Fiction Fantasy

     "Connie, I'm telling you. There are a dozen browns in a single log," said her mother Lynn.

     "I know, Mom. You tell me that all the time!"

     "Well, I'm just saying." Lynn dug into her purse and dug out a ten dollar bill. "Don't go spending it on the first booth," she advised as she handed over the bill. Her daughter's eyes widened. Mom never gave out much money for fun stuff, but the fair was a once-a-year event, full of booths of food and trinkets. The fortune teller was at the entrance. Connie had had a notion to visit her, but Mom was right; it was far too soon to go to that booth. That ten spot had to be hoarded. She grinned at her mother. "That means no books, Mom, right?"

     Her mother grinned. "Of course not, but I will look, just not spend. Besides," she pulled a pad and pen from her purse, "I can always check the library."

     "The library doesn't do coloring books," Connie noted, dryly.

     Lynn grinned. "I know, dear. Meet at the hot dog stand in an hour?"

     "Okay," said Connie.

     They split apart and went their separate ways. The fair was a success. Hundreds of people were enjoying the Labor Day holiday, strolling the concourse, chatting, meeting friends and neighbors along the way. Children shouted in delight, music played, hawkers chanted. Every booth of food had its own enticing odors--fry bread, candy apples, ice cream, hot dogs, and baked goods. Farmers displayed their produce. Farm kids tended to their calves and lambs, as they waited for the judge to look them over. In one tent, pies and cakes were being tasted, as that contest was underway. Balloons floated, the sun sparkled, and the last gasp of summer for so many warmed hearts and souls.

     Connie took all of this in, but she felt distracted. She really did want to talk to the fortune teller, but there was just too much to take in. Her dreams could wait. She was reluctant to spend the ten spot: money was so precious these days, ever since Daddy left. She didn't want to disappoint her mother, but the dream she was having every night lately was truly a nightmare. What did it mean? Why was it so hard? so frequent?

     She spied her mother at the used book tent. Lynn held a book open, but her attention was on the clerk as she sliced through the tape sealing a cardboard box.

     "Hey," said Connie. She lifted the book in Lynn's hand.

     Lynn started, and put the book down abruptly. "'Gone with the Wind'?" asked Connie. "Mom, I'm sure the library has that."

     Lynn frowned. "Yes," she said absently. She watched the clerk slice through the tape seal with a pair of scissors.

     "It seals!" the clerk cried. "It keeps sealing itself, every time I cut into it."

     Connie watched. She suddenly clutched at Lynn's arm. "Mom, you have to buy that box," she pressed. "Right now."

     "They can't get it opened," said Lynn in a daze. "Why can't they open it?" Lynn and Connie both watched as she tried again and again to slice through the tape.

     The clerk slapped down the scissors in frustration. "Maybe you should sharpen those scissors before you use them," suggested another customer.

     The clerk held up a bandaged thumb. "Trust me, they're sharp," she said with a frown.

     "What's in it?" asked Connie. "Where did you get it?"

     "It was part of an estate sale. The guy had an amazing collection of books. This is the only box left, and it will not cut open!" said the clerk, exasperated.

     "How much for it?" asked Connie.

     "Connie, no. I don't need any more books," said her mother.

     Connie put her hand on Lynn's arm. "I'll give you five bucks for the entire box," she told the clerk. "Sight unseen."

     "I have no idea what's in it." said the clerk. "It could be anything."

     "Connie...," Lynn protested.

     "Ten," Connie coaxed.

     The clerk studied Connie. Her eyes narrowed. "I'll tell you what. You open this box, you can have it all--free."

     "No!" said Lynn.

     "But, I get to look inside. Just in case," the clerk added.

     "Give it here," said Connie. The clerk handed over the box and the scissors. Connie sliced through the tape, and the box sprung open. Inside were a few battered paperbacks and a brown paper parcel.

     The clerk quickly pawed through the books. "Well, that's weird," she said. "This isn't much of anything. It's all yours." she pushed the box towards Connie. "A deal's a deal."

     "What are you doing?" Lynn demanded.

     "I need the car keys. I'll meet you at the hot dog place.

     Lynn shook her head in dismay, but she handed over the keys. "I'm sorry," she said to the clerk. "That was very strange." She added, "I learned a long time ago to trust my daughter. She has a bit of a gift."

     "No worries," said the clerk. "The estate sale where these books came from was the home of a wizard. I am surprised that most of the books were so ordinary." The clerk excused herself and attended another customer.

     Lynn and Connie met at the hot dog stand for lunch. Lynn grabbed a picnic table under a pine tree. Meanwhile, Connie waited in the long line to place their order. An old woman, wearing an assortment of shawls and beads, approached her and placed a hand on Connie's shoulder. "The box is for your mother," the woman said.

     "How did you...?" asked Connie.

     "Your gift is her gift," said the woman.

     "Wait," said Connie.

     The woman paused. "Your gift is her gift," she said again, and slipped away into the crowd.

     When Lynn and Connie returned home, the box sparked their interest. Lynn examined each of the old books, including a copy of 'Gone with the Wind.' Lynn smiled wryly: it had been many years since she had read it, but she had been thinking about it lately. Connie unpacked the books and left them in a pile on the coffee table. At the bottom of the box, wrapped in brown paper, was a coloring book. Lynn rifled through it, expecting to see some of the pages already colored. The book was immaculate. She studied it more closely. 'A Cabin in the Sky,' it was entitled. The first picture to color was of a log cabin, exactly like the one she had always dreamed of. It was a small cabin in a meadow, with twin rockers on the porch. A pile of firewood was waiting to be split, off to one side, and a path of smooth stones led from the very bottom of the page to the front door, as if to invite her inside.

     "Oh, wow!" Connie cried. "Look, Mom!" Connie pulled out a set of one hundred fifty color pencils, aligned in trays in a blue box. A small packet of sharpeners and color blenders were added as an afterthought.

     Lynn started. "Oh, we have to take this back," she said, running her fingers lovingly over the pencils. "This set costs well over one hundred dollars. No, we have to take this back."

     "No, we don't," said Connie. She put her hand over her mother's. "A deal's a deal. We made a bargain with the bookseller, and for once in our lives, we came out ahead." Connie remembered what the woman at the hot dog stand had said: Mom's gift is my gift. She said, "I think you should color a picture. What's the first one look like?"

     Lynn showed her daughter the picture. It was exactly how Lynn had dreamt, the one thing Lynn worked two, sometimes three, jobs, to finally afford. Connie smiled. "That's a lot of logs, Mom. It's a good thing you've got all those pencils. I've heard tell one log alone has a dozen browns."

     Lynn smiled. "Let me show you, when I've finished," she said. When Connie left her later that night, Lynn had organized her colors on the dining table. As she began to work, adding multiple colors for shade and depth, she felt herself transported to the cabin. The earthy smells of the meadow, the singing birds, the murmur of a nearby creek, all filled her senses as she colored. Different browns and greens filled the page as she worked. Lynn felt compelled to finish it. As she worked, she could feel her soul settle, even as her muscles stretched and contracted. The woodpile needed cutting. The winter would soon be there, and she must get in a good supply of logs if she and Connie were to have a good fire in the woodstove.

     She gasped. In her mind's eye, she had picked up a log. A sliver had slid into her palm, drawing a trickle of blood. Her spell was broken, but it had seemed so real. Yet she was back home in her tiny apartment in the city. Well, at least she could sleep in tomorrow.

     She closed the coloring book, surprised to see just how much she had finished. She was tired, and her body ached.

     Connie cried out from her bedroom. Instantly, Lynn was on her feet. She entered Connie's bedroom to find her daughter kicking her feet, as if she were swimming. Lynn gathered up Connie into her arms, holding her tightly as her daughter struggled.

     Lynn knew Connie's dream, knew it was about drowning, about sudden silences, and pitch darkness, and the endless depths of the ocean.

     "Here, baby," Lynn cooed. "Over here. Come back to me. Come back here."

     Connie's body trembled, and her teeth rattled. All around her were screams, and calls for help. A few lifeboats bobbed about a field of debris: deck chairs, life vests, bits of wood, and floating bodies. Connie struggled to tread water. "Help!" she called, but her voice died in her throat. The achingly cold black water washed over her. She felt sleepy, felt herself begin to sink into the wet void.

     "Here. Over here," she heard her mother's voice behind her. A lifeboat sidled up behind her. Hands reached for her, and pulled her from the water. A blanket was wrapped around her shivering body.

     Connie gasped as the dream faded away. "Are you back?" asked Lynn, still hugging her. Connie said nothing, but drew closer into her mother's arms. "Are you okay?"

     Connie nodded. "I'm good," she said, weakly. "I'm better." She said, "Your gift is my gift."

     "What does that mean?" asked Lynn, still holding her daughter.

     "The fortune teller," Connie explained.

     "Oh, you didn't!" cried Lynn.

     "No, I didn't," said Connie. "She came to me."

     "Huh?" Lynn asked, confused.

     "Mom, we really should take care of that sliver. I don't want you to get an infection." She grinned as Lynn started. "You're bleeding down my back."

     Lynn pulled her hand away as Connie turned on her bedside lamp. The sliver poked out from Lynn's palm, and blood trailed down her arm. "This...this...," Lynn stammered.

     "Your gift is my gift," said Connie. "You were there. You saved me." She took Lynn's wounded hand in both of hers. "For the first time, no more nightmare. No more drowning in the depths of hell." She touched her mother's face. "My gift," she said. "And yours."

May 24, 2024 17:30

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