California’s wildfires inspired this story. The 700-word length was more manageable the second-time around, but this tale required more precise word choices than my first attempt six months ago. For me, writing this story was a moment to reflect on the power of words, how one choice over another changes the storyline, the emotion, and the character. Mid-way through, I even considered rewriting it in the first-person, tried it, and realized the tone was just right in third person: distant and indifferent. Had Louisa Belden narrated her story, the coldness would have evaporated, and a completely different tale would have emerged.
So, here it is, still imperfect, but? As you read it, consider words you might have chosen, how you might have told the same tale, and from whose viewpoint. I know I would make changes … does the search for perfect never end? I suspect not, but I do know the discipline of 700-words is a great way to brush up your skills.
It had been an accident; a metal blade hit stone and sparked the dry weeds. The breeze did the rest. Louisa made no attempt to put it out. She drove her tractor into the small shed at the family home and waited. It was time for it to end.
When her cellphone chirped the evacuation notice, she checked out her kitchen window, the ridgeline was haloed in orange. She snapped on the charm bracelet her father had given her, grabbed her box of treasures, her computer, and her emergency suitcase, packed them in her ancient SUV, and hightailed it to a hotel. She didn’t leave the prescribed note on the door indicating the house was empty — she did pour gasoline on the kitchen floor and turn on the gas burners.
That was three days ago. Louisa tracked the raging fire religiously. She knew when updates were posted, she knew the best incidence commanders, she even knew the old burns. A knock on her hotel room door drew her attention from the latest posting. The maps weren’t always accurate, but if yesterday’s was, the fire had ended her long watch.
“Miss Belden?” a voice called, followed by another knock.
Louisa peered through the drapes. Two police, one male, one female. She opened the door, wrapped in a thin bathrobe from her emergency pack. Instinctively, she clutched the lapels of the robe tight over her favorite sleep shirt.
“Do you have a moment?” The two cops stepped in. Louisa’s right hand shot up, the ice cream cone charm on her bracelet slapping her wrist. “Sorry. May we enter?’
Louisa sat at a small table in front of the hotel window. The police joined her, folding their hands on the tabletop.
“Your home has burned to the ground. While putting out embers, the fire detail found bones in the ashes of the kitchen, the fire seems to have concentrated there. We’ve been looking for you since, hoping to find you alive.”
Louisa fidgeted with her charm. “You found me. There was a root cellar under the kitchen; my sister and I played house in it when we were little.”
Louisa nodded. “She disappeared when she was twelve, between the bus stop and home. Twenty years ago. I have a picture of her in my treasure box.” Louisa fluttered a hand toward her few items piled on an armchair.
“No need. This bracelet was in the ashes near the bones. Not a full skeleton, the smaller bones disintegrated in the heat. A skull and femur survived.”
Louisa fingered the horse charm dangling from the bracelet the male cop held. “Father insisted that Christine was kidnapped because the bracelet was gone.”
“According to the cold case files, you girls rode the bus to school that day, you had band practice, Christine came home alone. One of the neighbor boys claimed he saw your father and sister in the woods arguing or kissing the night before. He was four, so it was disregarded. He still insists.”
“Your father molested your sister, didn’t he? The bracelet was meant to buy her silence.” The male cop flicked the ice cream cone dangling from Louisa’s bracelet. “I bet you were happy when he moved on to Christine. Or were you jealous?”
The female cop crossed to Louisa’s treasure box. “Enough to kill her,” she said, holding up a filet knife.
“Christine’s favorite shooter marble is in there, too, if that matters. My sister showed me the knife on the way to school. It was back in the utensil drawer the next day. I searched for her for years. When I found her grave, I told father I was going to the police, he bought me a pinecone charm.”
“You didn’t leave a note when you evacuated, did you hope the incident report would assume the bones were yours?”
Louisa nodded. “Then we would be free.”
“We’ve tried to locate your father. Do you know where he is?
“Gone. Mother remarried after he left.”
“The femur was an adolescent’s; the skull is an adult’s. The fire crew is still searching.”
“May I?” Louisa held her hand out for her sister’s bracelet, adding Christine’s charm to her own.
A quick note: The final book in the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, Don’t Tell will be available November 11, 2021. In celebration of the coming event, the ebook of the third book in the series, Pay Back, will be available for $.99 October 7-13. https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92