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My pens have gotten me through some times–happy, sad, moody, angry. Through the years, keeping a diary or journal, as well as writing fiction, has kept me semi-sane.

Here on Penz-O-Paula you’ll find blog posts, short stories and such by me. You’ll also find writing by others that I want to share with you.

Not everything here is sunshine and roses, but I don’t know of anyplace that is, do you?

I hope you’ll visit often, leave comments and follow me!

Against the Wind

Pamela hated driving.

Actually, she hated other drivers; she knew perfectly well they were all out to get her. Two accidents caused by total idiots had taught her well, and she had developed a healthy disrespect for those who shared the road with her.

She wasn’t a rage driver, or even a fearful one. She just didn’t trust anyone else out here.

Sometimes, like now, it wasn’t so bad. It was late, and it was I-80 east to the Wyoming/Colorado border, and she had the road to herself.

Except for the occasional big rig, at least. Those suckers sometimes seemed to come up behind her out of nowhere, and they’d get close enough to the back of her little car to fill the rearview mirrors with glaring light before zipping around her at top speed.

“Asshole,” Pam growled as the latest monster truck roared past.

As she neared Elk mountain, she cursed again, realizing that once again, it would be snowing and blowing. It seemed to be the norm regardless of the time of year.

“Come on, baby, come on!” She coaxed the car along. It was an older model and little, to boot. The wind picked up as she climbed, and the engine protested; she slowed to under 40 mph and wondered if she was going to make it, but things began to level off and then it was time to go downhill again. Now all she had to do was fight the wind and stay on the road.

That there was a road she was assured of only by the reflector poles drifting past the windshield. Snow was blowing across the freeway in sheets so thick she felt it best to put the car in its lowest gears so it wouldn’t pick up too much speed going down the slope.

She wanted to pull over and call it a night, but she had to get to Laramie.

By the time she saw the exit sign for the Wagonhound Rest Area, she had had all she could take. She was shaking with tension and exhaustion. She took the exit and made her way down the slick road.

When she got there, she had a hard time locating a parking spot. The place was full of semi trucks, cars and trucks of all sizes. She found a spot as close to the rest rooms as she could get and parked.

With so many people around, she knew she’d have to turn off the engine and lock the car before going inside to use the facilities. Old car, regular lock and key. Damn. She experienced a moment of new-car envy, which would allow her to do everything by remote.

“If I were a rich man, yada dada,” she sang softly. She pushed her seat back as far as it would go and shrugged her way into her parka, zipping it and pulling the hood up before opening the door. Out in the wind, she cleared the door lock of ice and snow before locking the car–she didn’t relish the thought of a frozen lock.

The wind was howling like a banshee, and she tied her hood down tighter and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. “Stupid,” she chastised herself. “Where are your gloves?”

In the car, that’s where they were. She’d never learn.

She hurried as much as possible to the brick building she could barely see in the blowing snow. By the time she got there, she had ice crystals on her eyelashes and her glasses immediately fogged as soon as she pulled the door open and stepped inside.

There was a long line at the ladies room door, and a shorter one at the men’s room. She nodded to her fellow travelers and took her place at the end.

Behind her, the door opened again, bringing in a blast of icy air. Everyone turned to look at the latest arrival. It was an enormous man in Carhartt coveralls. “Road’s closed, folks,” he announced. “Hope you’re gassed up, because we’re here for the night.”

Groans filled the room, but no one seemed particularly surprised. Probably over half had planned to shelter in place already.

Pamela had planned to carry on until something stopped her. She was glad it was here, and not somewhere on the long stretch of freeway ahead of her.

After a wait, she used the bathroom. She dug some singles from her pockets to feed into the food and soft drink machines. She’d gotten change earlier so she’d have it when she got to the hospital, so she made a mental note to get more as soon as possible. Then she made her way back to her little car.

Before getting in, Pamela took a walk around the car, inspecting the undercarriage around the tailpipe and making sure it was clear of ice and snow buildup. She kicked away the drifted snow, leaving a cleared space of about three feet behind the vehicle.

This came from years of living in windy, snowy Wyoming. One did not risk a blocked tailpipe in a snowstorm when forced to shelter in your car–you could asphyxiate as easily that way as you could running your car in a closed garage.

She was busy–she didn’t have time to die right now.

She noted with satisfaction that drivers around her were doing the same thing. If they weren’t natives, they were at least emulating them, and that was good.

When she was sure she could safely get at least a little nap, she proceeded to the car door.

She was in luck–the lock had stayed clear, and she easily gained access. She pulled her coat off, sat down and shook the snow off it out the open door before stowing it on the passenger seat and locking herself inside.

It was already pretty cold inside, and she started the engine, grateful that she’d gassed up in Rawlins. Cold air blasted out of the vents, but quickly warmed up.

She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and plugged it into the charger. Best to make sure it didn’t die, even if she didn’t get a signal out here. She turned it on, and thanked the server gods–three bars!

She reached into the backseat and grabbed the thick blanket she travelled with during the winter. Tucking it around her body, she settled herself more comfortably by reclining her seat.

Finally, she cleaned the melted snow off her glasses and then squinted at the screen of her cell phone, searching for the number she needed.

“Hello?” Neil’s voice was raspy, but strong. Pamela’s heart skipped a beat; she’d expected a nurse to pick up.

“You’re answering the phone?” she cried.

“I am,” Neil confirmed. “Please tell me you’re at home, safely out of this weather.”

“I’m at the Wagonhound Rest Area,” she confessed. “For the night, apparently.”

“Did you–?”

“Clear the tailpipe? Yes.”

“Have you got–?”

“Food, water and blankets? Yes.”

“Are you–?”

“Gassed up? Yes.”

“Pammy?”

“What?”

“Can I get a word in edgewise, please?”

“I love you,” Pamela giggled. “Yes, you may.”

“I love you. I can’t wait to see you. But I CAN wait to see you. They aren’t going to kick me out of here. So take your time and be safe.”

“I am just so happy to hear your voice!” Pamela tried and failed to keep the sob in her throat from being audible.

Neil heard it. “Baby,” he said, “I slept through the whole thing.”

They talked for a couple more minutes, and rang off when the connection got wonky.

Pamela made one more call, to her mother. It was one of those “Don’t worry, I am safe” calls she’d been making since she’d learned to drive, and as a mother herself, she knew it wasn’t just common curtesy–it was essential to Mom’s well-being.

She snuggled into her blanket and napped restlessly, rising every hour or so to get out and make sure the tailpipe remained clear of snow and ice. Neil had lived through the nightmare of COVID-19. She wasn’t going to risk dying herself on her way to pick him up and bring him home.

Just after sunrise, she was the first car to head up the entrance road, and the first car to pull onto the freeway, right after the highway patrolman pulled the “Road Closed” sign out of the way.

It wasn’t far now, and she’d see her husband again for the first time in almost three months.

One night out in a storm? Worth it.

New Books Out Now!!

Yeah, yeah, this is some self-promotion stuff. But, you know what? It’s not just me–there are so many good writers featured in these two volumes, and I know you’re going to love their stories!

The books are available now, and great stuff is inside. Have a tiny taste of what’s to be found within:

Story excerpt:

“I spent this whole time,” Walter grunted, shoving against the door, “trying to get the door to lock. And now,” he panted, “the sucker won’t unlock!”

“Can you crawl under?” Mickey asked, and added, “Oh…”

“Maybe if I was four!”

“Yeah, I see that.”

In an effort to discourage public restroom hanky-panky, the stall walls and doors had been altered to extend nearly to the ceiling and were only about six inches from the floor. A small child might be able to go under. Walter? Not a chance.

A tall, heavyset man—one who could possibly defy the higher stall walls if he was so inclined—burst out of his stall and yelled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you little shit?”

Mickey cowered, but managed to reply, “My friend is stuck. He can’t get out.”

“Well, go get maintenance and quit disturbing everyone!”

From some other stall, the hissing: “Maaayyy-ta-nensssss. Dissssturbing.”

The tall man slammed his hand against a stall door and yelled, “And you knock that shit off, asshole!”

The door slammed inward and bang back out. No one was in the stall.

A little boy, about eight, emerged from the stall nearest the door and threw a terrified glance toward Mickey and the big man before running from the room, crying, “Mom! Mom!”

While Walter continued trying to push the latch open, Mickey and the man quickly searched under stall doors.

Empty.

Mickey said, “No way was that the kid.”

The man’s Adam’s apple bounced a couple of times. “What the—?” He turned to Walter’s stall and gave the door a good shaking. “Kid? Come on out of there!”

“I’d love to, sir,” Walter squeaked.

“Jesus.” The big man stalked toward the door, calling back to Mickey. “I gotta catch this train. Call maintenance.” His face was pale.

“Mickey?” Walter called through the door. “What happened?”

“I’m not… I’m not really sure. You heard that guy mocking me, right?”

“Yeah. He sounds seriously creepy. Did he leave?”

“He…uh.” Mickey drummed his fingers on the door, the rhythm very like the William Tell Melody: badabum, badabum, badabum bum bum.

“Mickey?”

“There was no one else in here. Just the big guy, and a scared little kid.”

Missing the Ride by Paula Shablo

Seriously, don’t miss out on this and many other spine tingling stories.

Available Today!!

Volume One eBook: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08LQVYYTS

Volume Two eBook: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08LQWMXJP

Volume One Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B08LNR5SC4

Volume Two Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08LNRHJTL

The Final Farewell

The fires raged on, undeterred by heroic efforts to tamp the flames and stave off destruction.

I’m not by nature foolhardy, but when I got the reverse 911 call to evacuate, I made a stop at the cemetery gates and ran through the grounds to the marker.

I stopped short when I saw the candles were lit. Although I visited often, it had been decades since I’d lit a candle. We live in desert dryness; one did not contribute possible sparks to dry grass and trees.

The fires all around us were a culmination of my greatest fears.

 “Amanda?”

I whirled, startled. “Adam?” I cried. “What are you doing here?”

“Same thing you are, I guess.” My brother stood beside me, and we read the tributes to our parents. “I wanted to say goodbye. God knows what this place will…” He swallowed hard; I heard the click in his throat. “What it will be tomorrow.”

I blinked back tears and nodded.

“It will probably be fine,” Adam added, posturing optimism.

“So, you lit the candles?” I asked.

“What–me? No!” He looked horrified. “I thought you did. Because–”

Because who else could it be? 

“I would never–”

We stared at each other, jaws agape, then slowly turned to look at the monument we’d scrimped and saved to have erected so many years before.

The candles burned brightly in their glass orbs, backlit by the red dusk and not-so-far-away-now flickering flames. It was sweltering hot in the graveyard; could the wicks have simply combusted from the heat?

That idea was ridiculous, of course. The sconces would have shattered, I think.

After a long moment, Adam said, “I think we aren’t the only ones here who needed a final farewell.”

In unison: “We love you, Mom and Dad!”

We fled.

Soul Thief

Mother was fearful of photography. Her grandfather had taught her that it was a thief of souls; no one should submit to being photographed.

Father was a heathen (Great-Grandfather’s words) and took no stock in such nonsense. He had his photograph taken locally once a year, and lo and behold: his soul was intact as ever it had been.

“How can you be so sure?” Mother asked.

Father laughed and replied, “I’m still the nicest guy you know, aren’t I?”

Father was nice. He never argued with Great-Grandfather when the old man told us to turn our faces if we ever saw anyone point a camera our way.

He never argued with Mother about it, either. His parents had gifted them with a photography session for the occasion of their wedding. Mother didn’t decline the gift, but wore a thick lace veil over her face and closed her eyes.

That photograph looks like my father married a ghost.

Mother was beautiful, but the only other image of her is a drawing my brother did as a gift for Father. He treasured it all his life.

One fall, we begged to go with Father for his photography session. I was fascinated with photographs; I wanted one of myself. I was insistent; naturally, my sister wanted what I wanted.

Great-Grandfather, unwilling to outright forbid it, fashioned us masks to wear for protection from the soul-thief.

Imagine our glee when we saw the giant pumpkin masks he’d made for us! We were delighted.

The photographer was horrified.

Still, he posed us professionally; behind our masks, we closed our eyes tightly. Just in case.

Decades later, my daughter laments, “The only photo from your childhood, and it looks like a Halloween greeting card!”

She’s a photographer and steals my soul on a regular basis.

Hidden Places Part 6

For all future references, let it be known: What Morty wants, Morty gets.

Penny got pissed the other day. That’s the start of this whole thing, right there. Vance has a way of getting under her skin, that’s all. She’s been on-again, off again mad at him for years. She knows it; she tries to will it away; she can’t.

She said it herself: there’s got to be someone to blame. It’s not Vance’s fault, but he’s the handiest target. In Penny’s mind, he was the father, and he should have been there to save his family. He got to the party too late, that’s what she says. And her mother died.

Mae, now– she’s never been angry at their father, or blamed him. But, like she says, she didn’t have to deal with the same level of stress Penny did.

I call bullshit about that. She was right there, helping Penny the whole time. Penny says so, too. She doesn’t try to take credit; she always gives Mae props. But Mae doesn’t see it that way. She says Penny had things to deal with and do that Mae had no part of, because she was the oldest and she took responsibility for the younger girls.

Mae never blames her dad, but she doesn’t give him a lot of credit for saving them, either. She just loves him anyway, even if he did come late to the party.

Vance is still late to the party, I guess. He decided, the other day, that it wasn’t such a good idea for his girls to be spending so much alone time with Morty’s wards. That would be Sid and me. Dale, their grandfather, agreed with him.

Goofy old men. How did Sid put it? Oh, yeah. “That ship has sailed.”

It was all so dumb, anyway. When we go out to hunt, or to salvage, we do it. You have to be alert out there in the woods. We’re not crazy.

(Okay, sometimes we’re crazy. We’re only human.)

Anyway, Penny was pissed. She hates Vance telling her what to do. She didn’t argue–none of us did (out of respect for Dale, not Vance)– but she was hot. That’s the reason we wandered so far from our allotted hunting zone, which led us to the culvert, which led us to the bridge that led us to Bolt Man-Camp.

Of course, we had to get Morty involved.

He’s the one adult in our camp that we all trust to keep things under his hat until the right time. He’s not so old, you know, not really old enough to be a father to Sid and me; but he has been “Da” to us all these years, anyway. We kind of set our sights on him. Vance was okay, and so was Dale, at least enough so that we call him Gramps, but they weren’t the right fit.

I can’t explain it. All I can say is, we needed him, and he needed us. We’re a family.

I admit, I was really envious of Sid when Mort let him go down into the little town to explore, and I was really impressed that they snuck in there in broad daylight, and none of us could keep track of them until they wanted to be seen.

On the upside–for me, at least–Da promised he’d teach me next. I like the idea of making myself too small to be seen.

There were papers in that town, and that’s how we found out that Bolt had some sort of refinery business going on, with derricks and all. But we didn’t have time to go find them then, because there was no way Mort was going to have us traveling back to our camp in the dark.

Morty, like us, doesn’t like to reveal things until he has the whole picture. Also, he might not admit it, but he likes an adventure as much as we do, and there’s not all that much adventure to be had around here.

He took me with him to meet with Dale and Vance.

Gramps is one of the elders–that’s what Penny calls them when she talks to the little kids. The elders were a group of people who had enough foresight, intelligence and money to build this camp. They knew something bad was happening in the world and wanted to make a safe place for their families. Over the years, they bought up land, built big bunkers, stored fuel and food and cultivated sources for water and power.

Still, they were almost taken by surprise. I believe the only reason we all ended up here just in time for the world to go up in smoke is because Penny’s mom didn’t show up with the girls for a 4th of July picnic.

But that’s a whole other story.

Let’s just go with this: Dale is one of the leaders here, and Morty doesn’t just decide to go off somewhere with a bunch of kids without talking to the leaders. Vance is Mae’s dad, but he’s also a leader. Penny does and doesn’t agree that he’s qualified, depending on her mood. He is, though. (Even if he was a little slow figuring out that we didn’t ever consider his daughters our sisters or cousins. I don’t have a girl of my own, but I’m old enough now to figure that he had a big case of wishful thinking.)

“I’ve got a bee in my bonnet,” Morty said, accepting the small glass of soda Vance offered.

We still manage to find soft drinks in different places. A lot of them have gone flat, but they’re still sweet and therefore a treat.

Vance poured the rest of the can into a glass for me, and I sipped gratefully. Slow and easy, making it last. There were bubbles. It was great.

“What’s this bee?” Gramps asked.

“Summertime,” Morty said. “I’m feeling nostalgic. I want to go camping.”

“Camping?” Vance scoffed. “We basically camp every day.”

“No way,” Morty said. “I want to fish in a stream, cook over a fire and sleep under the stars.”

“That’s not very–”

“Safe? When are we ever safe, Vance? Really safe, I mean. The world could blow up tomorrow.” Morty shrugged. “I want to have a little recreation time. Explore a little. Ride the dirt bikes. Slowly and carefully, of course,” he added hastily.

“I suppose you want to take my girls with you?” Vance asked.

“Hey, separate tents!” Morty assured him. “One for the girls, one for the boys, and me–under the glorious star-filled sky! Chaperoning.”

Gramps, bless his heart, was grinning widely. I think he likes to see Vance squirm. He and Vance get along fine, but Vance did fail to save his daughter, and I sometimes think he has as much trouble as Penny with that. Even though nothing was his fault, of course.

Poor Vance.

“Ah, let ’em go, Vee,” Gramps said.

“Shouldn’t there be more than one chaperone?”

Morty glared. “Why? You think all of a sudden I can’t handle these kids?”

Vance raised his hands in mock surrender. “No, no.” He heaved a great sigh. “Matter of fact, you’re the only one they seem to mind.”

Dale drummed his fingers on the table, thoughtful. “I’m not crazy about the dirt bikes,” he said. “Wouldn’t a couple of the four-wheel ATVs be a better choice?”

Morty shook his head. “We’re heading west, I think, and the terrain might be rough. I don’t trust those damn things not to tip over.” He shrugged. “I might drive one myself,” he added. “Pull a little trailer behind with our food and gear. But these kids don’t have any experience with them.”

“I agree,” Vance said. “Even Dawn has ridden the dirt bikes–and it’s a chore to get her outside to do anything.”

Dawn is very quiet. She likes to be in the fallout shelter most of the time. We were all pretty surprised when she came along with us in the first place.

“She’s excited about this,” Morty told them. “It’s good to get her out sometimes.”

“Too bad we don’t have the ingredients for s’mores,” Gramps mused. “Hell, I’d go with you myself for that!”

“What’s s’mores?” I asked.

They all sighed and looked wistful. “Camping treat,” Gramps said. “Better than Grandma’s cookies.”

“No way!”

“True story,” Morty assured me.

~~~~~

So it was that we ended up loading a little utility trailer with two tents, sleeping bags, some dry and canned goods and water, plus cooking utensils, a couple of axes and our rifles. We helped Morty hitch it to a four wheel all terrain vehicle.

We all gathered around the table that night, chattering excitedly about the trip, keeping our voices down. Dawn had made some small, preliminary map sketches that we all admired and studied, planning as well as we could.

The next morning, Morty fired up the ATV and led the way out of camp by way of the little-used dirt road. We hadn’t gone that way on foot, of course, but he didn’t want to arouse suspicion, and we could always circle our way back and over to the culvert we’d discovered.

We six kids followed him on our dirt bikes. Sid rode a bigger bike, anticipating riding double with Morty when we went into the valley to check out the derricks and refinery. That would depend on the condition of the roads, of course. We had no idea what we were going to find.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am always a little surprised at how fast you can get places when you ride instead of walking. Even though we weren’t racing along at what Morty calls “highway speeds”, we made excellent time. It wasn’t even lunchtime by the time we arrived at the little house we planned to spend the night in.

Along the way we’d encountered some wild turkeys, and Sid managed to net us a couple of plump hens. We built a barbeque pit with a spit in front of the house and roasted those birds to tasty perfection, after the initial chore of cleaning and plucking was done.

“There’s a reason we eat more eggs than chicken,” Mae complained. “Birds are just gross!”

So said my love, but I noticed she didn’t turn down dinner.

(She’s not wrong, though. Cleaning birds is worse than anything.)

Penny was thoughtful during the meal, and when we were finishing, she turned to Morty and asked, “Are we really setting up the tents, or should we sleep inside?”

“Inside,” Dawn replied, before Morty could even open his mouth. I wasn’t surprised. She’s always more comfortable inside. I don’t mean physically comfortable; she’s timid, and walls make her feel safer. That she was with us at all was a minor miracle.

Mae grinned. “A real house, Dawnie!” she cried. “We should do some cleaning, though, if we really are going to sleep in there. It’s dusty.”

I snorted. Dusty was an understatement. We had left some deep footprints in there.

Morty frowned. “Girls,” he said, “We didn’t come out here to take up housekeeping.” He held up a hand to stop the protests he anticipated. “Not today, at least. If we find what I hope we’ll find, then…who knows?”

Penny grinned. “Let’s clean up this mess, at least. We don’t want to come back and find a pack of wild dogs eating up the camp.”

Dawn squared her shoulders resolutely. “Well,” she declared, “if I’m drawing the maps, I guess I can’t hang out in the house while you go down there.”

“That’s my girl,” Danny grinned.

Mae shrugged. “We’d need a broom, in any case. I don’t remember seeing one anywhere…”

I laughed. “As if you’d miss this!”

“Not a chance.”

We all went to work, cleaning up the mess we’d made making lunch, pitching the tents and making a serviceable camp for the night. Morty moved the ATV close to the side of the house and we tied the tarp down tightly over our supplies.

Then we mounted our bikes. Penny rode behind Sid and Morty took her bike.

We parked at the top of the road behind the biggest house in the camp, and looked down into the tree-filled valley below. “I don’t see anything but trees,” I remarked.

This earned me a few eye rolls and a few “Duh!” remarks, but I shrugged that off. Someone has to state the obvious; might as well be me.

“Twisty road,” Sid offered, and endured his own round of eye rolls.

“We’re going in slow,” Morty stated matter-of-factly, and none of us let out a peep or allowed ourselves another roll or the eyes.

Of course we were going in slow.

To be continued…

Author’s note: This has been a long time coming, and I am sorry about that. Life and…and stuff pushed me off track.

Now it is time to get on with the story, and so we have arrived at the top of the road. What will they find going down and beyond the trees?

Where did they begin? Oh yes–right here:  Starting in the Middle of the End. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L4GM4PN

No Place for Children

Highbridge House loomed above me, and all my doubts about returning flooded me with fear.

I had hated the house on first sight. I told Mum and Dad that it was a stupid place to bring Becca. It wasn’t a good idea to put such a headstrong and rambunctious little girl in a place that was so obviously full of dangerous temptations.

Mum said, “Since when do you care about Becca?”

That was rude, and I told her so. Of course I cared about her. She was my sister, and I loved her, even if we did fight like cats and dogs most of the time.

Highbridge house was no place for children. Even I, as a child, knew that. I told them they should reconsider. I told them I didn’t like the path that led up from the road, and I didn’t like my bedroom and I didn’t like the forest that surrounded the place. Mostly, I didn’t like the roar of the river, the span of which this bridge was erected over.

But my parents were enamored of the place, and wouldn’t listen to me. They thought it was romantic. They told us it was a fairy-tale place, a magical house with a great history behind it.

Some history. It was a fortress in the past, meant to keep enemies from crossing the river that bordered two countries at war. I read all about it, later; bloodshed and heartache were the “romantic” and “magical” legacy of Highbridge.

I tried to excuse them for their ignorance. It wasn’t as if Becca did the reckless things she did in front of them. She saved that nonsense for me to deal with.

She was, rather much, a brat. And I adored her, in spite of it. Her spirits were always high, and we did have some wonderful adventures.

But the house–such a stupid place to move Becca into. It was an invitation for disaster. Her nature was such that every danger would call out to her, no matter where she was.

And my parents took her there. Highbridge.

It was high, that’s for sure. And wouldn’t you know it, she wanted to climb up on the side railing and walk it like the tightrope walkers we’d seen in the circus the summer before.

I begged her not to. I threatened to tell, but I was too afraid to leave her alone as she put one foot in front of the other. I could barely breathe, let alone scream, so I went to and fro between her and the door, back and forth, pleading with her to please, please get down.

“Be quiet, Willow!” she snapped at me. “You are interfering with my concentration!”

She executed a fancy about-face, teetered a bit and regained her balance. Time had stood still for me for the few seconds she’d wavered, one foot in the air, and I turned tail and ran for the door. “Mum! Come quick!”

“Tattle-tale!” Becca yelled.

I turned back. It looked as if she would obey me, now, and was going to get down. But–

–in the last second, she went over the edge. I shrieked. “Becca! No!”

She was found fifty feet below Highbridge House, impaled on a tree limb. Her body swayed in the breeze, thirty feet over the raging river.

I was so angry, but I held my tongue when I most wanted to say, “I told you so.” I didn’t say it when they removed her body. I didn’t say it at the funeral. I didn’t say it at any time afterward.

But Mum knew how I felt each time she turned around to find me staring at her. Not even a month passed before she followed Becca’s path from the railing to the forest below.

Dad sent me away to school. I hadn’t want to go, and pleaded to be allowed to stay with him. But he was wallowing in guilt, and insisted I leave. I begged him to go with me and leave this awful place forever, but he refused. So I had gone away, alone, and I had never come back.

Until today.

He visited me at school. We took holiday trips. We met for dinners in the city.

I begged him time after time to sell the place, but he insisted he had to stay.

As he grew older, I hired help for him, but there was no way I was going back to stay myself. I had children and grandchildren to protect from the dark reaches of the place.

This morning his housekeeper called and told me she’d found Dad trying to climb the railing. “How he managed to get his chair out there, I cannot say,” she told me. “He was raving about Becca and Margo, and when I wheeled him inside, he cried and carried on so! Said he promised to join them, Miss Willow.”

He’ll be angry with me when these nice young men in their clean white coats go in there to take him away, but it won’t be the first time we’ve disagreed. It will just be the first time he’ll have to believe that I’m right.

I stand at the bottom of the path with the housekeeper and watch as they wheel a stretcher up, up, up to the door, and hope he’ll still be speaking to me tomorrow.

Highbridge Ghosts

Highbridge House loomed above me, and all my doubts about returning flooded me with fear.

I stood among the soldiers, defiant. I would not go through this again. I cried out:

“Do you find it charming? Romantic? Magical? I assure you, it is not.

“Bloody battles took place here in this fortress, this garrison against intruders who would cross the raging river below and enter the land of the Elven Tribes.

“I lost my brothers here, and friends and companions I can no longer count. We never stood a chance, and yet we persisted, trying to cross, compelled by an insatiable greed for riches we’d never seen. Rumors drove us; stories; ideas; nothing more.

“Isn’t that always the way with war, being driven by ideological flames, the sources for which one is never certain of? Bodies dropped by the hundreds off that bridge, and for what? I heard it was gold; I heard it was silver; I heard there were beautiful women held captive by Elven warriors who would repay their rescuers with undying love.

“I alone managed to cross that day, and into the Elven lands I rode a weary stead who soon dropped dead beneath me.

“There was no treasure. There were no women.

“Worse still, there were no Elves.

“Before me was nothing but desolation, destruction and despair. Birds did not sing. No blade of grass grew.

“I made my way down river and found a crossing place, after miles of nothing. And when I got back, you were waiting.

“Now you bring me here again, and I’m telling you: don’t attempt it. The battle ahead cannot be won. The warriors who guard this place are already among the dead.”

I watched wearily as new companions tried to take Highbridge House. They wouldn’t listen. You cannot defeat ghosts.

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by a Prompt from Writers Unite! and I was delighted to find that I could tell it in the “No more than 300 words” format.

Still, some prompts trigger more than one story, and so I wrote another, unrelated tale that broke the word count rules. It will be shared in the next post.

Walking Away

The photo she held in her hand spoke of simpler times, now long gone.

“We took the park path often, moving through the grass and trees from the subway station to our home on the far side of the city park. The kids loved the walk, and they loved that I would let them lead the way, staying behind just enough so they could feel like ‘big kids’.”

She passed the photo to me, and I looked at the retreating backs of a boy and girl walking up a path. “I had dozens of these on my phone, some from every season.” She reached for her treasure, and I returned it. “This is one of the last, and I had it printed only the day before…” She swallowed hard, and there was a long pause before she continued. “How could I know they’d be walking away from me?”

“Did you see what took them?” I asked. “I mean–“

She had already told me she never saw them again after the first explosion.

She worked a swing shift and then they’d spend the night at her mother’s–the wonderful, magical babysitting grandmother–before going home in the morning. Otherwise, she’d never get any sleep.

In the mornings they would catch the subway and go home for a few hours. Grandmothers need rest, too. And she liked her little place and the chance to have her kids to herself for a while each day.

She stared at me with empty eyes. It was a creepy thing, seeing eyes so devoid of light and life; she almost appeared to be dead. “I don’t know that they were taken,” she whispered. “I only know they were gone. I looked everywhere!”

The first explosion that hit the city tore through the park, lifting huge mounds of soil up through the sod, knocking down trees and uprooting bushes, leaving gaping holes here and new hillocks there.

I had been through there, too, coming from a different direction. We were pretty far apart when it happened, but what we saw and felt was comparable. By the time we met up, we had both been searching through rubble, running, climbing and crawling through the ruin of a once lovely park and looking for those we loved.

For me, it was my Great Dane, Maximus. His leash was jerked out of my hand, and I went flying through the air and landed in a tangle of tree roots and soil. By the time I had extricated myself, Max was nowhere to be found.

For her, it was the children, a boy just shy of his 3rd birthday, and a girl 21 months old.

We met among the debris and we searched together. The ground had opened up beneath her feet and she’d had to claw her way out of a 10-foot-deep crevasse, calling for the kids to stay back from the edge and praying that the next explosion wouldn’t bury her alive.

The cracked area was about 50 feet long, and we made our way from one end to the other multiple times, craning over the edge to see if they’d fallen in, or if Max had.

Oddly, the sidewalk was intact along the north side of that, and she insisted they were on the path, they were all on the path, and she’d stepped off to the side for just a moment to wipe horse manure off her shoe into the grass.

“Grass just works better, you know?”

I nodded. I wasn’t necessarily agreeing with her–I haven’t ever stepped in horse shit–but it seemed like the polite thing to do.

“The kids were just ahead of me. They weren’t running or anything. I had eyes on them until I just–dropped!” She looked at me, and I saw a flicker in her eyes. “What made you think they were taken?”

“I–” Well, how to answer that, I did not know. “I don’t know what to think,” I admitted. “Maybe it was wishful thinking. That someone took them to…to somewhere safe.”

Maybe. It was better than thinking they were in that fissure of earth, buried.

Or…

We’d found bodies. Bodies, plural; plenty. And a couple had been children, but they were older.

When we made it out of the park, finally, we were going to go to her house. It was a pile of rubbish, but we searched it was well as we could, hoping the kids might have gotten home.

No one was there, or anywhere nearby. I mean, no one. We knocked on doors, hollered in the street, ran to and fro. Nothing and no one.

I had given up on Max–if he was alive, he’d have headed back to my place. He wouldn’t be here, so far from home.

I was only there because of her. I was only there because of the photo, and those haunted words: “They were only walking in front of me. How could I know they’d be walking away from me?”

She believes that; they were walking away.

I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe we will find them. I want to believe someone took them to a safe place, and we will find them.

I see it in her empty eyes, though. She believes they are gone, and without them, she will be gone soon, too. In her empty eyes I see that they were the only reason she had to live.

There are so many questions: What caused the explosions? Where were all the people? Who is there to blame for this?

But none of those are as important as this one: where are the children?

Maximus, I hope you’re okay. But I have to go on with her now. You find us if you can, boy.

We have to find the kids.

Author’s note: The picture is a prompt from Writers Unite! and it called for a 300 word story. I don’t take instruction well, clearly.

Everything We Knew

Ominous black clouds hovering over the city in early morning portended the day ahead.

See how I used that word. “portended”? That word was on the vocabulary list this week. The last vocabulary list I will ever get, by the way.

So, big whoop-dee-doo, I know the word. And I’m using it because it fits with the rest of my story, which is the story of The End of Everything We Knew.

We left the underground–that’s the subway station’s security team living quarters, to anyone who doesn’t know–early this morning, just like we do every school day. We go up and out to the surface with Dad, take the bus to school and in the afternoon, he shows up there to ride the bus back with us.

Dad calls this “Banker’s Hour Privileges”. Jake and I call it embarrassing, but what can you do? The city is full of awful people; we’re just kids, and we know that. He can’t go with us in the morning, so we have to text him as soon as we get to school.

Well… we had to.

I looked out at the city as we left the subway entrance. Low-lying black clouds hovered over the skyscrapers, and I sighed. Surely it would be raining hard before noon, and there went my plans for any practice on the soccer field before Dad met us.

Dad kissed and hugged us as he put us on the bus this morning. It’s something he has always done, and sometimes it made me feel babyish and embarrassed, but I’m happy at the same time.

Especially tonight. Jake is, too. It’s the last hug and kiss from Dad we’re ever going to get. We kissed and hugged Mom before we left, too. She works the underground, so she’s…I don’t know.

I don’t know anything.

Jake and I usually don’t sit together on the bus; we both have friends who sit with us, and so he was across the aisle from me. I was sitting in the aisle seat and my friend Monica was by the window. Jake’s friend Stan was by the other window.

When the bus stopped suddenly, Jake and I and some other kids were thrown to the floor. The windows all exploded seconds later, and the kids who were by them were…awful.

I had landed on my back, and Jake landed on top of me, knocking the breath out of me. Still, when Monica’s head rolled off the seat and bounced off Jake’s backpack, I managed an admirably loud scream.

I looked over in time to see the rest of Monica slide down the seat and onto the floor, blood spouting from the neck where her head had been attached seconds before.

I shoved Jake up and off of me, sitting up quickly to avoid being bathed in her blood. Jake was crying, his breath hitching alarmingly, and I saw that his hair was full of broken glass. I needn’t have concerned myself about blood–we were both covered in it, and God alone knew whose it might have been.

Stan still had his head, but he was as dead as Monica. We were surrounded by dead people. The few who were still alive were moaning and crying, bleeding and battered.

I pulled Jake into my arms. “Is it your asthma?” I whispered, alarmed by his breathing.

“No,” he replied. I believed him; he’s the best judge of his own symptoms. “I’m just…God! What happened?”

He’d felt the thump of Monica’s head when it bounced off him, and I thanked God or Jesus or whoever that he was still wearing his backpack when that happened. He hadn’t seen it, and I held him close to me to keep him from turning his head. He wanted to look at Stan; Monica’s head had come to a rest between the dead boy’s feet.

“I don’t know what happened,” I admitted. “But I think we need to get off the bus now.”

“But, Stan–”

“Stan is gone now,” I told him gently, then quickly turned his head away when he tried to look. “No, don’t! Better not to…not to look.” I gulped, my mouth suddenly full of saliva. I knew I was in imminent danger of tossing my cookies, and I didn’t want to do that. “Monica is gone, too.”

Jake took a couple of deep breaths, blinking rapidly to fight back more tears. With a determined look on his face, he nodded at me. “Let’s go.”

We were closer to the back than the front, so we crawled and pushed our way over passengers, some living, some so far gone they might have to backtrack to get to heaven. We tried not to look, but that was impossible.

All I can say is, at least they were strangers. It was bad enough seeing Stan and Monica; I didn’t want to look at another familiar face, not under those conditions.

By the time we reached the back, a couple other surviving passengers had pushed the door open. A woman helped us get down to the ground–I swear, she was seven feet tall! Her lips had been painted in stripes of black and hot pink, and the lipstick had smeared, but her pink mascara was flawless. She hadn’t cried at all, even though she had a nasty gash in her thigh. I couldn’t stop staring at it after she set me down. The flesh had separated and gaped, showing muscle and sinew and bleeding veins–or arteries, who knows?

Up one side, and down the other, veins here, arteries there.

Did I really need to think about anatomy at a time like this? Was I one sick puppy, or what? And was that even right? God, I felt sick!

The man with her was easily over six feet tall himself, but he looked short standing next to her. He swung Jake to the ground, setting him on his feet carefully. Jake teetered a bit, and the man asked, “Gonna fall, son?”

“No,” Jake replied. “I’m fine. Thank you.” He put his arms around my waist, pushing his hands under my backpack to manage it. I swallowed hard, still fighting a rising gorge.

The tall woman reached up into the bus and helped an old woman out. She looked to be about a hundred, and was no bigger than a minute; not even as tall as I, and I’m pretty short for my age.

I pulled away from Jake, urgently moving toward the sidewalk, the nearby clump of bushes, but I didn’t make it. I puked in the gutter, and groaned with embarrassment.

“Better out than in,” the old woman said. Her voice was high and sweet. “Best to let it go, lass.”

“Mmm.” I nodded, but didn’t dare speak. Not yet. I hurried to the bushes and let it go. Jake followed but didn’t hover too closely.

When I turned back, I could see that a couple of kids and a middle-aged man had gotten out the front of the bus. The little girl, who might have been as old as eight, had a big gash above her eyebrow; she kept wiping blood out of her eye as the wound bled copiously.

The boy had a considerably fat lip that was oozing blood. He looked…crooked, somehow. I realized, with a start, that he was a classmate of mine.

He must have realized the same thing at the same time, because his eyes widened and he asked, “Stella? That you?”

“Yes, Paul. Are you–?” I was going to say “okay”, but it was such a stupid question that I didn’t finish it.

He barked a pained laugh. “I think I dislocated my shoulder.”

Ah. That would explain the crooked look of him.

We stood beside the bus comparing wounds, a rag tag crew of seven.

The tall woman was Dale, and her friend was Ted. She sat on the step inside the bus door while Ted tore strips from his t-shirt and bound the wound on her leg. I watched for a brief moment, but when he started pushing things together, I decided it would be best if I didn’t throw up again, and moved away.

The old woman was Grace. She found a pashmina in her bag and used it to wrap the little girl’s forehead wound. “What’s your name, honey?” she asked as she wound the cloth around and around, until she’d fashioned a bright turban.

“Julie.” The little girl was pale, but didn’t fuss. She was younger than Jake, who is ten, but as soon as her head was wrapped, she sidled over to stand with him.

The middle aged man turned out to be a teacher, Mr. Scott, who taught at the high school across from the K through 8 we attended.

An explosion rocked the ground beneath our feet, and we all found ourselves laying belly-down. “We need to get off the street,” Dale said.

“We can go to the subway,” I suggested, and we all began to hurry toward the nearest entrance. Even as we ran, we could see other people joining the trek, like-mindedly seeking shelter underground.

But when we got there, the entrance was jammed with people, and Jake and I could plainly see that the gates had been lowered and locked. We exchanged meaningful looks; we’d lived below our whole lives, and we understood the protocol. It all came down to preserving the resources for the local population.

Jake gulped. Moving close to me, he whispered, “Will they look for us?”

“How?” I countered, just as another explosion rocked the city. “If they’ve locked down, no one is coming out for anything.”

“Can we get to Dad?”

We pushed our way out of the crowd and back to the curb, and I studied what was left of the street. Cars were off the roadway facing every direction; some had overturned. Busses were stalled or wrecked. Trains were derailed.

Injured people staggered everywhere, looking like zombies on the prowl. My blood ran cold with the very thought of it–zombies!

I shook the image off and looked at the pleading face of my little brother. “We’d have to walk,” I said. “It’s far. And…and if he’s alive, he would come looking for us at the school.”

“That’s where we should go, then,” Jake said. His tone was reasonable, but his eyes were dark with fear.

Mr. Scott was nearby, and had overheard. “It’s not far,” he said. “But we should find a way to get off this street and make our way.”

“To where?” Dale asked. Our little bus group had reassembled with ease, and for some reason I found that calming.

“The school. Provided it hasn’t been overrun by…by…”

“Yeah,” Ted agreed. “By whoever.”

Mr. Scott led our group off the street and through a park, and that should have been easy–cutting our way through bypassed several turns and stops the bus would have made. But it wasn’t easy.

Explosions continued, for one thing. But it was weird–we could see the destruction: overturned park benches, uprooted trees, heaved areas of lawn with gaping cracks and piles of soil–but we never saw anything that looked like a bomb.

“What has happened here?” Miss Grace demanded, her sweet voice now shrill with fear. “Are there land mines?”

No one bothered to answer, because no one knew what the answer was. There were plenty of bodies, but none appeared–to me, at least–to have been blown up by some sort of bomb.

I mean–if you step on a land mine, you’d be blown to bits, right? Or at least lose a foot or leg, I imagine.

The bodies we saw were…er…complete. You know, whole. Not parts.

This is hard. Writing this down is hard. It hurts somehow, remembering what we saw today.

When we finally made it through what was left of the park–dodging humped up piles of sod, climbing over fallen trees if we couldn’t get around them, skirting bodies–hours had gone by. We were sweaty, filthy and exhausted.

Paul had been lagging behind and needed help; his dislocated shoulder made it nearly impossible to climb over the trees and debris. Dale was as strong as she was tall, and in spite of the gash in her leg, she was moving pretty well. She helped Paul get over and through, and when she needed help herself, Ted stepped up to the task.

She didn’t need help often; she’s one tough lady.

I couldn’t help but notice that the bandage on her leg was soaked with blood, though. Her face was chalky, and her makeup job was pretty much sliding off her face in a mixture of sweat and tears. Her eyes were red; that’s how I decided she’d finally cried.

And why shouldn’t she? Everyone else has certainly shed some tears today, and we’re entitled. Mostly, though? I would say we’ve been a strong group.

Mr. Scott remarked that we’d be able to deal with injuries better if we could get inside. As we came through the last few yards of the destruction that used to be a beautiful city park, we could see that our school was damaged and nearly unrecognizable.

The high school appeared virtually untouched.

We approached cautiously. At this point, we had no idea if anyone was inside, and if there were people–well…would they be our people?

Mr. Scott led us to a back entrance. It was locked, but he had the key. We slipped inside and found ourselves in the hall near the boys’ locker rooms. A little further down the hall was the door to the gym.

“The gym is the designated shelter,” Mr. Scott told us. “It’s where everyone is supposed to go in case of tornado or hurricane…”

“Or bombing,” Paul whispered.

As we made our way to the gym, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so scared. Jake was squeezing my hand so hard I thought my fingers would break, but I didn’t say anything; I would have done the same if I was holding on to anyone else.

I think we all expected the gym to be full of people; there were fewer than a dozen. There were a couple of teenagers, and some grownups.

No one spoke; I think those people had been too shocked to do anything, but Mr. Scott and Ted went to work barring the doors right away, and a couple other men joined them.

There was some quiet conversation then, but we’d seen and heard enough by then, I guess. We all huddled together; scared children actually striving to be unseen and unheard for the time being.

Jake, Paul, Julie and I all moved away from the older people and now we’re sitting between the wall and the bleachers. I had to write this all down–I felt seriously compelled to leave some record in case something happens soon.

But it’s hard. I’d like to write something hopeful or profound, but I’m just a dumb, scared kid with a lot of questions and no answers. I don’t know if Daddy will find us, or if anyone else will. I don’t know these people–what if they turn out to be…not good?

I suppose at some point someone will help Paul with his shoulder and check Julie’s head. Jake and I, by some miracle, aren’t hurt.

I suppose at some point we will have to look for food. Not yet–we all feel sick and scared. But sometime soon we will need to eat.

The power is still on, but God knows for how long. Jake is laying across my lap; I’m using him as a desk while I write and he sleeps. Paul’s head is on my shoulder, and Julie has curled herself into a ball against my side, pressed right up to the wall on one side and Jake’s legs on the other. She’s little; she fits.

I’m squashed and I should feel claustrophobic, but instead I feel insulated, so that’s fine.

I remember Dad kissing us goodbye before we got on the bus.

I remember kissing mom before we left the subway station underground.

I wonder, uselessly, if I will see them again.

I look at Jake’s sleeping face. He looks haunted, even in his sleep.

What are we supposed to do now?