Heart-Shaped Box

[9 minute read]

Content warning: death of a parent.

In the time it took for Peter, Paul, and Mary to croon 500 Miles on my mother’s dusty record player, I discovered that my entire life had been a lie.

It was a mundane Sunday morning at the homestretch of a relentless winter. I stomped the slush off my boots, unlocked the faded front door of my childhood home, and stepped inside. 

Besides the occasional packing box, and the blanket of dust that covered every surface like sprawling ivy, everything looked nearly the same as it did when my mother left her home for the final time. No matter how many times I returned to the empty house to sift through her possessions, I still expected her smiling face and outstretched arms to greet me. Instead, I was received by the soft ticking, rolling eyes, and swinging tail of Mom’s beloved Kit-Cat Klock mounted on the kitchen’s floral wallpaper.

Tick…tock. That cat had been creeping me out since childhood. Tick…tock. Its swaying eyes were always spying on my mischief. Tick…tock.

Why is this thing still haunting me? TICK…TOCK. Does it have nine lives or something? TICK…TOCK…TICK…TOCK. Make it stop. Please, God, make it stop. 

I charged forward and ripped the clock off the wall, peeling strips of wallpaper along with it. It stared up at me from my trembling hands, eyes still flicking, each second ringing out with a deafening chime. 

Time marches on, allowing us to return to the past only in our memories and suffer through the present as we brace for the future. 

I threw the clock on the floor and smashed it with a cast iron skillet until my arms grew weak. I collapsed over top of the shattered feline. My sobs echoed throughout the silent house that was once so full of life. 

Pull yourself together. This house isn’t going to clean itself.

I rubbed my wet puffy eyes, swallowed my guilt, and glanced around at the contents of our family’s historical museum, trying to decide what to sort through next. 

A shimmer caught my eye as the mid-morning sun slipped between the window blinds and stretched across the room glinting off one of the golden statues in the family trophy case. The cabinet was chock full of awards engraved with the names of my older brother and sister — a state champion wrestling trophy here, a National Honor Society certificate there.  If you squatted down and squinted into the back right corner of the bottom shelf, you could spot the one and only item bearing my name, a participation ribbon from the third-grade spelling bee. 

I’m not in the mood for reliving my childhood inadequacies today, I thought. I’ll dump all that crap into a box later for Seth and Rachel.

I wandered over to the family bookcase, dragging my feet on the brown shag carpet. My fingertips trailed lightly over the rows of books. The miniature library ranged from Dr. Seuss to Stephen King and everything in between. An entire shelf was dedicated to Mom’s collection of Good Housekeeping magazines, dating back to the late ’70s. I flipped through a few issues of the Pinterest predecessor and tried to imagine a younger version of my mother, sipping hot tea and dog-earring page after page of sewing patterns and holiday recipes while humming along with a vinyl. 

Her vinyls…. I have to find her vinyls.

Like a bee flitting from flower to flower in search of life-sustaining nectar, I meandered down the hallway. She moved her record player and vinyl collection to her bedroom a few years ago, retiring them from decades of dinner party entertainment duty. Tucked away in plastic totes under her bed, I found album after album of iconic folk and rock music: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young — all of the classics were there. The smiling faces of Peter, Paul and Mary stared at me from the cover of their debut album. I flipped it over to read the song list and fragmented memories flashed in my mind. My mother humming Lemon Tree over a skillet of sizzling bacon on Saturday mornings while I watched cartoons. Her face illuminated by firelight as she sang If I Had a Hammer on summer nights while I chased fireflies. 

The record player on her dresser opened with a slow creak and I blew the dust out of it like it was a Nintendo game cartridge. Squinting against the plume of soot, I gingerly slid the vintage vinyl out of the sleeve, put it in place, fired up the player, and lowered the needle. The harmonious voices of the folk trio melded together like the ingredients in Mom’s homemade fudge recipe and filled the room with a warm authentic sound that you only get from LPs.

I tugged one of Mom’s favorite blouses off a hanger in the closet. The silky fabric flowed between my fingers like her long sleek hair that tickled my cheek when she tucked me into bed as a child. I clutched it to my face and inhaled, soaking in her lingering signature aroma, an echo of who she was.

This is just a shirt. It’s only a shirt.

I dropped the blouse into a garbage bag destined for the thrift store. I stared at it briefly, crumpled and lifeless at the bottom of the bag, while grief and anger churned inside me. I ripped the remaining garments from the closet and thrust them into donation bags, blinking through tear-clouded vision as I went, leaving behind dozens of empty swaying hangers in the aftermath of my frenzy.

I was about to clear the closet floor of her orthopedic sneakers when I spotted something curious tucked away on the shelf above the clothing rod. I grabbed the antique stool from her vanity and carried it to the closet. It groaned under my weight and I prayed that it would hold me. I shoved a few hats and scarves out of the way and plucked the item off the shelf. It was a heart-shaped wooden box with my name engraved on the lid. Thoughts swirled through my head like the wood grain that rippled across the box. 

What is this? Why is my name on it? And why was it in Mom’s closet? 

I sat on my mother’s bed, cradling the ornate box in my hands, to examine it more closely. I traced the grooves of my name with a dusty fingertip — C-a-r-o-l-i-n-e. My name was surrounded by a symbol, a triangle intertwined with a heart. Mary started singing about a train whistle when I carefully removed the box lid, as if I was disarming a bomb, and laid it beside me on the threadbare quilt. 

A familiar face stared up at me from within the box. The wallet-sized photo had a faded vintage look to it that Instagramers try to replicate. I instantly recognized the duplicate, its clone is in a family album I haven’t flipped through in years. I was pretty unremarkable in my standard-issue hospital swaddle and expressionless chubby-cheeked face. But my hair, thick tousled tangerine tufts, had been making a statement since the day I was born. 

I glanced in the vanity mirror across the room searching for a resemblance to the blank slate version of myself in the photo, but even my hair had dulled to a murky amber. 

My pruny little fingers rested on my lap as the rhythmic tugging of my mother braiding my hair nearly lulled me to sleep. I raised my droopy eyelids to our reflection in her vanity mirror and studied her obsidian locks. 

“Mommy,” I said with a yawn. “How come I got red hair but Seth and Rachel got black hair like you and Daddy?”

She hesitated, fingers frozen mid-braid, then put on a reassuring smile and directed her answer to my reflection in the mirror like a salon hairdresser. 

“It’s one of those traits that skip a few generations,” She resumed braiding. “I think there’s some Irish on Daddy’s side of the family so he probably had a great-great-great-someone-or-other with red hair.” 

She secured the braid with a hair tie and gently lifted my chin to meet her gaze. 

“You’re the lucky one, pumpkin. Most girls would love to have hair like yours.”

The memory vanished and the room came back into focus. I set the baby photo aside to inspect the remaining contents of the box, two folded documents. I unfolded the first one, my birth certificate, and laid it aside.

I guess this is like a baby keepsake box. There’s probably one for Seth and Rachel somewhere too. I’m surprised theirs weren’t displayed in the trophy case. 

The second document was made from a similar type of blue paper. It was a birth certificate for a Bridget Murphy. That name didn’t ring a bell, nor did Carolyn Murphy, the name of Bridget’s mother, and no father was listed. The date of birth, however, was the same as mine.

“How come I got red hair but Seth and Rachel got black hair like you and Daddy?”

Once again I stared at my reflection in the vanity mirror and, not for the first time in my life, had the niggling feeling that a stranger was staring back at me. The room started spinning around me and I felt lost, like an intruder in that house, that family, that life. Questions bubbled up in my mind until they rumbled and overflowed like a pot of boiling water.

“Who are you?” I screamed at my reflection, tears raining down my cheeks. “Who am I?”

I launched the box of deceit across the room, shattering the mirror and everything I thought I knew about myself, leaving behind only a broken reflection. Pieces of me were missing and yet, for the first time, I truly saw myself.

I rapped my dry knuckles on the open door of room fifteen at the Bridgehaven Senior Living facility. Mom was asleep in the corner rocking chair despite the Price is Right theme song blaring from the TV. I turned off the TV and gently nudged her awake.

“Is it time for my meds already?” She asked, her voice sluggish. As the fog of sleep lifted, she looked me over. There was a brief flash of recognition in her eyes and then her face hardened. “What are you doing here? Who let you in?” Her voice was laced with paranoia as her eyes darted around the room.

I reached an arm out to touch her hand. “It’s me, Carol—”

“I know who you are. I thought I’d never see you again.” Her gaze shifted to the heart-shaped box tucked in the crook of my other arm. “What is that?” 

I held the box out to her and rested it on her lap as she drew her hands away. “I found it in your closet. Why didn’t you—”

She shoved the box off her lap. The lid popped off as it landed and wobbled across the linoleum floor, scattering its contents. Her slippered foot stomped on the baby photo as she stood up from the rocking chair.

I watched her, speechless, as she hobbled to the bed where she pressed the red button on the wall above the headboard. 

She turned on me, eyes fierce like a lioness protecting her cub. “I knew you would come looking for her someday.” She jabbed the red button repeatedly. “You didn’t deserve her then and you never will. Bridget is our daughter now. We raised her and loved her in a way that you never could. You stay away from her.”

A nurse frantically rushed into the room, glancing quickly between us and the items scattered on the floor. “Is everything ok here, Mrs. Jackson?”

“No, it’s not. This woman needs to leave.” Mom shouted, pointing a trembling finger at me.

A day will come when she won’t remember you. Don’t take it personally. Try to control your emotions.

“I’m sorry, I think I triggered her,” I whispered to the nurse, choking back tears. “I didn’t think she would…I just needed to….”

“Ma’am, I don’t think Mrs. Jackson is in the mood for visitors right now.” The nurse said loudly for Mom to hear as she escorted me toward the doorway. “Maybe you can visit another time.” 

“No, don’t you ever come back.” Mom roared. “Do you hear me, Carolyn? Stay away from Bridget.” She gasped and her voice became manic. “Don’t you dare tell her the truth. Did you tell her? She was never supposed to know. Carolyn! Did you tell her?”

I grabbed the nurse’s arm and pleaded, “You have to save that box for me, please.” She nodded, ever so slightly. 

I slipped into the hallway where I waited and listened, out of sight, stifling sobs as the nurse calmed my mother down.

A train whistled nearby.

“Is it time for my meds already?” Mom asked from within the room.

I stole one last glance from the doorway before I left. I saw her, resting peacefully on the bed — the woman who raised me with so much love that I never doubted that she brought me into this world. She was locked away again, lost in her broken mind, and somewhere in that abyss of forgotten memories were the secrets behind the heart-shaped box. She took those secrets to the grave and I chose the path of blissful ignorance.

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

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2023



[5 minute read]

Hey sibs,

I’ve started organizing Mom and Dad’s house. Here’s the growing list of items we’re selling. I’ll keep track of what sells so we can divvy up the profits later. Let me know if you have any questions. I know it’s going to be hard to let go of some of these things, but we have to remember that it’s just stuff, and clinging onto it isn’t going to bring them back. We still have our memories.



  1. Item: Dad’s 1975 Chevy Silverado (AKA Ol’ Rusty)
    • Asking price: $1,000 $500
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Enzo: Does this hunk of junk even run?
      • Olivia: No…we’re selling it for parts.
      • Enzo: Nobody is going to pay $1,000…$500 is more realistic.
      • Summer: Awww I learned how to drive in that truck!
      • Olivia: I learned how to make out in that truck haha
      • Enzo: This should’ve been a spreadsheet.
  1. Item: 1968 Airstream Overlander
    • Asking price: $25,000?
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Olivia: Do you guys remember that winter when we hauled this thing all the way to Florida, then we all got the flu and spent the whole week of vacation puking?
      • Enzo: Or the trip to Tennessee when Mom and Dad picked up that hitchhiker with the neck tattoos and let him spend the night with us? 
      • Summer: WAIT! I want to renovate it and use it as an Airbnb. I’ll split the income with you guys!
      • Enzo: Since when do you know anything about renovation? Show us a plan and maybe we’ll consider it.
  1. Item: Mom’s porcelain doll collection (39 dolls)
    • Asking price: TBD
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Enzo: Sell these on eBay instead. eBay = doll collectors = more $
      • Olivia: I don’t care where we sell them as long as I never have to see them again. Those things are creepy AF.
      • Summer: If any of them don’t sell, my roommate said she’ll use them in her next performance art exhibit.
      • Enzo: I’m not even going to ask….
  1. Item: A-Z Encyclopedia set from 1964
    • Asking price: $150 (based on eBay comps)
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Summer: What’s an Encyclopedia set?
      • Olivia: They were like the book equivalent of Google before the internet.
      • Summer: Oh, so they’re pointless now? Who would want to buy them?
      • Enzo: Hoarders.
  1. Item: Dad’s deer head mounts (3 bucks)
    • Asking price: $200 each
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Summer: Ugh…I hated it when Dad hunted. I cried every time he hauled a deer home in the bed of Ol’ Rusty. What kind of sick person would buy these?
      • Olivia: I don’t know what I hated more, eating so much venison or sitting in his tree stand for hours in complete silence for “father-daughter bonding time”. What I wouldn’t give to join him in that tree stand one more time though….
      • Enzo: Don’t sell the ten-point buck. I want to mount that one in my lake house.
  1. Item: Mom’s costume jewelry
    • Asking price: $1.00 per item
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Enzo: Take that crap to Goodwill.
      • Summer: Can I look through these first? Mom had some great pieces that I’d love to have. Remember the black and white Kit-Cat Klock earrings? The eyes moved when you wiggled the tail back and forth. Not to mention all the great boho pieces from the 60s and 70s. 
      • Olivia: Yep, but I call dibs on the tacky Christmas brooches. They’ll pair nicely with my ugly Christmas sweater collection.
  1. Item: VHS tape collection
    • Asking price: $1.00 per movie
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Olivia: Remember our Friday Family Flick nights? Our house was like the neighborhood Blockbuster! I’m pretty sure some kids befriended me just to borrow movies.
      • Summer: Do people still own VCRs?!
      • Enzo: Save the Star Wars set for me.
  1. Item: Mom’s 1972 Kenmore sewing machine
    • Asking price: $200
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Olivia: Mom made the best Halloween costumes. They were better than anything you could buy in a store. I wish she would’ve taught me how to sew.
      • Summer: Yeah, one year I wanted to be a zombie unicorn and she made it happen! She could’ve been on Project Runway. 
      • Enzo: I remember helping Dad repair the sewing machine one time and watching the needle go straight through his finger. I learned how to raise the presser foot that day and never touched the thing again.
  1. Item: Antique rolltop desk
    • Asking price: $250
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Olivia: Enzo, remember when we used this desk to pretend we were detectives? My favorite was the case of the chocolate cake burglar. 
      • Summer: I don’t remember that…
      • Enzo: It was before your time, Summer. Spoiler alert: Dad was the cake bandit.
      • Summer: I can still see Mom sitting at this desk chasing her dream of writing a novel. Liv, have you found her manuscripts yet?
      • Olivia: Not yet. I did find her journal though. You guys will have to read it. For the first time ever I felt like I got a glimpse into who she was as a woman, underneath the mom mask. Her worries, her dreams, her secrets. She shielded so much from us. 
  1. Item: Yamaha upright piano
    • Asking price: $3,000
    • Questions/Comments/Concerns from the fam:
      • Olivia: Guys…I found some home videos of our Christmas Eve “concerts”. Priceless. Especially little Enzo dressed up like an elf singing Jingle Bells
      • Enzo: Please make sure those videos never see the light of day. Also, I thought Mom wanted to donate the piano?
      • Summer: My local community theater would love to have it! You guys could fly out here for our annual Holiday Hoopla and Enzo could reenact his youth.
      • Enzo: In your dreams….

Not for sale:

  • Memories: family vacations, chaotic holidays, unconditional love, overcoming adversity, fighting, and forgiveness.
  • Lessons learned and values instilled: hard work, responsibility, honesty, loyalty, and compassion.
  • The legacy left behind by two amazing parents. Let’s keep their legacy alive.

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

This story was initially published on Reedsy.com in response to the following prompt: Write a story of fragments. Many options here: no verbs, sentence fragments, short sections, nothing but objects, etc. The fragments should relate to one another obliquely, hesitantly, subtly, ambiguously, preposterously, marvelously.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2023

A Prophecy Divided

[20 minute read]

Content warnings: violence, kidnapping, and death.

January 13, 2023 

11:52 pm

Jess and Alex stood beside each other squinting into the inky blackness of the alley that stretched before them like a gauntlet, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Halfway down the alley, a single flickering light was mounted on the dilapidated brick building’s exterior. Alex glanced up at the clear night sky. At least there’s a full moon tonight. Thank God for that, he thought. The moonlight shone down, illuminating various obstacles throughout the alley: frozen puddles, dumpsters, and fire escapes.

Choppy bursts of steam plumed from their mouths as their nervous breaths collided with the brisk night air. The crisp smell of impending snow made a valiant, yet unsuccessful, effort to overcome the pungent aroma of dumpster rubbish.

Besides the occasional car horn beeping in the distance and the hissing and gurgling sounds escaping from the sewer drains, the alley was quiet in a way that made the little hairs on the back of their necks stand at attention. Overcome with nerves, Jess unholstered her cell phone from the back pocket of her jeans, holding it at her side ready to dial 911 with the speed of a gunslinger.

A critter scrambled out of one of the dumpsters causing the lid to open briefly and then slam shut. Jess jolted backward, dropping her cell phone which clattered to the pavement. She groped for the lifeline frantically in the dark. “That’s it,” she said once she located it. “I’m calling the police.”  

“Stop.” Alex hissed, jerking the phone out of her trembling hands. “You read the ransom note. Let’s just stick with the plan and give them the money.”

“But how do we know if we can trust them?” She said, searching her husband’s eyes desperately for reassurance. 

He held her gaze momentarily, his face brimming with tension. With a sigh, he crumpled slightly and said, “We don’t. But we already tried involving the police once and that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”

January 9, 2023 

6:17 pm

Jess was standing at the stove cooking Alex’s favorite meal, Beef Stroganoff, when Chloe, who had been doing homework at the kitchen table, slid off her chair and started convulsing on the floor. Sauce splattered across the hardwood floor as Jess dropped the mixing spoon and sprang into action.

“Alex!” Jess shouted. “She’s having another seizure.” She started her stopwatch. More than five minutes and we call 911, she reminded herself.

Alex came running from his home office carrying a throw pillow.

“Turn her onto her side and put this pillow under her head,” Alex said as he shoved the dining chairs away and placed a large mixing bowl on the floor next to Chloe. “Don’t forget to take her glasses off.”

Jess and Alex kneeled alongside their daughter’s jerking body, weeping and holding hands, for the next three minutes and twenty-two seconds yet it felt like a lifetime.

Chloe regained consciousness and promptly vomited into the mixing bowl. Her frantic eyes scanned the room until they landed on her parents.

“Chloe, you’re safe honey. You just had another—” Jess started before Chloe interrupted her. 

“We have to warn them,” Chloe said grabbing Jess’ arm. Her fingernails dug into her mother’s skin.

Jess winced and exchanged glances with Alex who said, “Warn who?”

“The people with the cameras. They’re all going to die,” Chloe shrieked. “We have to do something.”

“Honey, did you have another vision?” Jess asked tentatively.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jess. Stop calling them visions,” Alex snapped. “The neurologist said this is just a side effect of the seizures.”

“And how do you explain our dog being run over by a car the day after Chloe saw it happen in her vision? Or the fire that consumed your office building just like she predicted it would? Were those just coincidences?” 

Alex tossed his hands in the air, shook his head, and then rested his forehead in his palms.

“Tell us what you saw,” Jess said to Chloe.

“An old brick building…lots of people…they all had cameras and…backpacks, some of them had backpacks. They were wandering around taking photos of the building and then…it exploded. They were dead, Mom,” Chloe sobbed. “All of them.”

A chill crept down Alex’s spine as he listened in disbelief.

“What else do you remember about the building?” Jess asked, rubbing Chloe’s back.

“There were signs on it that said ‘No Trespassing’. And there was a bell tower at the top of the building.” 

“That sounds like the old city hall building. It’s supposed to be demolished next week.” Alex said, remembering the news story he’d watched about the demolition. “That’s probably what you were seeing, the building being demolished. But don’t worry, they won’t let anyone near that thing when—”

“Wait, the calendar. I saw it at the end of my vision.” Chloe said, pointing at the family calendar hanging in the kitchen. “And the date was…tomorrow.”

“What are you doing?” Alex asked as Jess snatched her cell phone off the kitchen counter. 

“I’m calling the police.”

“They’re going to think we’re crazy.”

“I’m not going to lose sleep over someone thinking we’re crazy. But I would never forgive myself if those people die and we could have prevented it.” Jess said as she dialed the number for the city’s police department to report a bomb threat.

January 10, 2023 

The next night, Jess and Chloe were back in the kitchen, cooking dinner and doing homework like clockwork. Alex was watching the evening news in the adjacent living room.

“Jess, you might want to see this,” Alex said, increasing the volume on the TV.

“…coming to you live for a breaking news report. We’re standing in front of the old city hall building where the bomb squad has just disarmed a detonation device that was hidden inside the building. I’m joined by Police Chief Henderson and Professor Jackson, a photography professor from Central State Community College. Professor Jackson, can you tell us why your class is here today and what you experienced upon arriving at the scene?” The news reporter, dressed in a bubblegum pink trench coat, thrust the microphone at the anxious professor.

“Well, I heard that the building was scheduled to be demolished next week. My photography course this semester is focused on architecture and this building is a historical gem. I thought it would be a shame if we missed the opportunity to photograph it so I brought my class here for an impromptu field trip. But when we arrived, there was caution tape everywhere. Police were guarding the building. They wouldn’t let us enter and started questioning us…I think they thought we were involved with the bomb. I’m just so grateful for that girl—”

“Thank you, Professor Jackson.” The reporter said, cutting him off. “Speaking of ‘that girl’, Chief Henderson, can you tell us about the tip you received alerting you to the bomb threat?”

“Yes ma’am. It’s quite a story. A young lady in our community reported, or rather predicted, this bomb threat as a result of a seizure. A potentially deadly crime was prevented and we have this young lady to thank for that, she’s a hero.”

Turning back to the camera, the reporter held up a printed copy of a yearbook portrait and said, “And here she is, the hero herself. Chloe Maddigan is a freshman at Maple Hills High School this year where she—”

Chief Henderson lunged at the reporter grasping for the photo and shouted, “This is an ongoing investigation and we did not give you clearance to release her name or photograph. Turn that camera off, now.” 

The news camera was jostled causing the scene to go topsy-turvy and then end abruptly. 

Alex jumped off the couch, pointing at the white static TV screen. “What the hell? They promised us Chloe would remain anonymous.”

“That’s the media for you, digging up stories no matter the cost,” Jess said. “Someone must have leaked the info.”

“So you’re just going to shrug this off?”

“You know what, Alex? I’m glad that Chloe’s name is out there. When has she ever been recognized for anything? She’s finally getting her fifteen minutes of fame and you’re upset about it.”

“Have you forgotten what it’s like to be in high school? This is not going to attract positive attention. The last thing Chloe needs is another reason to be picked on.”

The argument was halted by a squeaking floorboard nearby. Chloe, who had been eavesdropping, ran sobbing up to her bedroom.

January 11, 2023 

When Chloe arrived at school the next day she was greeted by the word ‘Schizo’ written in permanent marker on her locker. She stared at the word, stunned by the cruelty of it. The familiar heat of humiliation rose within her, scorching her face a vibrant tint of red, as students gathered behind her, pointing and cackling. 

As she navigated the crowded hallways between classes, students gave her a wide berth — everywhere she went they gawked and gossiped. 

When she exited the lunch line in the cafeteria, a varsity football player who didn’t even know her name the day before, threw himself on the floor in front of her causing her to spill her lunch tray down the front of herself. After a few seconds of mock convulsions, he jumped up, pointed at Chloe, and shouted, “Oh my God. I just had a vision. As a senior you’re going to win the award for most likely to end up in a mental institution”. The cafeteria whooped with laughter. 

She made many desperate yet failed attempts to lay low the rest of the school day. When the school bus dropped her off that afternoon she ran through the front door and buried her weeping face into Jess’ chest.

After listening to what Chloe had endured, Jess tenderly stroked her hair the way she always did when she was upset and said, “Honey, I know this might be hard to believe but those kids are just jealous of you. I mean, you’re like a freaking superhero. Just remember that you saved people’s lives. The novelty of this will wear off soon and those kids at school will move on.”

January 12, 2023 

The following afternoon, Jess sat in her car waiting to pick Chloe up from band practice, her mind moving like molasses as she stared off into space. A notification on her phone snapped her out of the trance. A glance at the clock on her dash told her that band practice ended nearly thirty minutes ago, but there was no sign of Chloe. 

Jess ventured inside the high school where she found Mr. Halstad, the band director, alone in the music room. He was sitting at his desk, so engrossed in tinkering with a flute that he didn’t notice her presence.

“Excuse me.” She said, causing him to flinch. 

“Oh, you startled me.” He chuckled.

“Sorry about that. I’m just looking for my daughter, Chloe Maddigan,” She said, glancing around the room as if Chloe might appear out of thin air. “I’ve been waiting outside to pick her up.” 

His face shifted from confusion to concern. “She stopped by after last period. She seemed pretty upset. She said it had been a bad day and she was going to ride the bus home. I’m sorry, I assumed that you knew about her change of plans.”

Jess wilted like a deflated balloon. “She’s going through a tough time in school right now…bullying….I better head home to check on her. Thank you.” She called over her shoulder as she rushed out the door.

Jess pulled into her driveway, tires and brakes screeching, and jogged to the front door. A large manila envelope was laying on their welcome mat with nothing but the following scrawled on the front of it: To the parents of Chloe Maddigan. She picked up the envelope and entered the house.

“Chloe?” Jess said from the foyer. The house seemed still, quiet. Jess scrambled up the stairs to see if Chloe was in her bedroom, but it was empty. She ran back downstairs, shouting frantically, “Chloe! Where are you?”

Alex came bursting out of his home office. “What’s going on? I’m in the middle of a Zoom meeting.”

“Have you seen Chloe?” Jess panted.

“What do you mean? I thought you were picking her up from band practice.”

“She wasn’t there. Supposedly she rode the bus home…but she’s not here either. And I found this on our front porch.” Jess said, holding up the envelope. 

To the parents of Chloe Maddigan…what is this?” Alex said before ripping the envelope open.

The contents of the envelope fell on the floor between Jess and Alex — a typewritten letter and a polaroid photograph. 

“Oh, my God. It’s Chloe.” Jess said, falling to her knees and grabbing the photograph. 

Chloe, their little girl, was sitting on a stool in a dingy basement. Her wrists and ankles were bound with duct tape and another piece covered her mouth. Her hazel eyes were full of anguish.

Alex was staring at the letter in his trembling hands. In a state of shock, unaware of Jess’ sobs, he began reading the letter aloud.

Mr. and Mrs. Maddigan,

You really should keep closer tabs on your daughter. It’s a dangerous world that we live in, bombings, and all. Speaking of bombings, we’d be rich by now if it weren’t for your daughter. She ruined our meticulously planned bank robbery. You see, bombs are meant to explode. And that bomb we planted in the old city hall building was supposed to cause a diversion so the police wouldn’t notice that we were robbing a bank. You owe us for this missed opportunity. If you want to see your daughter again, bring $1,000,000 in cash to the back door of Valentino’s Pizzeria tomorrow at midnight. 


Jess, now in the fetal position clutching the polaroid photo screamed, “No! Not my baby. Oh God, no. What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to the bank,” Alex said matter-of-factly.

“We don’t have a million dollars, Alex.”

“We will give them every penny we have and do whatever it takes to get Chloe back. Whatever it takes.”

January 14, 2023 

As the clock on Jess’ cell phone ticked over to midnight, the back entrance door for Valentino’s Pizzeria opened on the left side of the alley, extending a ray of light into the gloom. A looming figure cloaked in black stepped into the light and stood there waiting for them.

Jess and Alex exchanged silent fearful glances that spoke volumes before they walked in unison toward the man in black, carrying their life’s savings in a duffle bag and the hope of saving their daughter’s life in their hearts.

“Follow me.” The man in black said in a gruff voice as they crossed the threshold. 

They trailed behind him as he descended into the restaurant’s dim basement. Sitting on a stool in the center of the room, like a spitting image of the polaroid photograph, was Chloe. She was slouched forward slightly, her chin resting on her chest, her face curtained by her dirty blonde hair.

“Chloe!” Jess gasped, rushing toward her daughter only to be blocked by the two armed goons that were guarding her. “It’s ok, honey. We’re going to get you out of here.”

Chloe lifted her head, revealing a fresh black eye. Her shoulders shuddered as tears trickled down her face and over the duct tape covering her mouth. 

Alex rounded on the man in black, seething over Chloe’s condition, “Why in the hell does our daughter have a black eye? How dare you people lay a hand on her. She’s just a kid.”

“Kids these days…they have no respect for their elders.” Said a female voice from the shadows on the far side of the basement behind Chloe. 

A bare lightbulb hanging from the rafters clicked on, illuminating the mystery woman who was seated at a table.

“Maybe if you taught her some manners she wouldn’t have that shiner. Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. You got the money?” The woman asked, gesturing for Alex to approach with the duffle bag.

Alex flicked a glance at Jess and Chloe. Time stood still for a moment and besides the incessant dripping of a water pipe, the only sound he could hear was his own heart, pumping anger and adrenaline through his veins. He tightened his grip on the duffle bag’s nylon straps and clenched his jaw muscles, an old habit he developed when bracing for impact on the gridiron. Mustering every ounce of courage possible, he proceeded to the rear of the basement where he dropped the duffle bag onto the table. One of the guards followed him while the other held Jess at gunpoint.

“Here’s your money. Now let her go.” Alex spat.

“That’s not how this works.” The woman said, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the table, revealing hands adorned with brass knuckles and raven-colored fingernails that could be weapons in their own right. Her head, shaved on the sides with a jet-black braided mohawk, lowered slightly as she stared up at Alex with smoldering eyes. “If you think I’m going to take your word for it that this sweaty gym bag of yours has a million dollars in it, you’ve got another thing coming. This might be your first rodeo but it sure as hell ain’t mine.”

After resting her brass knuckles on the table, she unzipped the duffle bag and extracted the bundles of cash one at a time. She held each batch up to the light and slowly fanned through the bills like a flipbook looking for the security thread to ensure it wasn’t counterfeit money. Alex watched her inspection, paralyzed with trepidation. Once the bag was empty and the table was covered with neatly stacked piles of cash, she silently returned the brass knuckles to her hands and shot a piercing glare at Alex.

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” She said through gritted teeth. “Or were you just hoping I’d take pity on you? I asked for one million dollars. You’re about 750K short. There’s no financing plan here. Game over. Anton?” She said without taking her eyes off Alex.

Alex heard the metallic click of a gun being cocked but it wasn’t the one pointed at his face. He turned and saw that the man standing between Jess and Chloe had switched targets and was now shoving his gun into Chloe’s temple. 

Jess screamed and threw herself at Anton. Before Alex had a chance to react, a muffled gunshot permeated the damp air. Jess lurched and collapsed onto the concrete. The unflinching Anton still had his gun trained on the side of Chloe’s head. Realizing it was Jess who was shot, Alex whirled around and spotted the culprit across the room, the man in black who had escorted them into the basement. 

“Jess!” Alex wailed, lunging forward to rush to her lifeless body. He was stopped short by the other guard’s gun jabbing him in the chest. 

“Oh, that’s a pity.” The urban Amazon warrior said from behind the table. “But maybe now you realize that we aren’t messing around.”

“What do you want? I don’t have any more money, I swear,” Alex said frantically. “But I’ll do whatever it takes…please don’t kill us.” 

“One million dollars. That’s what I wanted. And if you were truly willing to do whatever it takes you would’ve found a way to pay me in full. Now it’s time for you to face the consequences.”

Two gunshots, in quick succession, reverberated off the concrete walls.

January 9, 2023 

6:31 pm

“What are you doing?” Alex asked as Jess snatched her cell phone off the kitchen counter. 

“I’m calling the police.”

“They’re going to think we’re crazy.”

“I’m not going to lose sleep over someone thinking we’re crazy. But I would never forgive myself if those people die and we could have prevented it.” Jess said as she dialed the number for the city’s police department to report a bomb threat.

Alex stormed out of the room. Just as a dispatcher answered the call Chloe began thrashing, caught in the throes of yet another seizure. Jess dropped her phone as she rushed to Chloe’s side, yelling for Alex.

“What happened?” Alex said as he returned to the kitchen.

“I don’t know,” Jess cried. “I was on the phone and she started seizing again.” 

They heard a faint voice coming from the cell phone nearby, the dispatcher was still on the line. Jess grabbed it and hit the speakerphone button. 

“Hello? Is anyone there?” The dispatcher asked. “Is everything ok?” 

“Hello? Can you hear us?” Jess shouted into the phone. “Our daughter is having recurring seizures. Please send an ambulance.”

Jess had just given the dispatcher their home address and was about to hang up the phone when Chloe stopped convulsing and sat up, gasping for breath, eyes wide with terror. 

“Hang up the phone, Mom!” Chloe said hysterically. “Don’t call the police. Please, tell me you didn’t call the police.”

“Honey, you need to go to the hospital,” Jess said after tapping the end-call button on her phone. “An ambulance is on the way.” 

“But what about the bomb?” Chloe asked with panic-stricken eyes darting between her parents. “Did you tell them about the bomb?” 

“Well, I was going to but you started seizing again. Don’t worry, I’m going to report it as soon as we get you settled at the hospital.”

“No! You can’t tell the cops or they’re going to kill us,” Chloe sobbed. “Please, Mom, don’t tell them.”. 

“What are you talking about? What about your vision? We have to report a bomb threat to prevent—”

“No.” Chloe pleaded, interrupting her. “I had another vision. Some bad people are going to plant that bomb as a distraction so they can rob a bank. If we report it, the bomb will be disarmed but their plan to rob the bank will be ruined and they’ll kidnap me for revenge. They’ll force you to pay them a ransom that we can’t afford.” She paused. As the color drained from her face she said, “At the end of my vision they killed all three of us.”

January 10, 2023 

The next night, Chloe was napping in her hospital bed after a long twenty-four hours of various medical tests. Alex was sitting on the small couch near Chloe’s bed watching the evening news.

“Jess, you might want to see this,” Alex said, increasing the volume on the TV and nudging Jess who had fallen asleep with her head resting in his lap.

“…coming to you live for a breaking news report. We’re standing in front of what’s left of the old city hall building after a bomb exploded here this afternoon. I’m joined by Police Chief Henderson. Chief, what can you tell us about this incident?” The news reporter, dressed in a bubblegum pink trench coat, thrust the microphone at the police chief.

“This is an ongoing investigation. We received an anonymous tip early this morning from a citizen that witnessed the building being vandalized multiple times recently. Since this building was condemned and scheduled for demolition it was not safe for occupancy so we assigned an officer to patrol the building. Around 1:00 pm Officer Stamos reported that a photography class from Central State Community College arrived at the location to photograph the building. He prohibited them from entering the facility and promptly ordered them to leave the premises. The professor and students from that class are being held for questioning. According to surveillance footage, the old city hall building exploded at approximately 1:17 pm, shortly before the robbery at All Citizens Bank just three blocks away. At this time, we’re not sure if these two incidents were related. Officer Ben Stamos, who was killed in the explosion, leaves behind a wife and three children — Our thoughts and prayers are with them tonight.”

One brave soul was taken, yet dozens of innocent lives were saved. Jess and Alex watched Chloe sleeping peacefully as they had done so many times since she was a baby. Their minds wandered, pondering what the future held for their daughter’s prophetic brain.

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

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2023

A Tale of Two Floods

[16 minute read]

This story is inspired by true historical events.

The steamboat whistle sliced through the early morning fog as it announced our arrival at the Mounds Landing levee in Greenville, Mississippi. The media called this post-war decade the roaring twenties, but the only thing roaring in Mississippi was the flood water. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the devastating landscape of the levee on that spring morning — blanketed by debris and thousands of slumbering people of color. The flood refugees were sprawled in all directions for a stretch of several miles, with the lucky few sleeping in small tents made of quilts. Awakened by the whistle blast, they began stirring in their soggy earthen beds.

Stranded vehicles, now mostly submerged, were scattered around the levee. The bloated carcasses of horses and cows floated in the water like buoys, occasionally bumping into the steamboat with a sickening thud. The overwhelming stench of death and human waste washed over me, nearly causing me to vomit. 

Once the steamboat anchored, we waited for locally owned boats to arrive — they were commissioned to transport Red Cross supplies and nurses to tent cities constructed on higher ground as temporary housing for white residents. Refugees from the levee loaded the boats under the supervision of armed guards to ensure they didn’t steal the supplies. 

Alice, a fellow Red Cross nurse who was also recruited from New York City, appeared at my side. 

“Why haven’t these people been evacuated to a tent city?” I said while I watched the ailing refugees struggle to load the boats.

“We’re in the south now. Things are different here.” Alice said. “White people were evacuated first. Rumor has it, the local plantations didn’t want to lose their laborers so they’re forcing these refugees to stay on the levee. They keep finding ways to enslave these poor people. So much for emancipation.”

The mention of slavery conjured up childhood memories — curling up in my grandmother’s lap in her rocking chair, listening to stories of her Quaker parents harboring runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. My grandmother was only a teenager at the time, but she learned a lifetime of lessons from each bold soul that found respite in her home, just one of many stations on their journey to freedom. Each encounter with a runaway added another brush stroke to her evolving view of the world — an emaciated man named Henry who shed silent tears as he savored a slice of my great-grandmother’s freshly baked bread, a glimpse of another man’s back, covered in crisscrossed scars from his tormentor’s whip, as he changed into a cotton shirt hand laundered by my grandmother. She carried their stories in her heart and passed them down, instilling a spirit of humanitarianism for generations to come. 

“What good is it to keep these people trapped here if they die of starvation and sickness?” I said, channeling my grandmother.

“Well, that’s why we’re here, right?” Alice said.

This wasn’t what I envisioned when I joined the Red Cross public health nursing program. I would never have imagined that I, a rookie nurse from New York City, would be dispatched to Mississippi to provide relief for the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history. Being at the bottom of the nurse totem pole, I was stationed on the levee. I disembarked the steamboat and discovered that matters were much worse than I expected. 

Thousands of refugees crowded onto the levee which was less than ten feet wide. The corpses of people who were too old or sick to withstand the conditions lay on the ground. Nobody knew what to do with their bodies — shoving them into the flood water like dead livestock and thus denying them a proper burial felt wrong, not to mention it would further contaminate the water. So, the refugees gently closed their vacant eyes, crossed their arms over their chests in a funeral pose, and gingerly stepped over them as they moved about on the levee. 

It didn’t take long for the refugees to notice my uniform and flock around me, begging for food, water, and medical assistance. The desperation in their eyes burned a hole in my soul. 

I shouted as loud as I could, “Excuse me, everyone. If I could have your attention, please.” Once the clamor dwindled, I continued, “I know you’re hungry and thirsty, and many of you need medical attention. I’m going to help you the best I can with the resources available. Speaking of resources…tomorrow morning, once the supplies have been distributed in the tent city, the surplus will be divvied up amongst all of you here.” I paused, bracing for an outcry, but the refugees simply looked dejected as they were yet again subjected to the white man’s castoffs. 

I continued, hoping I could give them a sense of hope by spurring them into action.

“In the meantime, I need volunteers to dig latrine pits. Keeping urine and feces contained will help us minimize illness. I also need some of you to break down any wood you can find, so we can build fires for boiling water to make it safe for drinking. I have a stash of matches we can use. I also obtained some empty soup cans on the steamboat which we can use as makeshift pots for boiling the flood water. Alright, let’s get started.”

While the refugees worked on their assignments, I began the monumental task of medical triage with help from the other nurses. Due to contaminated drinking water and the absence of sanitation facilities, Typhoid Fever and Cholera were rampant, plaguing many refugees with symptoms of severe diarrhea, dehydration, high fevers, and abdominal pain. 

It amazed me how quickly the shock of the situation wore off once I took action. I paused, surveyed my surroundings like a medic on the battlefield, and said a silent prayer.

By midday, the digging of latrine pits was well underway and smoke was rising from a few small fires. I watched as refugees passed soup cans around, sipping and savoring the boiled water like it was fine wine. Food was scarce on the levee. My stomach groaned with hunger after just a few hours without a morsel to eat — I could only imagine how the hollow-bellied refugees felt.

Hours later the energy faded from my body like the sunset, reflected in the flood water, as it dissolved into dusk. The refugees hunkered down for the night and we watched as stars slowly dotted the night sky. As the spring air cooled, some of them gathered around the fires scattered across the levee. I gazed at their illuminated faces and reflected on the timeless allure of the primal element of fire and the solace it provides.

In the distance, a few refugees began singing. The tune spread over the levee like a wildfire carrying thousands of voices like floating embers up to the heavens.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been through. Nobody knows my sorrow. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory hallelujah….”

Tears trickled down my face as quiet settled over the levee once again only to be disrupted by an incoming boat. Upon arrival, the boater held a lantern up to his face revealing that he was merely a teenager.

“I’m here to pick up the Red Cross nurses and take them to the tent city for the night.” He shouted. “If you’re a nurse, please come aboard.”

Alice, myself, and the handful of other nurses weaved through the tightly packed refugees. I felt the weight of thousands of eyes watching us longingly as we boarded the small vessel that would take us to the promised land — yet the weight of my guilt felt heavier. 

I need to nourish myself so I can maintain the strength to nourish others, I thought, trying to justify this inequity.

The firelight and staring eyes faded into the distance and I turned my attention to the young boatman.

“You seem a little young to be out here by yourself in the middle of the night,” I said. “What’s your name, kid?”

“John Tigrett, at your service. Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He shook my hand without taking his eyes off the route ahead.

“Ma’am? How old do you think I am? Please, call me Mary.”

“Believe it or not, I’m a boat rescue captain.” He said, glancing at me to see if I was impressed. “Anyone who owns a boat was called into service. Lots of folks have been stranded on rooftops and whatnot, so each captain was assigned a search and rescue route. We pick people up and deliver ‘em to the levee or the tent city. I volunteered for this extra route, taking y’all to the tent city, because I ain’t got nothing better to do.” 

“Well, it’s a fine way for a young man like yourself to help your community. So, what was it like when the flood started?” 

“Thousands of us were at the levee, piling sandbags as fast as we could…but it was pointless. That river plowed through the levee like a freight train carrying men right along with it. There was ten feet of flood water in downtown Greenville by the next morning. Forests, farms, and buildings were just washed away. Some of the wealthy white folks had already left the area before the flood hit, and the ones that were left evacuated to higher ground. All the colored people were left on the levee to fend for themselves. Everybody was relieved when ol’ Herbert Hoover and you folks from the Red Cross showed up.”

We rode the rest of the way in silence. By the time we arrived at the tent city a few of the nurses had fallen asleep in the boat so I nudged them awake.

“Well, here we are. Just look for the tents with the red crosses on ‘em.” John said. “I’ll be back bright and early in the morning to take y’all and the extra supplies back to the levee.”

The juxtaposition of the primitive levee and the civilized tent city was disorienting. One flood experienced in drastically different ways, a tale of two floods.

Hundreds of canvas tents sprawled the countryside, some glowing with lantern light while others were dark with sleeping inhabitants inside. Fires crackled throughout the camp and I spotted a small group of night owls gathered around one, their pale faces shining in the firelight as they played upbeat bluegrass music. 

The Red Cross tents were equipped with two cots, blankets, wash bowls, washcloths, bar soap, lanterns, canteens full of boiled water, a pot of cooked beans and rice, and a loaf of bread. Alice and I decided to share a tent that seemed like a palace in contrast to the accommodations on the levee. Our grumbling stomachs, parched throats, and nearly bursting bladders competed for attention.

We ventured out to find the latrines with our swaying lantern lighting the path of dewy grass at our feet. We quickly spotted a tent nearby adorned with the hand-painted words, “Women’s Latrines”. Inside we were relieved to discover wooden toilets built over top of deep latrine pits like one would find in an outhouse — quite luxurious given the circumstances.

Back in our tent, we quenched our thirst and filled our bellies but forced ourselves to save half of the rations for breakfast the next morning. We took turns using the wash bowl but no matter how hard I scrubbed my skin I felt like I couldn’t wipe away the physical and emotional grime. I slipped into a clean nightgown from the suitcase I’d been lugging around all day. Sleep came quickly. In my dreams I wasn’t sleeping on a cot in a refugee camp — I was sleeping on my grandmother’s lap in her rocking chair and she was serenading me with the refugee song from the levee.

The morning reveille, blaring from a bugle in the distance, jolted us into action. We scarfed down the remaining bread, beans, and rice and stepped outside with our canteens in time to see John Tigrett’s boat pulling up. 

“Good morning, ma’am,” John said with a tip of his straw hat as I stepped into the boat.

He disappeared and returned moments later pulling a wagon full of supplies which he loaded into the boat before we left the comfort of the tent city. After helping us unload the supplies at the levee, John set off for his search and rescue route.

Later that morning when the distribution of supplies and medical treatment was in full swing, John Tigrett’s boat came speeding back to the levee. 

“Mary!” He shouted frantically. “I need your help!”

I ran to the edge of the levee where his boat was idling. 

“Oh, dear God…is that a —” I said in disbelief.

“A baby! Yes, ma’am, it’s a baby.”

A haggard black woman was sprawled on her back inside the boat like a wilted flower. Her disheveled cotton nightgown was covered in blood and there, resting against her chest was a newborn baby boy. His umbilical cord, still tethered to his belly, coiled inside the boat like a sailor’s rope and ended in a bloody mass, the placenta.

“But how…”

“I was cruisin’ along my route and spotted her on the roof of a church. I didn’t realize she was pregnant until I got close enough for her to climb into the boat. Then she said, ‘‘Fore God, my baby’s coming.’ I asked if she could just wait about forty minutes until we got to the levee and she said, ‘No, he’s comin’ now.’ The next thing I knew…out he came…right into my hands. He was covered in afterbirth so I dipped him into the river, smacked his back a few times, and he finally let out a big ol’ wail. Then she clutched him to her chest and…well…here we are.” He turned his head to wipe a tear from his cheek. “You can help ‘em, right?”

My mind was racing. My training barely covered the basics of postpartum care and certainly didn’t prepare me for an extreme scenario such as this one. But I did know one thing for sure, this woman and her baby could not survive on the levee.

I patted John on the shoulder and said, “You did good, John. Now, I’m going to need your help.”

I stayed in the boat to monitor the woman and her baby while John and others cleared some space on the levee and relocated a latrine tent to the small clearing. They lined the ground with quilts inside the tent.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” I asked the woman.

“Hanna,” she said weakly. 

“I’m Nurse Mary and I’m here to help you. That little boy you’re holding is lucky to have a strong mama like you, Hanna.”

John returned to the boat. We helped Hanna stand up and while John steadied her, I pulled up the bottom of her nightgown to make a cradle for the placenta. With John supporting Hanna, Hanna carrying the baby, and me keeping the placenta secured in her nightgown we slowly made our way to the tent. I pulled John aside while Hanna attempted to make herself and the baby comfortable on the quilt-lined ground.

“They can’t stay here, John,” I whispered. 

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” He asked searching my eyes for answers.

“I have an idea. Bring your boat back here late tonight…wait until everyone is asleep. Bring a lantern and some big blankets. I’ll stay here instead of going to the tent city when you take the other nurses there this evening. I’ll say that I’m staying to monitor Hanna and the baby. When you come back, we’ll hide Hanna and the baby under the blankets in the boat and sneak them into my tent in the tent city. I’ll keep them hidden there until the flood recedes so I can make sure they have access to better supplies and living conditions.”

“I don’t know…that seems pretty risky…”

“We’re not doing anything illegal here. This isn’t the Underground Railroad. Hanna and her baby have as much of a right to be in the tent city as anyone else does. Unfortunately, people in your community disagree so we have to be sneaky.”

“Excuse me?” Hanna called from inside the tent to get our attention. As we poked our heads back inside the tent she said, “What’s your name young man?”

“John. John Tigrett, ma’am.”

She shifted her gaze to the baby sleeping beside her and said, “Well, then I’m going to name him John. Because if it wasn’t for you, he might not be here.”

A moment of profound silence passed between the four of us interrupted only by the tent gently flapping in the breeze.

With a quavering voice, John said, “It was my honor, ma’am.” Then he stepped out of the tent and I followed. “You’re right, Mary. They can’t stay here. I’ll be back tonight.”

Tending to Hanna and Baby John kept me busy for most of the day. We could’ve left the umbilical cord and placenta attached to fall away on their own within a few weeks but the risk of infection in these conditions was too great. Luckily, we had a few medical kits containing scalpels so I cut the umbilical cord and tied a knot in the end to stop the bleeding. I helped Hanna cleanse her tender body with some boiled water and scrounged up a clean nightgown for her to change into while making a mental note to collect cotton rags to fashion into makeshift diapers for the baby. I offered Hanna what little guidance I could on breastfeeding based on what I’d read in nursing textbooks — to our collective relief, Baby John was a natural at it which would be critical for his survival in these circumstances. Some of the refugees, aware of Hanna’s plight, sacrificed their rations of rice and bread for her which she accepted with tears of gratitude glistening on her face.

Around midday, I confided in Alice about the plan to sneak Hanna and Baby John into the tent city and she swore allegiance to the scheme.

I was jostled awake in the middle of the night by Captain John inside Hanna’s tent where I’d fallen asleep on the ground. Within minutes, adrenaline was coursing through my body as we escorted Hanna and Baby John to the boat and covered them with blankets. We rode in silence to the tent city, guided by the light of a full moon, with the boat slicing through the flood water and tension in the atmosphere.

Captain John wisely equipped the boat with two oars. As we approached the tent city, he killed the motor and we paddled the boat the rest of the way to avoid drawing attention. He quietly slipped the anchor into the dark water and we paused, unintentionally holding our breath while we scanned the tent city for any sign of life besides the sputtering fires.

The coast was clear so we silently cloaked Hanna and Baby John in blankets and disembarked the boat, relying on the moonlight to guide us. As we turned to help Hanna step out of the boat, Baby John awakened and cried out. We froze like statues while Hanna rocked and shushed the baby who quickly settled once again. We glanced around with darting eyes, relieved to discover that we hadn’t caused a noticeable disturbance.

We proceeded slowly toward my Red Cross tent. We were about halfway there when something stopped us in our tracks yet again — the door of a nearby tent flapped open and a woman emerged with her young daughter carrying a lantern. They had just started walking in the direction of a latrine tent when they spotted us.

“Hello? Who’s there?” The woman said while protectively shoving her daughter behind her and raising the lantern to her face to squint into the gloom.

“Stay here,” I whispered to Captain John. “Turn Hanna to face away from us and pat her back like you’re comforting her.”

I walked over to the woman who eased slightly when she noticed my nurse uniform.

“I’m sorry if we disturbed you, ma’am, we were trying to avoid that.”

She interrupted me before I could continue. “I thought I heard a baby cry a moment ago. And why are y’all sneaking around in the dark? That’s a good way to get yourself shot around here.” She peered around me trying to get a better look at Captain John and Hanna.

“John Tigrett found a woman and her newborn baby trapped on the roof of a church tonight and we’re just trying to get them settled. As I said, we were trying not to disturb anyone since it’s so late—”

“Oh, my heavens. That poor woman…God bless her.”

“Yes, she’s been through quite an ordeal as you can imagine. But rest assured that I’m going to keep her and the baby isolated in my Red Cross tent. They’ll be in good hands.”

The woman went on about her business allowing us to get Hanna and Baby John settled on my cot in the tent.

Rumors of the midnight stork delivery spread through the tent city like disease on the levee. Everyone wanted to see the miraculous baby and his brave mother who had given birth amid the nation’s greatest natural disaster. I abandoned my post at the levee to stay with Hanna and Baby John around the clock. I kept visitors at bay by proclaiming that Hanna had experienced a traumatic event and needed privacy to heal and bond with her baby, which certainly wasn’t a lie. I became the liaison between the tent city residents and Hanna, accepting gifts of food rations and handmade baby items on her behalf.

None of us would have guessed that it would take two months for the flood water to recede. Two months was a long time to keep a woman and her newborn baby isolated in a canvas tent, although the logistics of Hanna’s situation paled in comparison at times to the deteriorating conditions on the levee. While I concerned myself with providing Hanna with a chamber pot and laundering an endless number of dirty diapers, Alice and the other nurses were faced with the inescapable problem of decomposing corpses on the levee.

Ultimately, they decided to maintain a list of names of the deceased who would be honored in a post-flood memorial service. In the meantime, some of the refugees were put to work digging a mass grave on high ground on the outskirts of town. Then they returned to the levee and loaded the decaying bodies of relatives, neighbors, and friends into boats that transported them to their final resting place where they were unceremoniously dumped into a heap like garbage.

I spent countless nights rocking Baby John while Hanna rested in my cot. As I hummed old family hymns, I stared into the dark abyss of his curious eyes and wondered what the future held for him.

When the flood water finally started receding, people gradually returned to their homes, and the tent city was dismantled. The season’s crop fields were ruined leaving little work available for black sharecroppers besides repairing the levee. With racial tensions at an all-time high, many refugees migrated north for better work and more equality.

When the time came for me to board a train for New York City, I carried with me a new worldview, a lifetime’s worth of nursing experience, and a deep appreciation for the simple blessings in life.

I stared at the woman sitting next to me, holding a sleeping baby in her arms as she gazed out of the train window watching life as she knew it whirring past. Hanna and Baby John, two human beings I sojourned with in a tent surrounded by flood water — I carried them with me too as we embarked on this new journey together, one full of hope and redemption.

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

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

Want to learn more about the historical events that inspired this story? Watch the PBS American Experience documentary titled, Fatal Flood.

The Sun Came Out at Night

[6 minute read]

This story is inspired by true historical events.

It started as a night just like any other night and ended with twelve-year-old Michael’s innocence vanishing like the setting sun. 

I walked across the empty living room and turned off our small black and white television just as Walter Cronkite signed off on the CBS Evening News. Then I placed a pot of steaming spaghetti and a bowl of garlic bread on our rickety kitchen table, where Michael shoved his homework into his Trapper Keeper.

We began eating and allowed the silence between us to be filled by John Lennon’s voice emanating from the transistor radio in the kitchen, singing (Just Like) Starting Over. 

“How was school today?” I asked.

“Fine.” He said without making eye contact.

“Did you have a lot of homework?”

“Yeah, but I got all of it done.”

“Well, that’s good,” I said, trying to think of something else to talk about.

Somewhere along the way, I blinked my eyes, and my talkative, inquisitive child had morphed into a withdrawn adolescent. I yearned to return to the days when his chatter and incessant questions drove me to exhaustion. 

“Hey Mom, can I ask you something?” He said, finally glancing up from his plate.

I froze midway through spinning spaghetti onto my fork. 

“Sure,” I said. 

“Mr. Jeffries gave us a new assignment for English class today. We have to write a story describing an extraordinary experience, and I was just wondering—”

“That sounds like an interesting assignment. Do you want me to help?” I asked, eager to keep the conversation flowing.

“Well, kind of. It reminded me of that bedtime story you used to tell me all the time when I was little. You know, the one about the time when the sun came out at night. Was that really a true story?”

I hesitated and searched his face looking for the innocent little boy who was once so eager to be awe-inspired by fantastical tales. But there, in his eyes, I saw a young man looking back at me, waiting with a sense of skepticism and readiness for rites of passage that would bring him face to face with worldly truths. 

“Yes…and no,” I said.

“What do you mean?” He asked. 

“The story I told you was only partially true.”

He let that sink in for a moment and said, “Well, can you tell me the whole story?” and then added matter-of-factly, “So I can decide if I want to use it for my assignment.” 

I rested my fork on my plate, smoothed the napkin draped across my high-waisted jeans, and let out a slow sigh while he waited with anticipation.

“The date was July 9, 1962. After finishing my second year of college, I returned home to Honolulu for the summer to help your grandma pay the bills and babysit your Aunt Lily and Uncle Jack. Most of my classmates were embarking on exotic family vacations or building their resumes with challenging internships. We were just trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. Your grandma and I were like two ships passing in the night, working different shifts at the local 24-hour diner and handing little Lily and Jack off like batons.” I paused to take a sip of my sweet tea.

“The diner was a few blocks from our tiny two-bedroom apartment. We didn’t have any transportation, but the tips I got from all the tourists made the walk worth it. I remember it was really hot that night as I walked to the diner for the night shift. Around 11:00 pm, all the street lamps suddenly went out, immediately blanketing the streets in darkness. The abrupt loss of light temporarily blinded me and caused me to trip over an uneven section of the sidewalk. By the time I got up to dust myself off, the night sky was full of colorful light as if I’d traveled several hours back in time. It was almost like the electricity had been magically sucked out of the street lamps and thrown up into the sky, illuminating it like the early morning sunrise…or at least that’s what I led you to believe when you were little.” I said, glancing down at my unfinished dinner and realizing I had lost my appetite. 

“So, what really happened?” He said.

“What I just described to you, what I saw that night, is true. The part of the story I haven’t told you is what actually caused that phenomenon.” I said. 

“What…caused it?” He asked tentatively, like a child watching a horror movie for the first time with his hand covering his face, peering through his fingers, afraid but intrigued.

“Let me show you something. Follow me.” I said.

We abandoned our cold dinner, and he followed me to my bedroom. I rummaged in my closet for a few minutes until I found an old cardboard box full of college keepsakes and extracted a scrapbook from it. 

“Here it is,” I said, crossing the room to sit on my bed and patting the threadbare quilt indicating for him to join me.

“What is this?” He asked while I quickly flipped through numerous photos of myself flashing peace signs in bellbottom jeans at various college parties, likely inebriated. I’ll save those stories for when he’s older, I thought. 

“This is just a little scrapbook I made to remember my college years. But this is what I wanted to show you.” I said when I landed on a page containing a yellowed newspaper clipping. 

It was from the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser, and it was dated July 9, 1962, the day of the incident. I pointed to an article I had circled with the following headline, “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling; Good View Likely.”

“What’s an N-Blast?” Michael asked.

“The N stands for nuclear. Nuclear blast.” I said.

“I don’t understand….”

“The truth is that our government was testing high-altitude detonations…they were exploding hydrogen bombs in space. Their first test launch on Johnston Island a month earlier had to be aborted due to mechanical failures that resulted in radioactive material raining down on the island. Despite protests breaking out worldwide, they tested another nuclear weapon over Johnston Island on July 9th, the night I walked to the diner. That blast caused an electromagnetic pulse that knocked out the electricity and disrupted the telephone service in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Hotels in Hawaii hosted rooftop parties that night to give people a view of the ‘light show’ in the sky like it was the fourth of July fireworks or something. Idiots…” I trailed off when I noticed the incredulous look on Michael’s face. 

“Why would they blow up bombs above our own country? And why would you use that as a bedtime story? Why didn’t you ever tell me the truth?” He said, getting more distressed with each question.

At that moment, I knew he was growing up, it was happening right before my eyes as clearly as the artificial aurora borealis I saw in that night sky many moons ago. But something else was happening — he was grappling with the reality that the world was not the safe and harmonious place he thought it was.

I glanced back at the newspaper article, peering into the past, and said, “Those were very uncertain times, honey. I’m not sure if you’ve learned about the Cold War in history class yet, but the United States was in a ‘race to space’ with the Soviet Union. I guess our government wanted to master the explosion of nuclear bombs in space before Russia did.” I sighed, looked back at my son, and continued. “My life hasn’t been extraordinary, and I couldn’t afford to give you an extraordinary childhood. But when you were little, your imagination was so hungry for something magnificent. So, I crafted a bedtime story about the most extraordinary thing I had ever witnessed to give you something magical to believe in, and you embraced it without a trace of doubt. What I didn’t expect, was the magical spell that your innocence cast on me, healing the scar tissue I got from becoming a hardened adult in this hard knock world.”   

The following week, Mr. Jeffries called upon Michael during English to present his assignment to the class. Michael stood at the front of the classroom, took a deep breath, silently begged his hands to stop trembling, and began reading from the paper he was holding. 

“When I was younger, my mom used to tell me a bedtime story about a time when the sun came out at night. As a little kid, I believed it was some sort of magical fairytale, but it was actually an extraordinary historical event that took place during the Cold War. Things aren’t always what they seem to be, and today I’m going to tell you the true story of the U.S. military’s Starfish Prime project.”

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

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

Want to learn more about the historical events that inspired this story? Check out the articles below:




Robots Are Companions Too

[7 minute read]

A loud crash jolted me awake. I was having a bad dream in which our five-year-old twin boys ran downstairs on Christmas morning only to have their excitement deflated like a punctured balloon when they discovered there wasn’t a single gift under the Christmas tree. 

“Jordan, wake up,” I said, nudging my husband beside me who continued snoring. I tried again, shoving him this time, “Jordan, I heard a loud noise downstairs.”

“What? What time is it?” He said groggily, fumbling for his phone on the nightstand to check the time. 

“I don’t care what time it is, we need to go see—”

“It’s 2:00 am. I’m sure it was just one of the cats knocking something off a counter again.” He grumbled as he rolled over, trying to go back to sleep.

“I heard a really loud crash. I can’t believe it didn’t wake you up. I think we should go down there.”

He reluctantly flung our buffalo plaid comforter off his chest and stomped across the room with me scrambling after him.

He carelessly descended the stairs like he was going to fetch a cup of joe on a lazy Saturday morning. On the other hand, I crept cautiously behind him, avoiding the creaky steps so as not to alert the burglar or murderer that was inevitably lurking on the first floor. Just as I was tip-toeing off the last step and contemplating what would be a more effective weapon, a golf umbrella from the coat rack in the foyer or a stapler from our home office, I heard Jordan yelling from the living room.

“Dammit! Get out of here, Oscar.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that we weren’t in imminent danger after all, and sauntered to the living room only to stop abruptly when I laid eyes on the chaotic scene before me. Our nine-foot-tall Christmas tree had completely toppled over as if we had been visited by a lumberjack instead of Santa Claus. Broken ornaments and pine needles were scattered all over the floor. Great, another reason for Jordan to complain about the fact that we bought a real tree this year, I thought. All of the wrapped presents that I’d painstakingly arranged under the tree were strewn throughout the room. Hmmm, that’s strange. Why are the gifts so spread out? The falling tree wouldn’t have caused that. 

“C’mon now. I said get out of here. Bad dog, bad dog.” Jordan said, distracting me from my thoughts. 

Our fourteen-year-old Basset Hound, Oscar, was drinking whatever water was left in the base that formerly held the tree in place. Jordan finally succeeded in shooing him and he hobbled away with his tail tucked between his arthritic legs.

“Honey, you don’t honestly think that Oscar did all of this, right?” I said. 

“How else do you explain it?” He barked.

“I’m just saying, he’s old, he’s not very big, and he doesn’t get around that well anymore. So I don’t see how he possibly could have—”

“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t one of the cats. You saw him drinking the water out of the base. He probably nudged it over with his head. See? This is why I didn’t want to buy a real tree. Fake trees don’t need water or shed pine needles everywhere.”

“The boys are going to wake up in a few hours and run down here to open presents and see what Santa brought for them. So, for now, I think we need to stop arguing and get this messed cleaned up.”

Once the Christmas magic had been restored I drug myself back upstairs and collapsed into bed feeling like an overworked elf on Christmas Eve. I grabbed my phone off the nightstand to check the time before falling asleep. Ugh. 3:30 am. I noticed that I had received a few push notifications from our Roomba, also known as Jeeves, which was the endearing butler-like nickname we had given him. 

2:01 am


Jeeves’ cleaning job was canceled.

That’s weird. I don’t remember canceling the Roomba.

2:05 am

Jeeves requires your attention

Clean Jeeves’ main brushes.

Whatever, I’ll fix it tomorrow. I was so tired my vision was blurring and I could barely keep my eyes open. I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of a lumberjack dressed like Santa Claus placing presents under our tree, then chopping the tree off of the base, slinging it onto his shoulder, and disappearing through our front door with it.

The next morning was accompanied by that special soundtrack that you only hear once per year — the pitter-patter of little feet running downstairs, squeals of delight as wrapping paper is ripped to shreds, and classic carols playing in the background. I cleaned up the mountain of crumpled wrapping paper while the boys played tug-of-war over their new toys. Jordan was eager to dispose of the Christmas tree despite my wishes to leave it up through New Year’s. I lost the debate so he carried it to the backyard and, much to my surprise, lit it on fire. Sheesh, that’s a little dramatic. We could’ve at least paid our respects by singing O Tannenbaum first.

Once I had cleared all of the clutter from the living room, I could see that the floor was blanketed with thousands of pine needles. This looks like a job for Jeeves, I thought with my hands on my hips. I retrieved Jeeves from his charging base and suddenly remembered his error message from the wee hours of the morning. His main brushes were clogged with strands of tinsel from the Christmas tree. When I removed his dust bin to empty it I discovered that it contained pine needles and ornament shards.

“Jeeves, what were you doing in the living room? You’re not supposed to be in there.” I said.

The virtual wall barrier devices we had used to keep Jeeves out of the living room, and away from the Christmas tree, during the holiday season were still in place. So, I plopped Jeeves down in the middle of the living room and powered him on. This time I used the virtual wall barriers to force him to stay in the living room until all of the pine needles were gone.

12:16 pm


Jeeves successfully completed a job!

After inspecting his work and finding it to be satisfactory, I emptied Jeeves’ bin once again and returned him to the base so he could recharge in time for his regularly scheduled cleaning job that started at 11:00 pm every night.

Our dinner conversation that night was ripe with newfound motivation and resolutions for the new year. So, once the kids were in bed, I pulled my yoga mat out of a spare closet and unfurled it in the living room to hold my morning self accountable for restoring my yoga habit.

1:33 am

Jeeves requires your attention

Jeeves ended the job stuck.

I woke up early the next morning, slipped into my yoga outfit, and went downstairs ready to get my namaste on before the rest of the family woke up. Once again, I was greeted by a sight in the living room that stopped me in my tracks. Jeeves had gotten stuck on the corner of my yoga mat after he had smeared something all over it. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was cat feces. Our oldest, and most temperamental cat, Steve, had a bad habit of dropping a deuce on the floor outside of the litter box in the laundry room, another room that Jeeves was supposed to be blocked from entering.

“Ok, that’s it Jeeves. First the Christmas tree and now this? You’re supposed to clean up messes, not make more messes.” I said while I disabled his programmed daily schedule for the 11:00 pm cleaning job in the app on my phone. “There, you’ve been laid off until further notice.” 

In the process of scrubbing Steve’s excrement off my mat, I lost my motivation to do the workout and opted for some Eggo waffles and coffee instead. When Jordan came downstairs I told him what had happened.

“If I didn’t know any better I’d swear that Jeeves was framing the pets. First, he made it look like Oscar knocked over the Christmas tree and then he smeared Steve’s poop all over my yoga mat. He almost got away with it too but he got stuck on the corner of the mat…”I trailed off when I realized that Jordan was standing in the kitchen frozen, holding a box of cereal in midair with an incredulous look on his face.

“You’re kidding me, right?” He said.

“Yeah…yeah, you’re right. That’s crazy, right?” I said.

That night I was awakened by a distant noise that I couldn’t quite make out so I crept out of the bedroom and paused at the top of the stairs. After a few minutes, I heard the noise again, still faint but I could make it out this time and it was coming from downstairs somewhere. 

“Do do do doooo…please love Roomba.”

Love Roomba? Did I hear that right? No, it couldn’t be. He’s supposed to say, ‘please charge Roomba’ and besides, I thought I disabled his schedule, I thought with goosebumps spreading up my arms. I ran downstairs as quickly and silently as I could like you do when you have to lock a door after watching a scary movie. I grabbed Jeeves, thrust him onto the charging base, ran back upstairs, and jumped into bed with my heart racing. Ok, I’m not telling Jordan this time, or else he’ll really think I’m crazy.

Jeeves continued to emerge from the charging base every night at exactly 11:00 pm despite the disabled schedule in the app. Each night I would receive a push notification on my phone saying that Jeeves required my attention which I continued to ignore. His vendetta against the family pets went on to include spilling cat food, knocking over the kitchen trashcan which was clearly another setup for Oscar, and worst of all, bumping into a side table hard enough to send Bluey the beta fish crashing to the floor resulting in an untimely death.

The night after Bluey’s demise, I was woken once again by a loud ruckus in the middle of the night. I checked the time on my phone.

12:47 am

Jeeves requires your attention

Jeeves is stuck near a cliff.

Enough is enough, I thought. I stormed downstairs, with my phone still in hand, on a mission to put an end to Jeeves’ reign of terror. When I reached the foyer hallway I braced myself for whatever catastrophe I was going to stumble upon this time. After searching for quite some time and finding nothing I was about to give up and go back to bed. Wait, a cliff. Jeeves was stuck near a cliff. I flicked on the light at the top of the stairs that descend into the basement and spotted Jeeves, broken into pieces, at the bottom of the stairs. Just then, my phone beeped. It was one last push notification from Jeeves.

1:12 am

Jeeves requires your attention

Robots are companions too.

*No animals or robotic vacuums were harmed as a result of writing this fictional short story.

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

This story was initially published on Reedsy.com in response to the following prompt: Write about a character, human or robot, who no longer wishes to obey instructions.

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

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: https://jamie-gregory.com/ 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 https://freesound.org/. No changes were made to these guitar transitions which are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. — Send in a voice message: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/message Support this podcast: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/support

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 Reedsy.com 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: https://jamie-gregory.com/ Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory — Send in a voice message: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/message Support this podcast: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/support

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 Reedsy.com 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: https://jamie-gregory.com/ Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory — Send in a voice message: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/message Support this podcast: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/support

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 Reedsy.com 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: https://jamie-gregory.com/ Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamielgregory The following sound effects were downloaded via https://freesound.org/. 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: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/message Support this podcast: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/shortstoriesbusybookworms/support

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.

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

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022