This story is a sequel to my original story for the 2008 (!) Halloween Challenge. I had wanted to revisit these two for quite some time, and even had the first 800-900 words written. But life happened, and now here we are ☺
Many thanks to my wonderful beta and buddy, Kay. She’s great at catching my boo-boos, and is always available to listen when I whine about not writing. LOL! Big thanks to all those readers who haven’t given up on me, and still write and ask, “What’s next?” And, most of all, my deepest thanks to my beautiful wife, Jan – who, after over seventeen years, still hasn’t gotten tired of me! I love you, always and forever.
Like it? Hate it? Let me know – email@example.com
Link to the first story, which will help make this one a little more clear:
By Carrie Carr
The sound of heavy coughing from another room greeted Anne Weston as she stepped into the kitchen of the farmhouse. She kissed the wrinkled cheek of the older woman that stood by the sink. “How is she, Carole?”
“Been a rough day, I’m afraid. But I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you.” Carole dried her hands on a dishtowel and sighed. “Your visits this past year has been a godsend. I think it’s the only thing Michaela has to look forward to.”
Anne embraced her. “I just wish I could have found her sooner.” She lowered her face into Carole’s shoulder and fought back tears. Seven years prior, Michaela, “Mike,” Lawrence was trapped beneath rubble when her produce store caught fire. She suffered severe burns as well as recently-diagnosed lung disease. She was in end-stage COPD, and had been in and out of the hospital for the past six months.
“Don’t be thinking that way, hon. No one could have predicted her emphysema, and you certainly couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.” Carole cleared her throat before Anne stepped away. “Now, take a deep breath and put a smile on your face.”
“You’re a stronger woman than I, Carole. Mike’s your only daughter, and—”
Carole shook her head. “Not anymore. You’re as much mine as she is. Goodness know you’re here more than either of my boys.” She gently gripped Anne’s shoulders and turned her toward the next room. “Go on, she’s probably getting impatient to see you.”
Anne nodded and walked into the next room. Sunlight streamed in through the expanse of screened windows, which stretched across the length of the room. At the far end, a slight, white-headed figure, hunched in a wooden rocking chair, faced the warmth. Anne’s steps were muffled by the braided rug that covered most of the floor. She stopped short of the chair and straightened her own shoulders. “Hey.”
Mike turned and smiled. “Hi, I’m—” a harsh cough cut her greeting short. She covered her mouth with a handful of tissue and struggled to get her breath.
“Sssh.” Anne knelt beside her. She rested her hand on Mike’s other arm until the coughing subsided.
Mike grimaced and wadded the tissue before throwing it in the nearby plastic bin. She closed her eyes while Anne lightly stroked her arm.
“Good news,” Anne whispered, as she tried to ignore the bloody wads of paper in the trash. “Because of how Halloween falls this year, I’m getting the entire week off. We finished recording the pureed pumpkin episode late last night. I go back tomorrow to do a few extra shots, then I’m done.” She was the star of a locally seen cooking show.
“Pureed?” Mike asked. “Do I want to know how you pureed it?”
Anne laughed. “Probably not. Let’s just say I had to bring several changes of clothes to the taping.”
“I can’t wait to see it.” Mike held out her hand, which Anne accepted. “Come here.”
Not having to be asked twice, Anne got up and found herself in Mike’s lap. She put her arm across the chair back, careful not to put too much contact on the burn scars that covered Mike’s neck. “Have I told you lately how much I love your eyes?”
Mike laughed softly. “Just about every time you’re here. Lord knows they’re about the only thing on me worth seeing.”
“Ha! A lot you know, smarty pants. I happen to enjoy being here with you.” Anne ignored the side of Mike’s face that had been burned. Instead, she traced her finger across Mike’s smooth cheek. When the other woman relaxed, Anne leaned forward and kissed her. She decided to enjoy what time together they had left, instead of obsessing over the loss of the woman it had taken her seven years to find.
It all started seven years ago, when Anne was an assistant producer for the local cooking program, “Grammy’s Kitchen”. On her way home one evening, she decided to take an unfamiliar exit instead of being stuck in traffic. A few wrong turns later, she saw a local farmer’s market and decided to stop for directions.
Once inside, Anne was almost bowled over by a smug woman, who was moving boxes of produce. After exchanging a few terse words, Anne was more than ready to leave. Unfortunately for her, when she asked a question at the register, they called the owner over to answer. Mike Lawrence seemed much too pleased at their introduction, but helped Anne – and wrangled a dinner invitation from her.
When Mike neglected to show up at Anne’s for dinner, that should have been the end. But she was also supposed to deliver produce to Anne’s show the following day. She had been a no show there, as well.
It was bad enough to be stood up personally, but Anne couldn’t tolerate someone making her look bad at work, too. Once she was finished for the day, she drove directly to Mike’s market to find out why.
Mike had been adamant about making the delivery, and told Anne she couldn’t find her apartment for dinner and had lost her number. Instead of fighting, Mike offered to cook dinner for Anne. They went upstairs to Mike’s small apartment and had a wonderful evening.
The following day, Anne checked and found no sign that Mike had delivered anything to the station. She returned to the market and went off on Mike, who showed her the signed receipt. Neither one of them could understand what happened. Mike asked Anne to meet her at a nearby Italian restaurant for dinner, to make up for any confusion.
After being stood up, again, Anne was certain something was going on, and she was determined to get to the bottom of things. At work the next day, she got the older log books from security and returned to her office to investigate.
Glancing at the logs, she opened the one from the year 2001. As she had feared, on the date of October 25th, she found Mike’s signature. Flipping forward a few pages, Anne found her signature again – on October 31st. “Oh, my god. She did make the delivery. Seven years ago!”
With her heart pounding, Anne fished Mike’s business card out of her purse. It appeared more faded and wrinkled than she remembered, but she ignored that fact and tried to call the grocery. The telephone company recording advised her she had reached a number that was no longer in use. Frowning, Anne dialed the number again, getting the same result.
Now more frightened than confused, Anne picked up her purse and left.
The feeling of dread grew heavier the closer Anne got to the market. Once she turned off the freeway, she was surprised when the radio didn’t turn to static. She drove the familiar streets, noticing new landmarks that hadn’t been there before.
Her hands started shaking when she got to where Mike’s Produce was supposed to be. All that was left was a charred skeleton, weeds and trash scattered amongst the debris. Anne parked and stepped out of the Jetta, tears coming to her eyes. There was no lingering smell of smoke – the ruins were obviously many years old. She was at a loss as to what to do. With a heavy heart, she got back into the car and drove home.
It took Anne another week to hunt down Mike, who had been badly burned in the fire. After that, she spent most of her off time with Mike and Mike’s mother, Carole.
She and Mike grew close over the following year. After Mike was diagnosed with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Anne had wanted to take a leave of absence from her job so that she could spend more time with her. Mike had argued against it. She knew she didn’t have much time left, but she didn’t think it would be fair to Anne to put her own life on hold.
Anne walked across the set of “Anne’s Kitchen”, which was still a mess from the earlier taping. “A few quick scenes” had blossomed into a full day of shooting. Empty pans littered the counters and stove. Anne wrinkled her nose at the combined smells of too many takes. She rarely burned a recipe, but this morning she couldn’t seem not to scorch every pan. “Must be because it’s Halloween.” She was near her office when her cellphone vibrated from the back pocket of her jeans. “Damn!” She fished the phone out. “This is Anne.”
Carole’s voice trembled. “I’m sorry, hon, but—”
“Oh, my god. Is it Mike? What’s wrong? What happened?” Anne took her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk and hurried from the studio. She had been dreading this call.
“She’s been taken to First Presbyterian Hospital. I’m just locking up the house so I can get up there.” Carole paused. “You’d better meet me there.”
Anne jogged across the parking lot to her car. “Is she—?”
“They had to intubate her before putting her in the ambulance,” Carole said. “I don’t think she’s got much time.” Her last words were hard to hear over her crying.
“I’m so sorry. I’m on my way, Carole.” Anne blinked the tears away and set her phone in the seat beside her. “I need more time,” she begged to whatever deity could hear. “Please.”
“Damn it, get the hell out of my way!” Anne screamed. She was stuck in a traffic jam, miles away from the hospital that held her heart. “Come on!” She glanced in her rear-view mirror. “Ha!” With a savage jerk, she whipped her car into the right-hand lane. “Jerk!”
Anne ignored the honking cars she passed as she drove down on the right shoulder of the highway. The next exit was packed with other drivers, but she maneuvered around them. “Same to you,” she yelled at a woman who raised a middle finger toward her. “Happy Halloween, witch,” she grumbled. “What the hell is wrong with people today?”
The only lane available was the right-turn only lane. “Fine. I’ll try to get there by city streets. At least I won’t be stuck on the freeway.” Anne waved to the car behind her, which kept honking at her. “Thank you,” she said, as she turned right.
She drove several blocks before she stopped at a light. Something about the area seemed familiar to her, but she wasn’t sure why. The neighborhood was mostly residential, with middle income brick homes lined in fanciful-sounding additions. “Canterbury Estates,” Anne read aloud. “Echo Hills.” She snorted at the next one. “Flowering Oaks? I think someone ran out of ideas.” She slammed on the brakes when she came upon a small business. “What the—” Anne ignored the honking cars and swerved into the parking lot of the business.
“It can’t be.” Anne tried to turn off her car, but had forgotten to put in in park. She finally managed to park. Her shaky hand had trouble removing the keys, which dropped to the floorboard. She got out of the car in a daze and stared at the building’s sign.
“Mike’s Fresh Produce,” she whispered. “I don’t understand.” Anne looked at her wrist to check the time, but the watch Mike had recently given her for her birthday wasn’t there. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
She rubbed her bare wrist and walked toward the door. The safety glass was covered with a glare shield that was heavily scratched from years of abuse. An older woman opened the door ahead of her, and held it for her to follow. “Thank you.” A heavy case of déjà vu caused her to stumble.
The produce market was just as she remembered, from the way the shelves were neatly stocked, to the middle-aged man at the cash register. “Todd?”
The man looked up and grinned. “Hi there! She’s—” he pointed toward the back of the store.
“Right.” Anne shook her head and navigated the narrow aisle. She stopped when she saw a heavyset man reach for the woman by the door which led to the back.
“Back off,” the woman warned. She took a step away from the him and held her arms out in front. “Get the hell out of here.”
“Just remember what I said.” He turned and took an apple from the corner bin. “I’ll be in touch.” He brushed by Anne, the heavy scent of cheap tobacco waft along behind him.
Anne covered her mouth with her hand to keep from screaming. Less than twenty feet away, stood Mike. Healthy, fit and the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. “M…Mike?”
“Hey.” Mike adjusted the green apron around her waist and forced a smile onto her face. “I wasn’t expecting you here, today. Happy Halloween.”
Unable to control her actions, Anne stumbled toward Mike and fell into her arms. “It’s you,” she cried.
Mike looked over Anne’s head to Todd, who gave her a knowing grin. “Uh, yeah. It’s me, all right. Are you okay?”
Anne continued to cry as she buried her face into Mike’s shirt. She shook her head but didn’t speak.
“C’mon, Anne. What’s the matter?” Mike led her into the back room, away from the prying eyes of the customers. “Are you hurt?” She sat on a stool and pulled Anne into her lap. “Sssh. It’s okay.”
Anne sniffled and raised her head. She considered Mike’s unmarred face and traced her smooth cheek. “God, you’re so beautiful.”
Mike blushed and laughed. “If you say so.”
“I say so.” Anne cupped her face and pressed her lips to Mike’s. If the other woman was surprised, it didn’t show in her response. Anne felt Mike’s arms wrap around her and hold tight, as Mike deepened the kiss.
“It’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” Mike said, after she was able to catch her breath, “but what are you doing here? Was there something wrong with the produce I delivered this morning?”
Anne stood and adjusted her blouse, which had somehow gotten untucked from her jeans. “Delivered? What do you…oh. Right. No, I’m sure it was perfect.” She held out her hand and tugged Mike to her feet. “When I got here, you were arguing with a man.”
“That big guy. He seemed to be giving you a hard time about something.”
Mike shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. Just a misunderstanding.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Anne brought up their hands and kissed Mike’s knuckles. “Please. It’s important.”
Mike stared at the floor and shook her head. “Just a jackass who thinks we should pay protection money.” She sighed. “He said my uncle used to use their ‘security’, and figured I’d want to, also.” She tried to pull away, but Anne held on tightly. “Whoever heard of a protection racket in the suburbs, for god’s sake?”
“Maybe you should ask your uncle about it.”
“I can’t. He died last year. He was the first ‘Mike’.”
Anne felt a cold chill down her spine. “What happened to him?” She hated to see the pain in Mike’s eyes, but continued to push. “Was he sick?”
“Um, no.” Extricating herself from Anne’s grasp, Mike moved away and started to break down a pile of boxes by the back door. “I’ve got a lot to do, Anne. Maybe we can get together for dinner or something, later.” She ripped a lettuce box apart and threw the remains in a stack.
Anne was afraid that if she left, she’d never see Mike again. “Mike, stop.” She stood behind the other woman and touched her back. “Please.” When Mike turned around, Anne saw the tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Uncle Mike was shot by some idiot who thought holding up a farmer’s market was a good idea.” Mike shook her head. “They didn’t even take the damned money, just left him there, bleeding to death behind the counter.” She angrily wiped her eyes. “Please don’t bring this up around Todd. He’s Uncle Mike’s son. He was supposed to take over, but he has a lot of trouble with math.” She took a cleansing breath and straightened up. “We should be closing in about half an hour, if you want to wait. I’ll try to make up for my being a jackass by fixing you dinner.”
Anne glanced out the windows to see the shadows lengthen. It had been broad daylight when she came into the store. She was sure of it. “What time is it?”
“It’s six o’clock.” Mike smiled. “I thought a lady in your position would be wearing a watch,” she teased as she touched the light stripe of skin on Anne’s left wrist. “Maybe I should buy you one.”
“You did,” Anne answered idly, still staring out the window. “I mean, I do. Or did.” She knew she needed to talk to Mike, but the longer she was with her, the harder it was to remember why. She turned and looked into Mike’s eyes. “Did you say dinner?”
Mike laughed and gave her a quick peck on the lips. “Why don’t you go up to my place and relax, and I’ll help Todd get things settled? It shouldn’t take us very long.”
Something didn’t feel right to Anne. “Can I help you? With things around here, I mean. I do know my way around fresh vegetables, you know.”
“Are you looking for a job? I thought a television producer would get paid a lot better than a grocer.” Mike put her arm around Anne and led her toward the door. “We’re good. Go put your feet up and relax. I’ve got this.”
“Television producer. I’m not,” Anne was halfway up the stairs to Mike’s apartment when a sickening dread almost brought her to her knees. “No!” She floundered down the steps and rushed through the back door of the market. “Mike!” She looked around the back room, but only found neatly stacked boxes. The unnamed fear nearly choked her as she burst through the door to the market. “Mike!”
The market was empty, except for Mike and Todd. She appeared to be helping him count the money from the register. They both looked up in surprise at Anne’s frantic yell.
“Go ahead, Todd. You’ve got it,” Mike assured him before she stepped around the counter and headed for Anne. “What’s wrong?”
“You’ve got to get out of here.” Anne grabbed Mike’s arm and tugged her toward the front door. “We all do.”
Mike laughed and held Anne in place. “Is this some kind of gag? Are you trying to prank us on Halloween?”
“Damn it, Mike! I’m serious!” Anne broke free and ran to the door. She pushed against it, but it didn’t open. “No!” She looked around in a panic. “It’s locked!”
“No, it’s not. It just sticks, sometimes.” Mike stood beside her and gave the door a harder shove. Nothing happened. “That’s weird.” She put both hands on it and shook it as hard as she could. “Something’s blocking it.”
Anne sniffed and looked toward the back of the grocery. She saw a cloud of smoke seep over the top of the back room door. “It’s too late.”
“What?” Mike turned and saw the smoke. “Shit.” She looked at her cousin, who was still trying to count the money from the register. “Todd, come here and help me!”
Todd looked up and frowned. “I’m not done.”
“I know, buddy. But I need you to help me, real quick, okay?”
He closed the register and shrugged. “All right.”
The room began to fill with smoke, so Mike pushed Anne to kneel near the entrance. “Stay right here, okay?” Mike turned to Todd. “Grab that cart and help me break the door,” she yelled, to be heard over the sound of the fire. The back room was completely engulfed in flames that danced across the ceiling of the store.
Todd nodded. The two of them used the cart to ram the front entry. It swayed, but didn’t break. “It didn’t work,” he coughed.
“Running start?” Mike gasped, as she tried to breathe. They wheeled the cart halfway across the market before turning and running toward the door. The force of the collision caused the safety door to explode outwards. The added oxygen fed the fire, which immediately overtook the entire grocery.
The cool, sterile air held a tinge of antiseptic to the woman who hurried down the bright hallway. Her sneakers squeaked on the spotless tile. She paused at the doors marked Emergency, before taking a deep breath and going through. She stopped a nurse, who appeared miffed at the interruption. “Excuse me, I’m looking for—”
“Ma’am, you’ll have to check at the desk. I’m sorry.” The nurse turned and moved away.
Undeterred, the woman got to the desk. “Hello. Excuse me? I’m sorry, but I was told—”
The nurse closest to her smiled. “Yes, ma’am? How may I help you?”
“My daughter, Michaela Lawrence, was brought in a while ago. I’d like to see her.”
“Of course. Let me just check the computer.” The nurse tapped the keyboard and nodded. “Bay four, ma’am.” She pointed down the hall. “On the left.”
“Thank you.” Carole held her sweater closed with one hand, while her other hand held her purse against her side. She heard a commotion in bay four and knocked lightly on the door before going in.
A doctor and two nurses stood around a bed. One nurse was taking the patient’s blood pressure, while another scribbled notes as the doctor spoke in low tones.
“I’m fine,” Mike grumbled. She pushed the oxygen mask away from her face with as much strength as she could muster. “Get that away from me.” She looked up as Carole came into the room. “Damn. Hi, Ma.”
Carole edged between the nurses and looked down at her daughter. “You scared me half to death.”
Mike tried to sit up. “Not my fault. I wanted to call and tell you everything was okay, but these people won’t let me.” She coughed and grimaced. “Ugh.”
“Ma’am, if you’d just use the oxygen,” the nurse chided. “It’s for the best.”
“I can’t.” Mike sat up and brushed the nurse’s hands away. “I need to check on Anne. And Todd.”
The doctor finally looked up from his writing. “Mr. Lawrence is on his way to x-ray for his arm. Once we’re certain your oxygen level has stabilized, we’ll release you.”
Before Mike could speak, Carole touched her arm. “Who’s Anne?”
The nurse answered for Mike. “Anne Weston was brought in with them. She’s across the hall in bay three.” She firmly placed the oxygen mask over Mike’s nose and mouth. “Sssh.”
Carole squeezed Mike’s hand. “I’ll check for you, all right?”
Mike nodded and allowed the mask to stay in place.
Anne opened her eyes when she heard someone enter the room. She turned her head and pulled the oxygen mask away. “Carole?”
The older woman stepped further into the room. She stared at Anne. “Do we know each other?”
“You must be Mike’s mother,” Anne said, before she escaped behind the mask. The horror of the day was fading, but she still had vague memories of the other time. But even those were starting to slip away.
Carole nodded and stood next to the bed. “I swear, you look very familiar. You’re friends with my daughter?” When Anne smiled, Carole sat on the bed. “I’m usually very good with faces. I swear I know you from somewhere.” She looked directly into Anne’s eyes for a long moment, before she leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you.”
The cold wind cut through Mike’s thin, denim jacket as she stared at the ruins of Mike’s Fresh Produce. The building was a total loss. It had been almost a week since the fire, and she was still undecided about whether to rebuild or relocate. She felt a pair of arms circle her waist, so she turned and smiled. “Hey, you.”
“Hey.” Anne kissed Mike lightly on the lips. She rested her head against Mike’s chest and listened to her breathe. The strong, healthy sound brought tears to her eyes. What’s wrong with me? I don’t know why I’m feeling this way.
Mike stroked Anne’s hair. “Are you all right?”
“Never been better,” Anne said, as she looked up at Mike. “I love you.” Her eyes widened when she realized what she said. Too soon, you idiot! You’ve only known each other for—
“Yeah?” Mike grinned and lowered her face until they were breathing the same air. “I love you, too.” She sealed the declaration with a kiss.