Jennifer Hallmark here: writer by nature, artist at heart, and daughter of God by His grace. With over 160 articles on the internet, my attention has moved to southern fiction. I’ve published three short stories with Harpstring Magazine within the last year. I’m currently finishing my third novel in the YA series, Journey of Grace, and working on a contemporary southern fiction novel, “When Weddings and Holidays Collide.” My website is www.jenniferhallmark.com and I share a writer’s reference blog with friends, Christine and Betty, http://writingpromptsthoughtsideas.blogspot.com
The purse rested, tucked next to the arm of the bench, seeking protection. Its aloneness attracted the woman nearby. Annie cleared her throat, smoothing the wrinkles of the functional black coat and pulling the belt to hide the patch Mother had carefully sewn in place. She peered up and down the side corridor of Ridgeville’s large indoor mall. Mother browsed in the nearby health food store. Three teenage girls giggled near the kitchen supply store. A glimpse farther down the shiny tile floor revealed a group of young men. No one else.
Annie slid onto the cold bench seat, opposite the purse. Out of the corner of her eyes, she noted the straw-like material fronted with summery appliques of butterflies, flowers, and ladybugs, and long straps twisted and hidden beneath the handbag. The contents lay hidden as a snake curled on the ground, head tucked away.
Annie licked her lips and scooted closer to the bag. Was it a trick? She’d pick up the purse and mall security would pour from shaded corners—no that was silly. A reality show would be more likely. Annie could hear the announcer with a clear voice, What will this drab lady do with this unguarded purse? Tune in after the commercial to find out.
She shook her head before inching closer, and tucked her own bag under her arm. Extra money would be useful. A month until Christmas and nothing purchased. A vision of Mother’s face taunted Annie.
“I know,” she whispered aloud. “Lost and found.”
Annie wiped the frown from her face and breathed a sigh. She stretched her hand to lift the handbag and was startled by her own gasp. Her pudgy fingers had pushed through the purse as if it wasn’t there. The purse remained unchanged, but Annie’s hand appeared cut off at the wrist. She jerked it back with a quick motion, and repressed the urge to scream. One glance told her that no one had observed what had happened. The girls had moved down the mall to join the young men. Mother still tottered about in the store. Annie was alone.
Sweat beaded on her upper lip as she stroked the back of her neck with a trembling hand, trying to smooth the hair that stood straight up. Her shallow breathing sounded unnatural to her ears. With one motion, she edged as close as she could to the handbag without touching it. Annie arranged her coat so that the purse could no longer be seen by any passerby.
She inhaled deeply. Now what? Her mother’s face reappeared. Report it. Now. You know what it is. Annie did know. It was the right size, less than two feet across. All the ones that had ever been found were encased within an object the size of the handbag. And here it was. A portal.
A few years earlier, Annie had watched as a young woman slid a shoebox under her bench at the bus stop. Her long white hair had caught the attention of a younger Annie until the bus arrived. As the other woman boarded, Annie had lunged forward to retrieve the package. The bus left as she grasped air, hand reaching through the shoebox. She reported it, then stood behind police lines as specially trained men assumed capture position. Even as the first team member touched it, the box vanished.
More portals were discovered, each attended by a young man or woman with white hair. The Keepers, as the media dubbed them, left in varying places objects that housed the portals: a bus stop, school yard, and now a bench inside a shopping mall.
An older man approached, leaning on a wooden cane. Annie pulled her own purse onto her lap and rummaged through it until the old man passed by. She mustn’t give it away.
She remembered when the first one was discovered. Rumors about portals were reported on television at first in a constant stream until the government shut down the media. From what she understood before the blackout, one had only to reach inside the object, grasp the handle within, and hold it for thirty seconds. Transport occurred at the thirty-second mark.
The first man, Will Champlain, a resident of London, had been whisked to the Aleutian Islands, where he saved a young child from drowning. The second man, Javier Sanchez, a Mexico City resident, had been discovered in Hong Kong, robbed and beaten. Before he had died, he related his story to a hospital nurse. Rumor had it that you were sent to a destination with a specific purpose. Instructions awaited you upon arrival. Will followed the instructions. Javier didn’t. Stories escalated and the government moved in. All portals were to be reported.
Annie chuckled as she remembered the president’s first mistake. He had issued a decree that no one under the age of fifty could have white hair. The group of young people down the walkway caught her eye, each with hair bleached white. She furrowed her brow as she tucked a loose strand behind her ear. Mother wouldn’t allow her to bleach her hair.
Annie moistened her lips with her tongue, and examined the purse again. A smile played on her face as she once again raked the space around her with her eyes. Still alone. She reached her hand into the purse, found the handle, and began to count. One, two, three . . .