Have a new short story!

Hello! I realize I'm not keeping up with this Patreon like I should. It was a busy May.

To make it up to you, I'd like to share a short story I wrote recently that I've decided to "trunk", meaning I'm not going to submit it to any more markets. It has connections to my absolute favorite book, Little Women, with a little bit of magic thrown in. I hope you enjoy it!


Reading Between My Lines


“Let’s not go to the mall tomorrow.”

I glanced up from my Teen Beat magazine. Betsy, sprawled across my shag rug, pointed at a page-length ad in the local paper. It was boxed in by a tiny column of want ads and an even longer listing of rentals in town. The smoke-gray image of a pair of knights jousting on pale horses didn’t impress. I wrinkled my nose.

“A renaissance faire?”

Betsy stared at the armored men, her eyes wistful. “It might be fun,” she mumbled. Coiling a strand of chestnut hair around her finger, she tried to come up with a good excuse for skipping our weekly excursion to the mall. She lifted her eyes from the smudged page and flashed me a mischievous smile. “Kevin might be there.”

I rolled my eyes. Of course, she would poke at my burgeoning crush. My stomach flipped at the thought of the tall junior swaggering between canvas tents and fair rides with his pack of friends, his dirty blond hair perfectly gelled, the collar of his polo shirt popped up around his bronze neck. “Yeah,” I said with a hopeless sigh, “it’s not like he would notice me anyway.”

“Oh, come on,” Betsy urged. “Even if he doesn’t, the fair would be a lot more fun than the mall. And it would get us away from Jared.”

She had a point. We could easily bike to the fair from my house. Even in the blistering heat of a Midwestern summer, the quarter mile trip to check out the fair was a much more appealing prospect than having to beg a ride to the mall from Betsy’s obnoxious brother.

It ended up being a good fair. A relatively clean fair, at that. A welcome distraction from the workaday realities of a town walled in by corn and soybeans. The fair had plopped itself down in the only place it could: the dandelion-invaded parking lot next to a shuttered factory on Main Street.

There were pony rides. Turkey legs the size of my head. An archery tournament to win a fair princess’s hand. The jousting knights from the ad. Ladies-in-waiting in virginal white trailing their velvet-clad queen like a string of goslings behind their mother.

Betsy and I consumed way too many elephant ears and lemonade slushies and marveled at the full-plated knights and muddy peasants. The bright afternoon faded into evening as the insides of our big toes began to chafe around the straps of our flip flops. Time to go home.

We were almost through the front gate when Betsy stopped. Her brows knit in confusion.

“Hey, Josie. Was that one there when we came in?”

I followed her extended finger. Opposite the ticket booth where we would have easily noticed it stood a tubular tent capped with a peaked roof. A short castle-less tower covered in crimson and dirty white stripes. There was no drawbridge to cross, just the crumbling asphalt of the parking lot. The edges of the tent’s entrance flapped open in the hot breeze.

“Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you see it there before?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I wonder what’s inside. Should we check it out?”

I shrugged a sweaty shoulder, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end as ethereal tinkling floated toward us from the direction of the tent.

I hesitated, but my curiosity won out. “Sure, I guess.”

Inside, the tent was ochre from the sunlight baking through the off-white stripes. A round table took up most of the asphalt floor. Draped in velvet embroidered with golden constellations, it glistened like drops of rain after a storm. Two spindly chairs sat on opposite sides of the table, and in one of them sat a pale, lithe woman. She rose as we entered her domain. 

“Come in, my dears.”

I glanced at Betsy, whose hands shook slightly. I could feel nervous sweat staining the sides of my tank top.

“Um, there’s no sign outside your tent,” I began, deciding to speak for the both of us. “We were just wondering what you do in here.” I nodded at her table. “Are you a fortune teller? Like, can you read our futures with tarot cards or something?”

The woman smiled, brilliant white teeth between pink lips. “Not with cards. I can read your fates from the lines along your palms. Please, will you not take a seat?” She gestured at the vacant chair across from her, the fabric of her Gone with the Wind knock off skirt rustling with every delicate movement. Her braided hair was pinned up in a delicate net, revealing small, tapered ears edging an incandescent face. Unseen wind chimes enveloped us with their angelic music.

Betsy lifted her thick brows at me. I knew what she was thinking. Despite the creepy vibes the woman and her tent exuded, at thirteen, we were too old—and too cool—for magic tricks.

Still, the woman seemed harmless enough. She didn’t fit in with the rest of the ren faire. Her entire look, from the bustled hoop skirt to the lacy hairnet, was more nineteenth century than Renaissance. And I couldn’t place her accent at all. Harmless, maybe, but definitely . . . unique.

“You go first?”

“Sure.”

I waited outside to give Betsy some privacy. The fair goers leaving through the front gate squinted and blinked as they passed the tent, their eyes sliding over me as though I wasn’t there. I shrugged it off—the sun had been in their eyes—and concentrated on the bits of black polish left on my chewed-up fingernails.

Ten minutes later, Betsy pushed through the tent flaps.

“So, what’d she say?”

My best friend stepped out onto the parking lot, squinting and blinking hard. The sun had been bright that day.

“She’s weird . . . and kinda creepy.”

“What do you mean?”

At that moment, Kevin sauntered by surrounded by his clique. His perfectly gelled head turned in our direction, and I thought my heart might burst through my chest. A minute later, it plummeted into my stomach. His eyes had suddenly glazed over, and he walked past without seeing me at all.

Figures. Stupid sun.

“She told me how fortunate I was to be like Elizabeth,” Betsy said, breaking into my mini crisis.

“What? Elizabeth who?”

Betsy shrugged her spaghetti-strapped shoulder. “I think . . . I think she meant Elizabeth Bennett. She went on and on about how I’m well-read and have a good wit and I’m my father’s favorite. And one day, I will find my Mister Darcy.”

I stared at my friend.

“Wow. That’s . . . weird.”

“I know, right?” A slight hesitation. “Do you want to try?”

I peered behind us into the tent. The woman’s eyes glittered through the apricot haze. Two silver dollars waiting to be spent. Goosebumps broke out on my arms, and I quickly rubbed them away. I filled my lungs with the hot, leaden air and squared my shoulders. “Sure, I guess.”

“I’m gonna get a soda. I’ll meet you back here.”

Betsy shuffled away, leaving me to the woman and her literary magic. I don’t know why I was so afraid. She was just another actor. Someone who got paid to tell us exactly what we wanted to hear. Maybe.

Once inside the tent, the trapped heat slapped me in the face. The palm reader smiled and waved at the seat my friend had just vacated.

“Place your hand on the table, my dear. Palm up.” Her voice was lilting, as airy as the invisible wind chimes surrounding us. I laid my palm bare against the starry tablecloth, and she traced my lifeline with fingertips smooth and cold. A chill ran down my spine. Was it my imagination, or did her touch leave a fading string of light behind it? There was a definite tingle, like ice melting in my hand.

The tingle grew into an itch. I would have scratched it, but she kept a firm grip on my hand, unwilling to release me until my fate had been read.

“You are thirteen years old. You have never traveled far from your home. Yet, you would like to see far off places. You are an artist and a musician. A pianist.”

She moved on to the lines around the base of my thumb. I have two of them, and her fingers slid over each as tenderly as if she were stroking a butterfly’s wing. My skin practically sparkled in the wake of her touch. I shivered.

“You are very creative, Josie,” she continued. “Impetuous like Amy at times. Misunderstood like Jo. Soft-spoken and occasionally forgotten like Beth.”

I gaped at her, my jaw working, a fish out of water. How did she know my name? And how could she describe me so well? I’d never seen the woman before in my life.

Forgetting it was all fake, forgetting the itch, already an echo of itself, I blurted out, “I’m not going to die in a few years, am I?”

The smile she gave me was warm and compassionate. And pitying. “No, my dear. You will have a long life. Like Meg, you will find your perfect mate. You will have one . . . no, two children. And you will live for them. Your little women.”

My palm grew clammy in her grasp. I was only thirteen, but I had made plans for my life after high school. They didn’t involve being stuck in a town where everyone knew me, but no one cared. They didn’t include being a wife or mother, either.

I was going to be a painter or a pianist or a singer. I was going to leave it all behind for something grand, something wonderful, something that gave me purpose. I was going to have a life completely and utterly of my own making.

Without a word, I yanked my hand from hers and ran outside. The early evening breeze blasted the emptying parking lot and cooled my sweaty cheeks. Betsy was still there, sipping her soda.

“Well?”

“You’re right. She’s creepy. She knew . . .” I drew in a shuddering breath. “Anyway, let’s get out of here.”

We jogged to the front gate despite our chafed toes and hopped on our bikes. I threw the tent a reproachful look as we rode out onto Main Street. It was still there, red and dirty white against the pebbled gray of the parking lot. No one else approached it or even looked at it.

My palm itched all the way home.

#

“Do we really have to be here?” I shouted above the music. The DJ’s turntable had to have been turned up to eleven. The most popular hip hop of the year blared across our school gymnasium and bounced off the bleachers, which were pushed back to the walls for optimal dance space. Our junior homecoming dance was the last place I wanted to be.

“Oh, live a little, Josie!” Betsy yelled back as her head bopped to the music. “You can’t spend your entire junior year in your room writing depressing poetry and listening to Nirvana. It’s not healthy.”

I stuck out my tongue and she rolled her eyes. We’d had this argument too many times to count. I watched her in the strobing light of the DJ’s booth and wondered what had happened to my best friend. Or, more importantly, what had happened to me. We had started to grow apart when she moved up to first clarinet the year before and I . . . I was too cool for band, or any other school activity.

My palm itched incessantly, but I ignored it as much as I could stand to. “I like writing poetry,” I said, too soft for her to hear.

The song changed, and Betsy’s face lit up. “I love this one!” she squealed.

She pulled on my hand, urging me away from the shadows by the bleachers, but I held back. Giving me a mock pout, she danced her way to a group of her band friends and spent the next several songs hanging with them. I decided to walk home by myself. As I left the gym, I saw Betsy dancing with the newest student at school, a tall, black-haired mystery from one of the swankier cities in the state. She never noticed I had gone.

#

I lingered at the side of the ballroom, ready to make my escape when the opportunity arose. The chandelier-lit room brimmed with members of Betsy’s family and large knot of friends. They munched from a catered buffet at linen covered tables and gossiped about the latest in town news. In the center of it all beamed my best friend. Sheathed in the white lace dress she’d worn under her graduation gown, her chestnut curls piled on top of her head, Betsy looked every bit the halo-less angel—or the blushing bride, I suddenly thought. My cotton blouse and skirt paled in comparison.

Next to Betsy stood dark-haired, athletically trim William, whose side she hadn’t left since our junior homecoming dance. He locked eyes with me over the head of one of her uncles and gave me a nervous smile. He looked as ready to run as I was. Before I could cross the room to make excuses for him and allow us both to get some air, someone clinked their champagne glass loudly.

“Thank you all for coming to Betsy’s graduation party,” her father said after the room quieted. “Her mother and I appreciate the support you’ve given us over the years. Many of you watched as she grew from the feisty, adorable little girl we all knew to the lovely young woman standing before us today. It wasn’t always easy,” he chuckled. A light titter from the crowd, and Betsy blushed. She didn’t seem annoyed by the remark, though. In fact, she practically glowed.

“But her graduation—which is certainly a very important event in her life, in all our lives—was not our only reason for inviting you here today.” Betsy’s father paused to swallow his emotion. “Her mother and I, well, we would like to announce . . .” His voice cracked, and even from the side of the room, I could see his eyes glinted with tears.

Before he could regain his voice, Betsy lifted her left hand high. On her ring finger sat the largest diamond I had ever seen. The young girls and women sitting closest to her squealed in delight, and everyone rushed from their tables to offer their congratulations to her and her new fiancé.

And there I was, her supposed best friend, and I hadn’t had a clue that William had proposed to her.

Feeling both literally and figuratively on the outside of it all, I slipped from the room. My own left hand blazed as though it had been rubbed in poison ivy. No amount of calamine lotion offered relief that night.

#

“Isn’t it going to be beautiful?” Betsy crooned. She moved a carton of bubblegum on the counter to a corner of the blueprints she’d spread out, giving the three of us a better view of her and William’s future home.

“Sure.”

“It’s going to be in that new development on the edge of town. We’ve already picked our lot and everything. We’re going to have three bedrooms and two and a half baths—enough room for us and our children, of course. And a big back yard and a wraparound porch. Oh, William, I can hardly wait to get married!”

William gave her an indulgent smile and a peck on the cheek. I tried hard not to roll my eyes into the back of my head. Ever since her graduation party, the two of them could barely keep their hands off each other. It was annoying and sickening. And awfully lonely on the other side of the store counter.

I tore open the carton of gum and placed it on the shelf behind me. A small fan taped to the cash register swiveled back and forth, barely moving the air in the stuffy dime store. I noticed a spot on the glass of the countertop and made a mental note to clean it before I left.

“So, what do you say, Josie?”

I looked up from the spot. “About what?”

Betsy did roll her eyes at me. “About being my maid of honor, silly! I asked you like a week ago, and you still haven’t given me an answer.”

“I’ve been busy,” I mumbled and shuffled the candy boxes underneath the counter.

“Doing what? Working here?” She scowled at the flaking wall paint and drooping ceiling panels and nonexistent customers. “I swear, I don’t get you at all. You’re done with school. You’re free. You could do anything you want, and instead, you’re in this crappy store working for peanuts.”

I clenched my fingers around a stack of People magazines. She really didn’t get it, did she? Yes, she knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, but she knew my family, too. She knew the only way I was going to get out of that town was to earn the money myself. No one was going to help pay my way if there was only a slim chance I’d end up better off than them.

“It’s not that bad,” I said and inhaled through my nose to keep from spewing frustration all over her. It wasn’t her fault. She was just lucky. She had a family who understood her, and everything handed to her on a silver platter . . . and a diamond ring.

Betsy wiped at the sweat dewing her upper lip. “Whatever. If you want to spend your life in this place, that’s your choice. But could you at least tell me if you’ll be in my wedding party? Because I needed to start planning like yesterday.”

I sighed and rubbed at the spot on the counter. I only made it worse. “Fine. Sure. I’ll do it. I’ll be your maid of honor.”

Betsy squealed and reached over the counter to hug me around the neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! You won’t regret it, Josie. You’ll be the most beautiful maid of honor in the world!”

I cringed inwardly. The thought of spending the next several months searching for bridesmaid dresses and helping with invitations and organizing a shower and a bachelorette party did not sound like my idea of a good time.

William rolled up their house plans into a neat scroll and offered Betsy his arm. She took it with stars in her eyes—stars that sparkled only for him. A match made in heaven.

Or in a palm reader’s tent.

I shuddered despite the humidity in the store and went in search of a cleaning rag.

#

As soon as Betsy and William left for their honeymoon, I packed up everything I could fit in a duffel bag and ran as fast as I could.

The fire in my palm muted to a low blaze as I drove out of town. I ignored it. I wasn’t going to settle like Meg or Betsy, let my dreams waste away to nothing. No one would control my future but me.

#

The lingering touch of the palm reader’s finger was a tattoo on my hand, a constant reminder of what might be, what could be. What will be. Her charm followed me to New York where I wore the artist’s life for a while.

Phone conversations with my parents were always the same.

“Yes, I’m working.”

“Yes, that waitressing job. It helps pay the bills, Mom.”

“Well, I’m fairly unknown right now. But if my paintings are seen in the right gallery, I might have a chance of getting some paid commissions.”

“I like painting, Dad. And I like singing. Maybe some famous music producer will be in the bar and hear me this weekend. You never know.”

“No, I’m not dating anyone right now.”

“No, I’m not coming home.”

If I ignored Betsy’s emails about her glorious life with William in our stagnant hometown, I could almost believe I was a different person. No longer the gawky, quiet, unnoticed Josie.

During a break in one of my waitressing shifts, I wrote my first short story. It was . . . not great. I wrote some more. And more. Rejection letters filled my mailbox and Inbox.

It’s not what we’re looking for at this time. Our newest issue is currently out. You can read what we publish to get a sense of what we’re after.

I liked it, but it’s not right for our magazine.

Keep trying. With a bit of editing, this might be perfect for our sister publication. And then the company folded.

Hundreds of rejections and hours of revisions later, my words were good enough to find me employment with a progressive pop culture website. I wrote about feminism and being a woman in the 21st century. About honing my craft and trying to “make it” as a writer. About working hard and owning my true self. After a few years of freelancing, a small publishing house offered me a two-book deal. They wanted me to write about my experiences growing up. They wanted my life as a small-town-girl-turned-C-List-Writer.

I decided to give them that one magical moment in the palm reader’s tent as a bonus.

#

The air conditioning in the little Manhattan bookstore wasn’t working. Sweat dotted my forehead and threatened to drip on my freshly written signature. I finished with a flourish and handed the signed book to the beaming woman across the table. Large, gray stains spread down the sides of her t-shirt as she fanned herself with one of my promotional postcards.

“Thanks so much, Jo. You’re an inspiration! I can’t wait to read it.”

I wiped at the line of moisture sliding down my cheek. “I’m so glad. I hope you enjoy it!”

Clutching my book to her chest, she bobbed her head and rushed away toward the store’s exit. The person who had been waiting behind her held the cover of their copy open, ready to be autographed.

The line of fans and random bookstore customers soon dwindled to nothing. Grateful to finally be able to leave the suffocating store, I started to pack up my leftover books. The shadows of three people fell over the table, and I shot up in my chair. The itch in my palm—more like the tickle of an ant’s feet since I had started writing—suddenly flared.

“Hi, Josie!”

My ex-best friend stood arm in arm with her Mister Darcy. They were dressed in Armani and Kenneth Cole and looked alive and happy and still very young. Younger than I’d felt in years.

“Hey!” I tried to keep my voice light; inside, my heart pummeled against my rib cage. We hadn’t talked in over a decade, and here Betsy was, hundreds of miles from everything she knew and loved. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, William and I decided to take a trip to New York. You know, a nice getaway from the kids. We’ve never been, and we thought: why not go and see what our Josie is up to?”

“Actually, it’s Jo now,” I said, rather tersely. Betsy’s infringement upon my domain rankled. I hated the idea of being her anything.

“Yeah, I know.” She picked up one of my books and pointed at the name embossed on the cover. “I wondered why you changed it.”

I shrugged. “Jo sounds more grown up.” And being Jo paid better than being Josie ever did. “Anyway, what have you been doing in New York?”

Betsy’s face brightened. “Oh, everything! The Statue of Liberty and Times Square and all the museums and Broadway. William has some connections, so he was able to get us into Wicked, even though it’s been sold out for months.”

Of course, he did. “That sounds great!” I plastered on a smile for her benefit. She had been my best friend once upon a time and yet I would have given anything for her to just go away. She was too much of a reminder.

I scratched my palm and reminded myself to pick up a new bottle of calamine lotion on the way home.

The third person in their group, an angular man around our age, stepped to the table. He picked up one of my books and stared at the back cover, ostensibly reading it.

“Oh, where are my manners?” Betsy exclaimed. She’d been exclaiming over everything since she’d walked into the store. Really, life couldn’t be that exciting, Bets. “Jo, this is Ted. Ted, Jo. Ted’s a friend of William’s from way back. He lives in Manhattan and volunteered to play tour guide for us while we were here.”

Ted lowered my book and grinned. It was a crooked grin, half a grin. It gave his face a boyish charm under the carefully coiffed bedhead hair. He extended his hand. “Hi! It’s nice to finally meet you, Jo. I’ve been a fan of your work since I read your article on women and their internet spaces.”

I blinked. That was not the usual introduction I received from one of my fans, especially those who tended to identify as male. “Wow! Thanks. That was a lifetime and a thousand trolls ago,” I said, laughing and shaking his hand. His grip was confident, but warm. Exactly like his grin.

He chuckled. His voice had a musical quality that felt familiar. “Yeah, that’s when I decided to stop reading the comments.” He released my hand. Strangely, I didn’t want to let go.

“Wise decision.” I winked at him and suddenly became self-conscious. When had I started winking at strangers? My fingers found the hem of the tablecloth and picked at it while heat flooded my cheeks.

“Anyway.” Betsy cut into the awkward silence. “When Ted here heard we were coming to your signing, he begged us to let him tag along. Didn’t you, Ted?”

Ted’s own apple-red blush only added to his adorableness. “It’s true. I’ve wanted to come to one of your signings for a long time, but my job has me traveling so much, I’ve always missed them. It was by chance that Betsy and William came to town during one of my rare weeks off. And they knew about your signing today.”

Chance.

Fate.

At the time, I didn’t give those words a second thought. Instead, I gleefully signed a copy of my book for him, adding a special inscription under my autograph. Then, he hung around the store and helped me pack up. Then, we went out to dinner with Betsy and William. Then, he walked me home and asked for my number. Then . . .

It wasn’t until we were reciting our wedding vows that I realized how much the palm reader’s magic had wormed its way into my life.

“Theodore Frederick Lawrence, do you take Josephine Louise to be your lawfully wedded wife?”

I couldn’t calm the fire in my palm fast enough that day. I wondered at the altar if Ted could feel the heat pouring off it, too.

#

“There’s a ren faire in town,” Ted said as he skimmed the full-page ad in the Times over his morning coffee. “We should take the boys. I haven’t been to one in forever, and it’d be fun for them to see all the wild costumes and the jousting knights.”

At the words jousting knights, our sons’ heads popped up from the sofa where they were playing on their iPads.

“Can we go? Please?”

I hesitated. I was loath to approach anything resembling striped canvas. Despite all the resisting I’d done in the years following that first reading, the palm reader had ended up being right. Almost too right. I was afraid of what she might have in store for me again.

After much pleading from my men—both big and little—I relented and followed them to the fair the next day. We entered the front gate, and it was like I was thirteen again, plodding alongside Betsy in our flip flops and frayed jean shorts, from the lemonade slushies and elephant ears to the blistering asphalt. The jousters and peasants and queen clad in velvet were all there. The turkey legs and pony rides. It was clean. Almost too clean.

An hour into our visit, I wished for the day to end. I didn’t want to run into her magic. Or worse, have my sons experience what I had when my hand was caressed by those icy fingers. Just thinking about them made my palm itch with sweat.

I realized then that I was afraid. Afraid I’d never leave the small, dusty town and all it stood for behind, even though I physically had. Afraid I was stuck without a choice.

I was still stuck . . .

No. My boys didn’t need that kind of heartache. They were young. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

“Time to go!” Ted announced.

I blinked. Somehow, I had missed the entire fair while musing on a past I could not change. With a sigh of relief from me and a groan of disappointment from the boys, we headed to the front gate. We were almost through when a bit of striped canvas flapping in a sudden breeze caught my eye.

There it was. The palm reader’s tent, as sunbaked and red and dirty white as before.

A part of me wanted to run away from what I might hear if I let her touch me again.

Run away from Fate.

Another part of me was curious. She had seen my future, but not clearly. More like someone gazing at a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Wavy. Distorted. Thicker in some parts, thinner in others.

Maybe her magic wasn’t permanent. Maybe it was as fluid as the music of her wind chimes, taunting me with their delicacy.

“Honey, why don’t you take the boys to the car. I won’t be long. I think I left my phone somewhere by the concessions stand.”

He eyed my back pocket—my phone’s usual haven—and opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it when he saw the silent plea in my eyes. He led the boys to the gate. When they passed the tent, his eyes glazed over. He couldn’t see it. None of the fair goers noticed the high-pitched roof or heard the alluring wind chimes. No one, that is, but me.

It took me several stops and starts before I could cross the palm reader’s threshold. The interior was exactly as I remembered it. The palm reader stood behind her ochre-tinged, velvet robed table and waved me in with a rustle of taffeta skirts.

“Come in, my dear.”

Her voice held the same music. Her smile held the same warmth. She hadn’t aged like I had.

My palm burned as though it were being held to a fire, and a white light fringed my peripheral vision. I didn’t dare look down. If I did, I would see the glow of her magic oozing around bones and veins and muscle, peeking through the cage of my skin.

“I didn’t come here to discuss my future.” My voice broke, a charred log on a hearth. “I wanted to tell you that you were wrong.” Heat slithered up my arm toward my elbow, my shoulder, my neck. “I never settled like Meg. I left that town behind and made my own life. None of it had anything to do with you.” I thought I might spontaneously combust, but I kept talking. I needed to hear my own words. “And I didn’t have girls. I had boys.”

She nodded, serene, as though she weren’t standing in front of a living flame. “True.” Her smile never wavered. “I can be wrong sometimes.”

I was flaking away, a brittle leaf in a hot autumn wind. The walls of the tent disappeared into shadow. Through the dazzling light of me, her features floated above the dim curves of her.

“I mean, you were right about me getting married. And about me becoming a mom.” Maybe a few concessions would ease the torment. “But I have a career still, and I love what I do. I love who I am.”

Shallow breaths quickened somewhere in the light. Almost to the end. “I never really settled. Not the way you said I would.” There. What would she say to that?

“I know,” she answered softly. Her smile widened, her teeth luminescent pearls in the flickering that was me. “You are very fortunate, Jo.”

In an instant, the light snuffed out, replaced by an iciness that defied the leftover heat from my burning. My feet glaciers. Heavy, unmoving. Frozen to the asphalt. While I stood there, an ice sculpture melting in my own aftermath, she traced my life, all the way back to thirteen. All the way forward to the end. My end or hers, I couldn’t tell which.

Herculean strength pulsed down my limbs, throbbing with every heartbeat. I turned, sloth-like, to face the outside world. The front gate shimmered in the afternoon sun, the mirage of an oasis, passing fair goers oblivious to what was happening to me. I lifted a tent flap, seconds turning to minutes turning to hours, and a cold hand squeezed my shoulder.

Do not leave, Jo. Not before you know what wonderful things will happen to you.

I paused.

Did I really want to know?

Did I want the paranoia? The knowledge that some invisible hand had a claim on my life, directing me where to go? That all the important decisions had been made for me?

Or did I want something else?

To believe the choices had been mine from the start.

To believe I’d always had a choice.

A breeze as cool as fresh rain swept into the tent, pushing aside any vestigial warmth. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scents of mown grass and freshly powdered elephant ears. Of old regrets and new beginnings.

I’d rather not, thank you. I’m sure I’ll be happy with whatever happens to me from now on.

Begrudgingly, the hand let go. I pushed through the tent’s flaps onto asphalt cooling under a rosy sky. Something inside me popped. The candlelight in my palm burnt out. I no longer felt the urge to scratch.

THE END

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