A Collection of Flash Fiction
by Baron Frosti
This collection of flash fiction is composed of selected, unrelated works created at writing workshops. Topics range from nudist neighbors to vampire encounters on the London subway. There’s even a dash of scifi! I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did writing them.
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© Baron Frosti
Penelope Pippen was a puny little girl. Her hair was a putrid dishwater shade. She lived on a peninsula in Panama where poverty was the number one profession. One President’s Day, she was riding her pony when she perceived that a person was pondering her with their eyes.
“Perchance, tell me why you ponder me?” Penelope said.
A dark and dreary man stood protected and placed behind a petunia bush. “Oh Miss, I only prefer to please you. I wish to ask a ponderous question.”
Penelope pulled on the pony’s reins to stop his trot. “Yes, you can ask a question. Please push ahead. I’m a bit rushed and on my way to purchase pears.”
The dark man smiled. “Miss, tell me please, what is your name?”
“I’m Penelope Pippin from the Panamanian poverty stricken peninsula.”
You came into this world too soon, premature, your life hanging by a thread. There was a big brood, seven total. That makes you one of nine in a two bedroom trailer with one small bathroom. It was hard. And often cold. But you had love, honor, and a solid strong family. The group raised you. Your best friends were your siblings. You all had to stick up for one another in a rough neighborhood. If someone picked on you, pushed you around, all you had to do was point and say, “Him. He’s the one,” and one of your older, tougher brothers would make sure it didn’t happen again. That was how we took care of things back then. There were no parent teacher conferences, guidance counselors, or anti bullying campaigns. Your skin got thick fast.
The lonely prince was searching through the kingdom with the lone glass slipper. He fell from his horse and struck his head. After two weeks in his sick bed, he passed in his sleep. His father, the King was bereft. He decided to change the male primogeniture inheritance laws. He gave the throne to his daughter Princess Margo. Margo was a feisty, unconventional girl. She took her new position as license to loosen her corset. She ditched the popular glass slippers for more comfortable walking shoes. When her father nagged her to consider a husband, she quipped, “Me? I’ll be more of an Elizabethan Queen. I don’t intend to let a man boss me around.” Her family paraded every prince in the land before her. She ignored them. She continued to play with her pet birds and focus on her horse back riding. In her twenty seventh year, her father the King died after a short illness. Queen Margo was crowned and ruled the land with kindness. She never married, but left a long legacy of prosperity, learning, and public works. She continued her father’s tradition and left the throne to her niece Princess Natashia.
Tara jumped as she heard a door slam upstairs. Sento would be angry. He was always angry. That was a given. She continued to organize the shelved items. Sento’s movements above caused the upper floors to squeak and pop. A man entered the shop interrupting her work. She recognized him from the market. He owned the stall where she purchased their fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Hello there kind Sir. Welcome to Sento’s Shop. Can I help you find something?” Tara straightened her clothing and smoothed down her wild hair. She tried to remain calm and aloof guessing why the man had come.
The man cleared his throat, “You must be Tara, Sento’s girl. I remember you from when you were a wee child. You’ve been in Soh for many years. I went with Sento to buy you in the slave markets of High Mish.”
“Yes, Sento brought me here from High Mish as an infant. I can’t remember anything before Soh,” Tara said.
“Yes it was a long time ago,” the man said. “I’m wondering if Sento is available. I haven’t seen him around. I need to speak with him about a business matter.”
Tara stole a glance at the stairwell. “He doesn’t get out much now. Can I help you with something related to the shop? I run the junk shop for him. I maintain all the inventory and can help you find whatever you might be looking for.”
“My name’s Jato,” the man said. “I have a vegetable shop in the market.”
“Yes, I recognize you. Thank you for your wonderful produce. We appreciate your attention to freshness and how you treat us so fairly,” Tara said.
Jato sighed, “I’m here to see Sento about his accounts. They have fallen behind. I’m going to have to cut your house off from shopping on credit. Silver or trade only. I’m not running a charity here.” Jato puffed out his chest.
Tara knew that Sento was having some trouble with keeping his accounts settled. The bad harvest last year had been followed by talk of famine and conflicts in the north. They had been unable to buy any luxuries – no books, no games, no food spices or quality wines. “Please Sir. Let me help you find something in the shop which might bring our accounts into better standing. We are honest and long time customers.”
Jato moved close and leaned over the counter. Tara could smell his fetid breath. “There is one thing in this shop which might help settle Sento’s debts.” He reached and placed his hand over Tara’s. “Sento and I had talked about your helping me as a household slave. On assignment as it were. How do you feel about that?” Jato rubbed his thumb along Tara’s hand.
Tara pulled away and stepped back. Though she was only sixteen, she was well aware of men like Jato who abused slaves like toys. “Sento has me so busy here at the shop and running our household, I don’t have any extra time.”
Jato looked at his hand like he had been stung. “You’re an insolent girl. A girl in your position would be wise to have a friend like me.”
The door in the back crashed open and Sento lumbered into the shop. He was a large, rotund man. “Ah, Jato!” Sento said. “What a pleasant surprise. Has my girl offered you anything to eat or drink? Come now, Tara, bring us some cool water.”
“I cannot stay,” Jato said. “I am here to inquire about your accounts at the market. And I’m sure I won’t be the last.”
Sento was a jovial man. He continued to Jato and gave him the customary embrace and honorary bow. “Come now, Jato. It’s too beautiful a day to be sour. Let’s go for a stroll and discuss this on the common. There’s no need to concern my girl with such matters.”
Jato liked people to fawn upon him. He warmed to Sento’s attention and smiled. He and Sento continued to make small talk as they moved toward the door.
The clot of traffic when I got off the highway was annoying. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Marty stirred in her seat and said, “It’s amazing here how people drive slower in rain than they do in snow.” I laughed. The car in front of us came to a stop.
As we rounded the corner of Sully Street, I saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. “I wonder what is going on up ahead,” I said.
Marty looked up from her phone. “That looks very close to our house.”
As we inched closer, we could see that the emergency vehicles were at our neighbor’s. Crime tape surrounded old Mrs. Wilcox’s place. Her run-down 1890 house looked even more garish and sad in the red flashing lights. A police officer stopped us with a raised hand. “You can’t drive through here. You need to take a left onto Verdant Avenue,” he said.
“I live right here, next door. In the blue house, officer.” I said. “Is everything ok?”
“Police business,” he said. “I’ll let you pass through, but please proceed directly to your driveway.”
“Thank you officer. Will do.” I crept around the police cruiser and pulled into our driveway.
Marty and I rushed into the house. We went into our front parlor to try to get a better look through our west facing windows. No luck. The house was dark. There was no light except for the flashing red, blue, and white lights.
“I hope Mrs. Wilcox is ok,” Marty said. “I haven’t see her in days. But the last time I spoke to her, she seemed fine. Just her usual complaints about the dog, the neighborhood kids, the cold winter.”
I pulled the shade. “We should make dinner. There’s nothing we can do.”
As we began to pull things out of the fridge, someone began to pound on the front door . Marty jumped – dropping a bowl on the kitchen floor.
The road was cold tonight. I was moving west. Keep on moving. Do not stop. I had to continue my journey.
A van flew past. I put up my thumb desperate for a lift. No luck. No stop. Not even a tap of the brakes. I was invisible. A parade of cars passed me by while I kept on walking. Slowly. Moving west.
I continued along Route 84 through New Mexico. It was dry. The sky was a magnificent glittering blanket above me.
I heard a car coming along and put out my thumb. Success. Brake lights flashed. The small white car pulled over. It was an old Ford Taurus but in pretty good shape.
There was an small old Hispanic woman inside. I said, “Hola!” I can’t speak a lick of Spanish but thought I’d be polite.
She said, “Hey? Where you headed? I could use a little company tonight.”
“I’m on my way to Reno.” I explained.
She said, “Great! I am too. You can keep me awake as we wander these old dusty roads.”
Her name was Nina. She was 74 and was travelling to Nevada to visit her sister. I told her about Stephanie. The girl I was going to see. The one that got away.
Stephanie and I had met in college. We had stayed in touch, even kept a relationship of sorts. We were both too broke to visit one another but had kept our love alive through letters and long phone calls. Nina had a lot of advice on love lost and life’s adventures.
Pulling into Reno the following afternoon, Nina asked, “Do you have anywhere to stay? Do you know where this girl lives?”
I said, “Yes, I know where she lives. We haven’t talked in about six months. But I know where she lives.”
“Let’s do a drive by.” Nina suggested. She took my directions. We began to hunt for the small blue house. I had only ever see it in my imagination, over the phone, or described in letters.
We found the house. It was quaint and small. Stephanie was in the yard with a baby on her hip and a man at her side. I knew in my gut that she had moved on. Things had changed. I had felt a shift in our talks toward the end.
“You missed your shot kid. You need to let that bird go.” Nina put her hand on my shoulder, gave me a sorrowful look, and drove away.
“You know what? You better crash at my sister’s with me tonight. Tomorrow, I continue on to California. Have you ever been to California, son?”
“I have not.” I said. “That sounds like a great idea.”
That was the summer my father had the zany idea that we could grow all the food we needed in our backyard garden. Food for two adult parents and seven kids. It was one of those dry, long, hot summer in the 1970s that seemed to go on forever. School was a distant memory. My parents came from factory stock. They knew about as much about gardening as they did about speaking Japanese. My father had an artistic, creative, and often troubled mind. Once he got an idea in his head, he would not let it go. With enough elbow grease and focus, he could accomplish anything. Or so he thought. I’ll tell you all the story of how he built a working windmill out of spare car parts another day. This story is about the summer garden. We hoed, we tilled, we planted, we weeded. All summer long. All the kids, both parents, and a few neighbors too. It was a bit of a community effort. It was fun and we did grow a lot of produce that summer. But my father’s crazy mind soon focused on something else, and we never did garden again. Maybe it was the windmill next? It’s so long ago. The timeline escapes me.
Sandra used to live next door to a nudist. Yes, a nudist. There was nothing raunchy or sexual about her nudist neighbor Kim. Kim was an ex hippie who didn’t believe in clothing. And she had no shame about it. Sandra often saw her out and about her yard in the buff. Kim was at least ninety years old so no one seemed to mind. Everyone knew to skip her house when taking around trick or treaters on Halloween. Other than the lack of clothing, Kim was an ideal neighbor. Until the Judson’s moved in across the way
The Judsons had a daughter named Emily who was a wisp of a girl. She was skin and bones, dark haired, and hardly made a peep. But her eyes were alive. They darted about. She had a curiosity about her, a real need to take everything in.
Emily Judson was twelve years old that summer. The Judsons had moved from Toledo. Mr. Judson was a doctor and had a new job at the Medical Center. Mrs. Judson was a teachers’ assistant. Emily was an only child which may explain some of her oddness. Everyone else in the neighborhood – at least back then – had houses full of kids. Six kids or more was a normal sized family. An only child was bizarre.
Emily didn’t fit in. She was too quiet and strange. No one wanted to be her friend. The kids her age shunned her. She soon began hanging around Sandra’s house. Sandra was a softy. She plyed the neighborhood kids with cookies, potato chips, and sugary soda. She had the goodies they weren’t allowed to have at home. Sandra liked Emily. A quiet smart kid was always better than a mouthy nitwit. Sandra took Emily under her wing that summer. She gave her odd jobs around the house and yard and became fast friends.
Emily had a strange fascination with cats. The Judsons didn’t have any pets. Mrs. Judson claimed to have allergies. Sandra figured the parents were too busy and uppity to have animals in their fancy doctor’s house. Sandra had two cats named Statler and Waldorf. Emily took to the cats and they took to her. When Sandra had to be out of town for work for a few days, she didn’t hesitate to ask Emily to cat sit. She assured Emily that it would be as simple as pie. Come in twice a day to put food down, change their water, and scoop their litter. Sandra’s cats were indoor only. How hard could it be?
Sandra left on a Thursday. She had to fly to Toronto for a conference. She got back late Tuesday night. She drove home from the airport in a tired fog. When she opened the side door to her house, she could sense somethign was off. Statler was always stand-offish but WAldord never failed to meet her howling at the door. The house was quiet. She called out, “Statler? Waldorf? Come on now. I haven’t been gone that long.” She put down her bags. She began to poke around the house. She peeked behind furniture looking for her furry friends. When they weren’t downstairs, she began to panic a bit. It wasn’t like her cats to not come when she called. She headed upstairs. Maybe Emily had accidentally locked the cats in an upstairs room. Lord knows, Sandra had done that herself many times.
The upstairs was as quiet as a crypt. No cats. Sandra began to get a lump in her throat. She hadn’t communicated with Emily while away. She had told her to only call in an emergency. This was beginning to feel like an emergency to Sandra. She sat on her bed and took out her phone. She dialed the Judsons.
“Hello?” Mrs. Judson croaked into the phone. Sandra could tell that she’d woken her.
“I’m sorry,” Sandra said. “This is Sandra across the way. Is Emily available? She was caring for my cats while I was away. I’m home now and my cats are nowhere to be found. I’m in a bit of a panic.”
“Let me see. Hold on.” Mrs. Judson put the phone down.
Sandra heard rustling and doors closing. “Hello?” Emily sounded alert.
“Oh Emily. This is Sandra. I cannot find my cats. Is there something wrong?
I always thought I had a unique look. I’m short. Kinda chubby. Nearly bald. I don’t have a “go to” look that anyone would want to copy. Imagine my surprise the first time I saw Fred.
Fred was my doppleganger. Same height, same build, identical wardrobe. I first met Fred when I got a job at the college bookstore where he worked. We immediately bonded. Like brothers. Heck, we looked like twins! Everyone commented and laughed about it.
Fred and I began to hang out a lot. Fred was a bit of a trouble maker. He always needed me to front him money. He was always late for work. He was always asking for favors but was too busy to reciprocate. I didn’t mind so much. I was new in town and Fred seemed to know everyone. A few dollars here and there, some extra cigarettes, and some ride mooching was a small annoyance. It was fun to hang out with Fred and his group of friends.
I had moved to Carson that fall to go to school. By the end of the first semester Fred was pretty much my best friend. When I wasn’t working or studying, I was hanging out at Fred’s or palling around with him at a local bar.
One afternoon, I was walking to class when a car pulled up to me on the street. The guy in the car seemed agitated and asked me if I could help him score some weed. “Sorry man. I cannot help you out.” I said. I don’t do drugs. Never have. I wasn’t sure why this guy thought I might be able to help him out. I kept on walking and didn’t realize until about ten minutes later that the drug customer thought I was Fred. We looked so much alike, it would have been easy for someone to mistake us from a car. Was Fred a drug dealer? As I rolled that pebble around in my brain, a lot of little clues began to click into place. Fred had a lot of friends. He had a lot of people coming and going at his place. There were always a lot of fun party people at his house, in his orbit. It made perfect sense.
I began to distance myself from Fred after that semester. I had started to make some friends of my own and didn’t feel comfortable knowing that Fred had a dark side. I saw him a few times at a mutual friend’s apartment who often had after hours parties. We were always cordial and laughed about our being twins. But I always kept my distance.
I was thus surprised toward the end of that academic year when Fred called me late one night. “I need your help,” he said. “I’ve gotten myself into some trouble. Can I come by.”
“Of course, Fred. I am home. Come on by.” I said.
Fred arrived about a half hour later. He looked like hell. He had lost weight. He had circles under his eyes. It had been raining and he looked like a cat who had splashed through a mud puddle.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Heather said. They’ve closed the roads. You could have gotten a ticket.”
She was always worried about my driving in snow. My 85 Chrysler New Yorker had bald tires and a bread bag twist-tie holding the carburetor open. “It was fine, Heather. I stayed on back roads. I went slow and waived people past who were in a hurry.” I carried the pizza to the kitchen and began taking out paper plates.
“Have you heard from Carla?” I asked. “I bought enough pizza for the three of us if she’s bored.”
“No,” Heather said. “I texted her but haven’t heard back.”
I handed Heather a plate and we sat on the floor in the living room. Heather and Carla weren’t big on furniture in their college apartment. It was a small hole in the wall but dirt cheap. Emphasis on dirt.
On my second piece of pizza, we heard a loud crash out front that made us jump. I scrambled onto my feet and looked out the front window. There was an accident on the street. A truck had smashed into a car, wedging the car sideways. As we watched, the truck backed up, sped past, and left the scene of the accident. A woman from the car began scrambling through the snow toward Heather’s front porch. I opened the door before she could knock.
“Are you ok?” Heather asked? She stepped aside to let the shaken woman enter.
“No,” she said. “My car is trashed. I’m never going to get a tow truck at this storm. I’m a little freaked out.”
“Come on in!” I said. “We have pizza! Can I get you something to drink? Do you need a phone?”
I didn’t know she was a vampire when we first met. How could I have known? You don’t expect to bump into a vampire on a subway ride in London. Passengers filled the car. I squeezed in and sat next to a young woman. She looked like any other London commuter: headphones in, staring at her phone. I’m nothing if not too friendly. I said hi, and the woman turned to look at me. She said hi back and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Melissa. We began to chit chat a bit. She could tell from my accent that I was American. I told her about my work assignment for Citibank. She was vague about her work.
When the train car got to Notting Hill Gate, we both walked off together. “Mind the gap!” I joked.
Melissa laughed. She had a deep, rich, infectious laugh. We continued to talk as we took the many escalators up, up, up to the sidewalk outside the subway station. “Do you want to grab a coffee?” Melissa asked.
“Sure!” I said. I knew a great place right around the corner of Pemberton Garden Lane.
That was how it started anyway. It took me a few weeks to notice Melissa’s peculiarities. She never ate solid food. Some people are weird about eating in front of others. I dismissed it at first. But after a while, I began to wonder when or how she ate. We were spending a lot of time together. It began to be an issue that she would never order anything at restaurants other than red wine or black coffee. I was young and a fool in love. I never pressed. Never asked her if she had an eating disorder. Never pressed her on why she never appeared to ingest any solid food.
Our relationship changed on a cold November night in my apartment. I cut my hand on a broken glass tumbler in the sink. I’m a bleeder. Blood was everywhere. I had my entire hand wrapped in paper towels.
Melissa became very agitated. She seemed drawn to the blood. She moved toward the kitchen sink like it called to her. Her eyes became wide. When I stood near her, she was quiet, almost purring. Her eyes didn’t meet mine. They focused on my bleeding hand.
“What is wrong with you, Melissa?” I asked.
She caught my eye. “I need to see the cut.” she said. “I need you to remove the towel. Please remove the towel so I can look at the cut.”
I figured she was having some weird nursing moment, so tugged the towels away. I sucked in air as the towel pulled away from the fresh wound. Blood began to flow and drip down my hand. I jerked to catch it with the towel.
Melissa stopped me. “No!” she said. “Let it flow. You need to let the blood flow.”
Hena is fourteen years old. She and her two brothers – Ulo and Jet – are orphans. They lost their parents when they were all toddlers and don’t remember much about them. Faces. Smells. Laugher. Hena as the youngest girl in a traditional family does much of the household chores. Cooking, tidying up, making camp. Hena’s family live in a nomadic village. They are seasonally on the move following the migrating game that her people hunt to survive.
Hena lives in a state of constant fear that she’ll lose her brothers and be alone. The men hunt. It’s a dangerous activity. Many men don’t come back. Or come back maimed.
Due to their rough upbringing, Hena is a bit of a tomboy. She often interacts with the boys doing target practice or playing hunting games. She has no interest in learning the tribe’s traditional women skills.
Hena has brown hair and light green eyes. She keeps her hair short in a boyish style.
Becky grunted as she stumbled on a rock. “I’m so scared! What if we don’t find our way out of here by dark. How can you be so calm, Jim?”
Jim stopped, reached up, and plucked a banana off the tree. “We’ll be fine. We can use all these vines and shrubs to build a shelter if we need to. I’m sure if we keep heading north, we’ll hit the river sooner or later. I know the flies and mosquitoes are getting thicker. We must be getting closer to water.”
A monkey howled in the distance. Becky sat on a fallen log and unzipped her backpack. “We only have enough water for a two hour hike. Not an overnight stay! What if we come upon a tiger. Or a panther? Not that I’ll have any blood left after all these bugs. Imagine getting a bite out of your leg by a hungry tiger!”
“You are overreacting, Becky.” Jim said. “These bugs aren’t so bad. I’m more nervous about the piranhas in the water when we need to cross the river. The camp is definitely on the other side. We’ll need to figure out how to make a small raft.”
Becky took a sip of her water. “We could also drag one of these big fallen logs and create a temporary bridge. Come on. Let’s go. I want to get back to civilization before a bat gets tangled in my hair!”
As Becky zipped up her backpack, an arrow whizzed by and planted itself in the tree next to her head.
Jim’s wide eyes focused on the bright green parrot feathers at the base of the arrow. He yelled, “Run, Becky! Run!”
Natalie heard the scream from the kitchen. She had snuck downstairs for a glass of water. She was alone in the house with her sister Nessa. Their parents had gone out for dinner and a movie. It was late. Very late. She wondered why her parents weren’t home yet. Another scream. It was definitely Nessa upstairs.
There was a sudden crash. She heard a thud and glass shatter. Natalie reached over to the kitchen counter. She slid a large butcher’s knife out of the wooden block next to the stove. Her heart raced. Her breath came in short spurt and starts. She tried to take a deep breath to calm herself.
She tiptoed across the kitchen to the base of the stairs. She yelped when one of the floorboards creaked. She made her way up the stairs. One thousand terrible images of Nessa dead on the floor raced through her head. Take a step. Had she been stabbed? Take a step. Had she been strangled? Take a step. Had she been bludgeoned? Take a step!
Natalie reached the top of the stairs. Nessa’s bedroom door was closed. She moved along the wall, holding the glinting knife high in the air. She put her hand on the doorknob and turned. When she heard the click of the latch, she pushed the door open. A screeching cat flew out the doorway, dug claws into Natalie’s arm, bounced off the wall, and ran down the stairs.
“That dang cat!” Natalie began sneezing. “Hachoo! Nessa? Are you ok?”
Nessa sat up. “Yes! What do you want? The cat knocked the light over. Get out of here before all the cat hair makes your sinuses fill up again!” She rolled over facing the wall, pulling her covers over her head to block out the light from the hall.
I received a letter from Heather.
Someone had framed her for the murder of her husband Brian.
I drove to Manchester to talk and ended up driving her back to Dayton.
She believed she was in danger from the thugs who killed her husband.
I took her to a coffee shop so we could talk.
There was a man there who kept staring. It freaked Heather out.
She made me take the highway home to decrease the chance that someone could follow us.
I blew a tire on the highway.
My cell phone battery was dead.
We hitched a ride to downtown Dayton.
She broke down and told me about her and Brandon’s drug problem.
When I got home from work the next day, she had cleaned the house from top to bottom.
I drove her back to Manchester and convinced her to turn herself over to the police.
I went to her house and broke in through a back window. I began to snoop around to find evidence to clear her name.
I found a suitcase full of money.
Though I promised myself I would stop, I’d started yet another day with a mouthful of hard candy. Why did I do this to myself? The store had been quiet all morning. The residents of the town must be enjoying the sunny day elsewhere. A few trappers had been waiting when I unlocked the door. Trappers tended to be early risers. I traded their pelts for various and sundries. They complained a bit about Pappa’s new pelt prices. I could not bend. Mother would punish me if I wavered one cent from the new list. As soon as the last trapper left, I again hit the glass lidded candy dishes and shoved a handful of bonbons in my mouth. The sugar rush calmed me.
I had my back turned when Laura entered the store. I heard the bell clang. I was up on a step stool putting canned beans on a shelf.
“Hello? Nellie?” Laura called from the doorway.
I turned and almost dropped a can. The air went out of my lungs. Laura looked beautiful with the sun shining behind her through the glass door. “Laura—” I choked out. “How – how can I help you?” My tongue caught in my mouth. I could feel the heat rush to my cheeks.
Laura’s brown braids hung down the front of her simple green dress. She had a yellow sunbonnet in her hand. The dust from the street had scuffed her black laced boots.
“I’m just looking around,” Laura said. “I’ll holler if I need you. Mamma needs some new fabric for a dress. I’ll be over here looking at the printed bolts of fabric.”
I went back to stacking the beans but couldn’t concentrate. My mind raced. Like a magnet tugging on metal, Laura’s presence in the store pulled at my heart. I felt an ache at the base of my lungs that made it difficult to take a breath. I stole a glance at Laura whenever I could. She was gently flipping through the stacked bolts of fabric. She ran her hand along each one to get a feel for the weave. The only sound was the loud tick of the grandfather clock in the corner. I ached to speak but could think of nothing to say.
As I was finishing stacking the beans, I heard Mother rumble down the stairs. We lived in the rooms above the store.
Before she had gotten completely down, she shrieked, “Nellie!”
I got down off the stool, pushed down my hair, and straightened my dress. Mother would be angry if anything were out of place. Everything had to be perfect for her. Perfect at all times. I glanced down at the shine of my patent leather boots. They were scuff free and glimmered in the sunlight coming through the front window. I was Mother’s flawless living doll.
“Nellie? Have those men from the casino been in here today?” The strong smell of gin on her breath was like a slap, as she approached me. “Those money grubbing men?” She glanced at the bean cans on the shelf. She made a clucking sound and adjusted a can one quarter inch. It now aligned with the rest. She’d remember to punish me later for this slight.
“No, Mother,” I said. “No casino men.” My eyes darted to Laura. Could she hear Mother?
“If they come, you come upstairs and get me.” She gripped my arm. “Is that clear girl?” When I didn’t answer, she squeezed until I winced. “Don’t you dare give them one red cent from that till!”
“Yes, yes, Mother, I won’t,” I cried out. I again looked toward Laura. She was busy examining a blue pattern with daisies. I turned back to Mother and whispered, “Shh! Please don’t talk so loud! There is a customer in the store!” Tears welled up in my eyes.
She looked over to Laura with disgust. She gave me a menacing shove and went back upstairs. The heavy sound of her stomping rattled the glass candy dishes. She slammed a door.
Laura hurried over. “Are you alright?” She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“Why do you care?” I sneered and shrugged her hand away.
I couldn’t let Laura see my facade slip. I longed for her to like me but had to keep the upper hand. My reputation as the richest girl in town was all that I had to hold onto. No one could know that Mother was a monster. I had to divert Laura’s attention away from what she had seen. My family was going through a rough patch. Pappa had borrowed money from the casino men to keep the store afloat. Now, he was in trouble. We were out of money and couldn’t pay them back. Mother was in a panic that we’d lose the store. She was drinking more than ever. Her hair trigger temper required me to walk on egg shells day and night. I panicked. What if Laura gossiped around town?
“Are you going to buy something or not?” I wound up my face in a mask of disgust. “You probably don’t have enough money anyway. Especially not for that blue fabric you were looking at. No simple farm girl could afford that!” With judgmental eyes, I glared down at her scuffed boots.
Laura’s eyes followed mine to her feet. She turned red with embarrassment. “Why are you such a ninny, Nellie!” She turned on her heel and exited the store in a huff. On her way out, she dropped her yellow sunbonnet on the floor in front of the candy dishes.
I walked over and picked up the sunbonnet. I held it to my chest. With my other hand, I grabbed two chocolate truffles and shoved them into my mouth. Only sugar could unwind the knot that had formed in my stomach. Tears spilled out of my eyes. I chewed and stared at the empty space near the fabric where Laura had been standing only a moment before.
I stepped around the puddles on the sidewalk. My sweaty skin prickled and itched in my ill fitting suit. The air was heavy with the pleasant, yet chemical smell that flowers can sometimes exude. I shook a lot of clammy hands of relatives whom I hadn’t seen in many years. My full beard felt itchy. My aunt mentioned how grown up the beard made me look. I took a seat alone on the hard cold bench. The room vibrated with shared, sad whispers. There were more great grand kids than anyone could count. Piercing outburst from cranky toddler interrupted the somber, respectful eulogies. It was cold in the room. My feet felt like ice cubes in my shiny black pinching dress shoes.
My cousin arrived late. She liked to make an entrance. Unlike me, she seemed at ease. She sighed and sat on the edge of the bench near me. She was a bit overdressed. More office than family affair. She looked like a vampire realtor in a black skirted suit and pumps. Her smile was a bit too bright. Her makeup a bit too severe. The shoulder length hair was a bit to styled. Her polished exterior was her armor. Like a peacock, her plumage was her defense.
The air in the room immediately gripped me with its dry, dusty nature. It was so unlike the hall. It was dim. Looking up, I could see that many of the overhead light panels were dead. The door must have sealed off this space for ages. There was no vegetation. There were flat surfaces, metal walls, gray plastic cupboards, and a bare floor. Now that we had opened the door, the jungle would soon invade. Where there was light, life would find a way.
I listened for a moment barely breathing. With my eyes wide and ears pricked, I scanned the area from near the door. I was searching for any movement or sound. Nothing stirred. The space was larger than any of of the rooms in our village. It stretched about ten paces back and twenty across. The door sat in the right-most corner of the wall that abutted the hall. Walking fast, I did a quick preliminary scan of the perimeter. In the center of the room, there were counters with small basins and taps. We could refill our water here. Between the basins were metallic instruments which I’d never seen. I had no idea what purpose they served long ago. Thick dust and cobwebs covered all. My mind began to race with excitement. We could scavenge some good materials here for trade. The outer walls had cupboards and drawers from floor to ceiling. I wondered how we would reach up to gain access to the highest cupboard doors.
As I completed my circle and neared the door again, I heard Ulo. “Yoo hoo! Ana? All clear? Can I follow?”
I hurried to the door. “Yes, come in. The room is safe. The biggest danger here will be a few sneezes from dust and grime.”
Ulo slipped through the doorway and stood eyes wide. “What is this place?” he asked. His voice echoed in the empty room.
“I don’t know. It’s a room from long before the trip. When the ship did not have people or trees or animals. Before the trip only outsiders roamed the barren ship. Luckily, none of them appear to be home!” I laughed nervously.
Ulo blew dust away and pulled open a drawer. Inside, there were stacks of individual sheets of paper. They had writing on both sides. He read from a random sheet. “Functional test of mito – chon – dria in test rat population A. What’s a functional test? And a mito? None of this makes sense, Ana,” he said. He flipped through some more frustrated. There were pictures, lines, and more big words which made no practical sense.
“I have no idea,” I said. “But I know what a rat is. If you see one, put an arrow through it. We need some dinner! Ignore those papers and start looking for something we can trade. Metal, wire, cloth. This room must have something valuable.”
The cupboards below the basins were empty except for pipes. I wondered if someone had been to the room before us and cleared it out. When we began to explore the drawers and cupboards along the walls we had a bit more luck. Ulo found a cache of metal rods and other odd implements. “I’m not quite sure what these are for,” he said. “But they can be hammered into knives or cooking tools.”
I looked at his find. “Look for a bag or box we can use to carry things back. Our hunting sacks are too small to carry much,” I said.
Ulo set the metal tools on the counter creating a racket.
“Quiet!” I said.
“Why?” he asked. “There’s no one here. We can be as loud as we like.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. He grinned and went off to find a box.
I heard him on the other side of the room opening cupboard doors. “Hey?” he yelled to me. “There’s a stack of plastic containers here. Some of them are sealed and some not.”
“Any bags?” I asked.
“No bags,” he said. “I think I’ll look through these boxes. We can dump the junk in them and use one to carry back any metal we find.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said. “But keep looking for a bag. I’d prefer a bag that I can attach to my back. A box will be unwieldy. We are several wakes away from the village. Carrying a big, heavy box will be a pain.”
I found a drawer with small book. This one didn’t have much text – none that made any sense to me. On the cover was the word Directory. Lists and pictures filled it. Each page had one picture. They showed finely drawn squares and rectangles of different shapes. Text with lines connected various boxes. Words included Walton, Trumark, and Cin. I had no idea what these terms meant. Many of the squares had numbers therein. I turned the page around and upside down trying to make sense of what I was looking at. The pictures were likely worthless for trade. No one wanted a book with random text and numbers. The order and symmetry of the pictures appealed to me. Maybe I could use them to decorate our hutom. I shoved the book into my hunting sack.
“Look at this!” Ulo exclaimed pulling me from my thoughts on my new book. I walked over to where he sat. He was on the floor surrounded by about a dozen plastic bins. Each one was open. Many were empty but a few contained smaller boxes and materials. He was opening the smaller boxes and looking through the contents.
“You are making a big mess, Ulo,” I said playfully. “What have you got here? Anything useful? Remember we only have our two hands to carry things back.”
“I can’t imagine what the outsiders used all these things for,” he said.
“Neither can I. Much of it is a mystery. Some of the elders have their theories about things that traders bring around. They must be guessing,” I said.
Ulo continued to dig through bins and toss things on the floor.
“Let’s pack up this metal and head out,” I said. “Now that we have something to trade, we should get back to the village.”
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