I'm going to enter this short story in a contest. It's been expanded. Originally 3300 words, it's now nearly twice as long. I'd love some feedback.
Return to Cinder
A Short Story
By Kristy Tate
For Angelique, the other woman in my future grandchild’s life.
Inspired by actual events. A mechanical malfunction detours a woman’s quick road trip, upsetting not only her weekend plans, but forever altering her future.
Angela left the wedding earlier than she’d planned, but later than she should have. A cold winter sun tipped near the horizon of the empty Nevada sky. Scrub oak and cacti littered the sunbaked ground. An occasional tumbleweed dared to cross the two-lane highway that cut through the desert. An audiobook helped her putter through the hours. She’d chosen Les Miserables more for its length than its storyline—she’d seen both the musical and the movie— but somewhere between Coaldale and Tonopah, the narrator’s voice sputtered and coughed before falling silent.
Angela glanced at her dashboard. Strange. The lights and gauges seemed to work.
She tried the radio. White noise filled her car. At first, the sound seemed as empty as rushing wind, but after a few moments she heard sharp clips of a foreign language. She spun the radio dial to the right, searching for another station, but only barks of the strange language greeted her. Russian? No, that wasn’t it. German? That didn’t sound right either.
Suddenly, the radio fell silent. Her eyes darted up to the rearview mirror, seeing only murky dust clouds behind her as they rolled off the spinning tires.
What if the car broke down? The last town she’d driven through was nothing more than a gas station, a café, and a general store. The only car she’d spotted had been a patrol car parked at the lone intersection with a mannequin behind the wheel, probably as a deterrent to speeders trying to run away from such a dead-end sort of place.
Vegas was the next major city. With one hand on the wheel and the other in her purse, she rummaged for her phone. It, like the radio, was dead. Knowing it should have been fully charged, she tried turning it on. The screen remained dark. She plugged it into her car charger and began to hum a few lines from the song Castle on a Cloud.
Miles flew by and boredom settled across her shoulders. She tried the radio a few more times, but even the white noise with the muted foreign conversation remained silent. A glance at her phone told her that it was still dead. The charger hadn’t helped at all. Apprehension tickled her imagination. What if there was something wrong with the car’s electrical system?
She pulled off the road, unsure of what to do next. Climbing from the car, she rolled her shoulders and tried to ease the nervous tension pinging up and down her spine. She knew she was on Highway 95—she hadn’t veered off the freeway except for at that quick stop in…what was the name of that town? She leaned against the hood and worried at a hangnail on her pointy finger. A breeze lifted her skirt and her spirits.
You’re not lost, she told herself. You just need to turn around and get back on the right road. You’ll be in Vegas by sundown and you’ve driven to Vegas from Gilbert so many times you could do it in your sleep. If she had to, she could spend the night in Vegas with her cousin Gabby. She leaned into the car and glanced at the dark dashboard. She had no idea how much gas she had. She didn’t know what time it was. She obviously wasn’t heading in the right direction.
She gave herself a small shake and a quick silent lecture on letting her imagination run wild.
How far was she from Area 51? Wasn’t it strange that the US had military ammunition depots surrounding the infamous outpost closest to the nation’s largest Magnesium mines? Magnesium, aliens, military outposts…she was drawing random conclusions out of clues that had no reference to each other. She was bored, tired, and longing for home.
Jody’s wedding had been a hurried, thrown together, last minute affair. The way you do anything is the way you do everything… Jody lived her entire life flying by the seat of her pants and expecting everyone who loved her to come dancing when she sang. But Angela loved her cousin, and so she’d made the twelve and a half hour drive for the ten minute ceremony in a Reno casino chapel. She’d even worn the red dress Jody had picked out for her.
But at this moment, sweat was pooling between her breasts and the red chiffon was clinging to her legs—and not in a good way. Angela bent at the waist and let her hands dangle toward her toes. She righted herself in time to see a black and white patrol car aiming for her.
The police car drew along beside her and rolled down his window. A grandfatherly sort of man bearing a strong resemblance to the picture on the package of her favorite oatmeal smiled at her. Sunlight glistened off the sheriff badge on his chest. “Howdy, ma’am. Looks like you got yourself some problems.”
“I’m not sure…I mean the car runs fine now, but everything on the dashboard is dark.”
The sheriff rolled his car in front of hers, climbed out, and hitched up his belt as he ambled toward her. “Sounds like an electrical problem.”
Angela lifted a shoulder. “I thought so, too.”
The sheriff studied the fading sun. “Best bring it in and let Lester take a look at it. That’s our local mechanic. You could try for Vegas, but it’s a good two hundred miles away. If you ended up stranded on the road…well, let’s just say it’d be a fair piece to walk in those fancy shoes.”
Angela glanced down at her red sparkly high heels. “I have more practical shoes in my bag.” Still, the thought of wandering in the desert for miles scared her.
“Why don’t you follow me into town? I’ll call Lester and let him know you’re coming.”
Angela agreed, got back into her car, and tried to start the ignition. It clicked, but the engine didn’t turn over. Her shoulders sagged in defeat.
The sheriff climbed from his car and headed her way. He took off his wide-brimmed hat and scratched his bald head. “Looks like this car ain’t going anywhere on its own. I put in a call to Lester to bring his tow truck.”
Angela’s thoughts sputtered to her list of things she needed to get done this weekend. The briefcase beside her contained dozens of legal documents she needed to review to make sure all the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed. She couldn’t trust her assistant, Carol, because she was new. Irritation flashed through Angela. She didn’t really understand why she seemed to blow through assistants the way policemen munched through donuts.
“You okay here on your own?” The sheriff’s eyes twinkled with concern mixed with pity. “Lester should be here in a shake of a pig’s tail.”
“I’m fine.” Angela glanced at her briefcase. She carried her work with her everywhere. She believed in using her islands of time wisely. It’s what made her successful. After the sheriff left, Angela tried to roll up her window, but of course it wouldn’t budge. The electrical panel, she reminded herself. A warm wind blew through the car. She didn’t remember rolling down the other windows, but she must have. It was nice now, but she knew it would get cold as soon as the sun set. She wondered how far Lester had to come and exactly how long did it take for a pig to shake its tail?
Angela clicked open her briefcase just as a puff of breeze blew through the car. Her papers lifted into the air and sailed out the window.
She scrambled after them, knocking her briefcase to the floor. She jumped out of the passenger door. She stared at her life’s work dancing in the sky. She didn’t know which one to chase; they all seemed to be flying in different directions. She leaped for one, then another, but they floated just beyond her reach as if a cruel puppeteer had attached them to strings and was intentionally yanking them skyward.
Angela huffed and placed her hands on her hips. She could draw up more documents…
Just then a truck pulled into view. Angela shielded her eyes to better watch Lester’s tow truck rumbling her way. He pulled in front of her car, backed up, and dropped the large hook before climbing from the truck. Lester reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t say who. He pushed back his cap and grinned at her. “Got yourself stuck?”
“Well, I’m happy to take a look at it for you, but we better get a move on before that storm blows in.”
Angela glanced at the purple clouds gathering on the distant hills.
“Looks like a nasty one, too,” Lester said.
She gathered her overnight bag and now nearly empty briefcase from her car. She looked around for her papers, but there wasn’t a single one in sight. Where was her phone? After a few moments of frantically searching, she abandoned it and tottered on her high heels to the passenger side of Lester’s truck and climbed in.
Moments later after the Lexus was securely hoisted mid-air, Lester joined her. With the windows rolled down they pulled away. Something crunched beneath the tires.
Angela yelped as if she’d been bitten by a dog and scrambled out of the truck without waiting for Lester to stop. She hit the ground hard and ran to her car. Her smashed phone was now a glittery pile of glass and plastic shards.
“Everything alright?” Lester asked when she climbed back in the car.
She could only stare at him.
He asked her where she was headed and where she’d come from. She told him about the wedding.
“Got someone waiting at home for you?”
“My husband is on a hunting trip with his brother’s family.” Mark had begged her to join him, but when Jody’s wedding came up, she was glad she had an excuse not to go. She loved Mark ’s family, but a whole week of hanging out in the woods was not on her to-do list. Not that any of that was Lester’s business.
Lester’s eyes crinkled with kindness and he tried to soften the blow of his next words. “I’m just not sure how much I’ll be able to do, it being the weekend and all. Tomorrow’s the Sabbath…”
“You’re Mormon?” she asked.
“How’d you know?”
“It takes one to know one, I guess.” She realized who he reminded her of, her Uncle Jib. A large man with a big laugh and an even bigger heart.
“I hate to tell you there ain’t no hotel in Cinder.”
He nodded. “Closest town for a hundred miles. You might not feel like it right now, but you’re actually lucky your car chose to break down where it did.”
“Lucky…” He was right. That was definitely not how she was feeling.
“There’s a ward party planned for tonight. Brother and Sister Jenkins got their mission call and all their kids are in town to send them off big time.”
She heard the longing in his voice. “That sounds lovely…I hate to make you miss it.”
“Whelp. Let’s see what we can do to get you back on the road.”
Lester began to fill her in on the Jenkins, their kids, and all the other townsfolk who would be at the party. When Angela didn’t respond with more than a murmur or an occasional nod, Lester abandoned the conversation.
A comfortable silence filled the cab, and Angela found herself wondering about the papers that had flown away. After a few miles, raindrops began pelting the windshield. She imagined them soaking her documents and turning them to mush. She sucked in a deep breath, realizing that if not for the sheriff, she would have been stuck in the storm a hundred miles from anyone and anything.
Lightning flashed as they drove into town. Welcome to Cinder, the sign read, population 368. They passed a Mormon church, a general store, a diner called Suzy’s and a gas station/mechanic’s shop. Lester pulled the truck alongside the shop.
“Ain’t much, but it’s home.”
Home. She thought longingly of her home with Mark. It would be empty. Silent. The cool beige and creamy décor a welcome relief from her hectic career. She belonged there. She didn’t belong in this tiny town.
A warm light poured through the windows of the chapel across the street. People hunkering beneath umbrellas and raincoats dashed across the parking lot and through the open door.
Lester nodded at the church. “If you’re hungry, that place right there is your best bet. Suzy already closed her diner.”
“I can’t just crash their party!”
“Why not? They’ll be happy to have you.” He threw the car into park. “Don’t tell them you’re a member. Let ‘em think they’re doing missionary work. They’ll be filling you up with green Jello salad before you can say howdy.”
Angela swallowed. “Maybe I can just hang out at the library…” When she realized that she hadn’t seen a library, she added, “or in your waiting room.”
“Nah. Ain’t got a waiting room. All my customers either wait for repairs at Sister Suzy’s, but seeing how she’s closed…”
Angela took the hint. She gathered up her bag and purse, thanked Lester, and tried to dodge raindrops as she splashed across the street to the chapel.
Conversations hushed as she pushed through the door. A man with a large silver belt buckle greeted her with an outstretched hand.
“I’m Angela,” she said, aware that everyone in the foyer had stopped to listen. She explained her car problems.
“Well Angela,” the big man said. “I’m Bishop Baxter.” He held out his hand and motioned at a woman across the room. She trotted to his side. “And this here is Sister Baxter. If Lester can’t fix your jalopy anytime soon, we’d love to have you stay with us.”
“Oh no, I can’t do that,” Angela said even as a quiet dread filled her, letting her know that this was exactly what was going to happen.
And it did.
The Baxters lived in a small brick bungalow a block past Main Street. Sister Baxter led her down the hall to the last door on the left.
“This is my craft room,” she said. The room was dominated by a queen-sized bed adorned with a hand-pieced quilt and a large collection of embroidered pillows. The walls were lined with shelves filled with dolls, candles, wood plaques with scriptures painted on them, balls of yarn, rolls of fabric, and a large collection of sewing notions. A sewing machine sat on a desk beside a window and a peg board with dozens of spools of thread hung beside it.
“Bishop calls it my crap room,” she added in a hushed voice. “But don’t tell anyone he uses that sort of language.” She chuckled and winked. “He does like to let his hair down when he’s at home. Not that he has much hair to speak of.” She paused and fumbled with her apron. “You’ll be alright in here? I know it’s not much…”
“No, this is great. Thank you.” Angela dropped her bag on the bed and glanced around. “Do you have a phone I could borrow? I’d like to let someone know where I am.”
“Sure thing, sweetie. The cell service is spotty way out here, but we got a land line. I’ll get it for you.”
She disappeared and Angela took a seat in the chair in front of the sewing machine. Her mom had a Singer machine just like this one. It had to be forty years old.
Sister Baxter returned and handed Angela the phone. “Well, I’ll give you some privacy so you can call your husband. Church tomorrow morning is at ten and there’s a linger longer afterwards and rumor has it Maureen will be bringing her famous brown-paper bag apple pie, so you won’t want to miss.”
“Huh, thank you again.” The phone felt heavy in Angela’s hand. She couldn’t call Mark—he was hunting in the High Uinta’s and prided himself on being off the grid. All of her other contacts were in her phone. She was embarrassed to admit that she didn’t even know her daughter’s telephone numbers. The only number she knew was her mom’s land line.
Her thoughts skittered back to her last conversation with Mom. They’d argued over Erma, Mom’s latest house guest who had suddenly left and “accidentally” took Mom’s laptop and cell phone with her. Mom had a habit of rescuing lame ducks, bringing them into her home, and lending them money that, of course, was never repaid.
“Why does Mom have to throw her money away on strangers and weirdos?” she’d asked Mark. “If she has so much money, why can’t she help pay for the girls’ tuition?”
“Darlin,” Mark had drawled, “we don’t need your mom’s charity and there’s plenty of people who do.”
Mark, of course, had been right. But still…Angela wasn’t ready to call her mom. She didn’t know who to call. She went to bed feeling disgruntled and misplaced.
She had just started to drift off when she heard the unmistakable sound of lovemaking coming from the next room. How old were these people? They looked like geriatrics but they sounded like teenagers.
Right before he’d left for his hunting trip, Mark had wanted to fool around. He’d made a comment about how he’d brushed teeth—which was about as romantic as he ever got. And she’d brushed him off. What had been her excuse? She couldn’t remember. Had she a contract to look over? Something that couldn’t wait? Angela fluffed a mildew-smelling pillow and placed it over her head. Then, she silently started to cry.
The next morning, the sermons focused on charity. In her bright red dress and sparkly shoes, Angela felt overdressed compared to the rest of the congregation. Everyone seemed to be about her mom’s age—seventy going on eighty. The women all wore polyester dresses, saggy pantyhose and flat-heeled shoes. The men wore dark suits, white shirts, bolo ties, and belts with ornate belt buckles. After what she’d heard the night before, she couldn’t bear to look at Sister and Bishop Baxter, but they were hard to avoid since the both sat on the stand—he directly behind the podium and she seated at the organ.
The speaker droned on. Typically, Angela scrolled through her phone during Sunday services, but since that couldn’t happen, she found herself following along. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
The words rankled. It wasn’t that she faulted her mom for taking in every Sad Sally and Moronic Mac, but…well, maybe she did.
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.”
The closing song was Because I Have Been Given Much.
Because I have been given much,
I too must give;
Because of thy great bounty Lord,
Each day I live;
I shall divide my gifts from thee
With every brother that I see
Who has the need of help from me.*
Angela could hardly choke out the words. Once she promised herself that she’d call her mom immediately after church, she felt better.
But she’d forgotten about the linger longer. And the brown paper-bag apple pie really was amazing.
“Aren’t you a sweetie,” Sister Clemson said when Angel complimented her. “I’d be happy to show you how to make it.”
“If you could text me the recipe, I’d really appreciate it.”
“I don’t text, dear.”
Of course you don’t, Angela thought. The whole town was trapped in a Mayberry RFD time warp.
“And it’s not the sort of recipe you can just read. You need to see how it’s done. Maybe you could come by tomorrow, and I can show you.”
“Oh, but I’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
Sister Clemson answered with a knowing a smile. “Well, we’ll see.”
As soon as she returned to the Baxters, she asked to use the phone. With the scripture from 1st Corinthians playing tag with the lyrics of Because I Have Been Given Much in her head, she needed to talk to her mom with growing urgency.
Because I have been sheltered, fed
By thy good care;
I cannot see another’s lack and I not share;
My glowing fire, my loaf of bread,
my roof's safe shelter overhead
That he too may be comforted,
She locked herself in the crap room and dialed her mom’s number.
“Oh sweetie, I’m so glad you called,” Mom said. “I just hate it when we bicker.”
“Me too, Mom,” Angela choked out the words. “I’m sorry.” She cleared her throat. “And I’m sorry about Erma. Have you heard from her?”
“No, and I don’t think I will.” She gave a sad little sigh. “I think she’s gone for good this time.”
Angela thought about asking about the laptop or cell phone, but decided not to.
“Tell me about the girls! I bet the boys are sniffing around their dorm rooms!”
It bothered Angela that her mom always wanted to know about her daughters’ love lives, but seemed to have little interest in their studies or internships, but whatever…She filled her mom in on her daughters’ latest flings and escapades.
“What’s that, Polly?” Mom said.
Angela realized Mom was talking to someone else. Laughter peeled through the phone.
“I have to go, sweetie,” Mom said. “Listen, we might not be able to talk again for a while, but I want you to know how much I love you.” She added in a voice thick with tears. “Goodbye, darling. Give everyone my love.”
“I have to go. Polly, wait just a sec, oh, bother, right…Goodbye, my angel!” The line went dead.
Angela stared at the phone. She thought about calling Mom back to ask what she meant that they wouldn’t be talking again for a while. Was Mom planning a trip? Where would she go?
A soft rapping on the door interrupted her thoughts.
“Come in,” Angela called.
“The quilting guild meets in the basement, you’re welcome to join us.”
“Oh, okay, thanks.” Angela bit her lip, debating. She tried calling Mom again, but no one answered. She wanted to call her sister, but didn’t know her cell number off the top of her head. Frustrated, she decided not to worry about her mom and went to join the women of the quilting guild gathered in the basement.
At first, she’d been horrified when Lester told her that it would be several days before the part he needed would arrive. She couldn’t imagine how she’d pass the time, but Sister Baxter and other members of the ward had happily filled her days. She’d helped Sister Clark plant her tomatoes. She’d joined the quilting guild as they made blankets for refugees, and then Sister Nelson needed help cleaning out her basement.
Three days later, Angela left Cinder with a working car and a happy heart. It seemed the whole town gathered to say goodbye when Lester finally declared her car safe for travel.
“Take care,” Sister Baxter said, wrapping her in warm, tight hug.
“Be safe,” Sister Clark said, taking both of Angela’s hands in hers. “Now, I got your address alright so I can be sure to send you some of my tomato jelly?”
Angela nodded and blinked back tears.
“God speed, girlie,” Lester said, tipping back his hat and giving her a grin.
Angela climbed in her car, started up the engine, and waved goodbye. She didn’t care that her briefcase was empty because her heart was full.
After quickly finding her way back onto the road, she arrived home five hours later. The audiobook version of Les Miserables kept her company. After unpacking her things and taking a shower, she pulled out the thank you notes she used to send her clients. She frowned at the heavy cream and gold embossed stationary. They were expensive, lovely, but somehow not right…professional…cold. She needed something that could convey her gratitude for the reminder that life could be simpler, joyful, and full of meaning and service.
On a whim, she pulled out her paints. Of course, she hadn’t painted a thing in several years. Not since her girls were little. She expected to find the watercolors dried and hard, but with a little bit of water, they worked just fine.
She made cards for the Baxters, Sister Clark, Lester, and a collective one for all the ladies of the quilting guild.
After that, she pulled out her easel, a canvas, and her oil paints. She had just slipped on her old smock when she got the call.
“Where have you been?” her sister Dorrie demanded.
She told her about her time in Cinder.
“Well, Mom died.”
Sunday? “I talked to her on Sunday. She seemed fine. What happened?”
“A heart attack.”
Grief blindsided her, but after a few gut-wrenching moments, wonder surpassed the pain when she remembered that her mom had a sister named that Polly had died more than sixty years ago, before Angela had been born.
“When’s the funeral?”
“We decided to hold a memorial after the school year when Frank can come.”
That made sense.
“Do you want me to come and help go through her things?”
“Not necessary,” Dorrie said. “I know how busy you are.”
“Right.” Busy. She thought about pressing the matter, but decided against it. Knowing Dorrie, she’d distribute all of Mom’s possessions among her own children before Angela would have time to look over any of it.
She chided herself for her unkind thoughts and Mark’s words floated in her mind, We don’t need your mom’s charity, and there’s plenty of people who do.
Life resumed. Work went on. Mark came home and she greeted at the door in a negligee. It was all the same, but different. Angela began leaving her work at her office and filled her islands of time in new ways. She taught herself to make tomato jelly. She bought some fabric and joined a local quilting guild. She created a permanent place for her easel in the den and started painting again.
One evening, Mark interrupted her painting session. “What are all these cards?” he asked as he shuffled through the mail.
Angela pushed the hair away from her face with the back of her hand, put down her paintbrush, and reached for the cards. The words, RETURN TO SENDER, ADDRESS UNKNOWN was stamped across each of them.
“These are the cards I made for the people I met in Cinder,” she said, turning them over, searching for a clue as to why they’d been returned. “I must have gotten the zip-code wrong.”
She pulled away from the easel and padded into her office. After wiping her hands on the hem of her paint smock, she settled in front of her computer, turned it on, and typed Cinder, Nevada into the search bar.
“This can’t be right,” she murmured.
Mark peered over her shoulder. “What?”
“There’s no Cinder, Nevada.”
“Could you have been in California?”
“Try it anyway.”
“Maybe you’re spelling it wrong.”
“No…I saw the sign.”
“Ah…a sign.” Mark joked.
“It’s not funny.” Angela’s fingers flew over the keyboard as she searched for…wait. The only person she knew by their first name had been Lester—everyone else had been simply brother or sister. But Lester…she had paid him with a credit card. She pulled up her bank card statement. But the three days she’d been in Cinder were surprisingly free of transactions.
“He fixed your car, but didn’t charge you?” Mark asked. “Can’t be much of a businessman.”
“Maybe just not yet…” She dropped her forehead to the desk. “Am I crazy?”
Mark put his hand on her shoulder. “You are one of the sanest people I know.”
“Thank you.” She straightened her shoulders. “I’m not so sure…”
“What else could have happened?”
“I blacked out, had some sort of episode—”
“Met a town full of aliens…” Mark quipped.
“Whatever.” Angela tried to laugh but fell silent. “I’m still glad it happened.”
“Then I am, too,” Mark said as he pulled her into his arms and hugged her. She settled against him with a sigh.
Three days later a package without a return address arrived. The postmark read Cinder, Nevada. Angela set the package on her kitchen counter, almost afraid to touch it.
Mark handed her a pair of scissors. “Open it.”
“You do it.”
“Nope. It was your alien encounter.”
Her hands trembled as she cut through the brown postal paper and cardboard box. There, wrapped in a swath of calico fabric, lay a mason jar of jelly beside a handwritten card.
Thank you for your lovely visit. We all so enjoyed getting to know you a bit better, and pray that you know how much we love you. Take care, Sister Baxter
P.S. You should sell your paintings at the Gilbert Art Walk.
“Huh,” Mark said as he peeked over her shoulder. “Did you talk about painting while you were there?”
Angela fumbled through her memories of her time in Cinder—the place that seemed to exist only in her mind. She didn’t remember talking much, but rather she had let the conversations wash over her. She’d been surrounded by the laughter, the gossip—a part of it, but not a contributor.
In fact, she realized, that was an apt description of her life. Until Cinder.
“No. I don’t think I did. I’m not sure I said anything at all.” She puzzled over her time in Cinder for days, months, and years, but eventually, when she thought about it, she always smiled. And although the events of those three days blurred into one smear of a happy memory, a line from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables rang clear, “There is nothing like a dream to create future.”
* Music by Phillip Landgrave (1975)
Lyrics by Grace Noll Crowell (1936)