Bangs vs Mullets

[6 minute read or listen to this story narrated by Jamie Gregory on the Short Stories for Busy Bookworms podcast below]

S1 E2: Bangs vs Mullets (A Romantic Comedy Short Story) Short Stories for Busy Bookworms

Brad and Angie had been blissfully dating for months until they discovered that they had fundamentally different beliefs. I hope you enjoy this romantic comedy short story. Genre categories: Fiction, romantic comedy. Discover more of Jamie's writing at: Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory The short guitar transitions used to indicate scene changes in this story were created by the user busabx and downloaded via No changes were made to these guitar transitions which are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:

Brad walked the three blocks from his apartment to Strikes and Pints with nothing to keep him company besides the sound of his defeated footsteps landing on the sidewalk. He had discovered the bowling alley dive bar in college and, now that he’s practically a regular there, he couldn’t think of a better place to find solace tonight. He paused at the final crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, and glanced at the scrolling marquee on the bank sign across the street. 

Temperature: 15°F

He jammed his stiff hands into his coat pockets, suddenly realizing that, in his haste, he’d left his gloves in his apartment.

Date: February 14, 2022

Happy Valentine’s Day!

He knew it wasn’t possible for the electronic sign to be taunting him, but it sure felt like it was.

Brad wasn’t surprised to find the bar nearly empty since it was not exactly a prime destination for Valentine’s Day. He flopped onto his usual barstool and gave a halfhearted wave to the bartender, Hector, who was mixing a drink for a customer at the other end of the bar.

Hector was like the quintessential uncle that Brad never had — he didn’t take any crap from anyone, he had an endless supply of dirty jokes, and he always offered a listening ear for his patrons’ drunken sorrows.

“Hey lovebird, where’s your prettier half?” Hector teased as he approached Brad who responded with a silent glare. “Uh oh. Trouble in paradise? Pick your poison and tell me all about it.”


“You got it, kid.”

Brad gulped the scotch, feeling its warmth sear his throat, and slammed the shot glass down on the bartop. 

“Just when you think you know a person…” Brad said.

Angie took an Uber back to her apartment and spent the fifteen-minute drive feeling like a caged animal, becoming more irritated by the moment as she reflected on the night’s sudden turn of events. By the time she reached her apartment door full of pent-up emotions, her trembling hands fumbled the key in the lock and dropped it onto the floor. A second later she heard the muffled voice of her roommate, Sarah, on the other side of the door.

“Hello?” Sarah said tentatively.

“It’s me, Angie. Can you let me in?” Angie said impatiently.

Sarah, who was already in her pajamas, opened the door with her brow furrowed in confusion and said, “I wasn’t expecting you to come back so early. I figured you’d probably stay the night with Brad.” Then, noticing how distraught Angie was she said, “Is everything ok?”

Angie pushed past her, dropped her heavy purse onto the wooden bench near the door, kicked her boots off, and collapsed onto the couch without bothering to remove her coat. 

“I’ll take that as a no,” Sarah said delicately. “Did something happen on the date? Do you want to talk about it?” 

Then she glanced around with embarrassment at the remnants of her single-on-Valentine’s-Day pity party that Angie had unknowingly crashed — the half-eaten bowl of butter pecan ice cream sitting on the coffee table, the cozy throw blanket draped across the couch, and the rom-com paused on the tv. 

“Just when you think you know a person…” Angie said.

“I thought we were really hitting things off, you know? I mean, we’ve been dating for a couple of months and—” Brad said.

“Well, the few times you brought her in here you guys seemed like two peas in a pod. Some of the regular league bowlers even gave you guys one of those couple nicknames.” Hector said.


“Brangie,” Hector said with a chuckle but Brad wasn’t amused. “So, what happened?”

“I don’t know…everything seemed great so I decided to take the next step and invite her to my apartment for the first time for a romantic dinner…for Valentine’s Day. And the next thing I knew she was breaking up with me.” 

“Was the hanky panky ok? Because if that gets off to a bad start then—”

“Yes, it was great, she even said so herself.”

“Well, she had to have a reason for calling it quits.”

“Oh, believe me, she did. But you’re not going to believe me when I tell you…”

“I’m getting the sense we might need some wine for this conversation,” Sarah said disappearing into the kitchen and returning a moment later with two glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. She sat next to Angie on the couch and handed her one of the glasses. “I thought things were going well between you and Brad.”

“So did I. We’ve been dating for a couple of months now and honestly, I was starting to wonder if he was ‘the one’. I was so excited when he invited me to his apartment for this romantic dinner tonight. Everything seemed perfect…he seemed perfect…or so I thought.” Angie said.

“Was everything ok…in the bedroom? Because if you guys don’t have that chemistry then—”

“It was…adequate. Not a deal-breaker, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“So…what happened then?”

“Well, the night started off picture-perfect, like something out of a Hallmark movie. And the next thing I knew I was breaking up with him and storming out of his apartment.”

“Ok, that’s not going to cut it. I need details. Obviously, you had a reason for ending it.”

“Oh, believe me, I did. But you’re not going to believe me when I tell you…”

“I did everything right tonight. It was like a scene from one of those chick flicks. I lit candles, I cooked her a delicious homemade meal, I complimented her left and right, I was charming. Hell, I even deep cleaned my apartment before she came.” Brad said growing more exasperated as he relived the night’s events. “When we finished eating she excused herself to the bathroom while I cleaned up the dishes. I was about to set the stage for the rest of the night, you know, music, mood lighting, the whole nine yards. Then, all of a sudden she starts screaming from the bathroom, ‘Mullet? Seriously, the mullet?’ She came storming back into the kitchen going on this rant about her mother…and toilet paper.”

“Ok, details,” Angie said with a sigh followed by a sip of wine. “The apartment, clean and sophisticated in a bachelor type of way. The food, three-course Italian meal, delicious, five stars. And he was basically Prince Charming. He even lit candles for God’s sake. When we finished eating I excused myself to the bathroom. That’s when I discovered the mullet and there was no turning back.”

“Oh no…not the mullet,” Sarah said.

“Wait, what? Did you say mullets, her mother, and toilet paper?” Hector asked.

“According to Angie, there are two types of people in this world, the ones who orient their toilet paper roll on the holder in the bangs style with the end of the roll coming up and around from the back so it’s facing you,” Brad gestured with his hands to help Hector visualize the roll, “and the ones who use the mullet style with the end of the roll hanging down between the roll and the wall. She said something about her mother being a hotel housekeeper for thirty years…I don’t know, that part is kind of a blur now. All I know is she broke up with me because apparently, I didn’t have my toilet paper arranged properly.”

“My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew I was dating, or God forbid married to, a man with mullet-style toilet paper. You know, she was the head housekeeper for a prestigious hotel for—”

“Thirty years—” Sarah chimed in, having heard the story before.

“—thirty years. And, oh man, did she enforce strict rules at home. We had to make our bed every single day. She didn’t care if it was Christmas morning, our beds had better be made before we ran downstairs to open presents. And every toilet paper roll had to be arranged in the bangs style with the end of the roll folded into a crisp triangle just like they do in hotel bathrooms. Somehow she managed to translate those rules into relationship advice too. She’d always say, ‘If a man doesn’t make his bed every day and handle his toilet paper properly he’s no good. Because if a man can’t get the small things right he’ll never—”

“Get the big things right.” Sarah completed the catchphrase she’d heard Angie recite many times before.

“Exactly. Mullet toilet paper…can you believe it? I bet he doesn’t even make his bed every day.” Angie said.

Sarah raised her wine glass and Angie followed suit, the two glasses clinking together. “Well, it sounds like you really dodged a bullet,” Sarah said.

“Wow, so you mean to tell me—” Hector said.

“See? I told you, it’s unbelievable. Who breaks up with a person over toilet paper? It’s ridiculous. Oh, and get this, as she was storming out of my apartment she said, ‘I bet you don’t even make your bed every day, do you?’ She slammed the door in my face before I had a chance to answer.” Brad said.

“Well, do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you make your bed every day?”

“Of course not. What’s the point? The covers are just going to get all messed up again every night anyway.”

“I gotta tell ya, kid. Between the mullet thing and the messy bed, I don’t blame her. I’d break up with you too.” Hector said with a wink.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

This story was initially published on in response to the following prompt: Write a story about a couple with fundamentally different beliefs.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022


The Mountains Are Calling

[12 minute read or listen to this story narrated by Jamie Gregory on the Short Stories for Busy Bookworms podcast below]

S1 E1: The Mountains are Calling (A Suspenseful Short Story) Short Stories for Busy Bookworms

Harold Brooks runs an inn for resting mountaineers. It’s a calm life, until he encounters a twist of fate. I hope you enjoy this suspenseful short story.  Genre categories: Fiction, mystery, suspense. Discover more of Jamie's writing at: Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:

Harold trudged down the winding path that led to the inn from his cabin tucked in the woods. Rays from the late-winter sunrise filtered through the trees arousing the birds who had returned from the south recently and they greeted him with a serenade.  

Harold was a middle-aged man with a grizzly beard and the build of a lumberjack. He’d been running the Climber’s Haven Inn on the outskirts of Denali National Park for ten years after inheriting it from his father, making him the third generation of innkeepers in the family. 

Harold had a love-hate relationship with the inn. During peak climbing season, late spring through early fall, the inn was alive with camaraderie and tales of adventure. But during the annual winter shutdown, when Harold was the sole occupant and caretaker, it felt like the loneliest place on earth. He decided long ago that he could never subject a family to that lifestyle, so he never married or had children. During those solitary winter months, he would often yearn for a different life, one in which he didn’t feel obligated to maintain his family’s legacy.

He paused taking a sip of steaming coffee from his thermos and soaking in the view of the inn’s main entrance. If only he could revive the sense of majesty he felt standing in this exact spot as a child. Now, instead of a glorious mountain retreat, he simply saw a burden that was solely his to carry. The inn, built from local rough-sawn timber, touted thirty rooms, a full-service bar with a limited menu of hearty food, and a sauna where mountaineers could recover from their expeditions. 

Just a couple more weeks and the place will be humming again, Harold thought as he entered the front door. 

Around mid-morning, he was sitting in his office reviewing his inventory of supplies when he heard a faint ringing sound. Ding. Just when he thought he must have been imagining things he heard the sound again. Ding, ding. 

That sounds like the bell at the front desk…but why in the world would anyone be here now? Harold thought as he got up from his desk chair.

He opened his office door which was located directly behind the inn’s front desk in the lobby. Sure enough, there was a young man standing there waiting. He had an athletic build, an adventurous look in his eyes, and appeared to be in his twenties. He was loaded down like a pack mule with mountain climbing equipment and a suitcase was parked beside him. 

“Good morning. I’m not expecting any guests for a couple more weeks…” Harold said, sizing up the stranger. “What brings you in?”

“Ethan, Ethan Wilson.” The young man said, extending his brawny arm for a firm handshake. 

“Nice to meet you, Ethan. I’m Harold Brooks, the innkeeper here. So, how can I help you?”

“Well, I have a proposition that I’m hoping would be beneficial for both of us.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I just graduated from college, Colorado State University. You’d think after spending four years earning a business degree that I’d know what to do with my life…but I don’t. There are only two things I know for sure: I have thousands of dollars in student loan debt and I love mountain climbing. So, I thought I’d lose myself in a mountain range for a while in order to find myself. Maybe the high-altitude air will give me a sense of clarity.”

“I could’ve sworn you said your name was Ethan Wilson, but you sure do sound like John Muir. ‘The mountains are calling, and I must go.’ So, what does this quest of yours have to do with me?”

“I’ve climbed all over the Rockies, including the fourteener, Longs Peak. I’m looking for a bigger challenge and I have my heart set on Denali. But I’ll need to do a lot of training climbs in the area first. I’m guessing I can learn a lot from the climbers you’ll be hosting here during peak season. Maybe I can even find an expedition team to join. I’d be willing to work here at the inn for you in exchange for room and board. Whatever needs to be done around here, I’m your man. So, what do you think? Do we have a deal?”

There’s no shortage of work to be done here, that’s for sure, Harold thought. And let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger so it would be helpful to delegate some of the manual labor to this whippersnapper. It would be nice to have some company too but…I don’t even know this kid. 

“I’ll tell you what. How about if we do a trial run? You’ll work here for me in exchange for room and board for one month. During that time you can squeeze in two climbs per week as long as you’re getting your work done here. At the end of the month, we’ll see how it’s going and decide if we want to continue the arrangement or say sayonara.” Harold said.

“It’s a deal,” Ethan said, going for another handshake. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am. You won’t regret this, Mr. Brooks.”

“Please, call me Harold. You can stay in room number fifteen. It’s next up on the list for annual repairs. It needs new carpet, a new showerhead, and there’s something wrong with the commode. So, it’ll be a good test to see how handy and motivated you are.”

“Bring it on,” Ethan said, throwing his hands and a chuckle up in the air.

The repairs in room fifteen were completed in record time and passed Harold’s inspection with flying colors. During Ethan’s first month at the inn, he proved to be as valuable as a climber’s rope. From cleaning gutters to chopping firewood, there were countless tasks that he tackled with efficiency and precision. He also conquered seven training climbs throughout the month. 

During his first week at the inn, Ethan had visited the Denali National Park ranger station to snag a map of the mountaineering routes. 

“Make sure there’s someone who knows which route you’re taking, the date of your climb, and how long you expect to be gone. If you go missing, that will be critical information to pass along to the search and rescue team.” Ranger Sheridan had advised Ethan.

So, the night before each climbing day, Ethan and Harold would gather in the inn’s lobby and hunker over the large map. They would highlight the route Ethan was planning to take, write the date of the climb next to it, and he would tell Harold when to expect his return. Harold, who had served as the route keeper for many climbers over the years, took this role very seriously. 

On climbing days, Ethan would hit the slopes before sunrise and spend the next ten hours navigating North America’s most gnarly terrain with his 70-lb backpack in tow. Upon his return, Harold would join him in the inn’s sauna where he would recount his adventures and thaw his muscles. He was getting the full experience of the temperamental weather Ranger Sheridan warned him about. Harold was on the verge of reporting him missing when he returned several hours late from the second climb after being engulfed in a disorienting whiteout. 

“I was suddenly transported to a different planet, completely devoid of color and dimension. Just white…as far as the eye could see. I lost all sense of direction…north, south, east, west…sky, ground…it all looked exactly the same. Time stood still…but also seemed to fly by like the snow that was relentlessly pelting me in the face. I was trapped there for an eternity wrestling with the fear that I might not escape and literally be trapped there…for eternity.” Ethan said with his eyes wide and unfocused and a white-knuckled grasp on the edge of the sauna bench like crampons digging into ice. “What am I doing here? I’m not cut out for this.” He said, shifting a panic-stricken face to Harold.

Harold placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re an amateur or a veteran climber, Denali does not discriminate. Even the most elite mountaineering guides would’ve struggled in that whiteout. All that matters is you survived to tell the tale and climb another day. Don’t give up on your dream quite yet.” 

By the end of that first month, with several more training climbs under his belt, Ethan had regained his confidence, and his desire to conquer Denali was stronger than ever. 

He and Harold were taking a break from inspecting the inn’s industrial kitchen equipment one afternoon. If an outsider stumbled upon them at that moment, chatting over pints of beer at the inn’s bar, they would assume that they were long-time friends.

“Well, Mr. Brooks, can you believe I’ve been here for a month already? Are you ready to send me packing or do I get to hang around for a while?” Ethan said, lowering his pint of walnut-colored beer onto the wood bar top.

“Ethan, the truth is…I can’t imagine not having you here. So, as far as I’m concerned, you can stay as long as you’d like.” While he spoke, Harold’s mind embraced a vision of himself, long in the tooth, sitting on this very bar stool while an older Ethan served him a beer from behind the bar. He’d make a fine innkeeper someday, Harold thought.

Days turned into weeks and before they knew it, the inn was at full capacity and peak climbing season was well underway. Harold was manning the front desk one morning in mid-May when Ranger Sheridan and the local sheriff walked into the lobby. 

“Ranger Sheridan, Sheriff Brown. To what do I owe the honor?” Harold asked.

Sheriff Brown pulled a photograph from his jacket pocket and laid it on the front desk.

“Morning, Harold. Do you know this young man?” Sheriff Brown asked, pointing to the man in the photograph who was wearing a graduation cap and gown.

“Yeah, of course. That’s my right-hand man here at the inn, Ethan Wilson.” Harold said, glancing at both of them trying to read their expressions. 

“When did you see him last?” Sheriff Brown asked.

“Well, as a matter of fact, you just missed him. He left here a few hours ago to go on a training climb.” Harold said.

The sheriff and the ranger exchanged perplexed glances. Harold’s internal organs started doing acrobatics, alerting him that something seemed wrong.

“Well, that’s strange. His mother reported him missing weeks ago. It took us a while to retrace his steps but Ranger Sheridan recalled that he was staying at the inn.” Sheriff Brown said.

“His mother? He never mentioned her…” Harold said.

“Apparently he called to let her know that he arrived safely in Alaska and promised to keep in touch but she never heard from him again. She said he was often forgetful about calling so she wasn’t too concerned at first. But after a few weeks, she tried calling his cell repeatedly and got worried when he didn’t answer or return her calls.” Sheriff Brown said.

“Well, I don’t condone him avoiding his mother, but fortunately I think this is just a big misunderstanding. Ethan is here on a mission to ‘find himself’ and perhaps he just needed a little space to do that.” Harold said.

The sheriff gave Harold a scrutinizing stare and said, “I hope you’re right. When do you expect Ethan to return?”

“Sometime this evening,” Harold said.

“Do me a favor, call me to confirm that he made it back safe and sound. And tell him to call his mother for God’s sake.” Sheriff Brown said.

A mountaineering guide named Sam Edwards, who was staying at the inn for his twelfth consecutive climbing season, was sitting in an armchair in the lobby reading the newspaper during the conversation between the three men. He followed the sheriff and the ranger outside. 

“Sheriff Brown, can I have a word?” Sam said. “I overheard your conversation with Harold and…well, to be honest, I’m very suspicious about the situation. I’ve known Harold for a long time and I think he’s gone delusional.”

“Can you elaborate?” Sheriff Brown said.

“Harold has been going on and on about this Ethan character since I arrived a month ago. But the strange thing is, I’ve never seen Ethan, not once. I’ve asked around and none of the other guests have seen him either. Whenever the topic comes up, Harold says that Ethan is out for a training climb or running an errand. But one thing a lot of us have observed is Harold talking as if he’s having a conversation with someone…but nobody’s there. So now I’m starting to wonder if Ethan is missing, dead, or doesn’t even exist.”

“Well, we know that Ethan exists because his mother reported him missing and sent us this photograph. And we know that Harold has interacted with him because he identified him from the photo. So, that leaves us with two possibilities: missing or dead.” Sheriff Brown said.

“Ethan visited the ranger station when he arrived in mid-March and I gave him a route map. What are the chances that it’s still here at the inn somewhere?” Ranger Sheridan said.

They went back into the lobby to share Sam’s observations and concerns with Harold who became defensive. 

“I already told you that Ethan is out for a training climb. If you don’t believe me I can show you his route map.” Harold snarled.

He jerked the large route map out from behind the front desk and unrolled it for them to see. There were numerous routes highlighted, too many to count at a glance, and they had written a date beside each one spanning from March 21st until the present day.

Despite Harold’s outrage and outright denial of being delusional, Sheriff Brown said, “Listen, Harold, right now it’s your word against the dozens of guests that are staying here. If Ethan’s life is at risk we can’t waste any more time. So I’m going to take this route map and start organizing a search. I’ll contact the search and rescue teams. Ranger Sheridan, close all of the park routes to the public. Sam, see if you can round up any volunteers here at the inn. I want to kick this off bright and early tomorrow morning.”

Later that night when it was well beyond the time Ethan should’ve returned from his climb, Harold frantically searched the inn for him. There was no sign of him in the lobby, office, bar, or sauna. As a last resort, Harold raised a trembling fist to knock on the door of room fifteen hoping to find Ethan there. To his shock, the room was now occupied by a female climber who insisted she’d been there for weeks. After finding no signs of Ethan anywhere Harold secluded himself in his cabin, terrified to face reality.

Before sunrise the next morning, a team the size of a small army began the search for Ethan along his first training route highlighted on the map, dated March 21st. After several days of searching that route extensively and finding nothing, they moved on to Ethan’s second training route, dated March 25th.

Late one night, nearly two weeks after the search began, Harold had fallen asleep on the couch in his cabin when he was startled awake by a persistent knock at the door. He stumbled across the room to answer the door where Sheriff Brown was waiting, looking rather worse for wear.

“I’m sorry to wake you Harold, but I have an update on the search. Would you mind if I come in?” Sheriff Brown said.

They sat next to each other on Harold’s tweed couch and the tension in the atmosphere was as thick as a blizzard. 

“Harold…there’s no easy way for me to say this. We found Ethan’s body at the bottom of a crevasse along his second route, the one he attempted on March 25th during his second week here.”

Harold jerked involuntarily as if he’d been jolted by an electric shock. “No, that’s impossible.” He shouted. “I sat in the sauna with Ethan that night after he returned from that climb. I remember our conversation vividly…he told me about the whiteout that he narrowly escaped on that route.” He said, his voice now taking on a tone of desperation. 

The sheriff silently pulled a photograph from his inner jacket pocket and tenderly showed it to Harold — Ethan’s lifeless body was sprawled at the bottom of the crevasse, frozen and pale, almost blending in with the icy tomb.

Harold shuddered and his face froze in a horrified stare, his expression paralyzed even after the sheriff slipped the photograph back into his pocket. Life seemed to have vanished from his wide staring eyes despite the silent tears that began rolling down his beard. His subconscious mind was vaguely aware of the sheriff saying something about a memorial service and promising to come back and check on him soon. Then, just as suddenly as he’d arrived, the sheriff left and Harold spiraled down into the dark crevasses of his tortured mind.

Ethan was the closest thing Harold ever had to a son and he never recovered from his loss. He became a recluse and the inn went into foreclosure, ending the family’s legacy. Sheriff Brown kept his promise, visiting Harold often and bringing him supplies. Many times the sheriff would glance inside the window as he approached the front door and see Harold sitting on the couch having a conversation but no one was there, or sitting at the kitchen table playing a game of chess and teasing a non-existent opponent. Sometimes survival relies on fabricating a false reality when one’s true reality is too painful to bear.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

This story was initially published on in response to the following prompt: Your character runs an inn for resting mountaineers. It’s a calm life, until they encounter a twist of fate.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

Helper of Mankind

[11 minute read or listen to this story narrated by Jamie Gregory on the Short Stories for Busy Bookworms podcast below]

S1 E4: Helper of Mankind (A Dystopian Short Story) Short Stories for Busy Bookworms

Sixteen-year-old Sasha Malone participates in a government-mandated coming-of-age ritual and discovers her unexpected destiny. I hope you enjoy this short story. Genre categories: Fiction, dystopian, science fiction, coming-of-age. Discover more of Jamie's writing at: Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:

On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was jolted awake by the discordant sounds of a car horn blaring outside and my mom’s fists banging on my bedroom door. I rolled over in bed with the agility of a sloth. 5:53 am — my birth minute. Happy birthday to me, I thought grudgingly. 

Mom’s voice, teetering between stern and panicky tones, shouted at me through the door, “Sasha, are you awake? The taxi is here to take you to your HCTA. Sasha? C’mon, hurry up. You know what happens if you don’t show up for the HCTA.”

I was all too familiar with the ramifications of skipping your Health and Civic Trajectory Analysis, or HCTA for short. I’ve been lectured about the significance of the HCTA by relatives, teachers, and doctors for as long as I can remember. And those conversations always placed a heavy emphasis on the consequences of not participating in this mandatory coming-of-age procedure: a hefty fine of .02 Bitcoins and spending the last two years of your youth in a juvenile detention center where you’re inevitably forced to participate in the HCTA and begin your career placement training. 

I got dressed hastily, threw my hair into a messy ponytail, and popped a breath mint into my mouth. I pressed my thumb onto the fingerprint reader on my door to unlock it, catching my mom in mid-knock as it slid sideways. 

“It’s about time. Here, take this and run outside before the taxi leaves.” Mom said while thrusting a blueberry muffin into my hands. 

“Mom, you know they’re not called taxis anymore, right? It’s an APTV.”

“Taxi, APTV, what difference does it make? I can’t keep all of these acronyms straight these days.” 

I stepped onto our front porch as the APTV’s public address system made an announcement in a robotic voice. “Attention, Sasha Malone. Please board the autonomous public transportation vehicle waiting for you at 521 Carrbrook Court. Time remaining to board: five minutes.” This announcement was simultaneously broadcast to my personal cellular devices. Ok, geez. I’m coming, I thought as I jogged towards the APTV. 

I unlocked the APTV using the fingerprint reader on the door which then swung upwards like a bird lifting its wings to take flight. I climbed in and the door closed automatically beside me. 

The robotic voice returned. “Good morning, Sasha Malone. Your destination is the Department of Career Placement laboratory. Estimated travel time: twenty-two minutes.”

Normally I’d spend the next twenty-two minutes watching videos about cloning fails or hacking residential AI systems as a prank — but my mind was preoccupied with the potential outcomes of my HCTA. 

The Health and Civic Trajectory Analysis was developed by the newly formed Department of Career Placement in response to the unemployment crisis that nearly crippled America following the COVID-19 pandemic in the early 2020s. According to my school history books, the HCTA utilized state-of-the-art DNA profiling to identify an individual’s optimal profession, mating compatibility profile, probability of having offspring, susceptibility to diseases, and estimated lifespan. The HCTA was quickly mandated for all citizens upon turning sixteen. Anyone who didn’t comply with their recommended career placement would face severe legal consequences. 

Now, three decades later, the nation’s unemployment rate is at an all-time historical low and the economy is booming. What the government has failed to address, however, is the exponential growth of depression and suicide rates in response to the HCTA rollout. It’s pretty hard to see the glass half full if you’re forced into a career you aren’t passionate about, told that your chances of having a family are bleak, given a laundry list of diseases you’re susceptible to, and predicted to have a shorter-than-average lifespan. 

I started reminiscing about a popular fortune-telling game we used to play in grade school to predict our future HCTA results. Invariably you would end up with wretched outcomes and it quickly became a contest to see who was predicted to have the most miserable life. It’s all fun and games until someone’s life actually does become miserable. I tried shifting to a more optimistic mindset by making a mental list of careers I’d be most excited about. Something adventurous and meaningful. Deep-sea diver, search and rescue, astronaut—

“You have arrived at your destination.” The APTV said while opening its doors and interrupting my daydreams. I reluctantly left the comfort of the car and stood face to face with the laboratory that would soon determine my destiny. 

Since the entire facility is operated by robots, I only crossed paths with one other human while I was there, a fellow teenager who was exiting the building as I approached the main entrance. 

“Happy birthday,” I said with a timid smile. 

“What? Oh, uh, yeah…happy birthday to you too.” He said dismissively, his face etched with worry. 

I took a deep breath, opened the building’s exterior doors, and walked into the vestibule which contained nothing more than a small kiosk. “Welcome to the Department of Career Placement laboratory. Please proceed to the identification scanner.” A voice recording announced. 

I tentatively approached the kiosk which seemed to feature nothing more than a small fingerprint reader at first glance. Seconds later a screen suddenly rose from within the kiosk until it reached eye level and then it extended towards me until it was just inches from my face.

“Please stand still and stare at the screen in front of you for the retinal scan.”

With that, the screen came to life and I could see an image of myself reflected in it. After the beam of infrared light passed over my eyes, the screen portrayed a portrait of me along with my name, date of birth, social security number, and home address. Well, that’s pretty snazzy.

“Please place your thumb on the fingerprint reader.”

After my thumb had been scanned, the display on the screen confirmed that my fingerprint and retinal scan matched and I was in fact who I was supposed to be.

“This concludes the identification scan. Your identity has been successfully verified. Please proceed through the doors directly in front of you to the laboratory.” 

The screen in front of me went dark and disappeared back inside the kiosk which was positioned between me and the double doors leading into the laboratory. As I approached the doors they opened automatically, beckoning me one step closer to discovering what my future held. 

I entered a small, brightly lit, clinical room. It was completely bare with the exception of a robotic contraption in the middle of the room which had a large open-ended plastic tube hovering next to it that extended upwards and vanished into the ceiling. My eyes darted around the room waiting for my next set of instructions. I just want to get out of here. This place is creeping me out. 

“Please approach the robot and position your feet on the line on the floor. Now, extend your arm straight in front of you with your palm facing up, make a fist, and remain very still while your blood sample is collected.”

I stretched my arm out and focused on steadying my trembling fist like my life depended on it. The machine’s robotic arms suddenly aroused, unfolding and reaching toward me. A laser beam was used to scan the veins in the crook of my arm and then a ligature was tied a few inches higher. A needle and a small test tube materialized from within the machine. I noticed that the test tube was already labeled with my name, date of birth, and social security number. The needle slid into my arm effortlessly like an expired leaf gliding to the ground on a still fall day. The blood was transferred into the test tube which was then inserted into the large plastic tube next to the robot and sucked up into the ceiling and off to who knows where. The machine slapped a bandage on my arm, released the ligature, and collapsed into itself once again as if the ordeal was rather exhausting. 

“This concludes the blood sample collection. You will receive your Health and Civic Trajectory Analysis results via hologram at your residence in approximately one week. Please exit the building through the vestibule upon which you entered.” 

One week? Why does it take so long? This was pretty anti-climatic compared to all the hype I’ve been facing for the past sixteen years.

Later that evening I was sitting at the kitchen table, silently picking at the meatloaf on my plate, while Mom and Dad chatted with my younger brother Seth about his upcoming basketball season. Their conversation halted when our hologram pad in the living room chimed, indicating that we had an incoming message. I jumped up from the table and I was halfway into the living room when my dad shouted, “Sasha, in case you’ve forgotten we have the rule to ignore holograms during dinnertime.” 

As I approached the pad in the corner of our living room the hologram emerged. I was standing eye to eye with the image of a woman I didn’t recognize. She was holding a tablet and wearing a white lab coat. 

“Good evening, Sasha Malone. I’m Dr. Watkins from the Department of Career Placement. I have an important message to deliver but it’s imperative that your parents are present.”

“Mom, Dad. You better come in here.” I shouted.

Once my parents were flanking me the woman continued, “Good evening, Malone family. I’m Dr. Watkins from the Department of Career Placement. I’m sending this message to inform you that Sasha’s HCTA results have been expedited due to the fact that she has received a government-classified career placement. Agents from our department will be arriving shortly to permanently relocate Sasha to our training base. I’m sure this might be startling news for you. On behalf of everyone here at the DoCP I’d like to thank you for making this sacrifice for your nation.” 

The hologram disappeared leaving a void that was filled with my mother’s agonizing sobs as she collapsed onto the couch. My dad was frozen with a look of utter shock on his face. I could feel a sense of panic rising inside me like a tidal wave. I looked back and forth between my parents desperately waiting for one of them to say something reassuring. A forceful knock on the front door made all of us jump and exchange glances. Dad was the first one to react, crossing the room to answer the door.

Two uniformed men stood in the doorway brandishing DoCP badges. “Good evening, sir. I’m Agent Bricard and this is Agent Stamos. We’re from the Department of Career Placement and we’re here to transport Sasha Malone to a classified career training base.”

My mom rushed to my dad’s side and frantically said, “What’s going on? You’re taking her…right now? Where is she going? Will we ever see her again?”

“Ma’am please remain calm. There’s nothing to worry about. I can assure you that your daughter will be in good hands and she is going to be of great service to our country. You should be proud. Once Sasha has arrived at our undisclosed facility she will be permitted to send holograms to you, under supervision of course in order to protect the confidentiality of her work.”  

I embraced my parents as if it was the last time because, for all I knew, it was. I urged my hands to memorize the strength of my dad’s muscular back which had sustained me for countless piggyback rides. I inhaled the sweet smell of my mom’s trademark perfume, committing it to memory as well. Then I followed the two agents, stepping out of my familiar, mundane life and into the unknown. 

I was transported in the windowless cargo section of a government van so that even I didn’t know where our destination was located. After a considerable amount of travel time, the van came to a stop and the agents released me. We had arrived at a nondescript warehouse, the only sign of civilization, in the middle of a dense forest. The agents escorted me inside the warehouse and deposited me into a small office where the woman from the hologram, Dr. Watkins, was sitting behind the desk waiting expectantly. 

“Hello, Sasha.” She said. “Sasha, that’s a great name. Do you know what it means?”

“No,” I said nervously. 

“It means defender, helper of mankind. Isn’t destiny a beautiful thing?” She seemed to be lost in thought for a moment and then continued, “Speaking of names…I have a confession to make. I’m not actually Dr. Watkins and this isn’t the Department of Career Placement.” 

I jumped out of my seat. “What? I knew this was crazy. Where am I? What’s going—”

“Calm down, Sasha. You’re safe here, I promise. Just have a seat and let me explain.”

I hesitantly lowered back into the seat. 

“My name is Susan Jacobs. I run an underground organization and our mission is to overthrow the government’s restrictions on foster care children and restore their rights as citizens of this country.” 

“Foster care children? What are you talking about? And what does this have to do with me?”

“Unbeknownst to most of the general population, our country has nearly 750,000 foster care children living in government facilities. The government has eliminated the adoption process that existed for hundreds of years, therefore, denying these kids the opportunity to be placed with a loving family. These children are provided a sorry excuse for an education and then forced into the worst, lowest-paying jobs that nobody else wants. They are prohibited from participating in the HCTA and discovering their true destinies. You are going to help us infiltrate the system and set them free.” 

“Wow, that’s really messed up. How can they get away with that?” It was a rhetorical question so we were both silent for a moment while I digested this overwhelming information. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

“We’ve been hacking into the DoCP database for a while now intercepting HCTA results to find the ideal candidates to train for this covert operation. Your DNA profile and ancestry were exactly what we were looking for. You’re highly intelligent. You have many physical aptitudes and a spirit of adventure. And when I discovered the meaning of your name, defender, helper of mankind, I knew that we needed you on our roster.”

By the time I left Susan’s office at the end of that first meeting I was all in on her mission — hook, line, and sinker. 

After two years of intensive training, I found myself sitting in an APTV parked in front of a small government-operated foster care facility. I was accompanied by two of my fellow trainees and we were all disguised as laboratory technicians. I took a quick glance at myself in the mirror before exiting the car to tackle the first of many infiltrations of foster care facilities across the nation. I barely recognized myself. I had been transformed into a machine, a human-machine programmed for compassion, ingenuity, and grit. 

The details of our visit had been meticulously arranged. Susan used her connections with universities across the United States to gain government approval for conducting scientific research on the DNA profiles of foster care children. We were welcomed into the facility under the guise of collecting blood samples for the research program. Our hackers ran those blood samples through the HCTA system and generated credible HCTA reports for every eighteen-year-old foster child from that facility who was on the verge of being released. We tracked those children down, equipped them with the new reports, and transported them to their respective career training facilities to embark on a journey toward their true destinies. 

When I accepted this mission I thought I left behind my life and the world as I knew it. But in reality, I was simply evolving into the person that the world needed me to be. The person who sent the twenty-five children from that first facility, and many more after them, on a life trajectory full of potential which will yield ripples of influence for generations to come.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

This story was initially published on in response to the following prompt: End your story with someone finding themselves.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

Debut Under the Big Top

[8 minute read or listen to this story narrated by Jamie Gregory on the Short Stories for Busy Bookworms podcast below]

S1 E5: Debut Under the Big Top (A Historical Fiction Short Story) Short Stories for Busy Bookworms

John Turner has always dreamed of running away with the circus but he never expected that dream to become a reality. I hope you enjoy this historical fiction short story. Genre categories: Fiction, historical fiction, suspense, coming-of-age. Discover more of Jamie's writing at: Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory The following sound effects were downloaded via Fading and loudness normalization effects were applied to these sound effects which are licensed under various Creative Commons Attribution licenses. Mechanical street organ by RTB45 Crowd cheer by day-garwood Zoo animal sounds by freesound Baby crying by mariiao2 Elephant trumpeting by vataaa Small crowd gasping by dreamstobecome Crowd in panic by IENBA Horse whinny by foxen10 Cheering clapping crowd by AlaskaRobotics — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:

I stood with my feet firmly planted on the small wooden platform twenty feet above the ring and the surrounding crowd. My sweaty, shaking hands gripped the railings beside me in an attempt to steady my trembling body. I looked down, but only with my eyes since I was too afraid to move my head. The ringmaster pranced to the center of the ring to introduce the next act, my act. 

This time yesterday I was trudging home from the coal mine, covered head to toe in soot, and praying that my days working there were numbered. For the past year, that prayer had gone unanswered. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please.” The ringmaster said. “At this time I’ll introduce you to our next death-defying act…with trepidation. Sadly, our tightrope walker sustained an injury during his last performance which put us in quite a bind. But as luck would have it, we were introduced to a young lad from right here in Connellsville this morning who is a self-taught tightrope walker and aspiring circus performer. You are about to witness his debut performance of this spectacular stunt.” There was an audible gasp and subsequent murmur from the crowd. “Following what I’m sure will be a thunderous round of applause, please remain silent to allow him the utmost level of concentration. Now, put your hands together for John Turner.” As predicted, there was an uproar of applause from the crowd which came to a sudden halt when the ringmaster shushed them. 

I could feel the weight of thousands of eyes on me, waiting with anticipation. Besides the occasional ruckus from the menagerie tent, the atmosphere was so thick with silence that you could slice through it with a horsewhip. I was vaguely aware of the ringmaster announcing my name and the fact that I should be doing something. My body was frozen, paralyzed by fear. My mind, on the other hand, was racing. 

Circuses stopped in Connellsville, Pennsylvania regularly to draw in the local coal mining population. It was practically the only form of entertainment in these parts. I would never forget the first time my parents took me to the circus. I was eight years old and I was completely enamored by how extraordinary it was. It felt as though I had been transported to another planet full of exotic animals and magnificent performers. 

Ever since that night, I’d been dreaming of running away with the circus. This isn’t what I had in mind though…I’m not cut out for this, I thought. Of course, I fantasized about becoming a famous performer. Yet in reality, I was simply hoping to obtain a manual labor position with a circus like my enviable cousin William. But one year ago the trajectory of my life changed like a weather vane shifting with the wind. My father left to fight in the Spanish-American War and never came home again, leaving behind my mother and seven children, of which I’m the oldest. My mother decided that, at thirteen years old, I had received an adequate education and it was time for me to replace my father as the man of the family. When tragedy strikes, Father Time doesn’t put the universe on hold to give us a chance to cope with our trials. When the fog of my father’s death lifted I found myself deep in a coal mine battering my grief, with one deliberate swing of the pickaxe at a time. 

A baby wailing in the crowd snapped my mind from the coal mine back to the big top and the task before me. If I close my eyes I can just imagine that I’m back home balancing on the railroad tracks or walking along my makeshift tightrope in the barn. I had only attempted my homemade tightrope twice. It stretched the width of the barn from one hayloft to the other. On the first attempt, I fell and landed squarely on the straw bales stacked on the ground below. I wasn’t quite as lucky on the second attempt and ended up with a broken leg to show for it. Ok, maybe I shouldn’t close my eyes.

The ringmaster suddenly cleared his throat and announced my name again while trying to conceal his frustration. I glanced down one last time before I took the first tentative step onto the tight rope. The last thing I saw was my cousin William standing near a large wooden wagon along the side of the ring. He gave me a knowing head nod and it was just enough to make me think perhaps I could pull this off. 

I considered the long balancing pole leaning against the railing next to me. I never used a balancing pole at home but…maybe I should have. I grabbed the pole with my sweaty palms and shifted my gaze to the wire stretching away from me. Like sunlight kissing a rain puddle, the wire glistened in the radiance of the state-of-the-art electric spotlights positioned around the big top. I took a deep breath like I do when Mama has a loaf of homemade bread baking in the oven. I slid my right foot out onto the wire and rotated the balancing pole into a horizontal position, holding it close to my abdomen. My left foot stretched and landed in front of my right foot in a swift yet calculated movement. Wobbling slightly, I paused to get my bearings. If Papa was here he would say, “Johnny, it’s so quiet in here you could hear a mouse fart.” I chuckled aloud and almost lost my concentration. Another deep breath. Right foot, stretch, and settle. Inhale, exhale. Left foot, extend, and touch down. I eased into a rhythm and suddenly I was a quarter of the way across the tightrope. I’m doing this. I’m actually doing—

The trumpeting of an elephant blasted abruptly from the menagerie tent. I nearly lost my footing. I bent forward at the waist trying to achieve a lower center of gravity. My body jerked from side to side, wrestling with the balancing pole and doing everything in my power to remain upright. The crowd below erupted with more gasps and a few shrieks. That’s not helping, I thought with gritted teeth. By nothing short of a miracle I recovered my balance. 

By the time I reached the halfway point along the tightrope, my confidence was growing. But apparently, at that moment I should’ve remembered one of Papa’s other catchphrases, “Don’t celebrate too early. Just because your horse is in first place doesn’t mean he’s going to finish that way.” Because that was the moment when I felt a tingling sensation inside my nose. Damned if I didn’t have to sneeze. It must be all the sawdust in here. It always gets to me in the barn—

The gust of air flew out of my nose like a runaway freight train, there was no stopping it. I lost my grip on the balancing pole and it fell by the wayside. My knees buckled and I collapsed clumsily onto the wire, then tipped sideways and went overboard like a drunken sailor. One minute I was standing tall and proud living out a daydream I had no business dabbling in. Now, in the blink of an eye, or the sneeze of a nose rather, I was tumbling twenty feet to the ground and my presumable death. 

I was surrounded by a cacophony of sounds — people screaming and animals protesting the sudden chaos. My body was trapped in an uncontrollable tumbling tailspin. Various sights zipped through my topsy-turvy field of vision: frantic crowd, defiant elephant, glaring spotlight, canvas ceiling, sawdust-covered ground. 

Fleeting, panic-stricken thoughts competed for attention in my mind. Am I going to die? Oh my God…I’m going to die. What will Mama do without me? How could I be so stupid? Will I see Papa again?

I was rapidly approaching the ground, unable to brace for impact when I was briefly enveloped in something soft before colliding with something solid. I entered a void where all light and sound dissipated. 

After an indiscernible amount of time, I was roused by the soft material shifting around me. As it tickled my skin I gradually regained my sense of hearing, albeit muffled at first. Someone was shouting frantically, “Johnny! Johnny, can you hear me?” Suddenly a pair of hands made contact with my body and jerked me out of the abyss by my armpits. My head lolled from side to side as I wheezed and coughed, spewing sawdust from my mouth. I attempted to rub the sawdust out of my desiccated eyes to identify the savior standing before me. 

“William? Is…is that you, William?” I said, just barely making out my cousin’s face through my blurred vision. 

The ringmaster suddenly stepped between us and said, “Give the crowd a bow, you idiot. And I want to talk to both of you after the show.” He stepped aside and William steadied me for a second to make sure I could stand on my own. 

Standing inside the large wooden wagon full of sawdust I gave a defeated bow. William had resourcefully pushed the wagon across the ring to catch me just in the nick of time. The crowd went wild, exploding from their seats into a boisterous standing ovation. I collapsed into the wagon once again with a plume of sawdust rising around me. William wheeled me out of the big top waving at the cheering crowd with a grin on his face, relishing in his own moment of fame. 

When the ringmaster found us after the show had ended we were waiting to be scolded like a dog with its tail between its legs.

“I’m so sorry sir. I never should have tried to—” I said. 

William interrupted me by saying, “Sir, I apologize for leading you to believe that Johnny had more experience. I’ll accept whatever punishment—”

“Shut up, both of you. That act was brilliant. First, you had the crowd on the edge of their seats, then they thought they witnessed your death…they loved it. Suspense, danger, bravery. And William…an animal caretaker…a nobody…rushing in to save him with a wagon…just brilliant. It stole the show.” The ringmaster said vehemently. William and I, now speechless, exchanged glances. “So, you two knuckleheads are going to repeat that act, in the exact same way, at every show from now on. Johnny, we’ll pretend that you’re a local resident from whatever town we’re in on the given day. Understood?” William and I nodded earnestly in unison. 

Show after show, town after town, I lived this lie and survived the same near-death fall countless times. Ironically, after walking half the length of the tightrope so many times I had actually become a very skilled performer yet I was forced to stay incognito. I got my wish to run away with the circus and it was simultaneously everything I had hoped it would be and nothing I had hoped it would be. My name will never adorn a circus poster as a star performer but I’ve learned that my impact on the audience is beyond measure: I exemplify the ability of an average human to climb out of the darkest chasms of life and rise, victorious over adversity.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

This story was initially published on in response to the following prompt: Start your story looking down from a stage.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

Shoot Past the Moon

[12 minute read or listen to this story narrated by Jamie Gregory on the Short Stories for Busy Bookworms podcast below]

S1 E3: Shoot Past the Moon (A Coming of Age Short Story) Short Stories for Busy Bookworms

This heartwarming coming-of-age story shines a light on the influence teachers can have on underprivileged students. I hope you enjoy this short story. Genre categories: Fiction, coming-of-age. Discover more of Jamie's writing at: Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:

I rearranged the padfolio, stack of papers, and water bottle on the podium for the umpteenth time as more people continued to meander in and take a seat in front of me. Whew, ok, take some deep breaths. You’ve got this.

I tried to distract myself and calm my nerves by gazing out of the bookshop’s windows which lined the city street. It was a chilly, early spring evening and there was a drizzle outside being illuminated by the streetlights. I was snapped out of my trance by the bookshop owner approaching the podium to greet the crowd. 

“Good evening, everyone.” He said and paused to let the chatter simmer down. “Welcome to Beehive Books. I’m Jack Browerton and I’m the owner here. I want to thank all of you for coming tonight. Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to tonight’s guest author, Anna Bensley. Her debut novel, a moving memoir about growing up in poverty, entitled “Where I’m from, I Must Not Stay” became a New York Times Bestseller practically overnight. She’s a fellow Ohioan and we’re thrilled to host her tonight for the first of many stops on her book tour. We invite you to purchase a signed copy of her memoir before you leave tonight. Now, please help me welcome Anna Bensley.” 

I was faintly aware of the brief round of obligatory applause from the crowd while my trembling hands adjusted the podium microphone. 

I cleared my throat and said, “Uh, hello everyone. My name is Anna Bens — well, I guess you already know that.” I let out a nervous chuckle which was echoed by a few people in the crowd. “You’ll have to bear with me. Writing a best-selling novel is much easier than public speaking, in my opinion.” 

Jack, coming to my rescue, interjected from the back of the crowd, “Hey Anna, may I suggest that we start with some Q&A?”

“Oh, sure,” I said, relieved. 

“I’m sure the odds were stacked against you after growing up in lower-class America. What inspired you to become an author?” He said. 

“I thought someone might ask that question. I’m going to answer it by sharing a personal story, an excerpt from my memoir.” I said. I flipped to page 58 in my worn-out copy of the book and began reading aloud. 

I tiptoed across the threadbare carpet of my mom’s bedroom in our dilapidated mobile home, still wearing my pajamas. Dust bunnies were floating through the rays of early morning sun seeping through the window. She was sprawled out asleep on her mattress that rested on the floor. Maybe someday we’d be able to afford bed frames. I felt guilty waking her knowing that she’d worked the night shift at the gas station and only had a few hours to sleep until her day shift started at the local diner. But it was payday and my last chance to ask for some spending money for the annual Secret Santa Shop at school. 

One glorious day per year the school gymnasium was transformed into the Secret Santa Shop where students could buy Christmas gifts for their family members at “kid-friendly prices”. I’m not sure which kids found the prices to be friendly but I wasn’t one of them. Each year I left the gymnasium empty-handed while my classmates delighted in sharing their festive finds. Next year I’d be moving on to middle school where they no longer indulge in such activities. 

With high hopes, I gently nudged her awake. “Mommy? Mommy, wake up. I need to ask you something.”

She slowly rolled towards me. “What is it, honey? I need to get some sleep before —”

“I know. I’m sorry, Mommy. I was just wondering…um…did you decide if I could have any spending money for the Secret Santa Shop at school today?”

“Oh, honey…I’m so sorry. I was really hoping that I could give you some money for that this year. But things have been slow at the diner recently so my tips haven’t been very good. And someone called from the electric company yesterday, threatening to shut off our electricity if I don’t pay the overdue bill.” She said.

I tried my best to hide my disappointment. “Oh…well…it’s ok Mommy,” I said. 

“You don’t need to buy me any gifts anyway, sweetheart. Just make me a beautiful card like you did last year. That’s better than anything you could buy at the Secret Santa Shop.” She said while patting my shoulder. Then she yawned and said, “Now you better go get ready so you don’t miss the school bus.” She laid back down and turned her back to me, ending the conversation. 

I returned to my bedroom where a small dresser from the thrift store held my dwindling wardrobe. Besides the fact that I was constantly outgrowing clothes, there was the ongoing problem of them being destroyed by our tenants, the mice. My mom’s meager income had to be carefully rationed between food, utilities, and gas money. Spending money on clothing and entertainment was a luxury we simply didn’t have. The older I got, the harder it was to fit in at school when I looked like a walking advertisement for the local second-hand clothing store.

I yanked one of the dresser drawers open and grabbed the most festive garments I could find, a stained red sweatsuit that was now two sizes too small. I pulled the sweatsuit on and pretended it was an ornate Christmas dress. I slipped my tattered gym shoes on and wondered if they’d get me through another midwestern winter.

In the kitchen, I made my usual breakfast of generic cereal and the last few swigs of now expired milk. On the school bus, I occupied a seat by myself and rode to the school in silence despite being surrounded by energetic conversations. At some point in elementary school, the differences among students became obvious and cruelty emerged. Fact: I was one of the poorest kids in school and I might as well have been invisible. 

Later that day, I followed the rest of my class to the gymnasium for the Secret Santa Shop with a sick feeling in my stomach. My classmates were comparing how much spending money they had as if it was a contest. I tried to linger near the back of the pack since this was one conversation I wanted to be excluded from. We were almost at the gym entrance when Sophia Larson, the most popular girl in class, rounded on me. 

“Hey, Anna. Good news, I heard they’re going to have a special table this year where everything only costs $1.00.” She said, loud enough for everyone to hear. I stared at my feet, wishing a trap door would suddenly appear there and suck me away. “Oh, sorry. I forgot, even $1.00 would be too expensive for you.” She said with a sneer. 

“Sophia, that’s enough. Please apologize to Anna.” Said our teacher, Mrs. Hampton. 

“Sorry, Anna….”Sophia said. Once Mrs. Hampton was out of earshot she added, “Sorry that you’re just poor trailer trash.” 

My classmates scattered throughout the gym like they were shopping for the year’s must-have gift on Black Friday. Meanwhile, I plopped down on the bleachers and buried my nose in a book from the school library. A few minutes later I sensed someone sitting down next to me and looked up from my book to see Mrs. Hampton. 

“Anna, you might run into a lot of people like Sophia Larson in your life. There’s no excuse for the way bullies treat people, but you need to learn how to stand up for yourself. She’s just going to keep picking on you if you let yourself be an easy target. Now tell me, is it true what she said? That you can’t afford to shop for gifts today?”

“Yeah…it’s true. My mom didn’t have enough money for it.” I said, with a sigh. I stole a sideways glance at Mrs. Hampton and decided that she had the kindest, caramel-colored, eyes I’d ever seen. I suddenly felt compelled to tell her more. “My dad left us. My mom has two jobs…but…we’re still poor. It’s not fair.” I said, my eyes welling up with tears. 

“You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. But the good news is, you don’t have to be poor for the rest of your life. You’re a smart kid, Anna. You have a ton of potential and if you put your mind to it you can have the life of your dreams when you grow up.” She said.

“You really think so?” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek.

“I know so. Keep doing your best in school, get a job when you’re old enough to start earning your own money, and find something you’re passionate about to study in college. What do you daydream about? What do you want to be when you grow up?” She said.

“Um…I don’t know…I love reading books and going to the library. My mom can’t afford fancy toys or movie theater tickets, but library books are free. Maybe I could work in a library someday?” I said. 

“Yeah…that would be good. But imagine if the library was full of books that you wrote. As Norman Vincent Peale once said, ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.’ Speaking of books, I see that you’re reading ‘The Giver’. That book usually isn’t assigned until middle school —”

“I know. I asked the middle school librarian for a book list so I could start reading ahead.” I said excitedly. Mrs. Hampton grinned at me and nodded her head a few times. 

“Ok, I’ll make you a deal.” She said, “I’ll give you $10 to buy gifts at the Secret Santa Shop today —”

“Oh, no that’s ok, Mrs. Hampton. That’s really nice of you but I couldn’t pay you back and —”

“Just hear me out. You don’t have to pay me back with money. I want you to pay me back with book reports.” She said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I want you to complete one book report for each dollar I’m giving you. So, ten book reports total and I’ll give you until the end of this school year to do it. Think of it as your way of ‘paying me back’ and beginning your career as a librarian, or author, by reading and analyzing classic books.” She said while she pulled a ten-dollar bill from her purse and handed it to me. 

I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. I leaped up from the bleachers and gave her a big hug. “Oh, Mrs. Hampton, thank you so much! I’ll write the best book reports you’ve ever seen.”

With time running out, I browsed the gift-laden tables as fast as I could. I spied a home manicure set at the “Gifts for Mom” table. It brought back memories of my mom before Dad left us when she had the time, energy, and money to spruce herself up regularly. I cautiously flipped the package upside down to search for the price tag, praying it didn’t cost too much. Luck was on my side because the price was exactly ten dollars. Sophia Larson got in the checkout line right behind me and I braced myself for more taunting. 

“I thought you didn’t have any shopping money, Anna. That manicure set costs ten dollars, you know.” She said, pulling the same manicure set out of her shopping bag which was bulging at the seams. “Did you steal money from someone or are you hoping they’ll just feel sorry for you and give it to you for free?”

“No, Mrs. Hampton offered to give me the money and I’m paying her back by doing extra credit. Ten book reports by the end of the year. Middle school books.” I said with all the confidence I could muster. Then I turned on a dime, leaving her somewhat speechless for once, and handed the manicure set to the cashier. “I’d like to buy this for my mom,” I said, full of pride. 

I took advantage of the free gift wrapping supplies provided by the school. When I arrived home Mom was still working at the diner so I put her gift in one of my empty dresser drawers where I kept it hidden until Christmas morning.

I barely slept a wink on Christmas Eve night. I woke up before Mom the next morning. I made her a cup of instant coffee, some toast, and a bowl of cereal all of which I placed on our rickety kitchen table next to her gift and a handmade card.

I crept into her room and gently prodded her awake. “Mommy…wake up. I have a surprise for you.” I said.

“A surprise? For me?” She said with a yawn. 

“Yep! Come on. It’s in the kitchen.” I said, giddy with excitement.

Mom sauntered into the kitchen rubbing the sleep from her eyes. When she saw the display on the table she froze and a silent tear trickled down her cheek. 

“What…is this?” She said.

“I made you some breakfast and…I bought you a gift. Merry Christmas, Mommy.” I said. 

“But…where did you…how did you buy me a gift?” She said looking confused and concerned.

“My teacher, Mrs. Hampton, let me borrow some money so I could buy you a gift at the Secret Santa Shop —” I said.

“Oh, Anna…you know we can’t pay her back. Haven’t I told you not to borrow money from people?” She said.

“Don’t worry, Mommy. We have a deal. I’m paying her back by doing extra credit. Book reports. And they’re middle school books too. Mrs. Hampton says maybe I could be a librarian someday…or even an author.” I said. She started crying harder and I was having trouble interpreting her reaction. “Mommy…are you upset with me?” I said.

“No honey, not at all. I’m just overwhelmed by how special you are and how lucky I am to be your mom.” She said, smiling through the tears.

Later that night our power went out (Merry Christmas to you too, electric company), so we had a manicure party next to the fireplace while we sang Christmas carols. It was the most magical Christmas I’d ever had. 

As for my deal with Mrs. Hampton, I finished all ten book reports with a month to spare so I threw in one more for good measure before the school year ended. Reading those middle school classics gave me an insatiable hunger for literature and set my life on a trajectory that was beyond my wildest daydreams. That extra credit assignment became the turning point when a poor girl from the trailer park began to rewrite the story of her future, one chapter at a time. 

I glanced up from my book, expecting to see half of the audience asleep. But to my surprise, all eyes were locked on me and a few people were even dabbing away tears. A couple of people started a round of applause that swelled to a level of enthusiasm that embarrassed me. 

“Oh…thank you…thank you, everyone,” I said, fighting back tears of my own. “Now that I’ve shared that excerpt I’d like to turn your attention to my book’s dedication page.” I said flipping to the beginning of the book and reading aloud, “This book is dedicated to Mrs. Hampton, for empowering me to shoot for the moon.”

After fielding several questions from the audience I relocated to the book signing table next to the podium. After thirty minutes of mingling and signing my hand was cramped and my mouth was sore from perpetually smiling. With my head down, I grabbed another copy of my book from the stack, ready to greet the next person but I suddenly sensed that nobody else was in line, or so I thought. I glanced up from the table and saw a woman standing at a distance, staring at me with a smile on her face. She had kind, caramel-colored eyes. 

“Mrs. Hampton? Is that you?” I said.

She approached the table and said, “I see that you landed on the moon like I always knew you would.”

“I can’t believe you’re here!” I said, running around the table to hug her.

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for anything. Now, Ms. Bensley, can I get your signature please?” She said, holding out a copy of my book.

I signed it for her on the dedication page. When I looked up to hand it back to her she was extending her credit card to the bookstore employee seated next to me to pay for the book. 

“Nope, I can’t let you do that. This one’s on me.” I said.

“No, I insist.” She said, thrusting her card forward.

“Mrs. Hampton, this is my way of paying you back, for real this time. It’s the least I can do. Those book reports…and you…you changed my life.” I said. 

She slipped her credit card back into her wallet and pulled a manila folder from her messenger bag. “Speaking of those book reports…I thought you might want these, to see how far you’ve come.” She said, handing me the folder. 

I slowly opened the folder to find all eleven of the book reports I’d completed for Mrs. Hampton in elementary school. My juvenile handwriting gave me a chuckle. The margins were chock full of notes from Mrs. Hampton. 

“You kept these…all this time?” I said.

“I kept them for this moment. So they could serve as a reminder of everything you’ve overcome to get here and the potential you have within you to keep going. Shoot right past the moon, Anna, and who knows where you’ll land next.” She said. 

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

This story was initially published on in response to the following prompt: Write about a character who won’t (or can’t) shop for the holidays.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

The Gift of a Fresh Start

[12 minute read or listen to this story narrated by Jamie Gregory on the Short Stories for Busy Bookworms podcast below]

S1 E6: The Gift of a Fresh Start (A Suspenseful Short Story) Short Stories for Busy Bookworms

Becca Anderson, a middle school teacher, is faced with an ethical dilemma when a mysterious package arrives on her doorstep. Genre categories: Fiction, suspense, mystery. Discover more of Jamie's writing at: Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:

It wasn’t the first time I had received someone else’s mail. Our mail carrier, Mr. Jacobs, was a friendly old soul but the neighborhood consensus was that it was time for him to ride his mail truck off into the sunset of retirement. 

It was a rainy Friday evening in mid-November. My students were getting antsy for Thanksgiving break and, let’s face it, so was I. By the time I left the building, my car was the only one sitting in the school parking lot. I tugged down on the hood of my raincoat, wind whipping around me, and made a mental note to switch to my winter coat next week. 

The entire drive home was a battle against the rain. As I pulled into my driveway I slowly released my white knuckle grip on the steering wheel. Before pulling into the garage I glanced sideways at my front porch. I had been doing some early Christmas shopping and was eagerly awaiting some packages. Sure enough, there was a substantial pile of cardboard boxes waiting for me, now damp from the rain most likely. 

I scurried through my condo to the front door, flicking on lights as I went. My cat, Samuelson, followed after me, voicing his dismay that I had neglected to greet him. I scrambled to bring the soggy packages inside and placed them on the coffee table in the living room. I kicked off my shoes, hung up my dripping raincoat, and poured myself a glass of wine. On the way back to the living room I grabbed my notebook that contained my Christmas shopping lists. 

I’m one of those start-celebrating-holidays-way-too-early kinds of people. Combine my elf-like holiday spirit with my obsession with organization and, well, let’s just say that I take my Christmas shopping very seriously. I started opening the packages one at a time to inspect the contents and mark the gift items as “delivered” in my notebook.

The silky voice of Nat King Cole was singing about chestnuts and Jack Frost when I pulled a small package from the pile. It appeared to be a standard cardboard Amazon box but there was something strange about the shipping label. It was addressed to me as expected but there was no return address or any information to indicate who the sender was. As I began to open the box I realized that this was a previously used box, something the mystery sender had tried to conceal. Unlike all of the other packages, this box did not contain any of the products I had purchased from the lists in my notebook. 

The package merely contained two boxes of dark brown hair dye and three white envelopes, each labeled with hasty handwriting. One envelope said, “To Ms. Anderson – Open immediately”. Ms. Anderson…that’s me. A second envelope said, “To Jessica – Open immediately”. Jessica? Who’s Jessica? The third envelope said, “Travel documents”. Well, this is weird….Feeling a little rattled by this mysterious package, I decided I might need to fetch another glass of wine before I further inspected its contents. 

When I returned from the kitchen I picked up the envelope with my name on it and gave it a scrutinizing stare for a few seconds. Oh, what the heck. My life could use a little more excitement. I opened it and pulled out a handwritten letter. 

Dear Ms. Anderson,

I’m sorry if this package caught you off guard. You don’t know me but I desperately need your help. You are the only person who can help me save my sister and nephew. Their names are Jessica and Christopher Bates and they live in your neighborhood. Christopher attends the middle school where you teach. 

This might come as a surprise to you but Jessica’s husband Tom is very abusive. Jessica has been too scared to call the police and I’m the only person she has confided in. She’s genuinely afraid that their lives are in danger and I believe her. 

Six months ago I relocated to Ontario for a new job which is something we’ve kept a secret from Tom. I’ve made arrangements for Jessica and Christopher to travel to Ontario and start a new life with new identities. Everything that they need is in this package but I need your help to pull this off. 

Tom leaves on the morning of Monday, November 15th for his last trip distributing turkeys throughout the state (he’s a truck driver). He should be gone for a few days, at least. Please hand-deliver the other items in this box to Jessica as soon as possible on Monday once Tom has left. He drives a black Ford Ranger and usually parks in the driveway so it should be easy to tell if he’s gone. Their address is 521 Blanchair Lane. 

I know I’m asking a lot of you. I promise that nobody will ever know that you were involved in this. Just think of it this way, you’re just doing me a favor by delivering a “gift” to Jessica. 


A concerned sister

I stared at the letter for a moment and contemplated pinching myself to see if I had fallen asleep on the couch and all of this was a dream. Right on cue, Samuelson woke up from his own dream, poking my leg with his outstretched paws confirming that I was indeed awake.

Christopher Bates…that name definitely sounds familiar…but I can’t picture him, I thought as the faces of dozens of students flashed through my mind. I walked over to my bookcase, found last year’s school yearbook, and started flipping through the pages searching for his photograph. There he is!

He had unkempt dirty blond hair and hazel eyes. Unlike his classmates, with their cheesy grins, the camera captured a rather melancholy expression on his face. Oh, yeah…now I remember him. 

He was in my first-period class last year. The poor kid was painfully shy and almost skittish. He never interacted with the other kids in class and he always sat by himself in the cafeteria. The thing I remembered most about Christopher was that he was excessively absent from school. This fact stood out in my memory because we report attendance during our first-period class. He would often return from an absence with some sort of bruise or injury and a handwritten note from his mom explaining what had happened ranging from sports injuries to falling off his mountain bike during vacation. Her notes always had a lighthearted “boys will be boys” tone to them so I never felt there was cause for concern. In my eyes, he was just a very accident-prone kid who kept to himself and managed to get decent grades despite his attendance record. How did I miss these red flags? I should’ve reported this to someone….

My gaze shifted back to the open box on the coffee table and the remaining envelopes inside. I was tempted to open them but I wasn’t sure if I should. I already opened the one that was for me. Those are for Jessica…wouldn’t that be, like an invasion of privacy? But isn’t this whole situation one big invasion of privacy? The cat is already out of the bag. And if I’m actually going to go through with this, shouldn’t I know all of the details? But wait…am I going to go through with this?

It might have been the two glasses of wine getting the best of me, but I suddenly felt incapable of making decisions. So, I decided to sleep on it and reevaluate the situation in the morning. After all, I had until Monday to make up my mind. 

Following a night of restless sleep, I started the next morning with a pot of extra strong coffee. I carried my steaming mug into the living room and turned on the gas fireplace hoping it would help me relax. Sitting on the couch, once again I stared into the box that had turned my life into a plot worthy of a Made-for-TV-Movie. My brain must have subconsciously made the tough decisions for me during the night because I suddenly grabbed the envelope labeled, “To Jessica – Open immediately” and ripped it open. It contained another handwritten letter. 

Dear Jessica,

If you’re reading this letter that means it’s Monday, November 15th, Tom is gone, and Ms. Anderson must have pulled through for us like you thought she would. I’ll keep this brief because I know you have a lot to do. Once Tom has been on the road for a little while, don’t forget to call the school and say that you need to pick Christopher up because you forgot that he has a dentist appointment or something. 

There should be another envelope from my package labeled, “Travel documents.” Inside it, you’ll find new passports for you and Christopher with your new identities and photoshopped portraits. Use the hair dye I sent to dye your hair and Christopher’s to match the passport photos. I have a friend who retired from a job in the Witness Protection Program and he created these passports for you. So don’t worry, they’re legit!

You’ll also find your flight itinerary and some cash which should hold you over until you arrive in Ontario. Don’t use your credit card in case Tom checks the statements.

I know this might be hard, but you’ll have to pack very lightly. Just remember, that most of your possessions can be replaced. I love you and I can’t wait to help you and Christopher start a new life here. You can do this!

Love, Sissy

Wow, I gotta hand it to ya, Sissy. You really thought this through. 

I opened the “Travel documents” envelope more out of curiosity than necessity. The passports for Sarah and Johnathan Andrews, as they were soon to be called, both brunettes, were definitely legit. The itinerary showed a one-way red-eye-flight to Ontario scheduled for Monday night. Smart. Don’t waste any time, just get there ASAP. And travel when there are fewer people in the airports. 

Well, there you have it. I had all the facts, now I just had to wait until Monday to do my part. I spent the rest of the weekend unsuccessfully trying to distract myself from this epic family drama that I had been cast in. 

My first-period class on Monday morning passed in a blur. Over the weekend I’d given a lot of thought to my game plan and the sequence of events for this day. I needed a way to discreetly leave school, at least temporarily, to go deliver the package to Jessica, and the earlier the better. The only option I could come up with was to leave during my lunch period under the pretense of going to grab a fast-food lunch. That was the only acceptable time for a teacher to leave the building. 

Second period is my planning period. I made a fresh cup of coffee in the Keurig in my classroom and tried to calm my nerves by partaking in my daily ritual of checking the attendance report on my laptop. After each teacher submits the attendance for their first-period class, a schoolwide report is emailed to everyone at the beginning of second period showing who’s absent for the day. Since our student enrollment is somewhat small it doesn’t take long to skim the report. Near the top of the alphabetical list, I saw the name Christopher Bates and my heart dropped. 

Wait…why is he absent? He’s supposed to be here this morning. Jessica is supposed to come to pick him up. Something about this doesn’t feel right….

It only took me a few minutes to come up with a plan. I picked up my desk phone and called the secretary in the school office.

“Elmwood Middle School, this is Mrs. Francis, how can I help you?”

“Hi, Mrs. Francis. This is Becca Anderson. I have a terrible migraine and I don’t think I’m going to make it through the rest of the day.” I said in the most pitiful voice I could muster. 

“Oh honey, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, I felt it coming on this morning on my drive in and I tried to take some medicine but it’s just not working. I’m starting to feel nauseous and —”

“Oh, you poor thing. Even Wonder Woman herself couldn’t handle middle schoolers in that condition. Let me see if I can get someone to cover your third-period class and find a sub for the rest of the day. I’ll call you right back.”

Well, I guess all those years in the school drama club must have paid off. 

I started packing up my belongings and laid my binder containing my emergency sub plans on my desk. I was chugging the rest of my coffee when the phone rang.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi, it’s Mrs. Francis. Ok, so Mr. Scott has offered to cover your third-period class. It’s supposed to be his planning period so you’ll owe him one. And I have a sub lined up for the rest of your class schedule. Go home and get some rest.”

I thanked her and slipped out of the building. Since I already had the package in my trunk I drove straight to the Bates house as fast as I could. 

The first thing I took note of was that Tom’s black Ford Ranger was MIA. Ok, that should be a good sign. My hands were trembling as I carried the package up to the front door. I rang the doorbell and waited for a few minutes. The family dog was barking up a storm inside but other than that there was no response. I rang the doorbell a second time. Again, just the dog answered from within. I glanced around to make sure there was no one nearby and tried turning the doorknob. To my surprise, the door opened. The dog came running at me with his tail wagging. Luckily, his bark was worse than his bite. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me, instantly enveloped by the silence of the house.

“Hello?” I said tentatively. “Is anyone here?” My ears started to adjust to the silence like eyes in the darkness. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a clock ticking and the faint electrical humming of an appliance. 

From the entryway where I was standing, I could see into the living room and the attached kitchen. The house was in disarray and there were signs of a struggle everywhere I looked. Furniture was overturned and a lamp covered in bloodstains lay shattered on the floor. In the kitchen, it looked like someone had been interrupted during breakfast. A bowl had clattered to the floor leaving a puddle of cereal and milk on the kitchen island. 

I returned to my car, with the package in tow, and drove to the Sheriff’s Office where I insisted on talking to the Sheriff himself. After showing him the package and telling him the whole story he promised me that three things would happen: they would immediately file missing person reports for Jessica and Christopher, find them as quickly as possible, and protect my anonymity. 

During the evening news that night the Sheriff held a press conference regarding the situation with the Bates family and urged anyone who knew something to call the tipline. I’d watched enough crime shows in my lifetime to know how urgent this situation was and how important the next forty-eight hours would be.

I struggled through the next day at school but I tried my best to just act natural which was easier said than done with all of the rumors flying around. Later that evening I had just sat down to eat a Lean Cuisine meal for dinner when my cell phone rang. 

“Hello? This is Becca Anderson.” I said.

“Hello, Ms. Anderson. This is Sheriff Williams. Do you have a minute to talk?” He said.

“Uh, yeah, of course,” I said.

“I just wanted to let you know that we’ve located Jessica and Christopher Bates and they’re safe in our custody. As we expected, they were kidnapped by Tom Bates. His employer helped us track him down with the GPS they use to track their fleet of semi-trucks. Apparently, Tom took Jessica’s phone, read some text messages from her sister, and deduced that they were planning something. Jessica and Christopher both sustained some injuries from the domestic dispute that occurred in their home. Tom had bound them and was hauling them in the refrigerated cargo section of the truck with the frozen turkeys so they were nearly hypothermic when we found them. But we have medics attending to them as we speak. I wanted you to be among the first to know. I’m not sure what Tom had planned but if it wasn’t for you Jessica and Christopher might not have been found alive.” He said.

I was silent for a moment, tears streaming down my face, letting his words sink in. “What…” I cleared my throat and tried again. “What’s going to happen to them?”

“Well, it’s safe to say that Tom is going to prison for a long time. And I’ve already started making calls to connect Jessica and Christopher with the Witness Protection Program in Ontario so they can be near Jessica’s sister for support. They deserve a fresh start and thanks to you, we can give them that gift.” He said. 

As I hung up the phone my mind wandered to my notebook containing the frivolous Christmas shopping lists I’d been so concerned about just a few days earlier. Two things are certain: I now have a new standard for giving meaningful gifts and I’ll never look at an Amazon box the same way again.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022