Tortured Soul

By C. Fong Hsiung

I felt on top of the world that morning. Our real estate agent had called earlier to let us know that the offer we’d put on our dream home in Toronto was accepted by the seller. I parked my car across the street from my bank. Wonderful thoughts about our future crept into my mind—thoughts about our new lives in our new house. With a bounce in my step, I started to cross the street with the green light.

“Hey, move out of the way, MOVE…” I heard a panicked voice scream.

Whipping around, I saw a black pick-up truck speeding toward me. I had no time to run. Everywhere I looked, screams froze on horrified faces. Crashing sounds followed the impact, and then darkness enveloped me.

When consciousness returned, utter chaos surrounded me. Emergency vehicles parked at random on the street. Their lights flashed and blinked like midday fireworks that nobody ordered. Instead of oohing and aahing at this dazzling display, silent spectators crowded around me. My curiosity piqued, I turned and saw several policemen holding their arms wide open to prevent the people from getting too close to something or someone they were shielding. I inch closer and walked through a tiny gap between two policemen. A couple of medics worked frantically over someone lying on the ground. The injured person looked vaguely familiar. No—I stuck my fist into my mouth—I was that woman on the floor. If it weren’t for the long black hair framing her bloody face and the pink run-for-cancer t-shirt over her black shorts, I would not have recognized her. I was confused. I was walking like a normal person, and yet someone who looked like me lay like a broken doll.

I went up to one of the medics and asked, “Sir, what’s going on? What are you doing to her? Look at me, why am I…I mean why is she down there?”

The medic ignored me and continued to pump the body, his palms—one on top of the other—moved in rhythmic motions. He kept muttering, “Common, common, stay with me, stay with me.”

“Please listen to me. Stop doing whatever you’re doing,” I stamped my feet and shrieked at him. The medics didn’t even bother to look in my direction. What was wrong with these people? Why didn’t anyone hear me?

Then, in stunned realization I remembered the black truck racing toward me, the excruciating pain, and then blissful darkness.

***

Yes, I, Rachel Liu, died two years ago, after five idyllic years—four in wedded bliss—with the love of my life, Jonathan Liu and our baby, Janie. Our bundle of joy had just turned two and life couldn’t have been more perfect until that fateful day.

I am now a lost soul. I don’t own a physical body, and I can fly. One could say that I am in an indeterminate state. No one knows that I am around and I don’t communicate with my kind, whatever that may be. I hover on the edge of the living and the dead, watching over my beloved husband and our beautiful four-year old daughter. I don’t know how to move on. My separation from the physical world has become the bane of my strange new existence. In vain, I try to make contact with my loved ones, and yet I possess some kind of divine power to read their thoughts.

At first I had difficulty adapting to my new existence. When Janie cried for Mommy during the first few days after my death, I reached for her. “Shush, Baby, Mommy is here. Everything will be fine,” I hugged her and tried to wipe her tears. But Janie wouldn’t stop crying. She didn’t see nor hear me, and I wept in frustration at the futility of my efforts to comfort her. Jon picked her up and his tears mingled with hers as he soothed her to sleep.

Then I learned a trick. I could appear in anyone’s dreams, floating in and out of their consciousness at will. When they awoke, they went about their lives sometimes recalling their dreams and often times not. Oh, how I love these dream moments now—these precious moments when we talk and laugh like we are in the real world.

***

It is a sunny October morning, and I can almost see Jon’s sadness—like a heavy cloak covering him. The ship sways, and his hand reaches in a protective gesture to touch the cloisonné urn. It sits on his cabin’s dresser on board a cruise ship that navigates the Yangtze River between Yichang and Chongqing. With a lover’s tender hands, he lifts and places the exquisite ten-inch tall urn into a duffel bag. He is reminded of the day that I purchased the urn near the Great Wall of China during happier times. We met on a similar cruise on these very waters during that trip seven years ago. Now my ashes lie in the dark interior of this receptacle of copper and porcelain.

Today Jon is going to fulfill his promise to me. Together with his parents, Ken and Angela, and our four-year-old daughter, he will scatter my ashes on the river. My final resting place will be along the banks of the Lesser Three Gorges in the lower reaches of the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Jon has put off this trip for a long time. He delayed it despite the pact we’d made soon after we married that when one of us died, the other, if physically capable, would perform this last rite.  Today he will be closing a chapter, one that had sent both of us to dizzying heights of happiness. When the crash came, it had come with devastating cruelty, holding back no punches.

I hear a knock. Janie runs to open the cabin’s door. Teresa, the tour guide, steps inside. “Hi Janie, how’s my favorite little princess doing today?” She tugs at Janie’s high ponytail.

I cringe at how the affectionate gesture comes so easily to Teresa. Then I chide myself for feeling this pang of jealousy. I should be happy that Teresa seems fond of Janie. My little girl has been motherless for two years—albeit Jon’s mother, Angela fills that void—and would have forgotten me if not for Jon’s constant reminders with pictures of happier times.

“I can‘t wait to go on the boat ride. When do we leave, Teresa?” Janie asks with shining eyes.

Teresa’s oval face widens at the mouth. “We’ll go downstairs in a few minutes and wait for the rest of the group. Then we’ll leave right after that.” Turning to Jon she says, “Jon, I came by to let you know that all the arrangements have been made for a private dinghy to ferry you and your party when we get to the Lesser Three Gorges.”

“Thank you, Teresa, you’ve been a great help,” Jon says as he crosses the small cabin and stops in front of her. He picks up her hands and gazes down into her eyes.

I see that Teresa is disconcerted by his proximity. Her face flushes beet red and her lips curl into an uncertain smile. It wasn’t hard to sense the chemistry jumping back and forth—almost tangible—between them. Jealousy, the mother of insanity overpowers me, and I wedge myself between Jon and Teresa. My stupid brain—if one still exists in my head—wants to end this moment of intimacy between them. Then I realize that my outrage at their show of affection for each other is misplaced. They can’t see me, they don’t know I’m in the cabin, and I am as dead as the cloisonné urn that holds my ashes.

Jon’s face—somewhat square with defined jaws tapering down to his chin—lights up in a way I haven’t seen since I died. Sadly I acknowledge that if I love him, then his happiness should be my main concern. This is his chance to put his life back together again. It will tax my soul to stand by and watch the budding romance.

Teresa removes her hands from his grip. “You’re welcome, Jon. I came by to make sure that you’re ready to leave soon,” she says with a slight tremor in her voice.

“Janie and I will come down in a couple of minutes.”

“Great, you know where to find me.” They exchange a lingering glance. It leaves no doubt in my mind about their feelings for each other.

Jon looks at her retreating back. Every fiber of my being—whatever that may be in my world—wants to yell at him to stop looking at the svelte shapely figure and the striking long black hair tied in a loose ponytail.

During these past eight days, traveling from Shanghai to Jingzhou and then transferring to this cruise ship, the more Jon gets to know Teresa, the deeper he falls for her. He has discovered that Teresa was born in Shanghai, but immigrated to England when she was five years old. After completing her graduate studies, she visited her grandparents who still live in China. That was ten years ago. She decided to stay in China to study tourism, and became a tour guide.

Jon has been wrestling with his sense of loyalty to me. He wants to hold on to his memories of me, and yet he is gripped by the urge to explore this new-found yearning to be with another woman. He is torn about this desire that makes him feel like a cheating husband. For my part, despite the fact that I’m a spirit, I am not immune to the pangs of jealousy at being replaced. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I don’t wish for Jon to be in a perpetual state of mourning, and I want to see him full of joy and life at being alive again. On the other hand, like a dark cloud, I am ever present, witnessing his blossoming relationship with Teresa, and dreading that she is slowly taking over his heart. I watch with dismay mingled with hope, this courtship to replace me.

A few hours later, after sailing at a leisurely pace along the Three Gorges between steep cliffs rising into mystical clouds above, Jon, Janie, Ken and Angela, transfer to a small dinghy manned by two local guides. Teresa goes to one of the guides and converses with him in Mandarin. She gives him detailed instructions about the trip and the guests that they will be ferrying. They nod and smile, and then she turns to Jon with a solemn face. “Jon, I know how special this trip is for you and your family. I don‘t want anything to go wrong, and so I have asked Mr. Chin here to take good care of you. You can trust him. I have selected him personally because I know him well from my previous trips here. Take care.”

Teresa turns away to herd the rest of her charges to a small boat waiting to take them to other breathtaking parts of the Lesser Three Gorges.

Mr. Chin grins at Jon and says, “We go now, okay.”

Janie claps her hands as she bounces up and down, her eyes gleaming. “Dad, where are we going?”

“Do you remember what I told you about Mommy’s wishes? She wants us to scatter her ashes along the river bank a short distance from here,”

Janie frowns. “But why are we leaving her here?” Her voice has an uncertain quiver.

“Mommy and I came here many years ago and there is a place just up ahead that we both like very much. She used to say that it’s like heaven on earth. She wants to be surrounded by all this beauty forever, and so do I one day.”

“Oh, but won’t she get lonely when we leave?” Janie asks wistfully.

“I’m sure that where she is now, she never feels lonely anymore,” Jon says.

Oh, Jon, how can I tell you that I am right here with you, feeling utterly inconsolable? I can’t touch you and I can’t talk to you. I am sitting right next to you. I am running my fingers through your thick wavy hair, tracing every crease on your brow, along every familiar line from the crinkly corners of your eyes down to the square chin that seems taut with tension right now. But you don’t see me and you’re not aware of my presence on this boat. Do you feel my essence here? Your thoughts are filled happy memories of our meeting here so many years ago, and yet you’re uncertain if you’re doing the right thing leaving my ashes here.

Jon looks pensive as the dinghy brings them closer to their destination. Angela shifts her matronly bottom forward and reaches across to squeeze her son’s hand. Her maternal love envelops him, wanting to reassure him. “Everything will be fine, Jon. This is what Rachel wants.”

“I know, Mom, but as long as her ashes are here in this urn, I feel close to her.”

“You don’t need that physical reminder anymore because she lives here,” Angela pats Jon’s chest.

Ken says with a gruff voice, “Son, listen to your mother. You will always have the memories. Nobody can take that from you.”

Jon sucks in a deep breath and nods.

A small island appears as they round a bend. Mr. Chin uses an oar to slow down the boat as it approaches land. Together with his companion, Mr. Wang, they maneuver it close to a shallow part where the pebbles are visible through the pristine green water. They jump into the river, grab a rope tethered to the dinghy, and pull it slowly to shore. They tie the rope to a tree trunk, and then Mr. Chin extends his arms out to Angela while Mr. Wong holds the boat steady.

One by one, the passengers are helped off to firm ground. Jon holds Janie’s hand and leads the way to the highest point of the island as his parents follow closely. When they reach the top, they look down at the sheer drop below to the water. Jon recalls that the last time he was here, the tour guide had singled out a marker on the cliff to their right. The guide had noted that it marked the highest level the water could rise to. Yet now Jon noticed that the marker is no longer visible. The water line is now much higher due to the Three Gorges Dam Project, but Teresa has assured him that the highest part of this island is still safe from flooding.

The mood of the group is sombre as their eyes feast on the spectacular surroundings. Even Janie is aware of the solemnity of the occasion and is unusually quiet. Jon takes the cloisonné urn carefully out of his bag and steps up to a rock whose surface is flat and as wide as a large desk. He sits on the edge holding the urn in silence. Then he loosens the lid while Ken, Angela and Janie hold hands a few feet behind him. He lifts the receptacle and plants a kiss on its wall before he tilts it down, pouring its content a little at a time over the cliff. When there is nothing left to pour out, he puts the lid back.

Jon has returned the last remains of my physical self to the earth, the water and the air—to the cradle from where we all come from. I have chosen this particular piece of paradise to reconnect with our earthly elements. I am floating away. I feel exhilarated, carried along by a sensation I have never experienced before.

“I love you, Rachel. I will always love you.” Jon’s eyes mist with tears as emotions engulf him. When his vision clears, he sees a butterfly soaring and diving before him, flapping its gossamer wings fanned out to show off its colours of black, gray, mustard yellow and white. Inexplicably his spirit lifts as he gazes at this beautiful creature, mesmerized by its antics. He is reminded of the time we stood on the deck of another cruise ship on this river. We had watched two butterflies playfully flutter across the morning sun that had hung low like an oversized glowing orange in the horizon. The dawn sky had been their magnificent canvass as they zig-zagged like two master painters, brushing, dipping and swerving. I had told Jon about my fondness for these lovely and delicate creatures. Now, Jon gazes at this butterfly, sensing a special bond.

His instinct is right. In the moments when he emptied the urn, I felt a transformation. I am that butterfly flying into the welcoming sun, the painful non-existence of the past two years melting as I soar higher and higher. I can see Angela reaching for Jon when he returns to the group. They hug him and draw him into their little circle. Soon they are little specks. I am at peace, a tortured soul no more. My new anguish-free world beckons me; Jon and Janie will move on. Perhaps Teresa will play a part in their future, perhaps not. Either way, my new reality rises above any pain and sorrow. I am at peace now, knowing that I will always be in the hearts of the people I love.

STREET JUSTICE

By C. Fong Hsiung

 

2:45 a.m.

The mobile phone buzzes.

Jason grabs a pillow and covers his ears. The buzzing continues. With a groan he gropes the bedside table. “Shaun’s going to pay for this,” he thinks. Aloud he says, “This had better be good, Shaun.”

He hears a hysterical cackle. Shaun says in a high-pitched voice, “Jay, it’s your brother. Please come here quick.”

“What did Tony do this time?”

“Please Jay, just come over. Tony…uh… he’s been stabbed.”

Jason swears as he grabs his trousers and t-shirt. A few minutes later, tires screeching and thoughts racing as fast as his car, he wonders what his brother and Shaun have been up to. More than once, he’d asked Tony to move back with him and to dump that scumbag roommate of his. But there was no reasoning with Tony.

The problem with Tony, Jason muses, is that he flaunts big brother’s tough-guy reputation like an annoying invitation to the gangs in the hood. More than once, Jason has bailed Tony out of trouble. He sighs as he parks his car, swings his feet out on the asphalt—still soft from the day’s heat—and enters the brownstone low-rise.

Jason holds his nose as he rides the decrepit elevator. The smell of stale urine and unnamed other odors assault his nostrils. When the door groans open, he gasps and gulps a breath of air—not much better; his lungs are on fire.

He pounds his fist on one of the doors. The third thump lands on air as Shaun flings it wide and stands in front of him with disheveled hair, shirt torn at the right shoulder, and dried blood smeared on his chest.

Shaun blubbers, “Jay, it’s that shit-face, Rick, wait till I get my hands on him. He’s a dead man.”

Jason shoves past Shaun kicking aside a pile of dirty clothes on the floor as he heads straight for the couch. He cringes at the sight of his brother lying unmoving, face swollen and bloody. Bloods seeps through makeshift bandages—strips from a t-shirt—around Tony’s chest and stomach. Jason touches Tony’s neck. No pulse here…wait, there’s a faint beat. “Shaun, call 911 right now. Tony has to go to the hospital.”

“The cops will be all over us if we take him in,” Shaun whines.

Jason grabs Shawn’s shirt and growls, “He’s going to die if he doesn’t get treatment.”

“Uh…I…the cops will ask all kinds of questions”

“Do you think I care? My brother needs medical attention right now.”

Tony groans. Jason kneels down beside his brother and gazes into the pain-glazed eyes. “Tony, hang in there. Don’t try to talk. We’ll get you to the hospital.”

“I…I’m so sorry, Jay,” Tony whispers.

Jason squeezes Tony’s cold and clammy hands. “Shh…everything will be fine.”

Tony’s fingers tense up and then slacken. He expels a deep sigh like air escaping a punctured tire. Jason quells an anguished sob. “No, Tony, no. Please hang on.” He shakes the limp and lifeless hands. “Damn you, stay with me.”

“Jay, the ambulance is on the way,” Shaun says as he pockets his phone.

“Too late, Tony’s gone.”

“This can’t be happening. He can’t die,” Shaun whimpers and crumples into a chair. He wipes his eyes and nose with the back of his wrist.

Rage sears through Jason. “Who did you say did this to Tony?”

“That fuck-face, Rick, and his cronies. They were taunting us. Tony and I, we didn’t want anything to do with them, we were walking home from the bar. You know that Doberman Rick has? He let him loose on us. It went for Tony first, but Tony had a knife on him and he drove it into the dog. I swear if he didn’t do that then the dog would have killed him.”

Jason grits his teeth and tenses his jaws.

Shaun continues, “When Rick saw that Tony had killed his dog, he became crazy. Him and his buddies surrounded us. There were just two of us to six of them. At some point I blacked out because my head hit a rock. When I came to, I saw Rick wiping a knife on Tony’s clothes, and then he ran. Tony was just lying there moaning. There was no way he could walk home, so I got us a cab.”

“You didn’t think to ask the cab to take Tony to the hospital?”  Jason glowers as Shaun sinks lower in the chair.

“The hospital will call the cops and then they’ll be sniffing all over the place. Rick and his gang will kill us if we went to the cops.”

“Tony’s dead. Do you think I care what the cops or Rick and his buddies do? Rick’s going to pay for this.”

Terror shines in Shaun’s eyes. “What’re you going to do, Jay?”

Jason formulates a vague plan in his head—he has no desire to discuss it with Shaun. “I don’t know yet. Let’s just say that I’m going to have a chat with Rick. When the paramedics arrive, you deal with them.”

“Let me come with you and help you do whatever you’re going to do. I feel responsible for this.”

“Yeah, you should feel bad, but you’re in no shape to deal with anything tonight.”

“Be careful, Rick is a cunning son-of-a-bitch.”

“Don’t worry about me. You take care of yourself.”

***

Like an alley cat Jason makes his way to Rick’s apartment. His sneakers make no sound on the pavement when he passes a sleeping vagrant. He arrives at his destination faster than he anticipated. He fingers the weapon in his pant pocket as he studies the building—an old five-storey low-rise with balconies stacked one over the other. Intruders weren’t a major concern when it was built many moons ago. A light is glowing in Rick’s second-floor apartment.

Jason’s gaze sweeps all around him. A car slows down at a stop sign about a hundred yards behind him, and then moves on. He grabs a window sill, climbs up and propels his body toward Rick’s balcony. As he hangs at the bottom of the balcony, he hoists himself up and then wraps his legs around the metal railing. Once his feet land on concrete, he unsheathes his dagger. He creeps to the side of the door, peering and listening. Other than Rick who seems to be lying on the couch dozing in front of the TV, Jason doesn’t see anyone else. He tests the screen door. It slides open.

Weapon in one hand hidden behind his back, Jason skulks toward his sleeping prey. He draws a deep breath and then raises his dagger arm. Rick’s eyes open wide. His mouth gapes, “What the fuck…”

Jason throws a punch on Rick’s face and follows it with a knee to the stomach. He pins Rick down with his free hand and a knee and then brandishes the dagger. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you?” Jason growls.

Rick’s pupils dilate and he chokes, “Please don’t hurt me.”

“You should have thought of that when you killed my brother with a knife, and now I’m going to do the same to you,”

“I swear I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

Rick yells, “Help—”

Jason punches him again and covers Rick’s mouth with his hand. “You should have stayed away from Tony like I asked you to, you slimy coward. You pick on others only when you’ve got your posse with you. Where are they now?”

Rick mumbles something incoherent. His face contorts and his eyes dart wildly. Jason raises the dagger positioning it for the perfect kill. He has been visualizing this moment ever since he said goodbye to his brother. Now he will exact his revenge. He hesitates. Despite his tough-guy reputation, he has never killed another human being.

Rick heaves and pushes with what seems like superhuman strength. Jason loses his balance—only for a moment—and then he drives the sharp blade down with full force. He feels the cold hard steel penetrate warm soft tissue. Bile surges up toward his throat. “What am I doing?” he thinks as nausea almost overpowers him. He stops pushing the weapon.

Rick struggles to free his hands as his legs thrash and jerk. Jason releases his grip on his victim and he tries to stand up. A muffled sound reverberates in the room. Jason turns his head around in dazed dread. The stench of smoke and gunpowder wafts up toward him.

Rick starts to laugh hysterically, but the laughter dies as quickly as it started. Jason’s confusion turns to horror and disbelief as his gaze travels down. He sees a smoking gun in Rick’s lifeless hands. From his own stomach, blood drips down to his dagger seeping into Rick’s shirt. Blending the blood of the victim and the victor—victory now a bitter pill stuck in Jason’s throat.

Death does not discriminate.

Papa Is Not A Criminal

By C. Fong Hsiung

 

“Ooh…look at her. She’s beautiful like a fairy.” I angle closer to the comic book and caress the picture with my fingers.

Ai-Lei sticks her head in between the page and my face. “Let me see, let me see. Ooh…Mei-Lan, look at the long hair. I wish my mama would let me grow my hair like that.”

With a huff, I lean back against the wicker lounge chair. “You’re blocking my view.”

Ai-Lei jerks her head up. I give her a withering glance and then resume eyeballing my red and gold kimono-clad princess. “When I grow up, I’m going to look like her.”

Ai-Lei gazes at me with rapturous eyes. “Do you want to be a fairy when you grow up?”

“Don’t be silly. You can’t become a fairy, you have to be born one…don’t you?”

“Umm…maybe, I dunno. I want to look like that too when I grow up.” Ai-Lei curls deep into her wicker chair and a dreamy glaze clouds her eyes.

“Mei-Lan, where are you? It’s bath time.” Mama’s shrill call jolts me upright.

“I’m coming, Ma,” I yell back, wishing Mama would stop treating me like a baby—a six-year-old baby. I sigh and give up chasing the princess in my head. I can almost feel her sash, fluttering gossamer wings, slipping through my fingers like sand. Uncurling my legs, I stretch my arms, rise up and stand at the edge of the balcony. My hands grasp the cold cement railing where, through the gaps, I can see a field of wooden planks across from the dusty path below. My seven-year-old brother is running with a group of boys on the planks while another boy gives chase. “Why can’t We-Shin take his bath first?” I think as resentment wells up in my chest and I watch We-Shin now stop to parry and thrust his hand in imaginary swordplay. He thinks he’s the hero slaying a fiery dragon. Sometimes in his pretend-world he cuts me down with blood-curdling whoops, making me believe his sword has truly felled me.

Over the boys’ boisterous play, I hear the silvery tinkle of cowbells, but I can’t see the cows. Dusk comes early in December. The milkman is heading home, and the calf must be trotting close to its mother, nosing into her milk-heavy bosom, hoping to slake its thirst. It seems to understand already that human’s needs come before its own. The poor thing eats last.

“Mei-Lan, come here this minute or you’re in trouble,” Mama hollers somewhere downstairs.

“Coming, Ma,” I yell and cast another lingering glance at the field that looks like a giant checkered carpet laid on the ground. The raw hides that had been stretched out to dry there were removed several hours ago. Now it is a playground and communal gathering place for storytelling. My kung-kung, grandpa, promised a new story for this evening. He said that he would tell us about his adventures during his travels from China to India where we now live in Calcutta in the leather-tanning community of Tangra. Kung-Kung left China on a boat about forty years ago during the early twenties.

With pleading eyes, Ai-Lei extends an arm toward me. “Can I borrow your book while you take your bath?”

I clutch my comic book to my chest. Mama subscribes to a Hakka merchant who in turn has the books shipped to him from Hong Kong. “Promise you won’t fold or tear it like you did the last one I lent you.”

“I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Reluctantly I hand the book to Ai-Lei and make my way to the stairs. As I put one foot on the first step, the last couple of tanning machines stop their incessant thrumming, and all is quiet. I continue half-way down to the landing and deep voices float up. Somewhere, mongrel dogs yelp—Mama says there aren’t any pure breeds here in Tangra. Probably fighting over a piece of bone.

I reach the ground floor and see a group of men with serious faces, gathered at the tannery’s front door.

“I received a letter today from Ah-Ping, my brother in Assam,” Uncle Chin-Li says from his rattan stool.

Mr. Wu glances up from one of the concrete benches flanking the entrance. His Adam’s apple wobbles in the wrinkled neck, and he drawls in his boring way, “Chin-Li, what is the latest news there? How many more Chinese families have been rounded up by the police?”

Oh, oh…not more war talk. It’s too scary. I should head to the bathroom right now before I get into trouble. Still, even though adult-talks sometimes make my heart race, I can’t help listening.

Then, We-Shin’s howling reaches my ears. “Ooh…my eye…my eye.”

It looks like his over-zealous fencing partner has jabbed my brother’s eye. In a flash, Mama dashes past me. Her ears are ultra-sensitive to our distress calls. Good, she’s forgotten about my bath.

Uncle Chin-Li continues as if We-Shin’s cries are nothing more than background noise. “Two more families were arrested. My brother doesn’t know where they’ve been taken to. Rumor has it that these people aren’t coming home any time soon.”

Mr. Wu says, “I heard that the Chinese are being interned in Rajasthan.”

“Why Rajasthan?” Mr. Chiu asks beside him, his voice rising higher.

“There’s a concentration camp in Deoli. The police are arresting Chinese people on trumped-up charges of espionage.”

“Bloody government,” Mr. Wong growls from the other bench. “India’s Border War with China is over, but still they arrest whole families.”

I climb up to Uncle Chin-Li’s lap and wiggle my bum until I’m comfortable. He wraps his arms around me and says, “Ah-Ping wrote that it’s only a matter of time before he and his family will be taken away too. He can’t leave as they’re being watched.”

“So, what about us? Are they going to arrest us too?” Mr. Chiu squeaks, one foot nervously bouncing up and down on his toes while his head nods back and forth.

Mr. Wu clears his throat. His wrinkled face looks grave. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us, but I do know that no Chinese is safe right now.”

“But that’s so unfair. We haven’t done anything. There’s no spy among us.” Mr. Chiu whines.

“Ah-Ping says that the police come and arrest Chinese people with no warning. They won’t let you take anything you can’t carry yourself. The women there are sewing bags just like we are doing here, and stuffing whatever they can into these bags.”

“Yes, it’s the wise thing to do. We all have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” Mr. Wu says.

A queasy sensation seems to churn in my chest and stomach. I look up at Uncle Chin-Li. “Aren’t the police supposed to arrest only bad people?”

“Mei-Lan, why aren’t you out there playing with your brother? You shouldn’t be listening to adults talk,” Uncle Chin-Li musses my hair.

“But Uncle Chin-Li, are we going to jail?”

“Of course not, you silly girl. Now run along and play catch with your brother.”

I slide down from my uncle’s knees just as Mama stops at the door, one hand clutching We-Shin’s upper arm. Mama frowns at me. “Mei-Lan, I’m giving your brother a bath first. You stay right here, and I’ll come back for you.”

Another reprieve from my bath.

I slip back upstairs to the balcony overhanging the front entrance. Ai-Lei has left, and I can make out the outlines of the two wicker loungers’ high backs. I climb up to one of them and watch the occasional lights twinkling in the distance as a car or a scooter drives by on the road, beyond the wooden planks field. Sounds of conversation hum below where Uncle Chin-Li and the other men continue to debate the Chinese people’s fate in India. I wonder what this place, Deoli in Rajasthan is like. The adults mentioned concentration camp. I’m not sure what that means. I wish I hadn’t given my comic book to Ai-Lei. But it’s too dark to see now, so forget the book.

Suddenly I realize that an unusual quiet has settled over the place. I scramble down from my chair and look down through the gaps. A dark and boxy vehicle parks below. The doors open and four men step outside. They disappear underneath the balcony, and I hear someone speak in Hindi. I can’t make out the words.

With my heart somersaulting up to my mouth, I creep downstairs. At the bottom of the steps, I see a terrifying sight. Four men underneath the naked yellow lightbulb, each tapping his palm with a baton. Four policemen in khaki uniform. Uncle Chin-Li and the other men seem nervous. Mr. Wu’s jaws grind and his Adam’s apple wobbles. Shadowy figures emerge outside and form a silent semi-circle beyond the entrance.

One of the policemen now raps the ground with his baton as he clears his throat and barks, “Looking for Mr. Shau-Min Chen. Shau-Min Chen?”

Horror fills every inch of my body. What do they want with Papa?

“Why are you looking for him?” I turn my head toward the tannery when I hear Mama’s quivering voice.

Behind her, scrubbed and fresh-faced, We-Shin gazes at the policemen with curious eyes.

“Where is Mr. Shau-Min Chen? We’re here to take him in,” the leader says with an imperious stare. I can feel the almost palpable disdain oozing from his body.

“He’s not here right now,” Mama says with a hint of defiance.

“It’s okay, Lillian, I’m Shau-Min Chen,” a quiet assertive voice says behind Mama.

Papa walks upright past Mama and stands in front of her like a shield. The officer takes a few steps forward and faces my papa at eye level.

“What am I being charged with?” Papa asks quietly.

“You are under arrest for spying against our country for the Chinese government.” The officer’s gaze wavers.

From my position, I can see Papa’s rigid spine and squared shoulders. He says, “How does a working man like me, born and raised here in Calcutta, with no ties to anyone in the Chinese government become a spy?”

“We have it on good authority recorded on this piece of paper here that you were speaking out against India.” The officer waves a piece of flimsy paper. “There’s a Chinese flag raised on your roof. What other proof do you need?”

“Sir, may I point out that there is an Indian flag right next to the Chinese flag up there? What anti-India words have I spoken? My crime, if you want to call it one, is speaking out against the War. I don’t believe that any war is necessary.”

The officer, his chin jutting forward, isn’t in a mood to debate the merits of the War with Papa. He motions his lackeys to take Papa into custody. “Enough of this talk. You’re coming with us.”

Papa raises his hands to halt them, “Since you’re determined to arrest me for something I haven’t done, please tell me where you’re taking me.”

“You’ll be interned at Deoli in Rajasthan.”

“That’s a long way from Calcutta.” For the first time Papa sounds apprehensive. “Can I have a few minutes to say goodbye to my family and to collect my things, please?”

“Make it quick.” The officer snaps his fingers.

“Wait,” Uncle Chin-Li says with a stoic expression, “please arrest me instead of my brother-in-law. He has a wife and three small children. I’m single and I can take his place.”

The officer’s eyebrows quirk upward like wings in flight. A fleeting disconcerted shadow flickers in his eyes before he says, “I can take you in too if you want, but my orders are to arrest Shau-Min Chen only.”

Papa turns to Uncle Chin-Li and grips his shoulders. “Thank you. That’s foolish and brave. I need you to stay and take good care of your sister and the children when I’m gone.”

My uncle’s mouth trembles and he clenches his jaws. “I’ll be here when you return.”

Papa’s arm circles Mama’s waist and they walk together to our room. A few minutes later the door re-opens. In her arms, Mama holds my little brother, We-Lim still rubbing sleep from his eyes. Papa is carrying two dark blue cotton bags that I had seen Mama fill with clothes and utensils only a few days ago. I had wondered back then why Mama was sewing so many bags. They stop a few paces from the officer.

Suddenly Mama’s wail pierces the charged air. Some of the women among the onlookers wipe their cheeks with their sleeves, sniffing and blowing their nose unabashedly. My hands clutch the banister at the bottom of the stairs. Nobody seems to notice me in the shadows as I watch the entire drama unfolding in front of me. Papa is not a criminal. The police are supposed to arrest thieves and murderers. This is a mistake. They must let Papa go.

Papa drops the bags and embraces Mama and my baby brother. He bends his head and whispers something to her. She becomes quiet, but her shoulders continue to shake as he rubs her back. Papa looks up and sees me. “Come here, Mei-Lan.” He beckons me with his fingers while his other hand reaches for We-Shin who is standing by the side with clenched fists.

I put a tentative foot forward. Papa says encouragingly, “Come here, my princess.”

The short distance gapes like a mile. I want to run and hug my papa, but my legs won’t move. Papa takes a couple of steps and lifts me into his arms. He holds me so tight I feel like my breath would burst through my lungs. Then he puts me down and my legs go wobbly like jelly. I’m glad his hand is gripping my shoulder, or I would surely collapse. Papa goes down on his knees and gathers We-Shin and me. I will never forget how sad he looks as he says, “Papa has to go away. Your mama is going to need all your help now. Can I count on you to be her helpers?”

We-Shin nods, his tears shining in the stark, yellow light. I knuckle my eyes, not quite understanding why Papa has to go. The terrifying sensations tell me this is real, that I will not see Papa for a long time.

Mama’s shoulders shudder violently and she releases an animal-like howl that I can’t bear to hear. Papa straightens up and holds Mama close to him. “Please don’t cry, Lillian. You must stay strong for our kids. I’ll be back soon, just wait and see. The government will come to their senses and realize this is not right,”

His sad gaze sweeps over us again as he turns. “I’m ready to go, Officer.”

I watch Papa through blurry eyes, my tears falling fast and furious. He inclines his head toward us one last time. The expression on his face is seared into my brain. Then he steps forward toward captivity with his head held up high. My papa is not a not a criminal.

My heart weighs like a brick, straining so hard against my rib cage that I think it will break off and shatter into pieces. I wish I could turn the clock back. I wish I’d listened to Mama when she called me to go for my bath. Maybe Papa would not have to go away if I’d done what Mama wanted me to do. I turn and bury my face in Mama’s shirt as I fling my arms around her waist. I hear the car door close with a thud, and I lift my head to look for Papa.

He is gone, swallowed inside by the black van. I glance up at the officer as he lifts his feet off the ground. For a brief moment our eyes lock. I hold his gaze without flinching, willing from the bottom of my soul that he would change his mind. He blinks and closes the door.

With a roar, the engine comes to life. The big black box jolts back and forth a few times. Then its headlights turn away from us. Only the tail lights are now visible. Soon, they twinkle and vanish around the corner. I feel hollow with an emptiness I cannot touch or soothe. With We-Lim still clinging to her, Mama gathers We-Shin and me. She bows her head and sobs. I wish I can wipe her tears away, but I’m too busy wiping my own.

When Royalty Calls

By C. Fong Hsiung

 

“Hey, guys…guess who just called me?” I shouted as I dropped the phone back on its cradle, “the Queen of Bhutan.”

“The Queen of what?” Jasmin’s head popped up behind her partition.

I got out of my chair and strolled toward my office door. Leaning against the frame, I said, “Bhutan, Jazzy, have you never heard of Bhutan before?”

Jasmin wrinkled her nose, squinted, and shook her head. Susan, at the next work station glanced at me and then at Jasmin, her demeanor exuding confidence. She said, “Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayan Mountains, right?”

“What’s the commotion all about?” Robin came out of her office.

My chest wanted to explode with all the stories bubbling up toward my mouth. “I was on the phone with the Queen of Bhutan. She went to school with me in the seventies.”

“Whoa,” Robin released a long noisy breath, “no sh**.” She leaned on the low partition in front of Susan’s desk.

“It’s true. We went to the same boarding school in India. Many Bhutanese girls did too. Bhutan is a small country north of India and has less than a million people. They send some of their children to study in India. Even the King studied in Darjeeling, about an hour from my school.”

Now that I had my colleagues’ attention, I regaled them with stories about St. Helen’s, my home for nine months of the year, in a hill station called Kurseong. I told them about the conversation I just had with the Queen.

 

Forty-five minutes ago, when my phone rang, I’d picked it up without looking at it and said, “This is Fong. How can I help you?”

A woman chuckled in my ear. “Guess who I am?”

The accent stirred a memory. Of course, it did—that’s how I had sounded when I was a teenager growing up in India. “Hmm…I’m stumped. Are you from Calcutta?”

“Ha…you’re close, but no. Do you remember Tshering Pepe?”

I almost dropped the phone. “Tshering from St. Helen’s?”

Now her laughter sounded familiar. “What do you think?”

“That’s incredible. How did you find me?”

“I phoned your home and spoke to your son. He gave me your work number.”

“No, I mean how did you locate me here in Toronto? It’s been twenty-four or -five years since we left school in 1975.”

“It wasn’t all that hard. I saw your name on Batchmates, and I also found your website about our school.”

Tshering, pretty, fair-skinned with high cheekbones. Her voice and words parted the cobwebs shrouding my brain. Nostalgia laced my memories of the old stomping grounds. My alma mater, ancient and majestic like a castle with a spectacular view of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga Mountain peaks. Schoolgirls in ponytails, shrill voices of youth in dark uniforms, knee-high navy-blue socks, and shining black shoes. I remember the long walks on hilly roads, eyes seeking out exotic foreigners who braved up the Himalayas. Excited whispers when uniformed boys chanced by to gawk at the girls.

Breathlessly I asked, “What have you been up to all these years? Are you married? Any kids?”

“You’re too much,” she laughed, “one thing at a time. Do you remember Jigme Wangchuk?”

“OH, MY GOSH…you’ve got to be kidding. You’re married to the King of Bhutan?”

She giggled. “Yes, he’s my husband.”

“When did you get married?”

“In 1979.”

“I remember the big news about the King’s coronation when we were still in school. He was only eighteen at the time, right? Didn’t you have a crush on him even then?”

The familiar giggle again. Time stood still—in my mind I saw her eyes light up as she tossed her head back, two tight braids swinging behind her.

“So what’s it like being a queen?”

“Don’t get any ideas about it being grand. Like most people I have a job too. I work with a youth foundation which takes up quite a bit of my time. It’s my quiet time right now as it’s late in the evening here.”

“Do you have any children?”

“Yes, two girls and my youngest is a boy. He’s only five and he keeps me busy.”

“What about travels? Do you do state visits? Have you ever been to Canada?”

“No, I haven’t been to Canada yet. We have a mission in the United States. My daughters also go to school there, so I visit sometimes.”

 

I paused and watched the rapt faces of my colleagues. They hung on to my words. Robin, the designated computer guru, said, “Let’s search the web and find out more about your friend.”

I watched while Robin typed, “Queen of Bhutan” and then hit the enter-button. Pictures of Tshering, the King and many other people filled the small screen. I recognized the almond-shaped eyes above the prominent cheekbones and pointed chin. In snapshot after snapshot, she wore the kira, a traditional colorful robe worn by Bhutanese women. The dollish face and the trim figure still seemed girlish. I remembered how she loved to wear western style clothing whenever we had a school holiday or a special occasion. She loved to dance. She danced every Saturday evening during our free time at the recreation room, and at the heavily chaperoned socials with our brother school, Goethals Memorial.

Robin paused the mouse and said, “Check out her title: Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck,”

“I still can’t believe that we hooked up after all these years. How amazing is the internet, huh?”

Robin started to scroll down the page again. Something caught my eye. “Hey, hold your mouse right there. It says here that she is one of four sisters married to King Jigme Wangchuk.”

Jasmin’s eyes nearly popped out of the sockets. “Is that even legal?”

I mulled over this new piece of information. “Well, she’s married to the King.”

Robin grinned. “In case you’re not aware, but polygamy is illegal here.”

I folded my arms and said, “In our Hakka-Chinese community back in Calcutta, I knew a few men who had two wives living in the same household. But they were married a long time ago.”

Susan nodded. “Oh yes, I’ve heard that some Chinese men have concubines. Is that what you’re talking about?”

“No, these men actually married two women. Maybe the first wife couldn’t bear a son, or maybe marrying a second wife represented great status for the man. Who knows what the reasons were.” I shrugged.

I scanned the computer screen a bit more. “The article says that the four sisters were married to the King in a combined ceremony.”

Robin said, “I guess your friend is a queen, not the Queen. How well did you know her?”

“She was one grade above me. We weren’t best friends, but we were in a small and close-knit boarding school. We ate, slept, studied and played together for nine months of the year, so it was impossible not to know each other. I remember teasing her about her royal aspirations. In fact, all the Bhutanese girls were probably infatuated with their young and eligible king at that time. Who wouldn’t be? He was handsome and oh, so groovy looking.”

 

That evening I could hardly wait to go home and tell my teenage-son, Curtis, about his royal encounter—unbeknownst to him—earlier that day. “Did you know that the woman who telephoned this morning was a queen?”

Never one to hold back, he snickered, “Mom, if she’s a queen, then I’m the king of my backyard.”

Curtis was born in Toronto and nothing in his life experiences up to that point had prepared him for an encounter with royalty—albeit by phone. He teased me about my starry-eyed gushing. I forgave him for acting crass.

For most of us, everyday living graphs like a series of small spikes and plunges occasionally broken by a freakish high or low. But when a queen calls—yes, a real one—the peak goes off the chart; and the story gets better with each telling.

Musings to Stir My Muse

This is a three-sentence story based upon the theme, “Desire” that I posted on theprose.com. Read it and eat your heart out.

Don’t Leave Me

Desire

Desire

You purred past with your red swagger, blinking at me without shame. My heart stumbled, and I drew in a sharp breath. You stopped, waited for me, teased me with a growl, and then roared away into the setting sun’s flames.

The End

And this is a short poem centred around “Guilt.”

Tempt Me Not

ghirardelli-912759_1920

Temptress so fair

Creamy, fluffy, and soft

Melts in my mouth.

Dark chocolate rivers

Dripping, sweet, and seductive

Swirl in my mouth.

Cherry on top

Juicy, luscious and sinful

Pops in my mouth.

Cold hug, no more

Self-loathing, stop

Rue the moment.

A Presentation to Remember

This short story uses the prompt: She walked up to the manager, heart hammering and knees trembling.

She walked up to the manager, heart hammering and knees trembling. Surely he could hear the pounding inside her rib-cage. Michelle held her breath and said, “Jack, did you like my presentation?”

Jack looked up, his hands gathering the paper on his desk into a pile. She quailed at the steely eyes raking her face. “You made a fool of me with that piece of junk.” He spat the words out with a hiss.

She gasped. Nothing prepared her for this response. “Uh, what didn’t you like about it?” She pressed on against her better judgment.

“Everything,” his lips curled into a venomous sneer.

“Oh,” She breathed out like a slowly deflating ball. If she had a tail, she would have tucked it between her legs.

As she slunk out of Jack’s office, his administrative assistant waved at her. “Sheryl wants to see you right now.”

What did the vice president of her department want with her? Coming on the heels of the dressing-down that she just received, Michelle felt sick to her stomach. She hunched her shoulders and quickened her pace towards the VP’s office.

ipad-632512_640

“Well, if it isn’t my star presenter in the flesh,” Sheryl’s eyes crinkled when Michelle knocked on the open door.

Words tumbled out of Michelle’s mouth. “I’m sorry that the presentation went so badly. I’ll resign if you want me to.”

“Resign? Have you gone mad? Did you not hear what I just said? Our biggest client wants you to lead their campaign. If anyone is leaving, it’s Jack. I just fired his sorry ass.”

Publish Your Short Story

workstation-336369_640 (1)Do you want to publish a story on the web? Wondering if you’ve got what it takes to tell a story?

My goal is to assist people who are dabbling with words for the first time. Perhaps I can plant a seed in your head, and then help you find your voice for at least, one short story. After that you can decide whether you want to continue to write or not. Experience tells me that once you see your story posted on-line, you’ll get hooked. Most of the writers on my site have never written seriously before I invited them to try.

So how do you get started? Pick a writing prompt (click here) on my site to fire up your imagination. Write a story between 300 – 500 words long. Embed the selected prompt anywhere in your narrative. You may change the tense, but you cannot change anything else in the sentence. When you’re ready, copy and paste the entire text into the message part of the “Contact Me” page, and send it to me. I will edit your work and then return it to you. If you accept my changes, then I will post your story on my site, no strings attached. It may take a few weeks to make it to my blog. I’ll email you when it’s posted.

Why do I do this? Because until recently I was a new writer myself. Because it’s hugely gratifying when I can bring a complete novice along the writing journey and then see them grow as a writer. I want to encourage you to go even further. Stoke the fire in your author belly by downloading my resource-packed free e-book. As a bonus you’ll also get an Excel template to track the timelines of your characters and events for when you’re ready to write a novel.

So what are you waiting for? Start writing now. Claim your free e-book and Excel workbook from the sidebar.

The Agenda

A Short Story by Guest Writer, Diane Cormier

Writing Prompt: “Despite my three-inch heels I ran as fast as I could.”

office

Why is it that just when you think everything is going your way something goes wrong?

I got up at 5 AM, went to the gym, caught the 7:30 AM GO train later, and then headed for the subway. Crowds thronged the platform. “What’s wrong now?” I sighed impatiently.

“Attention, all subway customers on Line One. The northbound train on Yonge is turning back at Wellesley due to a fire alarm at Bloor Station. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Just great, I’d have to take the train to Wellesley and then walk the rest of the way to the office. This was one meeting I couldn’t be late for. Beyond the crowd I heard a sound. “Good, a train is arriving. I hope I can get on it. I have never seen so many people.”

Barely breathing I squeezed my way inside where I could hold on to a pole instead of falling on top of people every time the train jerked. When we reached Wellesley Station, everybody pushed to get off the train. I clamoured my way out to the platform, glanced up at the clock and saw that it was 8:45 AM. Fifteen minutes left to reach the office. I made my way outside. Ten minutes left to get in on time for the meeting that I had convened.

With my route mapped out in my head, and despite my three-inch heels I ran as fast as I could. I saw the office in front of me, but I resisted the urge to stop and look at my watch. Breathlessly I rushed into the elevator. When the door opened on my floor, I noticed the closed boardroom door and the unnatural silence as I stepped on the carpet. The receptionist looked up and motioned me to let me know that the meeting had started without me.

I handed her my coat, adjusted my jacket, and squared my shoulders as I took a deep breath and entered the boardroom. The room suddenly went quiet. I looked at the faces around the table—some uncomfortable and a few with silly smirks. I said, “It’s unfortunate that I was late for this meeting, but it was unavoidable and could have happened to anyone.”

I glanced at the agenda. Listed on top was, “Tardiness & Attendance.” Pin-drop silence…and then someone giggled. I looked up at the offender and noticed everyone joining in. I tried to suppress my smile. No one missed the irony.

“The point I’m making is that we can’t use this as an excuse to abuse the system. Let’s move on to the next item,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster.

Suddenly Alone – A Short “Shorts”

Suddenly Alone

Contributed by Guest Writer: Diane Cormier

Writing Prompt:  I walk past this hole in the wall, every instinct telling me to keep going.

man-415634_640Tommy’s gone.

I hate when people say, “He may be gone but he’s in a better place.” How can being dead be better? We were so happy planning our life and getting our new house ready for the big family we planned to have. The police said I can now go back into our house as they have finished their investigations. I hesitate. My chest tightens—my breath squeezes out in tight spurts.

“Okay, calm down,” I think. “Nothing can hurt you.”

Something tugs my hand. I look down and see Digby, my beautiful German Shepherd, gazing up and pulling me towards the door. The poor dog probably thinks Tommy is waiting on the other side with doggie treats hidden behind his back. They enjoyed playing this game. They never got tired of it.

Tears come to my eyes. Oh, why did I go visit my sister? The trip achieved nothing–we are not any closer for it. Now the only person who I need and want in my life is gone. That fateful call has changed everything. Once again I am alone.

“Digby, settle down. Let me find the key.”

Wait, why is the door unlocked? Maybe the police forgot to lock up when they finished their investigation. I bend down to remove Digby’s leash, and he covers me with doggie kisses. As I wipe my face Digby takes off. I want to run after him but realize that he’s just looking for his best friend.

I stand up and reluctantly move towards the living room. It is too quiet, but nothing is out of place. The sun shines upon the usual spots, yet my heart beats a bit too fast as my eyes adjust to the brightness. Something doesn’t feel quite right. I walk past this hole in the wall, every instinct telling me to keep going. I hesitate—that hole wasn’t there before. Goose bumps travel up and down my arms. I have a really bad feeling about this, but I need to take a closer look.

Suddenly Digby blocks my way. He jumps up and nearly knocks me down. “It’s okay, boy. I just need to take a closer look.”

Why can I not move? Some unseen force holds me back. I shake off the feeling and move closer to the hole. Should I get a flashlight?

All of a sudden I feel someone behind me. I hold my breath and turn slowly. “Tommy! My story is about to get to an important part.”

Tommy grabs my waist and kisses me. “Did you kill me off in your story?”

“Well, you did make me mad this morning, so yes, I killed your character.”

He laughs and says, “I gotta get back to work.”

“Tommy, don’t forget to fix that hole in the wall”

 

Forgetful

A Short Story by

Diane Cormier

Writing Prompt: She fumbled in her purse but came up short.

brandy-402572_640A red heart drawn into the calendar on Saturday…what did it mean? “What did I forget now? Hmm…oh no, today is Saturday. It’s our 40th wedding anniversary.” She cannot believe that once again she forgot to book the reservation that Jason had asked her to make.

She could picture Jason ranting about how she only had one thing to do, and yet she couldn’t even get that right. Most women make a big deal reminding their husbands about this major event; this one was amazed that hers still loved her after all these years of forgetting.

Now she racked her brain, but she just couldn’t remember where she had placed the note that Jason wrote the restaurant’s name on. She tapped her chin. Where was the one place she put everything in besides the kitchen sink?

She ran up to her room and reached for the closet shelf. Eagerly she fumbled in her purse but came up short. Impossible! She always placed all of Jason’s notes—and there were many—inside the little case, but even that was missing. She could hear Jason in her head, “Honey, how could you lose the one thing I had specially made to attach to that suitcase you call a purse?”

Jason’s home.

She rushed to the mirror and looked at herself—nothing that some make-up and a sexy outfit couldn’t fix while she poured him his favorite drink. With the finishing touches to her face done, she headed downstairs. It was too quiet. She wondered what her husband was up to.

“Jason.” No reply. Funny…she was sure she heard the front door open and close. Maybe he was in the shed tinkering with his new tools. That should give her more time to fix a snack, have his drink ready, and search again for the missing case.

BOOM…noise from the backyard.

Heart pounding she raced to the back door. “Jason,” she called and opened the door, oblivious to possible dangers on the other side. She stopped suddenly as many faces smiled at her and yelled, “SURPRISE!”

With a hand on her heart she looked through the crowd and spotted Jason. He held the missing case up high. Furious, she marched over to him and stuck out her hand. He gently put the case in her palm, leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Honey, I had a feeling you would forget.”

He then grabbed her around the waist. As she leaned into his embrace she whispered, “I can’t promise I won’t forget again, but oh, you are going to pay for this one.”

Jason laughed. She tried to keep a stern face, but he hugged her even tighter. “After 40 years I kinda know what my punishment might be.”

She grinned. “Honey, I feel a headache coming on.”

The End

The Homecoming

The Homecoming

by

Sanjula Sharma

First published in a collection of stories, The Cameo Sheaves, by the same author.
Publisher: Ambience Publishing, New Delhi, India

What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair.

— Milton

Evening Scene(blog)I

It was one of those rare summer evenings that generously lent a soft breeze to cool the nerves and check the oppressive heat. Nothing was depressingly still, yet there was a calm quiet that was soothing. Mother Nature was at her kindest best, delving deep into her generous bounty to placate sweaty brows and frayed nerves. And wipe off the brows of slumberous languor. In short, this was an atypical July evening with no heat.

Ved stood at the window, quiet as the falling dusk itself, an earnest expression on his aging but striking face. He had turned forty-five that day. Not that it mattered, for what was a birthday but just another milestone in man’s humdrum life? At least, that’s what Ved Mehta thought. Or rather, would have liked to believe.

Sober, unassuming and suave, Ved was content with reasonable wealth that had always been ubiquitous in his pampered life. He craved little for a slice of the material consumerism that had become an integral part of urban India in the nineties. Fortunately, his faithful and lovely wife shared his altruistic vision of a slow-paced, comfortable life. Happy with a beautiful house in the quiet town of Dehradun, an exceptionally well-planned front garden and a close circle of like-minded friends, Nina let life drift by, quite indifferent to its uneventfulness. But today, as she sat in the large living room, chatting quietly with their new neighbor, she glanced towards her husband with an uneasy expression on her face. She sensed a familiar restlessness in him and instinctively understood why…

II

She will be here soon, he thought, eyes fixed on the gravelled path lined with the season’s late gerberas. They were changing colour now as the sun dipped lower into the horizon, gracefully and splendidly retiring for the night. Evening time was always beautiful in this Valley town at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas—slow-paced, sombre and soft. But strangely Nature’s charisma failed to rejuvenate Ved as he stood still at the window. Insensitive to the natural panorama unfolding before him, Ved had eyes only for the front gate, knowing it would open soon…

He could feel a familiar excitement rise up within him, pervade his senses with fervent longing. He could barely contain the mounting happiness that was flooding his being, could barely stand still with the impatience of feeling so alive….He had waited so long for this special moment. Dreamt of it since months! The homecoming of his beloved daughter.

“Papa!” Her clear, sweet voice floated across the manicured stretch of lush green lawn. Untidy hair blowing in the balmy breeze, light-footed as a hare, she raced towards the house, uncaring for her disheveled appearance, or her bag flung carelessly near the front gate. She rushed into the drawing room with a characteristic clatter, bringing in with her all the excitement and natural liveliness of a seventeen-year old.

“Papa! Mummy! I’m home!” Anamika announced, breathless and flushed. She kissed her mother lovingly and then ran towards Ved, “Papa! Happy birthday, my dearest Papa!” She hugged him tight with the natural spontaneity of youth and produced a bouquet of red roses from behind her back—the stems broken, leaves crushed and soft petals torn asunder—but to Ved’s partial eyes, simply perfect!

“Gosh! It’s so good to be home! Did you miss me as much as I did?” Anamika demanded, prancing around the room in high excitement, peering out at the falling darkness. Soon, tired and restless, she almost tumbled onto the newly upholstered sofa, launching into an incessant chatter. Of course, she had plenty to say, coming home after almost eight months from her university hostel in Delhi. Her mother sat smiling, indulging in her child’s vivacious chatter and admiring her husband’s equanimity in the face of this verbal onslaught.

“It’s such a lovely evening! Let’s have the birthday dinner on the lawn, please Mummy!” Anamika pleaded, as she rushed upstairs to her room for a quick wash. By the time an elaborate dinner was laid out under the gently swaying jacaranda trees Anamika had met everybody in the house, including Frisky, the newest addition to the family kennel.

“He’s so sweet!” she declared, hugging the little ball of Pomeranian fur. She had changed into her favourite pair of old jeans and a comfortable blue shirt. Plain, ordinary clothes that still made her look extraordinary…for they could not take away the brightness of her large, expressive eyes or the endearing sweetness of her youthful face. Nor the unsullied purity of her loving heart.

“Papa, that chair is not comfortable enough. Sit on this one,” she insisted, willingly vacating the lounge chair for him. Her mother laughed, knowing this gesture was setting the note for the entire summer break. Adoring daughter would pamper her devoted father with unceasing attention and undisputed zest. Anamika served Ved his food now, just the way he liked it—a little of one dish, a dash of that. No heaped plateful for him. Tonight he could hardly eat, so full was he with the presence of his beloved daughter. His wife chided him gently for just pecking at the Kheer, the special milk and rice dessert that was an eternal favourite of the Mehta family.

“Papa! You’re looking much too thin, you know!” Anamika pronounced suddenly, her beautiful eyes filled with anxious concern. “Hasn’t he lost weight, Mummy?”

“I haven’t lost even a kilo!” Ved protested indignantly, yet secretly revelling in the sweet ministrations of his only child. Of course, she was not satisfied till Babu, their old helper, brought out the ancient weighing machine and Ved reluctantly agreed to perch precariously on it.

“There!” Anamika shouted triumphantly. “Two whole kilos and you don’t even know! I can never be wrong about you, dearest Papa.” She got up suddenly to give him an affectionate hug. He hugged her back, bleary-eyed and smiling at his wife.

It was past midnight when they decided to go into the house. They rose slowly, reluctant to leave the sylvan darkness, the warm dregs of shared tea and their sweet intimacy behind…Theirs was a magical family bond that always came alive with Anamika’s sweet presence. Her coming home was the highlight of the Mehtas’ existence. She filled the house with so much laughter and bubbling spirits, it was impossible not to feel animated when she was around. She was life’s greatest blessing to them and like always, Ved realised this more than ever on his birthday.

Like an angel treading softly on earthly ground, Anamika tiptoed into her parents’ bedroom that night and customarily left their gifts quietly on the side-table. She did this always; had done so ever since she was a child and went away, even if for a day.

In keeping with the ritual, Ved pretended to be asleep, not wanting to spoil her childish pleasure at the planned surprise. She had a right on all their feelings, even one of pretended delight!

Anamika had barely left the room, having done her angel act when Ved switched on the lamp and quietly unwrapped his birthday gift, not wanting to disturb his sleeping wife. Elegantly framed in nonreflecting glass and beautifully painted was a striking imitation of Monet’s celebrated work—the Water Lilies. His darling child had painted this herself, knowing this was his favourite piece of art; he could never afford the original or be satisfied with its reprint. The soft lamp-light fell on the pristine white flowers enhanced by the background of blue water and splendid verdure…Ved’s aesthetic eye could see much beyond the bold strokes, and their amateurism and he realised at once how much toil and sweet labour had gone into creating this beautiful painting. Only for him.

Eyes moist, he turned the painting over, instinctively knowing she would explain her loving act. “Dear Papa, I took almost three months to complete this! Each stroke is a reflection not of art or beauty, but something beyond that—my unfailing regard for you.” She had done it again. Performed her coup de love. Expressed her affection for him in a manner that could only be unique, for it came straight from her generous, unspoilt heart. He held the painting aloft, against the light, and it was as if the inanimate lilies came alive and spoke to him. Not of their own beauty or the supreme inspiration of their original artist, but the unmatchable quintessence of his beloved child.

Holding the painting lovingly in his hands, he went downstairs and made his way to his favourite nook in the living room. There, near the armchair, hung an English landscape on the wall—pretty but now worthless in comparison to what he was holding in his hands. “This is mere art, not life,” he muttered, as he quickly removed the reprint of Turner to replace with his precious gift. Then, sighing deeply with contentment, he stood back to admire it. This priceless masterpiece from her loving hands…

III

He couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see the Water Lilies at all. Startled, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief and looked again. Moments passed, as he stood there, unmoving, just gazing helplessly at the blank wall. Its harsh emptiness mocked him; its silent, characterless whitewash shook him out of his stunned stupor. Slowly a look of sad understanding dawned on his wan face. The excited glow left his eyes and in its stead remained two dark pools of unfathomable pain.

From her sofa, Nina anxiously watched her husband and saw his sudden change of expression. Tears filled her eyes and she explained sadly to her companion, “It has always been this way with him. He’s never stopped pining for the daughter we never had.”

She excused herself and the guest left, knowing the couple needed their privacy. Nina walked up to her silent husband, gently took his limp hand in hers and whispered softly, “She’ll never come, you know. There’s to be no homecoming.”

She was familiar with her husband’s recurring birthday dream, understood it and even felt it. Long into the quiet evening, they stood together at the window, watching the sun go down on their hopes, knowing no light-hearted step would ever resound on their gravelled path. No sweet voice ever fill the emptiness of their large house or the silent corners of their sad hearts…like always, she was the first to move but not away. Self-consciously but fervently, she hugged him tight and for the first time said what she had always wanted, all those long, barren years, “Anamika can never be. But let’s find a rainbow…just you and me.”

Ved gave her a long, thoughtful look and then smilingly, pointed silently towards the cloudless sky. There, shining like a king among the eternal beacons of the night, was the full moon. Nina gazed at it and then at Ved in amazement. Never on all his previous birthdays had he looked at anything but his own heavy heart, always comforting himself in the solitude of their room and the darkness of his gloomy thoughts. Letting a total eclipse shroud the intimacy they otherwise shared…

But now, he led her gently towards his favourite corner, pointed to the blank wall and said, “I think I could paint the Water Lilies sometime…maybe tomorrow.”

Nina heard the quiet resolve in his strong voice and for the first time in many years, felt a flicker of hope. His dream of a homecoming had finally ended.

 

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Short Shorts: Dreaming

Dreaming

DREAMING

Guest writer: DIANE CORMIER

Writing Prompt: He glances at his leg when something warm and moist trickles down from his knee.

Sitting here, day dreaming.

Nikki is in the kitchen making dinner. Maybe she’ll make something better than mac and cheese tonight. “I know, I know, I shouldn’t complain.” It’s just that sometimes he wishes for more.

He can see himself lying on a beach, drinking margaritas with all his friends around him. All those women in their bikinis, parading around him and vying for his attention. Oh this is the life. No responsibilities, no family, no worries.

“Waahhh!” What is Jake crying about now? Not now, not when it’s getting good. Can’t he get some alone-time without all this noise? Jake stops crying.

“Good, now where was I?” Oh yes the beach, the fine women, the bachelor‘s carefree life. Sigh…how he misses that life when everyone gathered at his beach house, and they all talked about nothing. All they were interested in was which girl they wanted to spend the night with.

Who is that blonde one over there who keeps looking his way or that sexy brunette who won’t look his way? Interesting… “I wonder why she’s avoiding me. Who is this mysterious woman?” She looks familiar but he can’t quite place her. All legs and a body he’d love to hold onto. Wait…she’s turning around. He can almost see her face. “Honey, honey, where are you?”

She turns…a gorgeous goddess!

He reaches out to touch her hand, but there’s an object in the way. He glances at his leg when something warm and moist trickles down from his knee. He glances up, and there’s Nikki holding their grandson, Jake and a cup half filled with warm milk.

With a start he realizes that the dream is over. He groans. Honey, where did you go this time?

Then he looks up at his beautiful Nikki, “Honey I was thinking about the first time we met. Back then you spilled something on me too.”

Nikki just smiles, hands Jake to him and says, “Dinner’s almost ready, and it’s Jake’s favorite, mac and cheese.”

As she walks away he sees a distant look in her eyes. Oh yes, she remembers. He has a feeling tonight is going to be special just like it was when he first met her. But first things first, let’s cuddle with Jake, and yes, eat mac and cheese.

The End

Short Shorts: Writing Prompt 2

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“Run,” I screamed as the cow charged towards us. My brain told me to run, but my voice died in my throat. My feet felt like lead as I stood in the path of the massive animal, its curved, menacing horns pointed at me.

Someone pushed me just as the dirty brown body barreled past. Adele, my seven-year-old cousin, fell on top of me. She saved my butt yet again. Our little limbs flailed as we struggled to get up.

“Get off me, you’re hurting me,” I said and shoved her to the side.

She stood up, tossed her head back and released a loud cackle. She rocked back and forth, eyes sparkling with glee. Her full-bellied laugh implied, “I know how to take care of you better than you can.”

“What’s so funny?” I asked churlishly while I hauled myself up. I patted down my dark blue, mud-stained skirt. Mom’s not going to be happy about my dirty uniform.

Adele pointed at the cow running away from us. The sight made me burst into tears, and I sat down on the unpaved road. Dangling around the cow’s neck like an over-sized necklace was my colorful, single-strap, cotton schoolbag that held my grade two school supplies. The square-shaped floral satchel hung like a pendant swaying side to side.

From the corner of my eyes I saw a figure dash past me. Dhoti hitched above his knees, one dark-skinned hand waved as if the motions could stop the running cow in its track. He caught up with the cow, patted its back, whispered in its ear, and deftly removed my schoolbag.

I recognized the local electrician and handy-man as he approached me. When he held out my bag, he said, “Next time stop clowning around when you’re walking on the street.”

I gulped, nodded, and wiped my tears on my shirt-sleeved arm.

Adele reached for my hand and pulled me up. “Let’s go home,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said in a small voice. I’ll learn to take better care of myself in the future.

 

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Short Shorts Number 1

Writing Prompt: “She knocked down a glass spilling the contents over his cellphone.”

SOUL MATES

by C.Fong Hsiung

Soul Mates

Soul Mates

He tapped restless fingers on the glass table. He wondered why, earlier that day, Tracy had said, “I don’t want to talk about this over the phone. Let’s meet tonight.”

With a sense of foreboding he watched Chelsea eat her dinner. Her golden mane gleamed as the evening sun kissed the soft waves. His heart twisted at the thought of giving her up. He had a feeling Tracy would demand that from him when they met that night.

He sighed. Chelsea continued eating oblivious to the turmoil raging in his head. Mentally he braced himself for the meeting with Tracy. He rehearsed what he’d say to her. “Chelsea and I have a special bond that cannot be broken, but I promise it won’t come between you and me.”

That sounded lame. He tried again. “You and I are soul mates. Nothing can come between us, not even Chelsea.”

The phone rang. Something swished past him. With a crash, she knocked down a glass spilling the contents over his cellphone. Quick as lightning, his hand shot across the table and lifted it from the puddle. “Chelsea, look what you’ve done.”

The ringing ceased. As he strode across the kitchen floor for the paper towel, he said, “You need to watch where you’re going. My phone’s probably ruined.”

He wiped the face plate until it shone, and then he tapped an icon. The phone dinged. He released a low whistle. “Whew, close call.” He flipped through the missed calls’ list and groaned. That was Tracy.

Chelsea whimpered. He looked into the soulful eyes that followed him. “I’m sorry for yelling at you. Come here, give me a hug.”

Tail wagging, she bounded towards him. “The hell with Tracy,” he thought as Chelsea licked his face. “If she thinks I’m giving up my dog for her, she’s in for a shock.”

Sharing is Good

ShareYourStoryDo you think you have some latent desire to be a writer? Would you like to explore your inner author? Let me help you stoke the embers.

Here’s the deal:

I will provide you with a writing-prompt—one sentence—every week to get you started. You embed the sentence anywhere in your 300 to 500 word narrative. If you feel like sharing your work, I’ll publish it on the “Short Stories” section of my website. Pretty cool, huh? I reserve the right to edit your work before I post it. You keep the rights to your story always.

Writing Tips:

When you write your “shorts”, you should have a character, conflict and resolution. Use dialogues as much as possible to drive your fiction.

Ready to Share?

Send me your story via the “Contact Me” tab on my website. Enter the writing prompt in the subject line. Then paste your story in the message box.

This Week’s Prompt:

She knocked down a glass spilling the contents over his cellphone.

And Finally:

Have some fun and release your creative juices. Go ahead and share this with anyone who has a hidden writer inside them.

That’s it!

 

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sw_PenOnManuscript_ncp9648.jpgBy jpp
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30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: What an Experience

A Free Course, Reblog-hop-150x150ally

Is anything really free these days? The only thing I can think of is the air that we breathe. But wait, let me tell you about D’vorah Lansky’s 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge. Not only was it free, it DELIVERED…day after day during the thirty days. And the best part of it all…you don’t need to spend a cent if you don’t want to and still get the full benefit of the course. Did I get your attention yet?

Converting a Skeptic

I started out as a skeptic. How much can I really learn from a free course? You heard the saying before: “You get what you pay for.” Well, not this time. D’vorah packed so much content into the 30-Day Challenge that I could barely keep up. I stayed up late at night listening to the webinars and constantly reading the great variety of materials provided. The posts teased and pushed my brain to its limit. How do I get the best out of all these marketing tips? So many to choose from, and I still have a day job to do.

My Ah-ha Moment

On Day 18 of the Challenge, I listened to Kristen Eckstein speak about serializing books on Kindle. I knew right there and then that I’d found a strategy that would suit me perfectly. My fiction, Picture Bride, will be published by a traditional publisher during fall 2014. I don’t have a book out yet, but I have many short stories that I’m still editing. Why not release some of these stories as a series on Kindle? And for my free giveaway for anyone signing up on my website, I started to write an ebook called How to Stir the Writing Fire in Your Belly.

I was on fire. I signed up for Kristen’s Kindle in 30 Challenge for the discounted rate of $97. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you don’t have to pay for anything if you don’t want to. I’ve just started this course and hoping to self-publish my first ebook soon.

About My Novel

Picture Bride is about a young Hakka Chinese girl from India who marries a cold and aloof stranger in Canada. Bound by tradition and culture, she stays in the marriage despite his uncaring ways and even after she discovers his secret. Then when she is forced to flee, she is spurned by her father who cares only about his honor and reputation.

If you enjoyed this post please share the love and tell someone.

 

Just Call Me John

Lennon

Chris sprinted up the stairs and exited the subway station. He paused, turned his head one way and then another with a frown on his handsome young face. His ears strained to hear the usual melodious guitar rhythm. But nothing interrupted the hum of the rush hour traffic.

Chris rounded the corner. There he was, John, his homeless friend and his border collie, Buddy. He exhaled a white misty breath. Since he began working at Wishing Star, he’d seen John and Buddy at this same spot every morning.

“Hey there, where’s your guitar?” Chris handed John a muffin in a brown paper bag and a cup of coffee—their Tuesday morning routine. Then he rubbed Buddy’s furry neck. The dog nuzzled its snout against his legs as it swished its tail.

“My guitar was stolen last night.”

“Shucks…that’s too bad. How did it happen?”

“It was my own fault. I left it outside the men’s washrooms at Union Station for a few minutes.”

“That sucks. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

John’s face clouded. “Nah, it’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me.”

“This place doesn’t feel or sound the same without your music. Why don’t you borrow my guitar while we figure out how to replace yours?”

John’s eyes shone bright. “You would do that for me?” His voice quivered.

Red faced, Chris said, “Aw, it’s nothing. You’re special and you need the instrument more than I do.”

Yes, John was no ordinary panhandler. Passersby stopped to watch his fingers dance and pick the strings, coaxing out heart-warming melodies. When they dropped a coin or a note for him, it was paltry exchange for the glow in their hearts.

“Thanks, kiddo. Let me know what I can do to repay you for all you’ve done.”

Chris shrugged and waved. “Don’t mention it. I’ll see you tomorrow.” His footsteps crunched leaving a trail of imprints on the fresh, white snow.

These meetings began a year ago on a morning like this one when Chris felt a tug at his jeans. He looked down and gazed into Buddy’s limpid eyes. The canine nuzzled its snout into his leg with dogged insistence until he realized that he was meant to follow. He discovered John, half prone on the pavement, and propped against a wall, coughing and wheezing. Quickly Chris hailed a cab and accompanied them to the nearest hospital where he checked John in. A few days later, John and Buddy were back on the pavement, the gentle hobo strumming the most melancholic tune that twisted and stirred Chris’ heart like no words could. Since then Chris always stopped to chat, and a friendship blossomed.

***

The next day Chris rounded the same corner. John and Buddy were nowhere in sight. He tightened the grip on his guitar. A chill snaked down his back…it had nothing to do with the January air nipping at his face. A bone-chilling gust whipped up a stray paper food-wrap, tossing it around before depositing it at the spot where John and Buddy should have been. He breathed in deeply. John was probably heeding the cold weather warnings. Where would that be for a homeless man? John never spoke about himself. He once mentioned his family in the past tense during a momentary lapse.

Another morning passed and still no John or Buddy. Late that afternoon Chris’ cell phone vibrated in his trouser pocket. He watched the unknown number glowing in his palm before answering.

“Is this Christopher Hughson?” a deep voice asked.

“Yes, this is Chris.”

“My name is Aaron Silverberg. I’m calling about John Evan?”

“Who’s he? I don’t know anyone by that name.”

“Perhaps he went by another name. John preferred to be anonymous most of the time. He has a border collie, Buddy. They’re inseparable.”

“Oh, that John. Is everything alright?”

Silence. “John died two days ago.”

Chris closed his eyes. When he opened them, he stared at a cartoon on his desk with unseeing eyes. “How did this happen?”

“John was walking Buddy when a driver mounted the curb plowing into both of them. Miraculously, Buddy escaped, but John died on the scene.”

“Can you tell me again who you are and how you are related to John?”

“Aaron Silverberg of Silverberg and Partners. I’m John’s lawyer.”

“John has a lawyer?”

“John probably didn’t tell you much about himself. Can we meet sometime tomorrow in my office?”

“I don’t understand. I knew John as a homeless man, at least that’s what I thought. Why would a lawyer want to meet with me and tell me things about John?”

“You are named on his will.”

Chris’ jaws dropped. Not only did John have a lawyer, but he also had a will. “Hey, Mister, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I’m not falling for it.”

“I can assure you that this is not a joke. I’m not in the habit of calling up people to pull such a distasteful prank.” Chris heard the stiffness in Aaron’s tone.

“Uh, sorry.”

“So can you meet me tomorrow?”

“Okay,” Chris muttered. He grabbed a pen and scribbled as Aaron called out the address. When the call ended, he clasped his fingers behind his head and rocked his chair back and forth.

“Slacking off, Chris?”

Chris turned towards the intruder. “Bob, you know the homeless man I’ve been talking to for the last year or so? I just found out that he was killed in an accident.”

“Oh, bummer. Weren’t you trying to raise money to replace his guitar?”

“Yes, that’s not all. I just finished talking to his lawyer.”

Bob lifted an eyebrow. “A homeless man with a lawyer? I’ve heard stories about panhandlers who make a lot of money pretending to be poor. Then they go home to their big screen TV at the end of the day.”

“John’s not like that. He never asked for money. People just assumed that he needed it and dropped spare change on the floor in front of him.”

“Lawyers don’t come cheap. He must have made quite a lot of money.” Bob snickered.

“I’m really bummed out by his death.”

***

Early next morning, Chris entered Silverberg and Partner’s office. His sneakers sank noiselessly into the carpet as he approached the receptionist who peered at him behind black-rimmed glasses.

“Christopher Hughson to see Aaron Silverberg.”

“Take a seat right there while I call Marsha.”

Chris chose a black leather couch facing the double glass-paneled doorway. A few minutes later, a silver-haired woman in a black skirt-suit emerged. “Christopher Hughson? Follow me, please.”

Marsha led Chris to an office a few doors down the hallway. A black-suited man behind the dark mahogany desk raised his head as Marsha knocked. He gazed at them behind two neat piles—tan file folders stacked about a foot high beside two large bound books. He closed a binder, rose to his feet and came around the desk with an extended hand.

“So glad you could make it here. I’ve heard a great deal about you from John.” Aaron’s mouth lifted at the corners.

“Pleased to meet you too, Sir,” Chris said as they shook hands.

Aaron gestured toward one of the two visitor’s chairs. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve asked to see you.”

Chris shrugged self-consciously.

“John changed his will a few months before he died. He used to own a thriving business. Our firm has handled John’s legal matters for a long time. When his wife and only son died in an airplane that his son was piloting a couple of years ago, he was devastated. After selling his business he took to the streets, often sleeping there because he couldn’t bear to go home and be alone.”

“No wonder he didn’t seem like an ordinary panhandler. And yet, he didn’t turn down the money people gave him.” Chris said.

“Ah, the money he earned performing on the streets. John gave all that to charity. He never kept any of it. He loved that you brought him breakfast,” Aaron said.

“I thought he was homeless.”

“It was just like John to keep up the charade. He appreciated your friendship especially because you didn’t judge him. He has willed you something.”

Chris’ eyes widened. “Why? He doesn’t owe me anything.”

“No, he doesn’t, but he thought highly of you. He wants you to look after Buddy.”

“I’m flattered that he would trust me with Buddy.” Chris had considered adopting a dog. He had mentioned it to John once.

“There’s more.” Aaron cleared his throat. “John has left you a million dollars for the studio you’ve been dreaming of starting. His only condition is that you treat Buddy well.”

Chris expelled a deep breath. He gulped hard and opened his mouth. But only a strangled sound escaped.

Aaron’s eyes twinkled as he said, “Sometimes I understand silence better than words.”

The End

A Midnight Feast to Remember


This is a short story I wrote about school girls in a boarding school, who broke the rules to have a midnight feast, and got more than they bargained for. I hope you enjoy reading it.

“Do you remember the story about the ghost in the toilets?” Pushpa asked as she bit into a spicy samosa, a deep-fried Indian snack.

I muffled a nervous laugh and glanced around the cramped quarters of the laundry closet where our midnight feast was in progress. Shadows danced around the three of us. “Are you scared? I don’t believe in that crap.”


Pushpa’s eyes glowed bright over the flashlight. “I do. Jasmin told me that her older sister saw a white figure disappear into one of these toilets many years ago before we became boarders here. She waited for the person to come out, but no one ever did.”


“Stop it, you two. You’re scaring me.” Anjali huddled closer to Pushpa and me as she scooped a handful of munchies.


“So why has no one seen any ghosts while we’ve been here?” I asked. We had been students at St. Mary’s School for the past seven years since we were in Kindergarten. 


Pushpa tapped her chin. “You know places like this are always haunted. Our school has been around since the British built it in the early 1900’s. Think about how many people have lived and died here.”


“So do you think the ghosts are English or Indian?” I chuckled.


“Could be Chinese too. You’re not the first Chinese to study in this school.” Pushpa punched my arm playfully.


A cool draught blew into the laundry closet through the mesh door, beyond which a window opened into the starlit sky where the full harvest moon hung low. I shivered.


“Shhh, I think I hear a rustling sound,” Anjali’s finger crossed over her lips.


We held our breaths and listened. Someone coughed. A moan followed. Normal sounds for a dorm full of sleeping schoolgirls.


“Must be your active imagination,” I whispered as I spooned a milk curd ball, rasgulla, into my mouth.


Anjali nudged me. I shoved her hand aside. “Stop that. You’re too squeamish for these midnight feasts.”


“Uh, Jackie…” Pushpa applied pressure on my arm causing me to look up.


“Stop…oh, Sister Yvette!” I hid my hands behind my back and clamped my mouth.


Sister Yvette’s white silhouette, framed against the moonlight, sent a tingle along my spine. Caught red-handed with our illicit grub bought with a day-student’s assistance—school policy prohibited outside food—we cowered and inched closer to one another.


“Pack up your stuff and go back to bed. Tomorrow morning you will report to Mother Superior at 8 o’clock.” Sister Yvette’s voice sounded hollow. I almost expected to hear an echo.


Without a word, we picked up the remnants of our feast—at least most of the food was already in our stomachs. As we walked by Sister Yvette, she held out her hands. One by one we gave up our precious goodies to her.


******************************
At eight o’clock sharp, I picked up the dreaded brass bell outside Mother Superior’s office. The wooden handle felt uncomfortable and hard in one hand. The other held the ringer inside the surrounding metal. I did not want the ringer and metal to collide before we were ready. Mother Superior could only be summoned with one chime. Any more would bring the wrong nun to the door. We didn’t need any more trouble than we had already.

“Here, do you want to do the honours?” I offered the bell to Pushpa. My palms felt sweaty.


“No way, you do it. You’re the brave one. If I make a mistake, I’ll get into trouble.” Pushpa knew when to dodge a sticky situation.


“You’re such a scaredy cat,” Anjali said.


“Then why don’t you do it?” Pushpa’s thick eyebrows arched.


“I would, but the last time I rang for Mother Superior, I accidentally made two dings and Sister Rosalind came out instead. She gave me two demerit points for my mistake.” 


“Alright, I’ll do it.” I sighed, shrugged and then inhaled deeply while I steadied my grasp. With a flick of my wrist, the ringer struck metal. The high pitched chime resonated from Mother Superior’s opaque glass door to the other end of the corridor, where two ponytailed heads peeked out of a classroom door. Although I could not see their expressions, I was certain they wondered about our plight.


While we waited for Mother Superior, I shifted my weight from one foot to another. I sighed at the memory of the remaining goodies that we gave up to Sister Yvette. Too bad she had lived up to her nickname, Sister Killjoy. If there was one thing she could be counted on, it was her uncanny knack for catching her charges during our most compromising moments.


The door knob turned followed by a creak. We straightened our backs and lifted our heads. Mother Superior—dark blue habit, austere and stark—stood framed in the doorway. “What is it, girls?” The corners of her mouth drooped.


I was taken aback that not only was her veil lopsided, but strands of black hair had escaped over her brow. Dark circles rimmed her red eyes—a far cry from the headmistress persona we were used to. 


“Sister Yvette told us to see you at 8 o’clock,” I said.


“When did she talk to you?”


“Last night,”


“Hmm…are you sure it was Sister Yvette?”


“Yes, we’re sure,” Pushpa said.


A vein throbbed in Mother Superior’s temple close to the scarf. “Whatever she asked you to do, I’m sure it can wait. I don’t have time to deal with this right now, so run along, my dears.” Her voice quivered.


I couldn’t believe my ears. No immediate repercussion for breaking the rules. We beat a hasty retreat before she changed her mind. Our classroom never looked so welcoming.


******************************
Mrs. Lobo, our English teacher, perched on her stool and looked grave while she spoke in hushed tones. A tear hung precariously from the corner of an eye. Daisy, the class clown sniffed and wiped her cheeks. Meena cried unabashedly. No one smiled.

“You’re late for class,” Mrs. Lobo said.


“Sorry, Miss. Sister Yvette sent us to see Mother Superior,” I said.


“Don’t be smart, young lady. Sister Yvette died last night.”


The End