Contest #177 shortlist ⭐️

42 comments

Contemporary Friendship Inspirational

I’m feeling extra grouchy today. It’s unfortunate because ‘giving out’ to others is what I do. But then, being driven half-crazy by scratching whilst lying in wait on my futon can do that to a person. Especially during the middle of the night. 

     It seemed to be coming from the back of the skirting board. The intermittent scraping put my teeth on edge. So much so, I barely slept until the last hour. My heart rushed as the morning alarm jolted me awake; it was too late to do my daily exercises (a vigorous workout keeps me sane and enlivens me). I showered, gulped coffee, slammed the door and sprinted up the road, praying my  new occupant isn’t a rat! Rats conjure up images of Plague doctors dressed in long coats, carrying sticks and wearing disproportionate beak masks beating a path through infested streets during  the 16th and 17th centuries. I can cope with anything but a rat! 

     But having a mouse as a house guest is bad enough. For the sake of argument, let’s assume last night’s visitor was a mouse who managed to sneak in from the garden where everything is ice-coated, even the pond. Come to think of it, why isn’t the silly creature hibernating? But when I googled it in the night (always fatal), I discovered mice are more sensible than humans. Give them some credit. They can sneak in and out of the tiniest hole, even making it in through a house’s foundations. You can’t blame them. 

     Somehow, the idea of its presence defeated me. I hate being defeated. Perhaps it scampered in when I was tying the leaves of Lyndsey’s palm to protect it from the frost. It was her last gift to me and I can’t stand the thought of losing it. 

     I first heard it two nights ago, when dropping off. I closed my ears to the scrabbling. But when it started again last night, I was on high alert and switched on my lamp, prepared for battle. I planned to use my dressing gown as a net, but there was nothing to be seen other than wooden floorboards and shadows. I waited some time, but other than the ticking of the clock, there was only silence. I was just about to doze off when it started again. I was now highly agitated. How could a creature, no bigger than my hand, be causing such aggravation? I suddenly remembered the gerbil I had as a kid. A friendly little thing called Pinky, I loved watching it exercise on its wheel. But as I’m rapidly discovering, a wild mouse is another matter altogether, particularly when one is alone in the house. It’s like a predator. My heart beat steadily. At any moment, the mouse might scurry across the floor and land on me! Considering I sleep on a futon (in retrospect, not one of Lyndsey’s finest ideas, but I knew she’d always wanted one), it can’t be discounted! Urgh! How I wish she were here with me now. We could deal with this blasted pest together. At the very least, she’d have seen the funny side of it. I miss her humour.

      But then, everything is exaggerated at this time of year! Christmas which was once a happy occasion, now secretly dreaded. You see, Lyndsey, my partner and best friend, died two years ago -  just before Christmas in fact, and tomorrow is the anniversary of her death. I keep hoping it will get easier and sometimes it does. I thought I was doing alright until I overheard someone say, “It’s about time she met someone new,” but I’m not ready.

      I’m not sure I’ll  ever be ready. 


     Yesterday I got a message from Natalia. “My mother has arrived in England. Can she come and help in the shop tomorrow at 9.00? Her name is Ivanna.” 

      Natalia, I should explain, is one of my helpers at the shop. She arrived from the Ukraine under a scheme to help those fleeing from the war and has been living in England at Graham’s house. Graham is another volunteer who helps. He sorts, prices books, attends to the banking, and acts as general handyman and magician all rolled into one. Our shop is the busiest charity shop in town and I’m its manager. Graham and his wife have given Natalia a room in their house while she improves her English and looks for full-time work. She found a part-time position at an art studio, but it was temporary. At the charity shop, she helps steam clothes, tag labels and puts out the finished products for sale. She’s friendly and efficient and I like to think I’ve done my bit to make her feel welcome. I can only imagine what it must have been like to to leave her former life behind. Her brother and father are fighting in the war, but I don’t like to ask her about it. Some things are too painful. My father was also a soldier, but that’s another story.

     The first time Natalia came to the shop, I wondered how we’d communicate, but I needn’t have worried. Aided by her translation app, we soon made it work. Her English is certainly improving. Recently, she mentioned the possibility of her mother joining her shortly.

     By all accounts, Natalia’s mother knows very little English. It would be easier if mother and daughter were together the first time Ivanna comes to the shop so Natalia can explain what needs doing. I need to catch up on a growing number of tasks and checklists on the back office computer. There’s always extra work to do and I’d planned to spend a couple of hours getting onto it. Even one hour would have been good.

     When I got Natalia’s message about wanting her mother to help at the shop, I quickly rebooted.

     “Can she come in at ten? 9.00 is too early,” I messaged back.  

     “Sure,” she replied.


     That was yesterday evening.

Today, my eyes are sore and my head is filled with all things MOUSE. In my mind, the house is infested with them. A veritable tribe have built a nest somewhere and it just keeps growing. Maybe I should ring up the council? They ought to take pest control seriously, but I’ll  probably have to spend hours waiting for a reply, only to be fobbed off from one department to another. The other alternative is to go online. Me and computers?? Enough said.. 

     It’s easier to deal with the problem directly. Be strong Yvonne, I tell myself. Live up to your surname. What about mousetraps, then ? Sounds ok in theory, but I’m not keen on the idea of inflicting unnecessary pain. I don’t hate it/them enough for that. YET!! Poison, then? Not a particularly pleasant way to go either, from what I’ve heard. The only thing left is “humane traps.” The protagonist (me) tempts the antagonist (the mouse) into a small chamber with morsels of delightful food. At which point the door jams shut. Let’s hope it’s not a claustrophobic mouse because it could have a heart attack while waiting for me to return home to be released in a field where it will probably freeze to death.The mind boggles. Maybe the lethal mousetraps are the best method, after all.

     My mood turns thunderous when I catch sight of bags and boxes stacked up against the shop door. Why would anyone do that? Isn’t it bad enough leaving it against the window? As I get closer, it appears to be piles of rubbish and filthy bedding. Usually there’s a respite before Christmas as people are preoccupied with shopping and have less time to donate. It’s a welcome chance to catch up on neglected tasks. Apart from the fact that the path outside the shop is a treacherous slide, leaving stuff outside the shop is actually fly tipping. In other words, illegal. The perpetrators clearly haven’t read the sign on the window.

     It states in bold letters: Do not leave donations, except in shop hours, as they are liable to be ransacked. 


     Standing by a bench, I see a woman waiting outside the shop. I hope it’s not a customer wanting a refund. Another annoyance. They must be keen to be hanging round a quarter of an hour before the shop opens. Normally, I arrive at the shop at least an hour before opening so I can set up and prepare for the onslaught. I like to be prepared.


    The woman turns to me.“Excuse….. I Natalia’s mother.”

     What! Already? You’re not supposed to be here till ten! I want to say, but don’t.

     My head is aching and I’m desperate for coffee. “Ok. Come in.” I try not to sound cross as I fiddle with keys and she follows me in.

     Close up I see she’s very much like her daughter, only about twenty years older. 

     “I’ve just got to bring these bags in. Can you help?”

     It takes a while but after a few gesticulations and grimaces she helps bring them in.

     “They shouldn’t do this. It’s not fair,” I mutter to myself. “Bloody arseholes.” 

     “Sorry. I speak only little English.” She gives me a concerned look.

     It’s just as well she can’t understand me because I make various rude suggestions about where such people can stick their unwanted goods. If first impressions are anything to go by, most of it  should have been disposed of at the town’s tip! 

     Inside the shop, I gesture a seat.“You wait here…..”

     She sits down. 

     “Your name?” she asks holding out her hand.

     “Yvonne. Hello.”

     “Hello. I Ivanna.”

     “Hello Ivanna. Nice to meet you. Now. Wait here.”I hold up my hand like some police officer stopping traffic. “Won’t be long. I have to set up.” She waits while I turn heaters on to warm the place. I then get the money from the safe and set up my float. Although people increasingly use cards now, many prefer cash.  

     I feel I’m being heartless here. Making her wait. 

     Over time, I’ve perfected a way of settling new volunteers in on their first day. It’s called a “taster session” where both manager and volunteer see how they get on. At least, in theory. In reality , there’s nothing worse than when someone totally unsuitable shows. Since Covid, more and more people are battling with depression and mental health. I do my best to help, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. I’m not a trained professional or social worker and it’s difficult to strike the right balance. Between helping people and running a shop. There’s no secret to a successful shop. The more quality items are sorted and processed to be sold, the more money the charity makes.

     By now, Jane, the assistant manager has arrived. She can see I’m struggling.

     “I’ll go in the shop, if you want. Then you’ll be able to spend time with the new lady. Shout if you need me.”

     After showing Ivanna where to hang her coat, she follows me to the kitchen area where staff lockers are kept. Some of the keys are missing and have not been replaced (in spite of having kept a spare set in the safe). With the amount of people coming in and out, keys often get lost. Note to self. I must get some new keys cut ASAP. 

     Ivanna seems baffled when I explain about pinning the locker key to her jacket so as not to lose it. I feel like an actor in a pantomime mining where to hang her coat, and the need to ‘sign in’ in case of a fire.

     Normally I would explain about the fire doors, safety, and the nearest exit routes, but I’m feeling  shattered. When all else fails, steaming is a job that needs doing. Ivanna looks more than capable. 


     “I’ll show you how to use the steamer.” I point to an electrical gadget which looks a bit like a Henry hoover minus the friendly face. It’s a cylinder with a hose attached to it. At the end of the hose, a nozzle rests on a holder. Ivanna watches as I unscrew a lid and pour in water from a jug using a funnel. The water must be hot (I explain), otherwise it will take ages to reach the right temperature. After readjusting the lid, I press a green switch. The water heats up and a cloud of steam emerges from the nozzle. Ivanna watches me take a blouse from a rail and place it on the holder. The heat has made the pipe malleable and soon the creases iron out. She looks suitably impressed.

      When it runs out of steam, the machine makes a loud noise to alert the user they must switch it off. You then refill, wait for it to heat up and start the process all over again.

     Ivanna wants to ask a question.

     “Have you got a translate app?”I ask.

     She checks her mobile phone and tries to work the app. “Ooooh,” she says irritably. I wait while she perseveres. What with that and me speaking English as slowly as a snail (how peculiar words sound spoken like this), we get there in the end.


     Ivanna a settles into a routine and diligently steams a rail of clothes. By now, other volunteers have trickled in to offer their services. I introduce them to Ivanna. They are a friendly bunch.

     Suddenly Natalia appears bright-cheeked at the doorway. Unexpectedly, shes cycled through icy roads to check on her mother’s progress. 

     “Getting on well,” I say.

     “Ah, I see you get her use steamer,” she grins.

     “Yes, I’ve tried to show her where to put the clothes in the shop, but it’s difficult. I really need to go on the computer. Have you got time to quickly show her?”

     Natalia takes off her coat. “Of course. I would have come in earlier but I did not want to miss my English lesson.”

     “Well, if your mother works at English like you, I think she’ll be good.”

     For a while, they converse in their own language. Ivanna is being thoroughly instructed by her daughter. While Ivanna sets about her task, Natalia smiles at me.

     “I have question to ask. I’m looking at Christmas present for Graham. What you think I should get him?”

     I smile. Graham a very kind man, with a cheeky sense of humour. He has a saucy side which we all take it with a large pinch of salt. This year he’s managed to get invited to at least eight Christmas meals, all of which he will greatly enjoy. I count myself lucky to have been invited to two. I’m less certain whether I will go.

     “I thought maybe I get him game,” Natalia says.

       “A good idea. What about monopoly?”

       “How you say?”

      I skip monopoly for the moment. What do you play in Ukraine?” 

     Her expression turns wistful. She once told me before she got out, her family lived by the sea. She said it was warm in the summer which surprised me, but then the Ukraine is a large country. “Well, the young people my age like playing video games in cafes.”

     After searching the back room for a monopoly set, I find one for sale in the shop and hand it to her. 

     “Ah monopoly!” She understands now. “But Graham already has that. He loves it. It is very loud when he plays. It is a big family game with him. His daughters enjoy it too. They shout loudly.”

     We suddenly come across a beer glass designed in the shape of a woman’s body. It’s fairly mild compared to some of the things I’ve encountered in the the shop. Sex toys are a definite no-no. Some of the customers might be offended and send an email of complaint to head office. It generally results in grovelling on my part.

     Perhaps Graham would like this beer glass?” I suggest mischievously.

     “But I think his wife would not.” We laugh. “I already have chocolates for Graham’s wife.” Natalia finally settles on a game of chess for Graham. “I don’t think he has a chess set. I think maybe I teach him. He likes to learn. Something I can give for him being kind and letting me live with his family. And for helping me with forms for my mother to come too.”

     “Yes, he is good.” I cannot imagine how hard it must be for them. Their courage and strength shine through. 



     A day or two later, I sift through the Christmas cards we keep on a shelf in a box for the staff. When I get home I open mine. Graham’s one says. You’re very welcome to join us for Christmas. Natalia and Ivanna both hope you can make it. xxx

     No pressure then. But then, why wouldn’t I want to join them? Last year, I did Christmas alone - in spite of several kind invites. As I make my way home, I think of Ivanna. Her step when she left the shop was lighter than when she came in. All in all, a job well done. As for the mouse business? Tonight I’ll sleep in the spare room. Let’s hope it’s mouse-proof. In the New year, I’ll treat myself to  the cat Lyndsey always wanted. As for joining Graham’s family and my two Ukrainian friends, why not?

      We can always play a game of monopoly. 

December 21, 2022 18:12

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42 comments

Zack Powell
08:32 Dec 30, 2022

Great story, Helen. Full of heart and compassionately told. Very much earned that Inspirational tag. The characters were relatable and likeable, and I couldn't help wanting all of them to succeed in their lives. There's something very human and realistic about the way you told this tale that just oozes empathy. Really like the connection between the resilience and persistence of the mice and that of Ivanna (and Natalia). Great way to link those two disparate elements of the story into something bigger and more meaningful. Thanks for sharing...

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Helen A Smith
18:12 Dec 30, 2022

Thanks for your kind words Zack. It means a lot

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Wendy Kaminski
14:33 Dec 23, 2022

Very heartfelt vignette of a kind "grouch" remembering to do a little kindness to herself, too. :) Her wistfulness for Lyndsey is palpable throughout: "tying the leaves of Lyndsey’s palm to protect it from the frost. It was her last gift to me and I can’t stand the thought of losing it." "At the very least, she’d have seen the funny side of it. I miss her humour." and, of course, the cat that Lyndsey wanted, which she seems to be contemplating, after all. Bittersweet, but also a form of self-forgiveness, in the way I read it: she's not deny...

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Helen A Smith
15:19 Dec 23, 2022

Thanks Wendy for appreciating my story. You picked up on the similar names although I didn’t realise it till later. In my head, the two women were alike in temperament, although they come from different countries. Its true. There is a sense of kinship when someone has the same name. There’s a lot in a name. Thank you.

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Delbert Griffith
13:43 Dec 22, 2022

A very heartwarming story, and one that reminds me that I have so much more than most people. I think the MC's problems with the mouse kind of fade in significance as well. I respectfully suggest a minor alteration to the story. The boxes and bags stacked up against the front door. Perhaps a small bag with very few clothes. Reveal later that this is a gift to the store from Natalia's mom for the MC being so kind as to hire her. The clothes are her clothes, which she can ill-afford to spare, but she does this anyway to show her gratitude. A...

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Helen A Smith
16:10 Dec 22, 2022

Thanks Delbert That’s an interesting idea about the box. I don’t know if you’ve had a close encounter with a mouse. It really takes over your whole life lol. It happened to a friend of mine recently and freaked him out. Many years ago, it happened to me and ditto. From one who speaks from direct experience , the reality of piles of boxes that contain a lot of rubbish outside the shop is a slightly nightmarish start to the day the MC could well experience. Thanks for reading. I value your comments

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Delbert Griffith
16:22 Dec 22, 2022

LOL I used to live in the country, so we had our wars with mice - and rats in the barn. My mother was quite mercenary with them because they would drive her crazy otherwise. Your story is great as is, Helen. I felt immersed in the little world you created.

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Helen A Smith
16:38 Dec 22, 2022

I’m a town girl so it was more of a shock. lol. Thanks, really appreciate your comments. It’s good to get suggestions because it’s easy to get too close to the subject matter.

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Tom Skye
21:53 Feb 29, 2024

This was a sweet story, with a very likeable MC. There is something inspiring about a likeable character dealing with grief by being active and positive. The link to the prompt was subtle, and it demonstrated the MC patience and good heart. I must admit, when the story started I thought it was going to be about her trying to communicate with the mouse 😂 Maybe that was a red herring? :) Enjoyed this a lot. Character driven and the dialogue was so realistic, the story really played out like a day(or few) in the life of a real person. Great ...

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Helen A Smith
07:03 Mar 01, 2024

Thanks Tom. I love the idea of her communicating with a mouse. I sometimes wish animals could talk, but then who knows what they’d have to say about the human race! Maybe in another story. Thanks for reading.

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Graham Kinross
00:10 Jan 15, 2023

It’s mad to think that in this day and age there are refugees of war coming from within Europe. It’s heartening to hear about some settling into a strange, and hopefully not permanent, new life. I like to check the news every day, hoping there will be a story about how it’s over. The mouse problem sounds like a great excuse to get a cat. If you like cats. I never thought about people donating sex toys to a charity shop, people have no sense. Who’d want them second hand?

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Helen A Smith
09:36 Jan 15, 2023

It’s so depressing and sad. I go through periods when I watch the news, until it gets unbearable then I stop for a bit. I like dogs best, but recently a cat had kittens in my garden and it changed my perspective a bit. Sex toys are not necessarily arriving at charity shops second- hand, any more than anything else. Some items arrive in sealed packages new, never used lol.

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Graham Kinross
13:37 Jan 15, 2023

Ah. What happens then? EBay?

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Helen A Smith
14:58 Jan 15, 2023

Could be. Or, in the shop. So long as its of benefit.

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Graham Kinross
22:02 Jan 15, 2023

Is there a section for that sort of thing?

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Peter Bradford
23:50 Jan 13, 2023

Very engaging story Helen. Would like to read more about Graham, he seems like a real hero.

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Helen A Smith
17:09 Jan 14, 2023

Thanks Peter. He’s a really nice guy, for sure. Maybe he’ll appear in another story. You never know. Thanks for reading.

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Philip Ebuluofor
09:46 Jan 08, 2023

Great work with current news as the central theme. Congrats.

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Helen A Smith
13:38 Jan 08, 2023

Thanks Philip for your kind words.

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Tom Ortega
09:19 Jan 05, 2023

what a beautiful story Helen.

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Helen A Smith
10:46 Jan 05, 2023

Thank you Tom.

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Amanda Lieser
01:15 Jan 04, 2023

Hey Helen! Congratulations on the shortlist! This was such a beautiful piece. I love how you wove in some of those silent struggles, like training someone new in a workplace, and life after Covid. I also loved the way you wrote the dialogue. Nice job!

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Helen A Smith
08:40 Jan 04, 2023

Thanks Amanda for your kind words. It means a lot.

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Rolade Berthier
07:49 Dec 31, 2022

Well done, Helen. Having lived on three continents and travelled to more than 30 countries, I have met people in your story. I collected donations for Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border and wore yellow and blue outfits from the day of the invasion in February until July in solidarity with Ukraine. As a family tradition, we play monopoly on December 24, before and after Christmas dinner. All the best.

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Helen A Smith
09:40 Dec 31, 2022

Thank you. That was amazing hearing about what you’ve done!

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Wendy Kaminski
19:52 Dec 30, 2022

Awesome, congratulations!!

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Helen A Smith
20:07 Dec 30, 2022

Congratulations to you too. Well done!

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Wendy Kaminski
20:16 Dec 30, 2022

Thank you!

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Story Time
17:53 Dec 30, 2022

Zack said everything I wanted to say and far better than I would have said it, so I'll just stick with "Congratulations." I really enjoyed living in this world for a bit.

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Helen A Smith
18:14 Dec 30, 2022

Thanks Kevin. I’m glad you enjoyed living in this world. It means a lot.

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Delbert Griffith
15:46 Dec 30, 2022

Congrats on being shortlisted, Helen. Great stuff!

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Helen A Smith
16:17 Dec 30, 2022

Thanks Delbert. I’m chuffed. Especially as it’s a subject close to my heart.

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Rebecca Miles
07:18 Dec 30, 2022

Living abroad, I did enjoy being take back to British charity and the comradely nature of many of them. My dad is old and can get quite lonely and I know he loves browsing the books and having a chat to the volunteers. I'm sure many charity shops have this sort of welcoming community. I really like the compassionate message that grouchy Yvonne realised she had a lot to gain from her Ukrainian workers. A quietly heatwarming story for the dark winter months.

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Helen A Smith
07:51 Dec 30, 2022

Thanks Rebecca. You’re right about the comradely nature. Some of the shops are becoming the heart of the community which has been eroded since Covid. Increasingly, people are feeling isolated and those wanting to get involved come from all walks of life. I’m glad your dad enjoys browsing and chatting to the workers.

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Megan Milligan
17:30 Dec 28, 2022

Greatly done , kept my attention through out reading , i really enjoyed this story

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Laurel Hanson
13:19 Dec 27, 2022

Interesting pairing of the excess stuff people dump outside the charity shops with the Ukrainian immigrants who have lost all of their stuff.

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Helen A Smith
14:06 Dec 27, 2022

Yes, it’s a contradictory world

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00:13 Dec 27, 2022

I keep forgetting to hit the post comment button - sorry if this is a repeat.Your story is lovely, poignant = and real. Not sappy. I think I'd love to just go to Christmas celebration with a family I don't know. Any drama wouldn't be scary and this is a perfect ending.

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23:18 Dec 26, 2022

what a lovely story - heartfelt but real - I have issues with family and I'd love to celebrate the holidays with kind strangers.

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Helen A Smith
07:00 Dec 27, 2022

Thank you for your kind words. Me too. It’s never been easy.

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Michał Przywara
21:48 Dec 26, 2022

A fitting story for the prompt, and for the season :) If this is supposed to be a time of being together with people, it seems the narrator is on the right path. That's something that transcends any language issues, after all. Thanks for sharing!

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Mike Panasitti
22:37 Dec 23, 2022

This story about compassionate annoyance toward unwelcome animal guests and kindness for strangers brought to mind a time when I was incarcerated and had a mouse regularly visit my cell. One of the other inmates went as far as to befriend it and, despite the mouse's being a nuisance, I would frequently hope that it would not get stomped on by a deputy when it went boldly scurrying around the jail environs. You've managed to write a touching story that explores issues that are simultaneously specific to our times and universal. Well done.

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