My Mama says our new neighbor, Mr. Charles, lives alone because his wife died, but today I am having lunch with Mr. Charles and his dead wife.
Her eyes are glass, cat’s eye marbles with sweeping blue waves and tiny bubbles. Cluster pearls are clipped onto her walnut ears. Dust motes and steam, from the Hungarian goulash, create a mist around her. I try not to stare; it’s rude.
“Best you’ll ever have, Henry. Eat up, Son.”
“Yes, Mr. Charles.” I dip my spoon into the empty bowl and bring it to my lips.
“She makes it with tomatoes fresh from the garden; that’s her secret.” He reaches over and pats her hand, meticulously recreated from sardine bones, being careful not to disturb the thin gold band. I nod, glancing through the window at the yawning square of cracked ground and petrified vines beyond the porch. I dip my spoon again and shove air into my dry mouth. It’s only polite.
We sit like this for a long time and I begin to wonder if he’s forgotten I’m here. I steal a glance at the stained glass hearts clinging to the window. They glow like fresh blood in the sunlight.
“Okay.” I stop holding my breath.
He stands wearily, removes both our bowls from the table. The steam clears and I glimpse the painful cracks around her wax lips. Still, she smiles. This must be why he loves her. He lowers a yellowing doily in front of her, places a white ceramic cup gently on the doily. Steam rises once again and moisture accumulates on her eyes. He baptizes the teabag in the boiling water, scoops out some honey from a half-full jar and stirs it into the cup. A series of high pitched dings follow. My cup remains empty, but I don’t bring it up.
“Her dad used to raise honey bees, bring raw buckwheat honey in for their tea. Why she’s so sweet,” he chuckles.
The air is thick around us and I sit very still so I don’t disturb anything. I am becoming aware of the numbness in my bottom, but I don’t dare squirm. I can almost feel her approval at this, at my stillness. We drink our tea like this. In silence.
“You’re a good boy. We’re glad to have you in the neighborhood.” He shakes my hand and I feel the dry trembling.
As I slide awkwardly out of the chair, I am possessed by a sudden urge to give her something. I remember the four leaf clover I found in our own yard and reach deep into my pocket. It’s a bit wilted and ripped in one corner, but it did take me almost a whole hour on my knees to find. Still a worthy sacrifice. I place it by her fish bone hand and whisper into the tiny caverns of the walnut. I whisper that if she can hear me I would like to taste a bit of the soup and tea and honey for myself next time. Then I think maybe I am being ungrateful and add “sorry” and “thank you”.
“We’ll see you next Sunday then?” he calls.
I loved your first sentence.
Your story is wonderful. Well done!
OMG! The creepy situations our kids can get into without us knowing…scary! Loved your story. You write with such wonderful description.
I absolutely love this story. Love it.
The detail and the complexity are outstanding. That’s not enough. No. Also the pacing, the tension, the tone of a tense yet open-minded child. You capture so much here. I love that Mr. Charles gives the real food and drink to the unreal person, and gives fake food and drink to the real person. I love that detail of her hand created out of sardine bones. Sardine bones! How lovingly and carefully one would have to work to create a hand out of sardine bones.
Okay, I try to offer constructive comments whenever I can. This is hard because it’s such a tight story. So I give you a glimmer of what I felt as a reader — I had a bit of confusion when steam rose from her goulash, yet the boy’s bowl had nothing in it. That made me think the goulash and the steam were imaginary. Would I change that were I the author? I don’t think so. It’s part of the mystery of the build. But, were I the author, I’d like to know that slight confusion was elicited in a reader. Therefore I offer it.
I’m very happy to have you on the #FridayFlash rounds.
Marisa- thanks for your comment, learning how important that first sentence is!
Laura- Yep, a mother’s fear incarnate 🙂
Netta-thank you for visiting and commenting!
Jeff- wow, what can I say? I really appreciate your “understanding” of the story and the time you took to say specifically how it worked for you. I’m very happy to be a part of your rounds. 🙂
eerie cool! nice wicked feel , darkly delicious this one!
What a cool story! It makes me remember visiting my neighbor when I was very young, and how everything in her house smelled so old. You did a great job!
Great story, I really enjoyed it. The bits I liked best were the description of the petrified vines and Henry not daring to squirm in his seat. Very nicely done.
This was an unexpected treasure. One of my favorites so far… It was so vivid hitting all the senses. I’m left kind of speechless here, floundering for the right words.
Thank you, thank you and thank you.
What a beautifully paced and richly described story.
Were I Henry I’d never be seen there again. But, I’m not. I think the Henry you’ve created will be there. A great character, a mix of child-like acceptance of fantasy and the marvelous politeness he shows in his dealings with Mr. Charles and his dead wife.
Very nicely done.
Auwe! As a mother, this one so made me squirm upon first reading. Makes Dennis’s Mr. Wilson seem almost lovable.
I raced through my first reading because I was so nervous; credit to your skill in hooking my emotions instantly. Then I went back to the beginning to read again for a second time, and as Jeff pointed out, noticed so much that was so cleverly done.
A great example of short fiction – but I am so glad I waited until morning to read this; must shake it off now!
Thanks for your comments everyone! I’m sensing a theme here in your reactions…that you all found this very creepy and worried for the child?
This wasn’t my intention, though I wouldn’t want my child in this situation, this story was more to showcase grief and the extremes we must go through as emotional beings to continue existing in the grips of grief…like creating religion. Hence, the references to baptism, blood, sacrifice, etc.
It’s so interesting the differences in reader perspective, very valuable..thank you!
What can I add that hasn’t already been said? A lovely piece, Shannon. She phrasing and pacing are wonderful. My heart pulls for all the characters.
Oh Shannon, I absolutely love this. Creepy, yet so sweet and innocent… delicious.
Oooo! Nice and creepy! Nice!
I always picture the unmentioned environmentals of your stories:
– a pathway occasionally dotted with glass marbles; lined with gravel and skeletal bushes,
– a yard consisting of more lawn gnomes and whirly-gigs than grass,
– A wrought-iron gate being held open with weeds
I enjoyed the fact that you didn’t bang us over the head with a reveal at the end.
I think that’s because of your creative nature. Jayden does the same thing-in a book about fish, he won’t see the colorful fish on the page, he’ll point to a dark part of the water and describe the shark with big teeth coming after those fish. 🙂
(love skeletal bushes)
Nice! Creepy with a side of *shiver*!!!
Very sensory exploration of your themes, Shannon. This man has literally built his grief into an object that lives with him. Loved the details of how he made her and descriptions like ‘I steal a glance at the stained glass hearts clinging to the window. They glow like fresh blood in the sunlight.’
Powerful stuff. I certainly didn’t feel the narrator was under threat. The ending is very sweet when he apologises to Mrs Charles. The fact that he is expecting/wanting(?) a next time is endearing too.
Creepiness aside I find this piece to be quite tender. Your choice of a young boy as guest into their home is perfect. Young enough to be OK with the bizarre situation, in fact understanding why Mr. Charles must lover her, yet refined enough to remember his manners in the presence of adults. His sacrifice of the four-leaf clover and his whispering into her ‘ear’ show great empathy toward Mr. Charles that would have been lost on an older guest. Splendid job!
This is beautifully written, very evocative. I don’t often get visual images from what I read (my mind isn’t wired that way) but I have a very clear image of Mrs Charles – well done!
My biggest question is: why is Henry there, and why does he intend to go back again? but I don’t want an answer, it’s right that I should be asking that, questioning my own rigid notions of what’s normal and appropriate.
Excellent story, very nicely done. Creepy and imaginative.
That first sentence packs a serious WTF punch. Had to keep going after that. Nice, creepy little vignette.
I love this little boy. In such a short piece, you made me love him. That he gave her a gift, that he sat there and did his best not to squirm, that he showed his youth by asking to taste the food for real, but then apologized. You gave me a full vision of this boy and he touched my heart.
You capture the voice of the child well and the tenderness he feels for Mr. Charles – even as he realizes Mr. Charles is living too deeply in the land make-believe. This balance of curiosity and tenderness makes for a lovely – if unnerving – read.
Welcome to #fridayflash, Shannon. This was a wonderful introduction to your writing. I hope to see many more from you.
It evoked many of the same feelings I got from Sixth Sense, the boys are so similar in nature – sweet, completely honest, empathetic almost to a fault. How could I not love this kid? And the madness that has consumed Mr. Charles is just heartbreaking. He is so lucky to have found such an accepting little friend. Great piece of flash.
And that opening line… Wow!
Welcome to #FridayFlash.
This is a wicked-dark story. What a bizarre character Mr. Charles is for you to write about. And I definitely experienced the squirming sensation felt by your MC. By the time you finished, I wanted to leave too. You did a fine job of making this reader experience the creepy-crawlies. Thank you for sharing.
Very gripping story, I was hooked all the way through. This is definitely one of my faves from the batch!
Very well done. It was creepy, but somehow comforting. I was glad the man had both real, and imaginary company. I was glad the child saw eternal love. I feel peace in the terror 🙂
I love this piece. Like @ganymeder, i remember visiting our neighbors as a young child – one little old lady in particular. We used to sit in her living room and chat for hours – i must have been around 6 or 7 at the time. LOL! Fortunately she wasn’t crazy (at least not that I remember). But I could definitely relate to this boy – being on his best behavior, playing along as best he could, and actually believing in it just enough. Very nice 🙂
I really like this one, Shannon. Sorry, I’m a bit behind in keeping up. Very nicely done.