Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

petals plant leaves flower

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My husband and I are nature lovers and gardeners. Our education in horticulture, botany, and ornithology was acquired entirely through trial and error and some of our lessons came quite by accident – or perhaps because of divine intervention.

One Saturday afternoon in early May, my husband had finished filling the birdbaths and feeders. For lack of more entertaining yard work to do, he offered to help weed the flower beds. Squatting beside me, he started pulling stray grasses pausing to ask, “Is this a weed?”

yellow petal flowers

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“No, that’s coreopsis,” I replied.  “The ones that get a million tiny yellow flowers and have to be deadheaded all summer.”

“I like those,” he grinned. “Don’t want to pull that. How about this one?”

“Sunflower,” I said. “Pull that. It doesn’t belong here.”

“But it’s a sunflower,” he insisted.

“It doesn’t belong here. It’s a weed.”

Tapping my shoulder he pointed to a nearby stepping stone. “See what it says?”

Annoyed, I read, “A weed is a misplaced wildflower.” I dropped my head, regretting the day I’d placed that piece in the garden.

My husband wrapped himself in smugness like a superhero donning his cape and announced, “The sunflower is a wildflower, not a weed. It gets to stay.”

“Pull it,” I directed through a clenched jaw. Recalling that the tree shading my vegetable plots started as a tiny sapling he’d insisted on saving, my patience was thinner than a crocus leaf.

“It’s a flower.”

“It’s a weed. Do you realize that if you leave it, it’s going to get six feet tall and stand in the middle of our view from the bay window?”


“Pull it.”

“What harm will it do to leave it?”

Since he wasn’t going to budge, I made a mental note to pull the sunflower when he wasn’t around to argue. “Leave it if you insist.”

“Why did you plant it if you didn’t want it here?

“I didn’t plant it.”

“How did it get here?”

“I don’t know. Probably a bird dropped a seed here. Maybe a squirrel hid it last fall and forgot about it.”

“Then this is Mother Nature’s work, right?”

How was I to argue with that? “I surrender,” I said. “We have a sunflower in the front flower bed. I’ll leave it alone.”

Aside from the days when that particular bed came up in my weeding schedule, I didn’t think much about the errant sunflower. Each time I worked there, I weeded carefully around our volunteer and smiled as I remembered my husband’s convincing argument. It was a feisty intruder, growing a thick stem and broad leaves, shooting skyward faster than anything else in our gardens.

One Sunday morning, as I lazed over a cup of coffee and a book, my husband patted my leg to get my attention. “What kind of bird is that?”

Glancing out the window I answered, “Goldfinch.”

focal focus photography of perching yellow and blue short beak bird

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“Never saw him around here before,” he replied.

Laying aside my book, I looked again at the little yellow and black bird. “We have goldfinches in this area, but I don’t remember seeing one visit the birdbath.”

“Look,” he practically shouted, pointing at the bowed head of the sunflower. “There’s another one!”

He was right. The finch’s mate perched atop the sunflower picking at seeds. “That’s mama.”

animal avian beak bird

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“Why do you suppose the goldfinches decided to visit?”

“Word must have gotten out in bird world about your free and unlimited buffet.” I resumed reading while my husband continued watching the finches.

Soon he patted my thigh again asking, “What kind is that one?”

Annoyed by the interruption, I looked up. “Where?”

“In the mugho.”

Squinting to find a bird amongst the dark evergreen branches, I finally spotted it. “Oh, my goodness, that’s a purple finch! I’ve never seen one in our yard before.”

“It doesn’t look purple.”

“Well, its markings are sort of reddish, but it’s a purple finch.” I had to pull out the bird book and show him a picture before he believed me.

Over the next hour we watched a veritable mardi gras procession of birds parade pass our bay window. Some paused to shower under the fountain in the birdbath; others flitted to the ash tree and back. Cardinals, goldfinches, purple finches, a pair of blue jays, and flocks of chickadees and sparrows entertained us. An indigo bunting even made a rare appearance.

bird animal beak macro

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As the summer stretched on we continued to be amazed by the variety of birds coming up to our bay window. For days a red-tailed hawk lurked in the ash tree scouting the assemblage of smaller birds. Meanwhile, my husband diligently continued filling the feeders and changing the water in the birdbaths daily. While our avian visitors sometimes made hurried trips to the feeders they continued to congregate around the accidental sunflower. Eventually I realized I had to set something right.

I asked my husband, “Do you know why we have so many new birds this summer?”


“You were right and I was wrong. Remember when we were weeding and you insisted that I leave the sunflower?”

Chuckling, he replied, “I do. What does that have to do with the birds?”

“They like to eat the seeds right off of the sunflower.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

Early the following spring, as is my custom, I started planting impatiens in the shade garden and adding a few annuals in other beds. Remembering the joy we derived from watching birds the previous summer, I seeded the plot in front of the bay window with sunflowers. Oddly, they never sprouted.

Each spring since, I’ve pushed a few seeds into the spot where the accidental sunflower once grew. Every fall I blend some sunflower seeds in with the mixed nuts I put out for the squirrels, hoping they will bury a few in the front bed. Try as I might, I am unable to recreate the summer of the accidental sunflower.

Perhaps that is Mother Nature’s prerogative.

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It all started with a knock on my door one sunny summer afternoon.

There on my front porch stood a young man…hardly more than a boy, really…who shyly stammered, “Can I m-m-m. Excuse me. Can I m-m-mow your yard for $20?”

“Sorry,” I replied. “My husband likes to do the mowing and trimming himself. Says it’s his summer exercise routine.”

The kid looked so crestfallen it almost broke my heart. “Do you do any other kinds of yard work?”

His demeanor brightened immediately. “F-f-f-for $20?”

“I was just thinking that my flower beds really need some attention. If you’ll help me pull weeds for an hour, I’ll pay you $20.”

“D-d-d-deal!” he exclaimed.

Since I didn’t know if he could tell the difference between a dandelion and a daisy, I put the boy to work on the brick mowing path. Everything growing there was a weed.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“M-m-m. Excuse me. Marcus.”

“Marcus, my name is Janet. Do you live nearby?”

“Yes’m. Next to the f-f-f-firehouse.”

He pointed north, in the general direction of Main Street. I knew just where he meant. A string of tiny, low-rent, minimally-maintained apartments that were likely built in the 1940s or 50s lined that section of the road.

We spent the next hour chatting and weeding. Marcus impressed me with his willingness to do whatever it took to earn the money he seemed to desperately need. When I handed him two ten dollar bills and a cold bottle of water, he asked, “C-c-c-can I come back next week?”


man person school head

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As the summer wore on, I learned a lot about my new friend. Marcus had just turned 16 years old the week before he first knocked on my door. He shared that little apartment with his grandmother. Neither his father nor his mother had stuck around long enough to see baby Marcus take his first steps as a toddler. And Maw, as he called her, was getting pretty old. Marcus worried that she might not live long enough to see him graduate from high school. He said he liked to cook and that he dreamed that someday he could attend culinary school and learn how to be a real chef.

Marcus was like a sponge. He absorbed every bit of knowledge he could about the vegetables, herbs, and flowers I grew in my gardens. I learned that his favorite meal was fried chicken with a mess of slow-cooked greens and mashed potatoes. When he found out that I write, he declared that maybe he would be a writer someday himself.

One day I harvested more turnip greens, tomatoes, and zucchinis than I had the time or patience to deal with right away, so I offered them to Marcus. His smile and the hug he gave me in exchange for the vegetables more than adequately expressed his gratitude.

“Th-th-th-excuse me. Th-thank you. There’s not much f-f-f-food at our house right now.”

His response made me wish I had fried chicken to send home with him, too. How, I wondered, could there be people going hungry in our town?

After that, I made a point of regularly offering produce from our garden and sometimes a few slices of leftover meatloaf or pork roast. I always cooked more than hubby and I could eat. Why shouldn’t Marcus and Maw benefit from our abundance?

agriculture basket beets bokeh

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Looking back, I realize I could have – no, SHOULD have – done more to help them.

By fall, Marcus could do most of the yard work unsupervised, but I had come to cherish the time we spent together so I often joined him at his labors just to enjoy his company. But the days were growing shorter. School and homework often kept him from having time to stop by looking for chores he could do to earn his $20.

When winter dropped several inches of heavy, wet snow during a particularly blustery day, I had suited up in layers of warm clothing and was trying to psych myself up to go out and shovel when Marcus knocked on the door.

“D-d-do you have a snow sh-sh-sh-shovel?”

“In the garage,” I answered. “But I’m short on cash, Marcus. I can’t pay you to shovel today.”

“M-m-m-my treat.” His grin shined whiter than the snow. “You-you-you. Excuse me. You too old to shovel.”

I would have felt insulted at the age comment had I not been so grateful for his help.

Winter turned to spring and spring into summer and Marcus came to help me with chores about once a week – sometimes more frequently. Early one bright summer Saturday, Marcus knocked on my door. When I answered, he pulled a red polo shirt from behind his back and held it in front of him. The logo of a nearby fast food restaurant punctuated his comment, “I-I-I g-g-got a j-j-j-job! A real j-j-j-job!”

“Congratulations, Marcus!” I hugged him. “And you’ll be working with food. That will be good experience when you go to culinary school.”

“C-c-c-costs a lot of money to go to school. C-c-can I still come and work on my days off?”

“Of course!”

Our friendship continued for several years. He invited me to his high school graduation. I couldn’t have been more pleased and honored than to watch him take that walk. Marcus proudly introduced me to his invalid grandmother.  I later learned that my young friend had pushed Maw over three miles in her wheelchair so she could attend the ceremony.

accomplishment ceremony education graduation

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A couple of weeks ago, as we approached the Memorial Day weekend and headed to Kansas City to celebrate a grand-niece’s graduation, it dawned on me that it’s been almost two years since Marcus last knocked on my door. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him walking up Main Street to get to his fast-food job in a very long time, either.

Of the hundreds of questions I’d asked Marcus during dozens of conversations, how is it that I never thought to ask his last name? Or his Maw’s last name? How could I have not paid attention at his graduation to pick up that tidbit of information as the principal called it out while he crossed the stage to collect his diploma?

Short of knocking on every door in the apartment complex looking for Marcus or Maw, I know of no way to check up on my friend. Did Maw pass away, leaving him homeless? Had he flipped enough burgers, mowed enough lawns, pulled enough weeds, and raked enough leaves to pay for his tuition to culinary school?

I may never know.

But I do know this: if I ever win the lottery, I will somehow find a way to locate my young friend and make sure that he has all the money he needs to make his dreams come true. I will pay for a speech therapist to help Marcus overcome his stuttering so he never has to be embarrassed by it again…or say “I-I-I…excuse me.”

Marcus, if you happen to read this, please come knock on my door. I have a ton of yardwork that needs to be done and you know I’m getting too old to do it by myself.

NOTE: This blog post is based on a true story, with some fictional elements added to protect my friend’s identity and privacy. Only stock photos were used and the real Marcus is not depicted in any image.

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Author’s Note: A few years ago, this short story placed first in a creative writing competition. The quirky challenge consisted of re-telling a tale penned by William Shakespeare as if it had taken place in the the Ozark Mountains. Soon thereafter, High Hill Press selected this piece for inclusion in the 2013 edition of Coffee & Critique Anthology. So, for your reading pleasure…


A Midsummer Night Scheme

The biggest dog in these parts, a feller name of Theseus, is fixin’ to get hitched to his intended, Hippolyta. They’re about to tie the knot right here in these Ozarks, come summer solstice. What they don’t know is that Robin Goodfellow, an imp folks call Puck, lurks about. And that little rascal does love makin’ mischief.

 “Lookee here, if it ain’t the happy couple.” Puck made a sassy face and then hid behind a pawpaw tree.

“Hippo,” said Theseus, “the moon is waning. When she’s a sliver in the sky, we start our honeymoon.”

Puck pointed at the bride-to-be and laughed. “I reckon he calls her Hippo ‘cause she’s durn near six foot tall and as plump as a pregnant sow. I believe she’s one of them Amazon women.”

“Not long now,” allowed Hippolyta. “I’d best get to pickin’ Queen Anne’s lace and larkspur. I want a big bouquet of Ozark wildflowers to carry down the aisle.”

Puck pinched his nose, and whispered, “Maybe that’ll sweeten her up a mite so she don’t skunk up the meetin’ house.”

“Philostrate,” Theseus said to his best man, “Hippo’s mighty fond of mountain music and I want the weddin’ done up right. We need us a hoedown.”

“I know some old boys down Athens Holler that pick and fiddle.” Leaning on his walking stick, Phil lit off down the gulch to round them up.

About this time, an old codger climbed up the knob, draggin’ a young gal along by her pigtails. Two strappin’ lads and another gal followed.

“Hey, Theseus.”

“Hey, Egeus. What brings all y’all to this neck of the woods?”

“You know my daughter, Hermia. This feller here’s Demetrius and the other’n is Lysander. That little gal is Helena. She’s a friend of the family.”


The young’uns all said ‘hey’ back.

“What you need, Egeus? I’m busier than a one-legged man in a clogging contest.”

“This dad-blamed young’un has vexed my patience. I gave Hermia’s hand in marriage to Demetrius, but the mule-headed gal says she ain’t a-gonna wed him. Says she loves Lysander. I declare, that don’t make no never mind. Demetrius offered up a bride price and Lysander ain’t give her nothin’ but sweet-talk. Tell her what happens to a gal who won’t mind her daddy.”

“Well, young’un,” Theseus said to Hermia, “I reckon if you don’t marry this Demetrius fella, I’ll be obliged to send you off to the nunnery. Here directly my intended and me gonna tie the knot. If you ain’t hitched to Demetrius by then, I might be obliged to put your perty neck in a noose.”

Now, Hermia played along and acted like she would do what her daddy told her. But behind his back, she made up a secret plan with Lysander to run off to a town forty miles north as the crow flies.  They’d a mind to tie the knot amongst his people. Knowin’ they’d need somebody to cover for ‘em, they told Hermia’s friend, Helena, about their elopement. And that right there turned out to be a big mistake.

That two-timin’ Demetrius courted Helena before he took up with Hermia. Poor thing never stopped pinin’ over him. Ain’t nothing worse than a scorned woman.  She had the gumption to tell Demetrius about the lovers’ plan, knowin’ he’d get madder than bull with a hide full of hornets. When Hermia and Lysander snuck off in the woods, Demetrius followed. Helena trailed back a ways to see how it all turned out. She’d a mind to set her hook in Demetrius real good this go round.

Meanwhile, Puck caught up with old Philostrate on the trail to Athens Holler.

“You look a mite peaked, Phil,” he said. “Why don’t you go sit a spell? I’ll run down yonder and get everything set for the shindig.”

“That’s mighty kind of you, Puck. I reckon I could stand a catnap. Talk to a carpenter name of Peter Quince. He knows the rest of the boys. If he ain’t around, see Nick Bottom.”

So, off Puck trotted, as full of mischief as a kid with a new slingshot. He met up with Quince and Bottom at the local tavern.

“Phil sent me to tell you boys he needs you to act out a play for Theseus and Hippo. They’re gettin’ hitched here in a coupla days and he wants to surprise them with somethin’ right cultural.”

Quince squinted and scratched his head. “You sure he didn’t mean play at the weddin?”

“Naw,” said Puck. “Hippo ain’t too fond of pickin’ and grinnin’.”

“Well, sir,” said Quince, “I reckon we can do that.”

And so it happened that the Quince, Bottom and some other Athens Holler boys set to practicin’their parts in the very same woods where Helena was a-schemin’ to drive a wedge between Hermia and Lysander. The story Quince come up with was all about how mulberries come to be red instead of white.

It started with two young’uns, Pyramus and Thisbe, that growed up right next to each other, with nothin’ but a mud wall between them. Their folks were a-feudin’, so they kept them kids shut up in the house. Well, the two took to visitin’ with one another through a chink in the wall. By the time they were knee-high to a grasshopper, they’d done fell in love. They made up a plan to meet by a mulberry bush and run off together. A bobcat come along to jinx it and the lovers kilt themselves with a huntin’ knife. They bled all over that bush, and the gol-durn mulberries have been red ever since.

Puck, feelin’ mighty pleased, moseyed up to the forest, where he met up with a fairy.

“Where y’all headed?”

“Over hill, over dale,” sighed the fairy. “Queen Titiana has me sprinklin’dew on the cowslips and wood violets. She’ll be along directly.”

“Talk down yonder says King Oberon’s all riled up over some Indian she took a hankerin’ to. He’ll be loaded for bear, time he gets here.”

“Ain’t you a hobgoblin, Robin Goodfellow?”

“They call me sweet Puck. I do your work and bring you good luck.”

 “Hush, now,” whispered the fairy. “The queen is coming.”

“And the king’s just yonder. They’re fixin’ to scrap. Let’s hide under this acorn cap.”

Right then and there, the fairy royalty commenced spattin’ over who got dibs on the Indian.

“I believe you’re jealous, Oberon.”

“The boy needs to earn his keep. I got chores for him to tend to.”`

Titiana snapped, “He ain’t set you back a penny.”

“It sticks in my craw, the way you dote on him.”

“Now ain’t that the pot callin’ the kettle black?” Titiana stomped off.

Oberon didn’t take kindly to the idea of the queen having the last word. “Puck, get out from under that dad-blamed acorn,” he commanded. “Go fetch some evening primrose and mix it up with some honey for a love potion. Tonight when Titiana falls asleep, I’ll sprinkle some on her. When she wakes up and lays eyes on me, she’ll forget all about that Indian.

With an impish grin, Puck said, “Yes, sir, your kingliness.”

“And Puck, there’s a sweet little gal from Athens Holler  sleepin’ in that stand of pines by the crick. She’s plumb crazy about a two-timin’ son-of-a-gun. While I’m tendin’ to my queen, you hex him up with some of that love juice. That oughta put an end to his wanderin’ eye.”

“Yes, sir, your royal haughtiness.”

As Puck set about his chores, he spied Quince, Bottom, and company practicin’ their play. Just to be ornery, he cast a spell on Bottom that turned his noggin into a mule’s head.

 Up in the pines, Puck came upon Lysander and Hermia. Thinkin’ those two were Demetrius and Helena, he got all mixed up and cast that love spell on the wrong Athenian. When Lysander woke up, he spied Helena off in the woods and fell plumb head over heels. That left poor Hermia high and dry.

Puck sunk deeper in the brine than a dill pickle.

He spent the whole dad-gummed night tryin’ to undo the mess, but things just went from bad to worse. Lysander and Demetrius both got a hankerin’ for Helena and she thought they were pokin’ fun at her. Hermia felt right peeved about this turn of events and she called Helena out. Danged if it wasn’t the scrappiest catfight you ever seen.

Meanwhile, Demetrius and Lysander commenced to squarin’ off and it took mighty quick thinkin’ on Puck’s part to keep them from comin’ to blows. He ran through the woods, hollerin’ first for one and then the other ‘til they were as lost as Easter eggs.

When Titiana woke up, the first critter she laid eyes on was Bottom. Puck’s knees commenced to shakin’. King Oberon would whomp him good when he saw the queen actin’ all googly-eyed over that mule-headed hillbilly brayin’ like a jackass.

It turned out a mite better than Puck reckoned. Their foolishness gave the king a chance to cozy up to that Indian prince. With their royal highnesses thus occupied, Puck set out to clean up the mess he made with the others.

Climbing up on a toadstool, Puck tipped back a bottle of shine.

“It took a heap of doin’, but I got’er done. By sunrise, Lysander loved Hermia, Demetrius and Helena were smitten with each other, and Titiana and Oberon kissed and made up. That mule-headed Bottom went back to play-actin’… and I don’t rightly know what happened to the Indian. I imagine he high-tailed it home faster than a buck chasin’ a doe in rut.

Later that mornin’, Theseus and Hippolyta took a little pre-nuptial stroll in the forest and came upon them two Athens Holler couples sleepin’ like babies. They reckoned with their weddin’ about to commence, might as well get Lysander hitched to Hermia, and Demetrius to Helena at the same time.”

After everybody got married to the right folks, the shindig commenced with some fine vittles – fried chicken, ‘taters, biscuits’n’gravy, and all the fixin’s. While the weddin’ party tied on the feedbag, the Athens Holler boys acted out their play. A knee-slappin’ good time was had by all.

The sun started peekin’ over the knob before the newlyweds bedded down. The shivaree echoed up the hills to kingdom come. With all the pot-bangin’ and kettle-drummin’, it was enough to wake the dead. When it all quieted down, Oberon, Titiana, and the rest of the fairies flew around sprinklin’ glitter dust on all the honeymooners and castin’ protection spells.Then they flitted off to fairyland, leavin’ Puck behind to set things right.

(Puck addresses the audience.)

“If this story has offended

“Sorry, folks, it won’t be mended.

“You’ll wake up when it’s all over

“Laying in a patch of clover.

“Fairies livin’ in these here hills?

“Why, they’re as scarce as moonshine stills.

“Weddin’s, hoedowns, and shivarees

“On Ozark knobs among the trees?

“A tempest in a buttercup?

“Methinks the author Pucked it up.

“How clichéd, what a hackneyed scheme

“Plagiarizing Will Shakespeare’s Dream.

“At Shakespeare’s Church in graveyard gloom

“The bard rolls over in his tomb

“Tormented by his classic’s plight.

“A Hillbilly Midsummer’s Night?”

© 2012 Janet Y. Bettag – All rights reserved.

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The ringing telephone jarred Collette Pearson from a dreamless sleep. The tall, gaunt, forty-something woman bolted upright and grabbed the receiver. She cleared her throat and mumbled a sleepy, “Hello.”

The voice on the other end of the line was sketchy and distant, whispering a nearly inaudible, “This is your blast from the past.” There was a click and the line went dead.

“How corny and clichéd,” she marveled. “Some people just need to get a life.”

Still, something about that voice and those words sent a cold jolt up her spine and caused her chest to tighten. Collette squinted at the digital clock on the nightstand until the numbers came into focus. “It’s 3:33 a.m.,” she noted out loud. “Who makes a prank call at this hour?

Although she tried to shrug it off as some idiot’s bad idea of a joke, the call concerned her. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. Usually an ardently independent and relentlessly audacious woman, Collette found it abnormal for her mind to conjure these troubling images of some faceless demented stalker. She felt very unsettled.

Since going back to sleep before the sounding of her four o’clock alarm wasn’t going to prove feasible she slipped into her robe and slippers before shuffling to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Feeling her way through the dark hallway, she cinched her house coat tightly and hugged herself against a sudden chill. “This hall is like ice,” she thought. “I hate everything about winter.”

Once her favorite dark roast Sumatra blend was ground and brewing, Collette sat at her scarred oak table and pushed the power button on her laptop. She sat there hollow-eyed, gazing blankly at the flickering screen as the computer came to life. A shiver shook her shoulders and she rubbed her hands on her upper arms, hoping to generate warmth. “Damn! Is the pilot light out on the furnace or something? It’s freezing in here,” Collette thought.

A few clicks on the keyboard popped up a list of unread emails. She grabbed her glasses and perched them on her nose, squinting a little as she opened the first message. “Junk,” she announced to nobody. “Delete.”

Tagging about a dozen emails, she continued trashing the spam. When she stood to pour herself a warming mug of coffee, she couldn’t quite shake a sense of frigid foreboding. If her morning java didn’t clear her head and thaw her frozen bones, what would?

When she returned to the table, a message flagged as urgent caught her eye. The sender’s name, Marie_M, didn’t ring a bell, but the subject block grabbed her attention: Jesse Mason. Now that was a name she recognized!

Jesse had been her lover when they were in college. They probably would have married eventually had it not been for two things: his propensity for drinking and drugging his way through life and her decision to move to another state so she wouldn’t have to watch him self-destruct. Jesse had been a brilliant guy, probably a genius. He had never really understood how to channel his intellect and, as a result, his intensity had consumed him.  It had broken her heart to say goodbye to her one true soul mate, but she had known then as well as she knew now that leaving him was less painful than watching him slowly disintegrate.

Collette smiled, remembering fondly how she had teased her lover, telling him that he should have been named Messy Jason instead of Jesse Mason.  As is sometimes the case with brilliant people, Jesse’s mind raced a million miles in a nanosecond and seldom paused for minutia like getting a haircut or belting his faded, dingy jeans. “Jesse was a mess in more ways than one,” she recalled with a tinge of melancholy. “I wonder what he’s up to now.”

She took another swig of coffee, savoring its rich aroma. Inhaling deeply and bracing herself as if expecting a monster to leap from the screen, she clicked on the message to open it. She scanned the words: Stop trying to contact Jesse.

Collette nearly choked on her coffee. “What? Trying to contact Jesse?  I haven’t even thought about that man for at least twenty years!” she exclaimed.

Her mind raced, searching for some logical explanation for this strange message. Snapping her fingers, she declared, “I bet this is some kind of phishing scam or something. They want me to reply so they can steal my password and spam all my contacts. That’s a big DELETE.”

Having drained her coffee and finished reading her emails, Collette headed toward the bathroom situated between the two small bedrooms in the rear of her tiny bungalow so she could shower and dress for the day. Pausing in the hall she bumped up the thermostat a few degrees.  Listening for the burner to ignite and the fan to kick on, she worried, “God, I hope the furnace isn’t busted.”

After a hot shower, Collette towelled off and dressed in layers. Lingering in the steamy bathroom, she ran a comb through her short, salt-and-pepper hair without even glancing at the mirror. Considering the sauna-like conditions, the room wasn’t particularly warm, yet she dreaded opening the door. An icy blast greeted her when she stepped into the bedroom. “Jesus! It’s colder than a steel slab in here!”  The air was so cold that Collette imagined she saw her breath. Shaking her head in disbelief she told herself, “It can’t be that freezing in this house.”

Hurrying into the kitchen, she poured a fresh cup of coffee before returning her attention to the computer where she saw a new message had arrived with that same subject line: Jesse Mason. “Techno-jerk!” Collette blurted in disgust. “Leave me alone.”

Closing the laptop, she slid it into a black messenger bag, bundled up in her heaviest coat and set off on what she expected to be a routine commute to what she assumed would be another regular day. Instead, weird visions of Jessie kept incomprehensively flashing through her consciousness; sometimes wavy and out of focus, other times as sharp and clear as if he were standing right before her. This version of Jesse was older than she remembered him. His curly black mess of unruly hair was now graying, parted and slicked down. He looked rather conservative and business-like. “Why is my mind aging him?”  She scolded herself for wondering how things might have worked out had she not turned her back on him when he was struggling with his addictions. Was this apparition haunting her the man Jesse had become? Or was it the man she somehow hoped he might be?

Going home later, she cranked up the car’s heater and tried to thaw herself while she grappled with her feelings and attempted to make sense of the high strangeness that seemed to have invaded her normally peaceful existence. Arguing that the day had been relatively uneventful aside from the twenty or so ‘Jesse Mason’ emails she had received and deleted without opening, she tried to put things into perspective. She might have convinced herself had her mind not insisted on replaying an eerie voice mail she had retrieved early in the day – a quasi-familiar male voice that echoed in her head, “I need to see you.”

As if dealing with the ever-growing knot of anxiety in her stomach wasn’t stressful enough, she had been annoyed all day by intermittent frigid blasts that originated from nowhere and left her bone-weary. ‘I must be coming down with the flu,’ Collette worried.

Arriving home, Collette hung her coat and put her other belongings on the kitchen table. At least supper would be simple. There was a big bowl of leftover chicken noodle soup in the fridge from the batch she made Sunday. Grabbing it, she loosened the lid and popped it into the microwave, setting the timer for five minutes. Retreating to the bedroom, she changed into sweatpants and a green thermal Henley. Still aching from the bone-chilling cold, she zipped on a thick hoodie and put on heavy socks, topped by a pair of obnoxiously hot pink leg warmers. Her robe and slippers completed the frumpy ensemble.

Collette made her way back to the kitchen, absently grabbing a knife from the drawer before starting her routine of sorting through the day’s mail; pitching junk into the recycling bin and slicing open the envelopes containing bills. Distracted, Collette nearly jumped out of her skin when the microwave timer sounded. Laughing nervously and shaking off her startled reaction, she retrieved the steaming soup and sat at the table to finish the mail. Not hungry, she threw away far more than she consumed. More out of habit than anything else, Collette rinsed her dishes and stowed them in the dishwasher.

Filling the tea kettle with water, she turned on the gas burner and struck a kitchen match to ignite a flame.  She stared mindlessly, considering the irony in fact that the flickering fire burned an icy blue. Growing gradually from a distant whisper, a whistle interrupted her reverie. “Maybe some hot Earl Grey will chase away the chills.”  Pausing to stir half a spoon of sugar into the hot water she poured over the waiting tea bag, Collette seemed oddly separated from herself. She was not simply lost in her thoughts; she felt hopelessly abandoned there. Not since the horrific months that followed her break up with Jesse had she felt this detached and pensive.

Sitting at the table, she powered on the laptop and navigated to the inbox. First email on the list was another new ‘Jesse Mason’ message. Wavering for an instant between trepidation and curiosity, she clicked it open and read: Don’t even think about Jesse. I am his wife and you need to stop pursuing him and leave us alone.

Collette slammed the laptop closed. Her shaking hands fumbled with the cord as she plugged the computer in to charge. A stabbing flash of realization struck her: Jesse had been the early morning prank caller and it was he who left that creepy voicemail message. Enraged and muttering curse words, she grabbed for her computer and went back to the messages. Infuriated by Jesse’s audacity and insulted by his wife’s accusations, Collette was determined to remove herself from this little marital imbroglio.

She typed a reply to the latest email: I did not contact Jesse. He called me in the middle of the night and hung up. He left me a voice mail saying he needs to see me. I have not been chasing him. If anything, it’s the other way around. You are harassing me with these emails and I want it to stop immediately.  I don’t want any further contact from either of you. A quick click on SEND and her words shot off into cyberspace. Her computer asked if she wanted to add Marie_M to her contacts. “Um, no. I think not.” Collette replied sarcastically, as though the machine could hear her response.

The last thing she needed in her life was Jesse’s drama. “What kind of psycho did he marry?” she wondered to herself. “No doubt somebody as messed up as he is.”

She closed the laptop, doused the light and headed to bed intending to read Leopoldo Gout’s novel Ghost Radio until she could fall asleep. Crawling between the flannel sheets, she pulled the heavy comforter up to her chin. After less than a page her eyes grew heavy and she was about to doze off when she was startled by a throaty moan emanating from the hallway. The sound chilled her anew. She swallowed hard, trying to force her heart out of her throat and back into her chest where it belonged. “I bet that’s the wind whipping across the furnace flue,” echoed unconvincingly through her mind. “This is crazy. I need to get a grip.”

Switching off the light, she closed her eyes against her fear and pretended to fall asleep.

* * * * * *

There was no point waiting for the alarm to sound. By 2:00 a.m. Collette could no longer bear faking slumber, so she arose to make some coffee. As she was filling the carafe, she caught her reflection in the dark glass of the window above the sink and the image shocked her. Her face was cadaverous, her skin colorless, and her expression blank and lifeless. Dark circles obscured her green eyes. The countenance staring back at her looked old, tired, drawn and haggard. Clearly the strain of recent events had taken their toll on her health. “I look like death warmed over.”

She ran her hands through her hair, smoothing away the sleep tangles, and then lifted her chin to briefly consider her eerie likeness in the glass pane before diverting her eyes from the distorted, nightmarish reflection. She cajoled herself, “Time to stop daydreaming and get on with my normal routine.”

Unplugging the laptop and stowing the cables in her bag before pressing the power button, Collette then turned to pour a mug of coffee while the computer was waking up. The furnace flue made that weird noise again, but this time it sounded considerably closer to her – feeling almost like a breath against her ear. ‘That was just incredibly freaky!’

If it wasn’t some trick of the wind, then she did not want to imagine what it might be. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. Turning her attention to her email, she was not surprised to see a new ‘Jesse Mason’ message: This is Jesse. My wife is freaking out. Don’t reply to the emails. I’ll find another way to contact you.

“The hell you will!” she said a little too loudly to be talking to an empty house. She blocked the email address then grabbed her phone and searched her Caller ID for an entry from the previous morning. Jotting down the number and slipping the note in her wallet, she was armed to contact the phone company and block incoming calls from Jesse and his lunatic wife. Although she had lived alone most of her adult life, her little house now felt ominous instead of comfortable. Afraid to be by herself, Collette dressed quickly, deciding she would rather leave early than remain terrified in the arctic-cold bungalow.

* * * * * *

Although she arrived well before dawn, Collette lingered at her work late into the evening. There had been no more ‘Jesse Mason’ emails or cryptic voice messages, yet fleeting, shadowy images of the man continued to be-devil her. Sometimes appearing as her youthful lover, next morphing into some weird age-progressed rendering thereof, Jesse’s semblance repeatedly manifested and dissolved, leaving Collette to wonder if she had lost all touch with reality.

Grasping for some fragment of normalcy, Collette stopped at a gourmet bakery on her way home. She thought buying something chocolate and decadent would sooth her soul and might take her mind off of the taunting apparitions of Jesse. “Nothing better than a hazelnut torte dripping with chocolate ganache to chase away the ghosts of old boyfriends,” she observed silently.

While her indulgence was being boxed up, Collette caught motion in her peripheral vision. Quickly glancing up, she saw a tall, handsome man with wild, curly black hair approaching. There was something oddly familiar about the way he walked – leaning forward a bit and bouncing on the balls of his feet. He had a too-wide, toothy smile and steely indigo eyes that hovered well above dimples that were as deep as the Grand Canyon. It took an instant for her to realize he bore a disturbingly uncanny resemblance to the Jesse she had loved two decades ago. He even carried himself with that strutting rock star gait! She briefly considered asking him if he was a relative; a son, maybe? “No, don’t embarrass yourself like that. You just have a raging case of Jesse-on-the-brain,” she lectured internally.

Still, there was an inexplicable energy in the air. She wasn’t sure if it was chemical or electrical, but it made goose bumps rise on her arms as the young man continued toward her. His gaze was fixed on her and Collette stared back in detached amazement as he passed right through her and vanished. Terrified and trembling, Collette somehow managed to transport herself to her home, although she later had no recollection of doing so.

Entering the bungalow, she barely noticed the frigid blast assaulting her. Everything was surreal. The phone was ringing and she mindlessly answered it, fully expecting to hear some distant, spectral version of Jesse’s voice. Instead, she found herself straining to make out the broken words of Kathy Barnes, her best friend and sorority sister. The tone was urgent, distressing and eerily dreamlike, “Collette, Jesse Mason passed away. I saw it in this morning’s paper. I know you two are ancient history, but…” The voice trailed off, dissolving into static. Momentarily the nebulous utterance continued, now barely a whisper, “…you should know. Honey, you can finally let him go. Okay?”

Dropping the phone, Collette collapsed to the floor in hysterical sobs. The events of the last two days combined with her grief over the news of Jesse’s death propelled her into an emotional meltdown. It seemed as though eternity passed before she was able to drag herself to the kitchen and fire up her laptop. Why did she feel compelled to find that obituary and read it? Did it say when or how he died? There were now more questions than answers and nothing would make sense to her until she had some confirmation that he was actually gone.

Feverishly clicking keys to pull up the newspaper’s website, Collette felt vaporous and ethereal. She could feel her energy dimming like the beam of a flashlight with dying batteries, as though any second she would be plunged into darkness. “Where in the hell are the death notices?” she fretted.

A scan of the obituary page revealed nothing. “It has to be here. Karen wouldn’t lie to me about this.”

Quickly typing Jesse’s name and the word “death” in the search box, she hit ENTER and waited. Nervously tapping her fingers on the table, she fidgeted until one match finally returned – an article, not an obituary. She apprehensively clicked the link and began absorbing the words in horror and disbelief.

Jesse Mason, founder and CEO of Bio-Botics, was found dead in his Manhattan penthouse yesterday. Best known as the inventor of artificial intelligence technology that interprets brain waves and nerve impulses and transfers them to robotics, he was credited with developing the first fully integrated robotics-assisted prosthetic limbs. Originally from St. Louis, Mason is survived by his wife, Marie (Gillespie) Mason. He was 48 years old.

Police declined to comment on speculation that Mason’s death may have been due to an intentional drug overdose. They did, however, confirm that prescription medications were seized from the apartment. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a close friend and business associate reported he recently urged Mason to seek psychiatric care, stating Mason believed the ghost of his college sweetheart was haunting him. The woman perished last winter when her car slid off a snow-packed road and plunged into the icy waters of Lake Erie. She left no survivors.

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