Photo Prompt Story: Black Widow

This is a short story of 1,110 words. It was prompted by the above photo, seen on Sue Judd’s blog.

“More tea, Scott?”
She leaned forward with the teapot, ignoring the shake of my head that indicated I didn’t want any more. Joe had told me to contact her, said it would be a human interest story, and lapped up by our readers. I hadn’t expected her to agree to see me, especially as the news of the body being found had only been on last night’s telly news. But when she answered the phone, her voice went all silly and girly.

“The Herald you say? Oh yes, I would be happy to give you an interview, everybody around here reads our local newspaper. Shall we say two in the afternoon tomorrow? That will give me time to make myself presentable”.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wouldn’t be bringing a photographer, though I did ask if she could find a recent picture of her husband we could use.

She had crossed and recrossed her legs so many times, I was now presented with a ridden-up skirt and an unwanted view of far too much leg, given her age. When I had asked her age for the piece, she had adopted a strangely coquettish expression.

“My, you journalists have to always add someone’s age, don’t you? Well I am happy for you to put down that I am sixty-two, as long as you don’t want to see my birth certificate”.

She smiled so wide when she said that, the wrinkles each side of her mouth formed visible cracks in the powdery make-up covering her face. It reminded me of ice inside the windscreen of my car in the winter. I pushed on with the interview, asking her why she had waited so long to report her husband missing.

“I wasn’t expecting him home at any given time, Scott. He had planned his trip meticulously, Justin was a very meticulous man. He had said that he would walk the whole of the first day, then stop at a bed and breakfast before completing the rest of the forest walk the next day. He might even stay a second night, if it got too late to get a bus home. He didn’t drive you see, he had never learned how to. He said he didn’t have a lot of time for cars, though he seemed happy enough for me to use one to get our shopping from Sainsbury’s. So I went to see my friend Rosemary, and stayed over after we had too much wine. When he didn’t come home the second night, I wasn’t concerned. I didn’t call the police until he didn’t show up for dinner the next evening”.

I asked how long they had been married, ignoring the fact that she had slipped off one of her shoes, and was casually adjusting the nylon covering her toes as she looked across at me as if she would like to eat me for breakfast. Could this woman really be flirting with me so blatantly? She was much older than my own mother.

“Seven years, Scott. It would have been eight in June. We married late, you see. I had been married before, but Justin had never married. I think he wanted company after his mother died. He never showed any interest in me in THAT way, if you get my meaning”.

I got her meaning, and she continued.

“He was my third husband, Scott. My marriages seem to have been blighted by tragedy. Andrew was my first. The brakes failed on his MG sports car one afternoon. I used to tell him he should never have done his own car maintenace. Then Stephen, oh poor Stephen. He insisted on using that old ladder to fix up a new television aerial. I warned him it wasn’t safe, and said we should get someone in to do the job. But he wouldn’t be told”. And now Justin. How was I to know he would fall over a tree root, and fracture his skull? Lying there for almost four days until he died of exposure. So awful”.

She adopted a stylised expression of grief, looking much like a bad actress in an amateur dramatic group performing in a village hall.

“Things were fine until he retired. Then he became obsessed with keeping fit, as if he wanted to live forever. Hiking, power-walking, woodland walks, he was hardly ever here. And he became extravagant too, which was most unlike him. Four hundred pounds for a pair of binoculars that hung around his neck. I don’t think he ever even looked through them. Then two hundred dollars for a small red backpack that came all the way from America. One hundred and seventy for special hiking shoes, then almost three hundred for hiking boots needed for bad weather, or so he said. His last big purchase was his high-visibility walking outfit, bought to replace his old camouflage gear. That cost over five hundred pounds. Can you believe that, Scott?”

I checked my notes, and asked her why he wasn’t wearing the high visibility clothing when they found his body. It occured to me that the search and rescue helicopter might have spotted him earlier, if he hadn’t been wearing camouflage clothing and lying on top of his red backpack.

“Well he had tried it out the day before in Beulah Woods, you know, just up the road from here. But when he got home I noticed mud splashes on the trousers, so of course I threw the whole outfit into the washing machine. He was none too pleased when it wasn’t dry the next morning. So ungrateful”.

She leaned forward and placed a hand on my thigh. This woman had no concept of invading personal space.

“Now how about a slice of cake? I made it myself, a delicious Victoria sponge”.

I declined her offer of cake, but she left her hand on my leg, I could feel the heat coming from it through my trousers. I asked for the recent photo, and she gave me one taken at their wedding. I guessed that seven year old picture would have to do, and stood up, telling her I had everything I needed. I was never so pleased to get out of a house, I can tell you, and by the time I got to my car, I had started to wonder if she had put anything in the tea.

On the drive back to the paper, I wondered what Joe would think if I asked for a front page feature, and a big headline.

I thought ‘The Black Widow’ sounded about right.

Photo Prompt Story: The Freedom Of Flight

This is a short story, in 620 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Shaily Agrawal.

I remember it still. That feels weird. I never expected to remember, but I do. All of it, right from the start. My mother holding me as a baby and smiling down on me. Her voice, even the smell of her. I can choose any moment from fifty-eight years, and recall it as if it happened one hour ago.

This wasn’t what I had expected at all.

The day of the diagnosis, we knew it was bad news when the surgeon moved his chair close to mine and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his open legs. “I have to be totally honest, Stephen, we didn’t manage to get it all. The scan shows it is back, I’m afraid. And it’s inoperable this time, as it is in a part of your brain that we cannot possiby remove.”

My hair had only just grown back to a decent length, and I had bought new trousers to wear to the appointment, as the weight loss after months of chemo and radiotherapy had reduced me to a shadow of my former self.
I had been stupidly optimistic as I watched Alice driving me to the hospital that morning. I turned up the radio when one of our favourite songs came on, and sang along badly to it. Alice wasn’t so relaxed. I could tell by the way her smile didn’t move for the whole of the fifty-minute journey.

I asked the obvious question. “How long?” And he shrugged in reply, non-commital. “Hard to say. Months, not years. Perhaps even weeks”.

Alice was crying softly as I shook his hand and took the leaflet from him about the hospice and available palliative care. My only option soon.

There was no bucket list to try to complete. No wild last celebration. No trip of a lifetime. No emotional letters sent to friends or family.

Scott flew back from Singapore to see me. What do you say to your son? “Goodbye” hardly seems appropriate. I settled for “Look after your Mum for me”. He cried, and so did I. I knew he had to go back to his job, and I hoped I would die soon enough so he could support Alice at my funeral.

Alice and I didn’t talk about anything much. There was already a will, and insurance was in place. I said something about never having that sixtieth birthday celebration we had often spoken about, and she cried all day. After that, I left it at pleasantries. We walked around each other as if in a minefield. Our steps precise, and our concentration focused on the moment.

When it began, she wanted to look after me at home. She said Scott would help, but I wanted to be away from them as I lost the power to cope. Lost the ability to clean myself, to speak and see properly. To be Stephen.

They were there when I went. Alice hugging me, Scott sitting in a chair next to the bed weeping openly. They thought I couldn’t see them of course. They had been told that I was unresponsive, but that they should continue to talk to me. They didn’t talk, as they had no idea what to say.

This morning, I woke up feeling light, as if my body weighed nothing. My vision was incredibly sharp, and I was looking down at the garden I had worked hard to keep nice for more than twenty years. I could see Alice sitting in the conservatory, sipping a hot drink from her favourite mug.
I knew she would be okay.

Stretching out my strangely familiar wings, I stepped off into the morning air.
Enjoying the freedom of flight.

Parcel Prompt Story: Writer’s Block

You saw the title? Yes, this is a parcel prompt, a first. A short story, in 1280 words.
I took the photo of a parcel sent to me all the way from California, by my blogging friend, John Rieber.
He decided to go one better than a photo, and this was sent including a polystyrene box, to protect the contents.

There was a time when things were good. ‘Demon of The Marsh’ was a huge hit, and smashed into the fantasy market. Top seller on Amazon, and in the front windows of the bookshops that still existed. I was interviewed on the radio, then even a short telly spot on the BBC local news. The Guardian columnist called it ‘A fresh new take on the Demon genre’. Naturally, I was excited. And when it had sold over six thousand copies in hardback, then many, many more in paperback, I was approached by the very keen publisher with a deal for a second book.

I admit it, I was excited. I gave up my job without talking to Stella about it. She thought it was premature, but when the royalties started to roll in she stopped talking about that job, and began to spend the cash. Then ‘Demon’ went onto Kindle, and sold like hot cakes. In less than a year, I had an agent, and he arranged publicity too. Conor Farley wasn’t even a pen name, and it was on a lot of lips, I tell you.

There was a problem though. The first book had a definite conclusion. A good one, if I say so myself, but no scope for a sequel. And for the life of me, I couldn’t think up anything nearly that good for my next novel. I wasted hours on drafts, eventually settling on one idea and sending the first six chapters off for consideration. My agent thought it was crap, and the publisher said there was no way they would put it out. I bet they were relieved they hadn’t paid me the advance.

Eighteen months later, it was all going wrong. The money was draining away, and Stella went with it. The old house had to go, exchanged for a run-down one-bed flat above the local Indian Restaurant. At least I didn’t have to go far to buy something to eat. I had a great new story, but only the title and page one so far. What saddened me most was that the fans of ‘Demon’ were clamouring for more. One even started a Facebook page called ‘Where’s Conor?’.

To be honest, I was seriously thinking about going back to work. My old job had gone of course, but they were recruiting at the call-centre, and I was desperate enough to consider their no-hours contract. I really was. Then one day, Mr Patel from the restaurant downstairs stopped me as I was going to the corner shop. “Mister Conor, I took this parcel for you. You must have not heard the driver knocking”. I went back in, intrigued to examine the parcel.

The first thing I noticed was that it was from America. I didn’t know anyone over there, and certainly not the person who had put their name and address as the sender. It was also very light, easily lifted in one hand. I went up to the kitchen with it and got a sharp knife, to open it carefully. Inside, was a polystyrene box. That contained a box of small cakes, called ‘Twinkies’. I confess I was flummoxed. Who would send a box of presumably cheap cakes all the way from America, to someone they didn’t know? The postage alone must have cost considerably more than the box of cakes. It freaked me out a bit, I have to say.

The cake box was sealed, and the cakes inside individually sealed too. I unwrapped one and held it to my nose. It smelled fine. I gave the cake a lick. Tasted alright. I went for broke, and bit the end off. It was sweet and creamy, the sort of thing you instinctively know isn’t good for you. But what the Hell? So I ate it all. Then I went to the corner shop to get the tea and milk I needed.

Waking up in the middle of the night was very unusual for me. But that’s what happened. The bedside alarm read three-fourteen, and I was wide awake. What’s more, I was buzzing with thoughts and ideas. Without getting dressed, I was soon sitting at my computer churning out pages. I didn’t even stop for tea, coffee, or a pee. By the time the morning light was coming through the window overlooking the street, I had over sixty pages written and no sign of flagging. When the men came to get the rubbish piled on the pavement outside, I was up to eighty-eight pages. Then when I heard Mr Patel’s chef opening up to do his lunchtime prep, I was on page one hundred.

Tea was needed, and I felt myself trembling as I made it. I would have to go back over what I had written, but my gut told me it was bloody good. Better than ‘Demon’, I could already tell that. The re-read confirmed what I suspected. it was great. Better than great, and tons better than ‘Demon’. I treated myself to another of those Twinkie cakes with a second cup of tea, and got back to writing. I had started to really like them, and it wasn’t long before I had eaten two more. It saved bothering with lunch, and then the rest of the box was gone by dinnertime. I was buzzing though. The book was looking superb, and I was already on page two hundred and six. Another hundred and fifty pages would be long enough, and I already had the ending open for a sequel. Lots of sequels in fact.

Then the tiredness hit me, after that early start. I decided to have a bath and get to bed. That book would be finished by tomorrow afternoon, at this rate.

When I got up the next morning, it was past nine, and very sunny. I made tea first, then sat in front of the computer, raring to go. But as I stared at the page, I suddenly didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t remember that magnificent open ending I had in mind last night, and two of the characters started to seem underdeveloped, even unnecessary. The doubt crept in, and I couldn’t type a word. I decided to get dressed, and go and buy some more of those cakes. They might help me focus.

Mr Allen in the corner shop hadn’t heard of them. He suggested I try one of the big supermarkets on the edge of town. That meant a bus ride, and a long walk around the trading estate. Still, something told me I did need those cakes, strange as that seemed. So I got the bus. The big Morrisons didn’t stock them, and neither did Tesco. The man in Asda told ne he had heard of them, but they didn’t carry that line. He suggested I try to order them online. I thanked him, but couldn’t admit that I no longer had a credit card, and my bank account was almost empty. And I didn’t mention that I could no longer afford to be connected to the Internet, either.

Four smaller shops I went in on the long walk home didn’t have any, and I arrived back at my flat exhausted.

Six weeks later, and I have literally run out of money. I am still on page two hundred and six, and waiting hopefully for another parcel to arrive from California.

Meanwhile, I have posted the application off to the call centre.

Photo Prompt Story: The Duggan House

This is a short story, in 1350 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Darlene Foster.

When she split up with Joanne, the first thing Carrie wanted to do was to get out of Vancouver. She put in to the RCMP personnel department for a transfer to anywhere, and it wasn’t long before Alberta was offered.

Edmonton, somewhere she had never been. She accepted it without a second thought, and told them she would stay in a motel until she found an apartment to rent.

It was an Inspector’s job with the detective branch. Most of the others were well established already, and she knew she wouldn’t get anything high profile until she proved herself. After a couple of weeks getting used to the place, and settling in, Carrie found a decent apartment, then set about getting on with the job. She arrived early, and stayed late. When there were no cases coming her way, she looked for work.

Superintendent Roy looked at her as she tapped on his office door. “Can I help you, Inspector Chang?” She held up a file. “I was looking through this old case, sir. Be alright if I take some time to check it out?” He took the file, and flicked through it. “An old missing person job, out near Busby? Jeez, that’s over three years ago, Carrie”. She shrugged. “Looks funny to me sir, almost like it was let go. The guy has never showed up, not anywhere. I think it’s suspicious”.

She had come with good reports, and an excellent case clear-up rate. He thought he might as well see what she could do. “Sure, drive up there and look around. Take a week if you need it, then let me know what you think”. That night, Carrie took the file home, and read it in bed. Something had been missed, and she knew what that might be.

It was forty-five miles to Busby, and she made it under the hour. Not much happening there, just a small farming community. Even the gas station had closed down, probably unable to compete with the new one she had passed on highway forty-four. Taking the detailed map, she spread it over the front of the car and scanned it carefully. If she was right, she should be able to climb the tumbledown fence, and walk to the place.

The patrol car pulled in just behind her. Local cop. He walked over, smiling. “You lost, ma’am? Need some help?” Carrie flashed her badge. “I’m heading for the Duggan House. Were you around when that young fella went missing a few years back? Luke Anderson, he was a student at The University of Alberta, down in Edmonton”. He took off his hat and rubbed his crew-cut hair. “You mean that kid from Grande Prairie, nineteen or so?” Carrie nodded. “He told his room mate at the student accommodation he was going to head out here to look over the Duggan House. Nobody ever saw or heard from him again. He didn’t have a car, so he must have got the bus from Edmonton, and walked from the stop”.

The cop put his hat on and started to turn back to his car. “As I recall, there was a big search for him, and nothing showed up. If I was you, I’d keep away from the old Duggan House. That’s a bad place”. Then he was in his car, and driving away. Carrie folded the map and put it in her backpack. Then she locked her car and left it in the pull-off by the side of the country road. It took less than ten minutes to cross the fields until she saw the house in the distance.

It looked to be unloved, to say the least. The glass was gone from the windows, the roof shot, and there was light between the planks that had been used to build it, God knows how long ago. She walked straight up to the gap where the front door had been, and went in. The floor boards creaked under her feet and dust rose in small clouds that settled over her shoes. It seemed very cold inside, much colder than it had been out in the field. The ground floor was just one big empty room, and her footsteps echoed as she walked around it.

At the side was a lean-to. Judging from the single tap still bolted to the wood, she guessed it had served as a kitchen at one time. She headed up the stairs, which groaned under her light weight. The hand-rail looked like it would easily come away from the fixings, so she left it alone. There were two bedrooms upstairs, with an old iron bedstead still in one, and the other empty. Much of the upstairs space was taken by a big old storage space at the front. It was dark in there despite having no window, not even the frame. She took out a small flashlight from her pocket and shone it into the space.

Only dust and boards, nothing to bother with. Just about to turn and retrace her steps, she saw something glinting in the beam. She held the light on it and walked into the far corner. It was a small digital voice recorder. The chrome trim had reflected the light.

From her other pocket, Carrie took a latex glove, and a small evidence bag. She picked up the recorder in the gloved hand, then dropped it into the bag before sealing it up. It was getting colder all the time in there, so she decided to head back to her car. In the statement from the room mate, it was clear that Luke had been heading for the Duggan House. But it was also clear now that nobody had ever searched the place at the time. Or they would surely have found that recorder.

Back at the station, Carrie wrote up a report about what she had seen, then found some fresh batteries in the storeroom, and turned on the voice recorder.

“This is Luke Anderson. First recording for the Duggan House. It’s eight at night, and I am just going through the doorway”

Then there was the sound of footsteps, and creaking boards. Carrie began to jot down some notes in the file.

“Okay, the flashlight isn’t showing anything but an empty room. Going into the side room. I think this was the kitchen, but according to what I have read, nothing happened here”.

Creaking and heavier breathing followed. Carrie guessed he was walking upstairs.

“The old bed is still in one of the rooms, no furniture anywhere though. It feels really cold in here, considering it was around sixty degrees outside. Got to check out the old storage loft now, should start to get something where most of it happened”.
He probably meant that big empty space with no door or windows, Carrie made some more notes. Then there was just breathing, heavier this time. Almost a gasp.

“Jesus, it’s so cold in here. I can see something in the far corner. Going closer. Wow, it’s as cold as ice now”.

The next part made Carrie jump back in her seat. Luke was shouting, really loud.


There was no more audio.

Placing the recorder back into the evidence bag, Carrie put that and the case file into her backpack, and reached for her car keys. The case had taken a completely different turn now, just as she had suspected. Grabbing an extra flashlight from the desk drawer, she headed down to her car. It was already dark.

The best time to go back there, and try to find out what happened.

On Friday morning, Superintendent Roy walked into the main office. He raised his voice so they could all hear him. “Anyone seen the new girl? You know, the one from Vancouver, Carrie Chang”. Everyone shook their heads in turn. He raised his eyebrows. “She hasn’t let me know her progress, and it’s been three days now”.

He turned to the admin girl who was seated at the back.

“Janice, get on to the uniforms. Ask them to send someone to check her home address”.

Photo Prompt Story: Big Vern’s New Friend

This is a short story, in 1118 words.
It was inspired by the above photo, sent to me by Kim Barker.

Vernon was a big man, and I mean big. He looked as wide as he was tall, and had hands like bunches of bananas. Okay, he was getting some flab as he got older, but woe betide anyone who took him on. Anyone who thought that ‘the bigger they are the harder they fall’ was destined to be very wrong, when it came to Vern.

A big man needs a big dog, at least as far as he was concerned. And he got the biggest and meanest dog he could find. Tank was a Rottweiler, and one of the biggest I had ever seen. He was well-named too, as he could bash through any local dogs, and didn’t even notice them as he did so. Vern kitted him out, so he looked the part. He had a spiky collar, and needed two choke chains just to make him walk to heel. It was unlikely anyone other than Vern could have managed him.

There was no doubt that Tank was the king of the canine world in our town. Most other neighbourhood dogs wouldn’t even venture out when he was around. Vern would walk him all the time, taking Tank everywhere he went. He walked tall and proud, sure that his dog was by far the best around. Sidewalks cleared as they approached. One look at Tank’s menacing stare and drooling jowls, and anyone would cross the street to avoid them. Vern lived in the rough part of town. Though pretty much most of the town was rough, he chose to deliberately live where others tried to move away from. With a dog like Tank, nobody, but nobody was ever going to try to break in.

He really loved that dog. He would wrestle it in the front yard, and the growls and snarls could be heard along the street. And that was just Vern.

Then one day he had to go to the dentist, and they said there was no way Tank could come in. Even when Vern gave the dentist his most withering look, Mr Macaulay stuck to his guns, and said Tank would have to wait outside. Vern tied him up to a bike rack, and told him to sit and wait. It would have been alright, if Duke the German Shepherd hadn’t suddenly appeared across the street. Maybe he could tell Tank was tied up, we’ll never know. But he barked and barked at his old enemy, until Tank had had enough. He snapped that leash as if it was a shoelace, and took off across after Duke.

Unluckily for Tank, it was a cement truck that ran him down. If it had been a car, he would almost certainly have survived. He might have even jumped up and carried on after Duke. But even a dog as big as Tank had his limits, and that limit was a cement truck.

Big Vern was distraught. He carried that dog home as if it was as light as a bag of groceries, then he buried him in the back yard. He marked the spot with Tank’s choke chains and a rubber bone toy, before wondering how he would cope without his best friend. The locals left him alone for a long time after that, as his mood was impossible to predict. They knew he had done some hard time in his youth, and there were bad rumours about his past. Enough for everybody to leave him in peace with his grief.

Some time later, Vern had to go to the Post Office, to send back a shirt that was too small. Even when he bought the largest size available, they were usually too small.

After checking in the parcel, he headed for home. Shoulders slumped, feeling lost without a leash in his hand, and the feel of Tank pulling hard at the end of it. Approaching the corner, he looked behind for traffic, and was surprised to see a tiny dog behind him. As he stopped, the dog stopped. When he crossed at the light, the dog crossed too, and as he walked into his street, it was still behind him. He thought no more of it, and went into the house.

After some coffee and a few sandwiches, Vern thought he might hose down the front yard, just for something to do. Standing by the gate was the tiny dog, giving him a concentrated scare. Wandering across, he loomed over it, smiling. “You lost, little one? Where’s your mom and dad?” It just stood there, with that same stare. Vern leaned forward, and scooped it up in one of his shovel-sized hands. “I s’pose I better take you to the Vet, see if you got a chip or something”.

There was nothing on the Vet’s scanner, and nobody had reported the little dog missing. He told Vern that it was a pure-breed Pomeranian bitch, and was around five years old. Vern asked if he reckoned he could find a home for it, and the Vet smiled. “Sure, these dogs cost a lot, and are very fashionable. Leave her with me, and I will charge the new owner for my time”. As Vern turned to leave, he saw that the dog was still giving him that look. Try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to pull on the handle to open the door.

Reaching into his pocket, he removed his wallet. “On second thoughts, I will pay your bill and take her. I don’t like to think about who might want her, and whether they will look after her”.

Vern carried the dog home, and stopped off in the pet store on the way. The owner looked at him in wonder as he bought a pink leash, a collar with rhinestones, and a small dog bed. He knew Vern from old, and thought the old guy must have lost it. Vern’s next stop was the fried chicken shop. He bought a family bucket, and smiled as the dog’s nose twitched at the aroma.

Back at the house, he carefully removed the fried coating, and separated some chicken from the legs into one of Tank’s old bowls. It was big enough for the tiny dog to take a swim in, but she gobbled up all that chicken in record time. Vern went into the bedroom to take a nap, and the tiny dog folowed him, jumping straight up onto the end of the bed. He smiled at that cute little face. “I’m gonna call you Little Kimmy. You live here now”.

Little Kimmy looked straight back into the big man’s eyes.

She knew she was home.

Photo Prompt Story: Kevins Karsull

This is a short story in, 1025 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, the third one sent to me by Jennie Fitzkee.

Mister Dolman was a good teacher, everyone agreed on that. He could make his lessons come to life by pretending to be a brave knight in armour, or a hedgehog snuffling for food. He would bring things in to show the kids, anything from a funny-shaped rock he had found, to the medals his Dad had been given during the war. Not for him just the dry text of the curriculum books, oh no. In Mister Dolman’s class, the kids actually turned up excited to be there, wondering what would happen next.

And he included everyone. No kid was allowed to sit things out because they were shy, or if they had doubts about their own abilities or skills. Inclusion was his creed, and that applied to Kevin too. A quiet boy, who always seemed to be worrying about something, Kevin didn’t play with the others at break, and nobody willingly sat next to him. Of course, that didn’t go unnoticed by the dedicated teacher.

So one day, Mister Dolman brought in a huge box from home. It was full of all sorts of random objects. He invited the kids to stand around and look in the box, then asked them what they thought was in it. Melody smiled. “Just junk”. Danny actually laughed. “You brought your garbage into school, Mister Dolman”. Letitia put her hands on her hips. “That’s boring”. He called Kevin forward. “Here, Kevin. You look, and tell me what you see”.

The boy stared into the box for a long time. He looked at the cardboard tubes from old toilet rolls and kitchen paper, the parcel box, some wires, and old paints and brushes. There were a few empty plastic bottles, washed out and clean, and two food storage tubs that had seen better days. The other kids shuffled their feet, as Kevin thought about those objects. Finally, he looked up at the teacher. “I see a castle”.

Smiling, Mister Dolman nodded. “That’s great, Kevin. Okay class, after lunch, we are all going to make a castle. Kevin is going to show us how”.

Using an old cupboard door as a base, and glue provided by the school, they set about creating that castle, guided by Kevin, who could undoubtedly picture it in his head. The cardboard rolls became strong towers, the bottles were carefully cut to become crenelated bastions, and the parcel box turned into a gatehouse and drawbridge, with the old wires used to raise and lower it. The storage tubs were cut and stuck in place to provide walls between the towers. By the time the end of the school day was approaching, everyone agreed it looked just like one of the castles they had seen in old pictures.

As they were getting ready to go home, Mister Dolman lifted the castle, and put it in a safe place on top of the bookshelf. “Safe journey home now, everyone. Tomorrow afternoon, we are going to paint the castle”. He smiled as he watched Melody and Danny walking with Kevin. They were all chatting and grinning. Everyone wanted to know more about how Kevin had thought up the castle.

True to his word, the paints were brought out the next day. The other kids were asking Kevin things. “What colour should I paint this, Kevin?”. “Shall I paint the drawbridge brown, like wood, Kevin?” After it was almost finished, Kevin took the thinnest brush, and drew lines up and down the castle, making it look like the various stone sections would have appeared. Mister Dolman gave him a piece of strong card, and asked him to name the castle. “We will put the card in front on the base, Kevin”. The boy took a marker pen, and wrote carefully.

‘Kevins Karsull’.

It was easy enough to persuade the head teacher to let him put the castle in the trophy cabinet in the entrance hall. Then every day for the rest of his time at that school, Kevin would walk past something he had created, and the other kids would say “We helped too”.

Retirement was compulsory, but that didn’t mean Mister Dolman was looking forward to it. His wife was worried about him. “Maybe you can still do something, Phil? You know, voluntary stuff. Teaching slow readers, helping out at the museum. You’ll find something, I’m sure”. The retirement party was after school on the Friday. They gave him gifts of framed photos of the school, and a lovely collage made by his last class. Everyone signed his card, and wished him well.

When he walked across to his car, Phil Dolman didn’t look back, not even once. He didn’t want them to see him crying.

The following Monday, it already felt strange to not have to go to work. He sat around reading the papers, and watched the breakfast news on television. Just after nine, there was a knock at the door. The parcel was really big, and at first he thought it must be for his wife. But the parcel guy made him sign for it in the name of Mister Dolman, and he was intrigued as he opened it carefully, noting the large FRAGILE stickers all over it.

Inside, there were acres of bubble wrap, and once he was through those, he revealed a beautiful castle made from plaster,  lovingly crafted and painted. There was also a note.

‘Mister Dolman, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to your party. I live a long way from that town now, and I was busy with work. I phoned the school and explained, and they were kind enough to give me your address. I have never forgotten the day we made that castle, and I wanted you to have your own one, so you could remember how you helped me back then. I hope you like it. Kevin.
There was another card inside, with careful writing on it. It simply read
‘Kevins Karsull’.

Phil showed it to his wife, his eyes wet with tears.

They both agreed it was the best retirement present any teacher could ever wish for.

Photo Prompt Story: Albert Sees The Light

This is a short story, in 1210 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Ed Westen.

The first shop didn’t have any Bakewell Tarts in stock, and it took two more tries before finding some in the fourth. They had to be Mr Kipling, the only brand Mildred liked. Albert reversed the car out onto the main road, and headed for home. Why his wife wanted to eat Bakewell Tarts all of a sudden, and at nine at night, he had no idea. It wasn’t as if it was one of those pregnancy fancies. She was sixty-six last birthday, and they had been sleeping in separate rooms for nine years.

Oh well, anything for a quiet life.

When his mother died, Albert had started to feel lonely. Almost fifty years with her had become a familiar, cosy feeling. It had never bothered him that he didn’t knew who his father was, as he was never alone when she was alive. He had asked her about who his father was once, and she had just shrugged. “Can’t remember love, there were a lot of men back then. I was quite a looker, though you wouldn’t think so now”.

For two years, he muddled along. Then the house began to feel empty, and he could hear his own breathing when he was watching television. So he joined a club, a Bowls Club on the edge of town. That was where he met Mildred. It was her idea to get married. “Just for company though, Albert. None of that lovey-dovey stuff, okay?” That suited him just fine.

It took him quite a while to work out the truth. Mildred didn’t want company, she wanted a servant. And a chauffeur, and a cook, and someone to pay the bills. Albert regretted ever telling her about his inheritance, as she gave up her job the week before they got married. He had to work until he was sixty-five, coming home every day to get her dinner, do the washing and ironing, and watch her play Bejewelled on her phone for hours on end.

At least he wasn’t lonely.

The light on the road ahead looked like someone had left their full beams on, but then it got brighter and brighter until he couldn’t see anything. Scared he might crash, Albert pulled the car over and stopped on the verge. The light got closer and closer, then seemed to pass over him, showing up the blood vessels through his skin. And there was a noise too, like the drone of a million bees, right inside his head.

It stopped as soon as it had started, and the road was plunged into darkness once again.

Mildred insisted on a plate, so he brought the three Bakewell Tarts back on a nice Royal Doulton tea plate, and watched as she wolfed them down. She had been checking the Bingo numbers in the daily newspaper, and spluttered crumbs everywhere as she shook her head in disgust. “I only needed two numbers. Bugger it!”

Three days later, Albert woke up with a bad pain in his jaw. It felt like toothache, and his gums were swollen close to the pain. But it was in a spot where he had had to have two back teeth removed over three years ago, so he didn’t see how it could be toothache. He found an old bottle of tooth tincture, and rubbed some onto the area. It didn’t help much, but Mildred was asking when he was going to hang the washing on the line, so he had to forget about the pain, and get on with his chores.

Later that night, he was aware of a terrible sharp pain in his mouth, and when he went into the bathroom, he saw some blood around his lips. Gingerly touching inside, he could feel that his gum had broken open, and the pain was getting worse. Mildred came in, complaining that his putting the light on had disturbed her. When he told her what was happening, she just switched off the light, and turned to head back to bed. “Well go and see the dentist tomorrow, but don’t wake me up again”.

They said there were no appointments, but when he told them he was a private patient of Mrs Gomez, they fitted him in. She was perplexed, to say the least. “Albert, I have to tell you that I have never seen anything like it. The two teeth I took out are growing back, and seemingly very quickly too. I need to take X-rays, and do some tests”.

She showed him the X-ray on her computer screen. “No doubt about it, look here. See? They are almost fully grown again”. When Albert told her that they had only started hurting the day before, she shook her head. “Amazing, just amazing. Would you mind if I wrote about this to the Institute of Dentistry? You could become famous, Albert”.

He was given a prescription for pain killers and antibiotics, told to be careful what he ate on that side, and to come back in ten days.

When he woke up the next morning, the pain had gone, and he had two brand new teeth. But his fingernails and toenails were all over two inches long. He couldn’t get his slippers on his feet, and when he tried to use the nail clippers, it was hard to grasp them with the strangely elongated fingernails. He managed after a while, and went downstairs to tell Mildred. But she was busy with an online slots game on her phone, and waved him away.

By the afternoon, Albert had made his tongue sore, by rubbing it constantly on those new teeth. And his other teeth seemed to be bigger and stronger too, as if they were filling his mouth. He tried to eat a slice of fruit cake, but could hardly hold it with fingers that had long nails that had regrown. When he finally bit off some cake, he found he was chewing his tongue along with the cake. In a panic, he drove back to the dentist, and waited until she could see him.

Mumbling through a mouth full of fast-growing teeth, he managed to tell her his problem, and showed her his fingernails too. She looked scared, and said she would have to ask advice from the head of the practice. Meanwhile, he should go home, and she would phone him.

It was impossible to walk to the car, let alone drive it. He had to pull his shoes off there and then, on the rain-swept pavement. His toenails had ripped through his socks, and were as long as the claws on a wild animal. He just about managed to drive without hitting them on the surface above the car’s controls. Once out of the town centre, Albert had to open his mouth slightly, to allow his tongue to hang out and take the pressure off. Mildred would be angry that he had been gone so long, he knew that.

But he knew something else too. He had to go back to where he had pulled off the road onto the verge. Then he had to wait for the bright light to return.

He could only hope they would come back for him before it was too late.

Photo Prompt Story: Oscar Learns A Lesson

This is a short story, in 748 words.
It was prompted by the above photo of an image, sent to me by Jennie Fitzkee.

Oscar wasn’t a bad boy. Not one of those ‘deep down’ bad boys who nobody likes. But he was a boy, and everything that came with that. Boisterous, getting dirty, ripping his clothes, scuffing his shoes. Most of the time he did as he was told, but like most youngsters, he sometimes had his bad days.

Paula soon discovered that it was best not to tell him not to do something. “Don’t walk along the edge of that wall, you will fall” would guarantee that he would continue to walk along the edge of the wall. When Richard warned him not to climb the old Oak tree in the garden, it took them over an hour to get him back down from the branches.

He should never be dared, either. When his cousin Martin dared him to eat a worm, he ate twenty, just to show off. Paula had to get Richard to clear that up after he had been sick. She hated worms. Martin also dared him to climb out of his bedroom window, and hang on to the chimney stack, pretending to be Santa. That rescue had involved having to call the Fire Brigade.

After that, they never again left Oscar alone with Martin.

Visiting Richard’s Aunt Mary was always something of a chore. She was a nice old lady, but she lived such a long way, and the traffic was always bad. When Oscar had been small, Paula would ask Richard to make the trip on his own. But now Mary was getting very old, and had asked to see the boy. So they packed up the car, and told Oscar to behave himself when they got there. The small Tablet Paula had bought proved to be worth its weight in gold, as Oscar sat watching cartoons on it the whole way.

Mary was delighted to see them. She had prepared a lovely afternoon tea, and Oscar devoured the scones with cream and jam. As they chatted about nothing much, there was a squawking sound from another room. Oscar put down the last part of his third scone. “What’s that noise, Aunt Mary?” She leaned forward, whispering. “That’s Captain Beak. He’s my parrot, and he was once owned by the famous pirate, Blackbeard”. Paula smiled at her tall tale, but she could see that Oscar had believed the old lady as Mary continued. “It is said that the spirit of Blackbeard went to live inside the parrot after he died, and Captain Beak has lived for hundred of years, before I got him”.

Oscar’s eyes were wide. “Can I see him please, Aunt Mary?” They all went into the old-fashioned parlour, where the green parrot sat on a perch in a corner, next to an ornate Victorian cage. It squawked again as they entered. Oscar watched as it moved sideways on the big perch, its head bobbing up and down. “Does it talk?” Mary smiled. “Only to me, Oscar. He has just told me that you mustn’t touch him, just look. Pirates don’t care too much for little boys, and Captain Beak is well-named, for his powerful sharp beak”.

Back in the dining-room, with his parents chatting to Aunt Mary about grown-up stuff, Oscar was bored. “Can I use your toilet please, Aunt Mary?” She turned and nodded. “There is one by the front door, or the bathroom upstairs. Whichever you like”. Of course, Oscar had no intention of using the toilet. He went straight back into the parlour, and walked closer to the parrot. It didn’t squawk this time, but bobbed silently, watching as Oscar got close. The boy stood up on tiptoes to reach the perch, smiling as his hand stretched out to stroke the bird’s head.

Almost dropping her tea cup at the sound of the scream, Paula was on her feet in seconds. But there was no sign of Oscar in the toilet by the door. Then she heard a sound from the parlour. “Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight. Pieces of eight”. She opened the door to find her son clutching his right hand, his face white, and blood dripping from his fingers onto the carpet.

Richard got the car round, and they rushed him and his index finger to the nearest hospital. It was sewn back on, but it never worked properly.
The doctor said something about nerve damage.

Still, he is learning to write quite well with his left hand now.

Photo Prompt Story: Mumm-Kay

This is a short story, in 790 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, the second one sent to me by Kim Barker.

I used to look at other women all the time. Well, the pregnant ones, and those with babies. Friends told me it didn’t matter. I could make something of my life. We had a double income, and free time. Nothing to hold us back. We could go on vacation, stay up late, sleep in at weekends. Kids weren’t everything.

Steve’s mom suggested we got a dog, or maybe a cat. Perhaps both.

Easy to say when you already have kids.
Easy to say when you are six months pregnant, and showing the scan photos around.
Easy to say when you fall pregnant any time you’re not ‘careful’.
Easy to say when you have three kids, and think maybe a fourth would round things up nicely.

I stopped visiting friends who had babies.
I stopped going to my sister’s house when she was expecting.
I stopped looking in stores that sold baby goods.
I stopped looking at the windows of toy stores.

When it finally happened, nobody was glad. Steve’s mom said I was too old, and my parents were sure either me or the baby would die.

Even Steve was worried. I had known him for over twenty years. I could tell.

So I was forty. So what? It was the twenty-first century, and I lived close to the best hospital in California.

And I fooled them all. No complications, no bad results from the amnio. Healthy mom, healthy baby. But just in case, I opted for a C-section anyway.

Nathan Robert was a revelation. He had my eyes, and Steve’s nose. Yet still nobody seemed to be happy for me. They were waiting, waiting for it to turn bad, like they were wishing it on us. Even Steve looked like he was waiting.

I got mad at him for that.
Then I got mad at him again when he denied it.

After we brought Nathan home, Steve came in one day carrying a big soft toy. It was a monkey, with a cute face, and legs that you could pose. It was too big for little Nathan, but I would sit him next to the toy on the couch, and love how small he looked next to it.

Development. They have charts. They expect this to happen by that age, and that to happen by this age. He wasn’t deaf, and his vision was fine. But he was late to crawling, and then he didn’t crawl much. When he was even later to walking, they started with the tests and scans.

When you go in to see a specialist and his smile is too wide, and too set on his face, that’s when you should worry.

He started talking about a possible diagnosis, and my head went fuzzy. It was as if I was under water, and he was speaking from the surface. I got most of it. As much as I wanted to hear anyway. Epilepsy for sure, and Autism. Not just any Autism. Level three, and severe. It couldn’t be much worse, he said, that smile hardly fading.

I told him we would cope. Whatever it took.

We tried, we really did. He had said something about fits, but not how many, and how bad they might be. As well as the minute by minute struggle of dealing with his hysteria and aggression as he got older, there was the constant concern over the fits and seizures. It put a strain on both of us, then it put a strain on that twenty- five year marriage too.

No chance I would ever give up. I went to support groups. I read anything I could get about the condition. I met up with other families who were living the same nightmare, and I worked at it. I worked real hard at it. I stopped being me, stopped being a wife to Steve, and just became a thing who cared for her son, and fought the evil inside her boy’s head.

Then one day, Nathan managed two words. He said ‘Juice’, and I knew what he wanted, even though it sounded like ‘Goosh’. Then when I was sitting on the floor with him, he looked up at the couch and said ‘Mumm-Kay’. I knew right away it was ‘Monkey’. He had heard us say it a thousand times. I was so happy, I cried. Steve cried too. In fact, he sobbed.

But Nathan never did manage to say ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, or anything else before the final seizure that took him from us forever.

Steve didn’t stick around long after that. I couldn’t blame him, and I no longer cared. I downsized, but insisted on keeping the couch.

And the Mumm-Kay.

Photo Prompt Story: Uncaring

This is a short story, in 1500 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Kim Barker.

I often wondered why I bothered with college. All that time and money, then no decent jobs at the end of it. Didn’t help that I had moved out of home, anything to get away from my stifling parents. So I needed rent money, food money, and had to pay for cable too. I resolved to take anything I could get.

Home Care is not a glamorous industry, believe me. People live in shit, they really do. Smelly apartments, tumbled-down tract houses, rooms crammed with crappy old stuff they call memories. But unsocial hours and weekends paid better, so I signed up with the agency, and got my own round within walking distance.

Oh my God, the smells! You had to be there. Helping old folks use the pan, cleaning them up after, and changing them into night clothes for bed. You hold your breath, say the right things, and get out of there as soon as possible. I used to shower twice when I got back to my apartment, but it never seemed to wash off that clinging stink.

Once you got used to the routine, it was easy to speed up. Work it around how it suited you, instead of them. So they get put to bed when it’s still daylight. So what? They forgot to order in food for the snacks you were supposed to leave them. Go hungry. Nobody listens when they complain anyway. But make sure you remember the ones with relatives nearby. Take a bit more time, tuck them in nice, pat them on the head. Avoid getting complaints from relatives. That will cost you your job.

And never hit any of them, not even a small slap. No matter how rude they are, and whatever names they call you. Some people have cameras hidden away in all sorts of strange places. Easy enough to let them fall when you are helping them into bed, or maybe spill some hot coffee over them as you serve it. Then make a fuss about being sorry. That way, it looks like an accident that could happen to anybody.

I really didn’t know how long I could stick this, though. Nobody seemed to die, and I soon got so bored with the same faces every night and all over the weekend. Funnily enough, I got great feedback, and was well thought of by the managers. And I wasn’t even trying. Then one day, they called me in to offer me something different.

Mister Fitzpatrick was an old guy who had become home-bound after a stroke. He needed more or less permanent care, and had the money to pay for it. The boss asked me if I would think about living-in and looking after him. As well as tending to his needs, he also wanted someone to talk to, and watch TV with. The money was almost twice what I was getting, and I would get one full day off a week, covered by the agency. I said I would give it a one-month trial.

He told me to call him Fitz, and he wasn’t that old. Not much older than my Dad, but not able to get around well at all. His house was nice, four beds and three bathrooms. He paid a cleaning lady to look after it once a week. The room I was offered was bigger than my own bedroom, and he had Internet and cable too. I saw him eyeing me up in my tight work dress, and he couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eye. I guessed that maybe some parts of him were still working.

Perhaps I should have felt sorry for him. Paying for company is a last resort, in my book. But it was such easy money. He could manage to use his own toilet, and even the shower with a seat fitted under it. I just gave him his medication, helped him to shave and comb his hair, then got him into bed at night once he had his nightshirt on. The rest of the time we watched TV, and ate good meals that he had delivered every day. He told me he thought of me as a close friend, and I just nodded and smiled. For me, he was just a job. An easy job.

One thing about him drove me crazy though. He insisted that he always had his fancy walking stick to hand, even though it was useless to him. It didn’t bear his weight, and got in the way when I tried to help him move around. And he loved to be covered in his travel rug, whatever the weather. That summer, he cranked up the air-conditioning just so he could still sit under that stupid rug.

I knew he liked me well enough. I could feel his eyes on me even when I had my back to him. I kept him sweet. Bending down when I didn’t need to, sitting on the sofa with my legs up, and leaving the top three buttons of my work dress undone. When it got to seventy degrees outside, I sat out in the back yard in a skimpy bikini, and he stared at me through the glass doors. His face got so flushed, I thought he would have a second stroke. But I was biding my time.

After three months there, I told him I was thinking of leaving. He was so sad, his eyes got watery. He told me that he would do anything to keep me there. I shrugged, told him I would think about it, and sat in my room for two hours. When I came out, he was keen to talk. “How about if I leave you this house, Pam? I don’t have anyone else to leave it to, and if you stick with me, I would make a will. I could call the lawyer today”. I told him I would think about it.

No point rushing things, that would be suspicious. I stayed three months more, then told him if he made that will I would leave the agency, stay with him full-time, and he could pay me himself. Boy, how he jumped at that deal. He was on the phone to the lawyer before I sat down, and the papers were signed three days later. I made sure it was on my day off.

The agency had no idea. I just quit, told them I was moving away. Fitz called them as I suggested, and said he had made arrangements with someone privately. Then I got him to fire the cleaning lady, telling him I would clean the house. I didn’t intend to of course, except for my own room. The rest was easy, even easier that I expected.

Starting slowly, I let him see more of what he wanted. Crop tops and short skirts, as there was no longer need for a uniform. Sometimes, I would just do the ironing in my underwear, and he would watch me from his chair, his face like an overripe tomato. I might wander past after a shower, not holding the towel around me too tight. That would set him wheezing, I tell you. To give credit to the old guy, he never asked for any contact, never even mentioned my intentional ‘slips’. He just sat and relished the entertainment.

The end was planned, all I needed was the opportunity. One afternoon, I was lying on the bed in my room, and heard him calling along the corridor. “Pam, Pam! I dropped my stick, and my rug has slipped off. Come and help me please!” I took off my dress, and slipped out of my underwear. Then I ran into the room naked. “What is it, Fitz? I was just taking a nap”. His finger was pointing at the stick on the floor, but his gaze was firmly locked on my body, just inches away from him. He started to try to say something, but it was just garbled. Then his face turned red. I stood up straight, and gave him a suggestive wink. Then his face turned as white as a sheet, and he slumped in the chair.

I went back into my room and got dressed. I waited an hour before calling the paramedics. “I was having a nap, and I just came out and found my employer unconscious in his chair. Hurry please, I think he might be dead”. There was nothing they could do. I shed some nice crocodile tears, and allowed myself to be comforted by the police woman who showed up.

When the lawyer came to the house, I acted surprised. “He left me the house, and all his money? Me? Why would he do that? Oh, poor Fitz”.

I like living here now. I didn’t make that many changes, but got rid of that awful armchair. I kept the stick and rug, on the chair over there in the corner.

Just to remind me.