Calliope Njo: Personal Assistant

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Personal Assistant

Calliope Njo

Teal was not going to like this. It was a blanket of white outside with a high of fifteen degrees. As the one in charge of her career, Ralph should have known better before sending her here. She’s told him countless times.

He would meet us at the hotel, not here on the bus where she can give him a good swift kick.

Oh, she’s waking up. Great.

Tony pulled up to a local coffee shop to get everybody their morning round of wake up juice. Strong, black, and hot coffee was what she liked. I preferred Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey.

Tony returned about the same time Teal came out. He set down the coffee while she sat at the table. She looked at me with squinted eyes.

“How many times do I have to say I hate snow, I hate the cold, and most of all, I don’t care to be in it? Huh? What is so difficult to understand? You are replaceable.” She hit the table hard enough to cause coffee waves.

Deep breath. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I explained it to Ralph. He pushed me out of his office and slammed the door in my face. I tried to tell you, but you gave me the same reaction. So here we are for an interview with a local radio station to talk about your latest release. Since the lake has frozen over, boats are not for rent. Instead, I rented a log cabin that looks over the lake. Far enough away from town, yet close enough to get whatever you would need. Ralph, in the meantime, will stay in the penthouse suite at the Regency Hotel.”

She opened her mouth but closed it. She stared at her coffee between sips until it was all gone. At least I thought it was gone because she threw the cup away. “I’ll talk to him. If he slams the door in my face, he’s done.”

I had to get over being blamed for this. We would be here in Porport for three days. I was lucky enough to arrange some time for her at Soneva Jani in the Maldives. She loved the water, and with the hotel right on it, she would enjoy that. They promised everyone would respect her need for privacy and relaxation and would do everything in their power to be sure she had that.

With that completed, I still needed to find a warm outfit for her to wear to the interview. It had to be something good enough to help avoid getting yelled at again.

Her hair was dark mahogany. Matching that color with her eyes was not always easy, but I had practice. After all, having one blue and one grey eye made it challenging. Not impossible.

She needed to be at the station for a meeting before the interview. That gave me a few minutes to get her some clothes. Ralph wanted this, and he got it. He better be prepared for the bills, though.

She left wearing a midnight blue turtle neck with a black leather trench. I recognized the outfit from a couple of interviews ago. She commented to me that it was appropriate. I understood she wanted better.

Luck was on my side when I found a clothing store next to the station—wool, cashmere, and angora on every table with a tag to match. After a lot of looking, I bought her a charcoal grey cashmere sweater, black and white tweed plaid pants, and she already had that leather trench. They looked warm, and she would look stunning in them. On top of that, they were on sale.

Purchase done, I returned to the bus and worked over them with a cleaning spray and a lint brush. Best I could without taking them to the cleaners.

She walked in. “You did buy me a new outfit. The trench coat is fine, but this outfit has gotta go. They better be warm too.”

I opened the closet and brought out the clothes. She ran her hands up, down, and inside out of the sweater with a smile that grew. That smile grew wider when she saw the pants. “Perfect. It takes a woman to know what a woman wants. The trench will work. I’ve got a pair of black leather boots. This is a keeper.” She went into her room and threw the clothes she was wearing out the doorway.

I gathered the old clothes and put them aside to be cleaned and donated later. In my head, I jumped for joy and yippeed at getting something right. She came out wearing a turtleneck and denim pants. “Call him. Now.”

I called the number, and he didn’t answer. I tried again and nothing. “Tony, we need to get to Ralph’s hotel.”

“Roger.”

A few minutes later, we arrived. As soon as we stopped, Teal bolted out the door. She would send me in, but this must be big if she’s doing it herself. Tony jogged behind her.

I took the time to email Mom and let her know I would be by in a few days to visit. It would be nice to see them and Sara again. With no idea how long I would get to see them, I would take any to get away.

Drunken binges, Paparazzi, psychos, etc., started getting to me, which was my indication that I needed a break. To be able to breathe, sleep, and eat without wondering about anything bad was what I longed for. It sounded stupid, but until this job, I had no idea the simple things in life could be taken for granted.

She came back, slammed the door, and took a seat across from me.

Tony opened it and looked at me. He shook his head and put his finger against his lips before he closed the door. After that, he started up again, and off we went. I assumed to the cabin.

About a half-hour later, we made it. She walked to the door. “I’m not even going to ask why you never told me Ralph hired you to take care of me. Next time, if there is one, be sure to tell me everything. I hate finding things out at the last minute. On that note, the radio station interview has been canceled and unless there is anything else, give me the key so I can go inside.”

It felt like her eyes pierced right through mine. She didn’t move, look away, or change her look, for that matter. I didn’t know what to do so I sat there and took it.

Ralph told me he would take care of everything. I made a mental note to confront him about that later. In the meanwhile, after getting into my pocket, I took out the key and put it in her hand.

She slammed the door on her way out. That poor door was going to shatter if she kept that up. Without the heater, it was going to freeze in here. It’s a good thing I brought along a down blanket. Guaranteed to keep me warm. The only thing left was to find food.

We had a stockpile of chips and beef jerky, but I wanted something substantial. That meant—

The door opened. Teal narrowed her eyes at me. “You were planning to come along, but you forgot something, so you stayed behind to look for it. In the meanwhile, you told Tony to get some food for us to eat. All of that is well and good, but you’re taking an awfully long time. Don’t you think?”

“Ma’am, you’re instructions were never to assume I would be coming along with you anywhere. I was to stay behind unless you gave me specific instructions otherwise beforehand. You needed to present perfection and couldn’t do that with underlings following you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “When did I say or do all of this?”

“Right after I told you Ralph hired me to take care of you exactly nine months and three weeks ago.”

She ducked her head and closed the door. I stopped trying to figure out what or why when I got hired for this job. It was easier.

I reached into the closet and pulled out a down blanket, guaranteed to keep me warm even in twenty degrees below zero weather. She took the bed in the back, which left me the make-a-bed where the dining table sat.

The door opened again. “Tony brought food and promised it’s edible. One spaghetti and meatballs, one cheeseburger with the fixings including cheese fries, and one open-faced turkey sandwich with lots of gravy on top. One hot coffee, one hot tea, and one soda to drink. So unless you expect me to eat and drink all of that, why don’t you come along. We’ll figure out the sleeping arrangements when the time comes. That is unless you would like me to find a flame thrower to melt the ice come morning.”

Tony got all of that food, but that’s what he does. My new plan was to go in there and get my food to bring back here to eat. He would drop her off at the airport to be on her way to the great getaway. So what changed?

She came in and closed the door. “So either we’re coming back in here, and you’re going in there. It’s been the three of us since the beginning. Why change now?”

“You’re instructions were—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK. OK. I gave a lot of half-assed instructions to piss people off. Well, I’m changing those instructions. So you’re either coming on your own, or I’ll find a way to bring you with me into the cabin. Yes, that includes carrying you over my shoulder if I must.”

Maybe after dinner, I could go back to the hotel and talk to Ralph. I had no idea what was going on or why all of these changes. I could take the bus. I had the license to drive it and it wasn’t that big.

“All right. I’m coming.” I followed her to the cabin.

Once we came inside, we went into the kitchen. The burger and the soda were taken. Teal grabbed the turkey, which left me with the spaghetti without the garlic bread. I couldn’t complain.

Once we finished, I grabbed everything to throw away in the outside dumpster. I looked around to see where everybody went. Tony sat on the sofa and was doing something on paper. No Teal in sight, so she must be busy elsewhere.

I started up the bus and returned to the hotel. I got to his room OK, and when I knocked on it, he wouldn’t answer. Some people were hard sleepers and sometimes even harder after a meal, which could’ve been the reason.

The cleaning lady came around, and after I slipped her a fifty, she opened the room for me. He lay sprawled out on the bed staring at the ceiling with his mouth wide open.

Pale skin and dead eyes made me curious. I poked him, and he turned to dust. I jerked my hand away. Normal people would scream at such a sight. I didn’t, but I never regarded myself as normal. Look what I did for a living.

I went to the bathroom to rub my face with some water. I needed to wake up from this… this whatever, and move on. Problem was, he was my boss. He hired me to do a job, so without him what would I do.

I left the room and returned to the cabin. During that time, I realized that the only person that saw him was Teal. He could have had other visitors, but I only thought of Teal. Everybody was capable of killing, but very few would follow through with it.

I returned to the cabin and decided to stay. I made my bed and lay down in it. I faced the wall and wanted to forget what happened. That was not normal. Normal was a simple word with a complicated definition, granted, but simple in this instance.

Ralph was not a good man by any means. None of that made him bad enough to be killed, though, and turned to dust. How?

I got up at some point after trying to close my eyes to get to sleep. Too dark to go anywhere but the cabin. If everybody were sleeping, the noise would wake them up.

“It’s about time you came back,” Teal said. “Where did you go? Tibet?”

If she killed or fired me because I needed to know, then so be it. “You killed him, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I did. He was a no-good person. People struggle every day. His answer to all of that was a laugh, shrugged shoulders, and the hottest deal he made in this lifetime. His pockets bulged. Yet, he told me he couldn’t spare any of it. I couldn’t believe I actually followed him. It needed to stop, so I eliminated him. Tony never saw it happen, but he did see the after-effects.”

Did I dare ask? “So what happens now? He was my boss. He hired me to do a job. Whatever the reason that did not give you the right to play judge, jury, and executioner. Without him, I don’t have a job anymore.”

She smiled. “It’s OK. Nothing will hurt you. You still have a job. You take orders from me now instead of him. Things will be how they are supposed to be. Nothing more.” She cupped my cheeks. “Savannah, it is the three of us as it was meant to be. I came to this world a long time ago. You are one of only three people I wish to be by my side. You and Tony are two. The other one died of a heart attack at the end of World War II.”

Things got creepy. I couldn’t believe what I heard. This didn’t feel safe any more. My body shook, but I didn’t know why I was chilled. I shook my head and tried to get away. I got out the door, but I wasn’t paying attention and fell into the snow. I got back up but couldn’t see anywhere around me. I picked a direction and hoped that was the cabin.

Hands grabbed me from behind and spun me around. I closed my eyes tight. I didn’t want to see anything. Maybe she would let me go and forget that I existed.

“Savannah, you can open your eyes. The light isn’t that—”

“Hey, everybody OK?” That was Tony’s voice. “I guarantee you, I make one call, and I can get people here in thirty minutes.”

Teal left me. I heard mumbling and should have taken the opportunity to run, but run where? I ran straight ahead in the hopes the bus would be there. My hands slapped something solid and felt around for the door latch. I turned the lights on and locked the door.

I dialed 9-1-1 in the hopes somebody would be here in time to help. I couldn’t believe she killed someone and smiled. Why would she kill? I remembered what she said but still. Why?

I hung up. What good would it do anyway? It would take them too long to get here.

She came back in. “Well, Tony just wanted to be sure his girls were OK. I hate the cold and the snow. So let’s hurry it up.”

“I can’t go in there with you. I’ll stay here.”

“No. You will come with me.”

I shook my head.

“OK. All right. Freeze me to death why you don’t you. I’ll be back in a few minutes. It’s going to take the three of us to move back in.”

What did she have in mind? Kill both of us?

“It won’t take so long if all of us—”

Tony came inside with blankets. “The only thing in there we need. Everything else is still in here. I get the front bed.”

“Teal, I’ll make a deal with you. I won’t say anything about what happened, and… and… you can use me for anything you want.”

She scrunched her eyes at me. “What? I will not go into how that sounds. Let me think you’re exhausted. That’s why you’re talking nonsense. You made that one already.” She pointed to the bed. “Good night, everyone. It’s been an eventful day.”

Tony slept hard. That left Teal, who could hear ants walking when she slept. The door made noise when it opened, but if I closed it carefully, it might not make noise.

I waited until I heard heavy breathing before I attempted to open the door. It felt like the time I turned sixteen and got in after curfew. Mom and Dad had no idea.

I closed it the same way and realized I should’ve grabbed a flashlight and my bag. Too late to go back.

I walked ahead while feeling my way through. I got to the point I saw lights and went towards them.

Someone behind me. They walked towards me from the sounds of it. I didn’t realize how hard it was to run in the snow. Good exercise, but I wasn’t looking for that at the moment. I needed to get going.

“Savannah, what’s got you— Never mind. Don’t answer that. Just stop.”

I did that and turned around. “Teal—”

“It’s OK. I played judge, jury, and executioner with Ralph because I had to. You? I can’t. The three of us have become too close. Closer than I ever imagined. Do what you need to do, but don’t leave me. I’m begging you.” She dropped to her knees. “Please don’t leave me.”

Go? Stay? Holy shifting sugar. “I need a break. I need to visit family. Give me that.”

“Of course. Two weeks? You put me in the Maldives for two weeks. You have yours. I have mine. We come back. Right?”

How did she find out about that? I didn’t even tell her about that yet.

“Right? Savannah?” Her eyes glowed in the dark.

“OK. Two weeks. Yeah. Uhm… You have a concert in Miami. We’ll meet there.”

“I assume you mean in my dressing room. That sounds fine.” She stood up. “Now my legs are cold. Can we go back to the nice warm bus now?”

I nodded. She didn’t move. I moved ahead of her while trying to listen for anything that sounded funny. We made it back to the bus, and I sat down on the bed. She gave me a peck on my forehead before she went to hers.

“No more sneaking out. You hear?” She pointed at me.

I nodded. Too cold and tired to try that again anyway. I lay down while wondering if I would live to see another day.

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Please visit Calliope on her blog: https://calliopenjosstories.home.blog/

Draft

In case you are curious about this post… we have a WU! who had business issues interrupt the writing of his WTS.. so we are reserving a post in the January Archives to post his story. Will update as soo as we can!

D. A. Ratliff: The Snow Fairy

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

The Snow Fairy 

D A Ratliff

The past year had been harrowing.

Marshall Caine threw a duffle bag onto the oversized chair and pulled the drapes back, letting the dim daylight pour into the room. He allowed the quiet solitude to wash over him, trying to will the anguish away. There was peace in this deep forest, and he needed peace.

The cabin belonged to a friend, a professional baseball player who grew up nearby. He was a megastar, and he built the lodge deep in the Canadian wilderness as a retreat from the chaos. Marshall had played baseball in college with him and remembered his friend’s words when he offered the lodge to him. “Marsh, you’ve been my best friend for years. The place is yours for however long you need it.”

He was going to need it.

He spent the remainder of the afternoon unloading the small trailer attached to a snowmobile, his means of transportation to the nearest town. Before going inside, he laughed at the road sign his friend erected in front of the house. The three wooden boards pointed in different directions, each displaying a city located in a warm climate. One pointed toward a path that extended past the lodge. Later, he would explore where that path led. Back inside, he built a fire in the enormous stone fireplace, put away groceries, unpacked his computer, and stacked his CDs next to the stereo.

At dusk, he stowed the trailer in the small shed and parked the snowmobile under an awning to keep the snow off it. Before returning to the warmth of the fire, he stood outside in the twilight. Heavy snow peppered down, and he soaked in the overwhelming stillness, tamping back the screams trying to escape. It would get better. It had to, and he would learn to cope.

After a quick dinner, he opened a bottle of wine, put smooth jazz on the stereo, and grabbed his laptop. He was a sportswriter with an itch to write a novel, and his therapist suggested it would be cathartic. He had written for about an hour when fatigue and a couple of glasses of Petite Sirah took their toll, and he fell asleep.

~~~

He woke in a stupor, unsure where he was for a few moments. As he focused, the reality of where he was came to him, and he relaxed. He had dreamed he was in the courtroom. He didn’t want to be there.

He stumbled to the bathroom and took the hottest shower he could stand. Amazed that the water pressure was excellent in such a remote area, he suspected this luxury was costly. Drying off, he padded into the kitchen, made coffee, and while it was brewing, he tended to the dying fire. He dragged his suitcases to the loft and rummaged for his favorite old sweatpants, sweatshirt, and socks, and returned downstairs.

Pouring a mug of coffee, he walked to the large window and pulled open the drapes. The snow had stopped, and the wind was dead calm. The firs stood like sentinels among the bare limbs of birch and aspen trees. Having lived in Southern California for so long, the beauty of the Canadian forest mesmerized him.

Marshall’s stomach growled—time for breakfast. He started to turn away from the window when a small blue creature flew into his view. A bluebird? The creature stopped mid-air, whirling around when a bright beam of light struck the small body, and it dropped into the snow.

Stunned, Marshall stood rooted to the floor as he watched the small creature lying on the snow morph into an adult woman. He dropped his coffee mug. How could…..? Shaking off his shock, he rushed outside, struggling through the deep snow in his sock feet, oblivious to the cold. He picked up the tiny woman with ease, as she was light as a feather, and hurried into the house.

He laid her on the couch and covered her with an afghan, then cranked up the temp on the heat pump to get the lodge warmer. He shivered—his feet ice-cold from his wet socks. He took the loft stairs two at a time, grabbed dry socks, and rushed back to her.

~~~

She was pale and barely breathing. Marshall felt for a pulse and was relieved to feel a strong, steady beat beneath his fingers. Not sure what to do, he refilled his mug, sat in the chair across from her, and waited.

When his breathing slowed, Marshall picked up his laptop to write down what he witnessed along with a description of her. He noted her thick black hair, pale skin, and delicate features. As he wrote of her beauty, confusion flooded his thoughts. Her diaphanous clothing consisted of several layers of sheer deep blue fabric not suited for the weather, nor were the cloth slippers on her feet. Her only adornment was a beautiful teardrop-shaped sapphire attached to a gold necklace.

Was he hallucinating? Was she real? He had been under such stress since his son died that he didn’t trust his sanity anymore. He closed the laptop and picked up his coffee, and continued to wait.

It was nearing ten a.m. when she stirred. Marshall held his breath. He had watched the woman lying on his couch change from a tiny creature flying in mid-air to what appeared to be a human. As much as he wanted to understand what he had seen, he shuddered from fear.

She raised her head and moaned softly. Her eyes, a startling bright blue, darted around the room before settling on his face. She smiled and took a deep breath. “You are not Onor. That is good.” She swung her legs off the couch while rubbing her forehead. “Oh… I dearly hate stunning spells, always leave such a headache.”

Marshall found his voice. “Would—would you like some water?”

“Yes, I would.”

His hand shaking, he got a glass from the cabinet and filled it with cold water from the refrigerator door. As he handed it to her, he tried to keep his hand steady. He failed, and she noticed.

“You saw what happened to me, didn’t you?”

Marshall managed to nod.

She gulped a drink of water. “Ah… well, I suppose I should explain… uh, what’s your name?”

“Marshall—Marshall Caine.”

“Marshall, I am Deela. I am a fairy.”

“Uh…” Marshall winced. Get a grip.

“Yes, I seem to have that effect on nonmagical Earthers. You weren’t supposed to see that. When in the Earthly realm, it is not easy to see us. Spells usually keep us hidden unless we take our true form. You might notice something, but our presence never registers.” She drank the remaining water. “However, this cabin is so close to the realm that I suppose our presence is difficult to hide.”

Marshall took a deep breath. “I don’t mean to seem incredulous, but I…. Well, I am, but I know what I saw unless I am hallucinating, which is possible. Tell me, what was that red beam that hit you?”

“That was a seeker stun spell. Whoever cast it knew I was close to the sanctuary but took a chance to seek me out and stop me.”

“Stop you. Why would they want to stop you? And sanctuary?”

“This will sound absurd, but there are two realms that exist in this world. The Earthly world that you live in and the magical world where I do. The worlds became alienated eons ago due to a rather serious misunderstanding. The sanctuary lies through a portal quite near here, down the lane.”

“Oh… okay.”

“I know this is difficult, but I have vital information that I need to get to the archmage.” She absently rubbed the sapphire stone on her necklace. “How long was I out?”

“About three hours.”

“Not good. They will be searching for me. I need to leave.” Deela stood, wobbling a bit. “Oh, that was a powerful spell—a bit dizzy.” She took a deep breath. “We still need to go.”

“We?”

“Yes. The group trailing me will be able to trace the spell. They will know where it found me, and that will bring them to you, which puts you in danger.” She headed toward the door. “Coming?”

“I… I…” He stopped stuttering. “I need to change clothes.”

Deela cocked her head, a slight grin touching her lips. “Don’t let me stop you.”

As he hurried up the stairs, he hoped he hadn’t blushed. A fairy? Difficult to believe, but she did command more energy than any woman he’d ever known. He scoffed. Was she even human? Dressing as warmly as possible, he grabbed a second coat and returned to the main floor, where he found her trying to look at her back in the glass of a picture hanging on the wall.

“Please, check my back.” She turned, and he sucked in a breath. She had undone her dress—her back bare. “There is a slight slit in the center of my back. Is it inflamed?”

He looked closely. There was a small opening in her back between her shoulder blades, which was indeed quite red. “Yes, the area is red.”

She reached over her shoulder, and with a flick of her wrist, the dress refastened. “This is not good. It will heal quickly, but that is where my wings are. Without them, I can’t shift. It will take us longer to reach the portal. And I do not have enough energy to transport.”

“Uh… I have a snowmobile. It’s faster than walking.”

“Then snowmobile it is.”

“Here, I brought a coat for you.” She slipped on the coat and went outside, where they pulled the snowmobile from the shed. They mounted the seat, Deela’s arms encircling his chest.

She spoke, her voice melodious in his ear. “Thank you. The wizards after me want me dead before I can deliver the information I have. So, if I tell you to make this thing go as fast as it can, I mean it.”

Marshall nodded. He slipped on his helmet and dropped the shield over his face. He turned the key, waited for the engine to warm, released the choke, and headed down the narrow path leading deeper into the forest.

Towering trees shrouded in pristine snow lined the narrow trail. Had he been out on a pleasure drive, Marshall would have loved the solitude and beauty, but this was frightening. Deela’s body pressed against his was a constant reminder that what he was experiencing was anything but ordinary. He didn’t believe in fairies and wizards, or did he?

They traveled for fifteen minutes when Deela shouted over the snowmobile’s din that the portal was close. As they rounded a bend in the path, an eerie, iridescent glow appeared ahead. Should he slow down, stop? He was about to ask when he felt Deela tense.

She yelled. “Go. Go as fast as you can. They’re here.”

Marshall flushed with heat as adrenaline coursed through his body. He pressed on the throttle, and the sled picked up speed. His peripheral vision caught a flash of light before it impacted the rear flap. The force nearly threw him over the windshield, but he held on. Blast after blast of powerful beams struck the snow and trees around him, some hitting parts of the snowmobile, as he took a serpentine path trying to evade the attack.

The portal was close. He pressed on the throttle and sped up as much as he dared without crashing. He focused on the shimmering circle ahead of him—almost there. As they reached the magical realm entrance, a blast from one of the wizards struck the hood sending the sled violently to the right. Fighting to retain control, they slid through the portal sideways.

Marsh felt in limbo… he floated in a psychedelic haze, glittering colors swirling about him. He was aware of Deela’s arms around his chest and that he was on the sled, but the sensation was surreal. It ended with a thud as the snowmobile crashed into a snowbank. He struggled to pull his leg from the snowbank and, when free, realized that Deela was missing.

“Deela?”

A mound of snow moved, and he spotted a bit of blue fabric. He frantically dug her out. “You all right?”

“Yes.”

Loud, popping noises startled him as several people appeared from thin air. An older man with raven hair and the same cornflower blue eyes as Deela rushed to her.

“Daughter, you made it. Do you have the proof?”

“Yes, I have it. Marshall helped me get it here.”

The wizard spoke. “Marte, bring our guest. Let’s go home.”

Marte grabbed his forearm, and in a wink, the snow around Marshall vanished, replaced by a wood-paneled room, covered in tapestries, golden chandeliers, and an enormous fireplace, ablaze with a fire that filled the room with warmth.

He was standing next to Deela. “Your father?”

“Yes, Avone, he is the archmage, the head of our realm. He married my mother, who was a fairy.”

“So, you can marry?”

She smiled. “We are human with special abilities. There is much I need to tell you.”

The archmage spoke. “Gather around. Deela, please show us the information you retrieved from Onor.”

She touched the sapphire stone hanging on her neck, which began to glow, displaying the image of a wizard, appearing to be the age of Avone. The image became animated as the man started to talk.

“We have the Lavaren crystal.” The man he suspected was Onor held up a large cylindrical dark green crystal. “The power that Avone desires is ours. We can now return to our realm and take what is ours.”

The image faded, and the gathered wizards and witches were silent until Avone spoke. “The crystal exists as legend has told.” He looked toward his daughter. “Deela, when are they planning to make their assault?”

“They are not ready. They have not yet been able to activate the stone.” 

Avone pointed toward a far wall where a leather book rested on top of a polished wooden stand. “We have the key to the crystal’s power. We must plan our attack to retrieve it from Onor.”

Marshall, invited to stay, listened with keen interest as the magicals planned to recover the crystal. They paused for dinner and then continued well into the night. As the others filed out, he wandered to the stand, curious about the book. That it was old was not in doubt, the ornate carved leather worn, and the lettering faded. He traced the letters with a fingertip, the language unknown.

“The book is beautiful, is it not?” Deela stood beside him. “It is the spellbook belonging to archmage at the time of our arrival.”

“Arrival?”

“Come sit with me. You should know our story.”

They settled on a couch in front of the fireplace. “We are human but not of your world. Eons ago, the magicals opened the portal to your world. We discovered non-magicals who at first were quite frightened of us, but we learned to live in harmony. At least, until a faction of Earthers became jealous of our powers and mounted an attack. We had allowed them to enter the realm at will, and legend tells that they stole the crystal which powers the pendium, a magical device that opens portals to other realms. With its theft, we have been unable to travel to other worlds for centuries.”

“Why do we not know of you now?”

“To heal the rift between us, we agreed to withdraw from your world and eliminate all memory of our existence.”

 “But we have stories about wizards and fairies and trolls.”

“You know of trolls? You did not forget us? Fascinating.”

“What happened with Onor?”

“He coveted the position of archmage, but the elder council chose my father. Onor was livid and attempted to murder him. Thankfully, the majority of magical folks stood with him and defeated Onor. Onor and his henchmen fled to the Earthly realm and plotted against us. We travel to your world often, to learn more about you, to trade for goods, and to keep watch on Onor’s movements.”

Before she could continue, Avone joined them.

“Marshall, thank you for saving my daughter and bringing her home to us. You put your life in danger, and we will never forget that. As you know, we are mounting an attack on Onor tomorrow morning and feel that you will be safer here until we subdue him.” He turned to his daughter. “You need to get some sleep. Tomorrow is an important day.”

As Avone walked away, Marshall rose. “Archmage, I’d like to join you. I may not be much help, but I’ll do what I can.”

Avone dipped his head. “We can always use a strong heart in battle.”

After her father left, Deela whirled to face Marshall. “Why would you join us?”

“I came to the lodge to run from the most painful event in my life. My ex-wife killed my son. She is only obsessed with her own needs and couldn’t stand that my son cried to be with me. To hurt me, she killed him. After a jury convicted her of murder, I fled here to find my soul again. My son, Josh, was four, and he loved fairy tales. How could I not help you?”

Deela smiled. “I will be pleased if you fight beside me.”

~~~

The information that Deela brought from the Earthly realm led the magicals to Onor’s headquarters, an abandoned warehouse in a large city. The magicals transported there and took their positions—Marshall with Deela as they approached the building.

Onor’s henchmen engaged them immediately. Marshall watched awestruck as the wizards and witches cast spell after spell toward each other. Deela was fighting the evil wizards and deflecting spells coming toward him. Frustration flared. He wasn’t any help at all.

He needed something to fight with, and as he searched for a weapon, one of Onor’s men rushed toward him, wand lifted. He had little time to think. He raised his hands, striking the inside of the wizard’s outstretched arms, knocking his wand away. Instinct kicked in, and he slammed his right knee as hard as he could into the man’s balls, sending the wizard into a writhing heap on the ground.

Marshall glanced to his right to see that Deela was watching, eyebrow raised. “Primitive.”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t think of anything else.”

She grinned. “Quite effective—I will remember that.”

Quelling the henchmen on the perimeter, Avone left magicals outside to protect the building and led the rest into the warehouse. Onor was waiting with two others. The crystal lay on a table in front of him, his wand poised above it.

“Ah… I see Deela managed to reach you before I retrieved the spellbook. Not to worry, I will destroy you and take my rightful place.”

“That is not going to happen. Those who once believed in you, but you betrayed, are surrounding the building. This is over.”

“For the magicals it is.” Onor began to chant, and the tip of his wand glowed.

Avone raised his wand, but Onor reacted, pointing his wand toward the archmage. Realizing Onor intended to cast the death spell on her father, Deela morphed into her minuscule size.

Standing next to her, Marshall gasped as she flew toward the wand in Onor’s hand. Before she could reach him, he used his other hand to knock her to the side, and she went reeling against a pillar and dropped to the floor.

Avone sent a beam of light from his wand but missed. One of Onor’s henchmen cast a stun spell on Avone, who fell to the floor. Trembling as rage rushed through him, Marshall searched for something to use as a weapon. He spotted a block of wood and scurried to pick it up. As he spun back toward Onor, he hoped his baseball prowess hadn’t left him. As if he was trying to throw a batter out at second base, he threw the block. It hit its target, and Onor’s wand flew from his hand. Marshall rushed him, knocking him to the floor.

The magicals swarmed around and took control of Onor. Avone was beginning to stir as Marshall rushed to Deela, who had morphed into human form. “You okay?”

“I am fine.” He helped her to her feet. “You have some unusual fighting skills.” She smiled. “You will have to teach me both of those moves.”

“Both? Well, okay.”

“Let’s get my father and the crystal and go home.”

Marshall liked the sound of that.

Home. Where the snow fairy lived.

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Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/

Michele Sayre: No Place for a Hero

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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No Place for a Hero

Michele Sayre

Kate Porter drove her Land Rover Defender down the snow-covered road towards the stone cottage she hoped her husband had run off to. Three days ago, he’d shut down like he had before deploying on a mission but then this morning she woke up to find he’d left with just a note on the kitchen table saying he needed some time alone. That was something he had never, ever done in their twenty years of marriage. 

Those words had chilled her as much as the cold outside and she’d packed a bag and headed right into a tremendous and dangerous winter storm hoping to find him there… alive.

***

John Porter couldn’t believe it when he heard a roaring engine outside the cottage he was holed up in. He thought the engine sounded familiar as he stepped up to the front window and looked outside.

Plowing through the last barrier of snow was his wife Katie’s battered black Land Rover Defender. She had refused several offers from him to help her buy something newer and prettier, but she refused to give up on the Old Girl as she called her beloved vehicle. 

Just like she refused to give up on him, he realized. 

He put on his coat and boots and went outside as she brought her vehicle to a stop next to his newer Audi. She got out of the vehicle and slammed the door when she saw him.

“You picked a hell of a place to run off to.” Katie said as she stomped through the drifting snow towards her husband. 

“How did you know I would be here?” He asked, hating the fact that he was so damn happy to see his wife even if she wasn’t happy to see him.

“A hope and a slog through this bloody storm.” She pulled out her battered old bag and slung it over her shoulder. “I hope you have more than God-awful rations here.”

“I do.”

“Good. I know you can survive on them but this isn’t some bloody Third-World hellhole you’ve deployed to.” She muttered as she stomped through the snow towards the cottage. 

John smiled behind his wife’s back as he thought back to a picnic he’d taken her on shortly after they’d gotten married. He’d gotten a nice hamper and blanket and found a secluded spot on a warm summer day down by the river. But when he’d opened the hamper and started pulling out ration packets… he thought he might be divorced before his next deployment. Luckily, Katie had seen the humor behind his picnic and also gotten to see a tiny bit of what life was like for him when he was deployed.

By the time he got inside, she was coming out of the bedroom wearing a pair of jeans that fit so well over her still-trim body and his favorite soft-blue sweater of hers that matched the color of her eyes. She went right past him to the kitchen and went for the kettle and filled it up with water then set on the stove before she turned back to face him.

“Can you keep an eye on the kettle?” She asked. “I need get something out of my bag.”

“Sure.”

When she left the kitchen, he got out the milk and sugar, and some biscuits and put some on a plate. The kettle started whistling and he pulled it off the burner and poured the steaming water into the teapot because his wife made tea the old-fashioned way, and frankly, the best way.

He had just found the tea strainer when he heard his wife come back into the kitchen. He looked up, and froze in shock and horror at what he saw her holding in her right hand.

“Why did you pack your gun and bring it here with you?”

Katie hated the feel of the weapon in her hand but seeing it had chilled her more than the cold outside ever could. Just the thought of him with it had made her risk her life driving in a raging snow-storm. She’d held back her joy at seeing him when she’d pulled up because she knew she needed to find this gun before he tried to send her away again.

“Why, John? In all the years we’ve been together, is this what it was supposed to come down to?”

She watched him set down the tea strainer and took a deep breath. “Now that you’re here, no.”

“Good.” She went over to the back door and opened it to the cold and blowing snow. Then with every ounce of strength she had, she threw the gun into the heaps of piled-snow. She closed the door behind her then wiped her hands on the tea towel by the sink. “You can go look for it when the snow melts.”

She went over to the teapot and strained the tea properly then picked up the tray and carried it into the living room. She set it down on the table in front of the sofa then sat down as he went over to the fireplace and stoked the fire to a nice warm set of flames. She poured the tea and made his with just one cream and sugar as he liked it, the ritual familiar even as she prepared for a battle. Not just for her marriage, but for her husband, and his wounded and battered soul.

“John, what happened three days ago?”

He gripped the mantle of the fireplace as he closed his eyes in memory. 

“John,” Katie’s voice was as soft and gentle as the snow still falling outside. And her warmth slowly began to penetrate the ice around his heart that had been frozen for the last three days.

He moved away from the fireplace to the sofa and sat down beside her. He picked up his mug of tea, feeling the warmth in his hands as he thought about how much she had done for him, and asked for so little in return. 

“I know you may tell me it’s classified. But if that’s the case, and if you decide to break that rule and tell your superiors, I’ll defend myself, even to the bloody Queen of England herself.”

He looked over at Katie as she took a sip of tea then set her mug down on the table. She looked right straight at him, straight into his eyes, and into his soul. “I know she’s your Commander In-Chief, but you’re my husband, and the father of my children. I’ve been the wife of a Special Forces soldier for twenty years and many of those years you were gone and when came back you couldn’t tell me where you’d been or what you’d done. I just had to be there for you.”

“And you were. Always.” He felt himself smiling at the thought of Katie towering over the old Queen and defending him with nothing but her heart and soul. That image and thought lifted a weight off his chest, one that had encased his heart in a prison of ice and shame. He took a sip of tea then set his mug down on the tray.

“Mike King died three days ago.”

“The young man who was wounded on your first deployment to Iraq? I’m so sorry, John. He never recovered from his wounds, did he?”

John nodded his head from side to side. “No. There was a bullet lodged in his brain that robbed him of his ability to speak and motor control.”

He shuddered inside as he remembered seeing Mike in hospital, immobile, unable to speak, or even take care of himself. He looked to Katie, wanting to reach out to her and feel her arms come around him like they always had, greedy for the comfort she offered so freely to him, even without knowing what she was comforting him from.

Instead, he told her the secret that could destroy everything between them: “That bullet might have come from my gun.”

Katie inhaled sharply as her eyes widened with shock. But she didn’t back away from him. “How?”

He thought about what to tell her, to try to keep the mission details classified. But memories flashed through his mind: a darkened building of narrow stairwells and pockmarked walls and dirty floors. A mission that had gone wrong, men wounded… 

He took a deep breath, his lungs drawing tightly in remembered pain as he struggled to tell Katie what had happened all those years ago. 

“We were on a mission in Bagdad, just after the beginning of the war. It was chaos and the city was far from secure. We got in and acquired our target and were getting out when a group of… Iraqi’s pulled up and stormed the building. Mike and three others were bringing up the rear when they got pinned down. I was with our target but I went back for my men. Mike was the last one I found… and as he stood up I saw someone come up behind him. Mike yelled there was someone behind me. I fired my gun as the Iraqis in the room did, too. Mike went down with a single bullet to the head.”

 John closed his eyes as he remembered emptying his gun into the Iraqi’s in the room, killing three of them before he picked up Mike and carried him up to the roof where the chopper had been waiting. Then he felt Katie place her warm hands on top of his cold, clenched ones. He opened his eyes and looked right into her beautiful face.

“Who knows about this?” She asked.

“Just my commander. He said until we could get the bullet out of Mike’s head it would be between us.”

“So you’ve kept this secret all this time.”

He felt the weight of it like never before yet as Katie continued to touch him, to face him, he wanted to believe he could lift the weight off even for just a brief moment in time, like he had so many years ago…

“That night I came back to England…” John swallowed past the sudden dryness in his throat as he remembered that dark and cold night. “I almost didn’t come home. I finally decided it was late enough to where you’d gone to bed and that I wouldn’t wake you.”

“Yet you did.” Katie remembered hearing him come home and hearing him go into their bathroom. She wanted to run to him but stopped when he looked up at her in what she could only think of as a mix of shock and awe. 

“I couldn’t tell you then.” He wound his hands around hers, seeking her warmth and her soothing touch. 

“I know. When I married you, a British Special Forces soldier, I knew there would be so much you wouldn’t be able to tell me. And I accepted that because of the man you were, and the man you still are.”

“I’m no hero, Katie.”

“Like bloody hell you are! You’re my hero. And being alone is no place for a hero.”

He felt the first tear slip out of his eye followed by another one, and then another. Silently, he shed tears for the burden she’d carried willingly all these years and loved him through it all. She wrapped her arms around him and he laid his head against her chest, closing his eyes as he let his tears come freely now as he took strength from his wife’s strong heartbeat under his ear.

Katie cried along with her husband, knowing he’d carried so much pain inside him yet could be so loving and gentle. She remembered back all those years ago, in that tiny house and tiny bathroom. For a brief moment then, she’d wanted to cry at the anguish she’d seen in his eyes then. Instead, she’d bared her body and soul to him, and in the cleansing water of that tiny shower they’d found solace and passion in each other’s arms. A solace and passion they would find after he came home every time from every far-flung mission… and hopefully the most important one now.

John had never cried with Katie, always believing he had to be strong for her. But after all these years, she was proving to be stronger than him. Strong in her love, her compassion, and her empathy. He had loved her for so long, yet he felt like he was falling in love with her again right now. 

He lifted his head from her chest and looked right into her eyes. Their faces were so close he could see every detail in her eyes, and feel her breath on his lips. He saw the wetness on her cheeks and reached up to wipe her tears away as she did the same for him. 

“John…”

He wound his hand around her neck and brought her lips to his in a kiss that started out easy, but flared into heated passion as her arms wound around his shoulders and her body pressed tightly against his. He tumbled her back onto the sofa and started to lift her sweater up.

“John, really? The sofa is a bit narrow for us.”

“I can’t wait.” He buried his face against the side of her neck, licking her throbbing pulse and hearing her sweet moan in response. He did it again as he heard an annoying beeping sound.

“John, your phone.”

“Bloody hell!” He went still for a few seconds then he lifted himself up and got to his feet. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and as he saw who was calling, he turned to Katie and held a finger to his lips. She scrambled up to a sitting position on the sofa and curled up there completely still as he answered the phone.

“Commander.”

Katie studied her husband as he listened to his Commander on the phone, standing tall and straight, ready for anything. He was her hero no matter what the news was, tall and handsome, his dark hair threaded through with a few strands of silver. His eyes were ice-blue and along with his perfectly-straight nose gave his face a sharp look that might have been intimidating unless you saw him smile. 

“Thank you, Commander.” John ended the call and set his phone down on the table. 

Katie stood up slowly, “And?”

“The bullet didn’t come from my gun.”

Katie moved around the table and threw herself into her husband’s open arms. They held each other tightly for a moment then as she looked so closely at her husband’s face, she saw the change in him. He was back, her hero, her lover, her husband, in her arms right where he was supposed to be.

Yet she had to ask, “Are they going to tell Mike’s family about this?”

“No. They were never told because we didn’t have any evidence either way. This will just be a note in the file on that op.”

She touched his cheek, “I’m glad you told me, though.”

“And I’m glad you came after me.”

“Like I said, being alone is no place for a hero.”

He tightened his arms around her and smiled warmly, “No, being with you is where I belong.”

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Lynn Miclea: Guiding Wisps

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Guiding Wisps

Lynn Miclea

An eerie and strange silence permeated the air, and I shivered in the cold, bunching the coat tighter around me. The snow-covered path through the woods was empty. Maybe the cold kept visitors away; I wasn’t sure. I glanced around and then continued along the path through the trees.

As I walked, I saw footprints in the snow appear in front of me — but no one was there. As I moved forward, the footprints disappeared, and more would appear slightly ahead. Icy tentacles of fear moved through my gut and up my spine.

What was going on? How could footprints appear without anyone there? And how could they then disappear? Who or what was creating these?

Was I supposed to follow them? Was the maker of the footprints friendly? Or was I being led into a trap?

The hair on the back of my neck stood out. Whatever was making those footprints, I knew I was not alone.

I glanced around the woods, in between the trees, and behind me. Gasping, I noticed a set of footprints following me and then disappearing. Whoever or whatever it was, it was following me as well as leading me.

Shaking with fear, I wondered what I should do. I desperately wanted to leave. Deciding to simply observe for a few minutes, I turned right and walked off the path and into the woods. Leaning against a tree, I watched.

A filmy, misty image started forming and then whispered away as two more footsteps appeared and then vanished. What was that?

As I watched, a ghostly white image of a person flickered in and out and then disappeared, as more footsteps appeared and then vanished.

What the hell was I seeing?

Glued to my spot, I took a deep breath and kept watching.

A misty white image appeared again and became clearer. A woman. She motioned for me to follow her, and she hurried down the path in front of me. I followed her, as footsteps appeared and disappeared in front of me as I walked. 

Finally, she stopped and pointed to the side, off the path. She walked a short distance off the path into the woods, and I followed her.

She stopped in front of a small mound of dirt, and I gasped as I realized this was a freshly dug grave. Someone had recently been buried here.

I looked at the woman. “Is the body there you?”

She shook her head and rocked her arms as though holding a baby.

“Your daughter?”

She nodded and a misty white image of a small girl appeared next to the woman.

I peered at the girl. “Is that you?”

The girl nodded.

The sound of footsteps and grunting made me jump, and I quickly hid behind a tree.

A burly man in a dark coat walked up to the grave, stamped on the dirt to level it, and then looked around. The ghostly woman and her daughter were nowhere to be seen.

Satisfied, the man picked up a shovel that had been lying nearby, and he stomped off down the path.

I had to get the police. Stepping forward, my boot stepped on a twig and it made a loud crack.

The man immediately stopped and looked back, his eyes scouring the woods. I held my breath and didn’t move. After a few moments, he turned and continued walking.

I let out my breath and waited a few more minutes, then carefully stepped back onto the path. Would I be able to find this spot again? I found a rock, placed it at the turnoff into the woods, and made a small X in the snow next to it. Hopefully it would still be there when I returned with the cops.

“Hey!” a man’s voice shouted through the frigid air.

My heart pounding in my chest, I looked up. That same man was now in front of me, fury showing in his face. Weak with terror, I took a step back.

The man’s eyes suddenly opened wide, showing shock and fear. He gazed around, looking confused. 

What happened? What was wrong? Shaking, I glanced behind me but saw nothing, and returned my gaze to the man.

He stared for a few more moments as though he didn’t quite see me, then he shrugged, shook his head, turned, and went back down the path again.

What the … I looked around and then down at my feet and gasped. I could not see them. I held out my hands in front of me. Wispy white mist moved where my hands should have been. What happened? Was I now a ghost? Was I dead? 

The woman and girl reappeared and looked at me. The woman smiled.

I stared at her. “Am I dead?”

She shook her head, and a soft voice resonated in my mind. I am protecting you.

“You are? I’m still alive?”

She smiled again. You are helping me, and I am helping you.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

I continued walking down the snowy path, the man’s fresh footprints visible in the snow ahead of me.

I glanced behind me. My own footprints were disappearing as I walked. Facing forward, I continued walking.

After about a half-mile, my body felt heavier, and I noticed that I was now leaving solid footprints, and my legs and arms were again visible. My body was back. 

A short distance farther down the path, a small building on the right appeared with a sign on it saying “Ranger Station.” Maybe that would be the best way of getting help. Stepping up to the door, I placed my hand on the doorknob and peered through the window.

Gasping, I quickly pulled back my hand. The ranger sitting behind the desk was the same man I saw with the shovel at the girl’s grave.

After hesitating a few moments, I quickly retreated and continued down the path. I needed to call the cops. I took out my cell phone and turned it on. No service out here. Frustrated, I jammed the phone back in my pocket and continued down the path toward the parking lot. 

Finally reaching the parking area, I let out my breath and looked for my car. There it was. As I started toward it, two police vehicles entered the parking lot, and I ran over to them as they parked.

Two officers exited each vehicle and looked around. I waved to them and approached them.

One of the officers locked eyes with me. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, please.” I poured out the story of what I saw, with details about the man with a shovel at the grave. I deliberately left out the part with the ghostly images of the woman, the girl, and myself, and I ended with seeing the man in the ranger station.

The officer nodded. “Wait here.” He talked to his fellow cops and then he came back. “Lead us to the site with the grave.”

Glad to get this resolved, I led two of the cops down the path all the way to the freshly dug grave. They inspected the site and then called for backup. One officer remained there to protect the scene, and I followed the other cop back down the path. He stopped to talk to the other two officers who were now standing outside the ranger station.

After a short discussion, the officer turned to me. “Stay with these officers. I’ll be right back.” He then went back to the police vehicles and quickly returned with crime scene tape. He then continued down the path toward the gravesite area where his partner waited.

The remaining two officers looked at me. One of them gestured. “Would you recognize the same man again?”

I quickly nodded. “Yes, absolutely.”

He nodded and opened the door to the ranger station. Approaching the entrance, I peeked inside, and my eyes widened as I instantly recognized the man. 

The ranger looked up and smiled at the two officers. “Good morning, Officers,” he said. “How can I—” He glanced at me, and his face paled, the smile quickly fading. 

Trembling, I quickly backed out of the building and waited outside.

One of the officers came out of the cabin. “Is that—”

“Yes,” I said, interrupting him. “That’s him. I’m positive.”

The burly man stormed out of the ranger station. “Where is she? You can’t believe a bimbo like her. She was even …” He stopped and stared, his mouth open.

I felt light and glanced down. My legs and feet were wisps of white.

The man peered at my location wide-eyed and didn’t move.

Sirens cut through the air as new police vehicles entered the parking lot.

Within moments, my weight returned and I could feel my body again.

A bit jittery, I watched as the second cop exited the ranger station and put handcuffs on the man, whose face showed flashes of anger, fear, and confusion. I took a few steps back as new officers approached.

I heard a soft female voice in my head. Thank you for helping me. I turned and saw a wisp of white flutter in the air and then begin to fade.

A sense of peace flooded through me and I started to relax, glad I was able to help. Feeling very grateful for the assistance of the woman, I looked around. A faint airy wisp of white fluttered down the path, a smaller wisp of white at her side. I watched as the wisps rose higher in the air and then fade into nothingness. 

I knew they were now at peace.

—————————————–

Copyright © 2021 Lynn Miclea. All Rights Reserved.

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Please visit Lynn’s blog and follow her at – https://lynnpuff.wordpress.com/

Please also visit Lynn’s website for more information on her books – https://www.lynnmiclea.com/

And visit her Amazon author page at – https://www.amazon.com/Lynn-Miclea/e/B00SIA8AW4

Rylee Black: Whittman’s Cabin

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Whittman’s Cabin

Rylee Black

Tyler Perkins was tired and so very, very cold. The snow fell in huge heavy flakes and that on the ground was deep and getting deeper. He pulled his coat tighter and tucked his chin into it in a vain attempt at finding some kind of warmth.

On he trudged, doggedly dragging first one foot then the other out of the snow then plunging it back in. He lifted his head and took in his surroundings. Had he not been sure he would never leave this mountain alive he’d have been in awe of the beauty. He’d explored hundreds in his lifetime, but these woods of northern Idaho were breathtaking. He supposed if he had to go, there was no better place than this slice of heaven on Earth he found himself in.

His foot slipped and he managed to stay upright by sheer force of will. He knew that if he went down now, he’d never get back up. The snow was too deep, and his exhaustion too complete. He had no idea how long he’d been wandering and lost. One day? Two? Could it be more? The memory of how he’d gotten here brought on a wave of sorrow. Millie. His Millie was gone. The death of his wife had driven him to seek solace in the only place that had ever brought him any sense of peace. Perhaps somewhere deep inside he’d known what he was doing. Been aware of what he was getting himself into. Understood what the result of his flight into the wilderness so ill prepared and under these conditions would be.

His foot slipped again and this time he wasn’t able to regain his footing. Somehow, he landed on his back. He lay there staring up into the gray skies, too tired to even blink away the flakes. He had no concept of how long he lay there before he heard a voice calling to him.

“Mister? Hey mister, are you okay? You’re not dead, are you?”

Tyler opened eyes he hadn’t realized he’d closed and looked up into the tiny face of a little girl with white-blond curls peeking from under a knit hat, big blue eyes, and cheeks red with the cold. Her smile at his open eyes was brilliant.

“Hello. Why you lying there in the snow that way?”

He reached up a hand and brushed a shaking finger down her cheek. “Are you real?”

Her giggle fell around him like little drops of sunshine. “Well, that’s a silly question, sure I’m real. I’m awful glad you’re not dead.”

“Well, I suppose I’m glad I’m not dead too. What’s your name, little one?”

She drew up straight and pointed a thumb at her chest. “My name is Wynona Wittman and I turned five-years-old last Sunday. Momma made me a chocolate cake. And you wanna know what? I just lost my first tooth, wanna see?” She leaned forward with her mouth open and pointed to the gap with the tip of a pale blue mitten.

Tyler managed a weak chuckle, finding unexpected delight in the way she drew her name out to Why-no-na, and her excited display of her missing tooth. “Well, isn’t that something?”

“Our house is right over there.” She pointed over her shoulder. “Wanna come in and get warm? Momma made stew and Papa is carving me a dolly. Brodie’s in there too. He’s my baby brother. He just got his first tooth.” She giggled again. “Momma said it was something the way I lost a tooth and Brodie got one all in the same day.”

Tyler’s eyes drifted closed and he fought to drag them back open. “I’d love to come in, sweetheart, but I’m not feeling well. Maybe it would be best if I just stay here. I’m a might bit tired.” He let the weight of his weariness pull the lids down over his eyes once again.

As his awareness faded, her voice sounded far away and wobbled just a bit. “I don’t think you should sleep out here, it’s way too cold. I’ll run and get Papa, he’ll help you up.”

🌲🌲🌲🌲

The first thing Tyler did when he awoke was to marvel at how warm he was cocooned as he was in heavy blankets that smelled of sunshine and lavender. As slumber receded further though, awareness of the pain in his head and throat made his stomach roll. When he shifted to try to ease the ache in his back, the mattress beneath him crunched and crackled. Was he lying on a straw mattress? He hadn’t slept on one of those for decades. The sound of softly spoken words too low to be understood road in on a wave of confusion. Where was he? The last he remembered he’d been lying in the snow burning with fever while talking to a tiny little girl. Was this heaven? Surrounded as he was by the sensations, smells, and sounds of a long-ago childhood in the mountains he could think of no other explanation.

“Momma, I think he’s awake. He’s movin’ around. Can I talk to him now? I’ve been waitin’ ever so long.”

The little girl’s words were followed by the low tones of a male.

“You leave him be now, Nona. He needs to rest.”

His words were followed by those spoken softly by a woman.

“I know you’re worried about him, Nona. He’ll be alright. He needs his sleep to help the healing along, is all. I never thought I’d be so happy to have you disobey me and your papa. If you hadn’t gone out to watch the snow fall we wouldn’t have found him until it was too late.”

Tyler felt the edge of the bed give and then tiny fingers stroke the back of his hand. “I thought he was dead, Momma. I was sure scared at first. Are you sure he isn’t gonna die anymore?”

Tyler’s heart ached at the worry in her voice, so he turned his hand to grasp her fingers. Her eyes met his in surprise and he gave her a smile. “Hello again, Wy-no-na.”

She smiled back. “Good morning. Momma says you’re real sick with fever but you’re going to be okay after you rest some.”

“That’s real good to hear.”

Heavy footsteps thudded on wooden floors and brought with them the scent of pine sap and wood smoke. A big man with hair as fair as his daughter’s nodded to him as he lifted Wynona off the bed and set her down with a kiss to the top of her head. “Why don’t you go help Momma finish up fixin’ breakfast and let me talk to your new friend a spell?”

“Yes, Papa.” She patted Tyler’s hand. “I’ll be right back.”

They watched her scamper off to join her mother, a tiny woman wearing a pioneer-style dress with red hair piled up in a bun who offered Tyler a shy smile before turning her attention to her daughter. The man dragged a chair over and sat down.

Tyler lifted eyes dry with his rising fever. “Name’s Tyler Perkins. I’m grateful for you helpin’ me out.”

The man’s expression was kind. “August Wittman.” He gestured toward the kitchen area. “That there is my wife Moira, you know Wynona, and that’s Brodie sitting in the highchair. You had us real worried last night, you were near to frozen by the time Nona led me to you. We don’t get many visitors up this way.”

Tyler shifted uncomfortably, embarrassed over his foolishness. “I’m not usually dumb enough to come out here this way with bad weather forecast. I suppose I wasn’t quite in my right mind. I lost my wife, see, and the forest is the only place I’ve ever found real peace. I guess I didn’t realize how far I’d gone. Then the storm hit. I got turned around . . .”

Moira came to them carrying a cup. “I’ve brought you some nice warm broth. As sick as you are, I’m thinking this will be the best for you. Help him sit up, Auggie.”

Tyler ate then slipped back into the darkness. He had no way of knowing how many days passed as he fought against the fever and sickness. Each time he woke, Wynona was there holding his hand.

As time went by, he stayed awake longer and longer. Eventually he was able to eat at the table and spend time with the little family who had taken him in. He bounced little Brodie on his knee and listened to the endless stories Wynona wove for him. In the evenings after the children slept, he and August talked quietly by the fire while Moira bustled about cleaning or sat nearby sewing or knitting.

He wondered at their lifestyle. They lived and dressed as though it were the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. As he lay in bed one night after a meal of weak soup and dried meat, he realized how sparse their provisions were and what a drain his presence must be on them. With a heavy heart he decided it was time for him to go.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, a perfect contrast to how he felt when he told the family he thought he was well enough to find his way off the mountain to home.

Tears shimmered in Wynona’s eyes. “But I don’t want you to leave, Mr. Tyler.”

Tyler knelt down so he was eye to eye with her. “I know, pumpkin, but I’ve taken advantage of your momma and daddy’s kindness long enough. Now that I’m feeling better, it’s time I get back home. I’ll come back and visit, I promise.”

She threw her arms around his neck and buried her head in his shoulder. “I’m going to miss you.”

Tyler’s voice was thick with emotion when he spoke. “I’m going to miss you too.” He pulled her away so he could see her. “I’ll be back. Come spring, when the snow melts, I’ll come back and I’ll bring you and Brodie a surprise.”

Wynona sniffled. “I guess that will be just fine. I do like surprises. I got one for you. Wait right here.”

Tyler rose to his feet and watched her scamper off to her sleeping nook. Seconds later she was back.

“Close your eyes and hold out your hand.” He did as she asked. She put one hand under his and then he felt her press something into his palm, then she folded his fingers up around it. “Now you can open your eyes.”

He opened his eyes and looked down into hers. “May I look at it now?”

She managed a wobbly smile. “Of course you can, silly, I want to see what you think about what I gave you.”

“I’m sure I’ll love whatever it is.” He opened his hand to find a blue stone. It was smooth as glass and the exact color of her eyes. “Why Wynona, I believe that’s the prettiest rock I’ve ever seen. Are you sure you want to give it to me?”

She nodded. “I’m sure. It’s my most favorite. Me and Papa found it when we went up the creek last summer. I wanted to give you something extra special, so you’ll never forget me.”

Tyler knelt back down. “I don’t need a pretty treasure to remember you by. How could I ever forget you?” He closed his fist around the rock and held it over his heart. “But I thank you for it and I will treasure it always. Whenever I look at it, I’ll think of the little blue-eyed angel who saved me from the storm.”

He hugged her again and this time it was he who had tears in his eyes.

🌲🌲🌲🌲

Tyler made his way slowly down the trail Auggie had pointed out. He’d used snowshoes before, but it had been a long time ago. It didn’t help that the snowshoes Auggie had given him were the old wooden type and the laces holding them to his boots seemed weak.

When he made it to the edge of the clearing, he turned to look back at the cabin. Wynona was in the open door waving like crazy and hollering words that were swept away by the breeze. Behind her stood August and Moira with Brodie on her hip.

Tyler waved back. “Bye, Wy-no-na.” Then with an aching heart, he turned and left them behind.

It felt like he’d been fighting the deep snow for hours when he finally broke through the trees. When he caught sight of Ben Cranston standing next to his pickup, he dropped the sticks he’d been using as poles and fell to his knees. Relief and exhaustion sapping the last of his willpower.

Ben rushed to his side and knelt next to him. “Tyler, thank the Lord. We’ve been looking for you for days. You hurt? Where you been?”

Tyler pressed his lips together and shook his head, too overcome to speak.

“Never mind all that. You don’t look good. Let’s get you into my truck. I got to radio the others and let them know you showed up.”

“Others?”

“Come on, I got the heater runnin’.”

After Ben had settled him under a quilt he kept in the truck, he let the rest of the searchers know Tyler’d been found, then turned his attention to the exhausted man next to him.

“You’ve been missing for three weeks. I came by to check on you a couple days after Millie’s funeral and you weren’t there. We asked around and no one had seen you. Next day Denise Williams reported she’d found your truck at the base of Miner’s Peak, so we gathered up a bunch of fellas and set to lookin’ for ya. Where’ve you been?”

Tyler turned to look at the snow-covered mountain he’d just descended. Three weeks? The time he’d spent with the Wittmans had seemed so much longer than that. He missed them already.

“I was stupid. Went up there completely unprepared. Losing Millie tore me apart, Ben. I couldn’t take it anymore. I have no idea how long I wandered around up there before they found me. Two, maybe three days. Mighta been more. I was so cold, tired, and sick that I thought little Wynona was an angel when I opened my eyes and found her looking down at me. Her daddy dragged me into the cabin. If it weren’t for them, I’d be dead right now. I . . .” Tyler stopped talking when he turned back to his friend and saw the odd look on his face. “What?”

“Ty, there ain’t no one livin’ up on that mountain. Only cabin within miles of here is the old Wittman place. Ain’t no one lived there since August Whittman and his family passed there the winter of eighteen sixty-three. T’was a bad winter that year. More snow then’d been seen in years. When August didn’t come to town come springtime, they went up lookin’ for him. They’re all buried up there behind the cabin. I know you and Millie haven’t been in town long but I’da thought you’da heard the story by now. Cabin is still standing. Auggie built the thing out of stone and there’s a few town folk who keep an eye on it. But ain’t no one livin’ there. You musta wandered in there somehow and hunkered down ’till the storm passed.”

“But I saw them. Auggie, Moira, Wynona, and little Brodie. They saved me. Nursed me back to health. Hell Ben, they even fed me. You can’t tell me I didn’t see those people.”

“Now don’t go gettin’ all worked up, Ty. Let’s get ya inta town and over to see Doc Barstow. You musta somehow got into the cabin. Whoever was there last musta forgot to lock it back up. You probably heard the story about the Wittmans and your fever recreated the story or somethin’.”

Tyler looked back up the mountain through tear-blurred eyes. What the hell had happened up on that mountain? What about the snowshoes Auggie had given him? Those were real. Ben had stuffed them in behind the seat. When he mentioned that to Ben, he told him that all the Wittman’s possessions had been left in the cabin. After that, Tyler closed his eyes and said to go ahead and take him to see the doctor.

🌲🌲🌲🌲

Doc Barstow sent Tyler on to the hospital where he stayed for another two weeks. Months passed and finally spring came. Tyler knew it was time.

It took him three hours to reach the cabin. The clearing looked different. The blanket of white had been replaced with one of wildflowers, breathtaking in their beauty.

Tyler made his way around to the back of the lifeless cabin, then up the little knoll topped with four stone markers. He dragged his hat off as he took in the sight. He spoke to Auggie and Moira first, thanking them for their kindness. Then he took off the backpack he wore and knelt between Wynona and Brodie and pulled from his pocket the proof that his time with them had been real.

“Hey, Wy-no-na. I still got your gift.” He held up the blue stone she’d given him the day he’d left as if to show it to her. “I carry it with me everywhere. I didn’t forget my promise to you either. Just had to wait ’till springtime.” He opened the backpack and pulled out a toy truck and set it next to Brodie’s marker. He reached back in and pulled out a porcelain doll with white-blond curls and leaned it on Wynona’s. His voice cracked with emotion. “Here’s the surprise I promised you. She reminded me of you. Hope you like her.”

He laid a hand on her stone and closed his eyes. It was then, riding along the breeze, came that familiar giggle and once again it fell around him like little drops of sunshine.

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Paula Shablo: At The Cabin

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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At The Cabin

Paula Shablo

After the holidays, Gretchen had deliberately made herself a recluse. She had been working all year on a novel, researching and making notes, outlining and plotting, and she was ready to put it all together.

After having taken most of December and half of January off, due to family obligations related to holiday celebrations, she explained her plan for a big writing push, and asked for some alone time. Her family was grudgingly obliging, agreeing to schedule video chats on weekends for the foreseeable future.

For the first time in a decade, she was glad she was single.

“Mom, please don’t do this.”

Gretchen paused in her packing and sighed. Yes, she was single, but she still had to contend with the children.

“Mallory, stop it,” she said. “The cabin is perfectly safe.”

“Sure, in the summer!” Mallory wasn’t giving up without a fight, clearly.

“Dad made sure everything was safe for winter, too.” Gretchen folded a thick sweater and tucked it into the suitcase. “I have a big generator, in case of a power outage. I have a big backup generator in case an outage outlasts the fuel in the first one. And there’s a third generator, besides. The caretaker has already made sure they are all full of gasoline. I have the fireplace in the front room and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. I have half a dozen heavy quilts. The freezer is full. The pantry is full. The grocery store delivers.”

“But it’s so far, Mom! And the cell service is awful!”

“There’s a landline, Mal. Just stop! I’m going.”

“You could just write from here. We’ll leave you alone.”

“I always write at the cabin.”

“Not in winter!”

“Mallory Grace, you’re driving me nuts! Go tell your brother you did your best, and leave me be! I’m a grown woman, for God’s sake. I can take care of myself.”

Mallory, frowning deeply, flopped down in an easy chair, crossing her legs and folding her arms across her chest. “Wish you’d taken the house in the settlement and let Dad keep the cabin,” she huffed.

Gretchen rolled her eyes. “Your father never used the cabin. He doesn’t like to fish; he doesn’t like fresh air; he doesn’t swim—”

“I thought the cabin was his inheritance.”

Gretchen shrugged. “He didn’t want to buy me out of my half of the house. I didn’t want the mortgage payments. He didn’t want the cabin. Since I’m the one who always used it, he offered it in place of the house options, and it’s paid for, so I took the deed with a big old smile.” She zipped the suitcase shut. “Least he could do for me, the ass. And you already know all this!”

Gretchen started loading the Suburban, and Mallory tagged along, still griping. “It’s just so far! You can’t blame us for being worried, Mom.”

“I don’t.” Gretchen grinned as she inspected the interior of the vehicle. Getting deliveries from UPS was an issue at the cabin, so she had stocked up on toilet paper, facial tissue and paper towels. She was certain she’d have plenty; she was only one person, after all.

She drew her daughter into a long embrace, got into the SUV, and rolled the window down for one last goodbye. “Don’t you dare forget to water my plants!” she said.

“I won’t, Mom.” Mallory kissed Koko, Gretchen’s black Chihuahua-and-whatever-else mixed breed, and passed her through the window. Koko jumped into the passenger seat and settled herself on her blanket, curling into a ball of unruly curls. “You take care of Mama, Koko!”

Koko gave a noncommittal “woof.” Gretchen and Mallory giggled.

“You call the minute you get there,” Mallory ordered.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“The phone is on?”

“It’s on. Quit smothering me!”

“Turnabout’s fair play.” Mallory leaned in the window and kissed her mother’s cheek. “I love you. Be careful.”

***

It was cold. Gretchen wasn’t surprised, exactly, but the change between city and country in terms of temperature was always an…adjustment. She thanked her lucky stars for the caretaker; the snow had been cleared from the driveway and foot-path.

Inside, she found the place cozily warm. The caretaker’s wife had left her a prepared dinner on a plate in the refrigerator, and Gretchen popped it into the microwave to warm up while she brought in the last of her luggage and provisions.

Koko kept busy running back and forth, and as soon as Gretchen shut the front door, she squatted and peed on the welcome mat.

“Damn it, Koko!” Gretchen snatched up woman’s-best-friend and headed out the door with her, admonishing the pooch the whole time. Koko, undaunted, finished her business outside.

Gretchen put the mat outdoors to be dealt with later, and shut the door again.

They were in for the night, she hoped.

With everything finally inside, Gretchen doffed her winter gear and called Mallory and other family members to check in. No sense in getting anyone worried on her first day away.

After putting out food and water for Koko, she enjoyed her first meal in the cabin and went to bed early.

*** 

Mallory hung up the phone and announced to her family, “I don’t like it.”

Greg, her husband, rolled his eyes at her. “She’s a grown woman, Mal. She’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know what it’s like there in the middle of winter!”

“Neither do you.”

“Well, I’ve heard stories about the wind and snow blowing in off that lake.” Mallory didn’t appreciate being reminded that she didn’t exactly know what she was talking about.

“I’m sure your mother has heard the same stories and has a plan for dealing with it. She’s not foolish.”

Mallory sat down across the table from her husband and put her face in her hands. “I know I’m being nuts about this, Greg,” she admitted. “But I have such a bad feeling in my guts about it. I can’t explain it.”

Greg, no stranger to Mallory’s “gut feelings,” looked a bit alarmed. “What sort of bad, Mal? The ‘I’m worried because she’s old and alone’ bad, or the ‘I think she might really be in danger’ bad?”

“I don’t know!” Mallory shook her head vigorously, as if to clear cobwebs. “I’ve never been a good judge of that in the first place, and I haven’t ever felt like this about Mom.”

“So, call her once a day.”

“We all promised to call on the weekends only.”

“Well, that was a dumb thing to promise.”

“I know, right?”

“Talk to Grandpa and your brother. Either one of them would get away with calling whenever they want.”

Mallory giggled. “Especially Grandpa. Okay. I will.”

***

According to her father, there had been no snow in the city at all this week. At the cabin, there had been storms three days out of the seven she’d been here. The caretaker came by a couple of times to plow the driveway and shovel the path, so Gretchen had a clear shot to the main road if she needed to go anywhere.

She and Koko had established a loose routine of walks outdoors, and pacing indoors. For some reason, Gretchen was nervous as a feline on catnip. She had put up a big storyboard and it was plastered with post-it notes. The outline and the timeline were intact; the plot was plotted. All she had to do was sit down and start typing. But she couldn’t sit still.

Koko lay in front of the fireplace, chin on paws, and watched as Gretchen walked to and fro across the room. Once in a while she moaned piteously, as if expressing sympathy for her befuddled mistress.

Gretchen sighed. “Dad’s worried about me,” she told her furry friend. She sat down, stared at the screen of her old friend, word processor. “Hell, I’m getting worried about me, too.” She stood, paced to the kitchen, then back to the front door.

Koko’s head lifted. Her ears shot up. Was it time for a walk?

“Yeah, okay,” Gretchen agreed. She pulled her coat on. “Let’s try not to freeze this time, okay?”

Koko emitted a disdainful sneeze at the sight of her leash, but sat and obediently lifted her chin while Gretchen attached it to her collar. She wasn’t a particularly adventurous dog and rarely wandered, but there were critters out there that might want to make a tasty snack of the little dog, and Gretchen was taking no chances.

At the last minute, she grabbed her cell phone and stuffed it into the inside breast pocket of her parka. “Dumb,” she told Koto as they headed out the door. “Damn thing never works out here.”

Koko gave her a quizzical look.

If dogs could shrug…

Outdoors, Koko led Gretchen down the path, where she discovered a set of fresh rabbit tracks. It was a little off their usual route, but Gretchen didn’t see any harm in letting Koko have a little fun with a bunny hunt for a few minutes. They weren’t going to get lost, after all—they only had to follow their own footprints back to the path.

They zigged and zagged a bit, and the snow got deeper in spots that weren’t as sheltered from the trees. Gretchen was out of breath from breaking through the drifts. Koko, tiny thing that she was, walked on top of the surface, rarely sinking more than an inch or so. “Oh, to be skinny,” Gretchen sighed. “That’s enough, Koko. Time to go home.”

Koko tugged the leash a couple of times in mock protest, and then turned with her mistress to go back to the cabin. They had gone only a few steps back when a loud cracking noise sounded in the stillness and Gretchen found herself armpit-deep in a hole. “Auuughhh! What the hell?”

Really, it was one armpit—her right arm was free, simply because she had been holding onto Koko’s leash. Her other arm was trapped against her side. The hole was tight, and she couldn’t feel the bottom. 

Koko inched her way over to her, kissed her nose and whined. “Baby, I think you saved my life.” Gretchen carefully moved her arm, hand still gripping the leash, and pushed Koko away from her face. She wiggled her feet, just to confirm to herself that the bottom of the hole wasn’t within her reach. God only knew how deep it might be.

The lake was close by, and she was grateful that this hole wasn’t filled with water. She concluded that she was above the water level, and that was good—as far as it went. After all, she was still stuck in a hole.

Her phone was in her inside breast pocket, but it was out of reach in her present position. Left arm tightly caught between her side and the side of the hole; right arm outside; holding her in place and keeping her from falling any further. It would be easiest to grab the phone from that left side pocket with her right hand, but she was no fool. She wouldn’t risk losing the only anchor she had. Getting it with her left hand would have been a task under the best of circumstances, and now seemed impossible, but she was going to have to try.

First, she decided she’d better get her feet set somewhere, so she pushed her toes forward until she encountered the side of the hole, reflecting that it wouldn’t be quite so hard to do if she’d lose about twenty pounds. Of course, she might have slid right down the hole in spite of her arm if not for the added tummy…

“This is so stupid,” she whispered.

Koko whined. She pushed her little face against Gretchen’s cheek; her eyes were full of tears. Gretchen stroked her head. “It’s okay, girl, we’re going to get out of this mess.” She kicked forward with her right foot, tapping a shelf into the side of the hole that she could use to brace herself with. Carefully, she inched her left leg up as much as she could with a knee-bend and tapped a second shelf into place. “I’m building some steps.”

She was starting to shiver, and noted that her little dog was doing the same. She knew she had to hurry if they weren’t both going to freeze, but she also knew she was going to have to be very careful. Cautiously, she pushed with her feet, and decided she needed to dig her shelves deeper. It wouldn’t do for the soil to collapse under her weight—she could fall in deeper, even with an arm-hold outside the hole. She kicked lightly and rotated her feet. “I’m a drill, Koko,” she said, trying not to let her teeth chatter. Once that started, she didn’t think she’d be able to stop it.

The leash was looped around her wrist, and for now she intended to keep it that way. But if this went on too long, she would let go so Koko could get away.

Her feet drilled into soil slowly—the ground was frozen less solidly at this depth, but it was hard going. Every half inch or so gained, she carefully tested her weight against her foot-made “steps.” She was terrified that the dirt would break off under her feet.

There was no way to know how deep the hole was. How far would she plummet if she lost her tenuous grip?

Finally, she felt stable enough to start moving her left arm. She got her hand against her thigh and began wiggling it up to her waist. Using her thumb, she pushed the hem of her coat down so she wouldn’t end up with her hand underneath it and trapped. Ah! Here was the zipper. She walked her fingers up her belly, between her breasts and up to her neck, keeping her elbow pressed firmly to the side of the hole so she wouldn’t slip.

As she moved, it became increasingly clear that she wasn’t going to be able to get her hand inside her jacket to pull out her phone. She also didn’t have much hope of turning it on trying to press buttons through her heavy coat. She pushed her left foot into its makeshift step and slowly straightened her leg, lifting herself just a little higher and using her right elbow to leverage herself up. Her right foot was dangling again, and she bent her knee carefully and got it up higher than the left. Then she started the step-making process again.

When both feet were well-seated once more, she walked her left hand up her neck and face, millimeters at a time. Koko sat staring into her face, in an eye to eye posture they’d never been in before. Her eyes were anxious and hopeful, and Gretchen thought her own eyes probably looked the same.

She was really frightened about thrusting her arm up out of the hole. That elbow pressing against the side was oddly reassuring. She worked to push her feet deeper into the soil, praying for stability. She pushed up on her toes, which raised her only slightly. She pushed her right arm out as far as she could and brushed snow away from the turf.

Koko, in a surprisingly helpful move, lay down across her forearm, adding a little weight. “Good girl, baby!” Koko’s tail thumped.

Gretchen dug her fingers into the grass and dirt as deeply as she could manage. She sucked in a cleansing breath and blew it out. Koko let out an encouraging yip. Gretchen thrust her left arm up and out, and threw it wide to catch herself if she started to slide down into the hole.

Her steps held. Now, arms akimbo, she hung there by both armpits. She felt sweat slide down her forehead and blinked hard. How in heaven’s name could she have worked up a sweat in this freezing weather? “You know what, Koko? Bodies are weird.”

Koko watched anxiously, still lying across her arm. Gretchen tried to pull herself up, but she wasn’t quite up to the task. “Damn it. I’m so out of shape!”

She sighed. Time to make another step, she decided. This time, she drew her knee up higher, feeling a little more confident now that she had both arms to hold herself up. She still didn’t think she could get to her phone; if she expended too much energy on the effort and managed it, and then got no reception, she was sure she would be too worn out to do anything else.

“Not worth it,” she told her little dog. She would feel the creature’s trembling. It was much too cold for them to be out this long. Koko was a short-haired breed. She needed to hurry.

Kick; twist; push. Kick; twist; push. A couple more steps and she started pushing the ground with her elbows. She was making some progress, but the higher she got her feet, the harder the frozen soil became.

She started kicking backwards with her heels, working on foot-holds front and back for more leverage. Heel; toe. Grunt; groan. Push; pull. She used her elbows to dig in and pushed with her shoulders. Inch by inch, she got her upper torso out. She cursed the arthritis in her wrists—if not for that, she could do a literal push-up. “God!” Gretchen yelled in frustration.

She was able to reach her phone, finally.

No signal. She left the useless thing on after dialing 911, and tossed it on the ground, just within reach. It could connect—anything was possible.

She pushed the loop of the leash off her wrist. “Go home, Koko,” she said. “Run, baby. Find someplace warm.”

Instead, Koko moved close to her and pressed herself against Gretchen’s neck and chest. Gretchen pushed the little dog into the front of her coat. They were both shivering violently, and the teeth-chattering she’d been dreading began.

“Shit.”

She fanned her arms over the ground like she was making a snow angel. She decided to embrace the width of her hips—they were likely saving her this very minute. She leaned back a bit and pushed with her elbows and shoulders and toes. She wiggled—carefully. She kicked her toes into the soil as hard as she was able. “One…step…at…a…time,” she gasped.

Koko licked her neck and whined.

“Yeah, me, too.”

But she was really making progress now—finally. It took a few more minutes, but she finally pushed herself up and out. She rolled away from the hole, Koko leaping out of her coat and out of the way.

She lay panting in the snow, and then pushed herself up. With her first shaky step, she crushed her phone. “Screw it.” She picked up her dog and trudged back to the cabin.

Half an hour later, Gretchen and Koko sat in front of a roaring fire, still shivering. “We never speak of this,” she told her beloved pet. “Mallory would never let us out of the house again.”

***

By noon the next day, Gretchen was packed and ready to go. Koko jumped into the Suburban with unseemly enthusiasm.

When they arrived at the house, Gretchen called Mallory and told her she was home.

“You’re back? What happened?”

“What do you mean, what happened?” Gretchen gave Koko a guilty look and shook her head.

“I know you, Mom. The book can’t be done already!”

Greg called out: “She had a bad feeling, Ma!”

“Well, that’s just silly.”

“Is it? What happened, Mom?”

“Oh. Well,” Gretchen sighed dramatically, “you were right.”

“Wait—let me get this on tape,” Mallory cried. “What did you say?”

“You were right, Mal. Cabins are for summer.”

“Eek!” Mallory giggled. “You heard that, right, Greg? You’re on speaker, Mom.”

“Whatever. It’s not like you can’t be right once in a while, Mallory.” Gretchen rolled her eyes at the dog, and hoped the story of her early return would go no further.

She knew she could be dead right now, and Koko, too. But no one else needed to know it. She was fine.

Miracles happen every day.

Now if she could just finish the damn book.

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Cheryl Ann Guido: The Interrogation

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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The Interrogation

Cheryl Ann Guido

Sally Gibbons was dead. Even though her body had not yet been found, everyone who lived in the tiny town of Crested Butte, Colorado knew that her life had been extinguished — probably murdered by one of the two men in her life. On that day, a witness had observed Sally lock up the little ski apparel shop that she operated and co-owned with her husband Russell an hour earlier than usual. The witness, who owned the pizza shop next door, presumed that the reason for the early closure was due to the expected blizzard predicted to begin later that afternoon. Since Sally lived on a ranch over ten miles outside of town and had to travel along hilly and unpaved roads, it was not unusual for her to depart ahead of incoming snowy winter Colorado weather.

Sally’s shop, though not the main money maker for the family, was well known throughout the valley for its small, select line of quality goods. With a large customer base comprised of both residents and tourists, it thrived throughout the winter season even though it was often only open for a few hours a day.

Sally had never taken an interest in the family business, the almost 1000-acre Circle R cattle ranch where Russell and Roy spent their days running the day-to-day operations. In fact, Sally had been born and raised in Saddle Brook, New Jersey and had met her future husband and brother-in-law at NYU where the three of them had become inseparable during their college years. Always together, their friends had often speculated which brother Sally might choose to be her life partner. A materialistic girl by nature, no one was surprised when she announced her impending marriage to Russell, the elder brother during their last year in college. Russell was next in line to inherit the entire sprawling Colorado ranch that had been owned by his family for generations.

Roy on the other hand, having no interest in ranching, had been accepted into Columbia University Law School. However, it was not long before it became apparent that Roy would never practice law. After Russell and Sally married, he fell in with a fast crowd with whom he partied every night, drinking and doing recreational drugs when he should have been studying. Due to failing grades, he was forced to drop out after only one semester. Broke and depressed, he returned home to Colorado and worked on the ranch.

Upon Roy’s return, Russell had delegated him to common ranch work. Instead of negotiating deals, Roy found himself mucking out stalls and herding cattle on horseback. Roy had tried to speak to his father about taking a more dignified role in the family business, however the patriarch steadfastly refused, reminding Roy how he had chosen law school over ranching when given the choice years before. Raymond’s health had declined during the time his sons were away and when Russell returned, he had signed over the ownership of the ranch to his eldest son even though he was still alive. Defeated and bitter, Roy acquiesced simply because he had no other choice. But he was not happy about it. He was not happy at all.

Subsequently, the two brothers frequently argued. Roy constantly brought up his secondary status and how he felt that Russell was being favored by their father simply because Roy had chosen not to be a part of the ranch after college graduation. It did not matter that at the time, Roy was young and impetuous. It also did not matter that he had failed in his pursuit of a law degree. He felt that as Raymond’s only other child, he deserved half of the ranch and the business despite the fact that his father refused to give it to him.

Roy, who had secretly been in love with Sally, was also bitter about her marriage to Russell. Many times, he chastised himself for not being more aggressive in pursuit of her love. He never understood why she chose his brother during their college years when he had such big plans at that time. Russell was a good man, but also a simple one. A work horse, he was devoted to the ranch, and after marrying Sally and bringing her home, he spent little time with her whereas Roy thought that upon his graduation from law school, he would be in a position to give her anything she wanted.

Roy knew that Sally felt neglected and unhappy. Shortly after his arrival, Roy began to flirt with her, always complimenting her on her appearance, her cooking and her ability to run her own business successfully. Little by little, he wormed his way back into her heart and as their flirtations became more intense, they began an affair. At least once a week, he would meet her at her shop. Upon his arrival she would hang an out-to-lunch sign on the door while they made love in a back room.

But their affair was not without discord. Roy became obsessive about having Sally for his own. He began to badger her about filing for a divorce from Russell and leaving town with him. Beyond that, he did not have a plan but he felt confident that was not an issue. All he needed to do was to win her over with his charm. Eventually, Sally would leave with him willingly, or so he thought.

Their affair continued for months. Roy’s frequent presence at Sally’s store did not go unnoticed by the neighboring shopkeepers who gossiped among themselves and their friends about the sordid goings on happening behind Russell’s back. Sally and Roy on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the possibility that Russell would find out and exact some kind of revenge.

The affair lasted the winter until the fateful day that Sally disappeared. On that particular day, Sally and Roy had been observed having a heated argument in front of her store by the grocer across the street. Although he could see them clearly, their voices were muffled and he was unable to make out any of their conversation. Not wanting to appear to be eavesdropping, he stayed inside, figuring that whatever they were arguing about was none of his business. However, he could not pry his eyes away from the bickering couple and had observed Sally’s red-faced animation as her arms flailed while stomping her cowboy boots hard on the pavement. Roy had quietly stood across from her during her rant, leaning against his truck with his arms folded across his chest. The witness then observed Roy take a step forward while saying something that made Sally angry enough to slap him hard across the face. Roy then grabbed Sally by the arms and threw her down onto the ground. Immediately after, he jumped into his truck and sped away, leaving black rubber tire tracks in the street. The shopkeeper was about to go outside to help Sally when he saw her stand up, place her hands on her hips and scream, “you bastard, you’re gonna pay for that!” She then spun around, strode up the walkway to her shop’s entrance and slammed the door shut. Guessing that only Sally’s pride was hurt and nothing else, he went back to stocking his shelves. Shortly after, Sally emerged from her store and was seen locking up and leaving by the pizza shop owner. That was the last time Sally Gibbons was seen alive.

A two-week search along the route Sally drove to get to and from the Gibbons ranch turned up nothing. After a late winter storm dumped three feet of snow onto Crested Butte, the hunt for Sally was halted. Buck Waters, a veteran law officer who had held the position of Sheriff of Crested Butte for over twenty years, felt that either Sally had frozen to death and died somewhere along her route or had simply run away. Severely hampered by the deep snow, any further search became impossible and was postponed until the Spring thaw. Russell, who by that time had discovered Sally’s indiscretion, showed no interest in finding his cheating wife. Roy, after being forcibly removed from the Circle R, also had no desire to find Sally. He rented a room in town and took a job bartending at the Blue Diamond Saloon intending to leave Crested Butte permanently as soon as the weather warmed.

Three months later, rising Spring temperatures melted the snow blanketing the woods that backed up to the Circle R property. A ranch hand chasing after a stray calf that had wandered into the thicket stumbled across Sally’s car half hidden under a pile of wet leaves. When he opened the car door to check inside, Sally’s still frozen lifeless body fell over sideways across the seat. Her jeans were ripped in several places and dirt marks smudged her white blouse which was also missing the top two buttons. As a result, the shirt hung slightly askew baring one of her shoulders. Purple and red bruise marks circled her neck and both of her hands were balled up into tight fists. When the Gunnison County coroner arrived, he noticed petechia around her eyes which, combined with the bruises on her neck, led him to determine her cause of death to be strangulation before he even left the scene. Once he got her body on the table, he discovered that Sally was six weeks pregnant and officially ruled her death a homicide.

***

Buck Waters paced back and forth in front of the table that separated him from a seated Russell Gibbons. Russell watched, licking his lips nervously as the clicking of Buck’s boots made the only sound in the room. After another minute, Russell slammed his fist onto the metal table top.

“Dammit Buck, ain’t you gonna say somethin’, or are you just gonna keep walkin’ back and forth until you wear a hole into the damned floor?”

Russell’s question was met with an icy stare as Buck settled into the chair opposite the rancher. The sheriff leaned back a bit and raised one foot then the other, banging them loudly onto the table almost on top of Russell’s folded hands. Startled, Russell quickly raised both hands as he shifted his body in the seat. Without taking his eyes off of his detainee, Buck removed a short, fat stogie from his breast pocket and stuck it between his teeth. After retrieving a lighter from the same pocket, he lit the cigar, took a long pull, then blew the smoke in Russell’s direction. The rancher blinked as the acrid smoke stung his eyes.

Buck chuckled then grew serious. “How long have I known you, boy?”

Russell shrugged. “I dunno. Since I was a kid I guess.”

“And would you say I know you really well?”

“I suppose.”

Buck jumped out of his chair, placed both hands firmly on the table and lowered his face until it was just inches from Russell’s. “Damn right I know you really well. I was there the night you were born. I taught you how to rope a cow. You always called me Uncle Buck and in all those years I’ve never known you to be a violent person. What the hell were you thinking, murdering your wife?”

Russell’s eyes opened wide as he began to breathe in short, deep breaths. “You think I …? Lordy, I didn’t murder her.”

Buck’s eyes narrowed into thin slits. “The hell you didn’t! You found out she was having an affair with your brother, that she was pregnant and then you killed her, didn’t you?”

“No.”

“Admit it. You couldn’t stand the idea of her shaming you and with your own brother too. So, you waylaid her on her way home then strangled her, drove her car into the woods and made a half assed attempt to hide it under some dead leaves. You must be stupid or something.”

“I didn’t kill her. I didn’t see her at all that day. I was up doing chores before she was even awake and she left before I came in for breakfast. Ask Tommy, my ranch hand. He was helping me shoe a horse out in the back barn.”

Buck grunted and sat back down in his seat. “I will. In the meantime, I want you to write down everything that you did that day from the time you got up until the time you went to bed.” He shoved a yellow legal pad and a ballpoint pen across the table. “Don’t leave anything out. I’ll be back in a little while.”

Russell winced as Buck’s chair legs scraped the tile floor. He watched the big lawman open the door. “I’m telling ya, Buck, twasn’t me.”

“Uh huh.”

“Buck!” But the sheriff had already left the room.

Waters entered a small observation alcove behind the interrogation room. Wearing a grim expression, Raymond Gibbons extended his hand and the two men shook. Gibbons then turned back to the glass window. “Buck you know damn well my boy didn’t do this murder.”

“Do I? He’s got a pretty good motive, Ray. He sure wouldn’t be the first man to murder a cheating wife.”

“Not my Russell. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. I’m telling you, he’s innocent.”

“Well Ray, that may be true. I’ll certainly check out his alibi. In the meantime, let’s see what your other son has to say.”

The elder Gibbons turned toward a glass window on the opposite side of the small room as the sheriff exited.

Roy Gibbons tapped his fingers on top of the smooth metal surface of the table. At the sound of the door opening, he stopped, cocked his head and grinned. “Evenin’ Sheriff. Beautiful day, ain’t it?”

Buck scowled. “Don’t get cocky with me, Roy Gibbons. You know damn well we aren’t here to discuss the weather.”

Roy nodded his head. “Yeah, I do. Go ahead Buck, ask me.”

“Alright, I’ll come straight to the point. Did you murder Sally?”

“Nope, and I’m really insulted that you’re even considering that possibility.”

“Really. So, the fact that you two had a fight in front of her place and that she hit you and you got mad and shoved her down onto the sidewalk should make me think that things between you both were just hunky dory, right?”

Roy snickered. “Yeah, well when you put it that way …”

Buck spun Roy around in his seat. “Don’t be a smart ass, boy. Murder is serious business. Your pregnant sister-in-law lover was strangled until she was dead and maybe you’re the one who did it.”

One corner of Roy’s mouth turned up into a sly grin as he arched his brows. “And maybe I’m not.”

Buck’s cheeks started to burn and turned beet red. “You really are a piece of work, Roy. You’re a cocky son-of-a-bitch. You’ve always been trouble and a real loser. The only thing you’ve got going for you is your name and even that isn’t doing anything for you anymore.”

Slamming his fist into his other hand, Roy jumped up, eyes full of hatred. Waters smirked.

“What are you gonna do, Roy, hit me? You want to add assault on a police officer to your murder charge?”

Roy ground his teeth as he slowly sank back down into his chair. “Look, Buck. I’m innocent. We had a fight. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”

“You’re telling me that you didn’t follow her when she left, kill her and ditch her and her car in the woods?”

“Yes. That’s what I’m telling you. Now, I want a lawyer. I had enough law school to know that I need one at this point and I’m not saying another word until that happens.”

“Fine with me. Who do you want?”

“Gerard Tibbons.”

“Daddy’s guy, huh? Figures. Alright, just sit tight. I’ll go call him for you.”

When Waters returned to the observation alcove, he was met by a visibly angry Raymond Gibbons.

“I ain’t payin’ for no lawyer for that worthless piece of …”

“Now, now, Ray,” said Buck cutting him off, “that’s no way to talk about your own son.”

“He ain’t my son no more. He gave up that right when he decided to be a lawyer. Too bad that didn’t work out for him now isn’t it?”

Buck grunted. “Let me ask you something, Ray. Who do you think killed that girl?”

The old rancher took a step back. “Are you asking me to choose between my boys?”

“Oh, so now they’re both your boys?”

Ray ignored the comment. “That girl has been trouble since my sons met her. She was a gold diggin’ piece of trash. She knew exactly what she was doin’, pittin’ my sons against each other.”

“What makes you say that?”

“One night she got drunk and told me she wasn’t interested in either of them. But what she wanted was the Gibbons name and all that went with it. She even tried to seduce me. Don’t know why. Maybe she thought I’d change my will in her favor.”

“You didn’t like her much, huh?”

“I didn’t like her at all. She was trash, pure and simple.”

“And you wanted her gone, didn’t you?”

“Damn right I wanted her gone. That bitch was causin’ a war between my boys.”

“You told her that too, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I told her. She said she wasn’t goin’ nowhere. She laughed and said she was gonna have my money one way or the other.”

“Hey Ray, whatever happened to those horseshoe cufflinks you loved so much?”

“Huh?”

“I noticed you’re wearing gold studs. What happened to the horseshoe ones?”

“I—I lost one of them.”

“Yeah, I guess you did.” Buck reached into his trouser pocket. “And here it is. Want to know where I found it, Ray?” Stunned, Raymond Gibbons could not say a word. “I found this clutched in the hands of a dead woman, a dead woman named Sally Gibbons. She pulled it off your sleeve when you killed her. Too bad you didn’t do a better job getting rid of her body. Raymond Gibbons, you’re under arrest for the murder of Sally Gibbons. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney …”

{{~..~}}

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Caroline Giammanco: Shelf Life

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Shelf Life

Caroline Giammanco

Frankie stoked the coals and put another log on the fire. He was tired, and the grind of getting back to work caught up with him as heavy shadows began to paint the view from his cabin window. 

He’d returned from vacation a few weeks ago, and as he gazed into the distance he remembered the warmth of the Florida sun and the sound of waves crashing outside the beach house, his usual getaway spot. 

Still, as much as he’d enjoyed his yearly southern excursion, this was home. His hosts at the Florida bed and breakfast wouldn’t understand the draw, he doubted. Whistling wind, feet of snow, and sub-zero temperatures turned a lot of people off. 

Not Frankie, though. He came from pioneer stock. His family settled here generations ago, and they’d adapted well. The blue tones of the approaching evening on the snow-laden trees tonight were comforting and familiar. There’s nowhere else he’d want to live, and he’d had his share of world travels. No, vacations are nice, but there’s no place like home, as the saying goes. 

The teapot whistled, and Frankie turned from the view to get a cup and saucer out for his evening tea. The steam from the kettle swirled like a magical spirit ascending to heaven in a waltz of fluid motion. Frankie was mesmerized by little details like that. 

He smiled in spite of an aching lower back. 

Tonight I’m definitely using some ointment on it. I’m not so young anymore, and those boxes did a number on me this week. 

Like most of his friends and neighbors, he worked at the local factory. Work was steady, and the benefits were good. His bosses even gave him paid vacation time which accounted for his yearly trips to the beach. All he had to do was squeeze in an hour or so a day on work-related activities and he could write off his entire trip as a business expense. He couldn’t complain about his boss or the company. It was a respectable job, and nearly everyone in town worked there in one capacity or the other. 

Normally Frankie’s position wasn’t as physically taxing as it was this week and for the next few. The annual inventory and retooling took place at this time, and that meant all hands on deck. Everyone from the first-year rookie to the general manager rolled up sleeves and assisted in counting, packing, and cleaning. They all dreaded this difficult, but necessary, time. 

This downtime, of sorts, at work was nothing like the adventures Frankie had while traveling. Production would begin again in a month after new orders came in to prepare for next year’s rush. As boring as January was at work, Frankie and his friends accepted the fact it had to be done. The fun they’d had on their excursions made up for any tedium they faced on the job. 

Frankie returned to his comfortable chair as his gaze returned to the glistening scene before him. The scent of cinnamon lifted from his steaming cup of tea, and the frost on the windows mingled with the aroma to provide a poignant moment. Another twinge in his lower back made him wince, however, ruining the otherwise perfect instant. 

I can’t blame it all on work, unfortunately. My back hasn’t felt right since the trip home from vacation. That’s what I get for traveling coach. Next year, I’ll see about better travel arrangements. 

The fun he’d had was worth the current discomfort, though. He’d loved every minute of his time with this hosts and their children. 

Kids make you feel young again, and that’s good for the mind and soul. 

The fire crackled, and another hour dwindled by while the blue cast of the snow outside his window faded into a velvet black. The clock chimed, and he knew it was time to crawl under the quilts and go to sleep. 

His eyes grew heavy as he snuggled under the blanket. Yet, suddenly, he sat up in bed. 

I almost forgot my nightly journal entry! I’ll never write my memoir accurately if I don’t log the day’s events. 

Opening the drawer to his nightstand, Frankie retrieved his diary and favorite pen. The leather cover felt good in his hands, and his heart leapt at the working title he’d given it: Shelf Life. 

I’ve always loved a good turn of phrase, and I think this book has potential. After all, what other elf has revealed the inside story of life as an Elf on the Shelf? I’m sure I can get a publishing contract with one of the Big 5 with this one. 

He quickly scribbled down today’s entry, then yawned, turned out the light, and fell asleep with the satisfaction of knowing he was working on something big.

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Amber C. Deck: Trust Me, Trust Me Not

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Trust Me, Trust Me Not

Amber C. Deck

Trust is never easy. It can be fragile — much like a delicate snowflake. It can also be as dangerous as the brutal winter cold.

Interpol Agent Alerra “Allie” Montague had always had trust issues — ever since she’d been abandoned as a baby. After twelve foster homes and one failed engagement, the thirty-three year old was done with people disappointing her. She’d learned that not trusting others led to less heartache, and it made her one good agent.

At least, it had made her a good agent until this case.

Allie’s assignment had been to escort a visiting government official back to his hotel from the agency’s office in Paris. It had been a routine assignment that she’d done countless times — only this one went wrong. Horribly wrong.

Now, here she was in the snowy woods outside of Berlin with a poorly covered knife wound to her shoulder. She was heading to the one place of the one person she’d swore to never ask for help — Eli Kastnen. 

A loud knock on his cabin door caused Eli to reach for the rifle he kept in his coat closet. Peering out of the peephole he’d installed when he’d first moved in, he was surprised to see a woman standing there. Actually, he was more surprised at who the woman was rather than why she was pounding on his door at midnight.

Eli took a moment to glance over the trim, toned frame of the red-haired woman at his door. She was about five-foot-seven, which made her quite a bit shorter than him. Her fair complexion peeked through her bundled-up attire, but, even with the layers of clothing, Eli could tell something was a bit off about her by the way she stood.

Golden eyes looked up into the peephole as if she knew he was staring at her. Eli froze for a moment — unsure if he should open the door or act like he wasn’t home.

“Open the door, Eli. Please. I need your help.” Something in her voice made him reach for the door handle. He unlocked the heavy wooden door and pulled it open — waiting until she was inside to shut and lock it again. “Thank you.”

Allie gently shook the snow off of her as she glanced at Eli. He still looked as handsome as ever. His intense blue eyes, dark-blond hair, and muscular body were all too familiar to her — mostly since Eli was the one who’d called off their wedding. Had that really been four years ago?

“You look good, Eli. I must say that growing a beard works for you.” Allie eased her coat off before glancing at him. His beard was cut short and neat — just like his hair. Typical Eli. “It looks like leaving the agency suited you, too.”

“What are you doing here, Allie?” Eli crossed his arms over his chest. He wasn’t up to dealing with her nonchalant attitude after she’d just shown up out of the blue. “How did you even find me? It’s been four years since you went back home to Paris.”

“I only transferred because you dumped me a week before the wedding. I was heartbroken and scared about being abandoned again.” Allie tensed at the accusing tone in his voice — causing pain to radiate through her shoulder. She forced herself to relax as she looked up at him. She could tell her statement had bothered him by the way he shifted uncomfortably. “I knew you always planned to move out to your family’s cabin. That’s beside the point, Eli. I need your help.”

“I can tell.” A smirk formed on his face. “You kind of look terrible. Have you slept at all in the past four years?”

“For your information, I have slept fine,” Allie replied sharply. “I am only here because I have nowhere else to go. The assignment I was working on fell apart, and… and a member of the French government is in the hospital.” She eased the neckline of her shirt over — revealing the blood-soaked bandage. “The assassination attempt has the hospital on lockdown, which has somehow put me in the assassin’s crosshairs. I was attacked the minute I entered the parking deck at my apartment.”

Eli frowned. “Who knew about the route you were taking on your assignment?”

“Only a handful of people, Eli.” Allie saw the concern in his eyes as he looked at her shoulder. “Don’t worry about this. It’s just a scratch. I need you to help me, Eli, please. You’re still the best agent — even if you refuse to ever walk into an Interpol office again.”

“Yeah, and you already know what being an agent cost me.” Eli walked down the hallway and into his bedroom — emerging a few moments later with a first-aid kit. “We need to properly dress that wound before it gets infected.”

Allie sat down on his couch as he took a seat beside her. Eli placed the kit on the coffee table and began taking supplies from it. Both remained silent as he started tending to the injury on her shoulder.

“I know you left the agency because of me, Eli.” Allie hissed lightly at the burn of the antiseptic before continuing to speak. “I have trust issues — I know that. Despite all of my fears in my personal life, I’ve always trusted you. You’re the only one I could think of to help me. I don’t know who to rely on at the agency right now.” She glanced at him. “Someone wanted a high-ranking government official dead, Eli. I stood in their way, and I’m the one they want dead now.”

Eli remained silent as he finished bandaging her shoulder. Allie tried to get him to look at her — to see what he was thinking. She sighed as she shook her head.

“You don’t have to help me, Eli,” Allie told him as she stood up. “I should never have come here and brought up old memories. I’ll figure out what to do on my own. I always have, haven’t I?”

Eli gently grabbed her hand as she turned away from him — careful not to hurt her shoulder. Allie turned to see him staring up at her with a mixture of emotions that clouded his deep-blue eyes. No man had looked at her like that in a very long time… 

“You have always been too stubborn to see that you’re not alone anymore, Allie.” Eli stood up as she turned to face him. “It took years for me to figure out why you had such a hard time settling in one place. I just thought you didn’t want a rough-around-the-edges guy from Berlin, but I soon realized you weren’t used to staying in one place for long.” Eli released her hand. “I will always be here to help you, Allie. No matter if we ever make a relationship work again or not. I’ll always be here.”

Allie didn’t know whether to hug him or slap him for making her feel so terrible. She’d harbored quite a load of guilt since their broken engagement. She’d assumed Eli would have blamed her for everything and just forget about her. Leave it to the agency’s former best undercover operative to keep such a big secret from her.

Before Allie could respond to Eli, a low alarm sounded from somewhere in the room. She watched as Eli’s reaction tensed before he grabbed his TV remote off the coffee table. Pointing it at the TV that hung over his fireplace’s mantle, Eli flipped the screen on to show several security camera feeds. Allie stared at the screen as she watched figures cloaked in white fatigues, moving carefully through the snow.

“They tripped my perimeter alarm.” Eli’s voice was almost a growl. “They are about a mile out from the cabin. I need to get you out of here and call reinforcements.”

“No, Eli.” Allie shook her head vigorously. “I can’t run anymore. About five guys are coming — according to the cameras. I think we can handle this.” She gave him a worried glance as he pulled out his cell phone. “I don’t know who I can trust at the agency, Eli.”

“Luckily, I do.” Eli grinned as he dialed his best friend’s number. Xavier Graffe picked up on the first ring. “X, this is Eli. Got a situation at the cabin. Bring reinforcements, but only people you trust with your life. I don’t know when these guys will take out the cell…”

The line went dead before Eli could finish his sentence. That meant these guys were coming in faster than expected. Eli knew it would take at least half an hour for backup to get there. He just prayed that he and Allie could stay alive long enough for his former team to get there.

“They’re scrambling the cell signal now.” Eli walked over to the coat closet by the door and opened it. He pushed aside the thick coats to reveal a small assortment of weapons neatly hung on the back wall. “How much ammo do you have?”

“Just what is in this.” Allie pulled her 9MM Glock out from where she had tucked it into the back waistband of her pants. “I didn’t exactly get time to go by my apartment and pack a bag. I even rode here in the back of a moving van — not the best place to transport heavy artillery.”

Eli couldn’t hide a grin at her remark. Allie could always make him smile at the worst possible times. Like when they were surrounded by five armed guys who wanted her dead.

“Here, take this.” Eli handed her another 9MM Glock as he grabbed his Ruger 45-caliber handgun. He inserted the clip and grinned at her. “Ready to make some noise, baby?”

Allie smiled and nodded as she cocked her guns. Taking cover behind the sofa, she watched Eli flip over his solid-oak dining table. He grinned at her again as he knelt behind it. Now, it was time to wait…

The front door flew open after one of the intruders gave it a few swift kicks. Four men entered the room — slowly sweeping their weapons from side-to-side as they walked.

Rookie mistake, Eli thought as he nodded at Allie. Time to show these guys who they’re messing with.

Both Allie and Eli rose up slightly behind their hiding spots and fired two shots apiece. The four masked men went down instantly — with each howling in pain. Crimson stained their white fatigues as the men clutched where the bullet went in below the kneecap.

Eli stood and rushed over to the four men — kicking away their weapons. Thankful that he’d remembered to grab the zip-ties before the men arrived, he flipped each one over and secured their hands behind them. Each man groaned in protest as pain shot through them.

“Wait,” Allie said as she stood up from her spot behind the couch. “There’s only four of them. Where is the fifth guy?”

“Slipping through a window in the kitchen as all of this went down.” A female voice with a noticeable French accent came from behind Allie. She spun around to face the fifth masked intruder — gasping as the person removed their face covering. “Surprised to see me, partner? Or, should I say, former partner?”

“Claire LaRue.” Allie eyed the handgun that was aimed at her chest. Her former partner stood about the same height as her, which gave Allie clear visibility to the hatred in the blonde woman’s dark-brown eyes. “I’m not the reason you got fired, Claire. You chose to destroy that evidence — not me.”

“Allegedly. I allegedly destroyed evidence.” Claire spoke through clenched teeth. “You were my partner, Allie. You were supposed to have my back — no matter what. That’s what partners do.” Claire spotted Eli moving toward her. “That’s far enough, Kastnen. Any further and I put a bullet in your long-lost love.”

Allie eyed the gun in Claire’s hands. She clutched the two she held in her hands. If she could only get off a shot first…

“Don’t even think about it, Allie.” Claire glared at her. “Toss your guns over toward the kitchen — both of you.” She grinned as they both did as they were told. “Excellent. Now, we’re just going to have a little chat. One that ends with you confessing to destroying the evidence and me getting my job back.”

“No one would ever believe that.” Eli spoke to her in a calm tone. “Allie is as by-the-book as they come. Not one agent would believe your lies.”

“Shut up!” Claire yelled. The gun in her hand wavered slightly before she steadied it. “They will, too — by the time Allie’s body is found with her heartfelt confession and apology.”

Eli felt his blood run cold. “I won’t let you get away with this, LaRue. I’ll hunt you down and make you pay.”

Claire cackled. “You’ll be dead, too. Poor Eli Kastnen. The former fiancé of a corrupt agent. Allie came to you for help in covering up her crime, but you refused to help the woman you left years ago. In a crime of passion, she shot you before deciding to end her own life.” 

“You have thought of everything, haven’t you?” Allie’s mocking tone caused Claire to glare at her. “I do have one question. Why go after a government official first? Why not come directly after me?”

“I needed a diversion, Allie. You taught me that.” Claire gave her a sarcastic smile. “I just had to be a little more extreme in my plan. You can’t always apply your specific methods to everything. How would spilling a drink on my dress make everyone take their attention away from you?”

“How did you get information about the route we were taking? That plan was made weeks after you were terminated from the agency.” Allie was more curious than afraid or angry now. She had to identify any leaks in the agency.

“That was easy.” Claire waved her free hand in the air dismissively. “A group I helped out owed me a favor. They had a hacker, and I needed a way into Interpol’s servers without detection. I was in and out with the information I needed before anyone even knew it.”

“I take it that this group is the same one you allegedly destroyed the evidence for?” Eli’s voice had taken on a hardened tone — as if something had him on edge.

A slight movement in the kitchen caught Allie’s attention, but she kept her expression neutral. She had to be careful not to tip-off Claire. It looked like the cavalry had arrived just in time to save them.

“Enough talking.” Claire gave Eli a look full of hatred before turning her focus back on Allie. “It’s time for you two to play your part in my plan. To make things extra special for you, Allie, I’ll kill him first while you watch.” Claire gave Eli an evil grin. “She never stopped loving you, Kastnen. She’s horrible at telling people anything or sticking by them, but she always loved you.”

“I still love her, too.” Eli’s statement caused Allie to turn her head to face him. “That’s why I am calling the shots on this mission… and I always call for backup.” He started moving toward Allie. “Allie, get down!” 

Eli dove for Allie and knocked her to the floor — pinning her underneath him as a shot rang out. Silence followed, which sent a wave of fear through Allie.

Eli wasn’t moving. Had he been hit? Allie thought as her mind raced to catch up with what just happened. Please, Eli. Please be okay.

Footsteps came from the direction of the kitchen — stopping in front of the couple. From her position, Allie couldn’t see who the person was. She was hoping they were on her and Eli’s side.

“Uh. Are you two just going to lie there?” a gruff voice with a German accent asked them. “The threat has been neutralized.”

Allie could feel Eli chuckling as he moved away from her. She gave him a fake scowl as he stood up and extended a hand to her. She glanced briefly at Claire’s still body lying nearby — blood pooling around her as she lay face down on the floor. Allie quickly turned her attention back to Eli.

“I should hit you for that,” Allie told him as she accepted his help in getting up off the floor. “I thought you had been shot.”

“I’m going to let you two sort this out,” the man who’d helped them said — a bit of humor was in his tone. Allie remembered him as being Xavier — Eli’s best friend. “It’s good to see you, Allie. I wish I could stand around and catch up, but I have to call this in. Your team will want to know you’re safe, too.” Xavier handed her his spare satellite phone. “Use this to call. We haven’t found the scrambler yet. Bound to be on one of our lively friends over there.”

Allie thanked him as she accepted the phone. She stared at it for several minutes before Eli placed his arm around her waist.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Eli asked her. “Your team is probably worried sick about you.”

“I’m just trying to think of a way to tell them that I am not coming back to the agency.” Allie looked up at Eli and smiled at his shocked expression.”Do you know you haven’t called me ‘baby’ in over four years? I’ve missed it.”

Eli bent down and kissed her before replying. “You better get used to it then… baby.”

Allie grinned at the man she trusted and loved more than anyone in the world. She knew trust was dangerous, but she had been in more danger by not trusting someone to accompany her on the assignment.

It only took a familiar cabin in snow-covered woods to help her realize that trust made her stronger than ever before.

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