“Coincidence,” they claim. They are liars.
So my feelings are irrelevant? Goodbye.
The pines were whispering to me.
“Can’t you hear them?” I asked my brother.
He stared at me. “Hear what?”
“The pine trees. The whispers all around us.” I pointed at the forest around us.
“Um…no,” he said. He stopped and frowned at me. “You’re not serious, are you?”
He wasn’t ready yet. I smiled. “Of course I’m not. I just wanted to freak you out.”
He laughed. “You know, I was afraid you were losing it there for a second.”
I’ll tell him when he’s ready. Soon he’ll have to hear it one way or another. Very soon.
“Can I take one home, Mom?”
Penny had been lost in her thoughts. Going through a divorce was draining all her energy. She had been hoping spending some time out here with her daughter would help.
“The flower,” Lily said, pointing. “It’s pretty. Can I have one?”
Penny shook her head. “No, honey. That flower belongs here. How about we plant a new one when we get home?”
Lily frowned but then nodded. “Okay. But only if Daddy helps us plant it.”
Penny sighed. “We’ll see if daddy wants to help.”
Well, at least she could enjoy the flowers.
By the fifteenth month of the drought, the lake no longer held her secrets.
There it was, the body Laura had thrown into the lake years ago—or rather, what was left of it.
It has been such a long time, but the memories came flooding back as she watched the police pull the bones from the dried-up lake.
She glanced around at the shocked townspeople’s faces. After all, this was such a quiet town. None would suspect her, though. It would take quite awhile before they even figured out whose body it was. Then, could anyone really blame her?
Some of these people hadn’t even been living here yet. The young couple standing next to her, for example. The Sweeneys had moved here just a few years ago. Hopefully they wouldn’t be scared off. This town really needed a good dentist, especially with old Dr. Riddard forgetting to use novocaine when drilling cavities lately.
Of course, back then, Dr. Riddard was a good dentist. Her mother had always raved about him. And Laura was in a marriage that had turned out to be a very bad idea. It was a fast, hot affair, but the passion she and her husband shared soon turned against them. They fought continuously, about anything and everything.
And so the day that the life insurance salesman turned up, Laura had just had another terrible fight with her husband and was in a very bad mood. And when she had called to complain about her husband to her mother, all she heard was more complaints from her mother about people ripping her off. She was starting to find her mother to be a bit paranoid.
Laura scowled as she opened the door to a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair carrying a large briefcase. He smiled at her.
“What do you want?” Laura snapped.
His smile didn’t fade at all. “Hello, Mrs…?”
Laura just crossed her arms and glared at him.
The man’s smile finally faded just a bit, but he still continued. “My name is Paul Peterson, and I’m here to help you.”
Laura raised an eyebrow. “Help me?”
Now the smile left his face as he took some papers out of his briefcase. “Have you ever been concerned about what would happen to your loved ones if you died?”
“Not really, considering I already have life insurance through my employer, and it’s pretty clear that’s what you’re selling,” Laura said.
“Well, yes, you’re correct that I’m selling life insurance, but are you sure that your life insurance really covers you? You see …”
Laura ignored him and stared at the garden gnome her husband’s godawful mother had forced on her. She had always hated that thing.
The phone rang. Good timing, Laura thought. She turned back to the salesman, who was still prattling on. “I’m going to get the phone, and I’m not going to get any insurance from you.”
Laura shut the door and went to the phone. She already knew it was her mother on the line. She always called this time of day.
“Hi Mom. You called at just the right time.”
“Oh really?” her mom said.
Her doorbell rang again. This insurance salesman was really persistent, Laura thought. Maybe he had a quota he needed to meet for the day.
“Yeah, there’s this annoying insurance salesman at the door…”
Laura heard a click. “Mom…?”
She was wondering if she should head to her mom’s house to see what had happened when she heard a loud thump just outside the door. While she was worrying about her mother, she had forgotten about the salesman.
Laura opened the door and her jaw dropped.
Paul Peterson was lying there in a pool of blood, and Laura’s mother was standing over him holding the garden knome.
“What did you do?” Laura looked around. Luckily, her neighbors were all at work. Laura worked the night shift at the local hospital as a nurse, and she was the only one home this time of day.
Laura leaned down and felt for a pulse. There was none.
Her mother looked down at her and pointed at the man. “He ruined my life. I never got paid after Larry died, and we paid a lot of money for that policy.”
Laura remembered how upset her mother had been that she had never gotten the money from the life insurance policy, and she had to move out of the house she had lived in for years and was now stuck living with a friend she only sometimes got along with. Still, Laura never would have imagined her mother killing someone over it.
Laura’s heart skipped a beat as a car came down the street and pulled into her driveway. It was her husband.
“What the…?”Tom gaped first at the body, then at her mother, then at Laura.
“We had an accident,” Laura said.
“It wasn’t an accident,” her mother said. “I took that…”
“Mom, you’re not helping.”
Tom stood over the body. “Is he…?”
“Yes, he’s dead,” Laura said. “Now we need to figure what to do about it.”
Tom stared at her. “What do you mean what to do about it? We call the police.”
“We can’t call the police,” Laura said. “They’ll put Mom away.”
“She should be put away. She’s crazy.”
“I’m not crazy!”
“Yes, you are, you nutty old woman. You just killed this man.”
“He deserved it!”
“I’m pretty sure ‘he deserved it’ isn’t considered a good excuse in court.”
“Mom! Tom! This isn’t helping.” Laura was silent for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. She couldn’t let her mother be locked away for the rest of her life, however long that might be. She could only come up with one solution. “We have to throw the body in the lake.”
“Throw the body in the lake? You’re just as crazy as your mother. Why did I marry you again?”
“Because I looked hot in that red bikini?”
Tom smiled. “Yeah, you did. But I’m still not helping you throw this guy’s body in the lake.”
Laura walked over to him. “Please, Tom. I know our marriage isn’t so great anymore, but can you please do this for me? I can’t let my mom spend the last years of her life in prison. Plus, he was a horrible man who hurt innocent old ladies. Right, Mom?”
Her mother nodded fervently.
Tom sighed. “Fine. We better hurry up before the neighbors come home.”
They wrapped the body in an old tarp and put it in the trunk.
A half-hour later, Laura and Tom each took one end of the body, and they threw the body in the lake. Laura’s mother walked up behind them.
“Well, that’s done,” she said. “Who wants meat loaf?”
Twenty-six years later, Laura stood by the same lake, wondering if they would be able to use the dental records to figure out who it was. She was the only one with the secret now. Her mother had died three years after she killed the insurance agent. Laura and her husband had gotten a divorce shortly thereafter, and he had died of a heart attack a little over a year ago.
She wasn’t sure if the insurance agent really deserved it or not. Regardless, she did feel at least a little bad for him.
As it turned out, Paul Peterson didn’t have life insurance.
Note: I wrote this story several years ago. I had forgotten that I had written it until recently. I want to make sure I don’t have long gaps between writing stories again.
Someone was knocking at the door.
“Who is it?” Audrey Shepherd called. The sun was beating down on yet another scorching August day, and Audrey pulled her wavy, chestnut-colored hair into a ponytail as she walked out of her bedroom. She was getting ready for work, and her air conditioner was on the fritz again.
No one answered. She peeked out of the peephole but didn’t see anyone there. Audrey slowly opened the door and looked around. There was still no one there, but a package was sitting on the step. “What can this be?” Audrey wondered. “I didn’t order anything.”
Audrey scooped up her cat, who was trying to get out the door, as she brought the package in and set it on the table. There was no name or address on it. The cat stared at the package and looked up at Audrey, meowing. Overcome with curiosity, Audrey grabbed a pair of scissors off the desk and began cutting the tape on the plain brown box.
After she finally got through all the tape, she flipped the box open to find a beige journal with lacy pink borders. It looked quite old, but the pages inside were blank.
“Why would somebody send me a journal?” Audrey wondered.
Just then the phone rang, and the cat hopped off the table. As Audrey hung up on the telemarketer, she remembered she had to call about her air conditioner. The journal lay on the table, forgotten.
The next morning another package came. Again there was a knock on the door, and again no one was there when Audrey answered. This time the box was small and narrow. Inside was a black felt pen. “Now I have a pen to go with the journal?” Audrey thought. “Why does someone want me to write in a journal? And what do they want me to write, exactly?”
Then there was another knock on the door. This time it was the repairman, who after a couple of hours declared Audrey’s air conditioner fixed and handed her a bill that made Audrey forget all about the journal and the pen.
The next day yet another package was sitting on the step as Audrey came home from a long day at work. This was the largest package Audrey had received. Inside it was a painting. It was a beautiful meadow with a young woman who looked very much like Audrey, except that she was dressed in a beige, lacy, dress that appeared to be from the 18th or 19th century. Audrey searched for the name of an artist, but couldn’t find one.
“I wonder who would send me a painting?” Audrey thought aloud. The woman in the painting was writing in what appeared to be a journal. Audrey stared at her own journal. Suddenly a strange thought struck her. “Am I supposed to write to her by writing in the journal?” Audrey wondered. It sounded ridiculous.
She shook her head and put the journal back on the table, setting the painting against the wall. She would worry about it later. She had bills to pay right now.
That night, Audrey dreamt that she was walking in a meadow with long green grasses and hundreds of flowers in an assortment of colors. The sun was shining down on a glimmering lake, and pair of swans was swimming through the bright blue water. Audrey could hear birds chirping and a light breeze rustling through the trees. The sweet scents of flowers wafted through the air. The place had a dreamy quality, Audrey thought. It felt very peaceful.
Audrey felt a tap on her shoulder and jumped. Behind her was the woman she had seen in the painting. “Who are you?” Audrey asked.
“My name is Sandra. I love to spend time here in this meadow. Isn’t it lovely?”
“Yes, it is,” Audrey replied. “But how did you get here?”
Sandra smiled. “How did you?”
Audrey thought for a moment. “I think I’m dreaming,” she said. “Yes, this has to be a dream.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be a dream,” Sandra said in a soft, almost hypnotic voice. “You can spend time here any time you want. All you have to do is write in the journal that you want to visit me in the meadow.”
“Did … did you send the journal?” Audrey asked. It seemed crazy that a woman in the painting could send her packages. Surely she would wake up soon.
“Well, I didn’t send it, exactly. It’s just a way for you to visit this beautiful place. Wouldn’t you like to visit again, Audrey? All you have to do is say so in the journal. Just write. ‘I want to go to the meadow.’ It’s as simple as that.”
“Really?” Audrey said, frowning. “You mean all I have to do is write in some journal and I’ll be transported here?”
“Well, it’s a rather unusual journal. I guess you could call it ‘magical,’” Sandra said with a smile.
It was a beautiful place, Audrey thought. She felt so at peace here — it felt so nice to be away from work, from the noise of the city, her busy life. She felt like she could just lay down in the grass and stay here forever.
“Well, it is nice here.” Audrey said, smiling wistfully. “Wait a second … How did you know my name?”
Audrey suddenly woke up back in her room and found herself staring at her beige walls and tan carpet. Sun was streaming through the slits in the blinds, and the cat was meowing. She could hear the train horn in the distance.
Audrey sighed. “What do you think, Ginger? You think I could suddenly be in a beautiful meadow by writing in a journal?”
Ginger meowed again. Audrey laughed. “Yeah, I know, it’s ridiculous. I guess my life must really be getting dull, huh? It’s probably just some practical joke, and my mind is making things up to make my life more exciting.”
Audrey put took some food off the counter and poured it into the cat’s dish. “I guess I better get ready for work,” she said.
After a rough day at work, Audrey came home exhausted and flopped down on the couch. She grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels. She was watching a show on koalas on Animal Planet when she heard something fall on the floor.
“Ginger, what are you up to now?” Audrey shouted, sighing. Ginger came out of the kitchen, looking up and Audrey and meowing. “What did you knock down?” Audrey asked the cat, who looked at her and walked over to the couch in response. Audrey sighed and walked over to the table, where she saw the journal on the floor.
“I wonder what would really happen if I wrote in this journal?” Audrey thought. “Probably nothing.” Her curiosity finally getting the better of her, she grabbed the journal off the floor and the pen off the table and sat on the couch beside Ginger. She wrote, “I would like to visit the meadow.”
She looked around. She was still in the living room of house. “Well, just like I thought, nothing happened,” she said to Ginger, who looked up and meowed, but the cat wasn’t looking at Audrey.
Audrey followed the cat’s gaze and saw that the painting looked strange, almost as if the woman inside of it was moving. Audrey walked over to the painting and peered closely at it, still holding the journal.
Suddenly Audrey wasn’t in her living room anymore. Nor was she wearing the black skirt and beige sweater she had worn to work. She was in the old-fashioned dress she had seen in the painting, sitting in the meadow, holding the journal. She looked down at the journal and was astonished to see other writing in there besides her own:
Now that you have written in the journal, you got your wish and visited the meadow. Unfortunately, this visit is going to be longer than you thought it would be. Probably about 50 years, when another woman comes along who looks a lot like you and receives a journal, a pen and a painting. This happened to me about 50 years ago, when I received the same journal. I don’t know many of the details, only the woman before me wrote me in this journal. Apparently there was a curse hundreds of years ago, and now women are chosen to spend 50 years in this painting until the next woman comes along with the same fate. I’m sorry you now must spend all of this time in the painting, but look at this way: It is a beautiful meadow, isn’t it? And thank you, for taking me away from that painting. You’ll get away one day, too, 50 years from now.
Audrey stared at the journal, awestruck. She was going to be trapped here for 50 years? But this had to be a dream. She pinched herself. Unfortunately, it hurt. Then as she stood up and looked around, she saw something strange in the distance. It almost looked like some sort of portal. She ran over and looked out of a hole that seemed to be shrinking in size. She could see her living room, her cat, and now herself — no, Sandra, dressed as herself, sitting out on the couch beside Ginger, watching TV. “She’s taken my place?” Audrey wondered aloud.
Suddenly Audrey could feel herself moving backward until she was sitting in the same position she had found herself in earlier, with the journal on her lap. She realized then that not only was she stuck in this meadow, she was stuck sitting in this exact same position until 50 years from now, when another unfortunate woman was send the same journal, pen and painting she was.
Audrey looked at the journal hopelessly. “Well, at least it’s peaceful.”
Laura liked to think she was honest with herself; it was everyone else she lied to.
Today was one of those days where she was forced to hide what she was really feeling. On the outside, she was perfectly calm, going about her day as usual. But, on the inside, it was a different story.
It was unfortunately, a familiar sensation. Her heart would race until it would skip a beat, then begin racing again. She had pain in her chest, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She felt chills running through her body.
It wasn’t a heart attack, though. She knew that from the time she had visited the ER because of this. She would just have to let it pass.
“Mandy, do you think you can have the report ready by the end of the day?” John just stood there and stared at her. Sometimes it was hard to believe that nobody could notice that she was completely falling apart.
She just nodded, and John walked away. After a few more minutes, her heart rate began to slow and she could breathe again. She looked around her. It was just a usual day in the office. She often couldn’t figure out what the triggers could be for the panic attacks. They just happened.
Allison walked up to her desk. Why was nobody leaving her alone today? Laura sighed and looked up.
“Are you okay?”
Laura froze. Had somebody figured out her secret? She knew that nobody would have any sympathy for her if they found out about her anxiety, and in fact, she was worried that some would think less of her. There had been a series of layoffs the past few months, and she didn’t want her job to be the next to go.
“I’m fine. Why?” She didn’t mean for her tone to sound quite so sharp.
Allison shrugged. “You look a little pale.”
“Well, I have a bit of a headache.” Laura’s head felt perfectly fine now, but she had gotten used to making up excuses when anybody noticed there might be something off.
“That’s too bad. I hope you feel better.”
Laura tried to smile. “Thanks.”
Allison was always friendly to her, but Laura was weary of making friends with anybody from the office. Of course, even her friends didn’t know about her panic attacks. She had always been too embarrassed to talk about them.
The rest of the morning went by without incident, but as Laura was getting ready for lunch, Allison walked back up to her. “I was wondering if you might want to go to lunch.”
“Oh, I’m not sure I really feel up to it.”
Allison’s face fell, and Laura started to feel bad for turning Allison down. Laura had worked at the company for about five years, and Allison had only started a few months ago. It was a tough atmosphere to start in with all the layoffs, too, and as far as Laura could tell, she was having trouble making friends.
“Oh, no problem,” Allison said, starting to walk away.
“Wait.” Allison turned back around. “I suppose we could go to lunch.”
A smile spread across Allison’s face. Laura couldn’t believe how happy just going out to lunch with a coworker was making her.
Ten minutes later, they were sitting at the corner sandwich shop. Allison had ordered a chicken salad sandwich, and Laura was starting in on a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
They both focused on eating for a few minutes. Then, Allison abruptly got up and walked over to the bathroom. Laura thought that it was strange that Allison hadn’t said anything, but she figured she would wait until she got back from the bathroom to make sure she was okay.
After Allison had been gone for a few minutes, Laura decided to check on her to make sure she wasn’t sick. Laura walked into the bathroom.
“Allison? Are you okay?”
Allison walked out of the stall looking a bit pale. “Yeah, sorry, it was just a panic attack. I get those sometimes.”
Laura’s jaw dropped. Although she technically knew that plenty of other people got panic attacks, she had never met anyone who did, or at least who admitted they had them.
“I have panic attacks sometimes, too,” Laura said surprising herself.
Laura nodded. “I had one earlier today, in fact. I didn’t really have a headache.”
She couldn’t believe how good it felt to finally admit to somebody that she suffered panic attacks.
“Well, maybe we can help each other get through them.”
Laura smiled. She had a feeling she would be breaking her rule about not making friends with coworkers.
Romeo Cox had always been teased by his friends for his name, but never more so than when he began spending time with Julia Leonard from across town. When he started seeing Julia, his friends teased him about family feuds and the tragic end that would come to their romance. They would never know how close they were to the truth.
The couple’s parents were polite to each other’s faces, but in reality, they harbored resentment for each other. Mr. Cox thought that Mr. Leonard overcharged on everything at his general store, and the Leonards were still angry about a rumor they swore the gossipy Mrs. Cox had started. They couldn’t understand how Romeo and Julia could care so much about each other. Both sets of parents were hoping that their children were just going through a phase.
Neither Romeo nor Julia really paid attention to what their parents thought of them. In their eyes, they were perfect for each other. Romeo was good-looking, although perhaps not as handsome as his fictional namesake was supposed to be. He had dark hair that was always perfectly in place and his mother’s ocean-colored eyes. He was about medium height, standing just a couple of inches taller than Julia.
One spring night Romeo was preparing to leave for Julia’s house. He found his favorite striped tie in the wardrobe, and he put on his brand new pair of dress shoes. This was a special occasion, after all.
Romeo headed down the stairs of their old farmhouse. That house had been in Romeo’s family for three generations now. His grandparents were pioneers, and his parents were endlessly telling stories about his grandfather chopping down the wood for the house himself and bringing his family through blizzards, droughts, floods, grasshoppers, and just about anything else that can hit a family farm.
“Romeo, did you put the milk in the icebox?” asked Romeo’s mother, Rebecca Cox, a petite woman with long brown hair that was always put up in a neat little bun.
“Yes, I did, Mother. That new icebox works wonderfully,” Romeo answered, as he walked into the kitchen. His younger brother, William, or Billy as he preferred to be called, was sitting at the table attempting to put together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of a Model T Ford.
“Well it better work. John Leonard charged me a pretty penny for that damn thing,” said Romeo’s father.
“Hank, not in front of the boys!” scolded Mrs. Cox.
“Oh, they’re old enough to hear it. ‘Bout time they learn what this world is really like, and just how unfair some men can be,” Mr. Cox said.
Mrs. Cox just shook her head as she finished washing the dishes.
“Father, can I borrow your hat? ” Romeo asked.
“Of course you can, son. Just make sure not to lose this one, too. That’s my good hat. You know, that was the hat I wore when I proposed to your mother.”
The once-pristine dark brown hat was now worn and tattered, with a chunk missing from the back and a larger part flopping down on the right side.
“I won’t. The wind just whipped that last one right off my head,” he said.
Romeo went over and took the hat off of the top of the coat rack.
“Bye Mother, Bye Father,” Romeo said.
“Good-bye Romeo,” said his mother, smiling at him as he walked out the door.
Romeo’s stomach churned a little as he walked through the town. He carried the ring that he had just bought the day before. What if Julia said no? Or, more likely, what if her father wouldn’t allow it? He tried to block those thoughts from his mind and smiled, thinking back to the day when they had first proclaimed their love for each other.
Romeo remembered that he had come over to Julia’s house, carrying a bouquet of daffodils. At that point they had gone out with each other several times, but they had yet to experience their first kiss. He was wearing his best suit and the hat that he hadn’t yet lost. He rang the doorbell, and a few moments later Mr. Leonard answered. John Leonard was not really an imposing man. He was rather short and stocky with a friendly smile. Romeo could hear Julia’s younger sisters, Judith and Mable, giggling in the background.
“Will you have my daughter home by 10 o’clock?” Mr. Leonard asked.
“Yes, Mr. Leonard,” Romeo replied.
Just then, Julia came to the door, and she was as beautiful as Romeo had ever seen her. She was wearing a light-blue flowered dress, and her long auburn hair was swept up with a ribbon that perfectly matched the color of her dress. She smiled, and Romeo could see the twinkle in her bright blue eyes. He loved the way her smile always showed in her eyes.
Julia gave her father a kiss on the cheek and walked down the sidewalk with Romeo. “It is such a beautiful evening,” she said.
The sun was just setting, coloring the clouds above with shades of pink. It was early autumn, and the leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn red and yellow. Romeo looked over at Julia, whose hair was gently waving in the cool, light breeze. They reached the park and sat down on the bench, watching the swans in the pond ruffle their feathers and flap their wings against the water.
They sat quietly for awhile, and then Julia turned to Romeo.
“Romeo, do you believe our country will go to war?” she asked him, with concern in her face.
“I don’t know, Julia,” he replied. “President Wilson says we won’t, but it is getting awfully bad over there in Europe.”
“I know…but would you go if there was a war?” said Julia.
Romeo looked away for a moment. He wasn’t quite sure what to say. The last thing he wanted to do was leave Julia, but wasn’t it his duty to fight for his country? Would he even have a choice? Maybe he would be lucky, and the war in Europe would end before it came to that point. He prayed that would be the case.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, if this country goes to war, I might feel… I just don’t know, Julia.”
Julia just nodded.
“Julia, no matter what happens, I love you,” said Romeo, taking her hand in his.
Julia smiled. “I love you too, Romeo,” she said softly.
They leaned toward each other and kissed, not hearing the sound of thunder in the distance.
Now here Romeo was again, standing at her doorstep. President Wilson had since entered the United States into war, and Romeo had a feeling he might have to go. However, he was determined that he and Julia would walk down the aisle before that day came.
He rang the bell, and Julia’s father again answered.
“Good evening, Mr. Leonard. Is Julia home?” Romeo asked.
Romeo noticed that Mr. Leonard had a rather sad look on his face.
“Yes she is Romeo, but I’m afraid you can’t see her,” Mr. Leonard said.
“What—why not?” Romeo asked, feeling confused. ” I have something important to ask her, actually, to ask you as well.”
“Julia’s sick, Romeo. She has the influenza. She said that she doesn’t want you to see her. She’s afraid you’ll get sick too.”
Romeo was dumbfounded. Julia had the influenza? He had heard of so many who had died of that horrible disease. Romeo remembered Mrs. Garrett standing with his mother, crying and talking about how pale and weak her son had been and how Mrs. Garrett held her son’s hand until it fell from hers.
“Maybe you can just write her a letter, and I’ll take it up to her,” Mr. Leonard offered.
“Alright,” said Romeo, still not believing what he had heard.
Romeo slowly walked away, his legs feeling like lead. He didn’t see those same beautiful shades of pink in the sky as he walked down the street. He didn’t see the twins playing kick the can in Mrs. Johnson’s yard. He didn’t hear the wind rustling the branches of the newly-budding trees.
All he could hear was the sound of John Leonard saying over and over again “Julia’s sick, Romeo.”
He could see her in his mind, her face pale and drawn, the color gone from her eyes. She’s dying, he thought. The love of his life was dying.
He wasn’t quite sure how he got back to his house, but when he did, he went straight to bed, without so much as a word to anyone. He dreamt of Julia that night, and he woke up to the rooster’s crowing. Usually that damn crowing bothered him, but this morning he had something he wanted to do.
He began walking down the street toward her house when he noticed that the general store was closed. Usually Mr. Leonard would be there by now.
He was still walking down the same street when he heard a couple of neighborhood gossips say a familiar name.
“It’s so sad, isn’t it? Poor Mrs. Leonard. She was so close to her daughter, and she was such a beautiful girl. That influenza is just horrible,” said Mrs. Bernard, an old woman who was carrying her yipping toy poodle.
Romeo just stood there, not believing what he was hearing. Were they talking about Julia? They had to be — her father had just told him that she had the influenza, hadn’t he? His mind was spinning. Did she just say “was?” Maybe he hadn’t heard her right. That poodle was still yipping pretty loudly.
“Quiet, Fufu!” Mrs. Bernard scolded the dog.
“Oh, I know, it’s such a pity. That influenza is just horrible — it’s taken one life after another, but I never imagined it would take the Leonard girl,” said Mrs. Conner, a younger woman with a very nasally voice. “I heard that Julia… Ethel, can’t you get that dog to hush up?”
“Oh, she’s just excited. Fufu, be quiet!” said Mrs. Bernard. “It’s so sad when someone dies so young. At least Mrs. Leonard still has… Fufu!”
Romeo had heard enough. Choking back tears, he walked as fast as he could to the army station, determined to get out of this place as soon as he could.
When he came back, he wrote Julia a letter:
I know you will never receive this letter, but somehow it eases my pain to write it. I have always loved you Julia, ever since I saw you running through the park with your hair flying in the wind and your mother yelling at you to come back. You were so beautiful even then, but what captivated me the most about you was your spirit. Nobody could laugh like you, nobody could dream like you, nobody could brighten the whole day with just a smile like you.
Sadly, though, you have been taken from my life. I don’t know what I will do without you, which is why I am choosing to leave. I know you would not want me to voluntarily go to war, but I don’t see any reason not to anymore. Maybe you will read this letter in heaven; maybe I will soon see you there.
All my love,
He left the letter on his dresser, still not quite sure why he wrote it, but knowing that it had helped somehow.
He had asked to go as soon as possible, which meant he was leaving the next day. His family had desperately tried to convince him otherwise, but he refused to hear it. In his mind, his life had ended with Julia’s.
That next day, Romeo was ready to get on the train.
“Romeo, please, at least be careful. We don’t want to get a letter that says…” Mrs. Cox’s voice broke off, and she turned away.
“I will be fine, Mother. I have to go,” Romeo said. He gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek, and he was surprised when his father took him into his arms and hugged him.
“Make us proud, son, and be careful,” Mr. Cox said.
“I will, Father,” Romeo said, turning away and getting onto the train, leaving his father attempting to comfort his crying mother behind.
As he got on the train, he took out the little black-and-white picture of Julia.
“God, Julia, I loved you so much. Why did you leave me?” he said, kissing her picture and turning toward the window as tears streaked down his face. As the train began moving away from the station, he saw the crying wives and fiancées of the soldiers waving and blowing kisses, but no Julia. He would never see Julia again, he thought.
This was true — Romeo never would see Julia again, but it wasn’t because she had died. What Romeo would never know was that it was Mable, not Julia, who had died from the influenza. Julia had recovered from the disease the day after Romeo had left on that train. Maybe he would have found out if he hadn’t died four days after he arrived in Europe. Maybe he wouldn’t have volunteered to be on the front line. Maybe it could have been a happy ending, but no one will ever know what could have been for Julia and Romeo.
I came of age in a time of no heroes. I grew up hearing the stories of heroes who lived long ago, but none existed now.
My brother and I used to sit and talk about all those stories we had heard when we were children. John used to believe that he could be a hero. That was before the accident. Well, it was supposedly an accident. Nobody really believed that, though.
Either way, nothing could be done about it. My brother was gone.
I was walking down the street, not looking up at anybody. Nobody ever looked at each other. That might force people to admit just how horrible this world really was. Nobody wanted to do that because then they might feel the need to do something about it. My brother thought that he could do something about it. Look how that turned out.
I could almost hear him now. “Andy, we could change the world, you and I. We could make this place like it used to be.”
John didn’t believe in minding his own business. He always looked around when he was walking, pointing out the things that needed to be changed. One time, a man and a woman were arguing, and he hit her. John went over and confronted the man. The man punched him, and the woman just stared at him and walked away. I told John that he shouldn’t have gotten involved.
“We have to get involved, Andy,” he would say. “If we don’t do something, who will?”
“Isn’t that the job of the police?” I would answer, even though I knew better.
“You know they won’t do anything. The people in charge are too corrupt. That’s why you and I need to change things.”
That sort of talk could get someone killed, if the wrong people heard it. He really believed that he could make a difference and that I could even help him. There was a time when I was starting to believe him. That time was long past.
I had almost reached the store when something stopped me. It was a boy crying in pain. I wanted to walk past, but I could hear my brother’s voice in my head, telling me that we could help people.
But, he was gone. Still, I found myself walking toward the sound of the crying. The little boy looked to be about 4 or 5. He was on the ground, both of his knees and elbows bleeding.
I leaned down. “Did you fall?”
He shook his head. “No, those boys pushed me,” he said, pointing at a gang of teenagers down the street.
I wasn’t about to do anything about the gang. That would just be stupid. Still, I asked the boy where he lived, and I helped him up off the pavement.
“Thank you,” the boy said after I dropped him off at his house. He smiled. “I’m Joey.”
For the first time in a long time, I smiled, too. “You’re welcome. I’m Andy. ”
It wasn’t much, but I suppose my brother would be proud of me anyway. This time, I looked up as I walked down the street.
Fairy tales hardly ever come true for quiet girls. That is why Molly’s jaw dropped as she looked around her. Of course, this kind of fairy tale didn’t really come true for anybody, did it? And yet, here she was.
This place looked like it came straight out of a fantasy novel. The colors were vibrant and like nothing she had ever seen before. A bright green dragon flew overhead, and a unicorn was standing right in front of her, munching on grass. She slowly walked toward something shimmering in the distance, which turned out to be the tallest waterfall Molly had ever seen. She couldn’t figure out where it began or ended. It was as if that waterfall went on forever. She had no idea how long she stood there, just staring at this strange and majestic world around her.
“Are you alright?”
Molly turned around. A young man who looked to be just a bit older than her with dark brown hair and bright green eyes was walking up to her. He stared at her for awhile before he said anything.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
Molly shook her head, unable to speak for a moment. Finally she found her voice. “Where is here, exactly?”
He just smiled. “You should probably go back to where you came from.”
Molly looked around again. She couldn’t even figure out how she got here. How was she supposed to get back? And why would she want to go back?
Finally, she started to realize that this might be a dream. She turned back to the young man. “This isn’t even real, is it?”
He smiled again. He had sparkly white teeth, which didn’t seem to go with his medieval outfit. “What do you think?”
A cat nearby meowed, and Molly searched around for where the noise was coming from. The next moment, she was staring into the hazel eyes of her own cat, Prince Charming, who was standing on her chest. The new fantasy book she had just picked up from the library, Dream of the Storm, was lying open beside her. She hadn’t even gotten very far in the book. She had only started reading the first chapter before she fell asleep.
She moved Prince Charming off her chest, put a bookmark in the book, and sat up. She had fallen asleep with her clothes still on. As she put on her pajamas, her parents’ voices drifted through the open door.
“I can’t believe you forgot to pay the electric bill! What’s wrong with you?”
“Why do I have to do everything around here?”
Molly quickly shut the door and lay back down on her bed. Perhaps she should try reading the book again and see if any other interesting dreams come about.
Her parents’ arguing was more and more distant as she became immersed in the novel. The description of the world was exactly as she had seen in her dream. And the prince, Bralan, was nearly the same on the page as he was in Molly’s head, which was interesting, since she hadn’t read about him yet when she had the dream. She was reading about the prince’s quest to slay a dragon, but she was having more trouble concentrating as her eyelids started to droop.
She was less confused when she found herself back in the fantasy world again. She knew now it was just a dream.
She turned around, and Prince Bralan was standing in the same place with exactly the same smile.
“Yes, but I know this isn’t real now. And I know that your name is Prince Bralan.”
“Yes, that is my name. But why would you think this isn’t real?”
Molly looked around again. Dark clouds had just begun to cover the sun, and the waterfall was no longer sparkling. She turned back to Prince Bralan. Somehow the smile that had never left his face was starting to seem a little less friendly. That smile wasn’t reaching his eyes, which seemed to be an even brighter green than they were in the first dream.
“I was just reading about you and this place in a fantasy novel.”
Prince Bralan looked up at the sky. “A storm is coming in. You shouldn’t come back here, or you might never be able to go back.”
This time, the sun was streaming through the window when Molly woke up. She yawned and slowly got out of bed. Perhaps she shouldn’t read that book again. It really was giving her strange dreams.
Molly’s parents weren’t speaking to each other when she went downstairs. She just grabbed a granola bar and left without saying anything to them.
She kept thinking about her dreams throughout the school day. She barely listened in any of her classes, and she was usually a good student. Despite what the prince had said in her dream, she had to finish that book. She had to know how it ends.
When she got back home, she ignored her parents and went straight up to her room. She picked the book up again. Prince Bralan had just finished making his way through the terrible storm to slay the dragon. She started drifting off.
A booming clap of thunder greeted her as she found herself back in the fantasy world again.
“Oh, great,” Molly muttered as the rain started to pour down on her, soaking through her pajamas in a matter of minutes.
“I told you that you shouldn’t come back here.”
Prince Bralan was standing with that same smile. Why did he seem so creepy now when he seemed so gallant and brave in the book?
“You know, in the book you’re busy slaying the dragon right now. You’re the hero. Shouldn’t you have better things to do in my dreams that standing here talking to me?”
“Oh, I already slayed the dragon. Why do you keep saying this is a dream? And why do you think I’m a hero?”
Molly frowned. “Well, the whole novel follows your quest to slay a dragon.”
“Why does that make me a hero? Did you see the dragon earlier? Did he bother you?”
“Well, no, but…”
“I’m afraid I’m not a hero. I only wanted to slay the dragon for the power I gained. And now you’re trapped here, just as these people are.”
He gestured around them, where there were several other people walking around, dressed in pajamas just like she was, shivering in the rain. Why hadn’t she seen them before?
Molly pinched herself. “I’m ready to wake up now.”
But Molly wasn’t waking up. This world looked so dark now. The rain kept pouring down, the lightning kept flashing, and Prince Bralan kept smiling. His bright green eyes were glowing.
“I did warn you that you might not be able to go back.”
Was this real after all? What if she never saw her parents again? What were the last words she had said to them? She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t tell if the water pouring down her face was from her tears or from the rain. Surely she would wake up soon. She turned back to Prince Bralan.
“How do I get out of here? Why did you warn me if you want to trap people here?”
“I can’t answer your first question. As far as warning you not to come back, I’m obligated to do that. You have to want to escape your world enough to come back despite the danger.”
“I’m afraid I need to go now. Somebody else will get that book soon enough. Anyway, you wanted to live in a different world, didn’t you? Well, here you are. Welcome to your new home.”
Author note: I recently took a class where my instructor said that she tries to get as many rejections as possible every month, although she is of course happy when something she writes is accepted for publication. This was a rejected story, and I’m trying to learn to celebrate my rejections because it means that I took a chance and submitted something I wrote.