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.   

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 : )

The Write-in

There was only one patron in the seats this early. Rosie’s Diner opened at five in the morning, and without fail, Harold walked through the door and straight to his favorite red vinyl booth within the first ten minutes of business. He had been a truck driver for fifty years, and he said after all that time, it was too late to change his schedule.

Rosie was an actual person, and she was nearly as old as Harold. She was not quite five feet tall, and almost as wide, and her hips bumped the booths as she walked by. It was she who met the first customer of the day with a piping hot cup of joe, she who took his order, though it never changed, and it was Rosie who delivered, just ten minutes later, a plate of scrambled eggs, homefries and bacon.

The day in which our story begins was just like all the others, and found Harold buried behind a newspaper while he slowly and methodically made his way through his meal. He had nothing but time, and usually spent at least an hour on the plate.

“Don’t see too many of those around here anymore,” Rosie said with a gesture towards his paper. She leaned over to top off his coffee and he chewed his bite slowly, diligently, before answering.

“No ma’am, I guess you don’t. Everyone has one of those eye-phones.” He spoke of them as if they were a completely foreign concept. “I would get one myself, but you know what they say about us old dogs.”

“Speak for yourself,” Rosie answered with a laugh, leaning against the table with a casualness that made you feel like you were in her home. Then she gestured towards the front page facing her. “What do you make of that, old dog?”

Harold turned the page towards himself and his smile quickly turned upside down.

“Downright shame, that’s what I make of that.”

“They make it so you don’t even know who to vote for come election day.”

“My thought exactly.”

Just then, the front door opened with a jingle, and the second customer, this time a young postal worker, waved their way.

“Excuse me a second, Harold,” Rosie said and shuffled away, calling out a “Good Morning” to the new arrival as she went.

Alone again, Harold stared at the headline thoughtfully. It shouted back to him in bold typeface: “VOTERS TRY TO DECIDE WHO THEY HATE LESS”. Pictures of the presidential candidates from both parties accompanied a story about the messy and childish campaign each had run leading to tomorrow’s election. The polls had each coming in with about a twenty percent approval rating, and the race was too close to call.

“It’s a shame, a downright shame,” he murmured, repeating his earlier sentiment. Then, he put down the paper and sat there, staring off into space. In the span of five minutes, it may have looked like he was daydreaming. But this was a man accustomed to countless hours on the open road with only his thoughts to occupy him. After all, he never had enjoyed the radio. Sitting there, he was anything but inactive...he was thinking. And then it came to him.

“It just might work,” he said quietly. “If enough people agree.”

He stood up as quickly as his old bones would allow, dropping a bill that was large enough to cover his food plus a generous tip on the table, and headed for the door.

“Leaving so soon Harold?” Rosie called as she came through the swinging kitchen doors with a plate of toast.

“Yes, ma’am. Got something to do,” came the response as Harold pushed open the door and marched down the street like he had back in his infantry days. Today he had a new war to fight.

*

“A write-in candidate?”

Harold’s granddaughter looked up at him while she lifted her laptop from its case.  

“I’m not sure what the rules are about write-ins…”

“Now, don’t worry about all that,” Harold replied. “What I want to know is, can we get people’s attention? Maybe make one of those hashtag things.”

“Wow, grandpa, I didn’t know you knew about hashtags.”

“Can’t watch a show anymore without someone sticking one of ‘em up on the screen. Hashtag this, hashtag that. Seems like you can’t make a point without one these days.”

“You might be right about that,” Amy answered with a chuckle as her screen came to life, displaying a large picture of her and a group of friends in bright technicolor. She clicked a button Harold didn’t recognize, and a new window popped up instantly.

“So, I think our best bet for something like this is Twitter. Maybe Instagram too if you’ll let me take your picture. Let’s see if I can use that marketing class I took last semester to our benefit. Who knows, maybe your hashtag will even go viral!”

Harold looked down at her smiling face and couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Hashtags that went viral. It sounded like something out of an H.G.Wells novel. Or Star Trek.

“So what do you want to say? We have room for a sentence or two, so you’ll have to keep it pretty short.”

That presented a problem. How could he say everything he was feeling in just a handful of words? How could he properly represent the sorrow he felt at the loss of integrity among the nation’s potential commanders? That he missed better days when a working class citizen could pin their hopes on the promises of a capable leader? What words could be paired together to paint the picture of the despair he and surely others felt as they decided who they could trust with their vote?

“I guess what I want to say…” he said slowly as his words faded to silence before coming back with more resolve. “What I want to say is that we can do better. That America is about having the courage to do better. And that maybe we all should demand better.”

Amy started typing rapidly, her fingers flying over the keys.

“Well,” she said looking up at him with a half smile, “It’s good, but it’s too long.”

“That’s too long?” he exclaimed with a huff. “What CAN you say on this Twitter thing?”

“Let me see what I can do,” Amy said with a laugh. She closed the top of her laptop gently and shoved it into a floral case before standing and offering him a hug. “I have to run or I’ll be late for class. But don’t worry, I’ll get it posted.”

He watched as she left through his front door, then headed in the opposite direction. There was nothing more he could do today, so he might as well finish covering his patio furniture for the winter.

*

The next morning, Harold woke to the sound of his phone ringing, far from his bed, down the stairs in the kitchen. He sat up in the dark of his room slowly, his back aching with pain to punish him for his outdoor work the previous day. His knees let out cracks as he stood, and he was sure he heard a creak or two from his neck as he stretched it.

“You get old enough, the only conversation you get around your house is your body talking back to you,” he mumbled aloud as he made his way downstairs. The loud jingle hadn’t stopped by that time, which was surprising, because the process of getting to it had been far from fast.

“Yes, hello?” he said as he pulled the receiver to his ear. Looking over at the oven, he saw the clock glowing ‘4:35’ back at him.

“Grandpa?”

His heart nearly stopped at the sound of Amy’s voice and a million scenarios ran through his head in a split second.

“What’s wrong, Amy? Are you okay?”

“Yes, grandpa. I’m sorry if I scared you,” she said, sounding out of breath. “It’s just that...well, we’re trending.”

Harold closed his eyes and ran through his mental files to see if he could figure out what she was talking about. He couldn’t. She must have realized as much, because she spoke again, excited.

“I mean that your tweet went viral, grandpa, like we hoped. Lots of people are looking at it and sharing it.”

“How many is a lot?”

“25,000.”

“Come again?”

“You heard me right, grandpa. And that’s just overnight.”

“Can you meet me at the diner?”

“Sure, I’ll bring my computer.”

“Don’t bother, honey,” he said as he headed towards the door to see if his early edition of the paper had arrived. “They don’t get any of that wi-fi stuff at Rosie’s.”

*

Turned out Amy’s phone could overcome the limitations of Harold’s favorite diner, and she was able to update him on their post even as their eggs cooked in the kitchen. When a reporter direct messaged their account (all of which meant nothing to Harold), Amy arranged for the woman to meet them at Rosie’s. From there, things got really crazy.

By the end of the day, the little establishment looked like a campaign headquarters. Someone brought in a television, and a crowd of all ages watched as the polls closed and results came in. The crowd was mixed, all ages represented, but a little heavy on the younger types who were always looking for a cause to talk up on their social media. It was standing room only, and several cameras caught it all for the big networks.

Harold stuck around until dinner time, then said he had to use the restroom, whispered something in Amy’s ear, and disappeared out the kitchen door to an alley none of the newcomers knew about. He wasn’t there when one of the candidates conceded and the other accepted, wasn’t there when the hashtag died the quiet death that came with no more tweets, and he wasn’t there when the last reporter wrapped up their human interest piece about what one old man had started.

In fact, by the time the last camera powered down and Rosie finally locked her door,  Harold was fast asleep. When he woke the next day, he didn’t need to check his paper to know that the election had been won, and by someone real, not by the write-in he had birthed. But that had never been the point anyway.

*

In Washington D.C., meanwhile, the soon-to-be-president hadn’t ever gone to bed. They were knee deep in caffeine and riding the high of adrenaline that surely comes with winning the most powerful office in the world when a staffer approached them.

“Have you seen this story?” he asked as he handed them a piece of paper, still warm from the printer. “It’s all over the internet and the morning shows. Some crazy old guy almost ruined the election. Check it out.”

He left the sleep deprived victor with the article and headed off on another mission, anxious to make a good impression and land himself some small position in the White House.

The candidate lifted the paper and raised an eyebrow as they read. Twenty percent of the votes? Surely that had to be a mistake. They pulled out their phone and googled, only to have the number confirmed.

Now, you can say a lot of things about politicians, but you don’t get to be president by being unintelligent. And as this particular one read the tweet that almost started a revolution, they realized that America was sending a clear message. One that it would be wise to hear.

The message that had created the frenzy, that almost turned the election on it’s head read as follows:

 

What do you do when you can’t vote for one of the candidates? You #write-in. If you're there, vote with me for #wecandobetter .

    

It was because of that tweet that one real candidate won 45 percent of the vote and another about 35 percent. And coming in third, with 20 percent, a person who was never a person at all. Just a call to the future president to step into office with the awareness that Americans expected more than what they had brought to their campaign.

Wecan Dobetter couldn’t have won the election. But that didn’t matter, because as Harold had hoped, a message was delivered and one humbled person took office with a changed heart and commitment to honor the write-in vote of a nation. And for the next four years, when someone offered an idea that seemed self-serving or partisan, they knew how the president would respond before the words came out, because they were always the same:

“Come on,” they would say with a smile. “We can do better.”