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A Winter’s Tale

December 30, 2023 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic, Writing tagged as , , , ,

One memory from this time of year that’s still as crisp in detail as the night it happened was when I was eleven. That was more than thirty years ago, a time before cell phones or Taylor Swift. A time when I hadn’t yet left the magic of childhood.

My Uncle Charles picked me up several days before Christmas to buy a tree. It was our annual outing, just he and I. My family celebrated the holiday, but my parents didn’t care whether our tree was live or fake. In fact, I’m told we had a fake silver tree decorated with glossy red balls for the first few years of my life. I have no memory of that.

At some point, my uncle stepped in, insisting that we have a fresh-cut tree even if he had to foot the bill. And, he said, I was to be his yearly assistant; my Aunt Ruth was too busy to join us on our search for the perfect tree.

The year that’s so vivid has the late afternoon sky spitting snow when my uncle stopped by for me. I grew up in a suburban Bucks County neighborhood, but Uncle Charles wasn’t interested in buying a tree from one of the tree lots that sprang up at the area malls. He drove me out to the Springtown Holiday Tree Farm, which covered acres and acres of Pennsylvania countryside with Douglas fir lined up in neat rows. 

He and I shared a game each year: As we walked up and down the lanes of trees, we pretended we were judges, intent on selecting that season’s winner. Once we had our top three picks, the tree that ranked first was the one he bought. In addition, he always purchased a second tree for himself and Aunt Ruth, even if it wasn’t as lovely or full, even if it had a few less-than-perfect branches.

That year, with a light snow dusting our hair and shoulders, we cast our ballots. My favorite, and his, was a tree that stood a good head taller than my towering uncle. Without fail each year, we picked the identical tree as the “winner.” Looking back now, I think that my uncle only pretended to vote; he ultimately ceded the decision to me.

After paying for the two trees, he expertly sawed each down. I’ve always wondered at his skill with the saw. My father—his brother—had no affinity for sharp tools—or any tools, for that matter.

My uncle gently placed the trees in the back of his pickup and tied them down carefully so they wouldn’t be damaged on the journey home, a good forty-five minutes away.

By the time we were ready to head out, the snow had increased in intensity. Thick flakes now blanketed the fields, and the long farm drive had maybe three inches on it. 

I was nervous about the weather. My mother hated driving in snow, so I must have inherited that autonomic fear from her. 

“Don’t you worry, Elf,” my uncle said, using his nickname for me as he started down the drive toward the main road. “It’s just a little snow.”

But once we were on the two-lane highway, the snow worsened into a squall. Switching the wipers and defroster to high, my uncle slowed his speed to a crawl. It was difficult to see the road ahead, and the rear window was iced over. No one else seemed to be out, not even the plows. In that time before cell phones, we couldn’t call my parents to let them know we would be later than we’d hoped.

On one sharp curve, the tires on the truck slipped, and we skidded toward the edge of the road. The brakes were useless, and although my uncle tried, he could not keep the truck from sliding into the ditch.

He cursed softly, but immediately checked on me. We were both unharmed, yet the vehicle was mired in the snow. He fought his way out the driver’s side door to make sure the tailpipe wasn’t buried, and then turned the engine back on to keep us warm.

One hour became two, became three. Uncle Charles switched the engine off every so often. The slender self I was at eleven got cold even with the heater on intermittently, and Uncle Charles dug out a thick Carhartt coat from behind the seat to snuggle around me. He also discovered a few wrapped chocolates and a stale package of crackers in the glove box, and we shared that scant dinner.

While we waited, he told stories of his own childhood. I learned things about my father’s family no one had ever mentioned: Uncle Charles and Dad had had a sister who died of the measles at age three. My uncle thought the world of Dad, although Dad always seemed to resent him. 

Even in the darkness that surrounded us on that silent stretch of roadway, the cab was illuminated with a glow and a warmth I can’t explain. I must have drifted off.

When I awoke, I was riding in the jump seat of a tow truck. Uncle Charles was in the front seat with the driver. The pickup was trailing behind us as a tow. 

“Almost home, Elf,” my uncle said. He handed me a paper cup of hot chocolate. The snow had stopped, and the sky was lightening toward dawn. The plows had cleared the road, and we made good time.

My mother remembers it differently. She says that we were not stuck in the snow for nine hours, but only for about two. That I was home and in bed by midnight. That my uncle had more personal problems than I was told about at age eleven.

But I know what I recall: It was the night my uncle saved my life. Unfortunately, he passed away several days afterward, having succumbed to a bad case of the flu. 

And the tree we brought home? I still have a photo of it, ablaze with extra lights from Aunt Ruth, and glittering with tinsel and glossy cellophane candy canes. Decorated with love.

I take the photo out every year and prop it on my mantel. To remind me.

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November 30, 2023 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic, Writing tagged as , , ,

Leaves, leaves, and more leaves—the fall chore overwhelmed Kelsie each year, ever since she’d lost Tanner. It wasn’t the yardwork that ate at her, but more the season, the slide from a glorious summer into an end-of-growing-things autumn, followed closely by the chill of winter, when everything was either dead or in a deep sleep. That inevitability reminded her she’d been powerless to stop Tanner’s death—once the cancer was diagnosed, he’d had exactly three months left, those three months falling during a turbulent autumn.

Her friends worried for her. “Five years out, you should be bouncing back,” they said. “He would want you to live your life, not stay buried in grief.”

But they didn’t know—hadn’t known—her brother. After their father, and then their mother had died, Tanner had been her lifeline. For that bittersweet decade after their deaths, he had served as her confidant when her personal relationships soured. He’d always, always led her toward the positive, even after he got sick.

“You’re a tough woman,” he’d said when she expressed doubt that she could carry on without him. “You’ll survive. That’s what we do. All of this loss makes you strong.”

But she knew different. Loss left holes. Large ones that couldn’t be filled, no matter how many days, weeks, or years passed. Couldn’t be filled, no matter how many dead leaves you stuffed into them.

And so Kelsie raked. The piles grew, and she allowed the ache in her arms and shoulders and back to counter the pain in her soul. Her thoughts butted up against the endless question: Why had she been spared? Tanner should have lived, not her; even after all this time, she was still not up to the task of facing her life alone.

When the sun sank below the trees, she put up the rake and went indoors for a hot mug of hard cider and a hearth fire. She dozed in her chair, hearing over the crackle of the flames the wind gusting. I should have moved the leaf piles into the woods. Now they’ll be scattered.

The following morning, Kelsie pulled on her jeans, boots, and sweater to tackle another round of yard work. Glancing out the bedroom window, she stepped closer to the glass, to better see.

The wind—or something—had indeed moved the leaves, but instead of scattering them, they were arranged on the grass in a pattern, one that spelled a name: hers.

“Tanner,” she whispered, feeling suddenly lighter. The darkness within her retreated with the day’s full sunlight. “Thank you.”

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Turning Point

October 30, 2023 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic, Writing tagged as , ,

The pumpkin foretold the event—the dare, the maze, the fire, all of it. If only Gregg had known to heed the warning of that orange jack-o’-lantern on the porch: The flickering slits for eyes, the leering mouth with mold grown over the gourd’s carved incisors. He’d laughed when he spotted it. So Julian

Photo by Burst on Unsplash

But then Breslin stood in the doorway, with her beestung lips, the look in her eyes that invited him—demanded that he come into the cabin without delay. 

“You’re late,” she said, pulling him inside. “We’ve started.”

She joined the three others at the wood-planked table: Julian, Monty, and Claire. One chair sat empty, and Gregg claimed it.

The windows were draped with dark fabric, and the only light came from candles that flickered on the mantle and the stained kitchen counter. In their dim glow, Gregg glanced at the quartet. The room smelled of unwashed bodies and beer. 

“Drink up,” Julian said, pushing a bottle of IPA toward Gregg.

“It’s still on?” Gregg opened the bottle and hesitated before raising it to his lips. If what they’d planned was still a go, he wanted to be alert, fully sober.

“Fuck, yes.” Monty wrapped a scythe with tape, winding the sticky strand round and round the handle. “You’re not backing out, are you?”

Gregg shook his head. He was there and he would stay, even though his better sense urged him not to. 

Julian pushed back from the table. “Let’s go.” He stared for several moments at Gregg. “What happens tonight stays with us. Anyone who talks is dead. Anyone who runs, we’ll find you.”


The five walked up the wooded Poconos hillside to the large expanse of open field at the top. Monty carried the scythe, Claire held an unlit torch, Breslin grasped a dagger, and Julian led the way with a backpack on his shoulders. Gregg, empty-handed, trailed behind—not far enough to invite Julian’s wrath but a good ten feet behind Breslin. Had she ever really liked him? Gregg wasn’t sure. What she did love, he knew, was the rush of the dare.

Julian’s challenge that evening: They would brave the hilltop corn maze, cut to resemble a spider’s web. Once through the maze and if they survived its gallery of obstacles, they would destroy it by fire. The cabin they would torch on their way out. No one would be able to pin the destruction on them. So Julian said.

How had Gregg gotten himself mixed up in all this? It was Breslin who’d invited him. Julian was chilly to the idea of Gregg’s presence, but they’d all hung together in high school, and why not continue the friendship circle? Gang, Gregg corrected himself. He remembered the hazing. And Breslin was a looker. He would follow her anywhere.

Almost anywhere.

At the entrance to the maze, Julian looked at his phone. “One hour,” he announced. “If you’re not out by seven, we light the field anyway.”

Monty held up a hand as though to put Julian on pause. “Wait. Send up a flare if we’re not out in time. We can whack our way through to you before you burn it.”

Julian laughed. “I’ll think about it.” He looked up at the sky. “Clear and calm. This is your last chance to say no.” He smirked. “Of course, if you do, you may not see tomorrow.”

Then he was through the entrance and around a corner before anyone else could react.

“Motherfucker,” Monty muttered, and he, too, was gone.

Breslin and Claire put their heads together for a beat, then set off into the maze at a sprint, but not before Breslin looked over her shoulder at Gregg. 

Maybe she just wanted to make sure she wasn’t the last one in.


Twelve minutes to seven, with the October daylight fading, and Gregg stood at the junction of two paths, absolutely lost. He had not seen or heard any of the others—had they made it out? A slight breeze made the dried corn stalks scratch against one another, and he heard the distant cawing of a murder of crows.

His palms were slippery with sweat even in the coolness of sunset. Somehow he had a machete in his left hand. He didn’t recall picking it up, but the last fifty minutes had passed in a blur. Out, out, get out, his mind urged.

“Fuck it,” he said aloud. He would never finish by Julian’s deadline, not unless he borrowed Monty’s idea of hacking his own path. But which way? With the corn stalks a good foot above his head, he couldn’t see the tree line or anything but the sky. His phone was no help.

A series of loud pops and a scream straight ahead made the decision for him. He dashed up the righthand path toward the cry, holding the machete in front of him as a kind of shield. When the path turned, he nearly hit Breslin. She stood frozen, silent, staring at the ground, where Julian lay, the dagger Breslin had carried buried in his chest. 

Gregg moved Breslin to one side and knelt to feel for Julian’s pulse.

“He’s . . .” Breslin whispered the word.

Gregg nodded and closed Julian’s blank eyes. “What did you do? Where’re the others?”

Her face cycled through conflicting emotions. “He’s . . . a monster.” She crumpled to the ground. “I had to . . . stop him.”

Gregg wanted to comfort her but wasn’t sure he believed her. The evening was skewing far off course, and the main objective now was to get out of the maze before it was too dark to see.

“We’ll chop our way out,” he said, standing. He could do nothing more for Julian. Swinging the machete, foot by foot he cut a path that he guessed would lead him out. If he stood on his toes, he could see the top of a bare tree in the distance. That would be his landmark—until it was dark.

“Gregg.” Breslin was behind him, and he whirled to make sure she wasn’t about to stab him, too. Her face was pale in the dimness, and he could see her shaking. “It was self-defense,” she breathed.

Once again he nodded. “We need to get out of here, now.” He returned to his task of clearing a path.

She touched his shoulder. “Do you smell it?” she said. “The smoke.”

He caught the scent and battled his impulse to freeze in panic. “Jesus,” he said. “The field’s on fire.”

His chopping became a frenzy. Whenever he glanced over his shoulder, the light of the flames danced against the roiling smoke above the maze. 

At last, the stalks thinned, and they were standing in the shorter field grasses. Gregg’s shoulders ached from the effort of swinging the machete. Breslin moaned and sucked in a gasp: The maze fire was advancing rapidly toward them.

“Breslin? Gregg?” Monty emerged from the darkness, Claire a few steps back.

Gregg squared off to face them, the machete still in his hand, the flames glinting the blade. Someone had started the fire—someone who hadn’t checked to see if he and Breslin were still inside. “We’re safe. And you?” 

Monty held up his hands; he no longer held the scythe. “We didn’t start it. Julian must have planted some igniters ahead of time.”

“So we’d all die,” Gregg said. “Good of him.” He raised his voice above the crackle of the flames. “We’ve got to get off this hill. The fire’s going to overtake us if we don’t.”

Claire stepped forward to hug Breslin. “What a fucking nightmare.”

Breslin pushed her away, shaking her head. “He’s dead,” she said. “I killed him.”

“Because you had to,” Gregg said. He believed her now, but still he shivered. If they’d been a few minutes longer in the maze . . . “Let’s go,” he said, echoing Julian’s earlier command. 

He jogged off to reach the graveled path back to the cabin, and the rest of them followed. 

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An Unexpected Legacy

September 30, 2023 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic, Writing tagged as , ,

The hall closet was the final frontier for Asher. For three days he’d been chipping away at the house: the trash bin on the porch was overflowing, the growing pile of items marked for donation threatened to topple, and Asher’s patience was worn to a nub. Neither of his siblings could be persuaded to help him with this overwhelming task—despite both of them sharing the same now-deceased father as he.

“Dad’s place is filled with junk,” Asher’s sister told him, after pleading her excuse of a busy schedule. “Just get rid of it all.”

It’s my vacation time, too, he wanted to point out. But Leigh thought her time more valuable because she was the CPA and a mother of two to his no-kid, single-man, dev-ops job.

With a sigh, he pulled down a cardboard box from the top shelf of the closet. He’d lost count of the number of boxes his father had packed into the nooks and crannies of the suburban rancher. Caution was printed in marker across the lid: Do not open. Asher shook the box, but heard no rattle or clunk. A forgotten Christmas present his father had squirreled away? He eased off the lid. Inside, a weighted bundle covered in blue silk filled most of the interior. Unwrapping it, Asher held a goblet that once must have been shiny gold. The cup was etched with faux lettering—It reminded him of a party store prop. Part of a Halloween costume? He tried to picture his father dressed in a Medieval tunic and Arthurian crown, sipping rum and Coke from the cup at a late October party. Nah, not Cooper Plack, whose imagination was limited to whether he could cheat on his annual tax return.

Asher ticked off what he’d found so far that might be worth something—something that would help pay off his father’s debts. It was a short list: a four-year-old Ford sedan parked in the driveway; a pair of diamond studs he’d found in a jewelry box (his late mother’s?) in the master bedroom; a vintage roll-top desk (once Asher cleared out the notebooks, catalogs, and random slips of paper stuffed into it), and now this—a goblet of questionable provenance. 

Eager for a break, Asher carried the goblet into the kitchen and washed it, hoping a little soap and water would bring out the luster it may have once had. He whistled as he scrubbed the fancy cup with a dishcloth. The end of his house-emptying ordeal was in sight.

A sudden pop and flash surprised Asher enough that he almost dropped the goblet. 

Why are we summoned?

The words that Asher heard seemed to float in the kitchen—or were they inside his head?

“Who’s . . . there?” He said this aloud, cautiously.

The only sound he heard back was the faint ticking of the clock on the wall above the microwave. Then . . .

We are the Calet of the Chalice. You know the Decree. State your purpose.

Asher still held the goblet, but it no longer looked tawdry. Instead, it gleamed from within. Clever party gag, he decided, and turned the goblet over to feel for the on/off switch. His fingers found only the smoothness of the goblet’s stem and base; no button, no toggle.

Oh, well. He would play along until the unit’s timer reset. “Ah, a Chalice, is it? Well, then, if it’s magic, I get three wishes, right?”

We will grant one wish.

“Only one?” Just like one of his father’s tchotchkes to act parsimonious. 

Please note that after your wish, the Decree requires we receive something in kind.

Asher laughed. “Dad, where did you find this cheap-ass toy?” He set the goblet back in the sink and dried off his hands with a dish towel. Time to get back to his task.

Cooper Plack found us while dumpster diving along Walnut Avenue.

Frowning, Asher felt a twinge of unease. “Wait. That wasn’t a wish directed at you. It wasn’t even a wish.”

It counts. You should have read the Decree.

“There wasn’t any paperwork in the box,” Asher protested. He felt silly arguing with the toy. Even a toy that somehow knew how it came into his possession. His father a dumpster diver?

You have your wish. Our turn now.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said with a smirk, wishing that he’d never opened the box, never removed the blue silk. “But I’m a nobody. Just a software tech guy.”

Done. We accept that trade.

With another pop and flash, Asher vanished. 


His sister, finally worried that she couldn’t reach him, stopped by their father’s house to investigate. 

“Asher,” she called from the open front door. The word was swallowed by the silent rooms. He’d made more progress with the de-cluttering project than she expected. But where was he?

In the kitchen, she surveyed an open cardboard box, a yard of blue silk, and in the sink, a shiny goblet. But still no Asher.

She picked up the ornate cup and rotated it to study the antique lettering around its middle. Was this for real? She rubbed at a smudge near the rim.


Stumbling back from the sink, Leigh dropped the goblet on the table as though it were scalding. 

Why are we summoned? 

A haughty voice filled her head, but underlying it she could make out an urgent murmur of others, and one in particular caught her ear.

“Asher?” she said. “Where are you?”

Run, Leigh, run.

And she did. Out the door, slamming it behind her.

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Snow Pack

August 30, 2023 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic, Writing tagged as , , ,

The first time Merylee heard the tune, she listened out of curiosity. The single had popped up in her YouTube feed, which any other day would have suggested Taylor Swift or maybe Billie Ellish. She clicked on it just to find out what the song sounded like. Old, she thought, way old, but haunting. A band her mother probably loved when she was in college; her mom now just past sixty-five.

Photo by Yasmin Gomes on Unsplash

The next time she heard it, Merylee was driving to her mother’s, at her sister’s snippy urging. 

“Mom needs help with sorting out her bills,” Lauren said. “Since the mini-stroke, she’s getting more forgetful. I’m worried, but I can’t get over there with everything else going on.” Everything else meaning the dumpster fire that was her sister’s life.

Scanning the stations in her battered Civic, Merylee caught the song playing on an oldie’s station. She listened for a few moments—the singer was Stacy? Susan?—and then kept scanning, finally hitting on a Taylor Swift song. She sang along until she pulled into the grocery store lot near her mother’s house. 

 In the self-checkout lanes, Merylee placed yogurt, bananas, English Breakfast tea, a loaf of multi-grain bread, and three vine-ripened tomatoes in her cloth grocery bag. At the kiosk next to hers, a guy in a Tales from the Crypt T-shirt was humming that tune. Not again.

Ten minutes later, she was putting the groceries away in her mother’s kitchen.

“Mom, did you ever like Fleetwood Mac?”

Her mother sat at the kitchen island, watching Merylee at work. “What?” She frowned as if concentrating on words that were just beyond her comprehension.

“Fleetwood Mac,” Merylee repeated. “A band from . . . the Eighties? Did you ever listen to them? I keep hearing one of their songs. Something about snow-covered hills.” She kept her tone light, but cringed inwardly. I see what Lauren means.

“Nineteen seventy-six.” Merylee’s mother had come alive, her eyes bright. “Gregory bought tickets to their concert.” She smiled and closed her eyes. “We’d been dating for, oh, maybe seven months, but that concert sealed it for us.”

“In Philly?” Merylee tried to imagine her mother and father all those years ago, at a concert. Dressed in . . . bell bottoms? Tie dye? 

Her mother nodded. “The Spectrum.” She paused, her eyes looking at something only she could see. “It was between acts. We were there with Phil and Justine and Paula.” She glanced at Merylee. “You never met them. All of us impatient for Fleetwood to come onstage. I don’t even remember the other bands. And Gregory . . .” Again, she lapsed into silence, the memories seeming to accelerate. “He proposed.”

“You never told me this,” Merylee said. She slipped onto the stool next to her mom. When she reached out to take her mother’s hand, the older woman shook her head and rose to her feet.

“Let me find it,” she said and left the room. 

Merylee heard cabinets and drawers opening and closing and almost stood up to follow, but then her mother was back, holding a small, blue velvet box topped with a white bow. 

“Here,” her mother said. She took her stool and pushed the box toward Merylee. “He gave me a ring, of course. It was a cheap, dime-store ring because he didn’t want to lose the real one in that crowd. But he also gave me this.” She nodded at Merylee. “Go ahead. I wound it in the other room. Open it. I’m Stephanie, too, you know. That’s why.”

Puzzled, Merylee carefully opened the lid. The tinkling from the music box mirrored the same tune she’d been hearing over the last few days. Stephanie . . .  StevieThat was the singer she’d been trying to place.

“Where did Dad find this?” Merylee cradled the box. Even in her forties, there were so many things she still didn’t know about her parents. And half of the pair was already gone—five years now.

“He never told me,” Stephanie said. “Those friends, Phil and Justine, they were musicians, too, and they played it at our wedding. It was ‘our’ song.”

Suddenly envious, Merylee hugged her mother. “You must really miss Dad. I know I do.”

Stephanie gently detached herself from Merylee. “I’ll be fine. I am fine. I have some rough patches from time to time, but I’m okay.” She patted Merylee’s hand. “It’s you I worry about. Don’t listen to your sister. She’s a landslide waiting to happen.”

Merylee backed out of her mother’s driveway, car windows open to the late August afternoon. Across the street, with his feet propped on a porch railing, a young man noodled on his acoustic guitar. She stopped to listen. This time, the now-familiar tune made her blink back the sudden dampness in her eyes.

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