“I could have built you a fire and told you this story and hoped you gleaned from it some sort of wisdom. Maybe you would have, or maybe, like most men, you would have ignored your father and gone off to make your own mistakes. ~The character Pieter from Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up For Air (87)

If only it were that easy, that a child or any person should heed the wisdom and advice of an elder, in doing so avoid most or all mistakes, and lead a near-perfect life. For many of us, such advice, usually based on hard-earned experience, goes in one ear and out the other. We do make our own mistakes, we do learn the hard way, and only in retrospect might we appreciate the warnings.

Why do we do that? Sometimes we don’t trust the source of the advice. It might come from a person whose life we don’t envy or whom we don’t fully respect, so we don’t listen. We might think a situation doesn’t or would never apply to us, so we tune it out. Sometimes the advice runs counter to what we want, which might be a person, an object, or an experience. We might be addicted to drama or driven by fears or desires we don’t fully understand. Maybe the person offering the advice seems so perfect that we feel we can never live up to their standards, so why bother trying?

Mostly, though, it’s because it’s our life and we must live it the way we choose, consciously or unconsciously. Mistakes will be made along the way, some big, some small. It is part of being human, of living a full and authentic life, of taking risks, exploring, leaving our comfort zones. It’s how we learn who we are, what we are capable of, how to trust or not trust ourselves.

I have wondered about people that seem never to make mistakes, whose lives seem too perfect. Are they taking any real risks? Playing it too safe? Living in a carefully constructed bubble? Or have they simply gleaned something that the rest of us haven’t?

How do we treat the people we love when they make mistakes? Do we shame and blame them or love them anyway, try to help them learn and do better? What advice and words of wisdom are we offering? Is it welcome? Is it helping? How do we discern what advice to give, who to give it to, how to give it and when? Will they listen?

Are we listening?

“Because these are the sorts of things that build a life: crossing water to another country and wondering about ghosts and suffering the humiliation of being bested by an animal dumber than you and with more time to lose.” ~Pieter (87)

Who’s Writing Your Story?

“At any given moment, you have the power to say:
This is not how the story is going to end.”
~Christine Mason Miller


I’m not sure where my story will end, but this is where it began, in a tiny apartment above a meat market in Germany, with 18 year old parents. Where did your story begin?

Behind Closed Doors – A Short Story

Note: This 1800 word short story evolved from a Writer’s Digest prompt. The challenge was to begin and end it with the very first and last sentences of the story, which WD provided. This is the first time I’m sharing it with anyone, which is kind of scary. It’s rough and flawed, but it’s mine.

It was on a bright and starry night that I visited the traveling circus that had rolled into town. Mama and me had moved to Shelby four months ago, after she left Daddy and took me with her. I hated it here, but not as much as I hated the new boyfriend she’d already shacked up with. She’d known Brett back when he was a football star at Shelby High School. Now he was a loser handyman who drank too much and couldn’t stop looking at my chest whenever mama’s back was turned.

Mama waitressed nights at a local diner, where she’d “reconnected” with Brett. In an effort to avoid his creepy glances, I started hanging at the town library after school. The former one-room schoolhouse was home to Shelby’s misfits; homeless people, nerds and geeks who actually liked to study, dregs who lived on the margins of society. Me.

It was a geek named Devin, my only real friend since moving to Shelby, who suggested we go to the circus.

“Don’t you know that circus people mistreat animals?” I said. “They, like, keep them locked up and whip them into submission.”

“Yeah, so?” said Devin.

“So, don’t you think we’re contributing to animal cruelty if we go?”

He shrugged.

“You’re heartless,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t have money for a ticket. It’s impossible to get a job in this God forsaken town.”

He grinned. “Who says we’re gonna pay to get in?”

I was fascinated. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

It was a twenty minute walk to where the circus had set up in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping plaza. The dirty imprint of a former Save A Lot sign towered over the rundown buildings. The tent, bright and white, looked out of place in its sorry surroundings.

Circus Tent Two

Families were lined up near the entrance, waiting to get in. A large sign stated, Workers needed to assist with animals. No experience required. Good pay. Must be willing to travel. I felt a pang of guilt, but tried to ignore the fact that we were aiding and abetting the exploitation of circus animals just by being here.

“This way,” said Devin, taking my hand and guiding me away from the crowd.

I was sixteen years old, but it was the first time a boy had ever held my hand.

We weaved through dozens of trailers and people who could only be part of the circus. A man in a bright colored costume walked by on stilts. In the doorway of a trailer, a morbidly obese women wearing a tutu smoked a cigarette. A boy who didn’t look much older than us led a white horse, adorned with pink plumes and a silver saddle, through a slit in the tent. No one seemed to notice us.

“See that,” said Devin, pulling me behind a trailer and pointing at the slit. “That’s the back entrance. We’ll sneak in.”

“Are you crazy? Someone might see us. We could get arrested. Or worse.”

He laughed. “Don’t be such a chicken.”

I glared at him. “I’m not chicken, but I’m not stupid either. How do you know about this place anyway?”

“I came last night.”

“You did?” I was more than a little amazed. Devin seemed like such a geek. Too geeky to do something so daring.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re wasting time.”

He looked to the left, then to the right, and in an instant I was pulled inside the tent.

“Just act normal. Like you belong here.”

We continued to hold hands as we made our way through the hustle and bustle of animals and entertainers. I followed Devin’s lead, holding my back straight and head high, my gaze directly ahead. In a moment, we reached the entrance to the show.

“This way,” he said.

He led me around the arena and on to the bleachers. We climbed halfway up and sat down. Only when I let out a long sigh did I realize I’d been holding my breath.

“I can’t believe we did it,” I said. “You are so amazing.”

He looked at me and smiled. I noticed his chest puff up a bit.

We stayed for the entire show, and not once did I think of the poor, exploited animals. I was too busy basking in the glory of holding a boy’s hand, of feeling alive and invincible as I never had before. When the show ended, we left through the main entrance. Devin walked me home.

We stopped when we reached the sidewalk in front of my house. The lights were off inside, except for the blue glare of the TV flickering through the windows.

“Going to the library tomorrow?” Devin said.


“See you there.”

He hesitated a moment, and I wondered if he might kiss me. He didn’t. Instead, he squeezed my hand before walking away. I went into the house, taking care not to let the screen door slam behind me.

Brett was asleep on the couch. Empty beer cans were piled on the coffee table. A show about Sasquatch sightings played on the TV.

I crept past him as quietly as I could, hoping to make it to my bedroom without being noticed. I’d nearly reached the hallway when I heard him say, “That you, Mae?”

I froze.

“Where you been, girl? Come here and sit down.”

I turned and made my way to the couch, sitting as far from him as possible. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and looked at me through glassy eyes, before turning his head away to blow out the smoke.

“Where you been?” he said again.

He leaned back against the couch and stretched his left arm out along its back. His hand was almost touching my shoulder.

“At the circus.”

“That so.”

He took another drag of the cigarette, this time exhaling the smoke toward me. I waved it away, sickened by it, and by the smell of his breath, which reeked of alcohol. Everything in me screamed to get up, now, run to my room, and lock the door. Against my will, I stayed put.

“Who’d you go with? A boy?”

“No, just some friends from school.”

He reached out and tugged on my hair. “Your hair looks pretty down. You should wear it like that more.”

I jerked my head away. “When is mom coming home?”

My words had the impact I’d hoped for. He scowled and moved his hand away, though not before his fingertips lightly brushed my right breast. I shivered with revulsion and something else, shame maybe.

“Soon. You’d best get to bed. She’d be pissed she knew you was out so late.”

He cracked open a beer and turned his attention to the TV.

Safe in my room with the door locked, I sat on the bed and hugged my knees to my chest, fighting back tears. Why had mama brought this scum into our house?  Daddy might be a little rough around the edges, but truckers had to be to survive long hours on the road. At least he had a real job and was decent. I knew with all my heart he’d never look at a sixteen year old girl the way Brett looked at me.

“Where are you, Daddy?” I whispered. “I need you.”

I had to pee, but there was no way I was going back out there until my mama came home. I laid back on the bed and watched the streams of moonlight coming in through the window cast shadows across my bare legs. Images from the circus floated through my mind.

There was the beautiful blonde horsewoman, dressed in a pink sequined leotard, who stood on the back of the white horse as it galloped around the ring. The husband and wife team who made their flying trapeze act look like a lovers’ dance. The sound of the crowd gasping in unison as a tightrope walker started to lose his balance, then the clapping when he regained it. The strong sense of belonging and comradery among the performers and their animals, which I longed to be a part of.

The sound of voices raised in anger roused me. Mama was yelling at Brett, calling him a drunken bum, a loser, a phony ass former football star. He was saying vial things to her, things Daddy would never say to any woman, let alone one he lived and shared a bed with.

A loud crash brought the argument to an abrupt end. I was afraid for my mother’s safety, but fear of what might happen to me if I left my room kept me frozen in place. After a short silence, I heard someone creep past my door. In a moment a door shut, and then I heard mama crying. Brett turned up the volume on the TV.

I wondered if her tears held regret. To this day, I didn’t understand why she’d left Daddy. They hardly ever argued. He almost never drank. He always remembered to bring her flowers on their anniversary. True, his job took him away from us a lot, but that was a sacrifice we all had to make for a decent roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and a two week vacation at the beach every summer.

Once, when I asked why she’d left him, she told me not to judge, that people couldn’t know what happened between a man and wife behind closed doors. Her explanation sounded lame to me. I loved my mother, but she was stupid. She didn’t know how good we’d had it with Daddy, closed doors or not. For no good reason that I could see, she’d ruined her life, and was about to ruin mine if I didn’t do something to stop it.

The solution came to me suddenly, but I knew in an instant that it was the right one. I stood up in the dark, hugging myself and smiling. Tonight was the last I would spend in this crummy little house with that creepy bum. Devin would be surprised when I didn’t show up at the library tomorrow. My parents would be mad at first, but I didn’t care.

I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew one thing for sure. Brett would never lay a creepy eye or hand on me again. First thing tomorrow, I was joining the circus.

Want to give your own story a go? Begin it with, It was on a bright and starry night that I visited the traveling circus that had rolled into town., and end it with, First thing tomorrow, I was joining the circus. See where the story takes you, and please feel free to share a link to it in the comments!