Kismet is a short story that went through many rewrites before I presented it as part of The Ridgewood Chronicles series several years ago. This version is basically the story at Amazon, told in 4 chapters before I decided to rewrite it, add more chapters, and change the ending. Enjoy.
Copyright © Steven L Campbell
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
Heather Stevens drove her silver Volvo through Ridgewood’s frigid downtown district where the streets were ablaze with Christmas decorations and colored lights. The snowplowed streets glistened with ice, so Heather babied the drive toward her great-aunt’s bookstore. Main Street was empty; most of the town traveled to bigger New Cambridge, five miles away, where discount stores were a major attraction this time of year.
Her cell phone buzzed. Her husband Brian wouldn’t be home until after nine o’clock. He still had many student art projects to grade at New Cambridge University before he could start his Christmas vacation.
Heather returned the phone to her coat pocket and drove with both hands gripped around the steering wheel. Snow was falling again and she couldn’t afford another accident on these streets kept barely plowed.
With a population of almost eight thousand, downtown Ridgewood was small, with two banks, a post office, a few diners and bars, and Peggy’s Good Used Books sandwiched between a hardware store and a pizzeria. Heather managed to park off the street in front of her aunt’s bookstore and upstairs apartment, but she had to battle piles of snow to get to the store. Inside, a tiny bell above the door announced her entrance. The place smelled of lilacs and aging paper, two fragrances that immediately lifted her spirits.
She called out and announced her arrival while she hung her black parka on the tree next to the door. A distant voice responded from the back; she made her way through a tunnel of shelves and entered a room full of unsorted books and magazines. Plastic bags, cardboard boxes, paper sacks and volumes of text littered the room’s tables, benches and floor. In the center of the room, a fluorescent light flickered and buzzed overhead. Directly beneath it, her great-aunt sat at a tiny desk. The small woman with short hair dyed red stared into a computer monitor and slowly clicked at the keyboard below it. In front of Aunt Peggy’s desk, an old woman looked at Heather from a wooden chair.
Heather said to Aunt Peggy, “I’m really excited you were able to find that art history book for Brian’s collection. He has so many already, I was about to give up and just get him some pajamas and slippers.”
“My sister Jean’s granddaughter,” Aunt Peggy said to the woman. She punched a key and studied the figures on the monitor’s large screen. “Heather and her husband moved here in July. He’s from Pittsburgh, she’s from New Cambridge.”
“The lake,” the woman across the desk said. “Is that what brought you here?” She coughed and sniffled and took a Kleenex from the box on the desk, and then gently brought it to her blue nose. She was bundled in a heavy, brown fur coat, yet Heather saw that she shivered. Despite the folds of skin that hung below her chin, and her thin white hair that barely concealed sagging earlobes adorned with mother-of-pearl earrings, Heather felt certain that the woman’s age was several years less than Aunt Peggy’s.
The woman sniffled again. “They always come because of the lake.”
“But it’s Myers Ridge they don’t know about,” Aunt Peggy said. “Show her the diary.”
The woman took a black leather book from her coat pocket. She stood and waited for Heather to come for the book. When Heather did, the woman peered at Heather’s face.
“It’s her,” she said. She sat quickly and shivered harder.
Heather held out a hand and introduced herself. The woman said, “Forgive me if I don’t shake your hand. Please don’t take it personal.”
Heather looked quizzically at Aunt Peggy.
“Look at the picture,” Aunt Peggy said. Heather saw that she trembled, too. Aunt Peggy’s delicate look—like a china doll that could easily break—always made Heather uneasy. The woman was eighty-three, after all, and still living in Pennsylvania’s Snow Belt.
Despite the heat that nearly choked the room, Heather said, “Would you like me to turn up the thermostat?”
“No, girl,” Aunt Peggy said. “I want you to look inside the book.”
Heather found an empty chair near Aunt Peggy’s guest and opened the diary. Inside, on the first page, someone had scrawled JANE DOE in large blue letters. After that, doodles and scribbles filled its thin pages. She leafed through the book and a square Polaroid photograph tumbled out and fell to the floor. When she picked it up, a woman’s miserable, hollow-eyed face looked out at her from the black and white picture. The woman’s wide mouth grimaced with a queer bit of happiness on a face otherwise lined with anguish. An anorexic body became lost in an oversized sweatshirt, Capri slacks and metal wheelchair. Heather quickly turned the photo over. On the back, someone had elegantly written in blue ink, Jane—1943.
“What I’m about to say will sound incredible,” Aunt Peggy said.
“Unbelievable,” the other woman said.
Both women stared hard at Heather. She squirmed. Her hands felt swollen and prickly as she studied the photo and listened.
“Lord help me,” Aunt Peggy said. “It took me a long time to figure this out, and when I did … well, even I couldn’t believe it.” She looked at the other woman who stared down at her hands. “But thanks to modern medicine with its blood testing and DNA, the craziness became plausible, even if it did become crazier to believe.” She looked back.
“I’m sorry,” Heather said, “but whatever you’re trying to tell me, perhaps you should start at the beginning.”
“That’s you.” Aunt Peggy pointed at the photograph still in Heather’s grasp. “Can’t you see the resemblance?”
“Don’t be silly.” Heather swallowed. She looked at the photograph. “This isn’t me.” She waved the photo at Aunt Peggy. “Stop messing around. I still have Christmas shopping to finish, presents to wrap, pies to bake.”
“That’s a picture of my mother,” the other woman said.
“See,” Heather said and frowned at Aunt Peggy. “Why would you say such a thing?”
“Because you’re my mother,” the woman next to her said. “I’m your daughter.”
“This is crazy.” Heather began to stand.
“It’s true,” Aunt Peggy said. “We can prove it.”
The overhead light sputtered, as though affected by Aunt Peggy’s insanity. The sputtering turned the old women’s movements into jerky motion as they looked at each other and then back at her, like in a Nickelodeon movie from long ago. Heather felt almost transported back in time. Then the sputtering stopped and the room was almost bright again.
“I’m leaving.” Heather stood.
“Please,” Aunt Peggy said. “It’s up to you to see that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Heather tossed the diary and photograph on Aunt Peggy’s desk.
“You owe it to yourself and to me,” the other woman said. “I don’t want the next me to grow up isolated from her real parents.” She reached out and touched Heather’s right hand. A large spark of static electricity snapped. Heather jumped back and yelped while the woman slumped forward and fell hard to the floor.
For a moment, time moved in slow motion. Then, Aunt Peggy was at the woman’s side, checking for a pulse.
“Call 911,” she said to Heather.
Heather rubbed at the pain pulsating through her wrist and arm as she started toward the phone on Aunt Peggy’s desk. Suddenly, it became difficult for her to breathe. The pain grew, traveled to her shoulder. The room shifted and turned; her stomach flip-flopped. She stumbled from the desk, managed to sidestep the two women on the floor, and staggered to the bathroom at the back of the room. She fell against two tables before she fell through the bathroom door. On her knees, she vomited loud into the toilet. Her body shook violently. When she finished, Aunt Peggy stood at her side.
“I-I’m … f-freezing,” Heather said. She pushed herself up, into Aunt Peggy’s embrace. Then she stumbled along as Aunt Peggy led her to the desk.
The two looked at the corpse on the floor; a green afghan covered the body. A siren sounded from far away. Outside, December wind whipped against the store; a window rattled.
“Stay away from Myers Ridge,” Aunt Peggy said. “Please promise me you’ll never go there.”
Heather swallowed and felt sick again. “Aunt Peggy,” she said. The room began a slow twirl. She tried to focus her eyes, located the window and watched large flakes of snow swirl past. A flashing light from the ambulance outside caused the twirling to increase. She closed her eyes and said a small prayer for herself and the dead woman. When she opened her eyes, a paramedic was bandaging the red and angry welt that appeared on the back of her hand.
“I’m okay,” she told the concerned paramedic, and was glad when he left her.
After the body and paramedics were gone, Aunt Peggy returned to the room. Heather was standing, feeling better, although the room still spun when she turned.
“You should go upstairs and rest,” Aunt Peggy said.
“I’ll be okay.” Heather started to leave.
“Don’t forget the diary,” Aunt Peggy said. “Read it. Please. We’ll discuss it later.”
Heather turned and was forced to close her eyes as the room whirled. The diary was placed in her hands and she was led to her coat. She may have kissed her aunt goodbye, but while she shuffled to her car, she wasn’t sure. Not even the winter chill brought her back to her senses as she sat in her car and watched through the icy windshield the lights go off downstairs in the bookstore.
The drive home went unnoticed as her mind repeated the events at the bookstore; questions whirled. At home, she popped some popcorn in the microwave, stared at the TV, then curled up on the sofa and fell asleep.
Her dreams were washes of senseless images. Then a hand touched her shoulder and reality flowed over her like a cold ocean wave, chilling her. She tried to smile at Brian, but her face wouldn’t work, so she stared at the sight of him for several moments before she broke into tears and bawled.