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.

Three Words

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Three Words

by

Phoenix Hocking

The priest stood before the mound of dirt that covered my girlfriend’s body. “May God grant you rest,” he intoned as he made the sign of the cross in the air, “and may you find contentment in Heaven, as you never did on earth.”

He looked straight at me then, and I shivered.

I hadn’t meant to kill her. Truly. I only meant… I only… Oh hell, I don’t know what I meant. It doesn’t matter now anyway.

Oh, I didn’t actually kill her kill her, if you get my drift. I mean, I never held a gun to her head or a knife to her throat, but still, I feel as responsible as if I had. If only I hadn’t encouraged her in her madness, in her obsession, maybe she’d still be alive today. Maybe… well, maybe a lot of things might have turned out differently.

After the service I sat on a nearby bench, brooding. It was a beautiful day, the kind Madelyn loved. The sky held just enough wispy clouds to block the worst of the sun, and birds twittered in the trees next to her grave. Butterflies danced among the gravestones, filling the cemetery with flying bits of color.

I fell in love with Madelyn the first time I saw her. I was seven, she was six, and her family had moved next door to mine. She was thin, even then, with long, red, curly hair that cascaded down her back like a waterfall. She wore a green dress and black Mary Janes, that first day.

She’d stood in front of her mother, and Madelyn had one hand out and the other hand on her hip, saying, “I want more!” Her mother gave her another sweet, told her to go find someone to play with, then continued moving things into the house.

Who she found to play with was me. And I was soon to learn that those three words, “I want more!” would come to rule her life.

In all the years I knew her, Madelyn was never content with what she had. She always wanted more. She got A’s in school. I never once knew her get a ninety-nine percent on a test. She only got perfect scores. It was not enough that she was the best speller in class, in school; she had to go on to regional, state, and national championships, and win them all. She was brilliant, and she knew it.

In high school she was class president four years running, valedictorian at commencement, Prom Queen. In college, she was president of her sorority, and graduated in three years instead of four.

She never wanted to marry, or have children. I asked her to marry me once, and she just laughed. “Oh, Steve,” she said, “that would ruin everything!”

“What do you mean ruin everything?” I asked, crushed at her refusal.

“Marriage and children are just roadblocks when you’re on the fast track,” she replied.

And on the fast track she was. Straight out of college she took a position at a well-known company as a sales associate. By the end of the first year, she was top salesperson. At the end of three years, she was managing the branch. At five years she was president of the company. At seven, she was the owner.

She started out with a used Toyota, which soon became a three-hundred thousand dollar Ferrari. She started with a one-bedroom condo in a middle-class neighborhood, which became a multi-million dollar home on twelve acres.

And still, she was not content. She wanted more. She could not have just one dog from the pound. No, she had to have a thousand-dollar pure-bred, which eventually became a kennel full of pure-bred dogs. Her single horse became a stable of thoroughbreds. Her garage became home to six expensive vehicles, each larger than the last, or at least more costly.

And all this time, there I was, cheering her on, encouraging her to go farther, reach higher, do better than everyone else. I thought she was the most ambitious person I’d ever met. But under that ambition was madness, pure and simple. Utter and complete insanity.

But, in my own defense, isn’t that what we’re taught? That more is better? That a Cadillac is better than a Vespa, or a vacation to Europe beats a trip to Disneyland? That steak is better than hotdogs, and a bottle of Dom Perignon is better than Coors? No, we must have more. More money, more prestige, more power, more everything. More, always more.

In retrospect, I suppose it is strange that I still considered her my “girlfriend,” since we hadn’t really been an item for many years. Just as one of anything wasn’t enough for her, one boyfriend wasn’t either. We remained friends throughout the years, though, and I liked to think that I was the one person she could count on, could trust, could share her dreams with.

What a fool I was! I saw the person she wanted me to see – the same ambitious, successful, powerful, rich woman the rest of the world saw. I never saw the madness hidden beneath the facade. I don’t think any of us did.

One day, she and I were sitting on her veranda, looking out over her acreage, drinking a very fine port. The sun was just beginning to set behind the distant hills, and her land was bathed in golden light. She was unusually quiet, and I asked her, “Madelyn, are you all right?”

She looked out over the property she had bought, taking in the horses in the field, and the dogs romping nearby. “No,” she replied. “I want more.”

“More? Good Lord, Madelyn, what more is there?”

She waved a hand. “See this? It’s all stuff. I don’t want more stuff.”

“Then what do you want?” I asked.

She set her glass of very expensive port on the very expensive side table next to her and leaned forward, eyes focused on something only she could see. “I want God,” she said.

“God?!” I almost dropped my drink. “What do you mean? You’ve never been a religious person.”

“I know,” she answered. “But maybe that’s what’s missing in my life.”

“What are you talking about?” I snapped. “You have everything anybody could want. Why isn’t anything enough for you?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I wish I did. But all of this…” and she waved a hand over the scenery. “All of this is going to go. I’m going to join a convent.”

And then, I really did drop my drink.

For once, I tried to talk her out of something. Not that I tried to talk her out of God, no, not that. Of course not that. But out of her next move, her next crazy, foolhardy, insane move, that I tried to persuade her against.

She didn’t listen to me.

She joined the convent anyway. She sold everything she owned and gave the proceeds to the church, free and clear. Gone were the fancy cars, the stable full of thoroughbreds, the kennel full of pure-bred dogs. Gone were the beautiful dresses, the expensive jewelry, the company she owned.

I kept in touch after she joined the convent. We corresponded all throughout her years as a postulant, her years as a novice.

For once, though, she could not move forward any faster than anyone else, and I know it chafed at her. But once she made her final vows, she rose in the ranks, just as I knew she would. She became the youngest Mother Superior her Order had ever had.

And there she stopped, as there was nowhere else for her to go.

The tone of her letters during this time changed. She began to ramble on about the state of the world, expressing disappointment with God for allowing evil to continue. Abruptly, the letters changed again to hopeful optimism, and I hoped perhaps she had finally found her happiness, her contentment, her joy. But I was wrong.

She wanted more.

I felt someone sit on the bench next to me, and glanced over to find Father Richard at my side. He looked at the mound that covered the woman we both loved, though in different ways, and sighed.

“Do you think she’s happy now?” I asked, the words sticking in my throat.

“I think she’s in for a big surprise,” he answered sadly.

You see, he and I had received copies of her suicide note. “It’s not enough,” she had written. “All my life, I have wanted more, and I find myself thinking Is this all there is? I still want more, but I realize that I’m never going to find the More that I want in this life. I want God, but in order to find God, I have to go where He is, and once I get there, I’m going to take His job.”

There was more to the note, faint ramblings of a disturbed mind, disjointed accounts of how she would change the world to suit her. It was sad, and disturbing, and somehow her letter made me angry. Angry that I had never seen the pain beneath her striving, never seen the madness behind her obsession with more.

I smiled as a butterfly came and hovered briefly over Madelyn’s grave. “You may be right,” I said to the priest. “But I don’t envy God keeping Madelyn in check, even in Heaven.”

Father Richard chuckled and shook his head. Then he rose and held out a hand. “Come on,” he said, “let’s go have a glass of port in memory of an extraordinary woman, shall we?”

As we left the cemetery, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shaft of light filter out of the clouds and illuminate Madelyn’s grave, where a hundred butterflies were now flying in circles.

The Statement

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The Statement

by

Phoenix Hocking

No, Your Honor, I do not regret what I have done. I suppose I should, since ordinarily I eschew violence in every form. I renounced that sort of behavior when I became a Quaker. But some things, some activities, some crimes, cannot be allowed to continue, even if it means the death of a human being, if one can call the devil that.

Pray, allow me to explain myself.

As I have said, I am a Quaker, and as a member of the Society of Friends, I am a pacifist. I believe in the principals of non-violence. I believe in turning the other cheek. I would never, under ordinary circumstances, raise my hand to another child of God in violence. Why, Your Honor, if you can believe it, I will not even kill a mouse who enters my home! Instead, I will capture it, unharmed, and take it a few miles away and let it go, complete with a tin can for shelter, nesting material, and even some kibble from the cat’s bowl so it will not go hungry.

I am not a monster, bent on the destruction of others. No, I am not a monster. But do I believe monsters should not live? God forgive me, but yes. I do believe that. And, in my eyes, and perhaps even in the eyes of God, I did not kill a human being.

I killed a monster. I killed the devil.

When my husband died, I was left with three small children to raise alone. It was not easy. I worked three jobs, Your Honor. Three! I cleaned houses, I waited tables, I cared for other people’s children. But I had three hungry mouths to feed, and I did not mind the work. It was enough that my babies had a roof over their heads, and food in their bellies, and shoes on their feet. I did not get to see them much, but it was worth it.

Still, I fell farther and farther behind on my bills. I was at risk of losing my home, and I despaired of what I could possibly do to keep my children safe and in the home and schools they loved.

It was then that the devil entered my house, and I did not recognize him.

The woman who watched my children while I was at work fell ill and could no longer care for them. I was at my wit’s end, Your Honor. I did not know what to do. I could not afford the exorbitant cost of day care for the little one, even though my older girls were old enough to care for themselves after school. So, at Meeting for Worship one Sunday, I shared my concern.

And my concern was answered when a Friend, who was currently without a place to live, said she would come and care for my children at no cost if only she could come and live with me. It seemed like an answer directly from God Himself. Of course, I said yes.

In the beginning, all was well. The children liked her, or seemed to, in the beginning. The house was always clean, the meals on the table at appropriate times, the beds made and homework done. All went along smoothly for quite some time.

And then I noticed a change in my children. A subtle change, but a change all the same. They began to be more quiet, more reserved, more distant. When I came home, instead of coming to greet me in the usual manner, they held back and looked at me with distrust, and dare I say it? Perhaps even loathing. I did not understand, but put it down to my imagination and my exhaustion. They seemed well cared for, though, and that was all I cared about.

She could have no children of her own, this woman who came into my home under false pretenses. She could have none of her own, so she wanted mine. I often saw her with the little one on her lap, reading her a bedtime story, brushing her hair, singing her little songs. It took a little longer with the older girls, but soon enough they came around, and before long, they were coming to her with their little problems, and with their little joys. They no longer came to me, and wanted only that she tuck them in at night, and say their prayers with them, and gave her the kisses that rightly belonged to me.

I was jealous. There. I’ve said it, and may God forgive me for it, but that is the truth. I was jealous, and I was angry. I looked for a way to rid my household of this usurper, but could think of none. I was still deeply in debt due to my husband’s long struggle with cancer. I was still working three jobs, and still could not afford child care. I was exhausted with the constant working, and tortured in my soul as I saw my children slipping farther and farther away from me. I was caught, as they say, between a rock and a hard place.

My jealousy turned to hatred. It is not in my nature to hate. It truly is not, Your Honor. I am a loving, kind, gentle soul. You can ask anyone. I do not raise my voice when I am confronted, nor do I lash out with violence at any time, for any reason. But, and I am sorry so to say, but every day I felt a hate burning in my heart that I could not deny. I prayed and I prayed to be relieved of this burden, but could find no relief. Why had God abandoned me? Why?

I spent the hours I was not working on my knees, in prayer. I did not sleep. I did not eat. I did not bathe. I only asked, “Why?” And eventually, the truth came to me.

This was no Friend, sent by God to help me. This woman was the devil himself, come to steal my children away and make them slaves to his own dark will. And I could not let that happen.

She had to go. She had to leave my house. But how? In the beginning, I truly only wanted her gone. I did not plan to kill her. But then I thought, “why not? Why should the devil remain alive to steal someone else’s children?” So, I decided to kill her.

I planned it well, Your Honor. I did not want to give my plot away, lest she take my children and run away with them. I continued to go to work, I continued to pray, I continued to try to make my children love me again. But every day, they grew farther and farther away from me, and closer and closer to her.

I could no longer wait.

I went to the library and researched ways to kill her. I wanted her to suffer, for should the devil not suffer?

Luckily for me, she became quite ill with a cold. She had a fever and congestion. She couldn’t taste anything. She was still thirsty and hungry, though, and that worked well for me. I had seen a few Deadly Nightshade plants in the field behind my house. Have you ever seen it? It’s not a bad looking plant, green leaves with dark purple berries. I went to the field and collected a number of berries, and some of the leaves as well.

I came home and made a pie with the berries, and infused the leaves into a large pot of tea. She was so grateful that I was taking care of her. I treated her gently, and insisted she drink all of the tea, and even made more. I made her eat three pieces of the pie, saying that she would feel better if she only had some food in her stomach. Trusting me, she did as I asked.

She grew sicker as the day wore on. She began to have chills, and grew nauseous and dizzy. Eventually, she began to have hallucinations. She saw vermin crawling on the walls, and claimed the devil was after her. I believe the devil had come to claim his own!

It took some hours, but I was glad when she finally died. I stayed with her and watched her torment, and was glad. I was glad I could make the devil suffer. Yes, I’ll say it! I was glad! My children, I thought, would finally be safe from her, and would love me again.

It was when I returned to the kitchen that I discovered that all three of my children had eaten the remainder of the pie.

So, you ask me if I regret what I have done. Do I regret that I killed the devil? That I killed this monster? No, I do not. But my children…yes, that I regret. Though, perhaps I should not be, for now they will not have to see their mother on the gallows, and carry that image to their graves.

The Homeless Guy

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The Homeless Guy

by

Phoenix Hocking

The homeless guy walked with his eyes cast toward the sidewalk, enjoying the margaritaceous sheen on the gutter water, created by oil flung by passing cars. The pearly shimmer rode the surface of the water, spilling rainbow lights down into the storm drains.

It was that in-between time of day, not full light, nor yet sunset, but dusk, a time his mother had always said was the most dangerous. At dusk, shadows bumped into each other, swirled around, and created objects that weren’t there, or obscured those that were.

He was old. There was no other word for it, no fancy getting on in years, or spry for his age, or even elderly. Not even senior citizen fit any more. No, he was just plain old. He had come to terms with that fact some years ago, and he wore his age like a comfortable suit, one that no longer pinched at the shoulder, nor clung too tightly.

On his back he carried most of his worldly possessions. There wasn’t much, but then, he didn’t need much. An extra pair of socks, an extra pair of underwear, a towel, a tiny bar of soap given out at the rescue mission, a comb, needle and thread, a can opener, scissors, a lighter, a few plastic lawn-and-leaf bags, his Bible, a faded photograph of his late wife, and a book he borrowed from the local library. He wore all his clothing, layered, and his knit cap covered his thinning hair. He hadn’t trimmed his beard in a few years, and it had grayed as much as the rest of him. He had stashed his sleeping bag in some rocks underneath the bridge where he made his home.

No one spoke to him as he made his way toward the bridge, but he was used to that. He didn’t look at anyone, and the people he saw out of the corner of his eye moved away from him as they passed, as if he were diseased. That was all right with him. It had taken him a little longer to give up on the world than it had for the world to give up on him, but the transition had been complete for some years now.

He had been someone, once. He’d worn a suit and tie, made decisions involving the lives of other people, had a nice house and a fancy car. But, no more. No more. After his company forced retirement on him he’d struggled to live on Social Security. The fancy car turned into riding the bus. After he could no longer afford the house he found himself where he never imagined he would end up, on the streets. So much for the “golden years.”

The sun crept slowly toward the horizon as the homeless guy made his way to the place under the bridge he called home. It would be cold tonight, and he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his capped head. Drizzle pocked the sidewalk, leaving intermittent splashes that promised more to come.

In his hands he carried a take-out box given to him by a man who had gifted him with leftovers from a restaurant meal. He was grateful for the kindness, even though the man handed him the box and quickly left without pausing to speak. It seemed not many people spoke to him these days, and those that did either cursed at him, or told him to move along. He couldn’t remember the last time someone called him by name. Sometimes, he had trouble remembering it himself.

It was peaceful under the bridge. The other homeless people knew this was his place, and respected his choice. He had made a comfortable spot among the rocks, sheltered from the wind. There he stored his sleeping bag and his camping stove, well hidden from the police who came by every so often to “clear out the riffraff.”

He dug into his backpack, retrieved his one good fork, opened the box, and began to eat. The small slice of meatloaf and dollop of mashed potatoes and gravy was especially welcome on such a cold night.

Overhead the traffic went whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, like a mother soothing a child to sleep. The rain began to fall in earnest now, and the traffic slowed a little. It was a pleasant sound, and one the homeless guy had grown to love.

He finished his meal and put the styrofoam box inside a plastic bag to keep it from the ants. He’d throw it away later.

He arranged his sleeping bag to suit him, and fell to musing about life. He often did this, asking questions of himself that seemed to have no answer. He loved words, especially words with “Rs” in them. He liked the feel of words in his mouth, how they twisted his tongue, and how the words themselves changed meaning depending on how it was being used.

But mostly, he liked to ask questions. What was the purpose of underarm hair, for example. And why did women shave it and men didn’t? How many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and why on earth would they want to? Would man ever be able to colonize Mars?

Absentmindedly, he stretched out a hand to stroke the dog that was no longer there. He winced. Sparky had been his companion on the road for years, but when the dog got sick, the homeless guy couldn’t afford the massive vet bills, and he could not stand to see his friend suffer. The local veterinarian, a kind and gentle man, put the old dog down for no charge, and the homeless guy was grateful for that.

Where did dogs go when they died, he mused. Did they get angel wings? Was there really a Rainbow Bridge?

He had almost mused himself to sleep, listening to the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh on the road above him, when suddenly there was a screeching of brakes, an awful soul-jarring crash, and the horrible rending sound of metal-on-metal.

He bolted upright and dashed out from under the bridge. He climbed the hill that led to the highway and was confronted with twisted metal, a smoking engine, and screams from inside the car.

Without thinking he ran for the vehicle, which was resting upside down close to an embankment and appeared ready to fall off the edge. He wrenched the door open, grabbed the driver, and pulled her to safety. Her head was bleeding and she was wailing. She reeked of alcohol and the homeless guy twitched his nose in disgust. Then, the woman fell silent.

Until the end of his days, he could never quite remember what happened next. He knew she needed help, and all he could think of to do was pray.

“Oh God!” he stammered, “Help me help this woman!”

A strange and sudden calm entered him, and as if from a distance, he watched his hands as they staunched the bleeding from the woman’s head, held her neck steady, and spoke to her in soothing tones.

The ambulance came and the paramedics took over.

The medic looked the homeless guy over and asked in disbelief, “Are you a doctor?”

“No, sir,” he answered. “I used to be an accountant.”

“Well, whoever you are, you just saved this woman’s life tonight.”

The homeless guy watched as the ambulance drove away with the woman. He stayed to watch the tow truck take the totaled vehicle away, and then the highway was back to normal.

He climbed back down to his place under the bridge. He was shaking and wished mightily for a cup of coffee, but such a luxury was not to be his tonight. He went to his sleeping bag, lay back and tried to sleep. He was shivering, partly with the cold and partly from the excitement. He wished there was someone to talk to.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

The highway began to lull him to sleep again, when he heard another noise. It sounded very much like a cry of some kind. A whimper. He sat up and looked around, searching for the origin of the noise.

There! Over by the rocks on the other side of the bridge. What was that?

He got up to investigate. Huddled between two boulders was a small dog, shivering in the cold. It had no collar and was very skinny.

“Hey, buddy,” the homeless guy crooned. “Where did you come from?”

The little dog appeared to be a mix of some kind, perhaps Beagle and terrier, maybe six or eight months old. Curiosity overcame the dog’s fear and he wagged his tail.

“Are you hungry?”

The dog’s tail wagged even faster.

“Come on then.”

The homeless guy walked back to his sleeping bag, encouraging the dog to follow. First he fetched the leftover box from the plastic bag, then scrounged around in his backpack until he came up with a bag of dry food left over from Sparky’s last days. He poured some in his hand and held it out.

“Here you go.”

The dog ate quickly and looked for more. He poured a little more into the box and stirred the dog food around in the gravy. The dog ate it all, licked the box clean, and looked expectant.

“Not too much all at once, now,” he said as he put the remainder of the dry food into his backpack. “I don’t need you getting sick.”

He crawled into his sleeping bag, flipped open the top and beckoned. The dog immediately curled up next to him and closed his eyes.

“Well, Buddy,” the homeless guy said, “I guess you’ve got a home now.”

And with the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of tires singing a lullabye overhead, the homeless guy and his new friend drifted off to sleep.

What I’ve been doing lately

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Gosh, where HAVE I been?

Well, I HAVE been writing.  I’ve published a couple of books: “More Like a River,” which is a book of short stories, and made one of the stories in the book into its own book, “The Luckiest Woman.”

I’ve been working on “Flowers From the Flames,” but the characters simply stopped talking to me, so I’ve decided to work on an autobiography.

I’ve had a pretty interesting life, though not all of it was peaches and cream.  It should make a good read.  I may have to change some names to protect the innocent, and the guilty!

Trudging back on memory lane has been quite an experience.  In retrospect, I see things in my past that affect me today, though I never realized it.

A writer’s life is rarely dull because we can rub two words together and made a story of just about anything.  I could see two men having a conversation in a restaurant, and before you know it, I’ll have created an international spy ring, or a murder plot, or two aliens comparing notes on us crazy Earthlings.

Well, I just wanted to check in and let y’all know that I haven’t forgotten about you.  I’m still writing!  If you haven’t bought any of my books, well, go do it!  I don’t want to starve to death!