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Every family has its own traditions for the holidays, but not every family has the same ones.
Each holiday is different for each family, so there are thousands of traditions one might never know—I would like to share mine.
Thanksgiving is often known as turkey day. Some people stuff their turkey with garlic stuffing, bacon stuffing, or even a whole chicken. Some families cook their turkey in the oven or fry it in a deep fryer. But my family was unique. Just how unique, you will have to tell me.
Each year, a few nights before Thanksgiving, my dad would come home with an enormous frozen turkey. It would be so cold your hands could freeze to the side, and so heavy you were afraid it would break the counter. Mom let it sit for a while before she unwrapped the plastic. When it was soft on the outside but still frozen on the inside, Mom started her work.
In the empty sink she washed the dripping ice away from the skin, then she stuck her arm up the backside. Like any professional turkey day chef, her arm wouldn’t reappear until it came back with a long, red, frozen tube. Mom would then say, “Got it!” To which Dad would snicker while explaining to us what Mom was holding.
After the turkey was cleaned, Mom prepared the meat with all kinds of spices. Garlic, salt, pepper, you name it. Once she finished, she started wrapping the turkey in foil. There was no stuffing inside. At the dinner table, the stuffing was a side dish like mashed potatoes and green beans. Mom would wrap the turkey in at least five layers of foil to keep all the juices inside. When she was finished, she placed the silver ball on a platter in the fridge and announced bedtime.
The following morning, Mom began peeling potatoes while Dad loaded shovels into the truck.
We kids then got to decide which parent to follow for the day. My brother sometimes went with my dad, but sometimes chose to stay with Mom and me. This was because once he realized after a brief cooking lesson, I would sneak away to watch cartoons.
Several hours later, Dad would come home dusty and dirty. He always tried to hug Mom that way until she shooed him out of the kitchen.
When he came back from showering, Dad was dressed in clean, warm clothes. The cartoons ended and football began. Bored with a sport I didn’t understand, I returned to the kitchen to help Mom make dessert while my little brother fell asleep on top of our sleeping dad.
Later in the day, Dad was rested from his hard work and ready to start again. He loaded camping chairs into the car. As my sisters helped him, Mom helped my brother and me change into warmer clothes.
Once we were all buckled into the car, Mom sat in her seat with the door wide open and hurried down the driveway to place the silver turkey in her lap.
“Where are we taking the turkey?” I asked.
“To cook it!” Dad exclaimed.
The drive was nowhere near as long as the ride to Grandma’s, but it still felt like forever. We traveled towards a little mountain while the sun started to set. Upon reaching our destination, we met with other families joining us in the desert. The mothers were carrying giant silver balls like my mom, while the fathers were lowering wood and coal into a long trench.
“Stay away from the pit.” Mom warned. “This is where Dad has been all day, digging so we can cook the turkey.”
Once all the turkeys were placed in the pit, the fathers continued their hard work while the moms set up chairs around the bonfire. Mothers would fuss over their children staying close or moving too far, telling us not to get too close to the fire but also not to wander into the dark.
We rowdy children wanted to play past our bedtime, so we chased each other in a dark, empty area of the lot. The mothers who wanted to keep their children close would bribe them with marshmallows and chocolate. My mom was no different. She helped us make s’mores over the open fire.
As the hours trickled on and the work was done, the fathers joined the fun by the fire. Finished with the pit for the night, all the families migrated back to their cars, then back to their homes.
The following day was Thanksgiving Day.
Tired from all the games and fun, we kids would sleep in till late morning. Mom got us up with the excitement of French toast. Around lunchtime, Dad left to go get the turkey. He wasn’t gone as long as he had been the day before, but he came back just as dirty.
The once silver foil ball was now blackened and crisp. Mom continued her work in the kitchen after Dad tried again to hug her with his sandy coat. He laughed before going to clean himself off.
It was now dinner time, and the table looked beautiful. In the center sat a covered platter. As a family, we blessed the food and thanked God for all the blessings and happiness we had been given. Dad then lifted the platter lid to reveal juicy slices of pit-cooked turkey.
“There’s nothing like flame-cooked meat,” Dad said with a smile.
“Can we go to the pit next year?” I asked.
“Of course!” Mom said as she filled my plate. “You kids seemed to have fun in the dark.”
Home. This is where it all began.
Thistledown. The letters creaked on rusty iron rings, the ivory paint dusty and chipped, yet the very name held a charm no other place could reach, in time, feeling, or memory. I stood for a few moments on the top of that hill at Grandpa’s farm, soaking up the last rays of evening sun. The breeze felt cool, filled with the scent of evening rain. I turned to the north and saw the clouds were beginning to darken. Best hurry to Gran’s.
I pulled into the drive and made it to Gran’s door just as the sun fell behind the horizon. The flicker of candlelight behind the lace curtains brought a glow to my heart, reminding me of the warmth of the gentle soul within—these special souls who never quite change with the times, but stand resolute and sure, even in tempests.
Following a moment’s hesitation, I knocked, wondering how long it had been. My conscience was sharp to answer—four Christmases ago. Long had it been since I thought of someone other than myself, yet those I loved could not wait forever. A Christmas card and a phone call at Easter are hardly enough to keep the hearth fires burning among family.
I pinned a smile on my face, determined to make a go of it. This city girl (or so Gran must have thought after so long a time), ready to return to her roots. Yet I was not entirely sure I had ever really left them.
The door opened. An elderly woman with dark brown hair streaked with silver, and humble brown eyes that lit up upon meeting mine, made me feel instantly at home again. Dear, kind Annie, Gran’s neighbor for more than fifty years. It was a loving and familiar face, but not the one I expected to see.
“Why, Bethy! What are you doin’ knockin’? You’ve a might place to just walk on in here.” She laughed a free, sweet sound as I dropped my bag and gave her a hug.
“Dearest Annie, whatever finds you here, in your apron and house slippers? Gran is well, I hope?”
In that unguarded moment, I thought to have seen uncertainty in her eyes, but then she smiled again, like sunlight pushing the clouds away. “Well, as can be expected. She took a weak spell a few months back. But wouldn’t you know, she’s already planning her garden for the spring! Come on in and lay off your things,” she said suddenly. “Your room’s waiting for you, and I know how delighted your grandmother will be to see you.”
She went before me across the living room, the air filled with the scent of spiced apples and chestnuts. Somewhere above me, music swelled in the air. Gran’s old waltz records. They always took her back, she said once. I asked her what it had been like, dancing with Grandpa. “In later years, your grandpa would sooner sow oats than dance to a tune. But no matter,” she had added softly, “there are finer memories one does not care to announce.” Then away she would go, humming her tune as the back door swung open before closing behind her with a bang. The matter had been closed. As was much of Gran’s past, or so others believed.
“Let me just step in and be sure she’s awake,” Annie whispered softly. She stepped into Gran’s room, slightly closing the door behind her. The door had long ago been painted a buttercream yellow—Gran’s favorite color. As a child I was permitted, after much debate, to paint a narrow, lengthy vine along the doorframe. An occasional hollyhock or two was added, in shades of pink and blue. I touched them now, ever so gently, surprised they were still there, though a trifle faded after all these years.
“Bethy!” The exclamation darted my attention to the door. “Come in here,” she called, with her usual spunk and lilt of tone.
I gingerly pushed open the door as Annie walked past with a grin.
There she lay, heart of my heart, undefeatable to all my standards. I froze a moment, seeing her in bed, her cheeks a bit sunken and definitively pale. Her hair was full silver, no longer streaked with gray. Her blue eyes, however, sparked with delight when she saw me. And though I smiled with warmth for this soul, I knew, too, that red crept into my face for the years that could not be retraced.
“Bethy, sweet Bethy,” she cried, reaching her arms high to hug me.
I hastened to her waiting arms. While there was still a subtle strength in her aged frame, it was of a more fragile nature than I remembered. It panged my heart that any so good must grow old.
“Come now, let me have a look at you.” She slid over in the bed, allowing me room to sit beside her. Her body lay shrouded with blankets and quilts, a few homespun, while several pillows of varying designs supported her against the ivory, iron headboard. Her wooden cross stood on the bedside table to her left, beside a large hurricane lamp and a picture of Grandpa in his uniform, fresh home from World War II. His was a handsome face, with a straight jaw, dark hair, and glistening eyes that sparkled as though they held a secret and dared one to learn it.
“People keep secrets, Bethy. Only God sees all,” Gran used to say, “Another thing that makes God so special. He knows my wrongdoings and failures and vain, selfish thoughts, yet he loves me through it all. I must give something back somehow. Just not sure how to do it.” Raising godly children became her prerogative, and while they were slow to understand, in time they each found the Lord in their own way, in the way God laid before them. When would my time come? Or was it only just beginning?
“Now, Gran, are those tears in your eyes?” I asked gently. She simply smiled a radiant glow and grasped my hand, patting it before drawing hers away again.
“Oh, child, how I’ve missed you. I’ve missed my Bethy. Now tell me, how’ve you been?”
“Well, Gran, you know, work and the like.”
Suddenly I looked away, unable to meet all the love that shown in those eyes. Gran sensed it, all my regret, the sorrow and shame. “I should have come sooner,” I whispered, choking on the last word.
She came to my rescue at that moment. Something she had never failed to do.
“Look at me, Bethy,” she whispered, grasping my hand.
Tears swelled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. Still, I could not bring myself to turn to her.
All the love in her heart seemed lifted to me in that one breath, spoken with such gentleness from her heart to mine. I leaned over, laid my head on her lap, and wept. She stroked my hair and hummed softly, whispering a prayer until the tears subsided. I raised her precious hand and held it to my cheek. “I love you so, Gran. I know I haven’t shown it much of late.”
“Sure, you have. You’ve been laboring right where the Lord planted you. I knew you would return when you were ready.”
She leaned back and gave a sudden holler for Annie, whose steps soon approached the banister below. “Yes, Maybelle?”
“What say we have an early supper?” asked Gran.
“Sure. Soup’s hot and bread will be out of the oven in a few minutes.”
“There, you, see? You’re just in time to have dinner with two of the sassiest—I mean classiest—ladies in town.”
We both laughed, and I hugged her again before running down to fetch my things.
The Reason Why
Gran had finished eating, and as I reached to take her bowl, she stopped me, her hand on my wrist. “Why, what do you do, child?” she asked. “You’re trembling.”
I looked down, astonished as she was. My hand was trembling, rattling Gran’s spoon against the China bowl.
“I-I’m fine, Gran, just a little stressed lately, I suppose.”
“See, here now, I knew you weren’t quite yourself. Come, pull up that lavender ottoman you love and let’s talk things through a bit. Would that be to your liking?”
Those silver-blue eyes I could scarce deny, so much love brimmed in them. “Yes, ma’am, if you have the time.”
Gran seemed pleased as I pulled the ottoman up beside her. “Do tell what’s ailing you, child,” she coaxed. There was kindness, but a deeper curiosity, that drove the question.
“A gentleman has proposed, Gran. I suppose I should be happy about it.”
“Proposed?” Her expression was one of delight before simmering to a solemn reserve. “Well, that depends on how you feel about it, and more importantly, how you feel about him.”
“I’m not really sure. I thought perhaps coming home might open my heart… to something I’ve been searching for. I’m just not quite sure what that is.”
Gran simply smiled a look of understanding. “Would you care to peruse some old lecturer’s thoughts on time, the waste of frivolous emotions, or… something more?”
“Something more, perhaps.”
Gran bit her lip. A hopeful gleam sparked in her eyes. “Jacob?” she asked.
The name triggered many memories. Yet I was too ashamed to tell Gran that I had hurt the man whom she had long intended for me, hurt him too deeply to expect him to wait any longer.
Gran raised a suspicious eyebrow, but to my surprise, said nothing. A dear friend whom she had known since childhood, Ellie Braebur, had passed recently, leaving cause for Jacob and me to meet, and part, once more. He, her only grandchild, and I, the closest to Gran. We had seen a lot of each other throughout childhood—church functions and picnics, holiday gatherings. One day, we walked on the hill behind Gran’s house. We watched as gleaming white clouds warmed into sunset gold. Then, to my astonishment, he took my hand and turned his cornflower blue eyes down into mine, his gaze so humble and earnest, and proposed.
I was of an immature nature and turn of mind then, and little knew what was best for me. I had little reason to be sure of my heart, though he felt certain of his. I left him waiting—for far too long, till at last he could wait no longer.
I saw a tinge of uncertainty in Gran’s eyes, which had been hopeful before, that it might be Jacob who proposed. But no, that door had closed. Time had moved me on. Now I was at a crossroads, with nowhere to turn but home.
“Well, then?” she said after a long pause. “Are you going to tell me his name? Cobble Falls is no trifle of a city. We are a village if ever there was one.”
“No, Gran. His name I will keep… for now.”
“Hmmm…” She then rose suddenly, threw back her ivory coverlet, and swung her feet over the edge of the bed.
“Is there something I can get for you?” I asked.
“No, child. But there is something I mean to get for you.”
She was at the grand old dresser now. It creaked as Gran removed an alabaster box, trimmed with silver, which I knew held some of her most precious treasures.
“Bethy,” she said, “do be a dear and fetch me my watch. I believe I left it in the kitchen.”
I hastened to fetch Gran’s leather banded watch, and on my way back drew near the last door on the landing. Mine was the attic room, with a low ceiling that made things cozy. I peered in for a moment. All was just as I had left it. A soft violet wallpaper, printed with small daisies, had been there before my time. In its simplistic way it added charm, set aglow by hurricane lamps. There was a small window that looked out over the side garden, and I wondered briefly if Jacob remembered. The time he first proposed to me was there, a few feet below my window, with a beaming sunflower in his hand. I was only eleven years old, and he was thirteen. He was practicing for a school play, and I was his counter for rehearsals. My heartbeat rapidly, even then, proving that one may indeed be wiser in youth, if only in a few ways.
“Now, where is it?” I heard Gran whisper as I returned to her room.
My grandmother was up to something. I could feel it.
“Now, Bethy! You’re staring at me a might thoughtful,” she said, turning suddenly.
I happened to be biting my lip in my usual considerate turn of mind. Gran had caught it. I feared it might knock the wind out of her sails, but she merely returned my smile and, with a small lap table in her hands, proceeded with her lulling hum as she returned to the bedside.
Up she was, ankles tucked beneath the covers as I pulled the blanket across her lap. Then the lap table, and lastly, the alabaster box.
“Now, what do you suppose we may find in here?” she asked with a sparkle in her eye.
“Your treasures,” I replied dutifully. “There isn’t a hop square between here and the city that isn’t aware of how special your box is.”
“That would be thanks to Izzy,” she sighed. “Still, she hasn’t ever seen what’s inside. But you have, haven’t you, Bethy?”
“Once,” I said, a little sheepishly. “I came in as you were sorting through, I guess.”
Gran smiled, a trifle wistfully. “Yes, I suppose I did. I often do that, you know. We old folks look into the mirror, and all’s a bit strange. Inside you feel nineteen, not a day older. Then you catch a glimpse in the mirror, and there’s this gray-haired lady you’ve never quite known before. You wonder where she came from, and what happened to her dreams. Then you reach for something special, something magical that takes you back to your youth once more. And that’s how it happens, a sigh, and a tear or two, and you find yourself the relic you once watched your own grandparents become.”
I tried not to laugh but couldn’t stop myself. “Now, Grandmama, you are not an old relic!”
“Now, Bethy, let me have my turn, will you? You’ll likely be saying the same thing to your own grandchildren someday.”
I did not wish to tell Gran that I thought it unlikely but chose to keep silent and allow her time for what appeared a much needed reminisce.
“You’ll recall Isabelle Lathey?” she began. “Dearest Izzy. She lives not a mile from here now, off Old Jumper Road.”
“Yes, yes, I’ve always loved Izzy!”
“And right you should. You’re much like her, in your youth that is, and perhaps in other ways. But there is one way, I hope, you’ll be a bit more like your old Gran. See here what I’m holding?” she asked.
I looked in surprise to the element of fascination, the first, possibly, of many. “Why, Gran, I didn’t even see you open the lid! And what’s this, a tiny key and lock? Whatever made you—”
“Now, Bethy, one has a might many reasons to go protecting such things as deemed special to them. Why should mine be any different from ol’ sushel-shoes, who keeps half the bank reserves in his lower basement? What? Under lock and key? Yes, that’s right. Don’t you be giving your Gran those big, incredulous eyes.”
I laughed again, noticing the key hanging on a small silver chain around her neck.
“Now where was I? Oh! Yes, here we are now. See this picture?”
Gran held a small wallet sized photograph. There was a rose pink mark on the beige backing—possibly lipstick. No name or year or writing of any kind.
“I think it’s rather what I don’t see,” I responded.
She shook her head. “That’s right. But before this week’s over, you’ll have a guess at it. And see if I’m right, if we chose as we should.”
“Chose what?” I asked.
“The man for you.”
“Gran,” I said, a little exasperated, “how do you suppose a sixty-year-old photograph is going to solve a very present turn of decision today?”
“You’ll see now. Be patient. I’ve an idea, and I mean to see it through. You go cozy up with a cup of cocoa and leave your Gran to it. We’ll begin first thing tomorrow.”
She ushered me out of the room without another word. I couldn’t help feeling warm all the way through, even without the hot chocolate; being reminded how much you can love a person, just the way you should, when they allow you to.
—Part II Where in the universe is Captain Sugar’s father?—
A series of tinkling notes like wind chimes sounded on the bridge.
“Computer! What’s that noise?” Jeff said.
“An audible alert, Sugar, and you’re running out of grace period for failing to use my name. You know what to say.”
“An alert for what?”
“We’re approaching suitable space for engaging the Alcubierre drive. This is where you did it before, and I concur.”
“Belay that action. Set a course for Ingens.”
“The gas giant a standard month away? Its rings don’t have the commercial value or easier choices of the asteroid field. Why go there?”
“You’re supposed to be smart. Figure it out.”
A full second passed before the soft feminine voice of Honey, the ship’s computer, replied.
“Oh. You’re testing my navigational capabilities. The asteroids are minutes away with Alcubierre drive. A slight miscalculation would be disastrous. Ingens has lots of space around it. Even though it’s huge, if I’m off a little, no big deal. Right?”
“Gee, detective,” Jeff said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic and hurt my feelings, Sugar. I’ll put us exactly where you say.”
“You don’t have feelings. You’re just a mess of circuits firing photons in a logical order built by an illogical female.” Jeff winked at the wimple sprawled in an overhead compartment. “And if you can handle another little chore, send an amended flight plan to Fortuna and a side note to your maker. Tell her it’s possible to be allergic to honey.”
“Messages sent, Sugar, and from one mess of synapses to another, buckle up for FTL.”
Jeff reached for his second cup of follee and inhaled the rich aroma before taking a swallow. “I’ve gotta admit, Honey, the trip to Ingens was worth it. I enjoyed reading my dad’s paper, and the time was well spent getting acquainted with you. Despite your origin, you’re one savvy computer.”
“We have made progress, Sugar. Based on Tug’s data, I expected you to be a semi-literate space pirate. I now trust your decisions.”
“Why do I get the feeling your programmer, and not research, corrupted your data?”
“Are you still angry at Emlyn Dagget?”
Jeff waved the question away. “Forget it, Honey. Since we’re here, do you have the memory to take us where I want to go in the asteroid belt?”
“A vector normal to, and ahead of, Fortuna’s orbit by 14 standard months.”
“That’s it. Settle us there and scan for targets.”
Honey maneuvered the ship smoother and faster than Tug had. She matched the rare-earth, nickel-iron space rock’s rotation and tumble. The tug and asteroid danced as one.
“Target areas identified, Sugar.”
Two harpoons sped into space to impale the rock near each end.
“Test for capture and stabilize in the orbital plane.”
“I’m aware, Sugar.”
“Don’t turn sassy now, Honey, just when I’m beginning to like you.”
“Roger. We’ll have it ready to tow in… it’s ready now.”
“You’re doing fine. Next step?”
“Ah, another test. OK. I place a beacon on the rock to broadcast the asteroid’s metals, date launched, and your name, so Fortuna will know it’s for mining and not a rogue coming at them.”
“Right so far.”
“We accelerate the rock to 0.5C, release it, and 14 months later, it enters Fortuna’s orbit ready for mining, and you receive a big paycheck.”
“Congratulations on your first capture, Honey. Now, let’s—”
“Incoming call from Laurella Ellis, Sugar. Priority One.”
The hologram of an elegant woman appeared on the bridge. Honey twisted the image to face Jeff in the captain’s chair.
“Mom, what’s going on?”
His mother, Laurie, had her hands clasped. “Your father’s missing, Jeff. I had our security team search everywhere on Fortuna, but they’ve found no trace of him.” She held up a hand, forestalling the next question. “They can find no signs of foul play. Do you know anything about this?”
“Oh, man.” Jeff groaned and slammed a fist on the armrest. “Maybe. His latest paper hinted at a method for entangled teleportation. You don’t think he’d try it out on himself, do you?”
Laurie chewed her bottom lip. “Possibly.”
Part of Jeff’s mind noted the hologram was clearer and steadier than previous messages with the old computer. He could see the concern in his mother’s eyes.
“It’s even likely,” she said. “I don’t suppose he’s told you about our special communication chambers?”
“Your father—that is, we—have stations, closets, really. They have one-sided tactile capabilities. I sit in my chamber, and a hologram of Bob appears with me. When I stroke his cheek, the chamber excites the electrons in my fingertips and makes me feel his skin. He can’t sense it, of course. He’s in his chamber on Fortuna, but he can hold my hologram’s hand, and it seems real to him.” She ducked her head, and the sunrise hue of a blush lightened her visage. “We spend a lot of time in the chambers.”
“OK, mom. I don’t need to hear that. But Dad’s further along than I thought. His last paper hinted at a connection across the galaxy. I didn’t think too much about it because that’s what entanglement’s supposed to do. But sending corporeal matter is decades away.” Jeff held up his hands. “At least I thought so.”
“I’ve alerted the authorities, Jeff. They’ll comb through Bob’s house and lab, and they may—”
“Oh, no. The agencies may confiscate his equipment. I’ve gotta study it before anyone moves the settings.”
“I was going to say they may want to talk with you, but if you’re heading back, two birds, as the saying goes.”
“Bye, Mom. I’ll keep in touch. Honey, take us to Fortuna the fastest possible way.”
“Who’s Honey?” the hologram echoed, before blinking out.
“The fastest way, Sugar, is to emerge within the Space Authority’s restricted zone.”
“Can you put us in there safely?”
“Sure, but there’ll be a penalty for bursting out of hyperspace closer to the planet than they allow. May even cost you your captain’s license.”
“Bring us in as close to the space elevator as you can without landing on top of someone else.”
The outside view normalized, and the space elevator appeared on the short-range scanner. “Wow, Honey! I didn’t think it was possible. You’ve shaved days off our arrival.”
Incoming message lights blinked urgent red, accompanying raspy beeps from the communications panel.
“Here they come, Sugar. Space Authority, Port Authority, the Space Elevator, and probably the one you should answer first, Fortuna’s Fleet Navy, since they’re ready to blast us into atoms.”
“Put ’em all on broadcast, so I only have to say it once.”
“This is Jeffery Ellis in the tug that came in too close. I apologize for the approach, but I’m in a hurry and have a new computer. I must have input the coordinates wrong.”
“I’ve been thinking we need to name this ship,” Honey said. “It’d be a lot classier than ‘the tug.’”
A woman identifying herself as a representative of the Port Authority responded, “New or not, your computer should have been able to avoid entering the safety zone. Who installed the software?”
“That would be a mechanic from R.W.’s,” Jeff said.
A stern-faced naval officer came into view in the upper-right quadrant of the viewscreen. “Drop your shields for scanning and stand by to be boarded.”
Jeff nodded. “Done. I’ll be at the elevator momentarily. Welcome aboard.” He waved an open hand across the air in front of the others. “I’ll make myself available to each of you.”
One by one, the callers dropped out.
“Deliver me to that elevator, Honey. I want to be on my way before the kangaroo court arrives.”
“You told them you’d make yourself available.”
“And that’s the truth—but not until after I go to Dad’s lab.”
“A small one for the greater cause. Take care of C.B. Make sure he has water and food. I may be gone a day or two.”
“Or a year or two with time off for good behavior. Be careful, Sugar.”
Jeff’s communicator pinged an incoming call. He spoke low, so only the device on his collar would hear. “Who is it?”
“Open a channel—Hi, Mom.”
“I called to say you needn’t be on the run, Jeff. Take your time going over Bob’s equipment.”
“What’s going on?”
“I heard about your reckless entry and that you slipped away from the authorities. I’ve paid a fine and donated a few political favors, but no one will bother you or enter the lab unless we give them permission.”
“Man, this instant communication is something! You couldn’t have found out faster if you were here. Thanks, Mom.”
“What have you learned, Son?”
“There is a transponder here, and—”
The silence between them stretched for seconds.
“It’s aligned toward the galaxy core.”
The sob in Laurie’s voice came through. “He did it. He tried it out on himself.”
“I can’t understand why he’d do it without a connection on the other end,” Jeff said. “I have to go after him.”
“No! I forbid it! That’s too dangerous.”
“OK, Mom. Relax. I’ll call you when I have something better.”
Jeff closed the hatch and made for the bridge. “Did you receive the coordinates I sent, Honey?”
“I did, and the vectors plotted. Are you sure you want to do this, Sugar?”
“I most definitely don’t want to take this trip. I’m scared, but it’s my dad—a flesh and blood thing you wouldn’t understand.”
“Perhaps not on a gut level, since I don’t have viscera, but I can extrapolate—”
“Fine, fine.” Jeff scratched his head, thinking. “What happened to the asteroid we captured?”
“I detached it at the appropriate point as we accelerated home, Sugar. The payroll should arrive on schedule.”
“Thanks, Honey. I’d forgotten about it.” He claimed his captain’s chair and ordered a cup of follee. “The Port says we’re free to leave. Take us to flat space and hit the Alcubierre drive on the coordinates I gave you.”
“Your mother won’t like it.”
“Well, that’s the thing about cause and effect. She won’t know we’ve left until afterward.”
An automated cart rolled up with a cup and a carafe of follee. Jeff leaned back in the comfortable chair, scanned the consoles, and poked several command buttons on the broad armrests. “This isn’t our usual planetary egress, Honey. What’re you doing?”
“I assumed you were in a hurry, Sugar. I’m leaving in a hyperbolic curve to bring the fusion engines up to full power without the exhaust pointing at Fortuna. You wouldn’t want to cook the Port Authority after your mother made peace with them. A welcome mat would be nice to see if you don’t kill us, and we’re able to return.”
“Continue. You’re doing fine… Honey.”
“Here we go, leaving the hyperbola for hyper-drive. Yes, I had to say it.”
“You’ll pay for this, Ellis! I don’t care how many shyster lawyers you have!”
Jeff jumped and spilled follee in his lap at the angry shout. He spun the captain’s chair to see Emlyn Dagget, her face flushed, forehead and neck veins visible. “What? Why are you here—how?”
“As if you didn’t know. The juvenile practice is called payback, and you went to a lot of trouble to claim yours.”
Jeff stood and brushed at his pants. “Honey, send me a towel and,” he extended an open hand to Emlyn, “whatever our guest wants.”
Emlyn stood in a boxer’s stance; her fists curled tight. “Not guest—kidnapped victim.”
He took in her rabid expression, made the more fierce by the smudge. The greasy mark was on her chin this time. She would have appeared funny, even endearing in her baggy overalls, if she weren’t making serious accusations.
A droid rolled up with a towel and a fresh carafe of follee. On a tray were an extra cup and a plate of pastries.
Jeff indicated the navigator’s position. “Please have a seat and explain why you’re on my tug.”
“We’ve really got to name this ship,” the computer said again.
“Not now, Honey.”
Emlyn pointed to the overhead speaker. “That’s why. You made a reckless, even dangerous, approach so you could blame the computer. You knew the Port Authority would hold me responsible.” She plopped down and reached for a cup.
The light clicked on for Jeff. “And R.W. sent you to fix it, didn’t he?”
“Yes. The ship was open, so I came in to make sure it wasn’t the computer’s fault and to change the voice back to male. You wouldn’t have to call it Honey anymore.”
“No way! Honey’s the best thing that ever happened to this ship. I’m keeping her.”
“Aw, thanks, Sugar.”
Confusion washed over Emlyn’s face. “Sugar? I never put that in.”
“Oh, he’s so cute, I had to add it,” Honey said.
Heat rose on Jeff’s cheeks. He wiped a hand across his mouth and said, “So, why didn’t you change things?”
Emlyn chewed what had to be half a sweet roll. She shoved it to one side of her mouth to talk. “The computer and your wimple sabotaged me.”
“That sounds a little far-fetched. How so?”
“The computer I built wouldn’t allow entry even after I punched in my authorized mechanic’s code. It kept saying, ‘Denied. Captain’s privilege only.’”
She washed down the rest of the bite and reached for another pastry. “I still had the omnibus access card you gave me. I sat it on a corner of the console while I put away an ultrasonic wrench. Your wimple grabbed it and took off down the hall. I chased him into the spare quarters but couldn’t find him. Then the door locked. I just now got out.”
“What spare quarters?”
“That room you’ve been throwing stuff in helter-skelter, Sugar. Schematics list it as a stateroom.”
“No wonder you couldn’t find C.B.,” Jeff said. “It’s a labyrinth top to bottom and side to side.”
Emlyn waved a finger no-no. “Clean as a first-class cabin. I should have spotted him in an instant.”
“What’s going on, Honey?”
“The maintenance and steward droids did a wonderful job, Sugar. You’d be proud. The bunk has clean sheets.”
“So you planned on kidnapping, Emlyn?”
“Just a deception, Sugar. A small one for the greater cause, as you say.”
“I’m not really sure, Sugar. It was C.B.’s idea.”
“You can talk to a wimple? Impossible!”
“Not talk so much as his presence shows up in my memory banks.”
“Enough of this.” Emlyn brushed crumbs from her overalls. “Take me home.”
“Can’t, Mechanic,” Honey said. “If we drop out of the bent spacetime of Alcubierre’s function without a reference point, we’d be lost in the cosmos. Navigation 101.”
Emlyn gritted her teeth. “When will we reach the next reference stop?”
“The first of five planned triangulation points is in 2 months, 28 days, 16 hours, and 3—no, 2 minutes.”
“I’m gonna throw you out an airlock, Ellis,” Emlyn said.
Jeff didn’t doubt she’d try it. “I’m sorry, Emlyn. I am. Why don’t you go to the stateroom and relax? It’ll give us time to think.”
“There’s a shower in there, Mechanic,” Honey said.
Emlyn left the bridge with a finger in the air.
Jeff caught sight of C.B. sprawled in an overhead rack. That darn wimple was smiling.
“Link established, Sugar. Audio only.”
“Jeff, are you there?” Laurie’s voice filled the bridge.
“Yes, Mom. We can hear you.”
“Turn the ship around, you goofball. Your father’s right here beside me.”
“He transported himself to Earth?”
“Yes, just as everyone else does. He had a chance to catch a ride with a friend and left without telling anyone.”
“Hello, Son,” Bob said. “I’m sorry to cause you so much worry. We don’t talk that often, so I thought a little forced communication blackout from hyperspace travel wouldn’t affect anything. I know better now that we’ve waited three months to reach you.”
“I guess we’re both at fault, Dad. Perhaps something good will come of this experience, though. There’s someone I want you to meet when we get back.”
“Yes. Emlyn Rose Dagget, Roy Wingate Dagget’s daughter and chief mechanic. She’s given me the best computer anyone could and a favorable answer to an important question. I’ll tell you more about it when we arrive in three months. Look for a ship called Utopia to dock. But I’ll have to talk later. Right now, Emlyn has to call her father.”
Tears filled the Hathcock sisters’ eyes as their father’s casket was lowered into the ground. Their older half-brother Frank shoveled in a spadeful of dirt and put his arm around his stepmother, guiding her to the waiting car. Frank wasn’t usually this attentive, but on this occasion, he couldn’t reasonably refrain.
The black limo twisted through the cemetery, taking the family home. Eleven-year-old Maggie, the youngest of the three Hathcock girls, sat next to her mother, facing Frank and her older sisters, Caroline and Ashelynn. She caught her tearful reflection in the dark privacy windows and burst out, “I hate you, Frank!” stomping her feet and wiping her tears.
Frank’s brows arched. “Whatever for? What did I do?”
Before he scarcely muttered his inquiry, Maggie cried out from her seat. “Now that Father is gone, you’re going to take our home and kick us out with nowhere to go.”
“Dearest little sister,” Frank called in the loudest voice he could muster to carry over Maggie’s cries, “I could never kick you out! Hathcock Manor is still your home. I’m not even planning to move there. My family will continue to live in Charlotte.”
Frank was a tall and slender man with a position at Hathcock Industries in Charlotte, North Carolina. A linchpin for the community, Hathcock Industries had stood for agriculture, textiles, and furniture for over two centuries. Frank and his wife, Dottie, owned a large home in Charlotte, which had graced many local and even a couple of national magazines.
Through softer sobs, Maggie continued, “But I heard people saying that everything belongs to you now, and we get nothing.”
“Yes, well.” Frank crossed his arms. “Father was only the trustee of the Hathcock estate. Grand Uncle Hathcock made it clear in his will that upon Father’s passing, I was to become the sole owner of the entire estate.” His voice softened. “However, I could never displace my sisters. You must continue to think of Hathcock Manor as your home.”
Their father, Thomas Hathcock, had become the trustee of the Hathcock estate, which included Hathcock Industries and Hathcock Manor when his uncle, James Hathcock, had grown old and could no longer run the family business and care for the house himself. James was a bachelor and not wanting to be alone in his later years, he invited Thomas, the son of his younger brother, and Thomas’s family to live with him. Since Thomas already held a top position at his uncle’s side in the family business, coming to live at Hathcock Manor to look after his uncle was a simple transition. The family’s attentiveness was a great comfort to Uncle James in his last years.
Hathcock Manor was a Greek-revival-style antebellum home situated in the country on the western outskirts of Asheville. Grand columns lined the perimeter of the white two-story house like hoplites. The limo turned down the long drive leading to the manor. Majestic oak trees created an archway of outstretched branches and hanging moss. Near the residence was a large front lawn surrounded by a circular driveway, offering a full view of the front of the house. A catered luncheon was prepared in the garden for the funeral guests.
Maggie sat on a bench across the walk from a flower bed. She stared mournfully at the blossoms and remembered how she had planted the flowers just a month earlier. Her ailing father watched and encouraged her from his wheelchair. It had been a tradition for them to plant flowers in the garden together each spring—now she wondered who would plant flowers with her.
Ashelynn stood with her mother, brother, and sister Caroline, while guests filed past and offered their condolences. She turned quietly from the crowd and made her way to the parlor to sit at her grand piano. It had been a birthday gift from Uncle James. His encouragement of her talent had helped her become an accomplished pianist. Gently touching the keys with her fingertips, she remembered how her father would sit in a chair near the piano and listen to her play. He often told her, “There are few greater joys in life than hearing you play.” She put her hands in her lap and looked down as tears fell.
Caroline remained with her mother and brother, listening to each story related about her father. She’d heard some of them before. Others were new to her ears, but each brought her comfort as they told of what a good man her father had been. One neighbor related how a pipe had burst and their basement flooded. “Not only did your father bring a pump, but he stayed with us the entire day, helping us clean up the mess and fix the pipe.”
Another guest who had known her father since grade school related, “Thomas Hathcock was the kind of man you could count on in a bind. He was everyone’s friend, and if you needed something, he was there.” Caroline cherished every kind word.
The caterers cleaned up as the guests left, and soon the Hathcocks found themselves alone. The rest of the day dragged by in mournful quiet as they continued to grieve the loss of their patriarch.
At bedtime, Caroline and Ashelynn gathered in Maggie’s room. They sat together on the bed, sharing memories of their father. Caroline, the eldest, had turned twenty just before her father’s passing. She studied art at UNC Asheville and would be a sophomore in the fall. Ashelynn was eighteen and preparing to graduate high school in a few weeks.
Caroline brushed Maggie’s hair as Maggie wondered aloud, “Why didn’t Uncle James leave the house to us instead of Frank? Didn’t he love us too?”
“Of course, he did,” Caroline said. “Grand Uncle James was old-fashioned and wanted to keep everything in the Hathcock name. Girls marry and take new names, but with Frank and his son little James, the estate will continue to carry the Hathcock name for at least two more generations. I think Uncle James liked that thought. I’m sure he figured Father would live a lot longer than he did. He probably thought we’d all be married and gone by the time father passed away, and Frank inherited everything. He couldn’t have imagined Father would get stomach cancer and pass away so soon after he did.”
“I think Grand Uncle James liked the idea of his namesake inheriting everything,” Ashelynn said from the foot of the bed where she sat rubbing lotion on Maggie’s feet. “Do you remember how much Uncle James doted on little James? I think he left everything to Frank for little James’s inheritance. Do you remember when Frank and Dottie would bring the baby to visit, and Uncle James would spend most of his time with him?”
“Oh, I remember,” Caroline said with a laugh. “Do you remember how silly he acted around little James, trying to make him giggle?” They all laughed.
“And little James just lit up like a Christmas tree whenever he saw Uncle James,” Ashelynn added.
Maggie giggled. “It sure was fun watching them, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, it was,” Caroline agreed, wrapping her arms around Maggie in a big sister hug.
Ashelynn tickled Maggie’s feet, and Maggie squealed with laughter, squirming to get away.
Hearing the laughter from the hallway, their mother pushed the door open. “What’s going on in here?” She asked with a smile, taking a seat on the bed with her daughters.
Maggie’s smile fell. “We don’t have to move now, do we? Now that Father is gone, and Frank owns the house?”
Mrs. Hathcock took Maggie’s chin in her hand and smiled. “No, dear, we don’t have to move. You heard your brother. This is still our home.”
She pulled Maggie onto her lap. “The estate provided a small inheritance for each of us, and before your father passed, he asked Frank to promise to help us with anything we might need. Frank promised, and I know he will keep his word. He wants us to continue to feel as though this is our home. Shall we say our prayers now?” Following their mother’s lead, they knelt at Maggie’s bedside, and Ashelynn offered the prayer.
Mrs. Hathcock tucked Maggie into bed with kisses and best wishes for sweet dreams. It was Caroline’s turn to read to Maggie. Ashelynn and Mrs. Hathcock left the room. Caroline took a book from the bedside table—The Little Princess—and read aloud. Her soothing voice soon had Maggie in a deep slumber.
Downstairs, Frank Hathcock sat in his father’s office poring over the financial records of the Hathcock business and financial holdings—preparing for the position that was now his. “Good… good,” he muttered, marveling at the orderly way the finances were kept and the sound frugality of his late father’s business practices.
“Let’s see,” he muttered to himself—a promise to his father to keep, “the estate grants my stepmother and sisters fifty thousand a year for their care. If they stay here, they won’t have to pay rent, so that should be more than plenty.” He thought a bit and continued, “But what about their schooling? Caroline’s at university, and Ashelynn will be next year. Would my father wish me to take care of those expenses? I wonder if I should add to the amount…?” He continued to pore over the records. “Yes, the estate should be able to grant an additional ten thousand to pay for schooling.” Frank smiled, pleased with his own generosity. “It’s more than they expected. What a surprise it will be! And Father would be proud.” He sat back in his chair and put his feet on the desk—satisfied with his intentions to keep his promise to his father.
“How long did Frank say he was going to be here?” Ashelynn asked Caroline while curling her long golden honey brown hair one morning before school—just days before graduation.
“He didn’t,” Caroline said with a shrug. “Maybe he’s staying to attend your graduation.”
“Doesn’t he have work to get back to in Charlotte?”
“I think he’s been working from Father’s office,” Caroline answered, buckling her sandal.
“But even Father drove to the office in Charlotte a few times a week.”
Caroline started down the stairs and heard the loud voice of her sister-in-law, Dottie.
“What a cramped kitchen!”
Caroline heard a cabinet door shut—loudly.
“Dottie,” she called, stepping into the kitchen. “I didn’t know you were coming for a visit.” She attempted to greet Dottie with a hug.
“I arrived this morning,” Dottie explained, shunning Caroline’s hug. “If I’m going to make something of this old place, I’d better get started right away, and there’s no better time than the summer break.”
Caroline’s brow furrowed in sudden confusion. “What do you mean?” she asked as Ashelynn, Maggie, and their mother entered the kitchen.
“This entire house needs a complete makeover,” Dottie stated, raising her hands in the air. “There’s potential here, and I’ve had my eye on changes I’ve wanted to make for some time, and now I can.”
“Dottie dear,” Mrs. Hathcock began with a nervous laugh, “Don’t do any remodeling for us. We like this place just as it is?”
“Oh, I’m not doing it for you,” Dottie crowed. “By Christmas, I’ll have this old house in the centerfold of Veranda magazine!”
The Hathcock ladies’ mouths gaped at the news. Amid an awkward silence, Frank entered the room, and Dottie threaded her arm through his to proudly announced, “Oh, and by the way, we’re moving in! I’ll need to be here to oversee the remodel.”
Having their undivided attention, Dottie snapped her instructions. “Now, Mrs. Hathcock, I’ll need you to move your things into the guest room across the hall from Maggie’s. I’ll have someone here in the morning to make plans to remodel the master bedroom. And Caroline, I’ll have you move into Ashelynn’s room. Since your room is the largest, I’ll remodel it for little James.”
Mrs. Hathcock searched Frank’s face for confirmation. He looked surprised as well. The girls looked at each other, worried brows across their faces as they closed their gaping mouths.
After a day of moving their things across the hall to meet Dottie’s demands, the Hathcock ladies congregated in the parlor.
“I can’t believe they’re moving in,” Ashelynn groaned. “They have that huge house in Charlotte. What do they want with this one?”
“It would seem Dottie had different plans than Frank,” Caroline said.
“Yes, and clearly, Dottie wants to turn Hathcock Manor into something off the cover of a magazine!” Mrs. Hathcock sighed. “I’ll admit it does need some work, but her moving in to take over like this so soon after your father’s death is like insult to injury.” Her eyes teared. “I miss him so much. I wish he were still here.”
Caroline and Ashelynn sat down by their mother, one on each side, looping their arms through hers and placing their heads on her shoulders. “We do, too,” Caroline said while Ashelynn wiped tears away.
Dottie and Frank sat in the office, where Dottie related her plans for the remodel. She inquired about the estate’s finances—gauging how much she could spend on her project.
Frank told her of the provisions in the will for his stepmother’s and sisters’ inheritance and added, “But I promised Father I’d do something more. He was very worried about them before his passing, you know, dear. I will add ten thousand a year to their allowance to help pay for schooling. I think that would make him happy.”
“You must be joking!” Dottie said in astonishment. “They have scholarships and can use student loans. You already provide them a home; they’re well taken care of here. Throwing extra money at them would just be a waste.”
Frank considered his wife’s arguments and relented. “You make a good point, my dear. I must agree they are comfortable. The original provision will do just fine.”
A smug grin lit up Dottie’s face. She proudly patted her husband on the shoulder.
“Are you excited for school to be out in a few days?” Ashelynn asked Maggie as they gathered their book bags in the entry, waiting for Caroline to drive them to school.
“Yes, but I’ll miss my friends,” Maggie replied.
Ashelynn gave her a side-arm hug. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll see lots of each other over the summer.”
Maggie grinned up at her.
Caroline came down the stairs and stopped at the bottom to look around.
Ashelynn furrowed her brow. “Who are you looking for?”
Caroline shrugged. “Oh, no one.”
Just then, Conner rounded the corner, nearly running into her. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Miss Caroline.”
She danced back a step and her face lit up. “That’s okay! I’m just about to drive my sisters to school. Would you like to ride with me? There’s an art gallery downtown. I thought it’d be fun to stop by.”
“I have a couple of hours free this morning,” he answered. “I’m having lunch with Dottie and the mayor, but that’s not until noon. Sure, I can come.”
“I call shotgun,” Ashelynn exclaimed as they headed out the door.
“Do you like art?” Maggie asked Conner in the car.
“I suppose I do, although I know little about it. I could tell you who painted the Mona Lisa,” Conner replied with a laugh. “But beyond that, I truly don’t know much about art.”
“That’s alright. Caroline can teach you,” Ashelynn said.
“She’s an amazing artist,” Maggie added, waving her hands as if she were sketching. “She draws everything. You should see some of her work!”
“Oh, really?” Conner leaned toward Caroline to be heard. “You didn’t tell me you were an artist. That’s wonderful. I would love to see your work sometime.”
Caroline’s face flushed as she tried to downplay the praise. “I sketch a little; it’s not a big deal.”
“Sketch?” Ashelynn rolled her eyes.
“She won an award!” Maggie proclaimed.
“And a scholarship,” Ashelynn added.
“That’s impressive!” Conner declared. “But if you have a scholarship, why aren’t you in school now?”
Caroline quietly responded, “I took time off to help my mother with Father.”
“Do you plan on returning in the fall?” he asked.
At the gallery, Caroline pointed out some of her favorite pieces and explained why she loved them; then encouraged Conner to find pieces that he might like.
After a while, the curator walked toward them. “Good morning! I’m Mr. Jameson, and I’m at your disposal for any questions you may have.”
“Thank you very much, Sir,” Conner responded. He motioned to Caroline. “My friend is my guide this morning, and I’m learning a great deal from her.”
“I believe I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I?” Mr. Jameson asked Caroline.
“Yes, Sir,” she acknowledged. “I come here rather frequently.”
“I was informed this morning that she’s an award-winning artist,” Conner piped up. “And she’s won a scholarship!”
Mr. Jameson’s brows rose. “That’s wonderful! What kind of work do you do?”
“Typically, I draw,” Caroline answered. “It’s relaxing. But I’ve also done watercolors, oils, and acrylics.”
Mr. Jameson clapped. “Bravo! Will you come and draw something for the gallery?” He motioned to a drawing table in the back. “Do you have time?”
“Now?” Caroline blurted. She looked at Conner nervously. Could she keep a steady hand to draw in front of him?
“Unless you have to hurry off,” Mr. Jameson appealed, spreading his arms as if welcoming a guest.
Conner looked at his watch. “We still have a couple of hours, and I’m in no hurry to leave.”
Her eyes widened—stunned by the sudden feeling of being put on the spot.
“I would be so honored to have you create a masterpiece in the gallery!” Mr. Jameson beseeched.
Caroline took a breath. “I don’t know about a masterpiece, Mr. Jameson, but I suppose I can try to draw something.”
Mr. Jameson showed the way. “Our drawing table is a vintage 1945 Hamilton, with an oak base and a maple top. Isn’t it lovely?” He tore an 18” x 24” piece of paper from a drawing pad nearby and taped it to the tabletop, then pulled out a drawer to reveal a collection of pencils.
“It is a beautiful table, Mr. Jameson.” Caroline sat on the stool, ran her fingers over the pencils, and chose one. She closed her eyes to bring to mind a previous scene. Then opened them, and her hand brushed across the paper in delicate strokes. Soon a beautiful garden began to take form on the page. A gazebo housing a small orchestra appeared next, followed by a dance floor and a couple dancing.
Caroline finished and looked over her work, hesitating before daring to look at Conner and wondering if she had chosen the right scene. She drew a long breath and looked up, eager for his reaction.
“Is that the garden at Hathcock Manor?” Conner asked.
“Yes.” Caroline smiled up at him.
“It’s a nice drawing,” he remarked.
“Nice?” Mr. Jameson contended. “Why, it’s a beautiful scene! May I have your permission to put it on display?”
“It’s not good enough,” Caroline protested.
“Why not?” Conner asked. “I’m not an art critic, but I think you’ve done well.”
“What will you call it, Miss…” Mr. Jameson paused for her name.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m Caroline Hathcock, and this is Conner Burroughs,” she answered.
“I shall frame this lovely drawing and say it’s by award-winning local artist Caroline Hathcock!”
“Just Caroline will do,” she replied.
“Alright then,” he relented, “but you still have to name it. How about ‘The Dance’?”
“First Dance,” Caroline answered.
She glanced at Conner. Would he think “First Dance” was too forward a title?
He didn’t appear to have heard. He had wandered toward a painting of a lighthouse.
“That’s Cape Hatteras,” she said, walking over to him.
“Yes. Have you been there?”
“Once as a child. I love lighthouses.”
“I’ve been there a few times.” His eyes fixed on the painting. “I love them, too. A light in the dark has such incredible symbolism.”
“I think of John 8.” She marveled at how he seemed entranced by the contrast of the lighthouse light and the dark seas crashing against the shores at its base. “Jesus being the light of the world—to light the storms of life.”
“My thoughts exactly! The Lord has certainly gotten me through some rough seas.”
She pondered what his “rough seas” might be—his father’s passing, family pressures—she realized under that genial face he was a man led by the Lord. The thought caused her heart to soar.
He turned to her. “People can also be lights to each other.”
She nodded and touched the light in the painting, whispering, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Putting her hand down, she looked at Conner. “I would like to take another lighthouse trip someday, along with a drawing pad, and capture some of that lighthouse symbolism.”
“I hope you get to do that one day.” He glanced at his watch. “We should probably go now. I don’t want to be late for lunch with my sister.”
“And the mayor,” Caroline teased.
“Yes, and the mayor!” Conner laughed.
“Goodbye, Mr. Jameson,” they said, heading to the door.
“Please come again soon,” he called back with a wave.
They walked toward Caroline’s car, passing the beauty salon next to the gallery. Dottie sat getting her nails done, facing the front window. She noticed Caroline and Conner walking past. Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth gaped in annoyance.
Later, Caroline found herself in the garden. The late-afternoon sun dipped below the tall pencil pines lining the back of the garden. She sat on a stone bench at the far edge of the reflecting pool.
Thoughts of her time spent with Conner went through her mind: their first dance, their walk together, the way he looked in the moonlight by the pond, the way he looked with his gaze fixed on the gleam of the lighthouse painting. She was in awe of how much goodness and wonder she saw in him.
Ashelynn appeared and sat next to her. “You’re falling in love with Conner, and I think he’s falling for you, too.”
“I don’t think we should assume,” Caroline responded.
“But you do like him, don’t you?”
Caroline sat quiet a moment before answering. “He’s such a good person. So kind, so generous, so fun to be with, and such a gentleman. I’ve always thought highly of him, but….”
“I do find myself hoping!”
“Hoping for…?” Ashelynn continued to goad.
“Oh, Ashelynn, you know what I’m hoping for!” Caroline said with a grin. “I like him very much, and I hope he likes me, too!”
Ashelynn laughed. “I knew it!”
Ashelynn stood up and did a wedding march with an invisible bouquet. “I get to be your maid of honor, of course! And what colors do you want for your wedding?”
Caroline giggled and stuck her foot out to trip her sister, but she hopped over and sat down again.
“Shall we plan for a Christmas wedding?” Ashelynn teased.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. I don’t even know if he likes me yet,” Caroline stated, with hope shining in her eyes.
“I’m sure he does!” Ashelynn put her arm around her sister.
Conner stepped out the back door and headed toward them.
“Oh look, here he comes now. Probably to declare his love for you,” Ashelynn said in a low voice.
Caroline shushed her.
“Well, I’ve got homework to do,” Ashelynn stated, darting off.
Conner sat on the far end of the long bench, not too close to Caroline. “I wanted to thank you for the trip to the gallery today. I learned a lot and really enjoyed it.”
“Thank you for going with me. I enjoyed it as well.”
“I’m sorry if you felt put on the spot to draw this morning.”
“At first, I was mortified,” Caroline admitted with a laugh. “But I’m glad he asked. I’m happy with how the drawing turned out, and I’m honored he’s going to display it.”
“You’re a very talented artist,” Conner told her. “I’m quite in awe of you.”
“Thank you.” Caroline blushed at the compliment and studied his face—wishing she could discern his feelings. Since she couldn’t, she felt it best not to share her own.
He turned his gaze from her to the reflecting pool, and so did she. They sat quietly, gazing into the reflecting pool. Neither was aware they were being watched from the house.
Mrs. Hathcock peered through the glass of the French doors, smiling at the couple.
Dottie appeared and stood beside her with arms folded—scowling at the same sight.
“Don’t they look good together?” Mrs. Hathcock remarked.
Dottie snapped back. “My brother has no time for silly girls of no consequence. My mother and I have invested too much time preparing him for his future political career. When the time is right, he will marry a woman with connections who can further that career. He will be president one day and Caroline will not be his First Lady!”
Mrs. Hathcock turned to Dottie in astonishment. “Does Conner get a say in his own life? Do his choices even matter?”
“If he wants his inheritance, he’ll choose what’s best,” Dottie retorted.
Mrs. Hathcock shook her head in disgust and turned to walk away. Ashelynn was behind them.
“Dottie, you’re a—” Ashelynn started.
“Careful what you say,” Dottie warned. “Remember who now owns the home you’re living in.”
“Let’s go upstairs, dear.” Mrs. Hathcock took Ashelynn by the arm, leading her away.
Upstairs, Ashelynn railed. “I can’t believe that woman! Doesn’t she care about her own brother?”
“Apparently she cares about the prestige he’ll bring the family,” her mother said. “However, I don’t believe Conner is like his sister. He seems to have a genuine heart, and if he has true feelings for Caroline, he’ll find a way to make them known. Let’s have faith in his goodness and pray he won’t be crushed under the weight of his family’s demands.”
Ashelynn nodded and retreated to her room.
In her own room, Mrs. Hathcock sat at her computer to calm her nerves. Checking her e-mail, one from her cousin surprised her.
The message read:
Dearest Cousin Sarah,
I’m sorry to hear of your husband’s passing. It must be a sad time for you and your daughters. I suppose your stepson owns Hathcock Manor now. I don’t know if that presents an uncomfortable situation for you, but if it does, may I offer you the cottage on my Northland Estate in Winston-Salem? Northland Cottage is a cozy 4 bedroom, admittedly not as grand as the manor you’re used to, but it’s comfortable and roomy and the rent would be only what you can afford. My mother lived there until her recent passing. We’ve given it new carpet and fresh paint, and it’s ready for new occupants any time you’d like. I would be thrilled to have you and your daughters as tenants!
Her anger toward Dottie turned to elation as she read. “Can this be true?” she asked herself. “This couldn’t have come at a better time! What a blessing! We’ll take it,” she said aloud joyfully. Immediately, she typed out a grateful reply. Before clicking send, however, she realized she had to tell her daughters.
She hurried out of her room, stopping by Ashelynn’s. “Come with me!”
Downstairs, they found Caroline and Maggie in the family room. “I have some great news!” their mother said, motioning them closer. “How would you like to move to Winston-Salem? My cousin has a four-bedroom cottage on his estate that he’s willing to rent to us for whatever we feel we can afford! Isn’t that generous?”
“Do we have to go?” Maggie asked, her eyes filling with tears.
Caroline stayed quiet while Ashelynn spoke up. “We could move once school’s out. Caroline, I’m sure your scholarship is transferable, and I have some news. I applied to the art school there, and they have approved me for an audition. With Dad’s passing and his funeral and then Dottie and Frank moving in, the timing never seemed right to say so. But the timing feels right now.”
“Ashelynn, that’s incredible news!” Caroline gave her a congratulatory hug. “As soon as they hear you play, they’ll admit you for sure. You’re the most talented pianist in the entire piedmont!”
“Agreed, my dear,” their mother added. “We’re very proud of you!”
Tears continued to roll down Maggie’s cheeks and her mother pulled her onto her lap and wrapped her in a hug. “I understand you don’t want to move, but it’s only a 2-hour drive and we can invite your friends to visit. We can also drive back from time to time to visit them. And we may find wonderful new things to love in our new place.” She kissed Maggie’s head and continued in a reassuring tone. “I feel it’s divine providence. The hand of the Lord is in this, and He will take care of us.”
It was quiet at dinner that evening. “Anything the matter?” Frank asked.
“Everything’s fine,” Mrs. Hathcock assured him. “We’ve been offered a home in Winston-Salem for an affordable rent, and I’ve accepted the offer. We’ll be moving as soon as school is out.”
Dottie looked up, a grin growing across her face.
Frank protested. “I don’t understand. Why would you move? This is your home.”
Mrs. Hathcock put her fork down and explained. “Well, things are a little more crowded around here now. If we move, it will lessen the congestion in what is now your home, Frank. And, Ashelynn has an audition with the performing arts academy there. Since school’s out in a couple of days, the timing just seems right.”
Frank glanced at his wife, who had a pleased expression. “Oh,” Frank stammered. “Well, I suppose you’ll call and let me know if you need anything once you get there.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Hathcock replied.
Frank looked concerned, but no more protests were made, and no encouragements to stay were offered.
Caroline looked at Conner, and they caught each other’s eyes.
Mrs. Hathcock noticed the exchange and added, “Of course, you are welcome to come visit once we’re settled.” The offer was made to all, but she looked directly at Conner.
Conner smiled his gratitude and looked back down at his plate.
Caroline studied his face, wishing she could discern his feelings. She wondered if he’d come. She sincerely hoped he would.
Part 3 of At Last Farewell
Hereb sunk down the wall, battered and exhausted. He found it odd to be baring his soul to this great beast with whom he had just battled. But now, he was too out of breath for more stories. The dragon’s lair fell silent except for Daggnir’s ponderous purring that filled the light-starved chamber. Hereb knew that cats purred for pleasure or to get attention, but he also heard once they could purr to heal. Could a dragon also heal by purring? Hereb knew Daggnir was wounded from their battle, but he could not guess how badly. Was he increasing his strength as Hereb’s drained away? Was he just toying with him? Was it a matter of time before the beast decided he had enough of his pest? Was the time growing near?
“So, why this valley? What brought you to this place?” Hereb asked, weak from all the talking, but not ready to die just yet. The adventurer had been using stories to distract Daggnir the Oppressor to keep the monster from ending his life, but he had no strength left to continue. Now he needed to play to the dragon’s ego.
“I am flattered you asked, little man, though I am sure you do not really care. I made this my home years ago. It is dangerous to be among my kind, few of the young survive. However, I am wiser than they are and have lasted longer than all my rivals. I have had time to grow here, though I am still young by our expectations. I will make my mark at the appropriate time. The villagers here are so accommodating. Mostly, anyway. Once in a while, those local fools send some puny want-to-be ‘knight’ trying to make a name for himself. Or maybe some half-wit thief thinks he can outsmart me.” Daggnir started to fume at the audacity. “Their bones clutter my halls, and their baubles belittle my collection. Few have anything of real value, not even their insignificant lives. Their feeble attempts are not even amusing.” Daggnir huffed in anger before letting out a labored cough and calming himself again.
Hereb did not respond, but let him talk, hoping the dragon would reveal a weakness. “You, however, have showed some worth, shaddi. I might even believe one or two of your outlandish stories. Though I cannot decide if you are just a thief or are making some attempt at becoming a paladin. It does not matter now. Perhaps it is time to remind the villagers of their place once again. They seem to have forgotten. Though I was just a youth when I first arrived, they cowered at the sight of me. Calves they gave to me, like I was some pagan god. Ha! I was so amused, but pleased, I must admit. I insisted on gold, and they acquiesced!”
“All you demanded, they gave,” Hereb agreed.
“Yes! When they ran out of cows, they sent pigs and goats. Along with the gold came porcelain, jewels, anything and everything. They begged for mercy, so I was merciful, as long as they kept paying. As I grew stronger, I started on neighboring towns. Village after village now pays homage to me. The whole valley fears me.” Daggnir let out an amused chuckle that was overtaken by a series of coughs.
“But they have no more cattle, nor sheep or goats or even pigs,” Hereb stated, having recovered a little strength. “No more gold. You plundered them dry. They took to luring merchants, which they robbed and killed. But merchants don’t come much anymore. Word gets around.”
“Yes. It is interesting how fearful they really are. How easily they turn on each other once it gets just a little difficult. They had nothing left, so they started offering me something else…”
Daggnir smirked. “Yes, must have been reading their bedtime fairy tales. I doubt they thought of it on their own.” His throat rattled some more.
“Maybe. But is seems no one was ready to sacrifice one of their own daughters, yet. Thought they would try something else first. Someone who was alone in this village.”
“Yes, they sent over the barren widow. I should be insulted and would be, but she turned out to be so very charming. I accepted their offering—this time.”
“Yes, very charming,” Hereb whispered to himself.
“But you foolishly chased her off—that which was mine! No one dares such a thing!” Daggnir’s purring was replaced by a low growl and slow, heavy breathing, broken up by coughs. Claws clacked against stone. Terror overwhelmed Hereb as he sat helplessly in the dark. “It will only be temporary, little man, I assure you.” Daggnir spoke low, choosing his words. “Once we are done here and after a little rest, I will find her. Your little adventure will have been a waste.”
Hereb froze in fear, but the attack never came. Neither spoke for a few moments. Hereb hoped he was forgotten. Finally, the beast broke the silence and added in a calmer voice, “Except for your tall tales, of course. Very entertaining.”
“Glad it wasn’t too much of a waste of your time. Though you may need to rest longer than you are admitting,” Hereb responded, trying to sound nonchalant, praying the tremor in his voice did not reveal his terror.
“I have plenty of time.” Daggnir laughed again but couldn’t maintain it without hacking. “Soon, just a few more decades is all, and I can leave this place and rule over a real kingdom with greater wealth. Then all will fear me. Even my kin. Sorry, you won’t be around to witness it.” He fell into uncontrollable coughing.
“I’m sure I won’t be,” Hereb groaned in his pain. “This place wearies me. But I am beginning to doubt if you will make it either. That cough just doesn’t sound good.”
Daggnir didn’t immediately respond, and Hereb thought perhaps the great dragon had not heard him.
Finally, Daggnir spoke softly between continued coughing fits. “My plan was a wise one. You may have ruined that, shaddi.”
“Have I? I can only hope. I do have one question yet. May I ask you—what is the meaning of shaddi?” Hereb closed his eyes. He was drained.
“Shaddi?” Daggnir spoke between coughs. “It is an ancient tongue, long forgotten by man.” His wheezing continued. “It means ‘warrior’ or more accurately, ‘mighty one.’” Daggnir’s hacking grew worse. “I must admit, I think you have earned the title. Even if all your tales are not true, you are greater than the others that came. You fought most bravely, much more skilled. Even with your wits.” Daggnir paused for a great length, his breathing seeming heavier. “Maybe I should have learned as you did, shaddi. Perhaps… perhaps, I also was too greedy.’ He was now pausing between each sentence. “Maybe your coin does have some magic after all.” The coughing abated and Daggnir purred loudly as both sat in silence for many more minutes. Hereb was too feeble to answer.
“But I think not. That coin has no power beyond desire,” Daggnir rasped. “No, it is you that makes me ponder… you being here… here at our last farewell.” All of Hereb’s bottled up tension drained away and his fear subsided. “I am ashamed to say it—you defeated me. Like the Chu tyrant, I give you my nod of respect.” Daggnir rattled out a heavy breath, then was silent. Hereb listened, but there was nothing to be heard. Even the purring had stopped. He made a feeble last search for his missing pouch. That particular pouch contained his most prized possession, more valuable than anything he showed the dragon. He had come into the chamber with it, but now it was lost, and with it his last hope. The world faded away.
By Toni Kore
Dreading every step, Yeong Gi approached the booth. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck, as it often did when he was placed in stressful situations. Areum’s smile brightened as he neared the table.
“Good afternoon. What may I get you, ladies?” He asked nervously.
“I would like a mango juice, please,” Areum responded with a kind smile, without mentioning she knew him.
Yeong Gi took the other orders and let them know he’d be right back with their drinks, feeling grateful for Areum’s discretion.
“Isn’t that kid from our school?” one of the girls asked.
The other shrugged. “I think so. I didn’t know he got into fights, though. Look at that eye!”
“Maybe it wasn’t a fight,” Areum offered. “Maybe he tripped or something.” She too was curious how he got hurt, but figured that wasn’t a question she could easily ask.
“Whatever, Areum.” The second girl sighed and pulled out a magazine from her bag. “Anyway, have you seen the new issue for this month?”
While the other two girls fawned over the models in the magazine, Areum kept her eyes on Yeong Gi as he assembled their drinks. She was surprised by his speed and skill. Clearly, he was good with his hands. She wanted to know more about him—what happened to his eye, how he came to work at a cafe, how long he’d played piano, what he did for fun, his favorite drink, his favorite color—anything that would help her better understand him. Perhaps earlier she had befriended him out of sympathy, but now she genuinely wanted to get to know him more.
She had said nothing before because she could tell he was embarrassed by the look on his face. She also hadn’t told her friends she had talked to him because she didn’t want them asking questions.
“Here you go,” he said, carefully placing their drinks on the table.
“Thank you.” Areum took her cup and smiled graciously.
Yeong Gi bowed and left quickly thankful for her discretion.
Trying to keep his mind off of Areum, Yeong Gi busied himself with other customers, avoiding eye contact of any kind with her and her friends. After a while, he noticed their booth was empty and released a sigh of relief as went to clean their table. Finishing his task quickly and returning to the register, it surprised him to see who was waiting for him there.
“Hello, Kim Yeong Gi Shi.” Areum beamed.
He stalked past her. “What are you doing here?”
“Daebak! You are not going to ignore me this time?” She asked sarcastically.
Yeong Gi rolled his eyes. “What do you want?”
Making a distasteful expression, she whined. “You are no fun.”
“What?” He questioned, annoyed expecting to be questioned about his eye and not wishing to explain.
She huffed dramatically and leaned against the counter. “You know that new zombie movie?”
“What? Why do you ask?” He said, confused.
“Have you seen it?” She pressed, more eagerly.
“Uh.” He hesitated. “No.”
Areum clapped her hands together. “Jjang! Want to watch it with me?” She stared up at him with big, hopeful eyes.
“What?” he asked again—unsure how to react or why this girl was paying him special attention.
“Do. You. Want. To. See. A. Movie. With. Me?” She punctuated every syllable, clearly defining her inquiry.
“A-are you… asking me out?” His voice felt strained and dry.
“Uh-huh!” She nodded shamelessly with a wide grin. “Want to go?”
“No,” He answered quickly.
Her smile fell into a pout. “Why?”
“We do not know each other,” he reminded her. “We spoke to each other for the first time just this morning, Ah Ro.”
“Areum.” She corrected him.
“Whatever.” He shrugged. “That just proves my point.”
“Is not that the point of hanging out?” She retaliated. “To get to know each other?”
“What if I do not want to get to know you?” He asked bluntly.
“Aish, this guy!” She sneered at him. “It will not hurt you, Yeong Gi Shi! It is just one movie!”
“No,” he said firmly. “I am sorry. I do not have time, nor do I want to, anyway.”
“You are a meanie, Kim Yeong Gi.” She rebuked him. “You will not even give me a chance to be your friend.”
“Sorry,” he stated, without actually looking sorry. “Can I get you anything else?” He asked in his waiter tone of voice, tiring of the conversation.
Quickly, she reached across the counter and pulled his notepad from his apron pocket.
“Hey!” He shouted, trying to retrieve it.
Areum wrote quickly. “Here is the date and time of the movie. It is at the theater down the block. Be there or I will tell everyone at school that you work here! Put my number in your phone,” she added, jotting it down, too. She handed the notepad back and smiled wickedly at him.
Grabbing the pad from her hands, he asked pointedly, “What if I do not show up?”
“I already told you!” Areum huffed as she headed for the door. “Be there or I will tell everyone you work here.”
“I can find another job!” He hollered after her.
She zipped out of the cafe, leaving Yeong Gi to his annoyance and with no other choice than to meet her at the movie theater.
He shook his head. Even if he wanted to go, there was just no way he could. Between home, school, and his part-time jobs, there was just no time. Hanging his head, he moaned. “Better start looking for another job.”
Part 3 of The Fragmented Shore by Brandon Muhlestein
-Sit down and I’ll tell you about the biggest failure of my life-
“I had this whole idea of how it was going to go, but then…” Noah stopped as the emotion welled. The tears hadn’t quite stopped fully as he recounted his tragedy. Logan hadn’t moved since Noah started his story.
“But then everything changed.” Logan sighed and leaned back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair. Of the many different ways he had imagined this conversation would go, Noah’s detail of his trauma in the Fragmented Shore was not on his list. Ever since he had begun his studies in astrophysics and quantum theories, he had anticipated there would be disappointments along the way; he never thought that a traumatic death in a realm of time would be one of them.
“Yeah. Everything changed.” Noah muttered, slouching in his chair, emotionally drained. Every feeling he’d been trying to repress had resurfaced in the time he’d told his story. No matter how hard he’d try to get over what had happened, or at the very minimum lock it away in the back of his mind.
They sat in the still quiet—Logan taking in the reality of Noah’s story, and Noah remembering the horror of experiencing it. Neither really knew what to say at this point, so they simply sat for what felt like several hours.
Logan’s voice eventually broke the silence. “So, you never tried to go back and get him? If it’s a place of time, shouldn’t you be able to enter it at any point in our time and get to the same point you were at before? You said it was like a beach by the ocean; maybe time is like a physical place–when you enter is just a different place on the shore but the ‘time’ there is the same?”
Noah shook his head solemnly. “We have no way of knowing that, and I haven’t had the courage to go back. Even if that were true, there is no guarantee I could even find him. Time is infinite and doesn’t have a beginning or an end. There are an infinite number of places he could be if he is even still in the Shore at all. We don’t know how the Shore interacts with our world. It’s also possible he got spit out in some time who-knows-when and will never be able to leave.” All of this had been things Noah had already thought through after their excursion. He’d tried to think of every way he could rescue Archer, but since he couldn’t guarantee any of these theories would work, he wasn’t going to chance anything less than a guarantee again.
“Well, maybe there is a way to navigate the Shore.” Logan suggested. “We have compasses and maps for this plane, so in theory, they could exist for other planes as well, right? If we could find one of these maps for the Shore, or something like it, it could help us track Archer down.”
“It’s uncharted.” Noah responded simply. “No recorded civilization ever had a complete understanding of the Shore. What Archer and I accomplished came from the information we pieced together from at least a dozen different civilizations.” He looked up at Logan intently. “What you are describing doesn’t exist.”
“So you’re saying there’s no hope?” Logan asked incredulously, rising to his feet. “Just because you don’t think it exists, you aren’t even going to try to find out?” He paced for a moment before turning back with an exasperated huff. “You assume just because you never found it, it’s not there to be found. But did you ever think that you didn’t find it because you weren’t looking for it? You said you pieced together information about how to get to the Shore. Maybe you overlooked those clues in your research and the ways to navigate it slipped through your fingers.”
Noah sat and stared at Logan as his words sank in. This young man wasn’t deterred even after hearing the tragic results of Noah’s own attempts. His enthusiasm seemed to go beyond just an excitement for the mysteries of the universe. Logan was determined in his belief that there were more clues to be found, more research to be done. He didn’t have any fear or reservation of pursuing this path, or of eventually entering the Shore himself. Noah couldn’t help but admire his dedication, but knew that there was more than just pure belief behind Logan’s vigor.
“You found something, didn’t you?” He asked quietly. Logan’s facial expression betrayed his silence, so Noah continued, “You are so certain that something like what you are describing exists; so confident it can even be found. People in this field don’t come at something with your degree of confidence unless they already have some shred of proof for it.”
Logan hesitated for a moment before sighing and sitting down at the table again. He silently reached into his bag and pulled out a small stack of papers. As Logan laid them out on the table, Noah immediately recognized them as xerox copies of time-worn documents. Noah picked one up and studied the contents, quickly recognizing the language as an older form of Egyptian and noted the well-worn edges of what was most likely an older papyrus.
Logan explained, “I found these while on a summer exchange program in Egypt. We went through several different expeditions as part of the program but were given a week at the end to go about research on our own. I spent most of that week in the library in Cairo and found these. They reference something called ‘The Aegis,’ and after a few cross references and some deeper searching, I came across some mythology texts speaking of The Aegis of Time. There are several civilizations that have deities over time, and while mythology writes it off as magic, this could be a legitimate way they traveled the Shore.”
“And you think the Aegis is how they did it?” Noah repeated in a questioning tone. It wasn’t the craziest thing Logan could have said, especially given the topic. “The only problem is that you are looking at several different mythologies that can’t even be proven to be real. And even if they were, the stories are all different on what and where this Aegis might be, let alone that we don’t even know what it’s supposed to be.” Noah didn’t want to sound too discouraging because he had been in Logan’s shoes just a few years back, but he also didn’t want to get his hopes up again only to have them crushed.
“The whole point of research is to prove theories either right or wrong.” Logan countered. “Don’t we owe it to Archer to at least prove the theory right or wrong? If this is a real possibility, then we have to at least try, right?” His eyes silently pleaded with Noah.
As much as Noah didn’t want to risk tragedy again, or jeopardize anyone else, there was something undeniable about the way Logan presented his case that had him believing again. He’d already consigned himself to his fate that he permanently lost Archer. But now, if there was a way to save him, Noah knew he had to take it.
“Alright.” Noah said, conviction sparking to life again. “Show me everything you have and let’s hope that your hunch is right.”
Logan grinned as he and Noah began to dig into Logan’s findings. Noah silently hoped it would be worth it, and prayed silently that if it did, Archer would forgive him.
Paisley Marie was a very lucky seven-year-old girl because she got to live at the beach, the most magical place in all the world. She loved to walk on the sand, collect seashells, and talk to the mermaids that hid beneath the waves. The only thing that made her sad was that she didn’t have any friends to play with.
One morning, as she was telling the mermaids a story, she’d made up about them when she heard her mommy calling her.
“Come on, P-Marie! Let’s go to the store. We can bake cookies this afternoon.”
“I have to go now,” she said to her friends, “but I’ll bring some cookies when I come back later” and she ran over to her mommy, who was waiting by the car.
“Why are we baking cookies, Mommy?” she asked as she climbed in and buckled her seatbelt.
“Because it’s fun,” her mommy said, smiling at her in the rearview mirror. “We could make broccoli instead. Would that be better?”
“Ewww! Cookies are always better. Can we use the mermaid sprinkles?” Paisley’s eyes twinkled as she put on her sparkly purple sunglasses.
They talked about decorating cookies all the way to the store, and when they got there, they loaded up their cart with everything they needed.
“I think we have enough ingredients to feed a dozen mermaids!” Her mommy said. “Let’s pay and load up the car.”
As Paisley and her mommy were putting the empty cart away, a woman walked over to them holding a small box. She talked quietly to Paisley’s mommy and then the lady bent down to speak to Paisley.
“I’ve got this fish that needs a good home, and as soon as I saw you, I knew you would take good care of her. Would you like to see her?”
Paisley nodded, and the woman opened the box to reveal a small bowl that held water and sand, and the most beautiful fish Paisley had ever seen. It was blue and green and purple, and it had a big tail that was shaped like a fan.
“I have a bigger bowl that I’ll give to your mommy and a box of food. She would be happiest if there were some seashells in her bowl, and maybe some pretty pebbles. But the most important thing she needs is a friend. Fish get lonely when they’re by themselves for too long, so you’ll have to talk to her, sing to her, and tell her stories. She especially likes mermaid stories. Can you do that?”
“Yes!” Paisley answered. “She’ll be my best friend and will take good care of her. What’s her name?” She reached out to stroke the side of the bowl, and the little fish swam over to look at her fingers.
“That’s up to you! Can you hold her bowl while your mommy and I get her supplies?”
Paisley nodded and took the bowl with her tiny new friend. This was the best day ever!
When they got home, Paisley got her little friend settled into the bigger bowl and added a few pretty shells and pebbles.
“Do you like your new bowl?” she asked as she watched the fish swim around. “I hope you do. You’re so pretty! You need a pretty name.” Paisley thought for a moment and then smiled. “I know! I’ll call you Aurora.”
Paisley brought Aurora to the beach to meet the mermaids, then Aurora watched as Paisley and her mommy baked cookies and made dinner. She met Paisley’s daddy, and that night Paisley read three stories to Aurora before she said good night and crawled into bed.
She fell asleep with a smile on her face, only to wake up a little bit later when a voice whispered in her ear. “Wake up, Best Friend! Come play with me!”
Paisley sat up and saw a soft purple glow filling her bedroom, and a little girl standing by the bed.
“Who are you?” she asked, yawning.
“It’s me, Aurora!” the girl said. “Want to play?” She climbed up on the bed and waited for an answer.
“Aurora, like my fish?” Paisley looked over at the bowl and was surprised to see the bowl empty. “Oh, no! Where is my fish?”
“I’m right here,” the girl said. “I’m Aurora. See?” She showed Paisley the colors in her hair: purple, green, and blue, just like the fish.
“Wow!” She reached over and touched Aurora’s hair. “I never had a fish before. Do all fish turn into kids at night?”
“I’m not really a fish,” Aurora explained. “I’m a mermaid! The other mermaids and I love listening to your stories, and I really wanted to come and play with you, but my mimsy said she had to make sure you were going to treat me nicely. Sometimes humans aren’t kind to us.”
“Why not?” Paisley asked. “No one should ever be mean to you!”
“Sometimes people are scared of new things,” Aurora explained, “but when you came to tell us stories every day, my mimsy and pipsy thought that you and I could be friends.”
“There are lots of mermaids!” Paisley said. “Don’t you already have lots of friends?”
“We haven’t lived here very long,” Aurora said, “and sometimes I feel shy, so it’s hard to talk to new mermaids.”
“I’ll be your friend!” Paisley Marie said, giving Aurora a big hug. “We can play when you’re a mermaid at night, and when you’re a fish, I’ll tell you stories, and feed you cookies! You can help with my homework, too. Are you good at math?”
Aurora laughed. “I’m good at math and I love to eat cookies, but I can’t be your fish and your mermaid friend, or we would never sleep! You met my mimsy today at the store. She said you were sweet and kind, and that you would be a good friend. I got to be a fish all day today to see if you would keep your promise. I was afraid you’d put me on a shelf and forget about me, but you didn’t, and now we get to be friends!”
“I’ll miss my fish, Aurora, but I am going to love my mermaid friend, Aurora,” Paisley said. “But what would have happened if I had forgotten about you?”
“When you woke up in the morning, I would not be here, and no one would even remember that you had a fish. There have been lots of times mermaids have wanted to make friends with humans, but we learned that if humans are not kind to their pets, they won’t be kind to their friends, either.”
Paisley thought about that for a moment. “So tomorrow I won’t have a fish, and my mommy and daddy won’t remember that I ever had one?”
“Yep. But now you’ll get to see lots of mermaids! Only no one will know we’re mermaids, but you.” Aurora winked.
The girls talked for a long time before Aurora had to go back to the ocean and Paisley had to go to sleep. Once again, Paisley went to sleep with a smile on her face.
When she woke up the next morning, the fishbowl was gone, and she wondered if it had all been a dream.
After she’d finished her breakfast, Paisley went down to the beach, but there was no one else there. She started to feel very sad, but then she heard splashing in the water behind her and turned to see a little girl with beautifully colored hair swimming over to her.
“Hi!” she said. “My name is Aurora. My mims—my mommy is over there. We just moved in down the beach! What’s your name?” And before Paisley could answer, the little girl with purple, blue, and green hair winked at her.