Katie’s Christmas Dinner

Christmas was ruined. It didn’t even smell good anymore—it smelled like smoking boughs and melted plastic and wet carpet.

The moon still bathed the snow-covered trees with a soft glow when Katie woke. She wiggled with excitement. It was finally here, the day she had been waiting for all year long. Today, the house would fill with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents–everyone gathered for this special day.

But the best thing about today was the food. There would be a feast, the likes of which had not been seen for twelve months. There would be a ham and a roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls with creamy butter, green beans and corn, salads and pies, cookies, punch, eggnog… anything and everything you could possibly imagine spread out on the table.

Today was Christmas Day, and Katie couldn’t wait for it to begin. In fact, she’d make it start right now. She jumped on Sam’s bed, and then raced down the hall to to do same to the twin’s beds. Once Tiffany and Tessa woke up, there was no stopping it. Mother and Father stumbled from their room and the whole family gathered in front of the Christmas tree. Piles of presents drifted from beneath its twinkling boughs.

Katie ripped into her gifts with giddy glee. Wrapping paper flew about her like a snow storm. The whole family laughed, and Katie plopped on the floor, laying her head on her new stuffed animal with a blissful smile on her face.

The last breakfast dish rattled into the dishwasher just before a sharp knock on the front door brought squeals of joy from the kids. The relatives were here! Mom opened the door and in blew Great Uncle Walter and Aunt Bess, bringing with them the cold, crisp smell of a winter’s day.

“Isabel!” boomed Uncle Walter as he smothered Mom in a bear hug. “Merry Christmas, my dear.” He grinned down at Katie. “Hello, Katie,” he said and patted her head.

“Uncle Walter, Aunt Bess. Here, let me take your coats.”

Uncle Walter tucked his hat, scarf and gloves into the pocket of his great coat and handed it to Mother. “Isabel, dear,” Aunt Bess said in her creaky voice, “I’ve left the pies out in the car.”

Mother’s eyes lit up. “I’ll send John out for them. I hope one of those pies is cherry. Nothing beats your cherry pies.”

Aunt Bess clucked. “Just for you, dear.”

Mother laughed and whirled away with the coats. Katie followed Uncle Walter into the kitchen. He took a glass from the counter, opened the fridge, and poured a generous amount of eggnog into his cup. He took an appreciative sniff and winked at Katie. “Now don’t you be telling Isabel that I’ve started in on the eggnog. She thinks I drink too much of it already.” He took his glass into the living room and settled on the couch next to the fireplace.

Katie grinned. She’d watched Mother make an extra batch of eggnog just last night, muttering about Uncle Walter all the while. But she’d been smiling when she rearranged the fridge so the pitcher of eggnog was in front. And when she set the glasses on the counter she winked at Katie and said, “That should make it a little easier for him to sneak something to drink.”

Before long, the house was full of chatter and laughter. Kids dashed about, playing with their new toys. Adults caught up with the details of each other’s lives. And Katie weaved in and out of the crowd, lapping up attention.

“Look how tall you’ve gotten, Katie!”

“Aren’t you a pretty girl!”

“Oh, Katie. I’ve missed you!”

With each addition to the party came more of the wonderful food. The rich aroma of baking ham came in with Grandma Sue. She always half-baked the ham at home and let it finish cooking here. Cousin Ellen brought her crock-pot and set it on the counter. Soon the scent of roast beef mingled with the salty smell of ham. Uncle Greg brought a green bean casserole, the mushroom soup bubbling under the French onions. He was a bachelor and prided himself on his skill with this casserole, and since it was his only talent in the kitchen, he was asked to bring it every year. Soon the yeasty smell of Mother’s rising rolls joined the other aromas wafting from the kitchen.

Katie licked her lips trying to taste the wonderful smells. She followed her nose into the kitchen. The room was a hive of activity. The granite-topped island was white with flour as the women mixed sugar cookie dough, rolled it out, and cut it into Christmas shapes with cookie cutters. Most of the cookies would be given to friends and neighbors, but a large platter would be left on the table for everyone to share.

Already there were two sheets of cookies cooling on racks at the end of the table. Katie moved closer. Their buttery smell surrounded her as she inched her nose even closer. Maybe she could have just a tiny taste.

“Katie! No!” Mother’s voice broke the spell. Foiled, Katie moved away, and Mother went back to mixing the frosting.

“Could someone hand me some flour, please?” Cousin Ellen asked the room at large. Katie could see Cousin Ellen up to her elbows in cookie dough. Maybe Katie could help! A big bag of flour rested against the side of the island. Katie tried to slide the bag over the Cousin Ellen, but it didn’t slide. In slow motion, the bag tipped onto its side, spilling flour all over the floor like drifted snow.

Katie cringed and squeezed her eyes closed waiting for the scolding she was sure to get, but nothing came—no harsh words, no cries of dismay. Katie slowly opened her eyes and peered around. Everyone was busy. No one had seen! All she had to do was clean up the flour, and no one would ever know what had happened.

She started pushing the flour back toward the bag, but the more she pushed, the more the mess spread. If she couldn’t get the flour back in the bag, the next best thing was to get herself as far from the mess as possible. Katie casually ran toward the kitchen door.

“What in heaven’s name—” Mom began, and then, menacingly, “Katie!”

Katie stopped where she was and looked back, batting innocent eyes. Maybe she could fool Mother? But no. Her heart sank as she looked at the incriminating flour tracks behind her. The trail started at the flour bag and ended right at her own feet! She sighed and carefully shook each foot, then made her way out of the room, her head low, leaving the delicious smells behind.

In the hall, her nose caught another delightful aroma. Popcorn. She followed the smell to the playroom where children were stringing popcorn and cranberries to make a garland for the tree. Katie looked around at all the smiling faces. This was where she belonged; she would be able to help here. She walked over to the popcorn bowl but didn’t see the abandoned needle lying on the floor, waiting for an unwary foot to cross its path. She howled in pain, scrambling away from the sharp pain. In her haste, she stepped in the bowl sending popcorn flying into the air. The bright laughter faded and was replaced with accusing voices. “Oh, no, Katie! No, no!”

Katie ran blindly for the doorway, tripping over garlands and squashing cranberries. She ran down the hallway, followed by a chorus of complaints. She slunk into the living room. There was Uncle Walter, napping on the couch, his empty eggnog cup sitting on the end table.

Katie climbed onto the couch and curled up next to him. She could always count on Uncle Walter—he was never mean or short-tempered. She rested her head on his arm. He smelled like peppermint. Peppermint and eggnog. She smiled. She could feel the heat of the fire and smell the cedar logs burning, the sap popping and crackling. The lights of the Christmas tree twinkled softly, the scent of its boughs filling the air with soft memories of years past. She heaved a sigh and closed her eyes. Everything was right with the world again.

Uncle Walter woke with a snort. Katie lifted her head. “Sorry, Katie, but I need to get up and…. Well, never you mind what I need to do, but I’d better not do it here or Isabel will skin me alive.” He got to his feet and took a few shaky steps. He stood blinking and swaying. “I think maybe I’ve had too much eggnog. Whadya think, Katie?” he slurred.

Katie watched nervously as he tottered past the fire, his arms held out for balance. He was almost past the fireplace when he suddenly swerved right toward the flames.

Oh no! Katie slid off the couch and ran straight for Uncle Walter. She crashed into him, sending him flailing backward, arms wind-milling, eyes wide and panicky. What happened next seemed to take place in slow motion. Katie watched in horror as Uncle Walter wildly reached for something to hold onto. He found the Christmas tree. Clinging to the prickly branches, he finally regained his balance, but was too late for the tree. It fell, with the crunch of smashing bulbs, right into the fire.

The water from the tree stand gushed across the carpet. The papier-mâché star Mother had made when she was a little girl disappeared in a puff of smoke. The lace snowflakes, tatted long ago by some ancestor, began curling at the edges. The clothespin soldiers Uncle Walter crafted wore hats of flame. The plastic drums, a gift from Uncle Greg last year, began to melt.

Father was the first to come rushing through the door, drawn by the crash of the tree and Uncle Walter’s cries of distress. Father pulled the tree out of the fire and left it smoking on the hearth. He stamped on the flaming ornaments, putting the soldiers out of their misery.

More people came to investigate, and sympathetic murmurs floated through the air as Uncle Walter told his tale. “It’s all my fault,” he said with a sheepish look at Mother, “I might have had too much eggnog.” He didn’t mention Katie at all, but she could tell what they were thinking: she had ruined everything else, there was no doubt this was her fault, too.

She went into the entryway and sat in a corner. Christmas was ruined. It didn’t even smell good anymore—it smelled like smoking boughs and melted plastic and wet carpet. She heard Mother and Cousin Ellen sweep up the ruined ornaments, and Grandma Sue cluck as she soaked up the water with a towel.

No one came to play with Katie. She put her head on her knees and sighed.

Father suggested turning on some Christmas music. Cousin Ellen said that sounded good so long as Uncle Water promised not to dance with any more pine trees. Mother laughed. The crisis was over. She and Aunt Bess went into the kitchen to make gravy. Uncle Greg was roped into mashing the potatoes. Gradually the house became joyful again, and the final flourishes were put on the feast.

At last, Father called everyone to dinner. Katie slunk into the dining room. Platters of meats, baskets of rolls and colorful casserole dishes loaded the table. Eyes sparkled as people sat. Lips smacked as rich scents were smelled. An expectant hush filled the air. But Katie didn’t enjoy any of it. All she could think about were the mistakes she made today.

Father welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. He asked Uncle Greg to say grace, and Mother offered her own thoughts about family and the true meaning of Christmas.

Just as she was finishing, Cousin Ellen let out a shriek. “Rat! Rat!” she screamed. “There’s a rat in here!”

Uncle Greg squealed and leaped onto a chair. The women began to wail and grab their children, pulling them to the safety of the living room. Father rushed for the broom. Uncle Walter bellowed for his rifle.

Grandma Sue pointed to the corner. “There it is!”

A fresh round of screams was followed by a tense silence as Father bravely advanced, waving the broom menacingly at the gray beast.

“Be careful, John.” Mother’s voice quavered.

Aunt Bess fainted.

The rat’s feral eyes gleamed as it bared its sharp, yellow teeth. Its head darted from side to side, as it backed further into the corner. Father moved closer. Suddenly, the rat ran to the right, dodged to the left, and dashed straight at Father. Father was caught off guard. He raised his broom and swung for the rat. The broom’s bristles sailed harmlessly over its back as the sturdy wooden handle continued its arc and smashed into Uncle Greg’s shins.

Katie watched the scene in front of her with big eyes. Everything seemed to slow down. Uncle Greg was howling in pain. Mother was slapping Aunt Bess’s cheeks to wake her up. Uncle Walter was still roaring for his rifle, and Cousin Ellen was shrieking like a tea pot. In the midst of confusion, the rat took a mighty leap and launched itself straight toward the table.

In an instant, Katie saw all her dreams of Christmas dinner ruined. No roast, no ham, no potatoes and gravy. What would her family do? She couldn’t let it happen. Father was still trying to separate the broom from Uncle Greg; he wouldn’t be able to stop the rat in time! It was up to Katie.

She bounded toward the table, vaulted over the prostrate form of Aunt Bess, skirted Uncle Greg and leaped at the rat. She caught it midair, her teeth closing over its large body. Hot blood flooded her mouth as the rat struggled. She landed in front of Uncle Walter, shaking her head sharply to stop the rat’s movements.

She laid the rat on the floor and looked up at Uncle Walter. He smiled at her and scratched behind her ears. “Good girl, Katie. You saved Christmas dinner. Although, I still wish I’d had my rifle.” He winked at her.

Katie grinned, her tongue lolling out. A large group, all eager to scratch her belly and tell her how brave she was soon surrounded her. Father got some newspaper and picked up the rat. Aunt Bess finally woke and, once assured that the rat was no longer a danger, consented to find a seat at the table. Uncle Greg accepted Father’s apology and limped to his chair.

Soon everyone sat around the table. Mother tapped on her glass with her fork to get everyone’s attention. As soon as it was quiet, she turned to Katie, who had returned to her corner, her chin lying hopefully on the wide lip of her dish. “Katie, come here,” she said sternly.

Katie obediently padded across floor.

“Katie, you’ve made one big mess after another today. You’ve been into the flour, the popcorn and the Christmas tree.” She shot a glance at Uncle Walter, who looked guiltily at his plate. Katie hung her head and waited for the order to spend the rest of the day outside. “And now you’ve killed a rat in my dining room,” she paused and then smiled, “and saved Christmas dinner.” She picked up her plate. “And so, I’m dedicating this first plate to the bravest and best dog a family could ever ask for—Katie, the Rat Slayer!”

Mother put a slice of ham on the plate and passed it to Father who added potatoes and gravy. The plate went around the table, each person adding a tasty morsel. Soon the plate was loaded. Mother set it on the floor. Katie stood over the plate for a moment, just breathing in the aroma of love and family and forgiveness, before she buried her nose in the best Christmas dinner ever.

The Journey

Now, instead of driving an ice cube, my parents were driving a bomb.

My parents have led small, but infinitely interesting lives. This story, 1st Place winner of the Creative Non-fiction category,  is just a glimpse into one tiny aspect of their life together. My mother, a delightful writer herself, is currently chronicling her story which promises to be filled with many anecdotes much like this.

 

THE JOURNEY – by Josie Hulme

 Car /kahr/ noun

  1. a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people.
  2. something that breaks down at the worst possible time.

Most people probably couldn’t come up with more than a bulleted list of cars they’ve owned in their lives, but my parents could write volumes. The cars they’ve owned were many and varied, but they all had one thing in common: they were on their last leg.

The fact that we owned such dilapidated vehicles would not come as a surprise to anyone who knew my parents. When I was five, my parents moved from Salt Lake to a tiny, rather run-down house in a tiny farming community about twenty minutes outside the tiny town of Preston, Idaho. My father was first a teacher, then a principal in the Preston School District. He was, and still is, the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. It wasn’t long before books began to arrive at our new house, books with ominous titles like: Plumbing and Household Sanitation filled with diagrams Escher would have been proud of, and Build Your Own Log Home – It’s Easy! published by Pants on Fire, LLC. And build it, we did!

My mother stayed home to raise seven children. She was, and still is, a modern-day pioneer—that fascinating blend of dreamy-eyed optimism and grounded practicality. She ran her own chainsaw and worked side-by-side with my father while mothering all of us. My mom could whip up a full dinner out of a bare cupboard in thirty minutes flat. Her motto was: “Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” We did plenty of each.

We lived too far from town to get a TV signal, so our days were unencumbered by screen time and advertisements for things we couldn’t possibly afford. We stopped at the Preston Carnegie Library every time we went to town, played Kick the Can and Capture the Flag once a week with the neighbor kids, and made up games like Cape-rithians and The Green Pajama. Though I experienced youthful angst like every child, I recognized, even then, the privileged life I was living. While my friends were chafing to move away to the “big” city of Logan, UT, I knew that the halcyon days of my youth—roaming the mountains and splashing in the creek that wandered through our property—were numbered.

This extrasensory perception by my young self might be why, even as a teenager, I was never embarrassed to be picked up by whatever vehicular monstrosity my parents were driving at the time. This did not hold true for everyone who had to catch a ride from us. My mother’s youth group requested she park around the block when picking them up from school so they wouldn’t be seen climbing into the yellowish, rusty Suburban we affectionately named Mahana, you ugly!

My parents’ first car of their married life was indicative of their vehicles for the next thirty years. It was an old, gray Toyota, and it was all downhill from there—literally. The Toyota had a low battery and had to be parked facing downhill so it could be started by popping the clutch. Luckily, their Salt Lake apartment was on a hill. My mother would turn the key to start, push in the clutch, put the car in second gear, and let off the brake to start it rolling down the hill. As soon as the car hit 10 mph, she’d pop the clutch and the engine would roar to life, thus bypassing the battery. Of course, if the next ten seconds weren’t finessed perfectly, the car would stall and the whole process would have to be repeated. Errands had to be planned carefully—stores were chosen not because of price or selection, but geography.

Next came a pink Studebaker with a hole rusted through the floor so you could literally watch the road go by. You wanted to keep a good, tight grip on anything of value while riding in that car—dropped pens, ChapStick or loose change would be sucked into this black hole, never to be seen again.

After that came a red Datsun with a fuel filter problem. My father taught my mother a temporary fix if it ever stopped on her, which it inevitably did—on the dusty shoulder of I-15. My pregnant mother had to lift the hood, unhook the fuel line, and blow the obstruction back into the tank where, if she was very lucky, it would stay until my father was driving.

In Idaho, we had an old mint green Ford truck, the big heavy kind made of solid steel that could take on a M1 Abrams tank and come out ahead. It had a million tiny rust spots that made it look like a robin’s egg. I was fascinated by this machine. I traced the raised F-O-R-D on the back of the tailgate countless times with my little fingers.

It was built in simpler times when there were no locks on the doors, and vehicle-specific keys were a thing of the future. The only reason for a key was to have something long enough to stick in the ignition switch to turn it. When the key was lost, a red-handled flat-head screwdriver found a permanent home in the steering column. Problem solved. That wasn’t the only issue, though. The truck lived up to its name: Fix Or Repair Daily. I swear my father spent so much time under that hood, he started out clean-shaven and finished up looking like Hagrid.

Running, the truck was so noisy that it was impossible to carry on a conversation over the hammering of its engine, and the long gear shift would rattle and vibrate in my cupped hands. But when it was parked, it was a source of endless hours of fun. Its corrugated bed was perfect for Matchbox car races or playing King of the World. Its cab was a great place to hole up during Hide and Seek, and its dashboard, covered in large buttons and gauges, turned the truck into an instant submarine or the Millennium Falcon.

We lived in a boxy, silver trailer for a whole summer one year while we worked on the house. The trailer had about a hundred little doors inside and outside, all of them full of treasures and surprises. There was one big bed that my parents slept in, and canvas hammocks that you could unroll, like WWII stretchers, for us kids. There was a little table that popped up and down, benches that doubled as kitchen chairs and couches, and a tiny galley with a fridge, stove and sink. But best of all, just outside the silver door, there was a whole mountain to explore!

We owned not one, but two Volkswagen buses—at the same time! One was a gift from my great-grandmother who had bought it to go camping. When she became too sick to use it, she sent it on to our large family. No one can remember why we had a second one, but the only possible explanation is that it was a gift from someone else—no one who owned one VW bus would ever voluntarily buy second. The key broke off in the ignition in one of the buses, so my father rewired it to start with a light switch. The other bus had a too-true-to-be-funny bumper sticker that said “0-55 in 11 minutes.

One of the buses was so noisy my junior high math class could hear it coming down the block. Math took a back seat to snickers and good-humored ribbing as the staccato bark of the bus grew louder. A peek out the window to see my mother pull into the school’s parking lot confirmed I wouldn’t have to take the big yellow school bus home that day—I would get a different kind of bus ride instead.

Not only were the buses slow and loud, but they were freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. I remember peeling my bare legs off the vinyl seats on hot days and hearing the same seat crackle when I sat down in the cold. One snowy day, after the ten-minute drive to church, my mother tried to lift my little sister out of the bus, but she wouldn’t budge. My mother tugged until my sister popped free, leaving behind one shiny black Sunday shoe iced to the floor.

To solve the freezing problem, we were bundled into quilts and blankets, but it still wasn’t enough. So my parents put a 5-gallon propane heater in the back of the bus with us. Now, instead of driving an ice cube, my parents were driving a bomb. The windows wept and fogged up so badly you needed a squeegee to see where you were going, but there were no more little feet frozen to the floor. We eventually sold both of them in a “buy one – get one free” deal.

Somewhere in those thirty years one of my uncles gave us an El Camino—someone’s ingenious combination of a sedan and a pick-up truck. It was a blue-gray bullet that seemed to sway and sail down the winding canyon road. We were also the recipient of “The Dollar Car”—a neon orange sports car that passed to someone in need for the price of a dollar with the agreement that when it was no longer needed, it would be passed on to someone else for only one dollar. The agreement would never have been violated—only someone in dire straits would ever drive such a hideous car.

Several vans followed in quick succession, including a green one named the Pickle. It had mismatched hub caps, flaking rust spots and a luggage rack we strapped the “burrito” to. The burrito was what we called the tarp-wrapped load of there-are-nine-of-us-in-a-seven-passenger-van-and-we-can’t-fit-everything-in-the-car stuff we took with us whenever we traveled.

We drove to LA to see Phantom of the Opera one year. At the time, we were driving a white van with faux wood paneling in a wide stripe on each side, Dodge’s attempt to tap into the non-existent nostalgia for the 70s. We took the middle row of seats out, laid some foam pads down in the empty space, and piled into the van for the road trip. In LA, we drove up to the theater amidst limos and shiny black town cars. Our battered and rattling travel-stained van stood out like a nun in a whorehouse. But I guess our Idaho license plate was explanation enough.

That was not the first time the words to the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others,” would be applicable to our cars, nor would it be the last. Not sure which car the folks left at the airport for you? Look for the only dump in the parking lot. Can’t remember where you parked at the grocery store? Follow the oil slick. Wondering when you’ll be picked up from a friend’s house? Listen for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

My parents bought used cars exclusively from individual sellers. My mother always said that you don’t buy the car, you buy the seller. If you like the person selling the car, then you can trust that they’re telling the truth about what’s wrong with the car (and there was always something wrong with the car). When she bought Mahana, the yellow-brown Suburban, the ad in the newspaper said, “198? Chevy. Rusty but trusty.” And it absolutely was. That thing would not quit, no matter how much some of us wanted it to.

Buying cars is a hazardous crap shoot at the best of times, but when you’re young, it’s even worse. My sixteen-year-old sister wanted to buy a car. She scanned the ads, found one within her price range, and went down for a test drive. It was a cute little two-door Dodge Colt—and it had a sun roof, a symbol of wealth unheard of in our family. The seller wanted $650, but my sister was determined to strike a bargain. If she could knock the price down, she could buy a cute outfit to go along with her new car. She practiced her offer a thousand times in her head before she made the call. But what came out was not what she had rehearsed: “I’ll give you $600 and not a penny less!” It is one of those lines that lives on in family lore, but my sister made the deal, and the Colt had a new owner. To my sister’s absolute horror, on the way home from buying the car, the sun roof blew off and shattered on the road.

Living in a farming community in a narrow valley, it’s no surprise that we had our fair share of run-ins with the local wildlife. We hit a deer with a little black Jetta and had to straighten the hood by hooking it to a rope, tying the rope to a tree, and then backing up the car. We also had several late-night encounters with cows. Idaho is an Open Range state, meaning that if you don’t want other people’s livestock on your land, you need to fence your property—a fence-out, rather than fence-in policy. So when my dad zipped around a corner and ran into a black, 2,000-pound bull standing in the middle of the highway on a dark, moonless night, he was not only responsible for the damage done to his car, but he also had to pay the owner of the 2,000-pound bull for the loss of the animal.

Most of these cars came suddenly into our lives and left just as quickly. We put a lot of miles on them. Simply running into town for a gallon of milk ticked up the odometer forty miles. The nearest Walmart or Home Depot was a 90-mile round trip. If you wanted to watch a movie, go clothes shopping, or eat anywhere other than the deli counter at the Willow-Way gas station, you had to drive at least an hour into Logan. Add in the fact that the nearest relatives lived in Ogden or Salt Lake, that music lessons were taught at USU, that the dentist was in Bountiful, and that the nine of us were always off on some adventure, and you can see it’s no wonder these vehicles had such a short shelf-life.

But there was one car that was a constant: a little white 4-door Honda Accord. It was a workhorse! It hauled coal and firewood to keep us warm in the winter, trays of bedding plants for our garden, lumber to build our home, and loads of teenagers. It bumped over rutted trails in the Cache National Forest above our house, rolled down gravel roads on the way to the reservoir, and sped along thousands of miles of pavement. A neighbor spilled a quart of honey on the back seat that never really washed out, and my youngest sister was almost born in the passenger seat.

As the farthest house up the canyon, we were always getting called by the neighbor kids for rides. The Honda was usually full when we headed into town for youth activities, school dances, or ball games. We drove the Honda through the early-morning dark to help neighbors move pipe in dewy fields of wheat. We drove it to the community BBQ on the 4th of July, to church softball games in the summer, and to night games on the weekends. We hauled saws, nail guns, compressors, and all manner of tools in its spacious trunk down the road to help with construction projects. It kept us safe through near-misses with deer and multiple slides off snowy roads.

All seven of us kids learned how to drive in the Honda. My father believed in starting us right out in a stick-shift. We lurched around the yard, killing the engine over and over again, as we tried to figure out how to work both feet and both hands at the same time. My father was the soul of patience while teaching us to drive. He was so patient, he still wasn’t yelling at me after we sat through several revolutions of the sole traffic light in Preston. I was mortified. Every time I let out the clutch, I killed the engine. The policeman who finally rolled up was a lot less patient, but at least it wasn’t me he yelled at. He took one look at my tear-stained face and told my father, in no uncertain terms, that Main Street was not the place a man should teach his daughter how to drive a stick. My father sheepishly switched seats with me and drove us home.

By the end of its life, the Honda had over 470,000 miles on it. We couldn’t bear to see such a dear friend sitting neglected and forlorn in some acre-long line of anonymous cars in a pick-a-part yard. Not the Honda. So we arranged one last hunt for the old dog and sold it to a neighbor boy who wanted a car for the demolition derby. It churned its way through the mud of the arena, taking down opponent after opponent until it was the last car, wheezing and rattling its way through the cheers of the crowd, dying as it had lived, reliable to the last.

Of course, once the kids moved out and there weren’t seven extra mouths to feed, my parents could afford nice cars—cars with satellite radios, flawless paint and no personality. Sure, they don’t break down on the side of the road or leave a trail of oil you can follow home if you get lost, but where is the excitement in that? My parents have joined the boring millions with functional automobiles rather than adventurous vehicles.

And sadly, so have I. My children will simply have a bulleted list of cars they rode in when they were young. Cars that drove them safely to Disneyland and San Francisco and Seattle. Cars with DVD players so they didn’t even have to talk to their siblings or play the alphabet game seventeen hundred times during the long hours of the road trip. The stories they tell their children will be of the destination and not the journey.

But no matter how pleasant and blessedly quiet these road trips have been for me and my husband, I can’t help thinking I’m doing a disservice to my children. I have taken the path well-traveled. Despite the discomfort of frigid winters and sweltering summers, rattling mufflers and clanking engines, cracked seats and paint jobs that looked bad twenty years before my parents bought the car, I was given a gift. My parents, in their infinite wisdom, saw a blessing in their penury and gave me something that I, in my plenty, have kept from my children: the effort of the climb, the achievement of the odyssey. The thrill of the journey.

Flash Fiction – The Cottage

“Oh, you wonderful children,” I murmur. I race back to the cottage and grab my axe, then I follow the trail of breadcrumbs into the forest.

Flash fiction is a fascinating form of writing. The rules are very simple: keep your story short. The length is usually stipulated by the contest–this contest was limited to 1,000 words (I’ve seen as low as 100 words).

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be easier to write a shorter story than a longer story?” you’d be wrong. All the elements of a longer story have to be included in a very short time: story arc, character development, conflict, resolution, character arc, suspense, emotion… the list goes on. You find yourself, as a writer, thinking: how can I say this phrase in just one word and have it convey the exact same thing? How can I show what this character is doing or feeling in one sentence instead of four? How can I evoke love, admiration, concern, hate, (insert emotion here) in my reader as my protagonist battles my antagonist in less than 1,000 words!

Here was my attempt to do just that. This was my first and (so far) only attempt at writing flash fiction, but I will definitely be doing more of it! It flexed my writing muscles in ways that no other writing has, and in today’s literature market, where concise is the first and only word in the dictionary, writing flash fiction well is a useful talent to have.

I hope you enjoy.

 

THE COTTAGE – by Josie Hulme

 

“You what?” My voice is very quiet. My wife knows this is a bad sign.

“I didn’t think you’d notice,” she whines. “You’re never here. You never see them, anyway.”

“They are my children! Of course I’m going to notice when they’re missing!”

“It took you three days.” She says it under her breath, she knows she’s poking a bear.

I grind my teeth. “I’ve been in the forest cutting wood for three days.” I didn’t choose my second wife well. “Get out.”

She sees my face getting red. “I didn’t send them away with nothing,” she snivels. “I gave them our last piece of bread to share.”

“Get out!” I scream now, spit flying from my mouth. “Get out of my house! If I see you again, I swear to God I will chop you up and feed you to the wolves.”

She scrambles around the couch, grabbing up a lamp, a clock. “Fine! I’m tired of living in this hovel! I’m tired of your stupid children. And I’m tired of being groped every night by your rough, clumsy hands! You’re the worst lover I’ve ever had!”

She runs out the door, brown dress flapping around her legs, arms full of knickknacks. She’ll drop everything before before she gets out of the woods. I know how lazy she is.

I don’t even watch her go. I run to the tree house I made three years ago. Empty. I check the children’s regular haunts: the hollow tree, the swimming hole, the toadstool ring where they’ve spent many nights watching for fairies. All empty.

I spin in a circle. Thick forest all around. Where would they go?

I notice a line of ants, all carrying tiny specks of white. I follow the trail and find a bit of bread smashed in the dirt. A little farther, I find another piece nearly hidden by a fallen leaf.

“Oh, you wonderful children,” I murmur. I race back to the cottage and grab my axe, then I follow the trail of breadcrumbs into the forest.

The trees are close, and the underbrush thick. Game trails cross each other or join for a time before veering off through the bracken again. The bread crumbs are hard to find, and I have to backtrack several times. At each intersection, I kneel in the dirt to see the paths from the children’s perspective. If I were a child, which one would I take?

The crumbs get smaller and farther apart. The sun has set, and the forest is dark. The woods are no place to be alone at night, even for a man. I don’t allow myself to think about my children alone in the forest. A wolf howls, and an owl hoots its lonely song. I climb a large tree to wait out the dark.

From this vantage point, I see a light shimmering in the distance. I’ve walked these woods a thousand times. There should be no light.

I climb down and run, keeping my axe ready and my ears tuned to every rustle in the underbrush. It doesn’t take me long to reach a clearing where there never was a clearing. The sickle moon shines, its weak light picking out the details of a strange little cottage.

Lemon drop daisies and lollipop trees fill the clearing. Gumdrops line a brick path. Peppermint sticks frame the doors and windows. Candy discs form shingles, and icing drips a lacy curtain from the eaves. The spicy smell of gingerbread fills the air.

“What kind of magic is this?” I whisper. As I pick my way through the sugar-dusted flowers, a scream rends the silence. I know that scream. Echoes of that scream still wake me in the night when my dreams take me back to the day a rabid wolf attacked my daughter. Gretel! I fear something worse has her now.

I rush to the cottage. My axe cleaves the door in two. A large table set for dinner dominates the room. On the far wall is a large brick oven. Waves of heat rise from the glowing bricks. An old woman is pushing my son into the oven. I can see smoke rising from his kicking shoes. My daughter beats against the old woman’s plump backside. In two strides, I’m across the room. I snatch my son from her. She turns on me, saliva dripping from her snarling mouth. Curses fly at me, but her magic is only strong enough to trick children. It is no match for my rage.

She runs from me. My first blow severs her spinal cord. My second cleaves her head from her body. I turn from her corpse and gather my children into my arms, checking fingers and toes and kissing their dear faces again and again.

At last their tears are dry. “Wait outside, little ones,” I say.

I stoke the oven until sweat pours from my skin. I chop up the old woman and put her into the flames. While she turns to ash, I destroy the cottage. We’re due for a good rain. It will wash this place clean.

By the time I scatter the witch’s ashes, the sun is shining.

Holding two little hands in mine, I listen to my children’s chatter as we begin the journey home. Their story wrings my soul. I’ve been fooling myself for years. The woods aren’t safe for innocent children. I can get a job in town—trade the witches and wolves of the forest for the criminals and crooks of the city.

The trail ends. Our little cottage, snug and sturdy, basks in the bright sunshine. On the other hand, I can teach my children to protect themselves. They may be young, but they’re strong and brave. That flat area there, to the left of the house—that will make an excellent sparring ground.

I breathe in the pungent smell of the forest. This is our home. We’ll stay and fight.

The Blog Post Where I Explain Why I Hate Blogging

For someone who loves to write, who resents every time I have to close my laptop to fix dinner for people who continually insist that they get hungry every evening, I find it oddly fascinating how truly and deeply I hate to blog.

I have been pondering on the reasons behind this and I’ve come up with a few that might fit.

  • I lack the basic narcissism necessary to be a blogger. Don’t get me wrong, like most Americans, I think far more highly of myself than I deserve, but even I can’t imagine that anyone wants to read my thoughts about life or food or parenting. I don’t know what I’m doing! Don’t take advice from me! I am the quintessential make-it-up-as-I-go-along kind of person. I rarely look before I leap; I’m not prone to deep, philosophical thoughts; I don’t come up with paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering ideas… In all honesty, other than a few notable exceptions, my life is pretty vanilla. What would I even say in a blog?
  • Blogging is a lot of work. The need to continually come up with something unique, insightful, humorous, interesting… (the list goes on), is more stress than I care to deal with. Let’s face it, I’m a little bit lazy, and during my brief flirtation with blogging I did not enjoy feeling like I needed to post something ‘wowing’ every week. Plus, blogging is a competitive business, and I found that I just didn’t care enough about it to put in the effort to get the contacts to make it successful. There are amazing people out there that do this and thrive on it. They are born salesmen. Me, not so much.
  • Blogging is not the same thing as noveling (if that isn’t a word, it totally should be). When I novel (See? I’m turning a noun into a verb. I can do that, I’m a writer.) my characters get to tell their thoughts and feelings—they get to have adventures and romances, and I get to sit back and just let their story come through my fingertips. It’s work, don’t get me wrong, but it’s fun and exciting work! Blogging, on the other hand, is a chore. With blogging I have to sit and think if there’s anything going on in my life that I can maybe turn into a topic, and all that sitting and thinking about my life is a little bit depressing. It always ends with the stark realization that I’m 39; that I’ve chosen to put my life on hold to have and raise five children (honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way—being a mom is the best job ever); and now that I finally get some time to do something for me, it’s obvious that my intellect has been neglected for too long because I’ve chosen to use that long-awaited time to blog, which is awful. Which starts me back to thinking about my life. *sigh* It’s a vicious cycle.

The conclusion? Blog on if you’re a blogger. Mom on if you’re a mother. Lead on if you’re a leader. Plumb on if you’re a plumber. Whatever you enjoy, do it well. Me? I’m content to live in my fantasy world and spin yarns. Hopefully, one of these days, my talent and determination will land me an agent and a publisher. Until then, I’ll write on, because I’m a writer.