Wildfire

The fire is behind me.


It burns at my back, hot enough to bring to mind the possibility of burns and blisters. I do not run. I walk down the beach, away from it, toward the old fisherman’s pier that is slowly -dependably- falling into the water. I deny the fire’s presence. I will not run.


The whole thing had started innocently enough. Not the fire of course, but the whole pile of a mess that led to it, that built the funeral pyre.


And for what?


Nothing. It’s all back there now, in that heaping confusion of golden flame.


I know what you’ll say. What you’ll think. That I’m entitled, that I got what was coming to me. I knew what I was signing up for. That success was a commodity so alluring I was willing to trade anything to get it.


But the truth is, I loved him.


I loved him and all the things that came with loving him. You want to separate it out, the knowing him and loving him from the benefits of that knowing and loving. You can’t. I won’t let you. Because it all goes together. Like the low tide and the high, separate events that collide and intersect and smash against each other in a fury that is unavoidable.


Could I have avoided it? Him? I guess so. I saw the signs of who he was so early.


When I took his order in that hotel restaurant all those years ago, I knew. Just a steak, rare, and a glass of water. Yes, that’s all.


How odd that simple order was to me, but then, how odd he was. And in case you haven’t realized, oddness can be quite a magnetic thing. It is why people pay buckets of money to dive into this ocean here and see what hides in its shadows. It is why people gravitated to him. To see the show, to make the discovery, to uncover the depths that are knowing him.


He said he loved me. Love. I knew the likelihood of it being true was small, but I drank it down in one drowning gulp. I made it part of me, this love, and decided I would build a life on it. That was, maybe, my first and gravest mistake.


Building a home on that shifting sand. Choosing it over a more solid foundation.


People like to believe that a big mistake will expose itself quickly. But that is only the case if you allow it to be exposed. I made it my business to keep it buried. He kept saying that word -love- and pairing it with his insistent push of my name into the spotlight, and I kept dumping shovel fulls of dirt over the mistake.  


The beach is cold tonight. The sand sticks to the bottom of my feet, caking between my toes and clinging to the rough skin of my heels. I instinctively pull away every time a rogue wave makes a move towards me. The water reaches me anyway, foam curving up from behind in the dark, and the snap of its cold jolts me. The fire is so far back now that the heat of it is lost.


Sirens, somewhere, distant, insistent, wreck the peace of the night and overshadow the sea sounds. Then they too are far away.


I know the whole thing was a charade for him. Alright, for me too. I knew that ours was a business arrangement from the start. A silly game for him, a serious one for me. Still, a game for both. And yet, there is, somehow, a grief to this moment. A loss of something I never actually had. A mourning over an empty casket.


He took everything from me and I gave it willingly. So why do I feel -know- that is was still stolen?


Why this sense that I never had a choice at all?


I am at the pier now, pieces of its pilings splintering and falling to the sand under my touch. Stale water drips from the rotting wood and the slightest shafts of moonlight slip through the decay above.


I’ll stop here for a while. There is no rush. I’ll allow myself to look back, but just for a moment.


The blaze is a hazy, amber glow from here. Distance tames it.


It is almost beautiful.


Almost.


I know what you think. You think I started the fire don’t you?


You’re all the same.



Martha

I know Martha.

I have walked down lonely, skinny roads that edge along impossibly green valleys in County Tipperary with her by my side. I have marvelled with her at the smell of wet, dewy grass in the hazy mornings of spring. How it is sweet in its own way, crisp and fresh and bright. It is the smell that is called green, the answer to the questions that come in the rain.

The great gray ship hovered dangerously over the pier the day she left it all behind. There was a goodbye in the air, a goodbye to those roads and valleys and wet mornings, an acknowledgment that with the scent of sea air, there was an irreversible exchange taking place. Ireland for William. William, a man from England, a man from another land and religion, the forbidden bond that had formed between them forging a future that only they would share. In America.

Martha loved him and that rewrote her story. She would walk a path that had not been marked for her. She would be the trailblazer. I helped her pack her simple bag, nodded through a curtain of tears from the dock to tell her that yes, she should go. “This reckless, wild, emotional flight is good,” I whisper. “It is what love should be. It is brave. Go.”

I held her when he died. Martha and William had just begun their lives in California, and yet, here she was. With Joseph and Leo, their two small children by her side, extravagant grief blended with harsh practicality that forced another move and took her to a little house in Newark, New Jersey. Just a couple of turns from where I live today, actually. She struggled to survive, working as a dressmaker and renting a room to another woman. I balanced the books with Martha, and even with a boarder they really didn’t balance at all. But she did her best.

Newark was a far cry from the Golden Valley, the eden-like stretch of Ireland that still visited her in her dreams, that still caught at the edges of her memory when a cool summer rain fell on the dusty streets she walked along in those heavy days. Even then, even with her world so weighed down, she carried herself with shoulders back, head high. She was Irish, proud and strong, resilient as the land that had birthed her.

And then Tipperary called her home. Or at least that’s how I imagine it went, when she died at the age of fifty-two. Her journey in America had, quite literally, taken her from sea to shining sea. But in the end, she came back to what she knew, where the wild mountain thyme grows around the blooming heather. To Ireland. I walked with her again, and we laughed because the grass smelled just the same as it had all those years ago. She was young again then.

Her courage is what drives me forward on days when I feel like quitting. She makes me trust myself to the whispers of love. She reminds me that I can survive anything, that if she could leave Ireland, surely I can take the comparatively small risks that my life requires. She whispers, with a voice that is both strong and sweet, in that brogue that I have come to love, that I am a woman born of strong women. That I would do well to carry forward their legacy and to hand it to my daughter every day I get the chance.

Martha was my great great grandmother. She lived from 1858-1910. How I love her.

 

martha.jpg

Snow

They were right about the weather.

Gray. Like a chalkboard that had been sponged down at the end of a long school week. Just the faintest drags of white in places. Haunting memories of words and numbers. In the sky, a warning. The snow will be here before the day is finished.

They, the men in the coffee shop in town, seemed to think they held sway over all things, most of all the weather. It irritated him. But then, most things tend to grate at a man who exists on the outer edges of the world.

The coffee shop and the men within it, with their tired, frizzy beards and faces that showed countless mountains and valleys in sharp relief, were his link to everything that happened outside of his own Airstream. What the eager old amateur newscasters didn’t get to, the newspaper he bought there filled in.

He spread it out now, section by section, on the rough wood of his kitchen table. Then he moved, left to right, beginning with the front page and following with sports. Sports were what he missed most. The squeak of sneakers against hardcourts, the crack of ball against bat, the tumble of men over men just short of an endzone. It was impossible to draw those sounds out of the newsprint, try as he might.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The sound was rapid, persistent. He got up, anxious for the invitation into the woods. The tree branch, a friend, was a maple. One spindly arm extending from a large trunk and leaning against his window, naked now and free in its movements. It was often what roused him and brought him outside, and for that it was considered almost human. At least, it was kinder than most humans he knew. And that was enough.

He wrapped a heavy flannel scarf around his neck but wore no coat, and the cold bit through his thermal shirt until it settled deep in his bones. He liked to feel it. He liked to feel everything these days, to feel life, a connection to something. Moving through the trees, he leaned back and inhaled the air, the scent, the woods themselves, and their embrace tightened around him. It was a thing you could feel if you knew how to pay attention.

Up ahead, a twig snapped and his attention focused in on the sound. Too large to be a squirrel. A deer? Likely. He moved as quickly forward as he could afford while preserving his silence. This was something he was desperate for and he never missed an opportunity to encounter it. A living thing with a heartbeat, something that walked and maybe even thought, though he wasn’t sure of the science behind such things. Something close to a human, but not quite.

There is a moment when you encounter one of the sweet inhabitants of a tame forest...when their eyes meet yours. There is understanding there. And he craved that understanding with his entire being.

Not far now. He was sure he was close when the sound of foot meeting earth repeated, to his right this time. He pivoted, continued his pursuit. The branches were thick and he pushed through them, one after another, gently, fatherly.

A girl.

When the final tree of separation was breached and he found the source of the sounds, he was taken by complete surprise. She wasn’t a girl really, more of a woman, although she was so tiny it was an easy mistake. Dark hair fell in soft waves to her waist and her clothes were simple. A long, blue felt coat covered most of them. He noted that a button was missing, the second from the top.

Her eyes. They were a deep honey brown, large for her face. They were kind. He knew about such things. They stared at each other in silence, taking stock of one another, absorbing the shock that comes from finding something where it doesn’t belong.

It is cold out here.

Yes.

The words broke through the sacred silence and he instantly wished he could take his back. It was foolishness, really, putting sound out into the space that was perfect in its absence. But it was done. They stood silent again, and he was impressed by her lack of awkwardness. No shifting, no fidgeting.

I have a place just back this way. You shouldn’t be out here alone. Snow is coming.

He turned and she followed, wordless, back to the Airstream. It took about five minutes, and by the time they arrived, the first whisper of snow was whistling gently through the air. Just a few specks, dust-like. He nearly disregarded them, but she didn’t. Her hand upturned, she caught one tiny piece in her palm and offered it a sad gaze. Then she closed her fist around it, as if one could capture and keep such a thing, and followed him into his home.

Home.

There had been one of those back through the miles and days, but it had burnt down in the flames of -well- all of that. Now this was it. It did well enough most days.

Coffee?

Yes. Please.

How do you take it?

A shrug. Embarrassment?

However you like it will be fine for me.

She settled onto the bench seat opposite where he usually sat and eyed the newspaper, still spread out neatly, upside down from her vantage point. One of the larger headlines threatening an impending war somewhere or other must have stood out to her, because she reached a single finger across to it and let it rest on top of the capital W. She left it there for a moment, her brow furrowed, then dragged it back along the table in the spaces between the sections.

You read this every day?

I do.

Why?

I like to know what’s going on the world. You don’t?

I know well enough without one of these.

He brought over the coffee now, black for him and in spite of her direction, lightened with milk for her. She took a sip and offered a smile of approval as he settled into the seat across from her.

Where are you from? If you don’t mind me asking.

She looked thoughtful at this, as if it were a hard question to answer. Maybe for some people it is.

Far. Very far.

Oh. Well, what brings you out here, into the woods on a day like today?

I needed to think.

She paused then, looking at him over her coffee. She still wore the coat and on closer examination, he saw that the sleeves were worn at the ends, frayed and pilled. Yet she wore it like a royal robe. There was a dignity about her. And certainly beauty. That was beyond a doubt.

I suppose you were there for the same reason.

There? He thoughts about this. The woods? Reason? Oh, right, to think, she must mean.

Yes, I guess I was.

You live here alone?

Yes. I do.

You have no family?

No. I did. Not now.

Oh.

She sipped her coffee noiselessly, closing her eyes as if it were her first cup and every drop was to be savored. When she looked at him again, it was with a compassion that bled through the air.

I have a family.

He nodded at her, acknowledging the words, not sure he wanted to hear more. At least the guys at the coffee shop were loners. He didn’t like hearing about spouses and babies and things he knew to be irretrievable once lost.

I have a son. He...he is why I am here.

Oh?

So they were going to talk about family after all.

Yes. He is very different. I shouldn’t be surprised. He is very much like his father.

Your husband?

Oh. No. My husband is not the father.

Oh.

That surprised him somehow.

How old is he? Your son, I mean.

Just twelve.

You seem young to have a twelve year old.

Not really.

She ran her finger around the edge of her mug. He had chosen his best one for her, though that wasn’t saying much. It had been made by a friend -one of those luxuries of the past life- who dabbled in pottery. He hadn’t bothered to stain it, and the creamy white moved in rough ripples over the surface.

I am anxious for him.

Your son?

Yes.

Why?

He is...he is hard to understand.

Most kids that age are.

When he speaks, it is as if he has lived a thousand lifetimes. I’m afraid I am not enough of a mother for him.

I’m sure you’re doing fine.

There were probably more words in that script, but he didn’t know them. He was not a parenting expert by any means. But she looked so shattered. He had to offer something.

Sometimes the best you can do is draw on your own experiences and offer your children what little wisdom you’ve picked up along the way.

The deep says it is not in me. The seas says it is not in me.

She murmured the words, practically singing them, like a lullaby. His arms prickled with chills and not for the first time, he wondered about this girl-woman.

What is ‘it’?

Wisdom.

Oh. Right. So you’re afraid you have nothing to offer him?

I’m afraid anything I have to offer he already has. Any word I might speak he already is.

If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re putting a lot on this kid. Unrealistic expectations can be dangerous.

Yes, you are right. But I think he will surpass anything I can imagine for him. There is a fury that ends with him. He himself is dangerous. Dangerous in the most glorious way possible. So much so that I can barely begin to understand it. So much that I-

She stopped herself, possibly because he was unable to restrain the look of skepticism slowly fanning across his face. Yet, she was so genuine. It was hard to reconcile, this woman who seemed so steady, with the words.

You have children?

Revisiting the question. Well, then. Silence fell back into the chasm that had opened between them and he didn’t rush to fill it with an answer. Finally, slowly, with gravel in his voice, he did.

A son.

Like me.

Well…

Where is he?

He lives with his mom. We...we don’t see each other these days.

How terrible.

Yes. It is terrible.

What happened?

Someone should tell her that people don’t just put a question like that out there. But then, people don’t show up in the middle of the woods every day either. Not people like her.

I made some mistakes. And now I’m paying for them.

With everything.

She knew. She saw beyond what he said to the root of the thing. That he had lost it all. All out of his own stupidity.

It is peaceful here, though.

Yes.

A place to rebuild.

Maybe. I’m not sure...I don’t know that rebuilding is possible.

Rebuilding is always possible once the storm has passed.

Has it?

Hmm?

Has it passed?

She looked around the Airstream now, as if seriously assessing the situation. He looked too, wondering what she saw in the worn, minimalist setting. Finally, when her gaze landed on the window, she stopped, and a soft smile formed wrinkles around her eyes, deeper, richer than a girl her age should have. Beautiful.

How his fury has ended.

Whose fury?

Hmm?

She looked back it him for only a moment, then gestured to what was happening outside. The snow was still barely a thought, and each spot of white against gray was distinct, countable, easily noticed. The branches stood still now, at attention, respectful of the coming storm. The sky was an ombre of grays until it was white, far above. A sun shown somewhere, though you couldn’t place it by looking. It was a gentle light.

He could feel the cold fighting its way into his little home, battling the meager systems of man, grappling for its superior position. The relentless cold.

And then her. She was more like the sun, a warmth, a steadiness. But then the wild recklessness that she released when she spoke. He was hungry for more of her. Not...not because she was a woman, but because she was somehow more than that.

The cold. His arms were starting to ache with the chill in the air. It truly was relentless. As welcome as it usually was, for some reason, here, now, he longed for relief.  

I need to grab a sweater. Do you want one?

No, thank you. I’ll be fine.

He excused himself and moved past where she sat, then through the curtain that marked his bedroom. He hadn’t brought much with him to this place, so picking a sweater was a simple task. Shrugging on one that was thick and gray and well worn, he made his way back to the kitchen.

She was gone.

The table was empty. The bench was empty. The room was…

Out the door before he could even process the decision. He hadn’t expected her to stay forever, but she couldn’t go like this. The magnetic pull he felt to her was such that to rip it apart like this left him off kilter, panicked. He moved into the woods, following the path he had taken just an hour earlier. The day was dimming with the turn of the weather and flurries now moved with purpose downward, landing on and around him.

Further in and further still, until he stood in the spot of their meeting. Nothing. He turned in a circle, slowly, scanning through branches, squinting, muttering. The snow was thick now, a rapid progression of what was promising to be a fierce storm. Returning to the Airstream, the flakes were thick and generous and he was soaked when he arrived inside.

He moved to the sink immediately, and there was her cup, washed and placed to the left of it on the counter. She had been here. She had been here.

He took it and stared at it, questioning the ivory surface that had touched her hand. Where is she? Where did she go? Why?

The knock on his door jolted him out of his interrogation and the cup fell to the ground, shattering into a dozen misshapen pieces. He moved around them and thought that, maybe, it was her.

Pulling on the knob, the door resisted for just a second and then fell inward, and there she was.

His wife.

I hope. I mean. I thought because it was Christmas, maybe.

 

The Wheel

Come in, he said. Just a dollar for a ride, twice around.

She didn’t have the dollar to spare, but she handed it over anyway. This ride was all that mattered. After it, well, she would figure that out then.

The Wheel was enormous, climbing the rungs of an inky sky, leaning against its heavy veil of darkness with the trust of a baby. It lay there, still, suspended in time, beckoning her to come. Be a part of my journey through this night.

He owned it and operated it. It, The Wheel, was in fact his life. His acquaintances, his friends, his families, all contained in a mass of steel and brass and glass. Come in, he said. Just a dollar for a ride, twice around. The words beat through his body along with his heart, routine, certain, never varied.

She climbed into the car, lifting her skirt carefully, its deep plum playing royally against the brass grates that barred the rest of the world from entrance to her little compartment. Settling into the leather cushion, she held on, and almost immediately, The Wheel jolted into motion and began to gently ascend.

Slowly, the heat of the pier gave way to the whims of the night. Cool salt air blew in towards her, gently at first and then with a certain firmness, its moisture pushing against her carefully layered clothes and her neatly arranged hair. It mingled with the world she had just left on the ground, the smells of sugar and popcorn blending with the ocean to create a scent entirely its own, the sounds of barkers and musicians fading to the background of the waves.

Leaning back against the bars, she breathed in deeply, thirstily, of the night.

She had been sick. In all the ways girls usually are. Sick of being told what to do, sick of others, sick of herself, love sick, heart sick. She had even felt a kind of motion sickness that only a girl from a tiny town can understand, that comes from watching the world whizz by in a blur. That was why she had left. No suitcase, no real plan, and very little money. She had to leave, and now, now that she was gone, she could begin to heal.

She was at the top now. This was the place she had wanted to be, the place that called her when she spotted the white lights of The Wheel far off in the distance. Like a siren song, it had lured her near, and all she had been able to think of had been this very moment, when she was on top of the world, alone in her car, separated from everyone and everything else.

The little postcard was tucked into a pocket in her skirt. She pulled it out now and looked at it, ran a thumb over it with reluctant fondness. A tear escaped before she could demand that it show some restraint, and it fell right onto the middle of the paper, distorting the image ever so slightly. It was all distorted though, wasn’t it? Everything that one picture represented...it was just an illusion. Something that didn’t really exist. And so it had to go. If she were to move on, it had to go.

There was room for her small hand between the brass bars, and she slid one out now. The card whipped in the wind, fighting her fingers, straining to ride the currents of the night. She hesitated, then she gave way to it. When it was free from her grasp, the card seemed to stand still for a second and then it floundered and fluttered its way away from her, white and stark against the darkness. It hit against the supports of The Wheel, then bounced back into the open air, then back into the spokes until she lost sight of it.

So it was gone. The last piece of a time and place that had owned her since the day she was born. She was free. Of the town that had known everything, of the trees that listened, the roads that recorded your every step, of the houses that swallowed you as a child and spit you back out a woman. It was all behind her now.

The Wheel completed its turn, and then went upwards again, slowly, giving her time and room for her thoughts. At the bottom of the second turn, she let herself off.

He was gone. The man who had told her to come in, just a dollar for a ride, twice around. She walked past the spot where he had stood and did not hesitate. Off into the night, until The Wheel was a dot on the horizon and then finally, until it disappeared completely.

The Magic

There was something magical for Yankee fans in those perfect October days of the nineties. Even after the calendar turned and the championships trickle slowed, it was still there when you walked into the old stadium. The history, the magic, the goosebumps. The hallowed ground.  

 

When I was in college, my dad and I bought a partial plan for seats in right field. That was back when the bleachers were a secret society, inaccessible from the rest of the stadium, when it was a privilege to sit among their ranks. Mets fans were persecuted mercilessly and the unsuspecting tourist in the upper deck who stood too close to the railing above the faithful were encouraged to “Jump, jump!”. For a good girl like myself, it was all terribly thrilling. I dreamed of standing up after the particularly politically incorrect version of the YMCA that was performed in those rough rows, of volunteering to be the one who the police escorted from the stadium as the sacrificial scapegoat for the misbehavior of the crowd as a whole.

 

This was in the old stadium, the one that rocked and rolled and vibrated with the big moments. Back then, you felt like your own screams added something to the glory of the chorus. You were one warrior among many, as much a part of the team as you were a fan. It was a living, breathing thing, that stadium. And if you loved the Yankees like I did, it was a part of your existence, those nights under the lights...it fed a special place inside you.

 

I was a deeply committed fan. That meant that, as a girl, I could never pick Derek Jeter as my favorite player. That’s what the amateur, non-fan girls did. It simply was not to be done. If I was going for looks, I went for Ricky Ledee, a lesser known but honestly cuter stand-in for the Jeter choice. Then there was Paul O’Neil because he threw stuff and I loved that. Scott Brosius to balance out O’Neil. By the time I was in high school, I was scrapbooking Ted Lilly’s line scores. That wasn’t really much of a morale booster, but what can I say. Then came college and the ticket package, and I fell more in love with the team I thought I already loved to capacity.

 

When the old stadium was put out of commission, I felt like something from my life had died.  An important piece of my growing up years, the last sign that I was to be an adult now. I remember that last game, the players gathered on the mound, the tears, the people shoving souvenirs into their pockets and purses (being a good girl absolutely stinks in those moments, for the record...I got a whole lot of nothing). I remember stopping with my dad to look back through the exit, to the sliver of vibrant green that I knew I would never see again and the deep sense of loss. It was like someone telling you they were selling your home against your will, and this was the last time you would see it.

 

I kind of thought, after those heady years in the nineties, and then after the stadium was reduced to gravel, that I would never have “that feeling” again. I assumed that it had gone the way of Santa at Christmas, something never regained once it’s gone. But I was wrong.

 

Because, see, this year, some guys showed up to play in the Bronx. They came with a spark that whispered of days long ago. They laughed and joked and gave each other the thumbs down. But they got serious too. Performing like they were born to do this, here, on this stage. They created moments that would have felt perfect in the old stadium and that somehow seem to finally be breaking in the new one. Their moments say “My name is Judge, Sanchez, Gregorius. I’m here to stay.” Others, Frazier, Gardner, they have something to say too. “I’m not done yet. There’s something I haven’t finished, and it happens here, now.” These guys came together and created something that felt familiar, that felt like home.

 

And it was back. The magic. All of it.

Trending

There are days when practically all I can think about is the garden and the way it once was. I close my eyes and imagine my fingers trailing over the forest of ivy climbing the cedar fence while I tiptoe between the wildflowers bursting up in their chaotic flurry of color. I can almost smell the honeysuckle, almost hear the bee that speeds past my ear on the way to the bud of a rosebush bleeding red with petals. Almost.

I know I will never see that garden again and the thing is, it’s all my fault that I won’t. I’ve asked myself, over the years, just how long you should have to pay penance for a deed done in your youth. Forever comes the answer. You pay forever.

Ty, the sweet man who met me after the storm and chose to love me in the face of my truth, tells me enough time has gone by, but I don’t think so. I think I will be living in this tiny town, serving this sentence, until the day I die.

It all happened on the kind of June day that draws out moms with their kids into the playgrounds and men in suits to fountained courtyards on their lunch breaks. It was warm, but not too warm, the air breezy and light and loaded with the scents from my garden.

I remember taking my tea outside so that I could sit in my adirondack chair among the flowers before heading to work. It had been a rough week...no, month. Okay, year. My boss had been piling both work and criticism so high on my desk that I expected it might break right in two any day now. Maybe when it did, it would break one of my legs and I could take a vacation. But I knew I wasn’t that lucky.

Our little company specialized in social media marketing. I was considered a SM Specialist, which seems ironic in hindsight. In the early days, things had been so exciting. A trending hashtag here, a viral video there. It was easy to separate success from failure, and the highs far outnumbered the lows. But as more and more clients jumped on board, the stakes rose and the expectations left the realm of reality. The boss I had once liked, if not quite loved, now looked vaguely like someone who might employ Anne Hathaway and toss handbags at people on the way to their glassed-in office.

As I sat there sipping green tea from a china cup in the morning light of my garden, I thought back to the night before. I had sat in my boss’s office while she lectured me on my need to “stay current”.

“You’re falling behind on the trends, Mel,” she had said. “Don’t tell me I have to go shopping for a younger model who is more in touch with the kids.”

A younger model? In touch with the kids? What other thirty-something had subscriptions to Teen People and Seventeen? I knew more about the latest famous guys than the girls who taped their faces into their lockers did. I could barely converse with another adult at this point, but put me in a room with a junior in high school and I would shine. And here my boss was suggesting she might trade me in, as if I was one of those Plymouth Voyagers with the wood panels going down the sliding doors.

Snagging the only two weeds that I could spot sprouting out of the rich, brown dirt of my garden, I walked back inside. I ditched my tea cup in the sink, tossed the weeds in the trash, and grabbed my purse.

As always, I was five minutes early when I arrived at my desk. And like most days in recent memory, the boss was already clicking her pen rapidly, up and down, up and down, as if she had been waiting for me for hours. I had never heard anyone click a pen as loud as she could.

That morning, as I drew in a deep breath and opened her office door, I wondered if there were contests for people like her. Pen clicking contests. I also noted that I had never seen her actually use the pen. She said writing made you look old and insisted on typing every living thing she produced. Funny that she didn’t think her gray hair aged her, but writing on paper did. Only the geniuses get the big jobs, I had thought as I settled into the horribly uncomfortable chair she provided for her guests.

There was nothing terribly interesting about our conversation. To be honest, I don’t even remember what was said. It was just general “me bashing” followed by a list of demands for the day and an encouraging sign-off of inspiration that involved her telling me she was sure I wouldn’t get everything done anyway.

You know when you walk past a tulip and it’s totally closed, so much so that you can’t even tell what color it will be when it blooms, and then the next day, that same flower is wide open, bright yellow and drinking in the sun? Well, that morning, I had a tulip moment. Only it wasn’t pretty. At all.

By the time I closed the distance between her office and my desk, all the accumulated garbage of the last year had suddenly begun to stink so violently to me that I could bare it no longer. I plopped down into my chair, pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and slammed it onto the laminated white top of my desk. I stared at it for a second, and a kind of blind fury began to build inside me. It took me three tries to unlock the screen, two taps to open the Twitter app, and surprisingly, pretty much zero seconds for me to type out a 140 character dressing down of my boss.

You would be surprised what you can fit into that tiny little box on the screen if you’re creative. Which I was. I managed to hit it all: her personality, her incompetence, and her appearance.

Her appearance. I don’t know what possessed me. I had never been a bully. I had never been a shamer. I had never sent a Tweet, Facebook post or Instagram picture that could be construed as even slightly controversial. Maybe that’s why I decided to delete the post a half hour later, when my blood had lowered from a boil to a simmer. I reminded myself that I was not that kind of person, clicked the Twitter tab on my desktop, and poised the mouse over the message in question.

But something had happened. It had been liked more times than anything I had ever posted, for myself or a client. More than that, it had been retweeted thousands of times. My heart stopped for just a second, as if it needed to recalibrate, than resumed at a brisk racing pace.  

The tweet, in all its disgusting glory, had gone viral. It had released, in a millisecond, a version of myself that did not at all represent who I was. Or did it? I look back and wonder, if I was capable of writing it, did that make me the ugly person it suggested I was? I just don’t know.

What followed was a rapid fire series of events that would untangle the carefully woven threads of my existence and reweave them into something I couldn’t even recognize. My boss didn’t follow my private account, but of course, it was our job to follow trends, and suddenly, I was one. I never even got a full apology out to her. I was out on the sidewalk with my box of belongings before I finished a sentence.

Then came the calls and the messages online. I deleted my account that night, but I can easily call to mind some of the hate that got thrown my way from people I would never meet, people who only knew me from a stream of status updates about books and television shows and yes, my boss.

News programs wanted to talk to me. “News” being applied to these outlets in the loosest possible terms. Magazines wanted to interview me. And as much as the media sought me out, my friends pushed me away. I was a leper.

That day, and the ones that followed, showed me that my roots didn’t run as deep in that city as I thought they did. And since I was an only child and my parents were gone, I was really and truly alone.

The whole thing might have gone away if some up-and-coming correspondent for one of the mornings talks hadn’t stumbled upon a few new terms for the urban dictionary. “Mel-ing”, “Mel-ed it” and “Mel-y messages” became the way to describe anything that formerly would have been classified as cyber bullying.

These people didn’t know my boss, didn’t know the year of torture I had endured. They didn’t know that I was goofy and nice and actually a little shy. They just knew that I had basically fat-shamed a woman close to retirement age and done so in a catchy but not very nice way. I hadn’t even known I was capable of those words about her until they were on the screen. But regret is cheap in a world of no mercy.

Once I realized where I stood with the people I had once called friends, and once my first few attempts at getting a new job ended with the employer asking “You’re not THAT Melanie, are you?”, I decided it was time to relocate. I moved to the tiniest town in the midwest with the worst cell service I could find. I gave myself a new name and started a new life. The world may have have held court over my crime, but I had sat on the jury too. Life sentence.

It was here that I met Ty, the one silver lining in this very dark cloud. He can see when my mind goes back to that day, and that’s when he pulls me into his arms and whispers to me that it is time to let go. I never do. I can’t. Won’t. Whatever, whichever.

I got up the courage not too long ago to reach out to an old friend, the last one I thought might speak to me, now just barely hanging on under the classification of acquaintance, to ask if she could possibly go back to my garden and see how it was doing. Maybe take a picture or two. I never received a response, which I guess means the last person from my past is lost.

So I am left to imagine the garden on my own. Not like the moments when I dream of it in its glory. No, when I wonder of its present state, a different picture emerges. It is not gone, but that would have seemed a gift compared to what it is. The rosebushes are dried and dead, bloomless. In a ferocious battle of nature, weeds have overcome the flowers, and they are choking out the last of their lives in tiny pinpricks of color spied among masses of ugly leaves and vines. The ivy, beautiful when kept in control, now wanders so freely that it will soon overtake everything else.   

Room

I woke up in a room

That reached far into shadow

And up as high I could know

But it was no scary tomb

 

Books lined every wall

Shelves stuffed full of them

The colors of a thousand pens

As deep as I am tall

 

Warmth rushed over me

Filled me up to the depths so deep

And into me I let it seep

Though from where it came I couldn’t see

 

Out of the dark an old man came

His presence strong

His smile beaming kind and long

And I swear he knew my shame

 

See, though I was a writer too

My book would not be found

Among these treasures, carefully bound

This I knew was true

 

There were too many in this place

By authors great and famous

Enough to speak to each of us

A work for every taste

 

I had come to realize some time ago

That I would not be heard

There was no place for my small words

No scene in this grand show

 

But this man looked at me as if he knew

And took my hand in his

His voice was warm, and spoke just this:

There is room here for you too.


 

The Pencil

It was a completely normal day. 

I had just settled into my desk after my morning trip around the office. First stop, coffee maker to refill my travel mug (already one cup in and buzzing at this point). Second stop, labelled mailbox to see if there was anything new for me since I checked last night. There was. A flyer about an office Christmas party that I knew I would RSVP “yes” to and then cancel on at the last moment, claiming a sudden and violent stomach bug. Last stop, the pencil sharpener. Three pencils, perfect tips, Ticonderoga only. No one knows how to make a #2 like Ticonderoga. But I digress.

I arrived at my cubicle at exactly 9 am, ready to face my shift with the courage that spending eight hours a day cold-calling unsuspecting American citizens takes. I was lucky. On my shift I mostly encountered bored senior citizens and harried housewives. The night crew had it really tough. They faced the overworked, underpaid, in-the-middle-of-dinner, “do you think I have time for this?” types who made you feel like the lowest form of human life during their hours. I switched shifts with a night shift girl once, years ago, and I still wake up in a cold sweat now and then, the memories of October 5th, 2014 flashing through my dreams. Yep, I remember the date.

Anyway, I was settling in for my usual day, already starting the countdown to my lunch break, when it happened. He walked in.

He was perfect.

Like, Brad-Pitt-when-he-was-still-with-Jen, early-season-Jim-Halpert, Denzel-young-old-or-in-between perfect.

I knew we were expecting a new hire named Pete, but no one had prepared me for this...for HIM. He was gorgeous, with a super manly voice (I heard him introducing himself and talking Giants football with one of the guys), and clothes that could have been straight off of a J. Crew mannequin. Slap me in the face and bring me back to reality, that boy was cute.

And then. No seriously. Then it happened.

He walked up to me, leaned in a little, and in that perfect voice, asked:

“Can I borrow a pencil?”

Borrow a pencil? He didn’t need a pencil. This guy was prepared. He was sharp. He carried a man bag. He DID NOT need to borrow a writing utensil from me. This was a clear cut message. I don’t know what the kids call it these days, but we thirty-somethings would say he was hitting on me. And that’s all there was to it.

I somehow managed to hand him a pencil, tossing a casual smile his way as a bonus. The minute he was out of sight, I did a little spin in my chair and started the celebration.

This was the beginning of a beautiful love story. Leo and Kate could play us in the movie. No, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Yes. Perfect. For our first date, I would suggest something casual but he would surprise me with a night in the city. Our engagement story would be the stuff of legends, a story to tell the kids someday. I pictured him in his wedding suit, our special day a beautiful but modest event for our closest friends and family. We would give out pencils as favors and giggle at the reference to the moment we met. We would have five kids. I would blog about our lives, a publisher would notice, then would come the book, and the previously mentioned film.

This job had been pretty lousy for years. But now every single second was worth it. Because he was here. And he liked me. He really, really liked me.

-

Pete sat down in his cubicle and searched his bag for a pencil. Nothing. Sitting back in his chair, he wondered how anyone could forget a pencil on their first day at a new job. Oh well. That girl...the goofy one who had stared at him until he disappeared into his cubicle, she was the type who probably kept a whole handful of pencils sharpened and ready to go on her desk.

He strolled over to her and immediately zeroed in on the little cup perched next to her computer monitor. Bingo.

“Can I borrow a pencil?” he asked. She nodded and nearly knocked over her coffee getting it. He thanked her, and she nodded and muttered something that sounded like the combination of a “you’re welcome” and a giggle, and he escaped.

Back at his desk, he settled into his seat and scribbled a note to remind himself to call his girlfriend on his lunch break. It was only then that he realized he didn’t even know the pencil girl’s name.

Oh well.

The Plan

Dottie was old.

She knew this because a young boy with a backwards baseball hat and a neck tattoo called her "grandma" when she got in his way and made him miss his train on the subway.

She also knew this because on Thursday, she bought a box of brown die and applied it carefully while listening to a Dean Martin record. And today, Monday, she looked in the mirror and saw gray had already taken back her roots.

Lucy was young.

So young that in the last few months, she had been turned away from a roller coaster ride, handed a kid's menu at the diner (A KID'S MENU!), and her dad had flatly refused to remove the training wheels off her bike.

That's what made the alliance so improbable.   

It all started on an unseasonably warm Christmas morning. Dottie was at her mailbox, picking up her Special Edition Riverside Gazette when she spotted little Lucy standing in her fuzzy pink robe on her family's front lawn.

"Merry Christmas honey!" Dottie called out with a smile and a wave.

"Merry Christmas Miss Dottie," came the quiet answer. But Lucy didn't turn towards her neighbor. Instead, her eyes, and in fact her entire posture, were trained on the roof of her house.

"Looking for something dear?" Dottie asked, crossing her driveway to join the little girl. She looked up but saw only a blanket of snow on the house's roof, brown shingles peaking out in a few places where the sun had hit.

"No footprints."

The squeaky whisper was barely audible, but Dottie heard it and knew all that it implied. Crossing her arms, the older woman let out a deep sigh.

“It’s frustrating how sneaky that jolly old man can be,” she murmured.

Lucy’s attention immediately turned to her neighbor. Her chocolate brown eyes were round with curiosity.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean,” Dottie said with what she hoped sounded like the confidence of a seasoned Santa expert, “Is that Mr. Claus is way too good at his job to leave behind footprints in the snow. That’s amature stuff.”

“Oh.”

“Yep, if you want to catch Santa, you have to do some serious planning.”

“Well,” Lucy said, matching Dottie by crossing her arms in front of her, but with the fierce determination that only a six-year-old can possess, “I want to catch him. Actually, I need to.”

Dottie sized up the young lady next to her. Truth was, that spunky little firecracker reminded her of herself. Once she got something in her head, there was no stopping her. At least that’s what Leonard used to say.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said and leaned down to look Lucy right in the eyes. “I think it’s too late to figure out how to see him this year. But if we really plan it out, maybe we can corner him next Christmas.”

“We?”

“Yes, ma’am. I want in on this operation. If you’ll have me that is.”

The little smile and gleeful giggle were all Dottie needed for an answer.

They worked all year on the plan. Lucy lost some interest in the summer months, when school let out and beach trips began, but by the time the local supermarket started carrying stockings and wrapping paper in September, her enthusiasm had returned.

A lot of the brainstorming came from Lucy.

She came up with the idea to bribe the elves. It was genius really, her plan to mail candy and hot chocolate packets to the little guys in an effort to buy their loyalty. Once she had them hooked on her sugary treats, she intended to use their high level access to St. Nick to gain valuable information about the time he planned to arrive at her house.

Dottie dutifully supplied the funds needed to ship the goods off to the North Pole. Even when Lucy’s parents protested the waste of money, she insisted. Sadly, Lucy never received a response and declared the elves to be a lost cause.

There were many other plans to execute, some more well thought out than others. More attempts at bribery, this time at the post office. A letter to the president (who surely got to meet Santa as part of his official duties). A search on Google Maps for the Claus residence (Dottie was little help on that one). An interrogation of a patient but confused Amazon.com customer service representative. An attempt to buy up all the candy canes in the world and force him out of hiding. An Ancesty.com search to see if any distant Clausian relatives were living south of the pole.

Unfortunately, for all the hard work, the ladies garnered no positive results. Lucy began to wonder if she had been wrong about Santa and Dottie began to wonder if she had been wrong to lead the girl on. What had seemed like harmless fun had turned into something that she feared would break Lucy’s heart. She wondered why she hadn’t just told Lucy the truth standing there in the front yard that day.

But then came Christmas Eve.

***

With all other plans having failed, the ladies turned to their last ditch efforts first thing that morning.

Dottie supplied a crate of carrots that Lucy in turn laid out in her backyard in a huge “X”, so as to draw the reindeer to a landing spot that was more conducive to a little girl meeting them after touchdown.

There was also the final, worst-case-scenario measure that Lucy insisted on. It was a letter which she planned to leave on the red brick hearth of her family’s fireplace. She asked Dottie to write it, since her penmanship was far superior. Lucy was so absorbed in her dictation that she didn’t see tears forming in the older woman’s eyes as she wrote:

Dear Santa,

I know that generally, you do not like children to see you. But my parents told me you were real and then Tim from school said they were liars. I really need to know you’re real and that what my parents told me was the truth. Please come wake me up when you get here. I will try to stay awake but I’ve never stayed up the whole entire night before. I would really like to see you. I want so badly to believe.

Seasons Greetings,

Lucy

She insisted on the seasons greetings part, something she had read in a catalogue that sounded properly formal. Once complete, she looked it over with approval, complemented Dottie’s perfect script, and sealed it with a generous piece of tape.

After that, there was nothing left to do but wait, so Dottie headed home. For the millionth time, she contemplated what to do. She’d considered it all, from chomping bites out of every one of those filthy carrots to paying someone to scale the roof and leave behind footprints. She had even eyed a mall Santa for a full fifteen minutes last week, deciding if it was insane to pay him to visit the girl. He had looked pretty convincing. Real beard and everything.

But in the end, it all fell flat. It didn’t feel right.

Hours ticked by, and finally darkness fell and cloaked the houses in the magical gray blanket that is Christmas Eve night. It was only then that Dottie knew what to do. She sat down at her kitchen table with a red felt tip marker and a piece of her finest stationery and started to write.

***

She had just poured her tea on Christmas morning when she heard a soft knock on her door. Dark liquid sloshed over the top of the poinsettia patterned mug as she put it back on the counter, and she hurriedly rushed to pull open the door. When she did, she automatically looked down, knowing who would be there.

Lucy was still in her pajamas, a pastel pink winter coat on but open, her plaid flannel pants stuffed into a pair of flowery snow boats that were lined with purple faux fur. All of this Dottie noticed in her first glance followed by the forlorn expression on the little girl’s face, the obvious attempt to hold back tears.

“He didn’t wake me up.”

Dottie took Lucy by the hand and led her into the warmth of the house, closing the door behind them.

“Mommy said I could come over for a few minutes,” Lucy went on, telling Dottie what she already knew. She had heard as much last night when she dropped off the letter.

“But he left this.” Lucy held up the piece of folded paper, delicately sandwiched between her tiny thumb and pointer finger. “Could you read it?”

“Of course,” Dottie answered, treating the paper just as carefully and unfolding it. Clearing her throat, she looked at the words written in her own handwriting, which she had worked hard to disguise, then back up at Lucy. What she saw nearly broke her heart. Moisture brimmed at the edges of the chocolate brown eyes, and the little lips trembled. Surely this had all been a terrible idea. The poor thing.

She allowed herself one more throat clearing and a deep sigh before she started reading, praying all the while that the words were the right ones.

Dear Lucy,

I’m sorry I didn’t come wake you up. I wish I could have, but that’s just not the way this works. I know how nice it would be if you could see me and know for sure that I’m real. Though you may not understand it right now, that very act, the act of seeing me, would steal something very special from you. Belief. Trust. Faith.

If everyone saw Santa, what would it mean to believe in me? Not very much I’m afraid. See, you are in an exclusive group, Lucy. You are one of the people that believe anything is possible. You believe even though you don’t see. Because of that, you have the potential to dream bigger than others, to attempt the task thought undoable, to love the people thought unlovable.

Some might argue that believing in me is for little children, or that believing even as a child is foolish. I hope you see that it isn’t at all. Never stop believing. Such belief is the fuel that can light a fire and change the world. Always, always believe. Even when all others have stopped, when all else has fallen away.

And your parents? They love you so much. I would take their word over that bully Tim’s any day.

I can’t wait to see where the years take you, Lucy. You are one special young lady.

Love,

Santa

A little sniffle escaped Lucy as Dottie’s words faded to a finish.

“It makes sense, I guess,” she said quietly into the carpet.

“I think it does.”

Lucy rose, accepting the refolded letter from Dottie and making her way towards the door. Dottie followed her, shuffling in her white satin slippers as Lucy waddled in her snow boots. At the door, Lucy paused and turned, arching her back to look up at her older friend.

“Dottie?”

“Yes dear?” Dottie leaned down and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders.

“I still believe.” Another sniffle. “Do you think that’s silly?”

“No,” came the answer and a soft, happy laugh. “I don’t think that’s silly at all.”

Coming Soon: "The Plan"

Just dropping in to let y'all know that my next short story will be posted here very soon! It's called "The Plan", and it's the story of how a little girl and an older woman join forces to spot Santa on Christmas Day. What they do and where it takes them is a Christmas story I hope you'll all enjoy! See you soon : )