Rekha Valliappan writes / blogs in multiple forms and genres. She lives in New York. She has an M.A. in English Literature fromMadras University and an LL.B. from the University of London. Her influences are issues of social justice, people, nature and places - real or imagined. She is fascinated with the macabre and exploring fantasy, history and mystery. She has had the opportunity to travel North America, Europe and Asia. Her short story 'The Copper Amulet and The Ginger Cat' won Boston Accent Lit's 2nd Prize in their Annual Short Story Contest 2016. Her other prose pieces are forthcoming or featured in Indiana Voice Journal, Third Flatiron, Friday Flash Fiction, Scarlet Leaf Review, 100 Voices Anthology and Intellectual Refuge among others. Born in Bombay she is actively involved in community service and looks to Asia for inspiration in her writing.
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"It's a bonny thing," said Holmes holding the stone against the light. "Just
see how it glints and sparkles...blue in shade...it has already a sinister
history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and
several robberies brought about for the sake of this...crystallized charcoal..."
- Arthur Conan Doyle
A star rode the heavens over a hundred years ago - the Queen of the mother
lode. She streaked through the midnight blue of the firmament into folklore -
an indigo star sapphire, little known at the time she appeared but rising to
such priceless rarity as to be unmatched; in color so intense as to outshine
the darkest hues of the deepest oceans; in radiance so bright as to light up
an entire palace; in luminosity so stellar as to magnify astral galaxies; in
etymology so Sophoclean as to invite crime. A rare and sinister jewel - loved
and feared, reviled and admired - mined from centuries old bedrock and
shale deep within the crusted bowels of the earth. Some people would
affectionately call her 'Neela / Blue'. Others Bombay Blue. The name would
stick, carrying down the ages - this 'Jewel of the Crown.'
One monsoon day in July this tale began, a day in chronology most
casual storytellers recall. It was the day an unknown gem obtained its
comet's tail of grandiosity to streak in a fiery orb, and then just as suddenly
as it emerged to mysteriously vanish into the ether in a puff of blue opium
mist - here one moment, gone the next. Pffft! The inexplicable simplicity of
its disappearance could only be thought of as illusionary, like the classic
Indian rope trick - first the rope, then the assistant, then the magician. Till
voila! All re-appeared. Hypnotic thrall? Perhaps.
Only in this case the smoke and mirage sleight of hand displayed a
certain trickery and thievery too weighty to be taken lightly. Bombay Blue
after all was a priceless stone capable of carrying far-reaching consequences.
Two fateful days would solemnly unfold to reveal a stain smudging the
archives like a blot of blue ink. Under cover of the magic veil it would bring
a motley crowd to the crossroads. They had been on disparate tracks living a
helter skelter existence in a Dionysian bacchic fury of sorts.
Torrential rains raged that day creating swollen rivers in flood. With
rising sea tides the gushing waters spilled onto roadways, entering homes
and snarling daily life. Although relief from the heat and dust was the much
needed deliverance from the unrelenting sun, what the deluge did in fact do
was provide the seminal backdrop for the Trimurti Triumvirate - the Troika
The first was the annual 'Guru Purnima' festival of the full moon,
dedicated to the Teacher and Knowledge being celebrated with the usual
gusto and religiosity. The second was the arrival of a new Director out of
King's Cross to take stewardship of the prestigious Bombay Museum of
Antiquities - a dark somber building with stone interiors, reticent to spill
secrets from within its textured confines. The third was the announcement
from Whitehall of HH the Prince of Wales' imminent state visit.
It was widely rumored the real cause of the visit was to finagle
Bombay Blue to London and see the gem properly installed with honors
befitting her star status in the 'Durbar Room' on the Isle of Wight. If the
Queen could not go to India. India would be brought to the Queen and some
such rarity of definition.
Three catalytic events suddenly found themselves fated to coincide -
one celebratory, another promising, the third controversial. Three disparate
and divergent happenings met to clash then merge like a Triveni Sangam
confluence of three holy rivers - Ganges-Saraswati-Yamuna - to regurgitate.
Clear, brackish, hidden.
Tipu Sultan's metal sword of manifold skirmishes gleamed wickedly
from the far end of the spacious exhibits hall on the upper floor. The entire
staff was caught flat-footed that fatal day, sipping steaming hot Darjeeling
tea in new chinaware, as they welcomed the new Director into their midst.
Usually the morning ritual was masala chai spiced variety from the hawker
stall across the street. But today was special.
Pandemonium broke loose as panic set in. Maniacal fear like a Bengal
Tiger was unleashed to roam the city streets, at the conjuring skill of the
thievery, leaving no traces behind. This spread the aura of mysticism big
time, large scale. Gradually acrimony surfaced, when the stealth felt too
good to be true. Eventually all were befuddled. It felt like a medieval
morality play of everyman on a pilgrimage with a cast of characters who had
lost control of their underlying beliefs.
The narrow aisles, offices, the Great Room were feverishly searched.
They revealing nothing. All assemblage seemed untouched, inveigled with a
calm Grecian serenity of overruling destiny in pantomime as the ancient
artifacts paused reverentially. Only the blue sapphire was missing.
Neela Rai the Floor Supervisor ensconced on the upper floor was
exhausted. Hit by the bolt from the blue she had completed full inventory of
all objets d'art for the fifth time that afternoon with nothing new to report.
The blue jewel had vanished. The empty glass display pedestal in which the
titillating gemstone resided lay serene as it always did - unbroken and
Only now it was empty.
Amidst the sea of others all else was intact - the black obelisk at the
far end; bronze tiger-coins predating the Indus Valley Harappa Civilization
at the other; two gigantic 'nandi' bulls in alabaster across; broken pieces of
miscellaneous dated clay pottery to the fore; a tribal silver talisman
blackened with age in the center and the ceiling to floor rich cloth hangings,
painted with colorful folk tales from the Panchatantra along the walls.
Neela returned to her desk cataloguing all minute details perceived
into leather bound ledgers which she carefully dated. She would have the
Report to prepare on the Remington typewriter with its misaligned keys,
which only she could disengage. It was her job, one she was good at. She
had better get to work. They would be needing her ledgers. They were a well
crafted work of art, containing measurements, drawings and designs, filled
with all manner of intricate details of every entry and stock. She was proud
of her work with every exhibit.
While a cold fear gripped her at the treachery of the disappearance,
the significance of the auspicious coincidental date was not missed - Guru
Purnima. This was a day of worship manifesting Wisdom and Abundance.
The jewel would turn up she consoled herself uneasily. How could it be
The inconsolable part was that she might have to flimsily hang on by
the skin of her teeth for one more day. Just one day more - tomorrow - when
she would retire from two decades of unblemished service as the first female
She shuddered at the thought, mind numb with despair, casting an
experienced eye around through the murky afternoon, willing the blue jewel
to appear. She knew this could not be. The Guru the Teacher was leading.
He would show the way when He was ready, when all would be unmasked.
The rest was unsubstantiated. She just knew.
Deep from within the alcove buttressed between two thick pillars, the
large stone statue of Lord Shiva in Repose from the ancient Gupta period
gazed at her unblinking with a fixed disconcerting stare. His third all-seeing
eye signaled a blazing light that grew intensely red and inflamed. Neela
shivered involuntarily consumed by the fire.
She turned away to hide her agitation, thankfully distracted when she
spotted the Records Clerk moving furtively.
"What is it Bannerjee?" she called out firmly.
"Nothing Madam," Bannerjee gave a start jumping awkwardly
sideways. Caught red-handed hovering outside the main office door he did
his best to convey the impression he had been latching the window shutters
against the pelting rain. But the worry on his countenance was apparent.
The new Director had been closeted with the antiquary for over an
hour, venting his spleen like a puritanical Renaissance monk incensed by
despotic rule and corruption. This was clearly not a good sign. Breaking out
into cold sweat was called for. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
"Tiny bad luck stone," Bannerjee muttered accusingly under his
breath for want of something to say. He felt more beset with guilt at being
caught eavesdropping. He kept his gaze averted, avoiding looking directly at
"Is that what you heard Sir Brownlow say?" Neela cornered him
fiercely. "You really shouldn't be listening at keyholes. And its not a small
gemstone. 600 carats! That's very large."
"Sir saying mystery cannot solve till cow coming home..." Bannerjee
revealed unapologetically. He ignored her for the most part mumbling to
himself while jotting the phrase in his little notebook he had sewn by hand
out of loose pages, which he carried everywhere.
"Old wives tale, besides gems do not bring bad luck. Someone has taken it."
"Wife you say? People losing fingers and foots. Evil stone no good.
One fellow two eye digging out, other fellow full tongue pulling out."
"There you go spreading rumors again. Where do you pick up such
gory stories? We are in the age of science and reason. Don't you forget. We
have a duty to use our wisdom well."
"But Madam...evil eye walking by own magical power..." Bannerjee
rolled his eyes upwards in mock alarm, crossed them, then rotated them to
convey the horror of her stupidity.
"No 'buts'...and stop such foolish talk..." Neela felt overwhelmed with
"As you wish Madam....but evil gem not be coming back...."
"Gemstones don't walk away by themselves. It will return. It must."
"As you wish Madam...."
The overhead fans whirred slowly, struggling at each rotation. Each
blade creaked and grunted. Ordinarily their loud metallic sounds would have
drowned out all speech but on this day they could scarcely be heard above
the din of the rain pummeling the windows and crenellated stone parapets
The doors flew open. Sir Brownlow the new Director emerged,
impeccably suited to the hilt, keen to start out on the right foot on his very
first day in office but showing obvious strain at the trajectory of his
predicament. Blue eyes cold and gleaming, he had the dashing and debonair
air of a man in a hurry, but filled with a fury which had plainly but surely
replaced eagerness. Briskness had turned crisp as he swept a swift glance
around assessing the damage mentally in a single eagle swoop. Then having
made up his mind he punched the air wildly with his balled up fist in a
hammer throw, speechless and livid.
A gloomy silence prevailed by which time he considerably simmered
down. Gone was the pepped up fervor to conduct searches throughout the
building with the staff in tow. Their unnatural solicitousness had unraveled a
corresponding bellicosity in him which had turned largely belligerent. So he
had given up.
He suspected his entire office to be in on the mischief. They had the
luminous air of pranksters seeking to be engaged in unprecedented
tomfoolery arising from within the ranks, of the kind which he knew only
too well as an Old Etonian. He was acquainted with outmaneuvering all
manner of ragging in his heyday as a youth. His face reddened at the
Coupled with willful dereliction of duty they had all the markings of a
rather perfidious lot, he thought, especially the woman they called 'Blue.'
Nasty piece of work. Of them all she looked the most treacherously sly. He
rolled a suspicious eye on Neela. Thick bushy eyebrows rose an entire inch
across his mobile face as she trembling stood her ground, hovering in the
shadowed periphery of the shuttered windows. It galled his instincts that a
woman was actually permitted to work within these haloed interiors.
Invasion of a male bastion he conjectured. Whatever was the Board
thinking? Had they gone completely mad? Taken full leave of all senses?
This definitely required a correction - one he would attend posthaste. Make
no mistake he pondered. Moreover, given to handle the Crown's priciest
treasures? Not under his watch. Most confoundedly disagreeable business.
He would bring the lot to justice he surmised perplexed beyond recall.
It bore all the earmarks of 'an inside job' in his estimates - masterpiece of a
clever caper with a scorpion's blue sting. He knew the kind. He had
encountered several while on duty in the Crimea.
''I'll leave you to it," he signaled the antiquary, smartly turning on his
heels and departing without a word.
Jeejeebhoy nodded miserably. It was in his nature to sob unrestrained
like a high-velocity hot sulfur spring. The severe censure he had received
had caused lachrymosity to build. A tide of tears were chasing each other
thick and fast down his plump ruddy cheeks as the floodgates were released.
He needed pacifying.
Neela's motherly nature took over. She hurried to prepare more tea.
She could only guess. He had taken the full brunt of the Director's wrath.
They had heard snatches of the waspish tirade. A genuine wretchedness took
hold as she mixed milk, tea leaves and sugar while the rest respectfully
waited for weeping to subside.
Eventually Shiwde the young office boy plucked up sufficient courage
to pull the spotless white handkerchief embroidered with tiny pink daisies
peeping out of Jeejeebhoy's spotless jacket. He unceremoniously handed him
"The affront meted out to the British Empire will brook no mercy,"
Jeejeebhoy launched into directive as instructed, trying to sound haughty
like the Director, but failing miserably. He set about the task of getting the
ugly part of his job done. His voice quavered lamentably conducting the
staff meeting, outlining the many procedures.
The disgruntled staff looked unhappy. Worry clouded every
"...men may come and men may go, but brook be going forever...'
Bannerjee prattled obliviously.
"Will you be quiet?"
"Joining together ...qualities of merciful be not strain...Jolly good!"
With poetry cascading around his ears like the Bong Bong Falls in his
hometown, Bannerjee was the lone figure overjoyed at the overload.
"Last year on Guru Purnima day same mystery occurred" Deshpande
the Chief Clerk expressed with the air of one handed the divine revelation of
the Puranas, prodding the group to a place they did not want to re-visit. It
cast a dampener. Most of his pronouncements usually turned into full-
fledged Delphic Oracles as it turned out. Oxford-returned, with experience
as Vakeel in the law courts of Gopinagar in Bengal, he was contemptuously
dismissive of all around him with the messianic air of an amiable gargoyle.
He proceeded with careful explanation of his full-proof theories by
applying the 'Rule in Larkings Case', derived from Old Bailey records of a
notorious cat-burglar of Kensington, using three inkwells and all the quill
pens he could lay his hands on for diagram as illustration.
Ten minutes into the narrative all developed varying degrees of bigger
headaches and none could decipher what exactly it was Deshpande was so
effortlessly propounding. A deathly silence hovered broken only by the
whirring fans and the falling rain.
"We must do pooja prayers. Guru will set all right. How can you think
we can find the gem without God's help?" Neela comforted once all had
recovered from Deshpande's lecture. Glancing heavenwards she set her
teacup down and joined her palms in supplication to her late father in his
holy abode above. Teacher of the Vedas and alchemy it was to him she
turned at moments of deep sentiment, her reality of reincarnation obfuscated
by the deeper reality of a higher heaven in the pure journey of the soul which
she accepted as a result of her father's karmic samskaras pure deeds.
That divine intervention was needed by fibonacci sequence to attain
the higher mind was beyond reproach. Whether anyone was convinced of
her late father's role as the divine vehicle of intercession was another
question altogether. It proved too much for the amenable Neela to steer them
safely through the swamp, although persist she would. She must be patient.
"...evil tiny stone, how we can be looking?" Bannerjee grumbled
vacuously pulling his nose out of his notebook and trying to appear
"Last year Babu saying look for shining," Shiwde emphatically
reminded, the urban coyote in him crushing nervous agitation. Young in
years he was wondering what turn this new suspense would spin this time
around. It always did.
Babu was the kindly former Director, a septuagenarian devoted
to the study of Indian birds and the 1877 Hawthorn's Almanack on life in
London, forced upon ill health to retire to Stoke-on-Trent. They missed him.
The white handkerchief with the tiny pink embroidered daisies made a
"Forget Babu! He's gone. This year Sir saying mystery cannot solve
until holy cow coming home," Bannerjee vociferously insisted, determined
"Silence!" Jeejeebhoy blew his red nose noisily, tucking his
handkerchief away delicately. "Most unusual business I must say. Think of
the buzz. The scandal. The suspicion."
There was no question of that and with the Prince of Wales arriving.
All were suspect, especially Neela. Jeejeebhoy made that crystal clear,
coughing ominously, uncomfortable at meeting Neela's gaze.
"Needless to add, all retirement ceremonies tomorrow have been
forthwith suspended with immediate effect. No roll call of honors. No
certificates. No gifts," he emphatically reiterated, trying to look sympathetic.
Neela's heart sank like a stone. It was as she feared. Twenty years of
unblemished work was wiped out. She was returning to her quiet farm in her
hometown of Krishnapuram. She was looking to receive the yellow
parchment certificate bearing the insignia of Her Majesty, her name artfully
stencilled in gold cursive near the Director's seal and the final parting gift
awarded uniformly to all retiring staff - the fob watch set in metallic gold,
attached to a glittering link chain. She could not imagine where she would
hang it as her male counterparts did, buttonholed onto their waistcoats, or
strung into their pockets, glinting brightly. Perhaps it would hang shining
and heavy on her neck. Tears filled her eyes threatening to spill over. But
she would not cry. Not here. Not now.
The cow which had languidly wandered in one year ago from off the
streets was following the fruit-seller who had been beckoned into the
Museum by Babu to satisfy his penchant for alphonse mangoes. Staff were
huddled in the offices haggling three rupees worth. Appoos aroma pervaded
the air. No one saw the gentle brown bovine's trajectory till spotted by
Shiwde in the exhibits hall. No amount of pushing or prodding to dislodge
the animal prevailed. After a loud soulful 'moo' it settled comfortably on the
upper floor, blissfully content.
At someone's bright suggestion Shiwde was sent scuttling to get some
dried grass to entice the creature out. The bovine refused to budge, calmly
surveying his surroundings with doe-eyed languor. Hours passed. By then
the disappearance of Bombay Blue had been discovered. In growing panic it
was even agreed to seek out the Yogi who had been spotted standing on one
foot in prayerful position for the past three months drawing huge crowds at
Crawford Market. Eventually the vagabond cow arose and without further
fuss on its own accord quietly hobbled down the stairs meandering its
unhurried way out to the peepul tree under whose spreading branches street
dogs and other cows were resting.
That would have been the end of that. Except that the cow had
mysteriously cud-chewed the precious sapphire together with the hay,
rotating the priceless meal through its four stomach chambers from which it
exited within two days as various sources of green energy, agricultural
fertilizer and repellent for mosquitoes. Shiwde had luckily spotted the
glimmer of blue and rescued the ambulatory sapphire from its bovine
The Commissioner of Police Tilbury, a short florid man in khakis and
with handlebars for a mustache took charge of the investigation with
unprecedented thoroughness. He descended into the Museum with flourish,
wearing a pompous scowl and bristling with righteous indignation at the
temerity of whomsoever it was who had precipitated such a foul deed. Six
sergeants of the local constabulary accompanied him fanning out expertly on
all floors with zest.
That the precious gemstone was stolen was beyond a doubt. That the
culprit was lurking "within these very walls" was a foregone conclusion.
That it required Bombay's finest and perhaps Scotland Yard to intervene was
without question. He eyed all staff balefully with a vehemence reserved for
criminals, aiming his gaze through a glassy monocle obtained specifically
for the purposes of ensuring the fiercest of countenances for the gravity of
the situation at hand.
To be officially labeled a thief?! Neela groaned inwardly at the
"Do you have anything to say?" the Commissioner finally barked,
resolute as an upland English bulldog, setting his jaws to engage in a battle
of wills with the local natives.
The new Director glared threateningly back, pure Faustian in his
contractual outlook. Was this discombobulated fish for real? What a waste!
He knew who the culprit was. Everyone did. Not necessary to get his entire
staff maligned. And on his very first day.
"Blue!" he snapped, with the objectionable sound of firearms
"No-o-o-o" Jeejeebhoy replied meekly for all, nervousness making his
voice quaver in a falsetto singsong.
"...shining coming from holy cow," Shiwde spouted spontaneously,
unable to be quelled, memories of the previous year in his head.
"What cow? Speak up young man."
Bannerjee gesticulated wildly in warning, rolling his eyes, flashing his
teeth, waving his arms.
Shiwde fell silent, scuffing the floor with his slippered feet.
"Come here boy. Now listen carefully. You want to go home don't
you? Relax on the charpoy. Roll a beedi or two? If you know who has the
gemstone its your duty to spit it out. Do you understand?"
No one moved. The large grandfather clock in the hall below was
striking nine. Its loud bell tones drowned the noise of the falling rain.
Shiwde stared at the monocle entranced. From up close through its
thick layered soda-bottle glassiness what he saw was gigantic - the
Commissioner's single one eye, large as a guava and just as green.
Monochromatic. A raw fruit. It swam juicily. He nodded deferentially,
fascinated and mesmerized by his mystical experience, jet black oily hair
"Its no use" the Director dismissively waved his hand and grimaced
painfully, "You'll get nothing out of this lot, except more mumbo-jumbo."
The noonday sun slanted in through the green painted window of her
modest two-room dwellings the next day, when Neela awoke. She had
overslept, torn in part by a reticent disinclination to spend her last day at the
Museum. It set aglow the vermillion bindi dot on her forehead, casting
lengthy shadows on the Mount Everest calendar of the Himalayas hanging
perpendicularly. Moksha. Nirvana. The heavenly abode.
She twisted the long coils of her dark hair onto the nape of her neck in
a bun, folding her tall slender frame with the grace of a dancer into the cane
armchair, colorful glass bangles jangling noisily on each arm. The rolls of
her six yards ochre cotton saree with its printed peacocks in purple paisley
she pushed into her waist, wringing her hands in anguish. Her steel trunk,
misshapen from wear was immaculately packed, ready for departure to her
village. It would be a long journey south by train, across mountains, tunnels,
plateaus and rivers.
The Bombay Herald a leading daily which she had been reading lay
crumpled on the floor. It had blown the entire story of Bombay Blue in
banner headlines out of all proportion, laying blame by whimsical
speculations on incompetency within the Bombay Presidency, swinging
wildly from foolish goose-chasing of three-humped dromedaries codenamed
Blue by Scotland Yard, to finger pointing at the Museum's only female
employee nicknamed Blue; from sea-faring piracy afoot of East India
Company treasures falling into Dutch East Indies hands, to incongruous rise
in professional thuggery among local dacoits. Grainy black and white kodak
images of the new Director, an alpaca, Neela Rai, turbaned snake-charmers
and the blue sapphire were spread over several pages. It was horrendous.
Neela's mental state escalated several notches and was at fever pitch.
She knew the inevitable that would follow, publicly disgraced, crushed by
the weight of false accusation. She could not hide. Where would she run?
She could not stand with her peers. She lacked the will to face adversity -
resolute and unflinching. Pent-up tears long withheld overflowed in a
Deep down in her core something stirred - a flicker of orange. A blue
flame ignited - the star fire spark of a flawless pure gemstone, hard as flint,
unclouded and clear, as malleable as it was eternal.
Dusk was descending when Neela shook herself free from her reverie.
She must hurry. There was no time to lose. Over the northern flats she raced,
across the docks, breaking into a trot. She hopped aboard a tram as she
hastened towards the Bombay Museum of Antiquities, through the rain-
soaked streets, past the swollen creeks that breached their banks at the time
of the full moon.
Soon she arrived, panting, short of breath, shivering and soaked to the
bone. Her long dark hair in disarray dripped with raindrops that glistened as
they pooled at her feet. She felt light-headed and wobbly. She wanted to sit.
She wanted to run. The intense flutter in her heart made her take mental
flight on wings like humming birds as turbulence mounted afresh. And she
almost lost courage again.
In an instant she recognized dark shapes emerge through the gathering
shadows in the dimly lit portals that no starlight could penetrate. The
blanched paleness of her face was faintly visible.
First The Commissioner approached followed by the Director with the
others in the rear. They were talking all at once, softly at first. Then the
voices sounded louder as if she were deaf.
They handed her a scroll then the gold shining fob watch which she
had so coveted. They sounded jovial. What were they saying? She could not
"...as my dear Aunt Dorothy was fond of saying. Bless her sweet soul.
Nothing like a good night's rest to be fit as a fiddle," Tilbury declared
effusively like a devious tabby, toothy grin stretching into mustaches waxed
"...holy cow jump on Guru Purnima moon. Jolly good!...diddle
fiddle..." Bannerjee chanted loquaciously scripting the rhyme.
"Beastly blighter! Gave us quite the scare. But all's well that ends
well. And all that sort of thing really, old dear."
Old dear? She?! Bombay Blue? Found?!
They looked sheepishly at each other, their laughter conspiratorial to
her untutored ear.
"Yes indeed. It gets better. You're to accompany His Highness to
London to your new appointment - Under-Secretary to the Queen. Her
Majesty wishes to maintain a Hindustani diary. Phenomenal work I must
say, your ledgers. The clue."
Neela's enormous kohl contoured eyes grew round and large as dinner
"Gave the whole game away, eh? Those old glass encasings. Trifle
bizarre! But they really do need replacing you know."
"There are moments when one asks oneself 'Do these things really
"Nature is filled with strange subterfuges," Deshpande slyly
commiserated, bouncing his head deliriously like a strung yo-yo, relieved
that his convoluted theory had demystified the mystery. In this moment of
celebration none sought to burst his bubble.
"Cigars anyone? Let's have a cuppa."
Merry guffaws followed.
"I say Jeejeebhoy old chap, are you quite all right? You do look sort
of ...green around the gills...?"
"A will of iron. That's what you need my lad. A will of iron."
"Devil of a chappie Sir, he be having weak constitution",' Shiwde was
opinionating in his expertly conceited fashion, elated at the turn of events.
"Well don't just stand there my boy twiddling your thumbs. Get the
The pounding in her head became hammer blows. The roaring in her
ears turned deafening. A mounting flush consumed her senses. The last
words Neela heard before she fell to the ground in a swoon were :
"Ghastly not to have guessed. Pop-eyed blue turnip came quite
unglued. Headed for the floor in its own display pedestal! Rummy
"Life's adventures. Providence takes care of us all..."
• ° • ° •
And so it would transpire as the story goes, that a star fire named 'Blue'
would voyage home around the Cape on a sea passage to the British Isles to
her place of final rest, from where she would beam her light eternal on the
And on many a Guru Purnima when the grey skies would herald the
monsoons and the rain would fall in sheets, many a nostalgic song would be
sung and many an infectious tale would be told of courage and greatness
and of faith. The stuff of legends. It would inspire generations.
A jewel called 'Neela /
* * * *
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
“It’s brighter light in here.” Grandfather of fifteen, and great-grandfather of three, offered a chair to the twenty-one year old granddaughter, Elaina. Both walked into a dinette facing west, and sat by a circular table with its thick Formica top.
Taking out Smartphones, the Smartwatch was placed in front of Elaina. The teaching session began. As I emptied the dishwasher, I heard words of Apps, Spotify, e-mail, pictures, texting, using SOS for emergencies, receiving phone calls, checking heart rate. Could the phone be left home and just the watch used, or did the phone have to be within thirty feet? I closed the appliance and went into the adjacent room.
“What’s the forecast?” I asked the artificial intelligence cylinder and was given an answer within seconds. Too chilly to sit on the porch, I took my crossword puzzle book and sat where I could hear the conversation from the dinette.
“I can make the face anything from the list? Oh, I have to charge it every night? Can I ask a question to my wrist and get an encyclopedia answer?”
I’d read that a device will be out this year featuring a screen and phone built into an artificial intelligence item. The ad showed a man holding a coffee mug talking and seeing family on a tv screen yet the man was in his kitchen and no phone was in sight. Alexa, Google, Siri, Cortana, Bixby......... I grew up with a live operator when I phoned outside of my area. There were only four numbers and a two-letter prefix which actually identified the town I lived in; mail had no zip codes; if one wanted a letter to arrive sooner than by regular, an air mail stamp had to be purchased for additional money. One actually needed to know how to spell to look up a word in a dictionary, something rather silly because if a word’s spelling was known then the dictionary wouldn’t be needed.
“But how would I know.....” More sentences were overheard by me. “How much information will it hold?” “It’ll tap my wrist letting me know I’ve mail when it’s on mute! Hard to imagine. Show me how that works?”
Self driving cars need someone to go to the DMV and get license plates. Self driving. My dad’s first car had no heat and itchy wool blankets were draped over a rod affixed to the back of the front seats. Passengers needed them for warmth in the winter. In the summer, with the driver’s window open, my dad’s left elbow and several inches above and below it, would get sunburned. He didn’t live to see air-conditioned cars, and I’ve experienced making a phone call while in a moving vehicle. My computer-tablet has a viewing area larger than the first television set the family bought in May 1948.
“Explain how the phone and watch synch. Then let me send a text to your phone and see if it comes through.”
So much learning. The heavy black land-line only phones had us tethered to placement, and running from one room to answer its rings in another area was exercise. A phone on a wrist; who would have imagined it before even aircraft had jets rather than only propellers.
“Hey, you guys.” I called after two hours had passed and my large-print-but-hard-crosswords went as far as my mind and patience.
“Almost finished, Grandma.” Elaina responded. “Why don’t you come here and see this stuff.”
To a twenty-one year old, this is stuff. To me, it’s ‘magic’. I went to the dinette table and saw two smiling but tired faces.
“Thank you so much, Grandpa, for teaching me how to use the Smartwatch, and for giving it to me.”
She put out her left wrist and giggled. I hugged her with enthusiasm, grinned at my husband who was the teacher and not the learner, and realized that very few old men would be showing a young person how to use a tech device; role reversal took on a new meaning.
Tom O'Brien is an Irishman living in London. He's been published, longlisted, shortlisted and placed in numerous competitions and publications around the web. He has a short story appearing in a forthcoming print anthology published by Blood & Bourbon.
He’s on twitter @tomwrote and his website is www.tomobrien.co.uk.
Maeve nearly died when she stepped from the back door of the Christian Brothers kitchen.
She was pulling her coat on and wishing she had remembered to grab her cuff, which was now up near her elbow, when her foot missed getting caught in the spokes of Hanny's bike, carelessly thrown there. It missed by less than half an inch. If she had snagged her toe she would have fallen forward helplessly with her arms pinned inside her coat and landed heavily on her face. That might not have been fatal in itself but combined with a weakness in Maeve's neck that she was unaware of, it would have been the end.
But nothing happened. Maeve walked on, unaware of her close call and mentally noting down that she should add eggs to the shopping list in her pocket. When that little tag was made, she fell back to absently humming the nursery rhyme that had been lodged in her brain all morning.
Every day we meet as many things that are as capable of killing us as keeping us alive. Every car on the road, every bit of food, every reaction in our body could, with the right or wrong set of circumstances, prove to be lethal. Of course most of us manage to survive most days but it's not something we should assume will happen automatically. Today the dice rolled our way. Tomorrow we might not be so lucky. But back to Maeve.
Maeve Cahill, housekeeper, cook, wife, devout catholic, inveterate bingo player, lover of Irish country music. Which labels tell us anything and which are purely decorative? Maeve walked on up the path from the monastery where she performed her housekeeping and cook duties. The path was slick with a fine film of moss that had resisted all efforts to permanently remove it over the years. Maeve was aware of this and through habit adjusted her footstep accordingly.
Father Christle, the senior parish priest who was a regular visitor to the Brother's kitchen was also aware of this minor danger but that wouldn't save him in a few years time. Distracted by some private guilty thought, he would slip and crack his skull open, dying almost instantly. On a sidenote to that sidenote, a schoolboy running an errand on the other side of the fence reported that the priest's last word had been 'Beaujolais'. This became craze around the playground for a few weeks where it morphed into ‘Bejasus’ before throwing yourself to the ground theatrically.
For now though, nothing happened and Maeve walked on, trying to decide on whether to use a quick pick for her lotto numbers or try her usual ones.
You may have noticed that so far gravity has been Maeve's greatest aggressor. Suffice to say that its threat is ever present. The fact that it may not feature so menacingly from now on does not mean that the danger is any less. The point has simply been made.
The two hundred or so yards that separated Maeve from the school gates might have seemed like a gauntlet if she was aware of the hazards she faced. Swinging branches, overhead power lines and even the threat of escaping animals from the adjacent farm. She was, of course, unaware and therefore made her way forward with head held high and a steadily beating heart.
It is that heart itself that hints at the other great and ever present danger. The body. Designed, if that's the word, to carry us through our allotted span, it is a cliché to say that it is a massively complex organism. Within any such complexity the potential for disaster is constant. Taking the good Maeve as a case in point, at fifty one she is no better or no worse than she might be physically but that in itself acknowledges that perhaps all is not what it could be. Pick a part, any part.
The eyes perhaps? There was no need for glasses yet but they were not far off. A slight differential in the rate of decline between the two meant that depth perception was poor. This is something that will cause Maeve a lot of trouble crossing the road in her later years as well as a particularly painful incident with an electric carving knife much sooner than that. The ears would hold a few nasty shocks too if they were examined but nothing life threatening and with such a catalogue to choose from we must move on.
If we decided to go internal we might never resurface. Rather than getting trapped forever in the body and its potential for self harm let's just summarise and say that the liver was weak, the heart was more or less sound, but only for about twenty years, the arteries were slowly clogging, there was the potential for Alzheimer's and she already had cancer of the colon which would prove fatal before being detected.
But today nothing happened and Maeve reached the school gates alive.
A road runs past the school gates. I hope that word: road, is in itself is enough to spell danger in very bright letters. I can't even begin to say what dangers Maeve would have faced had she needed to cross this road. Happily all her business was this side of that ribbon of death. That at least limited the more obvious dangers to cars, trucks, tractors and motorbikes that might career in her direction.
I will not pretend that this almost happened but I will direct your attention to the driver of the maroon gravel truck some way outside Town. The driver of this lumbering beast was, at exactly at that moment, asleep at the wheel. He woke with only good fortune keeping him alive but fell asleep again. Was Maeve to be his wake up call?
Only the fear of accusations of xenophobia prevents me from highlighting Michel Furnier, who fifty yards from where Maeve was by now, reverted to driving on ‘the wrong side of the road’ purely out of habit, as he turned into the square.
It was not to his credit that there happened to be no one behind the big copper statue at the time. If there had been he would have hit them.
The brave Maeve, inhaling what she had to of the poisons spewing around her reached the swinging doors of the Co-op store. These badly installed, poorly made spring-loaded mantraps failed to grab her and though they swung mighty close to her trailing heel, they had to go unfed for a little longer. Mind you a child's finger would act as a tasty morsel within the week.
Now inside the ageing store, its floors damp with every sort of slippery substance, badly stacked shelves, ancient and overburdened fittings, bottles of acid, adapted and re-adapted power supplies, I can hardly bear to look.
Maeve, who must now be assuming super hero status, has regularly negotiated them all with aplomb. Was it arrogance then that prompted her to choose the shopping trolley over her normal carrier? Unlikely, as Maeve's adventures and close shaves were completely unknown to her. And if she could have known then she would have been far more likely to be terrified than proud. Her reasons for choosing the trolley were no doubt more prosaic and practical.
It didn't have a wonky wheel. Nor did parts of it stick out that weren't meant to stick out. It was, all in all a perfectly serviceable trolley; though none the less lethal for all that. The skill and judgement in terms of large load manoeuvring expected of the average trolley wielder are considerable but we are meant to have them instinctively. Try asking a passing toddler to steer your trolley for a while. That should crush the instinctive argument under a loud pile of tins very quickly.
Maeve at least had experience on her side. That's why she was able to stop when Una pushed her buggy out against the aisles flow of traffic and in a direct right angle collision course with Maeve's twin axled eight-wheeler as it towered over the infant's startled face. From a child's perspective a shopping trolley at close quarters is akin to a tower block with wheels and just as terrifying a proposition. The baby cried.
All Una, trapped behind her buggy, could offer was a sheepish grin and a quick forage for the rattling ball that tended to distract the little one long enough for all to be forgotten. She rolled the little ball across the well-padded lap of the child, letting its tune tinkle behind it.
When Una looked up at Maeve, pleased that the distraction had worked. She was surprised to see that the older woman was crying. Already an almost pathologically timid young woman, this jolted Una past the power of speech. She made some high-pitched noise, pulled a face that had far too many emotions vying for centre stage, then made her exit, stage rear as it were, scampering back up the aisle.
Maeve was left adrift, puzzled by her own tears and almost deafened by the ridiculous tinkling of that nursery rhyme in her head, the same one she had been mindlessly humming earlier.
In an attempt to distance herself from the emptiness that blew across her like the semi-toxic Legionnaire roulette of air conditioning of the shop, she moved on to the meat fridge that hummed brightly in the next aisle.
Maeve leaned over the carefully cling filmed debris of carnage and suffering that is any meat fridge and tried to get a hold of herself. This kind of nonsense had to stop. Right now.
In a way not entirely dissimilar to Una's efforts with the baby and the rattle, Maeve picked up a sizeable joint of beef. Her eye's still burned as she tried to read the label.
She stared at it for a few moments before she remembered that she never bought meat here, rather she went to the Mikey The Butcher who, for the record is a legitimate businessman, not a mass murder for hire. The sign over his window that proclaims him to be a Family Butcher should not be misinterpreted in any way. Mikey would never harm anyone's family other than perhaps that of the little bastard who made his only daughter Una pregnant and then skipped town.
Maeve put down the meat. That was just as well. Had her eyes been clearer she might have seen that the date stamped there was quite acceptable but she might not have seen the decay already occurring in the meat itself. That whole consignment had been packed some considerable time ago, in Antrim, by a young man who was so drunk at the time that he set the date stamper to his own birthday, some month's off at the time, and on which date he would end up in the emergency ward of Antrim General, both the cause and chief victim of a drink driving crash.
Maeve bit her tongue. Deliberately hard. The tears sprang back to her eyes but now there was a reason, a sensible reason. It was a ritual for when she felt like this and in truth it wasn't particularly effective but it had come to mark the time when she could move on.
Move on she did. The rest of Maeve's shopping was something of a protected procession. She was so wrapped up in her own emotional trouble that she could probably have survived a nuclear blast, in much the same way that a sleeper or a drunk might be safer falling from a height than someone why tries to save themselves.
She made it to the tills. She made it past them. She made it past the doors that were now stuck in the open position, waiting, tactically, to free themselves at some random moment. She made it to the air.
Maeve, weighed down as she was by so many shopping bags, took a deep breath. After all, nothing happened, so why had she cried? She exhaled. A mini exorcism to drive out whatever demon had crept up on her. She repeated her incantation. Nothing happened. There was nothing to be upset about.
With the ritual complete Maeve became self-conscious. Crying was bad and standing in the street breathing heavily might not match up to it but put the two together and, well, tongues would wag. There was no one looking at her though, other than that black dog that was always hanging round. He stared up at her and nothing was wagging there, not even his tail. He didn’t attack her. Which was good.
Maeve resettled the over-heavy bags and walked away. The danger of back injuries from carrying heavy weights improperly are well known but no one listens so there's no point in going into them here. Maeve walked on, bags and all, up the hill and across the path to the monastery, avoiding all dangers with her customary ease.
Early in her journey she heard a noise but she didn't look back. Usually she would have, having as fine a nosy streak as anyone but at that moment she just didn't want to know. If she had looked back she would have seen her friend the dog scuttling up Town at high speed. A truck, a maroon gravel truck, had struck him a glancing blow when it swerved for no apparent reason as he had trotted after her.
The wound, a swollen muscle at the top of his hind leg, would heal, though it hurt a lot at the time. The dog owned by no one had been distracted for a moment by the sight of an angel walking beside Maeve, because dogs think they can see death and angels.
If proof were needed that dogs think a lot of nonsense, it would be in the fact that there was no reason why a guardian angel should be there. Maeve was just walking.
The thing is though, that for those few minutes, she could have simply died of no causes at all. Some part of her chose not to and death put no mark by her name.
Reaching the door of the monastery, Maeve heard voices, which suddenly stopped. As she stepped through the door an acrid smell hit her. Something of the priest's cooking was burning. In the instant that she knew she'd better do something, she was glad. It was better to be busy than thinking. It was the thinking, she knew, that made her sad, the thinking and the empty cradle and the bloody nursery rhyme that wouldn't leave her head.
So nothing happened. Maeve survived and life went on. The dog had taken a bit of a knock but that happens.
Maeve had, I must add, forgotten to do something. She had forgotten to pick her lotto numbers. She would remember later, going for a quick-pick, as was her habit. It's just that if she had done that quick pick at the till as she usually did when paying for the shopping, then she would have won well over quarter of a million Euro. Instead those numbers went to the aforementioned French tourist, Mr Furnier, who due to not fully understanding the rules of the game would leave the country not knowing he had won.
Zoe Reger is an emerging fiction writer from Maryland. She majored in Philosophy at the University of Maryland and served on the editing board of Stylus literary magazine. She has been published in the Indiana Voice Journal.
From the Desert
Travelling had taken its toll. It was very hard to move. The sky was a faded, grayish blue that day, and the arid ground crumbled beneath her shoes as she walked.
She hadn’t seen anything new in months.
It was midday at last. She veered to the left and took shelter under a pile of sturdy, fragmented boulders. She would rest here until evening, when she would reemerge and find the path again. It was best to travel in the cooler parts of the day. Something she learned the hard way.
Settling down, she removed a water jug from the pack she had slung across her shoulders. There was enough to last another two days; she needed to come across a clean source soon. Or rain. It hadn’t rained for a week.
Under the boulder, the water from the jug trickled into her mouth and spread the most wonderful, chilling sensation down her throat as she swallowed it. A few more gulps and she was done, the supply had to be saved.
She hadn’t expected this when she first set out. There had been no one to tell her. And when she had crossed into the desert from the hot plains that preceded it, comprising so little of her adventure, she hadn’t minded in the least.
But now, after facing the flat, dry horizon day after day for months, she was growing weary and wished for nothing more than a tree and a soft bed of grass to sleep on. The desert earth was hard and rough on her bones.
Her thoughts were drawn again to the day she started walking. She had felt pride that day. To be embarking on something new and unknown, a path she had never expected to exist.
There had been a chill in the air as she set out. She could see the air swirl as she took deep, measured breaths. The sky was cold and icy blue and it seemed to compel her forward.
Her thoughts returned once again to the shade of the boulder, she shivered, feeling the imagined cold raise hairs on the back of her neck. The sensation refreshed her, even though it wasn’t real. She had been getting only temperature extremes in the desert. The daytime was an oven and the nighttime a vast, dark freezer.
She hadn’t seen anything new in months, but nothing stayed the same. The desert was so different from anything she had experienced before. But it was the place she had stayed the longest. It seemed that the most change came in small pockets, in densely populated forests, on roads plagued with heavy traffic. But what of the barren dust? What change did that bring?
She leaned out from the shade and turned to look back at the path. It was nothing extraordinary. Just the desert. Yet even twenty yards ago was the past. Even twenty yards away was a place to which she could never return.
Having grown tired, she decided to sleep and settled back against the boulder. As she drifted off, wondering if the tiny breeze she felt on her face was real or a hopeful imagining, she began to dream. The breeze turned into a gale, and the ground turned into the sea. She was resting in the crow’s nest of a giant ship, salty ocean water sprinkling pleasantly on her face. There was a crew below, thirty men yelling into the storm at full volume. It sounded like they were calling to her.
Their voices reached her as faint cries and so it took a couple of seconds before she could understand their message.
“Jump!” They yelled, “Jump now! You must jump!”
But why? The sea was indeed rough, but the ship felt steady underneath her. The sky mirrored the dark and murky waves that churned up around the hull, but no water overwhelmed the vessel. It wasn’t sinking.
However, the crew seemed to grow impatient, “Jump!”
She stared down at them, eclipsed with confusion. There was no way she would survive a jump of such height, and the chance was too great that she would land on the deck instead of in the sea. But, testing the crew’s advice, she leaned out over the railing of the nest. She determined that if she aimed carefully, and if the ship stayed steady, she might just be able to reach the water.
So, she gave the railing a firm shake and when it did not yield, she climbed onto it, full of trepidation, and perched, ready to jump.
“Jump!” She could still hear the crew below.
Out on the railing the wind tossed her hair and the rain soaked it. She could feel a chill dripping down her back as she mused from on high. As if she were an angel contemplating its fall.
As the elements spiraled around her, she reached a steadying hand out and prepared for the jump. She would be risking her life. But for what? The crew suddenly fell silent. She didn’t look down, so she could not tell whether they were watching. Jump, she told herself.
A strong urge compelled her to follow the crew’s instructions, even though they made no sense. The ship could weather the storm, surely? Doubt caused her to shrink away and resume her position behind the railings of the crow’s nest.
And then, in a sudden, dooming second, the ship lurched. A cracking sound cut across the rage of the storm and the crow’s nest began to tremble.
She jumped to the edge of the nest and saw the crew below. All thirty men were scurrying around the deck, attempting to find the problem.
The very next moment a massive bubble burst up in the center of the ship. It sprayed water fifty feet into the air before popping with a thunderous snap and leaving a vortex in its place. The vortex, already dangerously close to the crew, widened and deepened until she could see into its depths.
Then, from the edge, something long and dark circled past, disappearing within a few seconds into the black center. Another object followed, flying straight to the bottom. She wondered what they were, but only for a second, because a third object appeared, accompanied by five or six flailing others. It was the crew. They were all being sucked in and swallowed by the sea.
Looking on in horror, she realized she was the only person aboard; the entire crew had been washed away.
Split in two, the ship was falling apart. Everything was crumbling into the swirling hole in the middle. She stared on with increasing panic, realizing she was too late. Now, even if she jumped, she would be sucked back to the ship. Either way, she would follow it to the bottom.
Resigning everything, she gripped the sides of the nest and shut her eyes. The groans of the deconstructing ship filled her ears as, drowning out the storm at last, it crashed bit by bit into the chasm of water. Then she felt the nest tumble forward and there was nothing but the blind sensations of chaos.
Her eyes flew open the second she died. The dry heat of the desert irritated her desperate throat as she gulped for air. She remembered then, and with substantial relief, where she was. Not a ship, no water.
She lay on her side with her arms splayed out, trying to clasp the ground. Sitting up, she let go two handfuls of dust then opened the water jug. Evening had almost set; the sun was low in the horizon, the temperature still warm but ready to drop off as soon as the day surrendered.
She drank with greed. Having seen water everywhere in her dream served only to increase her thirst. Once satisfied, leaving enough water to last through the next day, she picked up her supplies and left the shelter of the boulder into the night.
The dream frightened her. It was different. It felt as if something was coming for her. But she had seen nothing new in months, so she put it out of her mind. She did not allow herself to turn back so with each step she left behind a piece of the journey. This washed her with occasional sadness. Even if it did all look the same.
She was beginning to remember specific rocks, lines in the sand, even pebbles that caught her attention at the places she rested along the way.
Her purpose was to keep going forward. And long after she lost faith in the journey, she stuck to that fundamental purpose. It became an obsession; the drive to move forward decided her every action, yet she did not feel the slightest attachment to it. This puzzled her and gave her something always to think about.
That evening she walked for about an hour until coming across, unusual against the flat desert, a titanic, globular rock formation. The surface was smooth and tan, weathered by years of erosion. Though by what wind she could not fathom. On one face of the sandy formation a small ant colony paced around, carving in for shelter.
She would have lingered to examine the ants further, but a sudden urge to move on overwhelmed her. It always struck as funny how, on a journey whose end was never in sight, she felt as if she wasted time.
Another hour of walking proved to be dotted with more rock formations, all of different shapes and sizes, all looming unpredictably out of the dusk. She was veering around one when something grabbed her attention. A pool of water nestled between two of the formations was glinting in the setting sun. It attracted a small variety of insects and even a miniscule, desert bird.
She stopped to stare. Surely it was a mirage? Moving over to investigate, she found that it was in fact, not. A clear, shallow pool of water had collected between indentations in the rock.
Tempted as she was to refill her water jug, she pressed on. The pool was a refreshing sight, but it was stagnant. Perhaps there would be more water soon. She doubted it, but she didn’t care. Living in the moment did mean, after all, forgetting about the future.
The next change came within thirty minutes. A tree, skinny and brittle, clung with all of its strength to the side of a boulder. Its limbs arched over the ground, providing meager shade in the daytime, but sloping with an almost sculptural line, holding its burden with grace.
It appeared very unnatural, the way it had transformed. She had observed this tree and felt in the presence of kin. It seemed to depict all of her suffering, all that had happened so far to change her, the way her soul had bent to accommodate the harshness of the natural world. She paused only for a moment to take it in and then she moved on. There was no time.
After the tree, other forms of life started to appear. First, it was a kind of desert grass that grew in short, sandy patches. It scratched at her ankles and caused substantial irritation. By this time, the sun had finished setting and the light was gone. The air dropped in temperature until she could see her breath against it. She would miss the heat.
Soon the short grass became populated. Insects, many of the same kinds she had seen at the pool of water, jumped from the blades. Every now and then they would collide with each other, bouncing off in opposite directions, then reuniting and flying off into the dark.
Nocturnal animals started to make an appearance once the grass became thick and dense and grew in one patch across the landscape. She saw bats, owls, and even a herd of antelope as it chewed away in unison.
She walked until daybreak. It was when at last the sun had risen that her eyelids began to flicker and she decided to rest in a bed of the tall grass. It took a few seconds for her body to get comfortable on the spongy ground, but it did and she fell into a dreamless sleep.
Upon waking a few hours later, she felt a sharp heat along the side of her face. She had slept through the entire morning and well into midday. Since she was on her side, the sun had burned only part of her face. She put a hand to it and, though it was not painful, she knew by its warmth that it would be later.
All around, the grass rustled in a light breeze and the field hopped with an abundance of life. It was a sight she hadn’t yet grown used to. There was company everywhere that she never would have appreciated before her long trek in the desert.
Travelling companions could be found in long-footed hares that leapt to and fro, in honey bees that flitted past her ears, the kestrels that screeched overhead...even in the tall grass. Everything was alive, even the boulders, which were coated in moss and formed the bedrock of a thousand tiny ecosystems; all fresh to her eyes, all unfamiliar, all co-existing.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that she came across the first substantial source of water. She had walked through the hottest part of the day and was draining her drinking supply when she stepped into a stream.
Shocked by the cold, she tried to gasp, but ended up choking on the water she had been about to swallow. Then, bending over to catch her breath, she had stared herself full in the face. It was another person who stared back.
Over the past year her face had thinned, her hair grown into a long, tangled mane. Her eyes seemed different as well. The bright, innocent light that lived in them since childhood had been replaced by something more smoldering, wary.
With her own image imprinted on her thoughts, she had refilled on water and then begun to follow the stream; the confidence established that it would lead her somewhere exciting.
She wound, through the rest of the day, through a landscape that continued to change in subtle ways. The fields shortened, bushes cropped up, small trees provided shade along the bank of the stream, which widened and joined up with a river.
In the end, the river led to a cliff. She stopped to examine it. The cliff was blanketed in short, tufted grass, and delicate flowers grew along its edge. The river did not run over it, into a waterfall. Instead it curved to the right and continued on into a thick patch of woods. Light was receding at that point, so she resolved to follow the river into the woods and find a place to sleep. While turning away from the cliff, she heard someone call to her. It sounded like a man.
“You ought to jump, you know!”
She turned around, “Who are you?” Her voice came out rough and weak. She couldn’t remember when she had last spoken aloud.
The man was tall and well-groomed, “I live here. You’re supposed to jump over,” he said, gesturing toward the cliff.
She considered him for a moment and then, confused and in great desire of sleep, she waved a silent goodbye and started to move on.
“You will need to do it now. Otherwise, you never will.”
“I’m sorry?” She stopped, not looking back.
“Where are you going?”
She could think of one word, “Forward”
His pause was almost audible, “Then you need to jump. It’s the only way forward.”
It made no sense, “I’m following the river,” she said.
“Believe me, I’ve followed it. It won’t take you forward any longer,” he replied.
“I would die. How would that be going forward?” She had already decided not to listen to him; he was probably insane. Yet, she chose to humor him, if only to get away from him faster.
“How indeed. But, I don’t think you would,” he leaned out over the ledge, “Doesn’t look like it.”
Her eyes widened, “You can’t see the bottom.”
“No, you can’t. So, are you going to do it?”
She paused, thinking of a way to placate him, “Perhaps tomorrow, but tonight I am tired and I need to find a place to rest.”
“But now you are faced with a decision. This cannot wait until tomorrow!” His excited voice echoed over the cliff. The sound didn’t seem to stop; it just faded into the chasm until it was too far away to hear.
Anger overtook her tone, “Who are you?” she demanded.
“You can trust me,” he said.
She looked at the cliff, “This is a canyon, I assume?”
“What is at the bottom?”
“I don’t know. It isn’t visible.”
“Even in the day?”
“Why tell me to jump?”
“I told you, it’s the only way forward from this point on.”
“I can’t walk around the canyon?”
“How is that possible?”
“The only way forward is to jump.”
Something in her believed him; even though it made no sense. The afternoon had begun to pass and the sun was setting in the horizon. She would need to find shelter soon. Another question occurred to her,
“How do you know what you’re talking about if you haven’t jumped?”
Looking taken aback, he paused. “Well, that’s how I know. I’ve been everywhere searching for another way, but so far I haven’t found one. I know it sounds mad, but it’s what I’ve seen. And it wouldn’t take long for you to understand the same. The only way forward is to jump.”
She considered his words with weight “Aren’t you going forward?”
He spoke with a sigh, “Yes. I am.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“Years. I came here when I was young, like you,” he answered.
“And you haven’t jumped?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Why not, if it’s the only way?”
He avoided her gaze, something in his demeanor shifted; he crossed his hands in front of him and took a deep breath. When he looked back up she caught a brief expression of shame on his face. Considering her an extra second, he said, “I will not ever do it I am afraid. I have reached my destination. Sometimes the journey ends earlier than you think, and you must come to recognize when it is time to stop walking.”
“I see,” she looked at him with dawning understanding. Was it her time to stop as well?
“I will jump one day, it won’t be off a cliff, but it will certainly involve the unknown,” he laughed, “This plunge is for you to take. That darkness down there belongs to you, not me.”
The two of them looked eye to eye for what felt like a long time. Then, with deliberation he said, “I’m going to go now. The sun is setting and I need to get back home. Choose for yourself. It really is up to you. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t enjoy the company,” He left her choice open, fading away into the forest, leaving her alone once more. The sun had almost reached the horizon. Chirps of crickets filled the atmosphere and brought on an inappropriate sense of calm. This choice was anything but ordinary.
To her his life looked stagnant, and safe. To live she would need movement, constant progression; and to attain that required a succession of risks. Long ago she had chosen to stand, to set out on her journey; now, to continue it, she had the choice to jump.
It would be the first time ever she wouldn’t see the road ahead.
Approaching the cliff side then, she secured her belongings to her back, and took in everything around her. The concentration of life had reached a peak. The land was cloaked in plants and animals. She hadn’t seen anything new in months, but from now on she would be entering the unknown. Everything would be new.
So, as the sun hit the horizon at long last, blinding her with light, she threw herself off the edge. The view was still burned into her eyes a few moments later when she met with the most wonderful darkness and the sensation of falling.
(Initially published in Indiana Voice Journal in April)
Living in Spain but born in Yorkshire - England.
I began my writing career late in life.
My first novel titled Dragon was published in 2014.
It was soon followed by The Korean Connection, The Buddha in Ice, The Bankers and Stealth - *The David Fallon Detective Series by Mike Johnson.
I have also published *Stories from the Bar – a collection of short stories.
My latest novel titled ‘Khan’ will shortly be published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing.
Note: *Available on Amazon and other large outlets.
(Somewhere in England!)
Stanley Harry Davenport was in a bad mood.
In truth, he had been in a bad mood all week. It was now Thursday.
He punched the steering wheel of his car and instantly regretted it ‘Ouch!’
The traffic lights in front of him light showed Red then Amber.
He was tempted to gun the engine and run the green light but he knew he wouldn’t.
Steady Stanley would never do anything so outrageous.
Stanley Davenport. Engineer of distinction. It was not in his nature.
He sighed and drove away slowly looking both ways just in case some idiot in a upped up old banger decided to do what he just considered doing.
He didn’t want to go home. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his wife and adore his two children. He did! He just didn’t want to take his bad mood out on them. Again!
He ignored the turn off into the housing estate and drove on.
The local public house was called The Swan. It used to be a nice old fashioned type until the Brewery had their way. The refurbishment had been a disaster. At least in his opinion.
No! He didn’t fancy sitting all alone at the bar but it was the only place in the village that sold alcohol. The Indian Restaurant did serve decent Lager but that didn’t open for another two hours.
It was only five o’clock!
He sighed and stopped the car.
The Village Green was in front of him. It had been neglected for years following a dispute with the local council.
‘Common Land’ they had decreed it ‘and not the Council’s problem’
‘I used to play cricket here’ said Stanley sighing again ‘had many a good night in the old Pavilion’
He put the car in gear and drove into the car park. He would go for a walk.
He planned to skirt the Green and walk along the footpath next to the Golf Course.
He used to do that when he was younger. Searching for the wayward golf ball as he went.
Stanley was about to set off when he noticed a man exit the Pavilion.
The man dusted off a wooden table and arranged chairs around it.
It seemed the old Pavilion wasn’t empty after all. In fact, there was a sign over the entrance.
This needed investigation he decided.
He entered the Pavilion and looked around. The place had been converted into a replica of an Irish Bar. Old curtains covered the windows. Pictures, which he assumed where of Ireland hung on the walls. Mirrors with etchings where behind the counter which had now been transformed into a bar.
Stanley smiled and tried to think of a word to describe it.
‘Homely’ he decided.
The man he had seen outside was behind the bar.
He was casually polishing a glass with a towel.
Stanley approached the bar and sat on a stool. There were only two.
‘Welcome to Paddy’s Place. Would you be wanting a small drink before you make your way home?’ the man asked in an Irish voice.
‘I’m driving but one wouldn’t hurt. Would it?’
‘A cautious man I see! Sensible and doesn’t take too many risks. A credit to his family and well respected at his place of employment. You must be a happy and contented man’
Stanley was taken aback by the observation.
Paddy placed a bottle on the bar. He then placed a shot glass next to it.
‘In honour of you being my first customer would you have a drink on the house!’
A free drink! Why not he thought.
‘That’s very kind of you. What’s in the bottle’ he asked.
There was no label on it.
‘A very old Irish Whiskey not available to the public. If you know what I mean!’ Paddy said winking.
Whiskey! It was his favourite tipple but it was only on rare occasions he allowed himself to drink it. Sensible Stanley would never over indulge or god forbid get drunk.
He fingered the shot glass reverently.
‘Down the hatch’ shouted Paddy making Stanley jump.
The glass was emptied in one go.
He was expecting the drink to be of dubious quality and a little rough to the taste.
Nothing was further from the truth.
The whiskey warmed his chest on the way to his stomach. A feeling of well-being overcame him.
‘My name is Stanley’ he announced boldly ‘and you are Paddy I assume?’
‘That I am. Welcome to my bar’ he replied offering his hand in friendship ‘may I ask what you do for a living Stanley’
‘I’m an Engineer and a good one. I’ve worked for Southgate Engineering since I left college. I should have been made Team Leader years ago. Next week there’s a possibility the Company will sell out to another Firm. If that happens I will leave and look for another job!’
‘Have you let them know how you feel?’
Stanley shuffled in his seat before answering ‘no!’ he admitted.
Paddy kept quiet.
‘Dammit!’ Stanley suddenly shouted angrily ‘they need to know this sell out is wrong’
‘In that case. Shouldn’t you be getting on home to prepare your presentation’ Paddy suggested.
Stanley jumped off his stool ‘thanks for the drink Paddy. I’ll be back!’
Margaret Winters had not spoken since leaving the funeral of her sister. That was two hours ago.
Colin Winter. Her husband. Was in no hurry to break the silence. But he had to say something.
They were about to enter the housing estate and would be home in another few minutes.
Once inside the chance of a drink would be gone. His wife did not approve of alcohol in the house; except of course at Christmas.
He had not participated in the toasts to his dead sister-in-law. Tea and biscuits all day had not gone down well.
Her husband. Sorry Life Partner! As they had never married, had been smashed by the time they said their goodbyes.
The odds where they would never see him again.
They were sisters but you couldn’t get two people more different.
Margaret was organized, frugal and smart in her appearance.
Tilly, as she was best known; was the opposite in almost everything. She liked to think of herself as a Hippy. Her Partner of ten years was the love of her life. They had no children.
They lived in a run-down cottage on the edge of a Moor. Chickens roamed free. A goat was allowed the freedom of the house.
They may have been poles apart in their life style but there was one thing that never changed.
They loved one another as sisters do!
Which is why Margaret couldn’t understand or forgive her decision not to continue with her Radiotherapy.
It was a death sentence. The cancer finally did its thing and ended her life. Forty-two years old was no age and now she was gone.
‘Shall we call at The Swan for a drink on the way home?’ Colin asked hopefully.
Margaret was about to give an acid reply but stopped herself. She had been taking her frustration out on her husband for almost two months. It was unfair and she knew it.
‘Is there anywhere else apart from The Swan. The idea of all our friends consoling me is not something I could stand just know’
Colin remembered something ‘didn’t Gary say the old Cricket Pavilion had re-opened’
Gary was the next-door neighbour.
Margaret was just about to reply but too late.
Her husband had taken the moment of silence as confirmation they should stop.
They were already pulling into the car park.
The wooden benches outside the Pavilion were all taken up with families. They went inside and looked around.
‘It’s called Paddy’s Place. I think the decor gives it away’ Colin laughed.
That got a withering look from his wife.
A man was behind the bar polishing glasses. He waited for his next customers to approach the bar.
‘Good evening folks and welcome to Paddy’s Bar’ Paddy shouted.
Margaret blanched at the welcome but none of the other customers took any notice.
‘Is it just the two of you. Or are you expecting company?’ Paddy asked.
Something registered in Margaret’s brain ‘Oh my God! We’ve left Tilly in the back of the car!’
Colin was unable to respond. Which was probably the best thing.
‘Well don’t just stand there. Go and fetch her!’
‘Are you serious!’
‘I’m not leaving my sister all alone in the back seat of our car’ she replied stubbornly.
Colin sighed and moved away. A few minutes later he returned.
Urn in hand!
‘Well know!’ Paddy began ‘I only have two bar stools so why don’t we place your sister on the bar. That way she joins in the conversation’
It was a strange thing to say but Colin did as he asked.
‘May I know the young ladies name?’ he asked turning the Urn around three times on the bar.
‘Her name was Tilly’ Margaret stated sadly.
‘Nice name. Sounds a little Irish. I have a feeling Tilly was woman who loved life. A free spirit who liked the outdoors’
‘Why yes she was!’ she agreed surprised at the insight.
‘Maybe you can tell me all about her. But first let us get you folks a drink. If you don’t mind I would also like to offer a toast to Tilly’s Spirit. You can’t enter the afterlife without a proper send off, now can you?’
Colin nodded in agreement to that sentiment.
Paddy looked at Margaret ‘if you don’t mind me saying so you look like a no-frills type of person. Straight to the point and a positive attitude. Gin and Tonic?’
‘Why yes!’ she agreed.
Paddy looked at Colin ‘I have a feeling your husband has hidden depths. Calm on the surface but a Tiger if he’s roused’
Paddy scratched his stubbly chin thoughtfully ‘Guinness!’ he declared.
Six months past Colin had visited Dublin on the Banks business. He had been persuaded to try the Amber Nectar or the Black Doctor as his Irish colleagues had described the drink.
He loved it.
Arriving back home he had tried to re-create the experience. He failed.
Paddy placed a pint glass under the Font ‘now this may take time but perfection cannot be rushed’ he declared as the glass filled ‘let that settle a while and I’ll get that Gin and Tonic’
Colin was hypnotised by the creamy froth in the glass as it settled in waves. As each wave reached the bottom of the glass his frustrations bottled up over the past few weeks left his body.
Paddy smiled and placed three shot glasses on the counter. He then reached for a bottle from under the bar. It had no label. He filled each glass carefully.
He looked at Margaret ‘may I ask. What is your favourite time of year?’
Another strange question but she was getting used to them ‘Christmas!’ she declared even without thinking.
Paddy nodded ‘a good choice. A time when all the family come together. Good-will to your fellow man and all that. Mum in the kitchen preparing the Turkey with maybe a little something to get through the day?’
Margaret grinned ‘well a little drink of Sherry does help things along’
‘And quite right too’ Paddy agreed ‘and you Sir! What would you be drinking at this happy time of year?’
‘Whiskey! But only the best kind mind you’ Colin declared taking his eyes away from the Guinness for a moment.
‘And what would Tilly be drinking do you think?’
Margaret and Colin suddenly realized they had completely forgotten the Urn was on the counter.
‘She liked a glass of wine’ Margaret decided.
Paddy pushed the shot glasses towards them ‘down in one!’ he announced.
Without even thinking they both did as he ordered.
Images of Christmas flooded her mind as the taste of the smoothest Sherry hit her senses.
Colin sat upright on his stool as the taste of the finest Malt Whiskey slid down his throat and hit his chest.
Paddy collected the glasses without commenting.
He just smiled and waited.
‘Her life style was strange Margaret but she was a good woman. I will miss her’ Colin said sadly.
His wife nodded in agreement.
‘She was a woman of the Earth’ she said to Paddy.
‘Someone once said. If you like flowers you will cut them. If you love flowers you will grow them. I think Tilly was the growing type. May I ask what you are going to do with her remains?’
‘We hadn’t thought that far’ Margaret replied truthfully.
‘Then can I suggest something. Plant a tree in her honour and place the ashes at the root. I think she would appreciate that’
Husband and wife looked at each other.
They both nodded in agreement.
‘That’s a good idea Paddy. Thank you. We will let you know what tree we have chosen’
‘Wonderful! Now! I think that Guinness is about ready!’
Sandra Flack shouted at her daughter to slow down for what seemed like the hundredth time.
It was early evening. It was summer and the sun was still high in the sky.
Sandra had suggested they take a walk along the footpath adjacent to the golf course.
Her daughter Samantha was in her usual talkative mood which hadn’t gone down well with the golfers about to take their Tee Shots.
She loved her daughter but the constant back-chatting was beginning to wear her down.
She had been like it ever since her father had decided he wanted a younger woman to share his bed.
The divorce followed soon after.
She had kept the house but the mortgage was stretching her finances to the limit.
Samantha was running ahead when she suddenly stopped and pointed to something.
‘Mum! Can we stop at the shop and buy ice-cream’?
‘What shop’ her mother shouted.
Verbal abuse came from way over on the golf course.
‘Sorry!’ Sandra said by way of apology.
She caught up with her daughter and looked in the direction she was pointing ‘that’s the old Cricket Pavilion. Has someone taken it over do you think?’
Her daughter gave a look that said; ‘why are you asking me?’
‘Why not. I could do with a cold drink’ she decided.
A large glass of white wine was conjured up in her mind.
She didn’t want the disapproving look from her daughter.
Sandra held her daughters hand as they entered the Bar.
A man was behind the counter polishing glasses. He waited for them to approach.
‘Now what have we here! Two young people out for adventure, is it?’
Samantha giggled at the Irish accent.
Her mother shushed her ‘do you have ice cream by any chance?’ she asked him.
Paddy scratched his beard thoughtfully ‘I don’t believe I have. But why don’t you two young lady’s take a seat and I’ll check my freezer’
Samantha giggled again at the young lady’s comment.
There were only two bar stools so they sat on them. The bar had a few customers but they seemed to be ignoring them.
Paddy returned ‘well now! I do have a tub of something but I don’t know if it will be to your taste young lady’ he said looking at Samantha.
Samantha was about to start one of her tantrums but Paddy raised a hand to stop her.
‘Would you like to play a game?’
She was completely taken off-guard by the question so she just nodded.
Paddy placed four shot glasses on the bar. One he moved towards her mother.
‘I think it’s only fair we get your mother a drink. But first! Would she have one on the house. This being your first visit an all!’
Sandra was also taken aback by the offer; but she also nodded in agreement.
Paddy pulled a bottle from under the bar. It had no label.
Sandra was a bit dubious about drinking the contents. But she accepted the glass.
‘Down in one!’ Paddy shouted.
Without thinking she tipped the measure into her mouth.
A few seconds later a vision of Tuscany and rows of Grape Vines came to mind. A young man clinked her glass and she swallowed the chilled of wine.
Sandra choked back a sob.
Her honeymoon had been something special.
‘Are you Ok mummy’ her daughter asked concerned at the sadness on her face.
‘Yes darling. I was thinking back to happier times’
Paddy pushed the remaining three glasses towards Samantha. He then placed a pea under one glass.
‘A game is no good unless there is a wager. Do you agree?’
Samantha nodded still unsure what was happening.
‘That tub of ice cream in my freezer is Strawberry flavour. Do like strawberries?’
Her mother almost laughed. Her daughter was mad on them.
Samantha nodded, not wanting to appear too eager. This man behind the bar had her intrigued but strawberry ice cream was already on her taste buds.
‘So, we have a wager’ Paddy announced grandly ‘Strawberry ice cream for you if you win’
Samantha was ready to play the game.
‘And if I win. It’s one minute of silence from you’
‘If you don’t find the pea you cannot speak for one minute’ he said pointing to a large clock behind the bar.
Samantha’s mouth dropped open. What kind of bet was that. This was going to be easy.
She nodded in agreement.
Paddy shuffled the three glasses.
Samantha stared intently as the glasses moved.
When he stopped, she was confident the pea was in the middle.
She pointed to it and smirked.
Paddy lifted the glass.
There was no pea.
Samantha was just about to burst into a tantrum when Paddy put a finger to his lips and pointed to the clock.
He then sighed sadly ‘I don’t think that was a fair bet do you. After all. You are only a young lady and can’t be expected to be as clever as your mother. Now can we?’
That barb hurt her pride.
‘I’ll tell you what. Let’s play the game again. But this time you shuffle the glasses and I will find the pea. In fact! To make it even harder I will let you have five glasses’ he said producing another two from under the counter.
Samantha worked out that having five glasses would make it harder. She nodded in agreement.
‘The bet now is ice cream if you win. And five minutes of silence if you lose’
That didn’t go down well but she nodded agreement again. This was going to be easy.
Paddy placed the pea under one glass and indicated she should shuffle them.
He then deliberately faced her mother who was completely absorbed in the battle of Will.
‘You have a fine daughter here. You must be very proud of her. I’m guessing there’s no father at home these days?’
Sandra should have been annoyed at the intrusion from a stranger but she wasn’t.
She just dropped her eyes in resignation.
Her daughter heard the exchange and looked at her mother.
Without realizing it she still had a finger on one shot glass.
‘I choose that one’ Paddy announced.
Samantha was about to complain but she knew she’d been had.
She lifted the glass. The pea rolled away down the counter.
Paddy pointed to the clock on the wall and placed a finger to his lips.
‘Would a white wine spritzer be to your liking’ he asked her mother ‘plenty of ice and a twist of lemon?’
‘That sounds perfect’ she replied.
Paddy made the drink and placed it in front of her.
‘It must be difficult balancing a career with bringing up a child’
‘I have a good boss which helps. I love my daughter but she can be a bit trying at times’ she said smiling at her.
‘Have you told her this. It seems to me this young lady is a lot more grown up than you believe. Having an open and honest talk could do you both a lot of good’
‘I’m supposed to be the grown up but being a mother and a father is hard’
‘Divorce is never an easy thing to accept. Especially for a child who loves both parents equally. Having to choose one side or the other is impossible’
‘Her father is too busy impressing his new bed partner to worry how his daughter feels’ she replied angrily.
The frustrations and the sense of betrayal suddenly became too much.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. She looked around desperately for a tissue to hide her embarrassment.
Paddy passed some over.
They continued to discuss other issues. Work. The Cost of Living. School Fees.
Everything that parents would talk about as a matter of course.
Samantha listened but didn’t interrupt.
Eventually her mother finished her drink and announced they should be going.
‘Thank you for the drink and the conversation Paddy. It has made a lot of things clearer in my mind’
‘It has been a pleasure to meet you both. Please come again soon’
Samantha was about to jump off her stool.
‘Will you be taking this delicious strawberry ice cream away with you!’ he announced placing the tub on the counter.
She just nodded her thanks and grabbed her mother’s hand.
Paddy watched them go then glanced at the clock behind the bar.
Twenty minutes had passed since the bet.
He smiled and began polishing glasses.
Steven Ford pulled into the car park. He had heard rumours the old Cricket Pavilion had been converted into an Irish Bar.
‘Why would anyone want to open that run down place’ he thought.
There were wooden tables outside.
Mums and Dads played with their children while having a drink.
One man threw a ball onto the over grown village green.
A sad reflection of when it was a well-cared for cricket pitch.
‘I guess it can’t be that bad’ he decided as he turned off the engine.
He entered the Bar and looked around.
It had a homely atmosphere he thought.
A man was behind the bar polishing glasses. He waited for his customer to approach.
‘Welcome to Paddy’s Bar. We are a little busy today but why don’t you take a seat and I’ll get your drink’
There were only two stools so he sat on one and looked around.
The other customers seemed to be ignoring him and going about their own business.
‘Fine by me’ he thought ‘last thing I need is meaningless conversation. Which is what I will get at home!’
That mental comment wasn’t fair and he knew it. His wife of two years wasn’t the reason for is bad mood.
‘You look like a man that enjoys something different’ Paddy said kindly.
Steven wondered what he was referring to.
‘Or maybe I’ve got that wrong! Let me think now’ Paddy said scratching his beard thoughtfully.
‘I think a nice cool pint of Lager’ he decided ‘but a little something on the side!’
Steven shuffled on his stool and wondered how to reply.
Paddy placed a shot glass on the counter ‘will you be having a drink on the house seeing as you’re a new customer?’
‘That’s very kind of you’ Steven replied relieved he was only talking about the drink.
‘Don’t be stupid’ he told himself ‘how would this guy know about Carla!’
Carla was the new girl in the office.
Harper and Harper Solicitors where a well-established Firm with a solid reputation. He had been lucky in securing a place in their Firm after graduating from Law College. He was even more lucky when he married the owner’s daughter.
Heather was also a Solicitor. But she had decided to join another Firm to avoid any nepotism. It was just the sort of positive mental attitude she exhibited in her dealings with clients. Her tough no-nonsense approach to everything she did made her successful enough to achieve Silk in record time.
She also loved her husband.
He loved his wife.
But he also couldn’t stop fantasizing over Carla. The full of life sexy as hell Intern. The full bosom slim hips young woman who was half his age.
And she fancied him. In that she had left him in no doubt!
Paddy placed the cold pint on the counter.
He then placed a shot glass next to it and poured a measure from a bottle from under the counter. There was no label on it.
‘It’s none of my business but you seem a little troubled. Anything I can help with?’ Paddy asked kindly.
‘It’s not something I can talk about sorry’ he said taking a sip of the lager.
The shot glass remained untouched.
‘I see! Personal Business? I understand’ Paddy replied nodding.
‘You could say that!’ Steven sighed.
‘Life is a gamble in many ways. Do you like a flutter by any chance?’
What a strange question Steven thought. But the answer was ‘Yes!’
‘I thought I saw a man who likes to take risks occasionally. Spice up the day to day routine and all that!’ Paddy said complimenting him.
Steven just laughed.
‘The last time I did that I lost most of our savings’ he said.
‘Well! You can take things too far I guess’
‘That’s one way of putting it. My best friend got married last year. We had a Stag weekend in London would you believe. It included a night in a Casino’
‘That sounds like a recipe for disaster my friend’
‘Lost all my money then emptied the bank account in one night. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid!’
‘I bet that went down well back home’
Steven looked at Paddy.
‘Heather never said a word. She put it down to men’s silliness and never mentioned it again. The money was all our savings for a Deposit on a new house. It took us six months to recover!’
‘Now that sounds like a very special woman if you ask me’ Paddy said nodding thoughtfully.
‘I never told her how sorry I was’ Steven said frowning.
‘Maybe it’s time you did. Unless there’s something stopping you?’
He wasn’t sure what he meant.
‘How is the Lager by the way. Is it to your liking?’
‘I do like a Lager but may I ask what’s in the shot glass’
Paddy just smiled ‘it’s anything you want it to be. But be warned. It can leave a bitter taste if it’s not something you are used to!’
‘I’m not sure what you mean’
‘This drink is a bit like life. I call it. A little bit on the side. It looks good enough to drink. But it can the leave the other drink; like the Lager; with a bitter taste in the mouth!’
Steven frowned at the strange comments but lifted the glass.
‘Down in one!’ Paddy shouted.
Without thinking he downed the liquid.
The drink warmed his stomach and made him smile. A feeling of pleasure came over him.
He lifted the glass of Lager and took a swallow.
It tasted bitter after the shot glass. In fact. He was beginning to feel nauseous.
In fact. He was now beginning to regret accepting the free drink after all.
‘It seems I was right. Best stick to things that you know and can rely on!’ Paddy said taking the shot glass away.
Steven frowned ‘what the hell am I thinking!! Chancing a quick fumble with a girl half my age. If my wife found out she would never forgive me’
Paddy nodded and smiled ‘I think they sell lovely flowers at the Petrol Station these days!’ he suggested.
‘Thanks for the drink Paddy. I’ll see you again’ Steven said before jumping off his stool and leaving.
AN UNEXPECTED TURN OF EVENTS
Colene wasn’t sure why she was here. Paddy’s Place that is.
She stood at the doorway and looked inside the converted Pavilion.
It was busy. A lot busier than she expected in fact.
Colene had worked in Bars most of her adult life. Her parents had owned a Hotel back in Ireland before taking a well-earned retirement.
She was not only good at her job but she liked working behind a counter.
The Craic as the Irish called it!
A man was behind the counter polishing glasses and ignoring the bustle in the bar. Empty glasses and crisp packets littered the tables.
‘It may have a homely feel to the place but that’s no reason for this mess’ she said to herself.
Without thinking she collected glasses on her way to the counter.
‘Have you come for the job?’ the man asked.
‘I didn’t know there was a vacancy’ Colene replied ‘in fact! I’ve no idea what I’m doing here?’
‘Well make your mind up. Do you want a job or not?’ he asked again.
‘Well yes! I guess!’
‘In that case! You’re the wrong side of the counter. I assume you can serve the odd drink or two?’ he asked questioningly.
‘I’ll have you know I’m the best barmaid this side of Dublin’ she replied tardily ‘but before I start I don’t want any Shenanigans when I’m behind that counter?’
‘Shenanigans is it!’ Paddy laughed ‘me a confirmed bachelor and a regular visit to St. Mary’s. At least when I’m back in the home country!’ he smiled.
‘And when was that may I ask?’
Paddy looked sheepish ‘well! It may have been quite a while’ he admitted.
The customers in the Bar started laughing.
Colene suddenly realized they had been listening to the exchange.
She blushed but laughed all the same ‘I think I’m going to like it here’
The evening past by in a flash. Colene forgot her troubles as she served drinks and chatted to the customers.
It had been a warm day again. The heat wave was forecast to continue until the end of the week. Good news as tomorrow was a Bank Holiday. Bad news as the holiday traffic jams would continue as well.
It was for that reason she had ended up in a small village and a converted cricket pavilion!
Colene was about to enquire what time they closed.
But by the time she had collected the empty glasses and cleaned the tables the bar was empty.
Paddy was behind the counter polishing glasses.
‘Is that your Camper Van in the car park by any chance?’ he asked.
‘Yes! Why is it a problem?’
‘No problem! You look like you’ve had a long day Colene. Why don’t you have an early night and we’ll talk tomorrow. Would you like a night cap!’
‘Thank you but no. I need to keep a clear head’
Paddy nodded ‘good night then and find your brolly out. It’s going to rain tomorrow’
Colene was about to repeat the weather forecast but for some reason didn’t.
‘Good night Paddy’
THE NEXT DAY
For the first time in weeks Colene slept soundly. So much so it was after eleven before she ventured outside.
It was still warm but a black cloud was forming over the area.
By the time, she had changed and had breakfast; spots of rain patted on the camper vans roof.
‘I don’t believe it!’ she said rushing the last few yards to the bar.
‘God morning Colene. I trust you slept well’
‘How did you know it was going to rain Paddy?’
He just shrugged ‘why don’t you sit at the bar and I’ll make us a nice cup of coffee. Maybe a little something in it?’
She was about to refuse but a commotion at the door distracted her.
A woman pushed a pram inside. A man followed behind with a small child in his arms.
The thunder storm had caught them unawares.
The woman pulled the baby from the pram and hugged her child who was completely soaked.
The man was about to strip the clothes off the little boy but stopped and looked at the counter. Unsure if he was doing the right thing.
Colene didn’t hesitate.
‘Paddy! Will you be getting lots of towels to dry these poor bairns off? Come inside why don’t you’ she told the parents.
The little boy was shivering. Colene removed all his summer clothing and wrapped him in a warm towel.
The father accepted a towel but manly refused further help.
The mother stripped the baby and wrapped her in a blanket that Paddy had produced from nowhere?
The baby continued to cry pitifully.
There was a concerned and the anguished look on the faces of the parents.
It seemed the crying was nothing new!
Colene asked if she could hold her for a while.
The mother hesitated but then passed her child over. The temporary relief would be welcome.
‘Would you like to sit at the bar’ Paddy asked the parents ‘I’ve just made coffee’
They accepted and sat on the two bar stools all the time checking the baby was OK.
The little boy had stopped shivering. The hot chocolate drink warmed him up nicely.
They would wonder later where that had come from?
The baby continued to cry.
‘What’s her name?’ Paddy asked.
‘Louisa Jane’ the mother said ‘I’m sorry for the trouble. It was lovely when we set out this morning’
She was referring to the weather.
‘It’s no trouble believe me. Would you care for a drink on the house?’
Paddy had already set two shot glasses. He then produced a bottle from under the counter and filled them.
Colene watched him and frowned ‘I don’t remember that being there yesterday’ she thought.
‘Down in one!’
Without thinking the parents tossed back the drink.
They relaxed and drank the coffee.
‘Your child seems upset. Is there something wrong?’
The mother jumped in immediately ‘the doctors checked her out again yesterday and said she was fine. There’s no need for the welfare people to call again’
The man calmed his wife ‘they are only doing their job Sandy. Now I’m home for good everything will be fine I promise’
‘Have you been away?’ Paddy asked.
‘Just completed my second tour. Took a bullet in the shoulder for my troubles. It could have been worse?’ he said.
‘A soldier? A fine career but hard on the family sometimes?’
The man nodded ‘I was in a coma for a week afterwards. Infection the doctors said. I got airlifted home’
The baby was still crying.
‘Why don’t you sing to the child. It may help?’ he said to Colene.
A pained look crossed her face.
Paddy came from behind the counter.
‘When you parked that little camper yesterday I was going to ask. Are you coming or going somewhere?’
‘I haven’t decided’ Colene replied.
‘Why don’t you sing a lullaby. It may help?’
‘You are a strange man Paddy and no mistake. But you are right. I have to make a decision today one way or the other’
‘I’m sure you will make the right one Colene. You’re a natural behind the bar; but I don’t think it’s a full-time career for you anymore?’
The holiday traffic had got the better of her. She had pulled off the motorway intending to park up and take a rest. The trip from Ireland was taking longer than expected.
The Petrol Station attendant directed her to an area she could safely park up for the night.
‘It’s next to the Village Green. At least that what it was a few years ago’ he said.
She had been curious at the activity around the old Pavilion.
On impulse, she had decided to check it out.
The last thing she expected was to be working behind the bar.
But like the owner said. She was a natural!
And. At that moment, it was exactly what she needed. A distraction!
Singing was the reason she was going to London.
The Talent Show had been in Belfast. Across the border from where she lived in Southern Ireland.
The judges were so impressed they had asked her to attend a follow-up rehearsal a week later In London. All expenses paid.
She would be a Star they said!
Her fiancée had been supportive but could not come with her. He was a teacher and had commitments at a Summer Camp.
Her parents were not so enthusiastic. The Hotel they owned had been sold to an American investment company.
‘You have a Trust Fund that means you don’t have to work for a living unless you want to. Everyone knows you have a lovely voice Colene but do you really want the life style of a Pop Singer?’
It wasn’t the life style she wanted. It was the recognition.
She wanted people to acknowledge her talent. At least that was her goal when she set off two days ago.
Now she wasn’t so sure?
Colene hugged the baby and began to sing.
Softly at first then louder as the child in her arms stopped crying.
The more she sang. The calmer the baby became until a gently happy gurgling sound could be heard from beneath the cover.
She gently passed the baby back to her relieved mother.
‘You sing beautifully’ she smiled.
‘It looks like this storm is here for a while. Shall I call you a taxi?’ Paddy enquired.
The baby wriggled in her mother’s arms.
‘Don’t worry Paddy. I will give this lovely family a lift in the Camper. If that’s Ok with you?’ she asked them.
‘We don’t want to be any trouble’ the Father said.
‘It’s no trouble and it’s me who should be thanking you’
They weren’t sure what she meant but accepted gratefully.
They collected their belongings.
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t work behind the bar Paddy’ she told him.
‘Don’t be! Paddy’s Bar has been fun while it lasted but all good things come to an end. Say hello to the folks back home for me’
She was about to ask how he knew?
‘Fame and Fortune are no match for Family and Friends’ he said smiling.
ALL GOOD THINGS!
Barry John Higgins looked on in disgust at the condition of the Village Green.
Barry was the Head Green Keeper at the local Golf Course.
The storm had passed but his beloved Greens were flooded.
They would be back to their pristine condition by tomorrow but that didn’t placate the many unhappy golfers now downing their sorrows in the Club House.
‘You would think I was to blame for the bloody weather’ he grumbled.
It had got too much.
He decided to go for a walk.
The sight of the Village Green had not improved his mood one bit!
‘The rain isn’t going to help’ a man said behind him.
He turned around.
‘Never would have got this bad when I worked for the council’ he replied.
‘Is there nothing to be done?’
Barry shrugged ‘it needs a machine to cut that lot down. Then a small mower to trim it’ he declared.
‘You seem to know your business’ the man said.
‘I worked for the Council nigh on ten years. Have been Green Keeper at the Golf Club ever since. I know grass!’
‘Would it take long?’
‘Not with the equipment I have. Trouble is. I retire next week’
‘Well then. Nothing to lose is there?’ the man smiled before moving away towards the Old Pavilion.
Paddy stopped a few yards away and turned around ‘best do it before the workmen arrive tomorrow morning’
THE NEXT MORNING
The Bulldozer trundled off the back of the Low Loader.
Council workmen strung tape across the Car Park.
The Council Surveyor donned his hard hat and checked the Plans.
‘Make sure the Pavilion is completely empty’ he ordered.
‘What that place. Who would want to go into that old building’
‘Someone told me there was a Bar in there now’ one workman commented.
‘A Bar! Are you serious?’
The man shrugged embarrassed now at divulging the information ‘I guess not’
The Surveyor gazed across the Village Green ‘what the HELL?’
The workman asked ‘surely we aren’t going to rip the Village Green. I mean. Just look at it!’
It wasn’t Lords Cricket ground but someone had done a magnificent job of mowing and trimming the Green.
Villagers were already strolling about. Dogs on leads barked happily.
The Surveyor sighed ‘If we move the Digger on there we will cause a riot’ he declared.
‘What about the Pavilion’
‘Knock it down. It’s had its day!’
A workman approached ‘the place is empty but I did find this’ he said handing over a wooden box.
The surveyor opened it.
‘There’s a bottle without a label and some shot glasses. There’s a note inside as well’ he said unfolding the paper.
‘Enjoyed the Craic boys. Have a drink on Paddy’s Bar before you leave’
Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
There was an angel named Zacharias who worked for God. His job was to see to it that the minutes changed to hours, the hours to days, days to weeks etc to etc.and that time marched on uninterrupted as it had for millenias upon millenias here upon the face of the earth.
Now some learned people of the planet earth got together and formed a club and called themselves the Lords of Science. And these Lords came to the conclusion, in their infinite wisdom, that man’s time, here on earth anyway, was about to run out.
“Man has destroyed the environment of this good earth of ours by his own greed and stupidity and there is nothing we the learned can do to fix it for you,” one of elite proclaimed. “This planet is long over due to be hit by asteroids and be destroyed,” shouted another. “Global warming will fry the earth and everything upon it,” hollered still a third member of the club. And with that said they all announced in unison, “The world will end within one hundred years from today.” And they repeated this mantra over and over. But the people did not believe them.
So the Lords of Science created their own version of time to back up what they had just said. And their version of time wasn’t the same as God’s. For they had created the Doomsday Clock to prove their point and set the minute hand thereon a few minutes before midnight. Or was it high noon? It didn’t matter anyway for it symbolized that when the clock struck twelve, life here on earth, as we knew it, would end.
The people looked at the clock and became frightened now and shrieked, “What should we do? Where should we go?” And they prostrated themselves before the Lords of Science seeking answers.
So as to not let a crisis go to waste, and again using their brilliance, the Lords of Science came up with Plan B to live on Planet B. They thought this play on words was clever and that it validated their innate geniusness. Their plan was a simple plan: Move. And they told the people of earth of their plan. But secretly the Lords of Science had no intention of taking the people with them when they left.
Now God became angry and upset with such foolishness and conceit by these men. For he deemed it an attempt by them to upstage Him with Science as their god. God meant for mankind’s time here on earth to be eternal and never to be ended by man himself. So He sent Zacharias, in a human form, to earth to deliver a message of warning to these so called learned pharisees.
But these learned ones laughed at Zacharias when they saw him and said unto him, “We do not wish to hear what such a little uneducated man as you has to say for we already know what is best for mankind and have figured it all out.” And with that said they shredded the memo from God without even looking at it and sent him away. And this they would live to regret.
Then the Scientists proceeded with their plan to move and they built a special rocket ship and filled it with all the best and the brightest of the dna of all the species of flora and fauna, animals and insects, and the different races of man so that they could reproduce them all again on Planet B but only in a better, higher and more intelligent life form. And they drew up plans and loaded up materials to build magnificent aerated bubble pod cities to live in on Planet B because the atmosphere there would not support life as they knew it. And since there was no beauty of nature on Planet B, only a lifeless dull gray dust and rock setting, they would recreate God’s beauty of nature in a pod there too but on a much more grander and more beautiful scale than God had done here on earth. And they prided themselves in these their plans of creation.
Then they set the Doomsday Clock at one minute before the stroke of midnight, or high noon, or whatever time it was suppose to be, and then they left earth forever. But before did so, they had already set in motion three earth destroying catastrophes to make sure that the world would end just as they had predicted. For if it did not, then they would look foolish and their work would have all been in vain and vain people cannot can not accept results such as foolishness and failure.
Now God knew what the Lords of Science had planned. For God knows all that goes on in the minds of his children and He sent Zacharias to earth again. This time with the knowledge and instructions how to thwart the plans of these evil men. For God too had a plan.
First the Lords of Science had employed teams of men all over the world to use giant jack hammers on all the fault lines of earth so that the earth would open up and split apart and all of mankind would be swallowed up therein and die as a result thereof. So Zacharias went to the places of the giant jackhammers and told the men there that he was from the Lords of Science and that their instructions were wrong and instead of jack hammering the earth apart they were to drill into the earth for oil. This made more sense to these men. So they began to drill for oil and God made oil bubble forth from their drilling, enriching not only them, but all of mankind with lower gas prices.
Second the Lords of Science had built and sent into space a giant asteroid and programmed it to collide with the earth destroying the entire planet. So Zacharias went to the military generals of the earth and told them this and the generals sent forth powerful missiles and destroyed the asteroid thousands of miles above the earth's’ surface blowing it into a fine powdery dust. And God blessed that dust and had it settle on the ozone layer above the earth destroying the ozone layer and thus saving the earth from the deadly greenhouse effect.
Third the Lords of Science had built an artificial drone sun with nuclear heating powers and had sent it high above the earth to heat the earth to the point where the oceans would boil and all life forms on land would be charred. So Zacharias went to the Temple of Science, found the controls for the drone, and shut it off. Then God had Zacharias reprogram it so that the atmosphere could be mildly heated or cooled whenever and wherever it best suited man and had Zacharias program the artificial sun to produce wind and rain patterns over certain areas on earth that were presently unproductive so as to make those areas fruitful and that crops could be grown thereon. And all of mankind benefited greatly from the reprogrammed artificial sun.
All this was unbeknownst of course to the Lords of Science who were thousands of light years from earth at the time as they made their exodus through the vastness of space.
Now while doing so they came upon an asteroid storm and God saw it and parted the asteroids for their ship to pass through. But when the ship reached the eye of the storm, God closed the asteroid storm around them, and rained down his wrath upon these men, destroying them and all their learning.
And God thus having accomplished His plan, He drew Zacharias back up to Heaven with Him. And Zacharias went back to work making sure that time marched on, just as it always had, for millennia upon millennia, world without end. Amen.
Geraldine McCarthy lives in West Cork in the Republic of Ireland. She has been writing short stories and flash fiction for almost two years now. Her work is published in The Fable Online [July 2016, June 2017], The Incubator Journal [December 2016], Seven Deadly Sins: a YA Anthology (Gluttony) [November 2016] and (Wrath) [August 2017], The Scarlet Leaf Review [January 2017] and Brilliant Flash Fiction [June 2017].
As Kathleen held the pot high to strain the potatoes, the baby started to kick again. She banged the saucepan down on the sink, steam rising, and pressed her hand to the small of her back. The relief was minor and temporary. Still, it was good to feel the little one moving.
Light footsteps sounded on the lino.
"Mam, what's for dinner?"
Kathleen turned and smiled. "Can't you smell it?"
Tessie scrunched up her face. "Bacon and cabbage," she said with resignation, her head hung low.
"Where's your little sister?"
"Don't you remember? She's gone over to the O'Shea’s to practice the school play."
Kathleen tucked a stray wisp of black hair behind her ear. "So she is."
Ciaran keened from the other room, and Kathleen went to check on him. He was still safely out of harm's way in the butter box, but had thrown his teddy out on the floor.
"Okay, baba. I know you're hungry. Two more minutes until I put out the dinner." She called to Tessie, "Will you pick up your brother's toy for me? Good girl!"
Tessie did as she was told, and sat on the floor to babble at Ciaran.
Kathleen padded into the back kitchen to pile the plates with food, and set them on the table in the main room. She stooped awkwardly, bracing herself to haul Ciaran up off the floor, and flopped down on the settle, positioning the toddler next to her.
"Why are you sitting in Daddy's place?" Tessie asked, picking the fat trimming off the bacon.
"I need to rest my back against the wall."
"He's still outside. There's a cow down. Now eat your spuds! How was school?"
Tessie never carried home tales and Kathleen liked this about her.
"Pet, have you many lessons to do tonight?"
“Just my favourite.”
"Writing down a story?"
"Yes. You tell me an old story. I write it in my own words. The Master prints it in his special copybook and sends it to Dublin to the folklore ’mission."
"You mean the Folklore Commission?"
"Yes, that." Tessie agreed impatiently. "The Master said I had the best story last week, the one about the fairy fort that you heard from your Nana."
"It's a wonder they're interested in that ráiméis up in Dublin." Kathleen mashed potato with milk and began to spoon-feed Ciaran. "What's the topic this week?"
"What?" Kathleen's spoon stopped mid-flight.
"The famine, Mammy." Tessie put down her knife and fork.
"We've no stories about the famine. None. You can tell the Master that."
"But, Mammy, how will I go to school without a story?"
Kathleen wagged her finger, her voice as sharp as the carving knife. "That's my final word on the matter."
Tessie's lips trembled.
"Eat up your dinner. I've to go out next to bring in the clothes."
Kathleen finished feeding Ciaran and played with her own food. She might have another bite of it later, when Patrick came in from the field. Pushing back the table, she heaved herself off the settle, and lay Ciaran in his pram for a sleep.
The fresh air felt good after the heat of the range. She plucked the clothes off the bushes, folding as she went, holding them to her face to savour their newly-washed scent. Her back was cracking, having stood over the bath all morning, scrubbing the garments with carbolic soap. She eased herself onto the low wall by the back door for a few minutes, catching her breath.
Images of Nana on her deathbed came to her unbidden. More sounds than images: Kathleen’s mother had ordered her out of the room, but Kathleen stood outside listening.
“Where is Father McCann?” her Nana wheezed to Kathleen’s mother.
“He’s on another sick call. He must be delayed.”
Nana gave a loud sigh. "Child, I'm tormented. I'll have to tell someone."
"What is it?"
Kathleen held her breath as she waited for the answer.
"It's about the time when the blackness came on the potatoes."
"You don't have to talk about that," Kathleen's mother said, a softness in her voice.
"But I do. My sister Kitty and her husband lived in the next cottage. The fever was sweeping through the town land and it came as far as them. We used to put a mug of buttermilk on the blade of a shovel and give it to them over the wall, keeping our distance.” Nana’s voice broke. “But they were getting weaker and weaker. We knew if we stayed we'd be next. We abandoned them, ended up in the Poorhouse. What kind of a person leaves her own flesh and blood there to die? What kind of a person?"
The room filled with sobs, and Kathleen stole downstairs on tiptoes, before she could be discovered.
Crows began circling overhead. Kathleen gathered up the laundered clothes before the birds had a chance to decorate them.
She placed the bundle on a chair in the back kitchen and went to check on the children. Ciaran slept deeply, his face flushed. Tessie wiped tears from her cheeks.
Kathleen sank into an armchair by the range.
"Come here to me, pet."
Tessie didn't budge.
"I'm sorry I got cross. Now get your copybook and I'll tell you a story."
Tessie ran to get her schoolbag from the porch and perched on the edge of the armchair opposite her mother.
Kathleen rubbed her belly and tried to get comfortable. She looked to the picture of Pope Pius XI for inspiration. Then she looked to the picture of De Valera. Neither of them a whit of help.
“ A blight, a disease, came on the potatoes. It came with the rain. People had nothing to eat. They were starving. When desperation overcame them, they went to the Poorhouse. It was a sort of hospital, where people were housed and fed.” An idea came to Kathleen. “ My Nana was a nurse in the Poorhouse. She helped people.”
Tessie seemed to take this in.
“It was a horrific time. That's all I can say."
"Mammy, when I'm writing that in my own words, will you help me?"
"I will, pet. Go out and play with the dog a while. I'll have to heat your father's dinner."
"Okay, Mammy." Tessie scrutinised Kathleen’s face. "Thanks, Mammy."
The child met her father on the way out. "Daddy!"
"How's my girl?" He didn't swing her around, as he usually did, but went straight into the room.
"How's the cow?" Kathleen asked.
"We lost her," he said, his voice hoarse, eyes focused on his mud-spattered boots.
He raised his head to look at her. "You're gone very pale, love. Look, we'll survive. You'll be able to get groceries on tick from Molly for a while? Until we sort ourselves out."
"I will. It's just bad timing."
"But it's not that, Patrick. I'm scared. For the baby."
"Are you feeling alright?"
She picked at the pocket of her cardigan. "Yes, tired, but okay. No, I'm worried that something will go wrong. That our luck is changing, running out."
"Why would it run out?"
"I don't know, Patrick, it's just a feeling I have."
"You and your intuition."
"Yes, it's probably a thing of nothing.”
He helped her rise from the chair, and she went to the back kitchen. The food for Patrick was heaped on a Pyrex plate, which she put over a pot of simmering water. While waiting for the meal to heat through, she whispered an Act of Contrition over and over - on behalf of herself, on behalf of her mother, and on behalf Nana.
NT Franklin - I write after my real job hoping one day to have it be my real job. When I’m not reading or writing short stories, you might find me fishing or solving crossword puzzles.
Me and Bart and the Snowstorm
School was out for Christmas break and I was awake and up early. I hated to waste school vacation. If allowed, I’d sleep in and be late for school, but vacation? No way.
A good six inches of snow had fallen overnight. It was a beautiful sight. Fresh snow meant me and Bart could shovel driveways and make some money. Christmas was a week away and it is the season of giving. I liked the getting better than the giving. I don’t count socks and shirts as getting. No matter. It was the way it was.
I put the black flag up in my window to signal Bart that I was up. No black flag in Bart’s window meant he wasn’t up. Breakfast called. Chocolate milk on Wheaties, breakfast of Champions. At least the breakfast of me and Bart. We liked the same things. By the time I finished eating, I saw the black flag was up across the street in Bart’s window. Time for action.
Off I went, a couple bologna and cheese sandwiches in my pocket and a snow shovel over my shoulder. Could be an all-day deal.
Bart was ready when I arrived, complete with sandwiches and a shovel, too. Old Mrs. Scovil would be our first driveway. She always said yes and didn’t care exactly if we did a good a job or not. Besides, she lived next door. Honest work for honest money. Not always the fastest way to get funds, but times being what they were and Christmas so close, a fella’s gotta do what a fella’s gotta do.
The snow was heavy and her driveway seemed longer than either of us remembered. But with cash in our pocket, we were already successful. Some of the houses had driveways that had been plowed out by pickup trucks. I didn’t want to go to them and knock, but Bart did. He said it would be easy money. Four of the seven houses we tried paid for their sidewalks and front steps to be hand shoveled by enterprising young men. A few more “no thanks” before we scored our second driveway. Two driveways and four sidewalks, we were seriously into money.
Snow shovels on a snowbank make a passable chair if you’re tired. And we were. “You have to fuel the engine,” Bart said as we ate our sandwiches. Hard to beat bologna and cheese sandwiches on a winter day. Maybe any day.
“I think we have enough, don’t you?” asked Bart.
“Gee, I don’t know. I have to buy a present for my Mom.”
“We got enough, you’ll see.”
“Okay, Bart, if you say so.”
“It’s not dark yet,” Bart said. “Let’s walk to the Town Diner. We earned a coke and plate of French fries. We deserve it. Besides, I guess we didn’t bring enough sandwiches ‘cause I’m hungry.”
He was right on that account. Anyways, who doesn’t like fries and a Coke? Bart thought the shovels dragging behind us made a pattern like a big tire in the snow. I didn’t see it, be he was convinced. We leaned the shovels against the outside wall and went into the diner. The lady at the counter gave us a little smile when we walked in and unloaded our coats into one side of a booth.
I think she gave us extra fries because the plates couldn’t hold all of them. When we told her how we earned our reward, she filled our cokes again, for free. Nobody but the three of us were in the diner so I don’t think she got in trouble.
Darkness wasn’t far away when we started walking back. We both had to admit, it had been a good day. We made some Christmas money, had fries and a Coke, and it was still school vacation.
When I turned around to see why Bart lagged behind, he nailed me with a snowball in the shoulder. It was game on.
I wound up and let a fastball go as Bart turned around. SPLAT! A direct hit. The air went out of him with an “oof.” Being a pitcher for our baseball team had advantages in snowball fights. Mostly I threw fast, not accurate. We ran along and laughed our fool heads off. Bart got me a good one or two, but pretty much, we were even in direct hits. Nearly home, that needed to change so I wound up and let one fly.
Our garage window was busted out. The whole neighborhood musta heard the window break. For sure, my Mom did. She was in the picture window, hands on hips and not looking happy. We were dead meat. She motioned me and Bart to come to the door. The thought of running away went just as fast as it came. She had that look that told me she would hunt me down and it would be worse.
“It will be alright, just wait and see,” Bart said. He never seemed to be scared or worried about anything. Me, I was sure I was going to die. We went to the front door to get our punishment.
“Again, boys? How many times are you going to throw something and break that window? Baseballs, footballs, snowballs. What next? You two know it will have to be replaced again.”
I’m sorry, Mom,” I said.
“Yeah, we really are,” Bart said. “But we have money right now to cover it.” We dug into our pockets and pulled out what we had left from snow shoveling minus the fries and Coke.
“Perfect,” Mom said. “Bart, you best be getting home before it gets any darker. And you, young man, inside. Now.”
Yup, I thought taking the black flag down, it had been a pretty good day. And there is always tomorrow.
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
Winnie took a cab to Laura’s town house. Laura met her on the porch. They hugged and Winnie gave her a box of Stutz candies.
“You shouldn’t have,” said Laura. “I’ll get even fatter.”
Laura always nursed a belly that looked like she was a couple of months pregnant.
“I’ll put the coffee on,” said Laura, as she opened the door and led her friend inside.
The place was immaculate, done all in white, with shiny white tiles in the kitchen and windows looking onto a small back yard with a swing set and slide beside a couple of small maple trees. Everything was frosted with snow and glistened under the noonday sun.
“Laura,” said Winnie. “Amy’s in college. What’s with the swing sets?”
“You know me, Win. Bobby and I don’t like change.”
Winnie shook her head as her friend put the tea kettle onto the all-white stove with one of those tops that was a smooth single panel, easy to clean.
The two old friends stood in the middle of the kitchen. They once lived in the infamous Village Green Apartments, built on a flood plain. Fortunately they had moved out before the tragedy. A tragedy waiting to happen, caused by greedy developers who built on a known flood plain. Laura and
Winnie knew the four people who were killed. Murdered might be a better word. They died not by drowning. But by something much worse. The water had risen quickly, like it always did, up to “A” Building – the old people’s building. But instead of receding and settling back into the tributary of the Pennypack Creek, it rose higher and higher, all the way up to the second floor of the building, where Angie and her son, Rudy, were waiting to be rescued.
The sound was heard for miles around. An explosion in the basement of “A” Building. The gas dryer had exploded and blew away six tenants.
Over the years, Laura and Winnie kept in touch by phone or met for shopping dates. Winnie knew every detail of Laura’s life and on New Year’s Day, when she had off from work at the factory, she took a cab over to the Parkview Town Houses.
The tea kettle began its high whistle and Laura poured the water through her clear-glass Chemex coffee maker.
“You and your perfect cups of coffee,” Winnie laughed.
“I know you want a tour of the house,” said Laura. She patted her belly, a habit Winnie remembered from the apartments.
“That husband of mine. At the gym. He practically sleeps there.”
As they walked, Laura gave a slow narration of her husband’s habits. He was either at the gym or at work. He had started his own computer company and did very well.
“You know what my husband did?” Laura asked Winnie.
Winnie laughed. “Can’t wait to hear.”
“He gave everyone a huge bonus – all one hundred fifty employees – and also took them out for dinner.”
“Let me guess where they went,” said Winnie, who seemed to pick up gossip as easily as picking up a piece of chocolate.
“Damn, Winnie. How did you know?”
Winnie begged off, saying they’d sit down and talk after the house tour.
The living room was a show place. It had that unlived-in look. Like looking in a store window. The carpet was eggshell white and most of the furniture, including two white sofas that looked so delicious you wanted to sink your teeth into them, was a pristine white. Yellow accents such as a tall yellow and turquoise vase on the carpet lent an air of sophistication to the room. Neither Laura nor Bobby O’Riley was sophisticated.
Photographs of Amy hung above the sofa. A beautiful child, if a bit pudgy like her mom, she had a broad smile when she lived in the apartments. As she inched toward high school graduation – and, yes, there she was in her cap and gown – her face looked less full. A third photo, taken in a lavender prom gown, as she stood between Bobby and Laura, showed a poised young woman on the edge of a brave new life.
Winnie learned that Bobby had taken his daughter under his wing and introduced her around the gym.
“She was always Daddy’s girl and the two of them would gallivant off to the fitness center, what a damn bore, where he taught her to ride all those godawful machines.”
Winnie laughed. “She turned out to be a beautiful girl, don’t you think?”
“More beautiful than I am,” said Laura. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when you and me go shopping at Marshall’s, try on clothes in those tiny fitting rooms and I have to look at myself in the mirror.”
She shook her head and fluffed up her dark brown hair.
From the living room they walked up the carpeted stairs to the second floor.
“The home of a movie star,” laughed Winnie, as she followed her friend.
Three bedrooms appeared at the top of the stairs.
Amy’s room was childlike. Her stuffed animals – a white unicorn with a lifelike horn emerging from its forehead, Kermit the Frog, and a baby giraffe with huge button eyes – lay on the pillows of her bed. One window, in the shape of a huge half circle, looked over the front of Parkview, at the cars asleep in their parking spots on this enforced day of rest, New Year’s Day.
“Does she come home much?”
“Barely,” said Laura. “She has so many friends now that she’s at Penn. It’s a tough school to get into, you know.”
Winnie didn’t wonder that she rarely came home. Bobby and Laura were constantly fighting, voices raised, fists pounding tables. Once, Laura told her over the phone, that Bobby had punched a hole in the kitchen wall, apologized, and had it plastered over before anyone saw it.
“And, here’s Bobby’s room,” she said, leading Winnie into the master bedroom.
“Oh, he has his own room now, does he?”
It was filled with mirrors, a huge walk-in closet and a bathroom on the right.
Laura opened up two closet doors. Immediately a bright light went on revealing Bobby’s wardrobe. Winnie went over and fingered a red silk robe.
“Wonder where he got this?”
“Oh, he goes downtown to some fancy shops to buy his stuff.”
She led Winnie into the bathroom.
Winnie saw the sunken pink Jacuzzi with water jets all around and seats for the bathers.
“Me and Johnny, when we were going together,” said Winnie, “stayed in a fancy hotel downtown and had a great time in the Jacuzzi, if you know what I mean.”
Laura laughed. “Bobby and I have the same old problem.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Winnie. No need to say it: no sex.
Returning to the kitchen they sat back down at the glass table. Laura poured more coffee and warmed it in the microwave above the stove.
A red amaryllis, sitting atop the table, had just bloomed and sent its tall red spikes into the air.
“You do have a way with interior design,” said Winnie. “Your apartment looked nothing like this.”
Laura laughed. “We paid for a designer to come out. She still does. And she brought me this plant.”
“One of the reasons I never visited before, hon, was because I was afraid to tell you something about your husband.”
“My husband? Bobby? I can’t imagine what that would be.” She quickly thought of the first thing that pops into a woman’s head: an affair. But quickly dismissed the thought.
Winnie cleared her throat and placed her hand on Laura’s.
“Bobby is gay,” said Winnie.
There was total silence.
Laura got up and took the coffees out of the microwave, then sat back down in silence.
She took a sip and sat stiff as a cardboard box.
She looked down and then she stared at her friend.
“Winnie, how do you know?”
“Laura, everyone knows except you.”
Winnie mentioned the lack of sex. “Men are horny. They love sex. Look at my Johnny and my Carl. They don’t even mind sleeping with a cripple.” She laughed.
“How many times did you do it?” asked Winnie.
Laura paused only a moment.
“Once on our honeymoon. Or almost. He got sick, so we never finished.”
“Go on,” said Winnie.
“Well, there was that other time ….”
“Yes, when you told him you wanted a child,” finished Winnie.
Laura scratched her forehead, trying to comprehend what she had been in denial about for nineteen years.
“Tom Abado and his restaurant?” said Winnie. “Bet that’s his boyfriend.”
“Winnie, how could you?” said Laura, standing up and walking around the kitchen.
“If he is gay, Winnie, do you think Amy knows?”
“Probably. She’s a smart girl. But she loves her daddy. And always will. People are liberal nowadays about things like that.”
They heard the sound of a car pulling into the garage. Laura looked at her watch, then looked at Winnie.
They heard Bobby’s feet running up the basement stairs. He burst inside, panting, and saw the two of them seated at the table.
“Honey!” he said, his voice rising. “Why didn’t you tell me you were having company?”
Bobby took off his jacket and hung it on a hook in the hallway. He was an average-sized man with firm muscled arms that showed through his blue short-sleeve shirt. His hair was dyed black but looked natural.
“Bobby,” said Laura. “You remember Winnie from the apartments.”
“Winnie! My God, I didn’t recognize you. How ya doing?” He went over and hugged her.
Winnie was a pretty woman with dyed blond hair. As a polio victim, one leg was shorter than the other, but it never stopped her from meeting men or becoming a supervisor at the factory. She wore a brace under her blue jeans and had a specially-made shoe with an elevated sole, her “polio shoes,” as she called them.
Winnie smiled. “I finally decided to visit your beautiful home. Oh, it’s lovely, Bobby. Just lovely. Like in a magazine. I’m so happy for you.”
“Where are you living now?” he asked.
“I couldn’t escape Hatboro, like you both did. I live on the seventh floor of The Garner House, right across from the train station.”
Winnie talked about her job at the jewelry factory, wearing special thermal suits and goggles when she melted down gold nuggets to make jewelry.
“They gave me a nice bonus since I been there thirty years.”
She pulled out a blue-rimmed iPhone from her pocketbook.
The phone began to vibrate and they all laughed. “It’s probably my Dawnie,” she said, referring to her grown daughter.
“Guess I better be going.”
Bobby volunteered to drive her home.
“No, no, I’ll take the cab,” she insisted.
“Not while you’re in my house,” said Bobby and helped her on with her coat.
Laura heard the clop clop clop of her friend’s awkward-looking shoe as she walked down the basement steps and into the garage, where a ride home in a black BMW sports car awaited her.
So, thought Laura, it must be true. “I must get used to this. What an embarrassment. Everyone knows but me.” Her festering resentment toward her husband began to grow and as the days passed, she felt uncomfortable living “with a fag in my house,” as she told Winnie over the phone.
But how could she divorce him? She couldn’t possibly live on her own. She hadn’t worked a day of her married life. She had waitressed as a teenager at the Willow Inn. Every time she drove by, she was reminded how afraid she was to work outside the home, and how, yes, “pathetic” and “frightened” she was. What if anything happened to Bobby? She’d have to go out and find a job.
One evening she was trying to fall asleep in her room. Where was that husband of hers? When she heard him walking up the stairs, she came out of her room, wearing a see-through white nightgown.
“Where the hell have you been?” she yelled.
“Business,” he said sleepily.
“Business! Yeah, with your gay friends! I never dreamed I’d marry a faggot. A fucking faggot!”
Bobby, head down, slunk into his room, saying nothing. He closed the door and she heard him lock it.
“Oh!” she screamed as she went back into her room. She turned on the television. And flipped through the channels. In bright vibrant colors she watched a program about farmers. They strode through the landscape filled with purpose and wore odd clothing. Aha! They were the Amish. As she watched, she forgot about her recent discovery about Bobby and totally focused on the program. How good it was that everyone in the family, even the little children, worked, and the man – a manly man! – was the head of the family.
While Amy was growing up, they had taken many a trip to the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia. It was a high cavernous building replete with everything you would want: cut flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and delicious meals from several Amish families. She remembered the juicy chickens and fresh cranberry sauce, piled in Styrofoam plates, along with black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Laura decided to act quickly before she lost her nerve.
From the basement, she pulled out a suitcase on wheels and dragged it upstairs and into her bedroom. An elevator would have been nice, she thought. She was out of breath when she got to her room and placed the suitcase on her yellow bedspread. Into it she put sweet-smelling clean clothes, pants, bras, underwear, and an old bathing suit for good measure. She packed a few towels and washcloths and took the suitcase downstairs to the kitchen. She would leave in the morning.
She wrote a note, which she left on the table after Bobby drove off to work.
“Bobby, I’m going away for a while. I’ll be fine. Will get in touch in a few weeks.” She signed it “Laura.” Forget the word “love.”
She drove out of the garage in her own BMW sedan, a sturdy gray color. She punched in an address into the GPS on the dashboard and listened to the deep sound of a baritone male voice as she left Parkview Homes behind. She wondered if she would ever return.
She was a woman who would not look back. She was afraid to. Hands firmly on the wheel, the roads were fine, the snow had all melted.
“Turn left at Meetinghouse Road,” said the male voice. She paid strict attention as if her life depended on it. After a while, the voice stated, “Merge right onto Route 30.”
Route 30 seemed to turn into another country, another lifetime, another century. After an hour, she found herself behind one of those famous black Amish buggies. The wheels of the buggy were huge. She lowered the window so she could hear the clopping of the horse’s hooves. The driver motioned to her to pass him and so she did, craning her neck to see what the man inside looked like.
There he was, with a long scraggy black beard and a top hat like Abraham Lincoln’s. Her heart quickened. Certainly watching that program was a sign from God that she belonged here.
She drove along the road. There wasn’t much traffic. Which shop should she pull into? Three of them on her right had quilts hanging outside the stores. My goodness, she thought. Maybe I can learn to quilt. She was more excited than on Amy’s high school graduation day. Had her whole life been a pretense, she wondered. Waiting, just waiting, for this sacred day?
She pulled her BMW into the gravel driveway of the third quilt shop. The moment she walked in, she heard a strange language – neither French nor Italian but something like German – spoken by a few people in the store. When she walked in and the bells jingled on the door, a slender young woman greeted her. She wore a calf-length blue dress and the traditional bonnet on the back of her head.
“Make yourself to home,” she said. “Look around. I am here to answer any questions you may have about our products.”
Laura looked at shelves filled with all sorts of jam and honey, sticks of candy like licorice and mint, small wooden toys and stained glass designs of cardinals and bluebirds.
She fingered some quilts, large and small, and lifted up some exquisite pot holders. “Great gifts,” she thought, but then remembered she was not going back. She remembered her suitcase in the back of her BMW. The Amish did not drive cars. She must be prepared to give up her car.
She felt certain she could do it. To live like an Amish. To have a purpose. A reason to rise out of bed in the morning.
More people leave the Amish community than join. Conversion is rare. She would soon learn this. But the Amish were big-hearted people and welcomed newcomers into their fold, like Naomi her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth.
Laura became a boarder in the household of Jared and Rachel Stolzfus. They lived on a farm with their four children. Laura’s BMW sat in the driveway like a spaceship just landed on earth. She slept in the attic, where various pieces of broken furniture were stored, along with bags of fabric waiting to be fashioned into dresses and pants and long socks. It was chilly in the attic, but several patchwork quilts warmed her body. She kept the window open a crack so she could hear the comings and goings of everyone outside.
A small candle sat on her bedside table until she was ready to snuff it out for the night.
It was only at night that she had a moment to think. And it was only a moment, since she was so utterly exhausted. Sometimes she would massage her sore feet and ankles. At home in the condo, she would watch television before bed. Despite the strange languages, clothing, and people, she felt utterly comfortable. Perhaps even like she belonged.
“Don’t be impulsive,” she reminded herself. “I’ve got to give it time.”
She slept well and could hardly believe how quickly morning had come.
“Time to rise, Sister Laura!” called one of the children from the stairs.
Laura dressed in her new Amish attire. She looked down at her new costume, for so it seemed at the time, and smoothed it out. No mirrors were to be found in Amish homes. Perhaps, she thought, she might look upon herself in the side view mirror of her car.
No, she decided. That would be dishonest. This was her new life. Only honesty would prevail.
Mother Rachel told her she would learn to milk a cow. “You must wash your hands very thoroughly,” she said. “And then Rebecca will walk you to the barn.”
The soap in the kitchen was home-made. It was a cake of gray soap in the shape of a star. It felt good and pure on her hands, with her pink nail polish, that would soon flake off.
Four huge cows were pawing the ground when they entered the barn. The last time Laura had seen a real cow was at a petting zoo. How strong was the smell, she thought, as their feet crunched on soft hay and earth. Rebecca was a fair-haired child, a miniature adult, who patiently taught Laura where to place the metal bucket and how to squeeze each teat to draw out the milk, which landed in the bucket. The sound of the milk was like a gentle rain spritzing on a tin roof.
She sat on the little stool and, as she milked each cow, feeling an unaccustomed sense of peace sweep through her entire body. Her eyes began to tear up and flowed down her cheeks.
Other chores included walking to the school house to pick up the four children after school. The two-storey wooden structure had a tower on the top with a bell inside.
“Dong! Dong! Dong!”
How loud and musical it was, she thought, as she approached. She stood to one side as kids from kindergarten through eighth grade came scrambling down the steps. They were like children everywhere. Like her Amy, when she’d come home to mom at the apartments.
She gathered Rebecca and Daniel, Ben and Abby, into her outstretched arms.
“What’s your name again?” asked little blue-eyed Abby.
“Sister Laura. Can you say that?”
“I can!” shouted Daniel and Ben in unison.
A chorus of “Sister Laura” and “Thithter Lauras” greeted her.
Laura helped set the table, with shiny pewter spoons, forks and knives, upon a pink tablecloth.
Again she remarked to herself what artists her new people were.
They all settled down in the large kitchen. Mother pulled up the shades as darkness was beginning to fall and they had no electric lights. She lit a family of candles all along the high shelves. Everything had been thought of. Even placement for the candles.
Father Jared, in his chest-length graying beard, gave the blessing. His voice was breathy and musical. “We ask our Heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus, to bless us all and to allow Laura to learn our simple ways and decide if she wants to live among the plain people.”
“Amen,” everyone, including the children said in unison.
“How was your day, dear,” asked Mother Rachel. Laura realized how lonely she had been at home. There wasn’t a soul to talk to at the table or even during the day.
“I am liking my time here very much,” she said, after swallowing a large forkful of meat loaf. “Rebecca has been so helpful to me. I would like to taste some of the milk we gathered.”
“Tomorrow morning, dear, you will have nice creamy milk in your hot oatmeal,” said Mother Rachel. Laura watched everyone digging into the meat loaf, the best she had ever tasted, including her own, and the green beans with butter melting slowly on top, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes with butter.
For dessert, Rachel brought out a hot apple pie.
Laura patted her belly.
When they finished dinner, the children asked if they might be excused, and Laura helped with the dishes. The water had been heating up at the wood-burning stove and was ready to transfer into the large wooden bucket. Soap flakes were poured in. Dipping her hands inside, Laura felt the smooth feel of the sudsy water and again her eyes teared up.
After the dishes were cleaned, dried and put away, the family yawned and repaired around the fire in the living room. Laura didn’t even consider her own “designer” living room as she sat in a comfortable wooden rocking chair on cushions with colorful blue and white starburst patterns. What a love of art these people have, she thought once again.
Father Jared brought out the family Bible, a well-worn book with faded edges.
“My man, Daniel,” asked his Father Jared. “What would you like to hear me read, son?”
“That’s eathy,” he lisped. “The thalm of King David, pweese,” he said.
“The Lord is my Shepherd” was duly broadcast to the little family under the setting sun. When he finished, Rachel told Laura she had a gift for her.
In her long green dress, Rachel walked over to a shelf in the living room and picked up a small object Laura couldn’t recognize. In fact, it looked a little like a small furry brown rabbit.
“Stockings!” cried Laura, feeling them. “Woolen stockings.”
“Yes indeed,” said Rachel. “I wove them this morning just for you.”
“Just for you!” echoed little Abby, five years old.
When Laura went up to the attic that night, she stroked the woolen stockings after she climbed into bed. She held them against her cheeks and then rubbed them across her mouth. They smelled like wool and wood smoke and apple pie.
She pulled them onto her very tired feet, first the left and then the right. They clung to her legs as if they loved her and never wanted to leave her.
“There’s so much to do here,” she thought. “I cannot wait to learn to knit woolen stockings. I’ll send a couple pair to Winnie, of course, and maybe even Bobby. Yes, I know Bobby would like them. He’s quite the fashion plate.”
WOMAN IN A COMA
I saw him the moment I walked toward the biographies. His name I would learn was Carmen LaRosa but he wore no cross around his neck. His table was spread with one large library book, held open with another book, and a Mead Composition Book, like the one I use to record every book I read.
I’m known as a person who talks to everyone she meets. My kids find it embarrassing. I find it necessary. It seemed impossible not to talk to this bewildered-looking gentleman, an older man, quite old, as you’ll see, and very well dressed in a fine linen short-sleeved shirt and white cotton trousers. A stain near his breast pocket told me he didn’t have a woman to take care of him.
I figured him to be a retired scientist like my ex-husband. His shiny bald head was sprinkled with a few lonesome hairs and some freckles or age spots. I prefer to think of them as freckles.
“I’m looking for a good book,” I said. “Know any?”
He looked up from the book where his finger was following a particular passage. “Can’t hear you,” he said, cupping his ear.
“I’m looking for a good book to read,” I sort of hollered in a whisper. This was, after all, the reading section of the library. You know, don’t disturb the other patrons, who, at this hour in the morning were few. He didn’t seem to comprehend what I was talking about. He looked sunk deep in his own thoughts. I knew I shouldn’t have interrupted him, but now I had to finish what I’d started. I took a different tack.
“What’s that book you’re reading?” I said, gesturing to the huge open book on his table.
“A medical book. You wouldn’t like it,” he said.
Without being invited, I pulled out a chair and sat down at the round wooden library table.
“Good place, the Mayo Clinic,” I said, tapping his book.
“I’m reading about comas. Whether you can feel pain if you’re in a coma.”
I told him my dad died of a brain tumor, he went into a coma for two days and then died, perfectly at peace.
“So your wife died,” I said.
“Elsie died forty-four years ago. It was my…. girlfriend. Barbara.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, touching his tanned arm, and pulling my chair closer.
The light was flooding through the domed window of the library, holding him in a beatific spotlight. He didn’t seem to mind the light. Welcomed it, almost.
He would call Barbara every single morning, he told me, and they would have their coffees together while on the phone. Barbara was much younger than he was, early 70s, but had more serious ailments than he did, nothing that should kill her, though. All’s he had was macular degeneration in one eye, and a touch in the other, which was why, he said, he liked sitting in strong light.
Barbara hadn’t answered her phone. That was strange, he said. I pictured her as a woman with long white curly hair and I do mean long. Middle of her back long.
“It was my fault,” he said. “I should’ve gone over but it’s not so easy at my age to drive, especially at night. Well, I don’t drive at night. Unless I absolutely have to.”
“Eighty-two?” I guessed.
Barbara’s oldest son had a key, like Carmen did. The son drove over to the house in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, let himself in, and found his mother crumpled up on the kitchen floor. Not dead, but unconscious. One of her arms was pinned beneath her body.
“She’d been there nearly two whole days,” he seethed. “Two days! Can you believe it? I could strangle myself!”
He was fine narrating the event. Emotionally detached. It was good for him to talk, I thought.
“Next time I see Barbara they’d taken her to Luther Woods.”
I knew the place, over on County Line Road. At my age, sixty-two, the new eighty-two, I had been over to smelly Luther Woods at least three times. They have pretty plants at the entrance but they should boil cinnamon sticks in the kitchen to keep out the smell of old people’s bodies and their excretions. Sorry to be so blunt, but I’ll be like that myself some day.
I pictured Barbara with her long white tresses in a hospital bed with the usual paraphernalia sticking out of her body.
“Did she ever ….”
“No, she stayed in the coma. They had her in diapers. My Barbara.”
Just the word “coma” coming from Carmen’s mouth. I’d gotten used to saying “My dad went into a coma.” Look, I can think about it now, dozens of years later, and not even picture him lying helpless in his hospital bed downstairs in the family room with the built-in bookshelves and his books stamped ex-libris Harold J. Greenwold.
Now Carmen began to cry, right there in the reading room on the hard wooden chair. He just looked down and began to sob. It was all my fault. “You’ve done it now, Holly,” I thought. “Happy?”
His whole upper torso was shaking, convulsions of sobs right there near the biographies. I was so ashamed of myself and yet I rationalized it was good for him.
I put my hand on his shoulder and rubbed it a little. Barbara would have done that. His Barbara, the love of his life. Now he had lost two women. Plus his eyesight. He wiped off his glasses with his handkerchief.
I wondered if he and Barbara had made love. Certainly they must have cuddled. He would look into her generous blue eyes and lose himself there. Carmen’s eyes were indistinct behind his glasses. Rheumy, the way old people’s eyes are. My ninety-year-old mother doesn’t wear glasses yet, but her eyes are not the deep clear coal-black my late father had fallen in love with.
On the third day of her coma, Barbara’s son told Carmen to come to Luther Woods. He had no idea what for.
“When I got there, they told me to say goodbye to her. They were gonna pull the plug on her.” He began to cry again.
There had been family photos arranged on the windowsill. The nurses and the family constantly spoke to her. Not a minute passed that they weren’t trying to rouse her. They said, “Blink your eyes if you can hear us.” She never did. Her eyes, with those long black lashes never moved.
“I held her hand,” he told the family that day, “and I thought she might have squeezed it, though I can’t rightly be sure.”
He wanted them to wait a few more days, just a few more days, what would it cost them? But he had no say in the matter. He was merely a friend, though he knew he was the most important person in her life. The two of them were even planning another one of their trips. This time, he told me quietly, they would take a cruise to Alaska to see the grizzly bears and the eons-old glaciers.
He perked up a bit while talking about the plans as if Barbara were still alive. And I, too, thought Barbara might still be alive. She was as long as we talked about her future.
“Grizzlies’ll be gone in a hundred years or so,” said Carmen. “The glaciers, too. My grandson and his wife were up there kayaking. Their guide shaved off some ice from the glacier for the margaritas they’d have at the inn. Best goddamn ice they ever had. Imagine. Millennias-old.”
He and Barbara would go there some day. If only she weren’t stone-cold dead.
I had one of my imaginative forays of conning him into being my boyfriend. I’d even allow myself to cuddle with him, so he could put me into his will. He was a retired college physics teacher. Maybe I could get some sharp new clothes at Chico’s instead of buying things at Impact Thrift.
“Shush,” I told myself. “Stop this nonsense immediately.” I did obey, but I thought about it a couple more times. My dark side, which they say everyone has.
“Ever hear of that guy, he just died a couple years ago, they put him in jail, the suicide guy, Dr. ……?” asked Carmen.
“Kavorkian?” I asked. Why on earth would he bring that up?
“Yes,” he said. “Suicide should be legal. I wonder how it’s done.”
“You can’t want to kill yourself,” I said.
“Might,” he said. “I have nothing to live for,” he said looking down at his Mayo Clinic book.
Frankly, I was shocked to hear it. Mostly because the library was such a tranquil place. The aides behind the counter were friendly and knew your name and asked about your children and grandchildren. People at the library seemed so normal, so boring, lacking the imagination you might find at the downtown Philadelphia library, I thought. That someone here at our hometown library would have the guts to take his own life was truly, well, astonishing.
Carmen had no access to the Internet. I could have told him how to kill himself, barbiturates and alcohol, but certainly I hadn’t walked in at 10:10 in the morning, right after the library opened, in order to tell a perfect stranger how to die.
I was here, I thought, to comfort the man. But who really knows what the man upstairs had in mind for us. Or even if there is a man upstairs. In fact, my thoughts turned to another time, a very long time ago, when I had the opportunity to comfort someone and I failed. I simply turned away from her. I was nineteen at the time, a sheltered virgin from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who had flown in her best red Lanz dress to the Montpelier airport, there to be driven by taxi to the liberal arts college, Goddard, where no one wore dresses, only jeans, of which I hadn’t a single pair.
I made friends with old white-haired Mrs. Edson, one of the cleaning ladies. I call her old, but she was probably a little older than I am today. I was squeezing out the toothpaste in Kilpatrick Dorm, and she was mopping the bathroom floor.
Suddenly she blurted out that her husband had just died and she was so miserable without him she didn’t know how she could live anymore. She stood holding her mop upside down and began to cry. I still remember her red nose. She looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. And me, I looked at her in horror, absolute horror, and quickly rinsed out my mouth, and mumbled a goodbye.
My lack of compassion still haunts me to this very day.
Suddenly, an idea flew into my brain. I couldn’t believe that I thought of a reason for Carmen to live.
“Carmen,” I said. “Did you fight in World War Two?”
“Normandy,” he said.
I didn’t care that Margie Peters, the librarian, was giving us the “hush-up” look, but I did lean closer to Carmen. I felt as intimate with him as if he were my own beloved father. My dad, who had gone out in a coma.
“Abington Library, down the street, has a series where the old vets come and talk about their war experiences.”
I began to get really excited. I stood up to stretch my legs, my sciatic nerve was starting to bother me, and then sat down again.
“Two weeks ago,” I whispered like a lover in his ear, “I heard Ted Heck. Ninety years old. Older than you! He talked about staying on in Berlin after the war was over to, sort of rehabilitate the Nazis.”
I looked at Carmen to see his reaction. His eyes had lifted and were looking at me. Excited he was not. But he’d temporarily left behind his missing Barbara thoughts and wishing he were dead thoughts. He was listening to me. Fresh Holly who pokes her nose where it doesn’t belong.
I wrote my phone number in his Mead Composition book.
“Carmen, I’ll drive you to the Abington Library and you can give your lecture on D-Day and Normandy,” I said.
But I had lost him. He was staring into space. He had no idea I was there.
I waited for his call. I kept his phone number on my desk for a week. Then I put it away in the drawer where I could find it. I memorized it in case I lost it.
Why had fate brought us together?
I’m at the library a couple times a week, returning books, returning movies and audio books which have me surrounded by stories and fantasy worlds from morning to night. But this was real with Carmen, wasn’t it? It actually happened, didn’t it?
I see him nearly every time I’m there. Carmen LaRosa. Well-dressed, purposeful, walking from the biography section to the front of the library, perhaps to use the men’s room or to drink from the water fountain. The man has no idea who I am. When I last passed his table near the biographies, the Mayo Clinic book was no longer center stage, but pushed off to the right. The Mead Composition book was there. But something new was on the table. Black cover shining in the light, I read the words “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich” by William L. Shirer.
I gave thanks to the man upstairs, if there is one, that quite possibly Carmen’s shifting of books on the table was all my doing. And hoped that the late Mrs. Edson had found peace in the burial grounds of the Green Mountains of Vermont.
NEVER SAY I’M SORRY
She blinked her eyes on and off, on and off. Was this Heaven or was she still alive? Her eyes wandered around the tomb-like structure which she finally discerned was an ambulance. An ambulance. That meant she was alive. Damn it. Her pain was so bad she could not live with it.
“Maura?” said a disembodied voice. She looked around and met the eyes of a short-haired woman dressed in a blue jumpsuit with patches on it that Maura could not read. “You made a serious suicide attempt,” said the voice, “but you’re going to live.” She paused. “Like it or not, you’re going to live.”
Maura closed her eyes and felt the same empty feeling in her gut that made her take the pills with a few sips of Sam Adams Beer, which is what he liked to drink. He was the married man, whose name she refused to say, who had broken up with her. She supposed she was a fool for believing he would leave his wife. Her therapist told her they never do.
The ambulance bounced along the road. She lay on her back and watched the countryside pass by through her grey booties. They were coming straight from the hospital where her stomach had been pumped – she had a terrible taste in her mouth - and were now headed to Rolling Hills Hospital near Roanoke, Virginia. This was her third time there. He had broken up with her twice before, but this time she was determined to succeed.
She felt the ambulance swing around a circle and come to a stop. Oh God, how could she even move? Two of the EMTs helped her out of the ambulance and tucked her into a wheelchair. She felt her long black hair tickle her neck. Her head bent over toward her waist. All she could think was, “I’m a hollow person. I don’t exist.”
In the morning, the nurses went around to the twenty rooms in the Airedale Building waking up the men and women whose befuddled brains had tripped them up and caused untamable grief. The patients – called “visitors” - were rounded up and ushered into the dining room. The room was so bright the visitors felt they were touched by divine light. Glass windows formed a protective barrier around the diners who were treated to a view of the rolling hills of Jamison, Virginia, a short drive from Roanoke. Green verdant hills, touched by sunlight, sang from the windows. The visitors lined up, took a mint-green tray, moved down the line, selecting whatever breakfast they wished. Marvin, an unshaven black man with a diamond earring in his left ear, called out, “This is better than Mama’s home cooking!”
“Oh, shut up, you fucking nut,” said Renee, who hated minorities.
Nurse Jeanette, a black woman with long cornrowed hair, watched to make sure the animosity didn’t feed on itself. As the head nurse in Airedale – all the units were named after dog breeds – Beagle, Collie, Dachshund – she would have to write up “progress notes” about the dyspepsia of her charges. Document everything was the unavoidable motto. She had learned not to sit among the patients as it would inhibit their conversations. Instead she stood over by the window, clipboard in hand, in her vibrant blue scrubs, the fashion statement of all the RNs. Maura sat wedged between Marvin and Winnie, a woman, she would learn, with terminal cancer who was distraught about her diagnosis. Group psychotherapy several times a day, led by a master psychologist, would bring the visitors together where they would get to know one another and begin their journey of trust and acceptance of whatever it was that so addled their terrified brains.
After breakfast, twelve visitors moved into the dark-paneled library around a huge table that had the odd effect of making many of them feel important.
Maura laughed. “I feel like shit,” she said. “Is it okay to swear?” The doctor nodded at her. “Yet this long table makes me feel important.”
“Me, I’ve never ever felt important,” said Eduardo, a Latino man hailing from Cuba.
“What do you suppose is the reason for that?” asked Dr. Philip Goodman, a clean-shaven man of around fifty who wore a gold wedding band.
Eduardo shook his head of thickly packed black hair, set close to his head like wool.
“Anyone?” asked Goodman, who wore a grey ribbed sweater.
“Cuba. They don’t make you feel too good in Cuba,” said Renee.
“Go on,” encouraged Goodman.
“Well,” she said, “one wrong move and they lock you up.”
“We might say there’s an overbearing feeling of paranoia,” said Dr. Goodman.
“Hey that’s my diagnosis,” said Marvin. “Bipolar disorder with paranoid features.”
Goodman asked Marvin to talk about what frightened him. Marvin explained that his ex-wife was getting married again and he was afraid he wouldn’t see his two teenagers any more.
“And what proof do you have of that, Marvin?” asked the doctor.
“Proof! Shoot, doc, I don’t need no proof. I know that bitch.”
“I beg to differ, Marvin,” said Goodman. “You’re …. jumping to conclusions…. we call that in French catastrophizing.”
“Renee,” said Goodman. “I’m curious about your comment about Marvin. If I remember correctly, you called him a nut.”
She laughed and told him she had a problem with black people. He asked her to discuss an early memory of herself and a black person.
She was a pretty young woman of about thirty with curly brown hair to her shoulders. She looked down at her fingernails. “We had a hired hand on our farm, Tommy, and he always looked at me funny.”
She continued. “He, he, looked at me like he was gonna, you know, take advantage of me.”
“And the proof of this was?” asked Goodman, looking at her.
“Proof? Who says I need proof. I know what I saw.”
“Oh,” said Marvin. “You’re a fuckin’ mind reader!”
“What do the others think?” asked Goodman.
Sean leaned toward the table and tapped his hands together.
“Renee, you probably came from a culture that didn’t like blacks. Am guessing that farm people didn’t have much contact with minorities.”
She stared at Sean, who was wearing his striped pajama tops.
“For the record,” said the doctor, “it’s hard for many people to admit they’re wrong. Keep that in mind.”
“May I be excused?” asked Maura, who had been fidgeting in her seat.
The doctor told her to wait a minute.
“Let me ask you something, Renee,” said Goodman. “As a woman how do you perceive yourself? Attractive, vulnerable, loving? Tell us your feelings toward yourself.”
“Well, I’ve been told I’m an attractive woman.”
“Please, forget about the I’ve-been-told. Speak directly. Who do you see when you look in the mirror?”
She stroked the back of her neck and flipped up her brown curls.
“I do think I’m a pretty girl,” she said, smiling and looking down at the table.
“I agree with that,” said Marvin. “I think you’re a very attractive woman and if you wasn’t white and if I wasn’t going with Roberta, I’d like to jump your bones.”
Everyone laughed, breaking the tension.
“I’m enjoying this conversation,” smiled blonde-haired Winnie, who had cancer. “I think the Afro-American – is that the right term, Marvin?”
“Call it black, Sweetheart, it’s easier.”
“Thanks, hon,” she said. “I think black men are handsome in their own right. Can’t say I’d like to sleep with one, sorry, Marvin, I think it’s what we’re used to. I come from a big Catholic family. Faces white as the moon.”
“In the time you’re here, Winnie, do you think you’d like to become comfortable with a black man? Become friends with Marvin?” asked Goodman.
She shook her head and laughed. “I suppose so.”
He asked her what she’d like to do and how long she had to live.
“Well, doctor, no one knows how long I have. The loncologist thinks maybe six months or even longer.”
“Oncologist,” said Renee from across the table. “Oncologist that’s the cancer doctor. My dad had one.”
“Thanks, Renee,” said the doctor. “Let’s listen to Winnie a few more minutes. Winnie, please continue about what you’d like to do in…..”
“Easy. I’ve got this big family and I want to have a reunion and see them all, all the ones that are alive, anyway. Cancer took my mom, my brothers Tony and Mickey, and then there was Lillian and Dotty, who also passed.”
“So, who’s left?” asked Renee, clearly interested in the cancer conversation.
“Six are left. Six. I can’t wait to see them.” She was now animated.
The doctor turned to Maura, who was closely following the conversation.
“Maura, we’re talking about death here. What are your thoughts?”
Maura, flipping up her dark curls, nodded her head. “Well, here I’ve tried to make myself disappear, through my own taking of pills, and Winnie’s gonna, well, she’s got no choice, and I had the choice and I, well, I’d failed, and wish I could trade places with her. She’s so sweet.”
“Look at her and tell her,” said the doctor.
“Winnie, you’re one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. And I’m so sorry. So very sorry.”
The doctor said he had to interrupt. Never, he said, tell a person who is dying or who has lost someone to death, that you’re sorry.
Everyone looked at him.
“It’s a terrible word,” agreed Winnie. “You’re showing them pity. And we don’t want pity. The last thing in the world we need is pity. Understanding and listening is what we need.”
Many people wondered how Winnie got so smart. For certain, she was the oldest one there. “Seventy-three” she had said.
The doctor told them they would break for lunch in ten minutes.
“Who needs the help of the group right now?” he asked.
Some folks looked to the side, others at their hands or the ceiling. Only one person looked the doctor in his eyes, which meant she wanted to speak.
It was Maura, her eyes ringed with dark circles.
“I can see your pain,” said the doctor. “Who else can see her pain?”
Mumbles came from the group. Everyone agreed.
“There’s no magic wand,” said Winnie, “that’s gonna make that pain go away. If it’s any consolation, my heart’s been broken so many times, I’m surprised it’s still ticking.” She put her hand on her heart at the long table that glistened under the dimly lit Tiffany-style lamp.
Maura spoke slowly.
“Are there pills I could take, not to kill myself, but to free myself from this godawful pain.”
Eduardo spoke up from the end of the table.
“I been married twice,” he said. “When my Gina broke up with me, I worked at a record store in Habana. We played music every minute of the day.”
“Ah, the soothing sound of music,” cried Marvin. “My man, Marvin Gaye and Sexual Healing, the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and that broken down bastardo, Michael Jackson.”
A feeling of uplift, of energy, began to transform the grieving group.
On a shelf in this room was an unimposing grey radio that read “Bose Wave Radio.”
Doctor Goodman got up from his chair and walked to the radio.
“Let’s see if I can figure out how to turn this on,” he said.
A few people got up to help him.
The doctor held up his hand.
“Please,” said Doctor Goodman. “Don’t treat me like a child.”
He always said what he meant, no pussyfooting around. The patients thought of this man, this role model, as confident and self-assured. By osmosis, his attitude seeped into them like small sips of water.
The doctor studied the buttons, then pressed one and then another.
Soft music began to play. The doctor pressed a silver button and the sound got louder.
Oliver's army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today.
The rhythm was unstoppable. A force to contend with. A force that took over the room like an invisible mist. Within sixty seconds, every single person – from Renee to Eduardo to Maura to Sean – arose from their stultifying seats – went over toward a free space at the end of the room and began to dance.
Even the doctor danced and knew in his heart of hearts that every single patient would heal in his or her own time.
“The power of music,” shouted the doctor, with his hands up in the air.
“The power of music!” he called out. “Oliver’s Army is here to stay and I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world today.”
Joey Hart was the type of kid in high school that would look up books on SparkNotes instead of actually reading them. He is now trying to rectify these past sins by reading and writing with enthusiasm every day. He is currently studying journalism and economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
The Party Crashers
“Don’t get into any trouble and be home by midnight!” was the last thing that Andy’s mom told him before he walked out the door. Now he sat on the front step of his porch, tapping the wallet in his pocket with one hand and resting his head on a fist formed by the other. He stared out into the street past his front yard, watching as cars passed by, their engines rumbling off into the distance. Though the afternoon was quickly turning over into the evening, the heat and humidity from the day still lingered over the green, suburban landscape and a serenade of cicadas chirped in the background. Andy felt a trickle of sweat run down the small of his back. He was wearing a blue, textured, button down shirt and brown, khaki shorts, and he could feel the globule breach the top of his boxers.
Finally, he pulled out his phone and looked at his text messages. The last one, from Earl, read “Be there in ten.” He checked the timestamp, which said 7:26. It was now 7:40.
“Mother fucker,” he muttered to himself. A week ago they had officially finished their junior year of high school, and yet, his friends still couldn’t learn how to be punctual. Besides, he thought, the party starts in 20 minutes.
He sighed, put his phone back into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He examined the new addition to his billfold that had come in the mail just three days ago: a shiny Illinois driver’s license complete with Andy’s name, picture and an accurate physical description of a Caucasian male, five feet, eleven inches and 157 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. The birthdate, though, was off by exactly four years, and he had never actually been to the city of Elgin, though it was only a one-hour drive from his hometown of Alperton, Wisconsin. He ran his hands over the new plastic and watched the holographic patterns in the lamination dance in the sunlight.
He slipped the fake ID back into his wallet and the wallet back into his pocket.
Faintly, Andy heard some music playing off in the distance, which grew louder until a blue Toyota minivan pulled up to the front of his yard, booming with rap music. As soon as Andy saw the car, he got up and started walking down to greet it. He smiled as he saw Earl in the driver’s seat, wearing sunglasses and throwing up a peace sign. Earl rolled down the window.
“Get in, bitch,” he shouted across the yard, turning down the music.
“Jesus Christ dude, there’s kids on this street,” Andy said, getting closer to the car. Earl wore a black, long-sleeve polo, and Andy could see that he had put even more gel in his blond hair than usual today.
“Fuck that,” Earl said, rolling the window back up.
Andy opened the side door to see Chester sitting up front in shotgun and Nelson sitting in the far middle seat. Chester was wearing a salmon-pink button down shirt and blue, khaki shorts. Nelson had on a red visor and a black and white, striped flannel shirt with brown, khaki pants. All three of Andy’s friends had very similar taper haircuts and each one was more or less six feet tall when standing. Andy could smell that someone was wearing cologne, but he could not tell who.
“’Sup, dude,” Nelson said, nodding his head.
“Hey, Andy,” Chester said.
“Hey, guys,” Andy replied as he settled in, ignoring his seatbelt.
Earl turned to watch Andy get into his seat, then moved the gear shift to drive and hit the gas. He drove to the edge of the block and turned south at the stop sign, heading for the Mini Mart on the other side of the railroad tracks.
“So, do you really think I have a chance with Kari?” Chester asked after a minute, turning to look at Earl.
Earl sighed, flashing a glance back at Chester.
“Dude, why are you so hung up on this?” Earl said. “I’ve told you, all you need is confidence and she’ll go for you. Chicks love that shit.”
“Yeah… confidence,” Chester said.
“If you just do what I’ve been telling you, you’ll be fine. Remember what I said?”
“That’s right. If you don’t talk to her, you have the power.” Earl took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed his finger at Chester. “You’re in control. Make her want you. Understand?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Have I ever let you down before?”
Chester stared at Earl for a second, then looked down at his feet.
“Hey dude,” Andy spoke up, putting a hand on Chester’s shoulder, “we’re going to a party at Michael Stanton’s house, and his parents aren’t home. Everyone there is gonna be hooking up.”
At this, Chester turned around and gave Andy a half smile.
“You think so?” Chester asked.
“Of course. Besides, I think you guys would make a great cou–”
Earl braked hard for the next intersection and the minivan jolted to a stop, halting all the action in the vehicle.
“Look, man,” Earl said, gripping the steering wheel tightly and pushing the gas again, “I’ll talk to her and put in a good word for you. I’ll be your wing man.”
“For sure, man” Earl said, turning towards Chester. “I’m your friend.”
Chester turned toward his side window, grinning. Andy opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked at Nelson next to him who stared forward, silent. The car drove on and the boys watched the neighborhood as it changed from overhanging trees and green lawns to cinderblock buildings and concrete lots. The car jolted as it went over the tracks.
“You nervous?” Nelson asked Andy after a bit, taking off his visor and scratching his forehead.
Andy moved his hand to his wallet. He thought back to three weeks ago when the guys decided to chip in to buy the fake ID. He remembered how he felt when they drew lots to see who would have to order it, and how he’d drawn the short one. He remembered the mysterious Chinese website that they had ordered it from. He remembered being confused when he received a package with a jar full of blue beads inside in the mail three days ago. When he opened the jar, though, and dumped out almost all of the beads onto his bedroom floor, his order was revealed and everything clicked. Now, he breathed in.
“No,” Andy responded. Nelson could sense his attitude.
“Dude, I just want to get through this night without without any problems,” Nelson said.
“You and me both.”
Earl pulled into the Mini Mart parking lot and put the car in park. He left the engine running.
“It’s your time to shine, brother,” Earl turned around and said. “And remember, if you get arrested, we don’t know you. I heard they plant undercover cops in this joint all the time.”
Andy glared back at him. Everyone handed Andy some cash for the beer. He climbed out of the car and, instantly, a wave of dry heat hit him. It must be the asphalt, he thought, that was radiating the sun back off the ground. It was still technically a spring evening, though someone without a calendar could have easily mistook it for summer. The smell of gasoline permeated the small lot and the hum of a truck engine roared in the distance. Andy walked up to the glass double doors of the Mini Mart. He peered inside, scanning for cops.
Seeing none, Andy opened the doors, chiming a bell above his head. It was a small store, and Andy looked around seeing several aisles in front of him and the cashier at the counter to his far left. It appeared that no one else occupied the building. He walked to the back of the store, straight to the beer section and then stood, arms crossed, staring at the selections behind the refrigerator doors. He could already see what he wanted: a 30 pack of Coors Light out of the many stacked before him that the group had agreed upon beforehand. Still, he stood, watching. He looked down, then peered through the aisle at the cashier, a hairy, overweight man in his mid-thirties who was watching a baseball game on the TV behind the counter.
He looked back inside the refrigerator at the case on top of the stack, at the picture of the snow-capped mountains printed on the cardboard box. He thought about the funny commercials where the narrator would say that the beer was “as cold as the Rockies.” He opened the door, then closed it again. Running his hand over his chin, Andy thanked God that he had forgotten to shave that morning. He took a deep breath, then opened the door and grabbed the case.
Andy moved quickly to the cashier, walking past aisles of chips, baking goods and bread. He dropped his selection on the counter and pulled out his wallet, slipping the ID out of its slot. The cashier turned. He looked Andy up and down. Noticing this, Earl’s words came back into Andy’s mind. No way, he thought, no way this guy’s a cop.
“Can I see some ID?”
Andy handed him the license immediately. His heart beat out of his chest, and once again sweat ran down his back. The cashier studied the ID.
“Okay, we got a problem here.”
Andy’s heart sank. He saw himself being put into hand cuffs and loaded into the back of a squad car, like on Cops. He heard his parents’ reaction as he called them from the police station and told them what happened. He saw the principal telling him that he would lose his position in Student Council and how he would be suspended from the soccer team. He saw the rejection letter from Marquette, his dream college, telling him that they don’t accept felons.
Andy stood silent, and the cashier pointed at a sign on the wall behind him. It read, in bold letters, “WE DON’T SERVE CHICAGO FANS.” Andy looked back and saw that the cashier was smiling.
“I’m sorry man, I’m just kidding,” the man said. “I couldn’t resist when I saw that you were from Illinois.”
“Oh,” Andy said in a hoarse voice. Then, much deeper, “Oh. I gotcha.”
“$21.99” the cashier said, clicking some buttons on the register and giving Andy the card back. Andy slipped the ID back into his wallet, counted out $22 in cash and gave the man the money.
“Do you want a bag?” the cashier asked, handing Andy a penny.
“Okay, have a nice day.”
Andy walked out of the store, case in hand. His chest was puffed up, and he strutted back over to Earl’s minivan. Nelson opened the door for him, and Andy shoved the case into the car, then climbed back into his seat.
“Get us out of here,” he said with a smile. Nelson offered him a fist bump, which Andy reciprocated. Chester looked at him and gave him a congratulatory grin. Earl stared blankly at Andy, then at his other passengers.
“Thanks for doing your job,” Earl said.
“You’re welcome,” Andy quipped. He wiped off his wet brow and settled back in his seat amidst the cool atmosphere of the car. He looked at the beer case and the cans, which he could see through the opening at the top of the box. They dripped with condensation. He opened the box, pulled a can out, popped it open and drank.
“I bet that tastes good,” Nelson said.
Andy just smiled and enjoyed his beer. He buckled his seatbelt, sat back and exhaled heavily. Earl raised his brow at Andy in the rear view mirror, then squinted at him. He threw the car into reverse and backed out of the lot, then turned back towards their part of town and started for the Stanton house. It wasn’t long before the Mini Mart was out of sight.
Through the drive, Earl kept looking back at Andy, who continued to enjoy his purchase.
Already three or so blocks from the store, Earl looked forward towards the road and again squeezed the steering wheel firmly. Up ahead, he saw a four-way stop. He could see clearly the empty road to the left of the intersection, which was sandwiched between two large, vacant, concrete plats. To the immediate right on the corner was a condemned, brick apartment building, but Earl could see enough of the street to know if any car was coming, he thought. He detected no sign of life in this all but abandoned part of town. A smile crept up his face.
“Hey,” Earl said, tapping Chester on his breast. “How much do you wanna bet that I won’t run through this stop?”
Chester smiled back.
“Don’t test me, dude!”
“Dude, that shit’s not funny,” Andy said.
“Do you dare me?” Earl said.
“Hell yeah!” Chester said.
“Seriously, shut the fu–.”
“I’m serious, I’ll do it!”
Earl stomped on the gas and the tires screeched as the car zoomed towards the stop sign. The car was going so fast that Andy had no time to say anything more as they approached the intersection. It was going so fast that when the woman ran out from behind the building and into the street, Earl couldn’t react in time to slow the car’s momentum. The woman’s body snapped as the front of the minivan made contact with her midsection, and her head smacked onto the surface of the car, making a dent on the hood with a decisive thump. Earl stomped his foot down on the brake pedal with such force that he couldn’t even hear Andy’s reverberating cries of “Oh shit!” nor did he see the woman being thrown into the middle of the intersection and the final crack of her skull against the concrete.
“Earl! What the fuck!” Andy screamed at the top of his lungs.
“I don’t know! I don’t know! I didn’t see her!” Earl declared, matching Andy’s volume.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Andy demanded.
“It’s not my fault! She ran right out in front of me! What the fuck was I supposed to do?”
“Dude, drive away,” Chester commanded.
“What?” Andy screamed.
“Drive away, man! She’s fucking dead and there’s nothing we can do now but save ourselves from getting arrested for fucking manslaughter!”
“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,” Nelson muttered to himself in the background.
“How do we know she’s dead? We could still save her and if we do the cops might not arrest–,” Andy screamed, then Earl turned back to look at him. “Any of us!”
“Says the guy who just spilled beer all over the car!” Chester said.
Andy looked down to see a foamy, wet patch on the van’s carpet in front of him next to the beer can he had been holding two minutes ago.
“What are the cops gonna think when they smell that?”
Andy looked at Chester, then stared forward, silent.
“Fuck this,” Earl said. He put the car in reverse and backed up from the woman’s body. All four of them looked through the windshield and saw her, arms spread out on the pavement, blood running from the top of her scalp and a cut on the side of her abdomen where the car had initially struck her. She was wearing a pink Under Armor running shirt and sweat pants, and her running shoes twitched slightly on her feet. Her MP3 player laid on the ground just out of reach of her right hand, and the force of the crash had knocked the headphones out of her ears. Her head drooped to the side, mouth open, eyes shut.
“Do you think anyone saw?” Earl asked no one, still staring out the front windshield. They all looked out the windows and saw no witnesses.
A long second passed.
“Earl,” Nelson said calmly, looking down. He opened his mouth to say more, but found no words.
Earl looked back at him, then at Andy, then at Chester. Then, he threw the car into drive and pressed the gas. Earl maneuvered the car around the woman’s body and sped off down the street. He turned at the closest intersection, turning again later to go back towards home. With the exception of Earl who kept extra diligent as he drove, the boys stared forward expressionless for the duration of the ride. The car jerked a little as it went back over the tracks, but no one said a word. Andy looked down and saw the can he had dropped on the car floor. He picked it up, downed the small amount of liquid that remained inside, then rolled down the side window and threw it out onto the street. The can rattled across the pavement, but the boys heard nothing. In fact, the only noise that could be heard in the car as the boys headed towards their part of town was the engine.
Eventually, they got close to the Stanton house. Earl parked the car on the street, ripping the key out of the ignition and cutting the engine. He turned around to face his companions, and his eyes found theirs for just a brief moment each. He leaned back into his seat, and they all sat for a minute or two. Then, as if by plan, the guys looked at each other and exited the car at the same time in silence. They started to walk up to the house with Earl in front and Nelson in back carrying the beer. Before they could get too far, Earl turned around.
“Alright, look,” he barked, “we’re all in this together now. All of us. We don’t say shit to anyone, ever, because if any of us do then we’re all fucked for life. Understand?”
“Yeah,” Chester and Nelson said with the same, somber tone. Andy looked down.
“Understand?” Earl asked Andy directly, louder.
Andy looked up.
“What are you going to do about the dent?” Andy asked.
Earl looked back over at the car, seeing a small but very noticeable depression in the middle of the hood. Besides that, the car looked clean.
“I’m sure Michael’s got a plunger in that house somewhere. I’ll just borrow one and suction the dent out in a little bit. It’s almost dark and no one will see me.”
Andy looked as his phone. It was already 8:16, and night was approaching by the second.
“Okay,” Andy said.
They walked up the street towards the house. It was a big house, a colonial style mansion with grounds and foliage to match. They walked past the sprawling front yard and the neatly-trimmed shrubs on the edge of the lawn. Then, passing next to a large oak tree by the front sidewalk, they came upon the driveway that ran up to the side of the house. They walked up and knocked on the side door.
“Hey guys!” Michael, dressed in a T-shirt and athletic shorts, said as he opened the door. He looked at their faces. “Uh… you guys okay?”
“Yeah, dude,” Earl said for the group, pushing past Michael. The others followed him into the kitchen. “Where is everyone?”
“Well, you guys are actually the first ones here. I texted everyone to come a little later because apparently my mom told Mrs. Levowits to come check in on me and and the bitch just wouldn’t leave.”
“I guess we didn’t get the message,” Nelson said. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine,” Michael said. “She’s gone now and everyone else is coming in like fifteen minutes. You guys can just get a head start on drinking.”
“That’s a good idea,” Earl said. Earl watched as Nelson and Chester each took a beer and clinked cans before guzzling down their drinks. They offered Michael one, and the three of them sat down to drink at the kitchen table. Earl smiled, but his joy dissolved when he looked at Andy sitting on the kitchen counter, staring into the tiles on the floor. Earl sighed and picked up a cold one from the pack.
“Andy,” Earl said, and Andy looked up. “Catch!”
He threw the beer and Andy caught it in two hands. Andy saw Earl smile at him. He tried to return it, but failed.
“I’m just gonna go outside for a minute,” Andy said. He put down the beer and walked into the family room, then out through a door to the back patio.
The Stanton family’s backyard was locally famous, winning the city’s Home and Garden Tour award for Best Landscaping the past three years. To the side of the stone patio was a forest of daisies, tulips, lavender, herb patches, wisteria, clematis vines, hedges, crabapple trees and all sorts of other aesthetically pleasing plants that formed a miniature nature preserve adjacent to the massive yard. A stone path cut through the enormous garden, leading to a circular clearing in the middle with a small pond and mini waterfall. Andy sat on a stone bench underneath a crabapple tree. He watched and listened as the water trickled down into the pond, the only noise besides the crickets that had just started chirping. It was calm out, and the heat of the day had retreated so that the night was easy and warm, though it was still humid.
Andy loved this garden. He had been to many parties at Michael’s house over the years but always made sure to spend some time out back. He enjoyed every moment that he spent in it, especially during the summer. He wondered if Michael knew how lucky he had it, growing up with such a place literally in his own backyard.
“Hey,” Andy heard someone say.
He looked up to see Earl walking out of the path towards him.
“How’s it going?” Earl asked, sitting down next to Andy. “You forgot this.” Earl handed Andy the can of beer that he had left in the kitchen, carrying one of his own in the other hand. Andy took it, but did nothing with it. He looked down.
“Look, dude,” Earl started, “I just want to make sure you and I are still cool. Is that alright?”
“You know that I didn’t mean to create any conflict between us. That was some fucked up shit that happened, and I tried my best to stop, but that lady just came out of nowhere.”
“Okay, look at me.” Andy looked up and was caught by Earl’s blue eyes. He always thought Earl had handsome eyes, but in the moonlight, they looked like steel.
“You know I never would have done that if Chester hadn’t told me to.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? The dumbass told me run through the intersection, remember?”
“And then he fucking told me to drive away! You can’t tell me you don’t remember that.”
Andy tried to look away, but then he felt Earl’s warm hand on his shoulder.
“Andy,” Earl said. “I’m not saying that we should turn him in. I just want to make sure that we have each other’s backs if something comes up. I mean, I’m the only one who appreciates the fact that you got us the beer. And I don’t even care that you spilled it all over my mom’s minivan. I admit that I was in the driver’s seat, but you know that none of this would have happened if Chester hadn’t told me to do those things.”
“Yeah,” Andy muttered. “You’re right.”
“Hey,” Earl said under his breath, now rubbing his hand up and down Andy’s back, “I’m your friend. Now drink!”
Earl took the beer that Andy was trying to ignore and placed it firmly in Andy’s grasp. Andy looked at him, then popped the can open. White foam erupted out of the opening. Earl clinked his can with Andy’s.
“Cheers,” Earl said, and he slugged down what was left of his drink.
Andy watched him, then brought his own can to his lips and downed three large gulps himself. Earl peered over his can to watch Andy and smiled. Earl stood up, then let out a roaring burp as Andy wiped his mouth.
“See you inside,” Earl said, and he chucked his empty can off into the garden.
Andy watched him go. He sat for a minute, or two or twenty, dazed. Then, he too stood up and walked back into the house.
When Andy returned to the party, more people had arrived and the place was really bumping with music and drinks. He saw a few other friends from school and exchanged greetings. He drank a couple more beers and started to loosen up as more and more people arrived at the party. By 11:30, he was drunk. Too drunk, and he knew it. But when he saw that people were passing around the beer bong, he couldn’t control himself.
“Hey, Andy, you gonna hit this?” Michael asked him in front of a crowd in the kitchen. He nodded his head with a stupid, drunk smile and everyone cheered. He watched as Michael filled the cone with Natural Light and raised the contraption above Andy’s head.
“I d-don’t dur-rink N-Natty Light,” Andy slurred.
“You can wash out the taste with this,” Michael told Andy, handing him a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon that was on the counter.
Andy took the can, then put his mouth on the end of the beer bong tube.
“I’ll count to three,” Michael said. “One, two…”
On two Michael released the beer down the chute, and Andy felt the cool liquid slither down his throat and hit his stomach as spectators applauded him. He looked up, suddenly on a new level of intoxication.
And then, he saw it all.
He stumbled into the packed family room, beer in hand, and saw Nelson sitting and listening to classmates cracking dirty jokes and Chester grimacing while pouring people shots of vodka at a table in the corner. Other peers, all friends and acquaintances of his, were about, talking, drinking and laughing, paying Andy no attention. In his left ear, he could hear two girls nearby having a conversation. He turned to look at them.
“Did you hear about the hit and run?” one asked.
“Oh my God, no,” the other said. “What happened?”
“Nobody knows exactly, but this woman was found on the street, clearly hit by a car, and-.”
Feeling his stomach churn, Andy ducked out into the hall searching desperately for a toilet. After finding the first floor bathroom occupied, he crawled up the staircase to the second floor. He opened the first door he saw in the hallway at the top of the stairs to his right. It was a bedroom, and in front of the doorway was Earl, back turned to Andy, unbuckling his pants. Earl turned around.
“Dude, get the fuck out,” Earl said, and slammed the door in Andy’s face.
“Please tell me that wasn’t Ches–,” Andy heard a female voice coming from the room, but it trailed off as he walked further down the hall. At last, he came upon a bathroom at the end of the corridor and entered. Standing over the sink, Andy tried to gag himself, but nothing came out. Then, he collapsed over the toilet, rubbed his eyes and saw his reflection in the water. He was clammy, pale and worn.
He vomited immediately.
Andy moaned, then sighed, then looked up, feeling vomit drip off of his chin. He looked down and realized that the PBR can was still in his grasp. He brought the can to eye level, cracked it open and doused his face with the cool liquid inside, rubbing his hair and cleaning off the rest of the puke. Andy breathed in, then out, then wiped his face with a towel, got up and walked downstairs.
He walked past the family room and stepped into the kitchen where Michael still was.
“Andy, we’re doing shots of tequila on the back patio if you want to come,” Michael told him, waving a bottle of Jose Cuervo.
“I’m good, man,” Andy said. “It’s time for me to go.”
Michael looked at him, shrugged and walked away.
Andy started towards the door to the driveway, but then stopped himself. He took out his wallet and slipped the fake ID out from its slot and into his grasp. He rubbed it, examined it and waved it under the kitchen light. Then, he chuckled, snapped the brittle plastic card in half and threw it into the kitchen garbage can.
After declining a couple more offers to keep partying, Andy left the gathering and walked back to his house as it was not very far from Michael’s. It was still warm out as Andy returned home, but the humidity was gone from the air, and for the first time that evening, everything was clear. Eventually, Andy staggered up to his porch, opened his front door and walked in through the hallway to the kitchen. He threw his wallet on the kitchen counter, turned on the light and flinched when he saw his mother staring at him in her bathrobe. He looked at the oven clock behind her, seeing that it was now well past midnight. She crossed her arms.
“Andrew, you are in big trouble!”
Meanwhile, at Alperton Mercy Hospital, Jennifer Kingston, having been comatose since the unfortunate accident, died of cerebral hemorrhaging with her husband and doctors by her side. At the time of death, police had no witnesses and no leads.