This is Part 23; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
 

Reluctance to help was one thing; a flat refusal was quite another. Woods couldn’t make any sense of it. Although he did not actually say so, it must have shown on his face because Hioki gave an exasperated sigh. Sitting back down in his desk chair, Hioki turned it to face his visitor and indicated with an abrupt hand gesture that Woods should take a guest chair in the corner, which he did.

“Quit looking at me like I just kicked a puppy. I’m trying to save your silly idealistic ass, Woods—and mine too, while I’m at it. Yeah, okay, we’re supposed to be explorers serving the greater good of science, and all that. And you know, I don’t even disagree that being the first to communicate with a sentient alien species would be amazing. It’s not going to happen, though, for a very practical dollars-and-cents reason. Think about it. What happens if we make a public announcement that we’ve found intelligent life on Europa?”

This was about money? Woods felt even more confused now. Why would the agency not want to spend money studying sentient aliens after it had paid for this exploratory mission? Wouldn’t success mean a lot more government funding? Not having any idea what Hioki was getting at, Woods simply put together a response to the question he’d been asked.

“Well, first of all, the linguists would get to work on translating their language accurately, and other scientists would study their biology and culture. I suppose government officials would negotiate a treaty of friendship and send an ambassador to Europa. Maybe Tiny Leaf,” and Woods paused to reorient his thoughts, just now remembering that Hioki didn’t know the name by which he called the alien traveling aboard their ship, “er, I mean the one here—she might become an envoy on Earth for her species.”

Hioki gave an impatient nod, running a nervous hand through his carefully sculpted hair without even noticing how rumpled he made it. “Right, and would there be any tourists going to Europa? Anything like what we have on Mars?”

“Tourists? No, that certainly wouldn’t happen—or at least, not for a long time. We couldn’t interfere with their world by building hotels all over it. Maybe sometime in the next century, if a treaty allowed for tourism, but of course it would be very limited…”

Hioki interrupted with a loud snap of his fingers, startling Woods. “Bingo. And who stands to lose trillions of dollars by not being allowed to build those hotels?”

That question made more sense to Woods; after all, only one company had successfully brought tourists to Mars. Nobody else had the know-how and the resources. He started to answer while still thinking through the implications.

“That has to be Splotz—but, if everyone knew that Europa had intelligent life, what could Splotz do? Even if they could somehow avoid an outright ban on commercial activity, public opinion would be so strongly against any sort of exploitation that just mentioning tourism would likely cause millions of angry people to stop buying their products.”

“Exactly.” Hioki leaned forward, elbows on knees, his tone low and earnest. “And that’s why they would do everything in their power to prevent such an announcement from being made.”

“How could they? Even if Splotz had, I don’t know, mafia enforcers or something, we’re traveling through space many thousands of kilometers away. There’s nobody on this ship but a few scientists and astronauts. You don’t seriously think any of our crewmates would harm us on orders from some corporate boss, do you?”

“No, they wouldn’t, or at least not physically. What I’m saying is no more than you already know. If you tried to make a report like that without solid proof, it would be discredited and your sanity questioned. Splotz would see to it. Even though Rita Mastroianni looks nice and friendly, she was a company doctor for many years, and you can be sure that’s where her loyalties still lie. You haven’t told her anything about—well, any of this, have you?” Hioki sat up straighter, and his voice took on a note of worry.

“Not really.” Woods glanced down at the tablet he was still holding in his right hand. “I asked her if there were scientific ways to test the existence of telepathic communication. She didn’t seem to take it seriously—told me a story about her aunt who talked to cats, and then suggested that I keep my notes about telepathy in a journal…”

“You’re keeping the notes on this tablet? Not in your official log, and not backed up in the ship’s system? Good. That’s very good.” Hioki reached out a hand that showed evidence of recent nail-biting. “Let me have your tablet for a few minutes. I’ll encrypt the notes for you, so that if Mastroianni does any snooping through your personal things, she won’t find them.”

That sounded at first like a reasonable suggestion made out of friendly concern, and Woods had almost started to hand over the tablet before he thought more about it. Then he pulled the tablet away. “No, you might destroy them.”

Sitting back in a more relaxed posture, Hioki laughed as if he had just heard a good joke. “Not quite as innocent as you seem, are you, Woods? I have to admit that yes, it did occur to me. On second thought, erasing your notes would be pointless because you could easily create them again. So, I’ll just warn you once more to be careful. And to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Splotz or anyone in its management is evil. My parents work for the company, after all. It’s probably no worse than any other. But I will say this much: Growing up on Mars taught me that if you do anything the company wouldn’t like, you had better keep it hidden because if you don’t, there will be consequences.”

Woods looked down at his tablet again while a few possible replies came to mind, most of which had to do with courage or the lack thereof, and the fact that it had consequences too. He knew all too well, though, what could happen to anyone who did not conform to expectations. Letting his thoughts settle for a moment, he gave a mild answer while reminding himself that most decisions were better made after reflection and without judgment.

“I learned 35 years ago that there can be other ways besides hiding.”

July 6, 2018 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

To read Part 2, click here.
 

Lightning flashed again, dimly visible around the edges of heavy oak shutters. Ina, wide awake on a straw pallet in a corner of the small cabin, counted to six and then heard the distant rumble of thunder. The cabin’s other occupants all slept soundly—Nellie and her husband John, their daughter Mabel, and little Godfrey in his cradle.

Ina felt that she ought to be sleeping soundly too, after a long day of farm work. She had cleared weeds from row after row of corn and other crops, swinging a hoe till her hands got sore and blistered. Then, after lunch, she had filled a few baskets with early vegetables and sweet black raspberries before helping Nellie to cook and clean until dinner. She’d expected to be fast asleep by now—but instead, something called persistently to her. She felt it at the edge of her thoughts, an elemental energy as strong as the storm that had by now started spattering the cabin with loud, heavy raindrops.

What was out there in the storm, waiting for her? Ina couldn’t see much of her surroundings. The cabin had been dark since Nellie, while reciting a prayer for protection from evil spirits, had latched the shutters and barred the door before blowing out the candles—hours ago, it seemed like. Although Ina could hear the door and its thick wooden bar rattling in the gusty wind, she couldn’t make out the shapes.
 

Lightning at night.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Light—she needed light to find her way. The next time the lightning flashed, and without thinking about it at all, Ina reached toward the shuttered window and caught the fading glow between her hands, like a child capturing a firefly. It flickered and then brightened, much as a candle would, when she opened her hands to let it hover above them. The tiny flame’s warmth felt good on her blistered palms—but no, there weren’t any blisters to be seen now. All at once, Ina’s hands had healed completely.

The flame rose higher and made a bobbing motion toward the door, like a playful puppy hoping to be taken for a walk. A memory teased at the back of Ina’s mind—it had something to do with a pet she’d once had, but it slipped away, elusive. The flame bobbed again, more insistently. Ina took a few steps toward the door and located her shoes, which were neatly lined up with the family’s shoes on a mat beside the wall, underneath some pegs from which hung thick cloaks.

A sense of being watched came into her awareness. Turning to her left, she found little Mabel standing in a nightgown, with wide eyes reflecting the supernatural glow.

“You’re a witch,” Mabel said softly, in a matter-of-fact voice that held neither question nor fear.

Ina turned the word over in her mind, letting it settle into the empty space where a now-distant identity once had been. It seemed like it fit reasonably well. “Yes, I suppose I must be,” she answered, in the same calm, descriptive tone.

Mabel glanced up at the hovering light, which had by now floated over to the door. Rain pounded steadily on the roof, but everyone else in the cabin still slept without stirring. “Can you teach me how to make witch-fire like that? It’s pretty.”

Putting on her shoes, Ina considered the question. Had she made the fire, or had she simply come upon it already existing in nature, waiting to be found? And was anything about it a skill that could be taught? She had no answers.

“I don’t think so, Mabel. It’s not something that I know how to teach.”

The little girl nodded as if she hadn’t expected anything more. “That’s all right. Mama probably wouldn’t want me to do it anyway. She says witches are evil. But the fire doesn’t look evil, and you don’t either—so maybe, sometimes, Mama could be wrong.”

“Maybe witches, like other people, are not all one thing or the other,” Ina suggested. She couldn’t feel anything evil in the magical firelight or in herself—but then, how would she know what evil felt like? It might seem okay at first glance, like a tree that looked healthy but had rot or insects hidden under the bark. She remembered ash trees dying from the borers, their dry bare branches outlined against a crisp, clear autumn sky. Where had that fragment of memory come from?

She wouldn’t find any answers here. It was time to get going.

Ina lifted the heavy bar, setting it carefully into its slot beside the door. The flame danced eagerly out into the storm when she opened the door a crack. The rain wasn’t dimming its light at all. Ina was about to follow when it occurred to her that Mabel wasn’t quite big enough to put the bar back across the door. She lifted the bar partway, told Mabel to hold it there for a moment, and pulled the door shut behind herself. Although she was instantly soaked through, the rain felt invigorating. The bar clattered into place, and Ina thought she heard a little voice saying “Bye,” as thunder boomed again.

The bobbing firelight already had moved several paces ahead of Ina, in the direction of the Wild Forest.

June 9, 2018 · 3 comments · Categories: Stories

This is a continuation of a story that began on the blog Nuggets of Gold.
 

Somewhere across the lake, a rooster crowed. The sound carried clearly in the still air before dawn. She blinked, startled; the lake now reflected pale pink clouds instead of moonlight. It seemed that only a moment had passed since she closed her eyes, but somehow she must have dozed off without knowing it.

Rising to her feet, she brushed grass and twigs off her long, full skirt, which came down far enough to brush against wooden shoes fitting tightly over thick homespun stockings. But no, that wasn’t right at all—she had been wearing jeans and gym shoes when she walked through the woods to the lake.

When she turned around, she couldn’t see any path through the tall grass and midsummer wildflowers. Farther back, instead of the familiar patch of woods, a large old-growth forest loomed, with trees much taller and broader than she’d ever seen.
 

Old-growth forest with large tree trunk in foreground.

(Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli)
 

The air felt invigorating; it was fresh and pure, filled with the scents and sounds of nature. She turned back toward the lake, only then noticing how easily her body moved, without the aches and stiffness that she’d have expected from falling asleep outdoors at her age. Although she was in fairly good health at 67, camping in the woods would not have been on any list of her favorite activities.

The landscape on the other side of the lake had changed, too. Where was the new subdivision of expensive lakefront homes that she’d driven past, and the state highway not far behind them? Now there was only a small, tidy log cabin, surrounded by vegetable gardens and—yes, that was definitely a chicken coop.

“Hello.” The little voice came from a girl, also wearing an old-fashioned dress, who was walking across the grass to her left. “My name is Mabel. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

None of this could be real, she thought. There was only one sensible explanation—she was still asleep in the grass where she had dozed off listening to the bullfrogs in the moonlight. “I am in a dream,” she said, more to herself than to her young companion.

Mabel smiled, showing a gap from a newly lost baby tooth. “You’ll have to come and meet my Mama,” she declared, setting off toward the cabin, where a woman had just stepped outside with a wicker basket.

By the time they reached the cabin, the basket was full of freshly collected eggs. Mabel announced cheerfully, “Mama, this is my new friend, Miss Ina Drim. I found her on the other side of the lake.”

The woman had light hazel eyes and a kindly smile. “Good morning to you, Miss Ina. You can call me Nellie. Have you traveled far? You’re very young to be walking through the Wild Forest by yourself—why, you can’t be much over sixteen. And today, of all days!”

Her first reaction was to open her mouth in surprise, thinking that she’d better set matters straight as to both her name and age. But her hands looked young and smooth at the end of her long, billowing sleeves, with no age spots or swollen knuckles. How old was she, really? And what had her name been? The more she breathed this lovely fresh air, the harder it was to remember.

Seeing that she looked confused, Nellie clarified the last sentence. “I meant, today is the summer solstice. Folks say that the witches who live in the Wild Forest use their magic every Midsummer’s Eve to bring girls here from far away, so as to train them in the secret ways of witchcraft. The magic is said to be so very strong, the girls can be summoned from distant countries or even through time itself. They forget everything about their old lives.”

Ina, who by now couldn’t recall if she’d ever had another name, shook her head in denial. She couldn’t possibly have been summoned by witches, could she? No, of course not, that was ridiculous. She’d come here to the lake because of—something about family, and memories, and an old woman. Surely it would all come back to her soon.

“I was visiting my grandmother,” she said finally, not sure whether that was quite right, but concluding that it must be close enough. “And I lost my way in the woods.”

Nellie looked horrified. “Lost and alone in the Wild Forest all night—you’re lucky the wolves didn’t get you! Of course, you’ll have to stay here for now. It would be much too dangerous for a young girl like you to travel through the forest alone, especially today.” Her tone made clear she wouldn’t stand for any argument.

Although her first inclination was to argue anyway, Ina decided that was silly. After all, the invitation plainly was well-intended, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to leave just yet. She might as well stay for a little while—at least, until she could remember where she ought to be.
 

Click here to continue to Part 3.

When I started writing a recent post about cultural beliefs and archetypes related to aging and health issues, I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure where it would end up. The plan was simply to visualize my inner Crone, ask her what she’d like to say on the subject, and wing it from there. I was pleasantly surprised when she offered to tell me a story.

Closing my eyes for a moment while I sipped my imaginary coffee, I listened. She began the tale with the traditional “Once upon a time,” and then she went on speaking in a smooth, flowing cadence…

——————————

In a far western desert valley, there lived a girl named Rose. The name suited her well because she climbed all over everything, just like the big pink roses on the trellis outside the kitchen window. She climbed pine trees, getting the sticky sap all over her saddle shoes and poodle skirts; and she climbed the high cliffs on both sides of the valley.

Her favorite spot to climb was the steepest part of the cliff, right next to a little stream that flowed out of the rocks and through her family’s small farm. A smooth ledge, almost all the way up, made the perfect place to sit and watch everything that happened in the valley. Sometimes she would lie down on the ledge and look at the clouds drifting by.

When her parents saw her up there, they scolded her about the danger. Rose had no fear of falling, and she imagined that she would keep on climbing to her favorite ledge forever. But eventually she grew up—as we all must—and her days of climbing cliffs became a distant memory. She spent time with friends, but she never married; and when her parents died, she inherited the farm and lived there alone.

She rarely felt lonely because she had a big shaggy dog, Jack, to keep her company. There were days when she felt unsettled, though, as if she had lost track of something that once had meant a lot to her. On a hot summer day, after going for a long walk with Jack, she came back to the house feeling tired and achy. A hawk passing over the farm made her glance up, toward the ledge on the cliff.

“I am starting to get old,” she said to herself, wondering what had become of the little girl who loved to climb. Had it really been that many years? Wanting to get such thoughts out of her mind, Rose impulsively decided that she might as well just go and climb that cliff right now. After all, there was nobody around to tell her to act her age.

She set off toward the cliff, taking long strides across the rocky ground. Jack happily trailed along, though he didn’t look as cheerful when Rose began to climb. She ignored his whine of concern as she pulled herself upward, searching for the handholds that once had been so familiar. It took a lot of effort. Sweat dripped down her face. The ledge still looked far away. Could this be the same climb that had felt so effortless in her younger days?

Nowhere to go but up, Rose told herself. It can’t really be that hard—after all, people say you’re only as old as you think you are.

The sound of splashing water soothed her as she climbed higher. On her right, the stream that sprang out of the cliff was flowing steadily. She placed a foot carefully to avoid a mossy rock that looked slick, and then she reached for the ledge.

Just as she started to pull herself up with aching arms, Rose lost her grip. The ledge hadn’t been as dry as she thought it was. She tried to catch herself, as she always had been able to do before; but she wasn’t nearly as slim or as limber as she once had been. She tumbled all the way down the cliff, breaking several bones in her feet and ankles.

Slowly, nudged on by Jack, she managed to crawl back to the house and reach a phone to call for help. The doctors at the county hospital patched her up as best they could; but even after they told her the bones had healed, putting weight on her feet was still painful. To get around the farm, she took slow, difficult steps, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

Almost every waking minute—which now included much of the night because her aching feet often kept her awake—Rose berated herself for having been such a fool as to think she could still climb that cliff. She also had a lot of anger toward the doctors, at first because they hadn’t completely fixed everything and, later, because they cut off her pain meds out of concern about addiction. Soon after that, she stopped going to town. It was just too hard, and she didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying faces. In fact, she didn’t want to see anyone—period.

Giving up any hope that she might ever be healthy enough to farm again, Rose leased much of her acreage to the power company for wind turbines. She arranged for her groceries and other supplies to be delivered. If there wasn’t anything perishable, she might leave the boxes on the porch for days. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

After a while Rose’s old truck rusted out, and brambles grew around it. Weeds filled the yard. A cold snap one winter killed most of the climbing rose on the trellis. Rose didn’t care—she had no interest in looking out the kitchen window because that was the direction of the ledge on the cliff. She kept the curtains drawn and spent most of her days lying on the couch.

Jack, who faithfully kept her company, was by now an old dog. A veterinarian living nearby, whose name was Henry, was kind enough to make house calls. The day came, however, when Jack fell gravely ill, and there was nothing to be done.

When Henry came back with the urn after having Jack’s remains cremated, he also brought—much to Rose’s surprise—a small brown mixed-breed puppy.

“One of my clients was giving away the litter,” he explained in a deep, gruff voice, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he shuffled his big feet on the dusty hardwood floor. “I thought you might want him.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Rose snapped. “Take him away.”

“Maybe just think about it for a bit, then. I’ve left a bag of puppy food on the porch.” Putting down the puppy, Henry scooted backward and was out the door before Rose realized what he was up to. By the time she struggled up off the couch and got to the door, Henry’s van was roaring away.

Rose’s first impulse was to shout something very nasty after him; but she didn’t want to frighten the puppy, who wasn’t to blame. Instead, she just said, “Oh, for pete’s sake!”

The puppy wagged his little tail happily, in the evident belief that she was talking to him. Rose couldn’t help but to smile at that; and then she told him, “All right, so it looks like we’re stuck here together for now—Petey.”

Although she gave him a name, Rose had every intention of giving him back to Henry at the first opportunity. The last thing she needed, as she saw it, was the nuisance of having a puppy around. She had to take Petey out for walks because he was small enough that he couldn’t be put outside unattended, or he’d be a tasty snack for a hawk or coyote. Leaning on her walking stick, she trudged along painfully on cold winter mornings while Petey, at the end of his leash, gave impatient yips.

As hard as it was, though, she had to admit that by the time Henry finally showed up about a month later, she was doing better. The more she got off the couch and moved around, the easier it seemed. By then, Petey was fairly well housebroken, and she had gotten used to seeing his perky face every day.

“I might keep him,” she allowed grudgingly. “Not making any promises, mind you.”

Henry just grinned.

Winter soon turned into spring, and Rose found that she had enough energy to start cleaning up the house and yard. She whacked weeds, cut back the half-dead rose on the trellis, and got rid of the old truck. Instead of just heating up random food from a can, sometimes she cooked a nice dinner and invited Henry over to eat with her.

Now that she was in better shape, Rose didn’t need to lean on her walking stick like she had before. She still carried it out of habit, though. Her pain, although no longer constant, hadn’t gone away. She still had twinges during the day and bone-deep aches that left her tossing and turning at night, often with her mind troubled by those old angry thoughts.

On a warm evening in midsummer, Rose was throwing a tennis ball for Petey to fetch. He had grown a fair amount but, still, he was a small dog—mostly terrier, she thought. She threw the ball especially far, and Petey dashed eagerly after it. Just then a large coyote bounded over a rise, heading straight for him.

The panicked dog fled toward the nearest cliff and somehow managed to scramble most of the way up. Rose ran toward the coyote, shouting and brandishing her walking stick until it ran away. Shaking in terror, Petey sat huddled on a ledge. It was the same ledge from which Rose had fallen; but, with her thoughts entirely on rescuing her dog, she didn’t even notice that until after she had climbed up. With Petey tucked under her arm, she carefully made her way back down to solid ground.

It wasn’t until Rose got back to the house that she realized she had climbed the cliff without any pain or difficulty. Climbing had felt natural, in fact—just like when she was a young girl. She hadn’t even remembered to pick up her walking stick, which still lay at the base of the cliff where she’d dropped it when the coyote ran off.

Just as soon as those thoughts came into Rose’s mind, the pain came back. But this time, instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by stale feelings of anger and helplessness, she opened the curtains wide and gazed out at a beautiful evening.

Rose sat down at the kitchen table, with a contented Petey wagging his tail at her feet. She sat with the pain until it faded into the last gleams of sunlight on the cliff, the pale blooms of the rosebush, and the stars coming out across the desert sky; and then she went to bed and slept soundly.

——————————

I put down my empty coffee cup and said to the Crone, “Thank you for the story, and for taking the time to visit with me. Both are very much appreciated!”

The Crone rummaged in her handbag for a dark red lipstick and touched up her lips before she answered. “Any time, dear. I’ve quite enjoyed your company.”

Reluctance to help was one thing; a flat refusal was quite another. Woods couldn’t make any sense of it. Although he did not actually say so, it must have shown on his face because Hioki gave an exasperated sigh. [This is Part 22. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Harsh fluorescent light glinted off the knives in the lunch line of the university cafeteria. Mark turned away, trying only to focus on squeezing the ketchup onto his cheeseburger… [This is Part 21. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Going through his mail at the start of the workday, Woods skimmed the fan-letter summary… [This is Part 20. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

“Hello,” said Tiny Leaf, her voice low and pleasant, a rich contralto that harmonized beautifully with the distant jingling of sleigh bells in the library program’s soundtrack… [This is Part 19. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Many thanks to Elesia Ashkenazy for kindly giving me a prompt for this story — a bluebird, a construction worker, and a fresh-baked pie.
 

Bluebird perched on a branch.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

“Can you imagine anybody ever really buying a car as a Christmas present? Those holiday car commercials are totally ridiculous.”

Scowling at the TV, Marcy picked up another slice of pepperoni and sausage pizza from the box on the coffee table. She leaned back into the sagging old couch, trying to find a spot that was at least halfway comfortable. The coffee table wasn’t in much better shape, full of scratches and dings. That luxury car with its gift bows and ribbons looked as much of an alien scene as if it had been beamed from the moon.

“It’s just advertising,” Joe said calmly, sitting to her right. Not much ever bothered Joe; he was a construction worker who took one day at a time. Whenever Marcy got annoyed about something, he would point out that by next year she probably would have forgotten all about it.

And in truth, Marcy knew they had a lot to be thankful for. Now that the recession was over and the economy was looking up, Joe had steady work again, and Marcy finally had gotten a pay raise after going for years without one. Although they had gone through all their savings just to keep the bills paid, at least they’d had enough savings to get through those years without the house being foreclosed. Not all of their friends had been as lucky.

Take it one day at a time, Marcy reminded herself. Still, she was glad the commercial was over. It was never any fun to see things that made her feel poor.
 

construction

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

After work the next day, Joe went straight from the construction site to a nearby auto dealership and picked out a new midsize sedan to replace Marcy’s ancient clunker. Blue, of course. That was Marcy’s favorite color. Looking at the state Motor Vehicles website on his mobile phone, he found that the personalized license plate BLUBRD was available. And by donating a small extra fee to support the state park system, he could get a license plate that came with a picture of a bluebird in the corner. Just perfect for Marcy’s Christmas present.

He had told her several times already that the clunker needed replacing; it had stranded her at work not long ago, and he’d been out there in the parking lot replacing the starter motor in the dark while she held the flashlight. But Marcy didn’t feel comfortable with buying a new car after so many years of worrying about money. Whenever Joe mentioned it, her answer always was something like, “First we need to build our savings back up, and then we can think about it.”

Although he couldn’t blame Marcy for being cautious about spending, it just wasn’t healthy to go through life always feeling poor and deprived. So, he had made up his mind that this would be the year Marcy got a new car for Christmas, complete with holiday bows and ribbons just like in the commercials. The monthly payments would be manageable, even without putting any money down. He could live with watching TV on the old couch for a while longer.
 

Cherry pie with lattice top crust.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Marcy carried a fresh-baked cherry pie to the new coffee table on Christmas Eve and set the pie down carefully on a towel; it was still hot. She’d taken a vacation day and had the table delivered from the furniture store, as part of a fashionable matched set with a new couch and an end table, while Joe was at work. Although Joe had told her the worn-out old couch didn’t bother him at all, Marcy knew better; she had seen him taking ibuprofen for a sore back on mornings after he fell asleep on the couch watching sports. This would be the perfect Christmas gift for him.

Was that Joe’s pickup truck she heard just now? Marcy wasn’t sure. She had already shut the curtains because it was getting dark. She listened for a moment, but the garage door didn’t go up. Probably not Joe; he’d sent a text message a few minutes ago telling her that instead of coming directly home, he was going to do a bit of gift-wrapping with their friends Carol and Kent. Although Marcy wouldn’t have expected that their well-organized friends would still have wrapping to finish on Christmas Eve, she didn’t think much about it; after all, in the holiday rush, anyone could get behind on things.

So it was as much of a surprise as Joe could have wanted, when he came through the door grinning and told Marcy, “Take a look out the window.”

Pulling back the curtains, Marcy saw her new car in the twilight. It was decorated with shiny bright bows and ribbons in all colors, and even a pair of reindeer antlers made of cardboard and tinsel. Joe’s truck was parked on the street, just in front of Carol and Kent’s big SUV. Evidently they’d helped Joe to get the new car and his truck both home. Standing in the driveway next to the new car, they waved cheerfully when they saw Marcy through the window.

“But, but,” Marcy stammered, gesturing toward the furniture set, “I just spent most of the money in our savings account so you’d be comfortable on the couch! What if…”

Joe took a step toward Marcy and put a finger across her lips.

“No more what-ifs! We’re about to start a new year, and everything is going well. It’s time to feel confident about life again. The new furniture looks great, Marcy, and there’s no need to worry about it. Building those savings back up won’t take long at all.” Wrapping her up in a big hug with his strong arms, he went on to say, “Just a few years ago, we believed many things were possible. Such as, the family we were going to start before the recession hit. I want to get back to making those plans again, Marcy. We can’t keep on living in fear of the future.”

The delicious smell of the cherry pie rose from the coffee table, reminding Marcy of those simpler days when happiness had come so easily to her. Then, all at once, many things did indeed seem possible again; and for the first time in a very long time, thinking of the future made her smile.

Thanks to Carolyn at Nuggets of Gold for contributing a story prompt: hurricane, chameleon, and jellybeans.
 

Jellybeans of different colors in a green plastic bowl.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Ronda struggled to latch the storm shutters as the gusty winds came close to ripping them from her hands. Shut inside the cabin, her cocker spaniel Trevor barked once, a nervous yelp. “Just one more window to go, and then we’re done,” Ronda said loudly, to reassure herself as much as the dog. Fat drops of rain, just beginning to fall, spattered the hood of her nylon jacket. Sunset was still an hour away; but with a hurricane blowing in from the Gulf Coast, already it had gotten so dark that it looked like night.

Spending the winter in Florida had been her husband’s idea. Nolan was a traveling salesman, and Ronda had a small online business, so they didn’t have to stay in their little Indiana hometown but were free to live anywhere they wanted. Getting away from the snow and enjoying the sunny days and lovely wildlife of Florida had seemed like a great idea. But as it turned out, there hadn’t been much sun—three strong storms already, and it was only December.

Getting the last shutter fastened, Ronda hurried inside just ahead of a colossal downpour, hoping she hadn’t let any of that lovely Florida wildlife into the cabin with her. She didn’t mind the birds so much because they really were pretty, even though they often kept her awake late at night with their nonstop chirping and squawking. But all those scaly, beady-eyed reptiles, ew! Lizards and snakes everywhere, and the occasional alligator by the roadside—they gave her the creeps.

“We’ll be okay if the power goes out,” she said to Trevor, who wagged his tail as if he could understand her. “There’s plenty of fuel in the generator, food in the pantry, and a flashlight on the kitchen table.”

She took a quick glance in that direction while hanging up her jacket. Yup, there was the flashlight, next to a green plastic bowl full of jellybeans. All of a sudden, Trevor launched himself toward the table, barking furiously! Jellybeans flew everywhere, and the bowl hit the floor. Fortunately Ronda already had eaten most of her favorite flavors, and many of the spilled jellybeans were lime green, which she disliked.

Just then, the power flickered and went out. It came back on a second later, before Ronda reached the table. And that was a very good thing, because when the lights came on again they revealed a lime-green chameleon perched on the flashlight handle, right where Ronda had been about to reach—staring at her with its big bulging eyes.
 

Front view of a mostly green chameleon.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Trevor growled, Ronda shrieked, and the terrified chameleon leaped off the table and ran for its life! Opening the front door to shoo the chameleon out, Ronda grabbed Trevor by his collar so he wouldn’t go tearing after it. Rain splattered all over the hardwood floor before she could get the door closed, which was okay because the floor needed mopping anyway.

“You can’t have candy, it’s not good for doggies. But you were a brave guard dog, so you can get a treat!” Ronda gave Trevor one of his favorite Bacon Cheddar Biscuits to console him for not being able to eat the spilled jellybeans as she started sweeping them up in a dustpan.

She fervently hoped the chameleon hadn’t been hiding at the bottom of the bowl when she ate jellybeans earlier! And what was it doing here anyway—chameleons weren’t native to Florida, were they? Oh, well, people said all kinds of escaped exotic pets were breeding in the Florida swamps, and Ronda was definitely ready to believe it. Some harmless Indiana snow would be just the thing right about now, she thought, as a huge thunderclap shook the cabin.

“There’s no place like home!” she declared. Trevor wagged his tail agreeably.