The Pub

The old inn was sagging with life. Inside its doors, wooden booths were crammed into every available space. Lanterns hung from the low ceiling. They illuminated parts of the room but left the corners flickering in shadow. In one such corner, narrow stairs led up to rooms for rent, rooms which, for the most part, remained vacant and collected dust. As the scratches on the booths and the stains on the wall told, however, customers at the pub downstairs made up for any lack of overnight guests. The floorboards had collected years of boot-dirt; Elsie never swept the around the room’s dim edges or under the table. Starting around twilight each day, the building began to fill with chatter, which steadily grew to laughter and raucous conversation, which continued to grow so that by midnight, shouting and song could be heard from the cobblestone street outside.

The same group frequented the inn night after night without fail. Men old and whiskered, young rogues, sailors with stories sparkling in their eyes, and even a few women–fierce and sturdy–filed in to end their long days with a pint.

Amoung this group, Ben Brogan was most loved. As evening turned to night, eager faces crowded around him to hear a tale. Excited eyes shone in the yellow light as Elsie took the momentary calm to wipe down the counter with a rag. Even she was intently listening for his story. No one understood how one man could have, survived so many adventures, voyaged to so many places, and met so many people.

On one such night, Connor burst through the sturdy door, hair sticking up from the wind coming off the sea. His big boots made his legs look like sticks. “Where’s Ben Brogan? I’ve been waiting all day for one of his tales.”

Ben chuckled from a dim booth.

“Elsie, bring ole Ben here another pint to loosen his tongue,” said Connor as he and several others squeezed around the table.

Old Ben Brogan smiled wryly and rubbed his stubbly chin. “One of these days, I’m going to run out of stories to tell, lad.”

“We all know that day is far in the future,” said one of the regulars. The rest agreed, chorusing with “Aye!”, and now the group of listeners had expanded to the surrounding tables as well.

“Come on, Ben!” Connor smiled with anticipation as he leaned over the table.

Ben thought for a moment as he took in a deep breath. Then, with a raise of his eyebrows and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, he said, “Have I ever told you about the time I saw the Banshee?”

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Our Apartment

Sometimes I try to remember the apartment I used to live in.

It was on the second floor.

I walk through it in my mind,

holding onto the layout because somehow

it seems important that I never forget.

At the top of the concrete stairs is a big door

with a metal knocker on the front

that I used to clack against the door

over and over

until Momma said I had to stop.

 

Inside is the living room, with the two sofas

and the squashed brown pillows

that Momma taught me how to fluff.

There is the box TV where I watched

Beauty and the Best every day for months,

wearing my pink Power Rangers costume.

And over here is the door to the patio,

where Momma helped me and Ellie make corn husk dolls.

They looked so pretty, wrapped in her arms,

with their closed eyes and their corn husk dresses.

 

Turn left into the dining room,

with the round wooden table.

I used to hide under that table, and my knees

would get carpet burn from crawling in and out too fast.

The cat scratched me under there once.

He didn’t like when I pet his tummy,

but it was so soft.

 

Turn left again into the kitchen.

It’s a narrow strip of a room

with a wallpaper that Momma hated:

a cream background with fruits on it.

In the kitchen is the pantry,

where I used to sneak in

and grab a handful of the Hershey’s kisses.

I would hide them in my pocket

and eat them all day long.

I always thought I was clever,

but I think Momma knew.

 

Run back to the living room and straight through.

At the end of the hallway, turn left.

Momma and Daddy’s room.

There is the Big Bed, right in the middle.

On Saturday mornings me and Evan

would climb out of our beds,

help Timothy out of his crib, and all

together crawl under the blankets with Momma and Daddy.

One time, Momma mumbled, mostly asleep,

that I couldn’t get in her bed

until the clock said five zero zero.

I remember the red flashing numbers read: 4:13.

I stood there, beside the bed, sometimes spinning in circles,

sometimes watching through the window

as the sky’s midnight blue went away.

I waited until the clock said five zero one.

I didn’t want her to think I was impatient.

 

Back through the hallway and into our bedroom,

the room I know best.

Against one wall is the crib.

That’s where me and Aubrey crawled under

when Daddy burned the popcorn

at my first ever sleepover.

We were in our princess dresses, but when smoke

started filling the house and Momma told us to duck beneath it,

we became firefighters.

To the left of the door are the bunk beds.

I always got the top because

I’m the oldest and Evan might fall out.

One night, I was reading about Felicity, an American Girl.

She was reunited with her lost pony, Penny, and suddenly

the words on the page were making me cry.

Daddy walked in to turn off the lights and he saw my tears.

I was embarrassed

but he did not laugh at me.

He kissed my forehead and told me it was okay.

And another day, he climbed up onto the top bunk and sat with me.

Our backs were leaned against the wall.

My arm was stretched up, and my fingers were tracing the bumpy

texture of the ceiling. I did that when I needed

something to do with my hands.

He told me about his Momma.

The grandma I had never met.

I had never seen him cry before, but now, as

he took off his glasses to wipe away tears,

I was scared,

because I thought nothing could be bad enough to make Daddy cry.

At the Beach

We tried to run across the sand, but our heels kept sinking and slipping beneath us. It smelled like sunscreen and dead fish, and the sun was baking me like a cake: cooking the outside first and slowly, steadily warming the inside. I could feel the future sunburn tingling on my shoulders where the skin was hot and stiff. Later I would regret it. For now, I didn’t care.

Our calf muscles thanked us when we finally escaped the long stretch of dry sand that, despite our efforts, was impossible to run across. Next was only the thin band of wet sand separating us and the water. The moisture had packed this sand down, and running was finally possible. We shot off like the Bullet Bill power-up in Mario Kart. The water licked at our heels as we splashed into its shallows, toes disappearing into the sandy waves and arms flailing for balance. As we moved deeper into the water, the cool tingle spread up our legs. My fingertips skimmed the surface. The swirly feeling rushing beneath and between and all around them made me smile. I paused to feel the sand dancing around my toes. I wiggled them deeper into the choreography of swishing, swaying, and twirling that reached into infinity. Here in the shallows, I would be able to see if a horseshoe crab was nearby, but as my feet gradually sunk deeper, all I saw under the sparkling surface of the water was thousands of grains of sand leaping across the top of my feet, their dance uninterrupted.

I stood there watching the sand move with the rhythm of the water until I realized everyone else had kept moving. They were pushing onward as if they had an end goal, as if there was somewhere out there to go other than the vast abyss of water. Suddenly the water’s cool tingle felt more like goosebumps. I followed hesitantly. Never before had I ventured into the ocean deeper than my hips, but if I stopped there, they would call me a baby.

I pushed against the water and started moving once again. The waves tried to hold me back as they shoved past, but I pressed on, determined to catch up to my friends. I inched my feet across the sand—Mom said that would scare away horseshoe crabs. I did not want to step on one of those. Or on a stingray. Now I was on my tippy-toes, and the water lapped around my neck. Higher and higher the water rose until suddenly, a big wave lifted my toes off the sand. My heart lurched, and my throat seized up. I smiled as I spit out a glob of salty saliva.

By now, my friends were only a few yards away. I half bounced, half floated over to them. Every time my toes left the sand, I worried that when they landed, it would not be on the sand but on the back of a horseshoe crab or the spikes of a sea urchin. Sputtering, grinning, and panting, I caught up to the rest, who were treading water to stay afloat. My feet joined theirs, beating against the water that held us up above the crabs. We all smiled. Our bravery at venturing out this far was unacknowledged yet agreed upon. I splashed someone, and she splashed me. It was the start of a victory celebration that did not end until our hair was plastered flat to our heads and our stomachs hurt from laughing.

But accompanied by all of my smiles was the full awareness that I was subject to the water’s will and that thousands of crabs crawled in the dancing sand beneath me.

Airport Misadentures

I hastily grabbed my two bags, slipped my shoes back on, and stepped out into the sea of people. Whereas the TSA security checkpoint felt quiet and cold like a hospital, the flood of movement lying just past it felt urgent and alive. I heard voices, ranging from quiet conversation to loud calling to laughter; I heard the scuffle and squeak of suit case wheels frantically trying to keep pace with their owners; I heard a loud, clear voice making announcements that no one listened to. In the rush of life and movement, I stopped to breathe it all in, forgetting myself temporarily. But I had places to go, so with a quick glance at the myriad of overhanging signs directing me to Terminal C, off I went.

I was tired, so tired, after a long evening of travel and a weekend full of late nights and laughter, but I wanted to blend in. Mom said I’d be safer that way. I tried to do what everyone else did: walk confidently, listen to music through one earbud, and avoid eye contact. It’s funny how people do that. When a fellow human walks by, they must pause from taking in the surrounding scenery. They feel they must lower their gaze to the ground in front of them, or look at their phone, or avert their eyes to something else, all to avoid the dreaded evils, Awkwardness and Interaction. Since I wanted to blend in, I refrained from both of these. I ignored the clean, vaulted ceilings that soared over the terminal and allowed white sunlight to flood in. I resisted studying the thousands of bodies rushing past me, even those adorned in unique style and bright colors. Until, that is, I reached gate C14, at which point I got a candy bar after a brief scuffle with a vending machine, plopped down into a thinly-cushioned seat, and breathed. The fact that I hadn’t looked at my ticket to confirm I was in the right place flitted through my head, but it was soon gone. I took a deep breath. It was nice to breathe. I wanted to focus on that for now. Keeping up with the crowd was as exhausting as it was exciting. I finally allowed myself to watch this never-ending crowd. As face after face rushed by, I was struck by the overwhelming revelation that I was not just looking into a sea of colorful, lively movement, but rather into lives—thousands of lives—that all happened to intersect in this moment.

I knew what this meant. My brain only had such existential thoughts when it was near exhaustion. Leaning back in the seat, I propped my feet up on my backpack and tore into the crinkling candy bar wrapper. A short man with a cowboy hat and a grey, gravity-defying mustache strolled by, toting a blue suitcase behind him. I wondered what his story was as I bit into the king-size Snickers bar. Instantly I could feel the sugar coating my teeth. At least it would keep me awake until I was on the plane, I thought as I opened the Netflix app on my phone.

Blending in meant resisting the urge to continue staring at the steady stream of people walking by, which meant doing something else to distract me from them all, which meant watching Marvel shows on Netflix. I popped my earbuds in. With that one simple action, all the sounds of the airport faded. No more chatter, sound steps, announcements over the speaker. Nothing except my show’s theme song.

I watched for thirty minutes, completely oblivious to my surroundings. Until, that is, my tired, ever-self-doubting brain started questioning its choice to sit here. I noticed that only one other person was sitting at my gate. Hmm, that seemed strange. The flight was supposed to be leaving pretty soon, I thought. But in my dazed exhaustion, I ignored these thoughts and continued watching the show.

The show ended and still no one was at the gate. Not even a flight attendant. Finally, I decide to check my ticket. That can’t be right, I thought, checking the current time and seeing that the ticket said boarding started half an hour ago. According to the ticket…my flight is scheduled to leave in nine minutes. I sat there, in my slow stupidity, staring at the ticket. I spent several valuable seconds going back and forth from the current time on my phone to the flight time on my ticket. My phone switched from 8:44 to 8:45, and it finally clicked. The gate on the ticket was C24.

I was at the wrong gate.

Eight minutes.

Never in my life has adrenaline pumped into my body so quickly. I jumped out of the chair, banging my knee on the metal arm rest in the process. In one motion, my backpack was on and I was speed walking further into the terminal. Eight minutes. No time to speed walk.

I started running, realizing that I had finally become an airport runner. In the past, I’d always wondered about airport runners. What sort of person found themselves running through the middle of a crowded airport? Was the running really going to help them make their flight? Why did they have to run? What made them late? Now I knew.

I found myself trapped between suitcases and slow-moving tourists, and in the brief moment when I slowed down to maneuver my way out, I noticed my hand was shaking. Thoughts of missing my flight, being in the airport alone all night, and having to confess my stupidity all rushed through my head as I ran past gates.

I saw C24 ahead, and it was empty except for one flight attendant. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t too late. Flustered and out of breath, I jogged up to the lady, who was looking at me expectantly. She held out her hand as I fumbled through my pockets for my ticket. She scanned it, handed it back to me, and I walked in. Seven minutes.

As I walked away, I heard her voice. “Closing the gate now.”

I wanted to cry, shout, and laugh all at once. I’d made it. How was that possible? As I shoved my backpack under the seat in front of me, uncontrollable grin covering my face, I vowed to never watch Netflix in an airport again.

The Lady in the Window (part 2)

She sat in her window every morning, watching. Her frail frame was wrapped in a shawl, and she looked down upon the world wistfully, like she was only an observer, not a participant.

Her stare made me uncomfortable. It was an old stare; who knew how long she had been sitting there, watching the same cars stop at the same light on their way to the same gloomy jobs? It was an informed stare. She knew things. I could feel it. She never looked directly at me; at least, I never caught her at it. But she did. I’m sure she saw me every morning and soon realized I was a new part of the morning routine.

Even more unsettling than her constant gaze was the gaze of everyone else stopped at the intersection. No one noticed her. Not the kids weighted down with backpacks on their way to school, not the guy in the hat waiting to turn left, not the lady in the silver SUV who was brushing her teeth using water in a tin mug. The lady at the window was invisible to these people.

Had they ever noticed her? I wondered as I tapped my foot to match the clicking of my turn signal. Maybe they noticed her long ago, when they were new to this place like me, and by now her presence has become a background regularity that the brain takes for granted and stops noticing. Or maybe they had never seen her.

My brows furrowed slightly at this thought, but the long-awaited light turned green. I thought about it no more.

Snow White and the Apple

The girl hastily pulled back her dark hair with a scrunchie. Sliding on her red tennis shoes as she went, she raced out the door into the front yard. Her little brothers had disappeared, and the only sounds were her breath and the black bird in the neighbor’s tree. Mischievous grin on her face, she called, “Ready or not, here I come!”

She dashed straight into the park across the street—it was always their favorite place to play. They ruled that park. Not a summer day went by that they did not cross the street, squealing with laughter, racing to the swing set, or the monkey bars, or the see saws. They explored the park until it held no more mysteries and played with children until the surrounding neighborhood had no more strangers.

Mulch soft underfoot, the girl ran directly to the monkey bars and leaped up. She slipped. Too much momentum. But she wasn’t in a rush, so she tried two more times. When her pale hands were stringing red from gripping the bars, she gave up, still in no rush to find the boys. As the oldest sibling, she had been the one to discover all the best hiding places: under the slide, in that clump of bushes by the bench, and, most treasured of all, behind the sign that said, “Kingsfield Public Park.” She knew she would find a giggling, grubby little brother in each of the spots; that’s where they hid every time.

But for the sake of the game, she feigned ignorance. All around the playground she circled, taking plenty of time to build up the suspense. She spotted a pair of wiggling toes sticking up from beneath the slide. Smirking, she slowly crept up, planning on scaring her little brother before he knew she was coming. She tip-toed, hardly able to contain her delight, and pushed a strand of dark hair behind her ear as she leaned over.

“Hey.” A hand grabbed her arm, and she screamed.

A woman, hunched over, grinned at her from underneath the hood of a frayed sweatshirt. “Hey is this yours?” The woman held out a hand with long finger nails like claws. In her grip was a brand-new silver iPhone.

By now, the little boy who had been under the slide was standing next to the girl, with mulch sticking to his knees and his jaw hanging open. The two children stood there, enraptured by the glowing apple on the back of the phone.

“I’ll give it to you if you want,” the lady rasped, taking a step back.

The girl looked at her little brother with excitement and the two followed, reaching for the phone. They never noticed the woman’s subtle smirk or the gleam in her eyes, almost like hunger.

The Lady in the Window (part 1)

I climbed into my car around 7:40, still wiping crusty sleep out of my eyes. This would soon become routine, but for now, I was just getting used to a new town and a new job. I started up the car. The music that I’d been listening on my last drive started playing. It was a perfect balance of relaxing and upbeat. My chill music, for when I am stressed, or feeling anxious, or having regrets.

As I backed out of the driveway, I congratulated myself, realizing that I no longer needed a GPS to get to work. After a week of driving the route, it was undoubtedly solidified in my memory.

The drive through my new town was unsightly. It was not a new town at all; I was probably the only newcomer this place had seen in decades. Everything–buildings, roads, skies, surrounding hills–was grey. The whole place looked like a sponge used to mercilessly scrub dirty dishes for months without ever being rinsed. Tired buildings sagged, the disinterested river shuffled under the bridge, and bored teenagers walked to school. They looked about as tired as I felt.

The last light before I reached work turned red, so after a slight huff I stopped. There was something strange about this red light. It was a three-way stop, situated right where the road I was on dead-ended into another. And where the fourth side would be, right in front of me, was not a road but a driveway. I had thought, on my first morning taking this route, How does the owner of that house get out of his driveway? Is there a light for him, one that stops all three sides of traffic just for him to pull onto the road? I’d had time for such thoughts because the other strange thing about this light was its peculiar length. Stopped at this intersection, time seemed to slow down, stop, and stretch. It was at this light that busy workers going through the motions of the day were forced to contemplate. Or at least, I was.

In the vast expanse of time spent idling the car there, I had to think, to really think. Think about this new job, about that apartment I left, about Dad, about George, about the heavy weight of failure that I usually ignored.

And on top of it all, she was there.

I didn’t notice her the first few days. I had been too lost in my thoughts. But then one morning, suddenly jerked out of my musings, I saw her.

She was sitting–always sitting–in the third-floor window of that house right in front of me. She was framed by quaint lace curtains that hung in the window, and the top of her head was covered by a cap night cap from which crept wisps of thin white hair. She was ever seated in a white rocking chair, and her eyes, wrinkled with use, always peered into the intersection below.