Near 500 words: Happiness, and then some

Clara had such a smile it could wake up the world with its beauty. Especially when she told him, “I love you, Dan.”

Dan had dated a lot of girls. Clara was the first he thought he might want to spend the rest of his life with. Clara and Dan started dating on a blind date. Dan had told his friend, Jill, “Blind dates are the worst.”

Jill insisted.

To show Jill how wrong she was, he gave in. He saw Clara, then his heart went wow. Jill had been right.

Jill had dated a lot of guys. Most of them were duds. She too resisted Jill’s offer of a blind date. Then she saw Dan. The smile appeared on her face.

Dan wasn’t the handsome sort. Kinda skinny with a small nose and the curly hair. He wasn’t what Clara would have thought as Mr. Wonderful.

Clara’s face wasn’t that of a raving beauty. It was kind of plain. But then there were those dimples that came with the smile. And, oh, she warmed Dan’s heart.

That first night they gave each other their life stories and threw in some ancestral heritage to stir the pot. First they did dinner, then walked and walked and walked the city streets, then it started to rain. There under a bridge, Dan kissed Clara and Clara kissed Dan.

Clara was the first to speak. “I never.”

“I never either,” Dan said, just as surprised as Clara. “Could this be?”

“I believe so.”

Of all the nights in his life, this was to be the one Dan remembered the most. The same for Clara.

“What will we tell Jill?” Clara asked, smiling that smile, cradled in Dan’s arms.

Dan’s hand stroked Clara’s hair. “She’ll never let us forget how right she was.”

They laughed. Then they kissed one of those long slow kisses that make time stop. When the kiss was over, Dan asked, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”

“Spend it with you,” Clara said.

It wasn’t a big wedding. Quite small with a few friends. Jill got to be the Best Man. That was only right.

Dan and Clara went off on their honeymoon. They went to Spain. As they listened to the gypsies play the flamenco, Dan asked his beloved, “Let’s not go back home?”

“Let’s not.”

Dan wrote an article for National Geographic. Clara drew the pictures. They dropped them into the post and off the package went to the magazine’s offices. A week later, as they left their room in the hotel, a hotel employee hurried up to them. “You have a phone call,” he said.

It was the editor of National Geographic with an offer they could not refuse. She wanted to buy their story, and she wanted more. The magazine would pay them to roam the world, tell their stories, and draw them. It was perfect for Clara and Dan.

Their dream life. They hadn’t talked about it but they thought about it.

Dan called his brother. “Sell the house. Sell everything,” he said.

Then they hit the road. To Toledo, then to Barcelona, then on to Nice. It was in Nice that Clara found out she was pregnant.

“We’ll take a break,” Dan said. “We’ll be Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda.”

“Oh, no. Not those two. We’re not going to drown our joy in booze.”

Then all the happiness came tumbling down on them. Clara had a miscarriage. Clara cried for a week, and so did Dan. Suddenly their smiles disappeared. Finally, Dan asked, “What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to go on,” Clara said, not sure what she meant but knowing that was the only answer there was.

Holding hands, they looked out from the balcony at the sea. They both knew that the paradise was over. It was time to pay the piper. They also knew that, no matter what, they would pay the big fellow together. It did not bring back the smiles but, at least, it gave them hope as they watched the sunrise over the sea.

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Evan’s return

Evan Murphy bought his mother’s house. It was a cottage in Ireland. When he returned to the small village where he grew up to become the fine fellow he was, he presented the deed to her. She was now debt free.

The cottage had been her grandfather’s house and his father’s before him. It even had their smells, the smells of generations who lived in that house.

Evan returned to the village a successful man. The priest welcomed him with open arms. He needed a benefactor and Evan was just the benefactor he needed. Work had not been done on the church for years. The roof had a leak.

Each of the villagers came to Evan with a sob story. Evan helped each out with a little bit of money. After all, he had made plenty. In America. His invention had done it for him. And continued to do it. He had licensed it and now he was living off the royalties.

Conal Breathnach had a daughter. Kathleen was her name. When he was twelve, Evan had fallen in love with her. Now he returned to claim his bride. Kathleen was tall with her long red hair hanging to her waist. She had a quietness to her. A calm that could make it through a storm. Evan loved her deeply, and she loved him in return.

Breathnach agreed to the wedding now that his future son-in-law was a wealthy man. Years earlier he had given the boy a no. Now he gladly gave Evan a nod.

Kathleen and Evan walked beside each other out by the stream where the men fished for their suppers. “What’s your intentions?” she asked the man she was to marry.

“My intensions, Kathleen Breathnach?” Evan held her hand as they walked.

“Yes,” she said. “What do you see for the future, Evan Murphy?”

“Aye,” he said. “I see children. At least, two.”

“I like children,” she said, knowing she would be the one to bear them.

“And I see us living in a big house just outside the village. With acres and acres of land.”

“I want to see the world. I’ve seen this village and I’m ready for the world.”

Evan had always dreamed of returning and living in the village as a great landlord. Kathleen did not have this dream. Her dream was to get as far away as she could from the people in the village. They were a small, petty folk, and she wanted none of them.

Evan had seen the world and he knew the folk everywhere were the same. There were those who’d tried to steal his invention. At least, he knew the pettiness and the smallness of the village folk. But then, if this was what Kathleen wanted, he would give it to her. It had been ten years since he left and she had waited on him. She had had offers but none of them had been Evan Murphy.

They walked over the hill and down to the giant tree where they had pledged their love before he left. Kathleen believed in Evan with all her heart. She had known he would return somebody. And now here he was, a man of the world with worldly success.

Finally, Kathleen asked the question that had been bothering her. “Just how much money do you have, Evan Murphy?” If he was to be the father of her children, she wanted to know none of them would starve the way she had in the year of ’07. That year, the hunger had been the worst it ever was.

Evan Murphy assured her that he had enough money for generations to come. And there was more than enough for a trip around the world. Evan Murphy was a rich man. That was for sure.

“I do love you, Evan Murphy,” she said, then she kissed his lips.

It was the first kiss he had since his return. It was not the kiss he remembered. That kiss had a sweetness to it like honey. This one had a bitterness. The bitterness of experience with living with a father who beat her when he came home drunk. The bitterness of losing her mother from the sickness. The bitterness of having hunger as a companion. It was a bitter kiss.

Evan realized that this was not the Kathleen he’d left behind to go off and make his fortune in America. Evan realized that Kathleen had been a romanticized fantasy. The Kathleen he’d just kissed was not the Kathleen he’d left behind. Life had made her bitter then and life still made her bitter.

The memories of all the tears she’d shed to manipulate him from leaving. All the times they had fights. He remembered the sorrow that the village wore from the poverty it had carried like a burden on its shoulders. It had been a hard life he left behind.

But he loved Kathleen Breathnach. So he agreed to take her away with him. They would sail around the world, then they would settle in a faraway place where there was no bitterness, no hunger and the people lived free of all the poverty the world can throw at you. Perhaps then, Kathleen’s kisses would taste like the sweetness of honey again.

Sand Castles

Elsie never knew her father. When Elsie turned five, Terese, her mother, took with a case of wondering fever. She left her daughter with Elsie’s Uncle Peter and Aunt Sophie to live on their farm. Elsie loved the farm.

Elsie loved waking up early in the morning and milking the cows. She loved slopping the hogs, and she loved the sounds they made as they ate. She loved the sleigh rides across the countryside. She loved planting the seeds and watching them grow into food. She loved the coloring of the leaves each autumn. This would have been heaven if her mother had been with her.

Each year on her birthday came a letter from her mother. It wasn’t a letter so much as a journal. Each journal began with “Dear Elsie, my love. I miss you so much.” And each year Elsie became more sure those words were not true. Then the journal shared her mother’s adventures. By her fifteenth birthday, Elsie no longer read the journal when it came.

The journal told of her mother’s sand castle collecting, for Terese called herself a sand castle collector. Not that she made a sand castle and then slipped it into a case. That would have been impossible. She made the sand castle on some faraway beach. Each time she went to the beach, gathered sand, buckets of it, and carried thm to a point the high tide wouldn’t reach. As she built the castle, she filmed it, then, like a Tibetan Buddhist monk, destroyed it.

For Terese, it was the pleasure of the process of building what she called her “sand castles”. At Brighton Beach, it was Buckingham Palace. On the Makena Beach, it was the house of King Kamehameha. On the Rhine, it was Bavarian King Ludwig’s castle. At Sochi, it was the Tsar’s Winter Palace. On the beach at Sanya, she made a copy of the Forbidden City. She’d even gone to the sand dunes of the Sahara. There she built a great pyramid ten feet high. The winds had wiped it out.

But it was her latest that was her masterpiece. At Valras-Plage, she built a miniature Versailles. Pictures of it were in all the French papers. When she destroyed it, there were several thousand people on the beach watching. Television cameras broadcast it all over France. So sad was it for the French the President of France declared a national day of mourning. That was three days before Elsie’s sixteenth birthday.

On her sixteenth birthday, a journal did not arrive for Elsie. The mailman did not bring it. It did not come by FedEx. It did not come by UPS.

Shortly after the evening meal, a car drove up to the farmhouse. A tall, thin woman got out of the taxi. The driver set her two suitcases on the ground. She paid the driver, and he went away.

Aunt Sophie opened the front door to welcome her sister. She called to Elsie, “Your mother has come. Your mother has come.”

For all those years, Elsie had dreamed of this day. Until now. The disappointment weighed down on her, and she was in no mood for her missing mother. She walked upstairs, closed her bedroom door, and went to her bed.

For three days, Elsie lay in bed, only allowing her aunt to enter her bedroom. She developed a fever. The doctor came. He shook his head and told Terese, Peter and Sophie the bad news. “She is dying.”

“Is there nothing we can do?”

“I’m afraid not.”

After the doctor left, Terese looked at her sister and said, “What have I done?”

Peter said, “You’ve done what you’ve done.” There was no malice in his voice, just tears. “Now you must do what you must do.”

“And what is that?” Sophie asked.

“God knows but I sure do not.”

Terese stood up. “I have to go up there and save my child.” Then she marched slowly up the stairs.

She knocked at the bedroom door. “Elsie, this is your mother. I am coming in.”
From inside the room came a weak voice. “Go ‘way.”

Terese opened the door. Her daughter lay in bed, her hair spread out on her pillow, her face pale as death.

Terese turned and left the room and went down to the kitchen. She made her mother’s chicken soup. Like her mother, she put in a little of this and a little of that and a little of the other. But the key ingredient was her love.

Several hours later, she walked a bowl of the soup up to her daughter’s bedroom. She sat down beside her daughter and forced the first spoonful of soup into her mouth. Elsie resisted, then swallowed. Terese gave her a second spoonful, and she sang a lullaby to her daughter. Then a third and she told her daughter of the beaches where she had built sand castles. As she told her stories, Elsie felt a little better.

Several days later, Elsie was almost recovered. Terese and Elsie sat out on the back lawn of the farmhouse.

“Why did you destroy those sand castles?” Elsie asked.

“They weren’t you,” Terese answered.

Elsie gave her a curious look. “They weren’t me?”

“You see,” Terese said, “I had to build those sand castles. I had no choice. Something inside me told me they were not enough. You were the real castle I had given birth to.

And you were so permanent.”

“So why did you not come back?”

“I couldn’t. I didn’t deserve you. When you were born, I knew that. When I left you with your aunt and uncle, I knew that. Building those castles was my way of coming to understand that a mother doesn’t earn a child. A child is a gift. Versailles taught me that.”

Elsie reached over from her chair and squeezed her mother’s hand.

“And you know what? I would sit on the beach, looking out at the sea. As I watched the sun set over the sandcastle, the colors were unbelievable. And the wonder of it all was your face written in those colors. The wonder of it all.”

The Gift

As she stood in the living room, Doug’s daughter looked beautiful in her strapless, ankle length evening dress. Just gorgeous. Marge’s blonde hair was short and curly and that accentuated her blue eyes. She had her mother’s eyes. Ellen, her mother, snapped several photographs, then she urged Jack, her daughter’s date, to join Marge so she could take more.

Jack’s smile was the smile of someone who was receiving a precious gem. He took the flower out of its box, laid the box on the table and walked over to Marge. He went to pin the flower to the gown. His hand shook. He was too nervous.

Doug said softly, “I’ll do it.”

Jack looked at her dad with grateful eyes.

Doug took the flower from Jack’s hand and pinned it onto his daughter’s gown. “There,” he said, then kissed his daughter on the cheek.

“Thanks, Dad,” Marge said.

Doug backed away, proud of the girl they’d almost lost two years earlier from cancer. Ellen snapped more pictures. As Marge stood beside her date for the prom, her face glowed.

Doug and Ellen followed the two outside. Standing on the porch, they stood arm in arm, and watched the work of their lives get in the car and drive away. Their eyes were filled with wonder.

Near 500 words: Yin and Yang

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Chet looked into Tessa’s eyes. He saw the city reflected in her clear blue eyes. Her smile filled him with joy.

Tessa looked into Chet’s eyes. She saw the countryside. His smile filled her with joy.

Tessa wore city. Chet was clothed in country. Tessa spoke city. Chet spoke countryese. Chet was progressive. Tessa a conservative. Chet was into cats. Tessa had a German shepherd. It wasn’t an argument they had. It was a conversation.

It had been a blind date when they met. They had resisted. They had had blind dates before. Neither was up for another one. But their best friends insisted. They saw something of the other in each one. And they felt that Tessa and Chet would  make a great pair.

They met on neutral territory. A crowded restaurant. Immediately they liked each other. Though they had nothing in common, they had everything in common. They both were gentle, kind souls. They were both creative. Though Chet was an optimist, Tessa was a pessimist. They balanced each other out, and their glass as a couple always held a half glass of wine.