Trouble, Trouble, Trouble

September 2020’s short story of the month

She kept pacing the living room, back and forth, back and forth, not saying a word. It would have been easier if she had just come out and told us how disappointed she was, announced our punishment, and sent us to our rooms. But she wanted us to apologize, or explain, or something.

Finally, I couldn’t stand the silence any longer and I slammed my fists on the table. “It’s not fair,” I said with all the righteous indignation a ten-year-old could muster. “It wasn’t my fault. It was her idea,” I added, pointing at my sister Angela.

“No way,” Angela said, shaking her head back and forth. “It was her fault,” she added, pointing down the couch to our youngest sister Tilly. (Her name was actually Matilda, but she hated that name).

Tilly stuck her hands in her armpits and also shook her head. “Nope. No way,” she said.

I knew what was going to happen. I was going to get blamed. I was the oldest; I always got blamed. Dad jokingly would call me a ring leader, but not this time, it wasn’t even my idea.

********

Earlier that day

It wasn’t looking good. It was raining, and our aunts were visiting, which means we were stuck inside with our boring cousin Malcom. Malcom was the biggest tattle tell in all of creation. We could never do anything fun with him around.

So far, we couldn’t get him to leave us alone. He followed us like a puppy, except he was a stinky whiney annoying puppy.

“Why don’t you stay here in the library with Malcom?” I whispered to Tilly. “You guys can read books and color and baby… I mean, maybe, you’ll have fun.” I was trying to convince Tilly to give up her day so at least Angela and I could have fun. She wasn’t falling for it.

“No way,” she said, shaking her head. “I want to go with you two.” She crossed her arms and planted her feet. There was no way I was changing her mind.

“What about you Angela?” I looked at her pleadingly.

“No.” Angela shook her head and had the same stubborn look that our mother always did when we weren’t going to change her mind. “Why don’t you hang out with him, and Tilly and I will go off to play in our room?”

“No way,” I said. “He’s a baby.”

“That’s why we don’t want to play with him either,” said Angela.

Malcom was younger than any of us. He wasn’t actually a baby, but he was a snitch. We could never use our magic when he was around. He always told our mother. And the day was wasting away. We rarely got a whole day without our mother supervising us, and spending our free day with Malcom was unbearable. And that’s when I got a wonderful idea.

“What if we make it so that he can’t leave this room?” I asked.

“What?” asked Tilly and Angela at the same time.

“We magic the room. We can lock the doors. Or freeze him. Or stick him to the floor. There are lots of ways we can do it.” I smiled from ear to ear. I was so proud that I’d thought of a way around our cousin problem.

My sisters, however, didn’t look happy. They both had furrowed brows and were looking at me like I was crazy.

“We can’t use magic on him,” said Tilly.

“We could get in trouble by the council,” added Angela. “It’s forbidden to use magic on other casters without being licensed.” She shook her head.

They were right. We would get in more trouble than we could handle if we magicked our cousin.

“Okay. Do you two have any better ideas then?” I asked them. I started tapping my foot impatiently. We really were wasting our whole day with this.

“What if we just tell him he has to stay here?” said Angela.

“He won’t listen to us,” I said.

“We can say his mother said he has to stay here,” added Angela.

It wasn’t a horrible plan, but it might not work. We had to do something though.

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.” I leaned in and lowered my voice so they would move closer. We were in this together. “I’ll tell him, and then we leave quietly. No bolting. He’ll suspect. Once we are out of the room and down the hall, we’ll make our way to the foyer and then we’ll run to our room and lock the door.” I paused hoping they were taking it all in. “And, if he comes knocking, we don’t answer.”

They nodded in agreement.

Within five minutes, we were in our room with the door locked. We went straight to work building the best rainy-day fort out of every blanket and sheet we could find. We used magic to make them float exactly where we wanted them. We spent the rest of the afternoon in that fort casting light spells. We each would summon a tiny ball of light no bigger than a firefly and send it floating throughout the enclosed space. By the time our mother caught us several hours later, the blanket tent was filled with twinkling orbs bouncing off the fabric and our noses. We were lost in fits of giggles and happiness, and we didn’t notice when our door opened and our mother’s shoes clacked on the wood floor.

And that brings us back to the living room. Our mother and her sisters finished their luncheon and discovered Malcolm climbing a book shelf in the library with no one watching him, and incidentally, my mother had tasked me with his care earlier in the day.

Our mother stopped pacing. She turned slowly to face all three of us.

“You’re all in trouble. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was. It doesn’t matter who said what. It doesn’t matter who locked the door.” Her voice was getting louder and higher the longer she listed things.

She looked in my direction and said, “I expected better from all of you.”

She clearly meant me. I sunk further into the chair.

“Malcom is family. We treat our family better.” She resumed glaring at each of us in turn.

Battlemage for Life

July 2020’s short story of the month

It felt uncanny, but oddly good, to hear kids running through the house again. I wondered if I could handle being a father, or at least a father figure, after all these years.

I thought about the times when my wife and I fought. It was always about the same thing – she hated my job. When we were young, she’d been attracted to how brave I was. At least, she said she was, but it didn’t take long for her mood to sour.

Being the wife of a battlemage was not what she wanted from life. At some point after the girls were born, she asked me to walk away and find something safer to do, but mostly something that kept me closer to home. She said she was tired of being a single parent.

I got it on some level, but being the dad to three girls was not what I’d expected either. I felt useless when I was at home, like I was in the way. They were so used to me being gone that their routine didn’t include me, and when I tried to “help,” I just ended up messing it up.

If I’m being honest though, it wasn’t just that being home made me feel inadequate. I was addicted to the fight. I tried not to dwell on those times because my wife said she could always tell when I was thinking about my glory days.

As I walked outside to the yard, I took a moment on the deck and breathed in the fresh clean air. There was no smell of sulfur or smoke from fire spells. There was no lingering tang of electricity from magical attacks. It was just fresh plant life and the clean smell of dirt. I could hear children laughing and the murmur of voices in the distance.

As I rounded the corner of the house, I spied my family sitting around a set of tables covered in dishes, food, and party favors. It was all in my honor and I was momentarily overwhelmed by it all. I hesitated.

In battle, I never hesitated. I was always sure and ready for the next attack. Battlemages didn’t usually serve very long at the front, but there were a handful of us old timers who kept coming back for more. I shook my head and tried once again to keep my mind from wandering.

As I joined my wife, our three daughters and their husbands, and my many grandchildren at the table, they all got quiet. After I took my seat in the place of honor, they all rose and started clapping. I shook my head.

This was my retirement party. I was done being a battlemage. I would stay home and be a husband, father, and grandfather full time. I should have been happy and relieved. Instead, I was anxious. I didn’t know how to fit into home life with all of these people who kept looking at me expectantly.

********

There were forty pairs of eyes staring at me expectantly. This was my moment. After the last battle, I’d been promoted to commander. I was now in charge of my own tactical unit of casters. I had a full arsenal of fire mages, weather casters, healers, and energy sappers. This was the moment every battlemage worth his mettle longed for – this was my chance for greatness.

I squared my shoulders and stood as tall as I could. “This is it. You all know your roles. Follow your unit leaders and don’t hesitate. Use your instincts. If you need to refuel, make sure you switch out quickly.” I paused looking around into each pair of eyes. I wanted them all to feel the connection, the bond that only battle can instill.

“Make me proud,” I stated as way of dismissal.

They all squared up and walked away neatly into units. The weather casters began to rise off the ground to protect and fight from above.

*********

Their eyes were hopeful and full of pride. They reminded me so much of the young men and women I’d fought alongside for so many years. There was something else though when I looked at my wife and daughter’s eyes, something that I’d never seen in the eyes of my soldiers. I didn’t know what it was.

Perhaps learning to understand these people who love me would be enough in my retirement. I didn’t know what they wanted from me, not exactly.

I cleared my throat and got to my feet.

“Thank you all for coming today.” I glanced at my wife sitting on my left. She looked relieved, as if a huge weight was lifted. I knew why she was feeling that way. I didn’t want to take that feeling away from her by discussing my fears here in front of the whole family. Instead, I said, “I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with all of you. Especially you little ones.” I raised my glass. “To my grandkids.”

“Here! Here!” Everyone said in unison. They all raised their glasses, even the littles, and drank to family.

********

After a long night of fighting, we trudged into the mess tent. As we sat around the table, no one was eating, most were just pushing their food around the plates.

We’d taken heavy loses. We were no longer a full tactical unit. We’d lost so many that we would be pulled from the front until our numbers could be replenished with new troops.

I looked around at those who remained and not one pair of eyes looked up at me. They were either staring at their food, not really seeing it, or doing their best to hide their tears from their fellow soldiers.

I raised my glass. “To those who died.”

There was a long pause, and I kept my arm raised until everyone was looking at me.

Further away, another voice said, “To those we’ve lost.”

And then another, “To our fallen brethren.”

The chants went up one after another. Before long, the entire mess tent, not just our little band, was raising their glass to the fallen.

Still Struggling

Since my last post, things have not gotten any better. This has been the worst move that my family has ever been through.

Today, as we were unpacking one of the last boxes we found my coin collection archival box, but it was empty.

The movers/packers opened my archival box, which just looks like a black cardboard binder, and took my coins.

My coins don’t have that much value — maybe between 20-40 dollars. The coins have sentimental value though. I have been collecting them since I was a child. Most of them are not even US currency. I had coins from all over the world in there.

But the ones that hurt the most are the one dollar bicentennial coin that belonged to my great-grandfather, and the coins we gave to our daughter when she thought we were the toothfairies. They’re gone. The dollar value isn’t what was important. They were important to us because they were tied to memories. And someone stole them.

So, to the mover who took my almost worthless coin collection — SHAME ON YOU.

Moving

It’s been a while since I’ve posted because my family is moving. I’ve had little time for writing and reading.

The move isn’t going to plan. In fact, nothing is going according to plan lately. Instead of being able to make thought out choices, we’ve had to just go with options that we really don’t care for. Our plans for where we were going to live didn’t work out, and now we’ll be living (for a year at least) in a townhouse that is half the size of what we had before.

Not only that, but moving is a lot of work and we will be doing it again in just one year because our plans fell through. I don’t enjoy moving.

And, other things have gone wrong and ended up costing us a lot of money that we were saving for other things. We suddenly had to ship a car, and it cost over a thousand dollars. The car was damaged and it’s going to cost over a thousand to fix it.

It just feels like nothing is going right for us. In addition to all of the stress of moving, my anxiety is getting the best of me. I am losing my mind. I don’t like the way things are working out, and I’ve never been good at making the best of things. I like things to go to plan because that means I had time to prepare.

So, I’m cranky. Extra cranky. And when I feel that way, I want to go home, to my safe space. Instead we will be living somewhere that we’ll have to put a lot of our belongings in storage. It won’t be home. It will be temporary and it will feel that way for an entire year.

I know there are bigger problems in the world right now, but I’m just tired and would like one thing to go right.

Hope everyone else is having a better summer than me.

Happy reading and writing.

Dad, Follower of Merlin

May 2020’s short story of the month

Present day…

It was odd to be in a room full of people who all seemed to look up to my dad like he was some kind of hero. A part of me wanted to see him through their eyes just for a moment. I tried to picture him as one of the Followers of Merlin. The Followers were some of the most powerful magic users in the world, and they were treated like rock stars in the magical world. Was that really how these people saw my dad?

Dad was just… Dad. He wasn’t a hero or even all that powerful. He wore socks with his sandals, and he sang oldies while he washed dishes. He wasn’t anything special.

As I moved from group to group, listening to the stories being told by the Followers, I started to see my dad in a new light. He hadn’t always been Dad. Before my sisters and I were born, and before he’d settled down with Mom, he’d been an active member of the Followers.

I stopped roaming and listened to one member tell the story of how he met my father.

“He was the fastest caster there,” the story teller said to the group around him. His anecdotal evidence resulted in a lot of head nodding and smiles. Apparently, the rest of this group had similar encounters with my father at some point.

A woman standing on my left chimed in with, “His fire bolts were hot enough to burn a tree in a matter of seconds.”

Again, there was a round of nodding.

I walked off trying to understand what I was hearing and reconcile it with what I knew of my dad.

Just that morning, my father was making pancakes and he used magic to make them into scenes from fairy tales, but that was the first magic I’d seen him use in almost a month.

My mother didn’t encourage any of us to use magic for day to day tasks, even my dad. I just couldn’t understand why the person everyone was talking about would give all that up to be a dad.

Finally, the hall lights flickered, which meant it was time for the ceremony.

I stood next to my dad while the Head of the Followers gave a speech introducing my dad and his accomplishments. Throughout the entire speech, I couldn’t help myself; I kept looking at my dad trying to see him how these people did. I just couldn’t see it.

********

Many years ago…

He chose his battle armor carefully that day. He was leaving for the front with a conclave of users. He shouldn’t be excited about going to war, but he was. He wanted the glory. He wanted the fame. He wanted to show his meddle. This was his moment.

His grey caped billowed around him as he marched proudly down the hall to find the others. His belongings were all ready packed and waiting. He could feel it in his bones; this was going to be a great time in his life.

*********

A few weeks after his arrival at the front…

He opened his eyes but couldn’t make himself get up. He was weary, so unbelievably weary. His bones were tired. He wasn’t sure if he had the will to attend to his watch that night. He just wanted to rest.

“On your feet,” the shift sergeant yelled.

He didn’t move. He stared at the ceiling.

The sergeant stepped closer to him and whispered so the others wouldn’t hear, “Come on. Get up. Everyone is tired. This is what you signed up for.” He looked down at the wizard with sympathy and moved on to get the others up.

********

A few months after that night…

“Come on men! We are finally making them retreat. Don’t lose hope now. Show me what you got. Put everything out there. Don’t try to conserve energy. Hit them with everything you have!” He was shouting as he paced in a circle in the middle of a group of weary wizards who’d been too long at battle.

This war was supposed to be over in matter of weeks, but it was trailing on and on. He’d joined for glory and fame. There was no glory here at the front, only death and blood. He’d lost count of the number of troops and wizards that had rotated through his conclave.

“The important thing to remember is that we’re winning.” The sergeant walked up behind him and placed his hand on his shoulder.

“Let me take it from here,” he whispered.

He just nodded and stepped aside. Pep talks were not his strong suit. Others followed him because his name was spreading like a wild fire. He was a war hero. A hero who wouldn’t leave the front even though he’d fulfilled his duty to crown and country. He stayed and continued to fight.

He knew what the troops were feeling. He remembered those days when he could barely move day after day. Somehow, he had managed to push through those feelings and keep going.

********

Sometime between present day and his last day at battle…

He paced in the hallway and could hear the screams again. He wanted to help but there was little he could do in this situation.

The screaming continued, broken up by sobbing. He could hear people moving about and at one point, something metal dropped onto the floor.

After what felt like ages, a door finally opened.

The midwife who popped her head out said, “You have a daughter.”

He smiled and stopped pacing. He sat down on a bench and felt weary down to his bones, but there was something else there too. He felt hope and saw a future that didn’t ask him to be anything more than what he was.

Canned Memories

February 2020 short story of the month

I didn’t cry when she died, or at the funeral, or at the reception. It wasn’t until the next morning when I went to the pantry and saw row upon row of canned vegetables, fruits, and jams she had prepared for the long winter ahead. The shelves were filled with memories of her. Canning was one of her hobbies, left over from a time when she’d learned to do it for survival. It seems strange that magic users needed to do things like canning to survive. We could snap our fingers to make fields grow, but we didn’t.

We’ve always had to hide what we were by doing “normal” things. Tough winters meant canning and stocking up for us just like everyone else to make it through the season without attracting attention. If too much fortune favored us, people got suspicious. It wasn’t that long ago in history that witch hunts were common practice. We tried our hardest to blend in.

It was exhausting.

I picked up a jar of my mother’s homemade blackberry jam. It was a blue ribbon winner at the country fair. I smiled when I looked at it labeled in her sloppy handwriting. If I hadn’t been reading it my entire life, I wouldn’t have known it said blackberry.

I wiped the tears from my cheeks before I left the pantry. I didn’t want my daughters to see me like that. I was determined to be strong in front of them. Raising three girls was more challenging than I’d ever imagined. They were grown now and that brought a whole unforeseen set of problems. Most of my parenting now was about trying to steer them towards their own futures and navigating their constant bickering. For three people raised in the same house, they were incredibly different. They reminded me daily of me and my two sisters.

They were seated now at the farm style dining table. They were all sitting on one bench and their father was on the opposite side. No one was talking. They were all staring at their cups of various hot drinks.

“I found a jar of blackberry,” I said as I placed it on the table. I gathered utensils and small plates and started making toast. As I was about to place four pieces of bread in the toaster, a wave of grief hit me.

I placed my hands flat on the counter in front of me and squeezed my eyes tightly. I took a deep breath in and then let it out slowly. After I collected myself again and reopened my eyes, I snapped my fingers and there was a pile of perfectly toasted bread on the plate in front of me.

I took it over to the table and set it in front of my girls. They all looked up with shock on their face. I was always lecturing them about using magic for things they could do themselves.

“Not today,” I said and sat down next to my husband to eat some toast with my mother’s blackberry jam smeared on it.

The jam hit my tongue, and it brought with it a swarm of memories. They flashed through my mind so quickly I couldn’t focus on a single one. Then they settled and one in particular surfaced.

I was walking with my sisters; the three of us were holding hands. We were eight, nine, and ten. It was a summer day, and the heat was all ready sweltering. Our mother had made us wear baby blue dresses for family pictures. We were supposed to stay nearby, but instead, we’d wandered off a little bit to explore while our parents had pictures of the two of them taken.

We walked away slowly at first, but once we realized our parents weren’t paying attention to us, we increased our speed and moved quickly away. We were still walking hand in hand, the three of us strung together like beads on a string.

I was in the middle and with a sister on either side of me, I felt safe even though we could no longer hear or see our parents. Our oldest sister was pulling us towards something.

“Look!” she yelled as she pointed frantically. I saw what she was pointing at — blackberry bushes. There were so many of them I couldn’t see where they stopped and the rest of the woods continued. They were laden with fruit.

My younger sister didn’t immediately seem as impressed with this discovery as me.

“These might be someone’s property,” she said. “We should go back to mother and father now.” She released my hand and placed her hands on her hips, looking very haughty for someone only eight years old.

“We’ll only have a few,” my older sister said. “I’m hungry. We’ve been out here for hours.”

She moved away from us and began to pop berries in her mouth.

I looked at her and then over at my younger sister trying to decide which side of this battle I wanted to be on.

“They’re delicious,” my sister said, berry juice was on her hands and face.

I joined her and ate berries with abandon. Neither of us paid much attention to what we were doing, and after a minute of being the odd one out, our sister joined us too. We were giggling and walking along picking berries and popping them in our mouths without a care.

“Girls!” our mother yelled.

We stopped in our tracks. That’s when I looked at my sisters. Their dresses were spotted with berry juice and their faces and hands were sticky.

My younger sister spun around quickly. “I told them not to,” she blurted out. Tears were welling in her eyes. She never liked getting in trouble.

And we were in so much trouble.

Our mother was practically turning purple. She didn’t yell at us till we got home. She pointed back the way we’d came, and we walked off silently toward the car without making eye contact with her.

That night back at home we were scrubbed until our skin was red. And then the lecture began; she sat us all down in a row on the couch. We all sat looking down at our laps. And then my younger sister, always the pragmatist, opened an even bigger can of worms.

We were all thinking it, but usually we didn’t have the nerve to question our mother, especially about magic use.

“Mom, why didn’t you just snap your fingers and make us clean again?”  

Turkey Dinner Stalemate

January 2020 Short Story of the Month

Present Day…

I stopped for a breath before cutting the turkey. I wanted to appreciate the moment. Seeing everyone there, sitting around the table, almost felt like we were a family again. But if we had been a real family, my decision wouldn’t have caused a war. I knew standing against generations would be challenging, but I thought my own family would understand. They didn’t have to agree with me, but they didn’t have to openly fight me either.

This dinner was a weird momentary truce in a cold war that I started by refusing to marry Phillip.

********

Two Years Ago…

I looked around the parking lot and saw my siblings’ cars already parked. I was the last to arrive – like usual. I slammed the door and anticipated all the grief I was about to get.

I glanced up as I walked. The sign over the diner had three letters out and two more were flickering. Why didn’t my mother just fix them? Sometimes I didn’t understand her.

All she had to do was blink and the lights would be working again. Did she think the broken ones added character? That would be just like her.

Just because I could, and no one was around, I made one of the broken ones come back on. My family hated when I used magic out in the open. They were terrified someone would see me. I didn’t care. Early on I realized that even when confronted with the truth of magic, most people refused to believe it was real. Their brains couldn’t handle it, so they ignored it.

I sighed audibly. I was dreading this meeting. My mother had said there was “big news.” I had a pretty good idea what it was about. Why couldn’t this wait till after Thanksgiving? It was only a few days away. The whole family would be gathered – it was one of our more pleasant traditions.

Maybe the rest of the family already knew and I was the last to know. That would be par for the course with my parents.

Opening the door, a bell tinkled over my head. Every person at the counter turned and looked in my direction. Every person was also a member of my family. My parents were both behind the counter. Both of my sisters and their husbands were sitting at the counter with coffee and pie. No one was eating their pie.

My mother pursed her lips as I approached. I sat on the only empty bar stool between my two sisters. They were both younger than me, but they often acted like I was younger than them because I was “less of an adult.” I was in my thirties, unmarried and without children. I was also guilty of not “settling down” – an apparently unforgivable sin among my family. They all lived here in town, but I liked to travel and moved almost as soon as I was done unpacking my last box every time.

It always surprised me how magic users were some of the most conservative backward fuddy-duddies.

My mother placed a piece of pie and a cup in front of me. My dad filled it with coffee and winked at me. I couldn’t help it; I grinned at him.

“Now, you two don’t start,” my mother said.

My dad turned his back and put the urn back on the warmer. I smiled as I added sugar and lots of creamer to my cup.

My mother didn’t waste any time.

She cleared her throat. “I’ve asked you all here because your father and I have an announcement to make.” She paused, and they held hands to show their solidarity.

“That’s right,” my dad added. “Big news.” He was grinning so big it stretched his mouth too far over his teeth. I didn’t like it when people smiled like that. They looked manic.

My sisters kept peeking at me in a not very subtle way. I whispered to them, “I can see you, you know.” They both sat up a little straighter.

My mother was intermittingly frowning and then forcing herself to smile. Whatever she was about to say, she didn’t want to.

“A match has been made,” she said looking directly in my eyes.

“No,” I said. I honestly wasn’t surprised. My family seemed to be under the impression that I just didn’t know how to look for a husband. What they failed to understand is that I didn’t want to find one.

Amongst magic users, one of the steadfast unwritten rules was that magic users married other magic users. By marrying and breeding together, magical lines became stronger. I’d all ready refused three matches over the last ten years; why did they think this one would be different?

My mother stared at my dad and motioned with her head that he should handle me. He and I always got along better than my mother and I. However, I didn’t like being handled.

********

Present Day…

“Hey!” my sister yelled at me. “Stop daydreaming and cut the turkey. I’m eating for two here.” She rubbed her belly and smiled at it.

I scowled at her. I didn’t care if she was pregnant. She didn’t have to be rude. I lifted the knife and simultaneously opened my mouth to say something. Before I could get a word out, my dad stepped up behind me and said, “Let me handle this.”

I sat down between my sisters and tried not to look at them. As I glanced at my dad, he winked at me.