July 21 – August 10, 2022 1st Line Prompt: “It was the most beautiful …”

1st Line Prompt: “It was the most beautiful …”

Your story must start with the line “It was the most beautiful …”

Required Elements:

  • A beach
  • A message in a bottle

Word Count: 1200 including the required words.

  • This is the thread for stories as well as general comments. Say hello and be sure to check the “Notify me of follow-up comments by email” box for email notifications.
  • To leave feedback/Comments directly relating to a particular story – click “reply” to the story comment.
  • Specific critiques, comments, and feedback are encouraged. If you do not want honest professional feedback, do not post a story.
  • Keep feedback and critiques to a civil and constructive level, please. Please critique stories for construction, style, flow, grammar, punctuation, and so on. The moderator has the right to delete any comments that appear racist, inflammatory or bullying.

Please Note: Comments may be considered “published” with regard to other contest requirements.

All stories are fall under general copyright laws. No part may be reproduced without the express consent of the respective author.

Story Submission Rules:
  1. One story per author. You may post more than one, but only the first story will qualify for voting.
  2. Stories must be in English, unpublished and your own work.
  3. Stories must fit into a single comment box and must stay within the word limit set for each contest.
  4. You may vote only once.
  5. You cannot vote for yourself.
  • Stories must be posted no later than Wednesday morning at 8:00am PDT / 10:00am CST / 11:00am EST / 10:30pm IST / 4:00pm WET/GMT/ 6:00pm CET/1:00am AEDT (Thursday)
  • Voting starts Wednesday morning at 10:00am PDT / 12:00pm CST / 1:00pm EST / 11:30pm IST / 6:00pm WET/GMT/ 8:00pm CET/5:00am AEDT (Thursday) and you have 24 hours to vote.

See How to Participate for complete rules and disclaimers.

132 thoughts on “July 21 – August 10, 2022 1st Line Prompt: “It was the most beautiful …”

  • July 25, 2022 at 9:13 am
    Permalink

    Signing in …

  • July 25, 2022 at 9:56 am
    Permalink

    Signing in … I know, I know, I keep saying I’ll get a story in. It’s not writer’s block, it’s just that the stories I have been writing haven’t been up to the standards this site demands, and I can’t seem to bring my game up. I’m working on it.

    My latest heroine, Emlyn, and her love/hate relationship with ‘him’ was less than satisfying even though I had a killer ending. The rest of the story didn’t match up. Working on this new one already. Maybe I’ll let my subconscious write it.

    • July 26, 2022 at 7:05 am
      Permalink

      You should’ve posted it anyway.
      Your talent is always up to the standards!

      • July 26, 2022 at 10:30 am
        Permalink

        Thank you, Carrie. You just made my day.

  • July 29, 2022 at 2:47 pm
    Permalink

    PAPERS
    A short story by Lara Crave, 2022

    It was the most beautiful feeling, lying down on that endless beach, tiny waves lapping at my feet. Some object washed up buoyantly against my toes. I stretch my arm for it.

    Unbelievable! I know that bottle!

    I dislodge the cap, breaking off the plastic thread, worn out by seven decades of riding the waves, and pull out the little piece of paper from inside. It’s not done these days. A school-teacher taking her class down to the beach to dump some thirty plastic-bottles in the sea. No-go. Plastic takes five-hundred years to disintegrate. But that was precisely the point back then. We appreciated the things that lasted. We weren’t fleeting, fickle and flimsy.

    The paper’s still dry after all the years. Miss Trudy had asked all the eight-year olds in her class to write a message-in-a-bottle to our future selves. We then raced down the sandy slope and threw them as far out as we could. The rest was for the ocean, time and destiny to decide.

    I stare at my message. My old pretty handwriting! In which epoch did I lose it? During heroin rehab? The many years of typing? My arthritis robbed it from me? Can’t recall, but it’s cute to see my curly letters again from a time that will never return.

    “Explore the world and write about it all”. That’s the message little Lara sent to older Lara. Tears of anguish stream down my cheeks catching up with the earlier ones of elation.

    I keep the paper, and throw the bottle in a bin. Darn! It’s full of bottles. The whole lot must’ve washed up. I pick one. But it’s an Polish Springs from another era. There’s a message in it too.

    What? But I never even sent that letter. It was perhaps the biggest mistake of my life. But back then I thought it was just too cheesy. What if he told everyone about it? The embarrassment. I’d’ve killed myself. I’d already wanted to, prepared the potion and all.

    But he saved my life. I hardly knew him. His name was Lionel Capri, okay, and he was a year ahead of me, so seventeenish. That’s all I knew. That day was the darkest of my life. I was gonna end it all. Totally resolved. But out of the blue, he emerged from a corridor, I nearly crashed into him. And he smiled at me. One long, genuine smile. He got on his way, but I remained there, stunned. “I Will Survive” was playing from someone’s car outside the school. It was in the charts and all over the place, back then. So Lionel and Gloria Gaynor saved me.

    I flushed the toxic concoction down the loo, and wrote Lionel a letter that same evening. About how his smile enchanted me. How, well, if he didn’t already have a girlfriend, perhaps we can meet, talk. Love. Horrible stuff like that. I thought of myself a writer, but no-one really knows how to write a proper love-letter when the need arises. I sealed it in an envelope and hid it in my undies drawer. Made sure nobody ever saw it. It was for nobody’s eyes. Not even Lionel’s, it turned out.

    “You’re my dream, Lara. The day you’ll smile at me, that’ll be the day,” said the note in the bottle from the bin.

    How could it be?

    I rush home, dig under my undies. Make sure nobody found my letter.

    It’s there. Sealed as ever. I can’t understand. Where are you Lionel? Where’ve you been since the day you smiled? All those many years. Decades. It probably hardly matters anymore.

    Confused, I place the envelope back where it’s always been. A red blotch on one of my panties catches my eye. Blood? There is another little envelope nearby. Like the ones used for gift dedication cards. I open it.

    It only asks: “Why?” and it’s signed “Jon”.

    For about a week I’d thought of keeping him after all. And it was during that week that I thought I’d call him Jon, without the “h”. I somehow knew it’d be a boy. But that was it. They then convinced me it was gonna be totally unfair. That the father was gone, and I’d have to put up with it all. And then there’s my career, they said. My wellbeing. My dreams. Kill Jon.

    I slam the drawer shut, jolting the whole unit. A paper slips out from behind it. I remember it very well. I’d taken pleasure in tearing up that marriage certificate. I’d spat on the side mentioning Peter and just kept my half. There’s still a tip of the letter “r” along the ripped edge. I must’ve missed it.

    “Will you, Lara take Peter as your man?”

    “No! No! No!”

    But I actually said yes. Peter wasn’t a bad guy really. Just that he wasn’t ready for the ride. I wanted to explore the world and write about it. Live a life worth a novel. He was fine with nine-to-fives, he’d bring me home the latest news from his eternal feud at work with Sanders, praise my bland dinners just to make me feel good. So very regular. Like there’s nothing special about being alive. He was Peter. But I wasn’t a Jane.

    Still, I couldn’t believe how he could then swap me – a beautiful young woman, of model looks really, quirky, exciting – with that horse-faced Susan.

    The bell rings. The postman hands me a registered letter. Barnes and Noble? They accepted my draft! Oh my dear Lord! I nearly slip as I walk in excitedly. But this can’t be true. None of my drafts were ever accepted. N.o.n.e. I’d even stopped submitting. Perhaps someone will find my tons of typed pages when I die, and do something with them. Most likely they’ll end up in the paper-recycling bin, in a quick sweep to make the property presentable, before the realtor arrives with potential buyers.

    Oh, my house is a mess! I pick up some papers from the floor. Tissues, a bookmark and then a leaf ripped off a book. Page 13 of a book titled “Pretty, Soon”. It also says “Lara Blisschen” up in the header. I read it, it’s not bad. Not bad at all. Pity I never had it published.

    I take a deep breath. Gentle waves lick my toes. So, I haven’t left the beach after all. It’s all in my head, isn’t it? I hear some voices. They sound desperate. Doctors, nurses. What’s even the fuss? It’s beautiful here. Sunny, tranquil. So peaceful.

    Then I fly.

    Lennon, my half-brother, grabs the death-certificate and eyes it for two seconds. My two seconds’ worth. The council official says, “Condolences,” as he parts with the document. This will be the last piece of paper. Lennon just nods, doesn’t say anything, and glimpses at the certificate again. He’ll need it, to wrangle over the inheritance. He must feel that sweet sense of revenge, for all those times big sis got the better of him and he couldn’t kick back. We never got on well.

    Peter’s there too, for the funeral. So he did come after all. With his horse.

    Well, whatever.

    I’m now a puff of thinking air.

    • August 3, 2022 at 7:29 pm
      Permalink

      Hi, Lara. Great stuff. A kind of avalanche of messages and relationships – the one in the bottle (is that imagined?) prompting all the rest. The reminscences have a feverish quality to them, which sets up the resolution well. It’s almost an ‘it was all just a dream’ story, with the dream replaced by ‘It’s all in my head, isn’t it?’, and it works, I think. All the past regrets are very relatabe. Lovely last line.

      • August 5, 2022 at 6:22 am
        Permalink

        Hi Phil, thanks for reviewing.

        The theme is inspired by the idea that just before we die, we get a flashback “movie” of our lives, something scientists (I heard this on TV) have recently proven to be true…

        Also thanks, Phil, by the way, for guiding me back here to this site. So this story belongs a bit to you too. It wouldn’t have even been written if you didn’t personally take me by the hand 🙂

        Lara

    • August 4, 2022 at 10:24 am
      Permalink

      Lara,

      Well, at first I thought, boy there are a lot of convenient writer coincidences happening here and where exactly is she going with this? Then, things got interesting. Like Phil, I thought the last line was excellent. Stories sometimes live and die with the strength of a last line. This one I think is only strengthened by it. Good job.

      Roy

      • August 5, 2022 at 6:33 am
        Permalink

        Hi (RM) Roy,
        thanks for reviewing.

        Yes, it does look like a chunk of coincidences, I suppose, at first… but it’s the rundown of our whole lives we’re all supposed to get just before we meet out Creator. So it might get a bit crammed.

        I like the last line too. A little nod to the possibility of consciousness outside the human body… “thinking air”, not technically correct perhaps (it’s more subliminal than air – ether? Spirit? Ghost? Alt universe?), but that’s how a person uninitiated in these things might call it. I’m not necessarily happy with the “thinking” part of it. I wanted a word that encapsulates emotions too. Like “thinking+feeling puff of air”. But I can’t think of a word that encapsulates the two things together. “Conscious puff of air” would sound too “learned”. So I settled for “thinking”, unless you guys have something better to suggest to me.

        Lara

        • August 5, 2022 at 7:57 am
          Permalink

          Hi again, Lara. I missed the bit about ‘doctors and nurses’, so now it all becomes clear … and it’s very clever.

          (How about ‘sentient’ air? But I like ‘thinking’)

        • August 5, 2022 at 8:01 am
          Permalink

          Lara,

          I didn’t realize Phil had also answered. Apparently great minds think alike.

          Roy

    • August 5, 2022 at 8:37 am
      Permalink

      Hi Lara, I had to think about your piece for a while before I could comment. It made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, which indicates it was definitely good writing. I understood your character was dying and going through a list of regrets and life experiences that didn’t go as planned before becoming that “puff of thinking air” (brilliant). I didn’t want to face that I might have to do this when my time comes. I do this enough late at night when I can’t sleep with insomnia and the old “ghosts” of the past come to haunt me. I did a lot of this when my mother had Alzheimer’s and was slowly dying over 10 years. I took care of her but I had so many unanswered questions and unresolved issues from my childhood that I wanted answered in our complicated relationship. Your story gave me a lot of food for thought. Can we resolve our regrets during our lives so we don’t have to face them all in the end? Hmmm. Something to think about! Thanks for sharing the story.

    • August 5, 2022 at 5:20 pm
      Permalink

      Hi Lara – Fine story!

      Two things I especially liked: the structure, with the story built around a succession of paper documents (the clue in the title, no doubt!), which anchors the narrative amid the succession of apparently random thoughts of the narrator.

      And then the characterisation of someone who is on the one hand clearly fragile, vulnerable and self-doubting, but on the other has an (aspirational?) self-image of being “a beautiful young woman, of model looks really, quirky, exciting”, who can maybe lash out when hurt or hold on to grievances for a long time. More than one side to her. Good stuff!

    • August 11, 2022 at 7:10 am
      Permalink

      Hi Lara,

      I’m not sure if I have read your work before but I would like to read more.

      I think Phil has got the measure of this story in that it has a kind of feverish quality and that clearly suits the notion of things going on in your head.

      I think the time lapse idea of the message in a bottle is a very good way to deal with this prompt as, after all, we never expect to see the bottle or its message again and if we do, it is likely to be years in the future. I know that from several of the other comments, people have researched tidal flows and all that so a bottle really can travel thousands of miles. That cast a slight doubt upon your bottle being washed back up in the same place but, hey, it’s a piece of creative writing.

      I loved the bit about the bottles being plastic, very topical now. Love the line, “we weren’t fleeting, fickle and flimsy.”

      Kind regards,

      Ken Frape

  • July 29, 2022 at 3:23 pm
    Permalink

    Morning Message
    Adrienne (Adi) Riggs (1,200 w)

    It was the most beautiful morning, the sun peeking over the horizon setting the sky alight with brilliant color. The sea was calm, no hint of the dark, storm of the night before, other than the debris deposited on silky sands.

    The sea played gently around clumps of seaweed, beautiful shells, and other “treasures” brought to the surface by the previously churning waves. Claire, an artist, found the best objects for her creations when walking the beach after a storm, here in nature, all free for the scavenging.

    Climbing a small dune, she paused, her bare feet comfortable in the sand, a backpack at her feet. Her face raised to the rising sun, she relished the fresh breeze on her tanned skin, her long, blond hair blowing behind her. Her light, white cotton dress moved with the breezes and molded against her lithe body and youthful curves as she stood silhouetted against the sunlight.

    The sea gulls flew her way knowing that breakfast had arrived. It was their ritual. She brought pieces of cornbread muffins to them every morning. She laughed and chattered with them as they circled and landed around her as she threw them their treats. She ran out of bread pieces and crumbs as she began her treasure hunt along the shore.

    She hummed as she picked up precious shells, beautiful pieces of genuine sea glass, molded and sanded by the ocean’s waves, smoothed driftwood, and other odds and ends washed ashore. She’d once found an old lantern, many years under water, rusted, but still solid. At times she’d found coins, rings, and other forms of jewelry, but those were rare. She placed each item she found in her backpack carefully.

    As she neared a stretch of denser debris, she reached into her backpack for her sandals and picked her way through broken boards and shells gingerly. When she saw the sun sparkle off the glass side of a bottle, tightly corked, with a piece of paper inside, she nearly laughed. It was so cliché! How many of these had she found in the past?

    She picked it up and rubbed the sand off of it, turning it over in her hands. The bottle had an iridescent bluish tint to it and had the look of a bottle of perfume or bath oils.

    Big Gus, the fattest sea gull on the beach landed near her.

    “Well, Gus, how many does this make?” The bird cocked his head at her quizzically. She laughed and walked to a clearer stretch of beach, sitting down on a soft mound of sand. The gull followed her.

    “Hmmm.” Claire murmured. “There was the bottle with the old gent’s ashes in a small bag. His wife’s note said he’d always wanted to travel. She asked that we tell her how far he made it and send him on his way again. We did that, so I hope it made her happy.” Gus bobbed his head up and down as if agreeing.

    “Then there was a brownish bottle from a little boy in New York who was doing a school project and wanted to see how far his bottle traveled. We emailed him the location and set the bottle off again. Right, Gus?”

    The bird, intent on a crab in the sand, startled and bobbed his head. Claire laughed again.

    “And the old beer bottle with the naughty note from some drunk old sot, no doubt! Gus tucked his head under a wing to straighten a feather.

    Claire stared out at the sea. The waves were mesmerizing in their rhythmic ebb and flow onto the sands. Messages in bottles had always seemed romantic in her childhood dreams. She’d spent part of everyday on the beach searching for something new, something … special.

    She’d found wondrous items churned up from the deep and tossed upon the shore from the most exotic of shells and pieces of history from old ships, to the most tragic of corpses of stranded sea life and the occasional human. Sailors, washed from the decks of their ships to swimmers caught in vicious tides until the sea claimed them for its own.

    The sea was mercurial, ever moving, ever changing. Childhood dreams. How would a romantic message ever reach its intended recipient across wide ocean expanses and changing tides? Claire held the bottle up to the sun, enjoying the light sparkling through the blue hues of the glass. The rolled paper inside a mystery.

    Gus had fallen asleep nearby. Claire glanced at him and hesitantly reached for the cork, removing it slowly. She gently eased the rolled paper from inside, catching a familiar scent on the breeze. Raising the bottle to her nose, she breathed in the faint smell of lavender.

    The paper was fine stationary illustrated with small lilac flowers and a sprig of dried lavender lay inside the page. Claire held it to her nose. A wave of nostalgia washed over her reminding her of her grandmother. She brushed away a tear and replaced the tiny flower sprig in the bottle before reading the message written in a delicate, cultured handwriting.

    “Hello Lovey, whoever you are.

    I’m so glad you’ve received my little note. I thought of you as I stared at our beloved sea. I’ve had no one to really chatter with since me Archie left. My name is Emma-Leigh and Archie was me true love. He swept me off me feet when we were still in school. There never was a more impudent young man than me Archie in our little village. Other boys tried to come ‘round but it was only ever Archie for me.

    We’d walk the green hills of England and dream our dreams like young folk do and we married quite young. Babies came and war came, and Archie had to go. To be fair, he was itching to go and be a man. He came home safely, we raised our babes, and settled by the sea in Wales. We had such a wondrous life. I taught school and he worked in the Queen’s service.

    Many were the days we were greeted by the sunrise, glorious morns of brilliant skies, and cheeky gulls trying to steal our morning crumpets and scones. Afternoons, we’d walk, wading in the saucy wavelets playing round our bare feet, not caring that we may be “too old” for such nonsense. Many nights we watched the stars and listened to the waves, lulled into sleep.

    We had a very long life together. Of course, those years are gone now, like the last wisps of smoke after the candle’s burnt out. As I wait now for the cancer to carry me away, I had one last message to send.

    Lovey, whoever you are, YOU are special. You are loved and wonderfully made. There is no one else like you. You are beautiful and must carry on my legacy of love for the ocean, the gulls, and everyone you meet. I pray you find a forever love like my Archie.

    Best Wishes Lovey,
    Emma-Leigh Kingsley-Smyth”

    Claire walked home in wonder, clasping the bottle to her breast and tears running down her cheeks. She’d found something special.

    • August 3, 2022 at 7:44 pm
      Permalink

      Hi, Adi. There’s some beautiful description here, of the beach and the debris after the storm. The bottle itself and its contents are nicely described, too (the colour, the lavender). Emma’s story is a lovely one … though I couldn’t help feeling she’d been a little arrogant: how did she know the finder would be ‘special’ and ‘loved’, and how did she know that the finder wouldn’t already have a ‘forever love’? A very good idea to introduce an interlocutor in the shape of a seagull (Gus). The whole story has a melancholic but at the same time feelgood … er .. feel to it. Enjoyed it.

      • August 4, 2022 at 8:17 am
        Permalink

        Thanks for the comments Phil! I appreciate them, as always and I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I was trying to portray Emma as a lonely old woman who, at the end of a wonderful life, wanted to send one more loving message out into the world to uplift someone. Gus, is the representative of the wonderful gulls I grew up with living in Florida. They are friendly, greedy little creatures. I used to throw french fries to them from the drive thru window at McDonald’s as a teen. We all learned early, not to feed them from our fingers. Their bills are rather sharp if they catch your finger tips. Thanks again for commenting!

    • August 4, 2022 at 10:54 am
      Permalink

      Adi,

      First, let me tell you how good it feels to see you writing again, and, I might add, in a departure from your usual, more personal writing. This one has a hint of bodice ripper in it, for me anyway, and I really got into your flowery descriptions and requited and unrequited love, (hence my bodice ripper comment). The end threw me for a second, as if it were two different stories, but I survived.

      Maybe you should give that bodice ripper thing a shot.

      By the way, in my research for this story on messages in a bottle, I found two interesting facts. By virtue of our oceans currents, a bottle thrown in any ocean has a good possibility of ending up in an entirely different ocean so a bottle thrown in let’s say LA could end up in Cuba, and so on. I also stumbled across a man who has found 56 separate messages in bottles and discusses how it has changed his life. Really interesting. It gives credence to your character finding so many, (just in case there are any doubters out there.) Enjoyed the story.

      • August 5, 2022 at 8:42 am
        Permalink

        Thanks Roy! I will definitely look up messages in bottles, especially the man who found so many! That would be interesting. I’ve just heard so much about messages in bottles over my lifetime, I figured there had to be hundreds of them out there floating in the seas. Then I tried to imagine what type of messages they might hold. I steered away from the cliche’ “I’m stranded on an island” bit.

    • August 5, 2022 at 6:33 pm
      Permalink

      Adi, I’m a sucker for stories that take place over more than one time period (Like Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love). And I like it that although there is commonality between the message sender and finder, they are quite different people. Maybe something that could build out into a longer story with alternating time periods, now the scene is set?

      I agree with Phil about the description, which I found quite captivating and which gives a strong visual quality to the writing, where the woman is collecting things from the beach to use for art – I know someone who does this, or at least she used to. That struck me as very well observed.

      Talking to the birds – I do that, as most of my neighbours here are birds, including gulls! I have a colleague who claims to have been traumatised when feeding seagulls. He was throwing crumbs from his sandwich at a seaside café for a little sparrow, and a gull swooped down and grabbed the sparrow in its beak and proceeded to devour it on the harbour wall. You know, Gus may have a completely different side to his character – you have to be careful around these birds!

      On the Brit English: I think the tone works well. A couple of minor language points: ‘Me’ for ‘my’ is certainly spoken (in London and thereabouts). I’m not sure anyone would really write it for themselves, though, even if that’s how they say it. (She is a teacher, after all …) And there are a couple of ‘my’s as well as ‘me’s in her note.
      The other thing is: “I taught school”. “Teach school” is an Americanism – we’d say: “I was a schoolteacher”, or just “I was a teacher”. Two countries separated by the same language, and all that!

      • August 8, 2022 at 12:14 pm
        Permalink

        Andy,
        Thank you so much for the lesson on the Brit English! I was very nervous writing that part. I thought maybe in her old age she might have slipped into older comfortable language. I watch more British and Canadian TV than American. I find the shows classier than much of what is offered here. I may expand this story in the future. I love writing stories that take place in two time periods. I’ve done two of my novels that way. Thanks for the advice and feedback! Adi

    • August 11, 2022 at 7:41 am
      Permalink

      Hi Adi,

      It’s so good to have so many of the old gang back in harness, where we can appreciate each other’s work.

      As has been mentioned, this is a beautiful story full of poetry and vivid description. It’s the kind of writing I would like to do if I can avoid overdoing things. You have managed that really well. I too know someone who swims in the sea (around the Isle of Wight in England) every day and then she collects sea glass to make into jewellery..

      Your words transported me to a beach in my mind with the waves sucking the sand from around my toes, the gulls calling and squabbling over food and the piles debris brought in by the tide, exciting and waiting to be examined.

      Of course, the bottle part of the story is lovely, so well worded and the sentiments expressed are so vivid. The words, “Hello lovey, whoever you are,” are so much better than, “To whom it may concern.”

      There is a slight criticism of the vernacular English as Andy points out. I can agree as I am from southern England not far from London where lovey is a form of address and a term of endearment, even extended to strangers and “m”e and” my” are used as in ,” me ‘usband” rather than “my husband,” for example.

      Enough said. None of this detracts from a lovely story that I really enjoyed.

      One of your best pieces, in my humble opinion. I hope it does really well in the voting.

      Kind regards,

      Ken Frape

  • July 29, 2022 at 3:24 pm
    Permalink

    Carrie, is there any way that you can put the words of the message from the bottle in italics? It didn’t copy that way when I pasted it over to this site. Thanks in advance!

    • August 4, 2022 at 12:34 pm
      Permalink

      Done! It changed the color too which is kinda nice, but I can go in and edit it again and make it blue as well if you’d like, whatever you’d prefer.

      • August 4, 2022 at 1:42 pm
        Permalink

        Thanks Carrie! It’s perfect!

  • July 31, 2022 at 10:25 am
    Permalink

    PALE BLUE

    It was the most beautiful spring morning. Harry woke as usual with the song of the blackbirds nesting in the oak tree outside his window. Today was the day. He washed, got dressed, put his teeth in and went down for breakfast. He chose a small table near the window that looked out onto the immaculate gardens. Several people said ‘good morning’, but Harry never took his pale-blue eyes off the gravel path that twisted its way towards the wall at the bottom.

    He couldn’t ignore the woman, though, who plonked herself down on the chair opposite him. He frowned; her face was familiar and he knew he should remember her name.

    “Morning, Harry.”

    Harry eyed her – not unkindly – and munched the last of his porridge, his jaw moving slowly like a cow’s.

    “You going to handicrafts this morning?”

    Harry nodded.

    “Splendid! See you there, then.”

    Harry watched her shuffle back to join two of her friends at another table.

    As he left the canteen, the woman waved; Harry lifted his hand in a brief wave back.

    This early in the morning, many of the staff were occupied helping the less able with their ablutions, so as he crunched his way along the gravel path, no one was there to bar his way, to question his movements.

    He wasn’t sure that the gate would be open. When he tried the rusty handle, it was very stiff, but with a firm yank, there was the lane beyond the wall, beckoning.

    He took his time, taking pleasure in the birdsong, the scent of new flowers, the sun on his face, the gentle, briny breeze. The lane, bordered by woods, became a path, and the path led through thinning firs to dunes, dotted with tufts of Marram grass.

    Progress was more difficult now, Harry’s feet sinking in the loose sand. He staggered more than once but kept his balance, and before long he was off the dunes, walking on firmer sand.

    Here the breeze was brisk, though still very pleasant. Harry stopped, held his face up to enjoy the breeze, and felt the expectation tingling through his body. He found it strange that he wasn’t afraid; just as well, he thought to himself, or he was sure he wouldn’t be able to go through with it.

    He sighed and carried on across the deserted beach, towards the shallow waves that were lapping lazily onto the shore. He paused briefly once more to take in the ghostly moon in the pale-blue sky, the seagulls gliding majestically past. Then he set off.

    The water was chill around his thin ankles. He shivered involuntarily but continued on. He stubbed his toe on a pebble, he stumbled once or twice, he had to dodge a patch of seaweed swirling on the surface, but gradually he put distance between himself and the shore.

    The water was past his calves when he saw it: to his left, a yard or so away, a bottle, bobbing happily in the gentle waves. His first inclination was to ignore it, to complete his personal mission. The bottle seemed to have other ideas, though; in an instant, it was nudging his leg. He picked it out of the water and was about to throw it further out when he noticed, through the cloudy glass, what it contained: a roll of paper. A message.

    Standing knee-deep in the cold water, Harry looked out to sea and back at the beach. Any delay now might divert him from his intention, cause him to go back, to desist. He raised his arm to throw the bottle but stopped mid-swing; he really was quite curious to see what the message said. Perhaps a peek before carrying on.

    The bottle was stoppered with an old, weather-beaten cork. Harry gripped it and pulled. To his surprise it came out easily, with a satisfying squeak then POP. He turned the bottle upside down and poked a finger in to extricate the message.

    Unrolling it, he found that the writing – in crayon, in a childish hand – was faint but legible. He patted his pockets to find his glasses and smiled; he wouldn’t need them where he was going but was glad now that he’d brought them.

    Still standing in the water, he began to read.

    to him it may consern
    i am riting this mesige
    becos i am so very happy
    my mumy is beter from
    the canser and i hope
    this wil make you
    happy to

    The words hit Harry like a clarion call from across the years. He gazed one last time out at the open sea before turning and splashing towards the shore, whooping with laughter as he went.

    xxxxxxxxxx

    Clutching the shiny bottle in his hand, the young boy almost falls down the dunes in his hurry to get to the shoreline. When he reaches the firm sand, he begins skipping and singing:

    I’m H-A-P-P-Y
    I’m H-A-P-P-Y
    I know I am
    I’m sure I am
    I’m H-A-P-P-Y!

    Once at the water’s edge, with the foam licking at his toes through his sandals, he stretches his arm back and throws the bottle as far as he can out into the waves. He stands and watches as the current drags the bobbing bottle away, and within minutes it’s out of sight.

    The boy sighs with satisfaction and holds his face up to to enjoy the breeze, the sky above a perfect match for his pale-blue eyes.

    .

    • August 4, 2022 at 8:22 am
      Permalink

      Phil, I loved this story and I was drawn in when I realized the old man’s goal. Your descriptions were spot on as usual, taking us right into the moment. I was so happy when the message in the bottle turned him around. One bit of confusion. Was Harry the child who wrote the message? Or was it a coincidence that they both had pale blue eyes? It doesn’t really matter, I enjoyed the happy ending for them both!

      • August 9, 2022 at 9:28 pm
        Permalink

        Thanks, Adi! Yes … that was the idea. I didn’t want to make it too overt, but it seems that maybe it wasn’t overt enough! 😉

    • August 4, 2022 at 11:00 am
      Permalink

      Phil, well done. You have a particular talent in seeking out the best plot lines from the various prompts given, this one is no exception. Well done. If I may, I read Adi’s comments and she may be right because I felt the line … The words hit Harry like a clarion call from across the years gives her thought credence and that’s the way I took it.

      Well written and well done, loved the theme and loved how you handled it.

      • August 9, 2022 at 9:29 pm
        Permalink

        Thanks as always for your positive words, Roy. Yep, you and Adi have it right. (Please see my notes to her.)

    • August 5, 2022 at 5:46 pm
      Permalink

      A satisfyingly rounded story, Phil, which I read in the same way as Adi and Roy. (I think the title makes it clear.) It’s a bit like what we call in management-speak ‘reverse mentoring’, when the younger and more inexperienced advise their older colleagues in areas where they might know a little better or have a refreshing perspective – only in this case, it’s the same person across time.

      The opening two paragraphs in the retirement home brought to mind the Joan Rivers story I came across recently, about the old guy in a retirement home whose chat-up line was, “Do I come here often?” 🙂

      Actually, it seems I was thinking along similar lines to you with regard to a central character’s intent – I hadn’t read yours until about 10 minutes ago, I promise! And your story is more life-affirming than mine, or anyway in a very different way. At the end, it left me feeling happier – there’s a nice upward emotional curve in the last third of the story, with a great ending.

      One thing – we don’t really know particular reasons why Harry has decided to take this course of action, and are left to guess. Is forgetting names enough? There’s probably space in the wordcount to flesh this out a bit, and presumably there’s enough potential left in life to find reasons to be cheerful after finding the message.

      • August 9, 2022 at 9:37 pm
        Permalink

        Thanks, Andy! Yes, you, Adi and Roy have it right (please se my notes to Adi), Love the Joan Rivers quote! Your mention of similar tacks … my heart sank when I read the first line of Lara’s story because I thought it was going to seem like I’d copied the idea (and I’d have to trash my story). Fortunately, hers went in a very different direction so I felt safe with posting mine. Good point about the motive for Harry’s actions. I was kinda thinking that forgetting the woman’s name would be like a symptom of a much more extensive, more serious condition, but maybe it did need more work there. Thanks again.

    • August 11, 2022 at 7:54 am
      Permalink

      Hi Phil,

      What a beautiful story.

      The other comments say it all. You never fail to create something great.

      I kept up with reading the stories whilst I was away (at the seaside), read them all and thought that I would not have time to get something written and if I did, I would need to move in a completely different direction.

      Your piece really gave me food for thought, especially allied to Andy’s query about would forgetting names be enough to make an old person contemplate ending it all. In my view the answer is yes, especially if that person has already lost someone to Alzheimer’s where memory loss was just the beginning.of the downward slope.

      Great stuff, as ever.

      Kind regards,

      Ken Frape

      • August 12, 2022 at 11:42 am
        Permalink

        Thanks as always, KenF!

        (Worryingly, I’m forgetting lots of stuff recently. Hopefully it’s due mainly to my irregular sleeping hours…)

  • August 2, 2022 at 3:36 pm
    Permalink

    BETRAYED
    Lydia Thomson (1119 words)

    It was the most beautiful day, and the darkest day of my life
    .
    I lay in the hammock behind the house, and wiggled my toes at the perfect June sky. Sunlight wove between the branches, finding a leaf, a twig, a blade of grass. I reached for the cool drink beside me, lemonade I think it was.

    Yes, the day was a perfect one. And how could it not be? I was in love. Sixteen and in love. Oh, Steven! Someday soon I’d finally meet him–he promised. I could already feel his arms around me, his breath on my neck….

    I saw you coming out of the corner of my eye. I knew you would. After all, you were my only sister. You and I, we belonged to each other. You’d been my stability as long as I could remember. Having you by my side was the greatest security I knew. Other than Steven.

    “Hey Lazybones…what are you dreaming about today? Wait, don’t tell me…I bet it’s that boyfriend of yours!”

    You always called me Lazybones, and I guess I kind of asked for it. I loved my hammock where I could just lie back and feel the sea breeze and hear the waves. You were 17 and in college. Always on the go. Oh So Busy.

    “Actually,” I replied, “I was thinking of taking a walk down by the beach… chase the crabs like we used to when we were kids…and who knows? Maybe this time we’ll find a message for you!”

    “Not likely,” you laughed dismissively. There was one thing I could never understand about you. 17 and gorgeous and one hundred percent boyfriend-less. It wasn’t for lack of male attention…maybe you were just too picky.

    I guess I couldn’t compare my life to yours. After all, I had found Steven. Or, more accurately, Steven had found me.

    I’ll never forget that day. I was thirteen, you were fourteen. You and I were walking on the beach. The morning sun set diamonds on the waves and silk on the sand. You took my hand and we started running, wet sand oozing between our toes. I saw it ahead of us, partially buried. I stopped. “Look!” I cried, “a bottle!” Ever since we were little, you and I had fantasized about the day we’d find a message in a bottle. No beached bottle had gone un-examined in all the summers we had vacationed here.

    You pulled the bottle out of the sand.

    “A Message!” You screamed “A message!”

    You twisted off the cap, and freed the folded scrap of paper. Then you handed it to me.

    “Open it,” you said. “This one’s for you.” (Oh, Jodie! How I loved you).

    Tremblingly, I unfolded it.

    It read:

    SOS!!! I’m stranded on a desert Island and I haven’t eaten for forty days! Time is running out!

    Just kidding. This is a school assignment. I’m 13 years old and I live in Hastings, UK. If you find this bottle, please send write me a message at this address: 4 Lane Cottage, Hastings, United Kingdom. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? Where do you live?

    Looking forward to hearing from you! Steven

    The rest is history. It wasn’t long before Steven and I were writing regularly.

    Yes, writing. Snail mail. You asked me why I never got his phone number, or found his Facebook page. I never even considered it. The internet seemed so impersonal. So easy. I mean, true love is more than clicking the thumbs up.

    At first it was all school gossip and teenage brain farts. But time deepened our friendship. I found myself pouring out my heart to him; telling him my deepest fears, my secret ambitions, my guilty pleasures. What started as postcards and stickers soon became long letters. I thought about him every day. In fact, I thought about little else. We were soul mates. When he sent me his picture, it was love at first sight. Sandy blond hair swept carelessly over a mischievous right eye, t-shirt stretched across his muscled chest…

    So that was two years ago that I found the bottle. Two years, eighteen days, and three hours. And now, lost in golden memories, I realized that you were talking to me. You didn’t look happy.

    “Randy,” you were saying. “I think it’s time you forgot about Steven.”

    I couldn’t have heard right.

    “What did you just say?”

    “Miranda…” you started.

    Uh oh. You never called me Miranda. It had always been Randy. The brilliant day turned a shade darker.

    “Miranda, this relationship—its not realistic. Steven lives four thousand miles away. You’re kidding yourself if you think he really cares about you.”

    I couldn’t believe you were actually saying this. You’d always supported our friendship, always read his letters over my shoulder. We’d both drooled over his picture, you telling me how lucky I was.

    I looked at you and wondered if I even knew you.

    “Give him up. Find someone here in Wilmington, you know plenty of b…”

    I cut you off. Something about your tone frightened me.

    “Jodie, you’re being ridiculous! You know as well as I do that Steven loves me. He’s told me so himself! That valentine he sent me! You don’t send a valentine, by snail mail, half way around the world to someone you don’t care about!! Okay? OKAY????? You just don’t!”

    Tears stung my eyes. I knew that Steven was for real, and I was going to defend him.

    “Randy, I have to tell you something. The bottle–” you started, but I wasn’t listening. I was talking again.

    Reassuring myself.

    “Everything’s going to be alright, Jodie. He said he’d come this summer, and you know him, you know he’ll come. Then we’ll take walks on the beach—I’ll show him where we found the bottle…”

    “MIRANDA!!!!” you erupted. “IT WAS A JOKE!”

    Tears in your eyes. I didn’t understand.

    “Jodie—what do you mean?”

    “There is no Steven” you said quietly. “There is no Steven and there never was. It was me. I wrote the message, buried the bottle.”

    My mind was numb. I barely heard you explain…

    “At first it was a joke, and I meant to tell you right away. But, Randy….you were so happy! I’d never seen you like that before. I couldn’t make myself tell you. All those letters—I wrote them too. Intercepted the mail…”

    You reached out to touch me, but I slapped your hand away.

    …”Randy, I’m sorry…so sorry”

    But I turned my back to her. Faced the beach, the beautiful beach now menacing and angry. The light went out of the sky.

    The most beautiful day, and the darkest day of my life.

    • August 3, 2022 at 7:57 pm
      Permalink

      Very good story, Lydia. I like the use of the second person (addressing Jodie) … though there’s a lapse, I think, in the penultimate paragraph (?) The build-up of the Steven story is so carefully done that the reader is as shocked as Randy at the trick. A very cruel trick, in fact, but at least Jodie comes clean and is sincere in her regret (the tears). I hope that the two sisters would be reconciled later. I think I might have an answer for this: “There was one thing I could never understand about you. 17 and gorgeous and one hundred percent boyfriend-less.” Very enjoyable read.

      • August 8, 2022 at 8:22 am
        Permalink

        Thanks, Phil. Yes, now that you point it out, I see the lapse at the end of the story! Thanks for noticing. This is my first post on this site, and also my first attempt at a short story, so I really appreciate your input.

    • August 4, 2022 at 11:14 am
      Permalink

      Intriguing story Lydia. I was hooked from the beginning. I read somewhere the other day that those who hurt us the most are often those who are supposed to love us the most. You portrayed this well in this tale of sisters. The story of Steven was masterfully told, it was harsh to realize it was just a prank that had gone on too long and had gone wrong. I wondered why Jodie allowed it to go so far? And how did Miranda not notice that the letters were not postmarked from the UK? In the end, those are trivial facts, the story is powerful and I would hope that these two sisters would be able to come back together once the pain subsided. The bond between sisters should never be broken.

      • August 8, 2022 at 8:27 am
        Permalink

        Thanks, Adrienne.
        I was very close to my sister growing up, so I tried to recreate my own experience in this story.
        Never fear: these two sisters will definitely reconcile (maybe in another story!) when they grow up a bit.

    • August 4, 2022 at 1:11 pm
      Permalink

      Lydia, Good story and well written. As Phil pointed out (thankfully, because I couldn’t put my finger on what was tugging at me as I read the story) the second person bit was excellent. Good, although not an original plot line, you breathed life into it by surprising us with it. I liked how you handled the prompt start and the end line wrapping things up.

      About your use of ellipses. There should be a space before and after the three magical dots, unless using them to begin a sentence. And, it’s always three … never more. You are tending to use them as commas, which is not their intention as I understand it. They are used to indicate pauses such as you did with ‘I’m sorry … so sorry.’ and “Miranda … ” you started, but not like this sentence where there should have been commas — “I was thinking of taking a walk down by the beach… chase the crabs like we used to when we were kids…and who knows? Just trying to throw in little tidbits that are yours to do with as you please.

      There was a famous sports story a few years ago involving a major American college football player from Notre Dame, Manti Te’o, who was pranked by a friend for years and thought to possibly be in on it later about a mysterious love he had never met who died form leukemia before his biggest game. It was quite the story and a very real embarrassment for Te’o. He went around for years professing a love to a woman he had never met. This story had that ring to it.

      • August 8, 2022 at 8:37 am
        Permalink

        Thanks for your comment. This is my first attempt at writing a short story, so thanks for pointing out the grammatical errors with the ellipses. I understand what you are saying about using them instead of commas, so next time I’ll pay attention to that.

        Just wondering: I did try using commas, but they seemed too abrupt since I wanted to make the dialogue as realistic as possible. I was attempting to give an impression of memory and thoughts kind of trailing off. Would you suggest I use dashes instead? Or do you thing commas would sound ok?

        • August 8, 2022 at 1:07 pm
          Permalink

          Lydia, now that you have brought up your counterpoint, I think the suggestion I made could have gone either way and some critiquers may not have agreed. I love ellipses and use them as you do … for pauses, especially in dialogue. I was trying to warn you to use them for dramatic pause, not just every time you need a pause.

          See, I didn’t need the ellipse in the third sentence in this paragraph. It can go either way. I’m thinking be a minimalist, but that’s just me. I’m intrigued you felt commas were too ‘abrupt’. My comments are always intended to make the author think about their work and I always hope to give good, trustworthy critiques, so they can get better and better.

          I’ve learned a lot from the authors who visit this site, and I always consider their advice. I don’t always take it. You are free to do the same. Hope to see more of your work. Don’t be a stranger.Roy

    • August 10, 2022 at 2:49 am
      Permalink

      Very well-written story, Lydia, capturing the emotional state of a teen in love – with a dream. With someone probably too good to be true! The title “Betrayal” is a good one, that doesn’t give away who does the betraying. Could be her long-distance lover, or it could be a classic case of grooming, that could have ended very badly … but her sister, who had been her rock, keeping it up for all that time – that’s a serious kind of betrayal.
      The poor girl will probably have commitment issues for the rest of her life, set private investigators to check out potential partners, etc! Meanwhile, I think the sister has a bright future as a con artist, or working for a foreign agency disinformation department … 🙂

      There are some practical details that Adi notes – it would be hard not to check someone out on the Internet and be wary if there is no digital footprint at all. Actually, the sister could have easily set up a fake account or two for Steven with photos etc. But it is a very effective, thought-provoking story, smoothly written, and I liked the narrator’s character very much.

      • August 11, 2022 at 8:27 am
        Permalink

        Thank you for your thoughtful comments Andy. Yes, its true that in today’s digital world it would be a very unlikely story. Maybe I should have set it fifty years ago, then it would be more believable 🙂 The original story line actually included fake profiles and text messaging, but it got too long and I had to edit it out. Its always the hardest part for me, choosing what is the most important to the story line and what can get edited out.

        Thanks again for your input, and I look forward to posting more often and getting to know all of you!

    • August 11, 2022 at 8:05 am
      Permalink

      Hi Lydia,

      Really enjoyed the story. As this was your first attempt at a short story, I’d say you have made a terrific start.

      My comment is the last one at the moment and I have read the other comments with interest.

      Good work. Keep writing.

      Kind regards,

      Ken Frape

      • August 11, 2022 at 8:30 am
        Permalink

        Thanks for your encouraging comments, Ken. I can tell from reading all the stories and comments that many of you are experienced writers, so I’m very happy to have the opportunity to network with you and learn more about fiction writing. I’m in good company 🙂

    • August 3, 2022 at 9:19 pm
      Permalink

      Andy! Welcome back! And back with a bang, too. This is terrific stuff. The focus on beauty (including the brilliant, fleeting reference to the narrator’s ‘Raphael’) while, relentlessly, ugliness takes over (though it’s reassuring that he witnesses beauty right at the end there). And the irony of the ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ of the mortuary. I must say there are some references here that terrify me because they’re so close to home. But it’s an excellently conceived and executed story.

      • August 3, 2022 at 9:21 pm
        Permalink

        (But … the ‘message in a bottle’ element of the prompt? Is that the whisky in the hipflask? And if so, what’s the message?)

        • August 4, 2022 at 7:22 am
          Permalink

          Many thanks for your kind comments on the story, Phil. It’s been fun to write some fiction again, and (try to) meet the challenge of the brief …however …

          … your other coment is well spotted. Gah! I could try to say something clever about the whisky in the hipflask conveying a message (“courage, my friend!) – but the truth is I didn’t read the rubric correctly! I just had ‘beach, message, bottle’ in my mind as elements to include. I included each (two messages, in fact), but none of them inside another. Had I read the other stories first I might have twigged I’d got something wrong, but there you go…

          I could rewrite a little. I think I may have a way to deal with it that doesn’t intrude too clunkily in the story … maybe Carrie can adjudicate or if I can get away with it. Can people forgive me on the grounds of age, absent-mindedness and it’s my birthday on the closing date of the contest?

          • August 4, 2022 at 7:25 am
            Permalink

            First off happy birthday, and welcome back it’s good to see you!
            You still have another week to do a little rewrite and add the required element in 😉

            • August 4, 2022 at 8:10 am
              Permalink

              Many thanks, Carrie – and for replying so quickly!
              I’ll do the rewrite and post soon 🙂

          • August 4, 2022 at 1:24 pm
            Permalink

            Andy, so good to see you back and writing. I’ve been away recently from the site, and it’s like a reunion with you and Adi both writing. I will reserve judgment on your story until the rewrite as it may be considerable, although I have a simple suggestion. As he tottered at the edge of the sea he could reach out for the bottle with the message he notices bobbing in the surf … just out of … reach … ! I sincerely hope to see more of you.

            And, since I just celebrated my 80th a short while ago, I feel too close, far too close to some of the feelings you wrote about.

            Roy

            • August 4, 2022 at 1:26 pm
              Permalink

              And, Happy Birthday … early!

              • August 5, 2022 at 3:00 am
                Permalink

                Hi Roy! Thanks for the early birthday wishes 🙂
                And yes it’s good to be back seeing old friends – and people I don’t yet know too whose stories I’m looing forward to reading.

                I like your proposed ending, which made me chuckle – but you’ll see I’ve done something a bit different ….

    • August 4, 2022 at 11:05 am
      Permalink

      Andy, so glad to have you back! What a beautiful story, so wonderfully written! I truly liked how you carried the theme of beauty through to the end, even to the morgue and mortuary. I was fully expecting you to put a message in the whiskey flask, thinking that would have been the perfect bottle for this old gent. Oh, Happy Birthday!! Mine is next Tuesday, on the 9th.

      (Watch Caitlin Doughty on Youtube and you’ll find a mortician who finds beauty in death and educates people about the mysteries surrounding death to make it less a mystery. She also has written several entertaining books on death subjects. LOL).

      • August 5, 2022 at 3:09 am
        Permalink

        Hi Adi – many thanks for your comments.

        And happy birthday to you also, fellow Leo. We’ll have to bring cakes to share around next week!

        Thanks for the tip about Caitlin Doughty – I’ll check her out.

  • August 4, 2022 at 10:14 am
    Permalink

    Return to Sender
    by RM York
    1,17 words

    It was the most beautiful moment Brook and I had shared in five years. There was a clear sky, and a mild breeze; the water sparkling with sunlight glistening from the waves in tiny diamond patterns, beckoning us.

    We were walking along the sand near the outcropping of rocks where they extended into the water. “You need to be careful here,” I said. “Why don’t we stop?”

    “We have to go on. This is where she threw it in and if it ever comes back, this is where it will be, right here in the tide pools. I just know it,” she insisted.

    “Brook … honey,” I said, “Message bottles aren’t supposed to return to the sender. They’re supposed to be found and then the person who finds them contacts you. They can’t just throw it back in the water with an answer. This isn’t email.”

    “Mom,” she said as she rolled her eyes, “I know that. I was just hoping the bottle Savannah threw in that day came back. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It would be like receiving a message from her.”

    Her face was shining, her eyes bright with hope, and her smile was contagious. It had been five years since I’d seen this look. I was beginning to think my idea to come back to the beach was working. My depression lifted, my spirits were buoyed with faith, and I pushed the dark clouds away.

    “OK,” I said, “ just a little farther because we have to get back to Dad. He’ll be wondering where we are.”

    On we went carefully making our way among the rocks to reach the tide pools and then she screamed with excitement as she pointed at a bottle bobbing in a tide pool as the surf receded. She scrambled down to the tide pool and plucked it from the water.

    “Oh Mom, wouldn’t it be great if this was Savannah’s message and it returned? It would be a sign. Think of it, she threw a bottle into the ocean on her birthday, and here we are, five years later to the day, and I find this. We need to open it.”

    “It can’t possibly be the one Savannah threw in,” I said. She rolled her eyes again.

    “Mother! Don’t spoil it. Let’s go find Dad and let him in on the fun.”
    As we walked back, listening to her chatter about her sister maintained my sense of joy and happiness that had been missing. I became lost in my thoughts as my mind returned to the reason we were here today.

    Today would have been Savannah’s sixteenth birthday. One she would never celebrate. The telephone call on that night haunts me daily. The call from the State Police to inform me that our eleven-year-old daughter, her friend, and her friend’s mother were killed in a head-on accident occurring on Route One, just three miles away from this beach, hit by a drunk driver who walked away from the accident without a scratch.

    In a single instant, our daughter was taken away from us and shattered our family’s dreams; crushed in an instant with a careless act by a forty-five-year-old woman who didn’t even remember what happened the next day. She had ruined several lives and wouldn’t even have to live with the memory of it all; one we live with every day.

    The past five years had been painful, but somehow we survived intact, although there were moments. Both Andy and I blamed ourselves which, of course, is nonsense. Our friend had done all the right things, including driving a Volvo, considered the safest car on the road in a head-on collision. Yet, here we are. We were the ones who allowed her to go. I can’t put that out of my mind.

    Recently, after much soul-searching, the three of us decided to put it behind us and revisit the beach where we had spent our last day with Savannah. A dreamer, she took a wine bottle along with a cork and a sheet of paper rolled up inside on which she had written a message with her name, phone number, address, and email address along with a short message to the person who finds it to contact her.

    It was the last thing Savannah did before she left for the day. Then, she climbed into the car with our friend to go home early and we never saw her alive again. As we drove by the cleaned-up accident site hours later, there was no indication a life-changing incident had occurred there.

    “Hey, Dad!” The shout from Brook shook me loose from my thoughts and brought my husband into focus as he approached us. “Look what we found. Help me open it. I can’t wait.” She was gushing with excitement. “It’s from Savannah, I just know it is.” She bounced around like the fifteen-year-old she is.

    Andy got caught up in Brook’s excitement and took the bottle. Moments later, thanks to the wine opener we had with us for our wine, we had the bottle open and allowed Brook to have the honor of reading the message printed in the neat hand of a teenager:

    THANK YOU FOR FINDING MY MESSAGE. MY NAME IS SOGEN. I AM A JAPANESE-AMERICAN GIRL. MY PARENTS WERE LOST IN THE TSUNAMI WHEN I WAS FOUR YEARS OLD. I LIVE WITH MY GRANDPARENTS AND AM LOOKING FOR A FRIEND. THIS IS MY EMAIL ADDRESS. PLEASE CONTACT ME WHEN YOU FIND THIS.

    There was an email address and another message on the other side written in Japanese. Andy said it was probably the same message in case the bottle drifted back to Japan.

    As Brook read the message I could see the disappointment in her eyes, although she was putting up a good front. When she quit reading I said, “I know it isn’t from your sister but isn’t this exciting? You have a chance to meet someone from Japan.” I did some quick math. “Look,” I said, “she’s the same age you are if she was four years old in 2011. I’m pretty sure that was when the tsunami happened.”

    Brook smiled through her tears as she thought about that. “I so wanted it to be from Savannah.” We packed up a bit later and headed for home.

    Late that evening Brook tapped on our bedroom door. “Mom, Dad, I just got a message back from Sogen.” The excitement was back in her voice. “You’ll never guess.”

    I opened the door. “We’ll never guess what?”

    She swept into the room and hugged me. Tears filled her eyes. “The bottle really is from Savannah.”

    “But how?”

    “Because, in Japanese, the name Sogen means Savannah. The bottle is from Savannah after all. It’s her way of contacting us. I just know it,” she said, with irrefutable teenager logic, and left our bedroom.

    I stood there a moment collecting my thoughts. “What are the odds?” I whispered. All I could think was … return to sender.

    • August 4, 2022 at 10:56 am
      Permalink

      Boom! There he is! Back with a bang! Making me cry with a great story. It is so true to life. Loved this one Roy, and the ending was perfect. Welcome back!!

      This one hit close to home. A high school friend was killed in a head on crash with a drunk driver who walked away from the wreck. While the police were working the scene, he came stumbling out of the woods and wanted to know what had happened. He didn’t remember a thing. His truck had gone over the top of her car, decapitating her. He only got 5 years in jail. We had graduated. I was a young mother and she was a police cadet and her peers had to work the scene. We still had our lives in front of us and hers was gone.

    • August 9, 2022 at 8:20 pm
      Permalink

      Welcome back, Roy! Great to see you posting here again. This is a touching story. The reader gets caught up in Brook’s excitement. We kinda know the message isn’t going to be from her sister … but then it is! (in a way). That’s a nice, subtle little twist that satisfies Brook and our need for some kind of mystical event. I think this is a bit exposition-heavy: “I was just hoping the bottle Savannah threw in that day came back.” The fact is revealed a few lines later (“Oh, Mom, wouldn’t it be great …”) so you could maybe have left the Savannah/bottle explanation until then. I didn’t really understand the last three words (in the context of the story). Very nice return!

      • August 10, 2022 at 10:57 am
        Permalink

        Phil, I should know by now that when I’m troubled by some aspect of my story, I should eliminate or change it. Someone in this group almost always point it out (usually you or Ken C.) I thought I needed to emphasize Brook’s desire to elevate the story but had misgivings after reading it through for a final draft. And, I agonized over leaving return to sender, but I wanted to reference it was sort of a return to sender — Savannah’s family finding it themselves on Savannah’s birthday and the anniversary of her demise.

        So, in the future, when I question what I’ve done, I’m going to change it. At least when someone finds a critiquable item, it won’t be something I knew not to do.

        Thanks for your comments,

        Roy

    • August 10, 2022 at 3:09 am
      Permalink

      Intriguing story, Roy. And you press all the emotional buttons around grief brought about by different circumstances – car crash being orphaned in a tsunami – and depression (Brook) and guilt (the parents). But the message, a chance/spooky coincidence, brings hope and a little light for the Brook, and confusion for her parents.

      The “irrefutable teenage logic” – she knows it’s not her sister, but believes the coincidence is a sign all the same. Reminds me in some ways of when my father died (I was 9). I both accepted and didn’t accept his death. Like I’d got to football matches for the next few years, taken by a sympathetic neighbour, where I’d spend part of the time scanning the crowd for signs of him (he was a football fan). I’d make up stories of how he wasn’t really gone but on a secret undercover mission, how the army had called him back for something top secret, stuff like that … too many spy films and Man from U.N.C.L.E. at work in my little brain, I think! So for me, there’ something echoes true about this logic.

      • August 10, 2022 at 11:09 am
        Permalink

        Andy, I, too, had that irrefutable logic when I was your age after finding out my mother wasn’t my mother, but my stepmother. Instead of telling me the truth, she denied my mother’s existence and kept me from any family that didn’t play along with her rules. It eventually caused a major schism that became irreparable. In my later years I realized it really wasn’t her fault, but her traumatic upbringing. She finally came clean, but it was too late.

        Thanks for your kind words. First story in months I felt good enough to post, and I am pleased no matter where it ends up.

        Roy

  • August 4, 2022 at 1:35 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you so much, Adi. It’s good to be back. And, it’s even nicer to feel like writing again and feel like I wrote something that was worthy of posting. Between you and Carrie, you have not only made my day recently but my whole week! Thanks for your kind remarks.

    I wanted the story to deal with death in such away that it wasn’t a downer, but bringing a few tears was a goal, i must admit. Thanks again, my friend.

    Roy

  • August 5, 2022 at 3:10 am
    Permalink

    A Life in Pursuit of Beauty
    (#2)

    It was the most beautiful, yes, the ideal place for sure. Just right.

    He remembered this sea loch from a childhood visit. It was everything he remembered, and more. Now, at the age of 89, so much life had passed in between times.

    Yes, he reflected as walked slowly along the beach, so much of his life had been in pursuit of beauty. All that time spent in the world of art, theatres, literature, the most fashionable drawing rooms, parties with beautiful people. The people he had loved – they had all been beautiful. Two wives, many lovers.

    And Raphael! Where had that memory come from to ambush him? Such a beautiful young man, so perfectly formed, the quiff that flopped across his handsome forehead in the mornings, the smile … But so vacant! A simple soul. Where was he now? Of course – gone, his life cut short like so many others. Theirs had been an affair in an earlier, safer – though more secretive – era.

    His wives were beautiful too. Much admired and coveted, and they had been his. Hermione had been impossible to live with – but maybe he had been too. She was gone now. And Katya too. As her beauty had faded, their love had resolved to respect and trust, a mutual caring that flared back into something more profound in her final days. How long ago? More than a decade past. He struggled to fill in the intervening years, a series of memories almost without context: parties with friends he never saw again. He was almost the last one standing.

    But of course the children, most of all the children. He closed his eyes and remembered the best of days, when the children were young. He loved to buy them clothes, only the best, imported from France and America. But mostly he loved the beauty of the way they moved, and smiled, and threw their arms around him as he picked them up and swung them around.

    They’d grown up to be fine people, he reflected, though not without some traumas on the way. Then their children – and now great grandchildren. He regretted he had not the health or energy to enjoy them as he should.

    At the last visit he was aware that the great-grandchildren were uncomfortable, impatient to leave. He felt for them, stuck with this old man who smelled strange and whose intestines gurgled constantly, easy to hear through his wasted muscle and paper-thin skin.

    And when he looked in the mirror in the mornings, he could not see the person he felt inside, but instead some wizened caricature of himself. He knew he had never been the best looking of men, but surely worth an 8 out of 10? One who knew how to dress, and carry himself with elegance and panache.

    But no more. He was a sick old man, edging ever closer to incapacity. He knew his family talked about him in phone calls, in whispered conversations in the corridors as they left after visits. He loved them for their concern, and hated them for it at the same time. That he should be dependent was bad enough, but to be an issue was intolerable.

    That’s how it was. His life had become un-beautiful. Unbearable.

    Unbearable – like the infernal itching across his whole body. His kidneys were failing. He thought of the last message from his doctor, the one saying further treatment was not advised. Fair enough. Now he was on one last venture into the world to savour its sights and sounds.

    First class train to Edinburgh, then a stay at the Old Waverley Hotel. Dressed in his finest, he visited the theatre and as many galleries as he could take in. Some inadvisable fine dining with maybe his last friend still alive, a former actor. Walking was challenging now, and he was unsteady on the capital’s steep inclines and cobbles. What did people think of him as he tottered slowly along, in his best blazer, cravat and white trilby? Not that it mattered, as long as they didn’t view him with pity.

    And then north to a small hotel on the west coast.

    “You’re up bright and early this morning, sir,” said the receptionist as he made his way to the door.

    “Just off for my morning constitutional,” he replied with a smile.

    “It’s going to be a fine sunny day today by the looks of it, sir. But if I were you, I’d put on something a wee bit warmer. It’s pretty chilly out there as yet.”

    “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he replied, with a gracious nod of his head to thank her for her kindness.

    The sun was rising over the hills behind him as he walked the short distance to the shore, casting strong shadows across the landscape, sharpening the colours all around.

    A young couple walked arm-in-arm, leaning into each other as they watched their dog run excitedly into and out of the water. They waved to him as they left the beach. He raised his hat in reply, and was now alone, as he had wanted.

    He began to shiver. Taking his antique silver-and-glass hipflask from his pocket, he took a long sip of his favourite single malt whisky. He pursed his lips and nodded in appreciation as he savoured the flavour in his mouth, releasing it slowly into his throat. He felt the warming.

    His eye was caught by some words refracted through the glass of his flask as he lowered it, and saw a wind-battered sign warning against swimming because of the strong currents. He smiled. Wasn’t it the strongest currents he’d often sought out in life?

    Slowly he began to wade along the water’s edge. The cold bit at his feet and legs, livening his senses further as he remembered his life and loves.

    The sun rose clear above the hills, reflected golden across the water as if lighting a path. He could not speak. Gazing at the brilliance all around, he thought, “Yes, this is beautiful. Truly beautiful.”

    0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

    “You are without doubt the most beautiful cadaver I’ve ever dissected,” she said quietly.

    She relished the degree of putrefaction exhibited from floating in the water for several weeks. The discolouration caused by bruising, bloating and predation by marine animals. The levels of parasitic infestation, and of bacterial growth. She remembered the stunning images she had seen through the microscope. Such a glorious combination of ageing, disease, trauma and decomposition.

    Then the striking impression of his remaining clothing. A Hermes cravat still tied at his neck. One Dolce & Gabbana loafer. A classic Montblanc watch on his remaining arm.

    She took another dozen photographs for her report, and considered how best to use them in the textbook she was writing.

    And she wondered, briefly, about the man’s life. Clearly, he was old and not in good health. But how had he ended up in the water? Had he fallen from a ship?

    Yet the story of his former life was for others to reconstruct. She was just thankful he was there on the table in front of her, as she probed the magnificent world he had become.

    • August 14, 2022 at 11:53 am
      Permalink

      Andy,
      So nice to see you back with us. It was almost like old times.
      This was a beautiful piece of writing with many points of worthy note. Personally, having been too close old people in their declining years, parents etc. I felt that did want want to go down that route but you really showed the way to do it.
      Well done and a deserved gold medal.
      By the way, I your notes to one of us, you mentioned a book, The Map of Love so I ordered it and it has just arrived. I really liked the theme and it put me in mind of Queen of the Desert, not the one about the LGBT performers travelling in a bus but one about a wealthy English industrialist whose daughter is determined not to be a debutante and instead goes off to the Middle East where became something of a king master in the Arab world.
      You probably know it.
      Anyway, well done and welcome back.
      Ken Frape

      • August 14, 2022 at 6:16 pm
        Permalink

        Many thanks, Ken. It’s great to catch up with everyone and take part again.

        I hope you enjoy The Map of Love. After reading the book about a decade ago, I saw Ahdaf Soueif in a session at a literature festival. Found her very interesting – thoughtful, humorous and quite humble.

        Something I am reading at the moment and which in a small way influenced how I wrote this story, is George Saunders’ ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’. Do you know it? He takes 6 classic short stories from Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol and uses them to illustrate how effective short stories are written. All based on his university workshops – very engaging style. I’m usually allergic to any kind of ‘how to write’ book, but as I love stories from that era, I thought I’d give it a go. Not a rules-based approach, rather observations on what makes a great short story.

        • August 15, 2022 at 3:48 am
          Permalink

          Morning Andy,

          I am not familiar with that book but I will look out for a copy. The only guidance I have followed regarding short stories is to read as many as I can. Some of the local competitions produce anthologies every couple of years and that makes interesting reading. I sometimes wonder how some of them made the cut but that’s a purely subjective view.
          Looking forward to this next prompt. Need to get into it early not the day of closing the threads like the last one.
          Ken Frape

  • August 5, 2022 at 8:24 am
    Permalink

    Andy,

    Very clever, I had to read it twice before it caught up with me. Nothing said the message had to be ‘inside’ the bottle, just a ‘message in a bottle’. Now then, onto the crit. Nope, can’t critique much as it is a well-told tale indeed.

    You capture the ruminations of the old man well, from my perspective, as I am already feeling some of those same sentiments. I lost any vanity I thought I had when I was hospitalized for a month. You learn quickly that modesty is only in your mind. Well told story and you’ve made it very difficult for me to choose a winning story this time around. This, however, is up there for consideration.

  • August 7, 2022 at 7:05 am
    Permalink

    The Tender Time

    1st October 2032

    It was the most beautiful sound Jarvis had heard for many days – the screeching of the sulphur-crested cockatoos. They arrived in flocks, pure white triangled wings flecked with bright yellow; soaring circles that floated slowly down to land in the paddock bordering the beach. Covering the dunes rolling down to the beach where the ocean lapped hungrily at the clean white sands, they called incessantly as they scrabbled through the clumped grass tussocks.
    “Hey, over here.” He called back to three small figures that had stumbled down after him from the road onto the sandy track that led down to the beach.
    As they passed the flocks of birds rose up in a flurry of pure white scraps tossed about on the sea breeze and then settled gently to resume feeding. Jarvis watched Tristan, Chloe and Jasmine plodding down after him and reflected on the past six weeks.

    15th August 2032

    The first reports said it was an earthquake. It had set off the volcano. Clouds of ash bloomed over the skies, blanketing the landscape. Night came early and stayed. Then the conspiracy theorists flooded the remaining internet channels for a week or more with the idea that someone or some organisation had planted a nuclear device near the crater’s lake and set it off remotely. No one knew for sure. They knew that clouds of ash and debris were slowly choking the life out of their world. It layered all surfaces. Breathing was hard. The air was thick with dust and grief. Reports said it had covered most of Eastern Australia up to the Great Barrier Reef and as far south as the Bass Strait. Tasmania, an island state off the southern Australia coast was spared due to its southern most position and the prevailing winds from all reports that had filtered through before the other disasters began.
    What everyone did know was that things happened. And things stopped. The world began to grind down with creaking gears, jerkily and with a sureness of the wrongness of it all. There were mass suicides and chaos. Particularly so, when the power supply from two plants in a Victorian valley were sabotaged. Now that was real. A group calling themselves Freedom From Pandemic Mandates using hot air balloons had manoeuvred themselves over the big chimneys of both plants on the same day. Then, they dropped themselves with 50 kilos of Semtex 1A down into the massive chimneys. A suicide mission to be sure. The blasts had a catastrophic effect on the environment and the surrounding towns. They resulted in massive power failures across the state. The explosions ripped through the Valley starting fires that destroyed several towns and set off earth quakes that further shook their populations.
    Mobile phones stopped working. Except for areas which had some sunshine to power their solar grids and some other off gridders who had bicycle powered electrical systems no one had power except if you already had a generator on hand. Some people did. They were ok until their fuel ran out.

    28th August 2032

    “We’ll need the generator fuel. Molly, it’s our only chance. We need to get to the coast.”
    “But why not wait Jarvis? We have enough food. We can kill some of the sheep. I’ve still got veggies in the garden. We are safe here. Why?”
    “Molly, we need to move to a safer place. We need to find sunshine. In case you hadn’t noticed everything is dying. Look at the trees. Everything is suffocating.”
    “But if we wait, it will clear up. Won’t it?” Molly begins to cough. She has been coughing for days now.
    “Love, your asthma’s bad. We need to go today. We have to go south. Towards Tassie. Spoke to a guy on Telegram. He’s still got power in Tassie. They have sunshine.”

    10th September 2032

    “Will Mum’s cough be better in heaven?” Jasmine tiny hands held clods of dirt she was piling onto the mound of earth they had shovelled over her mother.
    Silent tears streamed down Jarvis’s cheeks. He leant on the shovel exhausted and answered her softly.
    “Of course, babe. She’s all better now.”
    “Will we see her again in heaven. If we die too?” Chloe brushed the tears from her eyes with a grubby fist.
    “Oh, yes. Of that, I’m sure.” He thought about his answer as soon as he had said it. Then he gathered up his remaining family and they set off again. The car had run out of petrol and thus they did the remaining one hundred kilometres on foot.
    Tristan at twelve years old was stoic, too stoic. He had not cried. But, he had tried to comfort his father. That hurt.

    1st October 2032

    They found a fresh water stream running into the ocean. They filled their water bottles. Then, continued along the sandy beach.
    Tristan found the glass coke bottle. It was one of those old-fashioned coke bottles they had in the sixties. It was poking out of the sand half way up the beach.
    It had a cork in it. Tristan twisted it out, but it crumpled in his hand.
    “What cha got there, kiddo?” Jarvis came up behind his son.
    In answer Tristan held out the bottle. Jarvis whistled and held it up to the sky to catch the last of the day’s dim light.
    “Oh, there’s something inside it.” He up ended the bottle and a rolled-up piece of notepaper fell into the palm of his other hand.
    Both he and Tristan bent over the faint script on the unfurled note paper.

    To whoever finds this
    Today is my birthday the 22nd of June 1966. That’s right. I am 12 years old. I am the oldest in my family. I have two brothers and one of them hates me. He told me today he wished I would die. I don’t care anymore. It is better to love and be at peace, than hate and be at war with family. Family is important. You love those that have gone before. And you love the unborn and the next generation with a whole heart.
    Those that die, live in those that will come after. Two weeks ago, my mother died. My brother told me, he wished that I had died. Not Mum. Why I asked him. He replied because you are not a mother. We need a mother. We don’t need you. I felt sad. I am expendable. I am nothing, but something.
    I loved my mother. She was important. So is Dad, and so are each of my brothers. Every member of my family has a place in my heart. My mother died of breast cancer. It devoured her flesh until she had no more flesh to give and she became bone. I cried for a long time, but now I do not cry.
    I know she is in the sky.
    I know she is with me
    She is in the sea
    I open my arms to reach her
    I offer my prayer to her and all who have passed to heaven.
    I love….you all…

    Then Tristan cried.
    “Why’re you crying?”
    “She lost her mother. Like us.”

    • August 7, 2022 at 8:48 am
      Permalink

      Ilana,

      I always see your byline and get excited. I know for sure there’s a good read ahead. This story simply adds to that truth for me. Great opening paragraph that imbedded the hook and dragged me in without a fight.

      Good story, no, great! Story. Love everything about it, but … and this isn’t criticism, but an observation. I think you don’t need the last two lines at all, and for me, the line ‘Then Tristan cried’ becomes iconic. No need to explain Tristan’s tears. Nor mine.

    • August 8, 2022 at 12:23 pm
      Permalink

      Powerful story Ilana. You had me hooked from the beginning as I wasn’t quite sure where the journey would end, but it ended just where it should have. You had me crying. I agree with Roy. The most powerful line was: “Then Tristan cried.” Those three words say it all. See? I’m crying again! Adi

    • August 9, 2022 at 8:42 pm
      Permalink

      Hi, Ilana. Very nice story. The opening description is beautiful. The way that someone else’s experience might impact (and salve) our own is well illustrated. The last lines of the message are very powerful, too. However, I’m not sure the family woes of the message-sender are really relevant to the 2032 family, are they? (and it’s this family that’s the focus of the story). Suffice it to say (imho) that her mother has died and that she’s now “in the sky, the sea”, etc. Similarly, the cause of the apocalypse is well detailed but (once again imho) superfluous to the focus (i.e. the travails of the family). Suffice it to say thet there’s been some disaster. I always think of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ as a touchstone for dystopian futures; something horrible has happened, but we don’t need to know what exactly – only the consequences.

  • August 7, 2022 at 4:05 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks for the praise words and the constructive criticism Roy. I always look forward to yours, Andy’s and Phil’s comments along with the others. I also have to do some commenting on stories. It’s been so busy in my neck of the woods. Under a lot of pressure at the moment. New job within the Education department, new location, trying to get everything together to buy the house and land we are renting and trying to settle ,my son in TAFE despite some of the hiccups – don’t ask. It was good to be able to contribute again and a stress buster for me.
    I have so far read yours, Andy’s, Phil’s and Adi’s (?) stories and more to go and must comment too. Inbetween classes and the like… Time needs stretching….

  • August 9, 2022 at 1:04 pm
    Permalink

    2084

    It is the most beautiful day, glorious sunshine bounces off the golden sands of Formby where we’re standing side by side facing the vast blue sea. Some came in swimwear, despite the solemn officialdom of the occasion.

    Lined up along the entire British coast, up and down the country, each one of us holds a bottle. In it is a post-it with the most abominable cliché we could think of. Ninety-nine-million of us, ninety-nine-million despicable clichés, all to be flung into the sea, never to be pronounced again.

    What for? To purge our language of all its detestable fluff, and leave in it only the necessary. A linguistic beach clean-up. You’ve got to launder the language first, before you clean people’s thoughts.

    I registered my cliché early on, so I secured myself a very culpable one: “To be honest…”. Those vile three words, when strung together in that order! They’re uttered, most unmistakably, whenever honesty’s certainly off the menu, and the speaker plans to conceal his next lie. Real honesty doesn’t need to be declared, does it?

    I’m a foot-soldier of the Language Cleansing Ministry, the latest brainchild of our Great Leader, His Superlative Wisdom. So I’m fully on-board, from head to toe, none of my feathers ruffled, with this cliché-in-a-bottle initiative.

    All the clichés the citizens wrote were put in a database and will be radio-mindjabbed into our heads at the end of today’s exercise. I don’t know how it’s done exactly, the nuts and bolts of it all. But they’ll place all those trashy words somewhere in our brains were the stuff we forget in life resides. We’ll then, after that, rich and poor, educated or ignorant, speak one language again, Plain English, devoid of wordisms dangling from snobbish noses. I’m all out for this. Mind, body and soul. Long live our Superlative Wisdom Leader.

    Someone inserts himself in the line, right next to me.

    “Shane! Where’ve you been?”

    My bestie from Primary Indoctrination elbows me playfully, “I slept in!”, he says, “Lucky me: the Language Police patrolling this patch know my dad… turned a blind eye…”

    Skipping today’s event’s punishable by thirty years inside, supplemented with daily scientifically-calculated corporal punishment, that is, painful enough to be unbearable, but not unbearable enough you fainted and got some relief (that’s the kind of science doctors nowadays spend their time on, since all diseases have been conquered). The average lifespan now being well over two-hundred years, jail sentences have had to grow proportionally. But on the bright side, optional euthanasia’s regularly offered as an alternative for anyone daunted by jail. It’s actually encouraged (it aids the evolutionary cleansing of the species, Leader says). It’s different from capital punishment, which is of course illegal in our ultracivilised nation. Still, Shane’s such an idiot to risk so much on a day like today. Real stupid!

    I, for one, obey the rules to the letter. Not out of fear of the notorious DBP (Disorderly Behaviour Police). No, no! But because I truly believed in The Cause.

    “What’s your abominable cliché?” I ask Shane, to change the subject.

    He takes the post-it out of his bottle to read it out to me. Either because he forgot what he wrote, or for the theatrics.

    “With all due respect…” he says, then pauses.

    “Yes?…” I wait in earnest.

    “With all due respect…”

    “You already said that!”

    “That’s what it is…”

    “I see!” It’s actually a good one. Hear a sentence coming with, “With all due respect…”, and be sure something distasteful is your way. Respect! My foot!

    “Excellent, Shane!” He doesn’t ask me for mine, so I don’t tell him.

    The sun’s starting to bite. Global warming (that’s what they used to call it, I think) has turned Britain into a northerly savannah. But it used to be worse before, Grandpa Isabelle says. “It used to rain all the time! We’d carry our damn brollies along wherever we went!”

    But there’s no beating around the bush: too much of anything’s just too much. Even if it’s sunshine. I cover my eyes, wishing the ceremony rounds up soon. I keep the boredom at bay busying myself switching my bottle from one hand to the other. There’s a stone in it to weigh it down, and little holes, so that it does sink, taking the cliché down with it to uncharted depths.

    The Minister of Language Cleansing, Lord Onlywhatmatters (I wonder if he was born with that name – it fits too well to be true), takes the podium at the Brighton Pavillion. He clears his throat loudly and grandiosely to get the attention of the nation’s citizens watching him on giant screens on every beach and cliff of the country.

    “By the gracious wisdom of our Superlative Leader, we’re today gathered as one family to kick off this event that will once and for all rid our tongue of the myriads of empty words that are no longer fit for purpose in our day and age of ultracivilisation.”

    The crowds, on the big-screen and on the beach, applaud vigorously. Again, he clears his throat, more voluminously than the first time, to take back control.

    “We’re not here re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic. This is no mere fruitless exercise. We’re saving this very ship – our Ultrarepublic – from sinking. At the end of the day, we’ll arrive at our destination safe and sound. We’ve involved you all to participate in an ultrademocratic spirit to cast away this demon that grips our tongues from the moment we utter our first words…”

    His own language is soaked in clichés, I can’t help thinking. I feel somewhat disenfranchised. Like he’s more equal than others.

    “His own language is soaked in clichés”, Shane says aloud the exact same thing I’m thinking.

    “Shush! Someone may hear you,” I reprimand the idiot, “He can ! He is the Minister !”

    Onlywhatmatters spews out dozens more of his pet clichés, “…the long and short of it, it’s now or never, we’ll take this bull by its horns, the length and breadth of this country, early to bed early to rise, if paradise was half as nice, one man’s meat is a vegetarian’s nightmare, discipline makes the world go round, together we stand, together we’ll also fall, build backwards bother, yes we cane, we’ll hang together or we’ll get hung separately, good to go…”

    The ultimate political speech. It doesn’t have to make sense, nobody’s listening anyway.

    When silence finally reigns again, those still awake applaud explosively, startling those who’ve fallen asleep.

    It’s time.

    We approach the waterline and toss our bottles. The tide quickly pulls them out. They glisten for a while in the distance, and then the sea sucks them in.

    A whirling sound, like the type one hears near high-tension pylons, envelopes us. It’s the usual mindjabbing.

    My head aches for a moment, then I feel a little dipsy.

    I can’t quite recall my name, my way home, or why I came to the beach in a suit.

    Nothing returns.

    It’s like having pressed “delete all” and there’s no cancel or undo button!

    Ninety-nine-million people. Some are ignorant, some are pranksters. They must’ve written just about everything on those post-its!

    This hasn’t worked!

    Or, worse, it’s worked too much.

    This is a mess. An utterly hopeless situation scenario!

    An utterly hopeless situation scenario?

    Ninety-nine-million! And nobody wrote off that abysmally repulsive cliché?

    • August 9, 2022 at 9:02 pm
      Permalink

      Good to read you again, KenM! This is very funny. There’s some great wordplay, nice bits of dialogue, and despite the humour, a dark undercurrent related to the fascist state that Britain is on the way to becoming. I think the State’s aim to get rid of all the clichés (except for those spouted by the Minster of LC) is naturally insane and dangerous (all the elements of language go towards making it a rich tapestry, etc.). However, and with all due respect, if that’s their aim, I don’t really understand the need for the bottles and messages (other than for effect within your story – the 99m people lining the coast is a great image! – and to satisfy the prompt). I mean, everyone’s going to forget the moment anyway through the ‘mindjabbing’. But to be honest, it was a really fun read, anyway.

      • August 10, 2022 at 5:13 am
        Permalink

        Hi Phil, yes it’s good to be back!

        The whole story idea emerged from the prompt, of course, and without the prompt this story wouldn’t have come to my mind. So I may have included the post-its-in-a-bottle theatrics in order to satisfy the prompt.

        However (and, in reaction to your comment), perhaps I should hint more strongly at what’s in it for the 2084 UK government to organise such folly.

        For example, I could have hinted at the well-established fact that to rule effectively one needs to give the people (food and) circuses – like taking out the whole population to the beach with bottle in hand…

        The Minister does hint in his speech that the involvement of the people in the disposal of the clichés is part of the ultrademocratic (!) beliefs of his government. They do mindjab (with good intent, yeah right), but want to be perceived like they do seek democratic consensus first (in principle, that’s already so in 2022, mind you; we don’t need to wait till 2084).

        What I might also need to make clearer, after reading your precious critique, is that only the “abominable clichés” and nothing else had to be minjabbed off people’s minds, certainly not the very fond memory of The Great Beach Ultrademocratic Exercise. The people in government do, as you say, have the technology to mindjab anyone with anything, but not the nerve.They seem to me like they want to remain popular too… Something like that.

        The 2084 UK government overlooked the fact that some people might write their mother’s name as a cliché (out of ignorance or perversion). Apparently, the registration of the clichés was rushed through enthusiastically with little oversight, trusting that people would use their democratic rights and privileges wisely, altruistically and in good faith.

        They don’t.

        With this, we see that while fascism is fearsome, democracy has its holes too. Mix them together, and…

        Ok, despite all of the above… do have a nice day, Phil!

        Cheers!
        Ken

    • August 10, 2022 at 3:29 am
      Permalink

      I smile my way through this (increasingly surreal) satirical piece, set 100 years after 1984. It’s a lot of fun, and great set-up at the beginning. Terrifically original! “You’ve got to launder the language first, before you clean people’s thoughts” – very Orwellian, and with the Language Police, very much of the moment with the fun and games around right-thinking.

      I also liked the nod to “Grandpa Isabelle” in passing, and reference to current inescapable UK political clichés like “take back control” (aagh!) and “build back better” (“build backwards bother …”, which is more in the capabilities of the present crew in charge!)

      One cliché I’d happy throw into the sea, very crreutn in my work life, is “bring your whole self to work”. Ye gods, no! We want people’s better selves, don’t we?

      Yep, good fun, and sharp points made on the way!

      • August 10, 2022 at 5:30 am
        Permalink

        Hi Andy – I see you’re back too! It’s like the group of old is slowly reassembling here after this site virtually disappeared for a while…

        I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I know you’re usually a rather harsh critic, who wouldn’t leave a stone unturned, so I’m actually double-glad!

        You also picked out some of my fave turns of phrase and points (build backward bother, launder the language clean the minds, Grandpa Isabelle) – they all point at some of the raw things of nowadays – slogan politics, political correctness, cancel culture and gender fluidity, things which by 2084 will either be remembered as the weird stuff of our Roaring Twenties, or will become so ingrained that one would speak of Grandpa Isabelle and Grandma Roger without batting an eye…

        Cheers!
        Ken

    • August 11, 2022 at 1:06 am
      Permalink

      Hey! What the hell? What are you doing here, Ken? I thought you were living upstairs from a dry-goods store in Indianapolis, Indiana. It’s always a pleasure to read one of your stories. I like what you’ve done here, it reminds me of the movie ‘JoJo Rabbit.’ You make us laugh, then you make us un-laugh. The circumstances are horrendous, the consequences horrific, and yet, there are these things that are funny, no matter what. It takes real literary talent to hit a funny spot that’s more like a zone or a human emotion range.

  • August 9, 2022 at 2:22 pm
    Permalink

    The Inklings.
    1200 words.

    It was the most beautiful bottle she’d ever seen—lying on a bed of slimy kelp on an elevated shelf along the shore. The tide had come in and deposited the bottle on a rocky outcrop of greenish-black granite.

    She picked it up, admiring the quality of the thing. It was no larger than her hand and made of dark blue glass, with angular embossed edges, adorned with tarnished filigree on its neck and shoulders. She marveled at the fact that it could be intact, for all she imagined it had been through.

    She brought it home and showed it to her husband, Oscar, who grunted, “Sea trash.”

    “Are you really that dense?” She asked.

    He lowered his newspaper and gazed at the bottle. “Ah yes, I missed the delicate interplay of light and shadow on the encrusted barnacles. And what’s that? A message?”

    She held the bottle up to the light and—damned if he wasn’t right. There was something in it.

    “Well what d’ya know. A message in a bottle. How quaint.” He raised the newspaper to resume reading. “What’s it say?”

    She was already in the kitchen. “What does what say?” Then the tap was turned on.

    He closed the newspaper. “The message.”

    No response.

    “In the bottle.” Still no response. He folded the newspaper and followed her into the kitchen to find her holding a tiny scrolled up message in her hand. “Is that it?”

    She lifted one eyebrow, dropped it in his hand, and returned to the sink, leaving him to unroll the scroll while she went back to cleaning the bottle.

    He had a knowledgeable friend in the language department at a major California university, an expert, who examined the message on the scrolled paper. He scratched his head. “Where’d you get this, Oscar?”

    “My wife found it. In a bottle.”

    “You’re kidding.”

    “No. Why?”

    His friend shrugged. “I don’t recognize the script.”

    “What does that mean?”

    His friend explained, while donning a pair of latex gloves, and using tweezers to place the tiny scroll into a plastic bag. “It means it’s either an elaborate hoax…”

    He sealed the bag and placed it on the table.

    “Or?” The husband said.

    The professor made a strange face. “I would say it was a hoax and forget about it, but a couple of the symbols have a remarkable similarity to Sanskrit.”

    “So?” The husband said.

    “So, I’d like to show it to a couple of real experts. I’m just a professor…”

    “You’re head of the department here.”

    “Right. It’s a bit of a puzzle though. I just met a guy at a conference who does something like forensic anthropology, he said to call him if I ever needed anything. Do you mind if I hang onto this? For safekeeping and convenience?”

    “Not at all,” Oscar said. “Be my guest.”

    “Great. I’ll give him a call. Oh, and say ‘hi’ to the missus.”

    For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip over the number of heads that were scratched in the days and weeks that followed. In time, the professor called his friend Oscar, and invited him to attend a meeting with the forensics expert he’d sent the item to. We’ll pick up the meeting in progress.

    “So it’s not Sanskrit then,” the language professor said, looking a little disappointed.

    “Oh God, how I wish it was.” The forensics expert was a young, bright-eyed, energetic man, his unlined face provided a comic contrast to his obsessive interest in ancient history. Name? Steve Oldman.

    “Why? What’s the big mystery?” Oscar said.

    “What you have here, sir, is an example of a previously unknown, undocumented language.”

    After a moment of puzzled silence, Oscar said, “Ah. So. It was a hoax after all.”

    “No,” Oldman said. “It’s not a hoax. Not at all. It appears to be a real language, based on certain—other criteria.”

    “Like what?”

    “We ran numerous tests on the note, you see…”

    “Uh-huh.””

    “We were able to snip off a small sample of the substrate…”

    “The paper?” Oscar said.

    “Yes, the paper, it’s, the paper is more like a substrate than paper.” It was too technical to explain. “The point is, even as a substrate, it isn’t quite like anything—any kind of substrate that’s ever been made.”

    “Excuse me.” The professor broke in. “How can you ‘determine’ that something has never been made before?”

    Oldman was happy to explain. “Because it’s impossible. The crystalline structure of the material can only be made in a weightless environment.”

    Oscar did not grasp the inherent meaning of Oldman’s treatise and looked to his friend, the professor, for clarity, who said, “The material, which isn’t paper, was made in space?”

    “And that’s not all.” Oldman continued. “We examined the ink. Though not from space, the ink has an unusual terrestrial origin. Cephalopods.”

    “Squid?” The professor guessed.

    “Octopus,” Oldman told him.

    “This is written in Octopus ink?”

    “It is.”

    “Well, who uses Octopus ink to write with? That should narrow it down.”

    “No one.”

    “No one? Why not? Ink is ink.”

    “It’s—no, it’s not really ink sir, more like mucus and melanin, it’s more of a delicacy than a tool for writing.”

    “A delicacy?”

    “It would be like using beet or blackberry juice for ink. You could do it, but it’s more useful as food, since other liquids make much better inks.

    “So what does it all mean? What does all this tell us?”

    “It tells us that the paper, or substrate was made in space, the ink to write it came from an octopus. The language is still a mystery. It’s either alien or ancient. Or both. Do you have the bottle?”

    “My wife has it. She’s rather fond of it.”

    The three men nodded thoughtfully. Oldman said, “Do you think she might let my team take a look at it?”

    “No need,” Oscar said. He reached in his pocket and pulled out an exact duplicate and handed it to Oldman, who said, “What’s this?”

    “It’s an old perfume bottle, circa 1950. They made thousands of them. I bought it from an antique dealer. He had three of them.”

    The forensics expert was given the duplicate bottle, and the note for further study, and assured both the professor and his friend Oscar, that he would inform them should they gain any insight into the origins or meaning of the message.

    When he brought up the subject of the bottle at dinner that evening, she put a gentle hand on his arm and said, “Sweety? You seem so bored since you retired. Have you ever thought of taking up golf, or tennis? You need a hobby, honey.” Then she patted his arm and got up and carried the dishes to the sink.

    He had no inkling of what she was talking about. A few days later he got a call from his friend, the professor. “Just thought I’d let you know. Remember that message on a scroll you gave us?”

    “Sure.”

    “I just got a call from—the expert—the exotic substrate from space was actually compressed Styrofoam packaging, beach trash, and the message, of course, was gibberish. Give my regards to the missus.”

    • August 9, 2022 at 9:23 pm
      Permalink

      Hey, KenC – good to see you back here. This has you written all over it: slick narrative, excellent dialogue, lightness of touch. It plays out like a bit of a shaggy-dog story … but is it? Are the friend and the expert covering up the real truth? We’ll never know. I wonder if you wrote this then had to cut it back? There are a couple of points where bits seem to be missing. Just before “He had a knowledgeable friend…”, shouldn’t there be something about how the messge is indecipherable to Oscar or his wife? (‘she’ – why no name?) And “When he brought up the subject of the bottle at dinner…” … there could be something there to tell us that ‘he’ is Oscar. Finally, in the “For the sake of brevity” paragraph, the narrator entering into overt dialogue with the reader … is a bit of a jolt, imho. But as always, this is a very enjoyable read, your style winning the day!

    • August 10, 2022 at 3:37 am
      Permalink

      Hi Ken – Inklings. I didn’t have an inkling of where this shaggy Ken story was going until a few sentences from the end, so well done on leading us all on this merry path! Seems most of the experts are keen to find solutions within their area of specialism – one of the dangers of research and a telling observation.

      Oscar’s wife is very resourceful in trying to overcome his boredom in retirement, but in the end she just wants him to get out more: “for better or for worse, but not for lunch” syndrome!

      Good fun!

    • August 10, 2022 at 11:26 am
      Permalink

      Hi Ken,

      Well, at least we know it’s really you, this time round. Or is it? perhaps someone has taken over your persona as you were not using it.

      Anyway, great to see most of the old gang back in harness and with you writing your unique brand of storytelling.

      This one reads so well and, I have to own up, I read Phil’s comment BEFORE I read your story. Point is, the guy is a very good judge of a story, he misses nothing, so if he likes it, it’s good.

      You are either a polymath, a very clever chap OR you do your research. I learned a lot just from reading this. Enjoyed it from start to finish and I have no quibbles. Nope, none at all.

      Cheers,

      Ken Frape

  • August 9, 2022 at 5:12 pm
    Permalink

    Ahha, Ken. Neatly wrapped up story. Loved it. There is a message there in that story. You have not lost your touch. 🙂

  • August 10, 2022 at 8:33 am
    Permalink

    Hi Lana, Adi, Phil, Lydia, Andy, Roy and Ken C,

    Good to see your work and nice to see some of the old, familiar names.
    I have read all of the stories and will comment if time allows. Will vote for sure.
    I am partway through writing for this prompt but having only been back from holiday for a few days, I might not make it unless Carrie waits a bit longer to close the thread.
    Cheers all,
    Ken F

  • August 10, 2022 at 10:54 am
    Permalink

    The Bird that Flew by Carrie Zylka
    1013 words.

    It was the most beautiful fall morning.

    Caroline looked at herself in the mirror as the warm sunlight glanced off her blond hair.

    Her morning ritual.

    This morning ritual that she detested and yet always submitted herself to.

    People told her she was attractive, but she just didn’t see it. When she looked in the mirror, she hated what she saw. She was ugly to her own eyes.

    So, every morning, she looked in the mirror and tried to see what others saw.

    She’d then get dressed.

    She’d eat a breakfast alone, sit in the sun room that overlooked the bay and work on her novel, eat lunch and dinner, alone.

    She was always alone.

    Her husband would come home late from work, always after dinner, sometimes he would smell like work, sometimes he would smell like…other things.

    They’d exchange pleasantries, and he’d go to bed, and later she’d come to bed as well trying to ignore his snoring, and she may as well have been alone.

    On one sunny day just before winter, she decided to take advantage of the warm breezes. Soon, it would be too cold to go outside, and she wanted to feel the cold water on her toes.

    As she walked along the beach, her feet quickly becoming wrinkled, she spied a bottle. Frowning at the litter, she picked it up with the thought of tossing it in the trash. A cork and paper inside the champagne bottle made her pause. After a momentary struggle with the cork (she marveled at how they even got it back in there) she turned the bottle upside down and shook it.

    A note was inside, tightly rolled and tied with a sparkly gold ribbon. She unrolled it and paused.

    It was an invitation. It was not addressed to anyone and was elaborately written. Beautiful calligraphy invited the attendee to a New Year’s Eve party, promising glam and glitz and an over-the-top experience.

    Caroline smiled, wishing the invitation had been addressed to her. She’d love to dance and smile and laugh with people. She yearned for whatever it was to feel…not alone.

    She kept the rolled invitation on her desk in the sun room and looked at it often as she worked, day in and day out. Somehow, during her morning ritual, she began to wonder if she was pretty enough or exciting enough to attend such an event.

    The morning of New Year’s Eve, Caroline found herself in her wardrobe, surveying the numerous dresses peeking out at her. The lure of attending a party where no one knew her was too tantalizing to pass up. Her husband’s “I have to work late and probably won’t be home until after midnight” text was the deciding factor.

    She selected a beautiful gown and spent most of the afternoon playing with hair and makeup techniques. The car service arrived promptly at 10pm and with a fluttering in her heart, Caroline went to the party, the invitation secure in her clutch.

    The scene at the house was something out of a movie, long stretch limos and expensive cars waited patiently to deposit the glamorous attendees onto the red carpet covering granite stairs.

    The valet helped her out of the car, and she made her way into the mansion, accepting the glass of champagne at the door.

    She spent nearly an hour moving among the three hundred attendees, each one draped in more diamonds than the last. She wasn’t sure what she was doing here, and nearly fled on more than one occasion.

    Her glass empty, she made her way towards the bar. As she waited patiently, a stunningly gorgeous man stepped over to her. “Are you a bubbly, bourbon, or beer kind of gal?”

    She blinked; blue eyes caught off guard. “what?”

    He chuckled, and his laughter was the sound of honeyed butter. “What are you drinking? I’d be happy to get it for you.”

    “Oh gosh,” she blushed. “I’m just drinking champagne tonight. And thank you so much.”

    He smiled again. “My name is James.” His fingers brushed hers as the glass transferred to her hand.

    “Caroline.” She said simply.

    “Where is your date, Miss Caroline?” He asked, looking around.

    Her heart jumped, and it was by sheer emotional force she kept her lip from trembling. “I don’t have one. My husband decided to spend New Year’s Eve with someone prettier, younger, and surely thinner than I. So, here I am.” She shrugged, trying to hide the emotion in her voice.

    James threw back his head and laughed. “His loss is surely my gain! You’re gorgeous, I’m sure whoever it is doesn’t hold a candle to you.”

    “You’re too kind.” She murmured and sipped her drink, unable to make eye contact.

    His eyebrows furrowed, he picked up on the silent signals, and his heart ached for her. “Everyone has been with someone who makes them feel worthless. I don’t care who you are, what you do, who you’re with, tonight we should simply have fun for the sake of fun.” He held out his hand. “Come, lovely lady, let’s go dance.”

    Her eyes met his. She couldn’t believe this handsome man would want to dance with her, but she was tired of the self-doubt and the self-loathing. She wanted to feel pretty and wanted and alive. Something she hadn’t felt in many years.

    She took his hand and for that one night everything was perfect. When midnight struck, huge balloons and streamers and glitter rained down on the attendees. James swept her up in his arms and pressed his lips to hers. She kissed him back and the chemical reaction sent sparks surging through bodies light with alcohol and eagerness.

    He held her close, and she wrapped her arms around him. “I want to know everything about you, Caroline, please tell me I can see you again.” He whispered into her ear.

    She looked up at him and her soul melted at the sincerity in his eyes.

    “I’d really like that.” She said softly, and a brick in wall she’d built to protect her heart trembled.

    • August 10, 2022 at 10:55 am
      Permalink

      Well, I don’t love it.
      there’s not a single dragon or fight scene in the whole damn thing.
      But at least I got a story in!

    • August 10, 2022 at 11:12 am
      Permalink

      Carrie,

      It was well worth the effort to write your story. I think you may have tapped into a seam of that lack of confidence that many people feel. Sometimes, people who talk to groups of people for a living, hate going into a crowded room and making conversation with strangers.

      You have made me wonder what Caroline looks like. Bearing in mind that we all exaggerate perceived blemishes ( eyes too small, nose too big, etc) and having been married for 46 years to the same person who I love dearly, I think she is probably a stunner and James is a lucky man and Caroline’s husband is a dick.

      Superb final sentence.

      Love your work,

      Ken Frape

  • August 10, 2022 at 10:56 am
    Permalink

    Message Received.

    By Ken Frape

    It was the most beautiful dream. Anneka tried desperately to hold onto it as she rose through the layers of sleep. It was the incoming tide washing against her feet that dragged her back into wakefulness. She struggled to sit up, spitting the coarse sand from between her swollen and cracked lips. Every movement seemed to ignite new pain, bringing back memories of yesterday’s beating, the latest in a long line. Every blow inflicted upon her frail body was intended to bruise her flesh but not break her bones. After all, how could she work if she could not walk but bruises could be hidden under clothing, not that the people she worked for even noticed her for she was the lowest of the low, invisible unless being punished.

    “Clean that toilet, slut!” she would be told as hands were raised to strike her. “Polish that floor so that I can eat from it,” would be followed by a kick to her backside as she bent to attend to the task.

    Protest was futile and pointless. The long line of shoes laid out each evening for cleaning would even include those of other servants, those higher up the pecking order who had voices and were allowed to speak, who ate regular meals, who actually received wages. Anneka had none of these for she was a human doormat, despised, trampled underfoot.

    As Anneka struggled to stand she looked down at her legs, bruised and mottled beneath her thin and ragged tights, dark to hide the bruises, her feet encased in cheap trainers, the laces undone, at the mercy of the oncoming waves, like fronds of seaweed. In the predawn light it was chilly and dismal for last night she had stopped to rest and cry under the pier at the seaside town. Now, the razor edged barnacles made a criss cross of tiny cuts to the skin of her seawater-wrinkled hands as she used it to support her and she knew she must hurry back.

    If she was ever late back to the hotel where she had been brought under cover of darkness from her home far away on another continent, the alarm would soon be raised. Shoes in the corridors would remain uncleaned, alongside trays of last night’s room service. Washing up would lay dirty in the kitchen sink and curtains would remain unopened to let in the early morning sun.

    And then, it would seem, It would be almost the first time that little Anneka, servant-slave, would really have been noticed and it would be because of her absence, not her presence. She knew she must not go outside, she had been warned of dire consequences, the punishments that lay in wait if she disobeyed. And yet, unbeknown to her masters, in the darkness she risked all that, just to experience a small measure of freedom. Each night she slipped quietly out of a downstairs window and crept silently down to the beach, to feel the sand between her toes and to watch the moon on the water. Every night she brought back a single seashell or a beautiful pebble as a memento that she carefully hid under her mattress.

    And every night Anneka would bring an empty wine bottle and a cork from the kitchen bins and every night she would write a note for her mother telling he she was well and not to worry. Then, every night she would hurl the bottle into the waves, barely seeing its flight as the tears filled her vision.

    It was there, many days since, that she had met Karim, a boy from her own country who, just like Anneka, longed for the sun and the homeland from which they had both been plucked and trafficked halfway around the world to work twenty hours a day as labour slaves and receive regular beatings to keep them cowed. Running away would only lead to arrest, they were warned, as they were illegal immigrants, without papers, who would be imprisoned and their present conditions would seem like luxury.

    Their love was inevitable for they were already connected, by their past, to their homeland and to the families that would still be mourning their absence. They shared their dreams of escape and gradually those dreams became plans. They stole a few basic items that would not be missed that would sustain them on their journey; tins of food, chocolate, a small amount of the local currency, odd items of clothing forgotten by guests. Their ignorance and the hopelessness of the journey ahead were blinded by their love and desire for home.

    Then, one early morning, Anneka felt a swelling in her stomach and a fluttering inside. Karim and Anneka shared the same emotions, delight and fear. Their situation, always precarious, had now become desperate for they could no longer return home. An unmarried couple with a baby would be outcasts. In the hotel, all too soon, her condition would become obvious and what little value she had would become nothing.

    Then Karim disappeared. For three weeks he failed to appear at their secret rendezvous and there was no way of contacting him. In desperation, Anneka decided to wait seven more days. Then she would walk down that beach where they had become lovers and let the sea take her. On that seventh night she cried constantly at the thought of not her own death but that of her unborn child but she could not bear the thought of the life her child would lead.

    That night, the manager was very late to bed and he immediately noticed the uncleaned shoes. “Find her,” was the manager’s only instruction to the staff.

    Anneka was waist deep in the sea when a hand reached for her hair and dragged her back from the brink of a watery death.

    “Oh no you don’t, ungrateful bitch” called out the voice of the manager above the crashing of the waves and the constant caw of the gulls. He held onto her hair as he forced her back to the water’s edge where he flung her face down in the sand and proceeded to kick her as she tried desperately to protect her baby.

    He would have delivered more kicks but suddenly, his eyes widened and he fell to his knees. The handle of a kitchen knife protruded between his shoulder blades. He tried to turn to see his attacker. All he saw was yet another slave worker just like Anneka and then his eyes closed and he died face down in sand and seaweed as his blood dripped onto the pebbles.

    Anneka saw the face of Karim who reached out his arms to cradle her head.

    “Come,” he said, “we must hurry.” He half lifted and half carried her towards a small motor boat that was puttering a few metres further out. Minutes later all that remained was the body of the manager as the nervous seagulls slowly moved in for breakfast.

    “Mother must have received my messages,” Anneka sighed as she slipped into unconsciousness, a smile on her face for the first time for many months.

    • August 12, 2022 at 11:47 am
      Permalink

      Very realistic and harrowing story, KenF. We know this kind of stuff goes on … and not just with women (see the workers in Qatar). Happy that it ends happily; Anneka and Karim are the lucky ones, though.

      Congratulations on Anneka being voted as top character (with Carrie’s Caroline). A very heroic, relatable figure.

    • August 10, 2022 at 11:05 am
      Permalink

      Hahaha!
      A gold start for us!!!!

  • August 10, 2022 at 12:06 pm
    Permalink

    Alrighty peeps, you know the drill!
    You officially have 24 hours from the timestamp of this comment to vote.

    Just a reminder, you MUST vote for your story to qualify, you may not vote for yourself, and you can only vote once.

    Good luck!

    https://fictionwritersgroup.com/beautiful-voting-2022/

  • August 10, 2022 at 12:55 pm
    Permalink

    Be Still And Know

    Marien Oommen

    It was the most beautiful touch he’d ever felt in his entire life. Not even the faint recollection of his dear mother, wiping his tears when he came home, bullied by the big boys, could ever match Tasha’s gentle touch on his brow.

    Abe looked up at the woman massaging his forehead.

    How much more patient long suffering would she have in store for him? And her soft voice- sweeter than the sounds of heaven, he speculated.
    Then dark fear, like a howling wind, would overwhelm him. Would she one day pack her bags and leave him alone to bear the burden of his own undoing?

    Admit it. He had been a jackass untold times in his salad days.

    Last month it all seemed so lovely and happy. Like in a dream.
    Two families had gone to the beach, goofed and guffawed and they ended up being wild wolves. In a fun way of course.
    Running down the polished floors of that heritage hotel, chasing his buddy of 50 odd years, should never have been. Their straitjacketed wives were yelling at them.
    When you are seventy, you don’t run down sunlit balconies facing the sea. But the air was thick with the joy he had felt at 17.

    Abe tripped badly, on his own wide jeans, but was quick to catch the railing. His head reeled but then a quick vigorous head shake made him feel normal again.
    However, the next day, disaster struck pretty bad.
    Abe woke up with a heavy head. Before he could steady himself on his legs, he fell heavily on the ground.

    The next few days were like movie shots.
    Hospital, nurses, tubes, nasal feeding, brain fog- the works.
    Abe had lost his faculties of feeling, tasting, sensing.
    His eyes seemed to gaze at his weeping wife, but he wasn’t really. His face slanted to the side, and what was worse, he couldn’t verbalize his thoughts. He had read enough to know that this was it.
    The beginning of the end.

    There was nothing left to do. Except lie in bed and look blankly at the ceiling. He was only 73.

    Tasha wouldn’t stop weeping. She sat by his side, day and night and cried profusely if anybody appeared to show even the littlest kindness.
    After some weeks, nobody seemed to care any longer. There were desultory calls from the kids and that was it. Of course they had their busy lives to lead and Tasha knew not to infringe on their ‘schedules’.

    Life is getting over, she thought. But mentally she was still full of beans with dance in her veins, music in her heart; her dangling earrings jiggling with every bollywood song that came on the telly.
    That’s why she teared so easily, crying for herself, she was.
    Really now!

    Out of the blue, Priscilla called from her faraway abode. Tasha never expected this class fellow to call to ask about her husband. Why would she even care?

    “Hey, Tashh, I saw your face as I woke up this morning. Everything okay with you?”
    Tasha couldn’t speak, her tears fell profusely soaking her cheek, flowing down to her blouse. She angled the phone on to her husband lying prone, looking helpless, on bed.

    “O Prisca, I love you for calling me. Now.” Tasha almost whimpered.

    “Hey Tasha, we missed you at the reunion.”
    “Yes I couldn’t show up because my hubby had a fall.”
    “Oh is he okay now? Can I come see him?”
    “Sure,” Tasha replied, still weeping, rubbing her eyes.

    Somebody cared to call! Not one from her family, but an old school chum. Who wasn’t even a big chum those bygone school days.

    “Let me say a prayer for you and your hubby,” Prisca said.
    Tasha replied, “Any prayer is welcome. I will never say no.”

    Prisca prayed that the man on the bed would walk again with a walker and then, without it fearlessly. Tasha had told her that he was scared to use the walker, enveloped in rabid fear, and so remained 24/7 in bed, impotent to the core.
    Abe was a big man and poor Tasha had to maneuver him as he clung on to her for support. This tired Tasha no end and who could she call for help?

    There was no one.

    Prisca needed to hear nothing more.
    She got bold to loudly declare, “Take up thy bed and walk,” much like the master who walked the streets of Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago, told the crippled man by the pool.

    Prisca’s call made Tasha feel so much better. Somebody cares.
    At the end of days, that’s all one needs.

    After the call ended, Tasha wrote down the prayer as she remembered it. She needed to say it more than once, she told herself. She left the paper on the writing table but it fell over. Her hands were unsteady.
    A steady wind was blowing outside and the curtain moved.
    She slipped the note with the prayer into the empty Nescafe bottle on the shelf.
    Who keeps prayer notes in coffee bottles?
    Tasha smiled within.
    It was ages since she had even a fraction of a smile on her face.

    This call was special, Tasha thought. Now has come the time to do a life appraisal.

    Let God and let go.
    ….Let God set the agenda and the pace. He is my commander and chief.
    All these years I’ve been talking too much. I was calling the shots. Or at least trying to. On the saddle, mostly shooting at this man who shot right back at me….
    Of what avail the inane arguments, the catastrophic making up?
    Then the slow realization there’s a super power over all feeble human effort.

    Truly there was no time to hear their Creator God in their growing years. When the chase is on to climb the corporate ladder. Being the perfect parent, chasing after violin and basketball classes- doing the things other moms do.
    A bountiful forest is in the seed and the seed needs to be on good ground with solid nurturing.
    No human effort alone can help anybody do the max.

    God has to be our navigation system- The one who whispers in our ears to take a U-turn. Get on track, then go where you have to go.

    Tasha switched the lights off and sunk her weary head on the white pillow. The tears she cried could fill an ocean- she recalled the words of an old fav.

    “GNNNNRRRRRR.” The sound startled her.

    For the first time she heard Abe snore soundly. He was asleep. There were nights that he wouldn’t settle down to sleep.
    But today!! It’s a miracle. Did Prisca have anything to do with it?
    Tasha smiled once more.

    The next morning, the bell rang. Tina managed some time off.

    “Hello, Mom! How is dad?”

    “My sweetheart, you came!” said Tasha delightedly.

    “Anything to eat? I’m starving.”

    “Papa is getting better. Thank God! He almost had a seizure!”

    But Tina wasn’t listening. She was watching Betty making butter cakes, she pressed the heart emoji which went sailing into outer space where everything was just cool and buttery.

    “Some coffee to go?”

    • August 10, 2022 at 2:56 pm
      Permalink

      a little late but I added you in.

      • August 10, 2022 at 3:30 pm
        Permalink

        Thank you so much, Carrie.
        Been such a busy granmabee.
        Somebodeh gotta be the last! 🙂

  • August 10, 2022 at 3:32 pm
    Permalink

    Hi Carrie so hard to vote today and the voting button must have slipped. Can you please put Adi in place of number 5 sorry. I voted 3 and 5 for the same person but that was not what I intended. Early morning and have not had my second chai yet.
    SO SO hard to choose this time as there were so many good stories.

    • August 10, 2022 at 3:51 pm
      Permalink

      No problem at all!
      And yes I agree it’s hard to vote this round!

  • August 11, 2022 at 8:34 am
    Permalink

    Hi All,

    Sorry if I didn’t have time to write a comment on every story. Just wanted to reread them all and get my votes in.

    Ken Frape

  • August 11, 2022 at 11:58 am
    Permalink

    Just waiting on votes from Lara, Ken M and Ken C.

    • August 12, 2022 at 8:02 am
      Permalink

      All right, I just got in the final vote, I’ll be tallying them shortly!

  • August 12, 2022 at 9:56 am
    Permalink

    Wow is all I can say!
    What a great turn out and voting was hard this round.

    Without further ado here are your winners!

    1st Place: A Life in Pursuit of Beauty by Andy Lake
    2nd Place: Papers by Lara Crave
    3rd Place: Pale Blue by Phil Town
    4th Place: 2084 by Ken Miles
    5th Place: The Inklings by Ken Cartisano
    6th Place: Message Received by Ken Frape
    7th Place: Return to Sender by RM York
    8th Place: Morning Message by Adrienne Riggs
    9th Place: The Bird that Flew by Carrie Zylka
    10th Place: The Tender Time by Ilana Leed
    11th Place: Be Still And Know by Marien Oommen
    12th Place: Betrayed by Lydia Thomson

    Story with the favorite dialogue: The Inklings by Ken Cartisano
    Favorite Character: was a tie between Ken Frape’s “Anneka” and Carrie Zylka’s “Caroline” (apparently ya’ll root for the pretty underdogs!)

    Congrats to all, in case you missed it the new prompt is up, I can’t wait to see what you all come up with for this one!
    https://fictionwritersgroup.com/war-paint-2022/

    • August 12, 2022 at 11:40 am
      Permalink

      Congratulations, Andy and Lara! Chuffed to be on the ‘podium’. Great bunch of stories!

      So … ‘war paint’ …

    • August 12, 2022 at 11:55 am
      Permalink

      Congrats Andy, Lara, and Phil! Way to go! Voting was difficult and it was wonderful to read so many great stories!

      • August 12, 2022 at 2:08 pm
        Permalink

        Well done to those in the podium but also to the whole company of writers. It was just like old times. Being at the top of this group is really a challenge but so well worth the effort.
        Kind regards,

        Ken Frape
        PS Anneka say hi . She and Karin made it home.

    • August 17, 2022 at 2:57 pm
      Permalink

      Congrats to winners.
      Jagan

  • August 12, 2022 at 4:25 pm
    Permalink

    Congrats to the winners, Nice to see so many stories.

  • August 12, 2022 at 4:35 pm
    Permalink

    If you are a praying person, please say prayers or send thoughts of peace for two of my grandchildren who live in Florida. We had a sobering reminder of what can be found on a beach this week. Their uncle was found under a sand dune. He had been filming the sunrise Sunday morning the 7th in my hometown of Stuart when the dune fell on him and suffocated him. A woman walking her dog saw his legs sticking out of the sand and found him, too late to be saved. Thanks.

    • August 13, 2022 at 1:38 pm
      Permalink

      Adi, your family seems to be walking under a dark cloud with mayhem and misery striking in every direction. I’ll be hoping for the best for your two grandchildren.

      I’ve got a few of those kinds of stories, but you have a few more than I do. My condolences.

      Roy

      • August 15, 2022 at 12:47 pm
        Permalink

        Thanks Roy. It does seem like that, doesn’t it? Caleb and Claire are good kids and they have a solid support system so I’m sure they will be ok. It was the shock of an unexpected death. School just started as well, so that will occupy some of their time. Their 5 year old little sister is having the hardest time. Thank you for thinking of us.

        • August 15, 2022 at 5:09 pm
          Permalink

          That’s very sad, Adi. My thoughts are with you and your family.

          • August 16, 2022 at 2:23 pm
            Permalink

            Thank you Andy. That means a great deal to us.

    • August 15, 2022 at 5:19 pm
      Permalink

      I am a praying woman, and I will keep your family in my hearts and prayers. What a horrible situation. And my heart goes out to you and your family… 🙏💔

      • August 16, 2022 at 2:22 pm
        Permalink

        Thank you Carrie! We truly appreciate it!

    • August 17, 2022 at 2:56 pm
      Permalink

      Adrienne,
      Sorry to hear about the tragedy Adrienne.
      Our prayers to your grandchildren and condolences to near and dear.
      Jagan

  • August 12, 2022 at 5:21 pm
    Permalink

    What? Fifth place! This is an outrage. I’m calling the Minister of Mediocrity immediately. I’ll remind him of who I am, K, Cartisano, Acting President of the Literary Guild of Antarctica. My agent and I, Aca Pulco, will be taking this issue all the way to its unnatural nexus, if necessary, in order to rectify this gross misjudgment of carriages. You can all expect to hear from my legal team, Galapagos, Gringo & Gulch, in just a few days. (Assuming they brought enough water.)

    Congrats to Andy for finishing at the top of a colossal cluster of clever competitors, and congrats to all the other writers who finished ahead of me, for tricking the other writers into voting for your stories, when you all know mine was really better. I don’t know how you all did that, especially you Phil, It probably involved money or sexual favors, or chocolate, that would be my guess. I expect that kind of behavior from someone named Crave, but Town? Really? You need a more despicable name if you’re going to keep pulling the rug out from under the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting (and somewhat marginally innocent) writers like me, Phil. (You can do it all you want, Lara.)

    And To all who came in behind me, (Hi Roy), ‘How’s the view back there?’
    LOL
    Remember, there’s always next week to get your revenge.

    • August 12, 2022 at 6:19 pm
      Permalink

      Congratulations winners it was a hard week to vote with so many good stories up.

    • August 12, 2022 at 11:45 pm
      Permalink

      Well, KenC, I’m broke, and I couldn’t possibly handle chocolate because I’m allergic to it, so …

      • August 13, 2022 at 3:54 am
        Permalink

        Careful, Phil – Ken C rejected my approaches with chocolate and cash (well, a cool million in DudCoin cryptocurrency), but his list of sexual favours was too outré even for a seasoned man of the world such as myself.

        (However, I’ve kept his email of 9th August with said list, and will publish if need arise …)

        • August 13, 2022 at 4:44 pm
          Permalink

          Andy,
          DudCoin crypto? I didn’t know you were talking about money, I thought it was some kind of weird English dress code. Or one of them new musical ‘genres’. Or, My NEW Nom de plume. Hi, nice to meet you. Name’s Dudcoin, Dudcoin Crypto. Rolls right off the tongue.

          • August 14, 2022 at 6:21 pm
            Permalink

            I look forward to reading DudCoin Crypto’s first thriller, set in the world of speculative finance, with pinstripes and bowler hats!

    • August 13, 2022 at 1:41 pm
      Permalink

      Ah, Ken C., love it. I was prepared for it when I saw where the two of us finished and had the shoe been on the other foot … well, revenge is a dish best served quickly. See you next story. Now, where’s my war paint?

      Roy

    • August 15, 2022 at 12:57 pm
      Permalink

      Ken,
      Thanks, as always for the laughs! I really needed them this week. I wish I could be as quick witted as you are. I was perfectly ok with 8th place just because I’m excited to be writing again! I went for so long being unable to write, lacking the ambition, the motivation, the will to write. I finally broke through the fog. So, I won’t be joining you in writing to the Minister of Mediocrity. Instead, I am standing here applauding all of the others who soared to excellence above me.

      And by the view, the view is great back here!

      Adi

      • August 16, 2022 at 11:48 am
        Permalink

        In this topsy turvy world, the true victors do a bottoms up.
        So rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
        We are all winners in this literary fray 🙂

  • August 12, 2022 at 7:59 pm
    Permalink

    Wow, very nice to see the top end of the list! Congratulations to all those on the podium and the special category winners, and thanks to everyone who lent me their vote this time round 🙂

    Apologies for not getting in comments on the last few stories that came in at the 11th hour (or beyond!). Been busy having a few fun-and-food-filled festive family days in the overheated metropolis. Just returned this evening, and after administering some TLC and H2O to the parched plant-life here in the provinces, I can catch up.

    Though my voting was pretty much in line with the top positions as it turned out (apart from my own, of course!), voting was indeed tricky: there was classy writing in every story all the way down the list. Special shout-out to Lydia and Lara, who I haven’t met before, and whose stories I greatly enjoyed along with all the familiar faces.

    I think it was May last year I last posted a story, when I was still crawling out of Covid, Been a funny old year since then in a world that’s getting weirder and more worrying by the day. Maybe it’s time to run and hide – or put on some war paint and rise to the challenge …
    [ends with an ellipse, just for Roy!]

    • August 13, 2022 at 1:42 pm
      Permalink

      Just made my day, Andy.

      Roy

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: