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

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.   

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.

Short Story: The Day That Was Different

About the short story posts: 

In these little stories, I work with a photograph I took of something that caught my eye, and write a story inspired by that photo. The stories are complete fiction and in no way related to or about the people (or even places) in the picture.

The Day That Was Different

by Nicole M. Burrell

Bee had been living a little life in a big town for a long time. Born and raised in New York City, she still slept in her childhood bedroom overlooking the Central Park Zoo. At forty years old, her parents were gone and her sister now lived in California with her tech-savvy husband and two surfer kids. That left her alone in a sprawling apartment decorated in the finest trends of the 1980s.

Every day, Bee woke up and ate one egg, fried with one piece of toast, lightly buttered. She chose one of her seven suits, either navy blue or black, and slipped into a pair of one inch black pumps before picking up her black umbrella and carefully pressing the button on her private elevator. She always carried her umbrella for fear of unexpected rain. She didn’t trust anyone, let alone a weather man.

Once on the street, a brisk walking pace landed her in her favorite, and only, Starbucks of choice in three minutes flat. The kind barista, with the horrifying nose ring and shock of bleached blonde hair, was the only person who knew her name outside of work, and even though he spelled her name wrong on the cup (“B”...as if that was a name), she was all too happy for the moment of personal connection. But then, three minutes after entering, she was back on the street, vente black tea in hand.

Bee had worked for a publisher since they accepted her into their internship program during college. Now, she edited cookbooks. Five days a week, forty hours precisely, you could find her in her cubicle, slowly sipping her tea and tapping a red pen she never used while making suggested corrections on the computer screen. Five days a week, her mouth watered at the recipes she saw, and she imagined trying them at home. But by the time the elevator door opened back home, her adventurous spirit was safely at bay, and she settled in for her salad with a perfectly boiled egg perched on top.

It’s not that Bee was an unpleasant person. Really, she wasn’t. But she had always been painfully shy, and losing her parents had severed the last easy relationship she had in her life. Add to that the fact that they had passed unexpectedly when she had decided to take the opportunity to study abroad in Paris, a trip her father had staunchly opposed. These days, she didn’t take risks like that. Bad things happen to people who took risks. People who lived simple, scheduled lives didn’t get disappointed.

And so, at the end of an especially long day of imagined red pen slashing, and actual computer backspacing, Bee set her salad on her laughably large dining room table and took her first peek at the day’s mail.

Every day, it came the same, wrapped in a large orange rubber band. She had a whole drawer in the kitchen full of the bands, and she sometimes argued the merits of saving them. But old habits died hard.

At any rate, today was a special day. It was, in fact, her favorite day of the month because it was the one in which her National Geographic subscription came in the mail. She pushed aside three bills and one clothing magazine, and a sunshiny smile broke out as she opened to the first glossy page of her favorite publication. She made her way through it slowly, savoring each picture, pouring over each article. She had just finished a journey with the penguins of Antarctica and was chomping on her very last iceburg (lettuce leaf, that is) when she saw it.

The advertisement wasn’t terribly attractive. It featured a smiling family standing in front of a tent on a little grassy patch of fenced in land. But what caught her attention was the words that ran in an arch across the top of the page: “Explore your own backyard”. She scarcely noticed that the ad was for a sale on tents, and couldn’t have cared less that it was her last chance to buy one before the megastore went out of business “FOREVER!”. Something about the catchphrase excited her and set her thoughts in a whirl.

She didn’t have her own backyard, not exactly, but when she was a little girl, she had pretended Central Park was all hers. She would spend hours wandering from the playground to the Shakespeare garden to the Conservatory Pond with her sweet mother. Her mom had been quiet like her, and Bee had never felt more understood than when they were together. She avoided the park these days mostly because she was too busy to deviate from her carefully planned schedule. But also, maybe a little, because it reminded her of her mom.

Today, though, in this moment, with the salad gone and half of the National Geographic already devoured, Bee that perhaps, just maybe, she should indeed try to explore her own backyard, unconventional though it may have been. So, off she went to her bedroom. She carefully hung up her suit, and standing there in her practical flannel robe, evaluated her wardrobe for the proper attire needed in such an exploration. She finally settled on a black cotton skirt that fell just below her knees and a comfortable gray tank top. She didn’t have sneakers, but she thought she knew where she could find them.

Marching down the hallway, now determined on her mission, she hesitated only a second before opening the door to her sister’s old bedroom and entering. She had been so quick to move out with her California man that she had never even packed up the things from her childhood and teenage years. Bee yanked open the closet, which was stuffed to capacity with clothes, accessories, and two decades of sentimental treasures. She fell to her knees and dug around until, much to her delight, she unearthed a worn pair of Keds. They had always been her sister’s brand of choice. She slipped them on and smiled in victory when they fit perfectly.

On impulse, she grabbed an old backpack out of the closet too, and took it to the kitchen to search out a snack to put in it. A stale pack of Tate’s chocolate chip cookies would have to do, so she dropped them in with a bottle of water. Next in went the National Geographic, and finally, a smaller, foldable version of her usual umbrella...because you can never be too sure.

The daylight was starting to fade to dusk by the time she arrived at the edge of the park, and she stood there, at the outskirts, wondering what direction to take. Then she remembered her favorite of all the memories she had there, and took off down a path before she could change her mind.

It wasn’t as close as she remembered it, and the space of time gave her unwanted room to walk down memory lane. The concerts in the park had been wonderful years ago. On balmy summer nights, her entire family would wander out with a blanket and basket of food to enjoy them. It was the only time when their father joined them for an outing and Bee had soaked up the feeling of togetherness in those moments, with the four of them all crunched together, listening to famous symphonies played by some of the world’s greatest orchestras. Her father didn’t like her to talk during the music, and that suited her just fine...she was happy just to be near the ones she loved.

Finally, she rounded the corner, and there it was: the bandshell. It was just like she remembered. Well, maybe a little smaller. But it was still beautiful and stately with its carved stone reaching high into the sky. She realized with disappointment that no orchestra played tonight, though she shouldn’t have expected to be that lucky. She stared at it, imagining days gone by, a tear forming and freeing itself to track down her cheek.

She had just convinced herself it was time to leave when a man with a huge instrument case walked in front of her and straight towards the stage. He didn’t hesitate before he unceremoniously unlocked his case, pulled out a cello, shoved it up onto the stage, and then vaulted himself up and onto the platform himself. Bee was indignant at his behavior, and wondered who you called to report a trespassing cello player to. But then he started to play.

The song was one so familiar, so haunting, she knew she must have heard it many times in her childhood. The notes were long, slow and sweet, even a little sad. She closed her eyes and smiled softly as the memories returned, of dancing to this very song with her sister, back when they were friends. Of piano lessons with her mother plucking out the tune before her father decided the practicing ruined his concentration. Of falling asleep on his shoulder as the concerts in the park ran late into the night, the only time he put her to sleep. The bittersweet memories of a grown woman looking back on her past with a mix of reality and the rose-coloring that comes with such nostalgia.

As she remembered, Bee crept closer to the stage until she stood at its feet. She moved like a sleepwalker, wanting to be closer to the source of the memories that now ran through her mind, clear and beautiful. And suddenly, she was a child again. One who thought she would grow up to climb Mt. Everest. One who dreamed of teaching kids to read in the jungles of South America. One who imagined anything was possible. One who hadn’t yet lived the reality of a difficult father who didn’t live to see her graduate college. Or a wonderful mom who had been her rock before she was left foundationless. She crossed her legs casually, the careful poise that she carried with her everywhere falling away all because of a simple song and a few memories.

Where had that girl gone? When had she abandoned her dreams, her goals? And why? For what? The questions ran to the rhythm of the music, and when it suddenly stopped, she jumped back quickly, the silence taking her off guard and scattering her thoughts with it.

“Would you like me to play anything special?” came the voice of the man and Bee looked up, startled. She hadn’t even given him a second thought once the music had started. The trespassing musician.

“No, that was perfect,” she murmured quietly back.

“Well,” he said with a smile as he pushed his glasses up his nose, “Shall I play more for you or do you have someplace to be?”

Bee noticed despite herself that he was handsome, well, in an assuming kind of way. And probably about her age, too. She blushed and thought before answering.

“I think after this I’ll have a great many places to go,” she said hesitantly. “But I would like to hear another song...if you have the time.”

“I have all the time in the world,” came the answer, and he began to play a lively tune that she didn’t recognize while never taking his eyes off of her. And on he played, until night fall over the park and they walked slowly out together.