1. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Winners! jedellion, Hambone, o0oHANDo0o, and JJ_Maxx for Short Story contest 127!

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Lemex, Feb 17, 2013.

    Wow! What a week this has been! Four winners. The first person to give me the theme for the next contest wins. - Lemex

    jedellion - The Girl


    The old storyteller made his way slowly up the three steps which formed the base of the statue that stood at the centre of the marketplace. He leaned down and carefully placed his ale tankard on the top step. Then, groaning theatrically, he sat himself down resting his back against the smooth marble of the statue’s plinth. He placed his old walnut walking stick at his side and took off his battered leather cap, laying it on the step below him. No sooner had he done so than the first coins started to land inside it. He stretched and looked around at the gathering crowd.

    The children came first, pulling at their parents’ hands, pointing excitedly. Then came the rest: old folk and young, quiet loners who stayed to the rear and groups of people who chatted excitedly as they came close. There were couples in love, the men tossing in coins to impress their ladies, town guards surreptitiously sidling closer, even some of the traders put the shutters down on their stalls and walked over to listen. The storyteller smiled, nodding his thanks as the coins fell. He judged the moment carefully as the crowd began to still before clearing his throat.

    “Good day my friends, good day to you all! You have come to hear a tale, and a tale I shall tell.” He paused a moment allowing the last few conversations to settle down.

    “But what shall it be today, good people? Will it be an adventure with daring duels and villainous rogues? Perhaps a story of unrequited love and hopeless romance?” To his left, a pretty girl sighed longingly and several people chuckled good-naturedly. The Storyteller’s lips twitched upwards and his eyes sparkled. He had them.

    People started shouting out their requests.

    “The tale of the three beggars!”
    “The Queen and the heart of glass.”
    “Patsy and the pancakes!”

    “Make way for the king!”

    The crowd broke into excited murmurs as they looked around. The Storyteller craned his neck trying to look beyond the gathered people. He saw the glint of sunlight on armour and then the crowd was moving aside forming a corridor as His Majesty, King Markus III approached. The king was old now, and the storyteller noted how his shoulders bowed. He felt a twinge of sympathy in his own arthritic knees as he saw Markus’ careful gait and the way his gnarled hand held tightly to his walking stick. The crowd bowed respectfully as he passed them. The storyteller remained seated. He was far too old for all that nonsense and just grinned as the King approached.

    “Your Majesty! I am honoured.”

    The old king smiled. “It’s been too long.”

    The storyteller nodded. “And what can I do for you today, Sire? Have you a tale you would like to hear?”

    The king looked around the crowd of gathered people and then his face tilted upwards to regard the finely crafted bronze statue. The people followed his gaze curiously.

    King Markus nodded to the statue slightly and spoke softly. “Tell her story.”

    The storyteller inclined his head slightly. He lifted the tankard and took a slow drink. Sighing in appreciation he replaced the tankard and settled himself, placing his hands on his thighs and leaning forwards.

    “My friends,” He began, “many of you have walked past this statue every day. I daresay most of you have spared a glance at the pretty girl who stands above me. Perhaps you have noted her simple clothing. Maybe you have wondered about her, your eyes searching out a plaque or inscription.
    Many in the crowd smiled to themselves while others nodded. One young boy, was looking intently at the statue. He frowned.

    “There ain’t no words!”

    The storyteller nodded. “That’s right my young friend. She has no name plate, no inscription.”
    The child was about to ask another question but he was silenced by his mother. The boy scowled angrily but the storyteller raised a placating hand.

    “It’s all right lad, I know what you were going to ask. Who is she?”

    The boy nodded.

    “Well, that is the question, and what follows is the best answer I can give.”

    “Many, many years ago, a very long time before any of you were born, there was a wicked king. He was very cruel to his people and taxed them mercilessly. He punished the guilty far beyond their crimes and drafted most of the young men into his armies to fight his petty wars.

    It was a very sad time for the city. The people were poor and many fell to disease, some died of starvation, or were imprisoned for being unable to pay the taxes. But the king seemed not to care. He was only interested in how much gold he had, and who he was fighting with this year.

    One day, he received a visit from the elders of the city. They hoped the king might find some small measure of sympathy and ease the burdens on his people. But do you know what happened?”

    Several of the children had huddled closer as he spoke and were now shaking their heads.

    “Well, my friends.” The storyteller continued, leaning closer still. “The king became enraged. ‘How dare they’, he cried. He stamped around the castle accusing his people of being lazy and disloyal. He simply could not understand why his people would be so faithless. He was so furious he could barely sleep that night, determined to prove to everyone he was right.

    The next morning he dressed in his finest clothes. After a hearty breakfast, he summoned his guards and made his way down to this very market square. The people bowed and scraped as he past, never daring to look up. The King looked around, searching for proof of his convictions.

    Firstly, he approached a fruit seller. Much of the woman’s fruit was bruised and few items had their full growth. He smiled, thinking he might have found his proof.

    ‘Trader,’ he exclaimed, ‘why is your fruit in such poor condition? Are you so idle that you cannot tend to your orchards properly?’

    The fruit seller shook her head. ‘Sire,’ she said, ‘all of my best fruit is sent to the castle for your feasts, or the garrisons to feed your troops. Your factors personally select all the best fruit before every market day. This is all I have left to feed your people.’

    The king grunted in grudging acceptance but was clearly annoyed at the response. He nodded curtly and turned away. He walked across to an ironmonger’s stall where he frowned at the tin and bronze items on display.

    ‘Trader, where are your iron goods? Are you so inept that you cannot keep your fires hot enough? Or are you so weak you cannot hammer the steel?’

    The ironmonger shook his head. ‘No Sire, if truth be told, there is precious little iron to buy as Your Majesty’s armourers buy it all in order to clad your knights in fine mail shirts, or to make strong swords for your men at arms and nails for your warships. Your people have to make do with what I can buy after I have paid your taxes.’

    The King’s brow furrowed and his cheeks coloured in anger. This was not what he had expected to hear and he felt that his people were reproaching him. He turned away crossly and strode to a baker’s stall. Eyeing the poor goods on display he tore open a loaf. He sniffed, and took a cautious bite. Screwing up his face he spat out the bread.

    ‘Baker!’ He sputtered angrily, ‘this loaf is course and gritty. Explain why you are producing such poor fare; are you so lazy you cannot make flour?’

    ‘Sire,’ the baker began nervously, ‘your bakers and cooks buy up most of the good flour for your stores and your armies stomachs. I have to use only the poorest flour, and yes, I have to add mashed potatoes, chalk and even sawdust to make it go further. I make no apologies. Had I the flour I would make better, but at least
    your people have food enough to live on.’

    The King was now livid. He was being made to look like a fool. He stomped away and stood by the water trough that stood right where I am sitting now. He stared into the distance considering what punishments to exact on his disrespectful subjects. Just then, he happened to catch sight of a girl walking through the marketplace. She was dressed only in the simplest of peasant garb, but she held herself like a princess. His anger drained away and he looked at her in open admiration

    The King, feeling for once in his life clumsy and awkward, quickly walked back to the fruit seller.

    ‘Trader, who is that girl who wanders so carefree in my city?”

    ‘I know not her name, Sire,’ said the woman, ‘but she is a gentle and caring soul, gifted in healing. Last week she helped cure my youngest daughter of the flux. I
    think perhaps the ironmonger may know more. I see him speak to her often.’

    The king nodded and walked back to the ironmonger. He pointed out the girl, who was smiling and laughing with a cloth merchant, ‘Trader, who is that girl with the hair like finely spun gold?’

    The ironmonger smiled. ‘I know not her name, Sire. But she is wise beyond compare. Only last month she helped curb my drinking and my temper, thus saving my marriage. Now my wife and I are happy as can be. Perhaps you should ask the baker. I am sure he knows her quite well.’

    The king, growing frustrated once again at not getting the answers he wanted, turned impatiently and strode back to the baker.
    ‘Baker,’ he barked, pointing at the girl who was now chatting with some children, ‘who is that woman?”

    The baker followed his pointing finger and nodded smiling. ‘Sire, that is a most generous and selfless young lady. Why, a few weeks ago when I was sick with a fever, she baked my bread and tended my stall and would not take a single penny for herself.’

    ‘But what is her name, Baker?”

    The Baker frowned. ‘Why, now you come to mention it, Sire, I do not believe I ever learned her name. But everyone knows her. She helps all folk without any thought of taking.’

    The King’s scowl returned in full. Clearly, his entire city was populated by fools. Moreover, he was not sure he believed his subjects; no one could be so selfless and noble. He walked over to the girl who turned and smiled as he approached. For a moment, the King seemed unable to speak. He stood gaping for a moment before he could find his courage.

    ‘Fair lady, might you spare a moment for your King?’

    The girl nodded still smiling. ‘I can Your Majesty, though I am not a subject of your kingdom, I am staying here but a while.’

    The King seemed taken aback. ‘I see. I gather from my people that you are something of an angel in disguise with all your good deeds. Tell me lady, what profit do you make from all these good deeds. I cannot believe you do not benefit in some way. ’

    Tilting her head, the girl considered. ‘Profit?’ she replied. ‘No profit as you would have it, Sire, but the thanks I receive make me happy and pleased that I can help.’
    The King’s face darkened, but then he smiled, but unlike the girl’s gentle joy, his smile was full of craving and slyness.

    ‘Then good lady, perhaps you would do a service for me?’

    The girl nodded. ‘Indeed Your majesty, I shall do you a great service, though you will not recognise it as such till it is too late.’

    The King seemed not to hear as he continued unabated.

    ‘Then here is what I would have of you. Be my wife, and bear me strong sons and pretty daughters with hair like gold.’
    The girl sighed, and to many it seemed her eyes were filled with sorrow. ‘Alas Sire, I cannot do as you ask. I shall not marry you, for your heart is of cold stone with no place for love inside.”

    The King stood silent a moment, his fists clenched. Then he spoke softly. ‘But lady, my life is lonely; my castle is too large for me alone. I would share with you my wealth and power. I beg you to reconsider and ease my loneliness.’
    Perhaps the King was playing a cruel game by trying to call on her giving nature, or perhaps the King was speaking from his heart, but regardless the girl shook her head.

    ‘No King, I cannot and will not. If I have air to breath, bread to eat and water to drink, then I am wealthy. If I can bring a smile to someone in need, then I have the greatest power a person can hold. You can offer me nothing of true value.’

    Now the king showed his renewed anger, all his earlier rage magnified and redirected.

    ‘You shall marry me! You are in my city and subject to my rule!’

    He reached out his hand to grasp her arm and she stepped to one side. He tried to grab her again but no matter how hard he tried, she seemed to always be able to evade his clutching hands. His face grew red and his eyes blazed as he drew his sword.

    ‘Damn you woman, hold still! Guards, take her!”

    The King’s men moved to take the girl, but suddenly the market folk came from all sides forming a wall between the King and the girl, in the centre were the stern faces of the fruit seller, the ironmonger and the baker. The King howled in fury at this open rebellion and raised his sword above the ironmonger’s head.

    ‘Stand aside,’ the King snarled. But the ironmonger stood his ground. With a howl of fury, the sword slashed downwards.”

    The storyteller paused and took another drink while taking a glance around the crowd. Every eye was on his face and it seemed the entire throng held their breath. He waited a few seconds, letting the anticipation grow and then he spoke again.

    “No one can say for certain what happened next, but the next moment the ironmonger was pushed aside and in his place stood the girl. Then it was over, she had been cut almost in two so great was the blow.

    The King, it was said, went as white as a sheet. He dropped his bloody sword on the ground next to her dead body. With a cry of anguish that wrung every heart there, he fled back to the castle. The folk gathered in the marketplace stood in stunned silence. Eventually, they took up what was left of the girl and bore her away.
    For many days the King shut himself in his chambers and took little in the way of food or water. Days became weeks and summer turned to autumn.

    It was on the autumn equinox when he finally emerged from his chambers. Few recognised him for he was thin and wasted and seemed many years older. But there was a new understanding in his eyes. Over the next few days he ordered his armies home, signed peace treaties with his neighbours and reduced the taxes. He tore up the old law books and set about writing new, fair laws. The same laws this land holds to this day.

    A full year to day after those terrible events in the marketplace the King unveiled this very statue that I now lean my back against. From that day to this one, the kingdom has been a fair and just place to live. The King himself eventually found love and his wife bore sons who grew to be fair and wise, as were their children, on down through the generations to our very own dear King Markus.”

    The Storyteller leant back, smiling, and the crowd stood quietly, some looking at the old king but many more gazing up at the statue of the girl. Finally the little boy broke the silence.

    “But… who was she then?”

    The Storyteller shrugged. “I know not her name. Like all of us here, it is not our name, or how wealthy we are that matters. It is what we do with our lives that defines us, and that is the lesson the girl taught us.”

    At those words it was if a spell had been lifted. The crowd began to disperse talking amongst themselves, many of them throwing coins into the old man’s hat murmuring respectful thanks. The King nodded to him, smiling.

    “My thanks, old friend, I grew up with the story, but you have a way of bringing it to life like no other.”

    The Storyteller nodded his thanks, and the old King smiled once more and then turned slowly making his way back towards the castle.

    The last to leave was the little boy. He searched through his pockets with a concerned expression then, his face changing to one of delight, he pulled a small wrapped honey sweet from his pocket and handed it to the Storyteller. The old man chuckled as he accepted it.

    “My thanks, young sir.”

    The boy flushed and grinned, and then ran off to join his parents. The storyteller counted his coins and poured them into his pouch. He placed the cap on his head and drained his tankard. He turned his head slightly towards the slim figure who now sat beside him, their face hidden beneath the hood of a cloak.

    “Near cut in half? “

    The voice was young and feminine and laced with gentle humour. “As I recall it was a single thrust to the heart.”

    The storyteller smirked. “Artistic Licence. Besides, it’s more dramatic this way. You told me they have to remember. I make sure that they do.” He shook his purse appreciatively. “ I’ll say this, they pay better these days, that’s for sure.”

    He picked up his stick and rose up slowly, grunting with the effort.

    “So,” he said softly, “same time next year?”

    The figure tucked an errant strand of fine, gold hair into her hood and nodded.

    “As always, old friend.”
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Hambone - The Bridge


    I gazed at the main cable that drooped from the ground to the top of the first pier on the bridge. I don’t know why they called it a cable; it was more like a tube that held up all the other cables. I tightened the chest strap on my safety harness and began climbing. With every step, the main cable became steeper. After about twenty feet I clasped the hook of my lanyard to one of the tie-off cables beside me.

    I was climbing the bridge for one reason, Anthony Mitchell. We met in apprenticeship school and became great friends. When we topped out as journeymen carpenters, we hit the road. We traveled across the country, working in refineries, nukes, and huge scaffold jobs. We stood on the nuclear reactor at Songs, climbed to the top of the cooling tower at Davis Besse, and touched the tip of the Washington Monument.

    The climb was steeper by the minute, and my lanyard hook rattled behind me as I went. The sun was nearing the horizon, preparing a dip into Lake Michigan. The water below me was sprinkled with white caps. The old adage is "Don’t look down", but for Anthony and me, that was always the best part.

    We were travel partners, best of friends. We spent the days working together, building scaffolds at heights that would make most people dizzy. In the evenings we laughed over burgers and beers. On Sundays we always enjoyed a football game or a stock car race at a local pub.

    I noticed the police lights as I reached the halfway point. Anthony always referred to police lights as cherries and berries. I ignored them and kept climbing. By this time I used the cables on each side of me for handholds. My feet ached from the small diameter of the main cable. The breeze became much stronger as I climbed, cooling the summer evening. The sun reflected off the water, and the boats in the distance looked like dandruff on a dog's back.

    For fifteen years we traveled together, both of us having too much fun to settle down. Then, at a nuke in Minnesota, Anthony became sick. After he missed three days of work, I talked him into seeing a doctor. They ran tests. He had cancer. We went home. Three months later he was dead. I was with him when he went, me on one side, his mother on the other. I asked him what he wanted before he died. I told him I would do anything.

    “Remember we used to talk about climbing the Mackinac Bridge?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Go to the top and put up an American Flag, just like we said. Do it for me, after I’m gone.”

    The climb was as steep as I thought it would be as I neared the top. My arms tired as I pulled myself along the tie off cables beside me. I hoisted myself onto the concrete pier when I reached the top. I removed the rolled up American Flag I had stuffed in the back of my harness like a quiver of arrows. I fished a few zip ties from my pocket and attached the thin wooden pole of the flag to a few cables. The wind tugged at the flag and nearly pulled it from my hands before I had it secured. I sat on the concrete pier and faced west. The sun began to drop into Lake Michigan, and the view became blurry as I cried.

    The sun was gone when I stood up and slid off the pier onto the main cable. I began my decent toward the police lights below. As I stepped off the main cable onto the sidewalk, I went from hearing the clasp of my harness to the click of handcuffs behind my back. As the police car drove me down the bridge, I looked up at the pier. The flag was barely visible in the dusk, flapping in the wind five hundred and fifty feet over the water.
     
  3. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    o0oHANDo0o - Blood, dust and dreams


    David sat in the cockpit of his Bell Kiowa scout helicopter and stared out at the sun rising slowly out of the dessert floor.
    What are you doing? He asked himself. Last night, at a little past nine o’clock in the evening, his commanding officer called him into his office and informed him that his son had unfortunately past away from complications during his cancer treatment. His CO offered to change the roster and assign this morning’s scout flight to another pilot. David had declined the offer.
    “I’m doing my Job. I’m defending my country, my way of life and my family.” He answered himself aloud and with conviction. Thanks to modern technology like the rotor mounted observation platform, there was no longer a need for more than one person, the pilot, to complete scouting missions.
    You’re defending your family? But they’re dead. Your little sheriff is gone. He’ll never be more than memories that in your head. You think your wife is still going to want you? You were not around when she needed your support during Danny’s treatment. Hell, he was healthy and happy when you left him. Maybe you made him sick by leaving. Maybe you would have seen the signs sooner.

    The truth was that he needed this morning’s flight. He needed to be away from the base and the tortured faces of his friends and colleges. He could see them in his peripheral vision, staring at him with compassion and uncertainty of action, but they looked away when he caught their gaze and deflected his conversations with humour and awkward pauses. He needed this morning’s flight. He needed to be alone, out over the baron sea of dunes and dust. Out there beyond the melancholy they thought they should feel for him. Away from the hands on the shoulder and the lies that everything was going to be okay.

    David received radio clearance for take-off and fifteen minutes later he was threading his way down a narrow river canyon, following a dry river bed out to the plains where the oil fields lay. He realised that he was flying with an unusual emotional numbness, after two passes brought him dangerously close the solid rock cliffs and he dismissed them from his mind without fear. Once he reached his waypoint, he pulled out of the canyon and passed close enough to the side wall that the blast from the propellers sent a wave of gravel cascading down into the arroyo.

    There should have been a vast open plain stretching hundreds of flat baron kilometres to a horizon hidden in a heat haze. There should have been… But there wasn’t. He looked straight into a massive churning sandstorm. It filled his vision and he was consumed by the monster before he had time to react. The wind driven sand devoured the sun and David quickly lost his bearings in the mullioned darkness. The dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree and warnings chimed as the sand choked the life giving oxygen out of the choppers engine. But David was strangely calm. His thoughts were with his boy even as the dashboard reared up and smashed him in the face.

    David found himself standing in his own back yard. The scenery was simultaneously familiar yet foreign.
    Am I dead? He couldn’t help but wonder, or remember much of how he got there.
    He saw Jill, tied to a poll the way they used to when they played cowboys and Indians with Danny. She was smiling broadly and beaming at him. She was so beautiful. So happy. Suddenly Danny was standing beside him, dressed in his cowboy costume, boots, hat and all. The golden sheriff’s star gleamed in the warm Brisbane sunlight. One afternoon, David had worked in his garden shed for hours making the star, a symbol of the law dealing cowboy sheriff. He painstakingly cut the shape out of some aluminium cans and sprayed it with golden spray paint. He’d surprised Danny with the gift while he was playing in the garden with Jill. Danny had been unable to contain his excitement and it took some time to get him to stand still long enough to pin it to his waste coat. He deputised Danny by the powers given to him, and charged him with the protection of his mum during his father’s absence.

    “Daddy, why are you so far away?” Danny’s voice echoed mechanically within David’s heart and this world creation of his mind. “Are you fighting the Indians too?”
    A lump in his throat prevented David from answering.
    “Indians! Look out!” Danny shrieked and bolted towards his mother.
    David turned and his eyes fell first on Jill, her face now pale and her eyes swollen and red from obvious hours of crying and grief. She looked like she had cried until there were no more tears to cry. Her floral summer dress transformed into a black funeral gown. Then he saw the Indian. He was tall and broad in the shoulders, and his muscles bulged as he hurled a tomahawk axe at David’s heart. The normal passing of time broke down into a disjointed stop start of super slow motion as David stood transfixed by the approaching axe. It hung menacingly in the air, rotating on its axis as it inched its way towards him. His eyes slowly drifted to the eyes of his attacker and they were black hollow pits. Not the darkness that comes in the absence of light. This was like the empty frigid depths of the universe. His eyes fell back onto the axe now dangerously close to his chest. He was unable to move. Or maybe just unwilling… Maybe he just wanted the axe to find its deadly mark and kill the heart that was causing him so much pain. He no longer wanted to play cowboys and Indians. The sheriff was dead. The bad guys had won. What was the point?

    The axe entered his chest slowly, burying the dark metal head as far as the wooden handle. There was an ice cold sensation that slowly slithered through his veins as the impact forced him over backwards. Then, as he was slowly falling to the ground he saw Danny coming from the corner of his eye. As he ran he drew his little plastic pistol and waves of golden light were blasting from the barrel tip as the Red Indian reaper dissolved into a cloud of black dust. He moved unhindered by the slowing of time and was at David’s side even as he was still coming to rest on his back. He wrapped his little hands around the axe and wrenched it lose. A searing blast of white hot pain filled the gap where the axe had been. He cried out a silent scream that twisted his entire body. Then he felt a warm had close around his. Time instantly resumed its normal flow. It was Danny and he was placing something hard and metal in David’s right hand and forcing it closed with his small warm soft little hands. He stood over David, silhouetted by the sun so that he seemed to possess a bright aura almost too bright to look at. When he spoke his voice was warm and calm.
    “Daddy... I’m sorry.” He said as David instantly choked on the tears that burst from his eyes. “I’ve held on for as long as I could. But I have to go now. I can’t play anymore. It’s time to go home. I know it hurts, but you need to get up now, daddy. Mommy needs you to rescue her from the Indians. Stand up daddy, its time.”

    David’s grief poured out of him and he cried long sobbing tears that seemed to come from the very centre of his soul. The backyard dissolved around him into bright light and heat. Pain erupted across his body and he tasted the coppery taste of blood and sand. Through swollen eyes he saw a rescue helicopter resolving out of the dessert haze and tears. Then, as if a light switch had been flicked, he winked into a dark dreamless world where he rested his mind.
    The paramedics descended upon him and his neck was cradled into a cervical collar even as a trauma board was being slid beneath him.
    “Blood pressure is one hundred over fifty, pulse is seventy and weak. I think there is internal bleeding. Let’s get the drip in and get him out of here.”
    “What’s that in his hand?”
    “Looks like a gold star… He won’t let it go.”
    “Leave it alone. It’s probably shrapnel from the crash. We’ll get it out of his hand later. Let’s just get him to the medical centre.”
    “You’re going to make it, Son. I know it hurts. Just hold on.”
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    JJ_Maxx - The Offering


    I don’t remember the moment my heart stopped beating. Maybe I’m not supposed to. I do remember Rose was by my side those last few weeks in the hospital. John and Danny would stop by to see me and Shawna was there every single day. At any rate, I can only assume at some point the machines just stopped and I was gone.

    That was yesterday.

    They say when you die that you’re drawn to a bright light. I was drawn to the bright sun shining above me. It burned my eyes. I looked around and found myself sitting on a bench. This bench happened to be located at Coney Island in New York. I waited there for a while, expecting something else to happen. I watched the people walking by, dressed in colorful shirts and bell-bottom pants. Not only was I not in the hospital, I was not in 2013, either. I snagged the arm of one of the boardwalk patrons, a young man with long hair and a purple headband.

    “Excuse me,” I said, “do you know what day it is?”

    “It’s Saturday, man,” he said, turning to walk away. I persisted.

    “Yes, but what day of the month?”

    “It’s August eighth,” he said, “and it’s 1962 in case that was your next question. What are you, some kind of time traveler? Freak.” He laughed and ran to catch up with his friends.

    I stumbled backward and sat down on the bench, burying my face in my hands. My hands. I studied them. These were not my hands. They were young hands and they were connected to young arms. Running over to a ticket window I looked at my reflection in the glass. It was definitely me, but I was younger. I pushed the skin around on my face, waiting for it to fall off like a mask. I smiled and even laughed a little bit. Then I heard somebody call my name.

    “Jim!” A young woman ran up to me, her arms filled with shopping bags. “There you are! We’ve been looking all over for you. Here take these.” She handed me a large orange beach umbrella and a few bags.

    “Rose?” I said, stunned. She was just as beautiful as when we first met. The sun shone off her shoulder-length blonde hair and her smile warmed my heart.

    “Honey,” she said, placing her hand on my forehead, “are you feeling alright?”

    “Yes, I feel great. Better than ever, actually.”

    “Well good. Did you pick out a spot on the beach yet?”

    “Um, no…” I said, looking around. “Not yet, where do you want to be?”

    “Oh it doesn’t matter, but you know Shawna will want to be as close to the water as possible,” she said, giving me a kiss. “Kids!” she yelled. “Time to go down to the beach!” Coming out of the nearby arcade was John and Danny, followed by Shawna. Shawna. My beautiful daughter. I scooped her up into my arms and squeezed her tight. Something was off. Shawna looked to be about ten, and John and Danny couldn’t have been more than eight. Shawna was our youngest, and wasn’t born until 1972, so she shouldn’t even have been there.

    “Dad,” Shawna said, “will you buy us some cotton candy?” I had forgotten how beautiful she was. She was so much like her mother, with her curly blonde hair blowing in the ocean breeze. “Dad?” she repeated.

    “What? Oh yes, of course we’ll get some cotton candy, sweetheart.”

    Shawna chirped with excitement and the four of them trotted off toward the beach.

    It was wonderful, it was amazing, it was every good memory I had wrapped up in one neat little package. I was with my family at Coney Island in the summer. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, waiting for us in the parking lot was my 1969 custom Mustang convertible. I loved that car. On the way home, we all sang Elvis songs on the radio and laughed until we cried.

    At first I wasn’t sure where I was driving to, but it came back to me. Forty-two Chestnut St. It was getting dark by the time we pulled into the driveway, but the house was just as I remembered it, all the way down to the Frisbee that Danny had thrown on the roof. It had taken me six months to finally get it down.

    We put the kids to bed and Rose collapsed on the couch. I poured us both a glass of wine. I sat down next to her.

    “Hey there beautiful,” I said, tucking her hair behind her ear.

    “Hey yourself,” she said, smiling. “Don’t forget to get the bags out of the car.”

    “I’ll go get them.” I walked towards the front door and stopped. I turned back toward her. “Rose?” I said. She looked up from her magazine.

    “Yes?”

    “I love you.”

    She smiled and said, “I love you too, Jim.”

    I walked outside whistling ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. I didn’t notice the man leaning against the car.

    “Good evening, James,” he said.

    I jumped in surprise. “Wow, you scared me there, buddy.” I said, catching my breath. “Can I help you?” He was wearing a Beach Boys t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans.

    “Very nice,” he said, walking around the car. “’69 Ford Mustang, right?”

    “Erm, yeah.”

    “V8 engine, four speed transmission?”

    “Yes, but she’s um, not for sale.” I sputtered.

    “You know, I always did love these cars.” He stood back and admired the car. “Remarkable.” I didn’t feel in control of this conversation at all.

    “Yes, it’s very nice. How did you know my name?”

    He stopped looking at the car and smiled at me. “You are James Tyler Donnigan, born February third, 1938 to Charles and Susan Donnigan.” He bent down and studied the front of the car. “Did you know they added three-point-eight inches to the front of this car in 1969?”

    “Who are you?”

    The man stood up and extended his hand. “I’m here to help you through the next steps. You can call me Pete.” I stepped back from him, feeling very uneasy at how much this man seemed to be in control.

    “Pete? Next steps? What are you talking about?” I said. I was getting annoyed. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. Good night.” I turned around and walked toward the house. He was now in front of me.

    “James,” he said. His voice was soft, and reassuring. “I understand this may be difficult for you, but its best if we start things off with some mutual trust. Just think of me like your own personal tour guide angel.”

    “Angel? Like wings and harps and clouds and stuff?”

    He smiled. “Not quite. We appear how people want to see us. Sometimes we are bathed in light and sometimes…” he gestured down his body, “it’s like this. I prefer this. I was never very good with the harp.” He walked over to the bay window on the front of the house; I could see Rose sitting on the couch.

    “Why are you here?” I asked.

    “I told you already. I am here to help you with the next steps.” Thoughts jumbled in my head as I tried to make sense of it all.

    “Am I… is this… is this heaven?” I finally blurted out. I felt silly for even saying something like that aloud.

    “This,” he said, motioning to the house and the driveway, “could be called heaven, sure.”

    I looked around. The sky was clear and the streetlights did little to dim the stars that filled the sky. “Wow. I thought it would be—”

    “Different?” he interrupted. “Most people do. You see James, when people die, their soul goes to a type of heaven built from their own experiences in life. For you, heaven is 1962, heaven is Coney Island in the summer, and heaven is your custom Mustang…” He looked back inside the house. “…and heaven is Rose and your children.”

    “I don’t understand. If this is 1962, then Shawna wouldn’t have been born yet and this car won’t be made for another seven years.”

    “It doesn’t quite work that way. The rules are different here. This isn’t time travel, James; it’s an amalgamation of your most cherished memories and loved ones. You will never grow old and never go to work or the dentist. You will spend an eternity right here, with your family.”

    “Wait, so this is how it is? Everyone gets their life cherry-picked of all the best stuff?”

    Pete’s face turned sullen. “No. Not everyone. There are still bad people in the world, James, and everyone knows who they are. It has nothing to do with going to church on Sundays or stealing a pack of gum.”

    I thought of all the things I had done wrong throughout my life. It was a short list, but a list nonetheless. Pete noticed my silence.

    “I know about all of it, James,” he whispered. He stepped closer to me. “You have lived a fulfilling life, a good life, but it was not without blemish, and that is where your next steps come from, and why I am here.”

    I felt uneasy. This man knew everything I had ever done wrong in my life and I couldn’t help but feel ashamed.

    “Don’t worry,” he continued, “you will get through this.”

    “Get through what, exactly?” I felt like a puppet on a string.

    “There is a balance to everything. For every good deed, there is an equal blessing, and for every bad deed, there must be an equal sacrifice. Each blessing or sacrifice according to the severity of the deed. As you can see, you have many blessings here, but there are still sacrifices that must be made.”

    “Sacrifices? Like, atonement for my sins?” I still remembered some things growing up in a Catholic family.

    “Don’t think of it like a punishment,” Pete said, sitting down on a lawn chair in the driveway. “Think of it more as an offering, or a tribute, for everything you have here.”

    “So, I need to give you an offering, in order to stay here?”

    “Yes.”

    “Okay, so what kind of tribute, like money?”

    Pete laughed. “The offering must be valuable to you. Sure, money may be valuable to someone who hoards riches, but I don’t think you place much value in money, do you? No, your value lies elsewhere.” He looked at the Mustang.

    “My car? You mean like I can give you my car as an offering, or tribute or whatever?” I pulled the keys out of my pocket. “Here, take it, it’s yours.” I watched as Pete stood up and walked toward the end of the driveway. He turned back to me, a serious look on his face.

    “James, if you feel that this car is enough of a sacrifice to balance your bad deeds, then I will take it, but that’s something you need to think about very carefully.”

    “Well, what if it’s not enough?”

    “Unfortunately, you only get one shot at this. If things aren’t in balance, then this place will unravel. Everything will be gone, the car, the house, the beach…”

    “Rose?” I felt a pit form in my stomach.

    “Yes, James, Rose will cease to exist, and so will you.” A taxi turned the corner, stopping at the end of the driveway. Pete opened the door.

    “Wait, where are you going?” I said.

    “I’ll be back tomorrow to accept your offering. I know you’ll do the right thing, James, you just need to have faith.” He closed the door and the taxi pulled away, leaving me in the silence of the night and the emptiness of the driveway.

    I retrieved the bags from the car and slowly walked back into the house.

    “What took you so long?” Rose said.

    “Oh, I was just talking with a…” I didn’t really believe it myself. “I was talking with a neighbor.”

    “Oh? Was it Carol? She’s always leaving her laundry on the line until after dark.”

    “No, a new neighbor, moved in down the block. He liked my car.”

    “That was nice. We’ll have to formally introduce ourselves sometime.”

    “Yeah, sure.” I sat down on the sofa and pulled Rose close to me. I loved the scent of her hair. It was intoxicating. I just wanted to hold her and feel the warmth of our love forever. I wanted to forget about Pete and the offering, but my mind was making a mental inventory of every horrible thing I’d ever done in my life.

    I thought of the time I pushed my brother, Roger, off the monkey bars because I was angry. And the time I sliced Rich Schumacher’s tires because he stole my girlfriend in high-school. The list began to form. It was all there. The pot and alcohol usage in college, lying on my employment applications, cooking the books for my first company. One by one the mountain of mistakes piled high on my thoughts. I could tell Rose was falling asleep in my arms.

    “Rose, do you think I’m a bad person?” I whispered. She snuggled further into my chest.

    “Of course not. You’re a good husband, a good father and a good man.” Her voice trailed off. “Good man…” I kissed the top of her head and lifted her in my arms, carrying her to our bedroom. Laying her on the bed, I walked to Shawna’s room. She was so peaceful, so precious. I tucked the blanket beneath her and kissed her forehead.

    I whispered in her ear. “You will always be my angel.” She rolled over and squeezed her stuffed animal. I wiped the tears from my eyes and returned to my bedroom, unable to sleep. That was the longest night I have ever had. Through tears and anger, I accepted my imperfect life, and the price it would cost.

    In the morning, before anyone was awake, I made breakfast. Not surprisingly, we had every ingredient I looked for. Pancakes, sausages, eggs and raisin toast. I made a pot of coffee as Rose walked into the kitchen, followed by Danny and John and finally a groggy-looking Shawna stumbled into the kitchen and sat down. Rose kissed me on the cheek and poured herself a cup of coffee as we all sat down to eat.

    We talked about baseball, and princesses, future vacations and past ones, too. At one point, Danny threw a slice of banana at John and John returned with a piece of syrupy pancake that stuck to Danny’s glasses. We all laughed. I heard a car outside, and I knew it was time. I stood up.

    “Rose, Danny, John, Shawna,” I started. “I want you to know how much I love all of you and if I could, I would trade an eternity to be with you all forever.” I held back the tears. “Please, come with me, I have someone I want you all to meet.” We all dressed and walked out to the driveway where Pete was waiting. He was wearing a white button down shirt, but was still wearing the same blue jeans. He was leaning on the taxi.

    I held Rose’s hand as we walked down the driveway.

    “Everyone,” I said, “this is Pete, and he is a very special friend of mine.” I introduced everyone to him. Rose was cordial and asked if he was from the neighborhood and told him he should come over for dinner some time. Danny and John just shook his hand and retreated behind Rose.

    “Rose, can you take the boys inside? We’ll be along in a minute or two.”

    “Of course,” she said, grabbing Danny and John’s hands. “It was nice meeting you.” Pete nodded and the three of them disappeared into the house.

    I held Shawna’s hand and walked closer to Pete.

    “Pete,” I said, fighting back the tears, “this is my youngest daughter, Shawna.”

    He crouched down so he was face to face with her.

    “Hello, Shawna, it’s very nice to finally meet you. Your daddy has told me all about you.”

    “He has?” she said.

    “Oh yes,” he said smiling. “He tells me you have been a very good girl and that you always listen to your parents.” Shawna grinned.

    “You know what?” he said. “I’ll bet that one day, you are going to grow up and be an amazing woman who will do great things.”

    “You really think so?”

    “I know so,” he said, standing up. I walked over and crouched down next to Shawna and placed her hand in mine.

    “Darling,” I said as my stomach turned into knots, “you know how much daddy loves you, right?”

    “I love you too, daddy.”

    “You’re my big girl, right?”

    “Daddy, what’s going on?”

    “Honey, I need you to go with Pete.” A tear rolled down my cheek. “I need you to trust me, Shawna, Okay? Can you trust me?”

    Shawna nodded and began to cry.

    “No, no sweetheart,” I said, “don’t cry, everything’s going to be alright, I promise.”

    “Promise?” she said, wiping her nose on her shirt.

    “Promise.” I said, tucking her behind her ear.

    “I love you daddy,” She threw her arms around me and I held her tight.

    “I love you too, so much.”

    “James,” Pete said. “It’s time.” I nodded. He opened the door of the taxi.

    “Time to go, baby,” I said, helping her into the backseat. My face was wet with tears. “Be good for Pete, okay?”

    “Yes, daddy,” she said as Pete closed the door.

    “I know it’s hard,” he said, “but there are many blessings yet to be found. Goodbye, James.”

    He got into the taxi and closed the door. I waved to Shawna through the window and then they were gone. I turned around to head back to the house but I fell to my knees in the driveway, sobbing uncontrollably. I knew it had to be her. It had to be Shawna. My shirt was soaked with tears.

    Through my sobbing I heard a car approach. I turned around to see the taxi. My heart leapt. I couldn’t see Shawna inside. The taxi pulled away and there was Pete standing in the street, smiling, next to a woman.

    “Daddy!” Shawna said, running into my arms. “I missed you so much!” She was an adult, just as I had remembered from the hospital two days earlier. Rose came out of the house, followed by Danny and John, they were full grown men.

    “Oh, Jim!” Rose cried. “I’ve been waiting for you for so long!”

    “We missed you, Dad!” The boys said, as they hugged me. We were all crying and I turned to Pete.

    “I don’t understand,” I said. “What about the offering? The sacrifice?”

    He smiled. “You’re a good man, James. You made the ultimate sacrifice, which was far greater than any bad thing you have ever done and now everything is in balance.” He began to walk down the street. He looked back at me. “Take care of yourself, James.”

    We all sat on the driveway, and laughed and cried tears of joy. We would be together, forever.
     

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