November Free Fiction: As It Happens

November Free Fiction: As It Happens

A little sci-fi, a little feel good, follow along with Henrietta Happenstance's plight as she realizes just how uniquely positioned she is to spread joy and hope—-no matter where—or when—she might be.

     Henrietta Happenstance happened to be born in 1841 in an Appalachian Mountain blizzard, and though she’d spent her 67 years on Planet Earth spread out over many more than seven decades, the ever-present and ever-frustrating fight with dandelion seeds mucking up her line drying was enough to make her cuss.

      And she’d seen plenty enough in Ray’s Hollow to make her cuss.

      She grumbled under her breath as she shook loose her bedsheet from the clothesline, then gave the fabric a few more hard flaps to rid it of the white tufts. Dozens and dozens of seeds took to the light breeze, floating about their business and destined to take root in the dry, parched earth. Or in her ever-graying pixie cut which was now sticking to her head from the heat.

      Or, as it happens, right back in her clothes basket to aggravate and irritate her even further. Now the blasted tufts were free of the sheet, but nestling in her unmentionables down in the basket.

      Dandelions.

     She couldn’t get her grass to grow unless she watered, but then she couldn’t keep track of the modern rules and regulations on when irrigation was allowed and when conservation mode was in full effect, so she didn’t. She had no desire to borrow trouble from the local lawman, or even Clipboard Carl, who ran himself silly from neighborhood to neighborhood with his clipboard and tickets-in-triplicate, citing this grievance and doling out that fine.

      But she’d noticed her neighbor’s sprinkler head tsk-tsk-tsking last night and again early this morning.

      Carl would be around soon, no doubt. Clipboard and all.

      So, as it happens, the weeds grew, but her grass not so much. Not the lush, green blades her family had dreamed of having one day, anyway. She still remembers like it was yesterday—and somewhere, given how things are, it could still be yesterday. Yesterday, when her mother would snuggle her close in their “rented” wagon, the two “rented” mares rigged up and pulling the family away from the harsh mountain life that they could no longer tolerate with three children and one more on the way—due in the winter. Likely would be born in a blizzard. So as her father lightly snapped the reigns, and as the family traveled from one mountain range to another, Mother would dream.

      “We’ll have grass all around. And so close to the ocean you can hear the waves and taste the salt in the air.” Mother would throw her head back a bit, close her eyes and inhale deeply as if she were already standing knee-deep in ocean bathwater.

      Mother had gone nuts, just a little, at the arrival of a post sent by her sister, Aunt Marie, and marked from California, glittering with fresh Statehood and twinkling with promise. Even if they didn’t happen to hit gold (Aunt Marie and Uncle Milborne had arrived a day late and a dollar or several short), the Happenstances would at least have no more blizzards to deal with. Mother had wanted more children. Many more. And birthing in blizzards was not for her.

      So the Happenstances made the trek mostly in that rented wagon with two rented horses that Daddy had lied to the liveryman about and promised to have the set returned by the following weekend. He’d had enough money to pay the rental fee, but not to outright purchase the rig.

      The rental turned out to be outright thievery, so Henrietta had thought the family cursed.

      And that’s how she and her older brother ended up here in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Ray’s Hollow, Arizona.  Well, the curse and the lack of general direction of “west.” Internal compasses the Happenstances did not have. In Ray’s Hollow. Taking seedy laundry off the line in 103-degree heat. And not taking ocean-breeze salty laundry off the line in 70-degree California. Because the Happenstances happened to be cursed. She at the ripe old age of ten, and Marcus being an unfortunate nineteen at the time, when the ground shimmered and trembled ever so slightly at a pit-stop north of Phoenix. North of Phoenix because Mother was fearful of the sin of big cities from all she’d read in Aunt Marie’s letters. So they ducked (with no compass internal or otherwise) a jaunt too far south to avoid the blight that was Las Vegas.

      South (and back east, quite frankly, showing just how damaged the Happenstances’ collective sense of direction was) and north of Phoenix. To Ray’s Hollow.

      And just like that, the ground opened up and their cacti-laden route to their intended rest at Cacti Cottage Inn in 1851 tumbled the two siblings into a suburb of 1964 bungalows.

      Marcus and Henrietta were left to fend for themselves in a foreign future until Marcus was drafted into a war the young Happenstances had no knowledge of. Just like that, Henrietta was orphaned.

      A knot came up in her stomach at the recollections. At all the losses suffered in those early years. Ever so grateful that after Marcus left, the kind manager of Cacti Corner took her in in exchange for, of all things, laundry service. Manager Mike and his wife Dorothy loved and raised her as their own. Henrietta questioned this when she was old enough to put things together. Their response, as was the response of most people in these parts when dealing with hard questions, was simple. “Ray’s Hollowers stick together. We don’t ask questions.”

      Henrietta would always have a job at Cacti Cottage. And a place to live in one of the rooms if she desired. But she didn’t desire that. The inn was more than a little creepy, the rooms never behaving as they should. About the time she learned the layout, a new addition would pop up. Or an entire hallway would cease to exist.

      No. Working there was fine, and she was glad for the job.

      Living there? She saved up enough to buy a simple bungalow as far from the bustle of town as she could get. Away from the thousands of questions that no one answered except with “Hollowers stick together.”

      And, as it happened, she’d not needed to scrimp and save. Marcus, prior to his departure for Vietnam, handed little Henrietta the pocket watch their father had entrusted her brother with, along with a trouser pocket full of coins and bills. All of these things she’d innocently handed over to Manager Mike and Dorothy. To pay her debt. Unlike her horse thief of a father. Even at that young age, Henrietta understood the link between sin and consequences.

      Looking back, Mike and his wife could’ve auctioned off those items and bought five hotels along the California coast. But they didn’t. They stayed put. And they cashed in and invested those antique relics for modern currency and a savings account for Henrietta.

      Once the couple realized her work ethic landed on the positive side of responsibility, and once she’d reached the old age of twenty-five and had moved into her bought-and-paid-for bungalow, the inn’s managers sat her down and explained what they’d done with the Happenstance fortune.

      And it was a fortune. Mike expected Henrietta to leave his employ, and there’d be no hard feelings. She should travel the world. See what grand hopes and dreams she could muster.

      But Henrietta felt such a deep sense of gratitude and belonging at the hotel, that she stayed on. And on and on.

      And, as it happens, Cacti Cottage Inn—now under new management, of course—was expecting her in a few hours for a simple shift down in the laundry room. Well, yesterday the laundry room was “down.” Today, the facility could be on the top floor.

      She stopped asking questions about that ages ago. She went to work, did her job, and returned to her out-of-the-way bungalow.

      But, as it happens, her little home wasn’t out of the way enough. Turned out, that hole that spit and shimmered and shook and swallowed Marcus and her whole was about ten feet from her very own backdoor in her very own bought-and-paid-for backyard… Thus all the “grandchildren” showing up to spend a few days with Henrietta.

      Where future medicine could help children of the past live longer. Forever altering history and time, and…

      Thus the necessity of an addition built just off her backyard, overlooking the portal. Standing guard. Thus the purchase of so many baby monitors and, later, live-stream cameras sending images of the back yard portal directly to her smartphone.

      A wave of dizziness threatened to topple her off balance. She must be more tired than usual, a side effect of remembering, old age, and that blasted thirst. Henrietta’s throat was as parched as the ground as she pulled the last of the pillowcases from the line. She folded it and tossed it into the basket and fished out her water bottle. These days she was never more than an arm’s length from that bottle, the dryness in the back of her throat growing more by the day no matter how much she drank. She should visit the clinic again and get the results from her lab tests, but the good folks at Ray’s Hollow Medical would ask her about her grandchildren.

      She leaned against the clothesline post and finished off the rest of the water, but it wasn’t enough. The right back side of her throat was well and stuck to the back left side of her throat.

      She went to the spot just past the clothesline as she did multiple times a day. It was closed up tight, much to her relief. She didn’t think she had the energy to deal with an ill child today. She dared to put a foot over it and press down. Once, about twenty years ago, when she’d tested the hole with her foot, she’d lost one of her very favorite pumps through the shimmer. Made her cuss, it did. Not that she couldn’t afford new shoes, but that she had to imagine someone in another decade coming across a random footwear fashion and tossing the bright blue heel into a garbage pail. Or keeping it as a strange souvenir.

      Another wave of dizziness forced her eyes to close and she nearly toppled into the clothesline post. Maybe she’d have to face the clinic workers today after all. Her hands, wrinkled and knobby from decades of laundry duty at Cacti Cottage, tossed the bottle back into the basket. She gathered the laundry basket under one arm and headed for the back door.

      She’d have to face the questions about her grandchildren. And as it happens, Henrietta couldn’t keep track of the grandchildren. There were far too many coming and going all the time. The names and ages and points of origin were far too confusing for her. They weren’t even her grandchildren. Relatives of some sort, yes. Adjacent ancestors, perhaps. Cousins or an aunt. Or, well. Even the most robust of all modern genealogy tracking software couldn’t sort out Henrietta Happenstance’s family tree.

      So she had to lie to the good folks at Medical. For a good reason, she supposed. As good of a reason as her father had lied to the liveryman about the horses. To make a better life for his growing family.

      Henrietta supposed she was helping those kiddos have a better life. She figured word got around, or someone had a peek into the hole and figured their child would be better off in the future, where medicine and treatment can more adeptly keep up with illness and injury.

      She kept her entire spare bedroom stocked with modern layettes in bright, fashionable colors. Disposable diapers in all sizes. Formula, too—though the kiddos coming through the shimmer had usually never tasted anything but their mother’s milk, so feedings were quite the challenge.

      Henrietta had to be prepared for anything. They all had needed a quick wash up (and coming from the dusty, bathe-once-a-week mentality of the past to the shower-daily mentality of the now, sometimes the grime was deep-set). She’d change the little one’s clothing, cooing and ooing and singing songs her mother had sung—perhaps something that would be familiar to little ears. There was always a note attached to the child’s clothing or swaddle explaining the trouble. Fevers that wouldn’t abate in a six-month-old. Rusty nail through the foot of a two-year-old toddler. Festering pink eye in a five-day-old. The mother feared blindness for her child.

      Simple fixes for the modern world. Life-suckers in their timelines.

      After treatment at the clinic, Henrietta would take the child back to her bungalow, wash the original clothing as best she could, and redress the kiddo in their own decade’s appropriate attire. She continued the feedings and giving medicine if needed. She’d pen her own note in cursive scroll on paper she’d yellowed by soaking in tea bags, lest a crisp typewritten note on bright white paper draw undue attention to the family in the past. She’d explain what the medicine was and how to administer it or perform treatment with things the parents may have in their more vintage timelines.

      Henrietta kept volumes and tomes of books on the old west, prairie medicine, and Arizona in general. She’d become quite the history buff—not because she loved the period, but because she loved the babies coming to and fro from the period.

      But it was all lies on her end, nevertheless. And after about seven trips with various “grandchildren” to the clinic, Henrietta stopped keeping track. She never saw the same child a second time, and she had to wonder if the clinic nurses wondered what Henrietta was doing to all these “visiting grandchildren” for them to have such a wide range of maladies. Sometimes two a month.

      These children were never more than a few years old, never old enough to understand—or likely to remember—traveling for medical care against the currents of years. Henrietta would simply shrug at the phenomenon, nuzzle the child-of-the-moment against her chest, and offer up one of a dozen excuses that she’d kept in the back of her mind:

      “Us Happenstances just have a hard time with our immune systems.”

      “Us Happenstances have always had trouble with our tonsils.”

      “Us Happenstances can be quite clumsy.”

      And, the Ray’s Hollower on duty at the medical clinic would stop asking questions, treat the child, and then Henrietta would have a day or two to care for and love a little one before the hole in her yard would open up and she’d send the child back to the time from which he or she came. Or at least that’s how she hoped it worked.

      She couldn’t be certain.

      And there was no one to ask.

      Each time the ground glistened and sucked the child back to its own timeline, a tiny piece of Henrietta’s heart would go with it. Especially the little girl called Ellie with a bad case of staphylococcus infection. Simple for the 2000s, not so much for the 1900s. Tiny toddler Ellie with a head full of blonde curls and the brightest green eyes that, once she was cleared of the infection, sparkled like emeralds. When the shimmer opened up a week later for Ellie to go back to her time, Henrietta’s heart nearly broke. That was a few months ago, and her arms ached to hug the wriggling little girl again.

      And not being able to help herself, Henrietta scribbled a P.S. to her letter. “As it happens, I adore this little girl. More than I could ever express in words.”

       Henrietta struggled with the laundry basket to that porch door now. That was good. She was hot and thirsty. And so, so tired. She’d doubt she could carry a child from the portal into the spare bedroom for a wash-up, let alone trek into town with it. And lie.

      She checked her back pocket for her phone, but it wasn’t there. She glanced over her shoulder toward the clothesline. It must’ve fallen out…

      She managed to get one foot and the basket inside the porch door when another wave of dizziness overtook her. She knew she needed help. She stumbled back to the yard, hoping to reach her phone before she had no more presence of mind to dial the numbers.

      She put a hand out on the post nearest the house. A few more steps. She could see the black rectangle lying in the dusty yard. Guarded by a dandelion.

      She reached the far post, her knees putty under her weight, put a hand out, slid to the ground, and then…

      Nothing.

***

      Bright lights washed over Henrietta’s face, the glare burning her cheeks. She was supine on a hard surface. Cold air brushed over her body in great wafts. She blinked, her eyes watering. She reached up and felt the teardrop and traced its path along her wrinkled cheek. A foreign sensation, she thought, as she’d been so parched for so long that she’d not produced tears heavy enough to fall. Not even when she remembered her family, even Marcus.

      She reached up with her other arm, weak and shaky. It was covered in some sort of sleeve. She’d been wearing a sleeveless blouse to undo the laundry. Now she had a sleeve. Tight and smooth to her skin with patterns of ripples. She blinked hard again, bringing her eyes into focus. The sleeve was the brightest purple she’d ever seen. The ripples were like veins running all up and down. Her other arm was still bare. She glanced down to see the peach of her summer top. Still in her own clothes. Just a wild purple sleeve.

      “Henrietta? Are you okay?” A harsh, hushed whisper near her head. “I didn’t know what to do. I tried to pull and tug you into the porch to cool you off, but, well…”

      Henrietta, still foggy and barely comprehending, “Where am I?”

      “The clinic.”

      She took a deep breath. She didn’t smell the familiar antiseptic wash of the Ray’s Hollow Medical offices— a scent that was burned into her nostrils after dozens of visits with the children. She smelled something else—clean like lavender, calming but not overpowering. No chemical smells at all. The sleeve on her arm tightened and she felt that much more clear-headed.

      “What clinic?”

      “Ray’s Hollow.”

      She raised up to one arm and the owner of the hushed, harsh whisper came to her aid. A clank on the table behind her caused her to turn. There next to her was Clipboard Carl’s clipboard. She blinked again. And there was Carl.

      She tried to pull away, but Carl steadied her.

      “Like I said,” he whispered again, “I was in the neighborhood, your neighbors, they…” he picked up his clipboard, then set it down with a clank again next to her. “Well. That’s no matter. I found you collapsed in the backyard. I tried to right you on your feet. To get you to come to, but, well. The shimmer and shake and now. Well…”

      “Both of us? Through that tiny hole?” Realization made Henrietta’s skin prickle, gooseflesh giving birth to gooseflesh. “When are we, Carl? When?”

      “I don’t know. Future. Not back. Not old times. Man, I did that once, luckily the shimmer and shake was still opened and I hopped back in. That happened in Old Man Wicker’s—”

      “Carl!” Sometimes this man was worse than dealing with dandelion seeds. The nervous type. She’d dated him once, eons ago, enough to turn her off men for a good long while. “Focus.”

      “I don’t know. I just called for help when we came through and the neighbor called the ambulance.” He leaned in closer. “They let me ride with you. I told them I was your beau.”

      Henrietta moaned.

      “Henrietta. The ambulance didn’t have wheels.” He leaned in close and whispered. “It floated.”

      “Are you sure we’re in Ray’s Hollow?” Even with all the odd happenings, hovering vehicles seemed like a stretch for a town so small. Maybe down in Phoenix in the future. But Ray’s? Carl pointed to the wall. A hologram in purple and yellow spun and twisted with information. Henrietta’s name. A “Welcome to Ray’s Hollow Medical, Where Your Care Is Our Pleasure” scrolled underneath her vital signs. At least her heart was beating. At least she was breathing.  

      The sleeve on her arm tightened and loosened over and over. It didn’t hurt. It felt calming, and with each squeeze, she became more alert—and less thirsty.

      The door opened and a nurse clad in bright purple from head to toe smiled warmly. She was young, perhaps early twenties. Blonde curls poked out from under a medical cap. “Henrietta Happenstance. It’s a pleasure to see you up and alert. You were quite the sick lady. Let’s see.” She turned to the wall and whisked her hand over the screen without touching anything. “Your labs look much better now. When you came in a few hours ago, your throat was riddled with a nasty staph infection. We’ve not seen a case like yours in ages. One for the history books, that’s for sure.” She turned and winked at me.

      With eyes shimmering like emeralds.

      Ellie.

      She knows.

      She knows about the holes and the shimmers and the shakes. Ellie.

      “Oh my.” Henrietta managed. She’d sent little Ellie into the future and not at all back to her parents.

      “Oh my.” Henrietta’s stomach wrenched into a knot. The heartache those folks must’ve had over the loss of their little girl. No wonder another child hadn’t come through in so many weeks. The folks in the past must’ve thought that the lady on the other side who’d helped so many tykes had kidnapped their daughter.

      “Oh no.” Carl started patting her shoulder, but Henrietta shrugged him off. He must think her to be distraught over the diagnosis. Or the time travel. But she was a wreck over the baby mix up.

      The nurse smiled and turned back to the wall. “And mercy, were you dehydrated. What were you doing to become so ill and not take care of yourself?”

      Carl piped up. “I think she was doing laundry. Bringing it in from the line.”

      The nurse tilted her head and furrowed her brow. “From the line? What line?”

      Henrietta, her head clearer by the second which allowed her intense worry more wriggle room, intervened. “Chores. I was doing chores outside. In the heat. What is your name, dear?”

      The nurse smiled and placed a hand on Henrietta’s. “Carl,” she said to him. “Would you give Henrietta and me a moment? There’s water and coffee in the foyer.” He nodded and started out the door. “Wait.”

      He paused.

      “Here. You’ll need this.” She handed him a card from her scrub pocket. It shimmered like the hologram on the wall. And with her own whisper she added, “As it happens, your money won’t work here.” Carl, clutching his clipboard to his chest with one hand and holding the card up to the light with the other, left us alone in the room.

      The nurse sat next to Henrietta on the table. The young lady smelled of lavender, like the air, only sweeter. “I’ve read about you. I’ve seen your note you left with my mother the day you sent her completely healed back through time. I’ve kept that letter all these years.”

      It was Henrietta’s turn to furrow her brow and tilt her head in confusion. She’d have sworn this was Ellie. But this was Ellie’s child. “What year is it? You can’t possibly be Ellie’s little girl.”

      “You do live in Ray’s Hollow, right? We don’t ask questions. And the questions we do ask have so many different answers that we can’t figure it out. We just move along life, as it happens, floating in and out of time like, well, like dandelion seeds on the wind. Always seeking a new place to grow and thrive. To wish for better lives for all of us.”

      Henrietta could only nod. This girl’s take on dandelion seeds—and that dandelions hadn’t been eradicated here in… when was she again? “What year is it? What’s your name?”

      “Oh, I’m sorry. There I go. Being one of those that doesn’t answer questions right away. Habit, I guess. The year is 2106, and my name is Emily.”

      “Emily. 2106.” Math was never Henrietta’s strong suit. Timeline math in Ray’s Hollow could drive one to drinking. “So somewhere, sometime, you got separated from your mom? From Ellie?”

      “Yes, I did. That’s a long story. One to be recorded in the Ray’s Hollow Record Hall, for sure. Mother lived a long and happy life, according to the archives I’ve read. And that’s thanks to you. Thanks to your willingness to pour time and love and modern medicine into sick little kids.” She reached for my arm and removed the healing sleeve in one gentle motion. Emily brushed a tear away that Henrietta hadn’t realized escaped. They were flowing freely now, the hydration must be back online.

      Emily stood and faced Henrietta. “And now, it’s been my true pleasure to do the exact same for you.” She held out her arms, embraced the older lady and kissed the top of her head—much like Henrietta had embraced Ellie and kissed that mop of blond curls not so long ago.

      “And now, let’s get you back where you belong—you and your ever-so-skittish Mr. Carl—before the good-intentioned clueless ones starts asking their own set of unanswerable questions.”

      It was too fast. Henrietta wanted to stay here with her. Even on this hard table in this harsh light. She wanted to breathe in more lavender and take in more emerald glances. It was too fast.

      Emily sensed her hesitation. “You’ve got work to do in your timeline. I’ve got work to do in mine.” Wise beyond her years, Henrietta knew the young nurse was right. There was work to do. “Where, how?” Henrietta never knew when the portal would open on her own property.

      “We’ve come a long way in understanding some things. And some things don’t change. Head down the street to the Cacti Cottage. Room 782. But hurry. The room won’t stay there past the end of the afternoon.”

      “Room 782. There’s no seventh floor—” Henrietta stopped herself. She knew good and well that the cottage could have as many floors as it wished to have. “Thank you. Emily. Thank you.” The ladies embraced again, and Henrietta went to collect Clipboard Carl and make the portal.

      On their way, just a few blocks-worth of travel, they admired the hovering automobiles, the sparkle of the Phoenix skyline in the distance—the skyline was much the same, only shinier. And instead of airplanes circling for a landing, great blimps and hot air balloons dotted the sky. What a world!

      At her feet, the sidewalk was pristine and swirled with purples and teals like abalone shell, but she doubted that’s what it was. Likely a material with a name that hadn’t been invented yet. Marking the corners of each block, strong healthy saguaro cacti welcomed them. Their massive arms sported clusters of white blooms, as if wearing their best Sunday morning bonnets.

      All along the sidewalk were octagonal flower containers in matching purples and teals. And in them, of all things, bloomed bright yellow dandelions, interspersed with stems topped with tufts of seeds as big around as a softball, ready to shed their wishes and dreams into the clean air.

      Henrietta took it all in and smiled. And she was glad. Glad she’d stayed in Ray’s Hollow. Glad she’d helped all those kiddos live a bit longer somewhere, sometime. A second chance to grow and wish and dream.

      She was glad for the kindness and smarts of Manager Mike and Dorothy. Glad she was able to send money back to the liveryman’s family many generations later to pay for two stolen horses and a buggy rig. With interest.

      Even glad that Clipboard Carl was such a stickler for modern grass-watering penalties. Who knows what would’ve happened had he not found her, even if the falling into the time slip was an act of sheer clumsiness.

      Carl followed her gaze as Henrietta stopped to smell the dandelions. “You think we should tell them they’re propagating an invasive species?” Carl fiddled with his clipboard like it was his security blanket.

      “No.” Henrietta picked a stem with a perfectly round ball of white tuft as big as her fist. She blew the seeds, and she and Carl paused on their way to the shimmer and shake portal at Cacti Cottage, room 782, just for a moment to watch the dandelion seeds float on the Arizona breeze. “I think, as it happens, we should let them keep on wishing.”