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Contemporary Happy

The fall air was crisp and cold, but the sun on Leon’s back was warm, making him sweat as he worked his way steadily across the grass, the tines of his rake singing as he gathered the leaves into piles. This square of grass was his little slice of heaven, he sat on one of the benches most days reading his paper, eating a sandwich from the corner deli, watching the world go by.

The poplar trees cast cool shade in the stifling heat of summer, but now as fall drew to a close and winter approached, they shed, their leaves settling thickly, piling up against the bins and benches. No one else seemed to care, the residents of the three-story Victorian houses that overlooked the square, quite content to let the leaves pile up, choking the grass. Some people nodded to him, said hello as they passed, but most stayed shut away in their houses or flats, only venturing out to leave their little corner of the city. But no one really spoke to him, none of the residents of the square knew his name. Sometimes he felt sad, but mostly he was content; content to avoid the difficult conversations, to avoid the awkward questions, questions for which he just didn’t have the answers.

He was about half way around, piles of leaves left in his wake, waiting for him to bag them up, when the rake snagged. A stray root or strand of ivy catching in the tines. Not wanting to damage the trees, he knelt, the damp soaking into the knees of his trousers. A fine silver chain was caught, twisted through the wire prongs. He carefully unwound it, slipping the links free. Setting the rake aside he brushed back the leaves, the chain disappeared into a small patch of mud. He scraped it away, the grit and dirt coarse against his soft fingertips. The chain was a couple of feet long, most of it buried into the grass, like it had been there for a while. He dug away, gradually creating a thin furrow, there was a locket, looped to the end of the chain. It was small, about the size of a penny, but through the smearing of mud, he could see writing etched into the silver. Rubbing with his thumb just produced more smears. He cast a few furtive glances around, but as usual, no-one was paying him the slightest attention. He stood, slipped the necklace in to his pocket, picked up his rake and went back to gathering leaves.

***

The necklace sat on the kitchen table of his small flat. Despite living there for several years, there was little furniture. The table had two chairs, one was his, the other was used by the social worker who visited once a week, checking on his progress, seeing if anything had come back, asking those awkward questions that Leon avoided with everyone else. In the corner stood a TV with a tired old armchair he had found in the street. Leaning against it was a square of plywood, the word ‘Free’ daubed across it in white paint. At the time he had stood there, not knowing what to do with it, should he leave the sign, or was it expected to go with the chair. In the end he kept it, and now used it as a tray when watching TV. Even after several years the smell of cigarette smoke clung to the worn red fabric, but he didn’t mind, maybe he had smoked once himself.

He slumped down in his dining chair, the locket lay there in front of him like an accusation. A few days before he had taken it to the pawn shop a few streets over, the man behind the counter had offered him ten pounds, it had seemed like a good deal, ten pounds for a few hours raking in the sun. But at the last minute something stopped him, a twinge of guilt perhaps, was it stealing? After all the locket wasn’t his, it belonged to Susan, whoever, she was. But then again finders’ keepers.

He'd decided to wait, to ask his social worker. While she always asked the difficult questions, she usually had the difficult answers too. His leg jigged up and down while he waited, what if he had done the wrong thing? Should he have handed it into the police, had he in fact committed a crime by just keeping it? While most things in his life were pretty straight forward, the ins and outs of the law were still pretty baffling to him. No one had ever explained to him what he should or shouldn’t do, so generally he didn’t do anything. He stayed in his flat, or sat on the bench outside, waiting for something. What that something was, was another question he couldn’t answer either.

He heard the key in the lock as she let herself in, “Hello Leon,” she called out as the door swung inwards.

“Hello June,” he replied. His nerves now reaching a peak, his hand darted out to snatch the locket from the table, but again something stopped him.

“Oh, what’s that you have there?” She said, in her usual jovial voice.

“I found it,” he said sitting up straight, “I-I didn’t steal it, I promise.”

“I’m sure you didn’t Leon, let me have a look.” Without waiting for an answer, she picked it up, it shone in the light from the window as the locket twisted back and forth. He had cleaned it carefully, washing the mud and dirt from the links, even going as far as buying a pot of silver cleaner from the corner store. He had to miss a meal to afford it, it seemed silly now, but at the time it seemed the right thing to do.

“Susan, with all my love, James,” June read from the back. She opened the clasp, “But nothing inside.” She put it back on the table.

“It was empty when I found it,” Leon said.

“Where did you find it—”

“I didn’t steal it,” Leon blurted out again. “I-I found it when I was raking the leaves.”

“Oh yes, you like to sweep them up, don’t you.”

“No-one else bothers…” Leon looked down fiddling with the locket chain, “It was part buried, like it had been there a while.”

“Well, what are you going to do with it, do you think you could try and find the owner. It might help you get out and meet someone.”

“I can’t,” he said, “you know I don’t like talking to people, they always ask—”

“And what is wrong with that?” June said, “You can’t live in here for the rest of your life, it’s been over two years now.”

“Something will come back; I just know it will.”

“And what if it doesn’t?”

“I don’t want to think about that,” he said quietly.

“Okay, not now; but you will need to face it sometime,” she said. Sitting straighter in her chair “Why don’t we put it on the local Facebook group, just the inscription, maybe ask for a photo of them wearing it to prove it’s theirs. Then you can meet them and hand it over; say as little or as much as you like, you may surprise yourself.”

***

The photo looked familiar, maybe he had seen her in the corner store or the deli. It was definitely the same locket, maybe that was it, for the last week he had rarely put it down. Whenever he put his hand in his pocket it was there, the smooth silver surface, his thumb rubbing again and again over the inscription. Who was Susan, presumably the familiar looking woman in the photo. Who was James, husband, lover, was he still there, still part of her life or had they moved on. A million questions ran through his head as he waited.

He sat on his usual bench, just a few feet from where he had found the locket. It was odd that he liked it there, it was also where his new life had begun, where the paramedics found him, two years before. June had managed to get a flat overlooking this spot, just in case he saw something familiar. But nothing, two years on and it was all still a mystery.

He sipped at his coffee, knee bouncing up and down, threatening to spill the second cup sat on the bench beside him. He couldn’t really afford to be buying someone else’s coffee, but it had seemed the right thing to do. He had really wanted to just post the locket back to Susan, but June insisted that he actually met her, talked to her and handed it over in person.

He saw her as she got out of the taxi, it was odd her needing a cab if she lived around here, but maybe she was coming from work. She was even more beautiful than her photo, with long straight brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail that hung down her back. Leon could feel his cheeks colouring at the thought and looked down, staring into his coffee. She was looking around a faint smile on her face, he reluctantly lifted his arm and waved.

She finally saw him, the happy smile slipped from her face, colour draining from her cheeks. Then she was running, running straight for him, he half stood, not really knowing what to do.

“James,” she shouted as she ran, “James.”

Then she was in front of him, her knees touching his, he sat back down heavily on the bench, spilling his coffee, he looked up into those familiar eyes.

“James,” she said, “where… I…”

Then she slapped him hard across the face, before he could react, she leant in and kissed him. It felt odd kissing this familiar stranger, but at the same time it just felt right. After a few moments she broke off the kiss, he leaned forward wanting more.

She looked into his eyes, ran a hand through his hair, “God, I’ve missed you.”

December 08, 2022 09:19

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9 comments

Moo Rayfield
09:51 Oct 02, 2023

Hi Ross, I loved the story which really drew me in, it was a fascinating read. Unlike one of the other comments, I felt ‘James’ could be a much younger man with mental health issues. I enjoyed the fact that he had made a ‘simple’ life for himself sweeping the leaves which kept him contented and happy to some extent, occupied and peaceful. . The ending was a good one! Perhaps a bit of an edit with the punctuation and clarity could improve on the whole piece. There were a few parts of the story that threw me;why did Susan slap his fac...

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Ross Dyter
10:33 Oct 07, 2023

Hi Moo, Thank you for the comments and taking the time to read the story. I find seeing the punctuation errors on these short stories difficult as they tend to be written and edited within a few days. I'm glad you thought James was supposed be a younger man, he was supposed to be. I tend to write these prompts when I need a break from writing my novel. Ross

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Moo Rayfield
13:15 Oct 08, 2023

Yes I thought it a very intriguing theme and could be developed into a novella perhaps? That expands on your concept and ideas. I would love to know James’s history and background! When proof reading Brian’s novel I find printing out the chapters helps to spot typos and repeats of words. (Rather than reading it on the computer) Good luck with your novel! How exciting! Moo

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Shawn Wier
20:52 Dec 15, 2022

Your descriptive writing is great, especially about the outdoor experiences and the locket itself. I could feel the sun and the damp ground as I read Leon/James's scene in that setting. From Critique Circle, I do have two points: I was distracted by Leon's paranoia regarding the law. I couldn't tell if he'd actually had legal issues in the past or if he was just frightened based on his morals and general unclarity of life. There was very little variance in sentence structure throughout the piece, as well as a few punctuation errors. I ho...

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Ross Dyter
21:38 Dec 15, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read my work, and also for taking the time to give such detailed feedback. I really appreciate the effort you put in, I will definitely try to vary my sentence structure in future as it does tend to be fairly constant through all my writing, the example you gave was very helpful. I take the point about the vague detail on his feeling about the law, I should have put more detail in that section or cut it out rather than leave it almost as a throw away comment.

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Jennifer Taylor
14:49 Dec 15, 2022

I loved this story. It was descriptive, but not overkill. I felt like I was sitting in Jame’s flat the whole time as I read this. My favorite part was how he used the “free” sign as a tray while he watched T.V. I also appreciated that you trusted the reader to connect the dots. The breadcrumbs you left were unique. 1. “soaking into the knees of his trousers“ told me that this gentleman was likely elderly. 2. The social worker’s soft demeanor told me we were dealing with a neurological disorder of sorts, not a criminal. 3. Location of t...

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Ross Dyter
15:54 Dec 15, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read the story. The feedback was really helpful, I tried to gradually reveal more about what had happened to him, without giving too much away. As you said leaving breadcrumbs for the reader, which hopefully answered the questions by the end.

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Wendy Kaminski
03:59 Dec 15, 2022

Love that twist ending - great story! :)

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Ross Dyter
09:12 Dec 15, 2022

Thanks for the comments, feedback is always appreciated. I like putting plot twists in what I write.

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