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2019 Writing Competition Winning Entries

Nonfiction First Place

 

Lessons of the Light – Sande Langager

I may never see the stars the same way I saw them that night. In a quiet, unexpected moment they appeared and left me with lessons I hope to never forget.

It was a crisp September evening, cool yet comfortable. The air was still, the sky clear. The setting sun shimmered across the water, creating a ribbon of dancing candlelight leading to an explosion of fall outlining the lake. Shades of orange, red, brown, yellow, and burgundy splashed across the foliage, and then spilled into the water as psychedelic leaves brandished their beauty in borderless reflections along the shore.

My husband and I had recently moved to Wisconsin and new friends invited us to join them for an evening of canoeing and picnicking. We maneuvered our long, slender boat across what was to us uncharted waters and carefully followed our friends through a chain of lakes connected by narrow canals. I rowed from the front of the canoe, my husband steered from the back, and a cooler waited calmly on the floor between us. Navigating over smooth waters, we shared the lakes with no one and only our conversation and the rhythm of lapping oars interrupted the silence of the evening.

Dusk arrived as we reached our planned destination. Emerging from a narrow tunnel of overhanging trees, we glided into the last lake in the chain, and into a different world. While the other lakes paraded signs of civilization with homes, docks, and boats lining their shores, this lake revealed a secluded wilderness. The kaleidoscope of preceding colors faded, replaced by the emerald hue of surrounding evergreens, tall and thick, watching their image drift across the peaceful water.

To our left a gray weathered dock spoke of days gone by. We tethered our canoes to its aged posts and climbed onto the pier to picnic and talk. Darkness gradually enveloped us as we enjoyed our seclusion and the hushed mood of the hidden cove. The rest of the world felt far away and we soaked in the serenity the lake’s solitude offered.

We returned over glassy black water, retracing our earlier route through alternating lakes and canals. The night air remained still and the water calm, disrupted only by gentle waves angling away from our canoes. While rowing through one of the larger lakes, I saw the stars. I don’t mean the kind of stars that are always there if we only take the time to notice. I wasn’t even looking up.

I was admiring the display of home lights glowing along the shoreline when I noticed tiny white specks twinkling in and out of sight on the dark pool around me. I stopped rowing, unconsciously squinting, trying to bring the glittering points, mysterious and magical, into better focus.

“Do you see that?” I haltingly whispered to my husband behind me as my trembling finger pointed to the water. He did. So did our friends.

In awe, we stopped and silently absorbed the splendor around us. It captivated our attention like flickering flames draw the attention of those gathered around a fire. The earlier appeal of fall foliage now paled in recognition of the brilliance before us: millions of stars sparkling at our fingertips. The midnight canopy, scattered with constellations, planets and galaxies, had found its way to the dark canvas beside us. The specks twinkling in and out of sight were reflections of the stars in the clear night sky – stars that shine from millions of light years away. And I could touch them.

As I cautiously looked up and around and, in wonder, realized the astonishing distance between the original sources of light and their nearby appearance, I felt God come to me. To be near. To bring peace. To still me. To awe me. To assure me that I’m never alone. And to teach me that I don’t have to look up to see Him; that I can look around and find Him everywhere. The glimmering lights, so far away, yet so close, unveiled God himself and he was there. Right there.

We began to row again, quietly, slowly, so not to disturb the glory floating by and I wished for the same tranquility I saw in the water. It lay before me as a floor of mirrors, without a wave, without a ripple, and I understood that if it were not for that undisturbed surface, I would have easily missed the majesty of the moment. If there had been any ruffling or rippling, any stirring in the water, I would have never seen the stars; the phenomenon would have been distorted at best, and most likely not seen at all.

Shimmering stars at my fingertips demonstrated to me that God is much better close up. Keeping him at arm’s length – or perhaps earth-to-heaven’s length – leaves him veiled and distant. But my world needed to be at peace for me to absorb that truth. Deliberately taking time for personal reflection is never convenient, but life without hidden coves and still waters leaves me ruffled, tossed and adrift. It’s in my quiet places that God appears and sprinkles his light so that I not only find him, I find myself.

Starlight has never again appeared to me like it did on that lake many years ago.  Yet every time I look up to a clear night sky, I remember the lessons it taught, and I ask myself if I’ve learned them yet.

 

 Nonfiction Second Place

 

Physician, Heal Thyself  —  John Gallanis

This week I am the on-call doctor for the emergency room. Patients without a staff physician are admitted to the hospital under my care. One critically ill man hasn’t seen a doctor in years, and I need to return to the ICU repeatedly. Sleepless nights result. My charges are recuperating, but I grow weary.

My spirit yearns for healing. I live with the constant fear of making a mistake and incessant worry about a bad outcome. A prescription for solitude and recreation is just what I need to remedy fear and worry. I arrange my schedule, and a colleague agrees to care for my patients, while I go fishing.

*   *   *

At that same moment, in his modest home, Giuseppe is grateful. His wife of 65 years, Anna, serves a mouthwatering meal. In all his 88 years, he cannot remember being more satisfied. Their oldest son, Marco agrees with Giuseppe’s assessment.

Later, Anna suggests that father and son finish their Chianti and stroll through the neighborhood while she cleans up. Marco offers his arm to support his aging father.

“The Smiths used to live in that bungalow over there—until Fred died, and Bessie went into a nursing home,” Giuseppe remarks.

He turns to his son and states, “Marco, I don’t want to go to a nursing home. I was a fireman for many years, and I don’t want to end my life as an invalid.” Marco nods in acceptance, although Giuseppe’s directive weighs silently on his heart.

*   *   *

Driving to my secluded cabin, I’m both exhausted and excited. The prospect of fighting trout instead of battling disease thrills me. As my truck creeps up the driveway, the crunch of gravel under the tires creates the only sound. The national forest dispenses peace and tranquility like a balm to soothe my nerves. In the morning, I will attempt to provoke a trout to rise with my gold-ribbed hare’s ear fly.

*   *   *

Returning home, Giuseppe is more fatigued than usual and excuses himself to go to the toilet. Marco says goodbye to his mother and thanks her for a memorable evening. A half-hour later, Anna becomes concerned and checks on Giuseppe.

He is sitting on the commode, slumped over, and with labored breathing.

Unresponsive.

*   *   *

At the river, my initial attempts at casting are disasters. One snags a low branch. Another catches brush behind me. A third manages to hook a stick protruding from the water. I am humbled.

Eventually, the rhythm returns—ten o’clock, two o’clock, ten o’clock, two o’clock. Gauge the distance. Let out line. Finally, a satisfactory cast.

I study the water, searching for the subtle flash of color, which announces a trout emerging from the depths. Timing is everything. Do not pull the rod too early. Do not hesitate, either; or the fish will inhale the artificial fly and spit it out.

Patience is rewarded, when the fly abruptly disappears.

Now! Set the hook.

*   *   *

Anna urgently dials 911. Paramedics transport her best friend, her lover, and the father of her children from the home they have shared for the past half-century. She rides with the firefighters to the hospital. Dreading the outcome.

*   *   *

The nine-foot fly rod arcs as the fish begins the dance. Keep the tip up, or else he’ll spit out the barbless hook. Don’t overstress the two-pound tippet or it will break when he leaps from the water. Let him run with the line, but don’t exhaust him, so he can recover after the fight.

At last, a magnificent rainbow trout fills my net. I remove the hook with little trauma, and return my worthy opponent to the depths. With a grin, I promise to return so we can play again tomorrow.

The therapy is working.

*   *   *

In the ICU, three generations converge on Anna. The MRI scan confirms Giuseppe has had a massive stroke. In addition, the EEG offers no hope for any significant recovery. Resignation trickles down from children to grandchildren, then to great-grandchildren.

Marco recalls his father did not want to live this way. Still, he desperately needs advice. He calls my home—the number is in the Seattle phone directory. He explains his dilemma to my wife.

*   *   *

The cabin landline, which I did not want installed, rings. It is my wife. She reports that Giuseppe’s family is in crisis and urgently requests my help with their decision-making.

“But I’m not on call,” I protest.

Compassion soon replaces disappointment, however, and I reply, “Tell them I’ll return first thing tomorrow.”

*   *   *

The following day we reach consensus in the ICU. The nurses summon Father Tim, an older Jesuit priest who directs the hospital’s Pastoral Care program, and he administers the Anointing of the Sick sacrament to Giuseppe.

Then, he turns and asks, “Who in this room is not in need of healing?” Eager eyes answer the priest. He offers a blessing to the gathered crowd—now transformed into a congregation. He concludes by singing the word, “A-amen, A-amen, A-amen, Amen, Amen,” as Sydney Poitier sang it in the 1963 film, “Lilies of the Field.” There is not a dry eye in the ICU.

An incredible healing occurs for everyone gathered that day. Giuseppe’s family bids him goodbye. Marco assures his father that he will care for Anna. Finally, they thank Father Tim and the nurses who summoned him.

The machines are turned off. The IV’s are disconnected.

Giuseppe dies peacefully. And with dignity.

*   *   *

Restoring a wounded spirit may happen in the solitude of a mountain cabin or on the banks of a river, hoping that a trout will rise.

Healing also occurs at the bedside of a dying patient—when the transition from life to death, reverently shared with a family, touches one’s soul.

I have learned to expect opportunities for healing, particularly when my spirit is most in need of restoration.

 

Nonfiction Third Place

 

Moving – Susan Gillin

Lydia has given a bottle of rose hips oil to my mother for her cold. It is a little bottle of easily consumed liquid, but I know it will sit unopened on Mom’s dining room table indefinitely. It is a foreign object that Mom will believe was put there by the previous tenants in her apartment which of course is untrue; the place was totally vacant. But this is how she explains the unfamiliar: Somebody left it, somebody did it, it’s not hers.

Other objects on the table include gifts received but never used: a cake of lemon soap brought from Italy by a granddaughter, a lavender sachet once tucked inside a birthday card, a purse-pack of monogrammed tissues. Somebody left it, somebody did it, it’s not hers, it couldn’t have been her.

I whisk the items into the bag I use to deliver Mom’s prescription medicines once a week. I’m tired of seeing them; I’ll take them home.

They are a reminder that my sweet mama’s mind has turned to mush.

Well-meaning Lydia is one of the ladies that sits at the table in the Assisted Living facility where Mom dines once a day. Lydia lives in Assisted Living while Mom resides in the independent retirement apartments that are part of this complex. It is Bob, Mom’s husband of three years, that has allowed her to fend off the move to the nursing home. Three years ago she could follow a recipe, knit a sweater, and dance on Tuesdays at the Senior Center. No more.

I ask his children, who are adults in their 70s, what I can expect from Bob in the future. He will stay and care for my mother, they say. If it doesn’t kill him.

At dinner in the dining hall tonight, Bob and I are the only ones in conversation. He leans over to comment that the creamed chicken on toast that is tonight’s entrée was called something else entirely when he was in the Navy, and we laugh together. The Navy pulled all his teeth but everything else in this kind man’s head is intact.

Mom says nothing, except to introduce me to the other diners. This she does three times. They have met me before but they say nothing. One nods, one smiles just a little. One in a wheelchair, wearing heavy makeup and jewelry, asks an attendant to take her back to her room. “Nice to meet you,” she says to me across the table, “but I have to go, if you know what I mean.” She whispers loudly, “Diarrhea.”

My husband refuses to join me when I dine with Mom and Bob. He says it’s depressing and he’s right. These diners are living testimony to how our days narrows toward dying: You marry, live in a big house and drive to work every day until suddenly the kids are gone and you don’t see as well as you used to at night and the volume on the TV has to go up a few notches. You downsize to a nice little rambler until you begin to fill your pantry with five jars of Miracle Whip because you forgot you already had an extra jar, or two, or four. Then your kids finally notice and force a move to be closer to them, to that one-bedroom apartment a couple miles away. Then you slip while getting into the bathtub and after a hospital stay and rehab, they move you to the one vacant studio unit in Golden Acres of Green Valley or whatever they call it. And you know that’s just one baby step away from the next, final move.

But Mom and Bob are not there yet.

The most recent move, to a smaller, ground-floor apartment with fewer obstacles for walkers and wheelchairs, occurred just before Christmas. Filled with resentment at the extra chore during the hectic holidays, I tackled the job of packing with both anger and angst. How could two old people accumulate so much stuff? Would Mom notice that I was getting rid of half of it? China, crystal. Pyrex, Corelle. Stacks of National Geographics (Bob’s). Stacks of romance novels (Mom’s). Eight Bibles. Boxes marked “Crafts” that had not been opened since the last move seven years ago. And drawers filled with what seemed to be every letter and Boys Town solicitation that ever arrived in their mailbox.

When you don’t know what to do with something, when you can’t balance your checkbook or understand your Medicare statement, you stuff it in a drawer and it goes away.

And now it was spilling into my life and my lap.

Overwhelmed, my husband and I abandoned attempts at sorting and took three truckloads to our own garage, pledging to attack it in this, the new year.

This is what we found: a half-knit, child-size red sweater. A retirement card from Mom’s attorney boss. Fabric squares neatly cut and readied for the next quilt. My brother’s report card from 1962. Oil paints, canvas, and a nearly finished seaside scene. Grainy black-and-white photos of people long dead. A golf tournament trophy. Fussy tea cups and saucers trimmed in gold. Margarita glasses. Pinochle cards. Tailored polyester suits and never-opened packages of pantyhose. The newspaper clipping of my dad’s obituary. A lapel pin from a 1995 square dance festival. Two greeting cards addressed and stamped but never sent.

This is what else I found: A gifted, outgoing, efficient woman who raised three children while working full-time. An avid traveler and competent cook who loved entertaining and Arizona. A fierce competitor at cards. A war era bride who saucily donned my soldier-dad’s hat while posing on a California beach. A talented seamstress/knitter/needleworker who personalized her gifts with labels declaring “Made with Love by Grandma.”

Mom can’t remember. I can, but foolishly had forgotten.

I moved my mother.

And thankfully, she moved weary me… moved me to remember a rich, full and beautiful life.

 

Fiction First Place

 

Fiction & Lies – Tim Adams

My father was around fifty when he first started lying. Until then he’d never told a lie in his life, to my knowledge.

The first time it happened we were out to dinner at the Ming Tree. Mom’s sister Tracy was there with her new boyfriend, on their way up to Rochester. Aunt Tracy’s boyfriend asked Dad what he did for a living. “I’m an electrical contractor,” he said, forking a bite of mu shu chicken. You could tell the way he said it he wasn’t joking. Mom stared at him like she’d never seen him before in her life. We were all shocked, all except Aunt Tracie’s boyfriend who nodded and said “ah” and sipped his Tsingtao.

“Baron!” said Mom. “You’re not an electrician. Why did you say that?” Mom was staring at Dad and Dad just gazed back at her, chewing his chicken.

“He works for the state,” Mom said, shaking her head. “In Family Health.” Aunt Tracie’s boyfriend laughed politely and changed the subject.

In the car Mom demanded to know why Dad had lied. “What were you thinking?” Dad was fiddling with the radio. My brother and I were in the back seat and couldn’t hear what he said.

The next time was at parent/teacher night a few months later. Mom and Dad were sitting with my Social Studies teacher, going over a history quiz. “I was at Anzio,” said Dad, out of nowhere. “In the second wave. Laid down and played dead all morning til they’d cleared the beach.” You could see the teacher doing the math. Dad would have been about two.

“I repressed that for a lot of years,” Dad mused.

After that Mom made Dad go see a psychologist. It didn’t do any good. Apparently there was nothing wrong with him. “He lied to the shrink,” Mom told us disgustedly.

Mom was a pillar of the community. President of the Junior League and the Paul Bunyan Parade Committee. That sort of thing. She cared what people thought.

Dad was different. He was reserved. Never said much. He liked people alright, in small doses. He was shy, or aloof. It was hard to tell which. He didn’t have many friends.

When Dad started lying Mom was mortified. She threatened and begged, tried to shame him. She went into hiding. Stopped inviting people over. We quit going out. The only thing we did was go to church. We always went to church. But then Dad started lying in church. “What do you do?” a visitor asked him. “I’m a pallbearer,” he said.

You never knew what was going to come out of Dad’s mouth. He’d helped design the Ford Pinto. He was on the team that faked the moon landing. He’d found the cure to Alzheimer’s and then forgot where he put it. “I think Marie still has it around here somewhere.”

My brother and I thought it was fun. He told a clerk at Penny’s he’d had his foot eaten off by a polar bear up at Lake of the Woods. She couldn’t help glancing down. He seemed to walk OK.

By now Mom despaired. “It’s in his genes,” she unloaded on us once. “His father was a liar, and his father before him. He comes from a long line of liars.” My brother and I looked at each other, wondering if we’d be liars too.

Eventually of course Mom threatened a divorce. Gave him an ultimatum. It’s me or the lies, Baron. I’ve had all I can take. We could hear her shouting in the bedroom, Dad murmuring now and then. And she would have divorced him, too. Wouldn’t have had a choice.

But then he told someone he’d had a brain tumor “the size of an apricot, right here.” Pointing to the back of his skull. Said he’d gone down to Mexico and cured himself with six weeks of shark placenta and pulque enemas.

That was the lie that saved Mom and Dad’s marriage. After that people thought Dad lied because of the tumor. It took some of the pressure off Mom. And Dad became downright popular. Lying freed something up in him, something true. For the first time in his life people liked being around him. Folks made pilgrimages to our farm hoping to be lied to. And you never knew; sometimes he would and sometimes he wouldn’t. He seasoned his stories like he used salt and pepper. He was a master of the craft. A gold medal liar.

Looking back, I think his secret was that he was never the hero of his lies. If he’d been the hero he’d have been a bore. Instead he was endearing.

One Sunday the Chins came for dinner. Earl Chin was Dad’s new boss, and Mom felt obliged. After dinner Dad walked Dr. Chin and us around the property. Showed him the orchard and the garden and the spot near the creek where his great great grandparents had their skulls split by Ojibwe in the smallpox revenge of 1892. This was news to my brother and me. We were under the impression Mom and Dad had bought the place on contract from Old Man Schmidt when I was in diapers. We’d never heard about Indians.

“You have an ingenious mind,” Dr. Chin chortled, clapping Dad on the shoulder. “Real imagination. We’ll make a good team.”

By the time we came in for ice cream Dad was pouring it on. He got ahold of Mrs. Chin and claimed in his Peace Corps days he’d been a cybersecurity counter-cryptologist for the Kyrgyzst Republic. “I’m not supposed to tell you that.” Said he spoke seventeen languages.

Mrs. Chin said something in Cantonese and Dad started talking gibberish in a foreign accent. Mrs. Chin laughed until she had tears in her eyes.

Mom lost it. “Baron, you’re lying!” she yelled, throwing down her spoon.

“Hell Marie,” said Dad, blinking at her. “They know that.”

 

Fiction Second Place

 

Raven – Sadonna Heathman

Prologue

Enchanting things happened in Cawdor every day.

Traveling caravans tumbled into town, spinning tricks into dreams. Men pondered whether it was slight of hand they were seeing, or the gifts of a true magic maker at work.

Women purchased promises of health, beauty and everlasting love in dark, amber bottles wrapped tightly by medicine makers.

Wives weaved charms made from sweet grass growing along the river’s edge. Crafting protection for their husbands far off in the mountains, wrapping blessings around each of their children.

What a simple thing it was to believe in the power of magic.

But true magic rarely shows itself.

It stays hidden in dark, whispering corners, seeking no attention from others. True magic does but one thing.

It finds.

And so it was on the day when true magic twisted through the narrow, wooden slats of a crib, entwining itself in the delicate grasp of a baby girl.

The first time she opened her eyes, her mother and father said she was the Asov Sea come alive again. She meant everything to them. The brightest star in their sky. The tallest mountain on their horizon. The deepest ocean. She was their world.

And then she was gone.

* * *

Chapter One

Nighttime was the hardest of all. The chatter of the other birds fell sharply after sundown. On the rare nights the wind blew, Raven was almost grateful. It drowned out the noise in between all of the quiet. The unexpected hoot of an owl, the shrill cry of a night hawk capturing its prey, the crunching sound of deer walking on broken leaves. The sudden silence when it all stopped.

Was something coming? Would it find her? For Raven, darkness was a terrifying sound, drawing her deeper and deeper into the hole that was her home.

Tonight’s cacophony had her wings solidly pressed against the furthest recess of her nest, her eyes locked on the opening across from her. It was from this location that she felt more than heard the scraping sound of claws climbing. The scratching and grating of it vibrating through the tree trunk, landing straight in her chest.

Heartbeats flooded her ears.

Was it the Forest rat back again, that oversized dolt with the razor sharp claws she had fended off only nights ago? Or was it a Rock rat this time, or worse .. a Swamp rat? Her life was but a series of giant rats.

It would want what any rat wanted, food. Nuts she’d gathered. Eggs she might have laid. She had neither, of course. Strewn about her nest were only the tiny bits of a life she’d pieced together herself. Strips of a tattered blanket she slept on. A leather string. Two copper pennies. A broken belt buckle. Nothing of value.

The scratching thing was upon her now. She stood on shaking legs, her eyes narrowed to fine slits, wings stretched across the length of the hole, mouth open and ready to attack. A hungry rat would eat anything in its path. There was nothing to do now except fight.

As its black and white ringed paw grappled with the entrance to her nest, four claws retracted briefly before flashing out again and curling over the rim. A second paw followed, gripping the edge. A Forest rat then. Last time she’d found the beast already inside her nest, making a mess of things, until she’d troubled it enough to leave. This was her home. She would not let it enter a second time.

Raven lunged for the skin above its right paw, her sharp beak driving into the flesh like a knife. The rat yelped, flashing its claws upwards, and swiping them across her neck. She retreated quickly, a sharp sting penetrating her skin. Forest rats had few fighting skills, their poisonous claws enough to deter most. She shook her head clear. It only grazed her, anything more and she would already be dead. The rat clung loosely to the entrance by its other paw, flicking the injured one in the air. It’s high pitched squeal sending nearby inhabitants scurrying and flying off.

Raven dove toward the Beast’s remaining paw, avoiding its poisonous sword tips. Her sharp beak striking through its fur and retreating, until finally, mercifully, it let go, landing on the ground with a thudding grunt. Let one of its own finish it off. She had done what she could.

She staggered back, her wings limp at her side. Closing her eyes for only a moment, Raven opened them to a world spinning. She’d taken in too much poison.

She had rather hoped to meet death high up in the clouds, or floating down the river with her wings spread across the water. Let something else be responsible for carrying the weight of her life off.

Not her.

Not now.

Would there even be any others once she was gone? It was all she could think about, surrounded by death. The years spent alone and wondering. How many had it been now? Long enough to realize no one was coming for her.

Raven stumbled in her nest. Something awful was coming for her. Or it had.

Once.

Did death drape itself in a dragon’s shadow? If so, she had been running from it for years. The memory of it plagued her like all the endless nights put together. The relentless chase, the shadow twisting itself thinly through knotted trees, nipping at her legs with its dark talons. It had almost caught her too. Almost.

She sat down, leaning her head against the tattered blanket. In a way, it had. Its inky blackness had seeped inside her that night, covering over everything else that was her life before then. It was her first memory, but all the forgotten ones still badgered her like a broken claw, snagging on every part of her life. Who was she? Where was the rest of her flock? Why had they left her here? And why didn’t she remember?

 

Fiction Third Place

 

The Buskers – Rose Weagant

Simon and Henry set up in front of the old church downtown. They had never seen the inside, but the boys figured it was the right place.

Henry pulled a long, silver flute from his right pant leg. For three blocks the small boy had walked stiff-legged, eager for his grand reveal. He had nibbled tiny holes in his gloves so his bare fingers could control the keys on his instrument. Simon hunkered down by the church fence and opened his violin case. The tattered lid fell open into the snow with a thud.

“What kind of mother lets a coupl’a ten year-olds run around in this cold?” Stan stared out of the shoe shop window and muttered to nobody. “There’s gotta be a law against that.”

The windchill brought the temperature down to 17 degrees and the boys bounced as they readied themselves. Simon knew a few notes, he was sure of it, and that would have to do. He chinned the violin and fumbled with the bow. Steam escaped their smiles. In tandem, Henry and Simon took a collective pull on the icy air and  began their first set.

In the shoe shop, Stan’s ears winced. “Oh,” he replied to nobody. He thought about his own mother for a moment, sniffed twice,  and went along with his day.

Pastor Susan was, to be fair, only halfway praying, dreamily sitting in the pews with nothing in particular to pray about when the din began. Worried that a pair of geese were sinning right there in the streets, she peeked out through a leaded glass window by the pulpit and saw the pint-sized entertainers. She smiled. They will tire soon, she thought and went back to prayer.

First came the Police Chief to inspect the disturbance, followed by the Fire Marshal.

Glynnis at the pharmacy and gift shop called into the station about a cat being run over down on mainstreet. The church had a resident Tom that liked to amble across the street to get a treat. She figured the old Tom has been run over en route to get his yummies. I’m a murderer, she thought. And kindness is my weapon. Poor Tom.

The Tom, however, had better sense than to skulk around mainstreet today and crept up to the bell tower, far away from the streetside cacophony.

The Fire Chief and the Sheriff shared a thermos of coffee as they watched Henry and Simon perform. They drank their coffee (quickly) and left the scene of audible crime but not before dropping a few coins in Simon’s violin case. “For lessons,” the Sheriff shouted, but the boys couldn’t hear him.

Al the plumber walked past and he dropped a quarter into the case unphased by the sound.  After 5 years of mustering, he finally said “good morning” to Delanna who worked the counter at the hardware store. Al was a tough, strong man. Delanna, however, made him feel…soft a little, but he was tough and strong enough to be okay with that.

The Mayor didn’t let the cold stop his morning walk. The chill drove into him, but that was the least of his worries. Either the fire station siren needed tuning or something ungodly was going on in the streets. The sound curdled the air for blocks. He shoved his shoulder into the air and musical fury, pressing forward.

Simon’s poor bow wept over the violin strings. The icy metal flute keys bit Harry’s fingertips.

The town respectively grimaced from what was turning into a municipal migraine.  The folks downtown began unhinge. Coffees spilled. Phones were answered curtly. Returns were not accepted without a receipt. Pure bedlam.

Pastor Susan began to pray in earnest. But she figured God probably couldn’t hear her given the circumstances. Something had to be done. Pastor Susan flipped her scarf around her neck, went on tippy toes to grab the rope firm and pulled.

For the first time in Smithville history, the noon-time bells rang 13 minutes early. She figured she’d be forgiven (by all but the Tom).

The Church bells ripped through the ice and quelled the troubadours. The air in the streets softened with the heavenly clanging of the bells. Shopkeepers and shop goers alike revelled in the bells.

Glynnis, eyes closed, hands to heart, realized that it had been quite some time since she had been to church. Having now a better understanding of h-e-double hockey sticks, she figured a bit of atonement couldn’t hurt.

The Mayor approached the children and their instruments of chaos.

When the final bell rang, Simon and Henry shrugged and mounted a second attack on the community. The Mayor, sensing danger, stepped toward the boys slowly yet confidently so as not to show fear. He held up his hands, the universal sign that said, “I am unarmed and would like to negotiate.”

“Gentleman,” said the Mayor. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your service?”

Henry wiped his leaky nose and said, “Mom’s gotta headache and we wanna go to a movie, so we need to make some dough.” Simon stamped his feet and blew into his frozen fingers.

The Mayor, knowing his position was an elected one, smiled down at the boys and reached for his wallet. “When does this movie start?”

The boys stared down into the violin case, mouth open. Just enough for movie tickets.

Mr. Mayor walked away, beaming with internal pride, having rescued the town yet again.

They were artists. Real, paid artists. Stardom wasn’t too far away. The boys beamed at each other and Henry said, “Now let’s earn some popcorn.”

Steam escaped their smiles. The buskers took a deep breath.