Cleaning for the kill
A short story by Bruny Hudson

The door to the cellar was open, but it was dark inside, and everything seemed quiet. Standing at the top of the staircase, he tilted his head with his right ear downward to listen and cursed Gertrude. How many times had he told her to lock the door and take the key with her when she was finished cleaning? The last time he talked to her about it, he thought he made it clear that he couldn’t tolerate another slipup.

He really didn’t want to fire her. She was hardworking, tidy and honest, and she needed the money, supporting herself going to college. He just couldn’t allow his wife to have access to the cellar. So far, he had done a pretty good job of keeping her out of it, always locking the door and hiding the key in his pocket.

Things changed when Gertrude knocked at his front door and asked if she could do the housework for him. Earlier, he had told a few friends and neighbors that he was looking for a part-time housekeeper, cleaning the house and buying groceries twice a week. He liked Gertrude the moment he saw and talked to her, and he felt sorry for her having to juggle several jobs and school.

He hired her on the spot and treated her with the uttermost respect. He paid her a generous hourly wage, gave her free rein in the kitchen and delegated the grocery shopping to her.

“If my wife gives you a shopping list, buy what’s on it,” he said to Gertrude at her first day at work. “Otherwise, make sure you always stock the refrigerator and freezer and get all the cleaning supplies. But never buy any liquor. My wife can’t handle it.”

In the beginning, he didn’t show Gertrude the cellar and kept it locked, not even mentioning the room to her. It finally needed dusting and mopping, though, and quite a few dirty glasses littered the counter. Besides, he had gotten itchy to host another party and invite his lawyer friends and some good-paying clients over for a night of savoring exclusive wines and selected spirits. The room had to be spick and span.

“Gertrude, come here, it’s time you see the jewel of the house,” he said one day when he came home early from work. He slowly unlocked the door to the cellar, switched on the light, and one step at a time, he went down the stairs, turning his head midway to see if Gertrude was following.

As usual, a smile appeared on his face and his eyes sparkled when he presented his own architectural wonder to a newcomer. He had done a marvelous job, he thought, converting that old, dirty and musty cellar space, used as storage for archaic trash, into a glamorous bar. It even had a small dance floor, made of cream-colored parquet, with three small round tables and comfortable club chairs halfway around it. The best parts, however, were the bar counter, the wine rack and liquor cabinet. All made out of fine oak, styled in modern fashion with light red accents matching the carpet around the dance floor and reflecting softness, yet excitement.

While he had done all the designs himself, he hadn’t laid a hand on any manual work. He abhorred doing handyman’s work and getting his hands dirty, though he couldn’t stand clutter and filth. He was especially fussy about caring for the oak furniture and permitted only the use of turpentine to remove grime or stains.

“Why didn’t you put doors with locks on the cabinets and the wine rack to keep your wife out of them,” Gertrude asked, admiring his treasure. With a frown, he said, “I’d rather keep the door to the cellar locked at all times in case I forget to put an open bottle away. There are only unopened bottles stacked up, and she knows I count them every day. I hide the open ones in a small locked cupboard under the counter. I’ve thought of everything.”

For the last two years, he had tried his best to prevent his wife from succumbing to alcohol but finally gave up. More and more, he was enjoying Gertrude’s company, and he often came home at noon during her work days to share lunch with her. The attention she gave him and her compliments flattered him, and warmth engulfed his whole body when she looked deep into his eyes or slightly stroked his hand to console him.

Now, just when he had considered asking Gertrude to come every other day, she had messed up again. He took his key out of his pocket, and gripping the door knob to slam the door shut, he stopped in his tracks. He was sure he heard a moan coming from the cellar. Flipping on the light, he went downstairs, seeing nothing unusual. Then, he heard the moan again. It came from behind the bar counter. Holding his breath, he bent over it to catch a glimpse of the floor behind it.

“Oh no,” he called out. Sprinting around the counter, he sank to his knees next to his wife slumped in the corner and now futilely gasping for air. With one jerk, he tore his cell phone from his belt. His eyes hit a flashlight and an open bottle of Scotch whisky within arm’s reach of his wife. He dropped the phone.

What was the bottle of Scotch doing here, he thought. He never bought or even stored Scotch whisky because he despised its faintly smoky taste. He snatched the bottle and sniffed. A cloud of turpentine vapor assailed his nose.

With the bottle in hand, he scrambled to his feet. He put the bottle on the countertop, hurried upstairs to his desk and retrieved a self-sticking label. Grabbing a red marker, he wrote “Caution: Turpentine, poisonous” on the label and carried it with him back into the cellar. He plastered it on the Scotch bottle, returned the bottle to his wife’s side and picked up the phone from the floor. Then, he climbed out of the cellar and called 911.

The end of a presidential campaign

A short story by Bruny Hudson

The campaign was going great. Alexandra Clark, the former national security adviser, had so far beaten all of her party’s competitors running for president of the United States.

While Alexandra, having jumped into the presidential race more out of revenge than for political reasons, was surprised by such a startling win, most people had anticipated her successful launch. She was smart, knowledgeable in all fields of politics and well-liked by the public. Polls had shown earlier that many politicians and constituents wished she would announce her bid for the presidential nomination.

“Here’s your paycheck for your win at the last primary,” former President Kevin Parker said, giving Alexandra a peck on the cheek and handing her a manila envelope almost bursting at the seams.

“You can do better than that, can’t you?” Alexandra tossed the envelope on the chair next to the king-sized hotel bed, and lifting her head, she smiled at her former boss.

Kevin answered her with a passionate kiss, and minutes later, articles of clothing were flying in all directions, and the moaning of two people amid the squeaking of bedsprings echoed through the room.

After she’d caught her breath, Alexandra rolled out of the bed, picked up the envelope from the chair and hugged it. “This should keep me going again, at least for a little while.”

“You’d better appreciate it. It’s a lot of money. Even for me, it’s not that easy to get hold of that much cash.”

“Please, don’t start with that again. After what you put me through, I think I deserve your support in whatever way you can give it.”

“You know, politically I do the best I can for you but …”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve told me a thousand times, your wife, your wife, your wife. How do you always phrase it … she’s hitting rock bottom and you’re obligated to stand by her, right? But that doesn’t help us, or should I rather say me?”

“Oh, come on, now. You know I would rather be with you than anyone else, for the rest of my life. Otherwise, would I have dared putting my presidency on the line meeting you when and wherever we had a chance to be together?”

“Don’t pride yourself. My career was in jeopardy as much as yours. But let’s not argue about it. Get out the champagne. You brought some, I hope, and kept it cold.”

Kevin jumped out of bed and lifted a bottle of Dom Pérignon, wrapped in a wine cooler sleeve, out of his attaché case. He popped the bottle and filled the glasses Alexandra had fetched out of the bathroom.

“To me, and my future role as president of our country,” Alexandra said as she raised her glass.

Kevin toasted to her and chugged down more than half the glass. Swallowing hard, he said, “And to Michael as the vice president. You are going to nominate my son as your running mate, just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding here.”

Without waiting for a comment, Kevin finished his drink, collected his clothes and went into the bathroom. After refilling both glasses and listening to the water running in the shower, Alexandra rummaged through her overnight bag for the video camera remote and clicked it off. She’d done it so many times she knew by feel what button to push. Pulling a clean pair of panties and a T-shirt out of the bag, she put them on and sat down on the bed to nurse the Dom Pérignon.

When Kevin came out of the bathroom, dressed and combed smartly as always, they both finished the bottle of champagne, and after a long hug, they parted. Before Kevin left, he peeked around the door into the hallway to make sure nobody would see him. Alexandra was going to spend the night in the hotel room and leave the next morning.

Four weeks later, Alexandra still hadn’t heard anything from Kevin. While the campaign had cut into their love affair tremendously and it had become more and more difficult to talk privately and almost impossible to meet, Alexandra could have always counted on Kevin to contact her at least once a week. But now, even at the time of his delivering another paycheck, Kevin remained out of touch with her.

It dawned on her that he was also backing away from the public scene, and his absence became only too clear as the contributions to her campaign petered out. Then, the rumors escalated that Kevin’s son, Michael Parker, would soon enter the presidential race, even at this late date, and Alexandra thanked her lucky stars for having had the presence of mind to fabricate a ploy of her own.

This time, she would use it. She was well aware that Michael’s run for president had to end hers, but Kevin would fall with her, and he would have to pay dearly. She hated to give up, but she’d rather be a quitter than a loser, and with Kevin turning against her and supporting his son, her campaign would fail.

Alexandra picked up her iPhone and stared at it. She had never used it for talking personally to Kevin and instead had always bought cheap cell phones she discarded after a few calls. Now, all their precautions to prevent any kinds of electronic or paper trails would become a joke as she finally accepted that Kevin had misled her again because his family would always come before her. She tapped the numbers of his private cell phone.

After having tried all day long to reach Kevin, Alexandra got hold of him late at night, and despite his protest, they agreed to meet the next afternoon. As usual, Alexandra was the first to arrive at a hotel room but didn’t bother to set up the video camera. This meeting wouldn’t merit it. There would be no damaging evidence.

When Kevin entered the room, Alexandra was ready for her verbal assault, but before she could fire it off, Kevin smothered her with hugs and kisses.

“I’m so sorry, so very sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore,” he said as he pulled away, leaving his hands on her shoulders. “It was the biggest mistake I made, encouraging you to run for president. You have to drop out of the race, no matter what. My reputation and the future of my family, especially my son’s, are on the line. I’ve never thought it through until now. The press and the opposition will dig up all the dirt there is about you and find out about us.”

“What? … That’s the reason you dump me and ruin my chance of becoming president?” Throwing Kevin’s hands off her, Alexandra stepped back and glared at him. “It’s all déjà vu, isn’t it? First, you promised to divorce your wife when your term was over, but instead, you played the devoted husband because your wife had a nervous breakdown. Then to make it up to me, you promised to get me into the presidency, and again, you renege because of your family. And tell me, how will the press or anybody else find out about what we have going on now and had all those years before?”

“Trust me, they will. They dig and dig for dirt until they find something, and then they dig some more. Even with us covering all tracks and trails, there will always be something that will raise their suspicion. Just look at some old photos of us when we appeared together at state affairs. The way we look at each other, or at least I look at you. Even to an untrained eye, it’s definitely passion and lust showing on our faces. And there will be other things we ignored, and it’ll all come out into the open. I cannot allow that to happen. It will drag my family down into the mud and will end my son’s political ambition.”  

“So, that’s it, then,” Alexandra said, twisting her mouth into a smirk. “Don’t expect me to beg you, I did it once. Let’s just say goodbye.”

“I’m sorry, really sorry, but please, try to understand my situation,” Kevin said. “It’s hard for me too, believe me, and maybe once my son is set in his presidency and everything it back to normal, we can see each other again.”

Before Kevin left, he handed Alexandra another manila envelope. “This should keep you going until you’re back on your feet as a college professor.”

The moment Kevin closed the hotel room door behind him, Alexandra took her iPhone out of her purse. A few minutes later, salacious and compromising videos and photographs of former President Kevin Parker and former National Security Adviser Alexandra Clark hit the email accounts of the most popular media outlets around the country.   

The collector of trash
A short story by Bruny Hudson

The rustle and squeals echoed through the dark house. An observing eye would have spotted slight bulges and tiny holes in the cardboard boxes crammed in almost every room of the house. With the opening of the front door and the lights turning on, a brief bustle erupted before stillness set in.

Claudette gave the front door a kick with her foot to slam the door shut. A moan escaped her mouth while she dragged herself with an armload of bags and packages though the entryway. She didn’t want to drop any of them on the floor because she couldn’t remember which one contained ceramic and glass figurines, bowls and vases.

As usual, it had been a rewarding afternoon and evening. Claudette was eager to unwrap her booty and admire her collection of newly acquired antiques. They had cost her a fortune, but the money she’d doled out was merely a smidgen of her husband’s earnings flowing through her hands and evaporating.

With packages rammed under her arms and bags clutched in her hands, she staggered into the living room dimly lit by the overhead lamp in the hallway. A scratching noise made her stop in her tracks.

“Philippe, is that you?” Claudette called out. She listened for a minute or two and then squatted to place the two bags in her right hand onto the floor. Another moan escaped her mouth as she straightened up weighed down by the rest of her armload. She fished with her empty hand along the wall, pressed the light switch and scanned the now brightly lit room.  

For a moment, Claudette hoped to see her husband sleeping on the sofa, but he was not there. In fact, she was pretty sure he wasn’t at home, and it didn’t come to her as a surprise. Lately, he’d spent more and more nights, and even days, away from home, and he’d told her earlier he would again stay overnight in Washington since the legislation sessions would run late.

Claudette carefully unloaded all her bags and packages onto the sofa, and sitting down next to them, she forgot about hearing the noise and instead marveled about the beautiful painted wooden crates she saw on her shopping spree with her friend. She should have bought them. They would have been perfect for all the antiques that didn’t fit on the display shelves and cabinets or in the closets and dressers, and they would have made a so much better storage unit than the cardboard boxes she used now. Maybe, she’ll go back tomorrow and pick them up.

She’d spent a marvelous day with her friend Emily. Luckily, Emily was affluent, too, and shared her enthusiasm for collecting antiques as well as for the extravagant lunches they had during their get-togethers. The pricier the restaurant, the more it satisfied their tastes, and they always went Dutch. Claudette was glad that they’d finally rid themselves of Emily’s friend Helga, who sometimes tagged along but didn’t seem to have the means for finding pleasure in the finer art of living but had the nerve to order a beer with her lunch. Offering now and then to pick up the entire bill for a restaurant visit was beyond Claudette’s or Emily’s sense of loyalty. Besides, it would have meant also paying for Helga’s beer of which they both blatantly disapproved. Claudette and Emily took great pride in abstaining from drinking any kind of alcohol in public places.

Claudette leaned back on the sofa and put her legs on the coffee table in front of her. Aimlessly, she reached into one of the bags and pulled out the first item she grabbed. With the utmost care, she unfolded the delicate silk paper, and with shaky hands, she held the antique vase against the light. What extraordinary colors and detailed designs the crystal vase displayed, she thought. It was surely worth the outrageous price she’d paid for it.

Turning the vase around and around, she sat up straight, and then, she heard the scratching noise again, this time much louder. It startled her, and she jerked. The vase slipped out of her hands, hit the edge of the coffee table and fell in smithereens onto the Persian carpet.  

“Oh no, oh no,” she cried and jumped off the sofa, trying to avoid stepping on some of the broken crystal pieces. “Philippe, are you making those weird noises? This isn’t funny. Where are you? Answer me … Are you here?”

Tired of waiting for an answer, Claudette stormed out of the living room and into the kitchen. Nobody was there. She checked the dining room, the bedrooms and the bathrooms, with the same result. When she approached her office in the farthest corner of the house, she detected a foul smell, and it grew uglier the closer she came.

Claudette hadn’t used her office for a while, having been too busy running around and buying antiques. She’d lost interest anyway sitting in a room stuffed with cardboard boxes, and apart from the computer and a selection of books, there wasn’t much in it she needed. Her smartphone had replaced her once cherished computer, and reading books had become a hobby of the past.

She opened the office door a tad and sniffed. The stink went into her nostrils, and she hacked. She pulled the door shut, turned around and coughed and coughed. “What the heck is going on? What is that stench all about?” she said to herself after she caught her breath. She couldn’t remember ever having come across anything that reeked that disgustingly and nauseatingly.

She ran into the kitchen and picked up a dish towel. Holding it over her nose and mouth, she went back to her office, opened the door and switched on the light. Before she even set a foot into the room, she screamed and slammed the door shut again.

Feeling sick to her stomach, she stumbled back to the kitchen. She’d only seen two or three dead rodents lying on her office floor next to remnants of the cardboard boxes containing an assortment of antique collectibles, but she’d instantly grasped the extent of the ghastly view.

Claudette took a few deep breaths to calm her stomach and headed toward the master bedroom. Ever since her husband had put off coming home at night, she hadn’t been in there, except for changing clothes, and had slept in the guest room. She was sure she’d left his emergency phone number on her nightstand and hoped it was still there. Instead of the piece of paper with the phone number she found a note from her husband. She picked it up, and her mouth fell open as she read it:

“I came home around noon the other day and needed to use the computer in your office, and I noticed a couple of mice scurrying in and out of your treasured boxes. I didn’t think you would like it if they eat up all of your precious collector’s items. I put out some rat poison, but the rats already had a feast with most of the stuff you’re hording in your office. There goes the money you could have made by selling some of your stockpiles as I have suggested over and over again. It’s nothing but trash you’re collecting now. The shitty boxes are full of holes. I didn’t have time to check any of the other damned boxes, so you’d better do it. I’ll bet the rodents have taken refuge in all of them. Philippe.”   

Claudette dropped the note and sobbed. “No, no, no, Philippe is wrong,” she said to nobody. “This can’t be happening. The rats are only in my office, nowhere else. They must have sneaked in through the hole in the screen when I had the windows open.”

Wiping her eyes, Claudette walked over to the cardboard boxes stacked up on both sides of the bathroom door. Determined to prove her husband wrong, she ripped open the flaps of the first box. The once beautiful covers of photograph albums and vintage books lying on top were shredded to pieces, baring the contents underneath, all gnawed up and covered with rodent droppings.

She knew it would be useless to check the rest of the boxes. Hoping the rats had spared her antiques in the living room, she rushed to it, her vision blurred by the tears streaming down her cheeks, and tore open box after box. She had to blink a few times and rub her eyes with her blouse sleeve to make sure her watery eyes hadn’t deceived her.

As far as Claudette could see inside the boxes, there wasn’t one item that was still intact. The rats had chewed up and ground down her antique clothing, vintage fabrics, photographs, paintings, books, wooden figurines and whatever else she had stored away. What the rats couldn’t eat, they’d covered with droppings, and she barely recognized some of her favorite ceramic and glass bowls and trays caked and crusted over with muck and slime.

Claudette couldn’t bring herself to pick up any of the demolished antiques, even the ones with minor marring, knowing the rodents had laid their sharp teeth on them. She had no idea how long they had been battering her collections of antiques, but she knew it must have been for quite some time for it to cause such devastation.

Her husband’s words from his note, ‘it’s nothing but trash you’re collecting now,’ were dancing in front of her eyes, and to her horror, she realized that the rats had turned her into a collector of trash.

Surgery for the money
A short story by Bruny Hudson

It was hot and humid. Even the smell of fall already in the air didn’t bring any relief, and driving without air conditioning on Florida’s roads in the middle of the day was drudgery. She should have taken the car to the shop to have the air conditioner fixed right away when it gave out, but her father’s upcoming surgery was the only thing occupying her mind lately.

With all four car windows rolled down, she raced along the main thoroughfare from the outskirt of the neighboring town to the municipal hospital to pick up her father. She was running late and knew he would make a fuss if he had to wait for her after his 36 hours of hospital stay. Luckily, the traffic was lighter than usual, and she easily passed other cars while hugging the left lane. So far, she was even able to slip through all the intersections, always missing the red traffic light.

Shortly before she had to make a left turn onto a side street leading to the hospital, she noticed the car next to her in the right lane was matching her speed. It annoyed her, and she wished the car would either fall back or whiz past her. Suddenly, a sharp pain hit her left arm, and her left hand dropped from the steering wheel into her lap. Something wet and sticky was running down her arm, but she kept on driving. She didn’t want to pull over onto the grass median and waste any more time.

The car in the right lane was still shadowing her, and she slightly turned her head to glance at the driver. Instead, she stared into the silencer of a gun. On instinct, she floored the gas pedal. Before the car lurched forward, she felt her right thigh almost exploding, and an excruciating pain gripped her whole right leg.

Her car swayed and headed for the median. In the last second, she pulled it back onto the road, and clenching her teeth, she forced her foot to press on the pedal. She started to feel dizzy and weak, but she had to reach the hospital. She had to pick up her father, and the hospital would also be the best place for her to be.

Her left arm was throbbing, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw blood gushing through her pants at her right thigh. The leg was killing her now, and she could barely keep up the pressure on the accelerator. The car at her side had vanished, and peeking in the rearview mirror, she didn’t see any other car behind her. Slowly, she eased up on her speed.

At the intersection where she had to turn left, her luck of green traffic lights ran out. In a way, it was a welcome breather. She closed her eyes as she waited for the red light to change, and her mind drifted off. The blaring of a car horn behind her popped her eyes open and brought her back to the present, and with her last resolve, she made her left turn. She moved at a snail’s pace, but she had to keep going. She had to reach the hospital to pick up her father, and maybe, she would find help there, too.

She lifted her head a tad to watch the rearview mirror. Why was the car behind her flashing its bright lights over and over again? Was it a cop? She was so tired. She couldn’t focus her eyes on what was going on behind her. But if it was a cop, she’d better pull over. She didn’t need to get into trouble with the police. She needed to get to the hospital.

She stopped at the side of the street and shifted the transmission into park. It felt good to give her leg a break, though she hoped the delay wouldn’t be too long. A man poked his head through the window and asked, “Is something wrong with your car, Ma’am? OMG, you’re bleeding all over the place. What happened? Let me call 911.”

“No, no, no,” she said, half shouting, half croaking. “I have to get to the hospital. I have to pick up my father. Just let me move on, I’m going to make it. The hospital is just around the corner.”

“No, you’re not going to make it,” the man said. “Let me drive you. It would even be faster than calling the paramedics.”

“But I have to keep going. I have to pick up my father at the hospital,” she said, her head slumping down.

“I’m afraid he has to wait. They first need to take care of you at the hospital,” the man said. “Let me help you move over to the passenger seat.”

She stifled a scream when she lifted her right leg over the middle console and moaned when she pulled her body over to the other seat. While she waited for the man to come back from locking his own car, she glanced at her left arm for the first time. It was a gunshot wound, just like the one on her right thigh. Why would anybody want to shoot and kill her? In her personal life, she got along well with everybody, and on her job as a bookkeeper for a small optical company, she barely came in contact with co-workers or the public. Then, there was the money…

The opening of the door on the driver’s side interrupted her thoughts, and she turned her head. The man nodded, and a shy smile formed around his lips as he handed her a roll of paper towels and covered the driver’s seat, stained with fresh blood, with a large plastic bag. He sat down behind the wheel, adjusted the seat and the rearview mirror and took off toward the hospital.

At the emergency entrance, the man jumped out of the car and called for assistance. Before he went back to park the car, he asked for her name and told her he would meet her inside the emergency care unit.

The staff on duty treated her quickly and with great compassion although her gunshot injuries were only superficial and would heal fast. The doctor told her, however, she was still in shock and he wanted to keep her at the hospital for a few hours at least. By now, the nurses had become frustrated with her because she blabbered on and on about her father waiting for her to pick him up and that she was late, but they couldn’t find anybody by her father’s name waiting in the discharge lounge or being on the list of patients currently released.

When the man who had brought her to the hospital entered her treatment cubicle, she had recovered some of her strength and was more lucid. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“They gave me some shots, and the pain is easing up,” she said. “I don’t know how I ever can thank you for what you did for me and how I can repay you.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m glad I could help. I overheard you and the doctor talking about two gunshot wounds you received while driving. Do you think it could’ve been road rage? You were driving awfully slowly when I tried to pull you over.”

“I don’t know, but I was driving far over the speed limit before whoever it was shot me.”

“Then, can you think of anybody who is holding a grudge against you, maybe because of a dispute about money? People do crazy things for money.”

She stared at the man for a minute or two before she answered. “Yeah, there is money. But there is no dispute about it. I recently inherited a very large amount of money from my grandmother. Besides my father, there are no other surviving relatives. The money all went to me. My father is a loner and enjoyed his simple and unpretentious life he used to have in a small town in New York before he moved into my apartment a couple of weeks ago.”

“Is your father going to retire down here in Florida?” the man asked.

“No, he retired quite some time ago. He was an English professor. He’s staying with me for a while because he will need intensive medical treatment after the surgery he had yesterday and we don’t know how long his recovery will be. He doesn’t have anybody up North to take care of him.”

Hearing a doctor giving orders to some nurses behind the partition of her cubicle, she called out to the nurses, and they came to look in on her. In details, she explained to them, now speaking more coherently, about her father’s biopsy he had undergone yesterday and that he must be still in the hospital because he didn’t have a key to her apartment where he was staying and had no other place to go. Politely but firmly, she asked the nurses to look for him again.

This time, they found his name in the hospital records and informed her that the head nurse wanted to talk to her.

“Yes, your father had been a patient in the hospital for about 24 hours,” the head nurse said. “But the surgery he had was not a biopsy of his testicles to confirm an earlier diagnosis of cancer, as you have told the other nurses. Instead, he underwent chin liposuction for what he’d checked himself in yesterday morning. Since everything went smoothly during the surgery and he insisted of leaving early this morning, the doctor let him go.”

She listened with her mouth open and kept shaking her head. Finally, she found her voice. “That must have been the reason why he insisted I just drop him off at the entrance and he would check into the hospital by himself,” she said, sobbing. “It wasn’t because of his self-consciousness that he didn’t want me at his side when he filled out the papers for his delicate surgery, it was because he didn’t want me to find out that the surgery was merely for enhancing his looks. Oh no, that’s also why he sweet-talked me into adding him to my bank account. He needed the money for his beauty treatment, not for his everyday expenses. But why, why did he worry me to death about cancer he doesn’t have and make me forget about everything else? Why?”

Ignoring her wail, the head nurse carrying a plastic shopping bag in her hand offered it to her and said, “The janitor found this halfway stuck under your father’s bed. Your father must have shoved it under there and forgot about it. We thought we’d keep it for a while in case he comes back or sends someone to pick it up.”  

She grabbed the bag from the nurse’s hand, opened it and looked inside. Yes, this was some of her father’s stuff. She rummaged through the sparse contents. There were his slippers, his monogrammed handkerchiefs and his leather-bound booklet of poems, and crumpled up in the corner of the bag, she saw a sheet of paper.

With trembling hands, she pulled the wadded paper out of the bag and unfolded it. Smoothing out the crinkles, she started to read the scribbles on it:   

“Darling, it’s all set up for tomorrow afternoon. It will look like road rage and then nobody will mess up our future. Check out early tomorrow morning and head for the airport. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you there. Hurry, and join me and the money in the beautiful Cayman Islands.”

Dropping the sheet of paper on her bed, she snatched her purse from the chair next to her, pulled out her cell phone and accessed the address book. She retrieved the phone number of her bank and punched the buttons. She first talked to a teller and then to the supervisor. Both confirmed the closure of her bank account.

The present
A short story by Bruny Hudson

The pain was getting worse. First, her stomach only hurt when she moved around, but now, a constant ache engulfed her belly. The fennel tea her mother had brewed for her used to soothe her misery, but she couldn’t keep it down any more, just like the porridge made of oatmeal and water her mother fed her. When her fever climbed instead of going down, her mother telephoned the family doctor. He promised to be over as soon as he got a break.

It was 1957. Doctors in rural Germany made house calls, and the family doctor not only treated anyone in the village who got sick but also responded quickly to emergencies. Within two hours the doctor rang the house bell and examined the 5-year-old girl, lying in her bed in her parents’ bedroom.

“It’s her appendix,” the doctor said to the mother. “It has to come out right away. I’ll make arrangements with the hospital. Where do you want to take her?”

The mother chose the nearest hospital, eight kilometers away. Although it was run by the Catholic Church, which had its house of worship attached, and most nurses were nuns, it was open to the general public. After the doctor had left, the mother dressed the little girl in loose-fitting overalls and a baggy shirt, carried her to the car and drove her to the hospital.

When they arrived, they found the doctor had reserved a bed for the little girl in an all-boys room, the only vacancy available on the children’s floor. The mother argued with the head nurse but to no avail. She had to leave her daughter in the infirmary with 12 sick boys.  

“You’ll be a good girl now. The nurses will take care of you. I’ll come back this evening and bring you a few things you need,” the mother said to her daughter. “Is there anything you want?”

“Yeah, my toys and games and the little horses with the riders on ‘em,” the little girl said, moaning and holding her stomach with both hands. “But Mommy, why can’t you stay here?”

Letting the nurses take over, the mother waved and left the room. The little girl started to cry, “Mommy, Mommy, don’t leave,” tears running down her cheek.

Ignoring her whining, the assistant nurse, one of the two nurses on duty, lifted the little girl on the bed, and taking off the girl’s overalls and shirt, she said, “Here is a hospital gown for now ‘til your mother brings you your own. Can you put it on yourself?”

The little girl nodded, clutched the gown and, when the nurse turned around, struggled to stand up in bed and shed the rest of her clothes to change into the nightgown. The piercing scream of the head nurse from the other side of the hospital ward and her dashing toward the little girl’s bed made the assistant nurse jerk her head back in the direction of the little girl.

“No, no, you can’t do that. Down, down, get down,” she hollered at the little girl, grabbing the bedsheet to cover her from the gazes of the boys and helping her to stretch out on the bed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the head nurse said to the little girl, frowning and waggling her finger in front of her face. “You never do this again. You don’t stand up in bed, and when you take off your underwear, you keep a bedsheet over you. You understand that?”

The little girl stared with big eyes at the two nurses. She didn’t understand what she did wrong. Perhaps because of her illness and pain she wasn’t supposed to stand up. But, she wouldn’t do it again, she always obeyed. Worrying about how her mother would punish her for her disruptive behavior when the nurses told on her, she started to get pains again, and she whimpered and sobbed. Swallowing some pain pills the nurses gave her, the little girl relaxed and dozed off.

The rattling of her bed woke her. “Hey, what’s your name?” she heard a boy’s voice asking. “They just brought me back from checking me out again. I’m Jűrgen. Cool to have someone in the bed next to me again. That kid on my other side always sleeps, and he is weird.”

The little girl carefully turned her head around, afraid any movement would cause her pain again. She was looking at the face of a boy about her age, maybe a year older, with bright blue eyes and strands of blond hair hanging down on his forehead.   

“I’m Gabi. They have to take my appendix out,” she said. “What did they do to you?”

“They don’t know what’s wrong yet. I totally banged my knee when I fell off my bike. They first wanted to operate and now they don’t. I sure don’t want my appendix taken out. Are you scared?”

“I don’t know. It just hurts so bad. They gave me something to swallow, I feel better now.”

“I might can go home in a week,” the boy said, “and then I get a big present from my mom she’ll bring with her. Every kid who goes home gets a special toy from their parents when they pick ‘em up. The nurses tell the parents about it. And the moms come real early in the morning. It’s always real cool when someone leaves. All the kids let you see what they got. Almost like having your birthday.”  

The boy, settling down on his right arm, opened the drawer of his nightstand and took out two cars.

“Want to play with ‘em?” he asked his new friend. “What toys do you have?”

“My mother will bring ‘em when she comes back. We had to leave in a hurry. I have some awesome little horses with riders on ‘em. But you have to be real careful with ‘em or they break.”

The little girl, forgetting her pain and worries, played and chattered with the boy until the nurses ordered everybody in the ward to put away any toys and clean up the beds. The doctor would come soon to do his rounds, and everything had to be in order.

After the doctor had examined the little girl, he scheduled the appendectomy for the next morning and told the nurses to keep the girl calm and without food and water. When the mother arrived an hour later with toiletries, books and toys, the little girl was already asleep. The mother handed it all to the nurses, signed the paperwork and left.

The next morning, the nurses gently shook the little girl to wake her up, and two orderlies shifted her to the gurney to push her to the operating room. The little girl was quiet, and she squeezed her lips into a faint smile when she rolled on the gurney along the hospital corridors.

Reaching the operating room, she still didn’t fuss or whine while they transferred her to the operating table. She thought everything was OK. But why were they tying down her arms at the wrists? She started to struggle and kicked with her legs. When they grabbed her legs and restrained them too, she screamed.

Terrified, she saw a man lifting his hand and pressing a cloth over her mouth and nose, muffling her screams. She wanted to fight back but couldn’t move. She gagged, gasping for air but couldn’t breathe. They were going to kill her. So, this was her punishment for standing up in bed the day before. It was her last thought. Then, everything went black.

Her mother was sitting on a chair at her bedside when the little girl woke up hours later.

“Oh, Gabi, you’ll be fine. Everything is OK,” the mother said, stroking her daughter’s forehead and patting her hand.

With a bleary look and her lips barely moving, the little girl babbled a few words. The mother could not make sense of them but picked up the washcloth on the nightstand, dipped it into the nearby water glass and moistened her daughter’s lips with it. Like savoring a gourmet drink, the little girl licked her lips and closed her eyes. Still too groggy to stay awake, she went back to sleep, and the mother left.

The following days, the little girl slowly recovered. Learning the daily hospital routines and faithfully following them, she turned into the perfect patient to make sure she would get the best present ever the day her mother would come to take her out of the hospital and home.

She didn’t even whine or pitch a fit despite her welled up tears when a boy, four beds away from her, broke one of her little horses that the nurse talked her into giving him. During her mother’s short visits, she rattled on and on about the other kids’ toys their mothers gave them when leaving the hospital and how early the mothers came to pick their kids up to go home, always right after breakfast.

When the little girl’s boyfriend in the bed next to her, with whom she played every day, was leaving the hospital early in the morning three days before her own release, he proudly showed her his new huge firetruck his mother just gave him. The little girl wondered what she would get. The big doll with the blond long hair she always ran to and gazed at when her mother took her shopping? Or maybe the dollhouse she had begged her mother to buy her for so long. Whatever it would be, she would love it and would have all day, from morning until bedtime on her first day home, to play with it.

The morning of her discharge from the hospital, the little girl jumped out of bed, quickly dressed and carried her breakfast to the bench next to the nurses’ station. From there, she could see through the glass door all the way down the hallway and would know ahead of time when her mother came. She gobbled up her muesli and gulped down the milk while crunching on a zwieback, eager to finish everything by the time her mother would come into sight. The only person who appeared at the far end of the hallway, however, was the hospital pediatrician. He stopped at her ward and gave her a last checkup, officially releasing her, before he directed his attention to the other kids in the room.

With her bag packed on her side, the little girl stationed herself in the doorway and, jumping from one foot to the other, screened each far-away silhouette. None resembled her mother. After an one-hour wait, she retreated to the bench where she sat earlier, took a puzzle out of her bag and played with it while watching the hallway with one eye, hoping to see her mother.

At noon, a young nurse came to start her afternoon shift and consoled the little girl. “I’m sure your mother will come any minute now. She must have been delayed and worried about being here on time.”

An hour later, the little girl finally saw her mother, with a package tugged under her arm, emerging from the end of the hallway. The little girl catapulted from the bench to the doorway and fixed her eyes on the package, trying to imagine what the square carton contained. Not a doll or a dollhouse, but what could it be?

She was wondering why her mother had covered it up with flowery paper. She wished it was like the presents the other mothers had brought with them for their children, unwrapped, so that she could see what it was. She was hardly able to restrain herself from dashing out of the door and ripping off the gift wrap and silently spurred her mother on to walk faster.

When the mother reached her daughter, she hugged her with the free arm while holding the package in the other hand. Letting go of her daughter, she asked her, “Gabriele, are you ready to go home?” and marched with the package in hand toward the nurses’ station. She handed the package over to one of the nurses and said, “This is for all of you for taking so good care of my daughter.”

A fatal path to fame
A short story by Bruny Hudson

The timing was perfect. He had been waiting for such an opportunity for months, and he needed it desperately. Money was running out, far more quickly than he had expected.

First, he had enjoyed his new life: free of all the responsibilities that come with being a doctor and a married man and free of all the possessions that come with buying sprees as if there was no tomorrow. His divorce and his new work as a freelance writer had brought the big change to the life he had always craved.

With the phone still in his hand, he stared into space. The caller didn’t leave his own name but a contact name with a phone number, and the story sounded too good to walk away from. It would certainly catch the newspapers’ attentions, and he would finally sell a story. And not just any story, but a story that would make him famous.

Fame was one thing that had eluded him so far, and he wanted it badly. From the time he entered kindergarten, he wanted others to see him as someone special and to admire him for his ingenuity. He had set all wheels in motion to get attention from other children, but they ignored him and called him pushy. Later in high school, he managed to wiggle his way into the groups of most popular students, but he was more their gofer than a valued member. Midway through college, he gave up the run for making the society page of the student newspaper as he was struggling for passing grades.

He lowered his eyes and gazed at the phone number he’d scribbled down. It would bring him in contact with a wealthy couple, vacationing in their cabin at the foot of the mountains, and would lead him to a story with his byline that would make the front page of every major newspaper, even on the international scene. It was indeed a magic number, one that would finally bring him recognition, and the world would know about him and esteem him.

His first successful step in finding fame had been his acceptance into medical school. It was even a surprise to him, but his father-in-law had connections and gave him a helping hand. Seeing a glimmer of hope for his future, he started to study hard and diligently and pulled it off. Completing his residency in a small hospital, he struggled again, this time to keep up with the work. Nevertheless, he found employment as a full-fledged doctor in the same hospital and stayed there year after year.

While the caller hadn’t given him his name, he had hinted about something the couple would tell him that sounded outrageous, yet believable and mind-blowing in the way that it showed, once again, government’s lassitude and mismanagement. A story about it would bring him the big breakthrough. My gosh, he might even win the Pulitzer Prize for the story.

His dream of becoming a renowned surgeon in a big and well-known teaching hospital where he would develop new and extraordinary medical techniques and make the headlines had become more and more a fantasy beyond his reach. His skillfulness as a doctor was less than average, and he failed to acquire the knack of relating to his patients. His records showed several gaffes, and before the hospital had a chance to fire him, he resigned.

He put the phone on the desk and gazed at it. All he had to do was to punch in the numbers, and he would be on the road to his dream and also escape his growing money problems. After publishing a story exposing a national and international security crisis, he would be up to his neck in offers from media outlets from all over the world and would never again need the charity of other people.  

His wife had brought a bundle of money into the marriage. Her investments, together with the frequent financial contributions by his father-in-law, concerned about his daughter’s welfare, outshone his meager salary as a doctor on staff at a small hospital. Nevertheless, his wife had relished their standing within the medical community, and furious about her husband quitting his job as a doctor, she threatened to leave him if he didn’t reconsider his decision. He didn’t, and she moved out. In the divorce settlement, he ended up with enough funds to allow him to enter school again, and he finished with a journalism degree.  

Now, the money was almost gone despite his Spartan lifestyle. He glanced at the notes he’d jotted down in short hand. The name sounded foreign, and the phone number the caller gave him was one of a cell phone with little use in trying to confirm it. Sitting down at his desk, he grabbed a pen and filled out the blanks of his notes while they were still fresh in his mind.

The caller’s account was scanty. The couple found out about a terrorist training camp near their home from a deserter. The couple offered the young man shelter in return for an interview with a freelancer to reveal information about the terrorist group and its intended targets. The caller hadn’t given any more details and had only said that time was of the essence, and the line had gone dead.  

He grabbed his cell phone and entered the couple’s phone number. “Oh no,” he mumbled to himself. “The code words, what were the code words?”

Frantically, he skimmed through his notes again, cursing the monotone ring at other end of the line but not finding the code words. Just as he was ready to hang up, they popped back into his mind, and not a second too early. The ringing stopped, and a man answering the phone sternly requested his name, phone number and identification.

He rattled the words out and waited for more instructions. A minute or two later, he heard instead a friendly hello, said by someone else, and a clarification for the matter at hand.

The couple were activists, fighting government cover-ups, and were sure a discovery like the one he would have the chance to report about would remain hidden by the authorities until, if ever, the government deemed it proper for it to reach the public. The interview with the deserter would bring to light among other things the training camp, which was rather small, apparently to avoid any kind of attention, and the scope of the electronic equipment, which was quite elaborate. The deserter described it as resembling a central intelligence control center.

“If you are interested in doing the story,” the man on the phone said, “a small plane the couple owns will pick you up in about an hour at the grass strip airport two miles from your home. It will be faster than driving, and time is of the essence.”

There was that phrase again, time is of the essence, but it escaped his mind as quickly as it had surfaced. Instead, the thought of flying took over, and he hesitated with his reply. He was afraid of flying. Even flying in those big commercial airplanes frightened him. He always swallowed a Valium if he had to go by plane, and there was no time to get a tranquillizer now. Oh, boy, being a passenger in a small private plane would be so much the worse, but if it meant getting the once-in-a lifetime story that would shower him with ovation … and he went along with the deal.

“I have one question, though,” he said to the man on the other end of the phone. “Why did the couple pick me to do the story?”

“The couple has followed your blog for quite some time,” the man answered. “When this incident came about, they found you the perfect match for the job. They like your opinion posts and that you don’t shy away from controversial topics. They don’t want the newspaper people to get hold of the story first. Their editors might back out and contact the authorities before publishing it due to its sensitive subject. But they might accept the story without qualms from a freelance writer. If not, the couple insists that you post the story immediately on your blog. You also have to destroy the notes you’ve made about any of our phone calls, and do not tell anybody about our conversations. And of course, don’t forget to bring your cell phone with you.”

Without further hesitation, he agreed to the orders. After he’d punched the end-call button on his phone, he tore up the sheet of paper with his notes, threw his camera, notebook and several pens into his shoulder bag, clipped his phone to his belt and drove to the specified airport.

The plane was already waiting for him. With the help of a burly, tight-lipped man, he squeezed himself into the back seat behind the pilot, who didn’t acknowledge him at all, and fastened the seat belt with shaky hands. At takeoff, he pressed his eyes closed and opened them during the flight but fixed them on his hands folded in his lap. He was too afraid to peek outside.

When the plane finally landed and he stepped outside, he didn’t find himself at the bottom of the mountains but in a small clearing surrounded by mountains. A short distance from the grass strip where the plane stood, he didn’t see a cabin wealthy people would own but rather a dilapidated hut.

Now, for the first time, it dawned on him that even the plane lacked the care and upkeep wealthy people would demand, and instead, it looked dirty and shabby. His stomach felt like sinking, and he foresaw his own demise. For a split second, he clearly saw the phony clues that had lured him into a trap. There was no story for him to write, but what did they want from him?

He opened his mouth to ask for an explanation, but a scream coming from the direction of the hut stopped him. Both men who had brought him here grabbed him by his arms, one snatching the phone from his belt, the other yanking his backpack from his shoulder, and shoved him toward the hut. Stumbling, he reached the door.

He could hear some whimpering on the other side of the door, and when he entered the hut, he found himself inside what looked like a makeshift sick ward. In the middle of the room was a cot with a man lying on dirty and bloody sheets. He moaned and wiggled as a man sitting on a stool next to him dabbed his forehead with a wet rag. Buckets were standing near the cot and a few pill bottles and towels covered a nightstand in the corner of the room.

The guy who piloted the plane pushed him toward the cot and said, “Here’s your man, he’ll help you and make you feel better.”

The other guy rose from the stool and said, “Well, Doctor, you have to take over. My friend here has a bullet in his shoulder, and as you can tell, he’s in pain and not feeling so good. You have to remove the bullet.”

“What?” he said, his eyes almost popping out. “I’m a journalist, not a surgeon. You’ve got the wrong person.”

“Don’t give us that bull,” the pilot said. “We know who you used to be and that you’re able to perform simple surgery. We’ve taken care of some of the surgical instruments and medical supplies you’ll need. They’re in one of the buckets. So, don’t waste any time and help our friend here out of his misery.”

Flabbergasted, he stared at the patient and then looked around the room, and as his eyes fell on the burly guy aiming a gun at his head, he went to work. While he was preparing for surgery, he racked his brain why the patient’s face looked familiar to him. He didn’t remember until he successfully extracted the bullet.

The newspaper headline: “Robber hit by bullet escapes with millions in cash” and a blurry photo of the suspect, caught by a surveillance camera, were now right in front of his eyes. The robbery had happened only a day ago in an affluent subdivision. He hadn’t given the article much attention, but the headline and photo stuck in his head.

After the surgery, they kept him locked up for two days, giving him food and water, and made him check on the patient now and then. When he told them that that there were no more risks for an infection, he vanished, and his once busy blog remained forever idle.

The man on the sandbar
A short story by Bruny Hudson

They had just left the mouth of the river and turned south into Tampa Bay for a leisurely moonlight cruise when Melissa heard a man yell, “Help.” Turning to face the voice, she could see a man standing on a sandbar, silhouetted against the just risen full moon. He didn’t move his legs or flap his arms and seemed frozen in time.

“Let’s turn around, Tom, and get out of here,” Melissa said to her husband, shuddering and staring at the ghostlike figure.

“We can’t do that. Let’s see what’s going on,” Tom said and steered the boat toward the stranger.

Seeing pandemonium brewing right in front of her eyes, Melissa threw her legs over the seat to come face to face with her husband and grabbed his arm, yanking the boat to the right. “No, don’t do it. You don’t know what he’s up to.”

“Let go of me,” Tom bellowed, shaking off Melissa’s hand from his arm while clutching the tiller with his other hand and jiggling the boat back on course. “If he’s stranded there, he needs help. The tide will come in an hour or two from now.”

“But this is too weird the way he stands there. What if it’s a ploy to get us there and
then …”

“Oh, stop it with your wild imagination. Who would wait here for people to come by at this hour?” Tom sighed and steered the boat straight ahead.

With sweat drops on her forehead, Melissa swiveled her body back toward the bow and stiffened as the boat slowly glided through the shallow water in the direction of the sandbar.

The weather was taking a turn for the worse. Before Tom and Melissa had launched the boat, the forecast had called for a calm and moonlit evening. The rain clouds, having obscured the sunset, were supposed to move westward, away from them, but they had turned around.

Now, thick clouds were rolling over the moon, dousing its glimmer of light. It was pitch-black by the time Tom switched off the engine and raised the motor to clear the propeller off the seabed. He heaved the long poling oar, lying on the bottom inside the boat, into the water and, gripping it with both hands, pushed the boat forward.

“Hello, anybody out there,” he shouted. “Anybody there?” he shouted again.

Nothing but the roar of faraway thunder answered him. He fumbled in the pockets of his safari jacket for a flashlight and shone its dim beam onto the sandbar.

“What the heck, that guy has to be there. I can’t see a thing with all these clouds,” he said, squinting and waving the flashlight from side to side. “And this stupid thing is dying on me. There is no way to make someone out on the sandbar. Throw the anchor, and I’ll hop out and have a look. You stay here.”

Gasping, then hyperventilating, Melissa blurted out, “Are you out of your mind? What do you think you’ll find? He isn’t there, or he would have answered by now. Let’s forget it and go home so we can at least beat the rain.”

“Do as I tell you,” Tom hissed. “Don’t let the boat drift away.” Without waiting for his wife to moor the boat, he climbed over its side and waded to the sandbar.

The farther Melissa’s husband slipped away from the boat the faster he faded from Melissa’s view. For just a second, a bright lightning stroke illuminated his body, but then, darkness swallowed it again. His voice, beseeching someone to reply, remained the only life signal from him. It eerily echoed from the mangrove bushes on an island nearby.

Suddenly, everything went quiet. To keep herself from shaking, Melissa gripped the wooden plank of her seat with both hands. She tilted her head with her right ear toward the sandbar, aching to hear her husband’s voice or some noises from his footsteps resounding across the water, but all she heard was dead silence, interrupted by the approaching roar of thunder.

A faint rustle of shrubs and leaves sent a torrent of shivers through Melissa’s body, and her head and ears shot up when an all-out crackle followed. As she stretched her neck to gaze ahead and listen, a piercing shriek cut through the air. Melissa covered her face with her fingers and lurched forward, tumbling down on her hands and knees, before she realized the shriek had been the call of a loon.

Once again engulfed by silence, Melissa scrambled to her feet and stared at the sandbar. Another bright lightning stroke lit up the sky, but it was too swift for her eyes to focus. Where was her husband? There was no place to hide on the sandbar, and he couldn’t have just disappeared. He had to be there.

Melissa slipped out of her shoes, climbed over the bow of the boat and trudged through the water onto the sandbar. Something, resembling a human, was standing at the other end, and almost croaking, she called out, “Tom, is that you?”

Without answering, the figure slowly shuffled toward her.

Covered with goose bumps, Melissa now yelled, “Tom, say something.”

“Oh, shut up,” a man whispered.” As the figure came closer and started to berate her, she recognized her husband’s voice. “I wish you’d kept quiet,” he said. “I was listening to the water. I thought I heard some splashing around here, and then you started to scream.”

Melissa took a deep breath but still felt her skin crawl. “I think what you heard must have been that bird giving out that awful cry and diving into the water.”

“No, I heard the same splashing earlier even before I heard the bird’s flutter, and it sounded smooth, more like swimming motions.”

“Come on, you don’t believe that guy is swimming around here, do you?”

Tom grabbed Melissa’s arm. “Sh, sh …There it is again, do you hear it?”

Melissa froze. “Yeah, but the noise is coming from where our boat is,” she whispered.

Tom put his finger on his wife’s mouth before letting go of her arm, turned around and crept toward the side of the sandbar where they had anchored the boat. Melissa followed on his heels, peeking around him without seeing anything. Then, she felt the first sprinkles of rain wet her skin.

When they both reached the water, flash after flash of lightning cast a spotlight on their boat, and Melissa saw two hands gripping the boat’s gunwale from the outside. Clenching her teeth to keep her mouth shut, she flung her hand forward to grab her husband’s shoulder, but her husband charged forward, slogging through the water as fast as he could.

Wobbling and flailing, Melissa tried to keep up with him. Still several feet away from the boat, her husband stumbled. As he hit the water facedown, a head popped out of the water next to the boat’s stern. Melissa screamed.  

“Hey, hey, Lady, take it easy,” a man hollered through a roar of thunder.  

Scrambling onto his feet and rubbing the water out of his eyes, Tom shouted back, “What are you doing here at our boat, Mister? What’s going on? … Stand up, so I can see you.”

A tall, stout figure, clothed in soaked jeans and T-shirt, surfaced in front of the boat.

“Were you the one calling for help earlier?” Tom blinked, trying to catch a clearer view of the guy.

“Yeah, that was me,” the man said. “Sorry to startle you folks, but I wasn’t sure myself what I was dealing with. I thought my two buddies came back to beat me up for good, and then I heard the lady talking to you, Sir.”

“Someone beat you up? Are you OK?” Tom asked. “Come on, climb in with us and tell us what happened.”

Getting hold of the boat and swinging himself inside, Tom sat down in the stern, and Melissa stepped over the side and sat down next to him.

“That’s mighty kind of you, Sir,” the stranger said. Standing backward against the boat, he pushed himself with both hands onto the edge of the boat, and pulling his knees against his chest, he swiveled around, letting his feet dangle to the bottom of the boat.

“So, how in the world did you end up on the sandbar?” Tom asked and crossed his arms and legs as if waiting for a long account.

Melissa tapped her husband on his shoulder and, staring at him with big eyes, said, “Shouldn’t we try to get ashore before the storm gets worse? The rain is getting heavier and heavier.”

Before her husband could open his mouth to answer, the stranger said, “Well, Missus, not so fast … I don’t want t’ take advantage of your kindness, but I’ve got a kind of problem here. You see, my tackle box with my wallet and keys in it is on that small island over there to your left, and without my keys, I can’t get home.”

Tom frowned and sat up straight. “I think you better tell us quickly what happened, and then we’ll see what we’ll do.”

“Well,” the man said, “my buddies and I were out fishing, and we fried the catch on the island. We started to quarrel, and I got into a fight with both of ‘em. They knocked me down, threw me in the boat and tossed me on the sandbar. Then they took off in the boat. When I spotted your boat, Sir, I called for help, and then I saw two people in it and thought they were my buddies coming back to finish me off. So I hid in the water and paddled around the sandbar. Then I heard the missus’s voice and knew it couldn’t be my buddies. Now, all my stuff I need to get home is on the island, in the tackle box.”

Without a second thought, Tom said, “Let’s go get it, and let’s hurry.” He moved to the bow, pulled in the anchor and grasped the poling oar.

“Sir, let me do that.” The stranger jumped up and snatched the oar out of Tom’s hand. Lifting it over the boat, he sank it into the seabed and pushed the boat out into deeper water.

Envisaging enough clearance for the propeller, Tom lowered the motor, cranked it and headed toward the island. The boat chopped over the waves and white caps through sheets of rain, lightning strokes and wind gusts, hoisting its three passengers up from their seats and pounding them back down.

Each crash of thunder muffled the rasping of the motor. When the propeller hit the ground some distance offshore, the motor shuddered, and Melissa’s husband switched it off and raised it. Swiftly, the stranger picked up the oar and poled the boat close to the island.

As Melissa’s husband threw the anchor, the stranger leaped out of the boat and shouted, “I’ll be back in a second. The tackle box should be right over there.” Ducking his head downward and hugging his shoulders to buffer his face from of the slapping rain, he briskly waded the few steps to land and vanished in the bushes.

With wet clothes clinging to their bodies and rain dripping down their scowling faces, Melissa and Tom waited and bailed the water from the bottom of the boat. Rain poured down faster than they could dip it out, and the boat, rocking and dancing around its anchor line, jostled them from side to side in a puddle of rainwater. Surrounded by thunder and lightning, furiously chasing each other before blending into one spectacle of nature’s wrath, Melissa and Tom fought for some breathing space.

“Why don’t we go ashore, too, and wait out the storm?” Melissa yelled through the thunder at her husband.

Looking up and shaking his head, her husband yelled back, “Who knows how long the storm will last. We’ll take off as soon as the guy shows up. Ah, there he comes now.”

Clutching a tackle box with his left hand in front of his belly and twisting his right arm behind his back, the stranger bolted through the water to the boat. He lifted the tackle box over the side. As he put it on the seat, he flung his right hand forward. The long, sharp blade of a fishing knife glistered in front of Melissa’s and Tom’s eyes.

“What the he…,” Tom blurted out.

“Shut up,” the stranger said, his teeth gleaming in the lightning flashes. “Stand up, both of you, and don’t move, or you’ll both be sorry.” He nodded at Tom. “You, put your wallet and keys inside the seat, slowly so I can see it … Good … Now, both of you get out of the boat, get out.”

He brandished the knife back and forth. With their eyes glued to it, Melissa and Tom climbed over the side of the boat into the water.

“Go on, go ashore and keep going, don’t come back,” the stranger shouted after them.

Like hypnotized, Melissa and her husband stumbled through the shallow water onto land. A dazzling lightning bolt, as if shooting straight down, and a deafening crash of thunder spun them around.

The stranger was standing upright on the seat in the bow of the boat, both hands clasping the half-immersed poling oar. A second lightning bolt hit. The poling oar jolted, thrusting the stranger into wild spasms, and then, it burst. The stranger petrified and still hugging a chunk of the poling oar plummeted into the bay.  

Without saying a word, Melissa’s husband sprinted back into the water. Melissa watched him, her mouth half open to call him back, but no word emerged. He raced after the boat and caught its gunwale just before a wave hurled it forward. He slithered his hands to the bow to get hold of the tie rope, and slinging the rope over his shoulder, he pulled the boat back to the shore.

Melissa rushed to her husband’s side to give him a helping hand. Staggering and breathing heavily, they dragged the boat as far as they could onto the land. Her husband climbed into the boat, opened the seat cover and retrieved his wallet and keys. Then, he collapsed on the seat. Melissa dropped down next to him, and they both huddled together, waiting for the moon to break through the clouds.