Author’s note: On my Facebook page, I asked readers to give me various elements of a story that they wanted me to include in what I call a Story Stew. I’d take their ingredients and mix them together, adding in my own elements to create a short story. Below is a first draft, unedited at this point, to share with you. I call this one, for now: Light and Unseen Shadows. The elements readers gave me were: The number 23,Orphaned ostrich named Kayla, Peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, A boy with magical abilities on a magical quest, Ceiling fan, Daffodils.
Light and Unseen Shadows (a draft)
By J. Parrish Lewis
Sometimes he had the sense of feeling most at peace when he was lying on the grass in the middle of the meadow near his home, his back on the ground and his face pointed toward the midday sky. The blue sky, the one that doesn’t change much because it’s not near the beginning of the day, nor near the day’s end. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy sunrises and sunsets, but they lacked the sense of going on forever. They betrayed the fact that time occurred. Time was slipping away, and there was nothing to be done about it.
But the blue sky went on forever, as far as he was concerned. Even the clouds could not take that away, but instead added to the perfection. There, in the grass, surrounded by more daffodils than he would ever bother to count, he was at peace.
Jacob took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the cool air consciously, feeling his hands resting on his belly as it rose and then fell. He smiled, content just to be. Above a kestrel soared by, and his eyes tracked its flight until it was gone.
A moment later, he was startled by the emergence of the ostrich’s head peering down at him, looking upside-down and even more quizzical than she ever did. The ostrich leaned her head lower until she reached his face, and lightly bit his nose.
“Kayla,” he said, “Quit it. I’m just resting.”
She bit his nose again, slightly harder, and tilted her head as if to ask why a boy with so much energy would ever need to rest at all. He sat up and grabbed his backpack, began to unzip.
“Alright, alright, Kay,” muttered Jacob. “You can have a piece.”
He stood up as he extracted the peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, sealed in a Ziploc bag, getting jelly all over his fingers since he could never bother to be careful not to get jelly on the seal.
He broke off half of the sandwich and held it out on his palm for the ostrich, and she greedily gobbled it within moments.
“Stuff’s not good for you, you know,” he said. “Don’t ask me for more.”
He stuck the other half of the sandwich in his mouth and then stuffed the empty Ziploc into a side pocket, crumbs and jelly smears and all, then pulled the pack on. His eyes lingered for a few moments on the number 23 he had written in black marker a long time ago. It seemed it would never fade, even as the pack had begun to fray.
He took a few careful steps out of the grass to avoid squashing any of the daffodils until his feet reached the thin cow trail that led back to the farm. Kayla followed behind, smelling the air that trailed behind the sandwich he was finishing. She snorted every few steps in the way she often did, the way she always had since the day he found her in the forest near his home, alone and helpless, chirping sadly. As there were no zoos anywhere within hundreds of miles of where he lived, he couldn’t imagine then what an African bird could be doing there.
Even now, 4 years later and Kayla now taller than he was at 12 years old, he found her a mystery, though he never regretting convincing his parents to let him learn to care for an ostrich on their farm. Other boys had a dog, he had an ostrich.
They crested the highest point of the meadow and sight of the farmhouse emerged, always feeling like a present being opened every time Jacob saw it, and he smiled.
“Slinker, slinker, last one’s a stinker!” He yelled as he raced down the path, leaving Kayla behind. This was never going to be a race he won again, and he had known this ever since Kayla had reached knee-height. The bird flitted happily past him, taking a moment to turn aside and release a friendly grunt in his direction before she sped off down the hill without a care for rock or slippery sand. Surefooted as always, she reached the gate well before Jacob, and was already rooting in the overgrown grass for wayward bugs to add to her grassy snacks.
He patted her side as he passed, opened the gate so they could both enter, and left her to graze.
“Next time, Kayla,” he said. “I have a trick up my sleeve to show you.”
He opened the unlocked door to the house and entered. The house was impossibly dark, and immediately fear crawled up his skin, and he shivered. Fear, and an icy chill, followed with the immediate knowing that something was wrong.
All the lights were off and it was so dark inside that the only light came from the open doorway. It should have been brighter, and he cast a glance around the room at all the windows, finding each one inexplicably black, as if painted black. He strode over to the closest window by the kitchen door, touched the window pane, but it felt like glass. Just glass, no paint, yet it was indeed as black as a starless night sky. Something was so wrong here.
He held his hands out, pressed his palms together tightly, then rubbed them together, concentrating.
“Illuminate,” he whispered, and a light emerged from within his palms like a phantom firefly, and hovered in the air.
The light began to move in whatever direction he looked, hovering close to the ceiling and casting its amber glow on the room below. The house was silent when it shouldn’t be.
Past the kitchen he walked nimbly to the stairs, taking care to not make a noise, avoiding the creaky parts of the floor, and he began to walk up to the second floor where their bedrooms were. The light followed, the shadows deepened, and above a loud slam interrupted his thoughts.
He paused halfway up the stairs, listening, one hand gripping the handrail. The slam sounded again, and it seemed the house shook, but he figured he was imagining it. He wished Kayla was with him now, and continued upstairs.
At the top of the stairs was a small landing before the hallway that led to their rooms. The slam was louder now, every few seconds, and he could tell it was coming from his bedroom. He could not help imagining some grotesque beast, slick and mottled with warts, standing in his room making that noise somehow. The bash of a warhammer on the floor, perhaps, or a stony fist beating against a shield simply to beckon him to be the next victim. He imagined his parents lying on the floor, slumped against each other, seeming to be sleeping but not. It was the kindness of his own imagination that his vision was not that of blood and gore.
When he reached his room, he found the door was open just a crack. He placed a palm against the door, readied another spell in his mind against all possibilities, and summoned his courage. He pushed the door open, hard, and quickly stepped into the room, instinctively ducking as if something were about to be swung at his head.
Yet there was no one. No one was there, beating some hammer or some shield. No one was there to be grotesque, to give a real image to go with his fear.
The light slipped past the door frame and hovered above him, his room now aglow. It circled underneath the slowly revolving ceiling fan.
In the center of the room, on the floor, a tiny scrap of paper lay. He knew instantly that it did not belong, for the paper began to glow. First a pinpoint of light in the center, and then a radiating circle until the glow reached the edges of the paper and the slamming noise boomed. Each time, the light would revert to the pinpoint and start all over again.
Carefully, he reached down and picked up the paper. He felt a tingle, the proof of magic within the object, and held it up to read.
The script was ornate, in a very fine hand, and said:
The price for their return is the relinquishment of your magic to the 23. You have until sunset tomorrow to decide.
“The Zephyrs,” he said to no one at all.
He folded the note in half after a quick second read, stuffed it in the back pocket of his jeans, and began to gather the essentials.
There was a path unfolding before him, and no choice but to take it, for the second time in his life.