Thursday, March 23, 2023

An original short story: Marie's House by Patty Panni

“Gracious Living, how may I help you?”

The voice on the phone was polished and friendly. Like she was actually interested in helping me. “Uh, yes, hello. I—uh—I was interested in……” My voice faded away.

Confound it all, had it really come to this?

“Excuse me, I didn’t quite catch the end of that. You’re interested in…?”

Another awkward pause. “Sorry, yes. I—”

Just say it!

“I’m interested in finding someone to help me around the house.”

“Of course. We can definitely help with that. What type of assistance do you need? Cooking? Cleaning? Shopping? Transportation to appointments?”

“I…well, I guess I need all of that.”

“Well, we can certainly help you with all of that. May I get your name?”

“Parish. Charles Parish.”

I gave her my address and answered a few more questions. She told me they could have someone here tomorrow afternoon. I could meet her…interview her, I guess, and let them know if she would work out. If not, she assured me there were other candidates, so I shouldn’t feel obligated to anyone.

Losing my Marie had been a shock. Even though we’d been together for over fifty years, when I looked at her I still saw that girl I fell for in Mr. Mason’s freshman math class. We married straight out of high school, even though my buddies – and her friends – told us we were crazy to tie ourselves down so young.

But Marie…looking into her eyes, I saw the whole world. And that world was the only one I wanted. As the years passed that feeling never changed, even when the cancer came. It took her hair, then it took her strength…but I never thought it would take her. We both thought she would beat it. What we didn’t know then was that the cancer was in both of us. When I got diagnosed soon after her death it seemed almost fitting. After all, we’d done so much else together, why not this?

I kissed her picture when I got into bed that night, as I’d done every night since she’d gone. It was a poor substitute for the real thing, though. The nights were the hardest.

The next day at 1:00 p.m. on the dot, the doorbell rang. A young woman shook my hand, said her name was Beth. She looked to be in her early thirties, with dark hair and eyes. She looked kind. I seated her in the best chair and asked if I could get her some tea or coffee. She said no, so we began talking. As usual, when I tried to describe what I need help with, I just ended up talking about Marie.

After a few minutes, Beth leaned forward. “Would you be willing to show me around? I’d love to see the kitchen, just to get a sense of how things are laid out.”

Embarrassed, I led her to the kitchen. “I’m afraid I’ve let things go in here. I have a balance issue, you see, so I haven’t been able to clean the floor…or do much of anything else.” The truth is, it was all I could do to keep the front room in some semblance of order. The rest of the house, especially the kitchen, was in shambles. I was sure she would take one look and head for the door, but she didn’t. She just looked at the room, then at me, with an appraising look.

“I understand if this is a bigger job than you expected. If you aren’t interested, I can just—”

“Mr. Parish, if you’ll have me, I’d love to help you.”

“Well, that’s…that sounds good.”

We sat down again (more for my benefit since I am wobbly at best), long enough to determine what her schedule would be. The rest would be handled through the agency.

At the door, she took my hand. “Mr. Parrish, we’re going to have your home in order in no time. You’ll see.”

Watching her walk down the sidewalk to her car parked in front of the house, I wanted to believe her. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was betraying Marie. After all, the house was still Marie’s space. How could I allow a strange woman in just like that? Just because she wasn’t here didn’t mean she wasn’t still here. Her essence…her spirit. It was in every corner of the house.

I stayed up late that night, then, after kissing Marie goodnight, I tossed and turned in bed. It was after midnight when I finally dozed off. I got up two different times to relieve myself (damn bladder must be the size of a thimble) and finally fell into a deep sleep in the early morning hours.

She was in the meadow behind our place on Framingham Lane, surrounded by green waving grasses. Butterflies flitted among the purple clover and orange milkweed, as well as some tall yellow flowers I didn’t recognize. She was gathering a bouquet of wildflowers. I watched her with pleasure, as she bent down and came back up with one beautiful flower after another. As always, her concentration was laser focused on the task at hand. Once satisfied, she looked my way, and I lifted an arm to wave.

Waving back, she began walking toward me. “See what I found, Charles? Aren’t they wonderful?” She bent her head to sniff the blooms.

“Wonderful,” I repeated. As pretty and vibrant as the flowers were, Marie outshone them. Her blue eyes sparkled and her wide smile was ever so generous, so quick to appear…even in the harder days. She never lost her smile.

She took my arm and we walked into the house. But – it wasn’t the old house on Framingham now – it was our current house. Our current house with the gritty floors, smudged windows, dirty dishes piled up. I felt a wave of shame wash over me and I turned to her to apologize, to try to explain.

Marie gave me another one of her generous smiles. “Now, Charles, you don’t have to say a word. I understand, dearest.” She took both my hands in hers. “It won’t be long until we’re together again, but until then, you need help with your house.”

“Darling, it’s more your house than mine,” I whispered. We’d only bought this house because she fell in love with it. She had tended it like a beloved garden, keeping everything spotless.

“Not my house. Not anymore.” Her eyes held nothing but love. “You must let me go, my love. Take the help. Beth seems like a fine young woman. She’ll do a good job, you’ll see.”

The pressure in my bladder woke me up once again, and I muttered a profanity as I dragged myself out of bed and away from Marie. The dream had seemed so real, etched in my mind like a memory of an actual conversation.

Over my oatmeal and coffee that morning I spoke to her as if she were sitting across from me. “All right, Marie. Message received. I hope I see you again soon.”

When Beth arrived, I greeted her with a smile. “Thank you for coming. Now, where would you like to start?”

An original short story: The Woods by Patty Panni

The Woods by Patty Panni

~ Murder and Mayhem. But the dog lives.

Before Carmen left the house that morning, she threw a granola bar and some water into her rucksack, grabbed her jacket off the hook by the door, and whistled for Beau, her sixty-pound Lab. Tuesdays were her day off from the precinct and, when the weather was nice, like today, she and Beau were always up for a hike. Beau wasn’t as rambunctious as he used to be, so they were both usually ready to return to the house after a couple hours.

But something was different today. A lilt to the breeze, perhaps, rustling the sycamore leaves and wafting the scent of honeysuckle over woman and dog. So they tromped deeper into the woods than they usually roamed. No premonition rankled her senses; nothing prepared her for what they would find as they topped a hill.

Below, in a small clearing, Carmen saw a figure, bent over something on the ground. She stopped short, surprised to see anyone else. The woods behind her house stretched on for miles and, except during deer hunting season, it was rare to see another person. Beau, perhaps sensing her hesitation, perhaps smelling something he didn’t like, growled low in his throat. That was what made the man – she could clearly see it was a man now – stop what he was doing and look up. As he straightened up, Carmen saw what he was bending over. It was a woman, covered in blood.

The man called out, “Oh, thank God. My—my wife—” he gestured to the ground, “—has been hurt. Does your cell phone have service out here?”

Carmen’s eyes roved over him. He was a big man, well over six feet, with blond hair. His hands and arms were covered in the woman’s blood. So much blood. She stayed where she was. “What happened?”

Did his eyes narrow a bit?

“It was…some type of animal. She’d gone on ahead when I stopped to tie my shoe. I heard her scream, heard growling and some sort of struggle. I…ran ahead and found her like this.” He looked down at the woman. “I…I didn’t know what to do. I tried to stop the bleeding, but it’s…well, you can see how bad it is.” He took a step toward them and Beau growled again. The man eyed Beau and stayed where he was. “Anyway, my cell won’t work. If you could call 911 for me, that’d be great.”

His voice was very calm for someone standing over his dying wife. Carmen’s senses rankled; something was wrong with this picture. The story he painted just didn’t make sense. What kind of animal would attack a person in the middle of the day, with no provocation? Was that a knife lying next to the woman? She knew there was no cell service this deep in the woods; she would have to backtrack a good ways before finding a signal. She took a step back.

The man’s eyes roved over Carmen, before coming to rest on Beau.

He’s sizing me up. Carmen knew, at just over one hundred pounds, she didn’t look like much of an opponent.

She took another step back and said, “Sure, I can call 911. My phone has really good service out here.” She took out her cell phone and mimed calling 911. Waited for a minute, then began speaking.

Before Carmen could say more than a few words the man was upon her. He snatched the cell phone out of her hand and glanced at it before saying, “Ha!” and flinging it down. She heard Beau snarling and thrashing, then a high-pitched whine as the man’s boot made contact with Beau’s nose. That’s when she sprung into action.

“Beau, come!” She started all-out running, not looking back. She could hear Beau – and the man – right behind her. They were crashing through brush and leaves. Carmen felt her toe hit something solid, a root, maybe, and she fell, hard. In an instant, the man was on her and they were rolling over, once, twice. She ended up on her back with the man on top of her. Beau had hold of the man’s arm, and he wasn’t letting go.

The man reached for a rock with his free hand. His eyes met Carmen’s for an instant, then he smashed the rock down on Beau’s head. Instantly, Beau released the man’s arm and settled into the leaves, unmoving.

Carmen, who had seized that moment to roll away from him, looked in horror at her beloved dog. “Beau!” She could see a smear of blood where the rock had struck him. A sudden rage filled her and she jumped up. “You’re an animal! You killed that woman and now you’ve killed my dog!” She was trying to remember if her .22 compact was in the bottom her knapsack. It wasn’t unusual to run across copperheads, especially early in the morning, and she usually made sure to have it in the bag. But now, in this moment, she wasn’t sure it was there. The bag was nearer to the man’s feet than hers, and she didn’t know if she could get to it. But she had to try.

“Yeah, you kind of crashed my party.” The man spoke conversationally, like they were standing at a bar and not at a murder scene. “That young lady was my date last night. Things got…well, let’s just say things got out of hand.” He chuckled.

Carmen’s eyes went from Beau to her bag to the man’s face. Back to Beau. Did he just move? Yes, Beau definitely moved his head, just a bit. Carmen knew she had to help her dog, but first she had to deal with the man. “What do you mean, ‘things got out of hand’?” Her mind was racing.

“Oh, you know. It seemed like she was up for a good time, then she changed her mind. They always change their mind.” He smiled. “So I brought her out here to finish the fun.”

Carmen could smell the woman’s blood from where she stood. She looked down. It was smeared all over her clothes now. She swallowed hard. She needed to keep him talking until she could figure out what to do.

“So she changed her mind. I could see how you could’ve misunderstood that. It was just an accident.” She lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.

The man regarded her steadily. “Oh, it was no accident. It was a pleasure. A great pleasure. And running across you – or rather, you running across me? That’s what I call a ‘twofer’ – a two-for-one special. A red letter day.” He took a step towards her. “Now, we’re going to go back over that hill.” His eyes were menacing, black in his face. He threw her knapsack over his shoulder in one smooth motion, then with a vice grip on her arm, began walking them back to his kill site.

Carmen looked over her shoulder at Beau as she was dragged away.

“Oh, yes. The dog was unfortunate. Couldn’t be helped.” The man walked fast, and Carmen stumbled to keep up. “What’s your name?”

“Carmen. What’s yours?”

They walked a few more feet before the man said, “Oh, what the hell. It’s not like you’ll be around to tell anyone. The name is Phillip. Pleased to meet you, Carmen. Do you come here often?” He chuckled, like he’d just told a funny joke.

“Actually, I do. I come out here all the time. I live nearby. Bring my friends and family out here a lot.”

“Oh now, I know that’s not true. We came out here on my four wheeler. There are no houses within fifteen miles of here, just an old dirt road nobody uses.”

“Oh, but there are. My cabin’s just a few miles, that way.” Carmen motioned over her shoulder. To her satisfaction, she saw a momentary flash of uncertainty cross his face. “We’ve been coming out here for years. The trails are easy to follow.”

His hand tightened on her arm and she resisted the urge to pull away. She eyed the knapsack. It was slung on his shoulder nearest her. “I’m surprised you didn’t know. My cabin’s just one of several. All the neighbors use the trails. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else was out here today.”

The man smiled. She’d overplayed her hand. “You’re lying. But that’s okay. I know it can be stressful, meeting someone like me.”

It’s stressful all right, mother fucker. Hopefully I can show you just how stressful it is.

Carmen collapsed, reaching for her ankle. “Ow! Stop, I…I turned my ankle.”

The man stopped, releasing her arm for a moment, and that was all she needed. She lunged for the bag, ripping it off his shoulder. In one smooth motion Carmen stepped out of his reach and reached into the knapsack. She felt the rubber grip of her .22. Without looking down, she pulled it out, took off the safety, and cocked it. Her Browning Compact held ten rounds. She hoped it would be enough.

“Whoa!” He held his hand up and took a step back.

“Yeah, whoa. You and I are gonna walk out of here. Go. Now!” She jerked her gun towards him.

He made a half turn and took a step or two before stopping.

“I said move.”

“I don’t think you’d really shoot me.” He gave her a lazy grin. “And even if you did, you’re a tiny girl with a tiny gun. I can stop you before the gun stops me.”

He lunged toward her. Aiming for center mass, Carmen squeezed the trigger. Kept squeezing until the gun was empty.

He made one more step, reaching towards her, his mouth formed into an O. Then he fell, crashing into the brush.

All Carmen could hear was her heartbeat, pounding in her ears. She stood over the man for a minute, to see if he would try to get up, but he was still. She felt his neck for a pulse. Nothing. Then, she started running.

“Beau!” She topped the hill and headed down to where Beau was. Then she saw him, walking toward her. “Beau! Oh sweet boy, you’re the best boy ever.” The tears came then, hard and fast, as they walked out of the woods and back to her cottage. Carmen thanked the heavens that she still had a landline. She dialed 911 with shaking hands and waited.

“This is Officer Carmen Montoya. I need to report a murder. I…I killed the assailant. That’s right. Send help, please.” She sunk to the floor, Beau’s head in her lap. He had a big bump on his head that needed attention as soon as possible.

As they sat there, waiting for the Cavalry, Carmen petted Beau and whispered, “Good dog.”

Mickey by Patty Panni

“Who did this to you, Mickey?” Detective Jennifer Ulmstead used her most soothing tone as she talked to the small boy. “Who hurt you?”

Mickey looked away. “I’m not ‘apposed to go in the kitchen at night.” He had a battery of bruising in various shades ranging from black to purple to green. Scars and burns provided a roadmap of injuries on his little body.

“Honey,” Jennifer crouched down, eye-to-eye with the little boy. “Nothing you did could ever warrant these injuries. Somebody’s been hurting you for a long time, haven’t they?” Her job as a child protective investigator was tough; it was always hard to see this kind of pain up close.

Mickey wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Jennifer tried a different tack. “Hey Mickey, are you hungry?” His eyes flashed on hers in response. She would’ve known anyway, because the child was obviously underfed. “How about I go find a snack for you?”

He nodded, and she left him with the nurse. The cafeteria was closed between lunch and dinner, so she was limited to vending machine offerings.

She chose a bag of chips, a candy bar, and a Coke. When she returned, Mickey’s eyes lit up at the snacks in her hands. “I get all of that?” he asked, breaking her heart even more.

“Of course. It’s all for you.”

The little boy tucked in and was munching away when a doctor appeared in the doorway.

“I’ll be right back, honey. I want to talk to the doctor for a minute.” Jennifer stepped outside the room.

The doctor consulted the papers in his hand. “X-rays revealed a history of fractures in his left wrist, right radius, and right cheek, as well as multiple burns in various stages of healing. His rape kit was negative for fluids, but there’s scarring to indicate long-term sexual abuse.”

“So, can you tell how the fractures occurred?”

“The wrist looks like an impact fracture, like he was thrown against something with his wrist taking the brunt of the impact. The radius fracture is a spiral-type break, from someone taking his forearm in both hands and twisting.” He made a wringing motion with his hands. “The cheek fracture is from something small making contact…maybe from someone wearing a ring. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a history of concussions, but we need imaging to confirm or rule that out.” The doctor ran a hand through his black hair. “Please tell me you’re going to catch the bastard responsible for this.”

“Tell me about the burns.”

“There are two sizes of round burns, most likely from a cigarette and something slightly bigger – maybe a cigar.” Anger flashed in his eyes. “This boy has been used as a punching bag for years. Has he told you who did this to him?”

“Not yet. He gave me his name, that’s it. The nurse said he was left outside the entrance?”

“Yeah, the security guard saw him and brought him inside.” He hesitated. “This little boy has a lot of healing to do…and not just in his body.” He turned to go.

“Doctor, one more question.”


“How old would you say he is?”

“Best guess…maybe eight or nine.”

Jennifer was shocked. He looked much smaller.

“I know. He’s seriously malnourished.”

Once she finished with the doctor, Jennifer turned back to the boy. “Hey Mickey, who brought you here?”

Having finished the chips, the boy was working on the candy bar. He looked up at Jennifer as if he was considering whether to tell her anything. Apparently, being the bringer of food worked in her favor. He spoke through a mouthful of chocolate, “Unca Matt.”

“Your Uncle Matt brought you to the hospital?”

The boy nodded.

“Does Uncle Matt live with you?”


“You and your mama?”

The boy nodded.

“And he’s the one who hurt you?”

Mickey nodded, this time emphatically.

“Okay, buddy.” Jennifer turned to the nurse who was standing nearby and spoke quietly. “Do you have everything you need?”

“Yes, we’re finished.”

Jennifer helped the boy into clean clothes. The hospital social worker had furnished a new t-shirt, shorts, and undies. They were a little roomy on him, but it was a big improvement over the filthy clothes he’d been wearing. Those clothes were in an evidence bag.

Her captain had texted the name and address of the foster family who was going to take care of Mickey. As she drove, she couldn’t stop thinking about catching the person or persons responsible for this child’s injuries.

“Hey Mickey?”

He looked at her eyes, watching him in the rear view mirror. He was working on some bubble gum she’d given him when they got in the car.

“Where do you live?”

He chewed for a minute, considering the question. “We live over the store. Close to the trains. They sound like ‘WOOO WOOOOOOO’.”

Jennifer chuckled. “They sure do sound like that.” Good. It was something to go on.

The foster family – especially the mom – seemed happy to have Mickey. He settled right in with their son, playing with cars. Jennifer gave them the scant information she had, with a promise to provide more when she could. She left their house, feeling good that Mickey had a safe, caring environment, at least for the time being.

Jennifer drove to the area near the railroad tracks. There were several blocks in proximity to the tracks, some with businesses that looked like they could have living quarters above. She chose the street directly adjacent to the tracks and walked in the first store. She showed the man behind the counter a picture of Mickey and asked if he remembered seeing the boy. No.

She continued to the next business, then the next, with no luck. Then, stopping short, she saw the sign painted on the next window: Matt’s Smoke Shack. The store sold all manner of tobacco and vape products.

With the hair on the back of her neck prickling, she went around back. There were stairs leading up to a second floor door. She walked upstairs and knocked on the door. A very young woman with a black eye came to the door. She looked as though she’d been crying.

Jennifer identified herself and got the woman’s name – Ginger – then asked, “Are you alone? Is there anyone else in this house with you right now?”

“No. I’m alone.” Fresh tears sprung into Ginger’s eyes. “I’m not supposed to answer the door, but I thought maybe…” Her voice trailed off.

“Are you Mickey’s mother?”

Her blue eyes widened. “Yes! Do you have him? Is my boy okay?”

“He’s safe, with a foster family.”

“Thank God! I was so afraid...”

“You were afraid Matt killed him? He hurts you too?”

Ginger nodded and looked away, just like Mickey had done earlier.

“You need to come with me. Once you’re safe, the police will arrest Matt. If I have anything to say about it, he’s not going to be able to hurt you or your son ever again.”

“Thank you,” Ginger sobbed, as she shoved some of their clothes into a backpack. She followed Jennifer out to the car, the first steps into her – and soon, Mickey’s – new life. 

An original short story: Jacob by Patty Panni

Big eyes looked up as I bent over the huddled figures in the doorway. As a downtown cop, I was used to seeing the homeless. They were everywhere: panhandling in the subway station, gathered outside soup kitchens, on benches in the park. It was a cold night, though, and I wanted to offer to take them to a nearby shelter.

My partner was in the corner bodega getting us coffee, and if I hadn’t gotten out to stretch my legs, I would’ve missed them. I cast my flashlight over what looked like an adult and two children sleeping in a doorway. Two of the figures didn’t move at all, and – like I said – the other just looked at me with those eyes.

“Hey, you folks all right?” No response. I reached down to the adult’s shoulder, shook it gently. I saw that it was a woman. “Ma’am? Hey, wake up.” I spoke louder and shook her again. “Ma’am! Can you hear me?”

The child with the eyes sat up, scuttled away from me.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. Is this your mom?” There was no reply. I reached down, felt for a pulse on the woman’s neck. Finding none, I radioed in.

“This is Unit 802 requesting a bus at the corner of 81st and Powell. Non-responsive female with two children.”

When the paramedics came, they told me the woman and one of the kids were DOA. I had coaxed the other kid, a little boy as it turned out, into letting me put my coat around him, and he was sipping hot chocolate in the backseat of our patrol car. We drove to the station while I tried to get information from the little boy. He looked to be about four or five, plenty old enough to tell me his name, but so far, he’d remained silent.

At the station I put the little guy in our ‘family room,’ where we had some couches and chairs. I let him choose a stuffed animal while I turned on a cartoon DVD. He seemed to settle in then, sucking his thumb, and holding Leo the Lion with a death grip around his neck. My next call then should’ve been to Social Services, but it wasn’t.

I called my wife. I know nobody likes getting a call in the middle of the night, but a cop’s wife really doesn’t want to hear the phone ring while her husband is out there on duty. My wife answered on the second ring, breathless, as if I’d interrupted her working out instead of dreaming.

“Honey, it’s me.”

“Pete! What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. It’s just…we picked up a homeless woman with two kids tonight. The woman and one of the kids was dead.”

“Dead?! What on earth happened?”

“Well, we don’t know yet. But the other little guy is sitting in our family room watching a movie right now.”

“And you’re telling me this because—”

“—Because we’ve been approved as foster parents. I was thinking maybe I could just bring him home instead of letting Social Services take him.”

She took a deep breath and I knew I needed to talk fast. “Carolyn, I’m the only person he’s let near him tonight. He just lost his mother, for God’s sake, or at least what I assume to be his mother. He’s dirty and cold and all alone—”

“Pete.” My wife had such a gentle tone. That’s one of the thousand reasons I love her. “Bring him.”


“Sure. But you’re going to have to tell Social Services what you’re doing.”

“Absolutely. They’re my next call.” I hesitated. “You should know, he hasn’t said a word since we found them. He hasn’t cried or asked for his mom or anything.”

“Oh wow…” I could picture Carolyn chewing a thumbnail, like she did when she was thinking through a problem. “It’s probably just the shock. I’m sure he’s scared to death. Cold. Hungry. Oh Pete, just hurry.”

“I will. I love you Carolyn.”

“Love you. Hey, do we know his name?”

“Not yet.”

I made the call to Social Services. The social worker I spoke with was only too happy to assign us as his emergency foster parents. As soon as I finished the required paperwork for my shift, I collected the little guy and headed home. In the car, I tried again.

“Hey buddy, what’s your name?”

“Jacob,” he whispered, before popping a dirty thumb back into his mouth.

“Well, all right, Jacob. Let’s go home.”

An original short story: Lessons by Patty Panni

 Matilda pasted on a smile as she rang the bell of the stately Boston brownstone. She’d taken care with her appearance, and she nervously tucked a stray hair into place as she surveyed her reflection in the glass side panel. There was an identical panel on the opposite side of the carved mahogany door.

She gripped her suitcase a bit tighter. It was taking a long time for someone to come to the door. Could she have the wrong address? She fished out a paper from her bag and compared it to the numbers mounted above the door. No, this was the right place. She was about to ring again when the door slowly opened and a petite elderly woman peered out.

“Mrs. Englebright?”

The woman nodded.

“I’m Matilda Byrne. The agency sent me?” Matilda had a bad habit of ending her sentences with questions, especially when she was uncomfortable.

“Oh yes, of course. Come in, please.”

As Matilda entered the home, she looked up. The ceiling was fifteen feet if it was an inch. To the right, a curved staircase led to a gallery on the second floor. The black and white tiles of the foyer extended into a parlor and, beyond it, she could see a conservatory with glass doors leading to the back garden.

Mrs. Englebright, who’d been silent as Matilda had taken in the house, said, “Why don’t we have a seat in the parlor where we can talk?” She led the way into the room, furnished in lovely shades of green and gold. They sat in matching wingback chairs in front of the fireplace. Mrs. Englebright reached up inside a fringed lampshade to switch on a light.

“There, that’s better. Now, why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?” Mrs. Englebright spoke with a decidedly Boston cadence, which made Matilda conscious of her own Irish accent.

Talking about herself was something Matilda particularly disliked, but it couldn’t be helped, so she plunged right in. “Well, I was born in Galway and immigrated with my parents in 1919. My mother was Mrs. Charles Reilly’s personal maid. She traveled with her and took care of her until my mother’s death in 1930. By then I was old enough to begin domestic service, and I worked for Mrs. Reilly until her death last year. After that I signed on with the agency to look for a new placement.” She took a deep breath and shifted in the chair. “I can do almost everything around the house: laundry, ironing, cleaning, serving. Even plain cooking in a pinch. I am a good seamstress and can tat lace – as long as the light is good.” Feeling she’d surely talked about herself enough, she abruptly stopped and waited for a reply.

“Can you read?”

“Beg pardon, ma’am?”

“Can you read?”

Matilda dropped her head. “No ma’am, I cannot read.”

“You’re hired,” Mrs. Englebright said, taking Matilda by surprise. “I’ll show you to your room. You can get settled in and then you’ll go down to the kitchen and meet Mrs. Doyle. She’s our cook. She’ll feed you supper, then you can get a good night’s sleep. We’ll start in the morning.” She rose to her feet and Matilda did the same.

Later that evening, Matilda sat in the kitchen with the chatty Mrs. Doyle as they ate stew and brown bread with butter. The modern gas stove warmed the kitchen even after the meal was finished.

“Mr. Doyle takes care of things around here – the gardening and the repairs and such. He was Mr. Englebright’s valet before his death, bless him. He’d like to still be doing that, but we couldn’t leave Mrs. Englebright. She’s a wonderful lady. Mr. Doyle has his supper early and then straight to bed, because he’s up well before dawn laying the fires and tryin’ to keep the poxy furnace from going out.” She arched an eyebrow toward Matilda and continued. “Before you, there was Mary Margaret. She was a fierce good worker, that girl. Kept things spotless. I hope you’ll do the same.”

“Where did she go?”

“She married a boy beyond in Waltham. Once she learned to read, she wanted to leave the life of service behind. She’s startin’ her training for clerical work and ‘tis only a stepmother would blame ‘er.”

Matilda didn’t have time to respond as Mrs. Doyle barely took a breath before continuing.

“That girl definitely has a grĂ¡ for learnin’. It’s a nice boy she married, too. He’s a mechanic. Wants to own his own garage one day.”

“Mrs. Doyle,” Matilda said quickly, before she was off again.

“Yes, dearie?”

“You said Mary Margaret learned to read. How did she learn?”

“Why, Mrs. Englebright taught her. It’s something she does with all the help. She tried to teach me, bless her, but I just don’t have the time to spend on it. I know me numbers and can read a few words from the Bible, and tha’s plenty fer me.” She stood and began clearing the table. “She’ll be teachin’ you too; don’t ever doubt it.”

Mrs. Doyle’s heavy brogue and sprinkling of Irish words reminded Matilda of her mother, and it was all she could do not to hug the woman. Over protests, she helped Mrs. Doyle clear and wash, before heading to bed. She was exhausted and her head was spinning. She’d always dreamed of being able to read. Was it actually possible that Mrs. Englebright would open that door for her?

The next morning she was dressed and downstairs early. She had breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Doyle, then went into the parlor and began dusting. Mrs. Englebright descended the stairs and entered the room.

“Oh, good morning, ma’am. I’ll get out of your way.”

“Oh no, Matilda. We’ll do lessons from nine until ten-thirty every day. After that, you can attend to the housework.”

Matilda could scarcely believe her good fortune. She followed Mrs. Englebright into the conservatory, where a book and slate were on the table. They sat side by side.

“Now, we’ll begin with the alphabet. Once you’ve mastered that, we’ll progress to some easy stories. After that, we’ll enjoy those.” She indicated a short stack of books on a side table. “We’ll read ‘Emily of New Moon,’ ‘The Story of Dr. Dolittle,’ and my personal favorite, ‘The Magical Land of Noom.’” Her eyes twinkled as she took the piece of chalk and began making an A on the slate.

Matilda resolved to do her very best for Mrs. Englebright – both in schooling and housework – and she was a quick study. Evenings would find her bent over the slate, practicing her letters. She worked diligently on her penmanship, and she was soon able to take pen to paper. Sadly, she didn’t know anyone to write a letter to, but she continued her studies in earnest.

Then one morning Matilda waited for Mrs. Englebright to descend the curved staircase and join her in the conservatory, but she didn’t come. Matilda went to the kitchen to see Mrs. Doyle.

“Is Mrs. Englebright all right?”

“No, child, she is not. She was quite ill during the night. I was just about to take a tray to her.”

“Oh, please allow me.” Matilda stretched out her hands for the tray, which held a pot of tea, a cup and saucer, some cream, and a plate of dry toast.

“That’s fine. Now take care you don’t spill.”

Matilda knocked twice on Mrs. Englebright’s door and heard a faint “Come in.” She entered the dim room.

“Oh, Matilda. Thank you, my dear. Please set the tray here,” she waved her hand at the side table, “and sit with me for a while.”

“Of course, ma’am.” She poured a cup of tea and added a splash of cream, and offered it to Mrs. Englebright.

“Not just now, dear. I mainly just want a bit of company.” Mrs. Englebright smiled faintly at Matilda, but it was clear to see she wasn’t feeling well. “I wonder…”


“I wonder if you might read to me a bit, Matilda. I think that might help me feel better.”

“With pleasure, ma’am. Shall I go downstairs for a book?”

“No. Look over there.” Mrs. Englebright pointed to a table across the room.

Matilda sat down with the book. “Gone With the Wind,” she read.

“Yes. It just came out last month. Please begin at the beginning,” she instructed.

Matilda opened to the first page and began reading. “It'll come to you, this love of the land. There's no getting away from it if you're Irish.”

From the first page, she was captivated as she read about the O’Hara family and the fine plantation they owned. She read page after page, until she looked up and saw Mrs. Englebright had fallen asleep. She tiptoed out of the room, leaving the book behind. As she completed her tasks around the house, the story stayed with her, and she wondered what would happen to the family, and especially to Scarlett, the headstrong daughter.

The doctor came the next morning. Before he left, he spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Doyle, Matilda standing nearby.

“She has a high fever and aching head. Her joints and muscles are stiff. You can give cold compresses for her head, and it may help to rub her legs. Keep her as comfortable as possible. Nothing heavy to eat. Tea and broth are best.”

“But what’s the matter with ‘er, Doctor?”

The doctor removed his wire glasses and sighed. “It could be several things, but it’s probably sleeping sickness.”

“Oh no! Me dear sister died from the sleeping sickness last year. Surely it’s not that.”

The doctor shook his head. “I’ll be back in the morning.”

After the doctor left, Mrs. Doyle and Matilda shared a cup of tea.

“We’ll take turns seeing to her,” Mrs. Doyle tearfully said. “And you can read to her; she enjoys that more than anything.”

Summer turned to fall, then winter, but Mrs. Englebright never left her bed. Matilda read to her every afternoon. Every evening, she and Mrs. Doyle fretted over what could be done to help their dear employer. The doctor still came, but only twice a week.

One day, Mrs. Englebright didn’t seem to recognize Matilda; then she smiled and said, “My dear Matilda. Promise me you’ll keep reading after I’m gone.”

Swallowing hard, Matilda said, “I promise, dear ma’am. And I thank you for teaching me. It’s meant the world.” Brushing away a tear, she said, “Would you like me to read now?”

“No, not just now. I’m tired. I think I’ll sleep a while.”

Mrs. Englebright passed away in the night. Matilda heard Mrs. Doyle’s scream early that morning and she knew. She said a quick prayer as she made the sign of the cross.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

An original short story: The Stalker

 This is a new one. I wrote it last week. Hope you enjoy!

The Stalker by Patty Panni

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Jeff. I did. He kind of reminded me of a big goofy puppy, wanting more and more of your attention. One pat on the head and he thinks you’re his best friend.

Jeff and I were both on the expansion team for a renovation of a historic building in city center. Spider-web-cracked floors had been replaced by gleaming white marble with inlaid blue and gold designs. Interior moldings were rebuilt to original specs and missing or drafty windows had been replaced with updated double-paned versions. On the outside, white Corinthian columns and dentil moldings completed the look of a grand centuries-old building.

Our job was finding new tenants for the building. We had pitched the building to law firms, design companies, and architects, along with other businesses. Sometimes the pitch was done over drinks or dinner, and yes, Jeff and I carpooled more than once to these meetings. With occupancy near capacity, we were all assigned other projects. I thought that was that until Jeff stopped by my desk late in the day.

“Hey Chelsea. How about dinner tonight?”

I looked up in surprise. “No, thanks. I’m kind of in the middle of something, so I’ll be here another hour or two.” Now I ask you, wouldn’t a normal person take this as a no and be on his way? I know I would.

Jeff, however, sat in front of my desk. “I could help you, Chels. That way we’d still be able to have dinner together.”

I lower my eyebrows. “No, Jeff. Thanks. Another time.”

He smiled his goofy puppy smile and said, “Oh sure, another time.” He left and I went back to work. It was about an hour later when I was interrupted again. Jeff carried a big bag from Russo’s, my favorite Italian place.

He looked really pleased with himself. “Since the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, I brought Mohammed to the mountain! Now we can still have dinner together.”

So, first of all, what an idiotic use of that statement. Second, I don’t react well to manipulation. And that’s what that was, right? Clear manipulation. I decided to make myself clearer. I stood and grabbed my purse.

“Jeff, it’s been a long day. I’m just not interested, okay? Now, I’m heading home.” There was a big glass of Merlot with my name on it waiting for me.

“But Chelsea…” His voice trailed off as I walked away.

And I thought that was the end of it. I really did.

But of course, it wasn’t. By the time I reached my car in the parking garage, Jeff was following me, carrying the stupid Russo’s bag like a puppy carrying a squeaky toy. The garage was eerily empty, with only one car parked close to my silver Prius – a black Ford F150. Jeff’s.

“Chels, wait up!” Jeff called. I was honestly beginning to feel a little threatened; I really was. And can I just say that I hate being called Chels? Just for the record?

So I charged him. He was so startled he dropped the Russo bag and tomato sauce spilled out of some container. It looked like blood, which kind of freaked me out.

“Back. Off!” I spoke forcefully enough to get my point across. I glared at Jeff, until he took a step back.

I reached my car, beeped it open, got in and put the car in gear. I opened my window just enough for him to hear me as I drove past him. “You stay away from me, Jeff. I mean it.”

When I got home, I checked every door and window lock and armed the alarm system. Honestly, isn’t it enough we’ve had to live through a worldwide pandemic without me gaining a stalker? I have to admit, I was rattled. I poured a large glass of Merlot, lit candles, and took a bath with a Zen bath bomb. I had my hair wrapped up in a towel and was wearing my favorite Nickelback tee shirt when my phone rang. Feeling relaxed from the wine and bath, I didn’t check to see who it was before I answered.


“Chelsea, I don’t understand what I’ve done that is so wrong.”


“—No, don’t hang up. I just need to understand. We’ve gotten so close. I’ve never had someone like you in my life. Beautiful, smart, a good kisser—”

“—Kisser? We’ve never kissed, Jeff.”

“But we have. Remember the night I drove you home and you fell asleep in the car?”

I didn’t say anything. I vaguely remembered it. It had been a grueling day of back-to-back meetings. We had carpooled because Jeff said it would be simpler that way.

“When we got to your place, you were so relaxed, with your head tilted toward me. I knew you wanted me to kiss you. So I did. And Chelsea, it was magical. I’ve never had a kiss mean so much.”

This guy was nuts. I spoke through gritted teeth. “I was asleep, Jeff. If you kissed me then, that’s an assault. I mean it, you stay away from me. Don’t make me go to the cops, because I will.”

I put the phone down then and went to bed. Of course I tossed and turned all night. I mean, life with a stalker, right?

I almost called out of work the next day, but I decided he was not going to keep me from doing my job. If he so much as looked my way I was going to HR with the whole story. Thankfully, Jeff wasn’t there. Apparently he called out sick. Good. It turned out to be a pretty good day. My “work bestie” Sara and I decided to hit a Happy Hour on the way home for nachos and margaritas.

On my second margarita, I leaned close to Sara and said, “So, did I tell you I have a stalker at work?”

“Oh my God. Tell me it isn’t Jeff.”

I stared at her. “How the hell did you know?”

“Oh God, Chelsea! He did it to me last year! We were both on the Benfield project, and when it ended, he wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept calling and coming by my house. 

“No way!?”

“Oh yeah. I finally sicced Mr. Pauling on him, and whatever he said did the trick because he hasn’t even looked my way since.”

Mr. Pauling is our executive director. My boss’s boss.

“Oh wow. Maybe I should talk to him.”

“I would if I were you. Because Jeff will just keep coming until somebody stops him. Guy doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no.’ Who knows…maybe Mr. Pauling will fire him.”

I looked at a mural on the wall across from us while I pondered that statement. It was of a Day of the Dead motif with bright reds and oranges. The dead were all playing the guitar, tambourine, and saxophone. They seemed to be in high spirits for dead souls. It’s not that I wanted Jeff fired; I didn’t. I just wanted him to leave me alone. I decided I’d see what the next day brought before I made a decision.

An original short story: Aiden

 This is a 1500-word story I wrote a few months ago. Hope you enjoy!

Aiden was small for his age, which I’d been told was six. He carried a backpack almost as big as he was. It was unusual, but not unheard of, to get a new kid this late in the evening. My other three were already in bed, which was a shame because they usually eased the transition process and helped make a new child more comfortable. They also kept the newbie busy so I could talk with the social worker to get any verbal information and instructions.

Terri was the social worker who delivered Aiden to me. I’ve worked with her for years and know her to be genuinely caring but overwhelmed at times by the workload. She looked harried. And exhausted. Ordinarily I would offer her a cup of tea but I had a feeling she just wanted to get home, so I didn’t.

I crouched down to Aiden’s height.

“Hello Aiden, I’m Nita. You’ll be staying with us for a while. I have three other kids, but they’re already in bed, so you’ll get to meet them in the morning. Are you hungry?”

Aiden had yet to look at me. To look at anything. His eyes were glued to the floor.

“Aiden?” Terri’s voice was gentle. “Are you hungry, love?”

He shook his head once, almost imperceptibly.

Terri looked at me, shrugged.

“All right then, how about a cup of hot chocolate? I think I’ll have one too.” I put the kettle on. “Do you want to take off your backpack and sit at the table?” I made a move to help him slip off the huge backpack, but he backed away.

“It’s okay, you can keep it on. Just sit down right here.”

Terri shot me a grateful look. “I’m going to go, then. Okay if I call you in the morning?”

“Of course. We’ll be fine.”

She crouched down to Aiden’s eye level next to the table. “Aiden, I’ll see you soon. Nita will take good care of you, okay?”

He nodded, once.

“Okay then, good night.”

Once I’d seen Terri out, I returned to the kitchen. Aiden hadn’t moved. I made two small cups of hot chocolate and sat down across from Aiden.

“Here you go, Aiden. You’ll need to be careful, it’s hot.” I made a show of blowing on my cup before taking a small sip. “Mmm, it’s good.”

He glanced up at me, then slowly moved his hand toward the cup. I kept sipping mine. I was encouraged to see him take a small sip.

“You’re going to like my other kids, Aiden. My oldest is Jenny. She’s fourteen. Then there’s Grace. She’s eleven. And Tony is just a bit younger than you. He’s five. They’re really looking forward to meeting you.” I kept up a steady chatter while we finished our cocoa, then yawned widely as I put the cups in the sink.

“How about I show you to your room, Aiden? Come with me.” We went upstairs and I pointed out the bathroom and the other kids’ rooms.

“Your room is right here, next to mine.” I had left the bedside lamp on, and the circle of light showed a small, neat room.

“How about we get your pjs on, then you can go to the bathroom before bedtime?” I figured there was plenty of time later to work on toothbrushing and bathing. “Do you have pajamas in your backpack?”

Aiden nodded and we unzipped the bag and got out his pjs, which were threadbare, but clean. He quickly undressed and slipped into the pjs, then we went across the hall to the bathroom.

“Want me to come in with you?” He nodded, so I came in and stood by the door while he peed. I helped him turn on the faucet to wash his hands, then led him back to his room and got him settled in bed.

“Now, there’s a night light right here by the door, you see?” I turned off the lamp and said, “Good night, Aiden, see you in the morning.”

“G’night.” It was the first word he’d spoken.

I left the door slightly ajar and went back downstairs. Since it was an emergency placement I hadn’t yet received paperwork on Aiden. All I knew was what his caseworker had told me over the phone earlier in the day: that he was six years old and had been removed from his mother’s care following her arrest for drug possession with intent to sell. No siblings, and father was not in the picture. Although heartbreaking, it wasn’t an unusual story. I didn’t expect to learn much more from the paperwork or from Terri, but of course any information I could get might help me to better foster Aiden.

The next day was Saturday, so my kids were out of school. Jenny and Grace took to Aiden from the first moment and got busy acclimating him to our home and schedule. Tony was as shy as Aiden when he had come to me a few months earlier, so I was pleased to see that the boys seemed to hit it off right away. They were playing in the fenced-in back yard when Terri called.

“Hey, Terri. Hope you were able to get some good rest. You looked pretty beat last night.”

“Thanks, I was. It was a long day. How did Aiden do last night?”

“Great. He slept through the night. The other kids seem to be happy he’s here.”

“I’m so glad. So, his home situation was not good. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look in his backpack.”

“Not yet.”

“Well, all I could find for him was a dirty pair of jeans and a couple tee shirts that have seen better days. No underwear or socks, except for what he’s wearing. Also, there were no toys in the house. Poor little guy, I don’t know what he did with himself all day.”

“Well, you know I keep extra undies and socks in various sizes just for this kind of situation, and there’s certainly no shortage of toys. I can take care of getting him some new clothes. Has he started school?”

“No, and I’m not sure he’s ready for that. His socialization skills might need some work. My sense is that this is a pretty neglected boy.”

My heart went out to Aiden. “Well, we’ll take it slow. When he’s ready, we can try a couple mornings a week at Tony’s preschool.”

“That sounds good.”

“Is there any history of abuse?”

“There’s nothing in the file, but we both know it’s a possibility. This is his mom’s first offense, so we just don’t know what Aiden’s life has been like.”

I sighed. “I understand. Anything else?”

“No. I’ll bring by his paperwork later this morning if that’s okay, but I won’t come in.”

I understood why Terri didn’t want to come in. It could upset Aiden’s settling-in process if he thought Terri was there to take him away again.

“Perfect. See you soon.”

I let the kids play outside for a while before calling them inside.

“Who wants fruit?” I had diced apples and oranges and mixed them with some blueberries in a big bowl.

“I do!” Tony said.

“Me too!” echoed Grace.

Jenny, who was my quiet one, just nodded.

“Aiden, how about you? Do you want some fruit?”

“What’s fruit?” he asked, his brows furrowed.

What’s fruit?” Tony laughed. “You know, bananas and oranges and stuff!”

They sat at the table and Jenny helped me serve.

“Here you go, Aiden. This is fruit. You’ll like it.” Jenny said in her soft voice.

We watched as Aiden put a piece of apple in his mouth, chewed it. A smile broke on his face and he said, “I like fruit!”

The kids laughed and talked while they ate. It did my heart good to see them like this. With foster kids, I’d learned early on to take my joy wherever I could; it made the hard times a bit easier.

That afternoon, I loaded up the kids in my van and we went shopping. Because of a recent growth spurt, Grace needed some longer jeans. I also got new jeans, shorts, and shirts for Aiden, along with new pjs that matched the ones Tony had at home. The boys got a kick out of knowing they both had dinosaurs. Afterwards, we stopped for frozen yogurt. “This is good!” Aiden said, as he licked his chocolate cone.

After his bath that evening, and wearing his new pjs, Aiden climbed into bed. I sat on the edge and said, “Good night, Aiden, sleep tight.”


As I walked to the door, Aiden said, “Hey Nita?”

“Yeah, kiddo?”

“Can I have fruit tomorrow?”

“You sure can. We have fruit every day.”

 I made it to my room before the tears fell. Such a simple request. If it were up to me, I’d make sure Aiden had fruit every day for the rest of his life.

An original short story: Marie's House by Patty Panni

“Gracious Living, how may I help you?” The voice on the phone was polished and friendly. Like she was actually interested in helping me. “...