The final post on our opening day of the 2020 Halloween Flash Fiction blog event is coming to you from DEADTOWN Series author Nancy Holzner. Nancy found inspiration for her tale of a magical friendship from this image…
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Home to Roost by Nancy Holzner
“Mimi, tell me a story!”
Lily eyed her great-grandmother’s lap, then changed her mind and plopped herself down on the floor by the old woman’s feet. Mimi gazed fondly at the girl, whose face was lifted toward her, eyes round in anticipation of a story. Such a considerate child. On the day she’d turned six, Lily had announced she was too big for lap-sitting. And she was right. Mimi smoothed her skirt over her stick-like legs. When had she gotten so frail?
“What kind of story would you like to hear? About a princess?”
“No, tell me about when you were a little girl. When you lived in the ice-cream sundae house.”
Mimi smiled. “A long time ago—” The smile disappeared into a sigh. It was so long ago, longer than her mind could grasp. But Lily’s expectant face brought the smile back. “A long time ago there was a little girl named Mildred, but everyone called her Mimi. She lived with her parents in a beautiful house in the forest. Never had anyone seen such a house. Its sparkling white walls stood in graceful curves like—”
“Like scoops of vanilla ice cream!” Lily shouted. “With a red tiled roof like strawberry syrup!” Lily’s “sundae house.” Mimi’s childhood home didn’t really look like a sundae, but she loved the delight the girl took in the image. What an imagination Lily had!
“Mimi was happy to live in such a beautiful house. But she was lonely. There were no other children for miles around. Mommy and Daddy had grown-up things to do, and even though the household staff was kind, they were busy making sure rooms were clean and food was cooked and the garden was full of flowers.”
“Like lilies?” The child always asked about her namesake flower.
“Yes! Lilies and roses and sunflowers and daffodils and all of the prettiest flowers you can imagine. But lilies were Mimi’s favorite.”
Lily beamed. Then her brow furrowed. “But Mimi had one friend, right?”
“That’s right. A special, secret friend.”
“How did Mimi meet Ava?” Lily settled down to listen.
Well, one afternoon Mimi was playing by herself in the garden. Her nursemaid was nearby, but she had her nose stuck in a book. Mimi walked along the garden path, looking for pretty stones. When she found one that looked just right, she’d decide whether it was a diamond, a ruby, or a pearl, and she’d put it in her pocket. And so she went through the garden, collecting make-believe jewels.
At a bend in the path, Mimi stopped. Standing before her was a large crow. Its blue-black feathers gleamed in the sunlight. Its shiny black eyes looked right into hers. The crow cocked its head. It opened its beak. And it said, “Hello.”
Now, you might think that crows can’t talk. You might think it cawed in a funny way that sounded like a word. But you’d be wrong. This crow said hello as clearly as you or I would say it. Mimi blinked in surprise. Then she said hello back and curtsied, as she’d been taught was polite.
The crow spread its wings and lifted itself into the air. It flapped slowly toward the forest. Mimi wasn’t allowed to go into the forest by herself, but she had to learn more about this talking crow. She followed it out of the garden and across the lawn, right to the edge of the forest. But when she got there, the crow was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Mimi found a little girl—a little girl who was exactly Mimi’s size. In fact, she was so much like Mimi that looking at her was like looking into a mirror, except for one thing. Mimi had pale hair, and this girl’s was blue-back and shiny.
“Hello,” the girl said.
“Hello,” Mimi replied, giving another curtsy. “Have you seen a talking crow?”
The dark-haired girl stared at her.
Mimi tried again. “I’m Mimi,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Would you like to play with me?”
Ava nodded. The girls played together in the forest for an hour, until Mimi heard her nursemaid calling. She begged to be allowed to invite her new friend to dinner, but the nursemaid looked confused. “What friend?”
“Ava!” Mimi said, turning around. But there was no little girl behind her. Only a crow sitting on a low tree branch.
The nursemaid must not have liked her book because she was in a cross mood. She scolded Mimi for going into the forest. She scolded Mimi for getting her dress dirty and being late for dinner. And she scolded Mimi for lying about her new friend.
Mimi wiped away a tear—she always tried to be good and didn’t like being scolded. As her nursemaid grabbed her hand and tugged her back to the house, Mimi looked over her shoulder. From its branch, the crow raised a wing, as if waving goodbye.
After that, the two friends met every day. It wasn’t long before Mimi discovered something astonishing—nobody else could see Ava. Not her nursemaid, not the gardener, not the cook, not even her parents. They would stare right at Ava as they told Mimi not to be a silly girl. Or sometimes Ava would disappear, but always there would be a crow nearby, winking at Mimi.
Mimi didn’t care, not even when the grown-ups accused her of lying. Her parents brought in a funny sort of doctor who wore a three-piece suit and smelled like cigars to ask Mimi questions about her imaginary friend. A crow landed on a branch outside the window; its caws sounded like laughter.
One day, Mimi’s parents told her they had to move away from their beautiful house. There was trouble with the bank. The staff packed up and left. Mimi’s parents packed their things, too. On their last day, Mimi couldn’t find Ava, although she looked everywhere—her empty playroom, the garden, even a few steps into the forest. ‘Goodbye, Ava!’ she called. ‘I have to go, but I’ll come back and play with you again some day, I promise!’ She listened, but the forest was silent. No goodbye. Not even the caw of a crow.
Mimi climbed into the big, black car, squeezing in beside the suitcases piled in the back seat. She looked one last time at the house where she’d lived all of her life. As the car pulled away, a single crow alighted on the red-tiled roof.
Lily hugged her knees. “Did Mimi ever see Ava again?”
Mimi shook her head. “Her family moved to an apartment in the city. They sold the big black car, and Mimi learned to take the bus. Mimi missed her friend and her house in the forest, but soon she started school and made new friends. Eventually she grew up and got married and had a little girl of her own. And then that little girl grew up and had a little boy. And then he grew up and became your daddy. And Mimi came to live with your family.” Her voice quieted. “But she never forgot Ava.”
“I wish I had an imaginary friend.”
“You can if you want. Just think about—”
“No, I mean a real imaginary friend. One that only I can see, nobody else. One that can turn into a bird . . . or a puppy or a cat.” She considered. “I think I’d like an imaginary cat friend.”
Mimi smiled as Lily stood up, stretched like the cat she’d like her imaginary friend to be, and ran off toward the kitchen. For a moment, the old woman looked at an empty branch outside the window.
* * *
A few months later, Lily’s grandson, Scott, had business in the town where Mimi grew up. “Why don’t you ride along, Gran? Visit your old stomping grounds. It’s only an hour’s drive. It’ll do you good to get out.”
Before Mimi could answer, Lily rocketed into the room. “Can I come, too? Pleeeeease? I want to see the sundae house!”
Now, Mimi sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s SUV, trying to remember how to get home.
“Not far now, I think. Turn right up ahead.” Maybe? There was nothing familiar. This had all been forest when Mimi was a girl. Now it was an endless grid of streets and houses.
“Gran, I can just put the address into the GPS.”
“I want to remember. Just turn right. Please.”
Scott sighed and flipped on the turn signal.
Lily spotted the house first. “Is that it?” There was doubt in her voice as she pointed between houses to a building one street over. “It doesn’t look like an ice cream sundae.”
The child was right. The house was an eyesore. The once-dazzling white walls were stained and peeling, obscured by overgrown bushes. The red roof was a exhausted brown, tiles missing like an old woman’s teeth. Mimi pictured her childhood bedroom, everything now damp and warped and with mold creeping up the walls. Saplings grew from the clogged gutters; leaves and trash littered the front steps.
“That’s . . . that’s where I was born.” Her words were barely a whisper.
Scott stopped the car in front of the house, parking beside a No Trespassing sign. He didn’t turn off the motor. “I’m sorry, Gran.”
Mimi gripped the door handle, staring at the tumbledown wreck that used to be her home. The heavy gray sky pushed down on it, and Mimi wondered if the building would sink into the ground as she watched. She let her hand fall into her lap. “Let’s go.”
Scott put the car in gear.
“Look, Mimi!” Lily cried from the back seat. She pointed at a black bird perched on the broken roof. “It’s Ava!”
The crow stretched its wings wide, then settled itself. It cocked its head at the car.
“No, sweetheart,” Mimi said. “It’s just a crow.”
* * *
That night, Mimi dreamed of her childhood, of dark forests and gleaming black wings. She wandered through the rooms of her home, not filthy and ruined as they were now but as they’d been eighty years ago—beautiful and clean and filled with light. She played hide and seek with a little girl with dark hair, both laughing as they darted in and out of the shadows. “Mimi! Mimi!” called a girl’s voice.
Mimi startled awake, unsure of her surroundings. Was that a crow in her room? No. No, it was just a shadow. Reality settled around her. The dream had felt so real! She’d been young and happy, and she could run like the wind. So long ago. So many names she’d had—Mildred, Mimi, then Mom, then Gran, and then back to Mimi to her great-granddaughter. What had happened to all of those women? They’d disappeared, just like Ava disappeared when someone approached. The Mimi of today couldn’t be the Mimi who’d lived in a sundae house. She just couldn’t.
Mimi threw off her bedclothes. It was the darkest part of the night but she left the light off. She pulled on her bathrobe, shoved her feet into slippers, and made her way through the sleeping house. In the kitchen, she slipped Scott’s car key from its hook. It had been a long time since she’d driven a car, but she felt confident she still knew how. She backed the car out of the driveway, then waited until she was halfway down the block to turn on the headlights.
This time, Mimi didn’t get lost. She drove straight home, as though her grandson’s fancy GPS were installed in her brain. It was still dark when she arrived. The moonlight blurred the house’s decay, making it look softer, silvery, almost magical. Almost like home.
Mimi got out of the car and started up the front walk. Each step seemed to take her back years. She felt strong, vibrant. The weeds that choked the garden faded away. Litter disappeared from the front steps. Somewhere a crow cawed.
Mimi reached for the front door, marveling at how young her hand looked in the moonlight. Before she touched the knob, the door opened. A little girl with black hair smiled at her. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
Mimi smiled back. “I’ve come home.”
* * *
Lily was surprised to see the old house still standing. She’d seen it once—fifteen, no sixteen years ago—on the day her great-grandmother died. The memory of that day stood out sharply against the fuzzy memories of early childhood. She remembered how her parents’ alarm had accelerated to panic when they realized Mimi and Dad’s car both were gone. She remembered his phone ringing, and how his face changed when the police told him the news. She thought she remembered waking up in the darkest part of the night to the sound of a car engine starting, but she could never be sure if it was a real memory or one that her mind created to fill in the gaps of that day.
She did remember her disappointment in seeing this house. Mimi’s stories had made it so magical—a house like an ice cream sundae, way better than a gingerbread house. It had been a shock to see the reality. The house must have been beautiful once, long ago, but certainly never in Lily’s lifetime. It was a shame to see what decades of neglect had done to the place.
Lily stared at the old house, knowing she’d probably never see it again. She was leaving for a new job in a new city on the other side of the country. She wasn’t even sure why she’d made a detour to stop here.
A car slowed as it went by. Lily could feel its occupants looking at her. She felt silly, staring at a decrepit house that no one had lived in for years. Time to go. “Goodbye, Mimi,” she whispered. She wiped her eyes and pulled into the street.
Somewhere along the street, playing children laughed. Above the house, two crows flapped their wings placidly against the darkening sky.
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