A River Trickles Through It

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Shannon Schuren

river low
Photo Credit: Zen Sutherland

The two women followed the path that led over the walking bridge and back to the main property. “How soon will you be moving in?” the realtor asked, tucking the contract into her briefcase as they reached the driveway of the old mill.

“As soon as possible. I’ve been staying at a hotel in town, and I can’t wait to get out,” Mel answered.

“A hotel?” Rowan squinted. “You must mean Douggie’s place. Roach motel is more like it. But it’s the best Little Hope has to offer. So, what are you going to do with all this land all by your lonesome?”

Mel had to smile. Now that things were official, Rowan was more gossipy neighbor than real estate professional. “I’m going to turn it into a one-stop wedding venue. I’ve already got the church, and the top floor of the mill can serve as dressing rooms. If I take the basement apartment, that leaves the entire main floor and the yard for receptions.”

Rowan turned back to the river. “It could work, but I daresay you’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“What kind of work are we talking about?” The deep voice seemed to come from the trees, and Mel started as two men approached from a path at the bottom of the hill and rounded the bend of the river.

Rowan’s smile cooled. “Wyatt. Finn. Come to welcome Melora to town? How neighborly of you.”

The first man shoved his hands into the pocket of his jeans and grinned, a lock of chocolate hair falling into his eye. “Ain’t it just.” He extended his hand to Mel. “Wyatt Donovan. I live just up the hill.”

Mel took his hand, which was warm and rough, his grip firm. “Melora Jasper. I just bought this place.” Which, she realized, was probably the most obvious thing she’d ever said. Her cheeks turned pink. “I mean, we just signed the papers. It’s official.”

His eyes narrowed for the briefest of seconds, so quickly that Mel may have imagined it.

The other man stepped in, a tall lanky blond with skin that looked like it spent more time outdoors than in. “Finn Lachey. Welcome to Little Hope.”

“So you’re some sort of wedding planner,” Wyatt interrupted.

“Actually, I’m an ordained minister.”

She probably couldn’t have surprised him more if she’d slapped him across the face. Finn dropped her hand as if it were on fire and Wyatt shifted his feet. This was usually the response she got from men when she told them, and though sometimes it was disheartening, she’d learned to use it to her advantage. She wasn’t sure why she’d chosen now to break the news to them, other than the fact that Wyatt seemed a little to sure of himself and Rowan didn’t seem too fond of either of them.

It didn’t help that she found them both attractive.

“A minister, you say.”

Rowan showed off a toothy grin.

“You plan on marrying all those couples yourself?”

“I do,” Mel agreed. “It makes things easier.”

“What church are you affiliated with?” Wyatt asked.

“This one,” she snapped, clenching her fists before forcing herself to relax. He couldn’t know how much that question rankled.

“So,” Finn said, clearing his throat after a moment of awkward silence, “I was wondering if you’d be willing to let me put up a sign. Seeing as how it affects you now that you’re a landowner.”

“Finn is our local activist,” Rowan explained, as Mel examined the sign.

“Stop Proposition 23,” she read.

“They want to build a hydroelectric plant up the road,” Rowan said.

“First they want to dam the river,” Finn said, his face reddening, “which will kill it.”

“You seem to feel pretty strongly about it,” Mel said.

“It’s my life,” he said simply. “My brother Tucker and I run a rafting company. If the river dies off, so will we.” He stared off into the distance for a moment, then seemed to collect himself. “If you’d be willing to put that up, I’d be very grateful. Rowan.” He nodded at them and turned and walked back into the woods. Wyatt said goodbye and followed.

“One last thing. You said your daughter had her pictures done here? Do you think there’s any chance I could use some of them? I mean, for brochures and such, once I get the place cleaned up.”

“Absolutely,” Rowan said. “They’re on Wedbook. The Burnett-Gustman Wedding. Take a look and let me know what you think.”

Two weeks later, Mel was all moved in. She tucked the last empty box into the storage closet under the stairs and dusted off the seat of her jeans. Then she grabbed her coffee mug off the counter, blowing on it as she ascended the stairs from the basement to emerge in the large main floor. It was one big and airy room, with a high, beamed ceiling and wood plank floors. The focal point was the picture window, which took up nearly a full wall and looked out over the river as it snaked through the back end of the property, around her little island, and came back past the mill. It was a view she knew she’d never tire of, and neither would her clients.

At least, that’s what she was counting on. That and the quaintness of the tiny church were the two main selling points for this venture which she’d staked her entire life’s savings on, and then some.

She sipped her coffee as she stepped closer to admire the view. In a place like this, it was easy to believe in the presence of God. If Mel wasn’t careful, she’d be praying left and right. But organized religion left a bad taste in her mouth. She wanted to connect with the Big Guy on her own terms. Like her father always said, God didn’t go in for all that ostentation. He liked his churches tiny, that way he didn’t have to raise his voice.

Just like her church.

She pulled on the barn jacket she’d hung on a nail by the door and headed out for a tour of her new property. The water was so clear and crisp. She kicked off her shoes and socks and slid into the water. The red and gray pebbles were smooth on her feet; it was less of a chore and more of a treat to move forward with the current, which occasionally gave her a nudge but mostly swirled gently against her calves.

The riverbank was clean, if a little overgrown. She moved around the bend, toward the path that led up the hill to her neighbor’s house. The thought of having Wyatt Donovan as a neighbor unsettled her a bit, and she stumbled. As she reached out a hand to steady herself, she saw something narrow and black tucked between the rocks.

“Snake!” she shrieked, backpedaling. She landed on her butt with a splash that she hoped didn’t attract the filthy animal.

But it wasn’t any snake hidden in the rocks. It was a pipe. And it led straight into the river.


Mel paced in front of the mill as she waited for the Department of Natural Resources agent to arrive. The dispatcher had promised to send someone out as soon as possible.

A car pulled up beside her, and Wyatt Donovan stepped out.

“Ms. Jasper,” he said.

“I don’t have time right—” she broke off as she realized he was wearing a uniform. “You’re the DNR agent?”

His grin widened. “Did I forget to mention that?”

“Yeah, you did.”

He tapped his clipboard. “So, the dispatcher mentioned something about a possible source of contamination?”

She nodded, her thoughts back on the hose. “Follow me. It’s near the path you were on the other day, actually. You could have stepped right over it and never even known.”

She stopped at the foot of the path and waited for him to catch up. He was moving slower, scanning the riverbed from bank to bank, his eyes on the rocks at her feet. “So where is it?”

“Right here.” Mel flipped over a rock. Nothing there. She rocked back on her heels, considering. She’d been in the water at the time, so maybe she’d misjudged. She flipped over the one to the left, then the one to the right.


Wyatt Donovan’s expression was completely blank.

She snorted, causing her bangs to flip up and flutter back down. “It was here.”

He shrugged, a little one-shouldered gesture, but she caught it.

“I’m not a liar, Mr. Donovan.”

“Didn’t say you were.” His tone was neutral, but there was a light in his eye that made her bite her tongue.

“Maybe it was a snake after all,” she heard herself say, her voice loud and false against the clear sound of rushing water.

“Maybe.” This time, the smile didn’t reach his eyes.


Mel couldn’t sleep, plagued by nightmares in which watering the garden turned into a life or death wrestling match with a big, black snake. Giving up, she got out of bed and booted up the computer. She’d been meaning to check out Rowan’s daughter’s pictures, and she just hadn’t gotten to it. She logged onto Wedbook and searched for the bride and groom, then clicked on the tab for photos.

She smiled at one titled, “Throw her in!” The photo showed the bride and groom pretending to fight. The groom had his wife around the waist, and looked ready to hoist her into the water behind them. Several of their friends had left comments. Among them were, ‘Do it already,’ ‘Not the dress!’ and ‘That water looks deep. Hope she can swim. LOL.’

Mel studied the screen. Huh, she thought to herself. The water did look deep, much deeper than the river that currently trickled through the property. Could it be a difference in the time of the year? She glanced at the wedding date printed at the top of the page. A few days shy of a year ago.

She clicked off the computer and wandered upstairs to stare out the window. Was she imagining it, or was the water level noticeably lower? Was that what Finn had meant about the river dying? She’d assumed he was referring to the dam, but this was potentially more serious. If the water was just gone, there was no way to get it back.

But gone where? Evaporation? Global warming? And then her gaze strayed back to the bend, back to where she’d seen the pipe. She knew where the water was going. At least, she knew how it was going. She just needed to prove it.

She slipped into her jeans and pulled on a black sweatshirt. She grabbed a flashlight, but it turned out she wouldn’t need to use it. The full moon was high in the sky tonight, glittering off the river like shards of glass.

As she rounded the bend, she heard a twig snap in the trees. She froze, vulnerable and exposed in the moonlight.

“Who’s there?” She shot the flashlight beam into the darkness, and was rewarded with the sound of cursing, followed by a crashing sound.

“Turn that goddamn thing off.”

She lowered the light but kept it ready to use as a weapon for whomever came out of the woods.

Wyatt stumbled out, clutching his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“Going blind. What about you?”

“I figured out what the pipe is for.” As soon as they were out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. The pipe had to be his. Why else would he be out here in the middle of the night? “I mean, not that it’s any of my concern or anything,” she backtracked.

He peered in her direction, then broke into that infuriating grin. “You think it’s me, don’t you?”

“You’re trying to run me off this property.”

He shook his head. “Nope. But I plan on finding the bastard who is.”

“He’s not polluting, you know. He’s stealing the water.”

Wyatt frowned. “Why?”

“Don’t know. But look.” Mel had recovered enough from her shock to begin digging. She pulled aside a rock to reveal the black tube, which went all the way down into the water, fully submerged. She traced along its length, then tucked her fingers around the end. The force of the suction pulled them in like a vacuum.

Wyatt crouched down to watch her, then turned slowly to stare up the hill.

Mel rose to stand beside him. “Let’s follow it and see where it comes out.”

He looked ready to protest, but after one look at her face, he relented. “It cuts right through the heaviest brush. I’ll go first. Stay close, and don’t make a sound unless you get into trouble.”

Mel nodded, hoping fervently they didn’t see any snakes.

Finally, they reached the top and emerged into a clearing, which as Mel’s eyes adjusted to the moonlight once more she realized was someone’s backyard. The pipe trailed alongside the garden and ran through a hole in the side of an old barn.

Wyatt swore softly, a look of regret on his face.

“Who is it?”

Mel was so focused on his answer that she didn’t hear the man behind them until he cocked his rifle.

She froze, and automatically raised her hands. Turning slowly, she saw a man who looked a lot like Finn staring down the barrel of his gun.

“What the hell are you two doing snooping around here?”

Wyatt had his own hand on his hip, and Mel realized he might be armed, too. So much for peaceful country life.

“We know about the water, Tucker,” Wyatt said.

He lowered the gun. “What about the water?”

“You’re siphoning it off into the Coral. That’s why your business is doing so much better than Finn’s.”

Tucker chuckled. “You’re joking, right? Don’t think I haven’t wondered why Finn is having such a hard time. But it ain’t because of me.”

“Well, someone’s diverting that water.” Wyatt took another step closer, only to be stopped by another voice.

“It was me.” Finn stepped out of the shadows.

“You?” Mel studied his face for a clue to the mystery. It was there, in the dark shadows under his eyes, in the clenching of his fists. “Proposition 23,” she said softly.

He nodded. “That dam will destroy this town. The river will run dry, the wildlife will die off.”

“So you sabotaged your own business?” Tucker demanded.

“I had to. It was for the greater good. I figured once those surveyors came out, they’d see how low the river was and have to rethink their plans. After all, a little trickle of water isn’t going to give them the power they need to run that plant.”

“The surveyors were in today,” Wyatt said softly. “I had to drive them around.”

“And?” Finn’s eyes were big in the moonlight, his skin so pale Mel could see the vein throbbing in his temple.

“And it worked. They aren’t going to put the dam on Vermilion River.”

Finn slumped with relief.

Wyatt turned to Tucker. “They want to put it on Coral.”


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, WI with her husband and three children. She finds writing both emotionally rewarding and the best way to quiet the voices in her head. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Big Pulp, Concisely Magazine, Howls and Pushycats, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: schurshan[at]gmail.com

Gogo Knows Best

Boots’s Pick
Shannon Schuren

Voodoo Doll Dotees
Photo Credit: April/elasticcamel

Your maman is so good with needle and thread, her Gogo Ezrulie used to say, she could even mend a broken heart.

As Marie stitched the doll, she prayed fervently that she’d inherited that gift. Because something was broken between her and Manny, something hard to name and even harder to fix. If it hadn’t been for the baby, she might not have tried.

Manny was big and dark and wild, a bull in her fragile china world. And though at first she’d found this exciting, the cracks were starting to show. Where he had once been chivalrous, he was now overbearing. Once accommodating, he was now demanding.

It all began with the tea.

At first, it was just a niggling thought in the back of her head. An old recipe from her Gogo, her maternal grandmother, a tea that pregnant women drink to promise a successful delivery. But Gogo had been gone a long time. Surely those remedies had died with her.

But it wouldn’t let go. It gained voice, then momentum. Soon the very idea was a constant drumbeat in her soul, drowning out all other thoughts. The only way to quiet it was to drive down to the swamp, gather the moss, and brew the tea.

She shouldn’t have told Manny. She thought he’d laugh; the crazy cravings of a mother-to-be. Instead, the argument had opened a gulf between them that was littered with the memories of the foul names he’d called her and the accusations he’d thrown. It was up to her to close that gulf, and the old ways were the only ones she knew.

As she stopped to admire the doll’s shiny black eyes and primitive yarn smile, the phone rang. She started and drove the needle through the cloth body and into the palm of her hand. Blood welled up, droplets already soaking the fabric of the tiny dress.

It was Manny, sounding as if he’d been on a two-day bender. Had she cursed him? Given him some sort of hex potion? If not, did she know of some way to get rid of his terrible headache? Something that wouldn’t bring the wrath of God down upon them both?

As she hung up the phone, she glanced at his portrait, hanging upside down on her mantel. It would be a simple matter to turn it, to reverse the headache. But Marie had another idea.

She dressed in one of Manny’s shirts and a pair of old jeans, then drove to the cemetery. As she crouched in the dirt to fill her cup, she saw one of the doctors from her pharmaceutical route kneeling beside a nearby grave. What must he think of her now? But without her black bag of samples and her practiced smile, she was merely a spirit in oversized flannel, and he looked right through her.

Back at home, she burned the rest of the Spanish moss, the cloying odor heavy and thick in her closed-in apartment. She longed to stand at the balcony, to feel the breeze from the bayou on her face, but she resisted. Her neighbors were staid professionals, more likely to consult their therapists than a voodoo priestess on matters of the heart. If they came to her door, she didn’t know how she’d explain the pools of candle wax and grains of salt scattered across the kitchen floor.

She was surprised that she still remembered the recipe for a gris-gris, but she shouldn’t have been. Like her Gogo always said, the memories of childhood are fast forged and last forgotten. She mixed the ingredients along with red pepper and herbs, and some old, dried mistletoe berries she dug out of her Christmas decorations. These she ground with a pestle on the altar of her Corian countertop before pouring it all into a little drawstring bag.

Before she left, she poured hot coffee into a Thermos, then opened the wound on her palm to let several drops of her own blood fall into the rich, dark brew. For binding, in case the doll didn’t work. She stirred it, screwed on the cover, and gathered it up along with her other gifts.

Manny met her on his front porch, his bloodshot eyes wide and accusing.

She took in his rumpled clothing, his messy hair, his swollen lips. The lipstick stain on his T-shirt. The smell of perfume clinging to him like a five-dollar whore.

“I need whatever goddamn concoction you’ve brewed up,” he demanded by way of greeting.

Wordlessly, she handed him the coffee. She felt their baby squirm in happiness as he gulped it.

“I’ve made you something else,” she said, offering him the doll.

He pushed it aside and pointed at the little sack in her hand. “What’s that?”

“It’s a gris-gris,” she began.

He ignored her and snatched the bag, emptying the contents into the Thermos and then mixing it with his finger.

Marie thought about telling him that the gris-gris was for keeping, not for eating. That the graveyard dirt was for protection, and that the mistletoe berries, though highly poisonous, promised fidelity.

And then she thought about the lipstick on his shirt. And the love bites on his neck.

And said nothing.

She smiled sadly as he downed the coffee, the blood-flecked doll still clutched in her hand.

Her Gogo had another saying: A quick death is a snake’s only friend.


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, WI with her husband and three children. She finds writing both emotionally rewarding and the best way to quiet the voices in her head. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Big Pulp, Concisely Magazine, Howls and Pushycats, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: schurshan[at]gmail.com

Merry and Monroe

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Shannon Schuren

She keeps it hidden in a box under the bed.

She only keeps the bed—the same uncomfortable one she’s slept on since childhood—because it is high enough to house the box, which fits snugly beneath the tarnished frame, which holds the coiled springs, which lie beneath the torn mattress, all of it covered by the quilt hand-sewn by her grandmother.

She takes comfort in these layers. They are all that muffle the voice when it calls. Teasing, pleading, wounding. She tries to ignore it, has faced the sofa in the opposite direction so she doesn’t have to look at it. Still, the loft is sparsely furnished. It is easily heard or seen from anywhere in the apartment.

She used to worry that visitors would ask questions.

Luckily, no one has ever come.

She took the loft on a whim, something temporary until she made her mark. The gray walls hadn’t suited her then, but she wasn’t going to be here long enough to bother. Now, ten years later, the only splash of color in the room is the framed photo on the wall of herself at eighteen. She is beaming a smile reserved for moments of utter joy, a smile her lips have long forgotten. She is like a goddess, her blonde hair teased and sprayed and washing over her shoulders like a river of liquid gold, her sequined gown shining like jewels in the floodlights. One arm clutches a bouquet of roses; the other is raised to hold the teetering crown in place upon her head.

Sometimes, she wakes with the smell of the roses in her nostrils—that heady mixture of earth and fruit, of life and promise. Her skin is flushed from the heat of the lights and the thrill of the moment; her head throbs from the bobby pins being jammed against her skull, a pain so delicious it makes her cry.

She was supposed to do more. Change the world, or at least travel it. She’d thought about college briefly, thought more about dating college men. Education itself was for ugly girls with no talent, or so Monroe tells her. Girls who live in one room walk-up apartments on the bad side of town and who eat tomato soup from a can for supper. And sometimes not even for those girls.

She eats over the sink, then rinses the can and plastic spoon before recycling them. It is time to dress for work. Perhaps the blue dress tonight, or maybe the red. It doesn’t matter. She is invisible, even to those who pay to see her.

She kneels by the bed and runs her hand across the bumpy leather of the box. Her fingers fit perfectly into the worn grooves in the plastic handle, and she no longer feels the repeated bumping on her thigh as she moves down the three flights of stairs to the street outside, the weight as heavy and familiar as the door to the vestibule, the snow packed against the curb, her own thoughts.

The bar is full by the time she arrives. She slips in through the side door, catching sight of herself in the glass door. Her hair, once the color of sunflowers, has now faded to the same dull brown as the watered-down rail brandy. Her eyes are as gray as the smoky air inside. She belongs now, just like the regulars hunched protectively over their drinks, or the bartender, wiping the same liquor spills with the same dirty dishrag.

In the back, she wrestles the box onto the table. Her hands are shaky, and she takes a deep breath before flipping open both clasps and lifting the lid.

“Hello, Merry.”

“Hello, Monroe.” She stares down at the dummy. His black hair matches his tuxedo, and the rose in his lapel is as red as his painted grin. His marble eyes glitter with intelligence, or perhaps it is malice. She can no longer tell. “How did you sleep?”

“How do you think I slept, you stupid little twit? You know I hate that box.”

“I’m sorry, Monroe,” she mumbles, as she does every night.

“The blue satin again? I suppose you think it’s charming,” her dummy sneers. “It makes you look like a washed up prom queen. But then again, I suppose that’s what you are.”

“Yes, Monroe.” He’s right, he’s always right.

“I don’t know why you bother. I’m the one they come to see.”

She used to spend this time before the show telling Monroe to behave, urging him to curb his sharp tongue, warning him not to offend the customers. But that was back when she still had a voice.

“Hey, fatso,” Monroe will tell the overweight woman in the front row. “Why don’t you swallow your misery instead of that burger? It’s got a lot less calories.”

And the woman will laugh along with the audience, and Merry will pretend not to see the tears shining in her eyes.

“You over there.” He’ll raise his little fiberglass arm to point at the old man with the paunch under his shirt. “Who do you think you are, Hugh Heffner? That blonde on your arm is young enough to be your granddaughter. I’m guessing you’ve got money, Heff.” And to the blonde: “I don’t care how rich he is, honey, I guarantee you can do better.”

The man will guffaw, all the while keeping one arm wrapped tightly around his date, holding on to her youth and beauty for dear life.

Merry had once been young and beautiful. Special, they’d said, and she believed them. She’d been promised fairy castles and happily ever after, but now she knows those things don’t exist. The world is dark and cold and plastic and people are so hungry for something real, they pay to hear the smallest morsel of truth. Even when it comes out of the mouth of her dummy. No matter how painful or humiliating, for one moment it makes them feel something.

Merry will make them feel something, too.

“It’s Burger Lady tonight, Merry,” Monroe whispers after the show.

She bites her lip. “No, Monroe,” she pleads. “I can’t. Not again.”

“You’ll do it. So shut up with the stupid arguments.”

She closes her eyes for a moment, rests her forehead against the rough brick of the building. She kicks at the snow, now muddied with cigarette butts and vomit, and wishes she’d worn a sweater. It’s cold tonight, though the metal dumpster blocks some of the wind. She fingers one of the rust holes.

“I know what you’re thinking, Merry. But you’re the piece of garbage, not me. Throw me away? After all I’ve done for you?” he hisses as she slams the box shut and fumbles with the latch. “We’re connected, you and I. You can’t escape it. I’m your voice.”

She shivers and drops her gaze, steeling herself against the words and the wind as the back door swings open and the woman from the audience stumbles out into the alley.

“Look at her eyes, Merry. She’s living a fragile, lonely, bloated existence. She’s already dead inside. You know what that’s like, don’t you? She needs you to help her finish the job.” His voice is muffled now, low but still audible through the thin walls of his case, the case she shifts to her left hand so that she can better grip the carving knife in her right.

Once, she thought she’d have more. A handsome man to love her, thousands of adoring fans. But those things are just a long ago fantasy, and she knows the difference. Reality is Monroe’s voice, her dingy apartment, the smoky bar, this rat-infested alley. And the feel of the knife in her hand.

The burger lady moves toward a nondescript blue car parked along the curb. Merry slips from the shadows and falls into step behind her, the knife secured in the pocket of her parka.

She doesn’t like to hurt people. She doesn’t want to be a monster. She’s just a faded beauty queen with a puppet whose voice has long drowned out her own.

She approaches the woman as she reaches her car, careful to avoid the skids of ice along the snow-packed street. “Excuse me, but my car won’t start. Do you think I could get a ride home?”

These are the first words she’s spoken on her own in a long time, and she revels in the sound of her own voice. She throws back her head and laughs, partly from the sheer joy of speaking again, partly to drown out Monroe’s muffled accusations about witnesses on the brightly lit street.

She isn’t worried about getting caught. In fact, she yearns for it. And when it happens, she plans to keep her mouth shut and let Monroe do all the talking. The stupid bastard never can keep his mouth shut. He was wrong. There is an escape, and she’s found it. Who’s the dummy now?


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her stories have appeared in The Storyteller, The Chick Lit Review, Mysteryauthors.com, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Her first novel is available at major online bookstores and at her website. E-mail: schurshan[at]hotmail.com

Lily’s Miracle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Shannon Schuren

On Monday, Jonathon Foster stepped outside the police department door and immediately wished he hadn’t. The first day of spring was only a week away, but apparently no one had notified the good people of Lily, Minnesota. Here, winter still had its icy grip on the town and its occupants, as evidenced by the piles of gray snow shoved up against the sidewalks and the way the passersby skirted them without looking up, faces turned down to block the wind. They also ignored the slush that spattered their boots as they crossed the street with an indifference that Jonathon couldn’t help but admire. His own boots were still clean and shiny, although he expected that wouldn’t last long.

“Why don’t we grab some lunch over at the diner?” the sheriff asked, coming up behind him.

Cliff Echols was a big man, born and raised on the little island off the eastern shore of Minnesota. Jonathon had quickly learned that Cliff’s thick beard, flannel shirts, and laid-back attitude both comforted the locals and camouflaged the sharp mind and penetrating gaze that were pure law enforcement.

“We need to discuss some scheduling issues.”

Jonathon was confused. He and Cliff were the only two members of the department, aside from their dispatcher, Kate. And though he’d only been in Lily a short time, he’d thought they’d settled into a nice routine. Cliff handled most of the repeat complaints, such as snowplowing disputes and domestic squabbles, and Jonathon tagged along. Up until now, despite boring him to tears, the system had seemed to be running smoothly.

“This week, things are going to get busy,” Cliff said.

“Sir?” Jonathon stared at the empty sidewalks in disbelief.

“We’re going to need to start patrolling out by Glen Woods. And how many times have I told you to call me Cliff?” he added as he held the door of the diner. When they’d been seated on cracked vinyl stools, a waitress appeared with a coffee pot and a pencil tucked behind her ear.

Cliff waved away menus. “We’ll have the special. Two of ’em. Along with two slices of pie,” he added, shoving his coffee cup toward her. “And keep that hot coffee coming. It’s cold out there.” He mimed shivering in his department-issued parka, and the waitress giggled.

The elderly man on the stool next to Jonathon looked over and nodded. “Afternoon.”

“Afternoon, Hap.”

Hap was a fixture in the town, and so far the only one who had gone so far as to begin a conversation with Jonathon.

“I hear you’re from Norfolk,” he said now. “What brings a city boy like you this far north?”

Jonathon forced his frozen lips into a smile. “Change of scenery,” he answered, staring out the window at the snow-covered pavement.

Hap followed his gaze. “Not much to see this time of year,” he allowed, “but just you wait until the miracle.”

Jonathon furrowed his brow and turned to Cliff, who had a wide grin plastered across his face. Before he could ask, the waitress laid two plates in front of them. Heaps of whipped mashed potatoes mounded his platter, topped with a lake of yellow butter that pooled on top and flowed down the sides to mix with the peppered gravy, the chunks of sausage islands in a vast sea of cholesterol and salt. Crisp sausages lined the edges of the plate, their skins fried to bursting. Flaky biscuits were cradled in a basket and covered with a cloth to keep them warm.

Nearly drooling on his food, he forked up a mouthful before remembering his question. “What miracle?”

Cliff began to laugh, and Hap joined in.

“You’ll see,” was all they told him.

An hour later, Cliff pulled his Ford Ranger into a parking lot on the outskirts of town. At least Jonathon assumed it was a parking lot. The snow had been plowed flat beneath their tires, and another car was parked nearby, its grill nosed up against a snow bank.

They made their way across the flat surface, the crunching of their feet on the packed snow the only sound on the frigid afternoon. Jonathon had questioned him about the miracle on the drive, but Cliff had refused to comment, so he’d let the matter drop.

Now they were headed into the woods, with Cliff leading and Jonathon following.

“Here it is,” Cliff proudly proclaimed, when they’d walked so far that Jonathon had given up hope of ever feeling his feet again. They’d come to a clearing in the trees where weak sunlight illuminated a small fence and patchy snow beneath the pine trees. Another man leaned against the fence, one foot up on the lower rail.

“Anything yet?” Cliff asked expectantly.

The man shook his head, tossed another glance over the railing, then zeroed in on Jonathon. “Who’s this?”

“This is Jonathon Foster. My new deputy.” Cliff wandered to the fence and peered over, his face falling as he did.

Jonathon also moved forward, both intrigued and irritated. “What is it we’re looking at?”

“Nothin’.” The second man hoisted himself up and spit.

“Sir?” Jonathon asked, his patience waning. “Am I missing something?”

Cliff fell to his knees, muttering to himself. “Too much snow this year.” He began clearing a spot near the fence, pulling the snow forward with his gloved hands.

“Did somebody lose something?” Jonathon dropped his voice. “Or bury something?”

Cliff barked a laugh and squatted on the balls of his feet. “Lord, boy, things like that don’t happen around here. I can see it’s going to take you some time to get used to the quiet. No, I’m just looking for the Easter lily.”

Easter lily. Jonathon mouthed the words. “Sir?” he ventured. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but Easter lilies aren’t indigenous to Minnesota. And they never bloom this early in spring.”

“This one does,” Cliff argued. “It’s our miracle flower.”

Jonathon stared, trying to figure out if this was some sort of hazing ritual. Should he play along? He tried a tentative smile.

“Spring comes late to these parts,” Cliff continued as he stood and gripped the fence post. “Winter is long and hard and lonely on the island. Once the ferry docks for the season, folks start feeling stir-crazy. Sick. Desperate.” He glanced at Jonathon. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you.”

Jonathon averted his eyes.

“But when the lily blooms, we know that spring is finally here. It’s not just about the flower; it’s about hope.”

“So what you’re saying,” Jonathon began, “is that an Easter lily blooms here, in this spot, every spring?”

Cliff nodded.

“But that’s impossible. Easter lilies can’t survive the winters here.”

Cliff bobbed his head. “I know. That’s what makes this one a miracle.”

They turned at the sound of cracking snow, as a woman and two small children snowshoed their way down the trail. Cliff shook his head slowly at her expectant smile. “Not yet, I’m afraid.” His voice was soft. “But I’m sure it will be any day now.”

The children’s faces fell as they turned back, shooed by their mother.

“It’s got to,” Cliff added under his breath.

By Thursday, Cliff’s normally cheerful countenance had turned grim. “Something’s wrong,” he fretted, poking a toe gingerly at the soil. “At this rate, we’re going to have daffodils before the lily comes up.” He stated this in a tone that would be used to announce the presence of noxious fumes.

Jonathon cleared his throat. “Sir? I’m not sure I understand the problem. Daffodils bloom in spring.” He glanced over the fence. “Unlike Easter lilies. I know you all believe in your miracle, but…”

Cliff interrupted. “The lily always blooms first. The only year she didn’t was ten years back. Some hikers found a crocus out near the old Anderson barn. And then Lily Hopkins died.” He narrowed his eyes at Jonathon. “You may have us pegged fools, Foster, but folks around here take these superstitions seriously. If someone finds another flower first, we’re going to have a lot of hysterical people on our hands. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how quickly that can turn ugly.”

“So what do we do?” Jonathon had dealt with rapists and murderers back in Norfolk, but the thought of hysteria brought on by a lily left him clueless.

“I think we’d best check with Hap,” Cliff said at last. “He knows plants.”

He headed down the path further into the woods, navigating the twists and turns with ease. Jonathon was imagining a death due to exposure, his body chewed by wolves, when they turned a corner and came upon a small cabin. A hand-lettered sign out front read “Hopkins Estate.”

Cliff climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the front door. When no one answered, he cupped his hands and peered in through the front window.

“Hap?” he called. “You in there?”

“Maybe he’s gone out,” Jonathon ventured.

Cliff waved an arm. “There aren’t any tracks.”

Jonathon realized it was true. It had snowed Tuesday night, and the white blanket lay completely untouched save for their prints up the stairs. No one had gone in or out of the house in at least two days. Cliff tried the door and found it unlocked. “Hap?” he called again, pushing it open. “Is everything all right?” He stepped into the living room, then stopped and backed out.

Jonathon scrambled up beside him, gun drawn.

“Put that thing away,” Cliff said, pushing down the firearm and removing his wide-brimmed hat. “He’s dead, and even if he weren’t, Hap Hopkins never hurt a fly.”

“What if his killer is still here?” Jonathon asked.

Cliff blinked. “Killer?” He shook his head and sighed. “Hap was eighty-seven.” He moved aside so Jonathon could take a look. “I’m guessing he just fell asleep in that chair and never woke up. It was probably that damn lily,” he muttered.

Jonathon moved to the dead man’s side and took his pulse. Finding none, he turned to study the cozy room of the cabin. His eyes fell upon a workbench in the corner, where a sunlamp was beaming down over a flower pot.

He jerked his eyes to Cliff, who was staring silently at the lily on the table.

For a long time, neither spoke. It was finally Jonathon who broke the silence. “We’d better get going. We’re going to need to notify his next of kin.”

“He didn’t have any family left,” Cliff said softly. “His only son was killed in Vietnam. And Lily, well, the cancer took her ten years back.”

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before stepping outside to make the call.

Jonathon remained standing near the workbench, marveling at a man who had lived his entire life on the same small, isolated piece of land. Hap had outlived his entire family, and while Jonathon had detected a sadness in his eyes, there had been strength there, as well. Strength born of hope.

“Coroner’s coming. It might take him a while to get back here.” Cliff glanced around the cabin as he came back in, his eyes falling on the still man in the corner. “We can wait outside, if you’re more comfortable.”

“Actually, Cliff, I think I’ll take a walk,” Jonathon answered, holding his coat shut as he ambled toward the door.

Cliff studied him a moment, glanced at the empty table, then nodded. “It’s about time you called me Cliff.”

That afternoon, the miracle lily bloomed once again.

Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared online at Writer’s Weekly and Wow! Women on Writing, and in a recent issue of Writer’s Journal. Her first middle-grade novel, How to Host a Ghost, is available at major online bookstores. E-mail: schurshan[at]hotmail.com