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A to Z, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Writing Prompt

A to Z Flash Fiction: Emote

E: Emote

I was in people-watching mode tonight but with little reward. Let others stare at their televisions and phones. There was nothing more fascinating than real life.

The restaurant was more than half-empty. Being a Tuesday evening, this was no surprise. The place was known for its steaks, lobsters, and oysters. Few folks knew the chef also made the finest potato and ham chowder in the city. It was an overlooked selection on the flashy menu.

At a table for two but with one place setting, under the west-facing bay window, I sat sipping the hot chowder and watching the sunset between the downtown brick city-691957_640.jpgbuildings. Day departed on the rosy orange coattails of the sun. I turned my head when the front door opened, allowing in two seconds of street noise. A couple stepped inside, all nervous glances and tight smiles. Uncertainty hovered over them like a hummingbird over a flower.

“Oh, do sit where I can see you,” I whispered over the spoon at my lips.

It was a first date, without a doubt. First dates made for wonderful people-watching. I always rooted for the evening to be a success. To witness that moment when the sparks ignite, when the nerves loosen and the smiles become real – it is a special privilege to see. But they can’t all be successes. The reward in watching then is the curiosity of how each party will handle the disappointment. I have witnessed grace and gentleness, cool indifference, outright rudeness, and desperate attempts to turn it around.

My eyes followed the couple to their table for two, against a wall beneath softly glowing sconces. They were young. Most people seemed young at this point in my life, but this couple had surely seen fewer than twenty-five years.

The girl wore a black wrap-dress and ballet flats. Her brown hair, a shade or two darker than mine was before it turned white, was flawlessly straightened and reached her shoulder blades. She’d accessorized with a simple silver necklace and matching bracelet. Her companion was clean cut, all-American good looks in a blue oxford and gray slacks. He pulled the chair out for his date before seating himself. I smiled my approval.

Their position gave me a clear view of the girl’s face. The boy’s back was to me but I knew there was value in the body language I’d discern nonetheless.

Except it was over before it’d begun. I saw it on the girl’s face.

The young man’s movements, leanings, and gestures grew more relaxed by the second. His forearms were on the table, his back and head tilted toward her whenever she spoke. He answered with lifts of his hands and plentiful words.

But I saw no change in her. No ushering out of the initial nervousness. No softening of the stiff shoulders. Her back leaned away from him, as if fastened to the back of her chair. Her slender hands remained clutched together in her lap, never lifting and never opening. I willed her to emote and engage, to allow her guarded expression to crack.

“You have already made up your mind, haven’t you, dear?” I shook my head and looked away.

Normally, I would continue my observations, curious to know how the tragedy would unfold. Instead, sadness washed over me and I had no wish to see more. I pitied the boy and, perhaps more so, the girl too. My waiter visited my table and I requested the check.

“Dessert?” he asked. “Or a cocktail to finish?”

“Next time, maybe,” I said. My gaze fell on the couple once more. “I’ve had quite enough for tonight, but next time may be better.”

“Certainly, ma’am.”

As I paid my bill, I handed the water an extra twenty.

“Put it toward their meal,” I instructed, indicating the couple across the room. “And tell that young man those words. Tell him that next time may be better.”

*****
Let’s get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I’ll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I’ll consider it for a prompt.

Family, Personal Reflection, The Hidden Legacy

Biscuits and Kitchen Visits

In Chapter 28 of The Hidden Legacy, Laurel sits at the table in her great-grandmother Annie’s kitchen with a pile of recipe cards in front of her. She searches for one particular, beloved recipe, her great-grandmother’s chicken and biscuits. There are only a few tidbits of my life that found their way into my novel, and this is one of them.

The collection of index cards filled with handwritten ingredients, measurements, and instructions. The flowing, elegant cursive of older generations. Edges bent and stained by splattered sauces and chocolate-stained fingertips. Husbands, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren all fed. A treasure of memories resides in my recipe box.

I’ve been missing my grandmothers. Something about autumn and the approach of the holiday season turns my heart to them each year. Tonight, I cooked for my family those chicken and biscuits, and had my grandmothers there in the kitchen with me for a lovely visit. All that was missing were the cups of tea.

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Uncategorized

New Angles and Hairdos

This morning I didn’t feel like spending any time on my hair. There were other things needing my attention. Plus, each time I brushed it, I noticed more gray strands and I really didn’t want to think about that. So, I put my hair up and moved on. Then my daughter came downstairs. She spotted me and immediately declared that she wanted her hair to look like mine.

IMG_20180919_090525_720.jpgIt was a simple enough request, but the contrast between what she saw and what I saw was striking. What I held in low esteem was the same thing she aspired to gain.

Yes, it was merely a hairstyle in this case, but the same reality crops up in all sorts of scenarios, between all sorts of people. That part of ourselves we would give anything to change, how often is that precisely what others wish they could possess? I think it happens more often than we could possibly realize.

Maybe instead of trying to eliminate or replace what is naturally a part of you, you could choose to enhance that part. Polish it up. Use it to serve others, as well as yourself. Ponder why it was part of God’s design of you in the first place. And if someone expresses a wish that they could be like you in this regard, don’t dismiss their aspiration. Dismiss your gut instinct to talk them out of it. Then, consider how that part of you might be a blessing and a strength if you could just find a new angle from which to view it.

Like the angle of a sleepy-eyed daughter looking up at her mother, with love and nothing else shaping her view.

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Personal Reflection, The Hidden Legacy, Writing

All the Feels, As They Say

While I’m not one for trendy phrases and words, the topic at hand qualifies as one to give me “all the feels,” as the cool kids say.

I’m sitting in my car in the office parking lot, feeling the need to write. Write anything. Everything. Scratch the itch. It dawned on me that aside from social media posts, I have not written a single thing since The Hidden Legacy was released. I haven’t even written about the novel being released! Shameful, and causing me a fair amount of restless energy.

Perhaps I ought to to state that more clearly: my novel is now available! Puts a smile on my face and warm fuzzies in my heart every single time I say it. Each time someone informs me they bought the book, or sends a photo of their copy, or tells me they’ve begun reading it, it all feels a bit like make-believe. I’m uncertain how long that feeling will last, but I expect (and hope) it will be a while.

The Hidden Legacy has waited the better part of ten years to see the light of day. When someone asks, “how does it feel?” regarding the novel being finally published, it is impossible to pick a single emotion for my reply.

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I am thrilled. The joy runs deep. It rises up and courses through me each and every time I talk with someone about the book.

I am humbled. All the congratulations and kudos for accomplishing this, for following a dream through to completion, are difficult to accept graciously. I’m learning though.

I am curious. Visibility on Amazon isn’t the only reason I frequently encourage people to write a review on Amazon. I am genuinely curious to know what each reader thinks, feels, and gains from reading The Hidden Legacy.

I am intimidated. This status of Author is something I’ve been chasing for years. The notion that I belong in that category though still feels absurd. How do I find my place among the authors who are writing full time, with multiple books, hundreds of reviews, dozens of interviews and book signings, and thousands of online followers? I don’t know the answer to that one yet.

I am proud. This thing that I have done, writing and publishing my first novel, is no small feat. I won’t pretend that it is. I cried when I held my copy in my hands for the first time. This story and its characters are deeply precious to me and I am proud to present them to the world.

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Two

Read Part One here.people-2557423_1280

A Stranger’s Hands

By Carrie Sue Barnes

Part Two – Breathing Again

“Today is my anniversary too,” Cora shoved the words out before Gil could move away.

Gil sat down, as if he knew this was not a minor remark on a coincidence of the date. He waited.

Cora met his eyes and waited too. She waited to sort out the jumble of words tying her tongue and filling her mouth. She examined him, distracting herself momentarily.

His eyes were the color of dark chocolate. His hair was only a shade lighter. Seated this way, with the table in between, it was slightly less obvious that Gil stood a full eight inches taller than Cora’s five-foot-six-inch height.

Before she’d untied her tongue, she saw him glance at her bare left hand and his brows drop into a low V.

“I didn’t think you were…”

“Married?” Cora finished for him.

She lifted her left hand off the table, turning it palm up, then back again. She then slid from her right hand’s ring finger the slim, diamond encrusted band she’d worn there for exactly two years. Her wedding band. The gems glinted in the sunlight when Cora set the ring on the table.

“I’m a widow.” Over two years, and her voice still trembled when she said it. “Today would have been our eighth anniversary.”

“What was his name?”

Cora smiled. Gil hadn’t said, “I’m sorry,” or “oh, how awful,” like every person before him. Questions about her husband, especially questions other than about his death, didn’t typically come up until much later in the conversation, if at all.

“Theo. His name was Theo.”

“Did he like coffee as much as you do?”

With a laugh, Cora shook her head, “He drank one cup every morning but no more than that. He was always trying to convince me to drink more water and less coffee.”

“How did the two of you meet?”

“My uncle’s retirement party. Theo worked at the same company as my uncle.”

“What line of work?”

“He was an engineer. He designed motors on robotic medical equipment.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

The conversation felt like an instructional in breathing freely. Cora needed it to continue until her lungs were full.

“You can even ask two.”

Gil raised an eyebrow. “Two. Well, I’ll need to choose another good one.”

She took a sip of her drink. Glanced out the window at a passing dogwalker. Returned her eyes to Gil’s pensive gaze.

“What were your favorite things to do together?”

“We both loved movies. Our dates usually included a movie. We volunteered at our church for service projects whenever we could. He loved fishing. I loved the peace and quiet of sitting at the lake with a book, so I usually went with him.”

Cora felt a calm smile stretch across her face. Simple, ordinary memories came in slideshow flashes.

“We had a tradition for Saturday mornings. It started almost immediately after we were married. We both worked hard through the week. Sometimes one or both of us worked into the evening. Saturdays became sacred for us, especially Saturday mornings.

“Neither of us slept late. We were too programmed to be up early during the week. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

Gil nodded.

“We had a routine for Saturday mornings. One of us picked a movie to watch. The other was in charge of cooking breakfast. We’d alternate each week. Well, we were supposed to alternate. Theo often volunteered to cook so I could stay in bed longer. He could always tell when I was especially worn out or stressed after the work week.

“Anyway, it was the same each Saturday. Eggs, over-hard for me and scrambled for him, English muffins, whatever fruit we had on hand, and coffee. We’d stay in our pajamas all morning, sitting on the old love seat in our bedroom, eating our breakfast and watching favorite movies we’d seen a hundred times before. It was perfect.”

And there it was. The first time Cora had spoken of Theo without tears, or discomfort, or the words being entirely focused on the end of his life. Something had unlocked inside of her that she hadn’t realized was locked. She fell into a stunned silence.

She could feel Gil’s eyes on her. Even without looking back at him, Cora recognized the same sensation she’d felt earlier. She liked his eyes on her and his attentiveness to her, the same way she liked the idea of the stranger’s hands at the gym.

But do I like that I like this? Cora’s pink lips settled into a frown. It seemed a silly, adolescent point of analysis, and at the same time, it seemed the most pivotal point.

“Ok, last question,” Gil said, his fingertips drumming the tabletop.

“Last question.”

His brow furrowed and his features took on the solemn expression of a quiz show host setting up the final round.

“Ready?”

Cora fought back laughter, trying to match his demeanor. “I’m ready.”

“When’s the last time you went out and enjoyed yourself?”

The words came easily.

“Two years and thirty-three days ago.”

“Do tell.”

“Theo and I attended an ethnic food festival downtown. We walked and sat and ate for the entire afternoon. The weather was flawless. The food was delicious. The musicians set up throughout the festival were superb. We’d made no plans ahead of time to go to the festival. That morning, Theo spotted a flyer for it on the community bulletin board at the grocery store. He came home and asked if I would be his date for the day. It was something we did frequently while we were dating, spontaneously picking a nearby festival or fair or outdoor concert to attend. It’d been a while though. A long while. And it was a perfect day together.”

“It does sound perfect,” Gil said.

Cora smiled at him. A grateful smile, filled as she was with gladness at having recollected that day.

“Two years and thirty-three days,” Gil repeated.

“Yes.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Maybe.”

“How long was it before…,” Gil’s voice trailed off but he held her gaze.

“Theo died one week later.”

Still he didn’t ask about the how of Theo’s death. She wanted to tell him though. Her eyes dropped to her hands folded on the table.

“He was driving home from work. We used to carpool, but a few weeks earlier I’d launched my independent consultant business and began working from home. The driver in front of Theo crossed the center line and almost struck an oncoming vehicle. Instead of only correcting his direction, that driver panicked and slammed on his brakes. Theo had no time to slow down, nor did the drivers behind him. It was a domino effect and Theo’s car was pinned, crushed really, between the first vehicle and the one behind him. The firemen and paramedics were able to extract him and get him to the ambulance but he died on the way to the hospital. Blunt force trauma and internal hemorrhaging. That was the official cause of death.”

Cora had spoken quickly. Her chest rose and fell with the need for air. A multiple-vehicle accident, that was her usual answer when someone asked how her husband died. But Gil hadn’t asked. Cora had told him because she wanted to tell him. She wanted him to know what she’d been through, not for the sake of pity but for the sake of being known. The shock, the pain, the snail’s-pace recovery. They shaped who she’d become in the last couple years.

As she caught her breath now, she chanced a look at Gil.

“I wish you never experienced that, Cora.”

The compassionate words came quietly and brought tears to Cora’s eyes for the first time in the conversation.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Gil cleared his throat. “It’s understandable, perhaps, that the festival over two years ago was the last time you went out.”

His return to the original question scattered the tension hanging in the air between them.

“No,” Cora said with half a smile, “you asked how long it’d been since I went out and enjoyed myself. I’ve been out several times in the last two years. My sister has made sure of that when she comes to visit me every few months. It’s the enjoying myself part that continues to elude me.”

“Ah, I see.” Gil tapped his chin, contemplating her remark. “That is helpful information.”

“How so?”

He hadn’t yet suggested that they go somewhere together. Would he? The entire exchange had already been so unexpected that she didn’t dare assume to know where it might lead. Cora scrambled to know her own mind. If he did make such a suggestion, did she want to say yes? She tried to imagine doing so but was stopped short by Gil’s reply.

“It’s helpful because now I know what we should do tonight. Meet me back here at 6:30 this evening. Dress, um, smart casual?” He cocked his head in an increasingly familiar way. “Is that a thing?”

“Sure,” Cora nodded to put him at ease.

“Yes? 6:30?”

She replied immediately, with the first answer that came forth before she could think too hard on it, “Yes.”

Faith, Family, Hope, Jesus, Personal Reflection, Prayer

Sunbeams and Prayer Time

There’s a quote from Flannery O’Connor that resonates with me as a writer: “I write to discover what I know.” Within the act of writing out my thoughts on a matter, there is often a sorting-out that occurs. Clarity arises. In writing a fiction story as well, certain ideas give me pause, making me question where the words came from within me. Writing teaches me a lot about myself.

This morning, that quote came to mind after I spent a bit of time in prayer. I thought how appropriate it’d be to say instead, “I pray to discover what I know.” Because sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – at the close of your prayer, you are left with nothing more than what you know, and that is enough.

I had dropped the kids off at the sitter a few minutes ahead of schedule and was on my way to my office. I’d only driven a quarter mile though before I pulled over. I stepped out of my car, sat down on a curbside bench on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan, and stared at this:

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I stared at the sunbeams. I stared at the clouds. I stared at the barely-there waves lapping the beach. Then, I prayed.

My family was exchanging text messages for the past hour or more as my oldest sister Cheryl prepared for her latest doctor appointment in Milwaukee. Today she’ll have a biopsy of one of the growths they’ve found, then she’ll wait approximately a week while it is analyzed to determine the exact type and stage of the cancer that has spread throughout her body.

Sitting on that bench, I thought of the specific things for which Cheryl had requested we pray. Then my mind went blank, wiped by the emotions that cluster into my throat and chest each time I pray for my sister. My own words disappeared and I resorted to what I know:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…”

I whispered the words, as secure and comforting as home, and I discovered what I know:

I know that God is our father. Our perfect father who has us in his care at all times even as he allows our free will and the natural world to run their course.

I know that God provides our daily bread. He places in our path the people and resources and situations to meet our souls’ and bodies’ needs.

I know that Jesus listens to the prayers of his family, and that like any Queen Mother who has the ear of her son, the King, we have Mary praying for us at Jesus’ side.

I know that God – the Holy Trinity – is worthy of all glory and praise. I know that he is unchanging, all-powerful, infinitely wise, and good without exception.

I don’t know what answer God will give to our family’s prayers, but I do know He’ll answer. Sometimes it only takes three minutes of prayer time and some stunning sunbeams to help us discover what we know.

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story, Writing

A Stranger’s Hands – Part One

A Stranger’s Hands

people-2557423_1280

By Carrie Sue Barnes

Part One – Unknown

She could not look away from the man’s hands. Wide palms. Long, sturdy fingers. Strong. They looked capable of holding her, all of her; something she hadn’t thought of a man in years.

Two years and twenty-six days. Cora didn’t keep track every day. That stopped shortly after a year. Every few months though, she added it back up.

Two years and twenty-six days and suddenly (anything new since Theo’s death felt sudden), she was staring at a stranger’s hands, thinking of how they would feel holding hers across a restaurant table, or on the small of her back, guiding her through a busy airport. Ordinary tasks of her husband’s hands.

This was not her husband. This was not Theo, but a stranger. At the gym, no less. What was wrong with her?

Less than yesterday.

That’s what her sister Tessa would say. Tessa thought Cora should move on, that it was time. Cora thought Tessa didn’t know what she was talking about.

She made up her mind to switch to a different treadmill in a different row, away from the stranger and his capable hands. Tessa’s next question would be, was he attractive? Cora realized she couldn’t have answered. She’d noticed nothing except his hands.

It’s a start, Cora heard her sister say in her mind.

“It’s an ending,” she whispered as she began to run.

Cora pushed herself hard. She ran until her calves burned and sweat coated her neck. She ran until her head cleared. Afterward, she showered in the locker room even though her townhouse was only a half mile away. If something could be done elsewhere, instead of at home, that was what she preferred.

From the gym, she walked to Second Street Coffee. She set up her laptop and files in her usual spot: a booth beside the large front window, three tables away from the door. It had the finest morning light.

“Happy Anniversary.”

Cora’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands went cold.

“I thought it was safe to assume your order today.” Gil, the café’s owner stood beside the table, a mug and two bowls balanced in his hands. “Black coffee, apple cinnamon oatmeal, and fresh fruit.”

She watched him place the dishes on the table, but still could not speak.

Gil’s warm smile became a frown. He cocked his head, looking down at her from his considerable height.

“Are you well, Cora?”

“How? How did you know?” she asked in a barely audible voice.

“Know what?”

“That it’s my anniversary?”

Gil only looked more perplexed. “It’s two years since we opened. You were our first customer.”

“Oh!” Her cheeks went hot. She tucked her hair behind her ears, giving herself a self-collecting moment. “Two years, wow. Happy Anniversary.”

She smiled finally and Gil’s brown eyes brightened. Two years. For two years, she’d sat at this table every weekday.

Gil sat down across from her, something he’d never done before. “It’s alright. I didn’t expect you to remember that fact. I’m sure that day was a bigger deal to me than to you.”

“I doubt it,” Cora mumbled.

“What do you mean?”

“Um, nothing, nothing at all.” She unzipped her bag to retrieve her wallet. “Thank you for bringing over my breakfast. That was thoughtful of you.”

When she held out the cash, he shook his head. “Today’s breakfast is on the house. No argument. You were our first customer.”

“Thank you, Gil. I appreciate it.”

The bell over the door dinged as another customer entered and Gil left her table. Cora sat wondering over the same question that filled her mind at the gym. What was wrong with her?

One and a half coffees later, Cora visited the restroom. She stared into the mirror over the sink. Her dark blonde hair had dried into the natural waves she used to straighten with a flat iron every morning. She wore no makeup – no blush, no mascara, no lipstick – another unpredicted change. Her body, always slim, was now toned with tight muscles from the almost daily visits to the gym. She wore bootcut jeans, a long sleeved black t-shirt, and gray canvas sneakers. A Saturday outfit, as she used to call it, instead of her former workday uniform of a pencil skirt and blouse.

No one but she knew it was all different.

“I miss being known,” she whispered at her reflection. The intensity of the feeling caught her by surprise.

Cora’s steps were slow across the hardwood floor from the restroom back to her booth. She watched Gil sweeping crumbs from under the tables. The initial rush was long over. The line of early-morning commuters had hustled out one by one with their steaming to-go cups and bagged muffins. The last of the breakfast regulars, mostly retirees lingering over their conversations and egg sandwiches, were migrating toward the door. Goodbyes were called out to Gil and his employees.

She knew all of the regulars’ faces, and several of their names from overheard conversations, but they did not know her.

On Wednesdays, a group of cyclists came in after their early morning ride, arriving around the same time as Cora at 6:45. They were jovial, young men, younger than Cora, who never failed to greet her with a “good morning” or a comment on the weather. It brightened her day each time she saw them with their smiles and their carefree conversations, but they did not know her.

Twice a month, a dozen mothers gathered in the coffee shop for Bible study sessions. There were new moms still fresh-faced and eager, and wizened, older mothers who listened quietly and offered careful advice, and middle-aged, over-scheduled moms bolstered by the ninety minutes of adult conversation and camaraderie. They discussed verses and chapters, children and husbands. They laughed and cried together. Cora savored hearing the stories they told each other, witnessing the way they united around one another’s struggles and victories.

A handful of times the women invited Cora to join them, despite her explaining the first time that she was not a mother. Twice she had splurged and paid for their beverages. She couldn’t explain why. Perhaps because she wished she belonged with them. She didn’t though, and they didn’t know her.

Not even her clients knew her. That was the nature of online financial planning. Everything was accomplished via emails and shared files. If a client needed any communication beyond that, Cora made phone calls, or a video conference call on rare occasions. No, they certainly didn’t know her.

The anonymity was not intentional. It arose from a gradual, subconscious retreat from everything that reminded her too poignantly of Theo and their six years together. Six and a half years if she included their whip-speed six months of dating and engagement.

No, the anonymity was not intentional, but it was too complete for Cora to see any cracks to climb through the walls she’d built. She initially welcomed those walls, curled up inside them and functioned only when she remained there. Lately though, she began to wonder how long she could keep them up. She began to wonder if she wanted to keep them up.

Her unhurried thoughts were interrupted by the swish of broom bristles sliding beneath her table where she was seated once again. Out of habit, she wordlessly raised her legs and Gil swept the spot beneath her feet.

“All finished?” he asked, gesturing at the empty fruit bowl on the table.

Cora had eaten the oatmeal first while it was still hot, and one of the servers collected that bowl earlier. The fresh fruit she’d saved until she grew hungry again, then savored each juicy piece. She handed the bowl to Gil.

“Thank you again for breakfast.”

“You’re very welcome, Cora. Thank you for being the only person who is here almost as frequently as I am.”

“You put extra pieces of baked apple in the oatmeal, didn’t you? There was more than usual.”

Gil looked pleased. “You always leave the bits of apple until the end when you order that one. I figured that was because they’re your favorite part.”

Surprise tingled in her nerves. “You noticed that?”

“I did.”

The insight into her habits produced a concoction of feelings in Cora. It was tiny. A simple observation. It did not feel tiny though. It felt warm and comforting and kind and strengthening. What else do you know, she wondered as Gil walked to the front counter to deposit her bowl and fork. When he returned for the broom he’d propped against her booth, Cora was suddenly desperate to speak.

Read Part Two here.