The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” played on the portable speaker and John, smiling, tilted his head back and shut his eyes. Today was his Sunny Afternoon; his day for rest and relaxation.
The sun sparkled on the calm lake and small waves rippled on the pebbles where John had set his chair and fishing equipment. He hummed along with the verse and bellowed out the chorus: “Save me from this squeeze!” His voice echoed over the water. John inhaled deep and let the sun warm his face.
“I’m free!” He yelled after a moment. Birds in the trees fluttered their wings as if applauding him. He reflected on the past years; not all so bad. And then the mother-in-law had moved in.
“I tell ya,” he said to the duck that waddled out of the water beside him, “there never was such a witch. Cleaned me out, both of ‘em, but I’m happy now. No amount of money is worth losing your freedom.”
The duck quacked and waddled on. John gazed at his watch and smiled.
“Three, two, one!” He counted down as the hands met at noon. As of now, Tiffany and her ‘Smother’ were no longer a problem; they were out of his life forever. This freedom had cost him a fortune, but it was well worth it.
“Both witches,” he murmured and cracked open a can of beer. It was cool on his tongue and slid down his throat like a salve over the acrid memories of the past few years. That life was over and done.
“Nevermore, nevermore!” He said to the ravens cawing on the branches above him.
The fishing line tugged and John reeled it in. Just like they reeled me in, he thought as a perch appeared on the surface. It wriggled and squirmed, hooked on the line. John unhooked it and threw it back, watching content as the water rippled with the fish’s escape. He was not a catch-and-release fisherman, but today was different. Tiffany and her mother had caught him, but today, a merciful soul released him back into the water. Someone was taking care of that problem.
Geese waded past him, their honking added texture to the cacophony of cicadas and birds.
“Maybe I’ll fly away this winter, too,” he said to the geese and raised his beer in a toast to them.
John’s phone pinged, and he smiled at the text message.
“The deed is done,” it read, “freedom is yours.”
John laughed and clapped his hands, whooping like at a football game.
Another ping told him he’d received a video.
John beamed as Tiffany told the poor devil with a much fuller bank account that she’d “love and hold, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”. The priest smiled as the sucker slipped a ring on her talon. The mother-in-law sneered in the background.
Lady Macbeth went mad from guilt, but I doubt I would. Beatrix set the book on the nightstand and blew out the candle, not smiling at the space beside her. He was late again, no doubt on one of his flings. At least he wouldn’t bother her tonight.
Beatrix closed her eyes and reminisced her childhood and how she’d dreamt of handsome knights and princes all vying for her love. She’d never imagined herself stuck in a loveless marriage.
Beatrix turned on her side and faced the space in the bed. Lady Macbeth lost her mind because she persuaded her husband to kill the king, but I wish…. She stopped before she finished the thought. It wasn’t the first time she’d stopped herself from wishing awful things on Horace, that disgusting husband her father had chosen for her.
“A daughter’s duty,” he’d said, “you have to fulfill it.”
The age-old reason: money. The haves and have-nots, and Beatrix was born into a family that used to have, until her father gambled it all away. To Horace. He’d gambled her away too; his daughter in a hand of poker.
Now Horace belonged to the haves and flaunted it. He gambled like her father and was a philanderer to boot.
Beatrix wiped away the angry tear that stained her pillow. She shut her eyes tight and waited for sleep…
Beatrix stood outside, the night dark around her and in complete silence. She peeked inside the lighted window.
Horace sat at a card table with a leggy redhead on his knee. Beatrix ran a hand through her raven hair, her breath formed a mist around her, but, to her surprise, it did not steam the pane.
A young man positioned himself at the window facing Beatrix, but seemed not to notice her. He looked straight at her, in her white nightgown, candlelight shining on her, yet he didn’t see. Beatrix locked eyes with him, but he stared ahead into the darkness…
Beatrix held a candle, the embers still warm and red in the chimney. The card table was empty, the room darkened, and the candles blown out save hers. Laughter and moans drifted from the rooms upstairs. The dying light of the fireplace cast her shadow on a wall. It was not her shadow. She stretched her hand out, soft and milky white, yet the shadow hand that mimicked her movement had twisted claws; the hand of a beast.
The shadow climbed the stairs, teeth and horns outlined on the wall. Beatrix followed; her mind and soul still and silent as the darkness. The shadow beast crept into the room where Horace “entertained” the leggy redhead. Beatrix stood at the door, ghostly in her long white nightgown.
The redhead knelt on the bed, her naked back to the door. The shadow beast handed the woman a knife. She raised it; the blade gleamed in the moonlight streaming through the window.
Beatrix counted seven stabs, one for each year of her hellish marriage. Horace groaned and gurgled, caught between pleasure and surprise. His blood stained the crisp white sheets.
The beast gazed at Beatrix, its eyes a cold, gleaming green. She gasped…
Beatrix sat up in her bed, the space still empty beside her. She held her head in her hands, trembling. What a frightful dream!
Dawn cast shadows on her wall, and for a moment, she thought she saw the beast, but it was only a fleeting image, an illusion caused by the silhouette of the bare tree outside her window.
Beatrix laid down and slept again. She awoke to the thunder of insistent knocking. The sun shone bright through the window. Beatrix tied her robe and opened the door.
“Mrs. Snyde,” a young man held his hat in his hands; Beatrix blanched, it was the young man from the window!
“I’m very sorry to say this, but Mr. Snyde passed away.”
Her heartbeat throbbed in her ears; her dream was all too real!
The young man blushed,
“In his sleep.”
Andy glanced in the mirror and smiled; his brand new winter hat on his head. His grandmother had gifted it and it would be his first day wearing it. The hat woven into the head of a lion, complete with a mane that covered his ears; the mittens knitted claws.
“Ready for the first snowball fight, Hercules?” Daddy leaned under the door smiling,“He wore headgear like that.”
“Really?” Andy gazed wide-eyed at Daddy, who knew everything.
“Yep, you know why he was famous?”
Andy shook his head.
“His supernatural strength; he killed a mean lion and used his hide as a cloak because it was impenetrable. Nothing could pierce it.”
“Wow! Do you think I’ll have supernatural strength now?”
Andy growled and swiped at Daddy, who picked him up and kissed his forehead. Andy rushed outside into the new fluffy snow and ran down the sidewalk to his friends.
They played in Ollie’s yard, throwing snowballs and racing one another. Soon, snow angels covered the yard and left room for none. Ollie suggested sledding, and the boys spent the next half hour asking permission and collecting the sleds.
“Be careful,” Daddy called after Andy as he pulled the sled behind him.
During winter, the kids slid down the slopes of the public golf course nearby. It was hard work pulling the sled up the hill, but Andy didn’t feel it today because with the lion hat on he was strong like Hercules.
Up and down they slid until the sun dipped low in the horizon and the cold bit their cheeks. One by one they went home, save for Andy and Ollie, who lived closest and didn’t need to hurry. They climbed the hill as snowflakes fell.
“One more time!” Ollie said and climbed on behind Andy.
They flew down the hill in cheerful giggles. Andy tried to steer away from a snow bank, but grazed it and, with a bump, Ollie fell off the sled. Andy lost control and slammed into a snow-covered bush; white ice showered the lion mane. He shook himself off and scanned the snowy hill. Flakes danced around him. Evening had fallen, and the world was turning black. Andy wiped the flakes from his face and spotted Ollie’s red jacket in the snow.
“Ollie!” He trudged to his friend.
“Are you okay?” Andy panted. Ollie was crying and his foot sat at a strange angle.
“I think my ankle’s broken!” He sniffed and wiped tears and snow from his eyes.
“Can you stand?”
Ollie shook his head.
Andy looked around, hoping someone had seen them, but there was no one, only snow and the encroaching blue light of evening. Andy feared they would lose their way in the darkness and the bitter cold chilled him.
“I’ll give you a piggyback ride home,” Andy positioned himself in front of Ollie, and with great effort, hoisted Ollie onto his back.
“There they are!” Daddy called when he spotted the slow-moving mass in the snow. He recognized Andy’s lion head bent under Ollie’s red jacket. He rushed to them and lifted Ollie off Andy’s back. Ollie’s parents caught up and amidst kisses and hugs carried Ollie home. They would take Ollie straight to the hospital, they said.
“It gave me superpowers,” Andy touched his hat, his claw mitten holding Daddy’s hand.
“Yes, you were very strong and brave. I’m very proud of you.”
* * *
“Just like twenty years ago, buddy,” Andy’s thick low voice rumbled, “hold on, we’ll make it.”
Andy struggled through the mud, bent under Ollie’s weight. He wished for his lion hat, loved and now worn to rags. Bombs exploded around him. He remembered the snow fell hard that day. Andy gazed down at his combat boots and toiled on, Ollie on his back.
Thundersnow pounded against the window; lightning struck and shone on Rusty’s forlorn face. He wanted to play outside, but even the sun felt it was too cold to shine. The clouds, the snow, the wind, the thunder and lightning came out to play instead.
“Rusty!” Mom called, “Come down, the window’s too cold, you’ll catch your death!”
Rusty sighed and stepped off the window seat. He dragged his feet downstairs. What a wasted Saturday; they wouldn’t even have a snow day off.
The howling wind spattered snowflakes on the window, laughing at Rusty’s ruined weekend.
“I’m bored,” Rusty complained and plopped into his usual chair at the kitchen table next to his little brother. Mickey the Booger always had snot running down his nose.
“Oh, c’mon, it’s not so bad,” Mom wiped Mickey’s nose, “we can still have fun.”
“Where’s Dad?” Rusty smushed his cheek against the palm of his hand, his elbow on the table, as if keeping his face from melting of boredom.
“He’s outside, trying to shovel as much snow as possible, though I think it’s a boondoggle.”
“A what?” Rusty smiled and Mickey giggled at Mommy’s funny word.
“What’s that, Mommy?” Mickey’s tiny voice rang out, the candle of mucus shiny on his philtrum.
“A boondoggle is an exercise in futility, something you do but won’t amount to anything. It’s a waste of energy.”
“Then why is Daddy doing it?”
“Because he thinks if he shovels now, there will be less snow to shovel tomorrow, and because it won’t harden so much.”
“And because I’m bored out of my mind!” Dad’s thunderous voice resembled the pounding tempest behind his silhouette under the back door. Lightning struck behind him and the house plunged into the semi-darkness of the stormy day. Mom helped him with his boots and coat. He sniffed and checked the fusebox.
“Power’s out,” Dad sat down, his cheeks still red from the cold, “can’t even watch TV now.”
“No!” Rusty and Mickey cried in unison.
“Calm down, it’s not the end of the world. It’s only been a hundred years since people had electricity in their homes, and before that, people didn’t get bored.” Dad placed his cheek on his hand, mimicking Rusty.
“How? By sitting and staring at each other?”
“And farting while at it,” Dad said, sending Rusty and Mickey into a fit of laughter.
“Fart!” Mickey’s gleeful voice sang out over the hubbub. Even Mom giggled as she nudged Dad.
“What? Most people lived with parasites and amoebas in their tummies, so I bet there was tons of farting going on!”
The thunder joined in the gales of laughter.
“Okay, okay,” Mom said when the hilarity died down, “what do you want to do? We could play a game?”
“What game? Monopoly? The Booger can’t add yet.”
“Oh, we’ll find something.”
Mom brought out a big box that claimed to contain a hundred board games. Dad brought out the kerosene camping lantern, and the room filled with cozy candlelight.
Rusty stole a glance at the snowstorm; it didn’t rage anymore but howled with mirth. Snowflakes crowded the windows wanting to join the fun.
“It’s strange knowing your ship has come home. After all the work and hardship, the sacrifice, everything, you relax, you can breathe. The world is at your feet. I hope that one day you’ll feel that way too.”
I sat across the old man listening to his spiel about how he’d been poor and desperate and how, through hard work and sacrifice he’d pulled himself up by the bootstraps. I tried hard not to roll my eyes nor to avert his gaze. He’d conveniently forgotten to mention something we all knew to be true, that someone had given him a chance and opened the doors of opportunity for him to strut through.
Anger rose and my cheeks flushed. I gritted my teeth and swallowed back the ire about to burst through my clenched fist. The arrogant bastard was laying me off (“the company’s downsizing, the economy” blah, blah, blah), after six years of working for him…
I took a deep breath to keep the almighty fury at bay and Dirk, always misinterpreting, thought his self-aggrandizement bored me.
“Well, I suppose you’ve heard this story before,” he said, oozing snark. He turned grave and shuffled papers on his desk.
“I have,” I said, my voice strong despite the oncoming tears of rage, “and I know it’s bullshit.”
Dirk opened his eyes wide, I held his gaze and continued,
“Everyone knows Mortimer took you under his wing and made you who you are. It was his generosity that helped you up, not your hard work.
“You’ve shown me you care nothing about hard work, but about what others can do for you. My Ivy League scholarship-funded education means nothing to you because my daddy isn’t a Fortune 500 CEO. He was a plumber, and a damn good one. My consistent quality performance is useless because I don’t have uncles in the government.
“But who do you think you are? I know you’re just like me! Your father was a house painter and now you dare look down on us, the common people like yourself, who’ve studied hard for an education and who come here every day and put up with your shit because we are pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps with no help from you. You’ve shut the door on us because you know we’re better than you!”
The old man huffed and a devious smirk crawled across his face. He opened his mouth to speak, but I interrupted him,
“I know why you’ve called me in here, don’t think I’m surprised, but next time, don’t waste your breath on that bullshit story.”
“Fired,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
I walked out of his office, out of the building and into the warm sunlight. He was right, though my ship hasn’t come in, I know what he meant about being able to breathe.
Lara opened her eyes. Something woke her. Moonlight shone through the window in a strange silver-and-gold light. She padded to it in bare feet and flushed cheeks despite the glacial cold; it was winter.
The frost on the window framed the glass, and she gazed out into the snowy meadow. Lara loved the silent snowfalls when they muted all nature’s noises. Through the falling snow she glimpsed a light on the field, just before the copse of trees that lined the edge of the woods, their bare branches now affording a strange, transparent visibility not available the rest of the year.
“Skeletons,” she whispered, “memories of summer.”
The meadow shone gold and, bathed in moon rays, it gave off the silver-and-gold light that entered the window. She beheld a small orb of gold light moving towards the house. The nearer it came, the more it grew and, when it reached the gate, Lara recognized the figure of a man emitting such light. He glanced at the window where Lara stood in her white nightgown and burning cheeks, a ghostly figure in the crisp midwinter’s night. The stranger smiled and unfurled golden wings.
He flew and tapped on the window. Lara shook her head.
“If you are a vampire, I do not invite you.” She said, her throat hoarse.
“Not a vampire,” the winged figure smiled, “and I need no invitation.”
The window flew open with a gesture of his hand and he floated inside, alighting before her.
“Who are you?” She whispered.
“You know who I am.”
“Why are you here?” Her voice quavered, and she held back a cough.
“I’ve come for you,” he extended his hand.
“May I say goodbye first?”
Lara didn’t need to wake me, I’d awoken when the silver-and-gold light glistened through the window. As she stood over me, I knew I was gazing into my sister’s lovely eyes for the last time.
“Must you go?” I bleated, my voice meek and muted by the blanket.
“Yes, he says so, and he knows.”
“I love you,” I said, tears brimming and stinging my eyes, a knot in my throat.
“I love you too, I will always be with you.” She bent and kissed my forehead.
Lara turned to the stranger and held his hand; they flew out the window. I jumped out of bed and ran after them. I leaned out calling her name into the silent night, but they’d vanished. My knees buckled, and I slid against the wall sobbing such tears of sorrow they constricted my chest. My heart broke when The Angel of Death took my sister.
Janice waited nervous by the door. When the bell rang, she took a quick scrutinizing look about her and determined everything was in order. She stood up, smoothed her dress and opened the door.
“Hello darling!” Caroline, her mom, gave her a kiss and a hug and stepped into the hall. Bruce, her dad, followed in with a kiss on the forehead. Janice welcomed them and closed the door. Martin, Janice’s husband, greeted his in-laws in the living room.
As she turned the doorbell rang again, and Janice fixed her concerned expression before opening the door. Martin’s parents, Fred and Mamie, greeted her warmly. They were more effusive towards Martin, but Janice did not miss the cool greeting of the parents.
“So it begins,” muttered Janice.
This was the first dinner party she and Martin, recently married, were hosting in their new home. They invited both sets of parents to avoid rumors and misunderstandings; the in-laws had not gotten along since their introduction. In fact, the couples had avoided one another at the wedding. It was also a last resort to bring, if not friendship, then cordiality to the two united families.
“Caroline, darling, how well you look, and what plump cheeks, how I envy you!” Mamie smirked.
“Yes, Mamie, you look wonderful yourself, I love that blouse, it brings out the lovely yellow in your teeth.”
Caroline smiled while Mamie scrunched her face. Janice shook her head and sought to smooth things over while Martin offered drinks.
The jabbing, tongue-lashing and criticism continued as Janice brought out the hors d’oeuvre. The fathers said nothing to one another; they sat and looked up from their drinks occasionally. Janice tried to keep the women’s insults to a minimum, while Martin tried to converse with the men but received only grunts, ahems and one-word answers.
Janice excused her self and fled to the kitchen. She leaned against the counter and took three deep breaths. She lifted the lid off the big boiling pot and stirred the contents. The soup was ready. It was her grandmother’s tomato, leek and potato soup recipe and her favorite. The aroma brought her memories of frosty winter days in the warm kitchen while she sat and listened to Grandma tell stories about the Old Country. The soup was not the star of the night—Martin’s grandmother’s pork ribs were—but it was a dish made with love. She hoped to bring together the two most important sides of her family.
“Ahem,” Janice, standing by the kitchen door, said over the bitter gabble of the two older ladies, “let’s all have dinner now.”
They moved to the dining room; Martin winked, smiled and gave her hand a slight squeeze as they sat at the table. Despite the name cards, the couples faced one another at either side; two factions across a battlefield. Martin shrugged and offered to help with the soup. Janice shook her head and disappeared into the kitchen, cheeks burning. She turned off the stove and lifted the big pot with both hands, fighting back tears. Martin had joked it would feed an army, and how right he was.
She approached the door to the dining room like a queen presenting her crown jewels, her walk slow, her head held high and her gaze above the lid. The queen forgot that Mischief the cat lurked around hoping for another feeding. He rubbed himself against the wall and mewled, but Janice, unaware, stepped on his tail. Mischief yowled and sprang a foot in the air. Janice, surprised at the squishiness underfoot, jerked, lost her balance and pitched forward, tripping over her feet.
The pot flew out of her hands and the dinner party watched as the pot tumbled in the air and spilled all its contents on the white tiled floor. Mischief scampered off to the living room.
“No!” Martin yelled, unsure whether to help Janice who’d regained her footing, or try to save the soup, managing neither.
The soup lay on the floor, like the bloody remains of the hero soldier; the pot rolled on its side, empty and round as a dark cave. Mischief had vanished.
Janice covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes brimmed with tears and met her dad’s gaze. He snorted, chuckled then burst into roaring laughter.
“We’re in the soup now!” Fred chortled and soon all four elders were hooting and howling with hilarity. Bruce held his sides and Fred slapped his knee. Tears rolled down Mamie’s cheeks and Caroline forwent her usual close-lipped giggle and guffawed, her mouth open wide and her head thrown back. Martin and Janice watched aghast.
When the laughter subsided, Mamie turned to Caroline and said,
“Come, Caroline, let’s clean this.”
Caroline smiled. They fussed over Janice and brought out the mop and bucket.
“Don’t you worry dear, let us handle this,” Mamie smiled at the stunned Janice.
“Yes, it’s easy as duck soup!” Caroline joked and both ladies dissolved in a fit of giggles over the spillage.
Bruce and Fred patted each other’s backs and went in search of Mischief.
“Too bad about the soup,” Martin smiled at Janice, “but at least it lightened the mood and brought us all together.”
Norah was excited about her upcoming wedding. She’d never been patient and the long wait made her excitable, irritable and even more restless than usual. At moments she was euphoric, planning the ceremony, the reception, the church, and she appeared to be having the time of her life. At other times the thought her wedding day couldn’t get there fast enough, and she took her impatience out on those around her, even on Albert, her fiancé.
Albert was the silent type who avoided conflict like the plague. He found an excuse to leave the room whenever Norah pitched a fit about the flowers, or the gown, or the invitations.
“She isn’t always so mean,” Margaret, her mother, told friends when Norah stormed off swearing to high heaven, “but she’s very excited and you know Norah, patience was never her virtue. That’s what makes Albert so right for her, he’s patient as a saint. I just hope these tantrums don’t drive him away.”
“Do you think it possible?” Francine, Margaret’s oldest friend, asked concerned. She knew Norah since birth and understood what Margaret meant.
“I don’t know,” Margaret sighed, “I’m about ready to call it quits myself. One more outburst and she can expect no further help from me.”
Francine sighed. She thought of herself as Norah’s aunt, and resolved to speak to her about her unacceptable behavior, but never got the chance. Norah was much too busy to give her mother’s oldest friend much attention.
Two days before the wedding Norah woke up with her throat on fire.
“Oh no, no, no!” She croaked, “I can’t get ill now!”
Norah cleared her throat over and over but the pain would not ease.
“Mom!” Norah screeched and thought how she should have listened when her mother suggested vitamins.
They day got worse as Norah tried to juggle her appointments with the baker and the florist, hoping her throat would heal. By nightfall, her head seemed it would explode, and she was clammy and shivering.
“This can’t be happening,” she whined, “why now?”
“Because you’ve exhausted yourself with the preparations and you’ve rudely rejected help and tried to do it all on your own. I think your body is telling you to relax.”
“But I’m getting married in two days!”
“Tough luck,” her mother shrugged, “I suggest Advil and sleep, otherwise you’ll be worse tomorrow.”
“But Mom, who’ll take care of the rehearsal dinner?”
“Not me, since you think I’m useless. Hush now and sleep, and for your own sake, be patient, everything will turn out for the best.”
Everything did not turn out for the best, Norah thought as she posed for her wedding pictures with a nose bigger and redder than Rudolph the Reindeer and eyes so watery she could barely open. Her complexion and sunken cheeks looked like melted vanilla ice cream. So much for the bride’s perfect wedding.
Arthur lifted his gaze to the sky and watched as silhouetted birds flew across the sun, dread rising and chilling him to the bone, despite the warm rays. He had these sensations often and acknowledged them though he never understood their meaning until much later.
Arthur’s grandmother always said he had The Gift, like her. He should appreciate it and strengthen it, lest it fade and the consequences be detrimental. Arthur feared his Gift and as a child had suppressed it. Today he wished he’d listened to Grandmother. The Gift was now a tiny spark that wouldn’t flame, and when the anxiety tingled his spine and his hair stood on end, Arthur was helpless. Why should a flock of birds flying across the sun cause him so much fear?
“What type of birds are they?” Grandmother whispered in his mind; she was gone, yet still in there.
“Ravens,” he said aloud, and a tiny ember of comprehension flickered.
“What do ravens symbolize?”
“Bad luck. Messengers.”
The doors of his mind burst open, and images fluttered in his brain like a thousand ravens, culminating in the blazing red of an erupting volcano. Arthur held his head and gasped for air. His ears rang and his chest hurt and he took a few moments to pull himself together. Arthur tried to remember the images and put them in order, but they had flashed too fast, and his handle on them slipped through buttery neurons. Comprehension disappeared as fast as it came and left Arthur with heightened foreboding and anguish.
Arthur tried to shake the apprehension off as he rode his bicycle home, the sun setting in fiery beams behind him. If only Grandmother were here. If only he’d listened to her, if only he’d been braver and had honed his Gift like she’d said. He put the bicycle away. The image of a rifle against a wall flashed through his mind. He knew it was his rifle; his army rifle.
“War,” he mumbled, “there will be war.”
Against whom? Arthur thought of the news reports of the past few days; there was nothing suggesting war or trouble ahead, at least not in his neck of the woods. He opened the door and entered. He bent down to untie his shoes and muddy combat boots on his feet flared in his mind. Now he had the ‘who’ and the ‘what’. He hoped to figure out the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ soon.
Arthur was in a daze as he packed his books for school the next morning; a cry from his mother brought him out of his preoccupation. Arthur rushed downstairs; Mother and Father were at the breakfast table. Father was reading the daily news and Mother’s hand covered her mouth aghast. Arthur inched closer, dreading the headline, but it reported tragedy, not war. He stifled a sigh of relief. The sinkage of the unsinkable RMS Titanic was no cause for alleviation though he felt it. Father put the paper down and mentioned something about the disaster while Mother set out the breakfast. Arthur turned the paper towards him and tried to read the headline, but the letters jumbled in his mind and formed new words:
“HEIR TO AUSTRIAN THRONE MURDERED: Archduke and His Wife Shot Dead in the Street.”
Father whisked the paper away before Arthur could glimpse the date.
“The ‘why’,” he said and his parents turned to him.
“Why?” Father asked, “Because it hit an iceberg.”
Arthur nodded. Father had never believed in The Gift and it was no use explaining, so he mumbled something about horrible misfortunes. Father harrumphed and buttered his toast. Mother sipped her coffee.
At school, the teacher assumed Arthur was as distraught as she about the astounding headlines. Arthur spent the morning shutting his eyes, trying to remember the news article so to find the ‘when’ but in vain.
The teacher ordered the students to take out their mathematics books and among its pages four numbers jumped out in bright blood red: 1914.
“Two years from now,” he muttered and Florence, the girl sitting beside him glanced at him.
“Two years from now, what?” She whispered, her eyes wide with concern, “Do you think it’ll be two years before they find all the dead?”
Arthur deliberated whether to tell her; he’d known Florence all his life, and she surmised there was more to him than met the eye.
Florence suspected Arthur knew things before they happened. She would never forget that day long ago, in the town center. He’d pushed her against a wall; a piece of the parapet a stone mason was fixing broke off and crashed to the ground, right where she had been. Florence kept her big inquisitive eyes on him searching for an answer.
“What will happen in two years, Arthur? Please tell me,” she whispered.
He took a deep breath,
“There will be war, and I will fight.”
Florence gasped, then turned to her book. After a few awkward moments Florence slipped him a note bearing the words, ‘who, what, where, when, why?’
Arthur placed a check next to the answers he knew and wrote a question mark next to ‘where’.
Florence read the note and nodded, then wrote: ‘against whom?’
“Germany,” Arthur answered with such confidence he surprised himself. His voice was hollow as if coming through a distant telephone line.
“Will you die?” She whispered.
The question shot through him and he saw the volcano he’d glimpsed before and understood it was his chest erupting blood and bone.
“Yes,” he said with a quavering voice and distant eyes, “I will die at war.”
Mr. Regal was a good boss. He owned a small sign painting business and treated his employees with respect; he took care, listened to their grievances and appreciated their work. His employees were happy, spoke well of him and did their jobs with gusto and pride.
Mr. Regal’s son, James, would often accompany him to the workplace and, Mr. Regal would walk around, managing and commenting on the different projects, with James in tow. Mr. Regal had built the business from the ground up and hoped that one day James would carry on his legacy. He’d started the business by hiring high school and college students; painting signs wasn’t rocket science, but he’d let their creativity flow. He taught his young employees about honesty, responsibility and doing the job right the first time. His employees kept up these practices long after they’d left Regal Sign Painting for bigger and better opportunities.
“See James, this can be your legacy,” Mr. Regal said one day, “fathers build many businesses that sons destroy. If you choose this, don’t be that son.”
One day, young James, playing with a paper airplane, walked over the “Welcome” sign David, the graphic designer was painting. David sighed and said nothing—he’d been there since the business first opened its doors—and fixed the paint James’s sneakers had smudged. James did not apologize and appeared not to care.
Mr. Regal walked up to James and said,
“What is the basis of everything?”
James looked up at his father, gauging Dad’s mood.
“Respect,” he bleated in his most apologetic look.
“That’s right,” Mr. Regal nodded, “do you think you treated David with respect?”
“David deserves respect and an apology.”
James turned to David and mumbled an apology. David nodded, and it satisfied Mr. Regal. As Mr. Regal walked away, David saw an expression on James that showed he wasn’t sorry. David sighed and hoped James would be a good man.
Years passed and the company, though still hand-painting signs, expanded their services to web and logo design, and were top in the state, renown for quality and efficiency. Employees joined and left, except for three people: David, whose creativity and skill in graphic design made Regal Sign Painting the best at custom signage for years, Sarah, the administrative assistant who’d married, divorced and widowed in the years since she’d joined as a secretary (the term they used way back when), and Carol, the accountant, unmarried and bookish. They had watched James grow up, and unbeknownst to one another, they’d all had a similar experience with James. They all hoped James would mature and change.
“We’ve had good years here,” Sarah said to David and Carol in the break room one day, “let’s hope when James takes over the bonanza will continue.”
“I’m sure it will, he’s a chip of the old block,” Carol sipped her tea, “I think the business will be all right.”
Carol swallowed her words when that day came sooner than expected. One day, when James was in his senior year of college, Mr. Regal went to bed and never woke up.
James took over right after the funeral. He strode in on his first day and packed up all his father’s belongings still in the office. Sarah was aghast when James shoved a box into her arms and ordered her to throw it all away.
“Ominous,” Sarah mumbled, shaking her head. She peeked in the box and took it out to her car. There were photographs, diplomas, awards, and even a clean shirt and tie, all belonging the late and beloved Mr. Regal. Sarah refused to trash it, instead she asked Carol and David to meet her at her car. The three of them split the things between them and kept them as mementos of good days.
It didn’t take long for James to tank the business, most of the staff left soon, unwilling to work under James’s tyranny, derision and blatant lack of respect. He worked his employees to the bone, destroyed the projects he didn’t like, he stressed quantity over quality and lost all the profits at the racetrack. The boy Sarah, Carol and David knew had disappeared, and a dictator had replaced him.
Carol was the first to leave of the veteran three, she’d saved enough money to open her own accounting office. Sarah followed as her administrative assistant. Only David was in a bind. He’d worked at Regal Sign Painting for thirty-five years and knew his industry favored youth, though he’d kept abreast of new technologies and trends.
“What the fuck is this?” James yelled at David when he showed him a finished project, “You damn geezer, is this the best you can do? This is crap!” James destroyed it. David looked at the tattered remains of the project and anger bubbled up; James had destroyed his patience.
“This is the last straw, I quit!” David yelled and stormed out. He walked out of a job he’d given his life to with only a pittance for severance. He called on Carol, who had done his tax returns for years and asked her for a job.
“I’ve got something better for you,” she sat across from David, “you remember those investments you bought into years ago? They’ve done well, and, if we set a reasonable budget, I think there’s enough for you to set up your own business.”
“I don’t know, Carol, not sure I have the energy, what business would it be?”
“Signage,” Carol smiled.
James soon closed Regal Sign Painting, the company his father had built from scratch, unable to keep up with Royal Signage, the competition.
Soon afterwards, David looked James in the eye,
“Respect is the basis of everything, and because I respect your father, I’m giving you this one chance at Royal Signage, but this time, you start at the bottom.”
He handed James the mop and bucket. James scowled and gritted his teeth as he mopped the floors for his erstwhile employee.