Drama Contemporary

It had been twenty-four years since I'd last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Except that now I was in my forties and wearing my police uniform.

Parking along the street, I expected to see my mother's mailbox. But it wasn't there anymore. Instead, a new rustic mailbox stood near where the driveway met the street. It read: The Campbells. It was shut and a red flag was lying horizontally beside it.

I looked both ways before crossing the street, then walked up to the front door and knocked on it.

It opened and an unfamiliar woman with shoulder-length silver hair and green eyes looked at me, puzzled. “Yes, Officer? Is there a problem?”

I shook my head. “No problem. You see – I used to live here. Before I went to college and the police academy. Twenty-four years ago.”

“My husband and I have lived here twenty-two years,” the woman said. “I'm Mrs. Campbell. You can call me Nora.”

We shook hands and I said, “I'm Petra Davis.”

“Please to meet you,” she said.

“Likewise,” I said. “If you don't mind my asking, how did you buy this house?”

“We bought it from the real estate agent,” Nora said. “But she said that the owner's last name was Winthrop, not Davis.”

“I can explain that,” I said. “Before I got married, my last name was Winthrop.”

Nora looked suddenly interested. “Oh, then it belongs to you.”

I looked at her. “Excuse me? What belongs to me?”

“I'll go get it,” Nora said. “Be right back.”

While she was inside, I looked at the front of the house and the yard. The bushes were much larger, as were the trees at the left-front corner. The flower garden was larger than it had been. There was even a simple chandelier hanging from the front porch's ceiling. The potted plants that my mother kept on the front porch were gone. In their place was a croquet set with a missing mallet.

Nora returned and handed me a long, narrow, light-gray nondescript cardboard box. Inside it was a nutcracker, dressed like a police officer. “This apparently belongs to you. I found it after we moved here. It was downstairs in the laundry room. I wiped the dust off and saw a name written on its chest, like a name tag: Petra Winthrop.”

I looked down at the nutcracker. “My first Christmas away from home, I asked Mom if she could mail this to me. She apologized that she couldn't find it. I thought it was lost for good.”

“Maybe it was waiting for you,” Nora suggested.

“Maybe,” I said.

“It's been waiting a long time, then,” Nora said.

I nodded. “It sure has.”

“We tried to find you so that we could return it to you,” Nora went on. “But we weren't successful. My husband thought maybe we should donate the nutcracker to Goodwill. I thought we should keep it, in case you ever returned here.”

“After I got married, I didn't think I had to tell anyone outside of my family and friends that my last name was different,” I said. “The county records office should've shown the change in my last name, though.”

“I confess that I didn't think to look there,” Nora said. “I only checked online. It would've been easier had you been the only person named Petra. But you're not. And you don't have a Facebook page.”

“Not something I'm interested in,” I said. “I tend to focus on home and work.”

“Do you have any children?” Nora asked.

I shook my head. “My husband and I decided that we didn't want any.”

Someone inside the house walked toward us. “Who's there, dear?” they asked.

“A previous resident, sweetie,” Nora replied. “Petra, this is my husband Desmond. Desmond, this is Officer Petra Davis.”

Her husband had a folded newspaper in one hand. “Evening, Officer.” He saw the open box in my hands. “I wanted to donate it; my wife didn't. I'm glad that we kept it.”

“So am I,” Nora said, then asked me, “Would you like to join us for dinner?”

“We have more than enough food and we could always set an extra place for you,” Desmond said.

“You really don't have to,” I gently protested. “I don't live far from here.”

There was a rumble behind me. A flash of light slashed across the sky. Another rumble was followed by a heavy downpour.

“Unless you'd rather get soaked instead?” Desmond asked with a smile.

“No thanks,” I said. “I think I'll join you after all.”

“Good idea,” he said. “Come on in.”

I closed the nutcracker's box, took off my police officer's cap, and followed them inside. Nora shut the door behind us. It was warm and comfortable. We heard another rumble, louder this time. The inside lights flickered briefly, but stayed on.

“I just have one more question,” I said.

Nora and Desmond waited.

“Do you know what happened to my mother?” I asked.

They looked at each other.

“Why don't we discuss that before dinner,” Desmond suggested. “If you don't mind?”

I shook my head.

The interior geography of the house was the same, even if some details were different. For instance, the stairway to the upper floor with a twelve-inch-wide floral carpet that covered the middle of each step. I looked up the stairs, almost expecting to hear my mother's voice calling down, welcoming me home. The kitchen was still on the left. The wooden table and bench seats were replaced by a more typical kitchen table and chairs on each side of it. My mother's hand-painted recipes were still on the wooden cupboard doors.

They led me down the front hall to the living room. We walked past the stairs on the right that went down to the basement. The living room was bright and cheerful. Off-white walls. A soft, comfortable couch upholstered in blue, yellow, and white. There was a coffee-table in front of it and two chairs opposite it, one blue, the other white. The fireplace was in its familiar spot, but didn't look like it had been used in a long time. In fact, a small metal container holding several magazines and a few newspapers sat in front of the fireplace. There were cards and framed photos on the mantelpiece above it.

“Does it look like how you remembered it?” Nora asked me.

“Yes … and no,” I said. “It's almost like being a ghost.”

She smiled. “It does feel like that sometimes, doesn't it?”

I nodded. “Is there anywhere I could put my cap and the nutcracker's box?”

Nora gently took them from me and laid them on the coffee-table. “That should do. Make yourself at home, Petra. Oh, and would you like anything to drink?”

“I'm not on duty right now, but if you have coffee, tea, or orange juice, that would be fine,” I said.

“Coffee we have,” she said. “Black – or cream – or cream and sugar?”

“Cream and sugar, please,” I said.

She went to the kitchen.

“Take a seat and relax,” Desmond suggested, gesturing at the couch and the chairs. “Your choice.”

I sat down in the blue chair. He sat down on the couch and laid his newspaper next to my cap and the nutcracker's box. The rainstorm was still happening outside, with occasional rumbles and flashes.

He smiled as he noticed my glances around the living room.

“Not quite the same, then,” he said.

I shook my head. “There used to be a long, horizontal painting of St. Peter's Square in Rome above the mantelpiece, for instance. I don't know what happened to it.”

“I think your mother took it with her when she moved away from here,” Desmond said.

“You said you'd tell me what happened to her,” I said.

Nora returned with a mug of coffee for each of us. She sat down next to her husband.

“Do you want to tell her or shall I?” Desmond asked his wife.

“I'll start, and you can jump in anytime you want to,” she told him, and then spoke to me. “We didn't meet her at all. We only dealt with a real estate agent. Even when we came here to see what it was like, she wasn't here. The real estate agent showed us around. Was she always like that?”

I shook my head. “Before my father died, she used to be more friendly. They both were. But after he died, she became more and more like a recluse. I couldn't even invite my friends over after school or on weekends. She wanted it to be just the two of us. The only photos she was willing to have out in the open were of us. The ones with my father in them were put in a box and stored somewhere in the basement. I never saw them again.”

Desmond looked at his wife.

Nora nodded. “Excuse me,” she said, and went downstairs.

"Is everything all right?" I asked him.

"Just fine," he said. "Please continue."

I did so. “She never discussed him again. Any other subject was fair game. She was happy when I said I was definitely going to college after graduating from high school. But when I mentioned I also wanted to go to the police academy –”

“She wasn't too happy about it,” he said.

I nodded. “My father was a police officer. He was injured in the line of duty more than once. Some of his fellow officers would visit, and they would talk about work, the cases they had, the usual.”

“Which she also didn't want to be reminded of," he said.

I nodded again. “We had arguments about it. She tried to talk me out of it. I was stubborn and wouldn't back down. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to honor his memory. I didn't want him to be forgotten, no matter how hard she tried to pretend that he never existed.” I sighed. “After I graduated from college, she stopped replying to my letters or emails and wouldn't answer the phone when I called.”

“Did she come to your wedding?” he asked.

I looked down at my wedding ring and shook my head. “I was escorted up the aisle by Captain Kelly, who was in charge of the police academy back then. He handed me over to my husband-to-be, wishing us a long and happy marriage.”

Nora returned from the basement with a medium-sized box in her hands. She sat down on the couch again, placing the box between herself and her husband. It looked worn, as if it hadn't been opened in a very long time.

“You can continue,” she told me, “or we can go through what's in this box. Your choice.”

I gestured at the box.

“The box, then,” she said. She picked it up and opened it. “I found this in the basement during the first week we lived here. I was doing my laundry and decided to explore the basement a little. The box was sitting as far away from the laundry room doorway as possible, hidden under an old quilt.”

“My mother used to love making quilts,” I said.

“It might have been one of hers, then,” Nora said. She looked down into the box, and took out several photos. They weren't in frames and had slightly curled corners. “In case you're wondering, I didn't open the box until just now. It wasn't my business or Desmond's. If you never returned, we'd decided to throw the box and its contents out in the trash.” She turned each photo over. I thought I saw writing on the back of some of them. “Some people react to tragedy by blocking it out and anyone involved in it. This must've been her way of dealing with it, too.” She handed the photos to me. “Recognize any of them?”

I went from one photo to the next, looking first at each photo and then, like she had, turning them over to see what was written on the back. “The first photo is of the three of us,” I said. “It shows us at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I remember that it was a hot day in mid-June 1989. I was thirteen. My birthday was day after the end of the school year. We decided to celebrate with a cross-country trip. We visited Texas, Arizona, California, Wyoming, and Colorado, before heading back home.”

“And the other photos?” she asked.

“The second photo is of my parents at their wedding reception,” I said. “They seemed so happy, in each other's arms, and dancing. I don't think I've ever seen my mother look so beautiful in her wedding dress, and my father look so handsome in his police officer uniform.” I went to the next photo. “The third photo is of my father and me when we went fishing the summer I turned eleven. To be honest, he did most of the fishing. The fish I'm holding was caught by him, but he gave credit to both of us. Generous. Then again, he usually was. He loved to treat my mother and me, give us special gifts. Sometimes just because he wanted to.” I went to the next photo. “The fourth photo is of my parents again. This time on their honeymoon. They went to Banff in Alberta. The lake behind them is Lake Louise. They said their visit there was wonderful. Magical. Unforgettable.” I went to the last photo. “This photo was taken the day before he died. He's lying in his hospital bed. We're sitting on either side of him. I was fourteen. The man behind me is the hospital's chaplain. I didn't know that my father would be gone so soon. I thought he'd be around for at least another week or maybe even a month. But I think my mother knew better. She sensed that his time would be up by the next morning. And she was right. As the sun rose, he took his last breath, and died. We both cried. Both then and at his funeral.”

I handed the photos back to Nora. She put them back in the box.

“Do you want the box?” she asked me.

I nodded. “I have so little that reminds me of my parents. Especially of my father.”

“After dinner, when you're ready to leave, you can take it with you,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you both.”

“You're welcome,” they said.

Dinner was very nice. Spaghetti with tomato sauce, veggie meatballs, and herbs; strips of garlic bread; and salad with homemade salad dressing.

It reminded me of a restaurant that used to be across the street from my college. The restaurant closed at the end of the year I graduated. Again, leaving me with little more than memories. The building is still there, but the interior is empty. You can sort of see through the glass front doors from the fence around the property. I've often wondered where everything that had been inside the restaurant went. Into storage? To other restaurants? To people's homes? Hopefully not thrown dismantled and thrown away. Especially not the trolley car in the main eating area; I'd had many meals inside it while I was in college.

“Would anyone like some dessert?” Nora asked.

I patted my stomach and shook my head. “No thanks. I'm full. Really I am. That was an amazing meal. My thanks.”

“You're welcome,” she said.

A moment later someone knocked on the front door.

She looked puzzled and glanced at her husband. “That's odd. We're not expecting anyone, are we?”

“I don't think so,” he said. “Want me to see who it is?”

Nora nodded.

He stood up and headed to the front door. We heard him open it, heard him greet the person who had knocked. They spoke in low voices, so we couldn't clearly hear what they said. Then the door closed again.

“Who was it, sweetie?” Nora asked. “Anyone we know?”

Desmond walked towards us. He wasn't alone. Someone in a hooded raincoat walked beside him.

“Ma'am?” he said to them. “Perhaps you would like to introduce yourself, or shall I?”

“I will,” the stranger's voice said, and pulled back their hood.

I suddenly found myself looking at my mother and for several moments I couldn't speak. I could only stare at her long white hair and pale blue eyes.

“Mom?” I asked.

She smiled. “Petra.”

“Mom!” I cried and ran to her.

We put our arms around each other, and just held each other, crying happy tears.

“I've missed you so much,” I said.

“Likewise,” my mother said. “You do make it hard sometimes for people to find you, Petra.”

“I told her the same thing,” Nora told her.

“But I thought you didn't want to hear from me anymore,” I said. “You wouldn't reply to mail or email or answer the phone. You didn't even come to my wedding.”

My mother sighed. “I had difficult things to deal with back then. All I could do was either block them out or run from them. I tried both, only to realize where I truly belonged. With you.”

“And you came back,” I said.

“Well, I had some help there,” she said. “Thank you, Nora, Desmond.”

“You're welcome,” they said.

“You knew?” I asked them.

They nodded.

“But no harm done, I hope?” Desmond asked.

I shook my head. My mother and I were together again, and that was all that really mattered.

November 18, 2020 02:19

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05:55 Nov 24, 2020

Wow!! I think this is the first story I'm reading for this prompt which has a happy ending! Loved your work, especially the end! By the way, I think it should be "Pleased to meet you". Can you just check that once?


Philip Clayberg
17:41 Nov 24, 2020

I'm glad you liked it. I do prefer happy endings (and hopeful ones). I'm just not a fan of sad endings. There's been enough sadness in my lifetime, and I've also been told that I should be less negative and more optimistic. I've done what I can to be more optimistic. I'm going to go back and look for "Pleased to meet you". It probably snuck under my editing radar, despite my repeated attempts to proofread, fix errors, and rewrite when necessary. I finally found it. You are so right. I typed "Please to meet you" and never notic...


06:53 Nov 25, 2020

Same here! I always prefer happy endings. I feel that reality has enough sadness in it, so when I read (and enter into a fantasy world, and escape the real world for a while) I purposely choose pleasant ending novels. Haha, I know that feeling! No matter how many times I check for spelling errors, I somehow tend to miss at least one. Have a nice day!! :)


Philip Clayberg
17:09 Nov 25, 2020

But sometimes a hopeful ending can be just as satisfying as a happy ending. One of my favorite books, "The Russia House" (by John le Carre'), has a hopeful ending. It's left up to the reader as to whether the hopeful ending turns into anything happy after the end of the story. The movie adaptation unfortunately (for me) went ahead and turned the hopeful ending into a happy ending. I wish it hadn't. Software spell-checkers (which seem to be also checking for grammar) are getting better, but I still prefer using my eyes and brain. I mi...


19:38 Nov 26, 2020

I think I get your point. I haven't come across any books with hopeful endings, but I have seen 1-2 movies with such endings. To be honest, I usually categorize the conclusions into two: happy endings and sad endings. (I know that sounds a bit silly and amateur, but I classify them based on my expression once I finish a book: whether I have a smile on my face or a frown/tear) As long as all the main characters are alive, and no unnecessary trauma is brought into the plot, I consider it as a happy ending. Your thoughts have now given me a new...


Philip Clayberg
01:52 Nov 27, 2020

Maybe what I call "hopeful" falls somewhere in between "happy" and "sad". I get it. That does make sense. Did all the characters survive? Great. They didn't suffer too much or at all? Even better. But sometimes I get as bored of happy endings as I do of sad endings. I want something in between where it's not clear which way it could go after the story ends. That way the reader can imagine for themselves what might happen next. There's a movie from 1966, I think, starring the late Alec Guinness, Senta Berger, George Segal, and M...


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B. W.
23:10 Nov 23, 2020

I suck at giving critique or anything like that, so I'm just gonna say that this was a really good story and ill give it a 10/10 :)


Philip Clayberg
01:25 Nov 24, 2020

Thank you very much. That makes the time and effort I spent on editing (not just writing the rough draft) worth it. Some of my stories get proofread and edited over and over again, until (hopefully) I reach the point of, "Okay, that's the best I can do. Just leave it alone. If there are any other mistakes to fix or rewrites needed, no doubt a reader will point them out to me." I'm sometimes hesitant about critiquing another writer's story, because (if I haven't been corresponding with them yet) I'm not sure how they'll take it. They ...


B. W.
01:38 Nov 24, 2020

Like they might think your being a bit rude during the critique or something like that? I guess that's kind of a reason on why I don't do it either, along with it would just be terrible and the only advice i'd even give is "This is said or spelt wrong, you should fix it." when other people would have already said that and some other stuff. Speaking of the Axel and Cora thing, it could maybe be them just talking stuff, like maybe she tells him about some of her past and stuff like that, then they could reach the ship where she meets Reboot?


Philip Clayberg
04:39 Nov 24, 2020

Precisely. It's nice when a writer *asks* me for a critique (including pointing out typos or a phrase that could be written better), because then I can give them one that I hope will help them improve and write even more stories. As a lifelong bookworm, there are never enough stories to read. And new ones can be just as good as old ones. When I find what I think is a typo, I've learned to say, "This might be a typo ... [copy/paste typo to here] ... is that what you meant to say?" After all, I'm not a mind-reader. I can misunderstand ...


B. W.
04:49 Nov 24, 2020

Something like this has actually kind of happened to me and some others, whenever we would give some critique or anything like that to them they'd always seem really annoyed or mad about it, I wont really say who though. There was also some other stuff but I kind of forgot. Though that's completely alright, I can wait for tomorrow and stuff ^^


Philip Clayberg
18:28 Nov 24, 2020

In my case, if it actually *helps* the story I wrote, then yes, absolutely I want to know what mistakes I've made, where I made them (if possible, though I can search for where they are, it might take me longer than it took the reader), and how to make the overall story better. I'd rather have twenty mistakes and places to improve pointed out to me, than to not know about them at all. Because a professional editor probably won't be as genteel when they edit. They're interested in making the overall story as good as possible and ready for ...


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Regina Perry
22:25 Nov 22, 2020

Aww... This is a really sweet story. It's an immersive story with a nice trip down memory lane and some incredibly kind strangers. Great job! There was one small error that I noticed. You've got the word "thrown" in there an extra time when talking about the box of pictures.


Philip Clayberg
00:41 Nov 23, 2020

Glad you liked it. Btw, I wish I could say that I *knew* how it would turn out when I started writing the story, but I didn't. Which is really how I prefer to write stories. I like them to surprise me. A story where I know how it will end just isn't as interesting to me as one that surprises me. Also, I thought it was interesting that even if things looked like they were "beyond recovery" (out of reach/lost for good) that instead it was a "past recovery" (two things and someone recovered from the past). Thank you for finding the ty...


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Philip Clayberg
00:51 Nov 23, 2020

Found the typo you told me about. It wasn't where I expected to find it. (It was actually later in the story than the part about the box of photos. See my next paragraph for details.) I fixed it. Thank you for spotting it and letting me know. It was probably a leftover from an edit/rewrite and somehow I missed deleting it until you mentioned it. The restaurant in the paragraph the extra "thrown" was in is actually inspired by a real-world place: the Old Spaghetti Factory in Seattle, WA. The building is still there (fenced off), bu...


Regina Perry
01:24 Nov 23, 2020

Oh- sorry. I must have misremembered exactly where it was thrown in. :) I'm often the same way when writing stories. Sometimes I know where the story will go when I start it, but more often I figure it out along the way. If I'm writing with a deadline I'll usually have a general idea of how I want it to end, too, but everything in between comes as I write it. Sometimes when I'm writing I catch myself wondering, "who comes up with this stuff?" Sometimes (in longer pieces) I include foreshadowing when I don't even know what's going to happen ...


Philip Clayberg
01:36 Nov 23, 2020

No apology needed. My memory isn't as good as some people think it is. My late stepfather used to say I had an elephant's memory. No, I don't. I have my memory. Sometimes it's a good memory, sometimes it can be frustrating because I can't remember something that I need (or want) to remember. The important thing is I found the mistake, and you were 100% correct about what it was (just not where to find it). I feel the same. Unlike Stephen King, I don't think of stories as found things. For me, it's more like a "door" opens and I ...


Regina Perry
01:55 Nov 23, 2020

Yes, that's it exactly! I often dream in novels. Sometimes I wake up with the feeling, "that was a really good book." On one specific occasion, I remember being halfway through the epilogue when I awoke. My characters definitely talk to me, too. Stories, or bits of them, jump into my head at the most random times, and I hurry to find something, anything, to write them down on. I have several different notebooks as well as a file on my phone that I use for that purpose. Sometimes the story wants to be written right away, but sometimes it ...


Philip Clayberg
02:35 Nov 23, 2020

What can be frustrating, though, is having a really good story idea in a dream (or just while lying in bed while reading a book) and then having to wait until the next morning to write it down (or type it on-screen). Same here. Usually the first version (the one that popped into my head) sounds best, so I try to write or type that version as soon as I can. When I try to memorize the story idea, it doesn't always sound as good when I finally write it down or type it up. It's why I wish my story ideas would only come to me when I'm sitti...


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