Creative Writing Institute is pleased to announce the winners of the short story contest for 2012. Read the stories below and be sure to click “like” at the bottom of the page before you leave.
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First place – “Cupcakes” by Diane Maciejewski
Second place – “Shadow Horses” by Laura Armstrong
Third-place – “My Private Practice” by Helen Keevert Crall
Honorable mention – “The Orchids” by Jacqui Valota
Honorable mention – “Dr. Fenster and the Bank Robber” by Pat Decker Nipper
Honorable mention – “A Gentle Slow to a Stop” by Clare Potts
Thank you to our judges: Head judge – Jo Popek; Coordinating judge – Annie Evett; Judging panel – Lynn Carroll, Linda Cook, Terri Forehand, Diane Davis
FIRST PLACE WINNER
by Diane Maciejewski
I squinted into the glare of the late morning sun. Recognition flamed into a burning need to strike at my enemy. The woman before me cocked her hip and repeated her order. “One Carrot Crunch and one Chocolate Chaos cupcake, please.”
The milling crowd at the Farmers’ Market receded, replaced by Susan – the woman who had stolen my husband. Relaxed and smiling, she apparently had no idea who I was, but I could never mistake her face. I’d found her picture in Bill’s wallet while searching for singles and held on to it as a reminder to keep my heart to myself.
Three years with Bill hadn’t changed her. Chestnut hair brushed against her shoulders, and her face remained line-free, a claim I could no longer make. Dressed in a coordinating, plum jogging suit, she made my khakis and T-shirt look frumpy.
I gritted my teeth, longing to wipe the smile off her face with coarse sandpaper. But this wasn’t the moment for revenge. I had a reputation to uphold as the Maple Lake Cupcake Lady.
As I shoved Susan’s cupcakes into a bag, I deliberately smeared the cream cheese frosting and poked my thumb into the bottom of her Carrot Crunch.
“Who’s next?” I growled as I grabbed her money.
The tang of barbecue from a nearby concession primed shoppers for the cupcakes I’d baked the evening before. Since setting up a stall in the Farmers’ Market, I’d developed a loyal following for my three varieties. I also stocked a couple dozen giant-sized, Chocolate Chunk cookies, mostly for the kids, but it was the cupcakes customers came back for.
My location was prime, squeezed between Henry Witter’s Honey, hive-made by local bees, and Dan Berk’s Dairy, with his seven varieties of artisan cheeses. Sales were helped by the photos of homeless cats and dogs I’d posted next to my Peanut Free sign; all my profits went to the local animal shelter where I volunteered.
Cupcakes were my hobby. I’d started baking a decade ago when I married Bill. He loved sweets, but had an allergy to peanuts that made him break out in hives. Before peanut warnings were slapped across every packaged brownie and cookie, he’d had some nasty experiences.
Unlike his brother, who swore he could smell even a trace of peanut oil in a product, Bill’s nose failed him every time. My cupcakes were the answer to his gluttonous prayers.
When I discovered Bill’s cheating, I was sorely tempted to replace the canola oil in my recipe with peanut. But despite how he’d hurt me, I placed the blame for his infidelity on Susan, the younger woman who’d convinced him to jump back on the tilt-a-whirl during his post mid-life crisis.
Now I imagined them snuggled up to each other in bed, munching on my cupcakes and licking frosting off each other’s fingers. I bit my lip; the image still hurt. I hoped she wouldn’t come back, but she showed up the next week.
“I love your cupcakes. They remind me of the ones my husband brought me when we dated. He’d never tell me which bakery sold them; said it was his little secret for delighting me. Unfortunately, they went out of business shortly before he proposed.”
A jolt went through me. “He brought you cupcakes?”
“Mmm, sweet isn’t it? He loves your cupcakes, too. Think I’ll take him a Coconut Concoction this time.”
I snapped open a paper bag so hard it ripped. I yanked another from the pile and threw in her order. He’d brought her cupcakes! My cupcakes! The ones I baked each week for his supposed Friday afternoon office meeting.
I’d lapped up his lies of how his boss loved the Carrot Crunch and his secretary swore I baked better than her grandmother. What a fool I’d been! Now I understood the inscription Susan had written on the back of her photo, “For my loving cupcake.” Bill had been courting her with my cupcakes! A sandstorm of anger swirled through me.
The last of the blueberries were for sale when Susan stopped by again. Her eyes were puffy, her hair gathered haphazardly at the back of her neck. Her jogging suit pulled tight across her hips; she looked like she’d been on an eating binge.
“Give me a half-dozen of the Chocolate Chunk cookies.”
“No cupcakes today?
“I never want to see another cupcake as long as I live. They remind me of my husband, the rat.” She pulled out a crumpled tissue and blew her nose.
“He’s been…oh, never mind. Just give me the cookies.”
I couldn’t stop myself. “Has he been cheating on you?” She nodded and walked away.
I wanted to punch my fist into the air and shout, “Yes!” Betrayal and loss were her companions now. The score was evened and she’d gotten what she deserved. Satisfaction spread through me like Henry Witter’s honey on a warm buttermilk biscuit.
After a few days, though, something began to niggle at me. Susan had paid a price, but how about Bill? He always came out the winner, moving from one woman to the next, discarding us like ripped rag dolls.
Old doubts about myself came sneaking back with my anger. Hadn’t I been good enough for him? What about his first wife and Susan – were all three of us lacking as partners? That couldn’t be. It wasn’t us; it was Bill who lacked what it took to make a marriage work: loyalty, empathy, compassion, and commitment. Wasn’t it time he paid a price?
Each week after that, I held a special box of Coconut Concoctions in reserve while hoping for Susan’s return.
Green beans, yellow squash and pumpkins came and went, but not Susan. Then, as I took down my Peanut Free sign on the final day of the season, I heard her.
“Any cookies left?”
“Not a one,” I said as I took in her doleful expression. “How are the husband problems?”
“I’m divorcing him. Haven’t told him yet; been getting my finances together.” She frowned. “I was really looking forward to those cookies.”
“I do have a few cupcakes left.” I looked her in the eye. “Coconut Concoction. Bill’s favorite.”
“How do you…? Do you know my husband?”
“I know him well.” I took a deep breath and plunged in. “I’m his second wife… the woman he left to marry you.”
Her eyebrows shot up like flying Frisbees. “You’re Donna? He left you? But he told me you’d left him for another man and broke his heart a year before we met.”
It was my turn to be surprised. “You didn’t know he was married?”
She shook her head in denial. “No, of course not! I never would have gotten involved with him if I’d known he was married.”
We looked at each other, taking one another’s measure, acknowledging our common experience. I saw myself in her: the pain, the disappointment, the shattered dreams, fear of a lonely future and long nights, huddled tightly against a pillow, hoping for a faint whiff of his scent. She saw the same in mine.
She held her hands out to me. “I’m sorry.”
I believed she was. We’d shared a man and shared the pain. Like me, she was a victim of Bill’s philandering. I stepped around my shuttered stand and squeezed her outstretched hands.
“I have fantasies about making him pay,” she said. “I’d love to ring his neck.”
I smiled. “I have a better idea.” I handed her the box I’d been saving at the back of my stand. “Let me tell you about these cupcakes.”
by Laura Armstrong
I squeezed my eyes shut tightly, welcoming the darkness, tucking my legs tighter into my chest. My breath was loud, amplified by my shoulders. I listened. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
A gentle hand patted my head, tracing my long brown hair lightly. “Come on, Laura. It’s not as bad as all that. You’ve got to give it a chance.” My mom’s hand lifted momentarily and I heard pans clattering into the sink. When I didn’t reply, she returned to pat my head more insistently. “Laura.” Her voice took on a stern undertone, although her hand was still gentle.
Obediently I released the tight hold on my legs, lowering them slowly off the chair. I wanted to cross my arms, but I could see her foot tapping on the beige tiles. I kept my hands at my sides, gripping my wooden chair with white knuckles. I glared at the kitchen floor until she turned away.
“The first day of school is hard for everyone,” my mom chattered cheerfully as she washed the breakfast dishes.
Very slowly my knees drew up to my chest again, my feet tucked in tightly on my chair. I balanced my elbows on my knees, dangling my fingers loosely, as if conceding.
I could hear the smile in her voice, “Seems like you’re growing up so fast, you know?”
At that, I did look up. She was nodding like she had made a sensible observation. I looked back at the floor, concern fluttered in my stomach making me wish I had not eaten any breakfast at all. She continued with a sigh of contentment, “I love the view out this window.”
She was worried. She didn’t want to admit it to me, but she was worried. I had been pulled out of fourth grade in the States and I was about to enter third year in England. No one comments on growing up when their kid is demoted a year. I sighed.
If she was using denial as a solution, I could, too. I would pretend I was not entering a new school in a new country mid-term. I would pretend I understood the Queen’s good English.
My resolve lasted all the way down the tree-lined drive. I noticed the crisp fall air, the beautiful trees fading into the fog. This isn’t so bad, I thought, just as the tall house that marked the end of the lane ghosted into view. It seemed to look down its nose at me and I glared back at it even as I crept towards the bus stop. I didn’t see the girl waiting until I was nearly upon her.
“You must be the American.”
I stared at her, nodding mutely. I had forgotten I was meeting a “new friend,” Ruth, this morning. I tried to reply but it caught in my throat. Clearing it, I tried again, “Hi.”
A slow, predatory smile spread over Ruth’s face and she looked down her nose at me, just like the house behind her. I seemed to shrink to her height under that gaze. Her hair was pulled back into a tight, brown ponytail that managed to look perky despite the fog.
I realized with a sinking heart that her ponytail was not her only perky attribute. Her coat clung fashionably tight ending just below her hips to show off the cute blue skirt and white knee-high socks. Her shiny black shoes with even shinier buckles also seemed to look down their nose at me. I glared at them.
“I’m Laura,” I introduced myself, glancing up to see Ruth turn away, rolling her eyes.
The fog pressed in around us as we watched the road. With Ruth’s head turned away, I quickly pulled up my sagging socks and fluffed my wilting hair. As the bus stopped on the hill to descend toward us, I felt the tickle of my socks sinking to their former state. I fought the urge to scrunch them down around my ankles once and for all with clenched hands. It helped a little to stomp up the steps onto the bus.
“You may sit near me,” Ruth announced her generosity in front of the students gathered toward the back of the bus. When I tried to sit next to her, however, she snorted, prettily rolling her eyes. “I said near me.” She waved her hand toward the empty seat across from her. The watching girls snickered.
I slumped down into the indicated seat and turned away from my new “friend” to watch the green hills roll smoothly by. I rubbed the back of my shoe on my shin absently. So much for denial, I told my reflection. I turned away the wide empty blue eyes staring back at me. The first day of school blurred into a muddle.
The teacher welcomed me warmly, but she had to call repeatedly to get my attention. I didn’t notice until everyone was laughing behind their hands. She showed me to my assigned seat, next to Ruth.
“Have you used pen and real ink to write? No? Ruth can show you.”
Inwardly I melted, but outwardly, I followed Ruth around the classroom gathering supplies. Ruth had beautiful handwriting. My attempts looked like bad contemporary art, not words on a page. Ruth watched me struggle and nodded contentedly. A little fire of determination sparked in my gut. I would learn to write. Again.
After lunch I stared at the jumble of notes on the sheet music while the entire school played their recorders. Back home I would not learn music for two more years, I thought glumly, irritated at the dancing notes. Were they looking down their nose at me, too? I pretended to play, wiggling my fingers and carefully breathing through my nose so as to not make a sound.
I was still breathing carefully by dinnertime. Mom was still obstinately cheerful. Dad waffled between hopefulness and concern as his gaze hopped between us. After congratulating mom on the best dinner he had ever eaten, he began quizzing me on school.
Did I make new friends? Yeah. Is Ruth nice? Sure. Did I learn something new? How to write. They jumped at the confession and I had to describe how we refilled our pens with ink, and how everyone had a blotter to catch the big drips. Talking eased some tension. I waved my hands in explanation. It felt good to laugh at my mistakes. Pretty soon we were all laughing. There was a hysterical edge to it, but it felt good.
By the end of the week, I was ready to slip away from Ruth as often as she was from me. While watching a game that involved bouncing balls off the grey school walls, I heard a quiet voice behind me. “Hello, there.”
I turned into the glow of warm brown eyes. They twinkled as a girl smiled, extending her hand. “I’m Moira. And you’re Laura.” I nodded, unable to look away from the face of friendship. Her thick, brown hair fell in curls past her shoulders. Her uniform looked like an argument between order and chaos. I smiled back.
“Come play with us. Do you want to?” She tucked her arm in mine, tugging me away from the grey walls.
I paused. Ruth was watching me. Her friends had stopped their chatter mouths open, watching, too. I turned away from them and stepped beside Moira whispering, “Yes.”
She led me out to the rolling fields that surrounded the school, out to where the fence marked the end of the property. A cluster of Moira’s friends waited for us there, quietly watching. As we drew near, Moira released my arm, pausing in front of a girl with short blond hair and a fine scar on one cheek.
“Laura’s joining us,” she announced and then shook out her hair, snorting like a horse and stamping her foot in the green sod. Startled, I glanced over at her. Her laughing eyes challenged me.
“You think she can do it?” The blonde asked. Her tone clearly said I could not. I remembered her name from class. Carla.
“Of course she can.” Moira turned to face me directly. “We’re horses,” she explained. “Can you neigh like a horse?”
From her advantage on the hill, Carla sneered, “You have to choose a color, first. I’m the palomino.”
“I’m a blood bay!” Moira announced, shaking out her mane again, prancing a few steps.
For a moment, my breath caught in my throat.
“You could be a chestnut brown. None of us are chestnut.” Suddenly, I noticed the hesitant welcome in the gathering of girls. The one who had spoken had a “hoof” raised mid-step.
“What about golden chestnut?” I asked, “And I have a white star?”
My heart was beating so loudly, I thought they would hear it. I shook out my mane like Moira. It flopped, limp.
Carla smiled crookedly, nodding. “Yeah, OK.” She nodded to the other girls. “Let’s run!” She leaped into a gallop, and then I saw a shimmer of creamy rump, a cascade of glistening white tail. I stared.
Moira neighed into the wind and shouted, “Come on!” before taking off after the others. Again I saw something shadowing Moira – a brilliant gleam of muscle, a smooth arch of neck under the rise and fall of an almost black mane. I blinked and the shadows were gone.
Leaping after them, I caught them as they rounded a hill. With a spark of hope, I neighed, feeling the sound, like a rumble, well up from deep inside. There was a flash of golden brown shadowing my leg, a strong hoof pounding the ground at my step. The girls answered with neighs just ahead of me, flashing back welcoming smiles.
After school, I followed Ruth to catch our bus home. There, across the school fence, was a single hoof print. I paused, staring at it until Ruth sneered over her shoulder. “Are you coming, or what?” Her words echoed the same disdain as always, but they held less poison.
I smiled, feeling the vibrating rumble of reply, and skipped a step to catch up.
My Private Practice
by Helen Keevert Crall
When Shirley didn’t show up for the Monday night therapy session following the death of her husband, George, I wasn’t concerned. Besides, I had taken great pleasure in ending that horrible man’s life.
Normally I don’t waste time second-guessing myself. I have a policy: make a decision— then make it right. But when Shirley missed the next four meetings I began to worry about her emotional state, and more important, whether she suspected George hadn’t died of natural causes.
All good psychiatrists, and I certainly count myself, Dr. Madeline Krallinski, among the best, want their clients to be happy and productive members of society. So I was pleased when Shirley returned to private therapy the first Monday night in February. She seemed happy to see me and we quickly buried all thoughts of George and began the exciting work related to her future as a single woman.
Shirley made rapid progress, completing therapy in the fall of 1990. I kept in touch with her and in this way satisfied myself that she never suspected foul play in George’s demise. When she moved to Nebraska the following spring, our correspondence tapered off to exchanging Christmas cards.
Less than six months after George was deposited under the ubiquitous Florida crabgrass, I met Marsha and had to rethink my New Year’s goal to lay to rest, so to speak, my newly acquired talent for murder.
Marsha, an attractive, forty-eight-year-old woman, arrived in my office confessing to always being slow to make decisions, but as of late, was unable to make even the simplest of choices. For example, should she dry the dishes with the green-checkered towel or should she use the white towel with the frog appliqué?
Marsha’s monotonous descriptions of her procrastination bored me into contemplating a career change; maybe a mortician? I caught myself pinching my cheeks just to stay focused. Early in my career I discovered that some mental disturbances were more enjoyable to work with than others. I took particular delight in patients exhibiting complex psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality (Bipolar) Disorder.
I picked up the phone, explaining to Marsha that I was not taking new clients, but would call a colleague who might have an opening. I glanced across my desk at her. She was holding a checkbook in her diamond jeweled hand and was asking if she could pay for six months of therapy in advance. I put the phone down.
During Marsha’s first visit, she made no mention of an existing husband. But no sooner had she arrived at the Monday night session, than her composure unraveled and it became clear her procrastination had a name: Fred, her emotionally abusive, weasel of a husband who not only sabotaged her career, but had made several clumsy attempts on her life. She sobbed as she told the story, filling the trashcan to overflowing with the last box of tissue.
It was when I was standing in the checkout line, my basket loaded with boxes of tissue, that I realized I was fantasying about what method to use to accomplish the end of Fred. I knew in my heart that Marsha needed to get on with her life. The silly woman was sniveling her way into my profit margin. Kleenex is expensive, even by the case.
The dispensing of George took a lot of time, plotting and scheming. Time wasted, as it turns out. Murder is just not that difficult. In fact, the end of Fred occurred quite quickly. He was such a whimpering little snot. Marsha was better off without him so why should I feel bad?
She must have been pleased with my work because she ended group therapy in less than three months while insisting I keep the balance on her account.
There were many benefits, as I soon discovered, to disposing of my clients’ burdens. My therapeutic success ratio increased, thereby enlarging my bank account, while the overwhelming number of new client referrals with interesting disorders kept me awake during the sessions. In fact, I felt exhilarated by the whole endeavor.
I tried to keep a healthy balance between work and my favorite hobby, gardening. However, sometime between the fifth and sixth murder, that would have been after Jack, the adulterer, and before Sherry, the nag, though I still enjoyed getting my hands in dirt, planting flowers and shrubs, I realized my talent for planting wretched reprobates gave me even more satisfaction.
I stopped thinking of my deeds as murder and began thinking of them merely as “family problem solving.” I duly noted the incidents in my copious clinical logs, referring to them in boxing terms: KO for knocked off George, Fred, Susie, and so on.
Summer found me spending weekends in the garden, getting my hands in the dirt, planting begonias in the front yard, cultivating vines along the trellis, and burying tulips and amaryllis bulbs beside the front porch.
I met Dave at a garden club a week before the death of my husband, Sam, who mistook a hungry nine-foot alligator for a log. The police were suspicious because Sam was a native Floridian and should have known better than to approach an alligator in our backyard. Sam was a stupid man.
Dave was marvelous. He was caring and compassionate, not once suggesting I was overbearing or excessively committed to my profession. In September, he asked me to marry him and I accepted.
It was while I was planning the wedding that some of my personal possessions disappeared. I couldn’t find my reading glasses by the nightstand. They reappeared the next morning in the bathroom.
The hallway light was on Sunday morning. I had turned it off the night before, as was my habit. I made a note to call the electrician to check for faulty wiring.
I hunted in vain for my car keys the following Monday morning, finally canceling my trip to the spa and paying a locksmith for a new key.
Tuesday, I wore the red blouse because my favorite top, the one with multicolored parrots, disappeared from the closet. Was someone breaking into my home or was I just acting paranoid? Maybe I was watching too many crime shows on TV.
Wednesday morning, I poured flour from the sugar bowl into my coffee cup.
Thursday, I reported my car stolen. The police found it in my neighbor’s driveway. They scheduled me for a psychiatric evaluation at the mental hospital, though I told them it was obvious that someone, maybe my dead husband, was pranking me.
That Saturday morning I visited Oakwood Cemetery. The caretaker was charming, setting aside his grave digging paraphernalia to walk me to the back of the park.
There was George, planted between two mighty oaks on the hill overlooking the Chattahoochee Psychiatric Hospital. And, to my surprise, Fred lay nestled beside him. Standing over them, I knew intuitively they were the demons who were torturing me with their nasty shenanigans. Then I got an idea: dig up George and Fred and plant them in the garden between my marigolds and petunias. Having them close by should discourage any more of their mischief.
I returned to the gravesides the following night, loaded down with my tools and black garbage bags. As I started digging, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I turned. My dear butler, Mark Smith, took hold of my arm leading me back down the hill. I have asked him repeatedly not to interrupt me while I’m working, but I can’t stay angry with him. He’s such a conscientious young man.
“It’s time for supper, Maddie. Tonight,” he whispered, “is particularly good for institutional food: lamb chops on a bed of spinach, with au gratin potatoes.”
Aah, my favorite. I hadn’t eaten lamb chops since I was committed to Chattahoochee State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Let’s see. Was that in 2001 or 2002? 2003? My how time flies. It seems like only yesterday I began my private practice.
by Jacqui Valota
“Too bad you’re a dumb bawagoof and can’t understand a thing,” says jealous Shazia, purple robe billowing over the landing where I’ve just loaded the breakfast trolley. “So you might as well get on with it.”
The old woman’s brandishing a rolling pin but won’t come down to hit me with it. She’s got bad legs and its sweltering down here, what with all the pans going and fat flying. So she chucks it instead. Clackety clack goes the wood, bouncing down the concrete steps and whacking me up the legs.
I’ve never talked in all my fourteen years but she understands me, alright. She never calls me by my proper name, which is Aasmaa, meaning precious. She just likes calling me a dumb bawagoof but at least it’s her taking up the breakfasts and not her husband Ashar.
What with me doing all the cooking at their hotel and them chopping my hair off because of the grease, I wouldn’t recognize my own reflection. But I know I’ve got soft, smooth skin because he says so as if he’s about to die. I pray that he loses interest, now that he’s in his eighties. He complains that my bones dig in and that I smell like a qafir but what can you expect locked in the basement kitchen and forced to eat scraps since I was ten years old?
That was when Baba had said that a mute girl like me should be glad of a job in London. I can still see Maa Ammi, in a pink-white haze waving to me. She’s standing in our compound, amongst the blossoms of the sissoo tree.
The orchids remind me of home. They’re white for purity and lined up in six black pots on the window ledge where the Ashars can’t see them. The old woman only comes down once a week. She unlocks the basement door so I can take the rubbish out but if I stay in the yard too long, gulping fresh air and eyeing the gate, bathed in light, at the top of the steps, an arm shoots out, fingers grasping the tufts on my head.
Ashar never gets past the greasy sofa where I’m allowed to sleep.
It was Ashar who had told me to throw the orchids out. “Those crooks said they were genetically modified and would last forever. Now look at them. Dead!” he’d said, never realizing that the blossoms grow back. I’d be dead, too, if they knew I’d kept them.
At first, I loved my orchids. Tiny buds, absorbing the milky air in my steam-drenched prison, soon burst into big, white flowers. Now they’re as big as dinner plates and make me run for dear life.
Strange, but they’re not interested in the light coming through the window bars. Their little yellow eyes, at the center of each bloom are always on me as I cook, which I do most of the time. But what’s really strange, is the way they stay so pure and white, even after I’ve heaved a pan-load of fried sausages into them. My orchids have become very demanding.
* * *
The dining room is emptying. Chair legs scrape and feet tramp. Bits of yellowed paintwork curl down from the ceiling and the fluorescent bar, that lights the cooking area, flickers. I’d better work fast if I want to stay in one piece.
The oven doors are open and heat’s belting out. Orange-blue flames belch through all eight gas rings and saucepan lids rattle under escaping steam. Sweat trickles down my neck and my red charity-shop T-shirt sticks to my skin.
Fat spits in four frying pans as in go twelve large sausages and twenty-four rashers, snitched from the freezer. I don’t bother with eggs. The orchids know what they like.
The air turns soupy and I rub my hands on my jeans waiting for the gnashing to begin. Grabbing a pan in both hands, I raise it, like Bhagwat at Lahore cricket grounds and I’m about to lob next week’s rations into the snapping white frenzy above the flowerpots, when something startles me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ashar has sneaked down the steps in the semi-dark. He’s got one knee on the couch and his belt with the brass buckle swings open.
“Come here, girl. Why still cooking? Everyone’s gone!” He sniffs around. “What’s with all the steam?”
He comes at me surprisingly fast for someone of his age whose trouser legs have got caught up under his socks.
“Stealing food, eh! So that’s where all the grub’s been going. Come ’ere you crazy bawagoof. I’ll show you! Quick! Before she gets down here.” He tries to get the frying pan off me. But I know better and yank it back knowing that he’s doing himself no favors. The pan upends and the orchids’ meat splats in a greasy puddle on the floor.
Ashar looks bewildered. “What the heck is that?” he says, alerted by the gristly moans coming from the window ledge. At last, he spots the orchids, but tragically, not their resemblance to dinner plates. Pulling off his belt and swinging it at them, he launches himself across the patchy brown linoleum and skids on the grease.
The petals take much longer than usual to do their thing and by the time they’ve flung themselves back open they’re bigger and glossier than ever, with red stripes.
Hearing the commotion, fat Shazia comes shuddering down the steps on bad legs. “What have you done with my husband? I know he’s down here. I heard him,” she gasps, staring at a brass buckle on the floor and a set of teeth grinning up at her.
“Where is he? You vile witch! You’re always luring him down here and now you’ve made him vanish.”
Shazia might have been jealous before, but now she’s really scared. “Get out of my house, witch!” she squeaks, jabbing her key into the basement door.
So bright is the day that my eyes burn and my lungs ache. In the shimmering pink-white haze, I can see Maa Ammi waving to me. Shazia is on the other side of the basement window, screaming my name. But I’m up the steps and my hand is on the gate. Too bad I’m a dumb bawagoof and can’t understand a thing.
Dr. Fenster and the Bank Robber
by Pat Decker Nipper
Dr. Elwood R. Fenster stood in line at his favorite bank, ready to deposit a large check from Mr. Warren, one of his patients. Most of his patients paid by credit card or let their insurance take the brunt of the charges, but Mr. Warren had never had a credit card, nor did he have insurance. He didn’t believe in debt, so he always paid by check or cash.
The check this time was for $2,700. Dr. Fenster could have left it for his assistant to take to the bank, but he wanted to make sure it was deposited properly and didn’t want to wait another day. Business this time of year was always slow.
Dr. Fenster had come as early as possible so as not to be too late to start the day’s practice. In fact, he was so early he’d been standing in line waiting for the doors to open, along with a handful of other patrons. As soon as the manager opened the doors, the small group surged forward. Dr. Fenster let them charge ahead, then he entered, bringing up the rear.
Because his favorite teller was occupied, he waited. He thought of her as Miss Smith, which was rather silly, he knew, but he couldn’t bring himself to think of her as Lydia. The tellers only had their first names printed on their badges. It reminded him of the time somebody said, “I don’t know her well enough to know her last name.”
The line was moving so slowly he had a lot of time to think. How things had changed, he pondered. For years, people went by their last names and you had to be well acquainted with someone before you got her first name. Obviously, things had changed over time. Look at Mr. Warren. He could never think of him as Harry, but then, they were both old fogies. Over the hill. Fossils. His children and grandchildren thought of him like that. “Back when you were a boy in the stone age,” they’d say if he tried to tell them something he remembered about his youth.
Finally his teller was free. As he stepped up to her window, however, the man behind him pulled a mask down over his eyes, removed a gun from his waistband, and yelled: “Everybody down. This is a stick-up.”
Because of his arthritic knees, Dr. Fenster was slow getting down to the floor.
“Hurry up, old man,” the gunman snarled.
Dr. Fenster tried to move faster, but the gunman was impatient and gave him a shove, causing him to crash to the floor, bumping his head as he did.
“Now, give me all your cash,” he demanded of the teller, known to the dentist as Miss Smith.
“Don’t shoot,” she said, as she fumbled with her drawer.
“You’re all right as long as you don’t try no funny business, like alerting the cops.”
“No, sir.” She took out a large stack of bills and handed them to him. Her hands were shaking.
The robber shoved the bills into a cloth bag he had pulled from his back pocket, then started backing toward the front door. “Nobody get off the floor for ten minutes!” he shouted, as he exited.
“Ten minutes?” Dr. Fenster mumbled. “I won’t be able to get up for a couple of hours.”
He could hear people calling 9-1-1 on their cell phones, and a sound of sirens coming toward the bank. But nobody got up for ten minutes, as near as he could tell from his prone position.
After other customers helped him to his feet, Dr. Fenster thanked them and spent a few minutes talking to one of the detectives. He answered his questions and said he hadn’t seen the robber’s face.
He had a bump on his head the size of a large darning-egg. Now that was something he hadn’t seen in years. People used to darn their socks, not just go buy a new pair. He realized the bump was giving him a headache, now that he had time to pay attention to it. He called his office and told the office manager to cancel his appointments for the rest of the day.
When he reached home, his wife rushed to greet him. “Oh, my dear, are you all right?” she asked, giving him a hug and squeeze that irritated his headache. “I heard from your office that you were in a bank that was robbed.”
“I’m fine,” he said, grateful for the hug nevertheless. “But you know, the robber’s voice sounded somewhat familiar. I just can’t place it.”
“I hope it will come to you, darling. That could be a big help to the police.”
The next day, there was a picture in the newspaper of the robber. “Look, dear, there’s a photo of the bank robber taken by their security camera. It says Detective Lumanski is in charge of the investigation.”
“Let me see that.” He perused the picture carefully. Suddenly he stood up. “I’m going to the police department.” He began pulling on his shoes. “I do think I might be able to help the police identify this man.”
“But he’s wearing a mask. How can you help, honey?”
“I’ll tell you after I get back.”
Without another word, he was out the door and on his way to the police station. Before he got there, he stopped at his office and picked up one of his files.
When he arrived at the station, he walked up to the officer on duty at a desk in the lobby and asked for Detective Lumanski. “It’s about the bank robbery yesterday,” he said.
“I’ll see if he’s in,” the officer said.
A few minutes later, the detective walked in and shook his hand. “Let’s go to my office,” he said. “I understand you have information about the robbery at the First Bank on Elm Street.” He sat behind his desk and indicated a chair facing him. “Have a seat.”
After Dr. Fenster was seated, the detective asked about his information.
“I might recognize the robber,” he said. “I need to see a better picture than what was in the newspaper.”
“Ah.” The detective thought a minute. “Follow me,” he said. “We have a computer guru down the hall. He can bring up the photo and enhance it for you.”
The guru was happy to have something productive to do. As they entered his office they caught him playing a computer game, but he quickly switched it off.
“Hey, Lumanski. Whatcha got for me?”
The detective frowned and gave him a piercing look, then introduced him. “Dr. Fenster, this is Joey Franko.” They shook hands. “Dr. Fenster wants to look at the photo of the bank robber that we got off the bank’s security camera.”
“Righto.” Joey began typing and soon the photo that was in the newspaper appeared on his screen.
“Can you make it larger?” Dr. Fenster asked.
“Sure.” Joey brought the photo up a size. “More?” he asked. When the doctor nodded, he increased the size.
“Can you make it clearer?” Dr. Fenster asked. “Especially around the mouth?”
After the picture was enhanced, Dr. Fenster said, “That’s him. That’s a patient of mine.” He pulled out some X-Rays from the large envelope he was holding. “I thought I recognized that underbite. And see how those two incisors are crooked? This is Marvin Coleman, one of my dental patients.”
“Well, I’ll be darned,” the detective said. “He should have had a larger mask, eh? He only covered his eyes, left his teeth hanging out there.”
“I have his address and phone number here, too.” Dr. Fenster said, handing them to the detective. “I offered to help him correct that underbite, but he said he didn’t have the money.”
“Maybe that’s why he was robbing the bank,” the detective said, chuckling.
Dr. Fenster just smiled. “I doubt it. But he frightened my favorite teller. That should be enough to bring him to justice.”
A Gentle Slow to a Stop
By Clare Potts
The river danced over the pebbles as it meandered through the small village of Scalby. Diana walked along its bank under the watchful gaze of her granddad. Every now and again, she paused, and toddled to the water’s edge. Granddad was there in a second, and smiled as she bent over and reached into the cool water. Triumphant, she lifted out a stone, a smooth egg shape, and handed it to him.
With large blue eyes, she watched as he examined it closely, and ran his fingers over the warming stone. Then, he smiled, nodded his approval, and held it up to the sun. Diana, delighted, clapped pudgy hands, and resumed her bank-side search. Behind her, the old man pocketed each pebble, and followed her along the grassy bank.
When it was time to return home, he took her hand, and they walked together through the sunshine to the old Mill House. He stood patiently as Diana stretched tall to unlatch the white gate. This took some time, and he nodded and waved to the neighbours as they passed, walking dogs or pottering to the corner shop.
“Looks just like her mum, that one.” Mrs. Jenkins from the Old Pottery said. “Look at that hair! Like gold.”
“Aye. She’s got her nice nature too. Sharp as a knife, too.”
“You’ll be proud.”
“Ah, bless her, she’s got it open.”
“Well, we’ll be off in then.”
Diana turned and waved, “Goodbye, Mrs. Jenkins.”
They walked down the sloping drive, and down the steep steps to the right of the house, Granddad taking hold her of hands, and holding them above her head as he walked behind her.
Round the corner was a large lawn that ran down the side of the house. Sitting at a white table in the centre of the freshly mowed lawn, sat Diana’s mother and grandmother.
“Back at last! Did you have a good walk, petal?”
“Well, you’re just in time for… cream tea! Would you like one?”
Diana’s eyes lit up, and she pulled herself up onto the chair next to Granddad’s.
“Here you go, then. One for you too, love?”
The grownups drank tea, and Diana sipped a tall glass of milk. Diana’s gran passed round little pots of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Hot, fresh scones stood on a three-tiered cake stand set in the middle of the table.
After he had finished his tea, Granddad rose, took another cup of tea, and headed for his shed.
Diana was bored as her mum and gran talked about her dad, and how he was away a lot with work. She slid from the chair, and followed Granddad up the path. She pushed the door open.
To each wall of the shed was hammered a shelf. These were filled with half-carved toys, and bits of furniture. Some, long forgotten, others a work in progress. Like the imposing grandfather clock he was repairing. He had made it himself, but the pendulum swung with an irregular tick, and he was trying to find out why. Diana thought it was called a grandfather clock because he had built it, and had been most confused when a smaller grandmother clock had appeared in the guest bedroom. She had taken his hand, and whispered in his ear, so Granny wouldn’t hear.
“Did you help her make it?”
Every year, in her stocking, Diana would search until she found the little wooden toy he would have made for her during the year. Sometimes, if she was good, he would give her one even if it wasn’t Christmas. She hoped today would be one of those days.
He was sitting at the work table, and turned with a smile that broadened when he saw her.
“Looking for a present?”
With all the guile of a three-year-old, she nodded. He stood from where he was carving a large, wooden chest, and shuffled to a short cabinet that squatted below the lowest shelf.
He fumbled around as Diana jiggled impatiently behind him. Turning, he held out his hands, enclosed in a ball.
“Shhhh, you have to be quiet, she’s very shy.”
Nodding, she crept closer. As she did, he turned over his hand and opened his fingers. She peered in and gave a gasp of childhood wonder. In the palm of his hand, sat a large-eyed, baby unicorn.
“Do you know where her mummy is?”
“I’ve got her at home!”
“Good girl. Can you take her to her mummy?”
“Can you look after her until you get home?”
Diana nodded, “I’ll give her some cake.”
He grinned and shook his head as she turned and bobbed out of his shed, and heard her calling out to her mum.
“We’ve got to go home. I’ve got a baby unicorn!”
* * *
Diana could see her reflection in the train window. A young woman, with a pale face, anxiety etched across the features. The city blurred past, slowly becoming countryside. She knotted her hands together in silent prayer.
“Please, please, let me get there in time.” Tears welled in her eyes and her she leaned her head against the cold glass.
The vibrations from the train hammered in her head, and she rested her head back on the seat.
* * *
The corridor was long, sterile, and lit with bright, white lights. The soft soles of her trainers made a tiny squeak with every step, yet still the sound echoed. Hawthorn Ward, level four. The signs told her to follow the purple line. It was like walking on a giant map of the Underground.
Blackberry Ward. Hyacinth Ward. Am I getting close?
Her heart was pounding, she quicken to a trot.
Hawthorn Ward. Half relieved, half dreading what she would see, Diana pushed open the plastic double doors. Two rows of beds. Old men and women on respirators and drips, with oxygen masks strapped to their faces.
Oh God, he can’t be here.
“Diana!” Her mother appeared from behind a curtained bed in the middle of the room. She held out her arms, and Diana rushed into them.
“What happened?” Her voice was muffled in her mother’s chest.
“How is he?”
“It’s not good, sweetheart. It was a bad one.”
Diana gulped as tears flowed down her cheeks. Her mother, sobbing too, wrapped her arms around her, and led her behind the curtain.
Diana lifted her eyes to his face, his eyes closed, lips parted. They were dry and peeling. She saw the stubble on his cheeks and jaw, slightly red. A smile played at her lips. His hair had been white as long as she’d known him, but he’d always had some red in his beard. He seemed so thin, so fragile, as though he was made of paper. His chest rose and fell in regular, silent breaths.
Her gran sat at his side, clasping his hand. Tears left grey trails down her wrinkled cheeks. Her eyes were stained red. She tried to wipe her eyes with her stiffened fingers when she saw Diana.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m glad you got here.”
Diana sat next to her, and laid her hand over Gran’s. She could feel the blood pumping through her veins. Her mother sat opposite, and took his other hand.
“We don’t have long, love.”
“The doctor came in a few minutes ago. They want to know when they can turn the machine off.”
“What? Turn it off? Why?”
“He’s already gone, love. It’s not really him lying there. He signed something. We both did. No machines. Just long enough to say goodbye.”
“But, he’s not dead… ”
“Diana,” her mother’s voice was broken. “It’s what he wanted. We don’t really have a choice.”
A tall doctor came and pushed aside the curtains, followed by a nurse. He smiled sadly. Diana turned away, and closed her eyes. Her gran’s hand tightened beneath hers.
She heard a scuffle, and knew they had gone. When she looked up, her mother sat opposite, her head down. Her gran had lifted her free hand to her forehead, and was shaking as shallow, sobbing breaths rattled through her.
The world swirled around Diana, and she fought to focus on his face. The rising and falling of his chest began to slow, like the pendulum on the old clock he had let run down. A gentle slowing, until a gentle stop. She could almost see his last breath leave his body like a fine vapour, and bowed her head.
* * *
The three sat on the white table in the middle of the lawn. The white paint was peeling, and it wobbled now.
“The funeral’s Tuesday at 3:15.” Diana’s mother paused, “I rang round everyone. But, you know what this place is like. They all knew.”
“There were flowers here before I got home.” Her gran sighed. “And lots of casseroles. None of us’ll have to cook for a month.”
Diana stood. “I’ll just be a minute. I want to go for a walk.” She thought of going to the river, but just couldn’t do it yet. Instead, she walked up the path to his old shed.
It was unlocked, and she stepped through. Dust had already gathered as if knowing the master of this kingdom was gone. Anger bubbled up in Diana, and she began to sweep the table tops with her fingers.
Yet, as soon as it had come, her anger died, and her energy fled. She sank to his chair at the work table. Her eye alighted on a large, wooden chest. Frowning, she could almost recall seeing him working on it. She stood, and knelt. It wasn’t locked. She eased it forward, and lifted back the lid.
It was half-full of things wrapped in tissue paper. They were all small, somehow familiar. Something tightened inside her as she reached for the first object. She unwrapped it, feeling the weight of it in her palm.
Inside, was a small egg-shaped stone, smoothed by the ebb and flow of the river. Diana sat back on her ankles, and reached for another object. Lovingly kept, it was another small river stone, this one brown. A tear fell on its smooth surface, staining the stone a dark black.
Diana’s voice was soft.
“Oh, Granddad. I love you.”
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