Atropa Belladonna

Submitted into Contest #100 in response to: Write about a character preparing a meal for somebody else.... view prompt

111 comments

Thriller Crime Fiction

Seventy-two-year-old Mrs. Sharma, or Sharma Aunty as the neighbourhood kids called her, smeared a dollop of chickpea paste over the Colocasia leaves—Elephants Ears or Arbi leaves in common parlance—that she had plucked this morning from her vegetable garden. She then placed five leaves of similar size one on top of the other, each generously smeared with spiced chickpea paste, and began to tightly roll them lengthwise. Once fully rolled, she secured them with toothpicks and cut the roll into thin slices, which she began frying in mustard oil until each slice turned golden brown and crisp on both sides.

If only Jay were here today, he would’ve devoured the crispy delicacy. He enjoyed it almost as much as their favourite dish, the one they both loved but didn’t speak about. But Jay was long gone, almost a year now, and Maya Sharma had to learn to live alone. For one year, she hadn’t dared to do what they both loved doing, but today, after nearly a month of planning, she was ready to take the risk. It had worked in the past when both of them did it together, hadn’t it? If she stuck to their carefully devised ironclad plan that they had perfected over decades, there was no reason it wouldn’t work now.

As Mrs. Sharma sliced the 200 grams blob of cottage cheese into small square pieces for the other dish she was preparing for dinner today, peas and cottage cheese in a spicy onion and tomato-based gravy, her mind wandered toward her dinner guest. Kabir was a lanky fifteen-year-old orphan, who lived in the dilapidated orphanage located near the public school. These past two months, he had helped Mrs. Sharma tend to her overgrown garden in exchange for fair compensation and occasional free meals. Today was Sunday, a free meal day. While Kabir wasn’t exactly what Mrs. Sharma had hoped for, he would have to do. She would’ve loved to get her hands on Mr. and Mrs. Bhalla’s son, a rotund, fair-complexioned boy of sixteen with an almost baby-like skin, but the boy had parents who would raise hell if he disappeared. It was the only rule Maya and Jay had followed all their lives, one that had kept them safe and well. Never ever take a boy or a girl who isn’t homeless or an orphan.

Humming a tune from a TV commercial for home appliances that was stuck in her head, Mrs. Sharma added water to the two cups of rice in the pressure cooker, closed it and put it aside, ready to be kept on the stove thirty minutes before dinner time. She wiped her hands on the towel, pleased with the preparations for tonight. Her eyes glazed over as her mind wandered once again to the firm, juicy flesh of the young boy toiling in her vegetable and herb garden day after day, the scent of his sweat as he passed by each evening with a breezy goodbye bringing water to her mouth. If things went well today, she’d be enjoying her favourite meal, kept fresh by the human-sized freezer in her basement, for several days, at least a week. If she wasn’t too greedy, she could make it last ten days, she thought dreamily.  

With abrupt sharpness, Mrs. Sharma snapped back to the present. She ambled over to the cupboard over the sink for the final step in the plan. For without it being in its place, her plan would fail. The wooden cupboard opened creakily on its hinges to reveal the two small glass bottles—the poison and the antidote. Both were adequately filled, she observed satisfactorily. The poor boy had no idea what he’d helped her harvest from the herb garden the week before, no idea at all.

Heaving a sigh of contentment, the old woman hobbled out of the kitchen and towards her bedroom for her afternoon nap.

***

The bell rang at 6 o’clock sharp. Mrs. Sharma’s cane made a clickety-clackety sound on the linoleum floor as she advanced towards the front door to open it.

The fresh-faced boy stood at the door with an innocent smile on his delicate lips, a bunch of pink roses clutched in his outstretched hand.

“Oh, how lovely, my dear boy!” cried Mrs. Sharma.

“How is the pain in your legs today, Aunty?” he asked innocently, referring to her arthritis.

“It’s okay today, my dear. Not too bad,” she said. “Come in! Come in!”

The boy entered the house gingerly, lifting his nose to smell the delicious scents coming from the kitchen.

“Yes, the food’s almost ready. Won’t you help me set the table, my dear?”

Kabir followed Mrs. Sharma to the kitchen and helped carry the dishes and the plates to the dining table in the hallway.

“Do you like the roses?” he asked, setting the table for two.

“Of course. They’re almost as good as the ones from my garden,” she said with a chuckle.

“Oh, I would never pluck your flowers without your permission. I got them from the school garden, the one next to my orphanage. The principal is a good man.”

“Yes, Father Anthony. Jay knew him quite well. Shall we eat?”

Kabir pulled the chair back, taking a seat at the small square table. “Aunty, I really appreciate your kind gesture. Nobody has invited me to dinner, ever.”

Mrs. Sharma served rice on his plate. “You’ve transformed my garden. It’s the least I could do.” She paused. “I hope you’ve remembered what we talked about.”

“Of course. I told the warden I’m going to watch a movie. Even bought a ticket, see.” He smiled a boyish smile, returning the ticket to his pocket.

Mrs. Sharma served a large helping of the peas and cottage cheese dish to his plate, ladling the thick flavourful curry by the spoonful. “You know how people are—they would misconstrue my motives. An old woman inviting a young boy for dinner. There must be something fishy,” she says, wagging a finger in his face. “If Jay and I had been able to have children, we’d have a grandson your age by now.”

“This is delicious,” he said, smacking his lips.

“Oh, you must try this,” she said, serving crispy slices of the Arbi leaves. “Jay used to love them.”

Kabir paused chomping and wiped his mouth on the napkin. “Aunty, may I say something?”

“Of course, my dear.”

“It was probably for the best that you and Jay uncle could not have any children. Hear me out, please,” he added quickly.

“I’m listening, my dear,” said Mrs. Sharma, smiling.

“Do you know how many children have disappeared from this town over the past fifty years?”

Mrs. Sharma smiled inwardly. She knew exactly how many. “I’m afraid I don’t know, my dear. Of course, I’ve heard the horrible news of children going missing over the years, but as to the exact count, I have no idea,” she said, sipping her coffee.

“Twenty-seven. Teenagers, all of them. Homeless or orphans—like me—or both.”

Mrs. Sharma thought she saw a strange glint in his eyes. Her gaze drifted to his plate where the remainder of his meal lay. Very little was remaining on his plate, she thought satisfactorily.

Any moment now, the symptoms would start appearing. Dilated pupils were usually the first sign. He’d then start complaining of blurred vision and sensitivity to light. Taking her hand, he’d stagger towards the kitchen where she’d offer him a glass of water for his severely dry mouth and throat. His speech would slur as he’d complain of a debilitating headache. She’d position him carefully near the basement door so that when he finally collapsed on the floor convulsing, she would simply open the basement door and shove his body down the stairs. By then, he’d be extremely confused and begin hallucinating. A smack on the back of the head with the shovel she kept in the basement would silence him into a sleep from which he’d never wake up. The next part of the plan was the hardest for her, an old woman with arthritis, but somehow, she’d manage to lift his lanky body and deposit it in the human-sized freezer in the basement. Thereupon, it was easy.

“Horrible business, all of it,” she cried. “Those poor kids. God knows what happened to them.” She took another sip of her coffee.

For a while, the only sound heard was the ticking of the wall clock and the clinking of cutlery.

“Why do you drink coffee so late, Aunty? Doesn’t it interfere with your sleep?” asked Kabir, finishing his glass of water and refilling it from the jug.

“It’s an old habit, my dear,” said Mrs. Sharma, emptying the dregs of coffee into her mouth.

“You know,” said Kabir, his face turning serious, “there was a girl in my orphanage. Her name was Leela. She disappeared two years ago.”

Leela, forty kilos of delicious deep-fried meals seasoned with basil and oregano that lasted them a week. Leela, the girl her husband had picked up in his truck as she was returning from school late one evening. Leela, the feisty orphan who had kicked and fought and nearly bit Mrs. Sharma’s finger off as the old woman was trying to get her to drink the concoction prepared from Atropa Belladona, a poisonous herbaceous plant from their garden, commonly known as deadly nightshade. The only known antidote was physostigmine, which she’d just drunk in her coffee.

It was important to keep shuffling their modus operandi. Routine is what would get them caught, Jay always said and he was right. It was why they had never used the same method twice to pick up the children.

Mrs. Sharma clicked her tongue in sympathy. “Very sad business, the whole thing,” she said.

“Yes. I wonder what happened to her. Not even her body was found. Authorities believe it’s the same person behind all the disappearances. They’d have to be at least seventy today,” said Kabir, pouring some more water into his glass and gulping it down.

Mrs. Sharma’s gaze flitted to the clock. Why wasn’t the poison working? The numbers on the clock began to blur and suddenly, the whole room was a blur. She rubbed her eyes, her heart racing. What was happening?

“Leela was my best friend,” Kabir was saying. “I’d once made a friendship band for her, woven with multicoloured threads. She always wore it on her wrist. Always.”

The light from the overhead bulb was starting to hurt her eyes. Her throat was parched. She reached for the jug of water, but Kabir abruptly jerked it away, out of her reach.

“Water,” she mumbled.

“There’s water in the kitchen. Let me help you,” he said, lifting her frail body by her arms.

Something was terribly wrong. Mrs. Sharma could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Supported by Kabir, she wobbled into the kitchen and thrust her hands under the tap. The mouthfuls of water she drank did nothing to soothe her dry and itchy throat.

“Call... call a doctor,” she slurred.

“Not so fast. I haven’t yet finished my story,” he said. “So I was telling you about Leela. Do you know what I found in your garden the other day?”

A blinding headache was flashing through her head like lightning, leaving her cold and breathless. She was now leaning completely on the boy for support. Why was he still okay? And what was wrong with her?

“I found her friendship band. She was wearing it the day she disappeared,” the boy was saying quietly.

“What... did you... do?” she stammered, clutching her throat.

“What did you do with her? What did you do with Leela?” he screamed, his voice running through her ears like a jagged knife.

Mrs. Sharma all but collapsed into oblivion.

He let her fall on the floor, where she lay now, her body convulsing.

“I recognize nightshade. I know what you were planning, so I sneaked into your kitchen today afternoon while you were napping and stole the antidote, and replaced it with water. What you added to your coffee was water. I have the antidote here. I added to the jug of water. I know how little water you drink, so there was no chance of you drinking it.”

Through her blurred vision, she saw the boy standing over her with a small glass bottle in his hand, a maniacal glint in his eyes.

"Father Anthony has always suspected you and your husband. When he and I talked about Leela's disappearance, he told me he suspected you guys were behind all the disappearances."

On hearing this, Mrs. Sharma began to cackle, a high-pitched scream forming on her lips.

He was instantly upon her, clasping her mouth shut with his nimble and powerful hands.

“It was you, you and your husband, who made those kids disappear, wasn’t it?” He breathed the words onto her face. “Are they buried in the garden? Tell me, why did you do it? Why?”

The TV commercial for home appliances began playing in her ears and she was in the middle of a meadow approaching a man with an outstretched hand. It was Jay, looking young and wonderful. She took his hand—surprisingly her hand was not old and wrinkly—and together they walked through the meadow towards the sunshine.

And then suddenly, the lush meadows disappeared and Jay and Maya were standing over the edge of what looks like an inverted pyramid with various levels funnelling down to a narrow spot in the middle. As they were perched over the edge of the precipice gazing down at the wretched underground landscape of monsters, fire and sewage, somebody pushed them from behind and they fell right into the second level. Along this level, people were lying face down in a vile slush of sewage, their mouths filled with the product of their excess. While Jay froze in horror, Maya turned around to clamber out of this pit of hell, but there was nothing to latch onto. All the while, as they were getting sucked closer and closer to the slush of sewage, there was a voice ringing in the distance, becoming fainter each second: Why did you do it? Why did you do it?


June 26, 2021 12:36

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111 comments

Joan Wright
21:49 Jul 05, 2021

INTRIGUING! You did a great job of developing your characters. I loved the ending although do admit I guessed at it early. Your words painted pictures. The clickety clack of her cane, the descriptions of the meal she was preparing, and the smell of her sweaty victims. Well done.

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Kanika G
06:42 Jul 10, 2021

Thank you so much, Joan! I'm happy you enjoyed this story. It was a pleasure writing it and the story flowed easily. Thanks again. :)

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Alvin Fernandes
11:02 Jul 05, 2021

Omg what a story. The disappearance of children reminded me of IT by Stephen King. But you moulded yours in a really amazing way. It was scary and disturbing but written so perfectly.

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Kanika G
06:43 Jul 10, 2021

Thank you so much for the wonderful comment!! I love IT by Stephen King. It's just so rich in character development and really pulls you in. I'm glad you enjoyed my story. :)

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R. B. Leyland
07:11 Jul 05, 2021

The apparent ease that she kills these children is sickening, i think you described her inner thoughts perfectly though. I always love when evil intent backfires, especially in retribution like this! The part where you mention her preferring the fatter boy compared to the orphan actually made me chuckle, despite it's disgusting implications. As always, great stuff!!

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Kanika G
06:46 Jul 10, 2021

Thank you so much!! I'm glad you liked this story and parts of it even made you chuckle. :) I love those kinds of stories too - where evil intent backfires perfectly. It's just so satisfying to read them. :) Thank you, Ben!

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R. B. Leyland
09:06 Jul 11, 2021

It always feels like a huge middle finger moment :D you're very welcome!

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Kanika G
14:51 Jul 12, 2021

Hey! I have posted a new story, a thriller. You might like it. :)

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06:26 Jul 05, 2021

Damn Kanika! I thought it was a story about food at the beginning.... But seriously as I continued I felt disgusted knowing that she was doing all that to eat the kid. It captured both my attention and feelings so bad. This is a great one... Wait....and the ending 🥵it was like the greatest ending of any horror movie maybe like the Conjuring

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Kanika G
06:47 Jul 10, 2021

Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I'm flattered that you compared the ending to Conjuring, a great horror movie. I'm happy that you enjoyed this one. :)

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Sudhir Menon
15:22 Jul 04, 2021

A well-structured tale of crime and retribution. The build-up is great but the anti-climax even greater. The author uses dexterity with her language and is also a master of imagery. Very good job. Please keep writing. But hark - why did she do it? Cheers. You may read my story 'Without Malice' written with prompt no.1.

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Kanika G
01:33 Jul 05, 2021

Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the story. Mrs. Sharma is a cannibal and that's her only reason to kidnap and kill children (inspired by Hansel and Gretel). I will check out your story soon. Glad to read that you're a published writer. Well done!

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Stevie Burges
07:54 Jul 04, 2021

Great story

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Kanika G
01:30 Jul 05, 2021

Thank you so much, Stevie. :)

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16:56 Jul 03, 2021

Great story. I was caught of guard. It was very fun to read. Well done!.

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Kanika G
01:28 Jul 05, 2021

Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

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16:54 Jul 03, 2021

Loved this no end, Kanika. The ending was bang on. The visual imagery was simply brilliant and you also managed to keep a suspenseful tempo right up to the gory yet well deserved end.

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Kanika G
01:28 Jul 05, 2021

Thank you so much, Neel. I'm pleased you enjoyed the story. :)

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Michael Martin
13:35 Jul 03, 2021

I liked the twists and turns in this. Every time you got settled in, thinking you knew what was happening, youd switch it up again. The one thing I'd offer is that it's a bit heavy on the descriptions in parts. Given the word limitations, I understand completely (I face the same issue every week)... just felt like we were being hand fed some of the information instead of being shown, if that makes sense. Otherwise it was great. I genuinely enjoyed it, you held my attention (which is no small feat, my brain goes it's own way).

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Kanika G
01:27 Jul 05, 2021

Thank you so much, Michael. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. :) It was one story that flowed easily for me. Thank you for the critique. I'll revisit the story and see where I've done this. Thanks again! :)

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17:00 Jul 02, 2021

Kanika! Oh my gosh, this story was AMAZING!! It was so well written and the last part really shocked me. I think this story will get shortlisted at least or maybe even win! I couldn't stop reading it. Great writing and great twists!

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Kanika G
07:16 Jul 03, 2021

Thank you so much, Bella! I'm glad you enjoyed the twists in the story. Thank you for the vote of confidence. I really appreciate it. :).

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Shoshana A
11:08 Jul 02, 2021

Wonderful!

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Kanika G
12:09 Jul 02, 2021

Thank you! :)

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N K
06:53 Jul 02, 2021

This was so hauntingly good! There are few things I love more than a good, completely unexpected twist and this story was FULL of them! When we're first introduced to Mrs. Sharma, I couldn't imagine this aunty as this horrible cannibal and then later, I was certain poor Kabir was done for! You've crafted such an interesting and carefully thought-out story that captured my attention the whole time. I've seen you nail so many different genres! Amazing job!

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Kanika G
10:11 Jul 02, 2021

Thank you so much, Natania, for the wonderful comment!! It really made me smile. :) I'm glad you enjoyed this dark story, including the ending. Thanks so much!

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Jon R. Miller
09:57 Jul 01, 2021

Yikes! The story sent chills down my spine. Terrific job intertwining the usual with the strange, and the terrifying!

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Kanika G
10:21 Jul 02, 2021

Thank you so much, Jon. I'm glad you enjoyed the story despite its super dark theme. :)

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Shirley Medhurst
12:21 Jun 30, 2021

Wonderful build-up of atmosphere in this story! Loved it. I kind of suspected that Kabir was going to get one up on the old crone. (I even thought that they would poison one another & BOTH die... haha) Did not expect the ending though - great twist. Well done

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Kanika G
14:01 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much, Shirley! Both poisoning each other and dying would probably have been a more realistic ending, but not so satisfying for the reader. I really appreciate your comment. Thanks so much! :)

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Shirley Medhurst
14:30 Jun 30, 2021

yeah, you're probably right... your ending was VERY satisfying indeed! Karma rules, hey?

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Kanika G
09:25 Jul 01, 2021

Yes! Karma rules!

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Tinu Baby
09:03 Jun 30, 2021

The way you wrote it was superb

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Kanika G
09:36 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much! :)

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Tinu Baby
09:49 Jun 30, 2021

:)

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Aryansh Dubey
16:10 Jun 29, 2021

......And she does it again! The more I read of your works (I am going backwards), the more I am awed. It's not just the consistently exceptional craft of it all, but the depths of the unconventional you are willing to dive into, with so much ease! I loved it! Wait, does praising this story with such grandeur make me sound like Hannibal Lecter or something?

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Kanika G
01:29 Jun 30, 2021

Hi Aryansh - Thank you so much for your wonderful comments! I've read all of them and each has brought a smile to my face. I'm thrilled to know you're enjoying my stories a lot. I have a wacky imagination and sometimes I let it loose to discover unconventional stories. I love the dystopian genre and my novel that's ready for publishing is also dystopian fiction. I also love thrillers and crime fiction. Thank you so much for stopping by. I will check out your stories soon. :)

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Aryansh Dubey
04:03 Jun 30, 2021

Keep going mam! It's an absolute pleasure to witness and catch a glimpse of this 'wackiness'. Looking forward to your novel and stories! Take care:)

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Kanika G
09:39 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you. I'm so flattered on reading your comment. :)

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Ana Govindasamy
11:51 Jun 29, 2021

ok. Wow. I love this (not that I don't love all your work). It kept me reading the whole way through and the plot was thrilling. Well done!

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Kanika G
01:30 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much, Ana. I really appreciate your comment! I'm glad you found it thrilling. :)

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Ana Govindasamy
05:37 Jun 30, 2021

No problem, Kanika!

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Alex Sultan
03:47 Jun 29, 2021

I liked this story a lot. Cool twist, a good amount of research done, and great dialogue.

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Kanika G
01:34 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much, Alex! I'm pleased to know you liked the story. :)

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23:26 Jun 28, 2021

I like it. Check out my story titled: The Way She Swam. If you have not already. You may like it.

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Kanika G
01:37 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much. I will definitely check out your story soon. Thanks. :)

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Zelda C. Thorne
14:48 Jun 28, 2021

Hi Kanika, I enjoyed this story. Loved the twists, it was unexpected and well written. Well done!

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Kanika G
09:47 Jun 30, 2021

Thank you so much, Rachel! I'm pleased you enjoyed this story. :)

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Zelda C. Thorne
08:23 Jul 07, 2021

Hi Kanika! You asked me to let you know when it came out and my story "Phoenix" is now available to listen to on Spotify by Short Stack Stories podcast! I'm very pleased with what they did with it. I would love your thoughts on my latest post if you have time. Looking forward to reading your next story!

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Kanika G
06:35 Jul 10, 2021

Hi Rachel! Thank you for letting me know. I will check it out. And congratulations! It was indeed a fantastic story. I will check out your latest submission soon. This week was quite busy work-wise, but now I'm free!

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