“Can you keep a secret?”

The voice rose up inside Mildred’s mind, taking her by surprise.

“Yes,” she replied aloud. She thought she could. She felt she would know the answer for sure if the question had stayed put. It had been just there, so close she thought she could grab ahold of it. But like so many things nowadays, it was slippery. She held very still, eyes squeezed tightly, eyelids making delicate tissue paper ruffles, feeling through the blackness trying to find it again.

She opened her eyes and found she was alone. Hadn’t someone just asked her something?

All that remained was the echo of a yes.


“Of course I can keep a secret,” Gerald replied crossly.

“I know you can, Dad.”

Gerald was confused by the man’s reply. Why was his voice so concerned? So tender?

 “Then why ask such a fool thing?”

The young woman and man looked at each other in a way that agitated Gerald. Their faces were sad and scared and something else. What’s the emotional equivalent of holding your breath? That’s what their eyes were doing, looking like they didn’t want to spook him. Or maybe themselves.

He looked away from them and out the window.

He watched a small bird hop along a branch and felt annoyed but couldn’t remember why. Something had just come along, and he’d passed through it, and it had left a trace of itself behind. The more he tried to follow it back, the sadder and more uncertain he became.

He wanted to stay strong and stubborn and keep watching the bird on the branch, but he started to feel like a balloon floating away. He turned back to the young man and woman. They looked kind, he could probably ask them.

 “This is my room?”

“Yes Dad, this is your room.”

Gerald nodded and felt better.


“Oh Franny, now what have you gone and done?”

That girl was always off gettin’ inta mischief.

“Hey Franny, remember that one time Miss Orrin told you your hair looked a mess after church? And you were so mad that, even though it was a mess on account a you spendin’ the whole of Sunday School runnin’ around in the creek bed with Jimmy Perdy, you followed her home and waited for her to fall asleep in her porch rocker and snuck up and snipped one of her braids clean off? Well I didn’t say nothin’ then did I?”

Suddenly the lights in the room flicked on, “Oh, Jefferson! You all alone in here? I thought I heard talking?”

Jefferson looked around at all the hard surfaces reflecting the fluorescent blue-white of the cafeteria lights. He chuckled and waved his hand in a no-bother sweep, “Well, I’ll be, I guess I am.”

“Ok, well, let’s get you to bed.”

Jefferson stood and took the woman’s hand. He didn’t know her, but a walk would be nice. Maybe they could get to talkin’ and he’d have some mischief to share with Franny for once.


That night the voice appeared to seven hundred and thirty-two people, as it had to every person who was ready to hear it, every night, since the beginning. It rose up inside of each and every one as a playful challenge. That was, after all, one of the most delightful things about being a person: The keeping of confidences, the gathering and being gathered into one’s discreet revelations. A conspiratorial exchange shared in a hurried moment.

Also, trust.

The voice always started by trusting, so that it was trusted.

And the question made one curious.


Another glorious thing.


 The voice appeared every night for seven days, each time asking the same question, but blooming a little larger, like an increasingly resonant hum, taking longer and longer to disappear. By the seventh day their whole bodies were humming, and they couldn’t take it for another second. They had to get out.

Mildred waited until her husband was doing the dishes and slipped out the front door while his back was turned. She was still a pleasant conversationalist, interjecting ‘Oh mys’ and ‘you don’t says’ at just the right time. He loved making up stories for her. On this particular evening he was telling her about a lilac bush the size of a mountain over in Iowa. How whenever the breeze kicked up it’s petals would scatter far and wide and that’s why the night sky turns a soft purple right before the sun disappears for the night. It’s the lilac petals swirling in the final light of day.

He realized he was speaking to an empty room when he paused for a response—waiting for her shaky voice to fill the space—but instead the silence spread and his panic rose. He leaned back from the sink and called her name. His heart beat in his ear drums. As he rushed through the empty living room and out the open door, into the middle of the road, desperately looking this way and that, everything became still and quiet.

It was the following morning when Gerald’s son got the call. He and his wife had been arguing already, at 9:17 AM, this time about how she had texted last night from the office that she was working late and could he please put the laundry in the dryer. And how he had said yes but hadn’t been bothered and now she had no dry underwear and a washer full of mildewed clothes.

It wasn’t really about the laundry, of course. It was about how Cal’s dad didn’t remember him, so Cal couldn’t be mad at him, but he couldn’t forgive him either. So, here he was, in all his strangled frustration, being half a man to the woman he loved.

When his cell vibrated in his pocket she threatened him not to answer but when he showed her the screen—“Dad’s Home” lighting up on the caller ID—she waved her hand to say, "go on."


Cal’s wife could here muffled words, with the edge of false calm layered over panic. She stared into his face as he looked off into the distance, brow furrowed. He cut off the chatter on the other end, “Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean gone?”

When Jefferson wasn’t in the cafeteria, the aide who found him there every night wasn’t worried at first. She was actually a little bemused. Jefferson was her favorite client, and truthfully the only reason she kept her job at Shady Glen. When she first started it seemed too hard, all the clients with their bodies and minds betraying them just enough to be tragic: A body faltering just enough to be embarrassing; a mind snapping back into focus just enough to know it was disappearing. She needed this job with her husband in school and their baby girl getting bigger every day, but it was breaking her down.

Until she met Jefferson.

It was several months ago when she was clocking out after a particularly hard shift—Mrs. Sampson was remembering that she was forgetting—when she heard a warm gravelly voice coming from the cafeteria. She flicked on the lights and found him there—sitting so distinguished with brown skin and salt and pepper hair, talking to no one—and they made their introductions.

She escorted him to his room.

The first meeting he was so warm and chatty, seemed so lucid, she was shocked the following night when she found him in the same spot and it was as if they’d never met.

Every night after that she’d clock out and go find Jefferson and he’d flirt and charm as she walked him to his room. Before leaving him she’d say something like, “Well it was lovely to meet you, Jefferson, maybe we’ll cross paths again,” and he’d give her a wink and she’d head home to her family.

Spending the last few minutes of her workday with Jefferson always made her feel whole. She could tell he had been such a happy man with a full life, but that was gone now. All she knew was that no one ever came to see him, and his single family photo was of a young girl, no more than twelve, framed on his dresser. The only intel he could offer was the occasional point at it and a, “That’s Franny,” with all the sweetness of warm honey.

So, when he wasn’t in the cafeteria that evening, sure she was a little surprised, but also curious. “Who’s he off charming now?” She thought to herself as she checked the music room and then the TV room. It wasn’t until checking his bedroom and the bathrooms that her brow furrowed and she made her way to security, still thinking she was overreacting, until the security cameras proved she wasn’t.


The stories were the same across the loved ones of all seven hundred and thirty-two, with slight variations of course, but all amounted to this: Over the past week, the missing had become increasingly anxious, or rather, unsettled, and on the very same night all had walked off into the darkness.

Mildred’s hum led her in search of lilacs. She wandered through her verdant neighborhood, turning whichever way was more green, more lush, hoping for a glimpse of soft dusty purple.

The first time she saw Henry, she knew. He was sitting outside the town diner, laughing with his friends. As she passed they caught each other’s gaze and it was all over. She loved his sandy hair and blond eyelashes, his freckles and worn hands. She held a bouquet of lilacs as she walked down the aisle, and after every baby they lost he’d bring her the same lovely blossoms. Only one of their children, a little girl, survived for a short time. They named her June and planted a lilac bush over her tiny grave, and then it was just the two of them.

Gerald’s hum led him to a park where he had the vague recollection of taking a little boy and watching birds. A swell of love overtook him as he remembered a small hand clutching his. In his memory he looked down and saw the face of the young man who came to his room sometimes. And in that moment he knew. He knew he had left that boy, time and time again, and that he was the reason that hopeful, open face had been closed by dashed hopes and broken promises.

Jefferson’s hum led him to the front of the old falling down house where he and his sister grew up. Well, he grew up. Their daddy was always mad about something, always yelling and carryin on and hittin on their mama. Jefferson would sit real quiet in his room with a book and his imagination. Franny would escape out into the world with her fearlessness and attitude. They would come together every night at the kitchen table and Jefferson would grow wide-eyed at the tales spun by his little sister.

Jefferson didn’t know at the time that their Daddy liked the bottle, and also that he liked Franny, and that’s why she was the way she was. And then one night their Daddy wrapped his car around a telephone pole with he and Franny in it, and just like that, at fourteen years old, she was all done growing up.

Every one of the seven hundred and thirty-two was driven by the hum to a similar place. Once they arrived the scattered pieces of their lives came together, and their connection to places and people and events all swelled up inside them. The hum vibrated louder and deeper and more resonant than ever before. It pushed against their skin until they thought they would burst, and then they did.

Their atoms vibrated, and they could feel the effervescing of every tired molecule that made up their own dying bodies. They could feel their energy growing as their very essences became free and playful, mingling with breeze and light and color and sound. All of the boundaries were invisible, and they laughed about how trapped they had felt in their own separate bodies, in their own separate minds, when this was all there really was all along: Joy and play and magic.


All escapees either returned home or were found twenty-four hours later. Each received a tight embrace and relieved tears, and was tenderly tucked into bed: Mildred by her husband, Gerald by his son, Jefferson by his aide.

The returned looked into the concerned eyes of their loved ones, and they remembered the truth of all things, but wouldn’t say it aloud. It was a secret they would keep, a revelation for all to experience on their own, in their own time, after almost all their living was done.

Instead of giving it all away, each rested a weathered hand over a worried one, and patted it gently. And each, Mildred, Gerald, Jefferson, and all seven hundred and twenty-nine others, gazed softly at their grieving families and said the words that countless numbers had before them, and untold multitudes would after,

“Don’t worry.

I love you.

You’ll soon be free.”


The listeners didn’t understand, although they thought they did. They reassured their loved ones that they weren’t a burden, they didn’t want to be freed. But being on the receiving end of such a blessing, cracked their hearts wide open in a way that could never be forgotten.

All of the seven hundred and thirty-two passed within the week, as was the way with those who the voice and the hum visited. Not one ever told the secret, but everyone who heard their message of freedom still learned it.

They didn’t learn it in the way we think of learning—the exact chain of events, the sequence as it happened to each of the recipients—but rather they knew because they experienced the transformation that had occurred. From that moment on, where each would have been impatient, they showed kindness; where they would have judged, they showed grace; where they would have alienated, they welcomed. And each person they touched, touched others, and on and on until each of those beings heard a question and then a hum, the calling back home. 

August 22, 2020 02:43

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Shea K
16:54 Aug 26, 2020

Such a beautiful story! The characters are all so sympathetic!


Lisa Hines
20:06 Aug 26, 2020

Thank you so much!


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Jane Andrews
14:46 Aug 26, 2020

I like what you did with this one - to begin with, I thought it was going in a ‘Cocoon’ direction, and then it sort of detoured into a 4400 type story but with a far more realistic outcome, and finally, you gave us a bitter sweet ending as they passed away happily and their loved ones became better people. Well done on a touching tale.


Corbin O'Skinny
21:15 Aug 26, 2020

Cocoon! What a great linkage. I had almost as much fun thinking about your comment as I did reading the story, haha. Lisa: Great story and great ending!


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Lisa Hines
20:06 Aug 26, 2020

Thank you!


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Pragya Rathore
13:14 Aug 26, 2020

Beautifully written! I loved your story. My favorite line was: "You'll soon be free." Great job! :)


Lisa Hines
20:07 Aug 26, 2020

Thank you so much!


Pragya Rathore
20:11 Aug 26, 2020

You're most welcome! :p If you get the time, please check out my stories too :)


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Keerththan 😀
06:03 Sep 01, 2020

Beautiful story. Really loved it. The characters are wonderful. I loved the dialogues. Well written. Would you mind reading my story "The adventurous tragedy?"


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