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.
Matt was late despite the important meetings at work. It wasn’t his fault; today of all days, the alarm clock didn’t ring, and the dog threw up on the carpet.
“It’s lucky I was dreaming I was late, otherwise I would have overslept,” he mumbled, throwing on whatever clothes he could find. Breakfast would be at work.
The dog didn’t want to get in the car, and Matt struggled with the whimpering animal, his phone pressed to his ear waiting for his boss to answer. The call went to voicemail and Matt, though confused, shrugged and shut the door. Zeus howled inside the car. Matt climbed in and turned the ignition.
Zeus moaned, howled and barked all the way to the vet where they saw him with no appointment. There, Zeus did not behave much better, he whined, growled and nipped at the thermometer. The vet prodded and examined with infinite patience and determined Zeus had a bout of indigestion. Matt needed to observe Zeus and contact them if Zeus threw up again.
Zeus put up another fight when Matt forced him back in the car.
“What? What is with you?”
Matt shut the door. Zeus howled every minute home. He dropped Zeus off and ran to the car.
“I’m late, I’m late, I’m late,” he repeated, like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.
Matt approached the intersection which crossed underneath the highway, his regular route to work. The long row of cars above meant gridlock, so he switched routes. He would stay on the avenue he was on, though it might take longer because of the traffic lights, but he thought it the better choice.
Matt waited at the next intersection. The light was red, and he had a perfect view of the following lights. He was still waiting for the green when the lights ahead blinked.
“Oh no!” He said aloud, “Did the traffic lights break down now?”
Matt inched along. It was too late to get on the jammed highway and no alternative routes. Little by little he crawled in traffic, desperation and anxiety growing every minute.
The meetings today were important, new clients were coming, and he needed to make a good impression since their business would be a great boost for the company. He’d spent all week working on the presentation he was to give them and now all the fruits of his labor were stuck in traffic. Of all days for this…
Matt tried to compose himself, he was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. He had sweat on his brow and the shirt collar and tie felt a little too tight. To make matters worse, the incessant honking from the guy behind put him further on edge. It bore into his mind; honk, honk, honk!
Matt took a deep breath, he couldn’t break down, not today, and dialed his boss again. The dial tone rang and rang and rang in his ear and the ringing got so loud it ripped his brain to shreds. He opened his mouth to scream.
Matt startled himself awake, heart racing like wild mustangs. The ringing dial tone had turned into his beeping alarm, which he slammed off. Matt blinked at the clock, relieved he’d woken up in time.
As he fumbled for his slippers, Matt noticed Zeus had thrown up on the carpet.
What is fortune? Many equate fortune to wealth. I learned long ago that wealth and fortune are two different things. I was fortunate in the sense I was wealthy; I had everything I wanted and even all I didn’t want, and through rain, sleet or snow, at the end of my childhood, a bottomless trust fund awaited me. Other people relate fortune to destiny and mine sprawled out before me like the red carpet before a king: college, then family business, and money, oh so much money; an easy fate for an easy life.
The school bell rings, slicing through my reflections like my mother’s knife through the pineapple upside-down cake she requested from our pastry chef for my last birthday. As kids pile into the halls, I stop and watch them, the geeks, the brains, the populars, the nerds, the dweebs, the class clowns, the drama club, the chess club and the jocks. I see Jason, the younger version of me, surrounded by his buddies, rowdy, spinning a football in his hand as he saunters down the hallway. Jason won’t get called out; Mr. Amos, the new principal is nothing compared to the tour de force of respect Mr. Dieter commanded back then. The school bell rings again, and the crowd dissipates, leaving the hall empty and quiet, good for silent introspection, something I seldom did then, but now do nonstop. I remember the parties, the joyrides, the dates, the good times I thought were endless…
I’m bored. I suppose I could look in on Ms. Stevenson in social studies, but like then, I seldom attend class now, though I’ve never lacked brains, only interest. I flitted from private school to private school until none would have me. I found contentment in public school where I could fly by the seat of my pants and no one blinked. That was my fortunate life. Those were the days when I was young, wild and carefree.
Mr. Gibson is a funny little man, like those yapping, nervous little dogs, and I peek into his classroom. Back turned, he’s writing something on the board. I steal a glance at the students; the nerds are taking notes, the mean girls are texting and giggling, but most are trying to stay awake. Jason sits at the back, flinging spitballs at the kid in front. I don’t like that kid; his name’s Baxter.
There are two kinds of weirdos or outcasts, kids who are neither here nor there. The good weirdos are the hippie, artsy or kooky type. They take up unusual hobbies like glassblowing or soap-carving; they smile often, keep to themselves and won’t hurt a fly. Then we have the strange weirdos, the creepers, the people you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. They are the ones that freeze you with their unnerving stare, never smile, say disturbing things in class and slither down the hallway in a stench of hatred and disdain. Baxter is a creeper. Back then Dorian was the creeper.
I smirk when Mr. Gibson turns to the door, as if looking for something through the little square glass window. I bang on the door and the sound thunders through the room. Mr. Gibson jumps like a startled cat and so do the students. Jason even swallows his spitball. Mr. Gibson opens the door and peers out. His hand trembles a little and I snigger against the wall. Mr. Gibson closes the door and returns to his class. He’s afraid now, and the class is nervous; spooky things happen here. Only Baxter is unaffected.
His icy expression sends me back to the day the wheel of my fortune spun out of control.
“He’ll do it, you know,” Mr. Dieter whispers behind me, “Baxter is the new Dorian.”
“I know,” I say.
“Only a matter of time,” his voice floats down the hall and into the teacher’s lounge.
I know, though I wish I didn’t. Nowadays I know so much more. It’s ironic how I used to think I knew it all, but since my fortune changed, I now know everything; past, present and future. At the drop of a hat I knew every word, every story, every fact, the whole kit and caboodle. I also know every mistake. Though I encourage the kids to improve, the message doesn’t always get through, and never to the Baxters or Dorians of the world.
Baxter is late today and I know why. How do I stop so many destinies from spiraling into darkness?
I see Jason cutting class and heading out, and in him, I see myself just before my doom.
I was walking down the hall on the last remaining days of senior year, playing hooky again, when Dorian ambled through the main entrance. He had a strange look in his eye and I thought, “Uh-oh”.
He pointed a black hole at me. A flash of light, a boom and my luck oozed out of me in a river of gooey red on the school’s linoleum floor. For the first time in my life I shared the same fate as others, or rather, others shared my fate.
“There’s still time,” Mr. Dieter says beside me. Like me, he knows everything, and we know Baxter hasn’t left home yet, he’s still pulling on his hunting clothes and packing the weapons: handguns, rifles, knives.
Jason is out the school door, but he’s the only one.
The others gather beside me. We all know what’s about to unfold. Kismet brought Macy and Dorian together at the library, then he hunted Griffin into the supply closet. Jonas fell by his locker. Mrs. Moritz pushed Janice out of the way, but not quick enough to save herself; it was futile because Dorian shot Janice as she ran.
“We must do something,” I say.
“What?” Janice the science geek says, “We are only air now.”
“We can move things,” Jonas, who was on the track and field team, pumps his fist.
“We can bang things,” Griffin smiles (he was a drummer).
“We can pull the fire alarms,” Mrs. Moritz chimes in (she taught music).
“We can cause a power outage,” Macy piped up, she was in the drama club and now likes to fumble with the auditorium lights.
“We must hurry,” Mr. Dieter looks at us and nods, “Baxter’s coming.”
Kids spill into the hallway and flow out the doors. Mr. Amos, the principal, yells for calm and order, but no one hears amidst the flickering lights, the clanging water pipes, the wailing fire alarms and slamming locker doors.
We cheer. Only Mr. Dieter is not with us. He’s messing with the traffic light at the end of the street.
Tomorrow the newspapers will say Baxter Morgan ran a red light and perished when he collided with an oncoming dump truck. The police will speculate about the arsenal of weapons in his car.
Randy worked at a fancy hotel which had once been a mansion owned by Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, Randy was never sure. He tended the bar; one of those high-end affairs with shiny countertops and premium wines and liquors on offer. There were no brawls or open mic nights and the guests often came dressed to the nine. It was the place Irving Berlin imagined when he wrote “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. The hotel lounge was between the five-star restaurant with its fusion menu and award-winning chef, and the gilded ballroom—only used on special occasions—which had big glass windows and French doors that led out to a veranda facing the hotel’s beautiful ample gardens.
The veranda served as a bridge between the gardens and the building, and a small tunnel ran underneath it which led to the service entrance. Randy was there waiting for the delivery of an important order of wine and liquor glasses; only the best quality crystal for the guests.
The delivery went smooth, the order was correct and the delivery men left the crates of glasses at the service entrance. Randy had to carry each crate to the kitchen. Most days he would have taken them up through the service elevator but it needed repairs and the manager had instructed him to carry the crates to the veranda and through one of the ballroom’s French doors left open for him. The ballroom was closed to the guests.
Randy carried the crates one by one. He was strong, but he had to be extra careful since they contained everything from wine glasses to high-ball tumblers. It was heavy work, but Randy didn’t mind. At last he lifted the final crate—champagne flutes—and made his way up to the veranda where he found himself face to face with a bull.
“What the…?” He stopped and stared. The bull glared at him right back. It was on the lawn and Randy’s only choice was to cross the veranda and into the ballroom. It grunted.
Randy angled himself slowly and prepared to run. He still held the crate of champagne flutes in his arms which tinkled as he moved. The bull snorted and lowered its horns.
“Whoa, bull, easy,” Randy whispered. Did commands for horses work on bulls? Maybe not, because the bull pawed the ground and dirt flew behind it. It grunted again.
Randy sprinted across the veranda, the glasses in his arms jingling and jangling like sleigh bells; the clatter of the bull’s hooves at his heels. He made it through the open ballroom door and with a quick kick of his heel closed it behind him. He took a few more steps and glanced over his shoulders. The bull was still charging and Randy heard the crash of breaking glass as he dashed across the room. Randy ran through to the bar and hunkered behind the counter, the crate still in his arms, his heart beating a mile a minute.
The security guys, two big muscular men, burst through the door to the ballroom and, upon seeing the bull which had crashed through the French doors, ran back out again.
Wussies, thought Randy. He put the crate on the floor and peeked over the counter. The bull was in the ballroom swaying from side to side, dazed and dizzy.
“That’s what you get when you charge through glass doors,” muttered Randy. The bull gave a one last grunt and laid down, legs folded beneath it.
“Not so tough now, huh?”
Randy picked up the phone on the wall and called emergency services. Animal control took the bull away. When asked how he’d reacted, Randy said, “I hoofed it.”
The manager congratulated Randy for his courage, presence of mind and for not breaking a single glass and rewarded him with a raise. Randy earned the nickname ‘Torero’ and shouts of “Ole!” followed him throughout the hotel for months. The hotel replaced the French doors with the insurance money and since then, guests and staff alike refer to the ballroom as ‘The Bullroom’.
It’s a mystery how the bull came to the hotel. Some say it escaped from a farm, others from a rodeo. The most inventive say it appeared from another dimension, but to every doubting Thomas, Randy says it’s no cock-and-bull story.
Marla unfolded her portable beach lounge chair and took her towel out of her backpack. She’d come equipped with everything needed to spend a day out by the seashore. She unrolled the towel and with a flourish spread it on the lounge chair. The wind picked up in that instant and all Marla managed was sand and cloth in her face. She spurted sand (she had a nasty habit of concentrating with her mouth open) and wiped her face with her hand. The wind was fickle and every time she raised her arms to spread the towel the wind blew harder, until she gave up, and instead of extending the towel with one shake like she did her bedding every morning, she set it down on the lounge chair and straightened it out. She secured the towel onto the four corners of the lounge chair with cute dolphin-shaped clamps, took off the shorts and shirt she wore over her bathing suit and laid down on the towel.
Today was Marla’s day off and, when the weather forecast announced a hot, sunny day, she went to the beach. Marla rummaged through her backpack and found her book, she also took out the lunchbox she’d packed with a sandwich, soda and snacks, and opened an individual-sized bag of chips. Marla was ready to sit back, relax and enjoy the sun. Today was a day for doing nothing.
There had been a spate of thievery on the beach the last few days and Marla was determined not to fall asleep, but the sound of the waves breaking on the coarse sand and the sun beating down on her skin relaxed her so that, despite the riveting thriller she was reading, her eyelids were heavy and her vision blurred. Marla set the book on her stomach and reached for another chip. She’d almost finished the bag, and the chips were making her thirsty. Marla took the soda can from the lunchbox; she pulled the tab, and the pop blasted like thunder over the cool breeze while the soda fizzled inside the can like the backwash on the pebbled sand. Marla took a sip, then laid her head back on the lounge chair. Seagulls flew all around her, their caws added to the cacophony of the ocean.
“It’s such a paradox,” she whispered to herself, “how the beach can be so full of sound and yet so quiet.”
The noise of crashing waves, blowing breeze and seagulls surrounded her and, instead of bothering her like the city noise of traffic and people, the beach calmed her. The sun beams felt wonderful on her skin, unlike the city sun which exhausted her. Today was a weekday, and the beach was all but deserted; only Marla, the sea, the gulls and the sun.
Marla dozed off, the book forgotten on her tummy, the soda propped on the sand below the lounge chair. What glorious rest!
The sun was at its highest and smiling down at her when she roused herself from sleep and reached for the soda. She sipped. Something was wrong. Her backpack and book were beside her, but the lunchbox was gone.
“Who steals a lunch?” Marla muttered, but a more distressing thought crossed her mind and, in anguish, she grabbed the backpack and rifled through it, heaving a sigh of relief that her wallet with its contents and iPod were intact. She didn’t think there could be something else missing, those were the only two items of value she’d brought.
“Who steals a lunch?” Marla repeated in disbelief. She stood up and scanned her surroundings. Far away towards the street she thought she saw the shiny glimmer of the metallic bag of chips. The gulls no longer flew above her, they clustered a distance away from the bag, on the sidewalk. They seemed to compete or fight.
“Oh no, no, no!” Marla hurried towards the gulls and as she approached she understood. One enterprising seagull must have made off with the bag of chips, but not content, another seagull must have stolen the lunchbox. Marla knew they ate clams and oysters by flying way up high and dropping them onto the pavement so that the shells shattered and the gulls then picked at the inner flesh.
They had tried the same with the lunchbox and after who knows how many tries, it had given up its contents. The gulls had feasted by the time Marla arrived and there was nothing left but ripped up plastic bags, pieces of bread crust (weird, they don’t eat the crust like children, she thought) and the insulated innards of the lunchbox which they’d torn apart.
“Shoo! Shoo!” Marla waved her arms and scared the seagulls away; they flew out to the ocean and settled on the shimmering water.
Marla sighed, and with her head hung low, picked up the remaining trash and threw it in the garbage can nearby. She walked back to her belongings wondering “what now?”
She sat on her lounge chair for a moment, then pulled on her shorts, grabbed her wallet and iPod and made her way down the beach to the ice cream parlor a street block away. The sun shone on her shoulders but the waves cooled her sandaled feet. The seagulls cawed gleeful from the water as she strolled past them. Marla glanced at them and with a smile and a shrug, moved on.
“Chimera was a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the rump of a dragon. Bellerophon slew it by shooting arrows while flying on Pegasus’s back.”
Alan pouted and nodded. Jennifer had dragged him to this lecture, which, in retrospect, was not as boring as Alan had imagined.
He glanced at Jennifer beside him. She listened intent on the story, her forefinger pressed against her pursed lips, her pale blond hair in a tight bun and her blouse buttoned to the top, exuding ice and snobbery.
I’m sitting next to Chimera, thought Alan and almost laughed out loud.
Jennifer was beautiful, and she had many other qualities that had attracted Alan once but had now faded away so he only saw the monster beside him. The lion clawed, scratched and snarled at everything he did or said; the dragon scorched all his accomplishments to cinders, and the goat bleated love and honey trying to soothe his mangled self.
He sighed and caught a whiff of Jennifer’s garlic breath, courtesy of the shrimp scampi she’d ordered for lunch. Alan hated garlic breath, and every time they spent an evening together, she ate something garlicky. She breathes fire too, Alan could barely contain himself as he caught yet another fume. Jennifer leaned over to say something and Alan, caught between laughter and disgust, struggled to keep his composure.
“How interesting,” she breathed, “what an enthralling lecture.”
Damn Jennifer and her H’s! She had the most annoying way of sounding every H as she exhaled so that the garlic hit Alan full on. He was on the verge of losing control and howling with laughter amidst Bellerophon’s tragic end. The room felt stuffy despite the air-conditioning and all Alan wanted was to escape.
“You okay?” Jennifer whispered and Alan almost gagged.
He rose, “Yes, bathroom,” he mumbled and shuffled his way to the aisle.
Outside the lecture hall the air was cool; Alan gasped, leaned against a wall and guffawed. As the laughter died down and he wiped tears from his eyes, he steadied himself with each breath. He inhaled deep and slow—his mind racing with the memory of Jennifer’s good qualities now lost to time—and exhaled, letting go of Jennifer the Garlic-Breathing Chimera, part growling lion, part vicious dragon. Alan smiled, he knew his time with Jennifer had ended, and the realization lifted him up like Bellerophon on Pegasus.