my first piece of fiction…I hope you enjoy
It was a beautiful fall day, a light breeze playfully toyed with the colorful leaves littering the small but bustling street. The street, much like the town, was old but well kept. The town, like so many small Anytown USA’s, had lost its “Big Company” and the jobs that it provided. Most of the younger families had long moved away but it’s loyal, remaining citizens insisted on preserving their little town. A particular source of pride was the row of shops on Main St, where a mother and her young daughter were walking hand and hand along the cobblestone sidewalk. They were clearly not local, their pace lacked deliberation as they alternated between staring in the storefront windows and glancing around in all directions. Their clasped hands suggested fear of separation more than of a maternal bond. Mom looked nervous, out of her element and intent on holding her little girl, no more than 8, as close to her as possible.
They continued down the sidewalk, almost going into several stores, only to turn and continue walking. It was not until they came upon one shop, more inviting than the others, that caused them to stop and stare. The name Yesteryear Today was displayed in golden letters on the thick glass window. The mother, clearly a lover of antiques, gently tugged her daughter through the massive mahogany door. A bell announced their arrival.
They were immediately greeted by the smell of cinnamon. No stranger to antique stores, the woman stood in the doorway, her daughter obediently clutching her hand, and surveyed the enormous room. She was greeted by afternoon sunlight streaming through skylights and 3 walls of shelves overflowing with pictures, dolls, books and knick-knacks (as her mother had called them God rest her soul) with the floor full of tables, chairs, desks, cabinets and sofas that she knew (from her mother again, God rest her soul) had names like Edwardian, Davenport, Divan, Fauteuil, and the list goes on. She noticed the conspicuous absence of the pungent, mildewy odor of old books and discarded memories common in most antique stores. Perhaps it was the cinnamon.
“Cider?” a voice called out to her, surprising her. She had been so fixated on a rolltop desk to her left that she had not noticed the elderly man approach her. He looked to be about 75, wearing khakis, a white shirt with a grey sweater and a bow tie. His appearance immediately struck her as meticulous, right down to the knot in his tie.
“Beg your pardon?” she asked.
“Sorry to have startled you, Ma’am. I was offering you and your lovely little girl a hot cider. Fall is in the air you know. I may be a bit early but I admit it, I’m a sucker for the season, hot cider and all.” He turned his attention to the little girl, “Do you smell the cinnamon, young lady?” I add real sticks to the cider” he said excitedly. The little girl hugged her mother’s leg and looked at the floor.
“You’ll have to forgive my daughter’s shyness, please don’t take it personally”.
“Don’t be silly, young lady, no offense taken. What is her name?”
“This is Lily”. She looked down at her daughter and smiled. “And I’m Kelly. Kelly Swanson”.
The old man’s brow furrowed and a concerned look crossed his face, “As in the Swanson family over on Hemlock Lane?”
“That’s the one”. He knows about the accident “It’s been in probate for a year but since I just lost my apartment this seems to be my best, most logical move. We dropped off our bags this morning and decided to check out the town before we unpack. I hate moving.” Stop prattling on! she scolded herself. He doesn’t need to know your life’s story. He’s going to think you’re nuts and you just met him. She noted to herself that he was almost unsettlingly easy to talk to.
“Well, Miss Swanson, welcome to our town, circumstances as they are. I must say, that accident took a little of all of us. We haven’t had a crash like that in decades. Just awful. I’m so sorry for your loss. Again, may I please offer you a cider?” and he gently steered Kelly and her daughter to the small table with the old-fashioned hotplate with a small steel pot of cider. He ladled some into a cup for Kelly and went out back for a couple of ice cubes for the one he would give to Lily.
After he returned and had stooped to convinced the ever-shy Lily to try his cider, he again turned to Kelly. “My name is Bernard Steele, proprietor of this fine establishment” and he bowed to her slightly. She was visibly taken back by his old-fashioned mannerisms as she was his pristine appearance. “Please look around the store, I take great pride in my collection of memories”.
“I will Mr. Steele, thank you so much.” She reached down for Lily’s hand and was surprised to not find it. Apparently, her shyness had worn off a bit. Kelly scanned the room anxiously and was relieved to find her Lily intently staring at a very old bicycle. Relax, she told herself, we’re not in the city anymore. She can be five feet away without calling in an Amber Alert. She fervidly wished to herself for the ability to lighten up and not worry so much. My mother smothered me, I’m not doing it to her dammit! She took a deep breath and exhaled, staring bemusedly at her daughter. She certainly looked like she was happy all the way over there. She again caught herself and looked away. Her gaze was immediately met by an old roll-top desk. If she didn’t know better it could be the one her Grandmother had in her basement. She walked over and studied the antique desk, running her hands over the aged wood marveling at the craftsmanship.
Next thing she knew she found herself sitting at the roll-top. I don’t remember sitting down she thought to herself. She had a fountain pen in her right hand, a jar of black ink open beside her. A half-written letter lay under the thumb and forefinger of her left hand, barely visible below the fluttery sleeves of her blouse. I don’t own such a blouse! Tucked into the corner of the leather blotter was a letter. Confused, she looked around her and realized she wasn’t in the antique store anymore, but instead a room she had never been before. Puzzled yet intrigued she took the letter from the blotter, opened it and began to read.
I’m so sorry I didn’t write you yesterday. We had a surprise inspection below deck that took all day. Then we spotted a Kraut Sub that we chased all damn day. I had KP at night so no letter time.
I hope you are doing ok with the little one, I’m sure she’s a handful. I saw the pics, she looks like the Milkman. I kid of course, I know you wouldn’t do that to me. It’s a damn shame what’s happening to some guys though. Wives running off with Gardeners and handymen, war-dodging bastards, while their husbands are at sea. Not you. You wouldn’t do that to me would you kid?
Listen, we got something big coming up. I can’t tell you much more but you may not hear from me for a few days. Know that I love you and as soon as we win this damn war we’ll pick up where we left off.
Love you kid, Mel.
She then scanned over to her letter.
My dearest Mel,
I have been getting your letters. I wait for the mailman every day, but not like you joked about you silly man. I will never do that to you. Your daughter is growing fast and she wants to see her Daddy so do what you have to do and please come home so that we can
That was all she had written. The paper had a small circular wet spot where a tear had fallen. She looked at the date of the postmark. It was dated June 5, 1944. Stunned, she frantically scanned the massive desk for a calendar. She found it, it was opened to July 10, 1944. Stunned, she pushed away from the desk.
“Miss Swanson, are you ok?” Mr. Steele was next to her, a look of consternation on his face. She was back in the store. What the hell is going on here! She remembered the letter.
“June 5, 1944!” she exclaimed. “That date! That’s the day before D-Day!”
“I’m sorry Miss Swanson, but it’s clearly October and we are considerably past the year 1944. Are you sure you’re ok”?
“It was July, I mean it could’ve been. I…I don’t know. Something very strange just happened to me and I’m a little rattled”. She noticed the cup of spilled cider on the floor next to her and sheepishly apologized to Mr. Steele. He scurried off to find some paper towels.
Meanwhile, Lily was admiring a bicycle. As she touched the old, worn rubber grip she closed her eyes as a satisfying, warm sensation coursed through her body. She felt a strong gust of cool air dust her long brown hair from her face. She felt the warmth of the sun on her face as she opened her eyes. How did I get outside? She wondered. She then realized she was coasting down Main street past the shops on a bicycle! When did I learn how to ride a bike? The shops looked different, newer. And there were so many people. Women with big flowy skirts bustling about with paper bags and children in tow. Boys in jeans and tee-shirts and cigarettes dangling from their mouths leaned on the lamp posts. Music from big cars blasted from all directions. Everything was so clean. One of the children yelled to her “Hi Cindy!” But my name is Lily! She found herself calling out to the boy “Hey Bobby”.
“Cindy let’s go to your house”! A voice to her left called to her. This must be a friend of mine that I’m riding my bike with. She found herself answering,
“Ok, follow me”. And then watched in amazement as the little girl and three others fell in behind her. They rode through town, carefully avoiding the big cars until they reached the end of the block and rolled down a side street. Her “friends” in tow. As she approached a big white house with a white fence with lovely roses growing in front she saw a mailbox with the word Little in block letters. She pulled into the driveway and almost in unison, she and her friends dumped their bikes on the thick front lawn. Waiting for them on the front steps was a tray of glasses of Lemonade. She was sweaty and pulled her hair away from her face as she turned towards the street to face the breeze. The street was beautiful, lined with small but neat houses with tidy, green lawns and shiny cars in the driveways. The flowers still vibrant, making their last defiant stand against the approaching winter.
A voice to her left called out “Lily!” Ignoring it, she thought to herself No, they’re Roses silly. Again, the voice called “Lily!” and again she ignored it. Suddenly she felt a hand grab her shoulder and she pulled away quickly.
The sound of the bike crashing to the floor startled her. Almost as much as the look on her mother’s face as she stared at her.
“Lily, are you alright? I called you twice and you were just looking off into space like you were in a trance. Here, let me hold you…” and extended her arms for a hug.
“No” Lily said and pushed the outstretched hands away. “I’m ok, I don’t need a hug. You hug me too much. I want to ride my bike now”.
Her mother kneeled down and said. “Ok, no hug. But honey, you don’t know how to ride a bike”.
“Yes, I do. I can do it all afternoon and ride all over town with no adults watching me or my friends.” She crossed her arms indignantly.
Kelly leaned in, “Sweetie did you see something special when you touched that bicycle? Because something happened to me. You can tell me. I promise it won’t sound crazy. In fact, I hope it is.” Crazy is the only explanation she remarked to herself. I was just in 1944 and now she knows how to ride a bike! At that moment it occurred to her that the reason Lily had never learned to ride a bike was because she never let the girl out of her sight. She had reasoned it away by memorizing crime statistics and watching the news but the fact was she had sheltered the girl. How many times did she take your hand before you took hers she asked herself. She knew the answer, and she wasn’t pleased with herself. But, she rationalized, her father left us when she was 3 in a shithole neighborhood and I did the best that I could. She shook her head, refocusing herself. She needed to stay focused on her daughter.
“May I interject?” asked Mr. Steele. “Never underestimate the power of old things. I believe they have a memory of their own. It’s a powerful thing when you think about it. That objects may capture and retain moments. I find it fascinating! I like to think of my little store as a magical little museum of memories” he offered as he flamboyantly gestured around the room. “May I suggest, young lady, that you just experienced a bit of magic?” He leaned in to Kelly and whispered, “perhaps you did too, my dear?”
“See Mommy, it’s Magic. That’s why I can ride a bike. Well, I could. I mean I just did. Awwww you know what I mean”. She was clearly coming back to reality.
“Sweetie, I think we need to leave now. It is getting late and I don’t want to unpack too late tonight.” She gently but persistently nudged Lily towards the door. “Say goodbye to Mr. Steele”.
“Goodbye, Mr. Steele” Lily said. And they headed for the door. As they stepped outside Lily said to her mother “Is it alright if I just walk beside you, you know without holding hands? I’ll be ok, I feel safe here.”
“I’m sorry I’m so protective honey, I just worry about you. I can’t help it.” She was still instinctively thinking about reaching out for her hand. She instead put her hands in her pockets, it was getting chilly anyway.
“I saw and felt something in there, Mommy. I felt warm. I felt safe. And I didn’t feel like you were worrying about me. I was just doing stuff and having fun without getting hurt or chased by bad guys.” She looked so grown up, so independent. Maybe I have to let her go if she wants to grow. She smiled and said “Something happened to me in there also. I’ll tell you all about it when we get home. Just hold one second.
She turned to the Antique store and opened the door. She looked to make sure Lily was still there (habit) and stepped inside. “Mr. Steele?” she called out.
Bernard Steele emerged from the back room. “Yes, Miss Swanson. I trust all is well with you and the young lass?”
“Of course, Mr. Steele. I just want to say that while I’m unsure what happened here today, you do indeed run a magical place. I may be back later in the week to talk about that desk. I believe my new cellar has a perfect corner for it.”
“Indeed, Miss Swanson. I look forward to your return. And again, welcome to our little town.”
“I want to buy that bike” Lily called from the doorway.
Bernard Steele laughed heartily. “Absolutely, my dear child. I look forward to it. But you must ask your mother, not me. Your mother may become angry with me”.
“Thank you, Mr. Steele. You’re my first new friend here.” Kelly said. She waved to him. As he waved back he winked at young Lily, who would later swear that she saw a twinkle of light, like a star streaking across the Autumn sky.
They stepped outside, the heavy door closing behind them with the ringing of a bell. Together, mother and daughter walked towards the edge of the square to Hemlock, their steps deliberate and with purpose.