The Red Broom


I’ve been driving for at least four hours when I pull the car into the gas station; the warm sun and the cloudless sky are all the reason I needed to put the top down as I left the city. At some point during the drive I turned the heater on all the way to keep the cool autumn air at bay. Now out of the warmth of the car, standing in the shade of the gas pump awning I shiver against the cool air. I squeeze the pump’s handle and listen as the whoosh of gas mixes with the passing cars.

I’m not supposed to be here alone. Pumping gas on the side of some narrow country road in a fancy suite. This morning I was pacing in a hotel room waiting for my groomsmen to arrive. My future wife two floors above getting ready. Or so I thought. The clack of the automatic shut off startles me. Replacing the nozzle I ignore the beeping from the pump and get back into the car, reaching out to touch the red broom on the passenger’s seat before turning the key.

My hair dances wildly as the car picks up speed, the reds, yellows and oranges of the trees begin to blur in my periphery and it reminds me of multiple colors of sidewalk chalk running together during a rain storm. An hour later I turn onto a narrow dirt road that climbs steeply into a colorful forest. I begin to question why I am here. I would have preferred a beach. Fall in New England was her favorite time and she intended to start our honeymoon here at a four-diamond inn and spa on the top of a mountain. I had driven here only because it was already paid for. There was no sense wasting this money too. Around a hairpin turn a kaleidoscope of colors falls away to the valley below, the road turns sharply again and the broom gives in to gravity and falls against my leg.

The broom. She’d found a red one at an upscale grocery store in the village and given it to me shortly after we’d met. Telling me I needed to add some practical color to my life. As I raced to get out of the city and away from the humiliation of being stood up I’d grabbed the broom as I’d hastily thrown clothes into a bag. At the moment it gave me a sense of comfort. It was unchanging and sturdy, unlike my current state.

I pull into the inn’s gravel parking lot, taking my place at the end of a long line of cars. I sit for a moment, gripping the steering wheel trying to gather my composure. The view is amazing. The expansive lawn casually slopes down to a large lake that has a handful of rowboats pulled up on its shore and a large wooden raft floating in the middle. Just beyond the lake the land rises up again to meet the mountains that nearly surround the property. With a deep sigh, I grab the broom and climb out of the car.

A short plump woman with graying black hair watches as I open the door to the inn and a small bell chimes.

“Here comes the happy couple!” she says before noticing my eyes are red and puffy, my three-piece suit rumpled, my tie hanging loosely around my neck and bunched up at the top of my vest. It must look like a plaid waterfall.

“Hello. I’m Mr. Slope, checking in.”

“Oh yes of course. We have you in the hon…um.. we have you in our best room, sir.”

All I want to do is get to the room. The clerk’s eyes keep dancing from my eyes to the broom and back again and I can only imagine what she is thinking.

“Yes, well, here is your key. The honey.. the suite is on the third floor. Take a right at the top of the stairs and it is at the end of the hall. Dinner is served at six and breakfast is served from seven to nine. Is there anything else you will be needing?”

“No. I’m all set, thank you.”

Walking across the lobby I glimpse myself in a mirror, and realize how haggard and disheveled I look. She probably thinks that I’m some kind of city junkie. My legs feel like lead as I climb the dark oak staircase. The hallway carpet has a wildly ornate pattern and so much padding that I cannot hear the sound of my own footsteps. Unlocking the door I step into a large suite with a modern theme. There is a rounded alcove overlooking the lawn, the lake and the mountains beyond. Next to the window is a small table with a bottle of wine and a silver tray that is heaped with chocolate covered strawberries. Her favorite. I put my bag and the broom on the bed. Walk to the alcove and take in the view. I wonder where she is?   Picking one of the strawberries off the tray I bite into it and begin to pace, sifting through the details of our entire relationship. Trying to find an answer. The more I search for an answer the hotter I get. Pausing briefly I remove my suit jacket and lay it on the bed. The changing light reminds me that it is nearly dinnertime. The thought of sitting in the dining room alone is horrifying. I sit heavily on the edge of the bed and put my head in my hands. I don’t want to be here. Not in this room, this state, this country. I grab the broom off of the bed and stand up snapping it over my knee and letting the two halves clatter to the floor. I grab my suit coat and hear our wedding bands clink together in one of the pockets. I pull them out and study them in the bright yellow light of the setting sun. Tossing them onto the silver tray among the heap of strawberry stems and picking up my bag, I walk out of the room, leaving the broom, the rings, and the life I had hoped to have locked inside.

The Tunnel


She’d found the map in the back of a used bookstore stuck between the pages of an obscure book on the life of mountain climbers. It had fallen to the floor as she flipped casually through the pages, stopping now and then to study the weathered faces of people from far-off lands. She had tucked the map into her jacket pocket when she’d returned the book to the over-stuffed shelf.

At first she’d tried to convince others to join her in following the map. But everyone she’d showed it to said it was someone’s idea of joke. That it was absurd to think that a treasure map in 2015 was actually real. She’d been all over the city following the map’s riddles, the library, City Hall Park, another bookstore, a bank in uptown, a cobbler on the west side of the city and a hat maker on the east side. Now she was here, standing in front of the ink black tunnel with vines cascading down as if a curtain was about to close on a stage. She wondered aloud if the tracks she was standing on were still in use. She looked around uneasily to see if anyone had followed her; she’d never been to this part of the city before. Here among the refineries and freight yards, it occurred to her that this tunnel seemed out of place in such a flat expanse at the foot of the mountains. She took a tentative step forward then with one last look around turned on a cheap plastic flashlight and stepped past the curtain of vines into the darkness.

The pale yellow glow of the flashlight barely lit the ground in front of her. She thought about going back, but something seemed to be pulling her forward. The sounds of the world she had just left trailed behind her as the blackness enveloped her. The air was damp and cool; she heard the scratch of small scurrying animals around her feet. After a short distance the tracks ended abruptly and the tunnel seemed to be closing in around her — or was it her mind playing tricks on her as her light began to fade? The weak beam shown on a wall of jagged rock ahead. The tunnel went no further. It was as if the workers had gone home for the day and never come back. Now she realized the tunnel was completely silent. She spun in a slow circle, squinting as if that would allow her to see farther into the darkness.  She was about to turn around when her eye caught the hard angle of an ornate metal door built into the wall.

For a moment she stared, unsure what to do next. She walked closer to door and stared at its intricate pattern. Slowly she reached out and grabbed the cold brass knob, turning it with little effort, and with a click the door swung open. Light and noise spilled into the dark tunnel. She stepped inside, blinking in the bright light. A large man in a well tailored suit looked down at her from his from his seat by the door.

“Hello, Ann,” he said. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Small Resturant


Jack bent over the small sink and splashed cold water onto his face. He could hear the murmurs and laughter of the other patrons as he stared at himself in the mirror, his breaths coming in rapid succession, the bright red walls seeming to close in as he tried to pace in the closet-size bathroom.

Moments before he and Teresa had been sitting at a table in the middle of the room. He’d just poured the last of the wine into their glasses, when she told him. He’d nearly dropped the wine bottle and had pushed back from the table with such force the legs had screeched across the floor. Everyone in the small restaurant turned to look, their eyes following him as he rose and hastily threaded his way through the tables.

Jack’s knuckles were white as he gripped the sides of the sink trying to control his breathing. He felt like the bathroom was turning on its side, preparing to throw him against the wall, like some demented carnival ride. Slowly he let go of the sink and twisted his body, placing a hand on the back of the toilet. Then he took an awkward shuffling step and sat down with a bang that echoed off the large black drain pipe that ran up the wall. Doubling over, he stuck his head between his knees.

He’d been waiting for this night for three years. It was the one thing that had allowed him to keep going through the long days and crushingly lonely nights. They’d written letters and talked about the future. This was supposed to be a great night out, seeing each other for the first time in so long, and yet here he was with his head between his knees in a claustrophobic bathroom. His mind raced as it replayed what had just happened. Her face had been emotionless when she had told him. Only now, staring at the worn floor, did he realize how much she had changed. I wish someone had told me, people must know, but people don’t do that here, they just keep to themselves and mind their own business. I’ll talk to her. Maybe we can work this out. Maybe at least I can get some answers. I deserve answers.

There was a soft knock on the door. “Be right out,” Jack said without lifting his head.

He took a few more breaths and stood up slowly, his legs feeling weak. He looked at himself in the mirror and splashed some more water on his face and dried it with a coarse ineffective paper towel. The elderly man on the other side of the door gave him a look of pity before averting his eyes and turning sideways to allow Jack to pass.

Their table in the middle of the room was empty.

This story was the 1st place winner of The Charlotte News 2015 fiction contest

A Perfectly Good Door


Gretchen lay awake staring straight up into the darkness praying the door would open. Never had he gone out at night for this long, and she knew if he had been taken they would come for her next. She fought the urge to put their emergency plan into motion. Just a little longer, she thought, as she began to pray more vehemently.

Forty minutes later she heard him open the front door and slip into the apartment.Tension and worry surrounded him as he walked into the bedroom. Gretchen sat up in bed.

“What happened?” she blurted. “I thought you’d been taken for sure.”

“It may be only a matter of time,” he said as he undressed in the dark. “They’ve got new drones in the sky, ones that work no matter the weather or time of day. It’s too risky now, we’ll have to leave tomorrow night.”

“Did you deliver the package? Why not leave now? Why wait?” Her voice rose several pitches as she spoke.

“I delivered the package. You and I both know it is safer to leave tomorrow. If I don’t log in for work they’ll come right away. If we leave tomorrow at rush hour we can be to the western edge by the time I am supposed to log in. That should give us enough of a head start to get across the border.”

She couldn’t argue with the logic, though every fiber of her body told her they should leave now.

A warm morning breeze blew through the open window, carrying the sound of children playing on the street below. Just as their boy had done years ago. Gretchen plunged her hands into the warm soapy water and looked at the pictures of the granddaughter they’d never met in various stages of life above the sink. The damn war, thought Gretchen, the source of all these troubles.

Several years ago the corporations had succeeded in taking over the government, causing a civil war that had cleaved the country into two separate nation states. Their son, distrustful of the regime, had fled to the Western Territory where a new democratic government had been established. Gretchen and Hennery, believing the lies the leaders had told, had decided to stay. Almost immediately the new Eastern Territory government had closed all roads twenty-five miles from the new border and enacted unprecedented surveillance laws. Now pencils, pens and paper were things that children in the Eastern Territory saw only in history books and museums. They learned to write on tablets. Everything was computerized so that everything could be monitored

The street below was suddenly silent; the only sound was the curtains rustling in the warm breeze. Gretchen pulled her hands from the water and wiped them on a dishtowel as she walked to the window. The street was empty except for three large black vehicles at each end of the block. Her shoulders fell as she turned and walked down the hallway, stopping to unlock the door and leaving it slightly ajar. No need for them to wreck a perfectly good door, she thought as she walked into Hennery’s office. Light flooded the room. Hennery turned from the window looking at her with worn and tired eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Wrapping her arms around him she buried her head into his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, kissing the top of her head as the sound of heavy boots filled the air.