52 Week Short Story Challenge #3 – Make A Wish

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I came up with this week’s prompt when I was at my mother in law’s house picking up the laundry. There was a pile of leaves in the breezeway of the apartment where she lives and for a second I thought “how the hell did a toad get up here?” Then the leaves blew away but i couldn’t stop thinking about the toad.

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Make A Wish

If Cassie hadn’t been looking up from her phone at that exact moment, she might not have seen the toad. In fact, two or three more steps forward and she probably would have stepped on it.

“Hey little guy,” she said, stopping in her tracks. “What are you doing up here?” The toad stared at her, its rapidly working throat the only movement she could see by the fading light. The sky was turning from lavender to a deep blue blanket speckled with stars and Cassie tapped her phone’s screen to get to the camera. She wanted to take a photo of the toad before the light was gone.

From her limited experience with toads, she expected it to hop away as soon as she got closer, but it simply sat there staring at her with eyes whose pupils looked far more human than any amphibian she’d ever seen. She squatted down to take the picture and the toad locked eyes with her. She noticed, much to her surprise, that they were silver.

If you could have one wish, what would you ask for?

The voice popped into her head unexpectedly, as clear and businesslike as if she was speaking to a man sitting across from her in an interview. She frowned and pressed a hand to her forehead, then looked around as if she expected to see someone behind her. There was no one else around and the last of the sun had finally disappeared, leaving Cassie and the toad in almost total darkness.

“This is crazy,” she said, standing up. “For a second I thought you were talking to me.”

Who said I wasn’t?

Cassie stared down at the toad, who was now looking up at her. Its silver eyes hadn’t left hers for a moment, and when the light on the roof came on they seemed to glow. Apart from its eyes there was nothing about the toad that would give any indication that there was something unusual about it. It looked like a run of the mill, everyday toad.

I can grant you a single wish, the voice in Cassie’s head said as the toad hopped closer to her. Just one. And it can be anything. None of those restrictions from legends and movies. Love, money, even bringing someone back from the dead. I can do all those things and more.

“How?” Cassie couldn’t shake the feeling that she was losing her mind. She’d come up to the roof to clear her head after getting her second notice from the debt collection people, not have a conversation with a toad. Yet here she was, actually talking back to a voice that might or might not be all in her imagination.

Does it matter? Make a wish and I will grant it.

“This is completely ridiculous,” Cassie said, at the same time thinking about what she would wish for. Talking to a toad was weird enough and believing it could grant her a wish was bumping right up against the edge of a break with reality, but there was no harm in considering the question. If she could wish for one thing, anything at all, what would it be? The obvious answers like world peace and a cure for cancer flitted through her head but Cassie pushed them aside. There was no one around, and the toad’s half of the conversation was only in her head. She could be as selfish as she wanted and no one would know the difference.

“All right,” she said, squatting down again so that she was closer to the toad’s level.

Good, the voice said. Tell me what you want most.

“Money,” Cassie said. “A hundred thousand dollars. I want to pay off my credit cards and my car loan, and not have to ask my parents for money anymore.” The toad closed its eyes and nodded but nothing happened.

Cassie wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. A notification from her bank saying that she was suddenly $100,000 richer? A man stepping out of the doorway to hand her an oversized cardboard check? Neither of those things made any sense, and Cassie almost burst out laughing. None of this made any sense. It was more likely that she was tired and imagining things, or that she had fallen asleep on the roof and this was all a dream.

“So much for making a wish,” she said, straightening up. “At least my brain didn’t make me try to kiss you.” She was just about to walk away when she decided that even though it hadn’t given her the cash she wanted, she couldn’t leave it on the rooftop. She had no idea how it had gotten onto the roof but she doubted it was going to be as lucky on an attempt to get down.

“Come on, toad,” she said, scooping it up. “I’ll take you down to the garden. Save you the trouble of trying to get down the stairs.” The toad was silent and she stuck her cell phone in her back pocket and headed down the stairs that led to the roof.

There were people hanging around the front of the building as always, laughing and joking as if they hadn’t a care in the world, and Cassie couldn’t help wondering if they ever went to work. She walked past them without making eye contact and found herself wishing for the thousandth time that she could afford to live somewhere else.

That’s what I should have wished for, she thought. It has just as much a chance of coming true as anything else. One of the men hooted loudly and she went around the corner of the building to the garden along its side. Cassie deposited the toad in the flowerbed and smiled.

“Have a good night, toad,” she said. The toad didn’t respond and she turned to go back inside, steeling herself for the walk through her neighbors’ impromptu get together. If the guy with the blonde hair was there, she could expect at least one comment about her ass.

When she was finally in her apartment with the door locked, Cassie sank down onto the couch and leaned her head against the back. There was no way a toad could have given her money, yet she couldn’t help feeling somewhat disappointed. Even if it had just been for a few moments, she’d expected something to happen. Her back pocket started vibrating and she pulled out her phone, the familiar sensation of fear whispering through her when she saw it was an unknown number.

“Dammit,” she sighed. The only people that called her from unknown numbers were debt collectors and she’d been successfully avoiding them for the last few weeks, but something told her that this was the moment to answer the phone. I’ll just tell them I don’t have any money to give them, she thought. It’s the truth. “Hello?”

“Are you Miss Cassie Bates?” The voice on the other end wasn’t what she expected. It was a little warmer, and didn’t sound like it was reading from a script. There was something unsettling about it, though, and she responded cautiously.

“Yes.”

“Miss Bates, my name is Richard Reilly and I’m an attorney in Minneapolis representing your parents.” He took a deep breath while Cassie was trying to process his words. She couldn’t understand why a lawyer would be calling her but had a feeling it wasn’t good. “I’m very sorry to be the one to give you this news but your parents were killed in an accident two days ago. We’ve been trying to contact you but couldn’t get in touch until now.”

“My parents?” Cassie’s entire body felt cold. The voice on the phone kept talking but there was a strange, high-pitched noise overlaying it that made it hard for her to make out what the lawyer were saying. Her parents were dead? There had to be a mistake. “There’s no way my parents are dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Richard said. “Their car was hit by a semi that drifted into their lane. If it’s any consolation, they were killed instantly.” His voice was calm but it made even less sense than the conversation she had – or thought she had – with the toad. Cassie had no idea what she was supposed to say to any of this, and Richard took her silence to mean he could go on. “I’m going to need you to come down to the office as soon as possible to sign the paperwork,” the lawyer said. “The insurance company wants to pay out right away for some reason. They’re never this pushy about it but it’s going to work in your favor.”

“Insurance?”

“Yes. Between your parents, their life insurance payout is just over two hundred thousand dollars.” He said more, but Cassie didn’t hear it. The phone fell out of her hand as she covered her face. To her next-door neighbors, her agonized sobs sounded just like screaming.

Underneath her window, the toad worked its throat and smiled. The next day her voice would be little more than a croak. That was how it started.

That was always how it started.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #2 – A Loaded Question

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This week’s prompt is from http://www.fmylife.com/:therapist-promptI didn’t actually mean for it to happen, but this week’s story ended up a little dark.

 

A Loaded Question

When I first started coming to Amy, my therapist, I was terrified. The medication wasn’t working and I was looking for someone to help me make sense of the often conflicting workings of my mind. She was warm, kind, and I bonded with her more quickly than I’d ever bonded with another human being, which was why I was so leery of going to therapy when I knew she wouldn’t be there.

It had been weeks since the receptionist called to cancel my appointment with Amy, telling me that she was having family issues and wouldn’t be available. She offered to set me up with a different therapist but I didn’t want anyone but Amy, so I declined. When I called back to try and get a new appointment, I was told that Amy had moved to Kentucky.

As much as I wanted to believe that I didn’t need therapy anymore, I knew that wasn’t the case. I still had so much to work out and I couldn’t do it alone. So I called the office and asked them to set me up an appointment with a new therapist as soon as possible.

I was a little early for my appointment as usual, and much to my relief the office still had a comforting scent of lavender and eucalyptus, and the couches that were so soft I’d struggle to get out of them were still in place. I don’t know why I’d expected things to have changed just because Amy was gone but I had.

“Good afternoon,” I said as I signed in at the front desk. “I’m here to see Mr. Davies.”

Doctor Davies,” the receptionist corrected me.

“Sorry,” I said, a feeling of dread rising in the back of my throat. “I didn’t realize I was going to be seeing a doctor.”

“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile. “He’s very good.” I didn’t respond to this. Instead, I went to the couch against the wall and sat down with my eyes fixed on the hallway.

Part of the reason I liked Amy so much was that she wasn’t a doctor. Once a month I went to my psychiatrist for an evaluation of my meds, but that wasn’t a huge deal because my appointments with her weren’t terribly in-depth. In fact, most of them boiled down to her asking if the meds were working, my saying they were, and her telling me she’d see me in a month. Real doctors were another story altogether. Between neurologists telling me that my blackouts were just really bad migraines and my last GP accusing me of lying about the headaches so I could get pain medication, I hadn’t had many good experiences with them lately.

I was still trying to decide whether or not I was going to suddenly remember a previous engagement when the door at the end of the short hall opened up and a man came out. He took the chart from the receptionist and glanced at it.

“Mariah Pierce?”

“That’s me,” I said, fighting my way out of the couch and hoping I sounded more self-assured than I felt. When I made it over to him, I extended a hand. Doctor Davies was too busy looking at my chart to shake it and I dropped it to my side, feeling awkward.

“Come on in,” he said. I went ahead of him into the office and sat down, noticing as I did that he pushed a button on a little white box that was sitting outside his door. It emitted a soft, static-like sound that I assumed was supposed to cover up our conversation and my feeling of discomfort intensified. Amy had never used one. Maybe she hadn’t thought I had anything to hide.

Dr. Davies sat down at his desk and started reading my chart, something that didn’t inspire confidence in me. I felt like he should have at least flipped through it before I got there and hoped I wasn’t going to be billed for this. While he did, I took a minute to look at him. He was trim and tanned, though I couldn’t have told you if it was natural or a spray job, and his open-collared blue shirt and half-rimmed glasses made him look like he was trying to be someone’s cool uncle.

“So,” he finally said, setting my chart aside, “why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?”

“Uh,” I said, my body threatening to launch itself from the chair and run back outside. “Well, I’m 26 and I’ve been diagnosed with—“

“No, no,” Dr. Davies said, shaking his head. “Tell me about yourself in regards to your therapy. How do you think you’re progressing? What techniques have you found that work for you? Do you think your medication is working? That sort of thing.”

“Oh. Amy had me keeping a journal,” I said. “That seems to work. I use it to keep track of projects I’m working on.”

“What kind of projects?”

“This and that,” I replied, not really wanting to go into detail with him. Amy never asked for specifics, she just waited for me to tell her. “I collect things. And as for my medication, I guess it’s working. Sometimes I forget to take them but most of the time I do.” A sigh worked its way out of my chest and I caught it before it escaped. “I think the biggest problem I’m having right now is that I keep falling asleep.”

“Falling asleep?” Dr. Davies picked up a yellow legal pad – the definition of old-fashioned – and a pen whose shiny silver barrel was giving me a headache. “That can be a side effect of the medication you’re on.”

“No,” I said. “It’s different. I mean, I doze off at weird times. And sometimes I’ll find myself someplace and not know how I got there. Like I’ll be sitting down doing some work or at a restaurant and the next thing I know I’m back home in bed.” I took a deep breath and I glanced at Dr. Davies, who wasn’t looking at me but writing on his pad. “I have these dreams sometimes, too. Amy had me keeping a journal of them. Separate from the regular journal, I mean.”

“What kind of dreams?”

“They’re weird,” I said. “They’re me, but I’m usually watching myself from far away. I know what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to be doing but I’m never actually doing it. A lot of times I’ll think I can give myself orders but I never follow them. Sometimes I’m actually screaming at myself and I wake up with my throat raw but in the dream I just keep doing what I’m not supposed to. And when I have those dreams, I’m usually wearing someone else’s face.”

“You mean, you’re someone else.”

“I guess that’s what I’m supposed to believe, right?” The silence that followed was the definition of awkward. Amy would have been tapping on her tablet, which would have been comforting, but Dr. Davies was just staring at me as if he expected me to go on. I cleared my throat and forced a smile onto my face. If I couldn’t have Amy, I could at least try to break the ice like I had with her. “So what do you think? Am I crazy?”

“Well,” Dr. Davies said, setting aside his legal pad and pen, “That’s a bit of a loaded question, isn’t it?” I can’t remember if my mouth was actually hanging open or not but I didn’t wait for his answer. I got up and started out of the room, hearing him say something about seeing me next week that was drowned out by the white noise machine by the door.

The receptionist was waiting for me at the desk and I took my wallet out of my bag automatically to pay. My face was burning and my hands were shaking. This was exactly the reason I didn’t want to come to therapy in the first place.

“Twenty five,” the receptionist said, completely oblivious to my distress. “You need an appointment for next week?”

“I’ll have to call you,” I said, surprised how steady my voice sounded as I handed her some cash. “Did Amy leave an address? I’d like to send her a note to thank her for everything she’s done for me.” The receptionist shook her head.

“No. Her email said she was going out to Kentucky to take care of her aunt but I haven’t heard from her since. I’ve been waiting, too. There’s a pile of mail I’ve been wanting to forward to her.” She handed me a receipt and I folded it up without looking. “Do you want to leave me an email I can pass on to her?”

“That would be great.”

I took the stairs two at a time and managed to wait until the door to the back of the building was shut before I lit a cigarette and sank down onto the steps, my hands shaking. A couple of drags calmed me down a little and I closed my eyes, hanging my head so that my hair fell around my face. In spite of the nicotine seeping into my blood I was suddenly very tired.

When I lifted my head again it was dark, and the stub of my burned-out cig was still between my fingers. I looked around the parking lot, which was lit by a single flickering bulb. In the limited light I could see Dr. Davies walking to his car. He didn’t even have his keys out, something that told me he’d never had anything to fear. I tossed my cig into the weeds and got up.

If he wanted to see crazy, I was more than happy to show him.

I might even let him see where I’d kept Amy.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #1 – No Such Thing As A Free Meal

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Some of you may have noticed I haven’t been writing much lately. A number of things have happened and I really haven’t felt much like writing. More on that later, I’m not really in the mood to expound on my troubles. What I am in the mood to do is post a short story here for your reading pleasure.

This is the first in a series of 52 short stories written as part of the 52 Week Short Story Challenge, the goal of which is to get a cool cat by the name of SM Cadman back into the writing groove. She, like me, has been feeling pretty slumped due to depression and created this challenge as a way to break through. I thought it was a good idea, so I’ll be posting one short story a week based on a prompt. If you’d like to read along, or better yet join in, follow her blog or on Twitter and the prompts will arrive on Sundays.

It’s going to be fun!

This week’s prompt:

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No Such Thing As a Free Meal

The inspector rubbed her forehead as she sat in her car in the parking lot of The Pho House. It was only the third restaurant she’d been to that afternoon but she was already exhausted. She opened her glove compartment and grabbed the Excedrin out of it with her eyes closed, then chased two of the tablets with a mouthful of warm water from the bottle that had been sitting in her passenger seat all day. Nothing about it was pleasant, but that was par for the course for her day.

She was screwing the cap back onto the water when her phone started ringing. Grimacing, she picked it up without checking to see who it was. There were only a few people who actually called her and she couldn’t ignore any of them, even if she was seriously considering quitting.

“Williamson.”

“Hey, baby,” a voice she wasn’t expecting said. She smiled for the first time since she’d left the house. “We still on for six?”

“Not unless you can work a miracle,” Keshia Williamson said, looking up at the restaurant’s door, which was now sporting a ‘closed’ sign in spite of it being the middle of the day. “I’m way, way behind schedule and I’ve still got three places on my list.”

“So just do a quick walkthrough and give ‘em a C. We can make the seven o’clock movie.”

“Boy, that’s what got this whole mess started in the first place. I’ll get done when I get done.” Her headache seemed to be getting worse instead of better and she sighed. “I’ll call you as soon as I’m on my way back to the office.”

“No texting? Real call?”

“Real call. Love you, baby.” She hung up the phone and dropped it into her console, then started the car. If she was going to get anything close to finished before the sun went down she had to get going. In an attempt to get herself worked up, she put on some old Missy Elliott and tried to nod her head as she backed out of the parking space.

By the time she made it to Ricky’s House of Ribs, Keshia’s headache had receded just enough to make her feel functional again and she pulled into one of the spaces at the front of the building. There were only two other cars in the lot and she was glad. If there was a scene like the one at Kung Pao Kitchen, she didn’t want to see her face on YouTube later that night when she was trying to relax.

Keshia got out of the car and straightened her blazer, then slung her bag over her shoulder and picked up her leather folio from the passenger seat. Once she was convinced that she looked the part of a competent health inspector, she strode up the front walk and pushed on the windowless door only to discover that it was locked.

She looked at the business hours posted by the door and frowned. The restaurant should have been open for hours at this point but now that she looked through the window she could see the place was empty. Someone was moving around behind the counter, though, and she knocked on the door as hard as she could. Closed or not, Ricky’s House of Ribs was on her list and she was going to give them the grade they deserved. A minute later, the door unlocked and opened just enough for a man in a dirty t-shirt and jeans to lean out.

“We’re closed,” the man said.

“I’m the health inspector,” Keshia said. “I need to take a look around.”

“The health inspector?” He looked her up and down dubiously, taking in her twist out and the modest silver stud in her nostril. “We’re working on it.”

“I need to see what it’s like right now. I can come back later and amend your grade.” The man looked like he was going to argue with her and she felt herself starting to dig in, like she had so many times before, but he stepped aside and let her in.

“I knew this was coming,” he sighed. The front of the restaurant was dark and he led her to the back of the house. A large black ‘A’ was posted proudly beside their liquor license and Keshia resisted the urge to snort when she saw it. He pushed the door to the kitchen open and motioned for her to go in. “Excuse the mess.”

Keshia braced herself for the worst as she stepped through the door, expecting her guide to immediately launch into a litany of excuses. Instead, she was faced with an empty room that smelled like the inside of a swimming pool. There were squares of rust on the floor where appliances had recently been dragged away, and a bright yellow rolling mop bucket stood in the corner.

“Where’s all your—“ Keshia looked around the room. “—everything?”

“Cleared it out,” the man said, picking up a pack of cigarettes and shaking one out. He lit it with a lighter featuring a picture of a naked woman and took a deep drag. Keshia narrowed her eyes at him and he blew the smoke over his shoulder.

“You know that’s illegal.”

“You’re already here to fine me, what’s one more line on the ticket?” He tossed the lighter on the counter with the cigarettes and extended a hand to her. “I’m Ricky.”

“Miss Williamson,” Keshia said, shaking it. “You renovating?”

“Yup. Contractors are coming next week to take a look at the front end,” Ricky said, taking another drag. “My granddaddy died and left me everything so I’ve got the money. Not to mention I’m gonna be saving money not feeding old Don the Con.”

“Excuse me?”

“You seem like an honest lady,” Ricky said. “No harm in telling you now, unless you already know.” Keshia stared at him and he blew a cloud of smoke over his shoulder. “Which from the look on your face, you don’t.”

“What are you talking about?” Keshia folded her arms over her chest as Ricky sighed and leaned on the counter.

“Free food,” Ricky said, dragging a red plastic ashtray that looked like it had been scavenged from a dive bar over to him. “He’d been doing it for years. Every couple of days, at least once a week, Don would come in here and remind me that my good grade depended on his mood. And to keep him happy we gave him a plate whenever he came in.”

“You traded him free food to keep your A grade?”

“We weren’t the only ones. He was doing it to all the restaurants around here. House of Pho, Uncle Cash’s, whoever he could get to agree.” Ricky stubbed out his cigarette and took out a fresh one. “I made the mistake of telling him we were struggling, hoping to get some sympathy, and he said he’d give me some time to work on it if I’d help him out every now and then. Next thing I knew, he was showing up all the time.”

“Shit,” Keshia said, cursing on the job for the first time in her life. Everything was starting to make sense. She’d already shut down House of Pho, and Uncle Cash’s Place was next on the list. If Don Gibbens had been getting free meals out of dirty kitchens for who knew how long, the raging case of e. Coli he had contracted was suddenly explained. “No wonder that old bastard kept saying he didn’t know where he could have picked it up.”

“I told him I was done two weeks ago,” Ricky said, shaking his head and lighting the cigarette. “That I was gonna clean the place up for real, and he got all mad. Said he’d tell his bosses that I’d been giving him free food and that it was my idea.” Keshia set down her folio and rubbed her forehead. Her headache was back with a vengeance, and she had a feeling it had something to do with the way she was clenching her jaw. Before she could come up with the words for how she felt, Ricky opened his mouth again. “So I made him a special plate.”

“A special what?”

“We left half a rack of ribs out on the counter for a couple of days, then only half cooked ‘em. Drowned ‘em in sauce and served ‘em to old Don when he came in. He didn’t even notice. Gobbled ‘em down like every other time and wanted extra cobbler.” Keshia stared at him with her mouth open and he shrugged. “We shut down that night and I had the appliances hauled out the next morning.”

“You fed a health inspector spoiled meat? On purpose?” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was the most unreal thing she’d ever heard but Ricky wasn’t even trying to deny it. He was just standing there illegally smoking his cigarette as if nothing was wrong. “You know I could shut this place down for good?”

“Probably not,” Ricky said. “Old Don was ripping off every restaurant in this area so you’d have a hard time proving whose food poisoned him. According to him, he was getting three meals a day for free. I wasn’t the only one who had the idea, either. There could have been two or three places pulling the same thing.” He smiled. “In a month I’ll have a whole new restaurant for you to inspect with brand new freezers and pit and everything. I’ll even give you a plate at our Grand Opening celebration.”

Keshia opened her mouth, then closed it. Ricky was right. With Don keeping his mouth shut about the free meals and the kitchen completely gutted, there was no way anyone could tie his food poisoning to the restaurant. The worst she could do was write him a citation for smoking and even that was more effort than she was willing to put in. With this place crossed off the list, she could get through the next two restaurants and make it back home in time for her date with Deron.

“Thanks,” she said, picking up her folio and heading for the door. “I’ll pass.”