MOLLY LIU - LETTERS IN EXPERIENCE
Molly Liu is a community college student coming from China. She is a 20-year-old who loves science fiction.
Letters in Experience
For T: After receiving your last letter, I’m curious about your identity. You told me you’re living in a different country than mine, and it’s a humid place full of water, but nothing except that. You told me you’re a worker, and you are in your early 60s, so your story might be completely different from mine and therefore be boring, but I doubt it, as it only interests me more and makes me want to know more about you.
For M: It’s our third letter, but still I don’t know of your info, the only thing I know is that you are a stranger to me. You said that you are a little bit older than me and also have complexly no idea how my random packed letters appear in your mailbox, just like me. That makes the two of us, I have to say. A week before, I threw my letter into the mailbox, I didn’t picture it will be received by anyone since it has no addressee, sender, nor address. I picture the mailman will take it as a punk. I never thought you would receive it and write back to me.
I told you I am 16, but I will be turning 17 in a few months. I wish the best for both of you and hope that our letters can continue to be exchanged through this mysterious way.
If it’s okay, as I’m deeply curious, please enlighten me, tell me where you belong.
For some reason I can’t specifically tell you my standing, but I will share what I have. Ever since receiving your letter one week ago, I have been reading to an old man in our nursing house.
He offers me all his secrets before his death, and I trust you to not spread his confession. So here is his monologue on paper:
The old man’s room is at the top of the nursing room. It has one small window and two beds. The man from the other bed is paralyzed, with a nurse feeding him two times a day. The old man is close. He can talk, he can think, but not so fluently. He often forgets his breakfast, sometimes his dinner too. They are left with flies. The pale wall of the room silently surrenders everyone of them.
I’m joking. The old man, an unnecessary name, refers to me. I can talk and think, despite what they say. I even keep a diary under my pillow. But for the sake of an interesting story, let’s just call me the old man.
I always——the old man always has the dream of confessing in a church. The priest will listen quietly, never raise a question or judge. The most important thing is, he believes in him. What’s not to take in? The old man is an honorable soldier of the empire who returns from victory, survives from the war. A great man. A good man. What’s to judge?
But honestly, the old man always thinks war and the little conflicts between men are one thing. Both unimportant, both happen randomly, from a day to day basis. And nothing can change the old man’s heart.
One day, they decide that the old man is close to his death. They try to call a priest, but the old man yells him away. Instead, he says: “Get me, somebody, to read to me.”
With all the confused faces, he adds: “Three days. Then I will live or die however you want.”
That somebody turns out to be the oldest nurse from the other building. Why she is summoned is for the sake of the ability to read.
She brings in a huge book. The Count of Monte Cristo.
As she read about the story of a young boy being framed, the old man drifts away to the experience he had in the army. 9 for a team, each equipped with a water bottle with soundproof.
“Shall I leave the revenge part for tomorrow?” The nurse around sixty coming from faraway says, closing the book.
“You’re jumping through the chapters.” The old man says so but lets her go.
“That day, he lays awake, thinking of the virus concentration camp he used to be in. The smell of stinking flesh, sweating and burning all at the same time. The masks on the prisoner’s faces. The dog that try to lick his finger and the girls he is surrounded by, and a photographer taking a picture of him. He is smiling there behind a mask. There, his ranking is lieutenant.
She brings a pair of glasses with her the next day. As she starts reading, he sees the marks on her finger.
“Animal bites.” She says without raising her head as if she knows he is watching.
The story of the young man——an old man now, getting revenge is always a cliché one. He survives, hides his identity, all for some deserted love he has for humanity.
By the time she closes her book, the old man’s eyes are already closed. What can he possibly dream about? Switching skins, changing names, return to another’s homeland? Nobody knows.
War and conflicts are something that happens every day, and nobody can change the old man’s heart.
“All human wisdom is summed up into two words: Fac et spera (Wait and hope)! “ She finishes her reading, removes the glasses and puts them on the table.
The old man suddenly wakes up from sleep. Just like a child first born into the world, he asks the first question that comes to mind: “The animal bites…… how did you get them?”
The woman sighs wearily. “Long ago.” She says, “I have a little sister. And the day the rabbits are cooked, I try to save them, and they bite me.”
It wasn’t the most logical first sentence, but the old man takes it in, along with the whole story coming afterward.
The woman is gone; no more reading. But the old man is still breathing. And they let him. A few weeks after something happens from the top, and they’re shutting down the nursing house, removing all the patients.
The last day before he has to leave, the old man lays awake thinking. If God is real, why only sinners walk out from the valley of the shadow of death? Fac et spera, is that really so? The old man knows some sin can’t be forgiven, like his. The woman’s, on the other hand, is up to god.
The old man dreams. He dreams of a summer he can hardly record, for it burns him like iron. He dreams of a kiss, and the many kisses that can only happen in dreams. He wipes his face clean when he wakes up.
This is a dairy, so I will come back to the real pronoun in the end. By the next day when they come in, they will see the sleeping pill gone, the window open. Where will I end up is a mystery. But I just hope that I can go to the summer when I first join the army, with my sister’s photo in the pocket next to my heart, smiling and sweating under the sun, knowing nothing about war.
I think back on the day of our readings and his impression with my reading. I think I can tell you our three days together, as this is one of the most comforting moments in my life, before his death. Even though when I read, he suffers under the shadows of death and the burden of guilt.
The story I read to him is about a revenger who has been framed and throw into prison and been lectured and told the secret of a mysterious treasure by a priest. He then flee out of prison, gets the treasure and name himself the count of Monte Cristo, where the treasure lays. After that, he starts planning revenge on the three people that betrayed him and frame his into prison; one of them married his ex-fiancée and they had a son, so the son becomes his target. He gets close to them and become their friend, their guests, and their peers. Till the end, through many death and madness he remorse, and after the revenge he leaves and sails away. I never know it will reminds him of himself.
As the old man told me two of his secrets, one of which I already wrote down for you, he asks me to keep the other one safe. Therefore, all I can tell you is the time we spend together and how he reacts to the book.
“Because it is the air she always breathed in her youth.” This is the line that describes the fiancée’s feeling for the protagonist, a girl’s feeling for a boy appeared in her eyes years ago. He is lost in memory and hence didn’t have the will to listen for several minutes.
“errare humanum est.” Mortals have faults. This is his favorite line. He says it again and again on his tongue, and at the end of the chapter when the young character gets the promise that he can marry his girl one day, a weird smile appears on his face. That’s the point he decided to tell me his secret, I think.
“Death raps at your door - it enters -it goes, not blindfolded, but circumspectly, from room to room. Well, I follow its course, I track its passage.” He names it as the line designed for him. I look at him, a man tortured by war, whose body is broken with his mind, and I understand his feeling for the world.
“Seek whom the crime will profit.” At this point, he decides to tell me his hidden story. He told me human’s ugliness, how one should always watch out for evil, even for those we are closest to. I don’t want to suspect this is coming from his experience literally, but turns out it is.
“No; I will not repent. There is no God; there is no providence - all comes by chance.” When he repeats this line, I respond with words of comfort. It’s better for people to think of the exception of the line, otherwise one might be driven crazy; I myself have the experience. He sighs for my words.
“It is not so we should evince our resignation to the will of heaven; on the contrary, we are all free agents.” I picked the line from the book in response to him. Even it’s clear that he is sinked into the belief that God, if he exists, does no good to humans too. I believe that whether or not he exists or not, we should live by our will and embrace the results.
“For all evils there are two remedies - time and silence.” This is the line we both agree on. Our trauma from lives can’t be fixed so easily, but this is a dose of cure that can help remove it from history. Time, always time, with it everything in life passes.
“one cannot be completely happy in this world!” Overheard this line, we both laughed.
“I have to say,” He leans on the headboard, “Your story can be redeemed by God, mine can’t.”
“All men that are capable of love are equal.” I say casually, not taking it in myself.
“I have the weirdest kind of love,” He says, “I wish he would live a less prosper life without me. I wish him suffering, being forced to kneel on the ground, like the way I did. I don’t wish him well. That’s strange, isn’t it?”
“There are all kinds of love.” I say, “In the book, Haydée, the strange girl who appears from nowhere, falls in love with our protagonist and grands him happiness after revenge. There are weird kinds of love, wishing your beloved unhappy is not so strange after what he did to you in your case.”
“But there is no true revenge, right? Every revenge aims at oneself and oneself alone, like keeping a knife in one’s gut only hurts oneself alone. Even revenge directly aims at oneself would not succeed as well. There is not one to called ‘stop’ therefore the torture has no end and we can not win.” The old man shrugs, “I already knew. But if you have the chance to go back and change everything, will you do it?”
“I suppose that will only cause new conflicts as there are more than one trouble in our lives, and easing one does not exterminate another.” I smile, “The revenge of Monte Cristo, half of it done by chance, another half done by lure——he never did it with his hand directly from the beginning through the end. If you have the chance to go back and do all things over…Will you do it?”
“I have thought of that too many times in my life,” He states into a spot in the air, “If I can go back, I would like to go back into my youth, where I’m happy.”
One can be hateful, but can not be ridiculous. We live for the principle all our lives, and we get the result. Now, with him gone, I will write you this story of ours, if it enlightens you in any aspects with our hope.
Dear T and F:
This is M. I got your letters. What I can tell you I have listed below. I’m quite a boring guy.
My fingers are long, but they’re not the fingers of a pianist. Not that My father would let me become one. He’s an old doctor, respected, and expects his son to be respected when he grows up as well. Let’s just say that makes the two of us.
The story about me is the taste in my mouth. It’s always bitter, like metal. I shy away from people whenever they look at my eyes and the taste of blood explodes in my mouth. When the taste of pineapple explodes my smile grows weaker. The story of me is always me trying not to back away, not to run away from crowds even if I want to, a lot.
We are what they called “the golden boys”. We are tall, fit, strong. We swim, do sword right, wrestle. We laugh with our teeth out, reaching out our hand first before others. We go to the beach to get tanned, we spray deodorizer on a daily basis. We’re nice to the ladies. We are nice to everyone. We’re no kids. We pick between the good and the ugly. We know what to do.
Every time I see my little sister Johanna peeling fruits on the leather sofa I think like this. We are the so-called middle class, a phrase I use only to rip on my mother. We are the country’s future, I’m my family’s future, at least in this century.
At that time war’s darkness was not over us. Me, Mathias, Luna, and Karla are best friends. Friend might not be a proper phrase, as we are all adolescent opposite sex. But my family is not conservative, and I know what sex is, so the four——two pairs——of us often wander around in one car.
Mathias often sticks his head out from the car, and Luna often makes jokes of him getting killed like this. Karla often stops us from smoking in the cars, and sometimes when we do listen, she adds up many new rules, till we stop listening. Whenever she drives, she will park aside as we smoke. But the car is hers, so there is nothing to say, besides she is the favorite kid around the families which guarantees our trips being able to conduct.
I’m the most common one of them. I make jokes, smoke, flirt, but I solely do it after Mathias. He is the big brother, and I am just the one following. Besides that, I have a little sister at high school, a mother who is not so strict but will kill me with her eyes every time I do something wrong. I also have a bitter taste in my mouth, one time I ask my date after we kiss, and she says it’s just my nerves; I suspect she is lying to me solely because it’s her first kiss.
I don’t have socks and condoms in my pocket, if that’s anyone’s worry. I have a purse, a pen, and a paper full with my agenda: 1am this, 2 pm that and messy illusions, like a tornado-controlled aircraft, wind controlled completely. It has four wings, like an insect. I will peak at it 20 times a day, sometimes when getting caught by my sister, she will say that I have something up my nerves.
Ever since war, everything changes. Not to say the big stuff, in subtle ways also. The summer before the war, someone hears some rumor and posts something in the newspaper. Mathias doesn’t give a hang and jokes about it, but he is near 20 and has a brother, and I know he doesn't want someone in his family to have to go to war. Karla acts like normal, busy engaging in sport, study and friends, but she talks more and more, mostly asking questions no one can answer. Sometimes the veterans group up and talk in the tavern, and I really don’t feel able to laugh at their jokes.
The first town to fall is X. Father will get a map and point at it, saying things like: it is an important town, but not a secure one. He isn’t talking about our nation, but the nation we want to conquer.
Right at the summer, Mathias and Luna become a couple. He used to be Karla’s boyfriend, but got dumped over some silly reason: He put off cigarettes in her flower pot. He later explains that he does that on purpose, because as much as he wants to break up with her, he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. I doubt that a lot.
Dear F and M,
I have a suggestion. I think we can continue to exchange letters as pen pals with the first letter on our names only, for this ensures our privacy.
To M: I feel happy for your trust. Your life is more luxurious than what I am going through, but I have to say there is a period of time I ‘m living the same lifestyle. I travel a lot with my parents, dance and drink in the city with boys and girls. Do you want to be a painter? I think you would make a good designer too. Completely wind controlled is more of an idea for a toy, but with higher space it might possibly work, with another machine sending it up there.
I can’t help to compare the details of our letters. It seems like we are living in a different phase of time, but considering the magic mailbox it’s not so surprising after all. In my time war has already passed, and events like the fall of town X, I can say, did happen. From my conversation with the old man I know that changing the past might just bring more regret, so I would only offer you my thoughts but not my guides. My guides might not be so correct after all.
To T: How is your life? I wish to know more about you. Is your environment endangered by war as well? Take good care, I wish to receive your last letter soon.
Dear M and T,
I’m the most regular type of girl: school, work, running up and down the hills when I’m free, and that’s it. My family’s house is right near my school. They’re all in a small village. Only casually do our relatives pay a visit to us, in the name of a visit but actually are enjoying the country.
My father is the harshest kind of person. His kind of character can be called repulsive or normal given the different culture and he knows it. Haven’t changed the way he acts. My mother used to be a worker in the cities and retires after marriage. It’s after his work location transfer we moved to the village where our grandparents once lived.
Our neighbors are all strange people. They’re like retired magicians. Rumors says, Mr.Dick loses his wife who committed suicide because his affair, and that’s why he moves here. There is another rumor that says he kills her using a means so clever nobody knows how. One day he shoots himself and is sent to the hospital, covered by the name of a misfire, and after that, the police opens up the letters at his place, all filled up by unpaid bills from a guy named Gavin.
It didn’t come to me that Gavin can be the so said affair, that he is the cause of the death of two people. But I’m stalling too much; I will try getting to the point of the letter.
It is the time before the war. School still functions well, we even get chances of day trips. My school is upon the hills, so I have to bike really hard to go up there. Miguel is the only one in class that has a car, so he is popular. Such is the way a small town works.
One day, on a school trip at night to observe the stars, we wander off—me and Miguel—and get lost. We just sit beside the grass, talking nonsense, till we get to the topic of war.
“You ought to respect people who want to do it,” He says, and I argue back:” You ought to respect people who like peace better and don’t want to do it.”
“Instead of saving the country?” He laughs.
“What’s to save when there is no country left.” I want to say so, but what comes out is: “Idiot.”
When we return to the line, everybody is talking so nobody notices we are missing, including the teacher: no one can possibly be missing in this small town anyway since everybody knows everybody. The topic of war never comes back.
We have a few rabbits at school. All are males, so none of them can make babies. Then they grow too big to be pets for kids, as they bite; so my father, a teacher there, asks to bring them home, and the others agree.
They’re cute, white and fluffy. I try to find the fruits to eat at first, but my cousin tells me fruits are bad for their stomachs. Yeah, she is my cousin, but I always call her sister.
She lives outside the town but always comes back in summers with her parents. People often say sisters grow up and start not talking to each other, but we seldom talk from the beginning. She is kind of complicated, has a cold sense only grown-ups do—8 years older than me—but she is also good with starting small talks, though not really like them as I suspect.
These bunnies, they like her a lot. They look at her with the look of little kids, seem harmlessly innocent. They give that look to her only as she picks up some vegetables and feeds them by hand.
There are times when kids try to feed them by hand and get bitten. The kids would run to their parents to get a bandage, sometimes crying. I keep distance when I feed them. She never does.
She leans forward, and the leaves of vegetables fall through her fingers, into their mouth.
It would have been completely normal, this summer, just like another summer that has passed and is ready to come. But there is news, saying that her mother is going to leave for a new city across the land, so this is the last summer we’re going to be together. A short phrase that would quickly pass by like everything else in life.
Dear T and F:
Us four go to the beach by cars before the order of conscription comes. Along the way everyone dresses cozy, once in while birds or kids with Inflatable water polos on their heads run by. The first night, we walk into a filled booked hotel, so we have to squeeze into one room. Two girls sleep on the bed, me and Mathias on the floor. He sleeps on the sofa originally, but over the night he falls to the carpet, so I wake up with his ankles touching mine.
The hotel is lovely. Every wall except the one behind the bed is white. The wall is painted in green. Two hanging lights on the top, while near the bed are the lamps. Under the lamp is the low cabinet, colored in black and white. The full-sized bed is big, with uneven linen sheets. Karla, after she sleeps in bed after her reading, complains that there’s a grain of sand on the bed. There are four white pillows on the bed, two of them being pulled up between the girls. Our backpacks are all under the bed, along with the remote control that goes missing after our little fight over it.
The sunlight behind the window is hot. Seagulls flying over, leave their cry behind. My alarm clock goes off, but the three of them are still sleeping, so I press it off. Luna looks like a child instead of a campus belle when she’s sleeping. You see, I told you the four of us are two pairs, but I’m not with Karla, who just broke up with Mathias, the reason we seem as together is because Mathias and Luna are more like a couple. They’re nearly each other’s reflection.
And there, I knell down for a kiss. It is chaste and quick.
After everyone is awake, we get dressed and get going. We nearly miss the breakfast of the hotel. Luna lights up a cigarette skillfully, complaining about the non-smoking rule of the car, and Karla can only smile.
After Mathias and Luna get a room, I know that my head is going to suffer. In fact, I haven’t slept the whole night for the shaking of the headboard, so I wake up the next day with my eye sockets, with Karla sleeping quietly over the other side, letting out small breathes.
And then the banging restarts, mixed with sound like this:
“Say it again”
“I say please”
“Just let me have it goddamn it”
“What do you want”
“it’s gonna be ok
On the third day, we finally reached the beach. Luna jumps down the car to buy coconuts, me and Mathias put up the parasol behind her, Karla moves stuff out from the car.
Luna comes back with a few coconuts on her arms. After a while, she went off to go swimming with Mathias. They do long distance swim, all the way to the horizontal line where every sight loses effort. Me and Karla lying under the parasol, eating coconuts. The white meat and the cold juice are separate carefully by her, into different containers. Faraway, the shining clouds are all hanging over the sky.
Under the warm shadow, Karla asks me a question.
“He always feels unpredictable,” Her first line floats in the air, as she continues struggling with wording.
“Mathias?”Does everyone in love act this way——thinking the other is like an alien species?
“Mathias rarely talks about his friends,” she says, “He talks to me about you and Luna, but that doesn’t count. He doesn't even talk about himself, as if all the politeness and gentleness is just him pretending to be someone he is not.”
“Scheming?”After all, he’s my best friend.
“I don’t know…Maybe it’s so, or maybe he is trying to protect himself, so he hides his true self, and pretends to be somebody else.” Karla says bitterly. If she’s a kid, she might have more light in her eyes as she is trying to persuade herself.
“Or maybe this is him after all, it’s just you don’t want him to be like this, so you come up with a new explanation. He’s my friend——I know him, he doesn't know how to fake.”
“Have you even considered, someone around you might look exactly like you, but deep down the skin, there’s a whole new species? Like, aliens with fish scale? You think you know him, but what he eats and drinks are completely different than you. He just pretends to be the same to stand by you, but in fact, you’re completely different people.”
I lay on my arms, silently thinking of the words she says, of which one of us has gone malfunction after all. Right then, Luna comes back.
After Karla goes swimming, Luna tells me Mathias is still soaking in water. He is doing another distant swim.
After she finishes the coconut, I ask her what she wanna do in the future and she tells me she wants to be an artist.
“I always suspect you want to as well,” she says, “I saw your little pocket note, full of your drawing. Or is it the drawings of some scientific design?”
“That’s only one sheet of paper.” I tell her, “But yes, I want to be an artist, live day by day depending on my drawing. It’s just that I might have to depend on my parents that way, because artists might not be able to make a great living.”
“At least the first part sounds wonderful,” She stretches her body, “But artists always end up getting political persecution, don’t you think? Just be careful.”
“I only draw funny little doodles, no need to worry.” I wave it away.
After that I ask her more intimate questions, and she avoids them successfully.
“Only if there’s no war.” She says suddenly.
“Who knows, maybe we will win and nobody dies.” I joke, but she acts like being punched in the face; I quickly adds up: “Just joking.”
“Or maybe I can be a general,” I say mainly to myself, “I won’t go volunteering, but if we’re drafted there’s nothing we can do, right?”
She turns her head quickly and rubs her face. I didn’t see the expression on her face, so I landed my hand on her shoulder, making her turn back. Her eyes are clear and icky as water.
After Mathias and Karla come back, we part. Karla and Luna stay to keep an eye on our stuff, me and Mathias go to buy food for lunch. On the way back Mathias decides to buy more coconuts, so I come back with the dishes first.
Faraway, I hear them talking.
“I don’t want these to change,” Karla’s voice, “All these, us four, should be sharing a connection forever. Not just this summer, we should be able to come here next summer, together.”
“That has to count on fate, so even if anything happens I wouldn’t blame anyone. I know sometimes things are more difficult to retain than to change. If anything happens, that is fate.” Luna says.
“I know, but I also know that you want this to retain as well. Whatever happens outside us is destiny, but what happens between us is between humans.”
I wait for a few seconds, till I hear no answer back from Luna that I go up there and share the food with them.
“Alright,” I say in my heart, “Nothing will change. War, love, friendship, time, nothing can shake destiny. And my destiny is to be here with you.”
Mathias comes back with the coconut. He shares the coconut with us, and we start eating food. The barbecue is a little bit burned, beside these all the meat and vegetable and tasty. Sand shines goldenly under the sun, and the one sits outside the parasol, Mathias, just baths in this sunlight.
I have had some thoughts after I received your letters. It appears that we do not belong to one kingdom and listen to one king, but with the world keep expanding and developing, I suppose that does not matter so much.
I would like to tell you some things about me.
When I was little, as in two or three years old, I played alone in the garden of our apartments. There are a few other children, and they’re playing a game to build houses using sand. I never played the game before, so my mother nudged me and asked me to play with them. I shook my head and said no. So I play alone with my hands in hand and build my own house. After that I don’t remember, but I think I never quite joined any group. The sand, and hot sun above, the laughter in the sand pool all blur in my mind after I grow up.
In my third grade, my teacher asked me to spell out the letters on the blackboard. I stand up and spell them correctly. At that moment I realized a strange thing, that is, although I recognized all the letters, I did not recognize all the faces in my class. We are a small class with the same group of people everyday, but I can’t seem to know their names. Half of them are strangers to me. From there I know I might never be able to fit in people as good as I want to, but I can fake it.
There was a period of time when I thought I’m frigid. After I entered high school, a friend make a sex joke on me and everyone blushes, except me. I don’t blush on anything sexually. I try to hit on others too, like taking off my clothes the moment they enter my room, like everyone else does. But I guess that does not work for me because, apparently, they know my secret too.
I have had my relationship with a guy. He is more interested in my face than other things, and when he lost his interest we soon broke up. I have had my first kiss because I want to lose it like everyone else does, so I give it away, and that doesn’t help to maintain the relationship.
Some say, men are creatures abandoned by god. That’s why we aim for philosophy, because we want to understand why that happened. But men is not the measurement of everything; instinct, sense and feeling are just the tricks space and time play on us, and anything we learn from experience can be a false statement, as every possibility has its positive and negative side. We can establish a new assumption to explain things that already exist, but our mutual understanding is not real as well. I can call you an acquaintance though you named me a friend many times. On the other hand, as we see, we see the things that are directly related to us, and that is our truth. Although one thing does not lead to another, as everything can be everything’s cause, nature is a mix of noises, the messy stuff that defines us.
I loved a girl. She is a friend to my house, much younger than me, so this is a secret. She is with black hair and black eyes, and long fingers. When she calls out my name, it feels like something sour in my heart has been touched and the itching is eased. We played the games of calling out other’s names, with the only intention to hear them.
There’s the matter of soul. I know well that if it lasts more than a summer, it will break me. No way we can be together with our family opinions, as nothing lasts always. As I realized the truth, just like when I realized I can not be a part of other people in the sand pool, I started avoiding her. During the period, I also know that if she tries to tame me, make me a part of her belonging, that will ruin her as well. The loneliness and despair in love only does good to people when there's a good outcome, not when the struggle has no meaning.
During that period, one time when I am cutting carrots in the kitchen, she comes in. I accidentally cut my fingers. She took out her handkerchief and wrapped it around my thumb. The stain of blood quickly grows on the white handkerchief, tainting the silk. I remember it as our first real interaction, or sex if that’s a better term. I keep that handkerchief, as a promise of something real might happen afterward; now she has something she needs to get back from me.
And it did happen.
The love we shared is no difference than the other relationships. If sometimes I think of it any other ways, I will pull out a book and read the history, till I know otherwise. It’s dangerous, but it’s normal. Just like I say, an object's belonging is related to how you think of it, as I think of it as normal love, it’s normal love to me. As for whether it’s real for both of us, if there’s a difference between real and false, we can forget about right and wrong as it does not matter compared to the other statement. That is, until some Copernican revolution comes, and tells us the objectivity of knowledge exists even for individual people.
When we read, my hand brushes through her hair, and the memory of the sunlight on her hair stays in my mind. Whenever I feel like missing her, I pull out a tissue and nip it between my fingers, feeling the sense of a handkerchief. But most of the time, feelings pass, none of them stay very long. The persuasions I want to offer you is, dew-like things better stay in mind than actually happen. Birds can fly thousands of miles, let alone us, there’s no need to stick in one thing or one feeling.
Hope the best of you.
Thank you for your letter. I’m surprised but this is a good surprise. The girl you liked, what is she like? She seems interesting. The way she offered you her handkerchief, it’s like a process of taming other than tainting. I think she knows what she wants, so you don’t have to regret it if you were. Just like you say, everything in life passes, even if it’s wrong, it’s passed for her.
I have a question though. You said that we are not from the same country, but your letters indicated that we are, at least when we’re little. Not a lot of countries have sand pools and gardens for apartments. The letters on the board are english, right? So you’re from a country where they teach english, just like mine.
Don’t worry, I haven't fallen for no one. I have always been alone, boys from the school are idiots, the one that are less stupid like Miguel are my best friends and are only friends ages ago.
Wish the best of you,
Nice trip! I can feel the sunburn of yours.
I have been wondering…The kiss you offer, who is the receiver? Not nice to steal kisses from people when they’re asleep, I have to say. But the more important one: who?
It feels like you four are like having an open relationship with one another, are you treating kiss stealing a normal thing? I won’t in my circumstances, but yours might be different.
However, I think your feeling for Karla is more of a companion of yours other than a girlfriend, and Luna is occupied. So, no good for you.
The best, F
I will leave it to your guess, after all there are only two girls at present. There’s something bad that happens so we have to cancel the trip, I will think of a way of telling the two of you.
Have you ever thought of everything just crumple like grains of bread infant of your face? I’m seeing it happen. It has to be my fault, because if this is according to some book, the trick of fate, I can’t tolerate it.
Anyway, I think what happened is something my friend knew a long time ago. I don’t think secrets last very well under the sun, every secret exposes and dies like shells under the burning sun.
Don’t worry, I’m fine, just reading another end of my life. If I think of it correctly, I shall start a new phrase of my life very soon.
From my side, something strange happens. I will recollect my thoughts before writing to the two of you. I’m thinking of the bird metaphor of some of the birds are doom to fly higher so that they can’t see others. That’s the fate of theirs, as they are larger birds, and therefore different than others.
M, in your case, I’m guessing that might not be a girl.
Dear T and M:
That night, I am lying awake. The smell of flowers——ripped, a little bit too sweet——sinks in through close windows. The bed is hard underneath me, made by wood picked by my grandfather a long time before my birth. My father has slept on it when he’s little; now it’s my bed.
Around midnight, I hear the sound of the door being pushed open. It’s her. My sister always comes back late at night, from the bar in town. The quiet movements of shoes were taken off and coats were hung.
And then after a wave of footsteps, my door is pushed open. I rarely lock them because sometimes she will sleep beside me. And this is one of these nights. She sits by my bedside, her breath warm and quiet, the smell of absinthe, the one thing my aunt forbids us to touch. Slowly, her hand falls on my hair, brushing through them. I am at the edge of falling asleep, and I pass out for a moment. By the second I come back to sense, her lips just go away from my forehead.
Needlessly to say, my body is covered with lava at the moment. She pushes back my hair, and then rolls into bed, falls asleep beside me.
The smell of ripe flowers keeps coming back to my senses. I squirm in bed for the hotness burning inside me. I lost my sleep that night.
The next day, my parents ask about my eye sockets, and I cover it up. She eats up her bread silently and then goes out.
That evening, she comes back early. With the quietness of a deer, she slips into the door and closes it behind her. The darkness is distanced by the breeze coming from the open windows; she smooths the bedsheet around me. I am awake until I feel the weight sinks in near my pillow—her arms balancing herself. And then she kisses me on the lips, in the dark.
Then the most mysterious thing happens, a chuckle, “You’re awake.” And I force my eyelids to shut down. She touches my face again, and then leaves, opens the doors, out of the house. The next thing I know is that bright sunlight covering my body, curtains lying in the wind.
The next day I go out with Miguel to the hills to collect grass for the rabbits, we are biking. He finally begs his mom to buy a bike for him, just like any other kids. He says he learns it by a day, at which as soon as his mom lets go of the backseat henna him, he flies. I don’t buy it because there are many dents on the bike.
“So, your cousin is back?” He says something close to this, but I’m thinking of other things, “Do you want to come out tomorrow?”
“No, there’s enough grass already,” I say, no focusing.
“Oh, you’re ruining my summer,” He pulls a face; a sudden realization comes across my heart:” I’m sorry. You’re a friend and……”
“Enough, enough,” he grimaces, “You’re still a little girl to me, no need to worry.”
And that’s it. I pull him from the bike and pick up a fight with him. We are wounded lightly, with broken fists and tainted faces. In the end, he seems as terrified as I do when I say“Let's keep this between us” and responses with “I won’t tell”.
We wash our faces at the river and ride back home, trying to laugh at some jokes.
After I come back, I go to the kitchen. We’re serving bread that night, which means I have to prepare the flour beforehand. I leave the grass on a tray and put on my apron.
I put the flour bag on the table and started making the dough. But my recipe is wrong. I get tangled up with too much water and too little flour. Soon I’m covered in flour smoke.
Laughs come through the door side along with the running stumbling. Some last works about goodbye are said and suddenly she is in the kitchen. She dips her fingertips into the honey, sucks it away. Then she nudged me, to my surprise, and hug me from behind, with all the sweat and scenery after sport. It is a quick hug, and after the heat is gone I realize she steals some of the dough from my hand.
My mom comes in after her to help me knock out some of the flour, putting on her big, professional apron compared to mine. I can’t mouth a word when she asks me how my day is so I just smile.
At the dinner table, my father appears late as always. He wears a single shirt, so the sweat is shown through the white shirt. He brings his cigarettes to the table and is reading a newspaper with big headlines. When my mother and I served dinner he let out some sound of disapproval towards the paper; I found out later that it’s about women’s rights to vote.
My sister comes into the dining room with her hair dripping with water. Her hair looks especially black when it’s wet. We wait until our parents start eating to eat.
“It’s so silly, in my opinion,” My father looks through the newspaper and says, “but it is against the natural law. If women are equal with men, why are men the leaders of most species?”
“Polities,” My mother passes the salt to him, “They always say wars are coming.”
“This is a different matter,” My father insists, “Soon they will put women to the battlefield as well, just because of the whole theory of equality.”
“That’s not gonna happen to our kids,” My aunt smiles and looks at her, who refuses to look back, “Besides, the war’s the matter of the whole world, not just us.”
At that moment I hated her. I remember having her talking about the theory of mother lion and father lion, in which the only one of the party kills and feeds, and the other just takes. I remember her talking about female soldiers, who bleed on the battlefield for the lack of tampon. But at that moment, she only sits there drinking the soap, totally indifferent. She looks cold and calm, like a philosopher or writer, who holds cold independent opinions to everything in the world and refuses to share one single thought from themselves.
After dinner, we are washing dishes together. When a second her elbows accident touches mine in the act of passing, I get irritated and say: “I thought you’re a feminist.”
She studies me for a second, then looks at me directly in the eyes: “I’ve had these cover stations with my parents for a million times, and they still think like how they think, so I know people can’t change from their roots. Besides, that’s your parents, what’s there for me to say?”
Then we finish the plates in silence.
Dear T and F:
“Do you like philosophy?” After I came back from swimming, Mathias asked me.
“I guess I’m just the most common dude with the most common philosophy, living for a better life, over.” I say.
“Don’t you think a lot of things are happening around the world? War, conscription, the structure changing of the nation…… It’s like many things are happening at once, but it’s just the repeat of what has happened. We can’t change history, as what is done cannot be undone, as we too are one part of the history. Class contradiction, social struggle, everything happens repeatedly, but that's pointless too, because there’s no right answer and a way out.”
“Wow, you think a lot.”
“Maybe there’s where void comes from. You see, a teacher of a primary school can do job hopping before she retires for pension, and that’s acceptable, because the better pension and better life coming afterward, but the leader of the country can’t do so, why?”
“Social awareness? The main difference between men and animals?”
“Social awareness can let mothers protect children, but can’t let countries protect individuals. What we can protect is not the country, such a concept of nothingness, but ourselves. That’s why everyone has to look for number one.” Mathias says.
And then he says, “Maybe there is another kind of philosophy, a kind that looks out for the tiniest. That is, to embrace and remember everything that has happened to you, everything you have had, every flower you have been touched. This philosophy can’t save our lives, but it can save our souls.”
“ And Have you heard of the train problem?” He says.
“Whether to change the train track, let one innocent person die or don’t change it, let five sinners die?”
“Why are they sinful?”
“Because they play on the wrong train track. Why do you care about this? Let’s change the question. If that’s one man you know, and five other innocent people?”
“If that’s only me tied on the track…… I won’t change this.”
“You can’t change this either way if you’re on the track.”
“I thought this was a hypothesis question.”
“But what if that’s somebody you know tied there, along with five strangers?”
“I think that has to depend on my thought at the second.”
“And that’s the difference between us.” He lets out a breathe, sits up,”I knew I would choose to save my dearest. If that’s you or my brother that’s been tied there, I will choose to save the two of you.”
For a second I don’t know how to respond. He smiles and changes the subject: “What do you look like when you’re little?”
“Me?” I struggle to think of the version of me before I move to his neighborhood, “Very impolite. You know, one time in the sand pool, the kindergarten teacher asks me to play with others and I say no? Ever since then I play alone. And I used to sweat a lot during naps and they would think I pee my pants, and the time when I actually did it no one realized? One day when I’m a third grader, the teacher asks me to spell out an english term, and I stand up and find that I don’t know the names of half of the people in the class?”
He laughs. I relax a little bit, and keep on talking: “You know, I used to have an imagined friend? She hates me, I guess that’s why I choose her as my friend. She is taller than me, has long hair. To be honest, there was a time when I think she’s my best friend……”
“You still think of her that way?” He teases.
“No,” I feel my face burn up, “I was weird back then.”
He smiles; sunshine, shadow and sand layered on him, letting his body emit a radiation: “I am your friend, Migelma, don’t ever forget that.”
He looks at me without a blink; strangely, I lean forward and kiss him, the second time.
It feels good; the sky is bluish due to the refraction of sunlight, the heat of the sun radiates through the parasol and touches us, shadows cover our whole body.
That day I read to him, he was lying on bed, smoking the cigarette I gave to him in secret, and said: “Are you interested in a story?”
I have heard many stories from my patients and don't mind another one.
He smiled slightly, and got out a small journal from under his pillow. I opened it up, the first page was a messy agenda, with the picture of a tornado-controlled aircraft.
I smiled. That moment I knew both of your identity, from a young man to a veteran.
"I never picture I would meet you here," he said plainly. "Until you walk in with the Count of Monte Cristo, skip a few chapters and start reading."
The cigarette was almost burned to the tail, I offered him a teacup.
“I am close to my end,” He knocked the cigarette on the teacup, “My lungs and heart are failing. After I finished my story, can you tell me yours? To kill the rest of the time.”
His…Your life has become terrible because of war. Leaders came to power through chaotic situations, and unscientific anti-epidemic methods caused tens of millions of deaths. After the scale of the epidemic was finally brought under control, war broke out. The remaining patients were detained in anti-epidemic camps and killed on the spot. At that time, you joined the army and became the caretaker of the anti-epidemic camp, watching the innocent people die.
After I went abroad for a few months, I was finally notified of two offers but had already accepted the job with lower pays days before. Only two days a week are we allowed to take a bath, and there are ten consecutive hours of typing a day. Eating pasta and sausages for meals, because it is nutritious, fast and cheap. Communicating with local people in local dialects and getting home exhausted.
Perhaps it was the near death that made you confess to me and told me your two secrets. One of them is that summer, the other is you and him in a virus concentration camp. You are friends, although he has a tattoo number on his hand, and you have a military rank on your arm.
It is a collective work. The sun was good that day, and the photographers and girls were all here. Your dog wants to run to the cake several times. At this time, a team of prisoners passes by, and it escapes the border, runs to a man to lick his finger. The faces on the scene all turned, and an officer clenched the stick. You whistle, let the stupid dog run back. Then you wave your hand and let the prisoners go.
Later you saw that person again. He is an Englishman, alone in the camp like everyone else's. Although he has already recovered, he is trapped in the camp to prevent virus mutations. He has had surgeries, all of which were experiments, leaving several scars. You know this because you are the one who oversees these experiments. But when he opened his clothes to show you scars, you still felt pain. He will mock at you, but the next time you stopped his surgery, he looks at you with queer eyes.
You start meeting. Of course, wearing a mask. Once, lying on the bed, he asked you: "Have you ever thought that he may be in the army now? The number of killed increases, it is only a matter of time before he joins the army."
You exhaled and almost choked with your own breath: "I don't want to see him anyway. With his character, maybe we will still be friends. But I don't want to continue wasting energy."
"If it wasn't for him, maybe you would really become a hero and die." He said, "Good to be a hero until I get this damn disease.”
He told me his dream is to become a soldier. He told you he wants to be an air man, and you show him the drawing you abandon in your journal, and he will detail it with his pencil:”no, you need four wings, not eight, as they create a burden” and say your name with a strange voice. You will try to laugh but fail, as your fingers clutch at your clothes. He gently highlights the picture on your journal, and the lights shine on his eyes.
You maintain a close relationship ever after, secretly, until your country is defeated and the anti-epidemic camp is forced to disband, and you will soon become a prisoner of war of his country.
One day, you touch his forehead and feel heat.
"I have a fever for a couple of days, I think the illness has come back." He opened the window and looked at the empty playground outside, "You can survive for me. You don't have to be somebody, just live."
As you understand what he means, he smiles: "You don't have to think too much. You weren't willing to come before. Half of the things you did were with hatred, but now you can understand that not everyone will betray you."
He put your military rank on his arm and tattooed you, the same number.
He died, you survived. And you don’t even have to ask.
“How about your story?” You asked, with a mysterious smile on your face, as if you’re thinking of someone.
“Long ago.” I finally said, “I have a little sister. And the day the rabbits are cooked, I try to save them, and they bit me.”
It wasn’t the most logical first sentence, but you took it in, along with the whole story coming afterward.
"So we are the same," you said, "we are all the same in the end."
"I will see you again." I answered you, "in a world without regrets."
After all, all I can say is goodbye.
I won’t mail this letter out because of my promise to the older you, Migelma. Yes, he is you, and you will become him. But take good care. I will see you one day.
I write this letter solely to you. I think at this point, you already knew my last secret. That gives me some relief. No, my lover is not the friend of my house, but someone much closer to me. Just like your lover to you.
I don’t expect to receive your letters in the future since I did lied to you, and you have a reason to be angry. Just know that I’m in a position that I know so many secrets that it’s so heavy that they sink me down, and I partly do it because I don’t want them to sink you down.
We have had our time together, now you need to go forward and don’t look back. I never managed to come back to my home after the war and have lost my parents during it, but I hope that you can take good care of yourself and keep yours safe.
Remember the tale of the bird that I write to you? They can fly miles and miles, if they have a home to come back too. You have yours, and I’m happy for you.
And the thing you are most curious about, love, as you ask Migelma, is something that happens randomly but captures us without a miss. I’m entangled by it, however short a period of time it seems, but I know many will come afterward. And they did. As you’re this age, you will see many more opportunities lying ahead, and you’re great enough to have them, my dearest.
You already knew my name.
That night, I wait until everyone is asleep to open the store of my mother and steal a bottle of wine. I want to prove that I’m brave enough to stand by her, is as good and as old as her. That being said, I get choked after I finish a portion of it, but is able to finish another quarter of it. I see the light coming from above, shining on my clothes and leave tedious shadows; but I prove that I’ capable of doing this alone. I imagine myself growing up, feeling the warm booze in my throat, then I get dizzy and warm, all the way down to my toes.
I wiped away the hand print that I left when I lean on the glass closet.
I knock on her doors——she sleep in another room tonight. She opens the door after a few seconds, when the shadow is casted in front of her, she looks sleep with the flip-flops. messy hair ,and tired face: “What do you want?”
That wake her up. She is shocked by my state by putting a finger under my chin, adding not too much pressure: “Who made you drunk?”
I try to resist the need to brush it off, the finger and the close examination and almost bite my tongue: “Nobody. Myself.”
She smiles mildly, like a cat tries to shy away: “Well, at least the first time happens at home.” And then she retreats the finger and signs: “I’m sorry, Frigga, actually, I…”
I slip a hand through the door and says: “No. You deserve this.”
She looked amazed, then with a change of mind, she opens the door: “… Better the first time you do it, you do it at home.”
She is trying to be the older one again, I know.
Our lips brush; it’s the first real kiss. Warm and soft. The door gradually closes behind us, as she locks it with a twist of wrist.
It’s like a tango except we’re hand in hand and the leading party keep changes.
The second kiss weird lands on the cheek when we move toward the bed. It’s a wooden bed with a blanket, just like mine, with a fly on top. Her hand protector lands between my waist and the wooden edge and we chuckles.
Her cheek is full of little villus. The bitter taste of alcohol is still in mu mouth.
She doesn’t let me touch her. She puts me on her bed and touches me with her fingers on top of my clothes. When I shift she chuckles: “Do you know woman have a penis too…? Right there.”
I used to think that orgasm would be like going to the bathroom: warm, moist, relieving. But at that moment I know I was wrong: it’s dry and painful, like something pulling out of you. I feel enlighten by my new discovery as I arch up and moan, feeling something extremely warm spears under my neck.
“They have a word for this in French,” She uses the left thumb to brush her hair back, “I don’t know how to say it though. You look a bit older now: secrets make one pretty.”
I understand a lot: she wants to make me older, as old as her.
The next day, I wake up in my own bed, with a dry choke in my throat and a headache. My calligraphy of “water” is still drying on the table. The windows are close, but a flower not yet bloom touches it.
The door is locked inside. I’m again surprised by her skill.
The next morning, we are avoiding each other’s eyes when we feed the rabbits. They chew quickly on the grass she feeds, as always.
Miguel is here too. He comes to visit me as promised and makes a ton of jokes, but I don’t have the will to laugh.
There is a secret inside me.
Weeks pass by. We never do it again, the share of the apple. But often I dream about her knocking on my door, insisting her room is locked or else.
That afternoon, we stood beside each other, preparing rabbit meals given by the sudden order of my father. I feel like it’s me who has been chopped down by the surprise “Why do you think we are keeping them”, but she does not look surprised——on the surface.She looks into a carrot, and chops it down with a small knife, fluent and delicate as always. I’m kind of off-headed. Sometimes my finger dangerously brushes the knife. One time she has to stop me, fixing her fingers on my knife.
With the radiation of her body, I ask, like a sailor who has to sail before the storm: “Is it always gonna be like this?”
I half expected her to make a joke or say something irrelevant, but she just says plainly: “No, not always.”
That’s the last night she stays.
The second I wake up and see all the suitcases, I run out, saying that I need to grab something from school. Along the way, it starts to rain, so I just walk in the rain. I did go to school to grab the notebook, even though it’s just a stupid excuse.
By the time I come back they’re already gone, and that’s what I expect: I want to be alone. That moment I thought I understood why you left this memory with me… You want me to be with you when you’re gone. You want to be with me when you’re gone. I couldn’t say I like it; but this is the closest thing to truth I can get.
I’m soaked up so I go to the bath and get change, then go to the dinner table of leftover rabbits.
“Your cousin,” My father blows out a cloud of smoke, “Time, she’s quite a figure. You guys know that they say she has relationships with girls in town?”
“She’s my sister,” I say, my voice so strange it almost sounds distant, “and that’s it.”
My father looks at me in surprise, examines through the wet hair, red eyes and damp skin, and nods, “Alright, alright.”
My mother chops down a piece of rabbit; there is some bloodstain left inside, making the meat red. She does it smoothly like others.
I can never cut it right.
(Added years later to the unsent letter)
After that, war comes. We lost all connections with our relatives, including her and my aunt who was out of the county before the war came like many others; There is no escape all the same.
Miguel volunteers to the army and is soon reported missing; heroes are always the first to be killed. I stay behind and become a grown-up. Her secret lives with me. A secret can live as long as a heart.
I’m taming some dough on the kitchen table before I write this letter. The smoke chokes me out, forcing me to open the window.
Outside the window, the flower is dipping in the sunlight. Suddenly, two hands are on my waist, and I look down on them, seeing them clutch on my waistband, a feeling so close and familiar.
I keep working on the dough; the imagination brings me back to memory, where she does the same thing, with a cloth of sweats. I take in the smell of dough and summer.
“The flowers are ripe,” I once said in a quiet way, “all ripe.” So many summers past, I’m still in the house, with her long gone. The scene of autumn is coming; the scene of her stays in memory.
Do you remember the day I’m soaked in rain?
That day I got wet from the rain, and I let it happen. At the moment I know that How Mr.Dick dies, and who is his lover; I know why people go to wars; I understand my sister’s feelings for me.
“Secrets,” Sensations of her fingers on my arm, “makes one pretty.”
I go back into the house. I walk in with this look; no one dares to ask what has happened to me.
I’m already this age, so this is the last letter. I will not send it out, but I’m sure you will get it somehow.
My dearest sister, Time.
On the way back nobody talks. Karla does the driving, her shoulder stretched into a tight line. Luna keeps her eyes on the car window, at first I think she is watching our faces from the reflection, only later finding out tears have rushed to her eyes.
The car crashed through the bumpy road with the bang bang noise. The midsummer night is saturated with bitterness.
We book four rooms at the hotel as nobody wants to face each other. The cool air of the night poured into the room. After a glass of wine, I fall asleep with my eyes open.
The sun rises.
Three days later, me, my sister, and mother went hiking together.
We drive all the way from the house to the entry of the park. Along the way, mother almost misses the entrance for the wrong parking space.
The cement road near the park is covered with sand and dust; one electric shocked squirrel lays stiffly under the telephone pole. Johanna stares into it for a long time, until mother calls her up from the front. She would have buried it with soil if no body’s watching.
We walk our way into the park, past the protective bar to stop cars from coming in, past the “Danger” sign for wild animals. The defense method is painted out with a “Bang”.
We wander into the forest. Towering trees lay down dense shadows. Further into the woods lesser the people, even animals keep quiet inside. Far into the forest, there are only the three of us’s breathing leaves noise.
We keep moving forward. I turn back, Johanna has not followed up yet. I turn around, walking quick into the deep woods. I walk faster, faster.
“Migelma, Migelma.” They call after me in the woods; I never look back.
Walk, Walk, past the hanging birch, the common ash, the black alder, the European larch; my heart feels like being held in my hands and forget how to beat, my past flying on my eyelids.
“Migelma, Migelma.” They chase after me in the woods; I never look back.
Three days ago.
His hand on my shoulder, ever so gently, and we are parted. After I retreat into my side of shadow, I see him smiling. Not the kind of happy smile, but careless, like he just dug out some truth.
“Now you have got to go to the army.” He pulls out a cigarette, with his hands shaking like they just been through a fight, but his voice is indifference.
“What do you mean?”
My thoughts must have been shown by my expression, because he smiles comfortingly: “Migelma, you know in a district like ours, there is only a few conscription quota? If you go, nobody else needs to go.”
He lights up the cigarette, his hand no longer trembling: “You see, you don’t want to stay behind, and being called a homo, do you?”
Seeing my face, he sighs: “That day at the hotel, when the four of us are sleeping together in the same room? I was awake when you kissed me.”
We haven't talked since we got back. My mother hosts a dinner party a day after, inviting his family and many others. After dinner, my father and he went outside to smoke. After my father goes back, I go up and stand next to him.
He offers me a cigarette——looking at me as if I’m a stranger to him. We stand in the cold wind for half an hour and use up the cigarettes. Afterward I turn around and leave.
On the way of going back, I see Karla sitting next to a foundation. She is not smoking, because she is a lady in front of everyone, and because she doesn’t smoke, thinking them as a waste of time and strength. Starlight projects onto her and she looks like a queen.
“Do you know?” I ask, already know the answer.
“Luna told me,” Her voice is clear as crystal, “Mathias told her first, because now they’re together, then Luna tells me. I begged him afterward, but that didn’t help.”
“You did that for me?”
“I rephrase everything good that has been happened to the four of us, but he just look at me and says: “What’s that has to do with the present?”
I wonder whether she is telling the truth, and whether that matters.
After the party, glasses are everywhere. The fountain is spraying under the night skies, where Karla sits, leaves a grain of sand, I pinch it with my fingers and flick it into the fountain.
Johanna and I help to collect the glasses and plates, then she takes them to the kitchen to wash; father and his pals go out to walk.
I sit down on the other side of the dinner table as my mom gestures. I sluggishly realize the roses on the table have withered away.
“So you decide to go to the recruitment office and only tell us after you have done it.” She says calmly.
“Yes.” I say listlessly.
“If I say I don’t agree, would you go and undo it?”
“That can’t be undone.”
“What you have done,” she says word by word, “is a shame. You should go to the army, I agree with you doing so.”
“No,” Johanna rushes out, still with the apron; she hugs me from behind, “brother, brother, don’t go.”
“It’s ok; I’ll be a hero.” I smile, trying to hold back the tears.
“No, you’re my brother,” she hugs me so tight it hurts, “heroes die——You’re not one of them, you’re my brother.”
Mother sighs deeply. I recollect the details of spitting into Mathias’s family milk bottle secretly in the morning——I’m indeed no hero. I’m only human, the most normal kind.
Of course I hadn't run away to the woods. I have my family behind, and I have my dignity, and I would starve.
When I slow down, they catch me, and Johanna throws herself at me, very indelicate for a grown up girl. Mom lets her, holding one of my arms as we go back.
The other week, I’m in the army already. I have my package, my pack, my food, and my photo with Johanna with me. I sleep with them, dream with them, live with them. And when we struggle in the mud, I think of the summer.
Yes, that summer. I will never forget the summer, no matter how deep it wounds me. Secretly, I know, that’s part of the reasons why I can’t forget it. Maybe, maybe only, after many a summer, if I live.
The reason that I spite into Mathias’s milk bottle when the milkman leaves his house, and not answer back to my sister and mother two days after in the woods and just keep going is that I tell myself Mathias only does the deed to make me live, because men who live with hatred can be more clear-minded than the heroes; but I know the truth.
I know how I should feel, but that’s now how I am feeling now. I should feel angry, sad, despair, or anything, but what I am feeling is nothingness. I don’t feel like being betrayed by my friends and family, I feel like being betrayed by me. Not by my sexual orientation, but by my self.
That day in the hotel, do I really know he would not be awake, or anyone might be awake? I still done it anyway, because I can’t resist the last chance before the war, because I want to save the summer, to save the image of us four together. I don’t have the guts to contaminate this in the sunlight, so I chose this secret sneaking, and this determined the price of my love and my fate.
I remember the time at class, where he stands up, throws out a random answer to the teacher, then sits down and wink at me, among the laughter of the class, and that’s the summer I should remember, the summer I will bear in mind, not this. Back then we’re still innocent. This summer, I will let go, eventually, for I can’t keep a knife in my guts.
The good part is, I know I’m stepping to my futures, although I don’t know where it lands.
DR. DOUGLAS YOUNG - POEMS
Born in Bartow, Florida in 1961, Dr. Douglas Young was reared a faculty brat in Athens, Georgia before becoming a full-time professional nerd himself. He taught political science and history at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia from 1987 to 1999. He then taught at Gainesville State College in Gainesville, Georgia from 1999 to 2013, and he taught at the University of North Georgia-Gainesville from 2013 to the end of 2020 where he also advised UNG’s multiple award-winning Politically Incorrect and Chess Clubs. His essays and poems have appeared in a variety of publications, and his first novel, Deep in the Forest, is set to be published in 2021.
A Life Worthwhile
How I want a life worthwhile,
Full of purpose, without guile,
Big on substance, swell in style,
Worth study, not just to file.
Jump up to arise each day,
Not sighing or just okay,
Eager for work, but still enjoying play,
Believing something, not just to say.
Having a mission, being needed,
Respected, and feeling completed;
Challenged, yet still excelling,
Focused, a life compelling.
Seeking, exploring, embracing risks,
Savoring life like a lobster bisque;
Having the courage to stare down my fears,
Determined to never regret past years.
Sculpting my flaws into fine features,
I refuse to sit in the bleachers;
Mindful that this life is all we know,
So I make it one whale of a show.
Achieving the joy of hard-earned success,
But being grateful for how I’m blessed;
Always make time to relish beauty,
And help others, for that’s my duty.
When darkness comes, drown in the cheerful;
Don’t dwell among doubts and the tearful;
Be a beacon to light others’ way,
Not a gray cloud, but a bright spring day.
Stay true to my conscience every time,
For nothing’s as treasured as peace of mind;
Fun is fab, but contentment is the goal,
So honor my values to keep my soul.
And never waste time
Since this life’s a cheat;
No matter how long we wish to climb,
It will all vanish in a heartbeat.
Intense faces all around:
Black, white, yellow and brown;
High expectations mixed with the mundane –
No matter the motive, get to that plane.
We fervently cling to the notion
That the solution is in motion;
So everyone’s in a hurry --
So focused, with no time to worry.
If we just get to our destination, and on time,
Somehow everything will work out and even rhyme;
Getting there is the key, and don’t be late;
Be decisive and never hesitate.
So we rush through the airport just like ants,
Going the same way, doing the same dance;
God forbid we stop, relax, and reflect
Since the answer’s out there, don’t you expect?
Travel teaches there are fine folks everywhere
And many means for the circle to get the square;
But, no matter how far we fly or in which direction,
The answer is found only within, through introspection.
I fear oversleeping, and not sleeping enough,
I fear lingering doubts – most unpleasant stuff,
I fear being late to work, as well as a speeding ticket,
Plus a terrible wreck, and ending up like a crushed cricket.
I fear unwanted mail and busy work I abhor,
New unpleasant distractions and yet another chore;
I fear my lecture is boring, seeing a student yawn,
Noticing someone check his watch and wishing he was gone.
I fear the lecture going long or making a mistake;
What if I say something “offensive,” drawing a complaint?
I fear talking too fast and leaving some confused,
Or being biased and earning awful reviews.
Did I look at that student too long?
Did my joke get nearly enough laughs?
Was going off on those tangents wrong?
Have I provided sufficient facts?
Did I eat too much today?
Will I start to put on weight?
Is having meat really the right way?
Will I be condemned for what I ate?
Do I meet obligations
And obey the Golden Rule,
Tell the truth sans obfuscations,
Do what is right and not just cool?
Am I fulfilling my potential?
Do I contribute all I can?
Is my life beneficial?
Am I a strong Christian man?
Will I be a disappointment?
Will my dear ones withdraw their love?
Is this life about enjoyment?
Is there even a God above?
My life has been ruled by fear,
The one constant always here:
Confidence is the missing piece in my puzzle,
The elixir I’d most like to find and guzzle;
How I would treasure even a modest supply
To reduce the fear and provide a lot more why.
A Surprise Visitor
While writing in a Paris hotel room,
Suddenly there was scratching at the door;
It grew intense, as if fleeing doom,
And seemed to be coming from the floor.
Going outside to see what was about,
A cat darted in, and gave me a pout;
Inspecting the scene, it looked here and there,
As if harboring not a single care.
The cat leisurely checked every bag,
Curiously sniffing each little tag;
Then she leapt on the desk for a better view,
And soon jumped again to peruse the bed, too.
Accepting my good will without a doubt,
She sat by a pillow and soon stretched out;
I plopped beside her to pet her pretty fur,
While the cat grew quite still and started to purr.
As she blissfully slept, I just continued writing
And Petite stayed put since there was nothing exciting;
How keen to choose any room for a free massage and nap,
And never have to worry about a burglary rap.
Many hours later, when I returned from dinner,
The cat showed no more worries than a just-saved sinner;
Looking up from bed, she gave her best yawn
Since she couldn’t care less where I had gone.
When I settled into bed, she slept by my leg,
Remaining immovable, like a big warm egg;
What confidence to sleep over wherever you please –
How exquisite to enjoy a life of so much ease!
Before dawn came more scratching at the door
Since my little friend now found me a bore;
She danced out of the room without even turning around,
As if on a highway, and I was just another town.
So what to learn from this carefree cat?
Cast out concerns like an old torn hat?
Let’s just relax more and dare to explore,
For time retreats and then there is no more.
As my leaves begin to brown,
I want ever more to plant my tree,
Big, bold, tall, and sound,
Inspiring others and outlasting me.
Wandering graveyards and reading dates,
Lives are reduced to names and mates,
Noting whose plots are well kept
And whose are now decrepit.
How soon dear ones who’ve died at work
Are fast forgotten, no matter the hurt,
As carefully crafted castles along the shore
Are soon leveled by waves with nary a roar.
We’re brief “Here”s in the roll call of time,
Small cameos in a film that won’t rewind,
For even a Victorian home bulldozed for an office,
In a few years is all but forgotten.
So how best to lay down a legacy,
Deep-rooted in spite of me,
A homerun record that won’t be broken,
A souvenir to keep, not some token?
For even Ozymandias got overtaken by time,
Since statues become challenges for children to climb.
As sidewalk chalk marks get erased by rain,
So last year’s bird’s nest is never used again.
Yet values last as timeless truths,
And a kindness delivered can’t be diluted.
All the good we do
Can inspire others, too.
Good (and bad) deeds
Plant many strong seeds
As we provide much of the toil
That helps till the youths’ soil.
If we want our values remembered
Long after our lives are surrendered,
We should grab every chance to help others,
Spreading the gospel that we’re all brothers.
True teachers are preachers of ideas,
Not selfishly promoting themselves,
But inspiring students to be pioneers,
Not conformist little elves.
As promoters of principles and dreams,
We can impact way more than it seems.
So work hard and celebrate what’s profound
To leave a legacy that’s good and sound.
COLLEEN J. PALLAMARY - DAD'S DAY
Colleen J. Pallamary is an author, speaker, copy editor, freelance writer, and crafter. She is dual-certified as a BLS/CPR Instructor for both American Heart and Red Cross disciplines. She has published three books including Scammunition: How To Protect Yourself From Con Artists: A Guide For Baby Boomers And Beyond, an urban fantasy novel titled The Vampire Preservation Society, and a biography based on her Mother’s career in show business Meet Bridgeport’s Sweetheart Colleen J. Bartram. All are available on Amazon.com.
In addition to lectures on scam prevention Colleen frequently teaches her course Lucid Dreaming: Another Altered State of Mind and has received 5 Star Reviews from all of her students. Her writing has been prominently featured in Ocala The Good Life Magazine and many other local publications. She resides in Central Florida and is currently working on a collection of poetry. For more information visit www.colleenpallamary.com.
When I was little it was my job to be my Dad’s personal groomer whenever we were together in his car. He’d come to pick us up for our weekly visitation and I’d climb into the backseat of his 4 door Buick and scooch over to the spot behind the driver’s seat so I could touch his brush cut hair. Sliding up to the edge of my seat, I’d tap him on the shoulder and say “ready” so he could hand me his small black comb.
He’d drive through a maze of city streets like a cat on the prowl, stopping at red lights and checking for oncoming traffic before pushing his polished black shoe on the gas pedal to proceed. I loved those times with my Dad and I always felt happy doing my job. Then one day he was gone. No kiss, no hug, no goodbye – just gone.
Fast forward in time. I hadn’t seen my Dad in nearly 20 years and didn’t know what to expect when I drove to visit him in the VA Hospital. I had discovered somehow that he was diagnosed with ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I had no idea what ALS was during those pre-Internet times. I had a few things to say to him and finally knew where he was after all this time. Living without a father to support and guide me as I made my way alone through the important milestones of life was difficult and not knowing if he was alive or dead was worse.
Seven months pregnant with my third child I waddled over to the elevator and pushed the button for the third floor. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for both of us. The doors opened and I glanced at room numbers until I found the right one. I grasped a picture of his granddaughters in my sweaty palm, took a deep breath, and walked into a room full of bedridden patients.
I spotted him as soon as I walked in, off to my left, sitting by the window looking out at the traffic on the busy Jamaica Plain thoroughfare. Slightly hunched over wearing a rumpled blue hospital gown he loosely held a corner of a thin, worn blanket draped over his skinny legs. A pack of his favorite Camel cigarettes was tucked into his dingy white sock and his wheelchair looked much too big for his frail body. A glowing cigarette dangled from his trembling right hand and he looked at the husky nurse beside him and pursed his lips indicating that he wanted to take a drag. I watched the nurse gently grab the smoldering butt and bring it to my Dad’s lips. He closed his eyes and exhaled, the bluish smoke wafting through the air like storm clouds on a summer day. A thousand thoughts flitted through my mind and I looked away for a moment trying not to intrude.
I approached from behind slowly, not sure of how to proceed in such an awkward situation. Do I hug him? Kiss him? Show him the picture of his granddaughters to break the ice? I glanced at the unmade bed cluttered with wrinkled newspapers and that’s when I spotted it - a small black comb nestled between the pages of an old magazine on the nightstand. I grabbed it, walked over and stood behind my Dad, placed my hand on his shoulder and softly pulled the plastic comb through the graying bristles of his brush cut hair.
I nodded at the startled nurse. “It’s okay. I’m his daughter and this is my job.”
RALUCA SIRBU - PIER'S PICTURE
I looked for minutes at the picture that he once gave me. He was stretching a smile for the camera; the small six-year-old gave that gift to the person who took the picture.
There was another small child in a stroller, a child without a scintillation, and another, older, trapped by the camera and the hand of a starched woman. She had a faraway look, like being a captive in this moment, not willing, not belonging. None of them looked like they had anything to offer, they looked like all the gifts they owned had turned their back to the world. One’s eye was immediately drawn to the little boy with a protective hand on the stroller, saying: “I’m here”.
He was not cute, but immediately pulled one in. He had sensuous lips, a bit inappropriately sensuous for his age, intense, piercing eyes, with a rim of softness around them. He looked scrawny really, wearing Bermuda shorts and surprisingly big black shoes.
He, young then, was posing for the camera; he had an audience; he needed to please, amaze, and entertain. That sweet, broad, giving smile!
I first saw Pier at a presentation of King Lear, a play in the park.
My friend Mona called me the day before sobbing: “I cannot stand it anymore; I want some resolution to this. Victor canceled our date again. Every day I wonder where I am with him, one day he is loving and wants me, then an entire week I do not talk to him, just a few text messages.”
Mona and Victor have a rocky relationship. Victor is like a cat. He snuggles one day leaving her full of his fur and the next he disappears rubbing his sneakers on other momentary passions; I don’t think he cheats on Mona. I think she is the closest thing to love that Victor will ever experience. And he knows it. But he is a cat.
“Mona, stop and listen “ I said, when she took a breath. “What exactly happened? You know that Victor is crazy about you”.
“We had tickets to a play in the park and he just called me to say that he cannot make it. He said something about work and preparing for an unforeseen trip, but I don’t believe him! What work…” She continued, but I tuned her out because I’ve heard this before. When I noticed a break in her words I asked: “Do you want me to go with you to the play? We’ll stop for drinks afterwards and you can tell me all about it”.
The “tell me all about it” did the trick! Mona stopped sobbing, and a smile came into her voice. It was a grateful smile. Mona is 12 years younger than me and the age difference is a wash but every so often the motherly instinct in me comes out and she takes it right in, like dry parched land after a soaking rain.
I had 45 minutes before I had to meet Mona and rushed to get ready; grabbed a pair of light jeans and a peach color, a bit neon looking T-shirt. The jeans were a tad tight, but they would give. I squatted and held the stretch. Ah, better! Shall I put on a belt? Bold orange earrings; how about a necklace? No, too much! Two dabs of concealer, eyeliner, and always lipstick; jacket just in case; out!
I was late as usual, but not dramatically; I saw Mona. A dash of reproach in her eye, but it gave way quickly.
“You look good,” I said.
“You do too,” said Mona, and she meant it.
We rushed to get our seats. They were in the 4th row. Close enough to smell the paint of the décor. I’ve seen the play many times. Like Swan Lake, I can see it again and again and be surprised every time as if I saw it new.
Three scenes into the play I was thinking: This is well done for a play in the park, a lighter version than I remember. Some productions are heavy, like an entire page typed in bold font. One cannot see the difference in the words, it is all heavy. This one seemed to have used a light typeset with a word or two in bold font on the page. It drew me in as it always does.
And then with a startle I noticed that the “King” locked eyes with me and did not let go. At first, I thought it was an impression only, like those cut outs that look like they follow your eyes no matter where you are. Then when I realized that it was so, that “the King” was looking at me, I was slightly uncomfortable, blushing like a shy maiden and dropping my eyes. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mona watching getting the entire scene and smiling, really amused. I felt silly and did not look back at her; then took a breath as if “I can do this” and looked onto the stage again.
Here he was, sensual lips rounding the English verse; the piercing eyes with a glow of softness like a November full moon; long hands out of an El Greco painting, sensitive, dramatic hands. I finally could hold his eyes and soon the reality of the 4th row of the play in the park dissolved. It felt as if I was an old-time photographer getting under the black cloth and looking into the lens. The world and time, right there in front of me, and the surroundings had no contour.
He played for me, gave me his hours, gave me his gift and I took it all, did not leave a crumb on the scene. I felt his turmoil, shuttered at his vanity, heard myself sobbing when he was betrayed and inundated by grief when he died.
I was so raw with emotions and still in my tunnel that I almost jumped out of my seat when the audience applauded. The cast came out, he at the end, and bowed deeply in front of me. The audience stood up applauding and so did I, holding the smile of the lady whose knight won the tournament under her color.
I ignored Mona who was still grinning and heard her say: “Let’s go to the after-play party.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to go. I was afraid to be disappointed, but Mona knew me and tapped into her: “Do it for me” channel. I followed her.
As I entered, I scanned the room to look for him and I noticed “the King” immediately surrounded by fans, talking, laughing, out of King Lear’s character into an approachable, oh so charming one. Mona pushed me to join his circle, but I really didn’t want to, so I picked some food, bought a glass of wine and went to talk with “Cordelia,” still aware of his presence in the room.
After a while I had enough and was getting anxious so I built up some courage to go to the constantly replenishing group surrounding him; I grabbed a second glass of wine, since I noticed that he was talking the whole time, and got myself in front of him. I ran through a few phrases in my mind before landing on one. I stretched forth the glass and said: “I thought you might want a glass of wine after a splendid performance.” It might have been in an unnatural, rehearsed tone since my mouth was dry and I had a slight shake as I handed him the glass. With that he looked at me and I noticed a slight sigh of relief. Maybe it was just an impression. And then it started again. It was just the two of us. People noticed and faded away.
He was half a head taller than me and slightly hovered over, embracing me with his presence, including me in his universe. He told me his name, Pier, and I thought it was a strange name, a made-up name because somehow it did not fit him. We talked a lot, easy. He asked me what theatre authors I liked most. In a whimsy I said Eugene Ionesco. The surprise brought a unique smile to his face, one that revealed a slight dimple in his cheek, asymmetrical. I learned to love that smile, spontaneous, true.
“I played the ‘Bald Singer’ part, many years ago, in a small-town theatre that hired a new cultural director. Somehow, he convinced everybody that this was the right thing to do, and they staged a low budget production; but it was hard to keep the audience which was looking more for an Agatha Christie type subject and started walking out after the first fifteen minutes. The end of the show had no more than ten people in the seats, most likely the former director’s relatives.” I laughed, imagining the scene.
I talked about the days in college when we stayed in line all night for tickets to unique shows. Slivers of memories and their mark.
Suddenly I realized how late it was and brusquely said: “I have to go.”
He did not insist I stay, did not ask for my number and did not say: “Will I see you again?” but just reached for my hand, brought it to his lips and kissed it. I felt light, I felt great. With one embracing look, he said goodbye. I turned and left, without looking back, but I could see Pier looking after me in the black window on the left of the door. I did not see Mona anywhere, and I left alone. When I got to my car, I had five messages from Mona and one from my daughter. I called my daughter first and told her all about my evening and at the end she asked: “Did you give him your number”? I told her it did not fit; we, Pier and I created our own world and reality that could have been placed and lived anywhere, anytime. The phone number was something for now. “Mom, it makes no sense, do you still want to see him”?
“Hmm, yes, I do but we’ll let destiny arrange it,” I answered, unconvinced.
Mona wanted to know the same thing, and I gave her the same answers. She concluded: “You are such a looser”.
Destiny arranged nothing. It was me that manipulated it, like a puppeteer, disguising it as fate as I chased Pier through local productions and by “accident” ran into him.
At the first play I dared to go to, I stayed in the back out of sight. I wanted to see, to figure out if there was somebody else for him or if there was a bit of hope for me. I don’t remember what play it was, neither did it matter. There was a whole procession of thoughts, of anguish, and debates marching in formation in my mind. This time there was no after party, so I rushed out of the theatre and stamped myself on the wall of the building right in front of the actors’ exit. Not to be seen or acknowledged, I waited.
I saw him coming, and I held my breath to pretend even more that I was not there. He was alone, said goodbye over his shoulder to a faceless somebody. It was fall. It was one of those perfect October days that caught the gold and the ripeness of the summer and dripped it, controlled, into the night, blending perfectly the memory of the warm sun with the crisp, clean air of the soon to be winter.
He wore jeans, a tweed jacket, and a scarf. The scarf, the note of elegance, looked like silk; I saw a shimmer when he stepped into a cone of light. His shoulders were slumped. Cold? In a rush? Thoughts too heavy? He had a purpose in his step. I followed. Without a second thought I followed him, taking in the color and look of the buildings, unseen. I am glad that he did not take a cab or the subway, but just walked with a steady pace. Suddenly he stopped as if remembering something. I was too close to hide. Oh, what if he turns? He will see me! What can I say? Oh, this is bad, embarrassing… and he turned slowly.
I was so startled that I dropped my purse and its contents burst out like the seeds of a ripe pomegranate. I kneeled on the ground to pick up my belongings, looking only in front of me and really hoping he would not see me. As I inched to gather pieces that rolled away, I saw Pier’s face at my crawling level. With a gentle smile and kind eyes he said: “Let me help you.”
Not a question, no connecting lines between three months ago and now. He let me ease in a door that he politely kept open. I was grateful and a wave of warm affection towards this man drenched me. It got into all the pores of my being. My eyes must have said that. He took my hand and said: “Would you like to have dinner with me? I am famished!”
I acted like a 14- year- old on the first date and responded with a limp: “Yes”. On the way to the restaurant he talked about absurd and classical theatre. He picked up the conversation from where we left it a few months ago, as if we just took a breath between then and now. He was animated, passionate. I was more aware of his presence and slightly remote to the discussion. I did not understand its depth but offered some street-smart comments. As I made them, he suddenly stopped and said: “You are the only person I can talk to about everything.” How special that made me feel. I just squeezed his hand in response.
Pier took me to his favorite restaurant, a Persian restaurant. It had multiple divisions, alcoves that allowed for privacy. Lush flower arrangements, soothing water features, romantically low lights. But I could have been as happy sitting on the curb next to the railroad depot, eating fried fish out of a newspaper.
I craved his presence, craved being in the field, in the aura that surrounded him.
We talked about the theatre again. I laughed from the bottom of my belly about a few stage mishaps. I laughed so hard that it was hard to breathe; some heads turned, but I did not care at all. As I was catching my breath, he whispered: “I love to see you laugh.”
I did not want this moment to pass. I knew exactly what Faust felt when he exclaimed “moment stay.” But it did not… We got out of the restaurant and walked in silence. He held my hand. After a few steps he turned, looked at me and asked: “Are you in a rush?”
Am I in a rush? No! I can spend my days in your hand, living in your presence, but I buttoned up and hung a tie on my thoughts and politely answered: “No, not really”.
“Good! I have a place by the water, I want to show you.” We did not talk. I did not have words handy, just lived by my senses now, somehow primitively wanting to take it all in the touch, his smell, the look of him.
We got to the place, leaned on the railing watching the water. He, halfway behind me, stroked my back, talking about a movie. The water echoed the lights of the city and it murmured its presence. The air was clean, and I was next to Pier, feeling the warmth of his body. Without a thought, I turned and kissed him. I started, he continued. Those sensuous lips! I kept my eyes open to see, to absorb it all. And he could not stop. It felt like thirst. He finally pulled apart with the pain of a train that had the emergency brake pulled.
Soon we started walking, and we moved closer to each other, overlapping our bodies, almost tripping. Pier only said: “Let me take you to the subway.” I did not want to leave, but I was bordering on lack of pride. We kissed one more time by the gate, more restrained, and then he turned around and left. We did not say goodbye, or exchange phone numbers. Nothing! The curtain fell too quickly. This play did not have the right ending for me.
For days I was running on automatic pilot, like a person just diagnosed with a terminal illness, going through the motions as running a 35mm film in the background. Only flare-ups at work were stopping the film from running again and again. It obsessed me; I could not explain his behavior. He likes me, was happy to see me, we had a wonderful time! What happened? Is there somebody else? No, it can’t be! He was so sincere. Am I a substitute? Is it me he likes? Who is this man, what is his life? What is his past? Questions tormented me, a carousel of thoughts; I could distinguish the faces of the horses. They were grotesque, contorted; The cry was suspended in their muscles, remote looks, eyes that didn’t see out.
I was consumed, and I needed to build a moat around me; I did not talk or return phone calls. I told closer friends that I had a hard patch at work and needed to deal with it. They’d seen this before and let me be until I could come out for air. Nobody doubted it, besides my 24-year-old daughter, my closest friend. How much the age difference shrunk!
We spoke in simple words: “Are you OK?” she asked.
“Not really, but I will bounce back.”
“Shall I come home,” she offered.
“No!” And that was it. We are safety nets for each other.
Days and weeks passed. The bleeding wounds in my soul crusted. They did not let me move as before, but I was not bleeding anymore. With some care, I could even smile.
Still, I was looking into the crowds hoping to see him and held my breath many times when I saw pieces of him in others. After a while the scabs fell off and life got to taste almost the same.
The winter holidays were upon us and I have a joy I cannot contain around this time of the year. There are never enough lights and glitter. Such frenzy: baskets for neighbors with sweet breads, soaps and candles, pickles and cookies, carols in my verse. I put my scent on every item I create, every Christmas. House full of friends, kids crying, parents rushing to stop them from falling and pulling. Voices loud, lights warming, cheeks red from the whirl; laughter cascading, spilled wine, dripping candles, cards wishing… Oh I love it! I love the anticipation, the crescendo before Christmas Eve. Like a big symphony that uses all the instruments in a melodious act.
I don’t believe in emails for Christmas. I want to touch what I send and receive, a pretty gift of thought for everybody. The mailbox had surprises every day.
That Christmas Eve I picked up the mail and one card was from Pier. My hand went limp. I didn’t know if I should be happy or not. Curiosity made me open the card. In the envelope there was an official invitation for a gala celebrating contemporary theatre authors. The date was December 27th. No other words like “I’d love if you came” or “call me.” Nothing!
Where did he get my address? He never asked.
All right, what do I do? Make a fuss? Show that I am upset over what happened? Well, what had happened? Nothing really! Besides my expectations being crumpled.
Or grab the hand and enjoy our dance.
I called Mona and in syncopated phrases I explained the situation. She interrupted so many times it amazed me I conveyed the message. Her questions were around “Why would you go?”
Mine: “What will I wear”?
“Why?” almost screamed Mona.
I did not answer.
“Are you there?”
“Yes,” I breathed, burdened by the struggle to match my feelings to words. “Because with him I am everything that I am, at once. He matches the rhythm of my heart. It is like an elixir I discovered, and I want to have it forever”.
The next days had a garland of anticipation. I was gliding on the magic of the holidays, tumbling when life was rushing too much; time lost its identity, and I was watching the moments as through a speeding train. Objects were elongated, losing their shape, moments becoming traces of light and pure happiness sealed in the vault of memories.
On December 27th I tried to keep myself busy although every second was heavy. This day tested my patience as if preparing me to become a painter on rice grains.
Thoughts were rushing in my mind: How shall I act when I see him? Reproachful? Distant? No! Thrilled? Glad to see him? Well, maybe not! Would that show him I waited till he, the knight, came for me? What is the right face? I was rummaging through my closet of facial props with used and unused feelings and pulled out the “friendly, just collegial, half arm length distance” set. Yeah, that seemed just right, and it matched the outfit: elegant, not too feminine but avant-garde.
As I got into the banquet hall, I looked for my inner compass to guide me to the right room but in the next second I felt my arm touched and the dear voice: “So glad to see you.” My all composed face, half arm length, dropped like a drape at an unveiling, in a swift move, and instead of replying with a controlled “me too” I turn around and beamed an uncensored smile.
Pier held my elbow in the cradle of his hand, and we moved closer to each other, overlapping a bit, and walked, adjusting our step and our heartbeat. The whole evening had a warm and exciting glow enveloping and leading us in a continuous, flawless waltz. We stayed in each other’s field, orbiting, touching, always together. During the evening, Pier introduced me to many people. Were they his friends, just acquaintances? He never said. Just names, never a context. It did not matter to me then.
When the festivities ended, Pier turned to me and said: “Let’s take a walk.” The air was crisp, maybe thinner than usual, or maybe the swirl of my excitement got me gasping. We talked about the night and the event, commented on the award recipients. He talked mostly about who deserved it, why. And without a bridge, Pier turned to face me and asked: “Can I offer you a glass of wine?” I just nodded. I wanted this man so badly; I was soft and easy to have; there was no thought beyond the desire. He took my hand and softly took me to his car. We drove in silence. It was quiet; the air between us was tense with desire held at bay. Its molecules were stretched like elastic bands, so taut that I could hear them vibrate with every breath of ours.
We stopped in front of a black iron gate that obediently slid away, drove a quick path between tall, perfectly kept thuya bushes paired with amber drops of light between them. They were dark, majestic guardians of the alley. They led us to an imposing front door that matched the design of the iron-gate. The house had a very modern architecture, almost cubist. As we entered the large open floor, I was expecting modern angular furnishings, steel and glass. Instead, it opened to a warm, soft, inviting room. Voluptuous brown plush drapes hung from lightly ornate silver rods adorning the many windows. There was a large light gray sofa, an oversized coffee table that seemed to be converted from a heavily ornate Thai door, tamed by the coldness of the glass top. Oversized chairs, spots of very colorful modern paintings that could, each one, kidnap your eye and mind.
I could live here! It was tasteful and inviting, personalized but without a signature. I could reconstruct his personality out of each and all the elements, but I did not find a single picture of him or his family.
Pier invited me to sit with a stretched hand and left to bring the wine. I chose a corner of the sofa. He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with an open bottle and glasses. The wine was rich, lingering on the glass with a trace of purple. He sat next to me and toasted: “To us.”
A questioning thought bat its wings–what is us?–but the thought flew with a wave of air on my face and all that remained was raw radiating passion. My lips got fuller, my palms got warmer and my body shivered with desire.
I am not sure who offered the first kiss, but that was the tear in the dam. My passion, his passion burst in the open, flooding every crevice of our being. Before long he firmly took my hand and walked me to his bedroom. There was a soft light in the room. Good, I wanted to see him, see us. I got undressed, not waiting for him. I wanted him now: to feel him, to touch him, get the shape of his body imprinted on me. To smell like him and have him all over me, in me, in my senses. With a scream from the depth of my being, I made my offer. The Gods received.
We were sweaty and spent. With a last tender kiss, I drifted away. I was complete now.
Morning came in smiling.
And a cloud: I was alone in bed. I hoped to find his naked warmth next to me, to shift closer to him and bring last night back. I was still hungry for him. Disappointment started knitting a veil.
But soon he entered the room with an astonishing bouquet of blushing roses. I felt a rush of love and fulfillment drowning me. Pier put the roses next to me on the floor and came in to make my wish come true and lose ourselves again in what seemed desire without a horizon.
When the evening kissed the ground, I got ready to leave.
Pier did not ask: ”Will I see you again?” but I did, and he answered just: “I am sure”. What did that mean? The feeling of fulfillment I had shattered like a plate dropped on the floor. I turned to him with questioning eyes and he smiled warmly and kissed me goodbye.
As time passed, the same scene kept replaying: us meeting, his happiness in a glistening eye, him enveloping me in his tenderness. His affection emanating, no, radiating from him. His tenderness was real, palpable; it filled me up; it got me high. And then, when we parted, there was just emptiness. Like an addict I was chasing the “high”, making compromises, getting lower, paying a higher and higher price. No matter the price, I did not want to give it up. When we were together it was as if we ran to the end of the flat world and slid off to a place new, ours, perfect in the moment, dear in the moment and lasting only a moment. There was no tomorrow, there was no bridge where Pier would take my hand and cross over.
Our time together was like lily pads on the surface of a lake.
When I asked about his life, he offered morsels of disparate events. Some were happy stories of early childhood with grandparents and a house full of relatives and friends, about his interesting travels with the family fading in the background; hints of loss, of love and commitments that crumbled. Hints. Never details or naked feelings. As soon as the contour of his past became more revealing, he was stepping out of it and into the present. Simple change of scenery; a revolving stage with a new décor.
One day I asked him if we could see some pictures. He brought a handful, most of them his stage pictures, pictures with friends from college, tours. “These are my brothers from college. Here are some photos taken during my year in England when we lived in a fabulous chateau, with many rooms and turrets, and many more doors than rooms; we staged everything: from Hitchcock-like improvisations to a Midnight Summer Night’s Dream”.
There was one picture, Pier the child when he was Peter maybe, stripped of the aura and fantasy of the make-believe world. It was a picture with a woman and two other children and Pier, or Peter, the future entertainer, giving it all to the camera.
“This is my mom and my siblings,” he offered. This was the only picture about his family I’d seen. “My father took the picture”. He did not say more. I asked him if I could keep that picture. He gave it to me, as he gave anything, with all of him, as a tribute.
I felt through our time together like a cardboard cutout standing on the coast of the ocean. This relationship ate at me, tore at me piece by piece. The rain whipped me and faded my colors away until I could not recognize myself. And still I could not give up. When I was away from him it was as if I was holding my breath, taking only small sips of air to just get by.
It was intoxicating: Pier recreated the stage for me and offered glamorous attention, love, the spotlight. It was all for the duration of the show, but he gave it all, he gave it to me. That was a lot!
I wanted to be the show, to get closer, to share his world, to be it. What if I stepped on the stage with him, made his world mine? With that thought, I registered for amateur acting classes, his classes.
As he entered the class, the first session, he was tremendously surprised to see me there. The next moment I realized that he was happy about it. We got through introductions: who we were, why we were there? When my turn came, I muttered something about being shy and having a love of theatre.
Next we ran through one-minute improvisation drills. My colleagues came prepared; they were reciting classics, creating interesting scenes. Talented people! I had nothing memorized, nor did I have experience with any of this, so I mimed a first date of a shy girl. I got some laughs, but the best was Pier’s look saying: “Not bad, kid”.
And then just before class ended, Pier turned on the record player and out jumped a lively swing. He walked to me and we started dancing in the middle of a surprised group of strangers. My shoes were not right, so I threw them off and danced barefoot. We danced, I laughed, got out of breath. I was happy!
He decided to stage a contemporary play about some middle-class family, set somewhere in Ohio of the past steel mill era. I got a minor part: the remote immigrant friend of the main character, Jim, who was an outstanding person, helping, sacrificing, changing lives. In the play I was one person touched by Jim and I was to convey that during the eulogy that closed the play.
My classmates had talent, they could modulate their voices, and their faces took the shape of the characters. I did not. My voice could match some basic emotions like the seven colors of the light spectrum, but I sounded like me, I looked like me; I was no actor material. But this was the way I could break into Pier’s world. I was not waiting anymore for him to give; I wanted to be in control, to take.
The culmination of the workshop was the play, just one event, in front of a live audience, most likely only the family and friends of the actors. I asked only my daughter to come.
As we approached the show, the days became more frantic, the rehearsals more intense, actors edgier.
The day of the play! I was nervous and got into my box of reproachful thoughts: Why did I do this? I always push myself! For what? some regret, mostly anxiety.
Five minutes before the curtain rose, Pier walked backstage, calm, composed, all smiles, sprinkling generous encouragements; he talked with everybody, including me; he patted me on the back and said remotely: “You’ll be great” Nothing personal. He was changing the scene now with me in it. I became another prop.
The thought finally sunk in, in slow motion, like swimming through molasses: this man will never be mine. I realized, only now, that he played the part, the role in this relationship; it did not permeate into his reality. Something kept him at the edge of acting but not living. Just now I understood that it will never change, and a hurt ran through my entire body.
As the play developed, I said my lines, not worse than during the rehearsal. And then the end: I stepped to the lectern all dressed in black, about to start the eulogy for Jim, but I realized that this was another eulogy. I looked at Pier sitting in the first row and tears started running. My voice buckled, but I went through with my lines…. “More than anything, he warmed my soul. I basked in his presence. Now that he passed, Jim left behind emptiness, cold, and mourning. Even so I stand here in front of you all dressed in black, grieving his passing, I carry his message that the sun will rise tomorrow, that love, kindness, and generosity are here, within arm’s reach, that we own our lives and we make the future”. As I raised my eyes and looked at the audience, I saw them leaning forward, catching every word with tenderness, and they were next to me, in my deep sorrow, and grieving with me for my loss. I finished and turned to leave. The audience erupted in applause.
I kept walking as the curtain fell.
NIKKI NORDQUIST - THE FAN
Years had gone by since she had seen such an exotic looking spider or at least slowed down enough to notice one. With her bright red spikes and a pattern on her back, it reminded her of a shrunken dinosaur; prehistoric, majestic and also slightly terrifying. Spiders always seemed so evidently female to Nora. She watched the arachnid from the porch building her web so intricately. There was not a single desire to rip down what Nora so absent-mindedly swat and destroyed dozens of times before this.
She was trapped in her own house, they all were. Never in her life did she think a twenty-first century plague would hit the world and confine everyone to the four walls some found safety in, and others felt imprisoned between. As for Nora, she often felt imprisoned in her own mind. External factors seemed manageable while those who’ve suffered boredom seemed to be imploding.
Among her relationships—well— Jim, Johnnie and Jameson seemed to be her biggest allies. They were like a group of close friends by default. Too much history, but no longer sharing any authenticity. She wasn’t herself with them, but she didn’t know how to act without them. She blew through a few bottles since the whole thing ensued, either reaching the bottom on her own or finishing what someone else had started.
She rarely ever finished what she started. If she had to take a personal inventory, her
life wasn’t terrible though. For the road she had taken since she left California seemed like an ongoing path to self-awareness and transformation. Sure, the therapy and daily yoga couldn’t erase the occasional one night stands or whiskey benders, but it gave way to some balance, allowing her to keep coasting on the open road she was traveling. So to speak.
In Buddhism, something she began practicing in her Californian days—they teach you that emptiness is a goal. For anything’s possible when there’s nothing holding you back—meaning in your soul. For the depressed, the sensation of nothingness is like an underworld, never allowing to you to come up for air and find the sky. That was the line she walked between. Within her quarantined life anything could be possible she supposed, although it seemed like nothing could happen at all.
Nora wasn’t lonely by any means but even liquor starts to taste like water once it gets diluted with enough ice. She was used to her life of compartmentalizing touch and feeling. Realistically, there had to be some craving for real intimacy but fear of disappointment consumed her mind. She was sure a psychologist would analyze this as an unconscious form of a defense mechanism. They’d reassure her she wasn’t just a jaded soul and Nora could carry-on with her free-spirited persona to the outside world. She’d rather starve than weave a wonderful web, only to be knocked down carelessly out of disgust, instead of being admired for all her hungry hard work.
Nora had just got out of work. A job she never really seemed to enjoy, yet she justified it by convincing herself the inconsistency of that industry allowed her to travel whenever she wanted. It didn’t. She walked into the grocery store at 11 PM to stock up. Slightly drained, Nora was unaware that was the last time her job would dictate her decisions. After that day, she would no longer have one. Then she really could do anything.
There was nothing to do. A statewide shutdown was placed until further notice— most of the nation was closing. No one really understood the severity of what was going on. While some news outlets compared everything to the Black Plague, others were brushing the illness off as if it was the common flu. Toilet paper was the only thing completely wiped off the shelves, which seemed wildly amusing to Nora and equally as disturbing when thinking about the intellect of Americans.
She posted something on Instagram regarding her cheeky opinion. People would remark on her odd humor— the occasional person using it to open a door for a conversation she couldn’t be less interested in. One person did reach out, however.
He often commented on things she’d post or write in an unabashed and airy way. This
made her feel comfortable. The little amount of correspondence they did share now-and-again was solely through social media with Jack almost always flattering her. But he had wit and a side that appreciated the kind of fictional literature she liked to submerge herself in. He seemed to truly see her from afar. Nora couldn’t explain it, but everything about Jack felt like it came from a genuine place—one beyond just trying to occupy himself. His presence was non-threatening and intriguing. It had been so long, Nora did not consider the soft spot for him simply for what it was. He was someone she felt a connection with. Which is why she couldn’t explain pulling out her phone in the middle of chaos at the grocery store to text him hello. A man she had one conversation with in-person, seven years ago.
Quick to respond to her ambiguous text with his own sense of mystery, it would be days till she’d reach out again. That was Nora, always popping up and then disappearing.
She was drunk. She officially received word she lost her job. Life was uncertain and she couldn’t figure out if she loved or hated the idea of things being up in the air. Didn’t matter. She simply distracted herself by enticing a friendly stranger.
Jack proceeded to answer her unnecessarily intrusive question. “What I want most in life…as cliche as it sounds…well, both my grandparents and my parents have been happily married for decades. I’d like to find that too. Someone that I can love forever…that’s also my best friend. I guess what I want is to find my person.”
Immediately, Nora felt regret reaching out. In a way, she was disappointed she no longer felt the same about life. There once was a time that’s all she ever wanted—a best friend to love and to hold, but she leaned in to hope too many times only to come up empty. Now, that sort of stuff was all just a pipe dream.
“I want to find a purpose in life…my purpose. Then I want to change the world in a way that leaves my mark.” She responded to her own question as to not leave him hanging. “That’s what I want most.”
“Well, I feel dumb now.”
“Your answer was so grand.”
All in all, Jack’s answer was sweet and naive but she knew then and there he had never been hurt the way most men his age have, or the way she had.
People were starting to die, small businesses were falling apart, hospitals were so overcrowded that there weren’t enough beds to keep up. The virus mostly hit older folks and the severely ill. There was that uncertainty again—something was happening that had never happened before. A fear hung in the air like a deep humidity that hit your lungs the second you walked outside, mixed with gusts of grief. All essential workers still had to go out and face what felt like an invisible war. Healthcare workers, food store employees, postmen and women, sanitation workers; they were the soldiers. The rest of us were just sitting ducks.
Nora put a pause on the poetry she was writing to go make a drink. It was borderline five o’clock. Jack was drinking too. After one, two— well, a few, Nora decided it was time to hear his voice. No rhyme or reason as to why then. They had only been texting a few days. She just wanted him to feel more real than any other behind a screen.
He sounded deep and confident. There was almost a twang to his words she couldn’t put her finger on. The sensation of his voice coming through the receiver to her ear felt almost as good as the whiskey rolling down her throat from her lips.
It was junior year of college, Nora had just broken up with her long term boyfriend whom she was sure she’d marry. He redefined love for her after her first heartbreak. Yet— don’t they all? One after another come to redefine your prior misconception of what you conclude love is—until you’re disillusioned once again.
And you know what?
That’s the price you pay to keep searching for the one.
Her roommates benefited most from her lack of interest in anything more than a brief conversation or drink with a man. A year she found herself no longer obliged to love but a group of women who somehow answered to a ring leader— dependent on her every mood. The ring leader, being recently single and scorned, required a symbiotic outlook on their repeated drunken girls’ nights. Nora found this extremely difficult to conjure enthusiasm for, but tried her best. No realistic ending was in sight when she spoke to the male population anyway.
That night was different. Nora was more in her head than she had been. When you’re drinking without any intention on talking to the opposite sex, you drink— a lot. Maybe she didn’t get a good enough buzz before they left the dorms. She broke free and waited by the bar for a drink, planning on ordering several in a row to get started.
Pushing the brim of her glasses up against her nose and proceeding to flip her long auburn hair to the side of her thin body, she waited anxiously for the bartender to approach. Someone else arrived first.
He had eyes you couldn’t forget. The warmest shades of blue, a contrast to his dark hair and pale skin that almost matched Nora’s own flesh. He looked at her wide-eyed with a grin. He was tall with a slight bit of facial hair that he clearly hadn’t figured out what to do with yet. He donned a black vintage jacket that may or may not have been leather. Either way, that’s how she remembered it. A pair of green tea shots, a number exchange, and the ring leader jealously pulling her away from the male’s gaze who went by the name Jack.
Nora surprised herself by remembering the brief interaction so vividly, inadvertently thawing her cold composure.
“I can tell from a mile away you’d be a hard one to tie down.” He proclaimed.
He wasn’t wrong. Never did she consider herself someone easily won over, especially with her leery sense of sharing emotion. Of course, once someone crossed that line of attaining her vulnerability, she was all in. A bit of a rabbit hole she’d find herself falling— which is why she went to great lengths to avoid any such thing.
“I don’t like dating.”
“Yet for some reason I have a hunch you’re a closet romantic.”
There was a pause. For the first time in a very honest time Nora had nothing to retort.
Jack continued, “You know, I’ve read your writing over the years.”
“You— you’ve read my stuff?”
“I’ve always admired you, Nora.”
She tried to make light of words that seemed so disarming. “That’s unfair, my work is open for the public to dissect. You have an upper-hand at assumptions!”
“Nah,” he brushed her off. “I’ve just always been a fan.”
Another pause on her end.
He added, “Always will— even if we never talk again after tonight.”
A warm fervor fluttered from Nora’s diaphragm and welled up to her heart so intensely and unexpectedly she could have jumped out of her skin. For a moment she dangled the word love on the tip of her tongue– in which she quickly bit down hard when the obvious sense of derangement simmered.
“Do you want to go to sleep with me?” Nora asked as calmly as if he was in front of her.
“Like, stay on the phone with you?”
“Yes.” The energy of the conversation gave her a sense of entitlement to ask without any explanation.
“Alright.” It was almost 4 AM.
The 28 year-old’s hypocritical heart was difficult to manage. She detested romantic cliches and the thought of emotional attachment sounded synonymous to having chronic food poisoning. With her love of people and a passion for words, she never stayed away from the edges of affection for too long. That was the plight of the writer. There are always narratives dying to be born and itching to be discovered. So the writer must go down paths despite his or her self-preservation, often times without anything to show for one’s self but a muse. Shakespeare once said: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
For the artist, those delights simply end in stories.
Finally, Nora woke up to her first unemployment check. Filled with guilt and relief, she made her monthly car payment— just staring back at her bank account more secure than ever before. She couldn’t go anywhere, she couldn’t do anything. The whole world had coined the term ‘social distancing’ since it was mandatory to avoid in-person interactions. For the first time in forever, humanity was called to use their brains for innovation since the life everyone once knew had been ripped away. From then on, the money would flow in abundantly.
The public safety enforcement to self-isolate worked out to Nora and Jack’s advantage. Within the year of her leaving California, Jack did the most spontaneous thing of his life by abruptly moving to that same state— unknowingly. He headed over with his friends after a long-winded breakup. It was a trite expression, but two ships passing in the night was what they had always been, one degree short of missing each other, never really noticing. Well, she hadn’t. For now, they could tell themselves it was only the imposition of the nation’s regulation keeping them apart. Yet, even if they were allowed to see each other in person, distance was already against them.
“I always had this feeling about you. That if we got to talking, we’d just click and that’d be it.”
“But how did you know?” Nora protested.
“I don’t know how. I just knew.”
“I have issues, Jack, you know.”
“Nora, so do I.”
Nora thought back to her past and all her complexities. There was only one that had ever been able to truly understand her. What’s a first love if they don’t? It’s coated in pureness and fantasy. As innocent as Jack’s words were, she knew he’d never be able to handle her.
Falling asleep every night together turned into an every morning wake up call. One morning, Jack texted her eager to discuss a story she sent him— admitting he flew through chapters he had no intention of devouring. This admission only made Nora want him to devour other parts of her that weren’t printed in ink. They had been on the same page for this long. She was more than curious to discover what other ways they’d align.
“Nora, you’ve got mail.” Her mother, an essential worker, called down to the basement where she lived.
Nora walked upstairs pleasantly confused. Being the private visionary she was, she secretly wished that one day she’d receive some mysterious mail from an admirer. Old souls are always the ones that long for a shred of fiction in the darkness of realism.
“Well? What is it?”
Hesitant to open the package in the presence of another, she hadn’t a lick of patience to wait. A note– and a pen designed as a relic from a book they shared a deep fascination with.
For when you write our story one day. Use it well.-Jack.
Beaming from ear to ear, Nora could hardly compose herself. Still, she shook her head at how extreme he was— so sure she’d write about him in the future when they barely scraped the surface together. But Jack was deep and so was she, and deep down they did know each other.
“This is insane.” Nora rolled her eyes. Evidently, she had a knack for doing that when she was resisting any type of sentiment. Jack was kind enough to point that out during their many times video chatting.
“I think this is beautiful, Nora.” Her mother assured her much to her chagrin. “You’re finding joy with someone during a terrible time in history.”
“He lives hundreds of miles awa—”
“Which is the beauty of it.” She interrupted. “You two are truly getting to know each other for who you really are and there’s already chemistry.”
The hopefulness in her mother’s voice was out of the ordinary. “Cherish happiness while you can during this crisis. You haven’t left the house in almost a month. I barely hear you talk about any of your friends since you lost your job.”
Nora nodded, twirling the pen between her fingers like a wand, wondering if they ever would have a real story. Most times, dating as an adult never amounted to anything very monumental, although the current state of the world defined that term.
They had a routine. Together they’d watch a movie while they were face-timing so they could see each other’s every reaction to every scene; view every facial expression, hear every yawn or little laugh. It was torturous and exciting to be teased in such a way. And in a way, Nora felt protected from falling too hard for the man that had opened up quite a bit from the last time she ever saw him. Sometimes she’d look over and he was just staring at her. Even through the phone she could tell he was lean and when he got up to walk across his room he appeared taller than she remembered. He had grown into himself. A handsome face, a full beard, eyes that she tried to avoid making contact with.
Just as stuck behind that screen was he safe. Jack and Nora shared their own private world. She felt a security in knowing he was there. And if she couldn’t get to the phone he’d wonder where she’d gone. How two people could find hours upon hours of topics to discuss was beyond both their comprehensions.
The movie ended. The two of them, still wide awake.
“God, you are beautiful.” He told her as she faced the camera without any clothes on.
“Let me see you.”
“You mean, like that?” He tipped his phone below his face.
“Mhm.” She replied smugly.
“It’s always an eye for an eye with you isn’t it?”
Nora winked. “What do you think?”
It wasn’t something that either of them had done so intensely before— unprecedented indeed.
Their conversation moved to the sound of each other’s voices and away from the visuals. Her words became more full of breath and less audible with each movement her body made under her white comforter. Jack spoke with the same carnal assertiveness she invariably imagined in a counterpart— domineering, specific. Her legs began to shake— harder than they had ever, at least without another body entwined with hers. He said her name, exhaling lowly. There was a euphoria escaping her body from more than between her legs. A unique experience that terrified her. Never in her life did she think this would bring her to a climax more impressively than a casual hook up or anything she’d find on porn.
She could feel him— a man she’d never even touched before.
He spoke softly for a while after. Unconventional pillow talk. “You were the dream girl in college.”
“And I’m not now?”
“Now you’re mine.”
A reminiscent time in her life before heartache, immediately came to mind— tugging at her with angst. This was crazy.
Jack followed that with saying, “I’m not looking to just be your friend.”
“I feel so connected to you, Jack.”
“Me too, Nora. Me too.”
When they’d be able to see each other was still undetermined. Whenever that was, she knew they’d be in deep.
That night she fell asleep in a deep meditation, relishing in the transcendent state. She practiced counting her breath until she could no longer keep track of time—until a feeling of peace filled her heart like sunshine. She reached her right hand over her heart and pictured Jack lying next to her sharing her blissful affection. Nora had traveled the world; ridden on the backs of strangers’ motorcycles, gotten spontaneous tattoos in random places— she impulsively left her hometown to move cross country with barley any money in her pocket, yet this was by far, the most reckless thing she’d ever engaged in.
Nora’s fourth government paycheck came in. She felt powerful in a way, yet undeserving, and unnerved when her sister told her that morning she’d be joining the front lines with other healthcare workers. She’d be helping homeless patients that were suffering. Never was she before, but Nora had become a recluse over the past six weeks. She fearfully avoided the outside by talking to Jack, almost forgetting a pandemic was still at large. Her anxiety stayed stuffed far within the muscles and bones of her body. It never occurred to her why she was feeling so on edge. For her, doing her due diligence by remaining home was more of an inconvenient blessing than a struggle.
“Why don’t you take a walk? Get some fresh air.”
“Mom, I’m fine.” Nora insisted.
“Okay, I’m just worried about you.”
“People are dying. I think I’ll be okay.”
“Alright, it’s just you haven’t been sleeping.” Her voice was reluctant but determined. Nora could see the marks on the sides of her cheeks from wearing a mask all day. “Have you been taking your pills?” She pressed.
“Yes, mother. I have been. In fact, I’m going out right now for some air. I’m heading to the liquor store.” Nora promptly grabbed her mask and secured it around her ears. Right before closing the door she peeked in the mirror. A mask, rubber gloves—she looked so sterilized and soulless.
Jack asked her to meet his friends over a video chat that night to drink and play virtual games. What a strange time to be alive.
“Aren’t you supposed to be social distancing?” Nora asked. The second she did she could tell in his response he was taken aback by her tone.
“Well, it’s just a small group. We’re not really acknowledging the whole virus.” This comment infuriated Nora more than she realized. Pandemonium didn’t seem as heightened where he was. But how could one ignore the news? The grave topic was inescapable no matter how far one distanced themselves. It was not only infecting people’s lungs, but their conversations. Days later, there would be a fight.
And yet, his friends were approachable and in a way she felt like she knew them too. She reacquainted herself with her close comrade as well, Jameson. They played nostalgic college games and laughed about life. This was the new normal. If someone had told fifteen year-old Nora this would be her social life at twenty-eight, she would have said they’re full of shit.
“This is the girl, everyone. She’s it. She’s the one.” Jack kept saying to his friends, pointing to Nora, unsteady with intoxication.
She proceeded to take a swig unconsciously at his every comment. It was getting late and Nora was getting tired of speaking to other people. When you’ve barely talked to anyone for weeks at a time, you could only handle so much interaction. Between that and the ever-so-essential liquor store run, she had had enough– except of the trusty comrade she had by her side.
Nora woke up with puke on her clothes and an empty can of beer next to her bed. She didn’t even drink beer. Some of her books had fallen off her nightstand. After a few attempts she finally stood up despite the spins. When she did, her foot grazed a piece of ceramic and she quickly fell backwards where a bruise had already developed overnight in the same location. Her statue of Buddha—shattered.
She carried on upstairs. Her mother hadn’t gone to work that day. Instead, she was sitting with the bottle of Jameson, waiting for Nora at the kitchen table, infuriated.
“You told me once you got back from Cali things would be different.”
“And they have been.”
“Do you even know what happened last night after I noticed you stopped laughing with your friends—which kept me up by the way.” “I had to carry you back downstairs and pray you didn’t fall after you hugged the toilet for hours.” “Where are your pills?”
“I’m not lying. I told you, I’ve been taking them.” Nora snapped back. She could smell puke in the strands of hair falling in front of her face.
Her mother stood up and poured the remaining half down the drain. What Nora wanted to say was, “Look on the bright side, at least it’s half full.” To even consider joking like that, she was definitely still drunk.
Jack reached out to Nora several times that day, all which she ignored. The impending anxiety from drinking a revolting amount of alcohol started tingling up the back of her neck. Once it reached its pinnacle she would no longer be able to control anything that would come after. Waves of paranoia and delirium came forth like a natural disaster.
Something wasn’t okay. Something was bad. Maybe it was the pandemic. No, it was— Jack? Nora was convinced. Fear, nervousness, twitching— another collection of familiar relationships she couldn’t escape.
“I feel something bad happening.” Nora winced, cradling her head back and forth. “Mom, I’m scared.”
In the past when Nora displayed moments like this her mother would take her to the hospital. In 2020, the hospital was the last place anyone wanted to go to seek refuge. What was once a safe haven for the healing was now a gateway straight into the heart of a contagious battle.
“What if he’s hiding something? What if there’s something dark about him?” She grabbed onto her mother like a child afraid to go to sleep. “I feel like there’s something I’m missing.”
“Nora, honey. It’s just the alcohol and the PTSD.”
Nora pulled out one of her other pills prescribed to sedate her distant mind. She could not let Jack into the torment of her world. He hounded her to let him in, but once she did, she knew she wouldn’t be able to let him out.
“That was a good one.” Jack said wiping the beads of sweat off his head smiling at her through the screen.
They had taken up virtual yoga together. A pursuit that deeply enriched Nora’s life. She was glad he was also getting satisfaction from it too. Jack didn’t know Nora pulled back on her drinking habits. He was just seeing the side of her she liked more. She was getting more writing done and even started biking on the sunnier days.
“I’m going to go make dinner. I’ll call you after so I can see you.” He winked.
“You can see me right now.” Though she knew exactly what he meant.
“Well, if we lived together that part would be much easier, now wouldn’t it?”
Nora was taken aback. Always defensive, always smitten— she never really knew how to reply. Last week he told her to apply for jobs in California again.
“You’d get sick of me.” That she meant.
“No way, we’d probably just end up married. I mean, dive in head first at this point, right?”
“I told you— I’m not looking to be your friend, Nora. It’s all or nothing.”
“Head first?” She recited.
“Mm, yes please.”
She rolled her eyes and clicked out of her video setting so she could shower. They really were so far from each other—both with chosen paths. In fact, a few months before Jack came into her life, Nora had booked a cheap ticket to go visit California. The trip was roughly a month away now, but there was no end in sight for her life in quarantine. He told her once the pandemic was over, he’d visit her as much as he could. She wanted so deeply to believe in their spectacular pipe dream. Maybe, just maybe they’d have a fighting chance.
Nora dreamt of candles and fairy lights illuminating a cabin when she went to sleep. There was a fire, but not too hot to disturb the ambiance. For some reason, a giant quilted blanket on cozy couch stuck out vividly as man walked toward her. Certain dreams grant the dreamer the power of omniscience—she knew without seeing a ring, that she was being proposed to. Who the face standing in front of her was— well, she did not have that much dream power.
When she woke up she sent Jack a yoga mat for his birthday that was in just a few days. He kept insisting his birthday wouldn’t be grand without her there.
He was Nora’s friend. Just her friend. One that never crossed any lines, yet Jack saw something on social media he didn’t like and was interrogating her about the whole thing— anxiety up and running. At times, their situation was exhausting. Was she really going to commit herself to someone she hadn’t seen in years? Someone she’s never even laid with? He had already cut all ties with anyone else. Nora, being a pointless stubborn, was reluctant.
“I’m not your girlfriend, Jack.”
“Which is it, Nora? You want me some days and other days you’re going to make me question what we’re doing? What is it with you?” He did not skip a beat to call her out on how hot and cold she was on the days she pulled away from him— as he saw, it was often.
The longer she stayed captive in her house, the more the days took a toll on her optimism. That week the government closed all national and local parks in her state and another wave of panic poured over the country. Part of her couldn’t help but debate if humanity was turning into herded sheep. She shrugged the idea out of reach. Instead, ruminating over the idea of realistically seeing Jack seemed further and further away.
“You’re just so far.”
“You think I don’t know that? I don’t need to be reminded.”
She didn’t tell him, but Nora did oblige. She removed all potential suitors from her roster of text messages. It was pointless when she only wanted him.
Jack was drunk and insisted on talking to her before sleep. She wanted to let him stay with his friends, he barely spoke to her all day anyway. But he was worried. Jack told her he didn’t want her to think he was one of those guys who gave all his attention to his buddies. Scars from a burnt out flame. It was important for him to say goodnight to her every night.
As expected, she rolled her eyes at his compulsive affection. There might have been a chuckle thrown in too. She didn’t want to force him to do anything he wasn’t ready to, but the willing gesture made her feel like she could ease up on her defiant self-protection. Suddenly, Jack got very serious.
“You don’t understand, Nora.” His face that she enjoyed looking at so much contorted into a struggled emotion.“I’m not a religious man, or spiritual like you are. But I guess you could say I believe in something. Something bigger than us.”
She didn’t say a word. Her chest was on fire with uncertainty and joy. She simply continued to listen with a reverence that one does when another bares their soul.
“Did you know I pray? Most nights before I go to bed.” At this point he was beginning to slur.
“Well I do.” He put his hands on his temples and rubbed them. “I thank God for you coming into my life. And I thank God for you.”
Nora swallowed hard and stared back at his glassy baby blues. Time felt slow in a divine way for the first time since quarantine.
“And I’m blessed to have you in mine.” She responded.
It was true, as skeptical as she was of the whirlwind attachment they had for each other, (one a psychologist would never agree with) Nora told herself she deserved a relationship with someone who truly adored her. Someone who made her feel like passion, even at their age, could still be pure. They were playful and full of potential and old enough to take things seriously. They’d fight, but they were only human.
A few tears trickled down his cheeks. He took his glasses off to wipe his eyes that were closing by the second.
“See, I didn’t want—”
“Go to sleep, Jack.” She told him.
“You don’t understand. You’re the love of my life, Nora.” She left the video on, watching him fall into his own peaceful slumber until they’d wake up together.
“You won’t remember this in the morning.” She whispered. In a twisted way, it was Nora who wished she wouldn’t. Because for her everything would change. Head first.
The viral world kept spinning despite the offbeat development of Nora and Jack’s feelings. Things were starting to ease up in the city he resided, making her pending trip seem possible. But while things eased up for him to visit friends and stop in local stores, her county remained a petri dish for infection, heightening all her neurosis and her attitude.
Jack’s texts became more infrequent with each day. She often tested his affection when this would happen to confirm it was still there. The flirtatious banter became weary. Then, like the thousands of others Jack lost his job.
Jack moved back in with his parents in Northern California, things changed. He stopped asking to see Nora’s face.
“But your parents know about me.” She’d protest through text messages.
“It’s different here. I can’t just drop everything.”
Her heart ached to connect with him. She knew he didn’t have the privacy they shared in weeks prior, although he certainly had the time.
“Can’t I just hear your voice…to say goodnight?”
“I’ll just call you tomorrow.”
Jack didn’t call Nora.
It was happening more times than not. After an entire day of being ignored, when Jack finally called he was incoherent, triggering other toxic memories from what seemed like a lifetime ago for Nora.
She had had it.
“Can you stop calling me while you’re drunk?”
And he did. Jack stopped calling her every weekend.
Only two weeks left until her flight. They’d just have to get through two more weeks of frustration. Jack frequently commented on the struggles distance would impose despite his original approach of reckless abandon. Nora was constantly trying to recapture that first-time gusto in ways that confused him or made them both anxious. There would be no untangling of the brewing resentment, just their quiet desire to hold on to a last straw. The feeling of being lonely when she supposedly wasn’t alone at all crept back into her recollection. He didn’t ask to see her body anymore. The imprint of his voice was starting to fade. Over the last six weeks he had become her best friend. Now all she had were books and television.
“I’ll make more of an effort, Nora. I will.” He’d pacify her and she’d believe him.
Jack did try and make an effort though. It wasn’t the same. Nora was so in tune to what was happening she’d jump in and out of fondness for him. He’d fall away from her again. She’d play her games— sometimes threatening to cut it off completely. She couldn’t though— not with a mere five days left before her trip. She couldn’t separate her paling dignity from him until they had face-to-face interaction. That’s what they needed to get back to that first place. All she wanted was for him to tell her was they’d get through this. Jack with his youthful, unwavering faith.
The day before she left another package arrived for her. This time, she was expecting one. When he found it, he was so thrilled he couldn’t keep it a secret from her. Almost a month ago Jack ordered her a gift but the package never came. They kind of both gave up the idea it ever would. Yet there it was in a tiny parcel— in the nick of time. She unwrapped the beautifully crafted wood. It was a music box. A poetic gift at best. She opened the tiny box to the delicate sounds, like magic to her ears. Nora shut her eyes softly and listened.
No one knew she was leaving. No one but her mother who had recently overheard several upsetting talks her daughter was having. She was worried for Nora’s health— physical and mental. Nora was taking a huge risk pursuing travel for something so non-essential, especially to the logics of the world. She made all plans in spite of Jack’s lack-luster enthusiasm. With an open-ended ticket, she truly felt things would turn around—even in the face of their last conversation left on open-ended terms.
Hope is a such a deadly thing— but it will also kill you if you don’t hold onto any.
When she landed she didn’t text him like she promised. Ideally, it would have been because she forgot. But Jack went against so many things he said to her since the beginning of their relationship (a term he insisted on using) she didn’t see fit to follow his inclusive request. Even still, there weren’t words to express how much Nora longed to wrap her arms around him. Every cell in her body lit with anticipation.
Her hair was darker now than the night they first met. Compared to all the times he watched her falling asleep, she had made sure to put on mascara, blush, and a lipstick that would not stain. He was pulling up to the driveway of her stay. A quaint place of minimalism set in the back of what could only be described as a treehouse. This was going to be quite the first experience. She put down her glass and opened the teal- colored door.
Nora woke up with Jack’s arms wrapped around her, nothing but the sheets covering them. Something was wrong. A flash of her mother dumping the Jameson down the sink came to mind. She slapped her hand against her clammy forehead and turned over to Jack who was awake, staring at the ceiling.
Her eyes widened with fear— his mirrored disappointment.
“I outta have half a mind to leave right now. I almost did last night.”
Jack stepped inside, tall and lanky as expected. Just as he said he would, he wore jeans and a t-shirt. No more leather jacket. Nora— nervous, awkward, and unsure of how to act, was already several drinks deep. Certain measures had to be taken.
She knew how much Jack liked to drink, finding every occasion an excuse—and she was prepared to get on his level. They weren’t where they used to be. If she attached herself to an inevitable moment of real physical connection and he was belligerent, she’d be crushed. If anything upsetting happened, at least it’d be glossed over with alcohol— they’d have a fifty-fifty shot to feel completely alive or numb to it all. Then, Nora could deal with either outcome.
After a subtle embrace, Jack immediately started opening doors and checking the locks on windows.
“Um, Jack? What are you doing?” His facial expression was telling her she was the odd one for not getting it.
“This is just something I do. I like to survey a place I’ve never been.”
He shrugged. Okay. She threw him a beer. They were to do this together.
His large hands flicked the remote to find some music for them. Bewitched, Nora couldn’t look away from his profile—in the flesh.
“Are you going to let me touch your face?”
Once in a conversation, Jack expressed how he particularly hated when people did that.
“With you? Yes.”
For no apparent reason, Nora leaned up and licked his beard.
“Really? Really? I said you could touch my face, not lick it all gross like that.”
She remained staring with smiling eyes that sparkled.
Jack couldn’t hold back a grin either. “Don’t do it again. I’m warning ya.”
Jack knew Nora. She was absolutely going to repeat the salacious act. He’d be quicker than her. He turned his head and their lips met for the first time. Her arms eagerly reaching around his neck for the kiss they clearly had both been waiting for— maybe even seven years.
“I told you not to get drunk like that.”
“So now you’re telling me what to do?” She turned her body so she was fully facing his— still bare.
“Yes, I am. I just wanted a nice first night with you. We leave this apartment to grab drinks and the second I get up and you start flirting with a group of guys— who weren’t attractive I might add.”
There was a meek part of Nora’s personality that only certain people could access. Jack was one of them.
“I’m truly sorry.” She admitted without any objection.
“I know why you did it— to get a rise out of me. You forget I know you.” Shaking his head, he said under his breath, “making me look like a fool.”
Nora was quick to snap back. “Kind of how I’ve felt these last few weeks while I stood by as you pulled away from me? You knew I’d be visiting.”
“All we’ve been doing is bickering. I thought we both established— the distance is just too hard.”
“You suddenly established that. I’m here.”
“I’m sorry.” He said as carelessly as when he proposed a future together.
“So what? You finally got to fuck your college crush after weeks of seeing the most intimate parts of me--whenever you asked. Now you can check me off the list?”
“Jesus, Nora. Why do you have to be so mean?”
She was on the verge of tears.
“Do you even remember what you said to me last night?” He asked her, returning to his gaze above him.
“Do I want to?”
“You told me you loved me. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of you.”
“Well, I wasn’t trying to be serious.” She said.
The conversation ended but another one started with their eyes. The room was freezing. She was had not let go of his forearm the entire conversation, which he allowed. Jack began inching closer to her chest. She followed. The warmth of their bodies was defrosting the previous night’s impression, pressing skin to skin.
The inside of Nora’s thighs were still shaking underneath her silky white sundress, all the while she sat across the dinner table with Jack’s best friends. His friends welcomed her with their own eagerness. It was easy to see how he loved them.
“Jack’s been wanting to meet you for a long time,” one of them said.
Nora blushed. “Well he seems to have a lot to say when I’m video chatting with you guys. But we’ve both been excited to meet each other.”
Nora was quickly corrected. “I didn’t mean since you guys started dating. I meant, well…Jack’s been wanting a chance with you since he first saw you. Even before you started talking he’d bring up your name.”
Speechless, Nora glanced over at the man she found so handsome who had no idea she was trying to catch his eye.
It was only her second day there but Jack didn’t want to do anything after dinner. He didn’t seem too keen on spending alone time with her anymore; instead he suggested they go back to his friend’s house to relax. Nora needed help getting it. If he didn’t want to stay out why couldn’t they just lay together all night in each other’s company— like the countless nights they dreamed up behind a screen? Didn’t he want to go back inside her?
“Jack…he’s complicated. He’s really a sensitive guy. I’m not sure why he’s being so vague towards you. I really can’t tell you enough how much he’s been waiting for this,” the other friend carried on. “The one thing I can say is he’s loyal.”
On their drive back to the apartment, Nora shut her eyes in the silence. Jack used to insist the term ‘infatuation’ did a disservice to what he considered their amour-propre. She thought about how minutes before she stepped out of her house, luggage packed and ticket ready, he told her some of his buddies were coming to visit and he’d need to split up their time.
Originally, they both agreed staying a week together would be their test run as a couple. Nora tried to seem open-minded with how casually they settled things before she left. Her impression was that they’d go on at least one real date. So, after all the time they invested in each other she couldn’t be spontaneous as she lead on. Nora wanted to be put first. She wanted to wake up next to Jack and watch movies all day without him keeping his ears perked for his phone that incessantly rang for plans.
Back at the her apartment Jack couldn’t relax. Anxiety was something Nora could smell on others from a mile away. Convinced that was it, he quickly shot down her notion.
“I’m not anxious, will you stop throwing that term around? I’m just restless.”
She didn’t want him upset. She promptly scooted over on her knees to massage Jack’s jittery limbs. It felt so normal, so unremarkable . He closed his eyes and fell asleep on her while she finished the movie alone.
Nora lay on her stomach as Jack pushed inside her, breathing her name in her ear. He reached for her hand to squeeze, mimicking the intensity of her pelvic muscles wrapped around him. From what they fantasized to what it was— this part was everything.
“What time is it?” She asked breathlessly, sprawled out on the bed in contentment.
He rubbed her cheek without turning his view away from the phone. “It’s 10 AM. My friends said they’re already drinking.”
Amongst other things that morning, Nora had to swallow her selfish need to keep him in bed all day. There was no debating the subject. She would either share or stay in her apartment by herself.
Things were so different by him. Masks were optional, as the need for sunshine and lifestyle took precedent. Rules that were set in place seemed more like loop holes. No one seemed to care about hugging or kissing or side-stepping traditional niceties like shaking hands. Nora had no choice but to abandon her fear.
Once she was there, she didn’t mind. She honestly felt like she fit right into an open slot.
Jack walked back over with drinks for the two of them. “I’m glad you’re finally here. I am. I just want to treat this trip like I’m your boyfriend.”
“It already feels like I’ve been with you for a year.”
He chuckled. “That’s hot,” he said and kissed her forehead.
One friend walked up to them. “Where’s the J I know? I haven’t seen you slug one drink.”
“I’m drinking.” Nora could hear the exasperation in his voice.
“You’re usually slinging them back.”
This was a common occurrence Nora already knew of so she couldn’t understand his newfound self-restraint.
Jack’s friend turned towards Nora. “This is the infamous Nora?”
“This is her. The girl that would never give me the time of day in college.”
Nora whacked him on the arm. “If I knew!” Her ears were getting red.
“Relax.” He pulled her in and kissed her on the mouth.
After a second she peeled away, slowly reopening her sea-green eyes. She was fully aware of his dislike for public affection. He stared at her for a moment before rejoining the group.
“Our kids would have amazing eyes. I mean between the two of us? You know that?”
Nora shook her head as they headed back to the party. She had always been on the fence about having children. With the current state of the world Jack was privy to the fact that it made her even more uncertain.
They only had four more days together she thought while he joked with his friends and walked around on his own. Nora was observant, but still wondered if he was thinking about it all. Jack’s whole world was in California now. Nora, passionate and possessive, already knew she’d never agree to play second fiddle to his life’s design. It was clear where his loyalty resided. In that moment, she realized how much they’d been playing pretend.
Dehydrated and alone, Nora woke up in a guest bedroom of Jack’s friend’s house. She eased out of the creaky bed and found him passed out on the couch.
“Come lay with me.”
Barely awake Jack sighed, rolling his eyes. Still, he followed.
“Nice of you to join me.” She slipped in.
He rolled his eyes again and plopped his limp body next to hers on the twin sized bed. “Nice of you to pass out before midnight.” He groaned.
Nora tried turning over to avoid his face but he pulled her close, instantly falling back asleep. Nora, however, could not. His breathing was short and forced. Her head was on his chest, right over his heart that beat faster than it should have been for someone at rest. His chest pumped hard and her cheek moved up and down each time.
There was something deeper about the way Jack operated. Behind a screen he was much more candid. How could she blame him? Nora did her best to protect Jack from the shadow side of herself, with respect to the occasional leaks. “Jack— he’s complicated.” She replayed in her head. If Jack knew how Nora worried about him she was sure he’d rescind away from her even more. So she said nothing, letting the inconsistent beats try and rock her back to sleep.
They sat up, rocking back and forth together. Sweaty and consumed. When it came to a relationship Nora needed a lot of two things and that was one of them. The other—consistency. A part of her knew that traveling across the country putting her health and heart’s defenses on the line might only be to break it. What they had didn’t come around often though. She felt that. After all– she was a closet romantic. They finished quickly so the two could get ready to meet up with his friends. That’s where real life would gut her for her naivety.
Jack was in a sour mood. It was pouring rain. Nora liked the rain. She also liked spots with atmosphere. Jack thought they were just going to a bar to drink— it was a brunch. They couldn’t find the place and when they got there Jack walked in ahead of her. Neither of them knew some of the others in the group—friends of somebody’s girlfriend. The people sitting next to her were engaging and entertaining at least so she was thankful.
“Just lighten up, baby.” Gingerly, Nora put her hand on Jack’s fidgety leg. Her eyes were full of regard that his did not seem to match. It wasn’t really what either of them expected. She suggested he order a stronger drink, maybe a shot; discouraged with herself that she couldn’t think up any other solution.
Jack disappeared a few times, relieving the table from his stoicism. One of his friends who was a park ranger leaned in towards Nora to point out the tattoo on her arm. He asked about the symbolism and where she got it. For the first time in days, Nora truly felt seen. When Jack returned he put his arm around her, commenting to everyone how pretty he thought she was. His touch felt foreign.
Jack wanted to catch a ride back up his way where some of the other couples were headed. Nora wanted to stay in town. But Jack didn’t ask her what she wanted to do. Almost a week had passed and Nora hadn’t visited any of her old stomping grounds. He spoke across the table about where he was going to meet his crew while Nora discarded her silent discomfort by making an executive decision to remain with the rest of the group and explore.
After they exited the restaurant, they both seemed fed up. As she stood there soaked through her polka dot dress, hair hanging from her face, Jack looked down in Nora’s eyes expectant for an answer.
“So you were just going to leave and go out with my friends? Fuck me, right?”
“Does it matter? We’ve done whatever you wanted this entire time.” “It’s not like I’m actually yours.” She threw in.
Jack shook his head defeatedly. “You see, that’s the type of thing you say. Those things. Do you even like me, Nora?”
“Did you even want me here, Jack?”
“Of course I did. I just didn’t realize we were no longer on the same page.”
Of course she liked him. She liked him for his careless cravings for fast food that she herself found cringe-worthy. She liked him for his sleepy eyes, and love for sappy rom-coms, and for his corny dad jokes.
“No longer on the same page?”
“I thought we had an understanding, this wasn’t going to work.”
A deep pain filled Nora’s chest in the exact place she found sunshine two short months before that.
“I’m leaving.” She said.
“Well I’m coming with you.”
“Because I still want to be near you, Nora.”
The movie they put on only served as background noise. Nora’s anxiety was at an all time high— desperate for Jack to hold her. She considered all the times he said he knew her. She reached for her phone to occupy her mind, there really wasn’t anywhere to focus. He fell asleep before the movie even ended.
She had almost been in California for two years at that point. And was just released from the hospital. Her boyfriend at the time, whom she was living with, was still out. She didn’t even remember blinking that night— waiting up for hours for his return. He said he’d be back around 1 AM, but that was never how it went.
Some days Nora didn’t mind his excessive drinking. If it was just the right amount, he’d come home showering her with truths and emotion and they’d wake up surviving another day together. She wasn’t proud of the reason she tolerated his antics, but sober he would only be half of hers. “This is me.” He’d remind her.
He stumbled in reeking of cheap beer. There was a heavy thud when he fell on the bed, fully clothed– barely acknowledging Nora’s existence. Something was on his mind. She tried for his hand. He pulled away. He was merely six inches from her and she was more alone than she had ever been.
Eventually Nora decided to go back home for good. He’d follow her to her car with boxes and tell her they’d make it work despite the miles. With tears in his eyes he grabbed both her hands and told her she was the best thing that ever happened to him. Standing there, frail as could be– only just making what should be considered a healthy weight for a woman of her height— she could not say the same back.
Nora left Jack on the couch. She cleaned the kitchenette, repacked her suitcase and went into the bed upstairs. He’d find her there several hours later with eyes pretending to be closed. She wondered if he even noticed she was missing. Jack pulled her close. Hands between her legs. Then he pulled her on top of him.
As upset as she was, he entered inside her with ease. They shared a soft silence between them, only them. The fairy lights that wrapped around the spiral staircase leading to her room illuminated their bodies. A private moment in time. They barely moved. Jack and Nora just held each other tightly, their cheeks pressed against each other’s face. She dug her nails into the back of his shoulders until her legs started to tremble. Hearing her gentle moan— Jack could no longer hold himself back either. During a world crisis, they really had begun to fall for each other.
The next morning he’d wake up to go party with his friends. Nora would refuse to go— staying in bed to sleep for no reason at all. Two days were left before she’d go back to her home state.
She sat with a glass of wine (way too early in the day) on her private, temporary balcony. It had just rained. So much for perfect Californian weather. She adjusted her seat and noticed a giant spider web glistening against the fighting sun. Peering close to a creature often repulsed, she studied every detail on the spider’s body, every careful design in her web. Amazed how such a small thing could create something so glorious—all for the sake of survival.
She admired the artistry that nature delivered. It reminded her of a Buddhist mandala, an intricate circular pattern to aid in mindfulness and self-exploration. The spider was no bother to her. Nora found a sense of inner peace with her nearby. In way, she felt less alone. Nora went inside to write. She’d leave her be for now.
Jack didn’t want to come to her that night, knowing they were on borrowed time. The more he pulled away while she was there, the more Nora became undone. She never wanted this in the first place— not anyone profound or anything that could potentially hurt her. But Jack was strong in his conviction of wanting something serious, so she put her trust in him.
She called him again to come sleep with her. Jack was drunk and repeated that if she wanted to see him she had to go to him.
She did– across the country.
The undoing was upon her.
“You’re selfish! You’re immature and selfish. This whole trip has been at your convenience, about your friends, how you wanted things to play out between us…I’m leaving in a few days!”
“I know that, Nora.” Jack’s voice was empty. “I never knew where I stood with you. You were always so back and forth with me in the beginning.”
“You really couldn’t tell from the hours upon hours a day I spent with you then, how I felt for you?” There was a crack in her voice.
“I could at times. I just started to hold myself back I guess.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Look, I’m sorry.” He said flatly.
“You just tell any girl that makes you feel something, you want to marry them? Is that the way it goes?” She spit back.
“See, this is what I mean. I’m not going to let you twist my words around and get me all worked up. Things change. I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”
She was hyperventilating. Jack no longer wanted her in the same way she still wanted him and she was still searching.
“If you don’t come spend the night with me here— alone, I’m not going to want to see you ever again.”
“I told you I’d come to you tomorrow. Now I don’t really want to see you at all.”
“Just come here now so we can sort this out in person…please.”
She plead in that same meek voice very few people heard her expel.
“I’m done feeling like the bad guy. I’m not going to get anxiety over this.”
“We don’t have to fight—”
“I care about you, Nora. Always will. But I cannot handle this.”
She closed her eyes, infected with emotion. “Then leave me alone.”
He hung up. Nora finished the bottled of wine in hysterics. Before she’d go to sleep that night she’d check all the locks on the windows and doors. Jack would not see her the next day, nor did he ask to see her the day after. Or the one after that.
Nora had just moved back from Cali. A week had passed— maybe. The declining man she cared for already stopped trying to keep in touch.The deliberate refusal to take care of his own mental health issues and alcoholism made her ill. Over the years spent with him, each plea to save himself and their relationship was met with accusations. He called her selfish for needing him while he was struggling. Overtime, Nora began to throw up whenever he’d misinterpret or remind her of how demanding she was. They’d have one more phone call.
“If it’s between you getting hurt or both of us getting hurt, I’d rather it just be you,” he told her.
That was the last time, Nora told herself, she’d ever give her all to a man.
Nora carried her coffee to the balcony, it was her last day. She was empty, but she wasn’t numb. She inhaled sharply once she realized. Her newest comrade was nowhere to be seen. The web— it was gone. She looked around for remanence of the spider’s silk. The balcony was secluded with very little wildlife stirring around. There was no storm or windy breeze that could have knocked it down.
In her heightened state the previous night, Nora did some research on spiders to distract herself. A single strand of silk is stronger than an equal amount of steel. Imagine that? Something she thought to be so fragile. Another fact she recalled: sometimes if a spider couldn’t capture anything, after a certain amount of waiting she’d recoil her web back up inside her and go elsewhere. After all that work.
If Nora hadn’t stayed by herself that day, she would never have noticed something so beautiful, something that made her reevaluate her own spirit. If she hadn’t adjusted her attention, there would’ve been no evidence the web ever existed at all. Nora didn’t notice the quiet tears streaming from her eyes with grace. With the creature’s sudden absence, even the smallest shift in nature can have an impact on another living being, this she knew. Everything had changed. Then again, nothing had.
Laura is an aspiring, but an unpublished author. She spent years with stories working around in her head, but never felt that she had the time necessary to indulge herself. Many times she would put the stories down on paper only to go back later and reread them. She did not like what she saw.
The longing to write never left her. Even while working and taking care of her family, the storylines never quite left.
After her kids grew up and the grandkids started coming, Laura could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. So, after turning 55, she decided to put her active imagination - the same one that kept her in trouble during her childhood- to good use.
Without a college education, she did what she knew she did best, and that is research. She started compiling books on writing. After reading her book collection, she began working on the first story that she knew she would be sending out. She began by handwriting the first draft of the first story. She would write a bit, then go back and reread her books. If she was having trouble with a character’s development, she would refer to her books about the subject matter.
After the first draft was finished, she began referencing her books about the 2nd drafts and everything that entailed.
In the back of her mind, an idea began to form. She would be retiring from her customer service position at a large trucking company within a matter of months. Wouldn’t it be great to make a little seed money by entering her stories into contests? Even if she wasn’t going to make any money from her stories, she was doing something she loved and financially would be no worse
The man in the Black Floppy Hat sat in the middle of the bench, in the middle of the square, in the middle of the town, in the middle of April, in the middle of an unusually warm Saturday afternoon.
He was tall in stature, but angular in form. His hawkish nose, long chin and long slender fingers gave some the impression that he was only 10 pounds away from being a scarecrow. Blue gray eyes helped give him an aura of being non- descript. He liked it that way
He was intrigued by this small town and all the happy people. He had visited it often over the course of time and had even settled in it briefly. No matter how long he had stayed though, he never left with what he had come for. He had a bucket list of sorts and this town was on it.
Children ran in front of him laughing through the sprinklers of the nearby fountains. He was not a huge fan of children, but with children came the parents so he had owned a few businesses over time that catered to children. It was the parents who were his target audience.
A couple of the children glanced at the man as they ran by and faltered in their steps; the man had that effect on young and old alike. The first impression he gave was of a stern schoolmaster. It wasn’t until people spoke to him that they found themselves enveloped in warmth and kindness that they would later describe as surprising coming from such a seemingly cold fellow. The man in The Black Floppy Hat saw things quite differently of course.
He saw LuEllen Jacobsen walking into the butchers shop and a smile played across his lips. As he unfolded his long frame from the park bench he heard his old bones groan in protest. He didn’t mind though, he was about to have some fun. “Time to get this party started,” he said to himself
Though LuEllen didn’t know about the man in The Black Floppy Hat , he had learned of her story on his previous visits. Married at 20 to an abusive alcoholic who also dabbled in drugs, she endured horrific abuse for 3 long years. When she finally escaped she returned to her parents bent and bruised but not broken; never broken. As it turned out, the only thing worse than the marriage was the divorce. Late night drive bys; pelting rocks at the windows; hang up phone calls. When he did talk when LuEllen answered the phone, it was always to drunkenly threaten to harm her or himself or both. He also stalked her relentlessly. LuEllen never knew where he might pop up; the store, the park, or even standing in her parents front yard watching the house.
Then one night her ex allegedly committed suicide. The town coroner discovered some irregularities as to the position of the gun in relation to the hole that was blown in his head. The town coroner had known LuEllen and her family since she was small; and besides, the world – and LuEllen -were better off with him dead. So, he signed off on the Cause of Death as suicide and closed that terrible chapter in the Jacobsen’s life.
Tragedy would visit the Jacobsen family again a year later with the deaths of her parents one week apart. They were a devout family and some said the shame and stress of the divorce caused her mother’s massive coronary; her broken hearted father died one week later in his sleep. The Cause of Death for her father was registered as a heart attack, but to LuEllen and her brother Richard it was one and the same. LuEllen was never able to shake the feeling that she was responsible. The feeling hung over her like a gray cloud on an otherwise sunny soul. For even with all the tragedies in her life, LuEllen s soul was still pure. She went to church and tried to practice what was preached; trying to always see the goodness in others. She also did not gossip. Having been on the receiving end far too often, she knew the pain and humiliation it will cause. It was sometimes difficult not to in a small town where a trip to the grocery store can entail 2-3 different conversations.
The man in The Black Floppy Hat followed LuEllen into the butcher store. He imagined her beautiful when she was younger, but now the most flattering term that could be used to describe her would be matronly.
“Hello, Henry” LuEllen called out as she entered his shop. A stocky man with just enough gray to look handsome but not old, he looked the epitome of a butcher. It was practically in his blood, he now owned his father’s shop. LuEllen had often thought if things had turned out differently….
“Looking to get a rump roast for Sunday night dinner with Richard?” Henry asked, hoping his tone might inspire an invitation. “Oh you know me so well Henry” LuEllen replied, giggling. “But you know, I’ve been hungry for pork roast lately.” At that moment, the bell over the door announced a new customer. LuEllen and Henry both glanced up to acknowledge the customer with Henry tossing a “Be right with ya” in his general direction. “Sure, take your time” the man in The Black Floppy Hat said.
Henry beamed at LuEllen . “Well, I just got some fresh pork roasts packaged up; I haven’t even put them in the display case. I’d be glad to sell one to you for, say, half price?” LuEllen was tempted, but knew her brother loved his rump roast. But boy the pork roast sounded good. The man in Black Floppy Hat leaned over to LuEllen and placing his hand lightly on her shoulder, said “Yes but who’s the cook? I’d say cooks choice m’dear” He whispered in her ear. LuEllen and Henry locked eyes and Henry went in the back to get her the pork roast.
On that fateful Sunday evening, Richard Jacobsen stood in front of the steam filled bathroom mirror. Wiping off some of the steam, he stared back at himself. “Not bad for a 45 year old confirmed bachelor.” He said out loud to no one in particular. Richard wasn’t so much as confirmed as cautious. After watching the debacle of his sister’s marriage and seeing how after all these years, she still blames herself for their parents’ deaths, he was guarded and leery. He also suspected there had been a hole burned in both their souls that love would never be able to fill.
His sandy blond hair was still winning the battle against the gray, but his beard had not been so lucky. Richard didn’t mind; his eyes were still as sharply blue as when he was younger.
He loved Sunday dinners with his sister. Most of the town folk knew that this brother sister team was unusually close. With their busy schedules- Richard running his feed store and LuEllen teaching- Sundays were the only time they could see each other. The real reason Richard loved Sunday dinner at LuEllen s was the Sunday roast. She prepared it just like their mother did. He wasn’t sure how she did it, but when Richard took a bite, the crispy seasoned outside and the melt in your mouth tender beef transported him to a simpler time in their lives. After church services Richard and his best friend Billy would go frog hunting, or Richard would go fishing with his dad. There were the usual childhood bumps and bruises but through it all was his mother’s delicious Sunday roast. His mother had served Sunday roast on what would be their last dinner as a family; she had her coronary that night in her sleep.
His mouth watering in anticipation, Richard bounded up the steps of LuEllen’ s porch and stepped inside her neatly kept house. As soon as he entered, he realized that he did not smell Sunday rump roast. “LuEllen !” He shouted. LuEllen entered, wiping her damp, plump hands on her apron. She was just about to say “Let’s try something new” but the thunderous look on Richards face caused the words to die in her throat. She first felt a pang of regret for choosing the pork over the beef, but then she became angry. After all, it was cooks choice, right? A wave of stubborn righteousness swept through her and she felt her blood boiling.
“What’s that?” Richard ground out through gritted teeth. Standing her ground, yet nervously wiping her already dry hands, a spark of indignation shot through her. Her eyes flared in deviance. She said, “I wanted pork roast. Every.Fucking.Sunday for the past 20 years we’ve had roast like Mama use to make. “ Softening her tone in hopes of diffusing the situation she continued, “Yes Richard I know why you love my roast and that’s ok.” For an instant, she saw the little boy he once was wrapped in the body of the man he had become who desperately missed his parents.
“If you know how much I love it, why would you change it?” He roared in her face; their noses practically touching. LuEllen fought not to take an involuntary step backward. She straightened her spine and looking him straight in the eye, said “I wanted pork roast.” His hand was fast, but her reactions, borne of 3 years of abuse, were faster. Without thinking, her arm came up blocking Richards’s right arm from striking her. She stared into his eyes and saw a hatred there that she had never seen. She uttered one word: “Leave.”
“I don’t care grandma, you should not have written your phone number on our receipt and given it to the waiter and winked!” Annie was so perturbed with her grandmother she was across the parking lot and almost to the car before she realized her grandmother was still shuffling across. Annie closed her eyes, blew out a breath and ran her fingers through her short red hair before going back to help her beloved, if not exasperating, grandmother across the parking lot and into the car. Once they were on their way, Sylvia Millstone glanced at her granddaughter and said “I gave him your number.” This caused Annie to burst out laughing.
It wasn’t as if Annie didn’t know that this road trip would be fraught with moments like this. But Annie loved her grandmother to the moon and back, she was the only family Annie had ever known. Her drug addicted mother had left Annie with Sylvia saying that she was just running to the store and would be right back. That was 20 years ago.
Annie hadn’t been able to come home often during her four years at college so she decided to fly her grandma out for the graduation ceremony and the two would “road trip” the 3 day journey home. Annie would spend the summer there before heading to New York to start her journalistic internship.
The phone number incident notwithstanding, the trip hadn’t been as bad as Annie had feared. The only “downer” (a word her grandmother used frequently), of the trip was Sylvia’s stories of family squabbles turning into all out wars over the last few months in their relatively quiet, peaceful small town.
At one point, it had occurred to Annie her grandma was exaggerating. Surely, all that horrible ugliness did not go on between Richard and LuEllen ? Their close sibling relationship was well known throughout the town, and honestly, always gave Annie a pang of jealousy. Being an only child of two drug users and being raised by her single grandma didn’t bode for a sibling filled life. It wasn’t as if she lacked for friends, comfort and love. What Annie would not have given to have someone to giggle with in the middle of the night, someone who knew her better than she knew herself, with whom to share her deepest, darkest secrets with.
Annie also knew her grandma was not prone to exaggerate. Maybe it was because of all the lies Ann’s mother-Sylvia’s only child-had told over the years to Sylvia that made her so honest.
There were other stories, too. There was the playground fight between two boys turned into an attempted murder charge against one of the fathers after he tried to run down the other father with his car. Ann knew the boys and their parents; she used to babysit both children.
Annie thought once home, in the safety of her little town, she would talk to Richard and LuEllen and see if she could help mend fences.
For her part, Sylvia had not intended to regale Annie with the stories of their friends and neighbors coming apart at the seams. In fact, she had told herself before she left for her dear granddaughters’ graduation that she would not dump the entire goings on in Annie’s lap. However, the incidents had increased in intensity just before she left and as hard as Sylvia tried to push them in the back of her mind, they still weighed heavily on her heart.
As silence settled over the two women, Sylvia cast about in her mind to find something, anything, that she could bring up that was positive about their little town. “Oh! I forgot the tell you,” Sylvia said, brightening, “We have a new ice cream parlor in town. It’s called Heavenly Concoction Ice Cream. The owner is a strange looking fellow. Seems nice enough, he’s very tall and skinny. Looks like he could use a gallon or two of his own product,” Sylvia giggled at this. “I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard he has all kinds of yummy stuff, even alcohol infused ice cream. I’ve seen him around town, he seems nice enough, and he has a very warm smile. Funny thing is, he always seems to be wearing the same hat…a big, floppy black hat.” Sylvia continued, “He opened it just a couple of months ago, around mid to late April. Ordinarily, it would still be too chilly for anyone to even think about wanting ice cream, but it got so doggone hot so early this spring, he’s been doing a bang up business.”
During an unusual lull in an otherwise busy day, the man in The Black Floppy Hat stood for a moment to take stock of where he was and just how far he’d come with still a long way to go. He knew many of his associates would fall off their perches with laughter if they could see him now- selling ice cream in this brightly lit, festive shop. The walls were not painted stark white, but rather a vanilla white. Balloons, in a variety of eye popping colors, were painted on the walls, along with smiling children enjoying ice cream cones. Old style ice cream parlor tables and chairs dotted the restaurant. The ice cream glistened in their tubs behind sparkling clean glass. Of all the businesses he had ran over the course of time, he never ran an ice cream parlor. With the unseasonably warm weather driving the customers in by the droves, his outreach to the townspeople had increased dramatically compared to his previous “visits” to the town. If only he had thought of this venture eons ago….
Jess McGuire glanced at the clock hanging over the diner counter, 3:20. “Thank goodness,” she thought” only 40 minutes to go.” She hustled 6 fully loaded plates to the waiting table. At 5’3 and 110 pounds on a good day, diners often marveled at how such a small woman could hustle as many plates and trays as she could. They thought of it as a scientific anomaly. Jessie knew it had less to do with science and more to do with the mental and physical strength it took her survive a tough childhood. When she was 8, she learned that if you punch a grown man in the groin, he will stop trying to kiss you. Such was your life lessons when your mother was drunk and had terrible taste in men.
Jessie had a special reason to be watching the clock. Her best friend, Annie, was coming home from college. Jessie wished she could have gone with Sylvia to watch her friend’s graduation, but even with splitting the costs with Sylvia, the expense would’ve been too much. Besides, Jessie couldn’t afford going a week without a paycheck.
She knew Annie and her grandmother would be hungry and tired when they returned. With Sylvia’s blessing, Jessie was planning one of her “world famous Italian dishes.” It was really one of Sylvia’s recipes but since she was the only one who taught Jessie the fundamentals of life… how to cook, how to be a good friend, and showed her what a strong work ethic looked like, Jess considered it her own…from her “grandma.” Jess often wondered what her life would have been like if she had not met Annie in the fourth grade and found a respite from the daily craziness that goes part and parcel with having a mother that was the town drunk. When Jessie’s mother died the summer after Annie and Jessie graduated high school, Annie offered to stay home the first semester to stay with her grieving friend. Jess was adamant in her rejection. Even though the two lifelong friends had not been able to see each other much during the last four years, they were able to stay in touch with Skype, email and of course, Facebook. Though modern technology kept them in touch, it was nothing compared to actually seeing each other. It was with this thought that Jess practically ran to her car after her shift.
By the time Sylvia and Annie straggled in to the house later that evening, the house was warm with the scent of baking lasagna and garlic focaccia; this was one of Jessie’s own recipes and one she was very proud of. It would all go very well with the wine that was chilling in the fridge.
After hugs, kisses and “I missed you” the women set about unloading Annie’s car. Since there was much heavy lifting involved and many trips back and forth to the car, the three women were starving when they sat down to eat, drink and catch up.
After the dinner was eaten and most of the wine was drank, Annie and Sylvia glanced at each other wondering who was going to address the elephant in the room. Sylvia decided to. “Jessie, I couldn’t help but notice that you haven’t said a word about Clayton.” At the mention of the man, who until a month ago had been Jessie’s soul mate, her large blue eyes filled with tears. “There’s nothing to say,” Jessie began. “We’re not together anymore.” If a wrecking ball had smashed through the dining room wall at that exact moment, Annie and Sylvia would not have been more surprised.
Clayton Busch was not much to look at. Tall, straggly, often unemployed, he and Jessie seemed like an unlikely couple. What Clayton lacked in employment skills, he more than made up for in his love and commitment to Jessie. They met in their junior year of high school and they both had one thing in common: Each wanted to protect the other from their disastrous home lives. After graduation, Jessie found the job at the diner and Clayton worked construction jobs when the weather allowed. Jessie didn’t mind though; he was always there in the middle of the night when she had one of her nightmares and needed to be held.
Sylvia and Annie continued to look at Jessie expectantly, hoping she would continue with why they weren’t together anymore. Jessie took a quivery breath, pulling herself together and began with the story that happened a month ago.
“He’d been a little down on himself. His mother had called a couple of days before and you know how well those conversations go,” she said with a roll of her eyes. Sylvia and Annie nodded in agreement. “It was slow at the diner so I was let off early. I was happy about it, but all Clayton could talk about was the $25 I lost by leaving work a couple of hours early. I suggested trying the new ice cream parlor. You know the one that just opened on the square that’s owned by that really tall skinny guy who always wears the Black Floppy Hat? Anyway, we went and actually his mood started to improve on the walk over there. By the time we sat down and started eating, he was his same old silly self. The owner even came by and introduced himself; I guess because we had never been there before. Clayton shook his hand, but I was too busy shoveling that heavenly concoction into my mouth to do that. I was kind of embarrassed, but the owner didn’t seem to mind. If Sylvia has taught me anything, its manners,” Jessie said with a rueful laugh. “I was going to go and compliment him on his product, but he was busy with other customers, so we left. We were about half way home and Clayton started bitching about how much the ice cream cost. He has this look on his face, it’s like rage or something, I don’t know. I’ve only seen it sometimes after he gets done talking to his mom; he’s never been that angry like that with me before. He goes, so, we lost $25 because you’re too lazy to work, then just blew another 10? So we lost like $35 dollars today? He grabs my arm really hard and starts shaking me. I start to get really scared, then he starts screaming at me, right there in the middle of the sidewalk, calling me horrible names and saying I’m nothing but a dumb lazy c*****. Then he hits me-hard. I almost lost my balance. Then I got angry.” Jessie’s tears had dried by now, and a steely look of I’m-not-putting-up-with-that-shit crossed her face. It was a look Sylvia and Annie knew all too well. “So, I ran” Jessie continued. I ran home and he chased me. We got into the house and for a moment, I thought he would apologize, not that that would have done any good. Instead, he hit me again. I grabbed a vase that was sitting on a table and hit him in the head with it, then pushed him out of my house and out of my life.” The next morning I packed his shit and mailed it to his mother. Those two deserve each other.”
It took most of the next two weeks for the duo to get Annie settled into her familiar bedroom and their routine. On a warm Saturday morning, the two women set out on one of their favorite things to do: grocery shop. Since she was 4, Annie had and Sylvia would hit the grocery store not only for their weeks’ worth of groceries, but something even more special. Some people had Sunday dinner, but Sylvia and Annie had what they had dubbed their ‘Saturday Night Special.’ The meal could be anything from stroganoff to lasagna to beef stew or chili. After buying the ingredients, the two would spend the rest of Saturday chopping, peeling, dicing, boiling and general merrymaking in the kitchen. Sylvia still had the small step stool that her granddaughter had used to climb on the counters. This was all peppered with conversations-school goings on, gossip and general advice from Sylvia to her granddaughter.
As the ladies pulled into the grocery store parking lot, they noticed a loud commotion coming from somewhere near the center of the aisles. By the position of the cars, it was apparent someone stole a parking space from the other driver. What caught Annie and Sylvia’s eye though was how mad the two men were. What should have been a quick and simple shouting match had escalated to a full blown fist fight. Even odder was that no one stopped to help. The women knew the townspeople well and had seen public disagreements where a third party had walked up to mediate; not now, however. The men were throwing punches and no one tried to stop them. As Sylvia parked the car, Annie’s hand was on the door handle and Annie had a look of determination in her eyes. “Don’t,” Sylvia said knowing full well what Annie was thinking. “I have to; no one else is.” With that, Annie bounded out of the car and sprinted over to the two men who were still wildly throwing punches. “Gentlemen,” Annie began. At once, two sets of glaring eyes turned her way. At the look on their faces, Annie felt a moment of fear that they would hit her. She pulled herself up to her full 5’11 height. Pasting a very fake smile on her face, she said, “What seems to be the problem”? “None of your damn business, bitch,” one of them growled as they began to advance towards her. At that point, Sylvia came up behind Annie. Sylvia had been teaching women’s self-defense classes at the local women’s shelter for as long as the townspeople could remember. They also knew she was not someone to mess with or to mess with her granddaughter. The two men suddenly looked sheepish. “I believe my granddaughter asked you a question,” she said. The two men, one lanky with blond hair and blue eyes and the other man had dark hair short and stocky, stared at the ground. Short and stocky kicked at an imaginary pebble on the ground and muttered “nothin.” “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Sylvia said, crossing her arms over her ample bosom and glaring daggers at the two men. “You two should be ashamed of yourselves. Grown men-with families no less-duking it out in the middle of a parking lot over what? A single stupid space. Look around you…there are several spaces here. And then you have the gall to turn on my granddaughter who was only trying to help? Get in your cars and go home to your families and don’t ever do crap like this again. Got it?” “Yes ma’am,” the men said in unison.
The two women were deep in conversation rehashing the events in the parking as they entered the store. They were so engrossed in their conversation they didn’t notice the young couple arguing near the carts or the mother screaming at her child. When a man bumped Sylvia’s cart, he turned to her and started yelling at her. When he was finished, there was small spittle running down his chin. Sylvia looked at him calmly and said ,“This must be the first case of shopping cart road rage,” and the two women walked away. The encounter, however, brought their attention to what was happening in the store around them. People were arguing or sullen; it seemed like the entire store was in a bad mood. Customers, stock boys, even the cashiers whose job it was to be cheery, seemed angry. In the middle of the freezer aisle, Annie nudged Sylvia. There were two people caught in a passionate embrace. These were people Annie and Sylvia knew-but they were not with their respective spouses. “We can get ice cream tonight at that new place” Sylvia said.
Once home, they put away the groceries and began preparing for the Saturday Night Special-beef stew. Once the women settled into their routine, whatever the ugliness was that seemed to follow them around the store dissipated. Before long, Annie and Sylvia were laughing and chattering like old times. However, the conversation always seemed to go back to one thing: How many of their kind, affable, and loyal townspeople had changed. “I just don’t get it” Sylvia said as she browned the beef in the Dutch oven. It seems like overnight our quiet little town has turned against itself. Take LuEllen and Richard. Two months later and they still aren’t speaking. Or those two boys you use to babysit…Jake and Brian.” “Yes I know,” Annie said with a sigh. Of all the stories that had bubbled over the last few months, this one upset her the most. Jake and Brian were best friends and had been for most of their 12 years. Brian accused Jake of stealing one of his cherished model remote controlled airplanes and Jake denied it; which led to a shouting match. A few days later, Brian found the airplane behind his dresser where it had apparently fallen. The boys made up and went about their lives. Not their fathers, however. Brian’s father ran Jakes father over with his car. Now Brian’s dad was sitting in jail on attempted murder charges while Jakes father was in the hospital recuperating from several broken bones. “I am definitely going over to LuEllen’s tomorrow after she gets home from church. We know her the best; maybe she’ll be able to shed some light on all this nonsense.” Annie said. “Good luck with that,” Sylvia said ruefully. “I tried talking to Richard a while back. I went to the feed and grain store thinking that since Richard was in his element, he’d be more affable to a chat. No such luck. He will usually give me a big ol grin and a hug, but not that day. So we start talking about the weather and such and I bring up LuEllen . It was like a thunder cloud darkened his face. He said ‘I would appreciate it if you never came in here again unless you’re going to buy feed or grain.’ Well, we both know that’s not going to happen, so I guess I’ve been banished from his store.” Sylvia’s voice cracked on the last few words. Seeing her grandmothers hurt angered Annie and she was not one to anger easily. “If Richard won’t talk to you, then I am definitely going to LuEllen’ s tomorrow after church. She’ll talk to me.”
After dinner, the two ladies took a walk to Heavenly Concoctions, the new ice cream parlor everyone was raving about. It was a warm evening with a slight breeze, a perfect time for ice cream. The ladies entered the festive establishment and were immediately impressed. Vanilla white covered the walls that had hand painted balloons in a variety of colors…all brighter and more cheery than the next. The tubs of glistening ice cream were facing the door snug behind the glass partition in about every flavor imaginable. Old fashioned ice cream parlor tables and chairs all dotted the floor; they, too were painted in the same festive colors.
The man in Black Floppy Hat smiled when he saw the two women enter. His puzzle pieces were finally falling into place nicely and these two women were two of the most important pieces. “Hello …welcome to Heavenly Concoctions,” the man in Black Floppy Hat said as he proffered his hand to the two ladies. Sylvia shook his hand automatically. Annie, however, was busy trying to decide which flavor to order and never saw the exchange.
Sylvia had seen the man around town, but never up close and personal. She found that the tall, angular frame, ice blue eyes, and creaky smile gave her a jolt. She knew everyone in town thought he was the nicest person, but Sylvia felt a distinct cold, hard ball of dread in the pit of her stomach. “We love it when new people come,” the man in Black Floppy Hat said with an crooked smile. Annie thought that the use of the word “we” was odd since he was the only store proprietor.
Once they ordered and sat down to eat, Annie and Sylvia had to admit, their misgivings about the man in the Black Floppy Hat aside, the ice cream was sinfully delicious. As they rose to leave, Annie had to go to the restroom, leaving Sylvia to pay the bill. Annie certainly hadn’t intended for that to happen, but when nature calls, you don’t hang up.
On their walk home Sylvia said, “He seemed nice enough. He just has those odd looks which he can’t help.” The two women walked a little further in amiable silence until Sylvia turned to Annie and said, “That wasn’t very nice of you to go to the bathroom and make me pay. If I’d known you were going to pull a stunt like that, I never would have come.” Annie looked at her grandmother in astonishment. “Grandma, I didn’t do it on purpose. If I thought you were going to get so upset, I would’ve paid and went after.” “So you think I can’t afford some ice cream?” Sylvia shot back, her voice growing louder. “I swear you are getting more and more like your mother every day.” The shock at her grandmother’s words caused Annie to stop in her tracks. Sylvia never mentioned Annie’s mother and never compared her to her drug-addicted mother. Annie was many things, but she was not the loser drug addicted person that her mother was. Annie had worked very hard in her life to make sure that she did not turn out like her mother.
Now Annie was angry. “What the hell are you talking about?” Annie said, confused and hurt. Sylvia twirled, and covered the distance between them in a few short strides. “You’re always broke,” Sylvia yelled “That bathroom stunt was your way of getting out of paying. And I’d bet you blew all of your tuition money on partying and drugs. How do I know you didn’t graduate by the skin of your teeth? How do I know you weren’t having a four year party? “ Tears welled up in Annie’s eyes. She was aghast at the unfounded accusations that Sylvia was throwing at her. Her only thought was to get as far away from Sylvia as possible. As she turned to head towards Jessie’s house, she heard her grandmother yell, “Yeah, that’s right. Run away just like your mother.”
Later that night over glasses of wine, Annie and Jessie tried to make sense of Sylvia’s outburst. As the conversation went on, they began to discuss the ongoing events of the town. Jessie came up with the idea that the only thing the two people had in common was going to the ice cream parlor. “But so did we,” Annie countered. “Maybe he’s poisoning some of the ice cream” Jessie half joked.
Since the two best friends kept clothes at each other’s homes, Annie wouldn’t have to go back to Sylvia’s for a change of clothes for at least a few days. This was a tremendous relief to Annie.
The next day was Sunday. Annie arrived at LuEllen’ s a few moments after LuEllen returned from church. Annie was not quite sure what to expect when she knocked on her ornate door. Through the beveled glass, Annie could see LuEllen coming to answer it. She remembered Sylvia’s attempt to talk to Richard and sincerely hoped this would turn out better.
“Annie how are you!” LuEllen cried, wrapping her arms tightly around her. “I heard you were back and I kept meaning to come by Sylvia’s and welcome you home properly. How is your grandma anyway? Annie’s heart constricted in her chest. She managed a “She’s doing well, thanks.” After the two women had settled comfortably into LuEllen s overstuffed couch, LuEllen disappeared then reappeared shortly with a tray of tea and cookies. They chatted about Annie’s college life and her upcoming internship in New York at the end of the summer. As Annie talked and listened, her mind tossed about a way to segue the conversation to LuEllen and Richards issues. She decided on a backdoor approach. “I’ve been surprised at the goings on around our little town,” Annie began. “I know!” LuEllen exclaimed. “It’s been awful. Fights between neighbors, you know two couples separated recently due to infidelity? This just isn’t our little town,” LuEllen said with a rueful shake of her head. “You know Jessie and Clayton broke up,” Annie ventured. “Yes I know. I was at the diner the next day; Jessie looked heartbroken. Annie figured it was now or never. “Grandma told me what happened between you and Richard” Annie said. At the mention of her brother, LuEllen’s eyes filled with tears. For a moment, Annie was afraid LuEllen would clam up. “I don’t know what got into either of us” LuEllen said. “I was craving pork roast and Henry the butcher had some on sale. I know Richard loves my beef roast because I cook it just like our mothers did but still….” By this point, LuEllen’s tears were falling freely. “I remember that really tall man, you know the one that opened the ice cream parlor had just come into the shop. I was waffling between the beef and pork roasts and he laid a hand on my shoulder and said something like “Cooks choice” or something like that. That was the push I needed. I knew Richard would be disappointed, but I never dreamed it would end up like it did. I mean, he tried to hit me!” Annie had not heard that detail. “I went to go see him at the store a few days later, trying to patch things up. Odd thing was that tall man was there. I mean, what would the owner of an ice cream parlor need at a feed and grain store? Anyway, they were talking when I walked up. The tall man said something that made Richard laugh and I thought, oh good, he’s in a good mood. They shook hands and the tall guy left and I went up to Richard. He took one look at me and it was like a storm cloud blew in. He pretty much told me to leave and never come back or he’d have me arrested for trespassing or stalking or some such nonsense.”
On the other side of town, two boys, Johnny and Tommy best friends for most of their 12 years were heading to the ice cream parlor. On the walk up there, Tommy was being Tommy, cutting up and cracking jokes. Once there, the owner of the shop introduced himself to Johnny and Tommy, shaking Tommy’s hand in the process. Johnny noticed his friend’s chest puff up with pride. Johnny was busy tying his shoe, so he never got a handshake. “Wow that guy might look funny, but he seems like a nice guy. No one has ever shook my hand and treated me like a grown up before!” Tommy exclaimed. The ice cream had been delicious just like everyone said it would be.
On the way home, though, Johnny noticed a change in his friend. Tommy was unusually quiet which was not like him at all. At first, Johnny thought his friend had a stomach ache from eating too fast. Tommy let out a big sigh. “I really wish my mom would buy me that new ten speed bike over at Lawson’s,” he said, kicking a stone down the street. “All she ever says is ‘we can’t afford it…..we can’t afford that….’ It really sucks.” Tommy’s mother was a single mom with three other mouths to feed; Tommy was the oldest. She worked at the diner along with Jessie and even when she worked double shifts, there still never seemed to be enough money.
At that point, the boys passed a candy apple red 1967 Mustang. Tommy’s eyes nearly bulged from his head. “Whoa…would you look at that,” he said in awe. As they started to walk around it to take a better look, Johnny got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah it’s cool and all, but I need to get home,” he said. Just then, Tommy noticed someone left the keys sitting in a cup holder and the door was unlocked! Tommy looked at Johnny and Johnny knew what his best friend was thinking. ”No, Tommy, this is a bad, bad idea.” “Come with me or not, Johnny boy, but I’m taking this baby for a spin”! With that, he jumped in the car and with a twist of the key and a push of the gas pedal, he was off. There was one problem with Tommy’s plan-at 12 the only driving he had done was when he played Grand Theft Auto. Johnny bolted down the street, somehow he thinking he could catch Tommy and the Mustang. To his horror he saw a cop pull out from a side street and he had Tommy in his sights. Tommy was going way over the speed limit and instead of slowing down when he saw the cop, he sped up. Johnny stopped dead in his tracks…what to do, what to do? In that instant, the decision was made for him. The cop caught up to Tommy forcing him to stop. Johnny watched with a sinking heart as the cop pulled Tommy out of the car and handcuffed him and practically threw him into the back of the patrol car.
As Johnny turned to run home, he nearly barreled head first into Annie. By this time, he was crying. “What is it, Johnny?” She asked. She knew something bad must have happened for a 12 year old to be crying in broad daylight in the middle of the street. Between gulps of tears, Johnny told her what happened. “Ok, you go home, tell your parents what happened and see if they can help out. I know Tommy’s mom won’t have the money to bond him out, but maybe your parents can help.” Johnny nodded tearfully and went on his way.
Later that evening, Jessie and Annie tried to make sense of what was happening to their town. The idea was born from a theory that had roots in a conspiracy whose seeds were planted in their broken hearts. In just a little over a couple of months, the people Annie and Jessie’s life, the only ones who had loved and cared for them, suddenly and viciously turned on them. Annie and Jessie began to write brief summaries of what they had heard and experienced. They listed the places where the trouble had happened, who was involved, and any similar pattern that they could see in each occurrence. LueEllen and Richard; Clayton and Jessie; the fight at the grocery store; Jake and Brian. Taken in and of themselves, there was no readily available pattern that could be seen.
The next morning the sun broke through the shades in Jessie’s guest room. Annie glanced at the clock, 9 am. Annie knew her friend was at work. Annie padded into the kitchen, following the smell of coffee that Jessie had already turned on. As she began going over the notes they had made the night before, she began to see patterns that their tired eyes had missed.
Annie was half way through a second cup of coffee trying to put the notes into a chronological order. She was so engrossed in her task, that the sudden peal of the doorbell startled her. When she answered the door, the last person she expected to see was Sylvia. It had been 3 days since the “incident” and Annie had begun to wonder if Sylvia even ever thought of her.
Tears filled the old woman’s eyes and before Annie could say anything, Sylvia launched herself into her granddaughter’s arms. “I’m so so sorry” Sylvia cried. “Please forgive me,” she said. “It was never a question,” Annie said soothingly, hugging her grandma as tightly as she could.
When Jessie returned from work that evening, she was surprised, and delighted, to see Sylvia sitting at her kitchen table along with Annie. Her house smelled warm and inviting; apparently, Annie and Sylvia were cooking a pot roast. Jessie could feel her heart lighten at the sight. Jessie joined the women in a glass of wine and perched herself on the barstool to hear the story that Sylvia had already told once that day, but had no issue repeating it. “It was really weird,” Sylvia began. “We were walking home and I just felt this hot ball of anger rising in me. I latched on to the idea that Annie going to the bathroom was a way to skip out and make me pay for the ice cream and everything snow balled from there. Before I knew it, raging and hurtful things were spewing out of my mouth and I couldn’t stop it.” Sylvia stopped and stared into her half full wine glass. Her eyes began to fill with tears again so she took a sip of wine and continued. “The scariest part was not that I was saying those things, but that I couldn’t stop…..I felt justified. I felt like I was completely in the right. But I wasn’t.” Sylvia looked at the two young women sitting next to her-two women who she had loved and nurtured most of their lives. How could she have acted so wrong? For Annie, it was seeing her grandmother looking so vulnerable that nearly broke her heart. Annie put an arm around Sylvia and drew over to her.
Halfway through dinner, Sylvia began with the second half of her story. “I felt angry and justified until yesterday afternoon. I guess all that rage wore me out and I needed a nap. You girls know me, I never nap. Anyway, when I woke up, I felt, I don’t know, lighter? Like a dark cloud had been lifted off of me. I was trying not to think about Annie, but the harder I tried, the more I found myself missing her. That led me to realize what a fool I’d been and how much I loved her and wanted to see her again and make things right. When I woke up this morning, I knew what I had to do.” The following week was quiet and seemed to fall back into their normal routine. The women gave no more thought to theories, notes or ice cream.
One evening after dinner, the three women decided to visit the Heavenly Concoction Ice Cream Parlor. The shop was packed more so than usual. The women, deciding they didn’t want to spend the whole evening waiting for ice cream, turned to leave. The man in the Black Floppy Hat appeared next to them. “Ladies,” he said gratuitously, “I know we’re busy, but I implore you. I have a new flavor that I think you will just love.” His eyes rested on Sylvia as a slow smile tugged at his thin lips. “I remember you.” He said, taking Sylvia’s hands in his; Sylvia blushed. He dropped his hands and the spell, if there are such things – was broken. As the man in the Black Floppy Hat worked his way up to the front of his store and his waiting customers, Sylvia said, “yeah, we really should stay.”
Privately, the man in the Black Floppy Hat wondered why and more importantly how, the three women could be in his shop. Shouldn’t the old lady and the pretty red head hate each other by now and not be speaking, much less spending an evening at the ice cream parlor? Though the smile never left his face, his mind was trying to disseminate these facts.
On their way home, Annie noticed that Sylvia had grown very quiet. As they drew closer to home, Sylvia suddenly stopped walking and asked “Have you spoken to your mother lately?” At first, Annie thought this was some kind of joke. After all these years though she knew her mother was no joking matter to her grandmother. “Of course not grandma, why would you even think such a thing”? Annie asked. Some thing was off with her grandmother, though, Annie could tell. Sylvia’s hazel eyes seemed to dance with her anger whether it was real or imagined. Her face was flush and for one, wild scary moment Annie was worried Sylvia was having a stroke. Annie reached for Sylvia’s arm to comfort her and Sylvia snatched her away. “I’m not some doddering old bitch incapable to walking down the street “said Sylvia. Annie and Jessie looked at each other, not quite sure what to make of this. Annie didn’t know quite what to say and neither did Jessie. “See, you’re so surprised that I knew you were talking to her behind my back, you’re speechless,” Sylvia continued. “Sylvia, really, you’ve got it all wrong,” Jessie finally managed to sputter out. Sylvia turned on Jessie. “You! Just stay out of this. They’ve probably been meeting at your house behind my back this whole time.” The only thought running through Annie’s head at the point was to get her and Jessie as far away as possible from this woman pretending to her grandma.
Jessie was off work the following day and the two women sat at her kitchen table and rehashed what had happened the night before. At some point during the discussion, the notes and lists had come out, but now the women were studying them with sharper eyes. They found that the one thing Sylvia, Tommy, Brian and Jake as well most of the others in the combative play that had seized their town had in common was the ice cream parlor. “That makes no sense though,” Jessie sighed. “Is he poisoning the ice cream? If so, why isn’t the whole town berserk? Not that it isn’t heading there already.” Why indeed. Why was her grandmother affected twice and Annie not at all? Why did it affect Clayton but not Jessie? And yet, neither LuEllen nor Richard had been to the ice cream parlor at all.
Jessie found a large ply wood board and propped it up on a chair against the kitchen wall. They began to add their notes to it. In the middle was a piece of paper that said “Heavenly Concoctions.” They added each person’s name and the incident associated with them and the approximate time that they had been to the ice cream parlor.
Around dinner time, the women decided to order pizza. They were tired, frustrated and more than a little confused. When the doorbell rang, Annie opened the door, cash in hand, expecting to see the pizza delivery kid. Instead, it was her grandmother. In a scene reminiscent of the same one just a week before, Sylvia threw herself into her granddaughters arms, sobbing, “I’m so sorry…again.” As far as Annie was concerned, there was nothing to forgive. She just wanted her grandmother and town to return to normal.
Annie led her grandmother into Jessie’s kitchen. Sylvia saw the board covered in notes and lists. The pizza came and the three women ate in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Sylvia had been chewing and staring thoughtfully at the board and noticed there was a note that Richard and LuEllen had never been to the ice cream parlor. “Annie,” Sylvia said, getting up from the table to take a closer look “Didn’t you tell me that LuEllen mentioned meeting the tall man at the butcher store? And the second time she saw him was at Richard’s feed and grain”? Annie chewed slowly, pondering this. “Yes, that’s right. Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe it’s the tall man himself.” Jessie thought the idea was silly. “What, he’s going around casting spells on people?” “It’s no crazier than poison ice cream,” Annie said thoughtfully. She had a point.
As the ladies brain stormed, they realized that of the three of them only one had not been affected, either directly or indirectly, by what they had dubbed “The Crazy.” That was Annie. She had been ogling the ice cream the first time she had met him and he had shook Sylvia’s hand. In fact, as it had turned out, the man in Black Floppy Hat had shook Sylvia-and only Sylvia’s hand- both times the women had gone to the shop. The women decided they would go back in a few days and Annie would make a point of shaking his hand. “This is silly,” Jessie said. Since Sylvia was buying, though, Jessie agreed. One could never pass up free ice cream.
A few days later, the three women set out for their “experiment” for lack of a better word. Annie was a little nervous being used as a guinea pig, but she understood what she had to do and why. Something wrong was going on and either the ice cream parlor or its owner, or both had something to do with it.
Since it was mid-week, the parlor was quiet and relatively empty. The tall man was behind the counter, the ever present hat perched on his head. As had been discussed, Sylvia and Jessie chose a small corner table while Annie walked up and ordered. Flashing her prettiest smile, Annie held out her hand, “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced” she began. My name is Annie and I wanted to tell you how much we enjoy your ice cream. Why, it’s heavenly!” She said with a laugh. The tall man took Annie’s hand. She found his hand warm and dry without being rough. “I’ve wanted to introduce myself to you for a while, but your shop is always so busy; you are always doing such a bang up business.” “Why thank you,” the tall man said.
After finishing their ice cream and paying, the 3 ladies headed back to Jessie’s since that’s where the notes and lists were. Annie began to feel odd. Her stomach felt like instead of swallowing ice cream, she had swallowed molten lava. She could feel her face becoming hot. She knew Sylvia and Jessie were laughing and talking, but a loud rushing sound in her ears seemed to block it out. The sidewalk began to dip. Then as suddenly as they appeared, the symptoms disappeared. Annie had not realized she had slowed her pace until Sylvia and Jessie turned around and asked if she was ok. The molten lava came back and turned into a white hot rage. “No I’m not fucking alright,” Annie screamed. Sylvia reached out to her, and Annie backhanded her, knocking her grandmother to the ground where she began kicking Sylvia in the ribs then jumped on Sylvia and punched her grandmother several times in the face. Jesse tried to intervene, but Annie grabbed her best friend’s throat and threw her to the ground. Somewhere in the boiling rage and the rushing in her ears, Annie’s fist connected with Jessie’s nose, Annie felt it crack. Sylvia tried to grab Annie’s arm in an attempt to pull her off Jesse, but Annie shook her away like she was a rag doll. Somewhere in the melee, Annie could hear screaming and sirens. It wasn’t until hours later, strapped to a hospital bed, Annie realized the screaming was coming from her and the sirens were coming to rescue Sylvia and Jessie.
The man in The Black Floppy Hat was taking a stroll around the town. The once bustling streets that had been filled with happy loving people a few months ago were all but deserted. People who were hurt and angry did not necessarily frequent parks, splash pads, or ice cream parlors. The children suffered too. Oh, well, they were just collateral damage on the way to reaching his goal. And oh, how close he was! A smile, or what he perceived as a smile, tugged across his crooked, angular face. In all of the many trips he had taken to this town to fulfill his bucket list, this was the closest he had been. Single handedly he had lit a match that had started a slow burn of anger, lust, greed, resentment, jealousy and want; yep, he had hit nearly all 7 of the original sins. These normal, happy, well- adjusted townsfolk had committed crimes and sins against each other; unforgiveable sins. There was one more cog that needed to fall into place before he could make his final plans and end this once-sunny stink hole forever. He had been concerned he would never get there. Then she walked in last night with the old lady and the waitress. He’d already had his fun with the old bat twice and with the waitress’s boyfriend. Oddly, the spell had worn off leaving the three women as close and loving as ever. Apparently, forgiveness ran deeper in their veins than he had anticipated. As Annie had walked towards him with her proffered hand, the one word that danced across his brain was “Finally.”
Annie ran as fast and as hard as her legs would carry her. Her chest burned with the exertion, her heart felt like it would explode. The bones and muscles in her legs had turned to jelly. She stole another glance behind her. Yes, that thing was human, she was almost sure of it. The eyes were sunken into the darkness of his skull but the oversized cowl made it impossible for Annie to see much else about whatever it was that was chasing her. Annie suddenly heard the sound of large wings flapping behind her. Annie realized that the footfalls behind her had stopped. At that moment, white hot pain seared through her flesh as Annie felt talons pulling her flesh from her bones.
Annie awoke with a start, not quite sure if she had screamed out loud or not. As Annie’s nightmare had faded from memory, reality and consciousness replaced it. She could feel her forehead sweaty from her nightmare, but when she went to wipe the sweat from her brow, she couldn’t. “What the hell?” Annie said looking down at her arms strapped to the hospital bed. The straps were leather but lined in what had probably been soft wool. For what? Comfort? Annie snorted at the thought. “We’re sorry we have to strap you down like a crazy person, but at least you’ll be comfy,” Annie sang in a nasal, high pitched squeak.
As she lay back with a sigh of exasperation and confusion, she saw the door to her hospital room open. The bed was positioned somewhere between completely flat and slightly sitting up, so Annie was not quite sure who had entered; just that it was two women. Shuffling feet stopped at Annie’s bedside. Annie felt the bed raise, but could not believe what she was seeing. Her grandmother and best friend both sported black eyes and bruised faces. The left side of Sylvia’s face was one purple bruise and her left eye was nearly swollen shut. Annie noticed bulkiness around Sylvia’s middle and the cold realization hit her-her grandmother’s ribs were taped. Someone had broken her grandmother’s ribs!
Jessie didn’t look like she had fared much better. Though her eyes were not swollen shut, black rings circled them nonetheless. Annie noticed though that the bruised eyes were a result of Jessie’s broken nose. Annie was shocked at how the stark white bandages across Jessie’s nose contrasted with her purple and blue face. A thought, a hazy memory danced across Annie’s conscience, but it was too horrifying to entertain. Her throat felt like she had swallowed sandpaper, but she had to ask, “who did this to you?” Sylvia and Jesse looked at each other. They turned to Annie and said in unison, “you did.”
For over an hour, Annie listened to her grandmother and her best friend, the two most important people in her life, describe someone Annie didn’t recognize doing things that her brain couldn’t accept. Haltingly, as if they couldn’t believe it themselves, the women told their harrowing Annie’s hands.
As the tears fell down Annie’s cheeks, she began to sob; loud, guttural sobs that seemed to come from the depths of her soul. How could she do this? What had possessed her to hurt the two people she cared about most? And why couldn’t she remember any of it? The last thing Annie remembered was her stomach starting to hurt and she thought maybe the man in The Black Floppy Hat really was poisoning the ice cream.
Jessie and Sylvia waited until the sobs had ceased. Then, together, they hugged Annie whispering, “we love you.” Between sobs, Annie was able to say, “I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me” “There is nothing to forgive, honey. We know that wasn’t you. We went to the ice cream parlor on a mission, to find some answers and we think we may have found what we were looking for. At least we are pretty sure we are heading in the right direction.”
After the tears dried and the I love you’s said, the bond of the three women was stronger than ever. Now, they were more determined than ever to find out what happened.
The man in The Black Floppy Hat was having a very nice evening indeed. There wasn’t a human on Earth that could go through what those three busybody bitches did and still love each other and keep forgiveness in their hearts; humans were just not wired like that, which worked in his favor. Though it was nearly impossible – but not improbable for him to get drunk, he did enjoy a nice bottle of 1825 Perrier-Jouet on occasion. And this was definitely an occasion! After a millennium of trying to get the souls of this small, happy town, the effort it took and all the failures, who would have thought it took opening a simple ice cream parlor? He could finally cross this off his bucket list! Now that he finally got those three women to break their unbreakable bond, the rest would be easy.
Once it was established that Annie was no longer a threat to herself or others, and Sylvia and Jessie were not going to press charges, Annie was released. The three women went back to Jessie’s house and pulled out their notes from the other odd occurrences and doubled their efforts in earnest.
The three women decided to break for the day. Sylvia offered to drive Annie back to their house, but Annie, her head still feeling a little woozy, decided to walk home. “Maybe I’ll grab a bite on the way,” she told her grandmother.
The smell of delicious home cooked diner food hit Annie’s nostrils as Annie neared the diner. Her feet decided to follow her nose. As she waited to be seated, Annie spied LuEllen sitting alone in a back booth. Annie caught LuEllen s eye and the older woman beckoned to Annie to join her. “I just sat down myself,” LuEllen stated. The women made small talk as they perused the menu, but Annie’s mind raced with the possibilities this chance encounter had brought. Jesse, Sylvia and Annie were just discussing earlier how they might reach out to some of their neighbors that they knew had been acting oddly and out of character.
After the waitress left with their orders, a light bulb went off in Annie’s head. She thought she already knew the answer, but had to ask. As casually has she can, Annie asked “Have you been to that new ice cream parlor yet?” “Oh no, I’m not much for ice cream.” Luellen stated as she took a sip of her tea. “I’ve been meaning to though; maybe just a small vanilla cone. I met him, the proprietor, once last spring. Seemed like such a nice man and I’ve been wanting to congratulate him on the success of his business.” LuEllen continued talking about how difficult it was for small businesses these days, but Annie was not listening. She managed to stay attentive as LuEllen filled her in on what she had been up to since she had last met; however, she made no reference to her brother, Richard. Annie realized that LuEllen had just thrown a wrench in their theory that the mayhem was caused by the ice cream.
With her brain spinning with new theories, Annie begged off an invitation for dessert at LuEllen s-for old time’s sake-LuEllen said, Annie’s feet could not propel her fast enough towards home.
“Grandma, where are you”? Annie said as she burst through the front doors and headed straight to the kitchen. Annie grabbed their stack of 3 x 5 cards of notes that the women had made. Turning to the kitchen table, she began laying them out like a blackjack dealer would deal cards. “Annie, honey what is it? I was upstairs sewing and it sounded like a herd of elephants running through the house.” “I’m sorry grandma,” Annie said. Upsetting her grandmother was the last thing that Annie wanted to do. “I just had dinner with LuEllen and she said something I found interesting. She met the proprietor before the ice cream store even opened. She met him at the butchers.” The words hung in the air between them though neither wanted to say what they were thinking. Sylvia spoke first, “So I guess it’s all him. The ice cream isn’t poisoned.” “It may be, grandma. I don’t think it’s just the ice cream that’s poisoned though. I think he is.”
By lunchtime the next day, the three women had devised a plan. They each took a few names from the list that they had compiled of all the townspeople who had done something seriously out of character – violence, adultery, stealing. Because the list was compromised of most of the town, Sylvia, Annie and Jesse took four names each. Twelve didn’t seem like a lot but they hoped it would be a good cross sample that would help them find a pattern, a reason, any kind of explanation. The only thing they knew for sure was that the man in the Black Floppy Hat was in the center of it.
Annie stood in front of the rickety metal gate of Tommy’s front yard. Even after all this time, she could not equate the sweet, fun loving boy she knew to the same boy who stole the car and now sat in jail. Annie was here to talk to his mother. Annie knew Tommy was the oldest of 4 and the evidence of younger children was scattered across the scrubbed, barren yard; tricycles, a baby doll carriage and various boxes that had apparently been used as a fort at one time. The path led directly to the front door as there was no porch, just a few wooden steps. As Annie drew closer to the house, she noticed the paint was badly peeling along the eaves and shutters.
Wires hung from a broken doorbell, so Annie knocked. Tommy’s mother answered still wearing her waitress uniform. Though the women had gone to school together, they had taken different paths in life and never saw each other outside of the diner.
Annie remembered the girl from school and the woman she was looking at bore no resemblance. The once bright and inquisitive blue eyes were now dulled with worry and stress. The beautiful blond hair Annie had once been jealous of was now short and had been through a variety of colors. The creamy complexion now bore the old scars of a rough, hardscrabble life. “Hello Ivy,” Annie began, stepping through the door into the sparsely decorated living room. A stained couch faced a small television, a rocking chair sat between two orange crates pushed together and covered with a tapestry that looked like it had seen better days in the 60s. This apparently served as the coffee able. Ivy motioned for Anne to sit on the couch while she took the rocking chair. Before Annie could begin, a child of about 3 burst into the living room and clambered into her mother’s lap. Annie could see the striking resemblance between the Ivy she knew from school and this child. “Go play now with your brother. Mama’s going to talk to this nice lady.” Annie hoped that Ivy would still feel that she was a “nice lady” after their conversation.
After the child was out of earshot, Annie decided to get on with it. “I’ve come to talk about Tommy” she began. Ivy’s eyes filled with tears at the mention of her oldest. “I just don’t get why he done what he done. I know we ain’t got a lot and there was always things he wanted that I just couldn’t afford. But for him to do that….” “Ivy, do you know if he’d ever been to that new ice cream parlor?” “Oh yes, I may be broke as a church mouse, but I can afford an ice cream cone for my kids,” Ivy said, with a touch of defensiveness in her voice. “Poor kid hasn’t had much of a childhood what with his loser father and all; it was the least I could do for him. I remember he told me whenever he went in there the owner would shake his hand and treat him like a little man, instead of a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks like almost every other adult in this town. The owners’ treatment of my son warmed my heart.” Ivy shook her head sadly at the memory. “After all the problems this has caused, the lawyers, the money I don’t have, and the stress of trying to feed my other kids, I just don’t know if I can forgive him for what he’s done. I know that sounds harsh, but it is what it is.”
Meanwhile, Sylvia was sitting in LuEllen’ s sunny, tidy, well-kept living room trying to find her own answers. Sylvia gently coaxed the whole story of that terrible day with Richard from her close friend. Sylvia wanted LuEllen to start from the very beginning, when she first met the proprietor at the butchers shop. Sylvia had a theory of her own, and she needed to her friend’s story to prove it. When LuEllen got to the part of the man touching her shoulder, which she found odd, and reminding her who the cook was, Sylvia knew she was right. It wasn’t the ice cream at all! It was the owner of the ice cream store. But how was he doing it? It made no sense to Sylvia that the man could wreak such havoc by something as simple as a touch….LuEllen was just saying “He apparently will never forgive me which is just fine with me because I will never forgive him.”
Jessie had toyed with the idea of finding Clayton and interviewing him about the night of their violent breakup. It hadn’t taken much digging to find out that he had several run ins with the law, mostly assault charges since that night. There was the bartender who had refused Clay service, a convenience store clerk who did not return Clay’s change fast enough, and a girl who was unaware of the violence that lurked beneath the quiet exterior. She did not stay unaware for long.
So Jessie decided that since LuEllen was at Sylvia’s, she would try to get Richards side of the story. If they couldn’t save the whole town from itself, may be they could salvage LuEllen and Richards relationship.
It had seemed like ages since Jessie last entered Richard’s feed store. The store brought back some of the few good childhood memories she had. The sawdust on the floor and the smell of lumber, feed sacks stacked carefully and the smell of warm oil made Jesse smile a little as she worked her way to the back counter. It was there Richard kept his guns and ammo and where he could generally be found if he wasn’t stocking shelves or doing any other kind of upkeep. She saw him and smiled seeing he was in deep conversation with someone. Richard caught her eye and smiled back. The lanky man Richard was in deep conversation with, turned towards her. Jessie nearly faltered in her steps as she recognized the owner of the ice cream parlor. The man in the Black Floppy Hat offered her smile, but it was a cold smile and did not quite reach his eyes. For a moment, Jessie thought the tall man was angry with her, but then realized she was being paranoid. There was no way he could know what the three women suspected of him.
As Jessie neared the counter, the man in the Black Floppy Hat turned to Richard with a proffered hand “Well, I will be taking my leave now,” he said. “Thanks for stopping by. I really enjoy our talks,” Richard said with a genuine smile as he shook the other mans’ hand.
After the man in Black Floppy Hat left, Richard turned to Jess with a warm smile that did reach his eyes. “What do I owe this pleasure? Here to buy some feed?” Richard chuckled at his own joke. “No, I just haven’t seen you around town for a while and wanted to stop by.” A dark cloud passed over Richard’s face and Jessie knew, for whatever reason, that Richard did not believe her story; but the how and why escaped her. “Look,” Richard said, all warmth from his smile and voice gone. “LuEllen sent you, didn’t she? Well, if that’s the case and you’re here to try and get me to patch things up with that bitch, you’re wasting both of our times.” Jessie swallowed and decided to press on. Before she could, though, Richard continued. “That man who was just here? He told me one of you bitches maybe even LuEllen herself would come mewing around here wanting an apology from me. He told me to stand strong, that I was the wronged one here and us men have to stick together against bitches like you,” Richard leaned his muscular arms on the glass countertop, his nose inches from Jesse’s nose. For one, scary, brief second, Jesse was afraid he’d strike her. Instead, Richard growled, “I have nothing to apologize for and I will never forgive that bitch.”
After dinner, the three women began to compare notes. The raging storm outside made it difficult to concentrate, though. Thunder sounded like it was ripping the sky open which made the windows rattle violently. Lightning crackled across the sky lighting up the room and wreaking havoc with the electricity. The three women having made some progress, decided to press on. Talking to their friends who had been affected had helped, and they had made some progress, but it seemed that they had wound up with more questions and no answers to the questions that they had already asked.
Though a number of the incidents started after a trip to the ice cream parlor, not all of them did. “So, if it’s not the ice cream is he a black arts magician?” Annie asked. Sylvia was putting X’s next to the names of people who they knew had not been to the ice cream parlor. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in Annie’s head. “Touching!” She exclaimed excitedly. Sylvia and Jesse looked at her oddly. “LuEllen said he touched her shoulder when he said that thing about cooks’ choice,” Sylvia muttered slowly, following where Annie’s train of thought was leading them. “Yeah, and Tommy’s mother said he always shook his hand when he came in and made him feel like a grown up.” Jesse chimed in, “He was at the feed and seed talking to Richard when I came in and he shook his hand too.” “So, where does that leave us?” Sylvia asked. “We know it wasn’t the ice cream per se. How can shaking someone’s hand make them go crazy like that? We’ve all been affected by it and I still don’t understand. I think the biggest question is why are the three of us still together? Think about it. Practically the whole town has been affected and we are the only ones still talking to each other.”
Meanwhile, across town in his one room apartment over the ice cream shop, the man in the Black Floppy Hat was furious. No, furious didn’t begin to describe the rage he felt. More like a hot, boiling rage. He had been SO CLOSE! He paced like a caged animal throwing invectives at those three stupid bitches. How could they have forgiven each other so easily? He had thrown his best stuff at them and they still loved each other! No human alive could forgive what they had done to each other. Yes, the rest of the town had come along nicely-mired in hate and the inability to love and forgive. Hell, even church attendance was down; which was an added bonus. Worse yet, the three women had becomes curious and started poking around. Sure, he could probably take what he wanted now and leave, but his set would not be complete. As long as one soul stood to be kind, loving and forgiving, he’d have to come back; and he knew his time was running thin.
The next morning, the skies were clear as if the storm never happened. The three women were still mulling over the events of the previous night. Annie was going over their notes and hit upon a pattern. “Do you guys realize something? Richard said right here he would never forgive LuEllen . Sylvia, you said LuEllen said the same about Richard. And I know Tommy’s mother said she could never forgive him either. I remember because my first thought was But that’s your son. The only question that remained was how this was happening-was it a spell? Was the man in the Black Floppy Hat actually a master of the black arts? And after the how, the question remained, why? Why would this stranger come in to their quiet, peaceful town and wreak such havoc? Was he a former resident that had been kicked out? “I see only one way to find out the how, which, in turn, should lead us to the why,” Annie said. “I can hear the gears turning in your head all the way across the table,” Jessie joked. “We have to get into his apartment” Annie stated. Jesse and Sylvia looked at Annie like she had sprouted a second head. “And I have a plan,” Annie said with a sneaky smile
For the next few days, the three women inconspicuously watched the man in the Black Floppy Hat’s movements. When he left the apartment, when he opened the shop, when he closed for the evening and when he returned home. To their benefit, the women discovered he was a creature of habit; rarely deviating from his routine. He might go sit in the park, but aside from that it was home-work-home. During their three day stake out, the women also noticed that he never ate at any of the restaurants in town nor did he ever go to the local grocery store. They knew that there wasn’t a Mrs. Ice Cream Shop Owner, so how did he eat?
The plan was for Annie to get inside his apartment to look around. They knew his schedule, knew he spent all day at the shop, and what time he closed up to head home. However, they did not know how long it would take Annie to get inside his apartment, and once in, would they find nothing or a treasure trove of answers? Also, would it look odd that only Jessie and Sylvia would show up at the shop when the 3 women were inseparable? So, they devised a plan hoping that the man in the Black Floppy Hat wouldn’t catch on to what they were up to.
It was a warm afternoon, perfect for ice cream when the three ladies walked in. “What do you guys want?” Sylvia asked grumpily. Her tone made the man in the Black Floppy Hat’s ears perk up. Jessie said, “Can you loan me some money?” Sylvia turned on her, “You’re always broke. How much do you owe me already?” Turning to Annie, Sylvia again asked what she wanted. “Jeeze, I don’t know. It all looks so good. Sylvia blew up at this. “I don’t know why I bother with you girls at all,” she said loud enough for the proprietor and everyone else in the shop, to hear. “Hey, you can’t talk to us like that” Annie said and the two girls stormed out of the shop stage whispering, “screw you” under their breaths. The crooked smile on the man in the Black Floppy Hat’s face showed he was definitely enjoying the show.
Annie and Jessie huffed their way about half a block, out of eye shot of the shop and its strange, and probably dangerous, proprietor. The two women hugged, with Jessie trotting off towards the diner where she was working the evening shift. Thanks to their surveillance, Annie knew that there was a side entrance to the apartment as well as an entrance in the shop. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought her ribs would break; and her mouth felt like she had just swallowed sand. Annie walked cautiously and quietly up the concrete steps that led to the side entrance of his apartment. As she reached towards the door, she half- expected a bony, thin fingered hand to grab her shoulder. When none appeared, she tried the door knob. Unlocked! Annie said a silent prayer of thanks. Yes, she had learned how to pick locks during her misspent youth, but it wasn’t anything she wanted to have to do.
As she let herself into the apartment, the first thing that struck Annie was how empty, almost barren, the room was. It was a one room apartment, more like a large hotel room. There was no furniture, no television, not even a hotplate or a bathroom. “This guy doesn’t eat or pee? What the hell is going on with him?” She wondered. It was almost as if he had dropped into this place; there was not a single sign of human occupation. She spied closet doors along one wall. Following a hunch, she didn’t put much stock in, Annie opened them. Instead of clothes, there was a large, wooden, very ornate dais in the middle with what looked like very old book, almost ancient. There were no page numbers, but Annie guessed that it must have thousands of pages. The book looked like it was opened right in the middle. As Annie looked closer, she noticed it was not written in English, Spanish, French or any other language she was familiar with. In fact, it looked more like symbols to her than actual words. She carefully closed the book to see if there was a title that could help her figure out just what kind of book it was and what kind of madman they were dealing with. She recognized that the title was in Latin, but did not understand what it meant. With shaky hands, Annie used her phone to take a picture of the odd looking book, writing down the title for further research. More perplexed than ever, she quietly let herself out of the apartment and headed home
Later that night when Jessie returned from her shift, the three women were huddled around an open dictionary, thesaurus and a translator app on their laptop. They wanted to make sure that what Annie had written was exactly what their investigating had revealed was true. The title of the book, once translated, was Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible. Though the book was shown throughout the internet, all the books they saw were new and none had the title in Latin or the odd symbols that Annie saw in the book. ”Well at least now we know what we’re dealing with-a devil worshipper,” Sylvia had no idea how close and yet how far she was. Annie, Jessie and Sylvia realized just how tired they were and all went to bed hoping for a good night’s sleep. However, they had anything but. Vivid, terrifying and what seemed like very real nightmares plagued them, causing them to toss and turn or wake up with a start or a stifled scream during the night.
The man in Black Floppy Hat was angry and yet amused at the same time. Angry because those bitches-the lynchpins to his plans-were snooping where they shouldn’t be. Though nothing in his apartment had been disturbed, there really wasn’t anything there to disturb, he knew the moment he entered that someone had been there. His first fear was that they had stolen his book. It was still nestled on the dais in the closet. A slight wave of his long bony hand over the book told him what he needed to know. The book at been touched and pages had been turned. The man in Black Floppy Hat was surprised that whoever it was did not singe their hands when they touched the book. If they had, he would have seen the slight pieces of skin scattered across the pages like snowflakes on a winter day.
The next morning, after what seemed like oceans of coffee Annie, Sylvia and Jessie sat at the kitchen table just as perplexed as they were when their little town started to implode. When Annie showed them the picture of the book she had taken with her phone, nothing was there –it was blank as if she had taken a picture of air. They had already deduced that who or whatever this Satanist is, a spell had been cast upon the town. After more research and soul searching, they realized why they had not been affected. They loved each other deeply and unconditionally, and with that, they always had forgiveness in their hearts “That’s it!” Annie cried. “What’s the best way to beat the darkness? With light! And in a case like this, where would we find light?” The 3 women looked at each other, their eyes growing bright with their newfound knowledge. “Why, at church of course!” They said in unison.
Father Maurice Morris was a short, round bald man with a twinkle in his eye, compassion in his heart, and a rod of steel in his soul. The children of the school lovingly nicknamed him M&M, but the good father did not mind. That had been his nickname since his childhood in foster care; hence, the rod of steel in his soul. He did not take to bullies or fools kindly.
As he sat in his office listening to the three women, he nodded appreciatively making mental notes, but did not interrupt. When they got to the part of the picture of the books coming up blank, the only sign of surprise he showed was a slight raise of his bushy eyebrows.
“I’ve noticed attendance at services has dropped substantially these last few months. Go to any public place-the grocery store, the park, even department stores or the theater and you can cut the quiet tension with a knife. Our townspeople have always been such a happy caring group. So you think this proprietor of the ice cream shop is somehow involved, that he’s cast some sort of spell over our little town?” The three women sat across from the good Father and his ornate, mahogany desk and collectively held their breath. What if Father Morris didn’t believe them? Then what would they do? They needed spiritual guidance to fight this kind of threat. Hearing it out loud from Father Morris the women realized how ludicrous it all sounded. “So why are the three of you still together? You said each of you has had some experience with this. “ “Forgiveness,” Sylvia said. Father Morris cocked a bushy eyebrow towards them. He leaned back in his overstuffed chair, steepling his fingers under his chin. If anyone else from his congregation had come to him with this kind of wild story, he would have either called the men with the white one-size-fits-all jackets or laughed them out of his office. But he knew these women, knew their histories, and knew that they were not given to flights of fancy.
Leaning forward in his chair, the priest said “Ok, this is what we are going to do….”
Monday in August
“But he’s your son Ivy,” Annie implored. She had come to talk to Ivy about forgiving her son. “You don’t think I know that? Every time I go see him I tell myself, ‘I will find it in my heart to forgive him.’ Then I see him and I think of the lawyer fees and the bail money I don’t have and the shame I feel when I go to the store or anywhere out in public.” Annie noticed how Ivy had seemed to age over the last few months since all of the troubles had begun. Annie decided to try a different tact. Leaning forward, she took Ivy’s hands in hers and looked deeply into Ivy’s green, tear filled eyes. “Do you miss him?” Annie asked. Ivy dropped her head. “Yes, very much,” She muttered. “I know he loves you and all he wants is your forgiveness. How much longer will he be held in Juvie?” With a sigh that seemed to come from the depths of her soul, Ivy said “For another four months.” “When do you see him again,” Annie asked. “Tomorrow” Ivy replied. “Ok when you see him, remember this conversation. Yes he made a huge mistake, but he’d be the first to tell you he has no idea why and if he could take it all back he would.” Annie said.
And so it went. Over the following week, methodically and with great purpose each woman went to their townspeople pressing them-gently but with great determination-to forgive their aggressor. It was slow going and even though not a single townsperson agreed to, the seeds had been planted.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. Father Morris was pacing nervously in the vestibule. He was about to give the sermon of his life. The women had done their part admirably and now it was up to him to water the proverbial seeds that they had planted. He had also spent the better part of the week putting up fliers around town inviting the townspeople to worship using the promise of donuts and coffee afterwards as an enticement. He was generally against such bribery but desperate times called for desperate measures. He was also hoping the refreshments would serve a dual purpose. After all,
who can stay angry while eating a donut?
Father Morris smiled as he looked out upon his congregation. It wasn’t near standing room only, but the turnout was definitely better than it had been in recent months. Was it the seeds of forgiveness that the women had planted or the lure of baked goods? Maybe it was both?
The good priest began his sermon by citing Matthew 6:15,”If you do not forgive your brother’s sins, God will not forgive yours.” He followed that up with John 8:7 “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Father Morris never had to raise his voice, but the meaning was clear. He could see a shuffling in his congregation and the downcast eyes of the guilty. For good measure and to drive the point home, Father Morris finished his sermon with Luke 9:62 –“to look back while working is to mar the work. No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
As Father Morris watched his congregation file out of his church he sent a quick prayer to his boss that his flock would make a right and head to the schools playground where the refreshments were instead of heading straight to their cars. As he watched, he was amazed that every single parishioner headed to the schoolyard. Sylvia, Annie and Jessie joined him at the top of the parish steps. “It looks like our seeds not only took hold, but bloomed!” Sylvia said joyfully. The four compadres looked out over the sea of laughing, talking parishioners eating donuts, and in some cases, hugging and crying. The two men who had fought in the grocery store parking lot were shaking hands. Women who had hated each other for the smallest slight were apologizing to each other. Tommy’s mom approached the group on the church steps shyly. “Hi,” she stammered. “Annie I took your advice. When I went to see Tommy last week I told him I had forgiven him and you shoulda seen his face light up like a Christmas tree! I spoke with the guy in charge there yesterday and he said he had seen a marked improvement in Tommy this past week. Thank you for making me see things more clearly. At that, Ivy, who was not known for demonstrations of public affection, reached out and hugged all four in a bear- like group hug. They watched as Ivy made her way down the steps to the schoolyard and joined the group of happy, laughing parishioners who had found it in their hearts to forgive one another.
Unfortunately, there were one, or two, dark clouds marring the otherwise perfect day. LuEllen and Richard had not attended the service. The priest and the three women were not surprised, but at the same time still saddened. Each of them, including Father Morris had tried to speak to the pair with apparently no success. Looking out on to the sea of happy, forgiving faces, the four compadres shelved their thoughts – for now.
The man in the Black Floppy Hat could literally not control himself. There was no word in the English language, or any other language to describe his rage. He ran blazing hot-like the fires of hell-to icy cold-like the deeper pits of his home. So close! He had them all ready to join him, like dominoes falling into the River Styx. He was ready to wipe this town out of existence and take all of those unforgiving souls back home with him. But no, those three bitches had to bring his father, and his father’s mouthpiece, Father Morris into this. He should have wiped out the town and taken what he could when he had the chance, but no, he got greedy. However, they will pay and pay dearly.
The following week Father Morris was thrilled to see his fellow townspeople carrying on their goodwill towards each other. Grocery stores and parks were once again filled with happy chatter. Neighbors smiled and waved at each other. Friendships were mended. Of course, not everything can change overnight. Tommy was in still in jail and Richard and LuEllen still were not speaking. Some of the marriages that had been torn apart by adultery had still not mended and had, in fact, ended in divorce. Always the optimist, however Father Morris still hoped and prayed that these people would find their way back.
That Saturday evening found Sylvia in the quiet of the church. She loved this time in the church. The church smelled of the lemon oil the cleaning ladies had used in their loving administrations to the pews earlier in the day. The lit votive candles gave off a nice, musky aroma. The ambience of the church on a Saturday evening quieted her soul. It had been a long week, but Sylvia felt that the town had turned a corner and was definitely on the mend. She was just standing up and stepping out of the pew when the front doors of the church suddenly blew open with a loud crash. Startled, Sylvia glanced up but could not believe what she was seeing. Anger roiled her as she grabbed at the cross she wore around her neck. “Get back demon!” She said to the man in the Black Floppy Hat “Oh cut out the Hollywood theatrics Sylvia,” The man in the Black Floppy Hat said. “We both know that as long as I keep this human form, I can walk into this church, onto any hallowed ground really and the only thing that cross is going to do is sting,” The man in Black Floppy Hat smiled a crooked smile, showing his crooked teeth. For one wild moment, Sylvia swore her adversary’s eyes changed from light, icy blue to flame orange/red. “You and those other two bitches ruined my plans,” the man in the Black Floppy Hat snarled. “I am going to destroy you, but don’t worry you’ll see them soon enough. I have something special planned for them,” the man in Black Floppy Hat said in a syrupy sweet sing song growl. “I just want to know one thing, Sylvia. Why were the three of you the only ones in this whole town who did not turn on each other? I threw my best stuff at you and you all kept coming back. What gives?” Sylvia said with a slow smile, “It’s called forgiveness. Even before we figured out what was going on, we forgave each other, of our own free will. That gave us the power over you.” The devil gave a shudder when hearing the words “Own free will.” Those three words have been the bane of his existence before time began. The Man in the Black Floppy Hat waved his arms and Sylvia found herself airborne. She felt her skull crack as she crashed into Jesus’s head that had been carved into the crucifix that hung over the altar. Sylvia saw stars dance before her eyes. She watched as the man in the Black Floppy Hat waved his hands again and Sylvia screamed in pain as a nail shot through the center of her hand, pinning him to the cross. Then, in a flash, the other hand was pinned likewise. Sylvia’s brain could not register the pain. The man in the Black Floppy Hat having grown tired of her screams, made a cutting motion with his right index finger and Sylvia watched in horror as her tongue fell to the floor below him. Her screams became a garbled noise. “That’s better. I do hate screaming. You wouldn’t think that now would you, considering what I do for a living,” the Devil said mockingly. With a snap of his fingers, Sylvia’s feet involuntarily were placed on top of each other and a nail was driven through them. At this point, Sylvia had passed out from the pain. “Tsk, tsk, Sylvia, I’m not finished yet,” said the Devil. With his long crooked fingernail, the devil made a downward motion slicing Sylvia in half from her throat to her pelvis The devil took his hands and made a motion like he was opening backstage curtains and pulled Annie’s beloved grandmother open. “Now for the piece de resistance,” the devil said. He pointed his hands at the bottom of the cross, made a circular motion. And the entire cross, including Sylvia, became a pyre. He did not set the entire church on fire, but thought this was poetic justice.
The papers could not do the horror justice. Never in the history of this small town had anyone experienced anything like this. Not the police, firefighters, paramedics; not even the forensic specialists. The whole town mourned in unison and asked the same question, “Who would do this?” Only three people in the whole town knew the answer. “Whatever he is, the owner of the ice cream shop can’t be human,” Annie said. Annie, Jessie and Father Morris knew they had to rally their fellow townspeople, knew that they had to fight back collectively or they would all be lost. They knew the stakes were high, but they had no idea how high.
On a muggy moonless night a few evenings later, the church basement was packed with townspeople; it was standing room only. The invitations was sent by word of mouth and kept in secret since Annie, Jessie and Father Morris realized they weren’t sure who-or what-they were dealing with. They did not want the man in the Black Floppy Hat to even suspect their intentions. The church basement was, to them, the safest most secure place to meet and discuss what would come next.
Annie looked out at the crowd and smiled. She knew not everyone had come, but that was ok. Enough had come so the plan could be spread by word of mouth. She was especially happy to see LuEllen and Richard there. Yes, they were standing on opposite sides of the room, but they were at least in the same room. The town listened with rapt attention to Annie’s story of the book, of what she had told Father Morris, and that had led herself, Jessie and Sylvia to implore each of them to forgive each other. She ended with the assumption that she, Jesse and Father Morris held that the Devil, or whatever he was, had killed Sylvia and why. Much to Annie’s relief, she saw nods of understanding and the townspeople began piecing together the events of the last few months. She felt that her speech had helped clarify to the group gathered the odd happenings in their little town.
Father Morris stood up to speak. “We have been torn apart by the ugliness that has infected us. But, thanks to Annie, Jesse and Sylvia, God rest her soul- we were shown how far love and forgiveness can take us.” A man in the back stood up and exclaimed, “If those three ladies hadn’t gone to each of us and made us see the error of our ways, none of us would be here right now,” The man sat down to loud applause. Annie smiled her appreciation. “Be that as it may,” she said “Now we have the job, no, the responsibility rid ourselves of this vile creature once and for all. And how do we do that”? She asked. “With love and forgiveness,” The town replied in unison.
Richard looked up just as the bell over his door tinkled. He pasted his best smile on when he saw it was the man in Black Floppy Hat. As he neared the counter, Richard began picking up bags of grain. As expected, the man in the Black Floppy Hat proffered his hand for a shake, but Richards arms were holding bags of seed so he was not able to shake his hand; so far, so good. The man in the Black Floppy Hat lowered his arm as Richard set down his bags of seed. “Hey, good to see you,” Richard said. “The town is having a community potluck in the town square Saturday night. We’d sure like it if you could come. I know business has been slow lately and I thought it would cheer you up,” the man in the Black Floppy Hat was taken aback. Yes, business had been slow lately and yes he had been feeling down, but not for the reasons this numskull and his stupid townspeople thought. Still, with all those townspeople in one place and since Plan A had not gone so well, this would be the perfect opportunity to implement a new plan. Oh, yes, his father would rain heavens of fury down on him for what he was about to do, but as the humans say, desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, when had he ever listened to his father? Not in any recent millennium that he could think have remembered. With another crooked smile, the man in Black Floppy Hat said, “why of course I would love to come.”
Saturday evening was balmy with a slight breeze; thunderheads were beginning to form. The man in the Black Floppy Hat was happy to see all the townspeople gathered in one location. Their happy chirpy voices and laughter grated on his last nerve, but soon he knew that the laughter would be replaced with eternal screams. Tents were set up along the square selling everything from food to crafts to games of chance. The man in the Black Floppy Hat was happy to see Richard approach him, though in one hand he held a hot dog and the other hand held a soda. No handshaking this evening, the Devil thought. “Beautiful evening wouldn’t you say?” Richard asked. “Yes it really is. I am glad I came,” said the man in the Black Floppy Hat with a smirk on his face that Richard either did not see or did not acknowledge. Richard began pointing out of some of the tents around the square, but realized that the man in the Black Floppy Hat needed to stay right where he was – smack in the middle of the square. As Richard made small talk, about the weather and the store, he kept one eye on his neighbors. Slowly, they were leaving their activities and forming a circle around them. It took several minutes, but soon the townspeople had encircled the duo. “Nice chatting with you,” Richard said as he took his place in the circle. It was at that point the man in Black Floppy Hat noticed the people in the front row on the circle, maybe 15-20 directly facing him. As the Devil looked farther on, he saw the circle was several hundred deep; the whole town had shown up. The people near the front pulled out small water bottles filled with salt and emptied them, making a circular line of salt. Then all the people pulled out the crosses they had kept hidden in their shirts and blouses, even the children. The Devil was momentary blinded by this. His rage was a molten hot ball of lava that shook his very core. His tall, bony frame began to shake with his rage. The townspeople clasped hands and began singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ “You think this will stop me?” The Devil roared. He had now grown taller towering over the townspeople. His icy blue eyes had morphed in flames of anger that seemed to burst from his eye sockets. If the townspeople were afraid, as probably most were, they were careful not to show it. “You think some salt and singing a silly song is going to stop me? Do you know who I am,?” The Devil threw his head back and roared this so ferociously the resulting wind seemed to almost blow the gathered townspeople backwards. “If that was true, I would’ve been destroyed a millennia ago,” The devil roared with laughter at this. The thunderheads had turned to a mutinous black. Though not a drop of rain fell, the skies seemed to shake with the Devils rage and its own thunder. Lightning crackled across the sky. The townspeople fought the urge to cower. They had been instructed that no matter what happened, they were not to show any fear. None at all.
When the Devil tried to take a step towards the gathered group, a bolt of pain that felt like 10,000 volts of electricity traveled from one bony foot up his leg, exploding through his entire body. It was unlike anything he had ever felt in his entire millennia of existence. He was momentarily stunned. “No, we don’t think this will stop you,” said a voice from the crowd. It was Father Morris. Even while he was giving comfort to Jesse and Annie in the days following Sylvia’s death, he had battled his own rage by his friend’s gruesome death.
He walked towards the front of the group, holding his bible in front of him like a sword. “But this will surely help,” Father Morris began to recite the exorcism incantation in Latin. The devil howled with laughter. For one brief, horrifying moment, the townspeople could not tell the thunder from the devils laughter. The two sounds were chillingly alike. “Really?” The Devil laughed. “That’s all you’ve got?” Despite his bravado, the Devil felt himself weakening. He had returned to his human size, eye to eye with the townspeople once more. “No, but destroying this might speed things up,” Annie said as she joined the front of the circle. In one hand she held the Devil’s bible, and in the other a lighter. For the first time, in a long time, the Devil felt fear. He knew he was growing weaker, but fought with any remaining strength he had. “No….” he stammered. “I only have one question,” Annie asked staring into those hideously round orbs of ice. “Why us”? The Devil answered, “I have destroyed entire civilizations by using the seven deadly sins. Humans, I have found for the most part, are not a forgiving species even though my father wrote it ad nauseam in his book,” the devil said with a nod towards Father Morris. “I have tried for centuries to destroy this town. The love and forgiveness you people have and your ancestors before you is sickening. You have been on my bucket list for a long, long time. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” the Devil gasped out as he made a lunge towards Annie and the Devils bible she held. Taking a step back and out of the Devils reach, Annie touched the flame to it, and the people in the front row of the circle threw the contents of the other small bottles they had been carrying- bottles filled with holy water blessed by Father Morris. The townspeople were taking no chances this time around. The Devils screams mingled into the night air along with the lightning and the last of the exorcism incantation. Then, in a burst of blue flame that made him look briefly like a fiery scarecrow, he was gone. Only a scorched spot on the ground where he had been standing remained.
Tommy was rel
eased from jail and at the urging of the car’s owner, his record was expunged. His mother welcomed him home with open arms and a loving heart.
Couples who had separated over adultery were finding their way back to each other.
Jessie returned home one evening from her shift to find Clayton sitting on her stoop. Considering what he had done, her first inclination had been to call the police. She invited him in. She had thought about this moment for a long time and had made a decision on the outcome. “I forgive you Clayton, I know what you did wasn’t really you. And there will always be a part of me that loves you. But I have found that being alone isn’t such a bad thing. And even though I’ve forgiven you, I cannot forget what you did. I don’t think we should pursue this any further.” It nearly broke Jessie’s heart to say the little speech, but she knew, in her heart of hearts and deep within her soul, that she had done the right thing.
Jesse and Annie were loading the last of Annie’s belongings into her car. Annie was still saddened about her grandmother’s death the whole summer seemed like a bad dream. Annie had considered giving up her internship. Jessie told her, in no uncertain terms, that was not going to happen. “You will get through this, Annie,” Jesise had said. “After all, what is tougher than fighting the Devil and winning”?
As the two girls closed the trunk of Annie’s car, Jesse said with tears in her eyes, “Call me when you get settled.” She wrapped her arms around her best friend in a bear hug. “I will. Take care of yourself, ok? And call me if you need anything,” Annie added. “Like, if some mysterious man who wears a Black Floppy Hat suddenly opens an ice cream shop?” Jesse said with a twinkle in her eye.
On a bright and cloudless Saturday afternoon, LuEllen was tending to her flowerbeds. With all that had happened over the summer, the weeds had taken over her otherwise beautiful garden. “Not anymore,” LuEllen had said, spade in hand. “Party time is over.” As she was yanking the last of the weeds out of the ground, she heard a crunching coming up her gravel and paver walkway. She didn’t get many visitors these days, and for one chilling moment she thought it was the proprietor of the ice cream shop. As she turned around and looked up, the sun was blocking her visitors face. She could make out the silhouette of Richard though. In his hands he was carrying a package wrapped in butcher paper. “Lou,” Richards’ voice cracked as he struggled for composure. He had worried from the moment he woke up until this moment. Would she accept him? Would she really, in her heart of hearts forgive him? And if she did, was their relationship irreparably damaged? Only LuEllen could answer these questions.
“Richard?” LuEllen cried jumping up and throwing her arms around his neck, nearly knocking the package out of his hands. They were both said “I’m sorry” at the same time, crying and hugging. Any reservations Richard may have had were gone in an instant. “I brought a pork roast over. I thought we could have it for dinner tomorrow after church. You know, maybe put a new spin on an old tradition,” Richard said. LuEllen ’s smile said it all.
SUZANNE S. EATON - POEMS
Bob Daynes, Oceanside, CA, President, CPI Sales, a wholesale merchant servicing retail stores, married 57 years, father of 7 boys and 1 daughter, grandfather of 36, a devoted sports fan, he has been involved in coaching several sports as all eight children were multi-sport athletes. Writer of sales and marketing materials and newsletters.
Pre-Game Pat-a-cake Pep-talk
First off…You gotta know that Pat-a-cake teaches coordination, reflex, action, speed and endurance. You gotta get this down!
Like most great sports this game has three parts: For instance: Baseball… has three bases, three outs, three strikes, etc., Basketball, the 3 point shot, Football, 3 downs to keep playing, three points for a field goal, etc. Three is the big number. So understand these three moves:
FIRST: The Pat-a-cake…Learn to clap those hands together as loud as you can….You can always clap harder than you think you can!
“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake bakers man. Bake me a cake as fast as you can!”
SECOND: Roll- it- and- poll- it is done next with arms at perfect right angles, rolled clean and quick!
“Roll- it- and- poll- it and mark it with T”
Nobody rolls- and- polls better than kids in this family! You got this!
THIRD: Now this part is extremely important where you toss it way up…If you can’t get this down you will never toss a three pointer way up, or make that throw from right field to third, or throw that long bomb into the end-zone. Okay now..hit it with:
“Toss it way up for baby and me!”
Now look, kid…I taught this to your dad and all your uncles and even your aunt and they all turned out to be great athletes. It had to be a result of this early training. And you gotta know that other kids are doing this just like you all over the place. You might think they are better than you but know that their mothers put their diapers on the same way your’s does…one snap at a time!
So let’s get out there and do this! You can do it kid!
“PAT-A-CAKE, PAT-A-CAKE, BAKER’S MAN. BAKE ME A CAKE AS FAST AS YOU CAN!
ROLL- IT-- AND POLL- IT AND MARK IT WITH “ T”
AND TOSS IT WAY UP FOR BABY AND ME!” YEAHHHH!!!!!
- Oh, by the way, Kid. When mama puts you to bed, try to see yourself tossing it way up until you fall asleep.
COLLEEN J. PALLAMARY
DR. DOUGLAS YOUNG
EDWARD L. CANAVAN
JOHN ROSS ARCHER
KEVIN R. FARRELL
LOIS GREENE STONE
SUZANNE S. EATON
WILLIAM OGDEN HAYNES