The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

29 November 2017

11 of 12 The Challenge

Prompt: Calculated risk | Word Count: 1,800 | Genre: Fiction

It was finally quiet. He had listened patiently to all who needed to be heard. He had dispensed wisdom to those in need of wisdom. Now they were all gone and silence crept out from the corners where it had retreated with the arrival of his congregation for morning Mass. It used to be that he loved no time or place better than standing at the altar, looking out over the faces of his small congregation. He stood for a moment with his head bowed. It used to be an attitude of reverence, but now it meant nothing more than emptiness.

This was the best time. He liked this time best of all. Still early morning with the sun advancing across the floor. A mountain breeze with a hint of fresh grass drifted in through the open door, a sign of spring. The mountainview through the door of the church was a daily pleasure he never tired of. He tidied the altar cloths, made sure everything thing was in its place for tomorrow’s Mass, and took a moment to appreciate the peace that permeated the inside of his little country church.

The footfalls of thick-soled boots on the stone floor of the entrance broke the silence and ended his solitude. His first reaction was to be grumpy. He liked being alone. He liked having the church to himself. There was a time when he looked forward to being needed, having the chance to be helpful, being able to offer counsel or consolation. He used to love the sacraments more than anything, and now he loved being alone.

Standing in the doorway was a man dressed in a dark uniform. The lapels of the tight fighting jacket were embellished with insignia and a badge of sorts sat over the brim of the hat on his head. His boots caught a ray of sun stretching across the floor, but his face remained in shadow, so Bruno could not tell his age. The starched and tucked appearance of his clothing would never be at home here where the villagers dressed in humble clothing, soft and worn from much washing and mending.

‘Hello,” said Bruno. “Can I be of help?”
“Ah, you must be Bruno, am I correct?”
“Yes, I am Father Bruno,” said a reluctant Bruno.
“Father Bruno,” the man repeated with half a smile.
“I am Miller,” the man said. The confidence in his voice echoed between the walls of the empty church.
“I’m sorry,” said Bruno, “I don’t know anything about military insignia. Should I call you something besides Miller?”
The man laughed briefly, then, looking around at the stained glass windows, said, “It is so often the same with you people. You know every name in every story in your book of legends, but know nothing of the real world.”
“By ‘you people’ do you mean country folk? Asked Bruno.
“I mean clerical folk,” mocked Miller.
“You believe I am lacking in knowledge because I wear a collar?”
“You confessed to not recognizing my rank. You were surprised to find me on your doorstep. Do you even get newspapers up here to know our army is mobilizing and war is imminent?”
“We are simple people out here in the country, Mr. Miller, but we are not simpletons. What is it we can do for you?”

Bruno watched him warily. They were well removed from cities and their troubles here in his little village, but they weren’t ignorant of what was going on. This man brought with him a promise of trouble to come. His clothing was a rebuke to pastoral life, and his face, now that Bruno could see it, was haughty.

“It always interests me,” Miller said, looking again at the stained glass windows, “that people can be simple enough to gather comfort from the stories in these pictures.” The leather of his boots squeaked on the hard stone floor as he walked slowly down a side aisle. “I am amused that you think these legends are true.” He stopped at a window depicting a shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders. “I suppose people with no hope of a greater life and no learning must rely on something to give them meaning.”

Bruno shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. He didn’t understand what was happening. Who was this man, and what was the purpose of his mockery? The man was saying things Bruno himself had often thought but would never allow himself to express. The man now crossed in front of the altar to stand with Bruno in the centre aisle.

“I am here with a specific purpose, Father Bruno. It might be mutually beneficial, both for me and for your village.”
An icy chill tumbled down Bruno’s spine. The air felt heavy and somber with significance.
“It has to do with your uniform?” Bruno asked.
“Ah, you are not so much the ignorant provincial as I thought,” Miller said. “Yes, of a certainty it has to do with my uniform. I am in advance of the army, sent to find a suitable place to establish a headquarters in this region. Your charming village with its admirable view of the mountains is strategically perfect for our needs.”

“The army wants to settle here?” Bruno was dismayed.
Miller looked at him intently. He was puzzled at the reaction. He thought being singled out in such a way was an honour.

“It is one such village being considered,” said Miller.
“You might find another more to your liking,” suggested Bruno.
“So far it is the best,” said Miller.
“But you are not yet firmly decided.”
“Father Bruno, come now. Where is this reluctance coming from?”

Bruno’s mind was racing, fully awake after a long hibernation. His thoughts were incoherent, but in an instant he saw it all: his villagers living in fear, intimidation, and punishment, enduring food rationing, and the demolition of their peaceful way of life. His nerve endings tingled. He had to protect his people. Somehow.

“Can I convince you, Mr. Miller, to continue your search elsewhere?”
“Are you thinking to bargain with me, Father Bruno?” Miller was surprised at the idea.
“The people here are good and simple folk,” said Bruno. “Their way of life seems naive to you, I know. But there is something fine and precious here that would be lost forever if the outside world, as you call it, were to take up among them.”

Miller smiled slightly. With hands clasped behind his back, he began a slow down the side aisle, taking in the images in the stained glass windows and the carvings of the stations of the cross. It was all myth and legend to him, a panacea for those who needed comfort when reality became too much for them. Why not have some fun with this, he thought to himself.

“I tell you what, Father,” he said, “I will pretend your village doesn’t exist. I will carry on with my search elsewhere, and you can protect the good and simple folk and their good and simple faith. All you must do is convince me there is something to all this,” he gestured around the interior of the church.

Bruno’s throat closed in fear but his heart kicked in anticipation.
“How do you propose to test me?” he asked.
“Do what you do, Father,” came the answer.

Bruno bowed his head a second time that morning. Now it was in question, seeking guidance he wasn’t sure would come. After long minutes he looked up again at the man, and nodded his head.

“Yes,” he said. “I will do what I do.”

He walked into the sacristy and calmly reciting the prayers, he vested himself. He gathered the sacred vessels, lit the candles on the altar, then took a moment to prepare himself for what he was about to do. Would he be able to convince an unbeliever that there was substance behind faith, when he might not believe it himself?

Whether there was ‘something to all this’ or not, he loved the people in his care, and he was going to take this opportunity to shield them from harm at least for a time.

He took his accustomed place in front of the altar and eased into the ritual. The words were so familiar he had taken to reciting them by rote. He hands moved through the gestures he had made many hundreds of times without thinking. As the mass went on, it took on light and colour and texture, becoming tangible to his senses. Now, in this moment, he was aware anew of the potential of the words, the significance of the postures. He felt uncertainty give way as acceptance settled into his bones. This was what he remembered. This was how it used to be, before he allowed indifference and discontent creep in.Right here in his hands was everything that mattered.

Miller wasn’t entirely a novice. He was familiar enough with the concept of church that he had some idea of the structure of what was taking place before him. He had seen the ritual mocked and parodied enough to even know some of the words. What he wasn’t prepared for was the serenity that obviously settled on the other man as the mass went on. It wasn’t merely ease of the familiar. Rather, it had substance. The peacefulness was a presence Miller could not ignore.

Was the hocus pocus of it all actually true? Surely not… and yet he could see a transformation in the man at the altar. It was tangible. As he sat in the pew watching the priest Miller tried to regather his accustomed scepticism. He was comfortable with the world as he knew it, liked the ordered certainty of his place in it. He thought the amorphous nature of faith was sloppy and disliked the sentimentality he perceived in it. “Hocus pocus,” he muttered to himself, as if for reassurance.

Bruno paused at the end, head bowed reverently. He hadn’t expected to get such a clear answer to the question he’d unknowingly asked while saying the mass, but he now felt calm despite the possibly severe consequences of what happened here today. He looked up to find Miller watching him looking somewhat bemused and resigned.

“I am a man of my word,” Miller said. “I still think all this is superstition and soothsaying, but I cannot deny… well… “ He stumbled to a halt, unable to express what he had just experienced. “I am a man of honour, Father,” he continued. “I will honour my part of the bargain. Your little flock will be quite safe from us. I will not mention this village in my report.”

With that he bowed his head in acknowledgement of what had passed between them, and walked out of the church.

20 November 2017

10 of 12: Elise's photo

(Two more to go!)

Prompt: She didn’t want it anyway | Word Count: 300 | Genre: Fiction

It had been a long wait in the dark, wet night. Elise was cold inside and out, from nerves and icy rain. It felt like hours had gone by since she’d lined up with the others, yet surely that wasn’t possible - the ship would be well and truly sunk before hours passed.

The shivering crowd of women was remarkably calm as they were directed into one lifeboat or another, shuffling together this way and that like slow-moving schools of fish. Five heavy wooden boats had been lowered so far. As Elise inched nearer to the railing, she could look down and see them at the mercy of the heaving waves. The dozens of women in each huddled together in miserable masses. Were they frightened, or relieved?

A hand tugged at her sleeve, and she looked up to see a ship’s steward standing next to her.
“One,” he said, looking from Elise to the woman beside her. “It’s fair sorry I am, ladies, but there is room for only the one of you.”

“You can’t be serious!” protested Elise. “What difference does it make, one or two more people in an already crowded lifeboat?”

“It’s true there are more than should be inside the raft, but I can squeeze in one other… not more,” he said with an almost apologetic lift of a shoulder.

Elise looked at the creased and dirty photo in her hand. A young man smiled out at her from it, the medal on his chest now pinned to the lapel of her coat. Women on either side of her bumped and stumbled into Elise, causing her to lose balance. The photo fell from her fingers to the wet deck, quickly disappearing under wet boots stamping in the cold.

“Take her,” she said, pushing the other woman forward.

Prompt: She didn’t want it anyway | Word Count: 300 | Genre: Fiction

It had been a long wait in the dark, wet night. Elise was cold inside and out, from nerves and icy rain. It felt like hours had gone by since she’d lined up with the others, yet surely that wasn’t possible - the ship would be well and truly sunk before hours passed.

The shivering crowd of women was remarkably calm as they were directed into one lifeboat or another, shuffling together this way and that like slow-moving schools of fish. Five heavy wooden boats had been lowered so far. As Elise inched nearer to the railing, she could look down and see them at the mercy of the heaving waves. The dozens of women in each huddled together in miserable masses. Were they frightened, or relieved?

A hand tugged at her sleeve, and she looked up to see a ship’s steward standing next to her.
“One,” he said, looking from Elise to the woman beside her. “It’s fair sorry I am, ladies, but there is room for only the one of you.”

“You can’t be serious!” protested Elise. “What difference does it make, one or two more people in an already crowded lifeboat?”

“It’s true there are more than should be inside the raft, but I can squeeze in one other… not more,” he said with an almost apologetic lift of a shoulder.

Elise looked at the creased and dirty photo in her hand. A young man smiled out at her from it, the medal on his chest now pinned to the lapel of her coat. Women on either side of her bumped and stumbled into Elise, causing her to lose balance. The photo fell from her fingers to the wet deck, quickly disappearing under wet boots stamping in the cold.

“Take her,” she said, pushing the other woman forward.

05 October 2017

9 of 12, the short story challenge

Prompt: Cutting the string | Word count: 1000 | Genre: Fiction

The room was round. The cool stone wall at her back was curved so the room must be round. She knew if she opened her eyes she would see one large window and an open vista beyond. She knew the deep window seat carved into the thick wall would be worn smooth from time and much use. The room would be softly lit as if from a gentle fire or a dozen candles, but she would never find the actual source of light or warmth. It was always this: emptiness and silence in a high stone tower.

She knew her name was Nicole. She knew when she opened her eyes she would be drawn to the window and when she looked down she would see trees and a garden and a maze. She would hear voices, and they would lure her out of the room, and she would find herself in the garden or under the trees. She never saw a door or stairs or knew how she got out of the room in the tower.

Her eyes opened. As she knew she would, she saw a lush green garden bordered by trees that spoke of age with their tall, stately presence. In the garden was a maze, and in the centre of the maze was a white stone bench. Before the bench was a plinth in matching stone, with a large empty urn made of the same stone as the bench and plinth. From the urn, anchored by a long slender string, a red balloon floated high and still.

She frowned at the distraction of voices. They sounded muffled, far away, as though only a few out of many broke through to her hearing. “... hear… Nicole… you… come… us…” They were a persistent hum in her awareness.

She closed her eyes again, and the voices faded into silence. The memory of greenery eased into black nothingness and she was left empty of sight and sound, the vivid red of the balloon the last image to fade from her awareness.

Time passed. How much she would be unable to say. She would open her eyes, see the room that became familiar all over again, look out at the garden from the window, and know she had done these things many times before. The voices would speak her name amid other indistinct phrases, and she would feel compelled by them, but didn’t understand what they were asking of her. They wouldn’t leave her in peace unless her eyes were closed, and when she opened them again she would find herself back in that room, looking out the window once more, at the garden, the maze, and the floating red balloon.

About to open her eyes once more, she knew that this time, like other times before, she would be standing in the garden. She could feel the stone tower behind her. She knew that this time, like other times, she would move away from it’s dense solidity. Sounds gradually entered her consciousness: birds twittering as they flew about, leaves waving in a barely-there breeze, small creatures rustling through the underbrush. She could smell the green of the grass, the bursting fullness of the flowers, the sharp tang of pine needles. The sun laid a cloak of warm yellow over her eyelids, preparing her for bright daylight when she looked at her surroundings.

It was pleasant to feel air moving around her body as she walked, the long skirt of her dress brushing her legs, her hair moving against her cheek. Her feet pressed into the soft earth, a reassuringly physical testimony to her presence in the garden. Of their own volition those feet took her across the lawn to the entrance of the maze. Her eyes were drawn to the balloon hovering above the lush green garden. It’s crimson presence against the calm blue sky was a jarring note she couldn’t ignore. As she approached nearer to it, the voices grew more distinct.

“...darling… please open… don’t”

Again, she felt compelled by the voices. It was they who kept calling her to leave the black silence and enter the round stone room over and over again, or wander between the living walls of the maze. Neither scenario offered respite, no way of leaving or wresting control over her situation. The voices asked something of her, and she was weary of it, of their persistence, of trying to understand them, of not being able to respond. She was tired of trying to make sense of it all and failing.

Fighting the temptation to close her eyes on the jarring presence of the world around her, Nicole continued into the maze. She took each turn unthinkingly, somehow knowing her way to the centre.Her awareness of the stone tower receded as she went deeper into the twists and coils of shrubbery. The green walls reached far above her head, seeming to touch the sky. With each step the voices grew clearer.

“You have to… eyes. ...hear us...don’t leave… back to us Nicole.”

At last the open space at the centre of the maze was before her. There was the cool, white bench she had seen from the window of the stone tower, and there was the urn and the crimson balloon. Standing here, the rest of the world might not exist. It might all be a fabrication of her mind, a relic of dreams from long ago. If not for the insistent presence of the balloon and the increasingly persistent voices emanating from it, this spot might be a tranquil haven.

Knowing at last what she was there to do, she found in her pocket a pair of delicate sewing scissors. As she stepped up to the urn, suddenly the voices fell silent. With relief, she cut the string and watched the red balloon float free, taking with it all the colour and sound of the world around her. As it faded, she closed her eyes, and was at peace.

10 August 2017

Seven of Twelve: Farmer Liberté's potatoes

Prompt: The Club; word count 750

“This day, it is hot enough to melt your wife’s heart, Guillaume,” complained Auguste, wiping his forehead with a bandana from his pocket. His blond hair was darkened with sweat, his fair face flushed red by exertion and heat.

“Bah! My wife, she always runs warm, she. More than you could handle, Auguste!” protested his friend. “More than is good for her,” he muttered under his breath.

“Your wife is a fine looking woman, Guillaume. Many men in the village envy you. I include myself there.”

“You would all do better to tend to your own wives,” growled Guillaume, his dark whiskers practically bristling. “No good comes of poaching from another man, you will learn that, I promise you.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no. Where’s the harm in a smile or two, I ask you. A man can live for a long time on the smiles of a pretty woman.” Auguste thought himself a man of the world, and his air was of one satisfied with himself. Next to his swarthier, stockier friend, he cut a fine figure: slender, fair, and graceful. He often lamented that fate had seen fit to bestow him upon a rural peasant family, when clearly he was meant for a more refined life.

Guillaume’s face gave away nothing of his thoughts, but then it seldom did, thought Auguste. There was a man who was exactly where he belonged. He would be as out of place in a salon offering pretty compliments to delicate ladies as he was perfectly in his element with dirt under his fingernails and the scent of manure clinging to his rough clothing. Still, he could be counted on to provide steady work, and be too engrossed in crop rotations to notice what went on under his nose.

“I’ve yet to find anything in life that comes without a cost upon it, Auguste. The Seigneur will exact his rents, and fate will collect on your debts, no matter how clever you think you’ve been at hiding from them. Now get to work; the sun is blazing and we have much to do. I’ll take this row; you work on that row, there. I’ll wager you a tankard I get to the far side before you figure out which end of the hoe to use.”

“You talk big, Guillaume,” scoffed  Auguste. “And still you end up paying for the beer at the end of the day!” However, Auguste could be counted on to take up a challenge, and just as Guillaume knew would happen, the man set to his task energetically, eager to prove his friend wrong.

The rest of the afternoon passed in sweltering silence as the men bent their backs to the work before them. The sun was near setting when Auguste, many meters ahead, cried, “Guillaume!  My God, Guillaume!” There was such fear and anguish in his voice to halt a man’s blood in his veins.

Guillaume’s boots sent clods of dirt flying as, with futility, he tried to move faster than the uneven, clinging soil would allow. He stopped abruptly at his friend’s side, looking to where Auguste was pointing.

“Lord have mercy,” Auguste whispered, appalled. He crossed himself, meaning it for the first time in many years.

On the ground between rows of green plants was the limp figure of a woman. She was wearing a simple dress of rough blue cloth favoured by most women of the village. Her long dark hair was unbound, obscuring her face and withholding her identity. She resembled a marionnette dropped to the ground, forgotten, with her legs crumpled under her, one wooden clog on the ground beside her.

“Her head… mon Dieu… her head has been crushed. How has this happened?” Auguste was nearly breathless. He approached a little nearer the woman. “Mother of God, Guillaume, I think it is Celine!”

“It is strange to me that you would think so, Auguste, when she is dressed like any other woman of your acquaintance. How is it that you recognize this body?”

There was something in the other man’s voice that lit Auguste’s nerves on fire. He spun round, horrified to find a brutal looking club in Guillaume’s hands.

“You thief! You stole my Celine from me, and this is the cost you both must pay.”

A juicy thump was the last Auguste knew of this life. By nightfall, both he and the pretty woman who had kissed him were deep under the last row of potatoes in the field of Guillaume Liberté.

17 July 2017

12/12 the sixth. Already!

Prompt: Coming undone | Word count: 1,200 | Genre: Fiction

Home after a long work day, Elise was sitting down at her desk to complete a complicated spreadsheet for a presentation the following week. She liked to get things done, and felt that, with only a week to go, she was already pushing the deadline beyond limits she was comfortable with.

Just out of reach of her vision, she saw - or rather sensed - a purple streak, like a hummingbird, dressed in a purple hoodie darting across her field of vision. How peculiar!


At the office the next day, she worked through the items on her to do list in her usual efficient manner.  She listened to a podcast  during her morning brisk walk ‘break’ and to a literary classic during her afternoon laps. Her lunch of antioxidant salad was followed by the writing of a weekly email to her mother.

That afternoon was dedicated to final preparations for the upcoming presentation. An assistant and an intern were helping to assemble the documents, but Elise liked to oversee it all herself.  Well, she told herself she was overseeing it, when in fact she actually did the work herself while the other two looked on. Hopefully the intern was learning something while hovering over Elise’s shoulder. If not, ordering green tea from the corner café would be the extent of her experience at Fletcher and Fletcher.

Elise sat at the conference table, happily imposing order on the chaos of paper spread before her. She was quite looking forward to the presentation, after which she might even take a day or two off. There was the garage to sort through and she’d been meaning to trim the shrubbery where it closed in on cars entering the lane. There just never seemed to be the opportunity on weekends no matter how carefully she scheduled her time.

Hmm… perhaps it was also time to book an appointment with the optometrist. She rubbed her eye, thinking there must be something in it. She’d seen two black spots move quickly in her periphery, but when she turned her head to discover what they might be, saw only the assistant and the intern. Irritated at their lack of activity, Elise sent them away to get tea and sticky notes.


Friday afternoon arrived, and with it the usual plans around the office to meet up for drinks after work. Elise was always included in the invitation, but seldom (in fact never) joined in. Friday evening was the perfect early start on her weekend tasks!

Elise believed in structure, so her weekend routine didn’t vary much from her weekdays. She woke and rose early, had breakfast accompanied by her one daily coffee, and spent precisely one half hour with the newspaper. (The latter was an indulgence she didn’t take time for during the week.) Then she tackled her to do list, working diligently from the first item down to the end. She would break for a walk in the morning and again in the afternoon, with a brief halt for a healthy lunch between.

Twice on Saturday she saw something on the periphery of her sight. Once, while washing the car she thought a deer or perhaps something smaller scampered away too quickly for her to see. Then while sorting the linen closet she sensed movement away to her right. But again, when she turned to look there was nothing there.

On Sunday, it happened several more times. A hint of motion. A vague glimpse of something not really there. A nearly imagined presence of something she couldn’t see. At first she put it down to visual fatigue. She had been spending a lot of hours in front of the computer lately. Perhaps it was mental strain? She was working hard on the presentation and while it was something she usually thrived on, maybe this time it was too much? Or… what if she was being haunted?  Maybe there’d been a death in the family recently and the soul needed help getting resolution for something before finding peace.

Elise shook her head at the last scenario. She really wasn’t the imaginative type and it seemed far too unlikely that a person she didn’t even know would seek her out after death in order to gain eternal rest. As for the first two possibilities, they were much more likely, but she didn’t appreciate the distraction as it affected her focus and efficiency.


Monday morning found Elise back at the conference table. Twice already that day she had experienced near-vision episodes and she was beginning to actually worry. What if they were a sign of imminent break down?

After a fourth event, she shooed the assistant and the intern out of the room and firmly closed the door behind them. She slumped into one of the big office chairs, clutching her head in her hands. “This isn’t happening,” she repeated as a mantra over and over to herself, trusting in the power of words to take care of things.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a drift of white settle at her elbow. It was a piece of thick vellum paper on which was written:

Dear Miss Tempovola,
Please excuse this rather startling communication. Your increasing distress at certain recent episodes has prompted the writing of this note in order to explain matters.
You are not having visions. Neither are you losing your mind or being visited by a lately departed family member.
Rather, we, the Time Wardens, have been intervening in your experience of time. Practicality and efficiency are fine qualities to possess, Miss Tempovola, but life is meant to contain moments of joy and wonder; a soul will harden and wither without them.
Several times - more frequently than you have noticed - we have (only momentarily, mind) halted your internal clock. What you saw as fleeting images was life progressing around you at a normal pace. The result, given enough - pardon the expression - time, would be that you would naturally begin to allow for moments of quiet and delight. You are so tightly wound up that your inner clock is liable to stop at any time - again, please forgive the expression.
Under normal circumstances, our interventions remain undetected and unexplained: our clients reset their tempo and carry on, none the wiser as to what actually happened. In this instance, as more direct contact was required, the procedure is somewhat altered. You will not remember either having read this letter or the information it imparted. However, given that you do in this moment know what has happened, you must decide whether or not you will allow the resetting to occur, or instead, continue life as you have been living, but accepting the consequence.

Yours etc,
(Time Warden)


Elise hummed along to song on the radio as she washed the evening dishes. This was her favourite time of day. The sun, in preparation for setting, painted the landscape with touches of rose and antique gold. Elise often noticed such fanciful details, and in the evenings, forced to stand for a time at the sink by the window overlooking the back garden, she delighted in how beautiful it all was.

15 June 2017

Fifth of twelve: The Letter (word count: 500)

“Are you ready yet?” Tom asked the child.
“No, not yet,” the reply drifted back to him.
“Ok,” said Tom. “We can take our time.”

Tom sat on a thick lump of driftwood, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, his shoulders hunched against a wind that bit with sharp teeth through his thin jacket. Waves were being pushed onto the rocks by that wind, as it peeled the lake back layer by layer.

They were being peeled into layers, too, he and the girl. Life had become a stinging wind and blunt rocks, and they were caught in between, like the water, being battered by the two.

Ahead of him, at the point where rock melted into sand stood the small girl, Birdie. Tom’s heart wobbled looking at her. She was so little and alone there on the beach, her slightness emphasized by the vast horizon and unending stretch of water. Now and then she would kick a rock into the water with a drunken sounding ‘sploosh’ but mostly she was still, facing the unrelenting waves and the angry sky with all her solitary frailty.

Coming here, this spot, today, had been her idea. Birdie had spent many happy days at this beach, chasing seagulls, collecting shells, watching her mother paint the ever-changing mood of the sky over the lake. She could sit for hours with a pile of books, lost in a story or pouring over illustrations of shore life, eagerly sharing interesting tidbits.

It was a long drive for them to visit Tom, but they would come every summer. They made every visit worthwhile by filling their days with adventures and picnics, and plenty of day dreaming. Those days were touched by gold, Tom thought. Now they were in a time of somber grey.

“Birdie?” he called after some time had passed since he last asked, “are you ready now?”
“Not yet,” came the answer chased by the wind.

So Tom stood for a moment to stomp warmth back into his feet. They had been here, just like this, for hours it felt like. He was willing to wait longer, determined she would have all the time she needed. Each time he asked the question, her answer was the same: not yet.

And then she moved. He was at the point of thinking he would break and take her away before she was ready, but now she was standing in front of him, big eyes bruised with sadness.

“Is it true, Tom?” she asked, holding out the letter he had read aloud to her three times.

“Show me.” she’d said. “She me which words are Mama’s name.” and she’d traced her fingers over the loops and lines he had pointed to.

“Yes, little one. I’m so very sorry, it is true.”

At his answer she flung herself at him, not crying but holding on so very tight.

After a thousand heartbeats he gently pressed her back to look into her too-old eyes.

“Come on, Birdie Let’s go home.”

29 May 2017

12/12 the fourth

This is a painful one. I'm so tempted to pretend the fourth installment of the 12 short stories in 12 months never happened. However, in the interest of honesty and, hopefully, learning from it, I'm going to post my story here though it's very difficult for me to share it. It's very exposing and vulnerable-making to let you read it, for you will discover that not everything I write is fabulous (shocking, I know).  This is entirely my own doing as I didn't leave myself enough time to work this into shape, so the result is a very rough and raw draft, a suggestion of what I intended it to be.
Here it is:

A Little lie
2,500 words

Two men faced each other by the tracks just beyond the railway station. One made note of the green backpack slung over the shoulders of the man across from him, while the other recognized details of black jacket and hat.  Signals acknowledged, they nodded to each other, stepped over the tracks and walked toward a stand of trees in the distance. The man in the black jacket made up for his lesser height with quick, energetic steps, easily keeping up with the taller man carrying the green pack. Once safe from curious eyes under the trees, they faced each other once more. “Roger?” asked one. “Simpson,” answered the other. With this confirmation that he had met the right man, the pack carrier held out his hand. “James Redding,” he said, “You must be Jock Sullivan?”

“It’s Matthew.” This brief reply managed to convey the message that the use of “Jock” came with a high price.

“Sorry, old chap. Roger referred to you as Jock in his instructions.” This was met with silence.

“Right,” said James. “Roger didn’t give me specifics about our target location beyond where to meet you. You’re the navigations expert of the two of us. You know where we’re going?” He realized how inane the question was, but wanted to draw some sort of communication from the man. Weren’t the Irish supposed to have the gift of the gab? Kissed by the Blarney Stone and all that?

Again, silence. This time accompanied by a roll of the eyes. What James didn’t know was that Matthew Sullivan had many reasons to think the English were arrogant sods, and that he had to physically hold his tongue still between his teeth to keep from telling this Redding ass just what he could do with his old chap school tie bonhomie.

“Listen, wee Jock,” Aha! A clenching of the hands. “We’ve got at least 3 days if not four there, and as many back again, with only the pair of us for company - and survival,’ he stressed, “so if you could answer, that would be marvelous. A simple yes or no answer will suffice.”

And so it began. Two men who had little to keep them together aside from instant and mutual dislike with a dash of distrust of the other’s nationality were bound to each other for the sake of friendship - theirs for Roger Simpson, and Roger’s for the Kovač  family.


He shouldn’t have picked up the phone. That was his first mistake right there. He’d seen Roger’s number on the display and despite his trustworthy gut telling him to let it ring through to voicemail, he’d taken the call, and because of it now found himself in some I-could-tell-you-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you backwater and instead of relaxing in front of the telly watching Tottenham wallop Chelsea, he had a week or more of sullen Sullivan to look forward to. Not to mention the possibility they would likely be discovered and made the reluctant inhabitants of an unclean, uncomfortable prison under the beady eye of an unsavoury guard. He’d far rather watch Chelsea win than endure that. Again.

Roger had often convinced his buddy that the very thing he shouldn’t do, was exactly the thing he most wanted to do. In this case, it was that the backwater was exactly where he wanted to be. Of course that wasn’t exactly how he’d sold it.  “Jock Sullivan is as solid as they come, Jimmy. We did some work together back in the day and have stayed in touch. He’s one of us.” Meaning all three were once part of the unnamed, acronym-rich, specialized services on behalf of their respective governments. “He’s already agreed to help me out but he could use someone with your skill set.” Meaning languages, most likely. Unless… was Roger talking about explosives?

“I received an SOS from Beata Kovač yesterday,” Roger had explained. “It was through a conduit I haven’t used in fifteen years, but the protocol was correct and I know it was from her.” Roger’s voice was calm and controlled, but he was right to be concerned. The Kovač family were deeply involved in the resistance effort, and though outright civil unrest had eased years ago, the secret police of the current regime kept a close and steady eye on anyone unfortunate enough to be named on the “Danger to the State” list. Goran and Beata Kovač were not just surveilled, they were phone tapped and frequently invited to tea with the head of the local state police detachment.

“Goran is being denied medication,” Roger said. “It’s some twisted attempt at persuading him to turn. He has enough information about the rebels to dismantle the effort if the State got hold of it. They’ve hit on a remarkably cruel way to ensure his loyalty.” There was heavy sarcasm on ‘loyalty’. “Goran will die. It will not be gentle, and it will not be quick. He’ll be in a lot of pain, Beata will suffer, and while he’s a tough old bird, she’s likely to hand over anything they ask for, to spare him that suffering.”

James knew stability in the region was tenuous, and that the dictator du jour was no gentleman. But were things as bad as this?  He was years beyond intelligence briefings, but surely Doctors Without Borders should be granted entry to the country?

“No.” Roger’s voice was grim. “Crossing points have been locked down. Documents are scrutinized, unknowns are questioned. We’ve gone back in time, my friend.”

Roger went on to explain his plan. His old buddy Jock was familiar with the territory and knew a way in. He would meet James at the rendezvous point and guide him to the Kovač’s village. James was necessary for his medical knowledge, language skills, and knack for blowing things up. Roger himself couldn’t go because he was known by the locals. They couldn’t carry the amount of medicine Beata had asked for without drawing suspicion, so they would carry a discrete homing device. Roger would call in a favour from another friend with a pilot’s licence and access to a plane who would use the device as a guide and parachute the bundle of supplies - why drop only Goran’s medicine when this would be the perfect opportunity to provision the local resistance properly?

How could James say no to that?


Matt Sullivan insisted his own knowledge of the region was more detailed and current than what their maps could provide. So up hill and down mountain they went, crossing fields and passing through forests. They had only the green pack containing the bare minimum of what they needed - not to ease their burden, but because a large assortment of fancy survival gear would draw attention and arouse suspicion. They needed to appear local, like day hikers.

Sullivan turned out to be more than a walking GPS. He could bivouac with the best of them, was handy with a fishing line, and had an uncanny ability to set James’ teeth on edge. Why did the little guy have to be such a… wanker? It hadn’t taken long for James to catch on to the fact that the Irishman was sensitive about his height - or rather lack of it. Naturally, then, he had to take every opportunity to needle him about it. Through it all, the man was sullen and mostly silent, which in turn teased James’ inner pest to liveliness. The enforced partnership was unpleasant for both men.

Contributing further to their discomfort was the weather. It had taken to a steady, chilly drizzle that slowly turned open ground to mud, while in the woods, fallen leaves became slippery and uncertain underfoot. The sun rarely made an appearance, and the morose grey of each day was beginning to seep into their spirits. Random patrols seemed to be increasing in frequency on the roads they could see in the distance, meaning they relied on Sullivan’s skills at building shelter in the open rather than overnighting in a barn. More than once Wee Jock’s superior hearing saved them from stepping out of the safety of cover into what would have been an interesting situation with one of those patrols.

For his part, James kept up a sporadic - but satisfyingly annoying - one-way conversation for the pleasure of seeing the deepening imprint of stoicism on the Irishman’s face. Then on the second night he had the pleasure of being proved useful. A roving trio of patrollers found a fishing line Sullivan had strung from a tree, next to the beginnings of a fire pit. The two were setting about making camp for the night when they heard the unwelcome voices. Without a word, James and Matthew set a plan of evasion in motion: Matthew by dismantling the shelter into its component bits and pieces of nature, and James by circling around the by now excited patrol to their vehicle in order to install a cunning mix of explosive and stabilizer disguised as a stick of gum up under the body of the truck. When the engine came to life, the gum would receive the fuel it need to blow, creating the merest pop of sound, leaving no evidence, but managing to immobilize the vehicle most gratifyingly.

There had been a short game of cat and mouse by the dying light of nightfall, but once the patrol decided to give wheeled chase, the game was called when anger and confusion took precedence over pursuit when the truck wouldn’t start.

On the evening of the third day they reached their destination: the outskirts of a small town within bullying distance of the capital. Roger had described the location of the Kovač cottage as being at the end of a quiet lane with a large meadow just beyond. Its near-isolation meant their approach shouldn’t be noticed, but it also could make their presence glaringly obvious to any who happened by.

At their knock, Beata cautiously guarded against light spilling over the entry as she peered out at them. James quickly gave Roger’s name and the credentials that would assure her they were friendly. With a quickly smothered cry she gestured them into her home, closing the door and locking the night out behind them.

Excitement and gratitude were tempered with caution as their stories were told. Sullivan was only partially able to participate as his command of the language was rudimentary, but he followed as best he could, and James filled in the gaps in both directions. It didn’t take long for the two men to understand why Mrs. Kovač was dear to Roger: she scolded them, forced food and drink on them, insisted they wanted baths and clean clothes, and basically bossed them around like a long-experienced mother hen.

While Matthew took his turn using up the hot water supply, James slipped out back door and into the field beyond the house.  He set up the homing device on a short tripod, arranging a rock and other bric-a-brac to subtly distract any eyes that might glance in this direction. Now there was only waiting.

It happened two nights later.  Matthew was never more pleased to hear a sound that could very possibly send trouble in his direction: a plane was heard faintly overhead. Fetching James from where he sat reading to Goran at the kitchen table, he led the way out the back door, just in time to see the dark silhouette of a box and parachute drift to the ground.  They worked silently, but quickly and efficiently as only two men who’d had similar training could do, to separate the box from the parachute straps, securely hide the chute, and carry the box into the cottage.

It felt like Christmas to the four people watching the lid be prised off the wooden crate. There were murmurs of surprise and delight from the Kovač couple as they discovered the requested medication for Goran as well as other medicines sure to be useful in the village, simple communications equipment, and - here Roger’s sense of humour was evident - chocolate bars, Levi’s jeans, oranges, and cartons of cigarettes. “As though we were behind the Iron Curtain!” scoffed Goran, but with a twinkle of delight in his eyes.

They had quite forgotten their need for caution in their exploration of the bounty when there was a terse knock at the door. All sense of gaiety was sucked out of the room as panic threatened to take over. There was no time to do more than repack the box and deposit it behind the sofa with a blanket hastily draped over it. Goran arranged himself in his armchair looking as weak as possible, while Beata took up some knitting.  James and Matthew sat on the sofa with a game of chess arranged in front of them. They tried to give the impression they were not, in fact, an English and an Irishman, but were indeed local and perfectly belonged exactly where they were.

A second knock accompanied by raised and angry voices were quickly followed by a beefy shoulder to the door, allowing five bodies to fill the room. Beata sprang to her feet, protesting their sudden presence in her home and their muddy shoes on her carpet. The man in charge looked momentarily abashed before he remembered his very important role as head of the local detachment of state police. The others with him were volunteers, and that, perhaps, made them even more enthusiastic about their duty.

Questions were tossed and accusations were flung in a confused volley of voices. After hearing denial after denial that any of them knew anything about a flying box, the lead accuser demanded to know who the two strange men were. For all their training and despite all their experience, Matthew and James had never discussed how they should explain their presence in the cottage, trusting instead that their short tenure and plain good luck would make such a tale unnecessary.

Beata, without a pause, claimed them for her sons. She looked each official boldly in the eye, daring them to deny her maternity. “My boys went off to fight years ago,” she said. “You know this to be true, Nema.” this was directed at one of the men, the only one who actually lived in the village. “They stayed in the city to work, and have come home to visit their mother after too long away.” By some unlikely alignment of providence, the blustering men took Beata at her word. They trooped out of the cottage in order to disturb the peace of some other family, leaving the Kovač couple and their guests to laugh in giddy disbelief at their good fortune.

Three days later, the two men faced each other over the tracks once more, one in black jacket and black hat, the other with a small green sack slung over his shoulders.
“Best of luck to you, Matthew,” said James, gripping the other man’s hand firmly.
“Call me Jock,” replied Sullivan, with a smile on his face.