only within bars but within his mind. He whimpered again as the waves of hate and anger from the inmates and guards swept over him again. As he finally drifted into sleep he seemed to hear the old man laughing and the word "free" echoing through his mind.

Florida in Flames

The theme was "Flames" the time was June of 2005. It was inevitable that living here in Florida I'd have written this story at that time. We were in the grip of horribly dry weather and were having horrific wild fires. At one point an entire COUNTY was evacuated (Flagler). This was just based on impressions and my imagination, not really on anything I read or heard about to the best of my recollection.

    The smoke was thicker than ever. I was packing what I could because Mike said we'd probably have to get out soon. How could we leave this place? We'd lived all our married lives here. Mike had built most of the house with his own hands. We'd raised two wonderful daughters here.

    The news was terrifying to watch. Massive evacuations covered the whole area from Titusville all the way up here into Flagler County and extending inland to Orlando even. Florida was literally in flames and nobody seemed capable of doing much about it. There was even talk of postponing the July 4th race in Daytona.

    As I tried to decide what to pack I looked out, there was Mike sweaty and covered in ash. The streams from the hoses he and our neighbors were wielding looked pitifully insignificant.

    Later, I heard Mike arguing and saw a fire truck and a sheriff's car. Mike shrugged his shoulders and headed up to the house and my heart just fell, this must be it, we had to leave. I could even see flames now, it was depressing and terrifying all at once. His look of dejection said it all, and we wordlessly put what I'd packed into the car. Mike didn't even look. While I could take some of what mattered most to me, the pictures and some papers, Mike was being forced to leave behind something he'd worked for and taken pride in, for oh so many years. Who knew, if it would be here when we got back.

    I felt so sorry for Mike, yet it was him trying to cheer me up. That got harder as we drove through areas where everything was a charred wasteland. House after house burned to the ground. As bad as it was, we saw, every now and then, a small oasis of green in all the black where the fire had spared a copse of trees and at times even a house or group of houses.

    For two days we were stuck in a motel, able only to watch the horror unfold on television. There were constant scenes of houses going up in flames when all the valiant efforts of the firefighters proved unequal to Mother Nature's fury.

    In the end, the whole of Flagler County was evacuated, we learned. I had trouble grasping that, a whole county in danger and ordered from our homes. Smoke and fire and destruction everywhere you looked it seemed, it was almost too much to grasp.

    Everyday we tried to go back and every day we were turned back. Finally on the third day, we were allowed in once we proved we lived there. Looters, it seemed, were a concern. How sick! Who would further victimize someone who had been through this?

    The trip back was like a trip into Hell. At the least Hell could be no worse. Everywhere was gray ash, the bare trunks of trees, the stumps of palmettos, all fire blackened. Smoke rose from the ground wherever you looked. Everything seemed to have a damp smoky smell to it.

    Still, giving us hope, now and again we saw a house intact, miraculously saved by the hard work of the firefighters. We even saw one whole neighborhood untouched. Maybe just maybe, I allowed myself to think, it was still there. The look on Mike's face was grim. I didn't know what to say so I said nothing, just sharing this awesome scene of destruction with him.

    Nearing home, we saw a house or two standing undamaged. One curve to go, what would we see of our home once we turned that corner?

    I couldn't look. Silly maybe, but I closed my eyes. I heard Mike's intake of breath and then heard him curse quietly. He stopped and I opened my eyes to see the whole street gone. Every single house had been reduced to smoking ruins.  I swallowed a sob and took his hand. He just looked at me with a lost look on his face.

    All I could do was remind him that we had started this house together when we had nothing more than we have right now. If we did it once, we can do it again. He looked so hurt and at that moment so old, like this had drained him, as I imagine it did.

    We walked around and looked at what was left. From time to time a neighbor would drift over and we'd exchange a quick hug and some quiet words. Mostly, it was a time to reflect on what we'd lost and to realize that at least we still had each other and the ability to rebuild what we lost.

    By the time it started to get dark, Mike had that look in his eye that I've come to recognize when he had a project to work on so I knew he'd be ok. I started to get depressed now. Where do we go? Where would we live until we could rebuild? I realized that in one sense of the word, I was now homeless. I began to cry and Mike held me until the worst was over then loaded me back in the car and we drove off but soon to be back to start on our new

Sailing Lesson

The theme for this one was "Lost" and it was written in late May of 2000. It's another one I tried to put a twist in at the end. I kinda like it.

The wild seas tossed the small sailboat unmercifully. The storm had come seemingly from nowhere, and only the incredible skill of the instructor kept them from capsizing. Nicole saw only sheets of rain and wild waves, and then she heard him yell a warning, as the tiny boat slammed to a stop and she was spilled out onto the wet sand of a beach.

Watching him work to save what he could in the driving rain and pounding surf, she thought back to when they met. He had a dark tan, sun bleached hair, and a well-maintained physique. He had been introduced as Ivan Carpenter, but quickly asked her to call him "Carp." She found him somewhat mysterious and a little aloof. He spoke only enough to convey the lesson, no matter how she tried to draw him out in conversation.

"Nicole! Mrs. Smethers!" It finally dawned on her that he was shouting to her through the gale. "Help me drag what's left to the tree line, and then we have to find some shelter!" Ashamed to have been caught daydreaming at such a time, she helped him drag the remains of the boat up into the trees. Then she followed him inland a little until he pointed to a thicket, saying," That will have to do; it's out of the worst of the wind and rain anyway."

They squirmed their way into the thicket, sitting on her towel that he had salvaged. Only then did she start to worry, as she was sure this was not the resort island. She knew there were other little islands in the area, but most without fresh water, so therefore uninhabitable. She started to feel cold and afraid, and found herself exhausted and shivering.

"Will we be okay?" she asked in a shaky voice. "How long before they find us?"

"This storm will blow over in a few hours at most, and they should find us by tomorrow," Carp told her. "It will be dark by the time the storm is gone, though, so we'll be spending the night here."

She started shaking worse with cold and fear; and he put his arm around her as the gale howled around them. She moved closer, and the combination of her exhaustion, with the warmth and confidence that he exuded, lulled her into a deep sleep.

She woke with a start. It was dark! Where was she? Then she remembered, and started to panic as she realized she was alone. But then she saw Carp just outside the thicket, and he had a fire going. She crawled out, and he handed her a cup of tepid water, and a piece of fish on a palm leaf.

"Where in the world did this come from?" she asked, amazed, but famished enough to take a bite first.

"Water came from the boat; rain filled the whole aft end, the way it's sitting.  All the water we're likely to get, too. The cup was in your bag."

"What about the fish?" she asked as he handed her more.

"Easy enough to catch in these waters. Got it right at dark while you were asleep."

"Well, you're amazing; and I thank you," she said, making him look uncomfortable.

"I don't know about that. This whole thing is my fault, I reckon. Storm should have moved the other way but it sure fooled me. I'm really sorry about that. You'll get a refund for the lesson, of course."

She moved over to sit beside him. "Don't be silly; I'm just glad I had you to get me through it alive." She reached up and kissed him on the cheek, and found his blush endearing. She also found herself considering a whole night there, alone with him, as she always did think he was very sexy. But she was a housewife from Kansas, married faithfully for 20 years; and she believed that nothing was going to happen to ever change that. Yet, when he looked down at her and asked, "Are you warm enough?" she felt herself falling into those deep brown eyes.

"Please put your arm around me again," she said. "It was so nice and warm before."  As he did, she moved closer, aware of every inch where their skin touched. She found herself snuggling tighter, and ran her hand through the hair on his chest. She tipped her head up, and her expression invited his lips to find hers. Everything else, including the cold, was forgotten... they were the only two people in the world.

It was a night of passion like none she'd experienced before. He raised her gently to heights she'd only dreamed about... pleasuring and guiding her... again and again.

She felt the warm sun on her skin, but still she fought waking, not wanting the night to end. She found herself wrapped in his arms, their bodies entwined, the memory of the night before so vivid in her mind.  Then she heard a helicopter and felt sand against her cheek as it moved over them. She could no longer sense Carp's presence, and felt herself moving more and more toward wakefulness, though still trying to fight it.

"Nicole, wake up! It's the friggin' middle of the day and you're gonna miss the sailing lesson you made such a big deal about, if you don't get your butt up off that towel and get moving!" She found herself looking at the sunburned face of her husband. Snapping awake she looked around. She was on a towel on the beach at the resort, not lost on a deserted island.

Disappointment overwhelmed her... until she looked over toward the sailboats.  There Carp was waiting for her, just like in her dream. He had given her something she would remember forever, whether he knew it or not.

"I'll see you for dinner." her husband said. "And you be careful now. I don't care what they say -- it looks like it may storm."

Nicole walked off... smiling.

Back Where We Belong

This was written in  late April of 2000. The theme that week was "Our Town"

Stay calm, I told myself as I saw her pull into the driveway, you won't get a thing from yelling and maybe it's all a mistake. Still I knew it was no mistake. I'd found the letters in her desk, the evidence of what she'd planned, where she really was this weekend and the lover she'd met online that she'd spent the weekend with. No, it was no mistake. That I'd not actually been with the online lover I myself had gotten entangled with was no
consolation. I had to admit I'd probably been headed to meeting her just as Meara had met hers this weekend. Oh what a web we have weaved for ourselves. Will it strangle what is left of our marriage? I still loved Meara dearly if my feelings at the thought of losing her were any indication.

She came through the kitchen from the garage carrying her one suitcase, her red hair, wild as ever, framing her face… a face with a look of contentment of peace. It hit me hard knowing why she looked so happy. I hoped more than ever that I was wrong.

"Well! To what do I owe this honor," She asked breezily, "I'd have thought you'd be working or golfing on your day off. I didn't expect you here to meet me. Is something wrong? You don't look too good."

When it came right down to it, I could not trust myself to say anything. I was afraid my anger and fear would come out and I'd lose any chance I had. I just handed her the sheaf of papers.

She took them and then looked at me with a sorrowful look on her face and said, "Oh shit Greg, I'm sorry you found out like this. You found them Friday night didn't you? You haven't slept at all.
"I found them looking for your hotel number since you forgot to give it to me like you usually do. I haven't slept all weekend. I love you Meara I don't want to lose you."

She sank down on the couch beside me and after a long awkward silence said quietly, "I'm sorry for the way you found out, I'm sorry you found out at all, but Greg for the life of me I'm not sorry I went. I had a wonderful weekend that made me feel desirable and loved. That is something you have not done for me in a long time Greg."

"I know I've been busy with work but you'd had your business and I thought you were happy." I said, "Is there any hope for us Meara?"

"I have not been happy Greg and I really don't understand how you can think I have been. I have tried and tried to tell you. Think of all the times I begged you to go away with me for a romantic weekend and you just said 'someday'".

I cringed at that, I had done just that to her on many an occasion, not realizing how important it was to her. "Is it too late to do it now Meara?" We'll leave tomorrow and just go somewhere". I said with a feeling like I was grasping at straws and they were slipping through my fingers.

"Not this week Greg, neither of us can just take off like that. I promise I will give you a chance and see if we can work it out before I call a lawyer."

"Its come to that? I asked, shocked.

"Yes Greg, I had decided that if this weekend made me feel good it was time to leave. I am willing to try though honey. I really do love you still. Make plans for next week. I leave it all to you."

That week went so fast, so much to do, so many fears and thoughts flying through my brain yet Saturday came and in the airport she finally learned our destination.

"Orlando Greg?", she asked playfully, "Are we going to visit the mouse?"

"I'd not planned on it although if you want to we can. We met in Orlando, we got our start there, I thought maybe it was appropriate to go back and try to set things right between us there, too.

"Oh Greg!!" Meara said wrapping me in a big hug, "That's so sweet and its just perfect!"

From the moment we stepped off the plane it was wonderful. It seemed like nothing could go wrong. It seems you can go home again, even though it had changed. The luxury hotel on I-Drive that our suite was in had not existed when we were last there. The theme parks and tourist areas were much larger and more crowded than we remembered.

A lot was just as we remembered it though. I took her for a romantic walk beside the stream in Dickson Azalea Park, for a moonlight stroll around Lake Eola after dark, looking at the skyline of the city reflecting in the water. We partied on Church Street and at Pleasure Island. We drove by all our old haunts laughing and telling stories of our youth. We  found a few old friends. Most importantly, we talked.

Sitting on a park bench at dusk she said the words that changed our lives forever. "Greg this is so perfect, this whole trip has been. I never want to leave here. This is where we grew up, this is where we met, I've never felt truly at home since we left. This is our town, can we stay here forever Greg?"

And so I write this watching Meara float in the pool with a smile on her face. Two years we've been back here. Two years of happiness and the prospect of many many more to come, now that we are back in our town

Here come the rest of them

I'm going to dump the rest of my stories that were written for the AOL Short Story Contest here one after another today just to get them done. I suspect nobody but Connie reads them any longer when I post them because the last few recieved no comments and the hit counter didn't go up. That's fine. I'm mostly putting them here for safe keeping in case AOL does away with the short story folders all together. If anybody does have this on alert still I apologize in advance for the number of alerts you are about to recieve.