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.

Photo Prompt Story: Oleg Joins Up

This is a short story, in 910 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Mary Smith.

There was not much future for a boy without the academic or sporting skills to stand out. Oleg decided that the army was his best choice, and his parents agreed. Natasha was different of course. Older, confident, and good at science, she would definitely be chosen for better things. Her destiny was to go to the Institute in Kiev, admired and loved by their parents. The same parents who thought their young son would be better off in uniform, being told what to do.

His departure was an anticlimax. Poppa was at work, and Mummy was in a rush to get to a party meeting. As he waited for the train, Oleg felt a little empty, sure that they were only too pleased to be rid of their awkward boy, with his dull manner.

Training was a nightmare. The sergeant not only bullied them, he stole their money, beat them for the slightest infringement, and worked them with pointless chores until they could hardly stand. Oleg wondered how this was supposed to inspire fighting spirit in the country’s troops. But he said nothing. He took it all, ate the terrible food, and suddenly began to realise that he was harder, stronger, and tougher than he had ever been. By the time he was nineteen, he started to understand why it had all been so bad up to then.

War would be a holiday, compared to this, and he was ready for anything he could imagine.

Before his posting came through, the camp was filling up with conscripts. There was talk that the regiment would go to Chechnya, and the horror stories were abundant. Fighting those bandits was considered to be the worst thing possible, and the life expectancy in that region was getting to be pitiful for new recruits. They promoted him to corporal, and he got to boss the new entrants around. Not that he was that harsh, as he still remembered how shitty they had been to him.

When the Captain came to address the company he smiled, as if it was good news. “Boys, great news! We are going to Afghanistan to help the government there. We are going to kick some Mujaheddin arse! Urrah! The responding ‘Urrah’ sounded like water draining down a plughole. They knew little or nothing about Afghanistan, save that most came home from there in a tin coffin.

The journey was so tiring. Days and days on a train, packed tightly into smelly sleeper compartments. Filthy toilets at each end of the corridor, and a scramble for soup and bread twice a day. The long train seemed to be standing still more often than it was moving, and when he tried to stretch his legs by walking along the carriages, they were crammed with soldiers leaning out of the windows to smoke.

When it finally stopped and they were ordered out, he gazed at the surrounding mountains, surprised that it felt so cold there. He had imagined it to be like India. Hot, sultry, and overcrowded. But other than his comrades, the place was empty. They gathered for a briefing, close to a village that looked like something from Biblical Times. Mud walls, dry fields, and the ever present halo of mountain peaks. The men were separated into groups, then given the news of their destination. Oleg was going to Camp Kalinin, five hours north. At least they were travelling in armoured personnel carriers, and not having to walk.

The men destined to march as infantry shook their heads, and shouted warnings. “Iron death traps for you, boys!” “Watch out for the land mines, fools!”.

The journey took more like ten hours than five. Half the vehicles broke down, and had to be repaired at the roadside. Then they had to stop to refuel, from cans carried on the top. Everyone had to deploy when that happened, scanning the horizon for the enemy, but seeing nothing but goats and sheep, accompanied by little boys. It was after dark when they arrived to relieve the garrison. Boys who looked like old men, dark circles under their eyes, and a stare that sent chills through Oleg.

They almost snatched the vehicles from them, as the fresh troops moved into their inadequate dugout, and started to live in the stink. Flares illuminated the ground ahead, but showed nothing except stones and rocks. If the mujaheddin were out there, Oleg certainly couldn’t see them.

Three days went by, and three nervous nights. He was beginning to wonder if the enemy existed at all, when the first rocket hit the camp. Chugunkin was gone in an instant, and Bebrov was clutching his torn-open belly, screaming for his mother. The Captain fired a flare into the night sky, and Oleg finally saw the enemy. Lots of them.

After a journey lasting over nine hours, the weary recruits eventually arrived at Camp Kalinin. One young wag grinned. “Well, they could have tidied up before they left”. He surveyed the scene before him, little more than a deep scrape in the ground of the hilltop, perhaps sixty feet across, and forty deep. Littered with shell cases, spent cartridge cases, and rubbish of all kinds, it overlooked the large Afghan village in the valley below. He shook his head. “What a tip! Sergeant, what happened to the guys who were here before?” The Siberian screwed up his face, and turned to the cocky youngster.

“Gone, boy. All gone.”

Photo Prompt Story: James and The Cause

This is a short story, in 1395 words.
It was prompted the above photo, sent to me by Jeanne Owens.

I had watched them go for a long time. They marched past the house carrying the state flag, or the Stars and Bars. Seemed like there wasn’t a man left in the whole of Georgia. At first, people had turned out to watch, and a band played them off to the train, or walked in front of the wagons. I would run back inside and ask Momma, “When can I go, Momma? How soon?” She would wipe her hands on her apron, and stroke my hair. “It’ll all be over, time you’re growed up enough, James. Anyhow, who would help me with the chickens?”

Daddy had already gone, in sixty-one. Momma cried, but he had stood tall, and set his jaw. “Can’t anyone be thinking Ethan Holt is afeared of going, Grace. I gotta go, and you know that”. Tyler was next, soon as he turned sixteen. Oh, how Momma cried. She clung on to Priscilla, and my sister wept too. But I was watching from the gate, waving goodbye to my brother. Later, they came to the house and said he was killed some place in Tennessee. Reverend Cain called it Shiloh, said General Johnston got killed there too.

Sure, I had heard mention of a place called Tennessee, but had no notion where it was at the time.

The following year, Daddy came home. I hardly recognised him. He looked mighty old, more like Grandpa had looked before he died. He came walking down the dirt road using a crutch. At first, I thought it might just be a stranger, looking for food or water. But then I saw the man looked a lot like Daddy, and he had no leg on the right side. Momma and Priscilla cried a lot that night, and I listened to them talking. He had been in a big battle, at a place called Chancellorsville. They said after that General Bobby Lee had won that good. But it cost Daddy his leg, and most of his friends too.

Some old men came to the house, and Daddy sat with them on the porch, smoking pipes, and drinking whiskey. He told them his leg hurt awful bad still, and he wasn’t going to be able to manage the plough. Mr Deakins was looking sad. His two sons had both been killed alongside Tyler, and he never settled in himself after that. “They say this war’s about slaves. I don’t get it. We ain’t got no slaves, and most of us barely manage to get by. My boys and your Tyler went to fight the Yankees for Georgia, not for slaves. They went for the cause, nothing more. You didn’t leave your leg up in Virginia for no slaves, did you Ethan? Daddy puffed on his pipe. “Sure didn’t. That’s the plain truth”.

One day some riders came. They had a horse and cart too, with three boys sitting in back. They took out a paper, and asked Momma if James Jerome Holt was home. She tried to pretend I wasn’t there, but they could see me feeding the chickens. “Is that him, Ma’am?” Momma helped Daddy come out onto the porch.

“What do you want with my boy, Captain? He ain’t but twelve years old”. The elderly officer removed his hat. “Sir, your boy has to come with us, The Army needs him. We are taking all the able bodied young men we can get. It’s the law now, says so on this paper here”. Momma started crying, Priscilla came outside to see what was going on, and Daddy was holding on to the rail. “I already lost my oldest, in sixty-two. I left my best leg in Virginia, fighting for General Lee. Now if you take my boy, how I am I gonna manage this here farm?”

The officer looked at the shabby plot that Daddy called his farm, and put his hat back on. “Well sir, I reckon you and your wife and daughter will have to manage. There’s still a war to fight. Now why don’t someone get his things together, and let’s not have any ructions”.

I was excited, finally getting to go. I would fight for the cause, and one day would sit and tell stories about it to my own children. Before there was any more talking, I climbed up into the cart, smiling at George Harper, a local boy I knew. Momma brought Daddy’s old canvas bag, and handed it up to me, wiping away tears. “There’s a fresh shirt in there, son, and I put in six eggs and some of yesterday’s bread. Don’t squash them now”.

It wasn’t much of a send off, with Mom and Priscilla in tears, and Daddy leaning against the post, his head in his hands.

Maybe I was expecting to be sent to a camp. That seemed to me what would happen. I was definitely expecting to get a grey uniform, and my own rifle, then perhaps be on a train heading north, to see something of the country. When the cart got to town, we were sent to report to an officer. George didn’t even have shoes, and one of the other boys looked so sickly thin, the officer told him to go home. He called a man over to take us away, said we were in the artillery now. The man still wore an old uniform and cap, with a pistol stuffed in his belt. He pointed to the red patches on his sleeves. “See here boys, that’s artillery”. He walked us over to a small gun on wheels, and patted the barrel. “She’s old, but still shoots fine”.

The other men were wearing homespun clothes in a brown colour. They grinned at us as we stood around awkwardly. One yelled out “Hey, Virgil, you been home and got your kids to come and fight?” The man turned and yelled back. “Reckon you can still call me sergeant, William. War ain’t done yet”. I decided to ask something that was on my mind. “Sergeant, I ain’t never fired no cannon. Are you gonna show us how?” He put his hand on my shoulder, and shook his head. “Don’t worry, you’ll be learning on the job. You two boys won’t have to fire nothing, just bring the balls and charges when I tell you”. I was relieved to hear that, and smiled. “So are we going to the war on a train?”
I had never been on a train.

Taking off his cap, he ran a hand over his thinning hair. “Where you been boy, in a cave? There’s no trains, Sherman’s boys ripped up all the tracks. And we won’t have to go to the war, it’s coming here. The blue-bellies already got to Columbus. We have to wait up by the creek, in case we have to go help General Cobb.” I knew that was the biggest city close to home, but it was still a good long way from town.

Seemed funny to me, to be somewhere I knew. When we got down to the spot overlooking the river, I remembered swimming there with Daddy when I was very small. Besides our cannon, there were two others, spaced wide apart. In the shrubs and trees along the bank, infantry soldiers were lounging around, maybe less than ten dozen. The older men helped the sergeant set the gun so it was pointing where they wanted, across at the other bank. Then I remembered the eggs and bread, and a man cooked them on a metal tray over the fire. Only one had got cracked, so I said I would have that one. Late that afternoon, a cavalry trooper rode in. He was wearing a real smart grey uniform, and had a black feather in his cap band.

My sergeant went over to talk to him, along with another man they said was the major. When he got back, I thought he looked like he had been crying.

“It’s all over boys. Just got the news. Said Bobby Lee surrendered the army over a week ago, up in Virginia. We can all go home”. I was confused, and looked back at George, who was smiling and dancing a little jig. I spoke up. “Sergeant, what about the cannon?” He glanced over at his old gun.

“Reckon we’ll just leave it here boy”.

Photo Prompt Story: The Residents of St Jude’s

This is a short story, in 1135 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Lorraine Lewis.

Sir Gilbert Pomeroy could not believe the news. Parliament had gone too far this time, and the gracious King Charles had raised his standard. That meant only one thing, war. Tucking in his bulging belly, he stood up from the dining table, and proclaimed loudly to the room, “If there is to be Civil War, then my good King can count on the loyalty of Pomeroy. I shall prepare to join his army!” It didn’t seem to matter to him that the only other people in the room were his footman, and the butler who had just delivered the letter.

The Pomeroy Estate may not have been what it once was, but there were sufficient funds to raise some troops from the estate workers, and some willing local men. By the end of the month, Sir Gilbert was able to equip a decent company of infantry, and reviewed them wearing his old sword, and new a pistol in a fine leather holster. Adjusting the wide red sash to hide his corpulence, he looked along the row of thirty-seven men. “Lads, we shall defend the town in the name of King Charles. Now set-to, and let us commence building our defences”.

That bitter war raged around them over the years. Early victories for the Royalists cheered him greatly, but they were soon forgotten as the new army led by Cromwell began to win battle after battle. Sir Gilbert noticed his finances draining away as he continued to feed and pay his idle company for patrolling the nearby town, which was little more than a glorified village. News of the conflict became harder to come by, and they depended on conversations with stragglers from the retreating army to get the latest gossip on the progress of the war.

It didn’t sound good. But Sir Gilbert refused to be shaken in his loyalty and resolve.

Less than six months later, it appeared that all was lost. The Ironsides were in the county, and it couldn’t be too long before they arrived at Pomeroy Hall. Most of Sir Gilbert’s supposedly brave company vanished overnight, leaving him in command of the Bewlay brothers, and Nathaniel Goodhew. He decided they should go to the church of St Jude, to offer prayers for the salvation of the town, and the return of his deserters. They had hardly entered when Old Roderick the gravedigger called from the door. “Look sharp, Sir Gilbert, enemy dragoons be here”. The Bewlays and Nathaniel needed no second bidding to throw down their muskets and walk out with their hands up, avoiding the gimlet eye of their master.

But the nobleman was made of sterner stuff, and was afraid of no man. He drew his sword with some difficulty, and strode out through the door, waving the blade around his head. “Come on then, rebel scum, see how you fare with a knight of the realm”. The dragoon sergeant shot him without even bothering to dismount. Sir Gilbert fell backwards into the doorway, a neat hole in his chest, and his sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. The sergeant nodded at Roderick, who was leaning on his spade. “Best dig a hole, and bury him in it”.

Haunting a church was not something Sir Gilbert had ever expected to happen. If he had to be a ghost, he would have preferred the familiar setting of his ancestral home, Pomeroy Hall. But as far as he could make out, he was cursed with having to appear at the place where he had been killed.

And his companions were not to his taste. The church had stood there for a good long while. The others doomed to haunt the place for eternity included an Anglo-Saxon warrior with one arm who spoke in some incomprehensible language, and the headless corpse of of a Nun, who obviously didn’t speak at all. At least he could get some intelligent conversation in the Crypt, where he would find Bishop Rogerson most evenings, sitting comfortably on top of his lead coffin.

They would have interesting debates about the time of King Henry, he of the six wives. The Bishop had fallen foul of the King during his reign, and been cast out from London to the remote parish of St Jude, where he died one Sunday during evening service. They had some minor disagreements, mostly about haunting. The Bishop thought it to be in bad taste, but Sir Gilbert found it to be great fun, and a wonderful way to ease the boredom of his soul’s plight.

The centuries passed slowly, and Sir Gilbert watched the changes in society with great interest. There was a terrible war in Europe, one that claimed the lives of so many, at least as far as he could tell from the many funeral services and commemorations. In deference to the bereaved, he left off his haunting antics for a while. When another world war befell his blighted nation, it provided some great japes. Foreign soldiers came to town, and some made their way to St Jude’s to pray. Even those military-trained and presumably brave men ran out through that door in terror, at the sight of him appearing with his bloodstained chest, waving his sword, and yelling “For the rightful King!”

One frustration was that he didn’t seem to be able to haunt any of the various ministers who served the church during those hundreds of years. They just didn’t see him. He complained about this to the Bishop, and they discussed it. The wise Bishop pondered a while before answering. “They have faith, Sir Gilbert. They do not believe in ghosts, only the Holy Ghost”. The nobleman found this to be admirably witty, and they both guffawed long and loud.

Churches had changed a lot too. As well as religious services, there was now an adjacent hall, used by members of the community for events and meetings of all kinds. Sir Gilbert found he could easily slip through the back wall into this new building, and watched in fascination, without revealing himself. There were card games popular with old people, as well as wrinkled crones arriving to knit wool, seated in circles as they gossiped. On one occasion, he saw people arriving to cast ballots, and wondered if they had now allowed all the riff-raff to elect members of parliament.

On a sunny afternoon, he was about to make his way to that hall, when he was accosted by the Anglo-Saxon, who appeared to want to talk to him about something. Sir Gilbert couldn’t be bothered to try to translate the man’s gibberish, and walked straight through him.

“It is the over-seventies Zumba class this afternoon, and I am not going to miss that. You will never see anything funnier, mark my words!”

Photo Prompt Story: Arachnophobia

This is a short story, in 940 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Jennie Fitzkee.

It wasn’t Scott’s fault, but he couldn’t be home much when Taylor was little. First it was Afghanistan, then a posting to Africa. He hardly saw his son grow from the little baby he left behind, and the home leave was too short for them to bond properly. Sometimes, Scott had to fight back the tears. There were other times too. Times when he thought about leaving the army, and finding a job close to home.

Leigh was his rock though. A wonderful wife, and a fantastic mother. She talked him out of quitting the army that she knew he loved, and promised him everything would be alright. “It’ll be okay, honey. I will explain things to Taylor. He’s growing fast now, and he will understand soon. Then he’ll be proud of his brave Daddy, you can bet on that”. At least there was the phone, and face-time or Skype. Scott called them whenever he could, and even when the time difference was disruptive, Leigh made sure that they both had smiles for him.

When the unit was deployed to Saudi Arabia, it was a blow. He had hoped to get a posting back at base. Scott called Leigh to apologise. As always, she was unflappable. “Look at it this way, darlin’, at least you are no longer in harm’s way. You’ll be home on leave soon, and we will be here waiting for you, like always”. He asked if he could speak to Taylor. “Sorry honey, he’s sleeping, had a bad night. There was a big old spider in his room, and you know what I told you about him and spiders. Dear Lord, he was fit to bust, and even when I put it out, he refused to go back in there. I had him in bed with me, tossing and turning”.

Scott’s next chance to call home was over a week later. Leigh sounded stressed, as if she was pretending to be happy. “I’m fine, honey. Just tired is all. Here’s Taylor, you talk to him”. Scott was pleased to hear his son’s voice. “Hi son, how’s it going? You been having fun? How’s school? Have you made friends yet? Do you like your teacher?” He had to stop himself firing off too many questions, give the boy a chance to talk.

“There was a big spider, Daddy. I didn’t like it”. When he said no more, Scott tried to reassure him. “I know, Taylor. Mummy told me about it. But she put it out and told it to never come back to your room. I bet that old spider has found a nice place to live now, and you don’t have to ever worry about seeing him again”. The boy raised his voice. “NO, Daddy. Another one. It was in a web, and it was fat and ugly!” Leigh’s voice came back on the line. “We were playing ball in the back yard, and he went to fetch the ball when it rolled under under that big bush. All of a sudden he screams, and goes running into the house. Says he saw a scary spider on a web. Now he won’t go out in the yard to play, and is still refusing to sleep in his own room. It’s getting silly, Scott, and I’m running out of ideas about what to tell him”.

Pausing for a second, Scott suddenly smiled. “Listen, Leigh. I will be home in less than four weeks. Don’t bother to challenge him about those spiders for now. I just had a great idea”.

On his way home from the airfield, Scott stopped off at the little bookstore in town. Leigh and Taylor were excited to see him, and after all the hugs and kisses, Scott sat on the floor next to his son. “Hey buddy, guess what? Tonight you and me are going to have a sleep out. We are going to sleep in my old tent, right out there, in our back yard”. His son’s lip turned down. “But Daddy, what about the big scary spider?” Scott leaned in, whispering in a conspiratorial tone. “You can trust your Dad to look after you, can’t you? And I have something that will make sure that you are never scared of spiders again. Trust me, son”.

Once they were tucked up in the tent in the sleeping bags that evening, Scott turned to his boy. “I have a story to tell you, so listen good, okay?”

“When I was about your age, I started school, just like you have. I was scared of spiders too. Hard to believe, eh? Anyway, we had the most wonderful teacher, a lady called Jennie. And when she found out that I was afraid of spiders, you know what she did?” Taylor shook his head, his eyes wide. “Well she took out this book, and she read it aloud to me”. Scott produced the book from under the sleeping bag, and showed the cover. “See, it’s about a spider called Charlotte, and the title is ‘Charlotte’s Web'”. Scott began to read aloud to his son, and as he watched the delight on the boys face, he remembered how his own fears had melted away all those years ago, in that small classroom.

After the last page, Taylor reached over and closed the book. “Read it again, daddy. Start from the beginning”.

As he settled down to sleep that night, Taylor knew he would never be scared of spiders again.

Dedicated to Jennie Fitzkee, an truly inspirational teacher of small children.
Before she teaches them anything, she starts by loving them

Photo Prompt Story: Feline Karma

This is a short story, in 1420 words.
It was prompted by a photo sent to me by Ed Westen.

Vince Monroe should never have been allowed near animals. From an early age, it was plain to see that there was something bad about the kid. He was just plain nasty, wrong in the head.

He started young, even before school age. Squashing bugs in the garden for no reason, pulling wings off of butterflies, and throwing stones at the birds as they landed on the feeder in the garden. If Duncan and Vera ever noticed, they didn’t stop him. But they probably didn’t notice, as they adored the boy. He had come late to Vera, just when she had given up on the idea of ever being able to conceive. For her, Vincent was a blessing, a golden child.

Everyone else knew better.

Choosing to spoil him, to never deprive him, that just made things worse. He made no little friends at school, and nobody ever wanted to come for sleepovers, or to accompany Vince and his parents on trips to the Zoo, or the Soft Play. Although he was just six years old, everyone knew. Everyone except Duncan and Vera that is.

When the class rabbit had to be cared for over the Christmas break, Vera was the first to volunteer. Bugalugs was loved by all the kids, and Miss Hargreaves was a little concerned about letting it go to the Monroes. But she could hardly tell the woman that she thought her kid was creepy and scary.

They let Vince have the rabbit’s cage in his bedroom, like he asked. It smelled a bit, but he was insistent that didn’t bother him. The second night it was there, they were woken up by the smoke alarm screeching. Rushing into their son’s room, they found him sitting on his bed in fits of uncontrollable laughter. The rabbit was screaming terribly, its fur was on fire. Duncan got a bowl of water and threw it over the poor thing. Turning to his son, he gave him a look of disbelief. Next to the cage was an old tin of barbecue lighting fluid. He must have taken it from the shed.

Bugalugs was still breathing, so Vera wrapped it in a towel, and took it back to bed with her. She spoke sternly to her husband. “I’ll take it to the Vet tomorrow, and say it was an accident. Don’t you go saying anything to anyone, Duncan”.

The Vet took one look at the badly burned and semi-conscious bunny, and immediately said he had to put it to sleep. Vera concocted a story that they had been having a barbecue in the garden, and the rabbit had been running around on the grass. Something had spilled on it, and it caught alight. The Vet looked at her with the same expression Duncan had when he looked at Vince. “A barbecue? In December?” She told him that if they wanted to barbecue steaks that was their business. Then she paid the bill and left.

Miss Hargreaves didn’t believe her either. But she accepted Vera’s offer to buy a replacement rabbit, on the understanding that they could never take a pet home again.

Less than a year later, Mr Tudman from number sixteen knocked on the door. He asked if they had seen Monty, his big black cat. Vera made sympathetic noises and kept the door almost closed as she assured him she hadn’t seen anything of Monty. As she was talking, Duncan was in their back garden, burying a black cat he had found nailed to the fence.

Two years later, it was decided to get him his own pet. Vera was sure that if he had one of his own, he would learn about animals, and treat it better. It wasn’t one of their best decisions. Vince called the Bull Terrier pup Bingo, for reasons known only to himself. At first, he seemed to love the dog. He played with it after school, and it slept on his bed. One Sunday afternoon, he asked to take it for a walk around the block, on his own. Vera didn’t like him being out on his own, but she was sure the dog would protect him from strangers. Duncan smiled at that. “It’s the strangers who need protecting from our Vince”. His wife wasn’t amused, so he laughed at his own joke.

Bingo returned with terrible wounds around his neck. Vince said he got himself tangled up in some barbed wire, chasing after a squirrel. Duncan had to take him to the out-of-hours emergency Vet, and pay a small fortune to have the cuts cleaned and stitched. Bingo was wary of Vince after that, and didn’t sleep on his bed any more. If he saw Vince getting close, he would give a low, menacing growl. After three weeks of that, they decided to take the dog to an animal shelter, to find it another home.

Vince didn’t care. And he got no other pets.

For his eighteenth birthday, Vince wanted a motorcycle. He told them which one he liked, the most powerful one he could legally ride on his learner licence. It cost a lot, but Vera dipped into her savings and bought it. She got him all the safety gear too, and the best crash helmet money could buy. Her boy had to be safe on the road.

His first long trip was to go and visit Aunt Mildred, who they called Aunty Mill. She was Vera’s aunt, and had never married. The old lady hadn’t seen much of Vince growing up, and took the handsome young man at face value, making a fuss of him. She introduced him to her two feline companions, Mrs Fluffytail, called Phoebe for short, and Mr Big Whiskers, known as Boss. The cats were large, a bit overweight, and treated like a prince and princess. They could go anywhere they liked, sit anywhere they chose, and she fed them chicken fillets like they were regular people.

Vince pretended to like them, but they seemed to know, slinking away from his touch. When Aunt Mill was making lunch, Vince went out into the garden for a look around. His Mum had told him to keep in with the old lady. “You never know, she might leave you her house, and all her money. We are the only relatives she has left”.

Mr Big Whiskers was sitting on the patio, licking his paws, and Mrs Fluffytail was hiding under some bushes, watching the birds on the fence. It was too much for Vince to resist. Boss got a well-aimed sideways kick, delivered with both force and accuracy. It sent the cat flying through the air, and when it landed, it scampered up the fence at lightning speed, disappearing into the neighbour’s garden.

An old flower pot was the missile of choice for Phoebe, smacking onto her large head with a satisfying crack. Vince tried to stifle his laughter as the cat cleared the back gate in seconds.

After lunch, Vince was so bored, he decided to leave early. He thanked the old lady profusely, and said all the things his Mum had told him to make sure to say. He gave the house one last glance as he rode off on his motorbike. If he ever inherited it, he would sell the dump the same day.

Taking the main road route, he accelerated to the roundabout at the maximum speed he could get out of the small engine. The driver of the petrol tanker told the police he didn’t even see the motorbike coming, just felt the bump as it wedged underneath his truck. They all agreed it was lucky there hadn’t been an explosion, considering he had a full load on board.

But nothing could be done for the young man squashed flat in the wreckage.

When Vince woke up, he felt funny. Everything seemed too big. He could see a clock on a wall. It looked familiar, but it was much too big. He was stood next to a bag of rice, but the bag was as big as a house. He closed his eyes and waited. It must be a dream. He would wake up soon. When he opened his eyes, Mrs Fluffytail and Mr Big Whiskers were right in front of him, just inches away. they were both as big as buses, and their eyes looked like bright saucers.

Then he heard Aunt Mill’s voice, loud and shrill. So loud, it seemed she must be using an amplifier.

“Boss! Phoebe! Get that mouse! Kill it!”

Photo Prompt Story: Ned’s Favourite Tractor

This is a short story, in 1260 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Eddy Winko.
(Not his real name.)

Ned was a bad-tempered man, a farmer who hated farming. But he had waited over forty years to inherit the farm, and even though it was less than four hundred acres, he was determined to make a go of it. The land was suited for potatoes, and that’s what his family had always grown. So Ned grew potatoes, and had a contract with a small supermarket that brought in a decent income.

He was a mean man too, keeping a close eye on all the expenditure, and only employing the cheapest labour at harvest times. He liked to use foreigners, and would house them in shabby old caravans, even charging them rent, deducted from their pitiful wages. Rosie often wondered why she had married him. It wasn’t that he was attractive, and definitely not for his pleasant nature, as he didn’t have one. But her family had been poor, and they had seen Ned Reece as a good catch for her.

What followed was a hard life as a farmer’s wife. Expected to be up before first light to make breakfast, then housework until lunchtime, before some small jobs around the property to fill the afternoon. Even when Tim had come along, she had been expected to manage with no help, exhausted trying to cope with a baby and little sleep. After dinner, Ned would usually be in the old barn until late, tinkering with his tractors.

Although he wasn’t a romantic or passionate man, Ned did have one real passion. He loved tractors. Refusing to get any new ones, he worked on the same ones that had been in the family since he was a boy. And more than that, he bought other old ones, mostly wrecks, until he had at least ten of the things filling that old barn. He wouldn’t allow her to buy new shoes for their son unless he had inspected the old ones first, but thought nothing of spending most of their spare income on fixing up those piles of junk.

There was a favourite tractor too. Ned called it ‘Old Red’. It was a Russian tractor of all things, and when it was running, it made a noise like iron bars falling down a long metal staircase. He had managed to import it from Poland, paying as much to have it brought over in a container as the purchase price. Then he struggled to get parts for it, telephoning people all over Europe to find them. Rosie knew better than to complain about the money being spent on the tractors and phone calls.

She had fallen foul of Ned’s temper more than once. And so had Tim.

It took Ned almost three years to finish that tractor, to get it ready for work on the farm. He painted it with three coats of bright red paint, and even painted the tyres with some black gloss he found. As he started it up, it made lots of popping sounds, and let out some loud bangs like a shotgun firing, before Ned started to drive it around the farm yard with a stupid grin on his face.

Her husband also presumed that Tim would follow in his footsteps. The Reece Farm would continue, and remain in the family for all time. One evening at the dinner table, he pointed his fork at young Tim. “People will always eat potatoes, Tim. Don’t forget that. You will always have a living, growing potatoes. And there’s the land, don’t forget that. A man who owns land will always be someone. Tell you what son, how about I take you for a ride on Old Red tomorrow afternoon? I will show you how to drive it, get you started young”.

Tim didn’t reply. When his Dad said things like that, it was never a question, just an instruction. Rosie felt for her son. He had no interest in machines or farming. He was artistic. Even when he was very young, he liked to draw. He would draw anything, from Esme the farm cat, to the piles of old tractor wheels going rusty outside of the barn. Now he was older, he had a painting set. Some oil paints, brushes, and a few boards. Rosie had begged them off her auntie, as a Christmas gift for Tim.

Ned didn’t agree with wasting money on presents.

He said it was Tim’s fault. After telling his son he had to try to drive the thing, the tractor had stalled. Ned had pushed Tim off the seat, and he had fallen hard enough to cut his leg open. As she was cleaning the cut ready to bandage it up, her husband came into the house with his face red, and his mood foul. “It’s going to take me hours to strip that down and get it going again now”. He changed into his workshop overalls and stormed out, slamming the door.

Rosie was amazed when Tim showed her the painting. He had done it up in his room, without letting on. Hiding it under the bed each day, until it was finished. She stood back to admire the large wooden board. It was Old Red, painted in a field, with Ned driving it, and smiling. “I did it for Dad. I still feel bad about breaking his tractor last year”. All that time had passed, and Tim had been carrying that guilt, even though Ned had managed to get it started in less than two hours. She felt her eyes misting over. “He will love that, Tim. It’s so good. I can make out every detail, including Dad’s work jacket with the rip in it”. She propped it up on the window ledge above the sink. Ned would see it when he went to wash his hands before dinner.

When Ned didn’t even mention the painting, Tim’s face fell. Rosie decided to introduce it into conversation over dinner. “What did you think of Tim’s lovely painting of you driving Old Red, love?” Pulling at a lamb shank with his teeth, Ned turned to the boy, mumbling through the meat. “If you want to paint something, then you can go into the barn and give that old Fordson a couple of coats of dark green. The tin of paint is next to it”.

They finished the meal in silence.

It was the middle of the night when they heard the booming sound. Ned turned over in bed, then sat up. “Did you hear that, Rosie?” He put his slippers on, and went out onto the landing. Tim was standing there in his pyjamas, rubbing his eyes. Ned was down the stairs in a flash, flinging open the front door.

The barn was ablaze. Not just a small fire, it had consumed the whole building, smoke rising up into the night sky. As they watched from the bedroom window, Rosie and Tim could hear the explosions as the fuel tanks blew up, and the numerous cans of paint and petrol burst into flame. She heard Ned on the phone in the hallway. “That’s right, The Reece farm. Send lots of fire engines, you will see the flames. Hurry!”

They could see him running around the barn, looking like a demented chicken. He couldn’t get close enough to do anything about it, even though he had grabbed the hose from the yard, and was pointlessly spraying water in the general direction of the building.

As she wrapped her arm around her son’s shoulder, he looked up and smiled at her.

She gave him a wink, and they both started laughing.