Short Stories

 (Scroll to the bottom for “Toad Lady”)

Princess

Lila stooped at water’s edge to pick up a shell and stuff it in the pocket of her windbreaker, shivering in the dawn breeze. She shaded her eyes and looked up. Dark clouds, intimidated by the sunrise, raced across the sky.

Once a year she visited this beach – a white-sanded, cocoon of a place. It had become a ritual.  She bent, reached for another shell and rubbed its surface with her fingers, observing the pearlized interior. This one, too, she slid into her pocket. As she watched a sand crab scuttle sideways, she thought about the day her family had buried her twin sister. Like an amputee with a severed limb, the phantom pain haunted her.

 

Walking the beach where they had shared so many happy times helped. The seashells nestled in her pockets rattled as she walked. The sun, higher now, chased away the chill. Sea breezes whipped her hair. She quickly pulled the band from her wrist and secured it. She smiled at the memory of her sister doing the same thing on this very beach.

After shaking her fist at God the first few months, she had bartered with Him. She asked Him to tell her sister she missed her, and let her know she’d never forget her. Not ever. Then she  asked if she could somehow communicate with her. She thought maybe the request had been inappropriate so she never brought it up to Him again, except she couldn’t help herself and promised God she would go to church if she could just have a little remembrance, an indication, something.

Kyla had been everything she was not— as if they’d been cloned in reverse. She’d languished in the shadow of her extroverted, daring sister. Kyla, the charming and popular twin; Lila the shy bookworm. In college, Kyla pledged a sorority and embraced everything that went with it, while Lila shunned the Greek community and spent weekends with her books or drove home.

She was not jealous of her sister, but did sort of depend on her to prop her up in social situations. They talked of trading places, play a joke on Kyla’s boyfriends, but Lila had been horrified at the thought. But now, since Kyla’s death, Lila wished she had. The memories would have been good company.

The sun sizzled in the sky. The sand burned her feet through the flip-flops she wore. She’d walked for hours, and her stomach grumbled. She calculated the distance back, decided to leave the beach and get lunch. She planned a dip in the ocean after, and an hour or two in a beach chair with her journal and a pen. Chronicling the day was a ritual, too.

As Lila trudged through the sand toward a beach exit to the boardwalk, she squinted at a shoe perched on top of one of the slats of the gate. She stood motionless, letting memories wash over her.

“Lila, look at these. They are perfect!” Lila swung around in the aisle of the shoe department of Belk’s and examined a pair of rainbow-colored, sequin-encrusted flats. She wisely restrained her immediate thought—that she would not wear them in a million years—and responded with a neutral, “Oh, wow.”

But Kyla had been entranced. She’d referred to them as princess slippers, and had worn them incessantly from the moment she’d plunked down her debit card.

The shoe atop the gate was the same shoe.

Lila remembered the last time she’d seen that shoe. Her mother had asked her to pick out what Kyla would have wanted to wear for her funeral, and Lila had sobbed her way through selecting coffin attire. She had torn the room apart looking for Kyla’s beloved princess slippers. She’d only found the right shoe, and didn’t think her sister would have appreciated being buried with an unclad foot, so she had no choice but to choose another pair.

Lila had carefully saved that one shoe, though. It lived in a box with several of Kyla’s favorite things on a shelf at the back of her closet.

Lila told herself thousands of people lost shoes on the beach every day, and this was a way to alert the owner. That was all.

But she checked the size anyway. 7B.

Kyla’s size.

She checked whether it was the right or left shoe, too.

The left.

She wrestled with taking the shoe as a memento, or leaving it there for the owner to retrieve. The shoe was incredibly worn and faded. Would someone really want it back? She touched the shoe with her index finger, and decided to think about it during lunch.

An hour and a half and a full stomach later, she still had not made up her mind as she walked back. As she drew closer, she saw a man with a surfboard under his arm contemplating the shoe. Lila pretended to be fascinated by a sand dune, and watched him out of the corner of her eye.

He trailed the contours of the shoe with his finger. He bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment, then, perhaps embarrassed, quickly glanced around to see if anyone saw him. His gaze landed on Lila. He stared a long moment, then grinned and shrugged. Lila smiled and walked over.

“That shoe,” she said, pointing, “Do you know anything about it?”

“Yeah.”

She raised her eyebrows. He planted his surfboard in the sand, and motioned for her to join him on the boardwalk steps a few paces away.

“Name’s Chad,” he said, as he sat and stretched out a hand.

“Lila.” She grasped his hand.

“Y’know, I am surprised it’s still there. It belonged to a friend of mine, a girl I was dating.” Chad heaved out a sigh.  “She’s gone now.”

Lila felt a chill run up her spine. She whispered, “What happened?”

Chad leaned back on his hands and turned his head toward the ocean. The waves pounded the beach.The wind had picked up. A yellow beach flag flapped furiously.

“I talked her into surfing. She didn’t much want to, but I’d been teaching her to surf, and she said okay. Waves were rough, but not too bad. A pretty good day for the board.”

He paused. Lila’s body vibrated like a tuning fork.

“Well, she had on those shoes. Called them her princess slippers. My nickname for her was “Princess,” because of those shoes. She kicked them off, grabbed my board and slid into the water, clothes and all. While she was out there, the tide came in and sucked one of her shoes off the beach. When she came back in, she found out her shoe was gone and threw a fit. A big one, right there on the beach in front of everybody. Of course, it was all my  fault.” He smiled at the recollection. “I was crazy about her, but she moved on, things didn’t work out. Her shoe washed up on the beach a few days later, and I put it on the gate as a—well, I don’t know—maybe I thought she might come back for it. I kind of lost track of her until I read about her funeral a few years ago.” He leaned toward her, a puzzled look on his face. “You look exactly like her!”

Lila swallowed, a tear making its way slowly down one cheek. She rose, picked up the shoe, hugged it to her chest. Chad’s brow wrinkled.

“Did Kyla never tell you she had a twin?”

She extended her hand to him. His expression was priceless.

“Let’s walk,” she said.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Toad Lady

The storm finally blew over and  sunbeams pierced the clouds like splashes of gold in a muck of pea soup. It had been raining on and off for two weeks, and the entire town of Toad Suck smelled slightly of mold.

The mood in Cleo’s Cafe was grumpy, but like the weather, seemed to be clearing. Billy Barnes, a regular at Cleo’s every day around 4:00, scraped back his stool from the counter, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and declared that afternoon’s fresh-baked scones a real triumph. Yep, almost as good as a few years ago, he thought, and glanced at a framed photo of a gorgeous young woman holding a tray of danishes conspicuously placed on the wall behind the counter. He patted his paunch appreciatively, picked up a toothpick, and winked at the picture.

Cleo’s Grocery and Cafe was a well-known, historical landmark in Toad Suck, Arkansas, a community of 2367 hardy souls who didn’t mind drenching humidity every summer and blood-sucking hordes of mosquitoes. Because the town was located on the Arkansas River, the inevitable tendency to groundwater accumulation created the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Toad Suckers had no choice but to endure the occasional buzzing black cloud all summer.

They put up with it because the river was a big attraction for river floaters and fishermen and such and without it Toad Suck would probably not exist; nor would it boast the Toad Suck Festival, a huge annual spring event that brought in hundreds of thousands in revenue to the tiny town.

The bell over the Cafe’ entrance clanged. Billy shifted the toothpick to the other side of his mouth, observed the man with friendly interest, and invited him to sit beside him with his eyes.

“Hey there,” Billy said, extending a calloused hand, “how are ya today? New around here?” The man smiled and shook hands with Billy.

“Rob Posey.”

“Name’s Billy. Billy Barnes. Passing through or stayin’?”

“Passin’ through,” Rob said as he pulled out a stool and took a seat. He turned over his coffee cup and nodded at the young woman behind the counter.

“I heard about this town, Toad Suck, and some kind of story about a woman and a festival…the Toad Suck Festival, right? Where people bring in toads and race them?” He smiled and sipped his coffee. “Thought it would be interesting to see the town.”

Billy smiled broadly. Adrenaline coursed through his aging veins as he anticipated a willing listener. “Well,” he said, and indicated the picture on the wall with a nod, “the story is all about that woman up there on the wall.”

“You knew her?” Rob asked, eyebrows raised.

“Oh yeah,” Billy said. “I was one of her best customers!”

“Mind telling me the story?”

And so Billy Barnes got up from his stool and ushered the man to a table in the corner, where he began—as many times before—to tell this story:

“When she took a job at this here Café, and settled in to live in the little apartment behind this place, people scratched their heads. Couldn’t quite figure out what drew her to Toad Suck, what with all that youth and beauty and talent.  But stay she did, and she worked right here in this room. ‘Course it’s been redone some, because there was a fire, but I’m gettin’ ahead of myself.  Her name was Lynette Blackwell, and she could make scones and pastries and such better than anything I have ever tasted, and that’s a fact.” Rob quietly pulled out a pad and pen. Billy didn’t seem to notice that the man was taking notes, and he relaxed into the pleasant memories. He could still hear her voice…

“Bye now, y’hear? Ya’ll don’t forget that tomorrow I’ll be baking up some fresh cherry danishes, and maybe some fried peach pies. Be sure and bring your friends, now,” Lynette said. She gave Billy her cheeriest smile, waved, jiggled her bosom at him, and turned back to washing dishes behind the counter of the charming country café in a detached converted garage behind Cleo’s Grocery.

She was such a pretty little thing. Shiny, brown hair and strong young legs that she liked to show off, which accounted for an unusually brisk business around Cleo’s Café. The owners of Cleo’s, Ron and Louise, hired her even though they were a little suspicious because they never could get her to tell them much about her past. After a while, didn’t matter at all though, because that girl could bake like nobody’s business. The whole town smelled like a French pastry shop every afternoon.

Before long, Lynette asked Ron and Louise if she could wear a toad costume in the Café while she was baking in honor of the upcoming Toad Suck Festival. They agreed, but Louise grumbled about how revealing her costume was. Since Ron was pretty excited about all the new customers she was bringing in, he was not concerned about her skimpy costume. Money was money.

When the annual Toad Suck Festival came around in the spring, Lynette baked extra in anticipation of the event. She’d decided to take her melt-in-your-mouth danishes and her toad costume and plop herself down in the Cleo’s Grocery and Café booth she’d convinced Ron to sponsor. Her booth was real popular, especially when she bent over to refresh her collection of goodies. Toad Suckers cluck-clucked over the revealing toad costume, but they didn’t cluck too much because she was making Cleo’s a fair amount of money, plus she was drawing out-of-town business as well. All in all, Toad Suckers felt honored that Lynette had chosen their town to bless with her considerable assets.

Soon people were showing up from Little Rock and Bentonville and El Dorado with cameras in search of  the “Toad Lady.” Arkansas Magazine contacted Cleo’s for an interview. Lynette became an official local celebrity and Ron and Louise doted on her like proud parents.

Lynette began wearing a different toad costume every day. Ron and Louise agreed to allow her to flounce about in the skimpy – albeit adorable – toad costumes because their profits were now through the roof. They even had a “Toad Lady Inside, Hop On In!” sign made with a big red arrow pointing to the back of Cleo’s Grocery that led to the entrance of the Café  where Lynette busily pushed dough into quaint shapes and hefted trays into the oven.  When she fully committed to the toad theme by fashioning frog-shaped pastries, she felt blissfully centered, as though she had stumbled across her purpose in life. Lynette was well on her way to pastry heaven, theoretically speaking.

During an especially busy day, her phone jangled in her pocket. She let the call go to voicemail. For one thing her hands were dusty with flour and she had been sneezing through flour clouds all morning. The call could wait.

Finally, she heaved the last tray of toad danishes in the oven, reminded herself to make sure she set the timer, swept her hair out of her face (which was charmingly encrusted with bits of dough), and returned the call. Through the pastry bits and the inevitable face-dusting of flour, one could not really tell, but she turned sheet-white as she listened. She stumbled to a chair in the corner behind the counter, and buried her face in her hands.

She’d hoped the nightmare on the other end of the call was behind her. Her mind raced toward hypothetical conclusions, each one bashing into the other. Her stomach began to heave and she felt  dizzy, and then…blackness. She slipped to the floor in a dead faint.

A couple hours later Ron sniffed something burning, and saw smoke curling in under the door.  Ron caught Louise’s eye over the produce section – the cabbages and the turnips – and they instantly mind-melded the same thought:  impending doom. They had been married long enough to share one mind in times of crisis.

They raced to the Cafe. Louise glanced knowingly at Ron as if to say, “I told you this couldn’t last. Besides, her costume is ridiculous.” He sighed as he ran, having heard this hundreds of times before.

They slid to a stop and jerked open the door. Smoke and tiny licks of flame spiraled out of the huge twin ovens. Ron glanced meaningfully at Louise and she correctly interpreted the glance as, “Call 911! Now!” and ran to the phone.

Ron batted through the smoke to turn off the ovens. He tripped over something blocking his way, and squinted through the smoke. “Oh my God! Lynette!” He picked up her inert form, toad costume and all; staggered out the door into the grocery office, and deposited her on the couch. He knelt beside her, patted her face, and tried to ignore the awkwardly splayed long, muscled legs begging for his appreciative gaze. Legs, he soon discovered, attached to an attractive, toad-costumed corpse. He hung his head and cried.

After a few minutes, he rose, slapped the tears from his face, located an extra tablecloth to cover her, and walked from the room.

Billy paused for a sip of coffee and locked eyes with the stranger taking meticulous notes. Rob paused, pen in mid-air, and regarded him for a long moment. Billy pointedly stared at the man’s  notepad. Rob reached into his wallet and slipped out a hundred dollar bill. Smooth as a whistle, Billy palmed the bill, tucked it into his shirt pocket, and resumed his story.

The whole town turned out for Lynette’s funeral. The Toad Suck Festival Committee showed up all decked out in toad hats, and people left all manner of toad figurines and such at the door of the Café. Odd though, that Ron and Louise could not find one single family member to mourn her passing. She was buried not too far from Cleo’s Grocery and Café, and her gravestone read “Here lies the Toad Lady of Toad Suck. She is now baking with the angels.” The stone was dyed to a greenish hue in honor of her high calling. Looked a little like mold, but still, it’s the thought that counts.

That evening, the toadsong seemed louder than usual. Everyone commented on it.

~~~~~~~~~~

After the smoke cleared (so to speak), folks were shocked to find out that their Toad Lady had worked as a lady of the evening for a good ole’ boy out of Memphis that ran a group of gals over in Mountain Home. No one would have been the wiser, except for an unsolved murder case over there that got re-opened because police found one of her shoes. A green, high-heeled shoe, stuck deep in mud, right where the good ole’ boy from Memphis had been fished out from the lake real bloated and real dead. Truth be told, nobody much cared that this fellow turned up dead; he was mean and used those gals, but justice would take its course.

Ron and Louise and the Toad Suck Festival Committee decided unanimously that something had to be done to protect the town’s reputation. So a plan was hatched.

They went to her little apartment, looking for potential evidence that would implicate her in the murder. The place was neat as a pin, but smelled real moldy, they noticed. After a bit of searching, darned if they didn’t find the mate to the shoe the police found! After a hushed, secret meeting they decided to take most of Lynette’s wordly goods and bury them in the woods. A couple of burly Toad Suckers skulked through the night with two big trash bags full of clothes and shoes and make-up and such and buried them good and deep. Detectives that came around askin’ questions later couldn’t find enough evidence to convict the dead girl, so they left. The town heaved a sigh of relief.

Now here’s the part that everybody clammed up about when those detectives came snoopin’:  as the body was being prepared for burial, examination revealed a condition known as “syndactyly,” or webbed feet; and behind Lynette’s ears were small openings that appeared to be gills.

Billy paused and shrugged as he anticipated Rob’s reaction. Rob put his pen down, crossed his arms and stared at Billy.

“You think she was part toad…is that what you’re saying?” Rob said.

Billy looked Rob in the eye. “She loved those toad costumes. She was right pretty in ‘em. And toad danishes? Why would she bake those?” He pointed at the rows of toad danishes, now quite famous, poised alertly on shelves behind the counter; a duplication of Lynette’s efforts. “Everyone knew she loved to swim; she could swim like a fish. And her place…well, folks said it always smelled real moldy in there, like pond scum.” He shrugged again, and looked out the window.

Rob stifled a grin. Billy had saved his ace in the hole for last, though, and proceeded to wipe the grin off the stranger’s face. “Remember that shoe they found?” Rob nodded.

“Well, one just like it was found floating in the river during last year’s festival. The left one. Same size, same color. When it was fished out, the toads on the banks of the river kicked up a fuss like you wouldn’t believe. Inside the shoe was a little toad figurine stuck way down at the end.”

“Great story,” Rob murmured, closing his pad and putting his pen in his pocket. “I have a lot of verification ahead of me, but I think it’ll be in next month’s issue of Southern Living Magazine. You know it?”

“Oh, sure,” Billy replied, smiling. “I’ll look for it.”

“Thanks for your time,” Rob said and stood. Billy dipped his head and tilted in his chair on its back legs as he watched the stranger leave.

After the door banged shut, Billy smiled and muttered to himself, “Can’t believe every single one of them dang writers that come through here believe all that crap.” He pushed himself up off the chair, grinned at Lynette’s picture, fingered his shirt pocket, and went home a happy man.

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