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Invitation from a Stranger: A Flash Fiction Answer to Ann Carr's Challenge

MizBejabbers has been a professional writer/editor for all of her adult life. Before that, she was just a little girl storyteller.

When Ann Carr, a superb writer on Hubpages, first issued her challenge as part of her article "How to Edit to Sustain a Good Standard of Writing;...," her article piqued my interest as an editor. Then I got to the part in which she issued the challenge. When I saw the intro that was the inspiration for her challenge, my mind went blank.

The dry intro began:

‘Jemma walked up to the door of the house and rang the bell. There was no answer. She went round the back. In the back garden was a figure….’

Not Very Imaginative, Huh?

After I read some of the other writers' responses, I realized they could see what I had not seen; there was an opportunity here. Most responses were macabre or at least bordering on it. I wanted to write something different, not so heavy, but no mushy stuff or fluff. Soon my muse was hard at it, and the story unfolded. Here's my response:

invitation-from-a-stranger

Nobody Answered the Door

Jemma paid the cab driver and included a generous tip for she instructed him to return at 4 o’clock to take her home. Confidently, she walked up to the door of the small brick bungalow and rang the bell, once, twice. No answer. The note said he would be home all afternoon on Friday and asked her to please drop by at her convenience. It was from a J. Howland. She had been selling life insurance for nearly a year, and figured that he was a prospective client. Maybe he was around back.

invitation-from-a-stranger

She strolled down the blacktopped driveway past an old red trailer full of unfamiliar equipment. Interesting, she thought. I wonder what he does for a living? Around back a silver-haired man sat at a patio table with his back to her, but he arose at the sound of her footsteps and turned to face her. He was handsome for his age, but he didn’t look well. Still, the song, “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” popped into her mind.

Smiling, he greeted her, “Ah, Miss Smith, I believe?”

“Yes, I’m Jemma Smith, and you are Mr. Howland?” she returned the greeting, wanting to get down to business. But the setting didn’t look too business-like, and sales people don’t usually get formal handwritten invitations in the mail. Her cream silk blouse and yellow skirt could suffice for either business or a social call.

“Please, Miss Smith, call me Uncle Jerome.” He pulled out a second chair and motioned for her to sit. The day was lovely and inviting. The table was set with some light refreshments, including a pitcher of lemonade. “Would you like some?” His trembling hands picked up the pitcher and poured her a glass full, then refilled his own.

“Uncle?” Her brow wrinkled. She had no Uncle Jerome.

“Not really, I am just an old family friend, and I have no children,” he answered. "I have nieces and nephews, and it would be an honor to consider you a niece. Years ago, your parents were my best friends. I am terribly sorry that I could not come to their funeral. That accident was so tragic. I was still out of the country then. I guess it is never too late to express my condolences.”

Jemma nodded. She didn’t remember her parents speaking of a Jerome Howland, but they had grown up on this side of the city, so it was possible she just didn’t remember. She saw sincere sympathy in the stranger’s eyes. She shrugged and thanked him.

He passed her a plate of small cakes. Jemma took one and bit into it. Their conversation wandered pleasantly until he suggested, “You might want to see some old photos." He picked up a small box on the table, which he opened and handed to her.

He Handed Her a Small Box of Photos

invitation-from-a-stranger

She recognized a young version of her mother in the first photo, laughing as she was pulled along on water skis. “I took that photo of Katie; Bob was driving the boat,” he explained. Next there was a photo of three people laughing and holding up glasses of amber liquid in what appeared to be a bar. Her mom was sitting between her dad and Jerome. She went through the latest photos. As she viewed the rest, she realized that her father didn’t appear in any of the older ones. She asked why.

Jerome smiled pleasantly and said, “Katie was my best friend starting in first grade. We met Bob in college, and then we became the Three Musketeers.”

Continuing, he said, “You look just like her, the blond hair, blue eyes, right down to the dimples. She was so curious about the world and into everything. Bob was the quite one. I guess it’s true that opposites attract.” Then his eyes turned to her necklace. “Those look like the pearls I sent her one Christmas from the South Pacific. Are they?”

“Could be, I found them in Mama’s jewelry box after she died. They are beautiful, but she didn’t wear them much. I believe I remember her saying that a friend gave them to her for Christmas."

Jerome’s eyes glazed over and for an instant he was lost in thought. “I was a geologist and worked all over the world for 35 years. An ex-pat, you know. Your family and I kind of lost contact with each other. No internet then. Occasionally, I worked in remote places. Sometimes it took months to get mail from the states.”

“Why did you come back here?" She blurted.

“To die. Brain cancer metastasized. I have just a few weeks left and I wanted to spend it here in my family home. I invited you over because I wanted you to have these photos. I had hoped you would want them.”

Jemma’s jaw dropped, but her response was interrupted by a car honking in front of the house. She had lost all track of time. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I wish I could stay longer, but that’s my cab. Thank you for the lemonade and these wonderful pictures. I promise won’t forget you, Uncle Jerome.” Clutching the box, she jumped up and impulsively hugged him. She turned and rushed down the driveway to the cab.

Jerome’s eyes followed Jemma until she disappeared from sight. It was worth knowing he was dying and coming home just to get a glimpse of his only child. But a hug … that was to die for.

Starts Slowly, But Worth the Wait

© 2018 Doris James MizBejabbers

Comments

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on July 07, 2020:

What a nice comment, Peggy. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 26, 2020:

Oh, what a poignant short story! You are a master at packing so much into such a brief amount of words.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on May 23, 2020:

Thank you, Rajan. I'd hoped it was a surprise.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on May 17, 2020:

The twist at the end was unexpected Loved this story.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on December 03, 2019:

Hi, Umesh, thanks for reading and commenting.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 03, 2019:

Nice ending. Good reading. Thanks.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on November 30, 2019:

Luis, thank you for reading and commenting.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 30, 2019:

Great fiction

It's seem really happens in reality.

Thanks for the share.

Asad Dillz Khan from United Kingdom on November 06, 2019:

You're Welcome Miz!

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on November 06, 2019:

Asad, I love the fact that you liked it. Thanks for telling me.

Asad Dillz Khan from United Kingdom on November 05, 2019:

wow... wow... & wow... Very beautiful but sad story. I really love this amazing piece of writing! Thank you so much for sharing this masterpiece!

Robert Sacchi on July 17, 2019:

Thank you.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on July 16, 2019:

Robert, I think anthropologists have basically proved that nobody is entirely native to the Americas. I am contacting you with a private message through HP to give you some sources.

Robert Sacchi on July 16, 2019:

That's one of those things I wish I had the means to explore. I understand there were prehistoric communities that lived in places that are now covered by the Atlantic Ocean. I also understand that Native American legends fall into two categories. Some legends say they were always here, present day North America. Other legends say they came by boat. I wonder if there is some east-west correlation with these legend?

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on July 16, 2019:

Robert, I firmly believe that, and I'm glad that other people are exploring the possibilities.

Robert Sacchi on July 15, 2019:

It is possible their ancestors arrived on the continent by different routes.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on July 15, 2019:

Those tests are definitely fallible. 23andMe has changed my husband's DNA test result, so apparently his first one wasn't correct. Also, what is the deal with the people who have ancestral evidence that they descended from an eastern Native American tribe like Cherokee, Choctaw, etc.? Even the Cherokee Tribe is mum about their DNA, which apparently does not match the Asian derived western tribes like Sioux, Hopi or Apache.

Robert Sacchi on July 13, 2019:

That is very interesting. I do wonder if these ancestral DNA tests are as accurate as they claim to be.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on July 13, 2019:

I understand what you mean, Robert. It happened in my own family. In fact I did write an article about it. We were invited to join a Scottish clan organization in this country, but I couldn't afford it at the time. Later when my brother had a Y-DNA test, we found that although this was our ancestral clan, that genetically, we weren't related. There had been an intruder in the woodpile somewhere up the line. Now, I'm not sure that I want to join. I feel strange. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Robert Sacchi on July 12, 2019:

A touching story. Him not telling her she was his daughter seems so right. Usually I find such permanent secrets frustrating but not your story.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on December 12, 2018:

Thanks, Natalie. Somehow I missed your comment but that doesn't mean that I don't care about my readers. I really do, but sometimes the comments slip through my fingers. I appreciate your comment and I'm glad the story inspires you to see the original prompt.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on November 19, 2018:

I love this story Doris. I'm so glad you wrote it and were willing to share it with us. It inspires me to see what the actual prompt was. Thanks. Have a great Thanksgiving.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 22, 2018:

Roderic, I think I threw a few breadcrumbs down along the way, and you picked up upon them. Maybe Jemma will figure it out after she's had time to think about the gift of the photos. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Rodric Anthony from Peoria, Arizona on October 21, 2018:

This was nice. I hope that Jemma finds out one day that Jerome was her dad. I like the fact that Jerome did not want to destroy the idea of what Jemma's family is. As I read, I thought the ending would be that way. Loved it.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 18, 2018:

And your comment was beautiful, Manatita. I really appreciate it, especially the critique on flow. And of course, your calling it brilliant! Thank you.

manatita44 from london on October 18, 2018:

Miz,

I really loved this one. So beautiful! If Ann is giving a prize then you should definitely get it.

It was reading and flowing natural, way before the end but that last poignant touch was awesome too. A brilliant piece!!

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 17, 2018:

Pamela, thank you so much for your nice comment. I was afraid that everyone would guess the ending when they got to the part about the nieces and nephews.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 17, 2018:

Zulma, my muse didn't tell me whether Jerome married, but I really believe that he did not. After all, he does tell Jemma a little white lie that he doesn't have any children.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 17, 2018:

I love this story. i think you did an excellent job, and a suprise ending was suburb. Obviously, you met the challenge and then some.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on October 17, 2018:

Ooo...I like it. So did Jerome leave in a snit or did he genuinely feel it was the best for all concerned? Has he been carrying a torch for Katie all these years? I guess so or he would have thrown those pictures away. Did he ever find love with someone else? And if so, did it work out or was Katie always in the background in his mind?

There are so many ways this could go.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

You weren't so late, Ann. I just posted it late last evening. I knew your reasoning for the dry intro because I know what a colorful writer you are. I had some feature writing classes in college, but no creative writing or fiction. In my editorial page writing classes we occasionally were given subjects to write about, but no prompts, so this is new to me. Back then I'm afraid I might have failed if we had been required to write from prompts. This is great exercise.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Wow, Zulma, you've just about written it for me. The similarity between Jemma and Jerome wasn't planned by me. I originally had another name picked out for him, Joseph, but as I mapped out the story in my mind, I kept calling him Jerome. Bob was originally Bob, then Brad, then back to Bob, but Katie was always Katie. Funny how things like that happen.

Actually in my mind, the friendship led to romance between Jerome and Katie, but in college Bob slowly came between them. Katie jilted Jerome for Bob. They married and Jerome left. Jemma was a "7-month baby," so in this case, Jerome knew she belonged to him. What do you think of the story's going in that direction?

Ann Carr from SW England on October 16, 2018:

Absolutely superb, Doris. Thank you for such a great response to the challenge. It's well-written, drawing us in and painting a clear picture. The last line is perfect; clever.

I wanted the challenge intro to be bland to make people think, 'I can do so much better than that'! You certainly have, but then you know already how to write well without any hints from me.

I've added your link. Once again apologies for arriving late for this one.

Ann

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on October 16, 2018:

I like to think that Jemma's conception was a heat of the moment episode. Maybe Katie and Bob had a falling out, she turned to Jerome for comfort, one thing lead to another...

Maybe Jerome realised they had no future together and bowed out gracefully for everyone's sake, but especially for the baby's. He must have thought about Jemma or he wouldn't have bothered coming back and getting in touch. And Katie must have had a soft spot for him. I notice that Jemma and Jerome sound similar.

I think there is potential here for a novella at least.

Have a good evening, MizB.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Elijah, whenever I can, I like to write "hangers". I'm glad you enjoyed it. I will try to write another soon. Thanks for reading, and as always, for your comment.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Mary, I'm glad it was engaging to you. Sometimes it is hard to live up to these challenges, but I enjoyed this one once I got into it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Shauna, it could have really happened, I think. I'm glad it was heartwarming to you. It takes me awhile to warm up to a challenge, but I enjoy them. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Bill, I'm so glad that you enjoy my stories. I'm glad I found flash fiction. I can write creatively and still attract readers who don't have the time to read short stories. Thank you for such a complimentary comment, my friend.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Zulma, that is exactly what I thought about their losing touch and the excuse he gave. But that raised more questions, don't you think? Did Jerome leave because Katie was pregnant, and Bob picked up the pieces? Did Katie jilt Jerome for Bob? Did Bob even know? Sometimes I think I will elaborate on my flash fiction for longer stories for a book. Thank you. I always love your comments.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

John, loved your comment because it was so true. As I said, I didn't want it to be a mushy love story, so this came about. Thanks for your comment.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Rinita, I wasn't sure how this would go over. I like to write true to life stories with a twist. I appreciate your informative comment. Thank you.

Doris James MizBejabbers (author) from Beautiful South on October 16, 2018:

Flourish. I thought the same thing, but my muse didn't. Thank you for your comment.

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on October 16, 2018:

Aaaaaaah, Doris, You left me hanging!!!

Worth every bit of the effort that created a mystery to the end.

Thank you for sharing it and do it again soon.

Elijah NatureBoy

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 16, 2018:

You got me engaged in the story. It was an unexpected turn and a lovely one.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 16, 2018:

Wow, MizB. I love your take on this challenge! Your story warms the heart and could very well be a chapter out of a dying ex-pat's life.

Very well done!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 16, 2018:

I miss taking part in these challenges, but if I'm ever going to write another book, I have to draw the line somewhere. My absence is not missed, though, because of writers like you. It is a joy having you write these stories; it is a joy to see good writing displayed on this site; well done my friend.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on October 16, 2018:

I suspected he was more than an uncle to her. It was still a surprise to learn he was actually her father. I imagine that's why he and her parents lost touch with each other. Less complicated that way.

This was a lovely story, MizB, and I'm glad he got to see Jemma one last time. (sob)

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 16, 2018:

Oh, MizB, this was too ..... something....sad... kind of, but satisfying that he at least got to meet and a hug from his daughter., Wonderfully written and a great response to Ann's challenge.

Rinita Sen on October 16, 2018:

This is a beautiful story, one of the most beautiful I have read in recent times. It is so well-written. Being of the emotional nature such stories are difficult to put across. You expressed it so skilfully. Truly loved it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 16, 2018:

Send the taxi away! Stay awhile. What an ending! You are quite the storyteller.