Thursday, December 22, 2011

This is getting to be a habit with me. I think that's a good thing. Here is this week's entry (a few minutes late, I'm afraid) for Rebecca Harris's Flash Fiction challenge at Bony Fingered Limbs.

The Homecoming

Matilda Matthews was born in a cabin in the woods. Her parents, Mike and Mary Matthews, were teachers. It was just before Christmas, 1975. Mary had taken maternity leave, because their first baby was due in a few weeks, and Mike was on Christmas break. When Mike had finished grading final exams, they decided to take a ride in the country, just for the beauty of it. Alongside the road, snow clung to drooping branches, and a hush lay over the countryside. It was like driving through a calendar. That is why they drove so far, watching the suburbs change to farm land, the farm land to forest, the daylight to dark.

They were very much in love, and they made a lot of plans for their life together. It never occurred to either of them that the universe might not co-operate with their schemes. Not, that is, until that night in the deep woods, when their old Ford's engine sputtered, the snow fell, Mary started to groan, and Matilda made it abundantly clear that she was about to be born, hospital or no hospital.

As Mary's groans increased in volume and intensity, Mike jumped out of the car and took off at a run. He insisted, later, that he had never intended to run away. He merely got out to have a look around, he said, to find a place for their baby to be born. Mary had her doubts. However, whatever his original motive for leaping out of the car, Mike did find a suitable shelter for his wife, a log cabin just a few yards from the road. There were no lights on in the cabin, so he didn't see it at first, but he shone his flashlight all around, and there it was, its windows reflecting the wavering light. Shouting “Wait right there!” Mike stumbled across the snow to the cabin's door. He knocked, but there was no answer, so he tried the door – it was unlocked. He left the door ajar while he went back to the car and helped Mary clamber out. Together, they made their way to the cabin.

A big, overstuffed sofa sat in the middle of the front room, facing a fireplace. Mary lay down on the sofa. Mike found a lantern and lit it with a wooden kitchen match from a box on the mantel. He used some of the wood stacked by the fireplace to start a cozy fire. Then he turned his attention to Mary, whose cries were becoming quite alarming.

Mike ran into the bedroom and opened the old wooden wardrobe. He found a stack of clean towels and took them out to the living room. The bed would have been a more comfortable place to give birth, he supposed, but the bedroom was still so cold that he could see his breath. He closed the bedroom door behind him, holding what precious heat there was inside the room where their baby would be born. After that, he had no idea what to do except hold Mary's hand and try not to panic. Between contractions, Mary tried to tell Mike what to expect, but this was her first baby, too, and the Lamaze classes hadn't prepared either of them for deep woods childbirth without doctor or midwife – “Mike, boil some water and let it cool down. You'll need to wash your hands really well before you deliver the baby.”

“Before I what?”

“Before you deliver the baby. Who else do you think is going to do it?”

“Oh, God.” Mike sat down suddenly and put his head in his hands.

“Don't fall apart on me, Mike. I'm warning you.” Mary was talking through clenched teeth.

Mike looked over at his wife. Her face was turning red, and she was clutching at her belly. As he watched, she curled up and started to groan again. He took her hand. “Don't worry. I won't fall apart. I'll be here for you. I love you. We'll get through this together.”

And they did. Calling on their Lamaze classes and what they had seen in countless Hollywood movies, they managed to bring Matilda, red-faced and screaming, into the world. They wrapped her in a towel and laid her on Mary's belly, and then they waited for daylight.

When the sun came up, Mike set off down the road in search of help. The nearest neighbours were half a mile away. They were surprised to see a weary, disheveled man at their kitchen door first thing in the morning, but they opened it – country people are like that. They gave him a cup of coffee, and while he drank it, Irma – the lady of the house – packed a thermos of coffee for Mary, along with muffins and orange juice for the two of them. She drove back to the cabin with Mike while her husband, Tom, went to milk the cows. She told Mike that the cabin belonged to her and Tom, that it had been their first home. They had built the larger house when their children came along. “We keep the cabin as a guest house now. We are expecting my sister and her husband to arrive tomorrow for Christmas. That's why you found it open.”

“Hello,” she said to Mary. “I'm Irma Baldwin. I live next door.” She unpacked breakfast and took the baby so that Mary could eat. After breakfast, Mike wrapped a blanket around Mary's shoulders and walked her out to Irma's car. Irma followed and handed the baby to Mike, who could hardly wait to hold her. She climbed into the driver's seat, and the four of them drove thirty miles to St. Patrick's hospital, where Matilda and Mary were both checked over and pronounced healthy. The doctor on call raised an eyebrow. Did Mary want to be admitted to hospital?

Tired as she was, Mary had to laugh. “What on earth for?”

Mike had arranged to have their Ford towed into town, and he had rented a Chevy so that they could get home. Mike and Mary both thanked Irma for all her help. As she was turning to go, Mike said suddenly, “Irma, would you mind very much if we named the baby after you?”

“But I thought you already had a name for her! Matilda, wasn't it?”

“Well, we did – but you have been so helpful – so wonderful – I – we – would like to do something to honour you.”

“I don't know what to say,” began Irma. “But wait! Why not use my name as her middle name?” So there it was. Matilda Irma Matthews.

Matilda grew up in Toronto, sixty miles and a world away from where she was born. She was only three when the old Ford sputtered to a halt again, this time on a Christmas shopping trip. It died on an off ramp from Highway 401, and all its lights failed. Within seconds, a tractor-trailer came off the highway and crushed the Ford. Both Mike and Mary died that night. Matilda was at her maternal grandmother's house when it happened, and that is where she stayed.

Her grandmother loved her very much, and Matilda had a happy childhood. In the fullness of time, she left childhood behind and became a lovely young woman, then, in the Spring of 2001, a bride.

She and Joe, her new husband, were very much in love, just as Mike and Mary had been. They lived in a tiny condo – hardly big enough for two – but within a few months of their wedding, Amanda was heavy with her first child, so they set about looking for another place to live. By Christmas Eve, their search area had extended right out into cottage country. “Are you sure you want to live this far out of town?” asked Joe.

“That's why we have the internet, Sweetheart. We can work anywhere we want – and it's beautiful out here. Just listen to the silence.” As she spoke, she saw what she was looking for – a charming log cabin, a few yards from the road, and in front of it, a For Sale sign. “Let's stop here,” she said. And they did.

It turned out that the house belonged to the lady next door, who had decided to sell the cabin after her husband died. “It's just too much for me to look after,” she said when Matilda called on her mobile. “I'll come right over and show you around.” She arrived within minutes, sturdy and cheerful in blue jeans and a tee shirt that had probably belonged to her husband. “How do you do?” she asked. “I'm Irma Baldwin.”

Matilda smiled and took Irma's hand. “I'm delighted to meet you. My middle name is Irma, you know.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This is another story I've written in response to  Becca Harris's challenge at Bony Fingered Limbs. I hope you enjoy it.

The Copper Beech

by Sandra Leigh

When the birds woke her in the morning with their song, she went to the window to look out at them. They reminded her that there was still beauty in the world, and she loved them for that. She peeked around the edge of the curtains, and for a moment she was blinded by the morning sun. Then she saw the shoes. They were made of brown leather, scuffed and worn, old-fashioned. What were they called? Wing tips. She remembered them. And there they were, hanging by their laces outside her bedroom window. She snatched her hand back from the curtain, shutting out the light, shutting out the shoes. If you happened to be looking up toward her window, you might not even notice the slight movement of the curtains.

He had hung his shoes in the copper beech tree. She knew they were his, even though he had hung them there during the night, while she was sleeping, and she hadn't seen him. Not this time.

For a long time, that was all she ever saw of him, just those shoes. She would hear him pacing back and forth in the next room, muttering something she couldn't understand, although she knew somehow that he was speaking English. She would get down on her belly on the bare, cold, floor and peer under the locked door of the room where he had hidden her, and she would see the shoes. She would watch them go back and forth in front of the door. She would dread their stopping, because that would mean he was going to come in, and she didn't want that to happen, so she stayed very quiet and watched. But of course, it did happen. It happened over and over again, once it started, once he stopped muttering, stopped pacing, and made up his mind. "You are mine now," he said, that first time. "You will always be mine. Forever." She didn't think she would survive, but she did, somehow.

Eventually, the police came, like the cavalry of old, and rescued her. She had lost seven pounds, and she had no idea how long she had been in captivity. It was fifteen days, they told her. And fifteen nights. They noted that although she was hungry and weak, and although her clothes were stained -- they took those away for testing when they got her to the police station -- her long, red hair was clean and glossy, as if she had spent that fifteen days and fifteen nights washing and brushing it. They assigned a female officer to stand with her and help her keep a scratchy woolen blanket wrapped around her shoulders while they conducted their initial investigation. The officer watched her, studied her bruised face. She turned away and pulled the blanket across her face, hiding the bruises and her green eyes.

They found a hairbrush. It wasn't in the room where she was kept for fifteen days and fifteen nights. It was in the main room, on the coffee table. It was an antique brush – boar bristle, someone guessed – part of a set. There was no mirror, no comb. Just the brush, inlaid with mother of pearl, edged with gold. They dusted it for fingerprints, but the prints were not in their database. He had always been a careful man.

When the police broke in, he was not there. He had gone out to the store for cigarettes for himself and sandwiches for the two of them, because she had been compliant that day. Returning from the store, he saw the police cars surrounding the derelict property, and he simply didn't come back. It was that easy.

The police took her description – white man, forty or maybe forty-five -- thinning blond hair, blue eyes, five feet nine, a hundred and fifty pounds. They used her description to produce a composite drawing. When she saw it, she wept, and then she was sick. They put out an all-points bulletin, but it didn't help. He looked like everybody and nobody. He got away. It was easy.

There were a front-page story in the newspaper, a manhunt that came to nothing, a flurry of public sympathy, and later, a falling away on the part of her friends, who sensed that she was different now. She didn't really mind. She needed to concentrate, to keep her wits about her. She would always know that he was out there, watching her, waiting for his chance to take her again. She knew that if she were going to survive, if she were ever to have her life back, she would have to overcome her fear. It didn't happen. She never overcame her fear, and she never stood in front of the window and brushed her hair again. Not ever.

That is what she was doing, the first time he saw her – standing in front of the window. It was evening, and she was brushing her hair. It was her hair that fascinated him. It reached halfway down her back, and it was the colour of flame. He could almost feel it, watching her. (He told her that, later.) He knew what it would be like to wind his fingers in her hair, to pull her toward him with a sharp jerk, to use her beautiful hair as a weapon against her, and that excited him. He knew, from the colour of her hair, that her eyes would be green. He liked green eyes. He pictured them filled with fear, and he liked that even more. That very evening, he started making his plans.

When the time came, he had planned so well, spent so much time tracking her movements, that he knew everything about her. He knew where she worked. He knew how she took her coffee at Starbucks -- and what route she walked every morning to get to the bus stop where she would stand and drink her tall dark roast while she waited for the bus. He knew that she favoured pink brassieres and matching panties, that she slept in a silky green nightgown, that when she went out, she paid little attention to her surroundings. She was deep in thought while she walked. She had no idea that he was watching her. That was what made it so easy.

Afterward, after those fifteen days and nights, she learned to keep her eyes and ears open and alert when she was out, to watch and listen as she passed by darkened doorways, the entrances to alleyways and abandoned buildings. Not that she went out anymore, at least no more often than necessary. Whenever she had to leave the house, she listened so carefully while she walked, that she heard the whisper of the wind in the leaves, the muffled sound of voices in conversation behind closed doors and windows, the skittering sounds of small animals in the shrubbery. She saw shadows everywhere; she watched them for any sign of movement – and she saw him. She saw him everywhere, in every hooded figure, every face half seen through a steamy cafe window. She knew that he was there somewhere, that he was watching her and waiting for his chance. She grew thinner and more pale, but although her hair might have lost some of its lustre, it was still beautiful. Strangers would look at her and think What a lovely girl. She looks so sad, though.

This is what she thought: He is here. He has been here all along. He has seen me. I will never be safe from him, no matter what they say. She was right. You know that too, don't you? It was only a matter of time.

On the morning when she found his shoes hanging from the branches of the copper beech tree, she knew that the time had come. She knew what she had to do. She hanged herself from the copper beech tree. The last things she saw were his brown leather shoes, scuffed and worn, hanging by their laces, spinning in the breeze.

The last thing he saw, before he put the gun to his head, was her body, hanging there in the sunshine, spinning, her long red hair gleaming among the copper beech leaves, beside his brown leather shoes.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Old Typewriter

It's like this. I accepted a challenge over at Facebook,  from Becca Harris of  Bony Fingered Limbs --- to write a 1,500 word story about an old typewriter. It's due in five minutes, so I guess I'd better do some quick copying!

Good Luck
by Sandra Leigh

Nancy found the old typewriter at an estate sale about two hours outside of town. In front of a Victorian farmhouse, there were tables covered with clean, pressed linens, mismatched china, and -- sitting on an old spool-back wooden chair -- the typewriter. When Nancy gave the space bar a tentative push, it worked. Tap-click. On a whim, she bought the typewriter, the spool-back chair, and one of the nicer tablecloths, one that must have been an heirloom. Something told her that the typewriter – that everything she had bought, for that matter – was filled with good luck, and she needed some.

Now, the old typewriter sat on her dining room table, surrounded by piles of paper, coffee cups whose contents had congealed into something like gum, and crumpled, unsavoury Kleenex. Beside the typewriter was the Dell laptop that Nancy actually used for writing. The old typewriter was there for inspiration – and for luck, of course. Nancy herself sat slumped on the old spool-back chair. Neither the old typewriter nor the chair appeared to be bringing her luck – at least, not the good kind. "Bugger!" said Nancy. She could swear at will. There was nobody to hear her. Nancy lived alone, by choice. She didn't want a husband, didn't like kids, and she had seen too many literary careers derailed by the demands of family to take the risk herself. She would succeed or fail according to her own lights, and by her wits.

Nancy had a deadline. She also had a cold, and it was a bad one. Her current book, a Gothic romance complete with flickering candles and a hero on horseback, was just beginning to take shape, but now she was under attack by a rhinovirus, and her wits were failing her. She soldiered on, blowing her nose after every sentence, then re-reading the sentence, because blowing her nose made her forget what she had just written. Once in a while, she would allow herself to wallow for a moment in her misery, her head resting on her bent right arm, her left arm draped over the old typewriter, tears streaming down her face. Of course that only made her runny nose worse than ever, so she was trying hard not to do it anymore. "Come on, girl," she said aloud. "Just write, dammit!"

She took a deep breath, coughed, and read her last sentence again: "Rebecca heard a sound – nothing more than a whisper, really – coming from behind the velvet draperies." Nancy paused, her hands poised over the laptop's keys, while she considered what to say next. What was the sound, she wondered? Was Rebecca imagining it? Was it real? Was there someone else in the room? She waited for the story to unfold, enjoying the wait, as always. This was her favourite part of writing. She blew her nose again, then closed her eyes, shutting out the world, moving into her imagination, searching for answers. When that didn't help, she moved over to the old typewriter and hovered there, thinking.

A sound intruded on Nancy's thoughts. It was no more than a rustling– and it came from behind the draperies. A shudder passed over her. She took her hands off the keys and backed her chair away from the old typewriter, shutting the laptop as she went. She stood and ran for the doorway, flipped the light switch, flooded the dim room with yellow light from the electric chandelier that hung over the dining table. Then she stood, her back against the wall, her story forgotten, trying to slow her breathing and steady her heartbeat. Count to ten, she thought. She got as far as six. Then the curtains moved, and she heard another sound – a kind of whimper. A whimpering ghost? A whimpering burglar? She sidled along the wall, moving as quietly as her laboured breathing would allow, keeping her eyes on the curtains. As she passed the fireplace, she took a brass candlestick down from the mantel. Thus armed, she approached the window. The draperies were still, now, as if holding their breath. She reached out with her left hand and swept them aside while she raised her right hand, which held the candlestick.

"Don't hit me. Please don't hit me." The child cowered, raising his arms to shield his face. He wasn't more than seven years old. Stringy blond hair hung over his eyes. He shivered in torn jeans and a dirty tee shirt.

Nancy lowered the candlestick. "Who are you?" she said. "What are you doing in my house?"

"I didn't take anything!"

"That's good, but why are you here? And how did you get in? And who are you?"

"Jimmy. Through the living room window."

"Jimmy who?"

"Jimmy Baldwin. I – I just needed a place to get warm, honest. It's cold. I didn't know anybody was home."

"But why were you out in the cold dressed like that? Where is your coat? Where are your parents?"

Nancy set the candlestick back on the mantel and motioned for Jimmy to come away from the window. It was warmer in the centre of the room. She pointed to a chair. "Sit." He sat. She went to the living room and pulled an afghan off the back of the sofa, brought it into the dining room, and wrapped it around Jimmy. "Wait here," she said. "I'll get you something warm to drink." She had made ginger tea to sip while she worked. That would warm him up. She poured some into a mug, added a dollop of honey, brought it back, handed it to him.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Now tell me what you were doing outside in the cold with no coat."

Jimmy looked down at the floor. Nancy could see his lower lip quivering as he fought back tears.

"I won't hurt you. I promise. Just tell me, okay?"

Jimmy's right foot traced a pattern on the floor, but he didn't speak. After a minute, Nancy turned and reached for her phone, which she had left on the table. "Okay, I'll call the police. They can make sure you get home safely."

"No! Please don't!" He grabbed Nancy's hand and held on.

"If you won't tell me what's going on, Jimmy, I don't really have any choice."

"If I tell you, will you let me stay here?"

"Uh, no. I'm sorry. First of all, I like living alone, thank you, and second, I could get into a lot of trouble if I kept you here."

"I wouldn't tell anybody."

"No, I don't imagine you would. But the answer is still no." Nancy pulled two warm jackets from the closet, handed one to Jimmy, and put the other one on. She grabbed a Kleenex from the box on the table, then changed her mind and grabbed a whole handful. She opened the front door and pointed outside. Jimmy obeyed, but his feet were dragging. She took his hand and walked with him to the end of her walkway. "Now let's get you home. Where do you live?"

"Never mind," he said. "I can get home on my own."

"Nope. You can't. You're – what? Six? Seven?"

"I'm going on eight!"

Nancy looked down at the boy and sighed. She put her hand on his shoulder, turned him around, and led him back into her house. She went to the kitchen and pulled a can of tomato soup out of the cupboard. While it heated, she made two peanut butter and jam sandwiches. She poured the soup into mugs, set the sandwiches on plates, and carried the makeshift supper into the dining room, where Jimmy still stood. He still wore her jacket, and it hung down past his knees.

"Dinner's served," said Nancy.

"Thank you," said Jimmy.

When Nancy lifted the jacket from Jimmy's shoulders, he flinched. "Before you eat, put on a clean shirt," she said. She found a tee shirt in her dresser. It was too big, but it would serve. Back in the dining room, she took hold of Jimmy's shirt and pulled it over his head. As she suspected, there were bruises on his chest and back. He folded his arms over his chest, hiding. "Here. Put this on," said Nancy.

They ate in silence. After dinner, Nancy put a sheet of paper in the old typewriter. She brought a high stool and helped Jimmy climb up. "Can you read?" He nodded.

"Good. You write your story – take your time – and I'll write mine. Deal?"

"Deal. But won't you get into trouble?"

"Nah. I'm a very lucky lady. Don't worry. Everything will be fine."

Jimmy looked down at the keys, then back at Nancy. Smiling, he started to hunt and peck. Nancy looked over at him, shrugged her shoulders and blew her nose. "What the hell," she said, "Maybe my luck is changing," and she went back to work.