“I don’t want mac and cheese again!” Gracie whined as I plopped a small helping onto her plate.  She was right to complain; we’d had it four nights in a row.  My cheque hadn’t lasted as long as usual and the week had been rough.  I had to stretch our dollars as far as they would go, and we’d hit our limits.

“How about if I add some hot dog pieces on there too?”

“Okay, Mommy,” she replied in her squeaky three-year-old voice.  “But can we have peamut butter sammiches tomorrow?”

I chuckled.  “You can have anything you want.  Maybe we can even pick up a pizza!”  

“Yay!” she squealed, throwing her arms straight up in the air, sending cheesy pasta airborne.  

“Who’s my Doodlebug?”


Gracie was my perfect cherub – blond, ringlet pigtails, chestnut eyes and that one dimple on her right cheek.  She was the essence of eternal hope and endless happiness.  Even at that moment, watching her pierce the orange elbow pasta onto her fork with such determination, gobbling every bite even though she’d rather have a proper home cooked meal, my little Doodlebug kept a joyful smile on her face.

My childhood lacked luxuries, but Daddy made sure we never wanted for nothing.  He worked three jobs so Mama could raise us herself.  Our bodies stayed clothed for the seasons, our tummies were full and there was always a roof over our heads. When I found out I was pregnant at sixteen, I promised my tiny human that no matter how tough life got, she would want for nothing, just like me.  But life had other plans.  After Mama, Daddy and Tyson died in that crash, I had no one to help me raise Gracie and nowhere to call home.   I didn’t know what our future looked like.  Gracie’s daddy was useless.  He even questioned if she was his daughter, suggesting he, “wasn’t the only one.”  I’d often cry myself to sleep at night, wondering if we’d make it, if I would fail to keep my promise to her.  

“I have to charge you more,” said Sally Jamieson as I dropped Gracie off at the apartment upstairs.  

“What?” I replied, with a shriek I hadn’t planned on releasing.  “That’s not what we agreed.”

“Your kid cries for you all night and I’m losing sleep.  You want me to cradle her and be up all night with her, it’ll cost more.”

“Look, I’m already late for work.” I passed Gracie into her arms along with her overnight bag.  “Can we discuss this in the morning?”

“I’ll need the balance when you pick her up,” Sally said with a cold look.  “Or you can find another sitter.  See you in the morning.”  She closed the door behind her.  How could she screw me like that?  I thought I’d found a nice neighbour, willing to help us out, but Gracie and I were nothing more than a paycheque to Sally.  I stood there on her doorstep trying to calculate how much money would remain after I paid rent and bought groceries.  It would be another week of mac and cheese for us.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to give Gracie fruit or veggies, or anything that didn’t come in a box.  

“You’re late again,” said Stu as I ran through the doors to the diner.  He was a miserable, lanky middle-aged man, covered in grease and five o’clock shadow, hell bent on pulling everyone around him into his pit of misery.  

“I’m sorry.” I said as I tossed my purse behind the counter and tied my apron around my waist, hoping my new boss wouldn’t fire me.  “There were some issues with my nanny…”

“Guess you mistook me for someone who gives a shit.  You have customers waiting for you.”  He pointed his greasy spatula toward the booth by the window.  “Go!”

I ran over to an elderly couple playing footsies under the table.  “Hi there.  Sorry to keep you waiting.  Can I get you something to drink first?”

“Yes, dear,” the wife replied with a kind smile.  “We’ll each have a coffee and, if you wouldn’t mind, could you please bring us two meatloaves with a side of mashed potatoes?  His with gravy, mine without.”

“Sure thing,” I said, scribbling their order into my notebook.  “Anything else?”

“Just the meatloaf for now, dear,” said the husband.  “We’ll get dessert once we choose something from the menu.”

The woman laughed.  “Stan, why even bother looking?  You always get the banana cream pie.”

“Maybe tonight I’d like to try something new.”

Their eyes stayed connected as they teased each other.  There was so much love between them and I envied them in that moment, even though I knew nothing about them.  I’d never seen them before.  Most people in town were new faces since Gracie and I didn’t socialize too much.  We’d only been in town a year, and between work and trying to raise a child with no money, it didn’t give us much time to mingle with the locals.  I’d met more townspeople since starting at the diner a week before.  So far though, I wasn’t a fan of the town.  Everyone I’d met was curt, cranky or crude.  Maybe it was time to find another home.    

When the diner cleared out of everyone but the old couple, I wiped the counter hoping to get out early.  Maybe I could grab Gracie from Sally’s and save myself the new overnight rate.  I pondered asking Stu for a raise, but I didn’t think he’d sympathize much.  The old couple waved me over.

“You ready for dessert?” I asked, pulling out my notepad.  “Are we going to try something new and exciting?”

The woman looked at her husband.  “Well?”

He scanned his menu, twisting his lips and chewing on the inside of his cheek as he inspected each item on the short dessert list with meticulous consideration.  He furrowed his brow, exhaled and said, “I think I’ll try… the…banana cream pie.”

“You rebel, you,” said his wife with a chuckle.  “Two forks, please.”  I laughed and took their menus away.

“Janette!” Stu bellowed from the kitchen.  “Get in here!”

“It’s Janey,” I corrected him as I walked back to where he stood.  He held a wad of cash in his hand and he was shaking his head.  “You thought you could steal from me and I wouldn’t notice?”

“What are you talking about?  I didn’t…”

“The till is short by forty bucks,” he said, fanning the bills against his fingers.  “Where’s the rest?”

“I don’t know.  That old couple hasn’t paid their bill yet.  Maybe you miscounted?”

“Are you calling me an idiot?” he snapped, as spit flew from his mouth and smacked against my cheek.  “Get your shit and get the hell out of my sight, before I call the cops.”

“Stuart Middleton!” said a stern voice from the other side of the counter.  It was the old woman from the booth.  She held her hands on her hips and tapped her foot on the floor, shaking her head in disapproval.  “I know your mother would not appreciate hearing about how you speak to your staff! And to a lady?”

Stu shrivelled up like a scolded dog.  “Just get out of here,” he whispered to me.

“Fine, whatever.  This job sucks anyways.”  I grabbed my purse and tossed my apron on the counter, then stormed out of the diner.  Standing outside, I fought like hell to stifle the tears burning my eyes.  The job sucked.  I came home at night stinking like the deep fryer and stale coffee, I’d feel gross from Stu’s uninvited glances whenever I bent down to pick something up, and serving people food wasn’t exactly glamorous work, but it paid our bills.  Sally would expect more money in the morning and I had nothing to give her.  As I was about to break down and lose all my shit, a hand rested on my shoulder.

“Can we drive you home, dear?” said the old woman.  “Do you live far?”

“Thanks, but I can take the bus,” I said, reaching into my purse and fiddling for change as the bus pulled up across the street.

“Nonsense,” she replied.  “Where do you live?”

“Over on Howerton.  The walk-up apartments.”

“Perfect.  We live on Smithfield so it’s on our way.”  She reached into her purse for a tissue and placed it in my hand.  “Stu’s always been gruff.  He’s had a tough go at life, but he had no place speaking to you that way.”

“I didn’t steal…”

“We know.  He’s also never been the sharpest tool.  He miscounted, but he won’t admit that to you.  Come on, let’s get you home.”

“Thank you,” I replied, cleaning my face.  We climbed into an rusty, old Chevy pickup parked outside the diner and drove toward the apartment complex.  As I sat wedged in between them in the front seat, I’d learned the old couple were Stan and Connie Aberdeen.  They’d lived in Summerhill their entire lives.  In fact, they were highschool sweethearts and a walking cliche.  Stan had been the star quarterback and Connie was head cheerleader.  They married right out of high school and even went off to college together.  Stan inherited the family business and Connie worked at the diner before Stu bought it.  A sudden cancer diagnosis, followed by a hysterectomy stifled their plans for a large family and Connie could never conceive children of her own.  It had always been just the two of them, along with many dogs and animals on their small farm.  Life had dealt them some brutal punches, but they remained happy, kind and so positive.  About everything.

“We’ll wait here,” said Stan, as I hopped out of the truck.  “Just until you get inside.”

“Thanks, but you don’t have to stay.  I’m going to run upstairs and pick up my daughter first.”

“You have a child?” Connie asked, climbing back into her seat.  “How old is she?”

“Gracie just had her third birthday last week.”  Then the tears burst from my eyes.

“What’s the matter, Janey?” Connie asked, as she slid out of the truck and wrapped her arms around me.  Her cradle felt safe.  

After I’d explained the situation with the babysitter and my struggle to afford real food, daycare, my apartment, or even a birthday cake for my little girl, the Aberdeens looked across me at each other and smiled.

“Why don’t you two come over for dinner tomorrow night?” Connie asked.  “We’ll make you a home cooked meal and we can chat.  Stan will pick you up at five.”

“No, that’s really sweet of you, but…”

“We don’t take no for an answer.  I’ll make fried chicken and mashed potatoes with my famous mushroom gravy.  We’ll see you tomorrow.”

As promised, I found Stan waiting for me and Gracie at five o’clock sharp the next afternoon.  I was hesitant to accept kindness from strangers, but they were just so nice and after the repeated blows Gracie and I had suffered, well, a little good was just what we needed.

“You must be Gracie,” Stan said as we approached the truck.  “You can sit in your own special throne back here, just like a princess.”  He opened the door to the back row where a child seat waited for her.  “I borrowed this from my neighbour who has about a hundred grandchildren.  Figured it was safer than having her bounce around in the front seat.”  An unfamiliar warmth pulsed through my body.  I wasn’t used to the kindness of strangers.  I wasn’t used to the kindness of anyone.      

I felt bad for not saying anything, but I didn’t know what to say, other than a thank you, and it just didn’t seem like enough.  

If I’d been at a loss for words then, I was utterly dumbfounded and speechless by the end of the night.

“Happy Birthday to you!” chanted Connie as she walked into the room with a birthday cake lit up with three giant candles.  I bit down on my lip to steady my quivering chin.

“It’s so pwetty!” Gracie squealed when she saw the icing flowers covering the top.  “Is it chocolate?”

“Of course!” Connie said as Stan chuckled.  “And you get the first taste!”  She handed Gracie a fork and said, “Go ahead.  Dig in!”  Gracie looked at me with confusion with the fork gripped in her hand.  I nodded in permission.  She aimed her fork and attacked the cake with a look of determination and pure bliss.  In no time, she was wearing more cake than she’d consumed and I sat there with blurry eyes, watching my little Doodlebug exude joy I hadn’t seen maybe in her entire life.  Then Stan stood up and left the room, only to return with three large presents wrapped in bright paper, each adorned with shiny ribbon and a giant bow.

As I watched Gracie tear the paper from the gifts, discovering a new doll, a teddy bear and a building block set, I couldn’t contain my emotions.  “I don’t even know what to say.  Why did you do this for us?”

Connie sat down next to me, gave me a fresh tissue and said, “Because you looked like you needed some light.  We’re all alone in this world with no children to spoil.  All of our friends have grandbabies to dote on, but we have only each other.  This was as much for us as it was for you.”

“No,” I said, taking Connie’s hand in mine.  “I don’t think you’ll ever know how much today has meant for us.  How will I ever be able to repay you?”  I watched Gracie cling to her new teddy bear, beaming ear to ear, rubbing the soft fur against her cake-covered face.

“His name is Fwoggy!”  We all laughed out loud at the ridiculous choice of name.

“You don’t owe us anything, Janey.  In fact, Stan and I were talking last night, and I know you don’t know us, and it may be an unconventional invitation in light of us just meeting you.  But we would like to invite you and Gracie to come and live with us.”

“What?” I asked, trying to hide the stunned tone to my voice.  “What do you mean?”

“We have all this room.  We could help you take care of Gracie while you find another job.  Maybe you could go back to school?”

“No, that’s too much.  You’ve already done…”

“It would be our pleasure.  Really.  We’re retired and have all the time in the world to help you two.

“But why would you want to?”

“Because we can.  Besides, we need some youth in this creaky old house.”

After a week of considering their offer, I accepted and Gracie and I moved in with the Aberdeens.  I didn’t know much about them, but they were kind and offered their help.  Maybe it was time to accept that there were some people in this world who just wanted to help.  No ulterior motives.  No mean streak lurking beneath.  I’d suffered disappointment my whole life.  Maybe it was time for things to change.  To get better.  

Thanks to Stan and Connie, I returned to school to be a pharmacist assistant, finishing a two year program in less than one.  Connie had arranged a job for me with her brother, who was the pharmacist at the Rite Aid in town.  One day, shortly after graduation, I came home to find a mysterious new trailer parked on their land.  It stood on the opposite side of their farm.  

“You girls deserve a place of your own,” Stan said, teary-eyed as he handed me the keys to our first real home.  I protested such an extravagant gift, but he insisted.  “We’re so proud of everything you’ve accomplished.  You and Gracie have filled a hole in our hearts.”  

I crouched down in the garden with Connie on a windy fall afternoon, plucking herbs and veggies from the ground before the late November frosts arrived.  Gracie played with Angus, the Aberdeen’s new puppy, and Stan stood on the road staring at the sky.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” I called.  “You know we could use some help over here.”

He didn’t respond.  I looked up at the dark clouds that had stolen his attention from us.

“He always gets like this when the winds shift,” said Connie, tossing another bunch of radishes into her basket.  “He lost his father to a twister when he was a young boy.  It still rattles him.”

“You think a tornado’s coming?” I asked, keeping one eye on Gracie as she played tug-of-war with Angus.  

“Oh, no dear.  We haven’t seen funnels in decades.  That’s just November overcast.  He’ll be fine.  Help me get these into the house so we can start dinner.”

After I dressed Gracie in her favourite pink fairy jammies and tucked her and Froggy into bed that night, I stood at the kitchen sink washing the dirt from the veggies Connie gave us from the garden.  The day had been chilly, but the breeze that blew through the open window was like standing next to an open oven door.  I hummed and scrubbed dirt from carrots, giving little notice to the leaves flying past my window.  I looked up when thin branches flew through the air.  Then our lawn chairs shifted from one corner of the yard to the next and I knew something wasn’t right.  I turned the water off and reached for the phone.  Dead air.  The wind churned through the yard at alarming escalation.  Windows rattled as the wind howled like the red wolves up in the Smokies.  When the lawn furniture went airborne, I ran toward Gracie’s room, praying we would make it to the Aberdeen’s storm cellar in time.  

God wasn’t listening.  Warning sirens wound up and screamed into the night, alerting everyone in town it was time to take cover.  Gracie woke in her room, crying out for me.

“I’m coming, Doodlebug!”  I called as the lights went out.  If it had been a clear night, the moon’s light would have shone through the windows to guide me.  But the clouds covered our town in a thick blanket and left us in an abyss of shadows.  Memory was all I had to steer me to Gracie’s room.  

“Mama, I’m scared,” she cried as I pushed through her door.  Debris slammed into the side of the trailer and the wind wailed as though a jet engine flew overhead.

I scooped her up and held her tight.  “It’s all right, Doodlebug.  We’re going to be just fine.  Hold onto Mommy, okay?”

“Okay,” she replied through fluttering exhales.  I carried her back through the darkness of the trailer.  The trip back was easier, as lightning flashed every few seconds, lighting the way.  I pushed through the screen door with my shoulder and ran outside.  Flickering bolts of lightning provided us just enough light to find our way to the truck, but in between, we were running blind as debris slammed into our faces and dust stung our eyes.  I did my best to keep Gracie’s face covered from the whirling mess coming at us, while twigs and sharp stones sliced my cheeks.

After I buckled Gracie into her car seat, I jumped into the driver’s seat and pressed the gas all the way to the floor.  At first, the tires couldn’t grip the grass covered ground, but after a few tries of pumping the pedal down as far as it would go, we found traction and started down the road to the Aberdeens’s.  Hail crashed into the windshield, cracking the glass in vein-like patterns, making it damned impossible to see.  Rain thumped on the roof of the truck and I wondered how long before heavier objects joined in the beating.  Gracie screamed in the back seat, clutching Froggy for comfort, but I could barely hear her over the racket overhead.  The Aberdeen house was only two hundred feet away, but it may as well have been on another planet with the wall the storm had put up between us.  Thankfully, the road was a straight line; I could find my way with my eyes closed.  Locating the house was the least of my worries.  The truck shook as I pressed the gas pedal down to the floor.  The beast was coming.  There was no escaping it.  There was no fighting it.  The best I could do was hope like hell we would get to the Aberdeens’ before the twister found us.  I fought to maintain my grip on the wheel and keep us from veering off the road.  

I was no match for the monster’s strength.  The passenger side lifted, and my body pressed against my door.  I couldn’t get free of the grip that glued me to my corner of the truck.  Gracie sobbed behind me, but I could do little to console her.  

“Gracie, baby hold on!  Mama loves you!”  The world went topsy, and we went turvy, as the truck flipped over onto its roof.  My head hit the window, and a blinding pain consumed me as everything went bright white.  Warmth gushed from my chin and ran up my face.  Shattered glass rained over me and my left side seared from an overwhelming, choking pain.  

“Doodlebug, you okay?  Gracie?”  She didn’t respond.

Before I could turn to check on her, the monster made it clear it wasn’t finished with us yet.  

The wind spun the truck around and then lifted us again. We crashed down hard in a ditch, and the impact battered the left side of my body. I tried to call out to Gracie, but my lungs tensed, and I only mustered a grunt.  The ditch held us in place as the storm’s wrath descended, shielding us from another thrashing.  I released my buckle and threw my arms up over my head.  I gave in to gravity and allowed my body to drop to the roof of the truck.   My mind whirled in unison with the raging tempest outside.  The rear window shattered when something flew inside and slammed into my shoulder.  My left side ignited in an excruciating burn as a steel rod impaled me to the truck’s seat.  No matter what this ferocious creature wished to throw at me, nothing would not stop me from getting to my child.  I took a deep breath and pulled at the rod.  It felt like I was tearing my arm off with each tug.  Gracie needed me and I would not give up.  With another deep inhale, I used whatever strength hid inside me and pulled the rod out of the seat and out of me.  I screamed as each rib on the shaft scraped against my bones.  But somehow I freed myself.  As more debris blew into the rear window of the truck, I cradled my face and fought my way to the back seat.  

The storm’s fury was no match for the jolt I experienced next.  Gracie wasn’t in her car seat.  

“Gracie?” I shouted, searching under the every dark corner of the small space.  “Gracie!”  She wasn’t in the truck.  The crash had broken her window.  If she wasn’t inside the truck with me, then she was outside, somewhere out there on her own, at the mercy of the storm.  As I pulled myself through the open window and stood my ground, a flash of lightning revealed the undulating monster growling at my feet.  I had no choice.  My body dropped to the ground and I crawled back into the truck.  Fighting against the throbbing ache in my shoulder, I wedged myself in between the seats, frantically coiling the seatbelts around me like a harness as I braced for impact.   

It’s one thing to be under the protective layer of thick concrete as a raging twister stomps overhead, but to receive a direct stab from its vicious lance – well, that’s another thing altogether.  A lifetime of school drills left me unprepared to face the thundering roar of a merciless, bloodthirsty funnel.  Its strength was unfathomable.  It felt as though my flesh was being torn right from my bones as the beast blustered against my skin.  I wasn’t sure I could keep holding on, but I would try like hell.  Gracie was out there somewhere and only death could keep me from her.

I didn’t see the tree branch in time.  My dim world went black.

I woke up lying on the ground with beams of sunlight stroking my cheeks.  Birds chirped and the air was still.  The sky was clear all but for a few fleecy clouds floating by.  

“Gracie!” I brought myself upright in one motion.  I looked down toward the Aberdeen house.  It was gone, and all that remained was a void in a sea of debris.  

“Gracie?  Stan?  Connie?”  I called out to my family, but only the birds sang back.  The remnants of our homes littered the ground as far as I could see.  How would I find them?  I stood and fought with vertigo to keep from falling back to earth.  My sight pulsed as I struggled to focus on my surroundings.  When I felt confident I could walk, I searched under the piles of wood and panelling scattering the ground.  A large piece to my side would have made the perfect cover for my little girl, so I flipped it over.  Photos of my parents, Gracie and the Aberdeens still clung to the wall in their shattered frames; it was a piece of my trailer.  I ran to each large piece of debris, tearing it away with a surprising strength as I searched for my little girl.

“Gracie!” I whimpered as I fell to the ground after searching the mess for what seemed like forever.  A child as young and as fragile as my Doodlebug couldn’t possibly have survived an ejection from a car during a horrific tornado.  I’d failed her once again.  My Gracie was gone.  How could I lose so much in the blink of an eye?  What had I done in a previous life to deserve this?  I fell to my side and wept for everything stolen from me.

“Mama?” The sweetest sound I’d ever heard.  I looked up to find Gracie, standing atop a pile of rubble, clutching Froggy.  “Oh, baby!”  I stood and ran over to her, lifting her into my arms.

“Ow, Mama!”

“Sorry, Doodlebug,” I said, releasing my crushing grip on her.  I pushed her away to inspect for injuries.  She was unscathed.  Not even a scratch.  It was as though someone had lifted her out of the path of the storm and cradled her in a safe cocoon until it passed.  

“Mama, I flew!  I flew like a birdy!”  Her eyes lit up with joy and her smile shone brighter than the morning sun.  Elation couldn’t bridle my tears of relief.  I held her tiny body in my arms again.  It was a miracle.  

“Kiddo, we’re gonna go look for Grandpa Stan and Granny Connie.  I need you to stay close, okay?”

She smiled and nodded.  “Oh-tay.”    

I focused my attention back to what had been the Aberdeen house.  They were likely still hiding down in the depths of their storm cellar.  At least, I hoped they were.  Hope was all I had left.  

“Stan!” I called out.  “Connie!  Where are you guys?”  I grabbed Gracie and we navigated over our landfill to see if they had found safety.  The ground faltered beneath our steps.  Each uneven mound shifted as I placed my foot onto it, but I kept going, holding Gracie close in my arms.  

“Where’s Gampa?” Gracie asked, hugging Froggy.  “Where’s Gamma?”

“I’m not sure, Doodlebug.  We’ll find them.  They’re probably just hiding until they know it’s safe to come out.”  Somehow, I got my Gracie back.  I wished with everything I could muster to find the Aberdeens safe.

Two wishes in a row were evidently too much to ask.  Before we reached the highest point of debris mountain, I spotted something sticking out from beneath a pile of bricks.  It was a hand at the end of a plaid, flannel shirt.  Then I saw his watch, the watch I’d bought Stan as a thank you for taking us in.    

“Doodlebug, you be a good girl and sit here and take care of Froggy, okay?” I sat Gracie down in a small clearing, tightening my face to keep from showing her my true emotions.  Inside, I was screaming.  

“Oh-tay, Mama!” she said, watching a flock of birds fly overhead.  I was thankful for her innocent ignorance as she sat there amid all the destruction, perfectly content to hug her bear and watch the birds.  I couldn’t be sure her young mind could even comprehended what had happened.  I returned to the sleeve and removed some bricks until I saw Stan’s face.  My insides seized and my belly lurched.  He was so broken, had it not been for his shirt and his watch, I wouldn’t have recognized him.  He didn’t have a pulse and he was ice cold; Stan had been dead for hours.  

“Oh, Stan.  I’m so sorry.”  I caressed his face and combed through his hair, as my tears fell onto his body.  He looked so peaceful.  “Why were you out here?”  I knew the answer though.  From the first day I met the Aberdeens, when they’d adopted us into their hearts, Stan protected me and Gracie any way he could.  I closed my eyes as I stroked his cold skin.  When the storm hit, he left the sanctuary of the cellar to come to our rescue, to make sure Gracie and I had made it out of the trailer safely.  His love and need to protect us cost him his life.  Then I thought of Connie.  Had she been out there too?

“Where’s Gampa Bean?” Gracie asked as I lifted her away from Stan’s body and around the outer edges of the chaos.  

“Doodlebug,” I said as I kissed her warm cheek. “He was just so special, God decided he wanted him to be an angel.”

“An angel?  Can I be an angel too?”

Before I could answer, I spied the storm cellar.  I needed Connie to be in there.  I needed her to be okay.  I couldn’t lose her too.  With careful precision, we climbed over the ruins of our lives and approached the doors.

“Connie, are you in there?” I called as I pulled against the large handles.  The doors weren’t locked.  I climbed the steps into the dark space, but it was empty.  “Oh, God.  Connie, where are you?”  I was sick at the thought that she’d also been outside during the storm.  

I let Gracie walk alongside me as we walked back to the main road.  My body was a shell housing my shattered spirit as I scanned the land and called out to my surrogate mother.  I shouted, then stopped to listen for any movement or sound, but still only birds and the rustle of leaves as the gentle morning breeze blew through.  

I couldn’t deny the truth nagging at me; Connie was dead too.

“Doodlebug, we have to go get help,” I said, taking Gracie’s hand and guiding her to the road.  She skipped along the flat path as I kept a close eye, still hopeful that we’d find Connie standing at the other end of the road.  As we walked, a tightness grew within my chest as helplessness consumed me.  Our family was gone and Gracie and I were all alone.  Connie and Stan had given us hope, brought light into the darkness, showed us true love and happiness.  How could we go on without them?

I couldn’t put on a brave face for Gracie anymore.  I dropped to my knees and released a torrent of tears.

“Gampa Bean!” Gracie squealed and her tiny feet thumped against the gravel road as she ran away from me.  I looked up to find Stan and Connie standing in the road just ahead of us.  Relief washed over me as I leapt to my feet and ran to them, jumping onto Stan and gripping him in a vise-like embrace.  Then I released him and wrapped my arms around Connie.

“Thank goodness you’re safe!  I thought I’d lost you.  But…” I looked back to the pile of bricks.  “How did you…?”

Stan stepped toward me.  “I’m so sorry, Janey.  We tried to get to you, but we just didn’t make it in time.”

A shiver ran down my spine as he said the words.  My eyes darted between where I’d seen his body to where he and Connie stood before me.

“Sweetie,” said Connie.

“I don’t understand,” I said.  “What happened?”

“Mama!” Gracie said.  “What’s that?”  I turned and followed Gracie’s little finger pointing to where our truck had landed, warped and mangled from its flight, still upside down and wedged in the ditch.  I scanned the wreckage until my eyes met a small cluster of brown fur on the ground.  I walked to the truck, no longer concerned with the unstable ground beneath me.  Each step brought the brown fur more into focus, until I realized I was looking at Gracie’s teddy bear.  I looked back at Gracie, still on the road with Stan and Connie, still clutching Froggy in her arms.  When I looked back at the truck, my eyes moved to two little legs, covered in pink fairy pyjama pants, sticking out from beneath the wreckage.

“No!” I screamed.  “No!  It’s not true!”  My little Doodlebug and her teddy bear lay on the ground, tattered and stained with blood.  My eyes moved to something in the field a few feet away, in the exact place I had opened my eyes that morning.  Another body.  

The epiphany should have been clear, but even as I stood there, looking at my beaten body, I couldn’t comprehend it.  How could we be lying on the ground in the aftermath of destruction if we were walking around, breathing the air, feeling the breeze on our skin?

Then before my eyes, our bodies and all the debris faded into nothing.  The brightest grass I had ever seen rose from the ground in its place.  Wildflowers sprouted and speckled the field with vivid colours.  As the sun rose higher into dawn’s sky, the Aberdeen house suddenly appeared, gleaming in the morning light, more beautiful than I remembered it.  

I returned to the road and picked my Doodlebug up into arms and held her tight.  

“I’m so sorry, baby girl,” I cried.  “I did my best to protect you.  I promise, nothing will ever hurt you again.”  

“Mama?” Gracie replied.  “Can I go play with Angus?”

Before I could answer, Gracie flew from my arms and ran toward the farmhouse, where the puppy sat wagging his tail, with his favourite stick in his mouth, waiting for Gracie to play fetch.  

“Come on, Janey,” said Stan, as he and Connie each held out their hands.  “Let’s go home.”  



We’ve Got Tonight

Recently I wrote a Rock Fiction short – at the challenge of a fellow writer – inspired by a Bob Seger song of my choosing. I’d never done this type of writing before, so I was open to the challenge. I think I found an inner Nicholas Sparks that I didn’t know existed.


“Did you remember to bring your change of clothes for afterwards?” Sue Ellen asked her daughter, clinging to her mom hat for as long as she could wear it.

“Yes, Mom,” Jane replied with a chuckle. “I have everything I need. You know I’ll be leaving the nest soon. You’re gonna to have to trust I can take care of myself.”

Sue Ellen turned into the school’s driveway. She pulled the car to a stop and sighed as she looked at her daughter, now an adult, but forever her little girl. “Can you indulge me, please? Let me parent you for one more day.”

Jane tilted her head and smiled at her mother. “Okay, fine. Yes, Mom. I have all my things.” She gathered her purse and reached behind her for her cap and gown and then stopped. “Do you think he’s proud of me?”

“I know he is.”

Jane stiffened her quivering chin and wiped away her tears. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

Sue Ellen hugged her daughter, fighting back her own desire to cry and swallowed the lump in her throat. She whispered, “I love you too, kiddo.”

Jane left the car to join her classmates, and Sue Ellen shifted into drive so she could find a place to park. Her foot didn’t release the brake. She stared at the school’s entrance, and somehow it was 1984 again, and she was walking down the long hallway inside.

Sue Ellen approached her locker after history class. She knew Luke Parker would be waiting at her locker – he hadn’t missed a day yet. Though she resisted his advances each time, she looked forward to their encounters. The most popular guy and the football team’s star quarterback, and he wanted plain, bookish Sue Ellen. He didn’t disappoint; he was right where she’d expected to find him. Leaning against her locker, combing his fingers through his jet-black hair.

“It’s about time you showed up,” said Luke, smiling that dazzling smile that had girls swooning all around them, though he only paid attention to Sue Ellen. “I was worried you weren’t here today.”

She felt her cheeks heat up, but she couldn’t let him know he was affecting her. Sue Ellen straightened her face. “Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”

“The only way you could disappoint me is if you reject me again.”

She fought her muscles from forming the smile she could feel erupting on her face. “Luke, I told you…”

He took a step toward her. “You told me you didn’t think it was a good idea. Well, how will you know unless you give me a chance? Please? One date. If you don’t enjoy yourself, or you feel nothing toward me, I’ll leave you alone forever. I just think we would miss out on something amazing if we don’t at least try.”

Sue Ellen chuckled. “What cheesy teen flick did you get that line from?”

“Come on. You don’t want me to beg, do you? I will.”

Sue Ellen stood there gazing into Luke’s deep brown eyes that crinkled when he smiled, brightening his entire face, his perfect teeth, his imperfect, crooked nose, and his heart-shaped cupid’s bow.

“Okay, you asked for it, “ he said as he lowered himself to his knees.

“What are you doing?” she asked, grabbing his hand to urge him back up. “Fine! Okay, Friday night. Just get up. Please!” She walked away, shaking her head, hugging her books to her chest with an ear-to-ear smile she hoped he wouldn’t see.

That Friday, Sue Ellen sat in her living room waiting for the obnoxious horn from Luke’s truck. When she’d decided that he wouldn’t show up, the doorbell chimed through her house.

“I’ll get it!” she yelled, running to the door in hopes she’d reach it before her parents. To her chagrin, her father got there first.

She heard his voice before she saw him. “Good evening, Mr. Waterfield. I’m Luke Parker. I go to school with your daughter. I’ve come to ask your permission to take her out this evening.”

Sue Ellen stood in the foyer, staring with her mouth agape as her father accepted Luke’s outstretched hand. After twenty minutes of discussing the school’s successful football season, and the coveted scholarship that Luke had won, Sue Ellen’s father gave his blessing and sent the two teenagers off for the night.

“You two kids have fun,” he said as they walked down the path to Luke’s red Chevy. “Be home by midnight!”

Sue Ellen and Luke drove in silence for the first fifteen minutes of their date. She was nervous and still unsure of his intentions.

“So, where are we going tonight?” she finally asked, disrupting the silence.

“I thought we’d go see a movie at the drive-in,” he replied.

“The drive-in?” she repeated, realizing she’d been right about him. There was only one reason people went to the outdoor movie park. Sue Ellen was angry that she hadn’t listened to her first instinct. Why else would the jock want to date the lonely bookworm? She was a conquest he could brag to his friends about. Well, Sue Ellen would not reduce herself to a notch on his bedpost. They pulled into an empty spot in the half-full lot.

“I’m so happy you agreed to come,” said Luke, as he left the driver’s side of the Chevy. Sue Ellen watched as Luke rounded the back of the truck and pulled something from the bed. He walked to the passenger side clutching two chairs. He opened her door and offered his free hand.

“Are you coming?”

Sue Ellen was stumped. Where were they going? Her curiosity heightened, and she gave him her hand. They sat down in the chairs in front of the truck’s grill.

Luke took Sue Ellen’s hand. “I thought it would be nicer to sit under the stars.” She’d been so wrong about him. He wasn’t the jerk jock. Sue Ellen missed most of the movie because she spent the better part of the night looking at Luke, instead of Kevin Bacon dancing onscreen. She had never smiled as much as she did on the ride home. Sue Ellen was ready to let Luke kiss her goodnight, but when he walked her to the front door of her house, he merely pressed his lips to her cheek.

“I hope you had a good time tonight,” he said.

Without saying a word, she pulled him in and wrapped her lips around his. When she went inside, her face burned with elation, and Sue Ellen knew she was smitten.

Sue Ellen took her seat with the other parents while the graduates navigated through the sea of navy caps and gowns in an effort to find their chairs. Jane didn’t have the same challenge; she had already found her seat on stage with the other honour students. She was looking at her lap through closed eyes, clutching her index cards and fluttering her lips as she practised her valedictorian speech. Sometimes Sue Ellen found it too difficult to look at her. Jane had his chiselled face, his black hair and matching thick lashes, his brown eyes. She was his perfect doppelganger. It felt like only yesterday that Sue Ellen had sat in that same chair, rehearsing her own speech.

“Congratulations, Sue Belle,” said Luke after the ceremony completed. He kissed her temple and wrapped his arms around her neck, pulling her into his body. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks, Luke. I’m proud of you too.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, so much to be proud of.”

“Have you told your parents yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“They’ll know you lost your scholarship when…”

“Shhh. I’ll tell them this weekend. I have a plan. For now, I just want to enjoy being free of this place. Do you wanna go home and change first, or are you okay to leave from here?”

Sue Ellen wasn’t in the mood to party with a bunch of drunkards at the top of The Mound. “Maybe I should just stay home tonight.”

“Sue Belle, we only have a few days left before you leave. This may be the last time that we all get to hang out together.”

Sue Ellen sighed and conceded defeat. “Okay, I’m gonna go home with my folks and get changed. Pick me up later?”

“I’ll see you at eight.”

Later that night, Luke’s truck pulled up the winding road to the peak of the largest hill in town, where everyone had started celebrating. The stench of beer and pot smoke filled the forest while speakers blared Seger and Van Halen into the evening air. The sun was setting over the city, bringing the day to an end. High school wouldn’t be the only thing coming to an end that night. Something had been nagging Sue Ellen all week. And she couldn’t wait any longer.

“We need to talk,” she whispered in Luke’s ear, just as he was about to agree to a game of beer pong at a makeshift table someone had fashioned in a clearing.

“Alright,” he said. “Everything okay?”

She led him through the woods in silence, and they found the dark, secluded part of the hilltop where people went to be alone. No one was drunk enough to use that space yet. They stopped at a fallen tree trunk. Luke leaned against it while Sue Ellen planted her feet to the ground. Her eyes welled up. “Luke, I just want you to know how much I care about you.”

“Uh oh,” Luke replied, pushing himself away from the trunk. “I’m not gonna like this, am I?”

Sue Ellen hadn’t rehearsed what she would say to Luke. She needed to break things off with him. When Luke had injured himself during a game, lost his scholarship and started talking about following her to school, things got too serious for her. She needed to end things. She hadn’t decided on doing it on grad night until that moment.

Sue Ellen took a deep breath and without thinking, blurted, “I can’t do the long distance thing.”

“We don’t have to. I’m gonna move out there and get a job. We can still be together.”

“You can’t leave everything behind for me.”

“Sue Belle, you are everything. If you leave, there’s nothing here for me.”

She wiped away the tears soaking into her shirt. “We’ve only been together a few months. We’re too young to make such a commitment.”

Luke pushed off the trunk and kicked a tree root. His eyebrows angled down as his chin wrinkled. He angrily rubbed his eyes. “Why did you agree to go out with me if you were just gonna dump me?”

Sue Ellen struggled to speak. She cleared the tension in her throat. “I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t believe I could care for you this much when I said yes to our first date. I didn’t think I could, but I fell in love with you.”

“Yeah, so much that you don’t want to be with me anymore.”

“Please, Luke. I just need to focus on school for now. Don’t hate me.”

He stopped and looked at her. “I could never hate you. I could never love anyone as much as I love you.” He stepped towards her. Seeing him in so much pain made the decision to break up that much harder.

Sue Ellen pulled him into her and held him tight. “Luke, this is for the best. If we’re meant to be together, we’ll find each other again when the time is right.” She hugged Luke and committed each detail of him to memory. The way the fabric of his sweater felt against her face, scratching her skin in the most uncomfortable, yet enjoyable way. The way his Old Spice and fabric softener blended, a smell that would forever belong to him. How his arms felt holding her.

She didn’t want the moment to end, but she needed to leave. “I think you should take me home.”

“Wait,” he said. He pulled away from Sue Ellen to bring their eyes together. “If this is our last night together, can we make this night one we’ll both remember?”

“What, here?” she asked, her cheeks blushing.

He smiled. “We have the truck, we have the stars, and we have Bob to serenade us. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye. Tomorrow we’ll go our separate ways, but tonight,” his lips parted into a smile, “well, we’ve got tonight.”

“Okay, you win for cheesiest come-ons,” Sue Ellen said with a laugh. She knew it was the worst idea, and logic told her to say no and just go home. But she wanted to be with him too. They walked back to the truck, hand in hand, and drove over to the lookout. They had it all to themselves. That night, atop a blanket in the bed of his Chevy, they said goodbye under the stars.

The directions read, “Results in forty-five minutes”. It took a just under thirty. Sue Ellen hadn’t yet completed her first semester, and now a little vial filled with pee announced that her life was about to change.

“This can’t be happening,” she said out loud.

“I’m coming home for Thanksgiving,” she said to Luke’s answering machine later that night. “I was hoping maybe we could get together, grab a bite to eat, talk…”

“Hello? Sue Belle? I’m here!” Luke was panting as he answered the phone. “Yes, I want to see you. Let’s eat. Let’s talk! Our place.”

Sue Ellen had never been more nervous than she was on the drive home. Her parents had surprised her. Though they expressed disappointment in her lapse in judgement, they acknowledged that ‘these things happen’ and they were willing to help her finish school and take care of the baby if that’s what she wanted to do. It was what she wanted to do.

Sitting at their diner, as she waited for Luke, Sue Ellen wondered if he would be as supportive as her folks. He loved her, but would he love her as much when he found out that they were forever bound by this life they created together. She had heard from some mutual friends that Luke was working as a foreman on one of his uncle’s construction sites. Maybe he’d be open to being a father too.

After the first hour, Sue Ellen just figured maybe they’d mixed up the times. By the end of the second hour, she’d reconciled he stood up. For a brief moment, she wondered if there was any way he could have found out about the baby. But the only people who knew were her parents, and they wouldn’t have said anything, knowing she was meeting him to reveal her secret. When she’d decided she couldn’t stomach another milkshake, Sue Ellen paid her bill and left the diner. On the drive home, she wondered why he would have left her sitting there, after sounding so eager to see her. Maybe something had come up, and he’d left word with her parents. But they knew where she was, and they would have called the diner. Somewhere between concerned and pissed off, she rounded the end of the street up to her house.

Sue Ellen’s mother was sitting on the porch swing when she pulled into the driveway. She’d been crying. Sue Ellen’s stomach lurched, not from the morning sickness she’d become familiar with, but from that sickening feeling of knowing something was terribly wrong.

“Luke?” Sue Ellen asked as she walked up to her mother, tears filling her eyes.

“Oh, baby. I’m so sorry.”

“No. No!” Sue Ellen unleashed a scream from deep within her and fell to the ground. Her mother ran to her and cradled her. “Luke, no!”

“Sue Ellen, sweetheart,” her father said. “He was on his way to meet you, and… honey, he just couldn’t stop his truck in time.”

She sobbed into the arms of her parents. “I was so angry with him. I thought he stood me up.”

“No, baby,” her mother whispered. “He wanted to see you. He was going to ask…”

“Angela,” her father cut in. “No.”

“She should know,” her mother replied.

Her father asserted himself. “Not now.”

“What?” Sue Ellen asked, pulling herself out of their protective shell. “Tell me. Dad, please. What is it?”

Her dad took a breath and let out a reluctant sigh. “Sweetie, Mr. Parker said they found a ring in Luke’s jacket pocket.”

“A ring?” Sue Ellen stood up. “What kind of a ring?”

“An engagement ring.”

Sue Ellen’s stomach betrayed her as she lost the battle to keep her meal down. “He was going to ask me…? Did he know?”

“About the baby? No, I don’t think so. He’d had the ring engraved. Looks like he’d bought it some time ago.”

“What did it say?”

“We’ve got forever.”

Sue Ellen looked down at the ring on her left hand and spun it the way she did when she was agitated. With eyes filled with tears of joy and sadness, she looked up as her daughter approached the podium on stage, accepting her diploma.

“Luka Jane Parker!” announced the principal, handing her the scroll tied with white ribbon. Though Luke left them on that devastating night, Sue Ellen knew that he had been with them every step of the way.

“Yes, sweet Jane,” Sue Ellen whispered to herself. “He is very proud of you. We both are.”

A Box Of Lost Memories

One of my favourite writing activities to participate in is writing prompts. They help me stretch out my writing muscles or at least, give me a workout when the words don’t flow on my current WIP. Here’s what I came up with for a recent photo prompt.


“John, there’s a call for you on line one,” said Jasmine, interrupting the meeting I told her was not to be interrupted under any circumstances.
“Take a message,” I instructed and turned back to my clients, who were already sighing impatiently at my pitch.
“John, you need to take this call,” she insisted.
“It’s the police.”

When I envisioned what a perfect life would be, Lisa and I were married, living in a modest house filled with beautiful children. I never stopped to appreciate how lucky I was when my dreams came true and our sweet triplets were born. Midnight black hair like their mother, and my sterling eyes. Each morning, I’d wake to my jubilant little girls jumping up and down me with glee. Each evening when I returned from work, they’d greet with squeals of, “Daddyyyyyyyyyy!” Six tiny, vicelike arms wrapped around me, squeezing me with all their strength, and nothing felt better. We didn’t have much, but we had each other, and it was perfect.
I got my first promotion when the girls were three. Shortly after, came another step up in the company. I was climbing the ladder at an unprecedented rate, making a name for myself among the higher-ups. Business trips to meet with out of town clients meant I missed birthdays, but my girls never faulted me. Late night meetings ran into anniversary dinners with Lisa, but she still kissed me with fiery passion when I finally made it home and happily microwaved the dinner she’d cooked for us.
My girls decided I couldn’t miss out on all the fun of their birthdays since I couldn’t always be there to see it for myself. On the night of their sixth birthday, I returned from my business trip to find a wooden box on the kitchen counter. Inside were photos from their birthday party. Missed moments of cake-covered faces, plump lips blowing out candles, and silly poses filled the box. How did I get so lucky?

I sit on the floor of my living room in our giant house that my high paying job afforded us. It feels somehow bigger. Hollow even. The early morning sunlight shines through the Venetian blinds, leaving bright lines on the hardwood floors. Dust particles dance on the shafts of light beams. My girls love to chase the “fairies”. No, they don’t chase fairies anymore. They’re wearing makeup now. Lisa told me Kassy has a boyfriend. When did they grow up? How did I miss it all? I stare at the wooden box in front of me. I don’t remember it ever being this full of photographs. How have I missed so much? Birthdays and Christmas concerts, soccer games and dance recitals, all stare back at me. I have no memory of any of it. I wasn’t there. Tears leave my eyes and crest my cheeks, landing on the photos, swelling the inked paper. I frantically wipe them clean. It’s all I have left of them.
For the sake of yesterday’s stupid sale’s pitch, I missed their junior high graduation. If I had been with them instead, maybe they wouldn’t have been on the road at that moment. Maybe I would have been driving, and the drunk driver would have killed me too.
“My dear, sweet girls. I’m so sorry.”

Upcoming Releases

This year is going to be very busy for me as I will be releasing two novels. My first is my baby. Moonstone has been in my life for many years, and it’s finally going to see the light of the sun.
Slide1This YA Fantasy is the first in a series of four. Matty Evans is focusing on getting through her finals unscathed and graduating high school. One night a mysterious storm rolls into town and it provides the perfect distraction. While paying attention to the strange clouds and lightning above, Matty’s guard is down, and she is abducted from her yard and taken to a mysterious place. After a series of devastating blows, she discovers secrets within herself and finds that she is stronger than she ever thought possible, emotionally and physically. This strength will be necessary if she is to make it out alive. The cover is my own that I threw together, but but I am currently working with a brilliant artist to get that finalized.
Slide1Stella’s Law is another YA story that I wrote as an entry for an anthology. I didn’t make it in, but I did receive praise from the publisher, so I decided to expand it into a standalone novel. In this book, a young woman wanders around the world orchestrating little accidents and inconveniences to prevent people from meeting an untimely death. Stella has no memory of who she is, how she came to do what she does, or how she died. Stella’s Law is a journey of self-discovery with a touch of humour and a lot of emotion. The cover for Stella’s Law will also be changing to better suit the character and the story she has to tell.
I haven’t set release dates for either at the moment, but they will be out before the end of the year. I will keep posting updates for both.

Shadow Circus

Some time ago, I submitted a short story to another Facebook group for a writing contest.  They provided me with a prompt that was centred around a circus.  The group has since gone inactive, but I thought I’d share my submission with you.  I won third place!  🙂

pexels-photo-167386“Come on, man!” Jeff shouted as he crawled through the tear in the fence.  “Toss me your briefcase and let’s go!”

“It’s not a briefcase,” Colin replied, as he slipped through behind his friends.  “It’s a messenger bag!”

“Your face is a messenger bag!” Jeff retorted.  Lisa and Jenny giggled at the immature exchange.  Jenny’s laugh made Colin forget his apprehension about being in such a dark and eerie place.  He’d wanted to be alone with her for months, and tonight he had his chance.   The foursome walked through the dark carnival graveyard.  Roller coasters and rides that once flashed with colourful lights decayed to rusted metal skeletons.  Game huts crumbled into forgotten heaps of splintered wood.  Trees and weeds had taken over paths that hadn’t seen foot traffic in years.  A place once filled with joy was nothing more than rubble and overgrowth.  Colin had the foggy memory of riding his first coaster there on his fifth birthday.  The park closed not long after.

“Come on,” said Jeff.  “We’ll be able to see everything from the top!”  He grabbed Lisa’s hand, and they took off toward the ferris wheel.  Colin wondered if Lisa knew how many times Jeff brought girls here.

“Are we going to miss it?” Jenny asked, taking Colin’s hand in hers.

“I promise you won’t miss it,” he replied, squeezing his fingers around hers.  She smiled and the crinkle beneath her turquoise eyes ignited Colin with the urge to kiss her.  She held a gaze with his eyes, then with his lips.  Was this an invitation?  She answered with a step closer to him.  Their bodies trembled and breath quivered between them.  Before their lips could embrace, Jenny looked up and gasped.

“What’s that?” she asked.  The indigo sky came alive.

“Hey guys, look up!” Colin shouted to the others.  “It’s starting!”

“Oh, wow!” Lisa shouted.  “Look at that!”  White streaks zipped through the night sky and indigo gave way to radiating red, gyrating green and whirling white.  The Aurora Borealis had joined in the ballet of meteors.  They stood there in awe.  Without warning, two meteors collided up in the heavens.  A burst of light exploded and twinkling stardust rained down.

“Good thing I brought this,” Jeff said, holding up his smartphone to capture the incredible moment.  “No one would believe us.”  Glittering, fiery rock debris sprinkled the earth.  Some appeared to land in the park behind the old snack court.

“We should get up there,” Jeff said, pointing to the top of the ferris wheel.  “Looks like it’s gonna be awesome.”

“I wanna see if we can find any meteors over there,” Lisa demanded.

“Shhh!” Jenny’s gentle clutch turned to a tight squeeze.  “Someone’s here!”  They stopped and listened.  There were voices coming from behind the snack court buildings.  Jeff didn’t wait for the others to investigate.

“No, Jeff!” Lisa said as she clutched his arm.  “We should go.  We’re gonna get in crap for being here.”

“It’s fine,” Jeff replied, silencing her with a dismissive kiss.  Colin and Jenny looked at one another and smiled.  He wanted to kiss her too, but their moment had passed.  Jeff pulled away from Lisa.  “You coming?” he asked Colin.  Not wanting to appear afraid, Colin nodded and followed.  The girls remained close.  They rounded the buildings and there stood a black and white, striped Big Top.  Lights burst through the seams of the black and white, striped fabric and upbeat organ music echoed from inside.

“Where the hell did that come from?” Jeff asked, walking toward it.  They parted the entrance curtains and peered inside.  A dozen performers rehearsed their acts.  A fire eater blew out a stream of flames into the ceiling of the tent.  Above them, trapeze artists linked limbs and twirled through the air.  Three contortionists tangled up their bodies in and out of pretzels on the ground.  Two jugglers with painted faces tossed pins back and forth to each other.

“Welcome,” a baritone voice spoke behind them.  The four teens whipped around and gasped.  They were face to face, rather knee to face with tall, gaunt man.  He towered over them, forcing them to crane their necks to see his pallid face.  He lifted his black top hat in salutation, bowing his bald head which reflected the moonlight.  “Cornelius Fere, Ringmaster of Shadow Circus.  Pleasure to greet our first guests.  May I entice you to come inside and see the show?”

“Hell ya!” Jeff shouted without a thought and he pulled Lisa into the tent.  Colin and Jenny followed.  For a moment, Colin thought he saw the night sky through the man’s face, as though he was transparent.  He brushed it off as a trick of the lights beaming from inside the tent, and he allowed Jenny to pull him in.

“I guess they’re reopening the park,” Jenny said as they took their seats in the front row.  A beautiful woman approached them wearing a green, jewelled corset and a matching flapper headpiece over her golden hair.

“Peanuts?  Popcorn?” she offered.  “A treat for our welcome guests.”  Her smile and her voice were hypnotic.  The aroma of buttery popcorn was enticing and they happily accepted the offer.  Jeff also indulged in the roasted legumes.  They sat there enthralled by the remarkable talents of the performers.  Time slipped away as they watched the show.

“I’m happy I came tonight,” Jenny said to Colin, gazing into his eyes.  She leaned in and he returned her approach.  Their lips connected with a tender touch.  She tasted like mint and popcorn.  Her scent of peony was intoxicating.  He could kiss her forever.  Then their lips parted and they enjoyed the show.

“Attention everyone,” the familiar voice of the Ringmaster announced from the centre of the room.  His voice was commanding as though he spoke through a megaphone.  “Please take a moment to greet our first guests.”  Colin squinted to see the man’s face from where he sat.  His eyes seemed empty, like cavernous voids.  He looked in their direction and smiled.  His mouth was as hollow as his eyes.  Colin’s attention turned to the other performers, who all at once stopped what they were doing and shifted focus to their young spectators.

“Why aren’t you eating?” the snack lady asked Colin.  He was horrified by what stood before him.  She was grotesque.  The skin was gone from one side of her face.  Blood wept from her gruesome wound and stained her costume.  Colin felt something tickle his hand.  The box of popcorn was alive with squirming, yellow maggots.  His stomach heaved and he lurched forward, emptying onto the floor.  When he sat back up, the performers approached them.  They started to change.  The trapeze artists released their swings and as they fell, horns sprouted from their foreheads and their fingers extended into talons.  Grey, scaled wings erupted from their backs and they circled above the teens like hungry vultures.  The paint on the jugglers’ faces melted and ran down their gruesome faces.  Fangs appeared when their lips parted, offering a sinister sneer.  Their eyes glowed and their irises turned red with pinprick pupils watching them.  Bloody saliva dripped from their jagged teeth.  The fire breather set himself on fire.  As he approached them, dragging one leg behind the other, the flames evaporated and all that remained was a charred figure with pure white eyes and burnt flesh.  The contortionists crawled toward them upside on all fours, bodies twisted and faces vile.  Colin couldn’t move.  His friends watched the creatures coming toward them with eager anticipation.  Did they not see the same thing he did?

“Come on!” shouted Colin, shaking Jenny.  “We’ve gotta get out of here!”  His pleas woke her and she screamed when she saw the horror coming at them.  The pair got up from their seats and ran to the entrance of the tent.  The door was gone and the walls of the room were solid.  They frantically looked behind them for another way out.

The Ringmaster appeared before them, as if from nowhere.  “You can’t leave,” he said with an evil smirk.  “We haven’t had dinner yet.  I have a succulent menu planned for this evening.”  The creatures started attacking Lisa and Jeff, snarling and shrieking as they tore away at their bodies.  Jenny screamed again.

The Ringmaster took a deep breath in through the narrow slits of his nose and then moaned with his exhale.  “Yes.  Scream louder.  Fear sweetens your flesh.”  He stepped forward, erupting in a deep, echoing cackle.

“Shhh, what was that?” Dennis asked his friends as they searched for the place where the meteor landed.  “I swear I heard laughing.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” John answered.

“Hey Nick!” Dennis shouted to his friend who was exploring the old snack court.  “Do you see anything over there?”

“Nope, nothing here!  Just a bunch of rubble.  Wait…hey, I found a briefcase. It’s all torn though. There’s a smartphone here too. Damn, it’s all broken. What the…is this blood?”