Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Where I Will Not Go
I hadn’t seen Roger Pines for more than twenty years when I was called to his death bed. We had been in the Vietnam War together and had come from the same small town atop one of the mountains of the Southern Appalachians. Roger became a hero during the war when he received the Silver Star for carrying the body of his platoon commander through heavy fire to safety. That allowed him to return home with a top job waiting in the mining industry. As for me, after the war, I let the government send me through the University then moved up North to work in the Boston area. Roger and I lost touch after that. Then, out of the blue, I received a call from his brother telling me that Roger was dying of cancer and wanted to see me before passing on.
I am called back by the creak of the old timbers as I enter the room where we used to happily plan our trout fishing trips. But, adjusting to the new light and its atmosphere, my fond memories are short lived. Bathed by the rays of sunlight filtering through the window curtains, Roger lies before me feebly toying with a tiny box atop his chest. Dust motes, like little parts of his spirit anxious to be on their way, hover in the rays of sunlight that cover him. And his vivid blue eyes, set in an ashen face, startle me as he turns to.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t make it,” he says. “Thank you for coming, Ed.”
Pulling over an old cane backed chair, I sit by my friend and do the best I can to not show how nervous I am.
“I am honored that you thought of me, Roger. We go back a ways, don’t we?”
Roger’s eyes seem to inherit an even brighter burst of blue as he gazes to the sunlight and slides the tiny box towards me.
“I wish we could roll a fly over Glade Creek one more time,” he says. “That was really something else. But there is no time now. I need you to do something for me, Ed.”
“Sure, Roger, if I can.”
Tapping the box with his finger, Roger lets me know that it might not be easy.
“Oh, you can, Ed. You may not want to but you can. Take this medal and place it on the grave of Lieutenant William Stevens. He is at Arlington. The grave address is noted inside the box. They’ll show you where.”
William Stevens was the platoon commander that Roger carried out of the bush in Vietnam.
“Ok buddy,” I say. “Consider it done.”
A shadow seems to cross Roger’s face as just outside the window a bird calls.
“I killed him, Ed.”
Thinking how hard it must be to die and what it must do to one’s mind, I try to put some meaning to his words.
“You did your best, Roger. It wasn’t your fault.”
Looking to the window as if his next words are written there, Roger continues.
“You don’t get it, Ed. You know what a glory hound he was. Half of our platoon was gone from his pushes. The three of us left in my squad drew straws. I got the short one and shot him during that last firefight.”
Stunned at first, I come to think about the limp that I carry and how it got to be. The waste of it all. There had been angry comments about our casualties. And though not unheard of, I never dreamed that anything would ever come of them.
Lifting the Silver Star box with a trembling hand, Roger holds it toward me and locks me with one of the hardest looks that I have ever seen. It is then that I realize Death has blue eyes.
“Go on, take it,” he says. “Stevens was a big fan of the Silver Star, always talking about how he would like to have one. Give it to him, Ed.”
Feeling numb to the core and knowing no words for such a situation I accept the Silver Star and slip it in my jacket pocket.
Silently watching me take this load, Roger loses the fire in his eyes as a look of exhaustion fills them. Turning away, he lifts his hand, palm up. Taking it, I watch a small smile cross his face as he releases me with words that seem to float from a Netherworld.
“Thank you, Ed. Now you know. The rest is between me and my maker.”
So many markers. Standing here at Lt. William Stevens’ spot, like an odd being among those no more, I remember the words of a Persian poet: “....among the guests star scattered on the grass.” Only the poet’s drift was one of cheer. This place brings me down, too far askew. A milky way of dead. Of mostly young. In my face, all these dead…….trying to change what was someplace. Or was in someone else’s mind. My leg hurts as I remember Roger’s words, “....you may not want to but you can.” Pulling the medal and the little ribbon attached to it from its box, I remember my own purple heart medal and how, when the alcohol wouldn’t kill the pain, I threw it into the Charles River. That pain is not as bad now but there is another kind of pain that pulls at me…...standing here among these dead. I can not carry the genre of this trinket to the dead. I have no will to do it. Nada!
Getting back to my rental car, I leave the cemetery and pull over along the Potomac River thinking that I am done with this sad happening. Returning the Silver Star and its ribbon to their little white box, I give them a fling and watch the frothy grey current take them down with the rest.
Daniel Ferrandi is 19-year-old college student from Long Island, NY. He enjoyed stories and became fascinated with how they were told after he spontaneously wrote a poem at the age of nine. Daniel has enjoyed entertainment in many mediums from a very young age, and that love has stuck with him and drove him to begin his writing journey. He is currently attending University as a Creative Writing for Entertainment major and working as a cashier for a supermarket chain.
Big Rig Robbery
Sweat dripped down my brow as I punched someone out of my way. Slamming through the revolving doors, I made a beeline for the truck. The skyscrapers are watching over the bustling streets and blocking the harsh sunlight. The horn of the rig drowned out the rampant chatter of civilians going about their day, forcing traffic to honk and swerve as the truck abandoned its parking spot. We slowly gained momentum towards the outskirts of the city. The bay was on our left. Seagulls made their shrill calls overhead.
Adrenaline was exiting my system, and I remembered I could put the duffel bag I was clutching so tightly down as well as the one around my shoulder. Driver finally said something for the first time as we crossed a red suspension bridge. “How much did ya nab? No sign of cops either, you’re a pro.”
“’Course I am. Been in the business for years.” I assured him after taking off my facemask. Unzipping my exterminator’s suit, I sighed in relief. How do people wear those when it’s sweltering outside? It’s the dead of summer and they work in that.
We got free of the worst urban invention -traffic- and heard sirens for the first time. “Make a right, gotta avoid the blue.” Nodding in compliance, the driver’s gloved hands turned the wheel and the tires screeched. There is less cover in this area; the buildings are dwarves.
“Wanna take that gun off your back? Must be uncomfortable sitting like that.” This amateur was considerate. However, the torn, rubbery leather covering the hardwood of the seats was just as pleasant as the steel, aluminum, and plastic of my assault rifle.
“Nah, I’m good. We’re good.” With a celebratory high-five, we continued onto the interstate. “Amazing that by the gulf you go from the water to a desert in only a couple of minutes. But, no matter where you go, the heat is too much.” I looked at the winds picking up sand, whirling past cacti and a red Audi getting ahead of us. Beautiful car, but its radiance doesn’t have the same effect on me while being in something much larger than it. If you looked at a vermillion butterfly, its wings luminescent in the moonlight, it still wouldn’t compare to a peacock flashing its tail feathers.
“This heat is too much? You a northerner or somethin’? The only heat we should be worried about is still looking for us in the industrial area.”
“For the sake of you and me both, I hope that’s true. If it is, this was one clean heist.” I sat forward, noticing the driver approaching an exit. “This wasn’t the route we agreed upon.”
“I know, there’s been a change of plan. I have this police radio on me. There’s a roadblock up ahead, so we’re changing the drop off point. Here, have a listen.”
“No need, I trust you. Let’s just get out of here.” I shuffled around in my seat, prying my jeans loose. The humidity was making me stick to the damn thing.
“You alright, bud? You seem a bit on edge now. Don’t worry about it. We’re almost there.” A tunnel through a mountain was staring us down. Surprisingly short, daylight assaulted my pupils, and a siren penetrated my ears. Ahead of us, the police cruiser blocked the one-way road. “Punch it!”
Instead of complying, John stepped on the brake. His wool glove tapped my shoulder. “Hide the gun under the dash quick, and get out with me.”
Fear was welling up inside me, but I opened the door and climbed down. Approaching the officer with a nonchalant gait, I was opening my mouth to ask about the blockade obliviously, when my partner tackled me to the asphalt. My head slammed against the hard and blazingly hot surface. My hair became soaked, and my vision blurry.
“What the HELL!?” It probably came out jumbled with my injury, but I couldn’t tell. “This ‘officer’ is my partner.” He turned to the policeman. “They’re all so gullible, even the old ones.” They shared a laugh, and more sirens closed in. John’s partner knocked him to the ground and pointed his standard issue pistol at him. Officers exited cruisers and surrounded us.
“Wait, wait WAIT!” John desperately shouted. I already gave up.
“Got the robbers! Help me get them in cuffs!” The other officers came over and I felt the cold steel around my wrists. Both of us were played.
Sarah Monk is an aspiring author who enjoys to read, write, and draw. She is currently at a university to help improve her skills. While some of her short fiction is in the works of being published, she hopes to move up in the ranks from flash fiction writer to novelist. She also has an odd fascination of owning a pet hedgehog.
Nicole hated this road; the infamous Clinton Road. Known for its phantom headlights and the infamous Old Boy Bridge. She did not like the idea of coming down here, especially at night. However, certain circumstances made it so.
Her tired legs were telling her to go and sit on a bench, but sadly there was nothing nearby. The only relief would be a tree, but getting too close to the woods was something she did not enjoy. Nicole looked up and down the road, seeing nothing but an abysmal black hole. A chill ran through the black road and up to Nicole’s nostrils. A sweet scent of bark and evergreen over took her brain. Sadly, it did not neutralize the fear and anxiety that was flowing through her.
However, despite all the negativity about this road, she loved it during the day, especially during the autumn months. That love for colorful trees looming overhead, creating a makeshift ceiling. The trees made the road seem like it was part of a fantasy world. She always expected to see a fairy or a gnome pop out of the forest. But, once around dusk, she leaves never to return until day broke, fearing that the monstrous creatures of the night would replace the fairies and gnomes. However, that promise she made long ago was broken because of a miss scheduling.
Nicole looked desperately for any oncoming headlights, but her heart raced faster at the thought of a stranger picking her up. This road was known for phantom drivers. Even with alive drivers, thoughts crossed her mind like; What if they kidnap you and torture you? or Will anyone miss you if you are gone? Probably not!
After an hour of horrible thoughts and nervous twitching, a pair of headlights emerged from the unfathomable depth. As if she lived in New York City, she shook her vigorously, hoping the driver (if there was one) would come to a halt.
Time stopped for Nicole; she could feel every thump of her. Every droplet of sweat popping out of pores and running down her off cream skin.
Or am I crying? The thought came to her as fast as the headlights appeared. Social situations were her Achilles heel, and the upcoming vehicle with the dead or alive driver did not make anything better. Nor did the thoughts running through her head.
Backing out from the edge of the street, she saw an old pickup truck stop in front of her. It was something that did not come out during the turn of the century. The truck looked like an old Ford. However, her expertise did not even commit to the idea. The truck could have been any model, and she would still think it to be a Ford.
You’re rather stupid, aren’t ya?
Shaking the negative thought out, she walked up to the old Ford or Chrysler to find that the truck was riddled with dents, scratches, and peeling paint. The windshield was cracked down the middle. A faint aroma of gasoline and earth enveloped the truck. Along with the dents and scratch marks, earth covered the vehicle.
“Are coming in or not, miss?” croaked a baritone voice.
Nicole bent down to see an older gentleman in the driver’s seat. The creases on his face and hands show that he been through a lot. His hair was fading, but it still had remnants of its former color. The clothing he wore was just as worn as his face and hands, but it still holds its color just like the bearer’s hair.
Go on get in! I bet he will rape ya and kill ya!
She stood there for a moment, trying desperately to calm herself, but the old man asked again. This time she slowly shook her head.
Nicole nestled herself next to the passenger door. It has been awhile since she saw a bench seat. They were very common in these older vehicles. Seatbelts, on the other hand, was not. The anxiety started to grow, but that same baritone voice interrupted the inability to breathe.
“Where to, miss?” the older gentleman asked with the same vacant expression.
She hesitated, wondering whether or not the thought was going to be right. There was no one to greet her when she got home, but that did mean she was not going to be missed. Right?
“2330, Union Valley Road. Please,” Nicole finally said in a near whisper.
The older gentleman gave a simple nod, without moving his eyes from her face. They drove along in silence. Nothing was spoken for nearly half an hour. Nicole stared out the dirty window, wondering if she would see a specter. Her mind started to change from one subject to another. She wanted to break the silence but did not know how.
Ask him how much fuuuun he is going to have with you?
She jumped up at the sound of his voice.
“Where’re here, miss,” he stated, with his vacant expression
Nicole nearly jumped out of the vehicle, but something nagged at her as she approached the steps to her door.
If you ask, he may take you home with him. That will be fun, riiiiight?
“Shut it!” she whispered.
“Excuse me,” she said to the older gentleman. “What type of vehicle is this?”
She was expecting the older gentleman to give her an eyeing look, but he just simply said, “F-100” and drove off.
Awwwww, toooooo baaaaaad.
Why do you have to laugh like that? she thought.
When she went inside, she saw a newspaper on her coffee table. On the front was that same olive green F-100. It did not connect to her, but an older gentleman had died earlier that day. He died on Clinton Road.
Tom Ray devotes his time to writing adult, contemporary fiction, dealing with Washington, the military, suburban life, East Tennessee, and growing old. His fiction has been published in New Pop Lit, Penny Shorts, Writing Raw, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, and Literary Yard. He is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee. After two years of active duty in the U. S. Army, including a tour in Vietnam, he entered U. S. government service as a civilian. He retired after working thirty-five years in the Washington, D.C., area, and currently lives in Knoxville.
THE PROBLEM CHILD
Ryan Blanchard was sitting at the crowded bar checking email when he looked up from his phone to see a young woman approaching him. He wished that she was the one meeting him for a drink, rather than Kimberly Flanigan. Continuing to look at email, he sensed someone standing next to him. Looking up again, he saw the young woman, who smiled and said, "Hey."
It was Kimberly. She'd undone the French roll and let her hair down, which he now saw was more than shoulder length. She'd shed the jacket of her suit, and unbuttoned one more button of her blouse. There was more color to her lips, and more makeup on her eyes. The biggest change was the smile, with sweet lips opened to display straight, white teeth, making her face beautiful rather than pretty.
"I didn't recognize you. Here, have a seat." He stood up to free up the barstool.
"Thanks. Sorry to keep you waiting. I wanted to dress down a little. The business look is a drag after hours." He could tell she enjoyed his amazement at her transformation.
After drinks they moved to the adjoining restaurant. They talked all through dinner. His accounting firm and her law firm had been hired to resolve the tax problems of a family-held corporation. Throughout the weeks they had worked together she had been aloof, an austerely dressed professional who never smiled or showed any personal interest in him. As they had wrapped up their work that day she had surprised him by suggesting they get together for drinks that evening. Now she was a completely different person, funny and pleasant, joking about the eccentric family that owned the client company, and talking about experiences in her professional life.
They were still at the table after dessert and coffee while the wait staff was cleaning up for the night. Ryan said, "I was going to the gym tonight."
"I was, too," she said. "This was more fun than a workout, though."
"Yes it was, Kimberly. You want to go to the Belcourt on Friday to see that French film?"
"Call me Kim. Yeah, I'd love to go."
They agreed on politics, TV shows, sports, books, music, restaurants, everything. She became his regular date to business-related social functions, where she came across as serious but cordial. In a purely social setting, his friends liked her, especially for her irreverent wit, and her friends were a fun group who accepted him. After a few weeks he couldn't imagine being without her.
They were together for a couple of years before they got engaged, and had spent every holiday with his family in Nashville. He'd suggested they might enjoy a Thanksgiving or Christmas in Knoxville with her family, but she always assured him she'd rather spend holidays with his family.
It had bothered him how Kim hadn't shown any interest in introducing him to her family. Her excuses varied, beginning with her father being tied up with some business issues, to her mother not feeling well, to finally saying there was nothing to do in Knoxville.
He began to think that Kim might be ashamed of him. When they were together in public he was sure people were thinking, "What's a beautiful girl like her doing with a nerd like that?" He worked hard at maintaining a good physique, but his nose was too big, his teeth were too prominent, his hair was thinning, and he still wore glasses because he couldn't stand the thought of having to insert contact lenses.
He was on the verge of asking Kim if she were ashamed of him when she finally gave in. They visited her parents one weekend to attend a concert in Knoxville. Kim's father, Dennis, and her mother, Joyce, kept up a continual stream of loud, jovial conversation throughout the visit. They were welcoming toward Ryan, and seemed to be proud that their daughter had a relationship with him. Ryan enjoyed the weekend, staying in the Flanigans' large house in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood. They ate all their meals at home, and Joyce was an excellent cook.
But Ryan was disappointed that he didn't meet any of Kim's friends in Knoxville, or her sister Christina. When he asked about Christina and her family, Joyce said, "You know how big sisters are. She and Eric got tied up this weekend." He knew Christina was four years older than Kim, but he didn't see what "big sister" had to do with it, particularly for women in their thirties. Meeting the Flanigans, at least, eased some of Ryan's concern about Kim being ashamed of him.
He finally met Christina at the wedding in Nashville. She was attractive, although not as pretty as Kim, with dark hair cut short. She was a little heavier than Kim, but not fat really. Her eyes had a softness that contrasted with Kim's piercing gaze.
Ryan managed to talk briefly with Christina and Eric Hardin, her husband, during the rehearsal dinner. When Ryan danced with Christina during the reception she said, "We're so glad to have you in the family, Ryan."
"Thanks, Christina. I'm lucky to be a part of your family."
She squeezed his hand and said, "No, we're the lucky ones, Kim and all of the family." She spoke with a warmth he'd never heard from Kim.
"I look forward to meeting your daughter. Maybe the next time we come to Knoxville." As he said this, her face seemed to tighten for a second.
"I hope so." Her radiant smile returned. "Nicole insisted on staying home to study for midterms, otherwise she'd be here. I'm glad she takes school so seriously."
Eric, Christina’s husband, hadn't talked much after initial introductions at the wedding rehearsal. He was handsome, although beginning to put on weight like Christina. His dark hair worn in a brush cut was just beginning to gray. Ryan had exchanged a few words with him about their respective business activities, but at the reception Eric had kept to himself.
In the months after the wedding, Kim's parents visited the newly weds in Nashville a couple of times. They went to dinner and shows with Ryan and Kim, and with Ryan's parents. Kim seemed to enjoy this, but when he suggested that they repay those visits back in Knoxville she, again, had resisted. He now accepted this as a quirk of Kim's, but kept pushing until she finally agreed to go back to her home for another visit.
He had just settled down on the sofa in the Flanigans' living room to watch a history lecture on C-SPAN when he was startled by a female saying, "Hello, Ryan Blanchard." He hadn't heard anyone come into the room, and didn't recognize the voice. In the doorway leading to the foyer he saw a teen-aged girl in skinny jeans and a tank top. She had striking brown eyes and a trim figure. She was pretty, although he didn't care for her spiked hair, dyed blue, and for the piercings in her ears, eyebrows and nose, decorated with rings and beads.
"Hi. I didn't hear you come in." He stood and took a couple of steps toward her.
"Yeah, I like to sneak up on people. Do you know who I am?" Her voice was initially laconic, but her question had a mildly accusatory tone.
"I don't think I do." He was embarrassed, sensing that he should have known her. "Have we met?"
"No. They wouldn't let me come to your wedding. I'm your niece."
"Oh, yes. Nickie, is that right?" Her statement bothered him. Christina had said her daughter didn't want to come to the wedding.
"No. It's Nicole." She showed a flash of anger.
"Sorry. I was just guessing you'd go by Nickie."
"Why would I? Nicole has the same number of syllables as Nickie, and Nicole is prettier. Why go by Nickie?" He felt foolish. He now remembered that Christina had referred to her daughter as "Nicole." It was just that looking at the teenager now, the name seemed too grown-up for her.
"I can see your point," he said. He did see her point, but her argumentative tone irritated him. "I'm sorry you couldn't make our wedding."
"Me too. Where's Kim?"
"She had to go to the store to buy some makeup she forgot to pack."
"Where are Grandma and Grandpa?"
"Upstairs getting dressed. We're going to the game."
"Good for you. Have you ever been to a UT game?"
"I went to Vanderbilt, and I saw the Volunteers play in Nashville once. Never been to a Neyland Stadium game, though. I hear it's quite a spectacle."
"I guess. I've never been to one either."
She walked past him and took his seat, stretching her legs out on the sofa. He moved to an easy chair facing the sofa. He tried to think of something to talk about. If she was so offended by something like him calling her "Nickie," a civil conversation with her might be difficult.
She solved the problem by asking, "So you're a CPA, huh?"
"Yes, I am. Do I remember right, you're a junior in high school?"
"Yeah, you remember right."
"Nicole! I didn't know you were here." Dennis had been coming down the stairs, and hurried when he saw his granddaughter. He stopped and stood at the living room door.
"Do your folks know you're here?" He came on into the room, sounding and looking worried.
"They know I've gone out." Nicole sounded at ease. "I didn't know you were going to the game, since you didn't invite me."
Dennis sat down. "I didn't know you liked going to football games. The last time I invited you, you said they suck."
"Since my aunt and uncle are in town, it would've been nice of you to ask me." She smiled at Ryan, who shifted in his seat. "When are you all going back, Ryan?"
"Tomorrow morning. We're going to brunch, then taking off."
"Maybe I can go to brunch with you. Where are you taking them, Grandpa, the Copper Cellar?"
Dennis was slow to answer, but finally said, "Yeah," in a flat voice.
"Usual time, nine o'clock?" She turned to Ryan. "Whenever they do Sunday brunch they always go at nine."
When Dennis didn't answer her she said, "OK, I'll see you all tomorrow at nine."
C-SPAN had finished the history lecture and was starting another one. Ryan couldn't think of any thing more to say, and apparently Nicole and Dennis couldn't either. He was relieved to finally hear the door between the garage and kitchen open and close, followed by the sound of Kim's steps. She walked into the living room carrying a bag from Walgreen's. She stopped as soon as she entered the room, looking at Nicole. Ryan said, "Hi, baby."
Kim ignored him and said, "Hello, Nicole."
"Hi, Kim. They didn't tell me you were in town. If I'd known you were going to the game I would've asked Grandpa to get me a ticket to go with you."
Kim just kept staring at the girl, finally saying, "I have to go upstairs and finish getting ready. I won't be long."
Ryan resumed his seat, and began pretending to listen to the lecture on TV.
"Don't you love Grandpa's big orange shirt, Ryan? You should get one."
"I should. I have an orange baseball cap for today. Maybe I'll get an orange shirt the next time I come."
"God, I was being sarcastic. Please tell me you won't buy any of those ridiculous orange clothes. At least Grandpa went with white trousers. I swear to God, some of these bozos wear orange and white checkered pants."
"It doesn't hurt to support the team." Ryan smiled as he said it, trying to hide his discomfort. Dennis kept silently eying Nicole.
"Why are we watching this crap?" Nicole picked up the remote and clicked on the cable guide.
"I was watching a history lecture that was on earlier."
She scrolled through the guide quickly, and selected a slasher movie. "Have you seen this one? It's pretty good."
"I don't think I have. It must be pretty good if you want to watch it again."
"There's nothing else on."
They sat in silence until Kim came down a few minutes later in khaki shorts and a white blouse. Her only token in honor of the team was an orange band holding her long hair in a ponytail. She sat on the arm of Ryan's chair without saying anything.
Joyce came down a couple of minutes later. "All right, let's load up the car." She stopped short when she saw Nicole. Ryan saw the same concerned look on her face that he'd seen on Dennis's and Kim's.
"Hi, Grandma. I was just leaving." She went up to Joyce and kissed her, then went to Dennis and kissed him. As she went out through the front door she said, "See you guys tomorrow."
After she'd gone Kim said, "What'd she mean about tomorrow?"
"Uh, she's coming to brunch." Dennis sounded ashamed.
Everyone became quiet until Joyce suddenly said, "Come on, boys, don't stand here all day. We're going to have a hard time finding a parking place."
"All right, Mom. Give me a hand, Ryan." Dennis led him into the kitchen, where the cooler and bags of food were arrayed on the table
The family loosened up during the tailgating and the game. Ryan forgot about the awkwardness that had prevailed while Nicole was with them.
The next morning, though, he again felt tension among his wife and her parents. When they joined Joyce in the kitchen she said, "I called Christina. Nicole won't be there today."
Kim said, "Good."
He wondered why they were so afraid of the girl. She must have had some condition, maybe bipolar disorder, which would cause her to embarrass them. Kim and her parents couldn't have known Nicole would show up at the Flanigans’ house yesterday, but they should have foreseen that she might turn up unexpectedly at some point. He wished Kim had given him some warning about Nicole's problem, whatever it was. It was not his style to raise an issue, though. He didn't want to embarrass Kim by asking about her niece. In time, he hoped, Kim would tell him about it.
Conversation seemed to flow more normally as they drove to the restaurant, but when they pulled into the parking lot he noticed the Flanigans and Kim scanning the area. Even after they were parked and got out of the car, they continued looking around, watching for something or someone. Once inside, though, they relaxed and had a nice meal without any problem.
Back at home afterward he had to wait in the living room again as Kim finished packing. Dennis and Joyce went to church. Ryan was looking for a news talk show on TV when the front door opened. Nicole peered around the partly opened door, and her face brightened as she saw him looking at her from the living room.
He stood up. "Good morning, Nicole. I didn't expect to see you again so soon."
"I bet," she said as she came into the living room and sat on the sofa. "Where's Kim?"
"Upstairs. We're just getting ready to leave."
"Did she tell you about me?"
He didn't want to answer that. While Kim and the Flanigans hadn't explicitly told him anything about Nicole, he felt they had signaled that the girl had problems. "She told me I have a niece named Nicole. It was my mistake to think I should call you 'Nickie.'"
She gave a sharp laugh. "I can see they didn't. They don't want you to know." Her smile faded and she began speaking in an intense voice. "They didn't want me to know, but good old Sara McKinney told me in seventh grade. Mom, I mean Christina, my adopted mom, freaked out when I told her what Sara had said. Then Mom told me everything, a real heart-to-heart talk. I already knew it all of course, from Sara. Sara's mom told her everything, and Sara told me. The whole town knows about it. Yesterday I made Grandpa and Grandma and everybody nervous being around you. They're afraid I'll tell you about it. I didn't like them trying to keep it from me, and I don't think it's fair that they keep it from you.
"They didn't tell me you all were coming here this weekend, but I heard Mom on the phone with Grandma. That's how I knew to come over here yesterday. Grandma or Kim must have called Mom last night. She told me I couldn't go to brunch today. I had to get a friend to drive me. She's outside in the car now, waiting for me. We were at the Copper Cellar watching you all, from a distance. Grandma and Grandpa and Kim wouldn't leave you unguarded long enough for me to come up and talk to you. I bet they expected me to show up there. I took a chance on finding you here. I hope I'm not upsetting you, but I thought you had a right to know. Just like I did."
"I don't quite know how to respond to this, Nicole." He spoke slowly, trying to give himself time to think of what to say. So she was adopted? It bothered him that the family would think that was such a shameful secret that they couldn't share it with him.
She laughed again. "Don't say anything, I'm not finished. Anyway, the big secret is that Kim is my mother. And here's the other thing: Dad, Eric, really is my dad. He was engaged to Mom, but got Kim pregnant. She was sixteen. So they got married. That only lasted a couple of years. They got a divorce, and he went ahead and married Mom. Kim gave me up, and they pretended she and Eric were never married. That's the weird part."
He felt a jolt like an elevator coming to a sudden stop. "Nicole, I--," he was struggling to think of something to say.
"Don't say anything. I don't want to hear a lecture. I just told you this because you should know." She approached him. "Don't tell them I told you. They'll just freak out." She came still closer, and put her arms around his neck. He instinctively started to pull back, but then relaxed. She kissed him on the cheek and whispered into his ear, "Good-bye, Uncle Stepdaddy." She backed away laughing, turned, and walked out the door.
Jose Bueno is fiction and nonfiction writer who will one day learn how to tie a Windsor Knot. He currently resides in Orlando, FL.
Her Last Gift
Jennifer woke up to the sound of bells and rose from her bed with great effort. Her eyelids were heavy, her arms were sluggish and her legs were lethargic, but the sound of bells demanded her immediate attention. She stretched out and picked up the cellphone that rested on the mahogany nightstand next to her bed. Her vision was blurry but she could make out the name on the screen. It was her sister, Karen. Jennifer yawned and answered her phone, silencing the bells that filled her room with exasperation and discomfort.
“Hi, Sis,” said Jennifer with a tired voice.
“Hi, Thumper,” said Karen.
Jennifer began to protest her sister’s call. “Karen, I know it’s my birthday, but the I went out last night and I can barely –”
“It’s about mom,” said Karen with a hollow voice.
Jennifer eye’s widened, her arms tensed, and her legs shook. She tried to speak with a clear voice, but her lips betrayed her fear. “How is she?” she asked, wishing that her sister would lie.
“Mom… she passed last night,” said Karen, crying into the phone.
And there it was: the dreaded words Jennifer knew she would hear. It had been a little over a year since her mother had gone to the hospital. A little over a year since her diagnosis. A little over a year since Jennifer and her sister had started to prepare for the end of their mother’s life.
I am prepared, Jennifer thought whenever she saw her mother being treated, when the needles would break her naked skin and leave her unable to move for days. I am prepared, she told herself whenever she watched her fall asleep. I am prepared, she lied to herself whenever she would look into her eyes knowing that one day she would be unable to look into them again.
“Jennifer,” said Karen.
I am prepared, she thought one more time as she heard her sister speak. Jennifer closed her eyes, took a deep breath and then gained control of her body.
“Karen, I—” her lips quivered, her eyes turned wet, her arms were heavy and her legs became undone. She laid on her bed and closed her eyes. “I am not prepared,” she said to her sister.
“Stay there,” her sister said. “I’ll come for you and we'll go to mom’s. Uncle Fred and the rest are on their way.”
It took Karen twenty minutes to get there. Jennifer s
The car stopped and she stepped outside. In front of her was her childhood home. She stared at it. It wasn’t like she remembered it. In her memories, the warmth from the sunlight would caress her skin, the smell of freshly cut grass relaxed her body, the soft tinkling of the wind chimes unwound her mind, and the softness of the wind gently rocked the chairs that had been neatly placed on the porch. But now it was different. There was no warmth from the sunshine, no scent of freshly cut grass, the wind chimes remained silent, and the chairs remained still. She entered the house with her sister.
“Mom is upstairs. She is in her room.”, said Karen.
She went upstairs, each step she took was heavier than the last until she saw her. At first, she stood at threshold of her mother’s room. She could see her mother laying on the bed. Her head rested softly on her pillow. She approached her mother and stopped when she reached her bedside. Her eyes were opened.
“Mom.”, she said, hoping her mother would reply.
She knelt down, and gently grabbed her mother’s hand with hers and felt it cold
“Mom.” Tears began to flow from her eyes. She closed her mother’s eyes and rested her head on her mother’s chest, hoping to hear a heartbeat. But she heard nothing.
She could hear the front door open and the sound of feet shuffling in. Her relatives had arrived, ready to pay their respects to the deceased. With tears in her eyes she kissed her mother’s forehead and let go. She went downstairs and exited the house, leaving everyone inside to their grief. She walked for what seemed like forever.
As she arrived at her apartment, Jennifer noticed a small boxed placed on her doorstep. It was a completely ordinary box that had been delivered by courier. With little bewilderment, she picked up the box and entered her apartment. She laid on her bed, wrapping herself around the box. She opened it.
Inside the box were three things, a picture of herself as a child with her mother, a small plush toy of a rabbit, and an envelope. She recognized the toy as her favorite when she was a child. She would always take it with her wherever she went, and because of that her mother started calling her Thumper. The picture she remembered from when she was a child, it was her mother’s favorite, taken on the day they had gone to the Grand Canyon. She opened the envelope, and pulled out a small note, the kind people get on their birthday. It had her mother handwrite all over it. With tears in her eyes, she began to read.
Josh Collier is a full time Creative writing student in Orlando, Florida. He enjoys writing science fiction and fantasy, flash fiction. In his spare time, he works on designing text based games.
Robbery Gone Wrong
“You said we could leave him here,” Austin said as he threw his bloody ski mask into the mud as he climbed out of the beaten van. “They’re looking for our van as we speak. You know we can’t hide in these woods forever; we need to get out of state now.” He said, as he approached the Farm house.
“That ain’t my problem, what is, ‘is that you boy’s don’t have no money on you. I have said, several times in fact, I only work with cash.” Charles said. He limped out of the wooden doorway onto the raised porch. Cane in his right hand, glass of tea in his other. He hobbled his way into his wooden rocking chair. “Now get off my land before I call the cops.”
“We both know it would take them like thirty-minutes to get all the way out here, so don’t even waste our time with an empty threat.” Austin stormed up the flight of stairs. He stood on the porch face to face will Charles.
“We on private property, in the middle of the woods. No neighbors around for miles. By the time the cops get here, I have your bodies prepared for burial,” Charles said. “So, where is my cash? You gotta hav some’n.”
“We don’t have cash, because that wasn’t the job. What was the job, was to hit the jewelry store. Do you know what’s in a jewelry store, Charles? Jewelry.” The sweat dripped down Austin’s face in the Georgian sun.
“Calm yourself boy, or John will have to deal with two dead bodies today.” Charles laughed as he rocked back and forth. He sipped on his ice tea.
Mason climbed out of the van. “Look Charles, we are just a little heated up today. Things went a little south towards the end of the hit. We didn’t get any cash; this job was supposed to be simple. Three men, a quick smash and grab. We don’t even have guns.”
“Well that is truly idiotic. You boys should’ave gotten some cash ‘fore you left, or could have just left the body inside the jewelry store,” Charles said. A grim smile crept on his face.
Mason scraped the mud off his boot on the lowest stair, before he climbed. “We couldn’t do that, and you know it. If they found out who he was, we would have been in trouble, besides,”
Austin glanced at Mason, though Mason didn’t notice.
“He was a good friend of ours.” Mason leaded against the wooden support column. “Come on Charles. You said you would help us. We will pay you when we have the money. You know I’m good for it.”
“Mason, know your good for something, but your friend here is well known for owing a lot of people money.”
“You don’t know anything about me old man, I don’t care what you do here. If you can’t help out your old partner, then I don’t want anything from you.” Austin shot back.
“Here’s what I’ll give my old partner, you can have a free shovel if you want?” Charles pointed at the rusted spade laying against old vinyl siding. “But you’ll need to bury the body on someone else’s land.”
Austin took the shovel, eyeing down Charles.
“Look boys, I have me a business to run. I can’t afford to do favors for everyone. I’d go broke.” Charles got out of his rocking chair, swinging his glass of ice tea in his hand.
“Look, we will have the money once we make it to the drop of point, but all these jewels are only worth it if we make it in time. Now, what kind of deal can we make?”
Charles smiled then pondered for a moment. “Pay half now, and double when you get back. One of you stays here, the other –” The glass smashed to the ground. Charles’s body fell to the floor. Austin stood over him with a bloody shovel in hand.
“Austin, why would you do that?” Mason froze.
“Ever hear of killing two birds with one stone?” Austin smiled. “We leave both bodies inside, make it look like a robbery gone wrong.”
Pranab Ghosh is a journalist, blogger and poet. His poems have been published in Tuck Magazine, Dissident Voice, Leaves of Ink, Hans India, Literature Studio Review and Scarlet Leaf Review, among others. He also writes short stories. He has co-authored a book of poems, Air & Age. He has also translated a book of Bengali short stories into English. The name of the book is Bougainvillea And Other Stories. He,
at present, lives in Kolkata, India.
Barry was picking up the pieces of his shattered dream like a rag picker gathering waste papers on city roads. He was standing in front of the steel-and-glass tower on Little Russell Street. “The tower is a symbol of things corporate; if you want to make it in life you must get an entry there.” He remembered his father’s words as he left home on Wednesday at 9 am to keep his date with his interviewer.
It’s 10.10 am now. He will have to report by 10.15. And the interview begins at 10.30 sharp. He has the recommendation of one of the directors of the company, a school buddy of his father, a retired civil servant. The interview is just a formality.
“And what not I had thought!” murmured Barry. It’s not that Barry does not have the qualification required for the job. He has a first class bachelor’s degree from St Xavier’s College, one of the premier institutions of the city. His subject was English literature. “One day I will pen an Araby,” he had promised himself as he began to read Joyce in college. That was not long ago. Only three years. He passed college in 2014. Middle of the year. And it’s 2017 now.
Much like Susan, his fiancée, who was determined to make a career in photography, her passion, Barry too wanted to be an author. An independent, full-time author. “Didn’t I follow my dream with passion?” Barry thought as the shadow of the steel-and-glass structure engulfed him. He stood there motionless on Little Russell Street. He remembered Susan. “Don’t think it’s end of your dream, Barry.” Were her words empty? He has always had faith in Susan.
Couldn’t have Barry run the family of two? Of him and Susan. Couldn’t he have rented a place somewhere in the outskirts? Couldn’t he have paid his bills? All he wanted to become was a James Joyce. He would have written all day long and dead into the night. He would have earned a fortune writing fiction. He would have become the best chronicler of his time. He would have become so many things…
But here he stands in the shadow of the glass-and-steel structure. His collection of short stories was rejected by the publishers. He took about a year to write those 20 stories. All about Kolkata and Kolkatans. Nobody liked them. “Where is the passion?” A publisher had demanded.
Barry didn’t lose heart. He penned his first novel and another collection of stories in two years. “What you lack Barry is life! It’s Artificial!” Wasn’t he a Joyce in College?
So Barry stood outside the steel-and-glass structure. He was assured of this job at least.
It’s 10.15. Barry is inside the tower waiting in front of the reception. His dream lies scattered somewhere outside. Somewhere outside this steel-and-glass structure. “But Joyce will return one day.” Someone whispered. Was that Susan?
I am an academic, broadcaster, and popular science and speculative fiction writer. Currently, I hold the post of Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. My books include A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Know, Surviving Armageddon: Solutions for a Threatened Planet and Seven Years to Save the Planet. My current books are Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes – ranked 5th in a Guardian list of the best ever eco books – and Global Catastrophes: a Very Short Introduction. I presented the BBC Radio 4 series, Disasters in Waiting and Scientists Under Pressure and the End of the World Reports on UK Channel 5 and Sky News, and was consultant and main contributor for the lauded BBC Horizon films; Supervolcanoes and Megatsunami - Wave of Destruction, as well as for the BBC drama, Supervolcano. I am a regular contributor to Focus and New Scientist magazines, and also write for The Guardian, The Times, The Observer, and other UK national and US newspapers. I live, run and grow fruit and veg in the English Peak District, where I reside with wife Anna, sons Jake (7) and Fraser (13), and cats Dave, Toby and Cashew.
MADGE AND DAVE HAVE A BABY
Consciousness returned incrementally, so it took a while for me to establish that I was lying face down in a field. The grass was cold and already starting to crisp with frost. I rolled over and looked up at a sky brilliant with stars. Shivering, but exultant, I tested my limbs – all seemed in working order – and sat up.
Even though I had been working towards this moment for almost a decade, I was stunned. I could barely grasp that it had actually worked. At last, I had succeeded in teasing apart the inscrutable veil that separated our reality from the one just next door. I was in an alternative universe; one where this little piece of space-time was occupied, not by my cramped and cluttered laboratory, but by open country.
I stood, rubbing my arms to try and keep the chill at bay, and looked around. In the far corner of the field, a cluster of black shapes resolved themselves into a small herd of slumbering cows. Past the cows was a gate, and beyond that a narrow path wound through a small copse. I could hear occasional traffic and see the headlights of cars through the trees. I looked down at the counter on my wrist. The orange digital display read three hours and 52 minutes. Plenty of time to take a look around before the relays on my apparatus clicked shut and I was hoisted back to my England; the grim and battered postwar England of 1948.
My breath clouded the crystal air and I chastised myself for not wearing something warmer, but at least I had remembered my hat, which I could see a few yards off, perilously close to a fresh cow pat. I retrieved it, jammed it on my head and strode off in the direction of the gate. As I rounded the cows, one raised its head and gave me a quizzical look before closing its eyes and returning to its bovine dreams. The gate was locked so I clambered over, catching my trouser leg on some barbed wire. I swore quietly at the sound of tearing worsted, and bent to examine a small rip below one knee. I swore again and started along the path. It was muddy and my brown brogues were soon thick with sticky black muck. Emerging from the wood I found myself on a grassy verge next to a small road. It was empty, but to my right I could see a starlit ribbon of grey winding its way up the side of a steep hillside dotted here and there with pale, fuzzy, blobs that I took to be sheep, and disappearing over the lip. To my left, the road plunged downhill and around a tight bend, beyond which a faint glow in the sky suggested habitation of some sort, and this way I turned.
Sticking close to the verge, I rounded the bend and was somewhat irritated to see that the glow was considerably further away than I had thought. Nonetheless, I marched onwards, stepping onto the grass as the occasional car passed. All the vehicles looked disappointingly normal. I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have been anticipating rocket motors or anti-gravity or some equally esoteric means of propulsion.
I paused for a rest in a small lay-by and, perching on a rock, reached in my cardigan pocket for my pipe. I blew to clear the stem, tapped out the dottle, and hunted with increasing foreboding for my tobacco pouch. After a minute or so of fruitless searching, it became clear that I didn't have it.
'Hang it all!' I muttered. Just when I needed a calming smoke more than ever before, my Virginia flake was in another dimension. I couldn't help but laugh and contented myself with a few sucks of tobacco-flavoured air.
A growing roar and a pair of brilliant headlight beams announced the approach of another car, and as I stood up it hurtled over the top of a small rise in the road. The driver saw me and screeched to a halt. The car was huge and ludicrously ostentatious; white with gold coloured bumpers. No rocket motors but, I was pleased to see, fins, even if these were clearly only for show. The window on the passenger side slid open, smoothly and silently, and I was tickled by my first experience of a technology that had not yet graced the motors of my England. A head peered in my direction and a voice called out. 'Need a lift mac?’ The accent was clearly English, but overlain with an affected American twang.
I nodded gratefully and walked across. The driver leaned over and opened the door and I climbed in, expressing my thanks. A miasma of overheated air and acrid cigar smoke greeted me, triggering a coughing fit that took me a while to control. To say that the interior was plush would be an understatement. The seats and the steering wheel were covered in what appeared to be zebra skin, while the dashboard was cream leather, trimmed in a darker shade. Aft of the gear stick, between my seat and the driver’s, was a miniature table of inlaid walnut with a brass restraining rail, on which stood a crystal decanter of what I took to be brandy, and two matching glasses, one half full.
All this flamboyance echoed the driver's facade. He was a small man, in his 60s I would say, huddled inside an enormous coat of shaggy brown fur. A black, wide-brimmed, felt hat, pulled down low, and an upturned oversized collar meant that I could see nothing of his face save a large, beak-like nose and horsey yellow teeth gripping the butt of a cigar. As we roared off, he turned and peered at me through horn-rimmed spectacles; his eyes magnified by lenses as thick as bottle glass. The whole ensemble put me in mind of an inquisitive owl.
'Guess you're heading for the show?' He queried.
'You're cutting it fine, she's due to drop any minute. I should have been there hours ago, but something came up. I hope to God I'm not too late.'
I had no idea what he was talking about and said so, somewhat apologetically. He gave me a look of incredulity. 'The Nativity, man; the Nativity!'
I said nothing, but must have appeared nonplussed.
The driver looked across at me again, owl eyes slitted in suspicion. 'Are you for real?' He returned his attention to the road momentarily, swerving to avoid a spellbound sheep caught in the headlights, and then his analytical gaze took me in again. 'You're not from one of them atheist cults that lock themselves away from the world are ya?'
I shook my head. 'Just a traveller. I have come a long way.'
Light seemed to dawn behind the bottle glass, and the man relaxed. 'Ah. You're from off-planet. We get a lot of off-worlders this time of year.'
I said nothing to dispel the driver's assumption, and inside I was thrilled. In this world, it seemed, humans had conquered space!
The man took a swig of brandy, smacked his lips and gestured towards the decanter. The car's heaters were going full blast, but I was still cold and needed no further persuasion. The brandy was warming and delicious. For a minute or two we sat in companionable silence; me looking out at the dark, sheep-strewn moors, my driver guiding his charge expertly around the many bends with one hand.
The glow in the sky that had first set me on the road seemed closer now and I broke the silence to question the driver about the Nativity he had mentioned. Was it a pageant of some kind? A show?
He gave me one of his looks again. 'A show? You mean the show.' It's the greatest show on Earth. The greatest show anywhere?'
I agreed that the Nativity was important where I came from too, and that many people commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ at this time of year, at which he laughed long and hard.
'I don't know where you come from, son, or where you've been hiding yourself. Hell's teeth, boy. We don't commemorate the Nativity. It's the real thing. December 25th; on the dot; every year.'
I said nothing. What could I say? He gave me a long, hard, look. 'You really don't know what I'm talking about do you?'
Slowly, I shook my head. I suspect he was beginning to think I was a bit simple. Exasperated, he took another gulp of brandy, and resigned himself to explaining, as if to a child.
'Every year, at Christmas, a Messiah is born; a son of God.'
The words registered, but made no sense. I think I sat there with my mouth open for a while, brain slowly grappling with the absurdity of the statement. The man kept one eye on the road; the other on my face, awaiting a response.
Eventually, I located my voice. 'But surely' I stammered 'that can't be....'.
A raised bushy eyebrow challenged me, causing my voice to trail off. I tried again. 'But....how long has this been going on?' It was the best I could come up with.
'Well, Jesus was the first of course, so getting on for about two thousand years now. '
'Two thousand years!' I repeated, dumbly. My companion nodded slowly; my dimness reinforced even further.
'But......all those Messiahs. What happens to them? What do they do? '
'You know Jesus was crucified, right? Well, since then most of the others have kept their heads down. Understandable, really. Over the centuries, one or two have stirred things up a bit, but they all came to very bad ends. Now they lead pretty normal lives; well, as normal as can be expected for a divine being'.
I was still trying to organise my thoughts, so my questions were somewhat arbitrary.
'How many are still alive?' I queried.
The driver took another snifter of brandy, and slowed as the road became constricted between drystone walls. 'I guess they could go on as long as they wanted, but it has become the custom to pretty much keep to an average human lifespan. I suppose this gives each a fair crack of the whip at trying to cajole humanity into behaving itself – a lost cause if you ask me - and there's always another waiting in line to take up the reins. So, in answer to your question - maybe seventy or so at the moment. All ages, of course.'
'Seventy Messiahs!' I was dumbfounded. 'Don't they get in each others' way? Step on each other's toes?
'Just the usual generational thing' my companion said. 'You know, the youngsters think the oldies talk bullshit. The oldies are convinced that they know best. I always find it comforting that divinity doesn't necessarily confer sweetness and light.'
I was quiet for a few moment, while I thought over this latest unlikely revelation. 'Are they all called Jesus?' I finally ventured.
The man glanced at me and then back at the road. 'Don't be daft. Their name depends on where they're born'.
'So it's not always the Holy Land?'
Again, he looked at me as if I was stupid. 'Well, if it was, I wouldn't be here in the heart of jolly old England, now, would I? Last year it was Mongolia; a hell of a trek, I can tell you. This is a doddle in comparison.'
'I think last year's Messiah was named Gerel.' My companion continued. 'I believe it means 'light' in the local language. This one will be Dave, after his dad. His human dad, that is.'
I pondered this. I'm not sure what I expected to encounter in an alternate 1948, but I was certain that the imminent arrival of Dave the Messiah wasn't it.
Another question struck me. 'How does anyone know where the next Messiah will be born?'
'They don't. Not until the star appears anyway, usually sometime in late November. There's a whole branch of astronomy devoted to it. The competition amongst observatories and amateurs to be the first to spot it is really hot. And then the search begins for the new Messiah's mother. Not an easy task, I can tell you. All of a sudden pregnant virgins are two a penny.'
I studied my companion more closely. His flashy demeanour seeming at odds with his religious knowledge. 'You seem to be very well informed', I hazarded somewhat intrusively, 'what's your interest in all this?'
The man took no offence and rummaging under the dashboard he picked up a card, which he handed to me.
It was white with a crenulated edge picked out in gold leaf. On it the words 'Curmudgeon, Solomon and Swift. Agents to the Gods. London, New York, Beijing.' were embossed in shiny black letters.
I looked up to see him grinning at me. 'I'm Solomon – the wise one. Dave is my client.' He winked and reached out a gloved hand. 'Jacob Solomon, good to meet you....uhm.....'
'Thomas...Tom will do.' I announced. 'You are the Messiah's agent?'
'Yes indeed Tom. A real coup, this one.'
'But, he hasn't even been born.'
'Well, you have to be quick off the mark these days.' observed Jacob. 'We have competitors you know, and some of them will go to any lengths – and I mean any – to get a Messiah on their books.'
I was incredulous. 'Why, for heaven's sake, would the Son of God – a Son of God – need an agent?
It was Jacob's turn to look at me in amazement. 'Why does he need an agent?! This is the biggest celebrity on the planet. He needs protection, guidance, counselling!'
I snorted with derision. 'The Messiah needs counselling!?'
'Of course. It's not like it used to be. They're in the limelight all the time. We try and keep them on the straight and narrow, but it's not easy. There are just so many demands on their time – the paps are all over them when they're young. Then later there are the chat shows; book offers; endorsements; sponsorship deals. And, of course, the Christian churches never leave them alone. Quite a few go off the rails and end up in rehab or a lunatic asylum. Others just can't hack it and either disappear or try and top themselves, and – let me tell you – for a Son of God that's not straightforward.'
I was silent for a bit, as I digested the implications.
'But what of the message they bring; love, peace, a promise of eternal life?'
Jacob yahoo'd as he took a hump in the road a little too quickly and the car left the ground for a few moments before crashing back down. He grinned across at me. 'Ah, Now that's where we come into our own. You see the message has lost a bit of its edge over the last 2,000 years. Everyone's heard it before so many times that, quite frankly, they're bored rigid with it. What's needed is an angle? Something new; something fresh, that makes the punter sit up and take notice.'
'The Messiahs haven't been too hot on miracles for a while,' he continued, after all it is the age of science and the masses like something a bit more rational; a bit more down to Earth if you like. The old resurrection business has died a death too – if you'll pardon the pun – so any Messiah worth his salt has to refocus; rebrand himself. That's where we come in'.
I looked more skeptical than ever. 'And what do you have planned for, uhm, Dave? What will his 'angle' be?'
Jacob's eyes twinkled with amusement. 'Well, now, that would be telling, wouldn't it?'
We drove on for a half-hour or so, largely in silence. The glow in the night sky was brilliant now; so bright in fact that the car's headlights were largely redundant. Jacob stepped on the accelerator and we surged up a long hill towards a wooded ridge. He looked across at me once more and grinned.
'Well Tom, I can see that this has all come as a bit of a surprise to you. I don't know where you're from and I don't care to know, but stick by me and you'll get the best view in the house.'
Before I could formulate an answer, we took a tight corner at speed and burst through the trees. There, laid out before us, was the most extraordinary vista. I gasped. 'By Jove.....'
The road fell away into a natural amphitheatre; a shallow bowl hemmed in by gentle hills dotted with small woods and criss-crossed by hedgerows. About one third of the way up the sides of the bowl a high wire fence sliced across the landscape, encircling and protecting within what I can only describe as a city of tents and marquees. At the very centre I could just about make out one of the broken-down stone barns that was a common feature of the countryside in these parts. Outside the barrier surged the greatest mass of humanity I had ever seen. All around, the multitude reached almost to the tops of the surrounding hills, draping the topography like a vast swarm of bees. Everything shimmered beneath the incandescence of a thousand arc lights, but even this could not detract from the brilliant yellow effulgence that burnished the eastern sky, where hung the brightest star I had ever seen.
I could sense Jacob looking at me, gauging my reaction, but I couldn't take my eyes off the scene and words failed me. After a few moments, he put his head back and chortled loudly, reaching out to pat me on the shoulder.
'Tom, ma boy. You ain't seen nothin' yet'.
We continued slowly down the winding road, Jacob easing his way through men, women and children spilling over from the surrounding slopes. The mood was cheerful, and many of those Jacob had to coax out of his path had clearly had more than a drop or two of the festive spirit. Eventually, we edged our way to the wire, and halted at a checkpoint manned by half a dozen bobbies. None were armed and all seemed to be caught up in the celebratory atmosphere, but I noticed in the shadows a platoon of green-clad troops toting machine guns. Hardly surprisingly, given the enormity of the event, nothing was being left to chance. The presence of the soldiers was incongruous, and it instantly took me back to my own world, still suffering in the aftermath of eight years of war. It struck me that I had seen no sign of such a dreadful conflict happening here
The inspector in charge recognised Jacob and waved us straight through. There seemed to be almost as many people inside the wire as crowding the hills outside, and my companion inched the car forward at walking pace as we followed the signs for VIP parking. Presently, I heard a tapping at my window and turned to look. A short, round, man in a dark suit at least one size too small, was gesticulating wildly and pointing past me to Jacob, whose attention he was clearly desperate to attract. The man had large, bulbous, eyes, book-ending a long, narrow nose, and his fleshy, pink lips were working away nine to the dozen, although I couldn't make out a word. I tugged at Jacob's sleeve and he grunted when he saw the animated little man. 'Fish!'
Jacob lowered the window on my side and we were instantly bombarded by the sounds and odours of the vast encampment. Fish gripped the sill with both hands, his expression panicked. 'Mr. Solomon, Sir; Thank God you're here. The contractions started three hours ago.'
My companion remained unflustered. 'Calm down Fish. I'm here now. Get in!'
Fish climbed into the back without another word. I could see his pale, pinched, face in the mirror looking at me with a mixture of irritation and curiosity. I could tell he wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there, but he had other things on his mind.
'P & P have been all over Dave. I tried to get him away, but you know what they're like.'
Jacob grunted again as he squeezed the car into what appeared to be the last available space. 'Piltdown and Prossit' he spat, by way of explanation. 'Our biggest rivals. Real bastards!'
Turning to Fish. 'They just won't let it rest will they. I better get over there and do my mother hen act. God knows what jive they've been feeding him.'
With that Jacob was out of the car and heading in the direction of the brightest lights. 'Fish will look after you', he called over his shoulder. 'Fish, make sure Tom gets a drink and a bite to eat – and a spot in our box. There's a spare guest pass in the glove compartment. See ya later Tom'. Without turning round, my travelling companion raised his hand in a wave and vanished into the throng, trailing a plume of blue cigar smoke.
Fish looked less than delighted with his new role as chaperone, and clearly wished to be rid of me as soon as possible. 'This way', he muttered, plunging into the crowd and leaving me trailing in his wake.
It took several minutes to forge a path to another security fence. 'The inner sanctum' Fish intoned without explanation. We waved our passes at the bobbies, discreetly armed this time I noticed, and squeezed though the intentionally narrow entrance. Beyond, it was a little quieter, although dozens of people beetled with intent this way and that across our path. I struggled to keep up with my escort and lost him for a moment. Then I caught sight of the little man clattering up a metal stairway at the rear of an enormous prefabricated grandstand. He waited for me on a landing, drumming his fingers on the handrail. Just as I reached the top of the stairs, he opened a door and disappeared through without a word, leaving me to follow. I found myself in a long, dimly-lit corridor, lined on one side with a series of doors. Fish marched to the far end and turned the handle of the last in the row. Inside was a square room, smallish but luxuriously furnished, with pictures on the walls and a thick carpet underfoot.
Half a dozen men, all in dark suits, were clustered around a long mahogany table, groaning with food and drink that had my war-famished mouth watering. Two of them looked around when we entered. They gave Fish a token nod, and reserved for me a look that mixed amusement with disdain. Suddenly, I was all too aware of my informal and by now somewhat grubby attire. Without greeting or comment, the two men turned back to their companions. None of the group showed the slightest interest in the extraordinary spectacle that revealed itself through the glass panel that formed the far wall of the room. I walked over and looked down across the heads of thousands seated in the open grandstand at the tumbledown barn I had spotted from afar. In front of me was a tableau so flawlessly stage-managed for public consumption that Mr. Hitler would have been ecstatic.
The front of the barn had been removed, revealing a punctiliously lit interior of dressed limestone, wooden rafters and a stone floor covered with fresh straw. Everything was spotless. Peering out of the shadows at the back were a couple of well behaved and meticulously groomed cows, lowing quietly, as if to order. Three lambs, their coats brushed and whitened, formed a huddle in one corner, one bleating plaintively. In the other, leaning back on a heap of hay-filled bolsters, lay the virgin – Madge, Jacob said her name was – legs akimbo; mousy hair hanging lank about a plain face. Bright red and blowing hard, Madge let out a humdinger of a yell as she pushed yet again, nails digging into the hand of husband Dave – a tall, dark-haired, man, thin to the point of emaciation - who crouched self-consciously at her side and bit his lip at the pain. Just out of view of the television cameras, which enveloped the whole scene, a uniformed midwife whispered instructions and encouragement. Taking pride of place, a simple wooden manger stood centre stage, filled with hay, covered with a brightly coloured quilt and awaiting the imminent arrival of its divine occupant.
Off to one side, four tweedy shepherds and a pair of border collies fretted nervously, awaiting their cue, while on the other three exotically dressed men were engaged in a very heated discussion.
Fish came up and stood beside me, clutching a plate piled high with canapés. He was more genial now that his belly was filling up, and nodded in the direction of the arguing group. 'It's always like this' he said. I awaited further explanation. 'The three kings. They can never agree about the order of presentation of the gifts.'
'I see they have given up travelling by camel.' I observed.
Fish snorted. 'Flew in last night. The tall one who looks like he has a dead chicken on his head is Louis XX, titular King of France. I believe he is bringing a gift of Channel baby-bath. The short, fat, one in the silks is a minor Thai prince, and the big, black, man in tribal costume is a member of the Botswana royal family.'
We watched in silence for a while, and I sneaked a look at my counter. I had one more hour. Madge gave an usually loud shriek that made Louis XX half jump out of his skin, and Dave grimaced as his wife's nails dug themselves deeper into the flesh of his hand.
I looked up at the dazzling star hanging in the east above the barn. It really was astonishingly bright. Too bright to be either Jupiter or Venus, and I couldn't see any sign of a tail or nebulous aura that would suggest a comet. A supernova seemed to be the best bet, and quite a close one. The Earth must be taking one hell of a radiation hit if one of these popped up every year.
'They didn't get here by following the star either, then?' I said.
Fish smiled. 'No. That went out ages ago. Now they're drawn by lot from the global aristocracy – or what's left of it. They love it. Keeps them in the limelight; gives them a few minutes of stardom. It can do wonders for a flagging reputation at home.'
A party of flashily-dressed individuals edged their way along the back row of the grandstand, looking for their seats and momentarily blocking our view.
I nodded to the crowd in the grandstand. 'Who are this lot?'
'The usual.' replied Fish, 'politicians, sportsmen, film stars, minor royalty, anyone rich enough or with the right contacts. This is the place to see and be seen. Of course the great and the good are all in the boxes adjoining ours; presidents, prime ministers, the governors of the Moon, Mars and Ganymede.'
I didn't want to open a can of worms, so said nothing, but again I was thrilled by the revelation that this Earth had colonies in space.
Some movement near the barn attracted my attention. Jacob had appeared and I saw him beckon to Dave, who extracted himself with difficulty from his wife's grip. I could see she was none too pleased, but he leant over and whispered something that seemed to mollify her. Jacob offered Dave a cigarette and stood with his arm around his shoulder, talking quietly in one ear. Dave nodded a number of times, took a last drag on his cigarette and headed back to Madge's side.
Jacob marched across to a pair of short gentlemen in matching ground-length dark coats and bowlers. 'This should be fun.' said Fish. 'Messrs Piltdown and Prossit.'
Jacob stood so close that the two were forced to lean backwards as they were bombarded by a wall of what I guessed would be particularly imaginative invective. As Jacob became more animated, arms flailing, eyes blazing, the gents leant back further and further so that I expected their bowlers to drop off at any moment. For a few seconds, the hubbub in the box died down, and I could hear Jacob's rant, faintly but clearly, even through the glass and above the noise outside. I chuckled, thinking back to basic training. My sergeant major would have been proud.
As Jacob crossed to his former position near the three kings, the midwife trotted over and knelt down in front of the puffing and blowing Madge. Her head dipped down for a few moments and then she stood and turned to look up – I presume at the television producer. He and his team were shoehorned into in the glass-bounded box adjacent to ours, but which projected further out into the grandstand so that I could see him in all his harassed glory as he orchestrated the scenes that Fish told me went out live not only across the planet, but onwards to the colonies. Last year, the audience for the virgin birth topped two billion, and they were confident of doing even better this time around.
The midwife was now holding up four fingers, which I guessed was some reference to the degree of cervix dilation. At this, the producer became even more animated, indicating to a minion by making a small circle with his hands and holding them up before his eyes, that he wanted a close-up shot. I had noticed and been enormously impressed by, the large, full colour, television screen mounted on one wall of our box, and looking up now I was confronted with an unsettling view of the flimsy sheet that covered Madge's nether regions. I turned away in some embarrassment, judging that sensibilities in this world were far less easily offended than in mine.
I stole a surreptitious glance at my wrist counter; less than 25 minutes left. Where had the time gone? I had never been of a religious disposition, except perhaps during some of the hairier moments of my wartime career, and those were fleeting, but all of a sudden I realised that I was desperate to see the birth. There was something intangible in the air; something that reached inside me and took hold of my heart and squeezed it. I felt scared, nervous and exhilarated, all at the same time. Of its own accord my hand reached for the pipe in my pocket, and I put it between my lips, imagining that it was full and smouldering nicely. But sucking at the cold, tobacco-fragranced air, did nothing for me and I put it away again.
A hush had fallen both in the room and outside. Someone had turned up the sound on the television, but there was no intrusive commentary, just the gentle, background, lowing of the cows, and Madge's increasingly desperate screams. Husband Dave sat on a bale of hay next to her; arm around his wife's shoulders; hand still gamely bearing the brunt of Madge's vice-like grip. I could see Jacob through the window, pacing nervously backwards and forwards, pausing only to light another cigar. Judging they had a bit of time, the shepherds had left their places and I could see them clustered around a tea trolley nearby, each clutching a warming brew that steamed voluminously in the frigid air. The three kings were still arguing.
I peered at my counter again. Five minutes! The midwife darted in once more and did a swift examination. Looking up at the producer, she tapped her head, meaning – I surmised – that the head was visible.
'Any minute now' I thought. 'Please hurry.'
Not wishing to intrude on the traditional tableau, the midwife retired, but I could see her lips moving as she urged Madge on from the sidelines. My heart was pounding now. My desperation to stay and witness the Messiah's birth was all encompassing; something visceral that seemed to me then the most important thing in all the world. I couldn't help it. 'Just one more push' I blurted out, eliciting an amused, sideways glance from Fish.
I feared it was not to be. Even as Madge gasped and strained once more, I could feel a fizzing sensation deep down, as if my insides were turning to a bubbly froth. I imagined each bubble growing swiftly before simultaneously popping out of existence in this universe and erupting back into the reality of my own. But then Madge gave one final, primaeval, scream and a tiny pink thing, slime-covered and bloody slipped out from beneath the folds of the modesty sheet. For a moment, the world seemed to stand still and I felt an extraordinary wave of euphoria wash over me. As the midwife rushed forwards to take up the newborn and hand it to Madge, my view of the world started to slowly revolve and I felt myself falling. Then everything began to stretch out and smear like cream stirred into a cup of black coffee. Around me rotated a kaleidoscopic whirlpool at the centre of which a point of brilliant white light grew rapidly until it overwhelmed me and my senses failed.
The cold stone of my laboratory floor ushered me back to full consciousness. That and the residual burbling and sparking of my apparatus in the corner. My head was splitting and despite the chill I lay there for a few minutes while my body recovered from its ordeal. Presently, I got to my feet and walked over to the workbench, where I had spied my tobacco pouch. I was still groggy and needed some fresh air. Climbing three flights of stone steps, I unlocked the heavy wooden door and strolled out onto the unkempt lawn of the ancient and rundown mansion. The air was crisp and but for a few wispy clouds, the eggshell blue dome of the sky was flawless. I looked across the fields and down into the valley, where the city crouched battered and unrecognisable after the year-long siege and bombardment. Closer at hand, I could hear the crunch of a morning patrol's boots on gravel and terse orders shouted in German. In my mind's eye, I saw Sarah's face again amidst the rubble; white with dust; dead eyes staring unseeing into mine.
Sighing, I sat down on the prone and decaying trunk of an ancient oak felled by a wayward shell in the last days before the city's capitulation. I reached into my cardigan pocket for pipe and tobacco and went through the comforting routine of filling, tamping and lighting. After a few draws of aromatic smoke I felt much better and bent my thoughts towards the extraordinary experiences of the last few hours. It was immediately apparent that something was very wrong and I was distraught to find that my memory of events was already fuzzy. Trying to pin down the details of my adventure was like grasping falling snowflakes that melted away as soon as they were captured. I may have triumphed over space and time, but it appeared that due to some unforeseen by-blow of the translation process I was destined to forget everything I encountered on my journey.
Suddenly, I felt utterly deflated. Perhaps my apparatus did nothing more than render me unconscious, and the whole thing was nothing more than a dream? Sick with growing disappointment. I put my pipe aside, rested my elbows on my knees and put my head in my hands. I stayed like that for a long time, while I weighed up the possibility, or more likely – it now seemed to me - the probability, that my astonishing experiences might have been all in my head. When I eventually uncovered my eyes, I noticed a scrap of something white on the ground in front of me that must have fallen out of my pocket when I took out my smoking paraphernalia. I knew what it was even before I picked it up - a business card edged in gold. I clenched my fists and cried out in jubilation. It wasn't all in the mind after all. It was true! It had happened. But I could recall almost nothing now. The slate would soon be wiped clean. All my mind's eye would let me see was the face of the midwife as she held the infant; the woman's eyes wide, mouth open in what seemed like shock. I could have imagined it, or maybe my dwindling memory was playing tricks too, but just before I was plucked away, I swear that I heard a distant voice cry in bewilderment 'it's a girl!'
Mehdi Razavi is a cardiologist in where he specializes in treatment heart rhythm disorders and directs the innovations laboratory for new medical devices at the Texas Heart Institute. Writing has been a lifelong passion and source of creativity. He lives with his wife, Joanna.
Ten Thousand Breaths
* * *
She had decided to ride her bike. It helped her relax. It was three hilly miles from her new apartment to the Naval Academy where she was meeting a friend of a friend's. He was a Plebe, a first year cadet at the Academy. Though most were fresh out of high school he had spent one year in the Peace Corps.
They had met at a church social: He was from Waldorf, on the southeastern tip of the state.
Though two years younger than her he had immediately caught her attention. He was physically robust and personally charming. His mission with the Peace Corps was more than just an empty attempt to build up a resume. He was decent and his motives altruistic.
Bobbie Rae's boyfriend had died eight months earlier. She was still grieving his loss when she met this dashing chap.
By then her parents had convinced her to move in with Melissa, her friend from St. Mary's City.
Though she had never been attracted to younger men, this one stood out.
Most of the Plebes realized that the possibility of deployment after graduation was not remote. He embraced the possibility.
Bobbie Rae had asked him how he could on the one end spend a year with the Peace Corps and then turn around and join the military.
His answer was revealing: "Sometimes the best way to help the good is by fighting the bad." She thought it a bit dogmatic but his conviction was nevertheless impressive.
The Plebe year is notorious for its physical demands. He was confined to the Academy grounds most of the time. Bobbie Rae took every opportunity to spend any available time with him. They enjoyed each other's company.
His had been her first date since her boyfriend's death.
She had felt guilty after that first kiss and had cried before falling asleep later that night.
But when she had woken up the next morning it was as if her first love's spirit had been exorcised from her. She still loved him, still kept a tender spot for him in her heart. But his was no longer the key to her lock. It was probably the kindest thing he could have done for her. To set her free to carry on with her life.
Since July she had been spending more and more time with her new companion and although the old one's memories were not forgotten, they were no longer the first thing she recalled after waking up.
Life is for the living.
They sat on the pier, holding hands, staring at the seagulls.
A gentle breeze caressed her hair.
After lunch they biked around downtown and then went all the way up to the stadium where the football team was starting its summer practice.
On her way back from the Academy that evening she had remembered about the National Geographic which was laying in the front basket of her bike. The two of them had had a bet: He swore that Bach, like Beethoven, had composed while deaf. He was convinced he had read it in last April's National Geographic. She knew better and had set out to prove him wrong.
Now that she had won she would have to return the magazine.
It had been a long day spent mostly in the sun.
It would have been nice to go home to a shower.
The library was two miles away from the Academy, adding a total of four miles to an already late evening bike ride.
She could just as easily wait a few more days.
* * *
How had this girl who he had met once, and only briefly, done this? He did not know the answer. It was not physical attraction, for many prettier faces had walked through those doors. It was not the desire for wealth or power, for neither she nor her family had either.
Was it his desire for a companionship which up to now had evaded him? If that was the case, why this girl? Why not any of the many other girls who had asked him for help, some much more flirtatiously.
He could not provide himself an answer. Perhaps a biologist could scientifically analyze it and conclude that she led to the release of some chemicals in his brain associated with overwhelming joy. And the biologist would probably be right. But the question which confounded him remained unanswered: Why?
Instead of explaining it he decided to describe it. And so came that first story. They were his feelings when describing the girl's emotions towards the guitar player: Her jealousy of the guitar. Wishing that hero would be paying attention to her with the same tenderness, he was describing his need for Bobbie Rae's attention. Perhaps it was too direct.
But Troy was also coming to another realization. Regardless of what the future held, regardless of what Bobbie Rae were to think of this older, engaged boy, regardless of their ultimate destinies, he felt the need to create something which would live on forever as a memorial and testimonial of his feelings towards this girl. He knew that if he did not the regret would accompany him to his grave.
Perhaps most challenging was his need, so far unmet, to reconcile his feelings with the realities of his life: He was engaged to a wonderful person who he had never been in love with. In his heart of hearts he knew, as did she, that they were not destined to live happily ever after. But, then again, not everyone gets to live happily ever after. He desperately wanted to do the right thing. But if the right thing meant wasting away in a life void of merriment and happy companionship then it cannot be the right thing, can it?
He knew what the right thing was: He had to tell his fiancee how he felt. There was no moral ambiguity on that front.
This was precisely where Troy's faltering moral courage failed him.
The most fancy love stories cannot veil the reality of wronging another human being.
* * *
Seven weeks and two stories had passed since their last encounter. He had written the stories, mailed them off, and anxiously awaited a response.
None had been forthcoming. Nor had she dropped by the library. His initial enthusiasm was turning into frustration.
The days were starting to get shorter and cooler now as the official beginning of Autumn had come and gone. The library hours remained the same but the flood of visitors changed its pattern: The days were quieter but the after-school hours saw a surge of students. Most came on matters related to school work. Some found it a convenient place to meet and banter. Still others came to roam the cavernous hallways in search of a literary distraction.
Troy was also suffering from distraction, but of a different sort. He missed Bobbie Rae: Every time a girl who frame matched hers walked into the library he would look up and for a split second anticipate the possibility of imminent exhilaration, only to be disappointed. Like a mother who sees the face of her missing child in every other child in a crowded mall, the anxiety and possibility of never seeing her became more real as more strange faces passed through the majestic entrance of the library.
Two more weeks passed. He could feel his creative energy dissipating. It had taken him almost three weeks to complete his last short story. He did not think it to be his best. The plot was too sentimental, he felt. But he could not avoid sentimentality as he thought of her. He wished to use his written words as a vehicle to reach into her soul. The results, to his chagrin, were beginning to give him the air of desperation. The intervals between manuscripts were increasing.
Another month passed. Halloween was approaching and the library was decorated accordingly. It gave it a festive feel. But Troy's eyes revealed other emotions. A sad hue had overtaken him. It was getting too cold for spontaneous bike rides in downtown. The library was overheated and this increasingly irritated him. His temper was becoming short. Though he never raised his voice, students were not as ready to approach him as they may have been a few weeks earlier.
His fiancee could sense him crashing back to his laconic ways. He was never unpleasant to her but she sensed a certain disappointment in the depths of his persona. She knew him well enough to be certain something was not right.
But she, too, was not perfect. She, too, lacked enough moral fiber to consider approaching him to offer a listening ear. She, too, took the immediate and easy solutions even they if meant silence in the face of his obvious melancholy.
* * *
Bobbie Rae walked into the library the first week of November. It was quiet and the sound of her entrance was minimal. He was absorbed in checking the inventory and first noticed a shadow followed by a gentle tap on his shoulder.
"Hi," she said, a twinkle in her eyes. "Do you remember me?" she said as she took her wool hat and gloves off.
Her cheeks were flushed. She smiled. She was not smiling at him, but at her surroundings as she looked around.
She was happy, he could tell.
"Yes, Bobbie Rae, right?" he tried to feign a casual attitude.
"That's right. Good memory! You must have so many people come through here..."
The tip of her nose was red, like an alcoholic's.
"You look like you're freezing," he said.
"I know, some day I'm going to move to Texas or Florida!" she answered playfully. She looked at him, sizing him up for a few seconds. "So what's new with you?"
"Nothing new. Everyone's pouring in to get their term paper's turned in before Thanksgiving. It's gonna be awful busy here the next couple of weeks." He looked at her, trying to read her expression. Had she received any of his stories?
Was she here to talk about the stories? To tell him how beautiful they were... Or to tell him that he must stop writing them... Was she dating someone?... Or had she just broken up?...
"I need to ask you a favor," she said, smiling widely, displaying a perfect set of teeth.
Troy's heart skipped a beat. "Sure, what's up?" He did not want to seem too eager but was sure he had come off that way.
"I've got a friend who is a Plebe and I want to check out a book on Naval history."
With those words she had taken the last breaths of the wind out of his sails.
He felt a wave of sadness overtake him.
He could not help being just a bit mean when he said, "You should go to the Naval Academy's library. I'm sure he can show you around." He realized he sounded like a child who was told he could not play with the toy trains behind the display counter and was now throwing a temper tantrum.
She looked at him quizzically. His answer appeared to have thrown her off.
"I'm sorry?" she said.
They were both quiet for what seemed like an eternity.
"You know," she continued, "I can't check out books from that library." She was trying to diffuse the tension.
"Sure! I forgot about that. Silly rule, isn't it?" he said, faking a smile. He knew he had gone too far and hated himself for it. "Let me show you."
As he led her to the Military History section he had no doubts about one fact: She had never read any of his stories.
* * *
That night he could not fall asleep. He told his fiancee that he felt sick and was going to turn in early. Despite the fact that she had moved in with a new roommate two and a half months earlier he had yet to visit her. She had always come to his place. He hated having to interact with her roommates.
As emotionally drained as he was he realized he had to make a decision: Either stop writing and give up on the whole thing or continue writing and use the process as a catharsis to rid himself of the overwhelming helplessness and hopelessness which had overtaken him.
He tried going to bed but could not. He tumbled over and over. He got up and tried to watch some television but even this failed to distract him.
Finally he sat behind his desk, grabbed an ink pen and a few sheets of paper, and started writing.
He wrote non-stop until sunrise, around six thirty in the morning.
He had written about pain and love. About love unrequited. About strength and the willpower to create it. About the need to find happiness in one's own heart and not in the eyes of another.
There were many scribbles and corrections but he kept these and decided against re-writing a clean draft. He placed the writings in an envelope, stamped the envelope, wrote Bobbie' Rae's address on it and dropped it off in the mailbox.
By the time he was finished it was eight in the morning.
He was exhausted. He went to bed and showed up late at work where he was told another girl had been looking for him.
* * *
Melissa could be ruthless, but also calculating.
So it was that when she had received the first short story, one week after Bobbie Rae had moved out, she decided to inform neither the sender nor the intended recipient.
Bobbie Rae had never updated her new address at the library.
Melissa did not know the sender personally, only that he worked at the library.
She had read the story and found it captivating. She felt the angst of the girl and sensed a twinge of excitement at the conclusion.
Though easily distractible and rarely able to complete reading a single newspaper article without interruption she read the entire story in one sitting. The ending was satisfying but the story seemed too short. She actually read it over a second time before tucking it away in her desk.
Things had been getting hectic. Between Bobbie Rae's moving out and her new roommate moving in there was a lot of commotion. Her new roommate was engaged to be married the following spring. She seemed a nice enough girl. She had agreed to pay two rent payments upfront.
She did not talk much about her fiance, except to say he was in the literary field. She kept busy with her new job as a child psychologist for the Anne Arundel County health department and spent most of her time in the middle and high schools. The job, she told Melissa, could be very stressful but was also quite rewarding.
She especially liked the rare assignments she got at the elementary schools because she felt at that stage she could make a real difference. By the time students had made it to high school their psychological make-up was already complete. Therapy at that stage was only a temporary treatment, never a cure.
Melissa sometimes got the sense that her roommate was not necessarily in love with the fiance. She picked up on an air of indifference and found that quite ironic given her roommate's field of work. The girl had been talked into marriage more by her family than her future husband. Why the rush? She shrugged it off. It was not her problem.
When a month later Melissa received the second story she was surprised. She savored it. Again she tucked it away.
The third story was even better.
One morning she impulsively decided to visit the library in search of the author. This was an extreme departure from her normal stoic, methodical self. Something had drawn her to him.
But he had not been there.
She left disappointed but also a bit shocked at herself. She had stayed away ever since.
It was the fourth story that truly captivated her. The shortest story, it was her favorite. The angst was palpable in the black ink dotting the parchment paper it was written on. It made her shed tears.
And so it went on for another year, once every couple of months or so. She would look forward to the stories, clearing her schedule the day after receiving one. She would stay home, make herself a cup of tea, and read it. It usually took an hour.
* * *
Troy's fiancee was searching for a stapler. She had just completed writing a progress note for one of the rare fourth graders with whom she worked. She found her job much more satisfying when it dealt with the younger students. It made for a much more satisfying and lasting intervention. The high schoolers, especially the upperclassmen were often lost causes. They were ignorant enough to be confident in their sense of righteousness. The biggest losers were those who did not believe they had a problem. It is impossible to help a student unless they first realize they have a problem.
She had been giving some serious thought to asking for a focus on the pre-adolescent population. But there was a paradox: Even though it required an additional certificate which could take three months the pay was less. She did not understand it. Perhaps everyone else found working with the younger ones also more rewarding and therefore there was more demand driving down compensation.
She had tried to talk to Troy about it but he had seemed to be another world the past year. They had almost broken up a few months back but neither of them had had the guts to figure out what their problem had been or, should the problem be fundamental and not amenable to correction, to proceed with a clean break before marriage and, most worrying, children came along.
Where was her stapler? She always kept it on her desk or in the drawer. She looked all over her bedroom, ransacking her desk and its drawers two or three times before giving up on it.
She then turned her attention to the rest of the apartment she was sharing with her roommate.
She looked around the living room and kitchen first. It was a cursory and unrewarding search. She knew the stapler was almost certainly in Melissa's room but want to go through the perfunctory process of ruling out the other locations before trespassing into her bedroom.
She entered with her sight fixed on her desk. It was fake oak (like so many other things about Melissa, she thought wryly) and had three drawers arranged in a column on either side. Two drawers in between formed the keystone.
She checked the room thoroughly. She even looked under her bed and in the bathroom before focusing on the desk.
She felt guilty about prying but promised herself that she would ignore and forget anything other than the stapler.
Her hands were almost trembling as she opened the middle two drawers: They contained nothing of interest. Nor was the stapler to be found.
She stopped and was about to leave the bedroom when she decided she was going to check the top left drawer. It was slightly ajar.
Slowly and with great trepidation she opened it.
The stapler was inside. She felt a sense of relief.
She took the stapler and was about to close the drawer when, through no effort and despite her best attempts to ignore its contents, she caught sight of an envelope.
And then she had a mental disconnect. She was not as much in shock as in disbelief. The handwriting with its extreme slant was unmistakable: It was Troy's. He was left-handed and wrote with an extreme overhand angle which led to a marked rightward slant.
Why had Melissa tucked away his letter to her?
And then she noticed the intended recipient's name on the letter.
* * *
It had been one year since he had first layed eyes on Bobbie Rae. Twelve long months since she had walked through the doors of the main branch of the Annapolis Public Library.
She had stopped by infrequently but regularly, without any ulterior motives. They would talk about things. She never again brought up her friend at the Naval Academy.
He had told her he was engaged, but also that there were days that he had his doubts. Perhaps this was not the right thing to do, but he felt that he had to let her know. As time went on he realized that his had not been an infatuation. He enjoyed every moment with her even if they were discussing the most mundane subjects. He never tired of her company, casual as that companionship may have been.
He told her of his fiancee because, at the age of thirty-seven, he was finally beginning to develop the beginnings of what could be called moral courage.
Unfortunately for him, he had met the right person after his engagement. More importantly Bobbie Rae had never given him the slightest clue to having any interest in him.
He had continued to write because he did not know what else to do. Not writing was not an option.
She told him she had moved but would not volunteer her new address since she had stopped checking out books. She would simply come and browse the library every couple of months, sitting down by herself for an hour or so to read a particular section. He did not want to ask for her address because, he reasoned, if she started receiving the stories it would have meant she had not received the previous ones. The most desirable assumption was that she had been receiving the stories all along. Perhaps they were being forwarded to her. The logic was flawed but so was his perspective. In our lives the most pleasing assumptions are usually the least likely to be true.
It was in mid-August of the year after he had met Bobbie Rae. He had written her eight stories.
On a Tuesday evening as he was getting ready to supervise a session for high schoolers on how to find reference materials in the library he heard loud, forceful foot-steps. They were angry foot-steps.
He looked up.
It was his fiancee. She was crying and screaming at the same time. Her neck veins were protruding through the skin. Her face was as white as a bed sheet.
Thinking that she had come to him for help or support he immediately got up and held his hands open to give her a hug.
She approached him and before he could say anything reached back with her right hand as if a side-armed baseball pitcher in his full wind, gracefully arced her arm in a perfect semicircle, her fingers completely extended, and landed her hand in a whipping motion to complete a resounding and humiliating slap of his left cheek. It sounded like a firecracker. It was a wet slap. Her finger marks left their red imprints, as if a series of lipstick glossed kisses had been pecked on his cheek.
Troy had never been slapped before. It was physically and emotionally jarring. His left ear was ringing. He could only hear the sound of his heartbeat as it swirled, blood rushing in his chest, up his neck into both jaws and ears. He was stunned. Every eye in the library and the newly minted coffee shop above was on them. He did not know which was more embarrassing: The slap or the stares.
"How could you? You have no shame?" she was screaming hysterically.
Snot was running down the sides of her mouth. Her usually stoic eyes were bloodshot.
He was dumbfounded.
"Do you think I'm an idiot? Sending those letters to the girl who stayed in my apartment before me? I can't believe you," she was almost incoherent, taking deep breaths between loud pangs of crying. Every time he thought it had stopped it became obvious that she was merely breathing deeply before another chorus of tears and screams.
He wished he had never been born.
"You thought I would never get these?" she pulled a pile of sheets out of her pocket and laid them before his eyes. To his horror they were the envelopes in which he had mailed his stories.
He would later find out that Bobbie Rae had been Melissa's roommate prior to his fiancee moving in. He would also find out that their apartment's street address was based on the archaic system used in Annapolis, such that the back entrance which was on the adjacent street and never used was the official mailing address. He had never figured out that the address he was mailing the stories to was the same as his fiancee's new apartment. He had thought he was mailing the letters to an apartment in the street next to hers.
"Why didn't you ever write me a love story?" she was pounding on his chest. "Was I never good enough? I didn't deserve one?!" The pathos was turning into rage.
He hated himself.
"Why didn't you tell me you don't love me? Why?" she was running out of tears.
"Three goddamn years we've been together and I've never gotten so much as a flower. You didn't even get down on your knees to propose to me. How could you do this to me?"
He could not think of an answer.
The answer, of course, was obvious: He was afraid to fight the current into which he had been thrown. Afraid of the consequences of telling her and others how he felt. He had been weak and selfish.
He sat down and put his head in his hands, tugging on his blond wavy hair.
All he could say was a pathetic, "I'm sorry." He figured it quite reflected him as a human being.
Years later he would look back to that moment as a realization of what happens when you let the tides of life run you over: While less resistive for a brief moment you will eventually drown.
His moral compass had been turned upside down. He realized that the deceit and self-serving he had displayed made him a lesser man. That he had hurt another human being who did not deserve such hurt. That two lives were ruined.
She stormed out of the library and his life without another word.
* * *
Fall descended on Annapolis fast and furious that year. By the end of September the first frost had struck, making crystalline statuettes of the grass and vegetation in the pre-dawn hours.
A hurricane had hit the Chesapeake coasts of Virginia and Maryland in the third week of the month, the latest on record. The damage was not dramatic but decidedly inconvenient. It was enough to force his father to halt work for a week or so as he reset his traps. Anyway crabbing season was waning. The drop in his catches had been precipitous. All blamed it on the unusually cold weather.
The library, too, had been shut down for a few days before and after the hurricane. There was no structural damage but the county needed it to pass inspection before re-opening.
It was dead winter in Troy's life.
His fiancee had moved out of Melissa's apartment and moved closer to Glen Burnie, halfway between Annapolis and Baltimore. She still worked for the county but wanted to get away from the memories and keep her parents at arm's length. She blamed them for much of her misery. She had come to the realization, however, that no one was to blame as much as Troy and herself.
She had cried herself to sleep for the first couple of weeks after finding the letters. But she was not in the deep, dark depression that had overtaken Troy. Within a month she had actually started to smile again. She wondered if this was a reflection of the fact that she, too, had never really loved him. Were cultural roles to be reversed she doubted that she would have ever kneeled down, asking for his hand in marriage.
As time went along she recognized that the sting was more of jealousy than anything else. She hated Troy but only for a few weeks. And perhaps more because he had favored another girl than the fact that he did not love her. Her spirit was resilient. This was facilitated by the knowledge that she was squarely to blame for much of the trouble between herself and Troy.
Troy, however, was completely miserable.
Bobbie Rae had not visited him anymore. He had completely lost contact with her.
His parents were humiliated by his actions. His father had muttered something about his failure as a father.
His job, one of his few sources of confidence and bravado, was at risk: Two customers had reported the incident with his fiancee. He had to appear before the City's Master Librarian to explain his perspective.
Both he and his father's income were at risk.
His fiancee had moved away. She had yet to try to contact him.
He had not pursued the matter.
His self-esteem was non-existent.
If there was any redeeming features to his situation it was that he had learned an important lesson: He would never again allow fear of conflict to compromise his honesty.
Perhaps thirty-seven was too late of an age to come to such a realization.
Still, if things went according to the law of averages, and if he did not take up smoking, he had another fifty years or so of life to apply this lesson, he thought to himself dryly.
More than anything else, however, Troy was brokenhearted.
Time had proven to him that he was in love with a girl who, when falling in love with, he had met on only one occasion. He recognized that most perceptions of love at first sight are illusions. But he had proven, through time and letters, that his may have been an exception. Why that particular girl? He would probably never know.
Whatever had happened he knew that he had to have the strength to drag himself out of this hole that he had dug for himself.
He had started by putting an end to writing stories.
He threw away the few tokens of her that could serve to open the fresh wounds: Her handwritten application for the library card. The note she had left when returning the National Geographic more than a year before.
He really did not have much else.
He wished her well in life.
Now, if only he could begin to live his.
* * *
The unseasonably cold September had carried on thru October and November.
But early December had been different.
A southeasterly front had formed in equatorial Atlantic Ocean and had sluggishly pushed its way up, hugging the east coast all along the way. Temperatures were breaking the sixty degree barrier regularly. Some had decided to taking to the Naval Academy's public golf course in T-shirts. Others had decided to break open their speedboats and go for a rare December ride on the Chesapeake.
The sailors, of course, were too smart to be fooled. Though the weather may have seemed relatively balmy, they knew that water temperatures followed a more predictable pattern and that any exposure to the waters of the Chesapeake could prove catastrophic. No sailboats could be seen in the early December rendition of summer water sports.
Troy always preferred it to be colder outside when working at the library. It gave it an air of coziness and familiarity that bordered on the quaint. And these days he could use anything that provided a sense of comfort.
The last few weeks had been particularly difficult. Other than his parents and some high school acquaintances, he had few friends. Most of his and his fiance's friends had broken contact with both of them after the break-up.
He had never particularly enjoyed their company. Their social gatherings were forced displays of public affection for him and his fiancee. He had always wondered it would have been like to go out with someone he had really loved. He had been envious of couples who had obvious delight in each other's company. In mimicking their affections he had only increased the emptiness in his heart. He had to be ever cautious with his words and actions. And since his fiancee sensed the absence of genuine pleasure in mutual company, any misspoken joke or offhand comment would rapidly take a serious tone with untoward consequences. She was extremely defensive and not without reason.
Good riddance, he would think of the get togethers. But memories of the past have a way of favoring the few bright moments over the numerous dark ones.
Troy would regularly struggle with the little things that would jog his memory: Music was particularly powerful. One of their few genuine mutual passions was music. Every time he would hear a favorite tune of theirs it would give him pause. Often he would even shed a tear. They had never been enemies or disliked each. Maybe it would have been easier if they had.
December was always one of the slowest months in the library.
But this year had been different. Anne Arundel County had decided to build an extension to the library in the form of a coffee shop and bookstore. The library, after all, was located in prime real estate, right in the middle of the compact downtown area. It was walking distant from the Maryland State Capital and St. John's College, and only a short bike ride (albeit a hilly one) from the Naval Academy. As one of the oldest libraries in the country it commanded enough recognition to be registered as a Historic Site. The fact that it had been a pet project of Benjamin Franklin's only increased its desirability as a destination for many an out of town visitor.
The county, in a cash crunch, and making no bones about the fact that they had stolen the idea from other more well known companies' playbooks, had wisely decided to add a section where visitors could browse the library or bookshop, perhaps purchase a book, or sit down and read a few chapters over a cup of chamomile tea or, as the season were, hot apple cider. Unlike the rest of the library, particular attention was payed to amenities such as temperature control and lighting.
The coffee shop had a separate entrance so that the visitor could easily bypass the sometimes extremes of temperature and damp odors of the library and gain entrance to the bookstore which was perched about thirty feet above the cathedral like library. There was enough space that a third level could have been constructed, if needed.
A customer could go directly to the bookstore, purchase and sit down to enjoy a cup of coffee with a magnificent view of the library below and the Chesapeake harbor and the State Capital visible beyond the extensive windows. One could almost imagine a budding Capote sitting in one of those seats, sipping on espresso after espresso as he would contrive his next web of delight.
It had all proven to be a brilliant financial move. The bookstore/coffee shop had opened in the spring of the year after Troy and Bobbie Rae had met. Though at first more of a curiosity, within a couple of months the number of visitors had doubled. Within four months additional coffee shop space had to be opened. By November parking had started to become a real problem. On the Friday after Thanksgiving there were more sales in that particular bookstore than the two busiest bookstores in Annapolis Mall combined.
Troy wished he could get a cut of the sales. But instead he was greeted with the busiest December on record for the library. Were it not for the fact that he actually enjoyed his job it would have been a nightmare.
The city, once again demonstrating its economic acumen, realized that you do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. You take good care of it. And so it came that a new assistant was hired to work directly under Troy's supervision.
Her name was Kelly and she had graduated from the University of Maryland the spring of that same year. She was from Cape St. Claire, where Troy and his parents lived.
She immediately hit it off with Troy. She was an avid reader and loved to discuss books with him. She was also a quick learner and very efficient at work. She helped Troy immensely as the number of visitors at the library, even in December, was becoming too much for only one Assistant Librarian. She had a general cheerfulness about her that seemed contagious.
Nor was she not easy on the eyes. She had actually been approached by one of the coaches about her interest in being a cheerleader while walking to class one morning.
Students and customers routinely made an extra effort to catch a glance at her. She was striking. Tall, with auburn hair, her natural physique elicited the extra attention of men and women who came in contact with her.
Perhaps she was friendly or maybe she had a dash of flirtatiousness, but others would have sworn that she had developed at least a scintilla of attraction for Troy.
This was quite an oddity because to most objective individuals it was obvious that Troy's physical attributes, while undoubtedly not subpar, was not routinely a source of inspiration for most women who came in contact with him.
There was something about him that she had found interesting, almost captivating. Something which at first had gradually piqued her attention. Something that gravitated her in his direction.
That something was Troy's apparent obliviousness.
Kelly was used to men feigning attraction. She could immediately detect those who pretended to not notice her.
But it was not often that she would interact with men who truly did not appear to demonstrate at least a superficial attraction for her.
Troy appeared to have been one of these.
* * *
The temporary reprieve from winter was over by the time the second week of December had arrived.
And just in time:
For there are few more beautiful places on the face of this earth than the City of Annapolis during the Christmas season.
The entire downtown area was decorated with Christmas lights. The downtown area is not large, encompassing an area of four by six city blocks in a circular pattern around the State Capital and is surrounded by the Naval Academy and St. John's College. None of the buildings, save for the adjacent State Capital, are more than three stories high.
The State Capitol's front lawn itself was turned into a massive Christmas tree.
There seemed to be a Salvation Army donation drop-off bucket at every other street corner.
One could smell the apple cider and cinnamon emanating from the coffee shops while walking down the streets.
While much shopping was going on, the task did not seem to overwhelm those walking the streets. Annapolitans seemed to be in a more festive and less hurried mood when walking through their small downtown. The sound of laughter was gently muffled by the now increasingly frequent snowfalls. The Academy, St. John's, and State Capital each had a skylight directed upward. Whenever it snowed they would coordinate to triangulate the beams over Main Street in downtown. Passerbys walking on the cobblestone roads of downtown could look upward and see the snow drifting downward, reflecting the beams from the skylight, as if putting on the high beams while driving through a blizzard. It was enchanting and hypnotic.
Both the Naval Academy and St. John's choirs were regularly putting on outdoor performances.
But undoubtedly the most beautiful and unique feature of Annapolis in Christmas is the Susquehanna Outdoor Skating Rink located between the downtown pier and the Academy. It actually stands on Academy grounds but was donated to the city as a token of the Academy's gratefulness to the citizens of Annapolis.
It is vast, almost the size of a football field.
It sits on Auer Cliff, one hundred twenty-two feet above the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean. At night floodlights engulf the rink, and by extenstion the cliffs below, allowing the skaters to catch a glimpse of the howling wintry Atlantic while skating and listening to one of many eclectic Christmas songs on the loudspeakers imbedded within its perimeter walls.
More recently a walkway was carved within the cliff which allowed the adventurous to walk down and get close enough to the Atlantic so as to be sprayed upon on even the most tranquil days. It is a treacherous trek full of warning signs. But there had been great popular interest and the city had finally acquiesced.
Susquehanna Rink is frequented by Annapolitans of all walks of life. Families with children barely old enough to walk frequent it during the weekends. Would be lovers go there on a first date on a given weeknight in hopes of kindling a fire. It is often on this rink that they timidly hold hands for the first time. Young boys still in middle school have their parents drop them off or ride their bikes so they can meet up like a pack of young lion cubs and roam the rink. Young girls holding hands with each other, giggling as each takes a turn falling on the ice. The brokenhearted or rugged individualists who enjoy the clarity of mind afforded by skating in the outdoors as a brisk salty wind blows in their face.
About a hundred feet off, on southwest end of the rink is a small pastry shop, somewhat uncreatively called The Pastry Shoppe by its long-time owner, that is home to the best pies on either side of the Mississippi. Few things build up the appetite like an hour on the skating rink. Like the small fish that feed on the remnants of food between a shark's teeth, The Pastry Shoppe is the chief beneficiary of its coexistence with the Rink. Without a doubt, however, it also enhances the skating. At least a fraction of the rink's denizens go there in anticipation of visiting The Pastry Shoppe afterwards.
And so Susquehanna Rink welcomes all.
Few leave it without an increment in their level of happiness.
* * *
It was seven nights before Christmas Eve.
Troy had finished work as the library, though not the bookstore and coffee shop, was now closing earlier in anticipation of Christmas and had decided to make a dash for Susquehanna Rink before going home. The rink had opened when he was seven years old. His parents had taken him and his sister often. Skating came naturally to him and although he never played on a high school or college hockey team he had played a year of club hockey while at Anne Arundel Community College.
He enjoyed skating by himself and during the winter months, when the rink was open, he would visit at least once a week.
It was almost seven o'clock and the sun had already been vanquished by a luminous moon.
He carried his skates in his duffle bag during the twenty-five minute walk between the library and the rink.
Thankfully the rink was so vast that it rarely became congested. His favorite thing to do was to simply accelerate down the stretches and into the turns, angling himself as close as possible to the frozen surface. He also loved the music. The exhilaration eliminated all distractions.
The night started with clear skies and a full moon. Its reflection on the rink and the Atlantic's mist was breathtaking. The Ocean, tugged by the moon, was violently pounding against the rocky shore. The spray from the Ocean easily reached those staring down while skating on the rink above.
Far away the blinking sultry lights from the five mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge, one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World, connecting Maryland's Eastern and Western shores could be seen.
The rink was sparkling tonight. The Zamboni machine must have been operating with all gears in full blast.
It made for a fast pace, especially as Troy would pick up speed when approaching the turns.
He usually spent an hour or so before going for his favorite pie at The Pastry Shoppe along with a cup of cappacino.
He felt close to normal for a couple of hours afterwards and if lucky would be in bed before melancholy would start taking over.
Troy had just finished his second lap, had slowed a bit to avoid a couple of skaters when, as he was down to a plodding pace, he felt a tap on his left shoulder.
Thinking someone had accidentally brushed him he ignored it at first.
Five seconds later he felt another tap, this time a bit more rushed and intense, on the same shoulder.
Mildly annoyed, he turned around.
* * *
Troy had never been religious. Experience had taught him that there was, in all likelihood, an overarching force greater than he could ever come close to comprehending. Of the presence of this force he had little doubt. And if you wanted to call it God, then by all means go ahead. But he was not sure if this force cared much about the day to day lives of others.
But if God, of whose presence he was certain, were to have made a heaven then surely this moment was the closest thing he would ever experience in this life.
It was Bobbie Rae.
She gave him that same half smile she had given him that sweltering August day two summers ago when she had walked into his life.
She was wearing a pink wool hat which almost completely covered the golden curls she had packed underneath. Her hair was so thick she could barely fit her locks.
The hat came down on either side and ended immediately above her ears which she had covered with a pair of light green ear muffs. She was wearing a bandana across her forehead. It was drenched with a salty combination of sweat and ocean mist.
The green eyes, those windows into her angelic soul, whose iris' spasmodic motion had first enthralled him, whose gaze had flirted with his being, whose image was the last thing he thought about before falling asleep the last eighteen months, were focused on him.
And unlike their first encounter this time she did not smile through him or around him. This time she smiled at him.
Her long lashes had a hue of frost on their tips.
Her blemishless face was flushed, almost beet red.
She was wearing a pare of pink gloves and a crimson jacket.
His heart was racing, but thankfully the unnatural surge of adrenaline which would have normally accompanied such an encounter was overwhelmed by the natural surge of speed skating. It made him less uneasy. Perhaps a tad bit more confident.
She was the star of the Show and God, its director, had decided to let her have the spotlight to herself: The full moon was focused on her resplendent face.
Her breath steamed visibly as it streamed through her nostrils and mouth.
"Hi Troy," she said without any fanfare but with tranquility.
"Hi Bobbie Rae," he, too, responded calmly, as if he had just finished a cup of chamomile tea.
Clearly less comfortable on skates than Troy, Bobbie Rae's knees jostled and her arms were slightly extended as she tried to maintain her balance.
"Been a while..." her voice drifted.
"Yup, it has." He nodded, somewhat awkwardly.
They were now walking on their skates and heading to the periphery of the rink where the slower skaters clustered.
Bobbie Rae started holding the perimeter wall with her right hand as they walked in a counterclockwise direction around the rink. He was to her left, closer to the center of the rink. They were almost touching.
"A lot's happened, hasn't it?" she said looking at him. It was clear she wanted to let him know that she knew more than he thought she knew.
He bent his head downward, staring at the tracks made by the various skaters' blades.
"Look at me," she commanded.
He was startled.
"Why are you always so afraid to look me in the eyes?" she asked with genuine wonder. She had stopped walking and was now hugging the perimeter wall with both hands. "Do I make you uneasy?" she asked.
He gulped a nervous gulp. He had wanted to tell her something but had never had the confidence to do so. Time, though, was slipping away. How many more times could he count on the "next encounter"?
He almost did not hear himself when he blurted, "Your beauty makes me uneasy."
She moved her head in a state of complete bewilderment.
Neither said a word or moved a muscle.
They were staring each other in the eyes.
And then she giggled. "Now Troy Anthony, I believe that's the biggest, corniest bull I've heard all day long. And believe me, people are feeding me bull all the time," she said, her charming Southern drawl purposely more pronounced than ever before.
He had never told her his middle name.
It was now or never.
"You know Bobbie Rae, it's been a shitty year and a half," he raised his voice ever so slightly. She probably did not even notice.
She looked at him, not saying a word. She, too, had been waiting for this moment. For Troy to finally speak at least a fraction of what had been on his mind.
But then he clamped down again.
She wisely decided to change the topic. Only by her easing up would he open up.
"My ankles are getting sore, why don't you do a couple more laps and then we can walk down to the Ocean," she suggested, referring to the track from the rink down to the Ocean.
He knew he would feel more calm after a couple of more runs around the rink.
She watched him from the seats as she changed back into her boots.
As he skated he would occasionally throw a glance in her direction. She was sitting in the stands, her elbows on her knees, slightly slouched over with her hands against her chin. She never took her eyes off of him.
He completed three laps. Once done he quickly changed, put both their skates in his duffel bag, and threw it over his right shoulder.
He had been down the path dozens of times but it was her first time going down to the bosom of the Atlantic Ocean.
On a night like this, with the ferocity of the waves, the pavement was quite slippery.
Sure enough they were about fifty feet into the dark, misty, track when Bobbie Rae slipped and fell. Her right hand cushioned her fall.
"You OK?" Troy asked with concern.
She smiled back at him. "I'm a tough gal," she said as she held her left hand out for Troy.
He was only a split second late, but still Troy was a bit embarrassed that he had not offered assistance before her asking.
He gently held her hand and helped her get up. It was their first physical contact since the sweaty handshakes in the library.
They walked side by side without another word for a minute.
The moonlight reflected over the Ocean. Bobbie Rae had always been afraid of the Ocean at night. But tonight it looked like an old friend as the moonlight reflected off it.
He broke the silence.
Without breaking stride he turned his head in her direction.
"You know my fiancee broke up with me," he said. It was one of the first times that he had thought of his ex-fiancee without feeling like breaking into tears.
She looked at him, gently nodding but saying nothing.
"Do you know why she broke up with me?" he asked. He stopped walking.
They gazed at each other in the cold December moonlight. Saltwater was spraying over both their faces. A sentimental onlooker, not knowing any better, and perhaps overwhelmed by the natural beauty surrounding them, would have said that for the briefest of moments they seemed entranced in each other.
"I'm sorry?" He was incredulous.
It was her turn.
"I know why she broke up with you." She refused to elaborate.
"Did Melissa tell you about everything?" he wanted to know. How he hated that girl.
"No," she said calmly.
"Then how..." His voice drifted away in a sea of incomprehension.
"Your fiancee, she wrote me." Bobbie Rae reached into her jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. She had brought it because she knew she was going to have this conversation on this night. When she opened it Troy immediately recognized his fiancee's handwriting.
"What does it say?" he asked, not believing his eyes.
"It says not to tell you what it says except to tell you that she has forgiven you. And that IF, and she capitalized it and underlined it, IF you and I were meant to be then it would be selfish of her to be the reason we do not. She also wanted me to tell you she is tired of being selfish." She waited for Troy to comprehend the enormity of what had just transpired.
"I just wanted to pass along her message."
"Troy, she is never going to contact you again." She folded the letter and put it back in her jacket. She had kept her promise to his fiancee. Which was more than he had managed to do, he thought bitterly.
In a way he wished that Melissa had told Bobbie Rae what had happened. Because that would have implied that Bobbie Rae would have at least learned about his short stories.
But he did not know Melissa well enough. She was too sinister and conniving.
Perhaps his fiancee had told Bobbie Rae about the stories.
He asked her point blank.
"Did she tell you about my stories?" he asked.
Bobbie Rae showed no surprise.
"No she did not." She replied flatly, without any emotion.
They continued walking another winding fifty feet. The trail was about a thousand feet long as it snaked and zig-zagged across the cliff, gradually descending towards the Ocean.
They could hear the joyful screams of the skaters above.
Troy stopped in his tracks. He gently put his hands on Bobbie Rae's shoulders and turned her in his direction so that they could see each other face to face.
"Look, Bobbie Rae, I know that this has not been easy. And God knows we have plenty of differences here between the two of us. Shoot, I had a fiancee up to a few months ago and you were dating a Midshipman last time I checked. And we weren't exactly classmates in school. Heck, we are not something anyone expects to happen..." He stopped. This was not going the way he had hoped it would when they were silently walking a few moments earlier.
She needed to say what had been on her mind for far too long.
"Troy, don't be what your fiancee said you are: Please don't be selfish. Look at where I'm coming from. I lost my love, my best friend in war. It may seem like something that happened a long time ago. But I'm still haunted by it. The hurt is real, Troy. I'm going to sound cruel, but losing him was ten times worse what you went through." She was trying to hold back her tears.
"At least you have closure," she continued. "At least you know that your ex-fiancee is living her life. And probably doing a better job at it than you are." She knew she would regret some of what she was saying but, like Troy, Bobbie Rae realized that these were things that needed to be said.
They were quiet again. The waves were picking up below.
Troy did not take his eyes off Bobbie Rae's face.
A tear cascaded down her cheek.
He took a towel out of his duffel bag and tenderly wiped her face. She did not protest.
"Bobbie Rae, I've never been a big believer in God. I'm not sure if He's sitting there analyzing every move that I make, handing out merits or demerits. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that there is a Force which is bigger than all of us. And this Force, or Karma, or whatever you want to call it has blessed us with life.
"Look at us. Here we are standing under the full moon, with the Atlantic Ocean below. As far as I know we are healthy, and have loving families. Don't you think God would be unhappy that you, his child, has been given all this and yet you are still not strong enough to overcome that sadness which has been brought upon you? I really think He only gives us one shot at this thing called Life. A hundred years from now you and I will be gone. And another couple will be standing by the Ocean, both of them brokenhearted. What would you tell them? You damn well know the answer: You would tell them to enjoy and savor every moment without harming another of God's creatures. If you can do that, then you have achieved Happiness.
''My biggest fear in life is someday as I'm laying in my grave and God asks me 'Did you do it right?', that I would say no. But I look around and so many people are living it the wrong way. It's awful. But you and I, I know we can do it the right way.
"You know Bobbie Rae, I got one other thing I wanna tell you. You may be scratching your head wondering if all this writing and jazz isn't just some silly phase I'm going thru. If it is, it's lasted damn near two years now. And I don't know why it's you. I just know, that as messed up and complicated as everything is, I just know in my heart of hearts, that you will never find someone who will make you happier.
"If you and I were to ever think it would be easy for us to make it work then we would both be idiots. But there are real obstacles and then again there are man-made ones.
''I'm not someone who cares about name or religion. I would change either without any hesitation to be with someone I love. That's because I know neither defines me. What defines me is this,'' he tapped his head, ''and this.'' He tapped his chest. Each twice.
''And now you know how those two feel…''
He was done. He had told her what he had been trying to convey in every one of his stories. There was little else that he cared to do or say.
She looked up at him with her heavenly eyes. He could see the moon's reflection in them.
She took her wool hat off, gently shaking her head. Her locks flew in every direction. The moonlight gave them a bluish silver hue. She was absolutely glowing.
Many years later, as he lay in his deathbed, Troy would recall Bobbie Rae's image at that precise moment. It would be his last thought before dying.
Bobbie Rae had much that she wanted to tell him:
It had been a long winter in her life, too. The hurt of losing her best friend and lover to war had absolutely devestated her.
She had just gradually begun to allow her heart to open itself, to allow herself to enjoy sunrises and sunsets and poems again when she had found out her new boyfriend had befriended another. Harsh, hurtful words had been exchanged. Her sense of self-worth had been severly challenged.
Surely her heart could never heal after two such devestating events.
Someone needed to throw her a life raft. She prayed more than ever before.
And then, as if by divine intervention, she received the first of those letters…
Three weeks before the dreadful news of her new friend's infidelity, three weeks after moving out of Melissa's apartment, Melissa had sent Bobbie Rae a short story to consider for publication.
Bobbie Rae had not gotten to reading it until after learning the news of her boyfriend's disloyalty. And only then because she desperately needed a distraction.
But, even in deep despair, Bobbie Rae had noticed something: The guitar player of the first story had been trying to complete Bach's "Jesus, Ode to Man's Desiring". Only a few weeks earlier she had checked out a National Geographic to see if Bach, like Beethoven, had been deaf. There were only three people who knew of this: She, the Plebe she was dating, and Troy.
No one else.
Melissa, it turned out, had been an aspiring and frustrated writer. And Bobbie Rae was now working for a renowned publishing agency headquartered in New York City.
Bobbie Rae had read much of Melissa's older work. She simply was not wired to be a writer.
By now Bobbie Rae was in the depths of despair, having ended a second relationship which had started with so much hope.
Was love truly a mirage? Did it really exist on this bleak planet? How could it be nurtured in the midst of so many forces against it?
Those stories gave her an unequivocal answer: Yes. Love is real, and so is goodness of heart. But finding it requires journey through an often winding path.
Melissa's well-documented failings as a writer made her next two submissions, which made Bobbie Rae fall in love for the first time since the death of her boyfriend, even more suspicious. The question which beckoned Bobbie Rae: Fall in love with whom?
And so on that fateful summer afternoon she decided to test the hypothesis that Troy was the author.
Perhaps a bit cruelly, but quite brilliantly, she let it be known to Troy at the library that she was dating a Plebe. In reality they had broken up, of course.
The tone of the following stories shifted dramatically: The melancholy and aching of the writer was apparent. Only then did she know for certain that Troy was their author.
She made a difficult decision to let the charade go on. Melissa kept sending her the stories. And Bobbie Rae kept raving about them to Melissa, asking her to send a few more. Bobbie Rae realized she required nine or ten stories to complete a manuscript which would get a serious chance at publication.
She had visited Troy at the library infrequently but often enough to keep him guessing. She felt guilty but realized that, Troy, too, had been dreaming of a masterpiece. This would be her gift to him.
But in spite of her brilliance Bobbie Rae had neglected one important fact: Troy, however unlovingly, was engaged to be married. Such a commitment could not be ignored. Bobbie Rae knew that because of the peculiarity of Melissa's mailing address Troy would never realize he was mailing stories to his fiancee's new apartment.
She had been there that afternoon when Troy's fiancee had confronted him in the library. She would often go to the bookstore and gaze at him from above and at a distance. He could never see her from that angle.
Everyone had heard his fiancee's screams.
When she had stormed out Bobbie Rae realized that the game must come to an end.
She stopped visiting Troy.
Her conscience forbade her from approaching Troy, an engaged man, even if his fiancee had broken off with him. Perhaps it was subconscious, but Bobbie Rae realized she had crossed a line when by unwittingly toying with Troy she had abetted in the disentanglement of his engagement.
And so all their lives were in a holding pattern until Bobbie Rae received the letter from Troy's fiancee. She knew Bobbie Rae's name and address from the envelopes. It was only after the letter that Bobbie Rae felt she could approach Troy.
And so here they were.
Bobbie Rae was nearly omniscient, but she, in turn, had been unaware that Troy had remembered her description of her boyfriend's death.
That he had remembered the poem she had never received.
He often thought of the sense of joy which overcame him when he simply looked at her during their casual conversations. Her sight was the essence of his happiness.
If God gave him a choice: Long life or Bobbie Rae, which would he choose?
And so the poem:
If God above would say to me
"Ten thousand breaths I give to thee
And thereupon there shall be none"
Each breath earth's orbit 'bout the sun
But each time that I see your face
My breath's taken without a trace
Not one- or ten-hundred times,
But one-hundred one-hundred times
And so He hath offered the chance
To live ten thousand years or glance
In your direction for one bit
But then this planet I must quit
I tell my Lord: "My choice is She!"
For when I gaze my eyes on thee
The joy that your sight brings to me
Exceeds lives of eternity...
"Troy, let's keep walking down. This is what Christmas weather is supposed to be: Frightful and delightful!" She was excited as she grabbed his left arm.
They walked to the end of the path.
The Ocean was drenching them both.
That was when Troy realized, for the first time, that despite the showering he had taken from the Atlantic, there was no itching or rashes. The curse that had prevented him from working in the Bay with his father was no longer.
He put his left arm around her shoulders.
By guiding him away from the waters of the Chesapeake and into the arms of the library what had been a curse may have been the greatest blessing Troy had ever been bestowed with.
Maybe God did care, after all.
He turned his head to his left and stared at her.
"You know The Pastry Shoppe has the best coconut pie in the world," he said calmly and confidently.
She looked at him without saying a word.
"Roberta Rachel, will you share a slice of coconut pie with me?" He smiled.
She kept her upward gaze at his face, slowly clenching her fists against his chest.
The moonlight continued its serenade.
And then she smiled back.
McKenna Sharrer is from Pennsylvania. She is currently a student at Full Sail University who is working towards her bachelors degree in Creative Writing. She has no previous publications.
Trying to Change
Having a room full of people listen to your every word sounds like it would be wonderful; I thought so, too. It used to be fun and exciting when I first started my career as a motivational speaker. I thought I would be able to make a difference in people’s lives, but so far that hasn’t happened. It’s been ten years of me speaking to hundreds of people at a time. Now, I’ve been reduced to speaking at middle and high schools. I’ve been beginning to think ten years is enough time for trying to help people. Today’s high school speech was no different.
“Welcome everyone, I’m so excited to be able to talk to you all. Before I start, I would love to tell you a little about myself. My name is Sherry and I have been doing public speaking for many years now. I’ve learned so many lessons in my lifetime and I feel it’s helpful to share them with you.” I looked around the auditorium full of students to find maybe ten percent of them looking at me. I continue anyway.
“Now who in this room has had an experience so intense that it changed who they were?” Nothing. No response.
“I know I have. I can remember almost fifteen years ago when I was at my college graduation. I remember that day perfectly. The sun was shining, almost blinding, as I walked across a wooden stage, just like this one, to receive my degree in psychology.” I saw someone throw a crumpled-up piece of paper which landed just in front of the stage I was standing on. I hesitated, but continued.
“My father died that day. It happened so fast. Just like that, one of the happiest days of my life turned miserable.” I heard the faint sound of someone popping their gum.
“I didn’t go outside for weeks after that. I felt as though everything I had accomplished was for nothing. Nothing mattered to me after that day.” All was quiet in the audience except for the occasional snicker or laugh. I tried to hold it together.
“After months of wallowing in my sorrows and feeling so hopeless, I decided I needed to change. I realized that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t getting me anywhere. I started going out and having fun again because I knew that was what my dad would have wanted.” A brown-haired boy with the brightest and whitest shirt I’ve ever seen spoke. “Why don’t you come have a good time with me, Sherry?” he said. I froze as the rest of the students laughed. My heart felt like it had been ripped in half. I thought to myself, why are you even doing this. You can’t help anyone. You can hardly even help yourself.
“Anyway, I want you all to take one thing away from what I’ve said. If your life isn’t taking you where you want to be, change it.” More laughs.
“I hope you all have a great rest of your day. Thank you all for listening.” I raced off the stage and threw my notes to the ground. I was done with motivational speaking; I could not handle the people making me feel like a joke. I grabbed my water bottle and headed for the door when I heard someone say my name. I turned around to see a shorter girl whose hair covered more than half of her face standing, looking at me.
“I’m sorry to bother you. Do you have time to talk?” she said.
“It’s no bother at all,” I said.
“I just wanted to say thank you.” Her hands intertwined with a lock of her wavy hair.
“Thank me? For what?”
“For the past few years I’ve been dealing with things that I’d rather not talk about. I’ve been depressed and my hope has slowly been draining. I’ve been listening to your speeches recently and they’ve helped me more than anything else ever has. Thank you.”
I looked at her eyes which filled with tears more and more with every second that past. You could see the sadness in her face. I wanted to give her the biggest hug and tell her everything would be okay.
“I am so sorry you’re having a tough time. I hope everything works out. Like I say, even if you can’t change the situation, you can always change your attitude towards it,” I said.
She smiled at me before walking away.
I made my way backstage, crouched down, and picked up the papers I had dropped.