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Archive for the ‘A Short Burst of Writing’ Category

Those Eyes

by L.V. Gaudet

 

 

As I stand in the damp shadows of the night looking through the muted sheen of drizzle in the night lights, a darker shadow comes into view.

It moves as if apart from the world around it.  Coming slowly towards me.  It cannot be more than four feet high.

I turn and scurry, ducking to hide behind a large tree spreading its darkly leafed limbs in the front yard of a house behind me on the street.  Peeking out, I look up the rain slick street.

The clash of cool rain against the warm night air thickens into a fog, filling the air with its ghostly aura.

The light of the street lamps still glow sallow and mute despite the rain misting them and the fog folding them into its thickening embrace.

The shadow moves, untouched by the dim light, the rain, and the fog.

I am filled with the urge to duck deeper into the tree, to become one with it, hiding like the little grey squirrel who I know lives in this very tree.

Fear breathes from my mouth and I imagine I can feel the little squirrel trembling in fear inside its tree home, holding its breath and listening.

I look again and the shadow is closer now.  It has split into two somehow.  Identical.  Almost.

The urge to laugh at how stupid I must look sits heavily in my chest.  I have no idea why I am afraid.

Swallowing the sick bile of fear in my throat, I force myself to move, darting for the darkened house behind me.

Yanking at the door is useless.  The door is locked.

Ringing the bell brings no solace with the impotent pushing of that little button on the wall next to the door.  No one is there to let me in.

Looking around quickly, I remember there is a shed behind the house.

The shadow twins are still there, closer now, in the middle of the road where the street lights reveal them to be nothing more than two children, a boy and girl.

A laugh bubbles up my throat, filled with the tension of unease.  I feel foolish.  They are just a couple of kids.  The smile that cracks my face is a little sickly looking.

I move to step towards them.  I should greet them and ask what they are doing out here in the middle of the night, in the rain.  Are they lost?

They are staring at me.  I know this by the way their bodies look in the dark and the rain, the dim light glittering with a fiendish wet sparkle that touches everything but them.  They are facing me, staring at me, although I cannot see their faces, their eyes.

As we face off in the rain glistening in the street lamps dark of night, the warm air loses its clash against the chill air brought by the rain, and the fog thickens.

The other night shadows recede, but somehow the two children seem to be shadow and real at once.  An aura of shadow that is a part of them.  They are untouched, somehow, by the street lights.

Fear oozes through me, slithering dark and oily.

They move towards me in perfect unison, taking a slow step, unhurried.  They have all the time in creation of the planets and the universe.

I don’t know when my feet moved.  I only know that somehow, inexplicably, my feet are moving beneath me.  Running.

It feels like I cannot take my eyes off those children.  I feel bad that I am not offering to help them.  They should not be out here.  Yet, I know I cannot be looking at them because the house passes to my right in a fear-fogged blur.  The driveway moves beneath the slap of my feet. The rain soaked grass of the back yard dampens the bottoms of my pants legs.  I see the shed coming at me, the hand that moves as if it is not a part of me reaching, grasping, and pulling the door open.

The darkness of the shed’s interior with its lawnmower squatting like some strange alien bug, the rakes and shovels, and the spindly spokes of a bicycle rearing suddenly before my eyes, hanging from the roof or the wall, I am not sure which.

My breath is panting raggedly out of my mouth and I am certain I can smell my own stink of fear sweat.

The two kids are outside of the shed as I pull the door closed, jamming a gardening utensil into the handles on the inside to lock the doors closed, even as my displaced thoughts wonder why those handles are even there on the inside of a small shed.

Utter blackness fills the shed with the closing of those doors.

I can feel them out there, staring at me.

The last image of them is burned into my eyes, my mind.  Their faces, so strangely devoid of emotion, of life, of whatever it is that magically makes the living feel animated.

Their eyes, twin orbs of blackness staring out of twin pale moon faces.  Expressionless.  Lifeless.

Soulless.

Their eyes are all black.  The pupil, the iris, the sclera, the part that is supposed to be white.

Their voices come through the rough wood door, close on the other side; hollow, surreal and weirdly dreamlike.  As if they are speaking to me through some strange mutant sound muffling and distorting mist from far away.

“Please, let us in.  We only want to come in.”

“Let us in out of the rain.”

“It is dark out here.  Please let us in.”

Everything that is human and decent in me tells me that I should open that door.

The slithering dark oily fear filling me holds me prisoner.  I cannot move.  I cannot scream.

I somehow manage to look down and wonder at my bare feet.  The bottoms of my now wet pajama pants.  I am dressed for bed?  Did I go to bed?  I don’t remember.

How did I get outside?  I don’t remember.

I can only see those black eyes.  Strange and lifeless, staring at me without expression.

The all black eyes.  Football shaped marbles of black that do not, cannot, glisten in the light the way eyes do.  Light cannot touch them any more than it can touch the strange children or the shadows that became them.

They are the absence of light.  Of life?

I want to scream.

I can only see the eyes.

 

 

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20115

 

The realtor enters first, staring in fascination at the outdated furniture and décor.  The air feels heavy with dust and it tickles the back of his throat.

Awkwardly, he remembers and steps aside to let the other man in.

The buyer steps inside after the realtor and, like him, stops to take it all in.  He scans the room, absorbing the old furniture, the layer of dust covering everything like a shroud. The dust in the air is heavy and gives his throat a dry tickle that makes him want to cough.

With a distracted nod to the realtor, he steps further into the house, feeling a momentary pang of regret for not taking his shoes off. “You are supposed to take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home,” he thinks.  He looks around taking it all in.

“It’s eerie how the house feels like the family just left it moments ago, like they are about to come back at any time.  The house looks lived in, except for the thirty years of dust coating everything and the vague feeling of abandonment.”

The mostly green cover of a comic book left laying open on the floor catches his eye.  He picks up the comic book and looks at it, trying not to disturb too much of the dust clinging to it.  It’s unavoidable, his fingers rub smudges in the dust coating the old comic book.  The Thing, an orange blocky comic book creation made of stone, part monster and all hero.  On the cover, The Thing appears to be battling a many-armed green wall, the green arms surrounding him in a barrage of punching fists.  Marvel Comics, The Thing issue #21 dated March 1985.  The price on it is sixty cents.

The top front corner is curled from a boy’s rough handling.

He puts it down with a frown, wondering if it’s worth anything on the collectors’ market.  He can’t take it, though.  It belongs to the municipality, along with the property and its contents.  At least until after the auction.  He hopes the realtor didn’t notice it.

“How often do realtors scoop up gems like this without anyone ever knowing?” he wonders.

Against the wall on a stand, a tube T.V. with its faux wood exterior box, two front dials, and bent rabbit ears poking up from the top at the back, sits darkly silent, a haze of dust coating every surface.

He walks through the house, past a pair of socks discarded on the floor, and into the kitchen.

“Did you say they still lived here after the boys vanished?” he called to the realtor in the other room.

The realtor is studying the spines of books in a bookcase on one wall.  It’s made of the old particleboard that expands and crumbles when it absorbs moisture, which it inevitably does over time.  The shelves have some warping and bubbling, crumbled on some edges.

“Yes, I don’t know how long.  They lived here while the search for the boys was going, and for some time after the search was given up.”

“And the husband moved out, leaving the mother alone?”

“Yeah.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know. Months? Years? They locked the place when they took her away. Like I said, we’re the first to set foot in the house since they institutionalized her.”

He leaves the bookshelf and starts for the kitchen.

In the kitchen, the buyer walks around, taking in the two tea towels carefully hung on the oven door handle, yellowed and rotting with age.  The teakettle on the stovetop. On the countertop, a measuring cup sits next to a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Two bags he guesses are flour and sugar bags sit next them. The bags are faded and stained with age, the paper brittle with age, and even the larger print words hard to read.

“Looks like someone was going to make a cake.”

He turns away, circling the table, studying the place settings set with care.

An old tan rotary dial phone hangs on the wall not far from the kitchen table, where the person on the phone can sit down at the table while they talk, the coiled cord stretched from them to the phone on the wall.

The realtor walks in and looks around, his footprints in the dust coating the kitchen floor joining those following the buyer’s trail across the room.  “Weird, the table is set for four.”

“For her family.” It is said with a dull gravity that makes the realtor turn and stare at him.

He breaks the awkward moment.

“I’ll show you the bedrooms.  There’s three bedrooms, I think.”

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11985

 

The boys burst into the house, hurriedly kicking off their boots at the back door before going any further.  Everything looks exactly like it did when they went out to play.

It’s 1985 and the furniture and décor are a clash of pieces mostly from the sixties and seventies, some bought new, some second hand, and some are hand-me-downs.  Nothing has been upgraded in the past ten years, a testament of thoughtful care and financial mediocrity.  The worn couch and dented coffee table, victims of having two rambunctious growing boys in the house, are overdue to be replaced.  A comic book lays discarded on the floor, open as if it is trying to fly away, The Thing is caught forever in an epic battle against a green monster that looks like a rough tree bark wall with many arms surrounding The Thing with flailing punching fists.  The television, an ancient tube set, sits dark and quiet on its stand.  A pair of discarded boy’s socks are tossed carelessly on the floor, and the latest edition of TV Guide sits on the coffee table.

“Mom!” Jesse looks around.

The house is dead silent except for their own breathing.

“Mom?”

Kevin stands there, looking around.

The house is exactly as they left it before they went outside to play.  How long has that been?  An hour?

But not quite.

Everything seems a little muted.  Off.

And more dusty than he remembers.

Jesse runs into the kitchen.  After a pause of a few heartbeats, Kevin follows.

“Mom?” Jesse pauses just inside the doorway, looking expectantly for their mother.

The teakettle still sits on the stovetop, two tea towels hang from the oven door handle where they were hung to dry after washing dishes in the sink, and the table is set for dinner with places for four.

Flour and sugar bags sit on the countertop next to a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon and measuring cup, pulled out in preparation of baking a cake.

Their mother is not there.

They run through the house calling, “Mom! Mom! Mom!”  They end their search back in the living room, out of breath.

“She’s not here.”

“Where could she be?”

“Next door, maybe?”

“Let’s go see.”

They pull their boots back on and rush out the door into the backyard, trained not to use the front door because that would somehow make more cleaning work for their mother, and around the side of the house to the front.

They stop, staring around wide-eyed, and turn to stare at each other, their faces full of fear and confusion.

They are standing in the woods next to that old stump.

“What the hell?”

“Don’t cuss,” Jesse says automatically.  There is hell to pay if their mom ever hears them use bad language.  Hell is one of many forbidden words.

Kevin turns to him, appalled.

“Seriously?  You’re worried about me cussing? We are back in the woods! How?  This is impossible!”

He stops.

“Jesse.”

“What?” Jesse is sulking now.

“The grass.”

“What about it?”

“Wasn’t there grass in the yard?”

“Yeah, so?  There’s always been grass in the yard.”

Kevin narrows his eyes, wondering if Jesse is just being dumb or is messing with him.

“It’s early spring.  Look around.  There’s still snow everywhere.”

“Yeah, so?” Jesse isn’t getting it.

Kevin’s shoulders sag with the futility of it.  Do I even bother? He sighs.

“Jesse, do you remember what the yard looked like? Just now, when we went back to the house.”

“Yeah, your bike was laying on the grass. I almost tripped on it.”

“Where was the snow?”

They both just stare at each other.

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20115

 

The key jams in the lock, not wanting to go in.

The realtor looks at him nervously and smiles.

“It’ll go in.  The key works.”  His grimace gives face to the lie.  He isn’t so sure it will work.

He fiddles and struggles with the key for too long before the rusting lock mechanism finally unwillingly gives and allows them access.

His smile is almost sickly with relief.

He turns to the prospective buyer, hoping yet again that this is not a big waste of his time.  His commission is going to depend on how much the house actually sells for.  It’s not the usual commission deal.  He is getting more than the average commission percentage, an unusual agreement made with the municipal office that wants only to unload the property and get it off their books, doubtful anyone will bother to bid on it.

This guy is the only person who has shown an interest.  He could bid a dollar, the lowest bid allowed, and walk away with the property for nothing, less than the price of a cup of coffee.

He tries the door, hoping it opens easily.  A warped door can turn off a buyer before they see anything else.

The door sticks in the frame and, after he puts some weight into it, gives with the dull sound of two pieces of swollen wood pressed against each other giving up the fight to hold together.

They enter the house and step back thirty years in time.

 

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The Woods-3.jpg“What is that?” Jesse looks around, alarmed.

Kevin is busy inspecting the object in his hand.  It is rounded with the mud and rotting leaves stuck to it.  He can’t tell what it is.

“Probably a squirrel.”

“I don’t think so.”  Jesse can’t stop looking around.  He feels off.  Something is wrong.

“Kevin,” he hesitates.

“What?”

“It doesn’t look right.”

“What doesn’t look right?”

“Everything.  It’s… off.  The color is off.”

Kevin looks at him.  “You are a goof.”

Jesse’s wide frightened eyes make him pause.  He looks around them.  Jesse is right.  His heart beats faster and his chest feels tight.  Everything looks a little off.  The color.  The light.  But it’s more than that.  Something he doesn’t know how to describe.  It’s just … off.

Slowly, he bends down and puts the unknown object back down, wanting to free his hands.

He stands up and looks around again.

“Now he’s got my mind playing tricks,” he thinks.  There is nothing strange at all about anything.  Everything looks exactly like it should.  Exactly like before.

“It’s nothing,” Kevin says. “You really are a goof.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Everything’s normal to me.”

Jesse looks like he’s ready to bolt.

“Go run home scaredie-pants,” Kevin sneers.  He turns his attention back to the strange item at the base of the stump.

Jesse backs away, moving back towards their yard.

Kevin bends over and picks it up.  He stands up and looks around.  He feels off.

Jesse is moving away and Kevin doesn’t want to admit he’s afraid to be alone in the woods.  He pockets his treasure and chases after Jesse.

They reach the yard and stop.  They both look around.

It all looks a bit … odd.

The color is off just a bit.  It all feels a bit odd.  Out of sync maybe.

The house is not large, a lower middle-income home, all but the windowsills and doors was repainted last year.  The paint of the windowsills is cracking and starting to peel.  A job their father has not yet gotten to.

The lawn, mowed only three days prior, is only just starting to show the sprout of faster growing grass blades reaching over the others, although the dandelions have already popped their heads up, flashing their yellow flowers to the sky like round smiles.  A bicycle lays discarded on the lawn and a swing set stands on one side of the yard waiting to be used.

It all seems a bit dulled, muted, a bit off color.  Like a television set that someone has buggered with the color settings on.

Jesse broke first, running for the house.

He falters, not watching and almost tripping on the bike laying discarded on the grass. Recovering, he keeps going.

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The Woods 2-Thirty Years Later.jpg

Two men are standing in the backyard of a small rundown house in an older middle-class neighborhood. One, wearing a cheap suit and shoes not suited to traipsing through grass, is looking at the house with a mix of uncertainty and mild remorse.  He had hoped the house would be in better shape.  The other, in jeans, shirt, and runners, is studying the trees and bushes bordering the back property line.

“I heard a couple of boys vanished in these woods years ago.” He doesn’t turn around to look at the man in the suit, his attention fixed on the trees.

“It’s a local legend.  Brothers, Kevin and Jesse. They were playing in their yard and vanished.”  The man in the suit turns around to look at the trees too.

“This yard?  They lived in this house?”  The man in jeans looks around at the leafy jumble of trees bordering the yard and stretching out past the neighboring yards.  You can’t see through them or tell how far they go.

“Yes.  To be honest, I was going to leave that bit of background out.  It’s not exactly a selling point.”

“How does anyone know they went in the woods?”

“They found one of the boys’ shoes next to an old tree stump.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.  No other sign of the boys was ever found.”

“And the house?”

“Abandoned.  Left to rot.”

“The family just left it?”

“The boys’ mother went crazy, I heard.  The husband wanted to sell the house and move, get away from the memories I guess.  She refused to sell.  She kept insisting the boys were still here. From what I heard she was obsessed with keeping the house exactly the way it was the day they vanished too.”

“Crazy.”

“Yeah, crazy.”

“So, the house is selling pretty cheap.  It wasn’t looked after?”

“The husband left both her and the house.  Walked away and never looked back.  She stayed in the house for a while, until she was committed.  As far as I know, no one has set foot in the house since.  It’s going to be in pretty rough shape.”

“You make one hell of a real estate agent, you know that, right?”

“Ha-ha, yeah, I guess I do.”

“Can I take a look inside?”

“Sure, let’s go.  I have to warn you, this will be the first time anyone has set foot inside that house in thirty years.  I don’t know what we’ll find.”

The house is an average lower middle-class family home.  Smallish, but not quite as small as the low-income homes across the way.  The windows are hazy with the grime of thirty years of neglect and the paint long ago cracked and much of it worn away by the weather.  The windowsills sag with rot, half eaten by time. The shingles are cracking and peeling up and back on themselves like over-cooked sliced potatoes, browned rather than charred and entirely inedible.  The long grass of the yard had recently been clumsily hacked down, hastily driven over by a municipal riding mower, the charge tacked onto the growing bill of unpaid municipal fees owed, including property taxes and the other inevitable costs of home ownership.  It is one of the unasked for services visited on negligent homeowners.

It is these unpaid fees which are the reason the home is for sale now.  The bank had tried to foreclose on the unpaid mortgage almost thirty years ago, only to find themselves tied up in legal purgatory pitted against the municipality trying to seize the home for unpaid taxes.

Lacking much interest on both sides, the issue dragged out and dragged on, court proceedings repeatedly pushed back, and finally slipped through the cracks of forgotten paperwork.  Until, close to thirty years later, when a bored clerk cleaning out the desk of a deceased co-worker took pause to read a page of paper among the stacks being shoved into the shredding bin, and accidentally stumbled on the outstanding unfinished business of this house.

The long forgotten house by the woods.

The bank had long ago written it off, a small piece of millions in bad debts, and the municipal office was granted free title without being aware of it.

Now the house is up for auction to collect the unpaid property taxes and municipal fees owed.

With most of the records from thirty years ago gone, and no one keeping track of this forgotten property, the best anyone could piece together and confirm owed on the property is the cost of the most recent grass cuttings.  The whopping price of fifty-six dollars.  Less than the price of a song and a dance. They don’t know when the taxes stopped being paid. Any taxes owed are moot. Nearly thirty years of taxes adds up to more than the run down property is likely worth, and ownership by the owners was given up long ago.

The place is a steal.

And in this condition, its value is in the land it sits on.  Any buyer would tear the house down and rebuild.

They reach the door and the realtor fumbles with the key safe looped around the doorknob, trying to remember the combination to open it.  It’s a rectangular box-shaped device locked over the skinny part of the knob like a padlock, housing the key to the door.

Finally, he opens it and releases its treasure, a worn looking house key with the color rubbing off and marred with bits of rust in the teeth.

 

*** Watch for the full-length novel ***

 

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The Woods

This story was first published in 2009.  It has been tweeked and improved for your reading pleasure.  Watch for a longer short story version to come.  The story has just begun.  Read on…

 

The Woods – a flash fiction story by L.V. Gaudet

 

It is an ordinary forest, as far as spooky looking woods go, filled mostly with craggy twisted oak trees, their gnarled branches reaching like skeletal fingers and deeply wrinkled cracked-bark covered trunks. The trees cluster together, their branches twisted and tangled together, daring any to enter their midst.

The land here lies low and wet in the spring, leaving the stand of trees a small island of stick-like saplings and sparse tall yellow grass invaded by wild roses with their sharp thorns standing in a shallow bath of melt water throughout the springtime months.

They are far from a silent woods. A small stretch of thick growth surrounded by fields of crops interspersed with some areas abandoned to grass, weeds, and stray crop seeds. Against one side of this stretch of trees, amidst the farm fields, is also nestled a small happy community. The woods team with life, red and grey squirrels, rabbits, mice and voles, and a range of birds. With the damp ground, the woods are a haven for frogs and toads, and of course, the ever present blood-sucking mosquitoes.

It is a typical small town community lying nestled against the miniature forest. It grew from centuries old land of grasslands mixed with forests. The old forests and grasslands were slowly chopped down, turned over, and settled as the world slowly populated with mankind; the landscape of humanity changing from hunter-gatherers to farms, towns, and villages.

Eventually towns and communities grew together to become cities, family homesteads populated into small farming communities, and untouched land became rare pockets of unsullied old growth forests scattered about in tiny fragments bordering farm fields and stretches of small community homes.

Some of these tiny pockets of untouched woods still hold secrets. Some of these secrets are perhaps best left that way.

 

 

The woods sit silent and brooding, an ugly tangle of dead looking leafless skeletal branches that look like they belong in a darker and more sinister world, the world of the dead. The clouds hang heavy, dark, and grey on this day; a suffocating thick blanket hanging low in the sky to cast a pall over this small piece of the world.

The snow lies heavy and wet, crystalline flakes shrinking and melding into a dirty slush as the temperatures slowly warm. In time, the snow will vanish and be replaced once again by the murky stagnant melt waters that will take a few months to dry up.

Most of the rodents, birds, and other small woodland creatures are conspicuously absent on this day, having chosen to hunker down and wait out this gloomy day. Nevertheless, a few squirrels and birds still flit about the skeletal trees, a small rabbit nervously twitching its nose as it sits motionlessly waiting.

Two children playing in their back yard off the woods dare each other to go exploring into the spooky trees.

“I bet you can’t go to the fallen tree,” said the older and taller of the two boys.

The younger boy blanched, his stomach turning sickly, but stared stone faced at the fallen rotting tree laying nestled within the narrow strip of woods beyond their yard. You can see the tree only because there are no leaves on any of the branches.

“I am not going to let you know how scared I am,” he thinks. He can already smell the mossy rot of the long dead tree, although he has never been near enough to it to catch its odor. It smells in his vivid young imagination like death and decay and something even darker. He watches a small red squirrel flit around the trees, untouched by the dark brooding sullenness and the spooks, ghosts, and monsters his mind screams must surely lurk hidden inside these scary woods. He swallowed.

“Can too,” he said, his voice cracking with fear. “I bet you can’t go stand on that ole’ stump,” he countered.

The old stump is a rotting remnant of an even older fallen tree that has long ago vanished into the mud and scraggly growth of the woods. The stump remains, standing defiant and threatening beyond the fallen tree now laying discarded and tangled in the woods, sharp splinters and points of shattered wood sticking up as though waiting to impale any foolish boy who tries to climb it and falls. Its wood is soft and crumbly now with rot, the sharp jagged edges unlikely to be capable of impaling anything for years.

Kevin humphed at his younger brother. He is just as scared, but certainly is not going to let his little brother know that. He nervously hiked up his pants, which did not need it, and stepped forward on a mission. He marched purposely into the woods, careful to keep his back to the younger boy so he will not see the paleness of his waxy fear-filled face.

With a scuff and a shrug, Jesse reluctantly followed his older brother.

A little red squirrel scampered up to the high branches as they passed, pausing to chitter down angrily at the boys.

They reach the first point, the fallen tree Kevin had dared his younger brother to venture to. It is no victory for either boy.

On a forced march of pride, determined not to reveal his fear of some silly trees, Kevin continues on. He crawls over the fallen tree, its rotting length sagging with a soggy cracking beneath his weight. His forward march slows more the closer he comes to the wicked looking ancient broken stump.

He stops; staring at the stump like it is some otherworldly thing. He dares not touch it, yet also dares not, lest Jesse think him weak or afraid.

Unable to let his older brother face the woods alone, Jesse follows. As he draws near the old stump where his brother has stopped to stare motionlessly at it, he notices something unusual looking at the base of the stump.

“What’s that?” Jesse asked nervously.

Kevin pries his eyes from the stump to look lower.  He kneels down, reaching for what lies there.

“Don’t touch it.”

“It’s nothing.”  Kevin picks it up, turning it over in his hand.

Jesse turns at the sound of a cracking branch.

The boys are never seen again.

 

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Today is anti bullying day.

To help spread the word and in support of the movement to end bullying, I have written a short story.

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This is the story of Sarah Carpenter.

Sarah Carpenter is a teenager with a big problem.  She is being bullied.

With her low self esteem and the stress and helplessness of being a victim of bullying, Sarah has become a suicidal girl whose salvation comes through a promise not to kill herself if only she received a sign through a special gift sent to her in the waves

** All characters and events are fictional.

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Gift in the Waves

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It all changed the day I found the gift in the waves.  But that isn’t what this story is about.

This story is about how I got there.

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If you asked Sarah Carpenter why she felt so unhappy all the time she wouldn’t tell you.  Sarah didn’t know why.

You see, Sarah was depressed and depressed people don’t always know why they feel that way.

Sarah was a suicidal girl whose salvation came through a promise not to kill herself if only she received a sign through a special gift sent to her in the waves.

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That’s me, Sarah Carpenter, the most despondent teenager in town, and this is my story.

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The alarm clock buzzed and Sarah rolled over with a groan, slapping blindly at the clock until she managed to hit the snooze button.

She didn’t get the chance to snooze.

“Sarah, get up.  Let’s go,” her mother called impatiently from the doorway.

“Ugh, five more minutes,” Sarah moaned.  She felt like hell, she was so tired and she hated getting up early.

“Now Sarah!  We have to be out of here in thirty minutes,” her mother said.  Her voice was full of stress.  It always was in the mornings.

Sarah heard her mother leave the room, rushing about to toss stuff together.

Her eyes opened a crack, the glaring orange light of the clock told her it was only six-thirty.

“Stupid early dance class,” Sarah muttered, dragging herself out of bed.  “Just once I wish I could sleep late on a weekend like everyone else.”

Sarah’s life was a parade of moving about from one place to another, school, soccer, baseball, and dance.  She hated them all, but her parents apparently thought the activities would make her a better person.

By the time Sarah was dressed and racing down the stairs her mother was already in the car honking the horn at her to hurry up.

Sarah thought that was very rude.

That the neighbors might be sleeping and disturbed by the horn was just one of many things that never seemed to occur to her mother.  She was too busy rushing everywhere to stop and think about it.

Sarah settled into the car and closed her eyes for the drive, imagining that she was sleeping with the whole day to do nothing else.

The motion of the car would have been soothing if she hadn’t seen her mother’s frantic driving with her eyes open.

The car zipped through traffic, in and out of lanes as her mother jockeyed for position as if she were in a race instead of just going to ballet class. A horn honked as a driver made a rude gesture, angry at being cut off.

They were barely in the dance studio when her mother was already on her phone on a business call, completely ignoring Sarah.

She never stopped working.

Her parents were busy and successful in their careers.  Unfortunately that also meant they didn’t have a whole lot of time for Sarah or her siblings.  They made up for it by buying them a bunch of stuff all the time.

Sarah would rather have a better family.

Sarah survived her class, muddling through pliés and frappés while the teacher glared disapprovingly at her lack of effort.

The other girls huddled and giggled, giving sly looks towards her.

Sarah knew they were gossiping about her.  They always did and it was never anything nice.

After dance were soccer practice and a baseball game.

Soccer wasn’t any better.  Margaret Mansfield tripped her on purpose and half the team laughed at her.  At baseball they put her far out in the left field where she mostly just stood around waiting for the time to pass.  When it was her turn at bat, she got hit with the ball and did nothing but strike out.

When they finally got home Sarah slouched off to her bedroom and closed the door, relieved to finally be alone and away from the comments and looks from all the other kids and the endless chatter of her mother on the phone.

 Sarah was an average teenager with an average family and an average life.  Nothing eventful happened in her life and she preferred it that way.

Like any teenager, nothing ever seemed to go Sarah’s way.  Everyone in her parents circle told her she was pretty, but she didn’t agree.  If she was, she would have more friends like her sister and brother.

She had two brothers and a sister who all seemed to be better at everything than her.

Sarah didn’t really like any of her siblings either.

Her older brother Jordan, the oldest of the siblings, was the family hero.  He was the best at everything, did everything right, was handsome, and everyone was supposed to be just like him.

Her older sister Carrie was taller, prettier, and dressed right.  She was popular and the best boys in school followed her around like puppy dogs.

And then there was Sarah’s younger brother Trenton, the youngest of the bunch.  He was flat out a pest and pain in her rump.  He got anything he wanted by throwing tantrums and always got into her stuff and wrecked it.

Sarah disliked him the most.

But not as much as she hated herself.

She could hear her family off in the house doing whatever they were doing and hoped they would just leave her alone.

With a heavy sigh she grabbed her MP3, plugged the ear buds into her ears, and turned it on, music instantly crashing into her eardrums.

Sitting at her computer, Sarah clicked it on and waited for it to boot up.  She decided to check out her social networking sites first.

Within minutes Sarah wished she hadn’t.  The comments streaming through her feed were peppered with mentions of her, none of it flattering.

“Sarah U R So LAME!” Margaret messaged for everyone to see.

Sarah’s stomach suddenly hurt.  She felt like her heart was sinking right down below her achy stomach.

After that the comments just got nasty.  Before Sarah closed the site Margaret and a few other girls promised to beat Sarah up at school Monday.

“Great!” Sarah muttered.  “Another thing to look forward to.”

Margaret and her friends have been bullying Sarah all year.  They made up mean stories about her, spread hurtful rumors, and were always waiting for her to hurt or embarrass her.

Sarah had tried complaining about it.  She told her parents and they talked to Margaret’s and the other girls’ parents.  She told the teachers at school and her parents talked to the principal.

But telling only made the bullying worse.  Nothing seemed to happen to the bullies and they came after her worse every time she told, punishing her for telling.

Sarah stopped telling anyone.  It was just easier that way.

“Sarah, supper!” her brother Trenton called, opening the door and slamming it closed too hard.

She took her time going downstairs for supper.  She was hungry, but didn’t feel much like eating.

Sarah sat mutely picking at her dinner.

It was the usual dinner conversation.

Jordan and her father bragged about Jordan’s wonderful exploits.

Carrie and her mother talked about shopping and fashions and how fabulous Carrie would look in this and that.

Trenton goofed and burped and farted, interrupting everyone’s conversations with his inane laughter over how funny he was.  He managed to get his elbow in Sarah’s food and seemed to annoy nobody except Sarah.

Sarah quickly lost her appetite and sat there pretending to eat, moving the food on her plate around with her fork until enough time had lapsed that she could ask to be excused.

Nobody noticed how little she’d eaten as she skulked off with her plate to scrape it and put it to be washed.

It was Sarah’s job to clean up after supper.  She started on the task right away so she could get it done and go back to sitting in her room alone.

.

Done with washing the dishes at last, Sarah went up to her room.

She froze in the doorway, staring in horror at her bed.

There, in a tattered mess of torn pages blotched with fat ugly marks from a felt marker, was her diary.

Tears welled in Sarah’s eyes and she clenched her fists at her side in fury.

“TRENTON!” she screeched.

Footsteps thudded through the house, approaching as she stepped in on wooden legs, staring at the mess.

The clasp locking the diary was snapped right off the pressed cardboard book cover.

“What happened?!  What’s all the yelling about?!” her father called as he rushed into the room.  Mother, Jordan, Carrie, and Trenton were hot on his heels.

Jordan craned to see past his father, snickering at the sight of the mangled diary.

Carrie gasped and then smothered a giggle behind her hands.

Mother gave Trenton a look.  He didn’t have the decency to look guilty.

Father glared at Sarah, angry at her outburst.

“He destroyed my diary,” Sarah cried, the tears stinging her eyes beginning to flow despite her attempts to keep them at bay.

“It’s just a book!” Father snapped.  “We’ll buy you a new one.  It wasn’t worth shrieking about!”

But it wasn’t just a book.

This was her diary, her only confidant, and where she hid all her deepest secrets.

It was more than the destruction of a part of her.

What if Trenton had read it?!

The thought horrified Sarah beyond what words can explain.

“Clean up the mess,” Mother said more gently than Father’s accusing tone.  “We’ll buy you another one.”

As if that would make it better.

“I don’t want another one!”  Sarah stamped her foot in frustration and hurt feelings.  “I want this one!”

Everyone filed out except Trenton who stayed back just long enough to wait until no one would see and he had a clear escape path.

He pulled a fistful of pages out of his pocket, making sure Sarah saw them.

“Sarah’s got a secret,” he sang mockingly.

Sarah’s eyes widened and she screeched like a wild beast, leaping after her little brother.

Trenton squealed and ran down the hallway, pounding down the stairs so fast he almost slide down them.

Sarah almost caught him twice.

She didn’t know what she would do when she did, but tearing him limb from limb felt like a pretty good idea.

Sarah stumbled on the stairs, catching herself on the railing as she fell and getting carpet burn on one knee.

She looked up to see her parents standing at the bottom of the stairs looking angry.

Trenton hid behind them looking smug.

.

Grounded!

Sarah couldn’t believe it.  Trenton was the one who wrecked her diary, stole pages from it, and teased her, causing all the trouble.  And she was the one grounded!

Sarah knew she’d be in even more trouble if they knew she was on the computer, but she was so angry that she was beyond angry.

She felt hollow and empty.  Her eyes still burned with the tears that had run out and her jaw ached.  Her whole head felt stuffed with cotton and her nose wouldn’t stop running.

Sarah was searching the internet for ways to kill herself.

It wasn’t the first time.  She thought about it every day.

“Tomorrow,” she whispered.  “Tomorrow I’ll do it and they’ll all be sorry.”

She knew she would go to Hell.  But she was going to Hell anyway.

Her parents dragged them all to church every Sunday morning.

Tomorrow morning she would be sitting awkwardly in the uncomfortable wooden pew in her Sunday best, feeling small and insignificant in the grand and gaudily decorated building, while the priest commanded them to sit, stand, sing, and chant on cue with a gesture of his hand in between lecturing them on God.

She always felt like he was telling them nobody was worthy of God or Heaven and they were all going straight to Hell unless they smartened up.

.

Sunday morning dawned and it was off to church.

Sarah followed her family sullenly, wishing she was anywhere else.

Some of the girls snickered behind their hands, giving Sarah looks that suggested she was funny in an Elephant Man kind of way.  Of course, Margaret was right in the middle of them.

Sarah sat through the endless sermon, not paying attention and turning red with embarrassment when she was caught still sitting seconds after everyone else had stood and started chanting on cue.

Her mother glared at her.  The look said how much of an embarrassment Sarah was to her family.

Sarah wished she would be absorbed into the wooden pew like the gas the old man sitting behind her kept passing.

After church Sarah had to go play a soccer game.  Her father drove her there impatiently and stood on the sidelines looking annoyed that he had to be there.

“Well, I didn’t ask to be signed up for soccer,” Sarah muttered, feeling like he was blaming her for making him waste his time there.

During the game Margaret kicked Sarah in the shin, shoving her down at the same time, and stomped on her ankle with her soccer cleat, drawing blood.

Margaret’s friends snickered at Sarah as she limped off the field.

Margaret and Sarah exchanged looks as she limped by.  Sarah’s was shell-shocked and Margaret’s was smug.

Once home after soccer, Sarah snuck out and wandered off to the nearby beach.  Her house was only a short jog from the ocean.

She wasn’t supposed to leave the house since she was grounded, but her parents were always too busy to notice.

Sarah’s feet slipped and sank as she struggled to walk along the sandy shore line. Even the sand seemed to be trying to knock her down.   Seaweed and other refuse from the ocean was pushed up and up the shore as each wave came in to give it a shove as if the sea were just too tired of it all and couldn’t put any real effort into it.

“I know how you feel,” she said to the ocean.  Sarah felt tired of it all too, like pushing that gunk up the beach was just too much effort.

She plopped down on the sand and just sat there for a while watching the waves and the seagulls.  Clouds tracked slowly across the sky, playing peek-a-boo with the sun.  The sun warmed her when it peeked out, then the breeze cooled her when the sun hid.

“If I just swim out far enough the undertow will take me so far out into the ocean that nobody will ever find me,” she told the waves.

The idea of drowning didn’t really scare Sarah.

She nodded.

“Yes, that’s what I’ll do,” she said, nodding as if the matter were decided.  “I’m going to drown myself.  Today.”

Sarah just sat there and didn’t move.

She imagined everyone’s reactions to her death.

Most of them wouldn’t care at all.

Margaret would be happy.  She’d probably brag to everyone that she did it.

Her family wouldn’t care at all.  Hell, her parents probably wouldn’t even notice she was missing.

Well, Trenton would care, she mused.  He’d be happiest of all.  He wanted her computer and MP3 really badly.  If she died, he would get to have them.

“I should take them with me,” Sarah thought.  She pictured herself struggling through the sand, awkwardly carrying the bulky computer to take them out into the ocean with her.

She almost laughed at herself just seeing how silly it would look.

Her mirth was short lived.

The sadness came over her again, filling her with emptiness.

“I’m just a hollow nobody,” she thought.

Sarah sat for a long time, not thinking or feeling much of anything, trying to not think or feel at all.

It was useless.  She felt like she was so useless, so hopeless.

“No wonder nobody likes me,” Sarah said sadly.

She felt even smaller and more insignificant against the vast sky and ocean.  She was a speck of sand on the beach and nothing more.

She felt like God was up there, his back turned to her, ignoring her.

“Even God doesn’t care,” she sighed.

.

On Monday Sarah went to school.  She slinked all the way there, watching for Margaret and her friends, desperately hoping they wouldn’t see her.

She made it to school safely and didn’t see Margaret or her friends until she was heading to her third period class.

Sarah squeezed between bodies in the crowded hall, watching and alert for the first sign of danger.

She staggered from a painful blow to her back.

At the same time a fist crashed into her from nowhere, sending her books flying out of her arms, one smacking her painfully in the nose.  Something also struck her legs, knocking her off balance.

She staggered, trying to get her footing, but couldn’t seem to control her feet.  Something blocked them.

Sarah tipped and fell to the floor with a thud and the raucous laughter of half the school.

She watched helplessly as her books were kicked around the hallway.

Sarah’s face reddened and her eyes welled with tears.  She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have even gotten a paper-cut on one eye when her book hit her.

For the moment Sarah didn’t feel invisible.

She felt like the whole world saw her.

She wished she was invisible.

The bell rang and the hallway cleared quickly.

Sarah got up painfully, rubbing her bruised knee, and searched for her scattered books.

She couldn’t find them all.  She would be in trouble.

Sarah was late for class and tried to slip into the room unnoticed.

The teacher missed nothing.

Sarah tried to disappear into herself as her teacher scolded her in front of the whole class and threatened her with detention for being late.

Her face burned and her stomach hurt.

.

Almost the last class of the day was gym.  Sarah hated gym more than any other class.

She felt useless and humiliated by her pathetic attempts at whatever activity the teacher punished the class with that day.

And Margaret and her friends were always there too, making fun of her and everything she did.

At the end of gym class, Sarah tried to hide in the locker room as she changed back into her regular clothes.

She was awkwardly struggling with her pants when she heard them.

Margaret and her friends were somewhere in the change room, laughing.

Sarah froze, her veins turning to ice as dread washed through her.

She felt like she would throw up.

“Hurry, hurry,” she muttered to herself, rushing to get her pants on and finding it suddenly nearly impossible.

And then they were on her.

With one pant leg around her calf and her other foot trapped in the opening of the other leg, Margaret and her friends swooped down on Sarah like a pack of cackling hyenas.

They grabbed her, pushing and dragging as she fought against them, her struggles useless against their overpowering numbers.

The girls dragged Sarah and shoved her through the door into the open gym.

She fell on the floor with an ungainly plop, her legs still trapped in her pants legs.

Everyone who was leaving stopped and stared.

Sarah was horrified.  They were all staring at her in her panties!

She stared back, her mouth working but nothing coming out.

The looks she got ranged from amusement to shock to stunned expressions.

Sarah wished with everything she had that she were dead, that she just never even existed.

Her face twisted with despair and she managed to get to her feet and hobble clumsily to the change room.

Sarah pulled up her pants and hid in the furthest corner, waiting for everyone else to leave.

The embarrassment was too much.  The whole school would be talking about this for the rest of the year.

Worse, the boy she had a crush on had been there too.  The stunned look on his face was like a blow to her heart, crushing it.

She missed her last class, hiding in the gym locker room through the entire period.

Sarah looked at everything she saw, imagining all the ways she could kill herself right then and there.

She felt like she was broken.  Sorrow and despair filled her until it hurt so bad she couldn’t believe the pain didn’t kill her.

When the bell to go home rang Sarah still sat there, huddled into herself.

She was too embarrassed to leave.

She was also afraid.

Margaret and her friends were still going to beat her up today.  They’d promised.

But if she didn’t go she’d be locked into the school over night.

At last Sarah skulked out of the change room, leaving the school by a side door and not even bothering to try to get her books.

She walked stiffly home; sure that everyone on the street was staring at her.  The hot flush of embarrassment on her cheeks would not go away.

A bus came barreling up the road, driving fast, its hulking mass unstoppable.

Just as the bus was passing by Sarah leapt out in front of it.

Pain exploded through her as the front grill slammed into her, breaking all her bones.  She fell to the pavement with a wet sound and the bus wheels rolled over her even as they screeched with the stink of burning rubber as they driver braked to stop the bus.

She was dead before she hit the pavement.

The blaring horn of the bus snapped Sarah out of it and the bus swerved as it careened past her.

She looked up in mute shock.  She was standing on the edge of the road.

She had not jumped in front of the bus after all, but had wandered too close to the road while lost in her daydream about killing herself.

Sarah flushed in embarrassment at the stares from the people around her and she scurried off for home.

.

Sarah didn’t go straight home.

She would be in trouble when she got there.  The school was sure to have called about her skipping class.  She would have to explain and the thought of telling her parents what Margaret and her friends did was almost as bad as living through it again.

Sarah went instead to the beach to watch the waves.

She sat there staring at the water in its endless tired attempts to push the seaweed up the sand.

A broken little crab struggled in the sand, a victim of a hungry seagull.

Sarah felt just like that little crab.

Empty and broken and floundering in the sand.

“Why me?” she sobbed, wanting an answer she would never get.

Sarah felt more than ever like killing herself right then and there.

She picked up a broken sea shell.  The flat shell was missing the other half.  Its broken edge was jagged and sharp.

Sarah sawed at her arm, slicing through the skin and bringing up a flow of red liquid.

She sawed at the other wrist until it bled too.

She watched in fascination as the liquid dripped into the sand and was immediately soaked in.

She grew sleepy and weak until she was no more.

Sarah opened her eyes.

She had dozed off.

She looked down at her wrists.

She held the jagged broken shell in one fist.

The other arm was scratched, but not bleeding.

Sarah sobbed piteously, letting herself be carried away on a crashing wave of sorrow.

The broken little crab was gone and that made her feel more alone than ever.

Sarah looked off into the horizon where the sky vanished into the ocean.  The setting sun filled the sky with colors that reflected off the water.

“Even the sky is bleeding,” she whispered. “So why can’t I die too?”

She looked up sadly to the heavens above.

“Please God,” Sarah begged.  “Just let me kill myself.  Or do it for me so I don’t have to go to Hell.  Please just let me die.”  She sobbed harder.

As much as Sarah wanted to die, she was afraid.

She wasn’t afraid of dying.

She was afraid of going to Hell and burning and being tortured forever.

“I’m already in Hell,” she sobbed.  “Isn’t Margaret and her friends’ punishment enough?”

Sarah thought about her problem.  Then she had an idea.

“I’ll make you a deal God,” she said, feeling defiant against this omnipotent being who refused to listen or care about her problems; this creature who had banished everyone to be punished for not being good enough for him.

“If I’m not good enough for Heaven and I’m going to Hell anyway, then it doesn’t matter if I kill myself or not.  I’m going to Hell either way.”

“I’m going to kill myself unless you give me a sign – tonight.  Send me a special gift in the waves to show me that I’m good enough for you, and maybe I won’t kill myself.”

“Do you hear me?!” she yelled to the sky.  “I’m going to kill myself tonight!  I’m going to swim out until the waves take me away forever!”

Sarah put her head in her arms and sobbed like she’s never sobbed before.  She cried until the tears ran dry and she felt like she was floating on nothing but the emptiness that filled her.

She sat there for a very long time.

The sun set and the moon crept across the sky, its reflection dancing on the waves.

Sarah gave up waiting.

God wasn’t listening.  Nobody ever did.  Not her parents, not her teachers, nobody.

There would be no special gift in the waves, no sign.

Sarah got up and stood on the edge of the water, the cool waves lapping at her feet.

She braced herself for what was to come.

The water would be cold.

And then she saw it.

Something dark bobbed in the water.  It broke the moon’s reflection; otherwise Sarah never would have seen it.

She gasped and started wading towards it.

It bobbed and moved with the waves as she approached it.

“What is it?” Sarah asked the ocean.

When she got close enough Sarah reached out, gripping it in her finger tips.

It was too heavy and big.

She waded closer.

It was getting pretty deep and the waves were knocking her around, almost pulling her off her feet.

Sarah felt herself getting sucked out by the waves, dragged further away from shore.  She had to fight against the waves that didn’t want to let her go.  It was harder because she was determined to not lose whatever was floating in the water.  She almost lost the object and at one point was sure she was about to drown, that God was answering her by doing the job for her.

Suddenly Sarah didn’t want to die, not just yet.

Sarah got a better grip the object and pulled it to her, dragging it along as she struggled for shore.

She was halfway back to shore before she realized what it was.

“TRENTON!” Sarah screamed, frantically pushing harder for shore, dragging the inert form behind her.

She almost lost her footing when a bigger wave crashed into her, pulling at her, trying to suck her and her brother out into the ocean.

Sarah kept screaming.

‘HELP!  SOMEBODY HELP ME!  TRENTON!” she screamed over and over.

When she finally made shore, she dragged the lifeless body out of the water, dropping him on the sand.

Desperate and not knowing what to do, she rolled him roughly onto his side, pounding on his back like she’d seen in a movie.

Water gushed out of the boy’s open mouth.

Her mother came running down the bank of sand, screaming.

Distant shouts echoed across the beach and lights bobbed.

Hands pulled her off her brother.

Sarah fought them off, grabbing for him, trying to pound the water out and the air in.

She finally sagged weakly to the sand sobbing as she realized it was people trying to help her brother.

“He must have gone looking for you,” her mother sobbed.  “He must have ended up in the water.”

“Oh God, please don’t let him die,” Sarah wailed.  “Please, I’ll do anything.  I won’t kill myself.”

Weak coughing sounds came from the drowned boy and then his whole body convulsed with hacking coughs as his body tried to rid itself of the water he had swallowed into his stomach and lungs.

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One day, for a lark, I decided to play with a random title generator online.  I clicked the button a number of times, flipping lists of randomly generated titles faster than I could read them.  Then, I picked the three best titles on the list, picked one of those three, and started writing to see what would come of it.

This story is the result.

Stones in the Ships

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 28, 2010

     The wet sound of waves lapping against waves danced with the wind in a unique chorus.

     The world bobbed and rocked drunkenly.  It was dark and dank, reeking of an old dampness that never dried out.  It was the utterly unique odor that only trillions of gallons of water sitting forever in a cesspool of life and rotting detritus being eaten and defecated out by billions of creatures for a couple billions of years could have.

     The cry of a solitary gull that had winged its way much too far from land pierced the air.

     A distant buoy clanged.

     “What are you doing?” a boy’s voice sneered.

     Instantly, the real world crashed back.

     The girl didn’t look up.  She didn’t need to.  She knew who the boy was, and who the other boys that would be with him were too.  She stayed motionless, squatting with her bum barely off the ground, leaning slightly forward, and just stared at her little boats.  They were crude creations of paper and sticks and bits of string that barely resembled boats.  She’d made them herself.

     “What are those supposed to be?” another boy said, his voice full of meanness.  “Boats?!”

     He laughed.  It wasn’t a fun laugh.

     “You’re a girl,” the boy said it like an insult.  “Girls don’t play with boats.”

     “Yeah,” a third boy added.  “Girls don’t play with boats.  Go find your doll-ies.”  This last was sung in a nasty way.

     Tears stung the girl’s eyes, threatening to flow.  She made a conscious effort to hold them back.  Crying would only make the boys worse.

     The boys had circled her, standing over her very close, their shadows chilling her with more than their shade.

     The first boy, Trevor, stomped on her little paper boats, grinding them into the mud of the shallow little puddle they almost floated on.

     Brian “Buster” Brogan and Oscar mimicked his mindless guffaw.

     One of the boys shoved her roughly as they walked away, making her fall in the mud.  Laughing, they went off in search of other victims.

     Laindra looked down at her muddy shorts and legs, then at her boats, now little more than soggy torn paper scraps and broken twigs.  Her face twisted into sadness and the tears flowed down her cheeks.

     A man stepped from the trees.

     “I saw what those boys did,” he said.  “It wasn’t very nice,”

     “They’re mean,” Laindra sobbed, staring at the ruined boats.

     “Let’s see what you have there,” the man said, plucking a soggy paper scrap from the mud.  He looked at it, puzzled.

     “It’s a boat,” Laindra said without looking up at him.

     “Hmm, a boat, huh?”

     “Yeah,” she whispered.  She looked up at the man, and then stood up, shifting her feet nervously.

     “Um, I have to go.  I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”  She ran off down the trail away from the creek she’d been playing beside.

     The man watched her go.  When she disappeared from sight he went too, going the same way he had come, past the trees.

     The next day Laindra was back playing beside the creek.  It was her favorite place to play.  It was usually quiet here.  Nobody, not even her mother, knew she came here.  Well, now those mean boys knew.  She hoped they wouldn’t come back.

     It had rained during the night, and the little puddle had grown wider and deeper.

     She squatted next to the puddle, gently putting the new boats she had made in it.  This time the puddle was deep enough for them to float.  The breeze blew the boats slowly to the puddle edge nearest Laindra.  She blew on them, sending them back the other way.  Too soon the little boats made of paper, twigs, and bits of string became soggy and fell apart.

     She sighed.  The boats never lasted long.  Still, she loved them.  She would remake them again, float them again, imagine life on the sea in them, and watch them grow soggy and fall apart.

     They made her feel closer to her dad.  He had always loved boats, always worked on and with boats, and was often gone for months at a time on a boat.  He had been lost at sea on one of a number of ships that had been rolled and sunk by storm tossed waves.  Her mother was convinced it had to be more than just waves to sink the ship her dad was on, but it was a very bad storm.

     “Did the boys break your boats again?”

     Laindra looked up.  It was the man again.

     “No, they always fall apart.”

     Then her eyes widened and she stared at what the man held.  She was on her feet in a flash, drawn to the man, reaching out a tentative hand, wanting badly to touch.

     He held it out to her.

     “It’s ok,” he said.  “Go ahead and touch it.”

     “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, gently running her fingers along the graceful curve of the wooden ship’s hull.

     “I made it myself,” the man said proudly, “in my workshop just on the other side of those trees.”

     Her face beamed with obvious longing.

     She would need both of her little hands to hold the sleek ship.  Its two masts stuck out proudly, the sails carefully rolled and tied to the beams, ready to be unfurled with the tug of a string.

     “You can have it,” the man said.

     Laindra’s eyes grew even wider.  She stared up at the man in awe, her arms twitching with the desire to take the ship.

     She looked away shyly.

     “I-I can’t,” she said quietly.

     “Sure you can.  I want you to have it.”

     “I have to ask my Mom.”

     The man stared at the boat thoughtfully for a while, and then looked at the young girl.

     “You are probably right,” he sighed.  “Your Mom probably wouldn’t understand.”

     “It’s so beautiful,” the girl said longingly.  “I couldn’t take it anyway.  You worked too hard on it.”  She drew nervous patterns in the dirt with the toe of her shoe.

     “Why don’t you make your own?” the man said.

     She looked at him like he had corn silk growing out of his ears.

     “I’m just a little kid,” she stated the obvious.

     “I could help you.  Whenever you have time, you could come to my workshop.  We’ll build it together.”

     She knelt down, picking at the sodden mess of her paper boats, making a point of not looking at the man.

     “I can’t.”

     “Why not?”

     “I don’t know you.  I shouldn’t even be talking to you.  I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

     “I’m not really a stranger anymore.  I think we’ve kind of gotten to know each other.  You know my workshop and house are just on the other side of the trees, and I know your house is just over the little hill.  We’re neighbors.”

     She dared a quick glance at him, and then returned to staring at the remains of her paper boats.  She really wanted a wooden ship like the man’s, badly.

     “I’m Mr. Collins.  Mr. Jeffrey Collins,” he said.  “But since we’re going to be friends, you can call me Jeff.  What is your name?”

     “Laindra,” she whispered, keeping herself at a safe distance from the man.

     “Well hello Laindra,” he motioned as if shaking her hand.  “I am very pleased to meet you.”

     “I-I have to go.”  She hurriedly got up and ran off in the direction of home.

     Mr. Jeffrey Collins, Jeff to his friends, went back through the trees towards his own home and workshop.

     The next day Laindra was back at the creek with her little paper boats.  This time Mr. Collins was already there, floating his elegant wooden ship in the creek.

     She took a spot some distance away, making a point of trying not to look at the man and his boat.  Before long the little paper boats grew soggy and fell apart.  Then Laindra turned to other games while surreptitiously watching the man with his wooden ship.  As soon as he tried to talk to her, Laindra ran off home.

     They repeated this ritual day after day.

     Sometimes the man brought a different boat.

     Sometimes the mean boys came and tried to tease her.  They quickly learned it was best to just turn around and quietly leave when Mr. Collins was there.

     Laindra stopped bringing her sad little paper boats to the creek.  That was exactly what she thought of them now, sad.  But it wasn’t just the pathetic little creations of paper, twigs, and bits of string that made them sad.  It was what they represented too, the desperate longing for a father she missed terribly.

     And then one day Mr. Collins wasn’t there.

     Laindra looked up and down the creek, but he wasn’t there.  She waited, and waited.  No Mr. Collins.

     Jeffrey Collins stood in his workshop, an old barn converted to a workshop, carefully studying a large chunk of driftwood.  He turned it this way and that, inspecting it from every angle.  Bright sunlight from the open large barn doors flooded the workshop, dust motes danced in the light beams.

     He turned at the slight sound of a scrape by the door.  He smiled.

     “Well, hello there young lady.”

     Laindra stood nervously in the doorway.

     “Have you finally come to help me build your boat?”

     She nodded hesitantly.

     “Well come in then, come in.”  He waved her forward with a friendly manner.

     “Come see,” he urged.  “This here is your boat.”  He proudly held out the chunk of driftwood for her to see.

     She looked at the ugly gnarled chunk of dead wood in confusion, and then looked at Mr. Collins as though he had just sprouted squirrel tails from his head.

     “Oh, I know it doesn’t look like a boat now.”  He caressed the chunk of wood as though it was the elegant smooth side of a boat like the other one that Laindra so desired.

     Drawn by curiosity, she stepped forward.

     “Driftwood is the best wood for making a boat,” he said, ignoring the girl as he studied the wood.  “A driftwood boat can never sink.  It has lived a good life, died a proper death, and cast itself out to sea because the tree just knew that was where it was meant to be, a natural sailor.  Old sailors’ tales are full of the belief that sailors are trees that became driftwood, reincarnated of course.”

     By now the girl was holding the driftwood in her own little hands, looking at it with careful awe.  She was amazed at how much lighter it was than she had expected it to be.  A chunk of wood that big should have weighed much more.  It was still kind of heavy, but not so that she’d have trouble lifting it.

     “Well, let’s get to work,” Mr. Collins grinned eagerly, rubbing his hands together.

     He helped Laindra put the driftwood in a clamp, his larger hands covering her little ones completely as he helped hold it in place and helped her turn the rod to close the clamp securely on the would-be boat.

     He laid out tools, explaining what each would be used for.

     With strong and gentle hands Jeffrey Collins guided the young girl as she slowly drew the boat forth from the chunk of driftwood.  They talked as they worked.  The afternoon wore on, the sunlight grew old, and a slight dimness began to invade the workshop.

     Laindra suddenly noticed the change in light and looked up startled.

     “What time is it?” she asked urgently.

     “Oh, you’re going to be late for supper aren’t you?  You’d better hurry along.”

     She looked at the driftwood longingly.  It didn’t look like anything yet, but in her imagination she could see through its twisted bulk to the sleek hull hidden within it.

     “We can finish it another day.  It will take days to do it properly anyway.”

     Laindra turned and scampered for the door.

     “Um, Laindra,” Jeffrey said hesitantly.

     She stopped, turning and looking at him expectantly.

     “Uh, maybe we shouldn’t tell your Mother about this just yet.”  He cleared his throat.  “Um, about the boat and about us, our friendship.”  He paused.  “She might not understand.”

     Laindra thought about this a moment.  Her Mom was crazy worried about her talking to strangers.  She always had to meet all her friends and their parents, and then told her which ones she was allowed or not allowed to play with.

     Mr. Collins was nice, but she suspected her mom might not approve of her spending time with a grownup instead of kids.

     She didn’t like playing with other kids.  Sometimes they weren’t very nice about her not having a dad.  Sometimes they didn’t even know they were not being nice about it.  But sometimes they were cruel about it on purpose.  And hearing about the things they did with their dads only reminded her that she would never do those things.  Things like going fishing, building a tree house, or … or building a boat like she was with Mr. Collins.

     “Ok,” she nodded before turning and running for home.

     Laindra spent a lot of time with Mr. Collins that summer.  They worked on her boat, spent time down by the creek floating boats, went for walks, or sometimes they just hung out and talked.

     Laindra’s mother noticed changes in her daughter that summer too.

     She spent more time out playing, and when she was at home she seemed preoccupied.

     Laindra had kept mostly to herself and talked little since they learned of the loss of her father.  She had grown increasingly distant from her friends and eventually stopped playing with other children altogether.  When she talked, she talked about her father and boats.

     This was a topic Laindra’s mother didn’t like.  She missed Laindra’s father desperately and talking about him broke her heart.  But even worse was when Laindra sometimes talked as though she was convinced her father was still alive out there somewhere, stranded and waiting for rescue.

     That terrified her.

     It terrified her that Laindra would hurt herself further clinging to an impossible dream.  He was gone forever.  A lot of men on those ships were.

     It also terrified her because the thought tickled at that tiny shred of doubt, that inkling of hope she dared not hope lest it make her go mad.  They never found him.  They never found a lot of the bodies from that disaster.

     Laindra had always shared her father’s love of ships.  Her mother had always suspected it was just because it was the only way the girl could feel connected with her often absent father.

     Since his ship sank at sea the girl had become obsessed with ships and boats.  She spent hours re-reading any book with a boat in it, and even more hours building and re-building those little blobs of paper, twigs, and bits of string that she called boats.

     It wasn’t a healthy obsession, she worried.  Not healthy at all for that child’s mind.  She had tried to put a stop to it, taking away any book with a boat, tossing away the girl’s sad little paper boats whenever she caught her with one.

     It was always a very ugly scene.  The girl screamed as if she were witnessing the death of someone close to her.  She’d bang her head against the walls, smash things in the house, and just scream and scream until she choked on her raw throat and lost her voice.  The hoarse screams that continued after that just sent terrified chills down her spine.

     The doctor had advised she leave the girl to her books and boats, and so she did.  The violent episodes ended, and she watched her baby girl go through her days quietly withdrawn within her own little world.

     But that summer Laindra stopped talking about her father.  She read books about horses and dogs, books without a single boat to be found within the typewritten pages.  And, she stopped building the sad little paper boats.

     Laindra’s mother wondered at the changes coming over her daughter.  Was she finally getting over the loss of her father?  Was she finally starting to adjust, to cope?  But at the same time she worried that Laindra was hiding something; that she was preoccupied with some secret she knew her mother would not like.

     She wasn’t sure just when it began, but Laindra started to be increasingly moody and angry.  Her sad little girl, who had always clung to that shred of hope that shone through her eyes, had turn empty and emotionless, yet always one small trigger away from a furious fit.

     One day she might go into a violent tantrum and throw her dinner plate across the room because her mother asked her to scrape it and place it in the sink.  Another day she’d find Laindra’s toys broken and tossed in the garbage.  When she asked what happened, Laindra would just shrug emotionlessly and answer that she’d cleaned them up.  Was this all part of her adjustment to the realization her father would never return?

     And then came the day the doorbell rang.  Drying her hands on a tea towel, Laindra’s mother opened the door to a frighteningly furious Mrs. Brogan.  The anger lines on her usually stern face looked strung so taut they were about to snap.  Her eyes blazed, lips were a puckered little o, and a tick was gearing up to start twitching her face.

     She was so angry that she couldn’t talk.  Her mouth opened and closed, her jaws clacking, and nonsense sounds squeaking from the tight angry line of her lips.

     Laindra came in the room behind her mother, took one look at the fearsome visage of Mrs. Brogan, and tried to melt into the next room before the woman set eyes on her.

     It was too late.  She turned eyes wild with fury on the young girl.  The ferocity of the woman’s glare pinned the girl in place, freezing her motionless with fear.  She took a half step forward as if to go for the girl.

     Laindra’s mother stood blocking the door, a look of stunned confusion on her face.

     “Th-that that GIRL!” the woman sputtered.

     Laindra’s mother sighed.

     “Now Mrs. Brogan,” she began.  “Surely …”

     “Surely that GIRL should be locked up!” the woman spat, turning her furious look to the girl’s mother.  “There is something wrong with that girl, she shouldn’t be allowed around other children!”

     Laindra’s mother’s blood boiled.

     “That girl…”

     “Now Mrs. Brogan,” she said sternly.

     “…needs to be put away somewhere!”

     The woman’s shrill voice was grating and her insinuation only served to raise her protective mother’s hackles.

     “Now Mrs. Brogan, that is enough!”

     “If you don’t do something about that child…”

     “Either tell me what you think she did, or get off my doorstep.”

     “Sh-she broke my Brian’s nose, that’s what she did,” the woman finally spat.

     Laindra’s mother finally noticed the boy standing behind Mrs. Brogan.  Brian held a bloodied cloth to his swollen tear-streaked face.  This boy, who was so much bigger than little Laindra, suddenly looked much smaller and younger.  She stifled a giggle, which made the furious woman before her even angrier.

     “So, little Brian Buster-the-Bully Brogan got his nose broken by a little girl much smaller and younger than himself,” she humphed.

     Brian hung his head at the nickname everyone knew the kids called him by, but his mother turned a deaf ear to.

     Mrs. Brogan only grew more furious.

     Laindra fully expected to see steam come whistling from the woman’s reddening ears.

     “Your daughter…” the woman spat.

     “My daughter is a little girl dealing with the death of her father, while the whole town knows that your son and those other boys are nothing more than dimwitted bullies that go around picking on anyone smaller and weaker than them!”  She leaned toward the other woman, her fury in return making the woman back down.

     “…just like his all too present father!”

     Without a pause, she went on.

     “Whoever did this to Buster, Mrs. Brogan, you can be rest assured it was well deserved.  That he would blame a little girl much smaller and younger than himself is just pathetic.”

     “But,” Mrs. Brogan sputtered, the wind having been taken out of the fury of her sails.

     Laindra’s mother calmly closed the door in the woman’s face and turned to Laindra.

     “Did you break Buster’s nose?”

     Through the little window by the door Laindra could see Mrs. Brogan cuff Buster with her hand and drag him off while scolding him all the way down the sidewalk and beyond the sight of the window.

     She looked down at her feet and fidgeted.

     “Yes,” she mumbled.

     Fighting an amused smirk, Laindra’s mother asked as sternly as she could manage, “how did you do that?”

     “I hit him,” she paused nervously.  “With a big dead tree branch.”

     “Why?”

     “He broke my boat.”

     She sighed.  So, Laindra hadn’t given up the boats after all.

     “Go to your room.”

     “But…”

     “Go!”

     “But he…”

     “I said go!”  Her heart wasn’t in punishing her daughter.  She knew those boys, and knew that any broken nose one of them got was well deserved.  She was secretly proud of her daughter for standing up to him and fighting back.

     Laindra stomped her foot in stubborn frustration.

     “It’s not fair!”

     “You broke his nose,” her mother said calmly.

     She turned and stomped off to her room.

     “I think you should stay around here for a while,” her mother called to her retreating back.  “You know, stay close to home.  Play in the yard.”

     Laindra froze, horrified.  She turned and stared at her mother as if she’d just turned into a giant slathering fire-spitting poisonous monster with razor sharp claws grasping to tear her into mouth-sized shreds.

     “Don’t look at me like that,” her mother warned.  “You know as well as I do that next time you see Buster he won’t be alone.”

     “But, but,” she stammered, “how long?”

     “A while, until things calm down.”  Her mother shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe until school starts, maybe longer.”

     “No!”

     Surprised, she stared at her daughter.

     “I-I can’t.”

     “Laindra…”

     “I-I have stuff I have to do…”

     “Laindra.”

     “I-it’s important!”

     “Laindra!”

     “I-I…”

     “What?”

     “Ihavetomeetsomeone!”  She spat it out so fast that it was all garbled into one word.

     Laindra’s mother stared at her, sorting the sounds out until they made sense.

     “Meet someone?  Who?”

     “A-a friend.”

     Her heart skipped a beat.  A friend?  Has Laindra finally started doing what little girls are supposed to do?  Has she finally started playing with other children again?

     “Well, who is this friend?  I’d like to meet her.”

     “Just … a friend.”

     “Does just-a-friend have a name?  Where does she live?”

     “Um, he …” she said too quietly.

     “What?”

     “He …” a little louder.

     “Oh, a boy.  Ok, so what do you play?”

     “Boats.”

     Boats, she thought.  Ok, boys like boats.  This might be ok.  She looked at Laindra expectantly, waiting for more.

     “We’re making a boat, a ship, like Daddy’s.”

     Her heart turned to an icy lump in her chest, heavy, a cold dead weight.

     “Did-did you know if you put stones in the bottom of the boat it won’t tip over?  It should work on a big ship too, same principle.”  She stared up at her mom expectantly, hopefully, willing her to understand.

     “Every sailor would know that…”  Laindra looked down at her fidgeting fingers.  “If-if Daddy…”  She fought back tears.  “Daddy would have known that, Daddy, he, maybe…”

     “Laindra.”

     “And driftwood doesn’t sink,” Laindra grasped, desperate.  “Daddy would know … if he had driftwood and stones … he could make …” her voice was trailing off.  “… a … ship … and…”

     “Laindra, enough!”  Her heart dropped in her chest like a stone.  This scared her.  She had thought, hoped, that Laindra was getting better.  Was she dragging this other child, this boy, into her dark fantasy?  Or worse, could she be playing with some imaginary friend, losing herself into this fantasy world, making her father alive and well and building boats with him in her mind?

     Laindra burst into tears.

     “What is his name, this boy?”  She was terrified of the answer.

     “J-Jeff.”

     “Jeff.”  Her mind raced, her heart lurched.  Ok, Jeff, you might be a real boy.

     “Ok, I want to meet him.”

     Laindra just stared at her like she couldn’t figure out what kind of creature her mother was.

     “This Jeff, I want to meet him.  His parents too.”

     Laindra stared.

     “You know the rule.  I meet your friends and their parents.  Before you play with Jeff again, I want to meet him and his parents.”

     “But,” Laindra whimpered while inside she screamed, “I can’t!”

     “He has a phone, I’m sure.  You have a phone number for Jeff, don’t you?”

     “Yes,” she whispered.

     “Ok then.  Invite Jeff and his parents over.  They can come for supper, a visit, whatever.  Or else we can go knock on their door.  Either way, I meet them.”

     Laindra looked hollowed out, like she had been gobbled up and spat out.  This made her mother worry more.

     “I’m glad you made a new friend,” she said gently.  “Now, off to your room.  You still broke that awful Buster-the-Bully’s nose.”  She had to fight a smile when she said this.

     Laindra’s mother was fidgety.  She kept fussing with everything, wanting to make a good impression.  Jeff and his parents were coming for dinner.

     The doorbell rang and she nearly jumped.  She rushed for the door and opened it.

     There, stood a nicely dressed, not bad looking, man.

     “Um, hello,” she said.

     “Hi,” he said with a smile.  “You must be Laindra’s Mom.  I’ve heard a lot about you.  You look even more beautiful than Laindra described.”

     Her heart beat faster.

     “Um, and you…”

     “Sorry,” the man said with a hint of nervousness.  “Jeffry, Jeffrey Collins.”  He produced his hand to take hers in a warm greeting.

     She took his hand and he shook hers.  His touch was gentle and warm.

     “And,” she looked past him, seeing nobody.  “Where is your wife, Mr. Collins?”

     “Oh, there is no Mrs. Collins.”

     Her heart fluttered.

     “Where – where is Jeff?”

     “I am Jeff.”

     She stared, puzzled.

     Laindra burst past her mother, throwing her arms around the man.

     “JEFF!”

     Aghast, she stared.

     “You?  You are Jeff?  The Jeff?  Boat-making Jeff?  Jeff who Laindra has been spending so much time with?”

     He nodded eagerly.

     She stiffened, alarm bells clanging in every part of her being.  Why is this man spending so much time with her daughter?

     “Well, Mr. Collins, this is a bit of a surprise,” she said icily.  “When Laindra said she had a new friend, I just thought …”

     “That it was someone her age,” he finished for her.

     “Yes,” she said curtly.

     “I’m – I’m new here.”  His eyes begged her to wait, to hear him out before closing the door on him and her daughter’s friendship.

     “I live alone, I don’t know anyone here.  I have no friends here.  I-I was lonely.  I saw boys picking on her.  She has no friends her age, you know.”

     She knew.  She knew all too well.

     “Laindra is a remarkable little girl.  I don’t know if you realize just how lonely she is…”  He paused.  “Just how much she misses her father, how badly she needs to fill that … spot.”

     She softened.

     “Come in Mr. Collins.  Supper is waiting.”

     Over the following weeks Mr. Collins used his considerable charms on Laindra’s mother.  They never dated, but he charmed and flirted with her just enough to keep her heart aflutter and confuse her with hopes for something she wasn’t really sure she wanted.

     Laindra seemed to be blossoming in her friendship with the man.  Her need for a father figure weighed against her need for friends her own age, and Laindra’s mother couldn’t bring herself to put an end to her daughter’s friendship with Mr. Collins.

     But it still troubled her.  There were little things, things she just couldn’t put a finger to, things that just seemed a little – off.

     The day they talked about the stones in the ships was a day that changed everything.  That was the day she broke Buster’s nose, the day her mom made her introduce Jeff to her, and the day she made a new friend who would change everything between her and Mr. Jeffrey Collins.

     Mr. Collins was busy.  He said he had things he had to do.  When he wasn’t at the creek Laindra went by his house, just in case.  She knocked on the door and there was no answer.  She went to his workshop.  It was quiet and deserted.  Lonely and dejected, she went back to the creek.

     She had with her a crude little wooden boat she had made herself.  It was the first boat she made all by herself, without Jeff’s help, that actually kind of looked like a boat.

     She sat on a log looking at the crude boat.  It wasn’t pretty or smooth like Jeff’s boats.  She was so eager to show it to him that she brought it along, even though she knew he wasn’t going to be around today.

     “Hey,” a boy’s voice cut in.

     Startled, she looked around.

     “Hi,” a boy said, waving a little timidly.

     Laindra had never seen this boy before.

     “Hey, hi,” she said a little distrustfully.  Would he be like the mean boys?  He was closer to her age, maybe even the same age as her, but that didn’t mean he was nice.

     “I’m Kyle.”

     “Laindra.”

     “What-cha got there?”

     “A boat.”

     “A boat, cool.  Can I see?”

     Laindra scooted over and Kyle came and sat next to her, looking at the boat.

     “I made it.”

     “I like it.”

     “Hey look,” a boy’s voice sneered.”  Girly’s got a boooyfriend.”

     Laindra froze, her heart sank.  “Oh no.”

     Sure enough, Trevor, Buster, and Oscar came out of the bush.

     “Who’s this?” Buster sneered.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

     “That’s the new kid,” Trevor said.  “The little dweeb moved in next door to me.”

     Oscar raised his eyebrows.

     “You mean Sally’s house?  Sally Spooner, ya better run sooner ‘cause Trevor’s got a crush on you, Sally’s house?”

     Trevor glared at him.

     “Ooh, bad luck dweeb,” Buster snorted.  “You picked the wrong house to move into.”

     “Is this your girlfriend, dweeb?” Trevor sneered.

     “He took your girlfriend’s house,” Oscar snorted.  “Maybe you should take his girlfriend.”

     “She wasn’t my girlfriend,” Trevor muttered.  He stepped forward and snatched the boat from Kyle’s hands.

     “What’s this, dweeb?”

     “Is that supposed to be a boat?” Buster snatched it from Trevor.

     “Pretty crappy boat.”

     Laindra watched in horror as the boat was roughly passed around.

     “Maybe it’s a plane,” Oscar laughed.  “Let’s see if it can fly.”  He tossed it straight up as high as he could.  The boat caught in the tree branches and held there.

     “Pretty crappy plane.”

     The boys made a game of throwing sticks and rocks at the boat, trying to knock it out of the tree.  The solid thunk of a large rock finally dislodged the boat.  It tumbled, bouncing off branches, the mast snapping off, dropped, and bounced off the ground.

     Laindra watched the boat fall as if in slow motion, her face so pale that Kyle stared at her with wide eyed worry.  He watched her cringe each time the boat bounced off a branch, despair snapping her with the snap of the mast.

     “Huh, piece of junk!”  Buster raised his foot high and stomped down hard on the little wooden boat.  It cracked with a dull sound under his shoe.

     Laindra screamed.  It was a terrible sound.  It filled the air, the deep guttural animal scream of the desperate, the release of unbound fury and hatred, the primal scream of all the wrongs through the history of mankind.

     All four boys froze and stared at her with slack-jawed faces turned white and drained of blood.

     In a flash of fury fed adrenaline, Laindra was off the log, small fists wrapping tightly against a large tree branch on the ground, and coming up spinning in one fluid motion that would make any action movie actor jealous.  She swung the branch with all the might of her great fury, the adrenaline burning white hot through her little muscles.

     Oscar barely dodged in time, losing a few hairs that were caught in the bark as the branch whizzed past his head, its breeze rustling his hair.

     Standing just behind Brian Buster-the-Bully Brogan, Trevor staggered back even though branch didn’t actually touch him.  He almost fell on his butt.

     Buster wasn’t so lucky.  The intended target of the branch, he didn’t stand a chance.  His nose exploded with a spray of blood as the rough-barked branch connected with a sickening crunch.  He fell to his knees, holding his face, screaming.

     Trevor and Oscar ran faster than they’d ever ran in their lives, the monster that was a little girl chasing them, brandishing her blood-stained branch, screaming like a banshee.

     Gingerly, Kyle plucked the little wooden boat from the mud, turning it over and examining the broken toy.

     “You shouldn’t have broken her boat, I guess,” he said quietly.

     Mr. Collins came home to find a sobbing Laindra trying to float a broken little wooden boat in a bucket of water.  Its hull was cracked, and the mast had been snapped off and tied back together with sticks that looked like they were supposed to be splints.  Every time she let go of the little boat, it immediately tipped on its side, bobbing in the water.  She sobbed anew, scooped the boat up, and tried again.

     A little distance away, a tired looking boy sat quietly.

     He had never seen the boy before.

     Jeff gave the boy a cursory glance, and stared at Laindra with concern.  He approached her slowly and knelt beside her.

     “I-it k-k-keeps t-tipping,” she sobbed.

     “It’s top heavy,” he said gently.  “That’s why.”

     “Stupid boat!”

     “You made it?  All by yourself?”

     She nodded dully.

     “It’s not a stupid boat,” he said gently.  “You just need stones.”

     She looked up at him through her tears as though he’d just turned green and grew an elephant’s trunk.

     “S-stones?”

     “Sure, stones.  Your mast is too heavy.  You have to weigh down the bottom of the boat, and then it won’t tip.”

     “B-but stones will just make it sink.”

     “Only if you put in too many.  Here, I’ll show you.”

     Jeff searched around for small stones, pebbles really, because it was a small boat.  Carefully, holding the boat upright, he balanced pebbles on the crude craft, counter-balancing the heavy mast.  When he was sure it wouldn’t tip, he carefully let go.

     “Wow!”  Laindra stared in amazement.  She looked up at Jeff in wonder, her sobs finally subsiding.

     “How?”

     “Its and old trick every sailor knows,” he explained.  “If your mast is too heavy, it will tip your boat like this.”  He cupped his hands flat, one finger sticking up like a mast, tipping his hands like a tipping boat.

     “But why would they make a boat that needs stones to keep it from tipping?”

     “They wouldn’t.  But a mast is heavy and, if the waves swell too big, the boat goes up and down the waves like this, see?”  He rocked his hands like a boat on a storm tossed sea.

     “If the boat rocks too far, tips over too much, the weight of the mast pulls it down, tipping it over all the way.”

     Laindra stared at him wide eyed, soaking it all in.

     “So, if they know a storm is coming, they’ll go to land and put stones in the bottom of the ship’s hull.  Weight it down, so it can’t tip.  It’s an old sailor trick from the days when all ships had masts.  It’s still used today, sometimes even with ships without masts.”

     “So,” Laindra gasped hopefully, barely able to whisper it.  “My-my dad, he might, he could have …”

     He leaned over with a conspiratorial wink.

     “Maybe.”

     Laindra sat in stunned silence, her mind working through this new information.  She believed everything Mr. Collins said about boats.  After all, you couldn’t craft such beautiful ships without knowing all about them, right?

     The truth about it was that Jeffrey Collins only knew how to build toy boats.  He knew nothing about the real thing and made it up as he went along, all to impress a very impressionable little girl.

     “So,” Jeff said suddenly, standing up, “who’s the boy?”

     “Huh?  Boy?” she said confused.

     He motioned with a nod toward the boy still sitting quietly just out of earshot.

     “Oh, oh that’s Kyle.  He’s new, I just met him today.”

     “What happened to your boat?  Did Kyle break it?”

     “No,” she said sadly.  “Those bully boys did.  Kyle tried to fix it.”

     “I see.  Well, maybe Kyle should go home now.  Then we’ll fix your boat properly.”

     Laindra said goodbye to Kyle.  With a shrug and an uneasy glance at Mr. Collins, Kyle went on his way.

     Laindra and Mr. Collins went into his workshop and he went to work fixing her little boat.  While he worked, he told her more about how sailors used stones in the ships to keep them from tipping and sinking during terrible storms.

     Laindra told Mr. Collins about hitting Buster with the tree branch and how there was so much blood.  It scared her.

     Things were different after that day.  Laindra was different.  Her relationship with Mr. Collins was different.

     Kyle didn’t like Mr. Collins.  He said he was creepy and that he didn’t think Laindra should spend so much time with him.

     This made Laindra feel defensive, protective of her relationship with Mr. Collins.

     The more time Mr. Collins spent with her mother, and the more time she spent with her new friend Kyle, the more she thought of him as Mr. Collins instead of as Jeff, her friend.

     Laindra was jealous.  She felt like her mom was taking over Jeff, intruding on her private friendship with him.  She could tell her mom liked him, but in a girlfriend-boyfriend way, not just as a nice neighbor.  But she knew Jeff really liked her, not her mom.

     She also knew she liked her new friend Kyle.  Sometimes it was good to just be around a kid her age, and Kyle was easy to be around.  He never asked about her dad or why she liked boats, despite her being a girl.  It didn’t seem to matter to Kyle whether she was a girl or a boy.  She felt a little more normal around Kyle.  Around Kyle she was just a kid, not Laindra who lost her dad and had to make boats to hold onto that connection with him.

     She also thought she was beginning to feel the stirrings of a crush on Kyle, although she’d never admit it to anyone.  He was nice, and kind of cute, in a dumb boy way.  At this age all boys were considered dumb boys, because otherwise you might have to admit you kinda liked them.  Although a girl Laindra’s age didn’t really understand those feelings or what to do with them.  It was just puppy play, the natural childhood learning on how to one day be a grown up.

     Her feelings for Kyle really confused Laindra.  Somehow, she felt like she was tricking Jeff, cheating on their friendship.  But there was nothing wrong with having more than one friend, was there?

     Jeff always got mad when Kyle was around.  At first it was little.  He just seemed a little annoyed at nothing in particular.  But the more Laindra went off to play with Kyle instead of visiting Jeff, the more angry Jeff seemed to be, both at her and at Kyle.

     At first Jeff dropped subtle hints that maybe he’d like to do stuff alone with Laindra, like before she met Kyle and they spent much more time together building and sailing the little ships together and stuff.

     That changed as her friendship with Kyle grew stronger and it became more obvious that Mr. Jeffrey Collins had competition for the young girl’s attention.  The subtle hints that maybe Kyle should go do something else somewhere else grew bolder, more obvious, until at last he’d outright order Kyle to leave and to go home.

     Kyle and Laindra sat on a downed tree by the creek, watching the water trickle by.  It was one of those days when Laindra didn’t want to talk.  But that was ok; they were comfortable sitting together in silence.

     Kyle idly broke up twigs and tossed them into the creek.  They both watched them float downstream.

     “Hey there, I found you,” a man’s voice called from behind them.  Mr. Collins.

     Kyle stiffened.  He always got that creepy feeling when Mr. Collins was around.

     Beside him, Laindra didn’t react at all.  But Kyle sensed the increased wariness in her, that today she would prefer it if Mr. Collins just went away and left her alone.  She got kind of moody that way sometimes.

     Twigs crunched under foot as Mr. Collins approached.  His shadow chilled Kyle when he leaned across the downed tree to see their faces.  Kyle’s was carefully guarded.  Laindra’s was blank, empty.

     Mr. Collins barely gave Kyle a glance, staring at Laindra’s face, studying her in a friendly manner.  Friendly, if friendly could hold a trace of jealousy, a hint of anger, and something else Kyle didn’t know what it was.  Friendly, yet a bit intense.

     “Go home Kyle,” Mr. Collins ordered in a soft voice that would not take “no” for an answer.

     Kyle glanced at Laindra.  Her expression hadn’t changed.  Her face was expressionless, her eyes empty.  She was like that a lot.  Sometimes, Kyle knew, it was because she was thinking about her dad.  Sometimes, he didn’t think that was it at all.

     With a shrug that said, “I don’t like this,” Kyle hopped off the log and ambled off, glancing back now and then.

     Mr. Collins watched him go out of the corner of his eye.

     “Hi Laindra,” he said softly.

     Laindra’s mom was kneeling down pulling weeds when she glanced up and noticed a boy standing timidly at the edge of the yard.  She stared at him staring at her.

     “Hello,” she finally said, wondering what the boy wanted.

     He approached hesitantly.

     “Um,” he paused, struggling for words.  “Are-are you Laindra’s mom?”

     “Yes I am.  And who might you be?”

     “Kyle,” he said, almost a whisper.

     “Well, hello there Kyle,” she smiled at him.  “Are you a friend of Laindra’s?”

     “Um, yeah.  Kinda.”

     “Laindra’s not here right now.”

     “I know.”

     Curious, she waited for the boy to continue.

     “I-I want to talk to you.”  He took another hesitant step forward.  “About,” step, “about Mr. Collins.”  He stopped and played with his fingers nervously.

     “What about Mr. Collins?”

     “I-I think he’s hurting Laindra,” he whispered.

     She just stared at him, certain she heard wrong.  After all, the boy had said it so quietly that she barely made out any words at all.

     “Pardon me?”

     “Mr. Collins,” Kyle repeated, “he’s-he spends too much time with Laindra.  He’s a grownup, she’s a kid.  I-I think he’s hurting Laindra.”

     Laindra’s mom was miffed.

     “Nonsense,” she snapped, giving the boy her best Mom knows you’re lying stare.

     Kyle stared back, defiant, afraid, unsure, yet sure what he was trying to do is completely right.

     “What makes you say such things?” Laindra’s mom demanded. “He is a nice man helping a young girl who needs a father figure.”  She sounded a little too much like she was trying to convince herself.

     “Laindra,” Kyle said, “she acts weird after she’s been with Mr. Collins.”

     “Go home Kyle,” she said sternly, turning back to her weeding, making it clear the visit was over.

     With a sad shake of his head Kyle wandered off down the street.

     Late that afternoon, Kyle found Laindra down by the creek again.  She was sitting on a thick branch up in a tree.  He clambered up and sat beside her without a word.

     She seemed off today, again.

     “Hey,” she finally said, quietly.

     “Hey,” he returned.

     They sat in silence for a long while.

     “You okay?” Kyle finally asked.

     “Sure.”

     “Sure?”

     “Yeah.”

     They returned to their silent vigil, the sunlight growing weaker, thicker, as the afternoon wore on.

     “I don’t like Mr. Collins,” Kyle said at last.

     “I know.”  She seemed to have the wisdom of the ages hanging on her shoulders today.

     “He doesn’t like me either.”

     “Yeah.”

     “He acts like thinks he’s your boyfriend or something.”

     She shrugged.  The both knew grownups didn’t think like that with kids.

     “I don’t think you should visit him anymore.”

     Laindra turned and looked at him with her empty eyes.  Behind that dead stare he could see the flash of fury that could erupt without warning.

     “Mr. Collins is not good for you, you know.”  Kyle thumbed his trousers leg nervously.  “He’s not your dad,” he whispered.

     Fury flared in her eyes, her face twisting into a tight angry knot.

     Ignoring her anger, he went on.

     “You act weird when you’re around him.”

     Laindra glared at him, her fists raised as though about to strike out, to attack him with a violent fury never seen before.

     “I told your mom.”

     Her arms dropped to her sides.  Her face paled, the fury draining from it as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a deep sadness and hurt.

     Without a word Laindra climbed down the tree and ran off through the trees. She never looked back.  Kyle didn’t see the twisted knot of grief or the tears streaming down her face.

     Laindra ran and ran.  She ran until her legs felt weak, her lungs burned, and a sharp knot of pain gripped her side, slicing through her with every ragged breath.  Her throat burned raw with every gasped breath.  Her head spun dizzily.  Her heart and mind raced in a thousand directions at once.

     When she couldn’t run anymore, Laindra walked.  She walked and she walked.  The sunlight grew dimmer, thicker, older.  The afternoon quickly waned into dinner time.

     At last Laindra came to her very own secret place.  Nobody knew about it.  Not her mom, or Kyle, or Mr. Collins.

     She knew her mom would be worried by now, supper would be sitting cold on the table, and she would probably be in trouble for being late.

     Laindra didn’t care.  She had something she had to do.

     Her secret place lay on the edge of the sea, sheltered by bluffs.  The sandy soil was mostly soft here, with some large ancient boulders barely peaking the tops of their heads through the soil.  Not far away lay an old abandoned farm house and barn, a treasure trove of treasures laying within.

     Laindra had been coming here secretly for some time now.  She had a project, a big project.

     She was building a ship.

     Laindra collected anything from the old farmhouse and barn that looked usable, dragging them to her secret place.  She tested her treasures in the water lapping at the shore for floatability.  The discards were tossed or shoved into a rough pile, and the useable items crudely tied together to form her ship.  There were pieces of wooden boards, old wooden kitchen chairs, and an old faded steamer trunk among other things.

     “It’s not quite finished yet, but it will have to do,” she thought.

     Digging her heels into the sandy ground and grunting as she strained, Laindra struggled to push the heap of old junk towards the water lapping against the shore.  It got easier as objects began to bob and float in the water, taking their weight off the pile she was trying to push.

     When the whole mess was finally floating in the water, Laindra paused to catch her breath.  She stared at her accomplishment, then back at the shore.

     “Oh, I almost forgot…”

     She hurried out of the water and scampered across the sandy soil.  Laindra grabbed up a long stick that had probably once been a sapling and raced back to the water.

     Her homemade ship had already begun to drift away from the shore.  The tide had started to go out, drawn away from shore by the moon’s cold pull.

     Laindra fought the water that slowed her down, struggling to reach her raft in time.  She swung her stick on top of it and managed to grab hold and drag it back closer to shore where the water wasn’t too deep for her to clamber aboard.

     Once she was perched safely aboard her floating raft, Laindra used the stick to push it away from shore again.

     She was going to find her father.HHHJhhh

     Coughing up water and exhausted from the battle with the sea, Laindra dragged herself from the surf and collapsed on the little sandy beach amidst gnarled clumps of seaweed that had washed ashore.  The world was hazy.  Her eyes drooped and closed.

     “Stones in the ships,” her mind drifted … “I should have put stones in the ship.”

     Her eyes fluttered open.  A vague shape shimmered before her eyes, its darkness playing against the brilliance of the sun clashing against the pale beach.

     She struggled to sit up, to see.

     The shape slowly took form, a human form.

     She stared in confusion.  Something about the form seemed familiar as it danced and shimmered like a mirage.

     It was a man.  He looked scruffy and tired.  His hair and beard were long and untrimmed, and his clothes little more than worn rags.

     Laindra struggled to stand on unsteady legs, eyes glued to the image standing some distance across the beach.

     She stood on the shore, gasping and dripping wet, staring with incredulity.

     “D-dad?  Daddy?”

     Her face exploded in an ecstasy of delight.

     “DADDY!” She screamed, running across the little beach with arms outstretched.

     The water lapped at the shore, carrying with it seaweed, driftwood, and the assorted remains of the homemade ship, shattered and waterlogged.  Among the remains the lifeless body of a young girl was dragged to shore, one swollen hand still tangled in the rope tied around an old steamer trunk.

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Waiting (Short Story)

Waiting

By L. V. Gaudet

© March 2010

     It was a busy street where it all happened.  At least that’s where my earliest memory begins.

     You know the kind of street, where cars whiz by fast, people of every description come, go, or stop a while, and the air is filled with more smells and sounds than the senses can take in.

     We waited in the sometimes shelter and sometimes shade of the concrete at the base of the brick building next to the bus stop.  There was an almost plaza-like feel to the place, with the large open paved area squeezed in among the streets, sidewalks, and tall brick buildings all around.  There was no sidewalk between this particular building and the busy street it nestled against.  Pedestrians trying their luck on the street side of the building took their lives in their hands.  I was surprised by how many people did that.

     It was a very busy bus stop.  A nonstop tide of cars, buses, and people came and went constantly.

     I don’t know how long we waited, but it sure seemed like a very long time.  People came and went, buses came and went, and yet we waited, always waiting.  Would our bus never come?

     My mind felt like I was looking through a fog.  Everything was confusing, my memory somehow lost in a haze I just couldn’t quite see through.

     “Why was I here?  Where are we going?  What bus are we waiting for?  And, why won’t that bus ever seem to come?”

     I remember looking around at the people of our group.  There was a certain familiarity about them.  Standing about, watching for that bus that never seemed to come, watching the people come and go.  Idle chat seemed to be the activity of the day, leaning casually against a wall, sitting on the ground with backs pressed against the side of the building, or just standing around.

This was “our” spot, somehow.  I don’t know how.  It just had that familiarity about it, as if we were always here in the sometimes shelter and sometimes shade of that building’s wall, waiting.

     I knew that I know these people, but I couldn’t find them in my hazy memory.  Rubbing my eyes and shaking the clarity back into my head didn’t work.

     Who are these people?  I know them, so why don’t I know them?

     I couldn’t even tell who among the crowds of people gathered, forever shifting and changing as people got on and off buses, arriving and leaving, were a part of our group.  Was our group small?  The four or five people I suspected might really be all there was to our group?  Or were there more, as I also suspected, but with a sense of confusing doubt?

     There was a couple sitting with their backs against the wall, chatting and seeming oblivious to the world around, except for the occasional glances at people in the crowd.  I thought of them as the “Casual Pair”. A boy and a girl, both teenagers, though I couldn’t place their ages any more than I could their faces or identities.

     There was the “Lurker”.  He was a young man who just couldn’t quite seem to decide where he wanted to be.  He stood leaning against the wall a while, then pushed off and meandered through the crowd to stand somewhere else.  He watched the crowd, the cars, the members of the group, and kept wandering to the edge of the road to look up and down for the bus.

     The worst was when he looked at me.  That was when I got the feel that he was lurking more than he was waiting.  At those moments the confusion spun a little faster inside my head, making me dizzy.

     I got the odd vibe from others that they too were part of the group.  It was a vague feeling, like that feeling someone is watching you when you are sure you are alone. I’d turn to look, trying to identify who in the crowd the vibe was coming from, but, like those phantom movements you catch in the corner of your eye, they just seemed to melt into the crowd, unidentifiable.  That just gave me the heebie-jeebies and made the fog of confusion eddy and swirl in my mind.

     I didn’t know what to call them, or even how to think of them.  The “Crowd Phantoms” might come closest.

     And then there was “The Man”, the watcher.  He was older, though I couldn’t tell how much older.  He didn’t look terribly much older, but he felt a great deal older.  His dark hair hung in longish strands to each side of his face, a short black beard, and Genghis Khan-like moustache.  He wasn’t a bad looking man, but when I looked at him I felt darkness, the darkness of his hair, his eyes, and a dark kindness too.  He watched the crowds, the traffic … and us.

He liked to kneel down on one knee a lot.  That struck me as a little strange, but somehow seemed entirely normal too.  I sensed a feeling of authority about him.  I suspected he was the leader of our group; that somehow he was charged with keeping us together and all accounted for.  Was he a protector looking after us?  A captor guarding us against escape?

     The more I looked around at our group, at the throngs of people coming and going, taking no notice of us, that we were a group, the greater my confusion grew.

     Why did no one seem to notice that we were a group?  Why did I even care?

     Who were we?  Who was I?

     The fog in my mind eddied, swirled, and thickened.

     My mind spun, though my head seemed to stay still.  I started feeling sick.

     A frantic feeling of panic started in my gut, slowly snaking its insidious way up, growing, swelling inside me until I choked on it.  It seemed to fill my throat, blocking it, preventing me from breathing.

     Everything felt wrong somehow.  The light was wrong, the smells, the sounds.

     I glanced at The Man, wondering if he could see the panic in my eyes, willing him not to see.  Somehow, I felt that would be a bad thing.

     He looked up, kneeling again, and smiled at me.  He turned his head away again to watch the people coming off a bus as it rolled to a stop and opened its yawning doors.

     I had to get out of here.  I didn’t know why, or to where.

     It was just a niggling feeling at first; that urge to bolt, to run, to make a break for it.

     The feelings grew.  Panic, confusion, nausea, and the urge to flee; they filled me, overwhelmed me, making my head feel like it would explode if I didn’t get out of there.

     I watched.  I waited.  The waiting seemed as endless as our forever wait for the bus that never came.

     And, when no one seemed to be noticing me; that was when I made my move.  I ran.

     I didn’t really run, at least not at first.  That would have been too conspicuous, bringing unwanted attention to me.  I ducked behind people, moving with the crowd, hiding behind first one person and then a next as I slowly made my way away from the bus stop.

     I kept careful watch of The Group as they became more distant, afraid someone might look my way.  I especially watched The Man, terrified he would sense my intention, carefully watching that his attention was on something else.

     The next thing I remembered was being in a strange and entirely deserted place that had a confusing familiar feel to it.  There was a field, where perhaps kids played sports, though there were no goals or nets or anything else to suggest it was a field for sports.  There was a wooden structure.  It had a narrow L shaped building that perhaps housed groundskeeper’s tools, a canteen, or something else.  The roof of that little building filled in the rest of the square, covering a little concrete patio filled with rows of benches.

     Did people eat here?  Was it some sort of amphitheater, like the kind you find at some campgrounds?

     I had the strange feeling that I had been here before.  With it came a vague sense of horses, although there were no signs that horses had ever been in this place.

     The fog of confusion still filled my mind.  Even the memories of The Group and the bus stop seemed to be growing insubstantial, evaporating, and disappearing like the memories from before the bus stop did.

     Scared and alone, I hoped The Group was looking for me, that they would come here and find me and take me away from this place.  I longed to see the face of The Man, the reassurance of his ever watchful presence.

     I was terrified The Group was looking for me, that they would come here and find me and take me away from this place.  I dreaded to see the face of The Man; that he would come to claim me and take me back to the bus stop, back within the fold of The Group.

     I wanted to disappear within the folds of myself, become invisible, become … not.

     Night came quickly, too quickly.

     I huddled into myself, wrapping my arms tightly about myself, and lay down on one of the cool hard wooden benches.  I fell asleep.

     I awoke with a start to a face close to mine.  My heart lurched, gripped by fear.  I almost screamed.

     “They found me!” my panicked mind cried.  I looked around desperately for The Man, Lurker, and Casual Pair.  A part of me hoped for even a glimpse of one of the Crowd Phantoms; that I was found and my flight was finished.  I could go back to simply waiting, forever waiting for that bus that never came.

     The thought tore at me, filled me with dread.  I was terrified of being found, being brought back to rejoin The Group.  Where were we going?  And why did that bus never come?

     I moved to bolt, to flee, to make a run for it.  Something about that bus, the bus stop, and The Man terrified me.

     Gentle hands held my shoulders.

     I looked up into the face.  He was older than Lurker, younger than The Man.  His eyes and ruddy face were filled with concern.  His light brown, almost blond hair had a slight curl to it, giving it a softer look.

     He stared at my face, into my eyes.

     “Are you ok?”  I could hear the worry straining his voice.

     I didn’t answer.  I couldn’t answer.  I felt frozen, unable to move, to talk, a part of the bench.

     I saw that he could see the fear in my face.

     “Are you lost?” he asked, “hurt?”

     I stared back mutely, unable to respond with anything more than a blink.

     “What are you so afraid of?”

     He looked around, then back to me, staring into my eyes as though if he stared hard enough he might see the answers.

     I shook my head, trying to clear the fog of confusion.  Where were my memories?  Why couldn’t I remember anything before the bus stop?  Why where the memories even of that place, The Group, slipping away?

     I looked past him, dreading seeing any of The Group, hoping and fearing seeing the face of The Man.  I wanted this over, to be back to the place I knew, the only place I knew, the bus stop.  I was terrified The Man would find me and take me back there.

     I saw people beyond this man’s face.  They looked worried too.  They shifted uncomfortably, perhaps embarrassed for me.  They held no familiarity.  They were not part of The Group.  I was safe, for now.

     I looked back at this man’s face, the “New Man” I thought of him as.  I sensed caring, concern.  I felt safer with him.  I liked him for making me feel safer.  I felt strangely drawn to him and sensed he felt the same towards me.

     “I’ll be right back,” he said to me, staring deep into my eyes.  “Don’t move.  I just need to talk to my group.”

     And they were his group, I could sense that.  They were together, a family perhaps, or friends, or maybe a group like The Group.  Only this group didn’t make me feel confused or lost in a memory-eating fog.

     He walked over to the other people.  They huddled around him as they talked.  I caught snatches of conversation, words.

     “Lost.”

     “We can’t.”

     “Scared.”

     “But, what if.”

     “Have to.”

     “No.”

     They were going to leave me here, alone.  I longed for that solitude, was terrified of that solitude.

     “Please don’t leave me,” my heart cried while my mind begged them to just go and leave me alone.

     He came back to me, knelt down, gripping my shoulders again in that firm but gentle grip.

     “We won’t leave you here,” he said.  “I won’t.”

     I hadn’t moved this whole time, still laying there with my arms hugging myself desperately, folding into myself and trying to vanish.

     He gently sat me up, sitting beside me and putting one arm gently around me in a protective embrace.

     We sat there for a long time.  We talked.  His group became impatient, but continued to wait at a distance.

     I can’t remember what we talked about, not a single word of the conversation.  I only remember that we talked for a really long time.  Sometimes we got up and walked off into the field as we talked.  Sometimes we came back and sat on the bench again.  My mind is still full of holes, hazy mists of fog hiding my memories and spinning me in a web of confusion.

     Night came again, much too soon.

     Finally, he looked at me gently and said, “Let’s go.”

     He led me to the group.  They all looked at me, their faces reflecting his concern.

     My heart lifted.  The “New Man” wouldn’t let “The Man” find me.  He’d keep me safe, hide me.  And if he did come for me, “New Man” would come for me, rescue me, and take me back again.  I was his now.  I think I love him, though I only just met him.

     We started to move towards the road.

     Then I saw him, The Man, his smiling face staring down at me.  Just his face, floating in the air above, there but not.

     “No!” I wanted to cry.  Tears rushed to my eyes, burning them.  I wanted to run.

     New Man looked down at me.

     “I’m here,” he said, taking my hand in his, the warmth of it flowing to me with a feeling of safety.

     It wasn’t enough.

     I could still see The Man, his smiling eyes, his lank longish black hair, his beard.

     “You found her!”  I heard The Man’s voice happily call out.

     I wanted to hide, to cry, and to beg New Man to not let The Man see me.

     “She’s safe,” The Man called to someone.  “Everybody, she’s safe, she’s here!”

     Then I saw their faces, Lurker, Casual Pair.  I saw the bus stop with the busy crowds of people who I could never pick the Crowd Phantoms out of, those who I suspected might be part of our group, but just didn’t know.

     I saw the anger in the New Man’s face, protectiveness, the desperate need to hold on to me.  And at that very last moment, the terrible anguish of someone who has just lost everything in their life that mattered.

     Suddenly, I was back at the bus stop as though I’d never left it.

Casual Pair leaned against the wall, chatting idly, their occasional glances towards me somehow feeling nervous now.

     Lurker leaned casually against the wall, wandered to the edge of the street to watch for the bus, meandered through the crowd, ever lurking, careful now to not glance in my direction at all.  I sensed a new jitteriness about him that wasn’t there before.

     The Man knelt on one knee, watching the crowds, watching the traffic and the buses, and watching us.  His glances towards me seemed guarded now, a fear lurking behind the smile.

     I looked around, unsure.  How did I get here?

     I spotted New Man at the edge of the plaza bus stop.  He stood motionless, staring at me, his face filled with concern, longing, and confusion.

     I knew he was afraid to approach.  Afraid of The Man?  That I would reject him?

     “Please come and take me away from here,” I begged silently, my lips as frozen as my ability to speak or act.

     I watched him watch me, both of us desperate, both of us yearning to approach the other, both of us frozen in place.

     I knew he wanted desperately to take me away from here, to rescue me from this place, from the endless wait for the bus that never came.

     I knew he couldn’t, that he was powerless to do anything, that The Man was ever watching, watching me more closely than ever before.

     I turned away from New Man.  I couldn’t watch anymore, bear witness to the helpless concern in his eyes, on his face.

     I longed to run, to make a break for it.  Fogs of confusion eddied around in my mind, eating my memories, dissolving them into wisps of insubstantial fog.  I was losing that place, the hard wooden benches, the feeling I was there before in a place I don’t think I’d ever seen before, the vague sense of horses.  I was losing New Man’s group, though I occasionally glimpsed them hovering beyond the crowds of people coming and going for the bus, carefully staying beyond the plaza.

     I wandered towards the road, the cars, the buses constantly coming and stopping and leaving again after belching passengers and gobbling up new ones.

     I looked up and down the road, cars whizzing by, buses barreling past unstoppable and not stopping.

     I thought about throwing myself in front of one of those buses that never stopped.  Was one of them ours?  Was that why it never seemed to come, but everyone else’s did?

     I sat down on the curb instead.  The Man came and sat down beside me.  He talked to me.  He talked to me of love and loss, games and happy times.  He talked of losing me and finding me.  I have no idea what he said or what we talked about.  It’s all lost in the memory-eating fog.

     I remember his hand accidentally touching mine, his keeping it there after, feeling his entire body trembling through that hand.  Was it fear?  Relief?  Something else?

     I felt confused, lost.  I just wanted to run away.

     Why did no one seem to notice my distress?  New Man’s desperate looks my way?  That we were a group, together?  That we were here always waiting for a bus that never came?

     Then I came to realize.  They didn’t see us.  They just didn’t see us, nobody did.  We were invisible to them, a part of the crowd coming and going, but ourselves never moving.  Why?

     “See us!” I wanted to scream.  “Why don’t you just look at us and see us!?”

     “The bus is here,” The Man said.

     “Finally,” Lurker spat.

     Casual Pair got up and hurried for the bus, its yawning doors waiting for us, its dark interior waiting to gobble us up.

     I felt swept up in the tide of people moving for the bus, unable to stop my forward movement.

     New Man took a desperate step forward, craning to see me through the crowd, one hand silently reaching for me, his face twisted with concern and desperate need.

     The Man smiled down at me as I was swept up into the bus with the tide of people, following Lurker and Casual Pair, unable to stop the tide of people that seemed to push me forward, forcing me onto the bus.

     I turned back, taking one last look at New Man’s sad face as the yawning doors closed behind me.

     He watched the bus lurch away and speed up down the street.

     I watched him through the window, desperate.

     “Save me,” I whispered.

     It was a busy street where it all happened.  At least that’s where my earliest memory begins.

     You know the kind of street, where cars whiz by fast, people of every description come, go, or stop a while, and the air is filled with more smells and sounds than the senses can take in.

     We waited in the sometimes shelter and sometimes shade of the concrete at the base of the brick building next to the bus stop.  There was an almost plaza-like feel to the place, with the large open paved area squeezed in among the streets, sidewalks, and tall brick buildings all around.  There was no sidewalk between this particular building and the busy street it nestled against.  Pedestrians trying their luck on the street side of the building took their lives in their hands.  I was surprised by how many people did that.

     It was a very busy bus stop.  A nonstop tide of cars, buses, and people came and went constantly.

     I don’t know how long we waited, but it sure seemed like a very long time.  People came and went, buses came and went, and yet we waited, always waiting.  Would our bus never come?

     My mind felt like I was looking through a fog.  Everything was confusing, my memory somehow lost in a haze I just couldn’t quite see through.

     “Why was I here?  Where are we going?  What bus are we waiting for?  And, why won’t that bus ever seem to come?”

     I looked around.  Casual Pair sat against the wall chatting, Lurker meandered through the crowd.  The Man looked at me, smiled.  I spun my head to look, a Crowd Phantom?  But I could not pick anyone out of the crowd.

     On the edge of the plaza-like bus stop a ruddy faced man watched me with concern in his eyes and face.  His light brown, almost blond hair had a slight curl to it, making it seem softer.

     I didn’t know him, but he somehow felt familiar.

     The confusion grew as I looked about, at the cars and buses, the people, The Group, the man watching with such worried eyes.  I had a vague feeling that he was an outsider; that he didn’t belong and shouldn’t be here.  I sensed that he was here for me, the tickle of the feeling that almost wasn’t there, of a bond between this strange man and me. “New Man,” the name came unbidden to my mind.

     Why didn’t he approach?  Why didn’t anyone seem to notice him, us, to see?

     A tiny twisted knot of fear began in my stomach.  It slithered its way up, growing, filling me, and choking me.

     I wanted to make a run for it, to bolt.

     Would that bus never come?

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