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BRAND NEW SHORT STORY: Munchausen

Well I don’t know about you, but self isolation has certainly been very productive for me.
Today I am very excited to announce a BRAND NEW short story: Munchausen.

Munchausen is a prequel to my short story ‘The New Neighbors’. It follows Amy, a personal carer who begins a job at a remote lake house in Waterbury, Vermont. John Linden, the man of the house, needs help looking after his wife Lisa, who was mostly paralyzed by an apparent brain aneurysm. As the story unfolds, Amy becomes entangled in a mystery involving the residents, and she begins to realize the sinister motivations behind her employment.

You can read the story below, or download it as a PDF HERE: Munchausen by Kate Kelsen

Enjoy the read. This story is still a Work-In-Progress, so I would love to hear your feedback.

Munchausen

Munchausen
A Short Story by Kate Kelsen
Copyright © 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Elizabeth quietly observed Dan as he sat sobbing in the chair opposite her. He held his hand out to her, and she passed him a box of tissues.
“You’re giving me a referral?” he sniveled, touching a tissue to his eyes.
“Yes.”
“Why?”
“You focus too much on your therapist, Dan, instead of your therapy.”
“Is this because of our chance encounter the other day?”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow.
“It wasn’t altogether chance, was it, Dan?”
Dan smirked.
“Was that your husband?”
Elizabeth said nothing. Dan tilted his head, looking inquisitively at her.
“Do you always pretend to be that happy with him?”
He leaned forward, and Elizabeth stiffened where she sat.
“You would be loved, Elizabeth. And looked after.”
Elizabeth said nothing. Dan scoffed, nodding.
“I just hate that I have to pay to see you.”
“I’m your psychiatrist, Dan. It would be unethical to engage with you outside this office.”
Dan looked down at the crumpled tissue in his hands.
“The saddest thing I could think of is that I wouldn’t get to see you again.”
He shook his head, looking up at her with newly sharpened spite in his eyes.
“Can you even imagine what it is like to be completely dependent on another person
for your basic mental and emotional needs? Every single part of my identity has been taken from me, and now this. I’ve always dug deep to keep my hope alive in hard times. But you’ve just knocked the wind right out of my optimism, Doctor. My energy to survive is wavering. What will be the point if this is all that’s in store for me from now on?”
“I’m sorry, Dan, but I still think you should see another doctor.”
Dan sat upright, nodding stiffly as he picked up his jacket.
“Alright,” he said.
He stood up, shrugged on his jacket and left the office. Elizabeth stayed where she sat
for several minutes longer, lost in a thoughtful daze, before snapping out of it and collecting her notes, returning to her desk.
Switching out the light, Elizabeth closed and locked the door behind her. As she
stepped out into the street, she withdrew her gaze from the path and redirected it into her bag. Looking up suddenly, she was blinded by the headlights, and the next thing she knew she was laying on the road. Through the blur, she saw the driver step out of the car and approach her, before slipping silently into unconsciousness.

Amy found the lake house at the end of a private road half a mile long. She stepped out of her car, admiring the surrounding canopy of hardwood trees as she climbed the steps to the front porch.
“Hello?” She knocked on the door. “Hello?”
Her calls remained unanswered. She stepped inside, following the long hall all the way through the house to the back door. There, she observed a woman sitting in the garden in a wheelchair.
“You must be Amy.”
Amy turned to see a man step out onto the porch behind her.
“I’m sorry, the front door was open…”
“It’s okay,” the man smiled. “It’s a big house. I’m John Linden.”
“It’s a lovely place you’ve got here.”
“Thank-you.”
They looked out at the woman in the wheelchair.
“What’s the nature of her condition?” Amy enquired.
“Brain aneurysm. She can’t speak, can barely move. Doctors figure a month, maybe.”
John cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, I’ve been having a rough time with it. She’s the love of my life, and she’s dying. John covered his mouth with his hand.
“I’m sorry…”
“You don’t need to apologize. Really.”
“We’ve been together forever, you know? I feel like I’m losing my soulmate…”
“That’s understandable.”
“And the thought of someone coming to live here…it’s just hard. It’s always been just us.”
“I understand. Really. So, she can’t speak at all?”
“No,” John said, composing himself again. “She’s pretty much paralyzed.”
John and Amy approached the woman.
“Lisa, this is Amy. She’s going to be taking care of you for a while. Amy, this is my
wife Lisa.”
“Hello, Lisa,” Amy smiled.
John placed his hand on Lisa’s shoulder.
“You’re the fifth one I’ve interviewed. The last girl left, just up and quit. The job is yours if you want it. ”
Joy helped Amy carry her boxes and suitcases to her car parked across the street from
their apartment building.
“It’s less than an hour away,” Amy insisted. “I’ll be back all the time.”
“You better. Come here.” Joy hugged Amy. “I’m proud of you.”
Driving into Waterbury, Amy passed wood lots, post-and-beam barns, and rolling
stands of sugar maple. Pickups stacked with cordwood lined South Main Street, alongside
sport wagons crammed with kids, skis, and commuter bikes.

Amy turned off Route 2, arriving at the lake house two miles along. She pulled up in
front of the house, and started to unload her boxes and bags. John appeared and helped her bring them inside. He showed her to her room, placing the box in his arms down on the bed.
“You’re a photographer,” he commented, gesturing to the camera in the box, and picking up a small picture frame.
“I dabble.”
“Well, there will be plenty of photo opportunities around here for you, I’m sure. I’ll let
you get settled in. Let me know when you’re unpacked. I’ll show you around.”
Amy stepped outside her room, looking up and down the hallway.
“Mr. Linden?” She took a few steps along the hallway. “Mr. Linden?”
She reached a staircase, looking up to the attic door at the top. She turned, startled by John standing behind her.
“Oh, sorry,” she stammered. “I’m…I’m unpacked.”
“Great. I’ll give you a tour.”
Downstairs, the kitchen overlooked the dining area with a wall of windows to take in the views of the lake and the mountains. Adjacent to the kitchen and dining area was a fire-lit living room, with an adjoined sunroom.
“The house was built in 2000,” said John. “There’s seven acres, and a hundred feet of
sandy beach on the lakefront. There are three bedrooms and three bathrooms, and water
views from almost every room in the house.”
“Is there an attic?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I just noticed the door at the top of the stairs. Near my room.”
“There is, but you don’t need to go in there. All I keep in there is old paperwork, records,
that sort of thing.”
John turned to Amy.
“I’m sure you’d like to freshen up. It will be time for Lisa’s medicine soon. I’ll show you how to give it to her.”
In her private bathroom, Amy looked into the mirror hanging on the wall above the
sink. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and wrapped it around itself, securing the bun with a pin. She removed her top over her head, reaching into the shower and turning on the taps. Amy stepped into Lisa’s room, approaching the bed.
“Hi, Lisa,” she softly greeted. “Remember me? I’m Amy. I’ll be taking care of you.”
Amy switched on the bedside lamp. She pulled the sheet up around Lisa’s chest,
jumping when Lisa grabbed her arm.
“Let go, Lisa.” Amy attempted to pry Lisa’s fingers open. “Lisa, you’re hurting me!”
“There you are.”
Lisa let go, and Amy turned to see John enter the room.
“I thought you said she was paralyzed.”
“She has spasms sometimes. Don’t let it scare you. It’s time for her medicine. She
takes her pills in powder form.”

John held a glass to Lisa’s lips, and she drank the contents down.
“Amy, would you be so kind as to join me for dinner?”
“Sure.”
“Wonderful. I’ve made a stew.”
Opera music played softly in the background as Amy sat with John at the dining table.
“So, tell me a bit more about yourself, Amy. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I moved from Burlington.”
“But you weren’t raised in Vermont.”
“No. I was born in Los Angeles, actually. Raised in New Jersey. I worked in New Orleans for a while, too.”
“A lot of moving around.”
“I was living on the road with a traveling rock band.”
“I see. Quite a world away from hospice care.”
“My father died while I was on the road. He was alone, and I wasn’t aware of his
condition.”
“I’m so sorry to hear it, Amy.”
“I felt so guilty about it that I wanted to devote myself to becoming a person who
makes a difference.”
“Well, you’re certainly making a difference by being here. How’s your stew?”
“Very nice, thank-you.”
In the kitchen, John stood at the stove, ladling stew into a bowl he had set aside. He took a small brown glass bottle and measuring cup, filling it and tipping the contents into the soup, stirring it in.
“What is that?” Lisa inquired.
“Oh, just a tonic. Lisa always believed in balancing medical and alternative
medicines. I’m just continuing to honor her wishes. Would you mind taking this up to
her?”
“Sure.”
Amy took the tray with the bowl of stew and a spoon upstairs to Lisa’s room, placing
it down on the tray table next to the bed. She dipped the spoon into the bowl, holding it to Lisa’s lips.
“That’s a lovely husband you’ve got there, Lisa.”
Lisa pressed her lips closed, making grunting noises. Amy paused, lowering the spoon.
“Lisa, what’s wrong?”
Lisa flailed, knocking the bowl of stew onto the floor.
“Shit!” Amy exclaimed, scrambling after it.
John entered the room.
“What’s going on?”
“She was struggling.”
“It’s alright,” John soothed Lisa, approaching the bed and stroking her hair.
“Thank-you, Amy. I’ll take care of it.”
“Are you sure? I can go get a cloth…”
“It’s fine, thank-you.”

The following morning Amy lifted Lisa from her wheelchair into the bathtub, and as Lisa
relaxed into the hot water, Amy glimpsed what she thought was a smile. She picked up the sponge, and as she dipped it in the water, her gaze fell upon Lisa’s legs. Her toes stood like fat little sausages on the ends of her feet, which along with her legs had a blotchy red and purple discoloration.
After the bath, Amy dressed Lisa and placed a hat on her head, and then wheeled her
outside into the back garden, where John was re-potting plants.
“Thank-you, Amy.”
“Do you need anything, John?”
“Not right now, thanks.”
Amy climbed the stairs to the second floor, pausing at the sitting space at the top,
looking up the next flight to the attic door. Glancing over her shoulder, she tentatively
climbed the first few steps, and then the rest until she reached the top. She placed her hand around the doorknob, finding it locked. She stepped back, regarding the door a moment longer, before turning and going back down the stairs.
That evening, Amy sat with John at the dinner table.
“John, can I ask you something?”
“Sure.”
“When Lisa was in the bath, I noticed she had swelling and bruising around her feet and the lower part of her legs. It looks like she’d broken her legs at some stage.”
John nodded.
“She did when she had the aneurysm. She fell down the stairs.”
Amy nodded.
“Sorry to pry.”
“No, I’m sorry I didn’t mention it before. You’re her carer, after all. You need to
know these things.”
John paused, taking a sip of his wine.
“Amy, do you think you will be alright here by yourself with Lisa tomorrow?”
“Sure. Why?”
“I have to go up to upstate. My mother has passed away. I have to go and sort out
her affairs with her estate lawyer. I’ll be back late.”
Standing underneath the flow of hot water, Amy closed her eyes, exhaling slowly.
Rubbing a bar of soap over her arms, she glanced over her shoulder, pausing momentarily in search of the shadow that she had seen out of the corner of her eye. There was nothing. She continued to lather up her arms.
When Amy opened the door to Lisa’s bedroom first thing in the morning, the smell hit
her like a brick wall. She approached the bed, looking down at Lisa where she lay in her own feces, next to the word ‘HELP’ scrawled in excrement.

Amy helped Lisa into the bathtub, and while she soaked there Amy carried the sheets
from Lisa’s bed downstairs into the laundry room, dropping them into the washing machine.
She returned to the bathroom and helped Lisa into her chair, dressing her for the day.
Downstairs, she parked the wheelchair in the usual spot in the back garden. When the
washing cycle had finished, she carried the basket of clean sheets outside to the clothesline.
As she hung them, she caught Lisa watching her from her wheelchair, noting the look of
dismay in her drawn gaze.
That night, Lisa lay in the bathtub, and Amy wet the sponge and rubbed it across
Lisa’s chest.
“Amy…”
Amy paused, meeting Lisa’s troubled gaze.
“Amy…Amy…Amy…”
Lisa started thrashing violently, and Amy jumped back against the vanity mirror,
shattering it. She collapsed and hit her head on the sink, crumpling to the floor.
Lisa clasped her hands around the edge of the bathtub, pulling herself up and peering
over the side. Pulling herself out of the tub, she cried out as she fell hard on the tiles. Lying on her stomach, she used all her strength to push herself up. She looked over Amy’s body, seeing the antenna of the cordless phone protruding from underneath her. Her breath quivering, she reached over, pulling at it with all her might. Using her feet to push her along, she dragged herself across the bathroom floor into the bedroom. Next to the bed, she held the phone to her ear, whimpering at the sound of the dial tone.

Amy stirred awake, peeling her eyes open. Her head was pounding with pain, her
vision blurry. She reached out to her sides, bracing the door frame with her hands, pulling herself slowly to her feet. The bed was empty, as was Lisa’s wheelchair. She staggered toward the doorway, peering out into the hall. She stepped out of the room and crossed the way to the banister, seeing Lisa’s body lying at the bottom of the stairs.
Amy heard John’s car pulled up outside, and she met him at the front door.
“Lisa got out of the tub!” she exclaimed.
“What?”
John looked past her to Lisa, his expression sharpened with alarm.
“I’m so sorry! I don’t know what happened!”
“Did you give her her medicine?”
“Yes!”
“Did you make sure she drank it all down?”
John approached Lisa, turning her over. Lisa thrashed her arms at him, and he grabbed
at her wrists, forcing them down.
“Go get the chair!” he shouted at Amy.
“We should call the doctor!”
“In the morning! Just get the chair!”
With Lisa lying limp in her bed, John touched a glass of water to her lips, tipping the
water into her mouth.
“I’m so sorry John…”
“I’ll have to double her dose from now on,” John sighed. “That’s all I can think of.”
“Don’t you think we should call a doctor?”
“In the morning.”
“I’ll come and check on her later, then…”
“That won’t be necessary. That will be all for tonight, Amy. Goodnight.”
Amy left the room, hearing the door lock behind her.
Tossing and turning in her sheets, Amy sat bolt upright in her bed, sighing in
wakefulness and falling back onto her pillows. A shadow crossed the room, and the door
clicked shut. Amy gasped, looking through the darkness, but saw nothing.

The following morning, she found John in the kitchen cooking breakfast.
“Have you called the doctor?” she asked.
“Oh, there’ll be no need for that,” John insisted. “She seems to be doing much better
this morning.”
“John, I really think Lisa should see a doctor. She fell down the stairs, she could have
injured herself…”
“Lisa is fine.”
Amy was silenced for a moment at the firmness of his tone.
“Well, I need to see a doctor. I hit my head hard last night.”
“If you want to see a doctor, fine. But no doctor is coming here.”
“John…”
Amy jumped when John slammed his fist down on the bench.
“She is my wife, and I am her husband, and I say what happens to her!”
“Okay, okay. No doctor.”

Joy stood by the examination bed as Amy was examined by the doctor.
“Have you had any dizziness?” the doctor inquired.
“A little after I came to.”
“Nausea? Vomiting?”
“No.”
“Confusion? Any concentration or memory problems?”
“No.”
“How did you feel when you woke up this morning?”
“A bit sluggish. Foggy.”
“Sensitive to light or noise?”
“No.”
The doctor stepped back.
“The most important thing you can do right now is rest, physically and mentally. You
should not do any heavy activity yet. You’ll need to come back and see me to get the all
clear.”
Amy’s heart raced with hesitant anticipation as the examination drew to a close.
“Doctor?”
“Yes?”
“Have you by any chance treated a woman named ‘Lisa Linden’?”
The doctor tensed his brow and shook his head.
“The name doesn’t ring a bell. Why?”
“She had a brain aneurysm about a month ago. She lives in a lake house outside
town with her husband. I’m caring for her at the moment.”

“No, I can’t say I know her. Now, you’ll need to take a few days off. Like I said, no
heavy lifting. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Joy peered out the windscreen at the hardwood canopy as she steered the car along
the driveway.
“Whoa,” she muttered as they approached the house.
She pulled the car up outside, and Amy unfastened her seat belt.
“You sure you’ll be alright?” Joy queried.
“Yes. It’s okay. Like I said, he’s just funny about strangers.”
“You’re practically a stranger.”
“Yeah, I know. I won’t be long.”
“Be careful.”
Amy stepped out of the car and went inside.
“John, I’m back.”
She found John by Lisa’s bedside. John stepped outside the room.
“The doctor says I have a mild concussion. I need a few days’ rest. I’m going to stay
with my old flatmate in Burlington.”
“Why can’t you stay here? I can give you a few days off.”
“You’ve got your hands full with Lisa. You don’t need to look after me too.”
“It won’t be a problem.”
“It’s okay, really. I’ll be closer to the doctor for my follow-up. I’ll only be gone a few
days.”
“Alright, well, let me know when you’re coming back.”
Amy packed her clothes into a bag, and as she passed through the hall on her way out, she caught a glimpse of Lisa, and the troubled gaze she had become so used to seeing.
Amy sighed, and after a few moments, turned back into the room, dropping her bag on the bed.
Amy stepped outside and approached the car, leaning in the window.
“Where’s your bag?” Joy asked.
“I’m staying here.”
“What?”
“John has given me a few days off. I’m going to rest up here.”
“What about your follow-up?”
“I’ll get a cab if I need to.”
“This is crazy, Amy.”
“I just feel like I need to be here right now.”
Joy sighed.
“Alright, well, let me know if you need any help. Or a lift. This place is literally The Styx.”
“I will. I’ll be fine.”
“You better be.”
That evening as John dozed in front of the television, Amy climbed the stairs,
slipping into John’s room. She pulled open drawer after drawer, searching through the
contents. She searched the cupboard, reaching in and taking out a set of keys.

Glancing over her shoulder, Amy slipped the first key on the ring into the attic door.
The lock did not budge. She tried the next key, and the next, and the next. The lock finally
clicked. She pushed the door open, a cloud of dust blowing into her eyes. She blinked and
rubbed her eyes, stepping into the room. She reached around for a light switch, but found none. Venturing further in, she shone her flashlight around, observing a room full of antiques. She reached the other side of the room, finding a wall was covered in photographs and newspaper clippings. On the floor below stood a row of candles, their bases melted into the timber floorboards. Studying the photographs, Amy noticed that they were all of the same woman. She peered closer at one of the newspaper clippings. The headline read: Search for missing woman intensifies. Amy read on.

WATERBURY: The Sheriff’s Department has requested help with the ongoing search for
psychiatrist Elizabeth McDermott, who went missing from her practice in Burlington last
month…

Amy hurried down the stairs and into Lisa’s bedroom, closing and locking the door behind her. She approached the bed, leaning over Lisa, taking her hand.
“Lisa, is this you?”
With her free hand she held up one of the photographs.
“Squeeze my hand if this is you.”
Amy’s stomach sank hard and fast when she felt Lisa’s fingers tighten around hers.
“Okay…” Her voice was trembling. “Okay. I’ll help you, I promise. Just…”
“Amy?” John called, rattling the doorknob from the other side.
“Shit!”
“Amy? Open this door!” John burst into the room. “What are you doing? Get away from her!”
John hurried over to the bed, sitting beside Lisa and stroking her cheek.
“It’s alright,” he whispered. “That will be all, Amy.”
Amy turned to leave the room, hurrying back to her bedroom and closing the door.
With a quivering hand, she picked up her mobile phone and dialed 9-1-1.
“My name is Amy Bennett. I need police and paramedics. We’ve got people hurt here. Please hurry.”
She turned and gasped when she saw John standing behind her. He grabbed a fistful
of her hair and she struggled as he dragged her out into the hall, knocking over a lamp on a side table. He swung her around, throwing her over the banister. She landed halfway down
the staircase, tumbling the rest of the way to the bottom. John regarded her briefly over the banister before returning to Lisa’s bedroom.
“Time to go,” he said, approaching her wheelchair.
Step by step, he awkwardly pushed the chair down the steps. He pushed her out onto
the porch across the way to the car. There, he opened the passenger door, and Lisa groaned as he forced her into the passenger seat and closed the door. He jumped into the driver’s seat and sped off down the private road toward the highway.

Joy pulled her car up in front of the hospital, running inside and stopping at the desk.
Breathless, she asked for Amy’s room number. Amy was lying in her bed, being tended to by a nurse.
“What happened?”
“Her legs are broken,” said the nurse. “She says she was pushed down the stairs.”
Joy shook her head. “This is all my fault.”
Lying on her back, Amy looked down at her legs, which were encased in plaster casts and propped up on frames. This would have been Lisa’s view, she thought, but not in a clean, crisp hospital room. In an upstairs bedroom in a lake house outside Waterbury.
The door opened, and in stepped a man in a suit, with brown collar-length shaggy
hair and a handlebar moustache. He showed her a badge.
“Lisa, my name is Detective Brendan Clements. Could we talk? In private, if you
don’t mind?”
Amy nodded. Joy left the room, and Clements took the seat that she had vacated.
“Is it okay if we talk about John Linden?”
“Yes.”
“I understand you were employed by him at the lake house in Waterbury?”
“Yes. As a live-in carer for his wife.”
“Can I show you a few pictures?”
Amy nodded, and Clements held up the first photograph.
“Is this the woman you were caring for?”
Amy nodded.
“Yes.”
He lowered the photograph and showed her another.
“And is this ‘John Linden’.”
“Yes.”
“Okay.” Clements put the pictures away. “What did John tell you about Lisa?”
“That she had suffered a brain aneurysm, and only had a month to live.”
“Could she speak?”
“Not really. She did speak to me the first night I was in the house. I was checking up on her. She told me to get her out of there. I…I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even tell John
about it. I thought…I thought it was just ravings. The patients at the nursing home before used to rave all the time. Say the nurses were trying to kill them.”
Amy paused.
“One night she lashed out while I was bathing her. Knocked me out. She managed to get out of the tub and crawl to the stairs. John got to her before she could get out of the house.”
Amy shook her head.
“He increased her medication…I thought they were just pills but, they were keeping
her sedated…he was keeping her drugged up. And he was giving her this tonic…it could
have been a drain cleaner, for all I know.”
“What happened last night? How did you come to be here?”
“I found this shrine in the attic. Photos and news clippings of her. I tried to call for help, but he caught me and threw me down the stairs.”
Amy looked at Clements with trouble in her gaze.
“Why did he hire me? Why would he risk exposure like that?”
“To taunt her,” Clements replied. “She was unable to speak, unable to alert you to the situation, unable to ask you for help.”
“Where are they now?”
“We don’t know.”

It was after dark when John pulled the car up in front of No.1 Maple Avenue. He stepped out of the car and approached the front door, unlocking it. He returned to the car and took the wheelchair out of the trunk, lifting Lisa out and sitting her in the chair. He pulled her backwards up the front steps and into the house, and once inside, he picked her up out of the chair and carried her up the stairs, lying her down on the bed.
“I’ll draw you a bath,” he said.

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Just Jane

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Just Jane

A Short Story by Kate Kelsen

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved

 

My name is Jane Atkinson. See, there. You made the association, didn’t you? It wasn’t my face that came to mind when you heard the name. You thought of Ashley Atkinson, my sister, and that little girl that disappeared all those years ago. Through your mind flashed that innocent face that they show on the news every time they run a story on her. You see that one picture they always use, an image that has consumed my family name.

Once upon a time, my name did identify me as an individual. In fact, for five years I was the only Atkinson girl. And then along came Ashley.

Ashley was nine when she was abducted one afternoon after school. It was like she disappeared off the face of the earth- one minute she was there and the next she was gone without a trace.

We checked the homes of each of Ashley’s friends. The afternoon grew late, and panic set in. The police were called. I had never seen either of my parents cry until that day. They had always been so strong for Ashley and I, and now everything was falling apart. In the space of one afternoon, our family had come undone. Whoever had taken Ashley had pulled a thread, which had unraveled the fabric of our lives as we knew them.

That first night without Ashley was the worst night of my life. My parents and I were suspended in a state of limbo; we couldn’t eat, and we barely slept. While I was safe and sound at home, she was out there somewhere, afraid and alone, or worse. We were distraught, terrified, impatient and angry. There was no telling what news the next moment would bring. Nothing could bring us comfort, but we surrendered blindly to hope.

The sun rose the next morning without Ashley. And the next morning, and the next.

Days became weeks, and I wondered why she had not been found yet. A police investigation was under way. Whatever had happened to her was worse than I had first imagined.

My family was trapped between two places; the nightmare we faced, and the unavoidable reality of ongoing everyday life. Time mercilessly pushed on, not waiting for us, and not waiting for Ashley.

Initially my parents had kept me home from school, but the time came for me to go back. My attention easily lapsed; how could I possibly focus on anything else? Everybody was very kind and supportive, but I wished there was no need for sympathy in the first place. I just wanted Ashley home.

The world continued to carry on as it always had, and the normality of it felt surreal. Doing the most regular things was so incredibly strange. We just wanted everything to pause until she was back. It was too hard to get on with living without her; even the smallest of tasks were painful in their ordinariness.

Weeks turned into months, and with each passing day Ashley seemed to be getting further and further away. The possibility of how long she could be gone for was beginning to dawn on us. A reward was offered for information resulting in the resolve of Ashley’s case. Hundreds of tip-offs flooded in, and persons of interest came to the attention of police. I was a teenager, and my world of family and school was small. In my young mind, I could not imagine that such deplorable people could possibly exist in the world. Life had all of a sudden become very real for me.

It was the lack of closure that was utterly unbearable. Ashley could have been anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world. I was afraid to mourn for her. That was a reality that I shut out of my mind as quickly as the thought was made. But there came a time when I would have preferred that closure to the mystery of her disappearance. Of course I did not want it, but the more time that passed the less likely it seemed that she would be found alive. At least we would have known what had happened to her. We could have laid her to rest, and found a way to somehow move on from the tragedy.

The months pushed on, and it was clear that Ashley wasn’t coming home anytime soon. I knew that if she were found alive, she would be a very different person to who we remembered her as. She would be damaged, and she would never be the same again. This event would define her forever. What kind of life awaited her, I wondered, after having endured such a traumatic experience?

And all the while, the person that took her was out there somewhere too, smugly content in their ability to fly under the radar. I was angry with a faceless stranger, not just because of what they’d done to Ashley, but what they’d done to me.

Before Ashley was taken, I was just Jane Atkinson. Then suddenly, I was not Jane anymore. I was ‘Ashley Atkinson’s sister’. The people in our immediate community knew that I existed, but for many years after she disappeared, most people didn’t even know that Ashley Atkinson had a sister.

Not only had Ashley’s abductor taken her away, but they had also stolen my chance to live a normal life. Their actions had imprisoned me within my own name. They had permanently changed my identity; they had taken away my ability to be recognized for who I was as an individual, and condemned me to be known only for my missing sister.

How could they live with themselves, so detached from their guilt? How could such an injustice be allowed?

Over the years Ashley grew up through age progression photos. My parents continued to search exhaustively for her whilst trying to make life as normal as possible for me, to ensure that I didn’t feel overlooked or over-protected. Yet still I yearned for the regularity that we could have had if only Ashley were with us. I did not begrudge my parents; after all, what else were they to do? They could not forego the search for Ashley in favour of being fully present for me. That was not an option, and I wanted my sister back just as much.

During those times I often wondered about my own significance; what did my parents think when they looked at me? Was I a warm reminder of the child that was still there with them, or was I a painful reminder of who was missing from our family? What was I without Ashley? If she were never found, would I alone ever be enough? I had things that I wanted to achieve in my life, but would those things serve to demonstrate my own ambition, or be a sad reminder of the chances that Ashley never had? Was my life destined to become a reflection of what was stolen from my sister?

Nothing was ever the same after Ashley was gone, and the painful sting of sadness marred any opportunity that came my way to surrender completely to joy or excitement. I tried to dream about what my future as an adult would hold for me, but it was hard to believe that anything I did would matter at all. The attention was centered on the fact that I was Ashley Atkinson’s sister. It seemed like no achievement of mine could ever truly matter, so over time I lost the ambition to try at all. I had felt despair in the mission to find Ashley, but it was at this time that I felt true hopelessness in myself as a human being. I became very withdrawn, and wondered whether anybody would even notice the lack of my presence.

It was a strange predicament that I found myself in. Whether people were aware of my existence or not, it was always for the same reason, because I was Ashley’s sister. And when they heard my surname, people unknowingly made an association that really had nothing to do with me as an individual person.

I could never have imagined the power that would haunt my family name, and the thought of carrying that legacy for the rest of my life was nothing short of daunting. I wondered what would come of my future, and I resigned to the notion that I may never be able to be praised for anything of my own doing.

I turned eighteen, and then twenty-one, milestones that Ashley never had. I emerged into adulthood without her; she is now frozen in our childhood, behind that smiling face in the news that provokes such question and suspicion.

I am on my own again now, without a little sister, but not an only child. It will never go back to the way it was before Ashley was a part of our family, and there will always be a hole left where she was taken away.

I have now come to accept that I will always have to live with the legacy attached to my family name. I have grown up in the shadow of my little sister’s disappearance, sharing my parents with their tireless effort to find her. But what about me, the other Atkinson girl?

Will we ever see Ashley again, I do not know. But life has to go on. My world is bigger now, and has reached further than just my family, school and the neighbourhood I grew up in. While not everyone recognizes my face these days, they still know my surname. I have etched out an existence of my own, not for the need of gratification from others but out of necessity. I have a job. It’s nothing spectacular, but it is something.

Maybe one day a man will be able to look at me and love me for who I am. Maybe he will be brave enough to marry me, to give me a new name that no one will think twice about.

Perhaps you and I will meet someday too. Maybe you will come to the place where I work and I will serve you. I hope that, without realizing it, you will see me for who I really am.  Not just as the sister, but also as the individual. My name is Jane Atkinson, and I am the girl in the background. I am still here, and I have been here all along.

 

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Flying With Strangers- A New Short Story

Flying with Strangers

A Short Story by Kate Kelsen

Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved

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In the hours leading up to his flight, Jeff relished in the freedom of procrastination. Time had dragged on blissfully slow, enabling his hesitancy. But the hours and minutes ticked by nonetheless. Eventually there was no time left between him and the aircraft that awaited him. He had gotten this far. He’d bought the ticket. Time was ticking. He could do this. He had to. He knew it, deep inside. He was getting on that plane.
He scanned the other passengers in the area. You could never tell who it could be. That guy with the red face, perhaps? Why was he wearing a sweater in summer? In his mind’s eye, Jeff imagined the explosives strapped to the man’s hairy chest, under the layers of cotton and wool.
“Ma’am, we can’t let you take it on board.”
“Oh, come on! It’s plastic!”
Jeff watched the woman ahead of him arguing with security over the children’s plate set.
“We can’t let you take it on board,” the security staff patiently reiterated.
“But it’s a gift for my daughter!”
Maybe it was her, Jeff thought. Surely she wouldn’t make it so obvious. Then again, maybe she was panicking. She’d been sprung.
Jeff’s cheeks flushed hot, and he felt the flutter in his chest as his heartrate spiked. He clenched his teeth. He just wanted to get on the plane and get it over with. The boarding call for the flight was announced over the PA system. Finally the woman gave in, surrendering the plate set, snatching up her bag and storming out of sight into the departure lounge. The line started moving again. Once he cleared the body scanner, Jeff proceeded to the gate and joined the queue of passengers. The crew member smiled as she checked his boarding pass, and wished him a nice flight. The walls closed in as he followed the gateway down to the entrance of the aircraft. Jeff’s chest felt tight and his breathing shallow. The cabin crew member checked his boarding pass again and directed him toward his seat. Jeff looked up the way; his stomach sank inside him when he spotted the woman from before occupying the window seat next to his aisle seat. He sat down and made himself comfortable, fixing his gaze firmly on the seat in front of him. He was determined avoid eye contact with his temporary neighbour. He was not interested in getting to know her. Her body language was jittery; she looked keenly around the cabin, jiggling her leg, rubbing her hands over themselves. He could feel her looking at him, but he was in no mood for conversation, especially with her, and he did his best to make his intention as visually obvious as possible.

Speeding down the runway, Jeff felt the weight of his body drop downwards as they lifted off the ground.
“You a nervous flyer?”
Jeff cringed inside. He had to respond, and he did so with a nod. He hoped his lack of a verbal response would ward her off. It didn’t.
“I’m Emma.”
“Jeff.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Home.”
“Me too. I was spending a week with my sister. We were supposed to be having a girl’s getaway, just the two of us. My partner was looking after our daughter, Edie, but my neighbour called yesterday and said he had left Edie with her…”
Emma’s voice trailed off. She looked down at her hands.
“I’m all she’s got now. I don’t know what I’m going to do, really.”
“I’m sorry to hear it…” he stammered.
It was at this point that Jeff realised he had broken his fixed gaze with the seat in front of him. Emma looked up at him and made eye contact before he could divert his gaze.
“No, I’m sorry. I hardly know you, and I’m divulging my problems onto you.” Emma sighed. “My sister gave me this gorgeous plate set to give to Edie. They wouldn’t let me bring it on the plane; I had to leave it behind. A ‘security risk’ apparently.”
Emma scowled.
“I should have put it in my checked luggage. I forgot. Everything happened so quickly. It was a beautiful gift, too.”
Now it was Emma avoiding eye contact with Jeff. She turned her face away in an attempt to hide the tear that trickled down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away with the tip of her finger.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered. “I’m sorry, this is very embarrassing.”
“It’s okay, really,” Jeff said with awkward stiffness. “I’m sorry you lost the gift.”
Emma summoned the attention of a cabin crew member and requested some water, which she gulped down, gasping with breathlessness.
Having purged her emotional dilemma onto Jeff, Emma appeared overcome with exhaustion. She said very little for the remainder of the journey, even dozing off for a few minutes. Over the next two hours, Jeff thought about Emma, and the glimpse of her life she had shared with him. At first she had come across very bright and bubbly, shielding from sight the turmoil that was unfolding behind her warm exterior. Her predicament played on his mind, etched itself onto his conscience. He wasn’t the type to offer emotional support. That was his problem; it had always been his problem. It was why his wife had left him. He had loved her so much, but didn’t know how to show it. Hi encounter with Emma had sparked a sense of compassion inside him, something he hadn’t felt for a long time.
The captain’s voice came over the PA system, advising the cabin crew and passengers that they were preparing for landing. The aircraft shuddered with turbulence as it descended through the clouds. Jeff sat stiff in his seat, his knuckles white and his palms sweaty as he gripped the ends of his armrests. He closed his eyes and rested his head back. It was now or never.
There was one last jolt as the wheels hit the tarmac, and the force of the aircraft’s breaking system pulled Jeff back in his seat, and then thrust him forward, finally releasing him as the aircraft slowed to a crawl. The clicking of seatbelts could be heard throughout the cabin the moment the plane stopped moving. Some passengers preferred to remain seated and wait for the first rush to pass. Others stood straight away, and Jeff was one of them, keen to get ahead of the crowd and disembark quickly.
“Thanks for the chat, Jeff,” said Emma.
“No problem,” said Jeff. “Good luck with everything.”
Jeff exited the plane and made his way swiftly past the other passengers in the arrivals lounge, through the terminal and out to the taxi rank.
Jeff sat on the end of the bed in his hotel room; his gaze was fixed on the window, but his mind was elsewhere. First it had been the layoffs of pilots. Jobless life had been hard, and working in a lower paid job was harder. One day he’d come home to find half the contents of the house gone, the rest left in a scattered mess. His wife’s clothes were missing from her side of the wardrobe. She was gone, along with their son. She just wasn’t going to take it anymore. He remembered the numbness of it, and then the pain that had come later, when he realised they weren’t coming back. The pain had festered away inside him, agony turning to anger.
He removed his jacket, vest and shirt. From the shirt pocket he removed a small wallet knife. He had gone to the airport so many times, but had never had the guts to go get on a plane. Today was as far as he’d ever gotten, and he still hadn’t gone through with it. He wasn’t sure if what he was feeling was relief, or disappointment, or both.
The downward spiral of his life had driven him to the edge of a knife’s blade. It had all started with the airline, and he was determined to make them pay. But not Emma. Not little Edie. They shouldn’t have to pay. Edie needed her mother more than ever right now. Emma had been embarrassed about blabbing her predicament to Jeff, but she would never know that it had not only saved her life, but those of every soul on that plane.

Thank-you for reading my story!