Mercy? Or Murder?

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Mercy, or Murder?

by

Phoenix Hocking

Oh, aye, she were a drinker, that one.” The old man leaned back in his chair with a chuckle. He placed his hands on his corpulent belly and drummed a little tattoo, his eyes crinkling up a little in remembrance.

He was in his early seventies, short and round. His hair, what there was left of it, was a mix of blond and gray. His eyes were red-rimmed with crying, and puffy with too little sleep. His nose bore the evidence of a lifetime of drinking alcohol, with spider veins that created a pattern that looked rather like the state of Texas, if you squinted your eyes.

The interview room was small and cold. Detective Samuel “Shady” Parker sat in a chair across from Charlie Fields, the accused. Shady was comfortable in his suit jacket and tie, though Mr. Fields seemed a little chilly, even though he was wearing a flannel shirt beneath his denim overalls.

The room was painted Dusky Gray, a fact Parker knew because his wife, Lottie, had helped pick out the color. It was a neutral shade, impersonal and unadorned, the walls broken only by one door, and the large two-way window.

Parker knew his trainee, Jimmy, was on the other side of the two-way, watching, learning, taking notes. He was a nice lad, Jimmy was. Maybe a little too nice for this line of work, Shady thought.

He returned his attention to Mr. Fields, who had fallen silent.

“And had she been drinking last night, Mr. Fields?” Shady Parker asked.

“Oh, aye. Couldn’t get the pills down her no other way.”

Mr. Fields seemed to turn his attention inward, silent again. He reached up to scratch his ear, then returned to drumming on his stomach.

Parker leaned forward across the table that separated them. “So, tell me about your wife, Mr. Fields.”

Charlie’s eyes lit up and mellowed. “Oh, me and Beulah knowed each other since grade school,” he answered. “She weren’t never perty, but then, neither was I. Mebee that’s what drew us to each other. We was both homely as a mud fence, and knowed it. Still, I usta tell her she was perty, even though we both knowed it was a lie. But she liked to hear it, so I liked to say it.”

“How long have you been married, Mr Fields?”

“Don’t call me that. I ain’t never been Mister Fields to nobody. Folks just call me Charlie.”

“Okay, Charlie,” Parker agreed. “How long have you been married?”

“Well, me and Beulah got married when she were but thirteen. That’s the way things were did back then. I were sixteen meself. I’m seventy-two now, so…” he stopped to count on his fingers. “Let me see, twenty-six, thirty-six, forty-six, fifty-six, sixty-six, that’s fifty years and add…” he counted again, “…so we was married fifty-six years. Ain’t that right? I ain’t never been too good at numbers.”

Shady smiled. “Yes, that sounds about right. That’s a long time to be married.”

“Well, back then, when we said Until death do us part, we meant it. Not like the younguns today, who may say it, but they don’t mean it. As soon as some little bump in the road comes along, they git divorced. Me and Beulah, we dint believe in divorce, even when times were hard.”

“And had the times gotten hard, Charlie?”

The old man didn’t answer for a minute, then said, “I ‘member the first time I saw her. She were sittin’ by herself in the corner of the classroom during recess. She din’t like to go out durin’ recess ’cause the other girls usta make fun of her. Her one leg was a little shorter than the other, so she warn’t no good at runnin’. And she were poor. Even more poorer than me, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”

A large tear escaped from Charlie’s eye. It ran down his cheek and Shady watched in fascination as it reached the edge of Charlie’s face and dropped off onto his flannel shirt. Charlie reached into his pocket and drew out a red handkerchief. He blew his nose into it, then wiped his eyes with the edge.

“She had the bluest eyes,” Charlie said. “They was her best feature. Her eyes were like the blue you see in the sky, right after it rains. She loved the sky, loved watchin’ the clouds, and seein’ perty pitchers there, and seein’ the birds fly across it, all free. She did love the sky.”

“It sounds like you loved her very much,” the detective said softly.

“I did that,” the old man replied sadly. “I did that.”

“So, if you loved her so much, why did you kill her?”

Charlie sat up straight in his chair, eyes blazing. “Because she dint want to live no more, that’s why!”

“And why is that, Charlie? Why didn’t Beulah want to live?”

Mr. Fields leaned forward, as if being closer to the detective would make his words more truthful. “’cause she was sufferin! Ever day, she suffered. Ever day. Ever day.” More tears gathered in the old man’s eyes and fell, unchecked, some splashing onto the table.

“What did she have, Charlie?”

“I don’t know zactly. Somethin’ to do with her liver. At first she just lost weight and she were tired all the time. Her skin turned yellow and then her belly just swole up. And she hurt. She hurt ever minute of ever day. She got all confused, and sometimes she dint even seem to know who I was.”

“That must have been hard,” Shady said.

“You ever love anybody?” Charlie asked. “Somebody you’d give up yer life fer? Somebody you’d rather take their pain than let them suffer through it?”

Shady shivered as he thought of his wife and step-daughter. “Yes, Charlie,” he answered. “I have and I do.”

Charlie leaned back in his chair. “Then you’ll understand why I had to do it. She were sufferin’ and I couldn’t let her suffer no more.”

“What did you do, Charlie?”

“Well, the doctors couldn’t do nuthin’ fer her. They give her drugs that jest made her tired and loopy all the time, but she were still hurtin’. And finally, I couldn’t stand to see her like that no more.”

The old man paused, and Detective Parker waited a few moments before asking again, “What did you do?”

Charlie’s eyes were full of misery as he looked full into Shady’s face. “She dint want to live no more. She told me so. She’d cry and hang on to me and beg me to make it stop.” He covered his eyes with his work-callused hands. “So I did.”

“How did you do it?”

“I started keeping back some of her pills, just savin’ ’em, you know?”

“Which pills?”

“All of ’em!” Charlie said in a rush, eager now to get this over with. “Her pain pills and her heart pills and ever other pill the doctor gave her. I jest kept some by until I thought mebee I had enough.”

“And then?”

“Then last night, I went in and she were crying somethin’ awful. Clutching at her stomach, her face all scrunched up in pain. She begged me to make it stop, so brought out all the pills I’d saved and give ’em to her.”

“All at once?”

“No. I’d give her a few with the beer, and she’d take as many as she could, then fall asleep for a while. When she woke up, I’d give her more, with more beer. I don’t ‘member how many times. But after a while, she dint wake up no more.”

The interview room was quiet. Shady wrote something in his notepad.

“Thank you, Charlie,” he said. “The officer will take you to your cell now.”

Charlie smiled a little. “She looked right peaceful. Afterwards, you know? Right peaceful. I’ll be glad when I can go be with her.”

A uniformed officer came to escort Charlie Fields to his cell. Shady left the interview room and met with Jimmy in the observation room.

“So,” Detective Parker said, “What did you think?”

Jimmy looked shaken. “That was so sad,” he said.

“Yeah, I suppose it was,” Shady said. “It’s still murder.”

Parker picked up the phone and arranged for a suicide watch to be put on Charlie Fields.

“I guess so,” Jimmy answered. “But maybe it was mercy too, you think?”

Shady shrugged. “Maybe. That’s not up to me. Or to you,” he said pointedly. “That’s up to the courts.”

“What will happen to him?”

“Hard to say. He’s old, and not in very good health himself. If he does go to jail, he probably won’t last long.”

“Do you think he’d actually kill himself?”

Shady shrugged again. “No clue,” he answered. “You can never tell about these things.”

Later that evening, Shady was home with his wife, Lottie, and his step-daughter, Keno. It was an ordinary night. Dinner, dishes, a little television. Keno put a card table up in the den.

“Hey, Dad,” she said. “How about a puzzle?”

“Sure,” Shady said.

The phone rang. Lottie picked it up, then held the receiver out. “It’s Jimmy,” she said.

Shady took the phone. “Yes?”

“He’s dead.”

“Who’s dead?”

“The old man, Charlie Fields.”

“What? I thought I put him on suicide watch.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jimmy explained. “He didn’t kill himself. He just … died.”

“What do you mean, he just died?

“I had brought him his dinner and we were talking a little bit, and then he just put his hand on his chest and keeled over.”

“Christ.” Shady closed his eyes. “Did he say anything?”

“That’s the weird part,” Jimmy said. “He kind of looked toward the corner of the cell and said, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and then he fell over.”

Shady Parker shivered. “Well, call the coroner and make your report. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think … I mean, do you think maybe he just didn’t want to be separated from his wife?”

“Jimmy, just make your report and leave the philosophical stuff to the experts, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Shady hung up the phone. When he turned around, Keno was standing in front of the puzzle closet. “What kind of puzzle do you want, Dad?” she asked.

“Something with sky,” he answered. “Lots and lots of sky.”

Home for Christmas

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Home for Christmas

by

Phoenix Hocking

It is Christmas in Camden, Maine. Well, almost. Christmas is still a few days away, so the streets will be heavy with locals doing holiday shopping, and tourists come for the skiing.

The roads will have been salted, so they’ll be clear. The snow hasn’t been bad yet this year, Mom says.

“Just enough to look like a postcard,” says Dad.

I can picture it in my mind. Snow just deep enough to be pretty, but not yet treacherous. The hills will be white, and the ocean a deep, rich blue. The boats will have long since been in drydock, but the harbor will still be beautiful. The statue of Edna St. Vincent Millay will look slightly forlorn, standing all alone in the park.

Whitehall Inn will be decorated to the nines, as usual. Festive wreaths will adorn each door, and the parlor will have a gigantic Christmas tree. The puzzle table will still draw visitors, and many a happy hour will be spent near the fire, chatting with new friends, and drinking a cup of tea.

The Owl and Turtle Bookstore will be doing a brisk business. Some shoppers will come in to browse and buy and leave. Others will come and stay for a cup of hot chocolate and settle in to read by the fire. Neighbors will pop in to say hello, then dash out again, intent on finding the perfect gift for whatever family member has shown up at the last minute.

At home, the kitchen will be warm and toasty, filled with the scents of Mom’s baking. Gingerbread and Snickerdoodles, Appleanna bread and Mom’s famous Country Corn Chowder, the recipe snitched from the Golden Ox in Brewster, Massachusetts.

The grandkids will hover around the kitchen, begging for a taste. “Get away with ya!” Mom will say, but she’ll be smiling when she says it. And if a small hand reaches up to snatch a cookie, she’ll pretend not to see.

“Can we go outside? Can we go sledding? Can we? Can we?” The grandkids will pipe up. The hill outside the house is perfect for sledding, and the day is long with waiting.

“Okay,” Mom will say, “but bundle up warm, you hear? Bundle up warm. I don’t need you getting sick over the holiday.”

And the kids will scurry off to bundle into sweatshirts and jackets, warm socks and boots and mittens.

“Go to the bathroom before you put all that stuff on,” Dad will admonish from his throne in the living room. He’ll be in the recliner, of course, his stockinged feet close to the fire, watching It’s A Wonderful Life on television.

Or maybe not. He might be reading. He’s a big reader, my dad is.

Every year at Hallowe’en he reads The War of the Worlds to us aloud, and we shiver and shriek every time. On Thanksgiving he’ll read the praise selections from the Psalms. On Christmas, he’ll read the nativity story from the Bible.

Somehow, even after all these years, the story never gets old. He’ll have us close our eyes and imagine the young couple, Mary and Joseph, travel weary, just looking for a place to rest. He’ll describe the clear night sky, pinpointed with a million stars, and we’ll swear we can hear the angels singing. He’ll bring the Wise Men that we’ve placed in different parts of the house just a little bit closer to the manger in the nativity set Mom has placed under the tree. The manger will be empty, waiting until Christmas Day to receive the Christ child.

Oh, and presents! With all the grandchildren, the tree will just about be hidden with all the presents! Brightly wrapped toys and games, socks and pajamas. Dad will get new slippers, a new wallet, and a new bathrobe. Mom will get perfume, and something that she unwraps, blushes, and quickly puts away. After all these years, Mom never does say what that present is.

So, it is Christmas in Camden, Maine. And this year, I’ll not be home.

Moved away, didn’t I? Moved away to be out on my own, to make my way in the world, to be independent.

It didn’t quite work out how I planned it. I was on my way to California, where it doesn’t snow, and I wouldn’t have to scrape the ice off my windshield every morning. Golden California, where jobs are hanging off the trees, ripe for the plucking. Movie stars hang out at ritzy places, and I dreamed that maybe I’d get discovered like Lana Turner did, at the soda fountain at Schwab’s drugstore.

I thought I’d make a mark on the world, do something grand, be somebody important maybe.

But that’s not what happened.

My car broke down in New Mexico, and somehow I just stayed. I met a guy. Ron is a nice man, a sweet guy. We’re getting married in the Spring, before the baby comes. I hope my family can be here.

But it’s a long way from Camden, Maine. A long way. And the only thing my parents are rich in is love. Still, I know they’ll be thinking of me.

“Miss? Miss?” A voice shakes me out of my reverie. “Can I get a refill please?”

A customer holds out his cup, and I turn around to get the coffee pot.

“Sorry,” I say, pouring. “I was a million miles away.”

“Yeah, this time of year will do that to ya.”

I catch the boss’s eye. “Say, Charlie, it’s not too busy. Can I take a quick break?”

“Sure.”

I go through the kitchen and out the back door. It’s times like this when I almost wished I smoked, but since I don’t I just wrap my sweater around me and look out onto the Sandia Mountains, its snowy nose kissing the sky. It’s a beautiful place, here. But I’m not sure it will ever feel like home.

The boss sticks his nose out the door. “Caroline, we’re getting busy. Can you come back in?”

I wipe away the tears that have escaped from my eyes and go back inside. I look around, but I don’t see anybody that wasn’t there before.

“Where?”

“Big party in the dining room. Can you take it?”

I shrug. Sure, it will keep me busy, and not thinking about home.

I stop at the doorway. Ron is standing there, talking with my dad. A woman turns around, and my eyes widen.

I shake my head because I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

“What the heck?”

It only takes me a minute to cross the room and become enfolded in the arms of my family. Mom and Dad, my sisters, my brother, nieces and nephews. They’re all there. My family. All of them!

“What are you doing here?” I stammer through my tears.

Dad tilts his head toward my husband-to-be, who is standing there grinning, eyes shining. “Merry Christmas, honey,” he says.

I look towards the door and see Charlie leaning against the opening, wiping his eyes with his apron. “Merry Christmas, Caroline,” he says huskily, then turns aside as the rest of the crew begin bringing in a Christmas feast.

Christmas in Camden, Maine has become Christmas in New Mexico. And I am reminded once more that Christmas is not about a place, or presents, or about memories of Christmases past, but about family, and about love.

This Christmas, I am home.

The End

The Spider and The Cookie

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The Spider and The Cookie

by

Phoenix Hocking

Dear Joan,

I know this letter may sound a little odd, but here goes anyway.

I have a spider that lives in my bathroom. He’s not very big; I mean, he’s not a tarantula or a black widow or anything like that. He’s just a normal-looking spider.

He’s quite an industrious fellow and has provided me with much entertainment watching him weave his webs while I am … ahem … otherwise engaged.

I just moved into this apartment a few months ago, after Charlie died. I can sometimes go for days without speaking to another living soul, so I’ve kind of gotten used to talking to Harold, that’s the spider. He was here when I got here, hidden away in the corner near the bathtub.

Anyway, one day I was sitting on the porcelain throne, doing my business while Harold was doing his. (Oh dear, I’ve never thought about just where Harold does his “business.” Maybe I don’t want to know.)

My Bridge club’s annual Baking Contest was coming up, and I was talking to Harold about it.

“What am I going to do, Harold?” I said. “I’m a terrible baker.”

Well, you can imagine my surprise when I heard a voice. “Why don’t you bake cookies?” the voice said.

I looked around the bathroom, but the only two living creatures in there were Harold and me.

“Did you talk to me?” I leaned forward and directed my question toward the small spider who was energetically working on his elaborate web.

“Of course I did,” the voice said. The voice was high and squeaky, and kind of rusty sounding, as if it hadn’t been used in a while.

I leaned against the back of the toilet. The lid scraped against the tank, so I straightened up right away.

“Well,” I said to myself. “I’ve finally gone ’round the bend. No hope for me now. Call the little men in the white coats.”

“Oh shush,” the voice said. “You’ve been talking to me for weeks now. Isn’t it time I talked back?”

I sighed. If this was some sort of hallucination, I guess I could think of others that could be worse.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. Why cookies? And what kind of cookies? Nobody brings cookies. I mean, Maureen is a champion baker. She wins almost every year.”

“Exactly. Bake something unexpected,” Harold answered.

I wiped myself and got up. “You just don’t understand,” I said as I pulled up my pants. “These people expect fancy. Why, last year Ellen won with a Croquenbouche! How can I possibly compete with that?”

Harold waited until I washed my hands, then repeated, “Exactly. You can’t compete with that, so why don’t you just bake something you’ll enjoy eating by yourself when you have to bring it home?”

That stopped me in my tracks. Hmmm, there was that. Every year I was stuck bringing home some fancy dessert I’d tried that ended up being a disaster. I was always so disappointed, I ended up just throwing the stuff away. At least this way, I could drown my sorrows in cookies and milk.

I turned around. Harold was still working on his web. “Okay, why not?” I said. “What kind of cookies shall I make?”

He stopped his weaving for a second, then answered, “Toll House. Everybody loves a nice Toll House chocolate chip cookie.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “What would you know about Toll House cookies?”

The squeaky voice sounded sad. “The lady who used to live here made them often. Sometimes she’d share a crumb or two with me.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I didn’t know spiders liked cookies.”

“This one does.”

I went into the kitchen and got out my recipe book. I had almost everything, but I was out of vanilla.

“I’m going to the store, Harold,” I called. “You need anything?”

I grinned to myself. If I was going nuts, at least I could have fun doing it.

I heard a high squeaky voice coming from the bathroom. “If you see a sale on some nice juicy flies, bring me home a dozen!”

The following day, I arranged my Toll House cookies on a pretty plate and covered them with Saran Wrap. They looked good. I’d tasted one, and they tasted good. I’d given a crumb to Harold, and he pronounced them just as good as his previous roommate’s.

But my heart sank when I arrived at Ellen’s house. All the fancy desserts were laid out on her dining room table.

Ellen made Petit Fours, all exactly the same size, but each decorated with a different fancy design.

Maureen made a Bouche de Noel, a rolled cake made to look like a log, complete with something that looked like pastry mushrooms on the side.

Harriet brought Hamentashen.

Elena brought a Plum Clafouti.

Janet brought a Tiramisu.

And Sue brought an apple tart, beautifully arranged.

And there, down at the very end of the table, sat my sad and lonely plate of Toll House chocolate chip cookies.

Ellen put her arm around me, giving me a one-armed shoulder hug. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said condescendingly. “I’m sure they’ll be lovely.”

Just then, Ellen’s four teenage boys came rushing into the room. “Hey, Mom,” one of them said, “we’re all going over to Fred’s to play football, okay?”

“Sure, honey,” she answered.

“Oh look!” he cried. “Real cookies!”

And before a person could say, “What the heck just happened?” the plate, with the cookies on it, disappeared out the door.

“Wow!” I heard one boy say. “These are really good!”

“Yeah, better than all that fancy stuff,” I heard as their voices trailed away.

Later that afternoon, after Bridge was over and the contest had been decided, I went home. The first thing I did was head for the bathroom.

“So, how did it go?” asked Harold.

I dropped my drawers and positioned myself on the throne. “Janet won for her Tiramisu,” I said.

“And the cookies?”

I grinned. “They were the biggest hit of all,” I answered. “They won the only award that really counted.”

“So,” said Harold, “I don’t suppose you found a sale on flies while you were out.”

“No, but I saved you a crumb of Toll House cookie.”

“Thanks,” he said, “just put it on the floor, I’ll have it for dessert.”

So, Joan, there you have it. I suppose you’ll be ready to call the nut squad after you get this letter, but I’m really fine. Harold has encouraged me to try to make peanut butter cookies next time. If they turn out well, I’ll send you a dozen.

Love, your sister, Betty Ann

The Survivor

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The Survivor

by

Phoenix Hocking

I’m just not in the mood for you today,” Margaret said aloud as she closed the book she was reading. “Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

She put both hands on the arms of her chair and hoisted herself up, grunting as she did so. “Whew,” she said, “that just gets harder and harder all the time.”

Margaret was sixty-eight years old. She was still in good shape, for the shape she was in. She could still care for herself, and if there was anyone else around for her to care for, she could watch over them as well.

But there wasn’t.

She made her way into the kitchen where she put the kettle on the stove. She turned on the gas and lit the burner with a match. The electronic starter went out some time ago, and of course, there was no way to get it fixed. Still, it lit with a match, and for that she was grateful.

In fact, she was grateful that she still had some gas. Once this was gone, though, that would be it. She would be reduced to building a fire in the driveway of her mobile home.

“At least I remember how to do that,” she said to the stove. She got a bag of Lipton tea from the cupboard and put it in a cup. She waited for the kettle to boil as she thought over the last few months.

If she looked out of her living room window, everything pretty much looked the same as it always did. She could see Twila’s mobile home across the street, sandwiched between Harriet’s on the left and George’s on the right. They’d been nice people, and Margaret missed them.

But they were gone now, along with everyone else.

“Everyone except me,” Margaret said aloud. “I wonder why I was spared.”

It hadn’t taken long. A disease, the likes of which had never been seen before, had ravaged the nation, and almost everyone was dead within a week or two. Some sort of plague, the television news commentator said, before there was no more television. Something had escaped from some government lab; some chemical weapon they’d been working on to keep their enemies in check. It got loose, and now look what happened.

“I wonder if I’m really the only person left alive,” Margaret said to the kettle. It whistled in response, and Margaret poured the hot water over her tea bag.

In the beginning, she’d looked around her neighborhood, but everyone was dead, or had run away hoping to outrun the Death that stalked the world. Only she was left.

She took a sniff of the tea, but wrinkled her nose in disgust. Nothing. She had no sense of smell whatsoever.

The funny thing was that although all the people were dead, everything else was alive and vibrant. The trees and grass were still green, the flowers continued to grow, the birds still sang in the trees. And God knew the cockroaches were just as plentiful as ever.

“I’d like to smell those flowers again,” she said sadly.

When the Death came, most people succumbed within a few days of contracting the disease, whatever it was. Margaret fell sick herself, but for some reason known only to God, she recovered. The only thing that seemed to be affected was her sense of smell. She had none.

She was grateful for that, too, considering.

“So, I’d sure like to know what you were thinking, God,” Margaret said as she slowly sipped her tea. “I mean, why me? Why let me live when all the young people might have actually done something to heal this old world of ours. Why pick me to live? I’ll be dead soon enough in any case.”

There was no answer.

Margaret shuffled into her bedroom. The water had long since stopped running, but she kept a basin full to wash with. She gave herself what her mother used to call a “PTA bath,” which Margaret had always found to be rather vulgar. She preferred to call her morning ablutions a “bird bath” instead, rather than “piss, tits, and armpits.”

She washed and dried herself, then hung the towel over the bar. Why she bothered to bathe, she did not know. There was nobody around to notice if she stank or not, and she herself couldn’t tell either. But she’d had a bath every morning of her life for sixty-eight years, and saw no reason to end the practice now. Besides, what if she really did meet someone else still alive? She wouldn’t want to offend them, whomever it was.

She dressed for duty. Jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, heavy socks, boots.

She heard the scratching on the front door and smiled.

“Coming!” she called. “I’m coming!”

For some reason, again known only to God, just as Margaret was the only human left alive (that she could tell, anyway), Scruffy was the only dog. He was a mutt of indeterminate breed, part Lab maybe, part German Shepherd, part St. Bernard. It was hard to tell. But Scruffy was a big dog, and Margaret found that comforting for some reason.

Scruffy came to her house every morning, and they went about Margaret’s business together, a working team in their unpleasant task. But when work was over, he accepted whatever Margaret gave him to eat, and then went home to his empty house.

“Hey, Scruffy,” Margaret said as she opened the door. “How are you this morning?”

Scruffy just smiled his big-dog smile, baring all his teeth and letting his tongue hang out of his mouth.

“You hungry?”

The dog headed for the kitchen.

Margaret got a manual can opener from the drawer, reached into the cupboard and pulled out a can of dog food. She’d found the food in Scruffy’s house and brought it to her own. Scruffy’s owners were the first she’d had to take care of.

Scruffy ate quickly, then sat on his haunches, as if he were waiting for instructions.

She sighed. “Well, I guess there isn’t much choice in the matter, is there, old boy?” she asked.

Scruffy wagged his tail in reply.

Margaret went through the laundry room and opened the back door. She collected her heavy gloves from the top of the washing machine. The shovel remained where she had placed it the day before. She hoisted it to her shoulder, groaning a little as she did so.

“Lord, you really could have picked somebody a little younger for this job, You think? I really am too old for this nonsense.”

There was no answer.

Margaret had buried almost all of who had been the residents of her mobile home park. Scruffy had led her to the homes where bodies lay, stinking and bloated, though Margaret couldn’t smell them. Some homes were empty, the residents having left in hopes of outrunning the Death, but there was still one left with bodies that needed to be laid to rest.

It was not pleasant work.

At first, she didn’t know where to bury her neighbors. The cemetery was quite a distance away, and loading the bodies in her car was exhausting. In the end, she finally decided that she would simply bury them in their own small yards. She could still dig a hole that might not have been the requisite six feet deep, but was still deep enough to drag a body to, wrestle it in, and cover it.

After she had buried Scruffy’s owners, the dog seemed to know what she was doing, and helped her by digging alongside her. It was hard work for both of them, but there was no rush. She couldn’t smell the bodies, and Scruffy didn’t seem to care.

She was working on space D3. The Cartwrights had lived there, and Margaret was happy that neither of them were large people. They were both in bed, which made it easier for Margaret to simply wrap the sheets around them and drag them outside. She tried to be gentle with the bodies. After all, they were people she had known and liked. They’d played Bingo together on Wednesday nights, attended the same Bridge games on Tuesdays, and lounged around the pool together on warm summer evenings.

They’d been friends. And now they were gone.

Margaret dug their graves, pausing now and again to wipe her face, and to gaze into the distance.

“So, what do you think, Scruffy?” she asked the dog. “Are we the only ones left?”

Scruffy had no answer, just a wag of the tail.

That evening, after her work was done, she fed Scruffy and herself, then sat on the front porch of her mobile home. All the bodies in her small park had now been laid to rest. She had long since equipped her trailer with everything she needed.

Eternity stretched before her in a long, unending, lonely road.

“What are we going to do now, Scruffy?” she asked. “There’s nothing left to do.”

The evening began to close in around her. An soft breeze stirred the leaves of the Elm in her front yard. The flowers began to close against the dusk. A meadowlark sang briefly, then went silent.

Scruffy rose and stretched. He started down the steps, then turned when Margaret got up from her chair.

“Scruffy, stay with me tonight, would you?” Margaret hated the pleading in her voice, but suddenly the thought of being alone was frightening. “I … I don’t want to be by myself.”

She sat down again.  A tear gathered at the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away with one hand. “Please?”

Scruffy stood at the bottom step. He faced his old home and stared for a while. Then he turned and trotted back up the stairs. He placed his head on Margaret’s knee, looked up at her, and wagged his tail gently.

“Thank you, my friend,” Margaret said softly. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but whatever it is, I’m glad you’re with me.”

And so, the two survivors sat on the porch long into the night, staring up at the stars, sharing the end of the world together.

The End

The Contract

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The Contract

by

Phoenix Hocking

Susan watched the sunshine creep across the face on the canvas, gradually illuminating cheek and hair, jaw and lips. The oil painting stood on an easel in the corner, awaiting only the finishing touches on the complicated background design. The face had been finished some time ago, but the background was more challenging. She had decisions to make.

She had picked up her brush, ready to begin, when she felt strong arms around her waist and a hot breath next to her ear. “Hard at work, I see,” said the familiar voice.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Do you like it?”

“It’s … “ the voice hesitated. “It’s different.”

“You don’t like it,” she said flatly. “I hate painting children.”

“I know,” the voice soothed. “I know. But this is what you signed up for.”

Susan sighed. “Yes, but if I had known … “

He laughed lightly. “That’s what they all say.” And then he was gone.

She sat heavily on the rolling stool near the painting and covered her face with her hands. Yes, God help her, she had signed up for this, and now she regretted every second it.

Susan Davis had been an accomplished artist; good, but not great. Competent, but not inspired. And she wanted more than anything to make a name for herself in the art world. She’d had a few gallery shows, a few exhibits in the park, but still, she remained only a minor player in her chosen profession.

And then, he had arrived. He’d walked into the gallery where her pictures were being shown and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. He’d offered her wealth, and travel, and most of all, recognition. All she had to do was paint portraits for him whenever he asked. Very specific portraits. It seemed a small price to pay.

There was a contract. One she dared not break.

Good Lord, she often thought, how did I get into this mess? And how do I get out of it?

To be fair, he had kept his part of the bargain. Almost immediately after signing the contract, someone had bought one of her painting for an exorbitant, positively outrageous sum. And then more, and more, and more. She made more money than she literally knew what to do with. Her name became known throughout the art world. Articles were written about her, documentaries made for television detailing her meteoric rise.

And travel? She went everywhere. London, Rome, Istanbul, Moscow, even Timbuktu. She stayed in the finest hotels, drank the most expensive wines, ate caviar and lobster and filet mignon.

He was beside her every day, reminding her that none of this would be possible without him. Her entire life was his to command, and she was grateful, for she had grown to love her lifestyle. The wealth, the travel, the fame, the opulence of her life was like a drug, and she could not imagine living without it.

And then ….

Yes, and then. He came to her one day. Where was it, that first portrait? She thought about that. There had been so many now. Of course. She had been in Milan, relaxing in the private Jacuzzi attached to her suite, when he came in.

“Hello, my darling,” he’d said. “You remember our contract, yes?”

“Of course!” Susan had exclaimed. “I thought perhaps you’d forgotten, since you hadn’t asked me to paint any portraits for you.”

He sat on the side of the tub, idly popping the bubbles that swirled around Susan’s naked body.

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten,” he said, his voice as smooth and seductive as Ghirardelli chocolate. “Tomorrow morning, meet me in the lobby. I have your first commission, and I’ll tell you what to do.”

The following morning, she met him, as arranged, in the lobby of her hotel. He was alone, and she looked around for someone who might be the subject of the portrait he wanted done.

“Oh, you won’t have a live person sitting for the portrait,” he said. He pulled a photograph from his pocket and handed it to her.

The photograph was of an old man, his face deeply lined, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. He sat in a wheelchair, his oxygen tank in the chair’s holder and the canula in his nose.

Susan’s brow furrowed. “Him? Who is he?”

“That’s none of your concern,” he answered. “Paint him as you see him, but in the background, I want you to paint a hospital room.”

“A hospital room?”

“You’re not to ask questions,” he said sternly. “Just do it.”

So, she did. She painted what she saw, and what she imagined the old man’s hospital room to look like.

The instant she put the final dab of color on the portrait, her benefactor arrived. He seemed pleased.

Then he handed her the photograph of a young soldier. “Paint the soldier,” he said, “and in the background I want a battle scene. Afghanistan, or Iran, or some desert place like that,” he instructed.

So, she did.

After that, the portraits kept coming, young and old, men and women, all shapes, sizes and colors of people. A few dogs, but not many. He wanted their portraits, with varying backgrounds, none of which made any sense to her. But, she had signed a contract, and she kept her word, as he had kept his.

Then. Dear God in Heaven. Then …

He brought her a photograph of a famous world leader. She recognized him immediately. “Him?” she’d exclaimed. “You want me to paint him?”

“Yes,” he’d answered. “Him.”

“What background do you want?”

He studied her face, lined with concern. “I want you to paint the aftermath of a bomb.”

“Dear God, why?”

“Don’t ask questions. Just do it.” And he was gone.

She painted the portrait of the world leader. She painted the background, an ugly, complicated, mishmash of what she imagined a scene would look like if a bomb went off behind him.

It was distressing work, so she turned on the television to keep her company. By coincidence, the world leader was giving a speech. The room in which he spoke looked eerily like the bomb-destroyed space she had just painted in the background of his portrait. And as soon as she placed the last dab of color on the painting, the picture on the television went blank.

She changed the channel. All over the stations came the report that the world leader had been killed in an explosion. And when the cameras panned in on the destruction, Susan’s painting showed the exact same scene.

She was stunned. Surely this had to be a coincidence. She hadn’t caused the bomb to go off, had she? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. It HAD to be a coincidence.

Didn’t it?

After that, she paid closer attention to her subjects, and to the backgrounds he wanted her to paint. She searched the newspapers and watched the news in the days following the completion of every portrait. And without fail, the person who was the subject died in the same manner as the backgrounds.

Dear God, who was this man? Surprisingly, Susan had never questioned who her benefactor was. Not really. He had said his name was Nick, and given her some papers to sign, but she had been totally besotted by his promises and not read the contract at all. The words were tiny, and filled with legalese, and there were pages and pages and pages of them. Who had time for that?

She made time. She read every word, and buried deep on page 17, she found it. According to the contract, she was required to paint the portraits of whomever Nick deemed necessary, with the backgrounds he demanded. Failure to do so would result in the forfeiture of her immortal soul.

She confronted him. She attempted to rip up the contract, but the paper would not tear. She tried to burn it, but it would not catch fire.

He laughed at her.

And then he gave her another photograph, this one of a little boy, perhaps eight or nine years old. He was a sweet-faced child, haunted around the eyes by a long illness, thin. Too young to die.

Her heart sank.

She painted the child with care, with love, with an ache in her heart that she, she was to be the cause of this child’s demise. But, what else could she do? Where was there an out?

In desperation, Susan buried her face in her hands and sobbed, “Please, God, help me get out of this mess.”

Tears streaming down her face, she attacked the contract again, peering at the tiny print until her head ached and her eyes burned. There had to be a way out of this.

And then, on page 23, there it was.

According to the contract, if any subject of any portrait failed to expire immediately upon the portrait’s completion, then the terms of the contract would be null and void.

Perfect. All she had to do was figure out how to make sure this little boy lived. But how?

She just sat for a while, not thinking, not praying, not doing anything. Just closed her eyes and sat. She became conscious of her breath, her body, the figures that played in the darkness behind her eyes. And in the stillness, came an idea, and with the idea came peace.

Susan knew he was watching her closely. He inspected the portrait every chance he got. He peered over her shoulder while she worked, made suggestions, urged her to hurry and complete it.

She claimed artist’s privilege and said good art could not be rushed. Especially with a child as beautiful as this one. But she painted. She painted as if her life depended on it, as if the boy’s life depended on it. She painted far into the night, long after the sun had set.

The background of the painting was complicated. It showed the hospital room of the child, complete with heart monitor, intravenous bags full of fluid, medicine bottles, and his grieving parents, their faces contorted with pain.

Just before midnight, Nick arrived at Susan’s little studio.

“Is it finished?” he asked.

“Almost,” she replied, as she leaned forward to put one more addition on the portrait. She straightened up and said quietly, “It is finished.”

He examined the painting, studied the boy’s sickly face, his parent’s sad countenances, and nodded. He left, but returned in ten minutes, furious. “I thought you said it was finished,” he growled.

“It is finished,” Susan replied. “And so is your hold over me.”

She stood in front of the painting, holding the contract in her hand. Easily, she tore it into two pieces and tossed it into the fire where the flames caught it and burned it to ash.

Then she moved away from the painting, and he gasped.

The painting had been utterly transformed. Where before the boy’s face had been sickly, now it shone with health, his cheeks rosy and his eyes bright. His parent’s faces, once contorted with grief were now shining with joy. And around the boy’s neck, almost invisible to the naked eye, Susan had painted a golden chain, and a tiny gold cross.

“What have you done?” the devil cried.

“I came to understand that there is a Power on this earth far greater than you,” Susan said.

“What?” he cried, his face suffused with anger. “What is greater than I?”

Susan paused a moment before she answered. “Love,” she said as she walked out the door.

In an obscure little art gallery, somewhere off the beaten path, you will find the last known painting by the world-renowned artist, Susan Davis. It is of a little boy, looking healthy and happy, playing in a meadow filled with flowers and surrounded by trees. The sunshine surrounds him, and the light illuminates the necklace he wears, a small golden chain with a tiny cross glowing upon the skin of his chest.

Susan Davis dropped mysteriously out of sight soon after this portrait was completed, but there is some speculation that she is currently working as a waitress somewhere in New Mexico.

Tilda’s Imaginary Friend

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Tilda’s Imaginary Friend

by

Phoenix Hocking

I wasn’t anxious about anything that day. In fact, I was quite content, sitting on the front porch of our new house, picking through a crate of Pink Ladies so that I could make applesauce.

Our new home was situated in a rural, wooded section of northern Washington, surrounded by a forest, and creeks, and a four acre orchard of Pink Ladies, Braeburns, and Honey Crisp apples. We made a little extra money selling apples at our roadside stand, and I had developed a bit of a following for my cinnamon applesauce.

“Mommy!”

I looked up to see my eight-year-old daughter, Matilda, standing in front of me. I smiled. She was the spitting image of myself at that age, right down to the long blonde braids and a missing front tooth.

“Yes, honey?”

“Mommy, can Missy spend the night?” she asked. “She says it’s too dark at her house.”

Missy was Tilda’s imaginary friend. Missy had made her appearance about three months previously, and Tilda, who had been very lonely since our move, was quite happy to have someone to play with, even if that someone didn’t really exist.

I’d had an imaginary friend myself at her age. My imaginary friend’s name was Susan, and I’d spend hours pretending to have a playmate one summer. Somehow, once school started, though, Susan sort of disappeared, now that I had real friends to play with.

I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I thought, smiling.

“Sure, honey, Missy can spend the night.”

“Thanks!” And off she went, chatting happily with someone I couldn’t see.

It was early fall, and we’d been in our new house for less than a year. We were fairly isolated, but that didn’t bother me. My husband, Jim, had been in the Marine Corps, so we felt perfectly safe “out in the boondocks,” as he called it. We were fulfilling a lifelong dream to own our own property, grow our own food, and live as closely to the land as we could.

That’s not to say we were living primitively. Heaven’s no. I was a city girl, and I liked my modern conveniences, thank you very much. Electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heat-and-air were all absolute musts when we were looking for a place.

The first time we drove up the driveway and saw this house, we knew we were home. It was an older two-story, complete with a wraparound porch, a cellar, an attic, and land as far as the eye could see, including an apple orchard and a barn. We were told later that the place had sat empty for quite a while, the isolation apparently off-putting to potential buyers. But for us, it was perfect.

In addition to the orchard, we had a few chickens, a goat named Belle, a cow we called Sugarplum, three dogs, numerous cats, Tilda’s hamster, and several rabbits. Jim sometimes threatened to name our new place, The Ark, since we seemed to be gathering a few of everything living.

So now, here we were, settled in and content to be self-sustaining land owners, with friendly, helpful neighbors, and a beautiful, imaginative daughter. Our lives were complete.

“Mommy,” Tilda asked when it came time for dinner. “Can Missy sit at the table with us?”

I grinned over her head at Jim. “Sure, honey, why not?”

“She won’t eat anything though,” Tilda said. “Missy doesn’t eat.”

“More for me, then,” Jim said as he placed a chair next to Tilda’s.

Jim and I carried on adult conversation at dinner, not really paying attention to what Tilda and her imaginary friend were saying. I kind of wish I had, now.

When bedtime rolled around, Tilda, for once, didn’t put up much of a fuss. Usually she found every excuse under the sun not to go to bed, but this night, she seemed perfectly happy to do so.

“Missy and I are going to have a slumber party,” Tilda informed me as she put her pajamas on. “We’re going to stay up all night!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” I said with a grin.

She knelt by her bed, said her prayers, then crawled in, shivering slightly. “It’s cold, Mommy,” she complained.

“I know,” I agreed. “Daddy turned the heater down. Our bill was really high this month.”

I put an extra blanket over her and kissed her goodnight.

“Don’t forget to say goodnight to Missy,” she said as I flipped off the light.

I smiled. “Good night, Missy.”

“Missy says good night.”

I closed the door and went into my own room. Jim was already in bed, reading.

“This imaginary friend business,” he said, without preamble. “Is that healthy?”

I undressed, shivering. “Perfectly healthy,” I assured him. “I had one myself at her age.”

“Hmmmpf,” he said. “Must be a girl thing. Come here, woman, and keep me warm.”

I crawled in beside him and before long, we were both asleep.

It was about two o’clock in the morning when I heard Tilda’s voice at my bedside. “Mommy!” she said insistently. “Mommy! You have to get up. Missy says you have to get up!”

I rolled over. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Tilda. It’s the middle of the night. Go back to bed.”

“No, Mommy, Missy says you have to get up.”

Jim sat up. “This is ridiculous. Go back to bed.”

“Missy says…”

“I don’t care what Missy says,” I snapped sleepily. “Go back to bed.”

Tilda started to cry. “I can’t, Mommy. Missy says Belle is hurt and you have to go take care of her.”

Sighing mightily, Jim and I both got up. We put on our bathrobes and our slippers.

“If we go show you Belle is all right, will you go back to bed?” I asked.

“Hurry, Mommy!” she said, grasping my hand and pulling me toward the stairs. “Hurry!”

It was freezing cold outside, so Jim grabbed our coats and scarves from the peg by the back door. Our little threesome made our way to the barn. Everything seemed quiet enough, until we got to the far end where Belle’s stall was.

Belle lay in the straw, tangled up in wire that had cut her leg badly. She was bleeding profusely, and Jim immediately grabbed the scarf from around his neck to bind the wound.

“Quick,” he said. “Go call the vet. This isn’t something I can take care of by myself.”

It took a while for the vet to arrive, but Jim comforted Belle as I comforted Tilda.

“It’s a good thing you found her when you did,” the vet said. “She’d have bled to death by morning.”

Jim and I looked at each other with disbelief.

“Honey,” Jim asked Tilda, “how did you know Belle was hurt?”

“I told you!” she said angrily as she stamped her foot. “Missy told me!”

Jim just shook his head. “Well, it’s late, and we need to try and get a little more sleep. We’ll talk in the morning, okay?”

The next morning, the only answer we could get out of Tilda was that Missy had told her that Belle was hurt. It was odd, but eventually we just stopped asking, since Tilda was convinced that her imaginary friend had saved Belle’s life.

I watched Tilda all that day as she played with her imaginary friend. Later in the afternoon, my daughter came to me once more and asked, “Mommy can Missy stay here again? She likes it here.”

I could feel my brow furrow. “Sure, but honey, what did you mean by Missy doesn’t like it at her house?”

“Missy says it’s too dark there.”

“Do you know where her house is?”

“Uh-huh,” she answered. She pointed towards the woods. “It’s over there.”

To this day I couldn’t tell you what made me say, “Show me.”

She took me down an overgrown path that led into the adjoining forest. We stopped under a huge tree. “Here,” she said.”

I looked around. “Where?” I felt extremely foolish. “There aren’t any houses here.”

“Not in a house, Mommy,” Tilda said. “Here!” And she pointed to the ground where a very small mound was just visible under the tree.

I blinked as I surveyed the area. Dear God, surely not, I thought.

I went back to the house and got Jim. He brought a shovel.

It was all over the news that night. The body of little Melissa Grant, who had been missing for three months, had been found.

It was later that evening, as I was fixing dinner, that I overheard Tilda’s side of a conversation.

“Do you have to? Okay, I’ll miss you, though. Bye.”

“Honey, who were you talking to?” I asked.

“Missy,” she answered sadly. “She had to go.”

“Where did she go?”

“She said she’s going to go live with her grandma.”

I felt a surge of relief, but hid it as I answered, “Oh, gee, honey, that’s too bad. But school will be starting soon, and you’ll have lots of other friends to play with.”

“Oh, it’s okay, Mommy,” Tilda answered. “Missy says there are lots of other kids here. Can Darlene spend the night?”

And she walked off down the hall, chatting happily with someone I couldn’t see.

Comings and Goings

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Comings and Goings

by

Phoenix Hocking

Glory Miller sat on her bed, lovingly caressing the broach she held in her hand. It had little value, beyond the sentimental, but she held it as if it were worth millions of dollars. She jumped when her sister, Faith, entered the room, creating a whirlwind of dust that followed her like a miniature tornado.

“Aren’t you ready yet?” Faith snapped. “I swear, Glory, you’ll be late for your own funeral. Get a move on!”

Glory gently placed the broach on top of the clothes in the suitcase beside her and closed the lid. “I’m coming,” she said softly. “I’m coming.”

“Well, hurry up. The kids haven’t got all day, you know.”

A tall, strapping young lad appeared in the doorway. “I can carry your suitcase for you, Meemaw,” he said.

She stood up, grunting a little as she did so, and grasped the bedpost for support. “That would be nice,” she said. “Thank you …” and she paused.

“Brian, Meemaw,” the young man said. “My name is Brian.”

“Of course. Thank you Brian.”

She grasped the railing tightly as they made their way downstairs. Brian bounded down ahead of her, and Faith held on to her elbow. At the foot of the stairs, Glory balked.

“Where am I going?” she asked. “Where am I going? I was born in this house. I don’t want to leave.”

Faith gave a huge, exasperated sigh. “Well, you can’t hardly stay here, now can you? Not after you about burned the whole house down.”

Glory looked perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“Left the kettle on, didn’t you?” Faith snapped. “About burned the whole place down. If Roger hadn’t come when he did…”

“Oh, of course,” Glory said, remembering. “That.”

“Yes, that,” Faith answered. “Now, get a move on. The kids have got other things to do.”

She paused at the front door and looked back into the living room, at once so familiar and yet so strange. Half-packed boxes were everywhere, and a number of people Glory thought she was supposed to know seemed very busy packing and moving furniture.

“I was born in this house,” she said.

“Yes, Meemaw, I know,” said the young man, whose name she had already forgotten.

She was the baby of the family. Before her were David and Johnathan, Jedidiah, Ruth and Naomi, and of course, Faith, who was Glory’s elder sister by exactly seven minutes. All were gone now, except Glory and Faith. Twins, though dissimilar as oil and water.

Faith kept up a running conversation with … Brian, was it? Yes, Brian, in the front seat. Glory rode in the back, watching the road through the side windows. It had come to this, then. Somehow, she had known it would. From the first time she called her daughter Julie by her grandmother’s name, she knew she was destined to be put away. Out of sight, out of mind. She’d probably never see any of them again. They’d stick her in this place and forget about her.

Well, maybe she’d forget about them too, and it wouldn’t be so bad.

Glory was unaware she was crying until Faith turned around and said, “Oh good grief, Glory. What’s wrong with you? You’re going to a perfectly nice place. One where you won’t try and burn the house down. Jesus, get over yourself, would you?”

The words came out before Glory thought about them. “You’ve always hated me, haven’t you?”

Faith looked as though she’d been slapped. “Hated you? I never!” And she flounced around in her seat and faced forward, quiet for once.

There had always been animosity between them, even when they were children. Twins were supposed to be so close, but not Glory and Faith. If they’d been boys, Mother might have named them Esau and Jacob, because they fought in the womb like those Biblical characters.

Where Glory was quiet and shy, Faith was loud and obnoxious. Where Glory was the peacemaker, Faith was the troublemaker. They were two peas all right, but from entirely different pods.

Brian pulled up to a gate in front of a large building that looked like a small hospital. The property was fenced, and he pushed a button that allowed him entrance.

“Is this a prison?” Glory asked.

“No, Meemaw,” he said gently. “This is where you’ll be living. They just don’t want people wandering off.”

“Oh.” Her voice was small, and she felt a panic rising in her chest. “No!” she cried. “I don’t want to stay here. Please, I’ll be good. Take me home,” she wailed. “Take me home!”

“You can’t stay home!” Faith snapped. “You’ve gone all loopy and we can’t trust you. That’s just all there is to it. You’re going to live here, so you might as well get used to it.”

“No! No!”

Brian parked the car and two white-coated attendants came to open the back door. She pressed herself tightly against the back seat. “No!” she screamed. “I won’t go!”

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Glory, stop making a scene and get out of the car.” Faith reached in and grabbed her by the wrist.

“Stop it.” Brian’s quiet voice broke through the chaos. He squatted down in front of Glory so that he was eye-level with her. She looked like a rabbit caught in a trap, and his heart broke for her. “Meemaw,” he said quietly, “would it help if I told you I would come visit you every week?”

“No, you won’t,” Glory cried, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You’ll forget me. You’ll all forget me!”

“No, I won’t forget you. You might forget me, but I won’t forget you. I promise.”

She hiccupped as her tears subsided. “You promise?”

“I promise.”

He held out a hand, and after a moments hesitation, she grasped it. He helped Glory to her feet, and guided her to the front door.

The room to which Glory had been assigned was about the same size as her bedroom at home. It was bright and cheerful, with a window that caught the morning sun, and framed a park-like yard where the residents could gather when the weather was agreeable.

A pleasant young woman helped her get settled in, then stepped out to speak with Faith and Brian. Glory couldn’t hear what they were saying, but by the look on their faces, it was grim. They seemed to be arguing, but for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why.

“But why?” Brian said loudly. “Why?”

“Because you have your own life to live, and you don’t need to be taking care of an old woman who won’t remember who you are in six months, that’s why!”

Their voices lowered again, and the argument continued, though they moved away from the door.

In a moment of lucidity, Glory realized what Faith and Brian were fighting about. Brian wanted her to come and live with him, and Faith was fighting him tooth and nail. That wouldn’t be fair, Glory thought. For once, Faith was right.

He was a nice boy, Brian was. She remembered now. He was her daughter’s son, her own grandson. Did she want to live with Brian and his family? Glory pondered the question. Did she? No, that’s wouldn’t be fair. He had his own life to live. He didn’t need to be burdened with her.

I guess I’ll just have to stay, she thought, and make the best of it.

Glory’s suitcase had been placed on the bed. She opened it and retrieved the broach.

Her husband had given it to her on their wedding day. It was a small cameo, and the face had been worn almost smooth over the years. Glory lovingly ran her fingers over it, and prayed, “Please, Lord, don’t let me forget this. Don’t let me forget him.”

She looked out the window to the grassy area where three women seemed to be in conversation with each other, laughing. No, wait. They were playing a game of some sort. What were they playing? She looked more closely, but couldn’t tell.

“Hey.” A man’s voice broke her concentration. She looked around to find a nice-looking older gentleman standing in the doorway.

“Hello,” she said.

“Who are you?” he asked. He really was quite handsome, with silver hair and twinkling eyes. He hunched over a little and his right hand shook slightly.

“I’m Glory,” she answered, and her heart skipped a little beat.

“I’m Jeff.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“So, would you like to go get a cup of coffee? It’s really pretty good here. I can show you where the cafeteria is.”

Glory’s fingers tightened around the cameo for a moment, then let the broach drop into her pocket. “Thanks,” she said. “I think I’d like that.”

Glory and Jeff passed by Brian and Faith, who were still arguing. They looked up in surprise.

“I’m going to go get a cup of coffee,” Glory said brightly. “I’ll see you later.”

And with that, she walked down the hall with a new friend, into a new life.