“Are you having fun?” Karen smiled, drink in hand. I nodded noncommittal.
“You don’t look like you are.” She said, a slight slur in her words.
“No, I am,” I forced a smile, “truly, I am.”
The atmosphere at Lizzie’s party was one of joy and congeniality. The music was perfect, not too loud, not too repetitive. One moment Frank Sinatra bellowed New York, New York and the whole room sang along, arms interlocked and doing the can-can. The next, the Fleetwoods crooned Mr. Blue and couples held each other while swaying to the soft beat. Rihanna sang, The Rolling Stones rocked.
I watched the guests. Karen followed my gaze.
“Oh no, Maddie, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know he was here.”
“That’s okay,” I forced another smile, “I’m fine.”
“Don’t tell me he brought her?”
“Gosh, what an ass!” She finished her drink and grabbed my hand, “C’mon, let’s dance! Don’t let him see it gets to you. There’s always at least one sad drunk at a party, and you’re not it.”
She flung me onto the dance floor, took both my hands and spun us around. Round and round we went. When we let go I let myself twirl and twirl and twirl. Years of ballet welled inside me and I let the music guide my body. Doesn’t matter what was playing, I danced and twirled and spun.
Oh, what sublime bliss!
Lizzie showed us a video of the party the next day. I’m dancing in it.
“Damn, girl,” she said, “Margot Fonteyn would eat her heart out. If you hadn’t met him, you’d be a prima ballerina now.”
“It’s not too late,” Karen squeezed my shoulders, “right, Lizzie? It’s never too late.”
They both beamed at me, radiating encouragement.
“You’re right,” I smiled back, “it’s not too late to pick up where I left off.”
“If you could be a mythological creature, what would you be?” Lisa asked Desmond. They looked at him, expectant. It was a game they played often, Lisa, Desmond, Cora and Jackson.
“A dragon,” replied Desmond, “I’d be a dragon.”
“You don’t act like a dragon,” said Cora, “I think you’d be a Centaur.”
Desmond shrugged; the recess bell rang. They gathered their things and went to class.
High school, college, work. Life flew by in a daze of ever mutating variables; Lisa, Desmond, Cora and Jackson the only constants.
“I knew you were a Centaur,” Cora whispered as Desmond pulled her out of the wrecked car.
Desmond should know what to do. He was the first responder, he had trained for this, but realizing this was Jackson’s car, with Cora and Lisa inside too, he doubted. This accident was different, the stakes higher than ever. Mistakes would cost Desmond, but his mind was addled, stymied by the fear of losing the people he loved most.
Cora’s words brought back a thousand school days, a thousand games, a thousand conversations. He had never understood what Cora had meant that day. A dragon would pull the shattered roof apart, and his friends would be free. What is being a centaur?
“You know what to do,” Cora squeezed his hand, “centaurs are brains and brawn. You know what to do.”
He looked into her eyes. She smiled. That faint smile brought back the years of training and experience. The knowledge flowed through him, like light floods an empty room and fills it.
I write to you from the old tavern on the edge of town. There is a hustle and a bustle around me, but all I see through the window is the old medieval castle, its ruins calling as the wind blows down the long unpaved path. It rests upon a small hill, and an old, forgotten vineyard stretches out beneath its fairy-tale turrets.
All around me the sound of cars, people, dogs, and the endless hum of generators fill my ears to the point of explosion. I close my eyes and hear only the soft breeze as it winds through the overgrown grapevines, and rustles through the trees that line the path towards the ruins. I hear the soft clop of hooves and I feel as on the threshold of time.
People here say no one goes up that way anymore. Strange things happen to all those who venture up there. Some say evil lives there, others say it’s an Angel that haunts that place.
The barman claims his neighbor’s father walked up that path at midnight, in search of the Devil. A short time later, the man and his family bought properties in and around the town. He became the wealthiest man about.
“But what good was all his money,” the barman said, “when all his children died one after another, like dominoes. Only my neighbor, the youngest, survives, and he is ill and childless. The Devil always gets his due.”
He wipes down the bar as if wiping away the whole affair.
“My grandfather went up that way,” a lady chimes in. She sits at the end of the bar, beer before her, listening.
“He and my grandmother were poor as church mice. They would traipse through the woods in rags and bare feet collecting firewood to sell. One winter night, they found themselves at the edge of the path and saw a light in the tower. The place was deserted since time began. Grandfather said the light flickered, and a voice whispered in their ear, and such images of warmth and comfort filled their minds they longed for the light. So, without thinking, he said, they trudged the frozen path. At the gate they met an angel, so bright and kind. He smiled at them and said they would never be cold again. He carried a staff, and with it, struck the ground. The Angel vanished. Where he stood, my grandfather said, there remained a spark. It looked like something shining, he said, and he dug it up. They found a small hoard of gold that night, right at the gates. They were never cold again.”
The lady smiles as she sips her beer.
“I think,” she continued, “whether you meet Devil or Angel, depends on your intentions. So if you go up there, please thank the Angel for the wonderful life he gave me and my family.”
The sun set while I listened in the tavern. I step out onto the darkened street and look at the castle. There is a light in the tower.
“Oh, you need it. Can’t imagine why? You didn’t want to come with us. You said you were tired, it was too hot out, blah blah blah. And now you need the car?”
“We never see you, and when you come visit, you sit around all day on your video game. Nothing satisfies you. Nothing’s good enough for you. You don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. But the minute we’re out the door, you have places to go, and people to see. The world is suddenly your oyster.”
“What the hell, mom! It’s not like that!”
“No? Why do you need the car? Where will you go? You know no one here, you have no commitments here, you said so yourself. This place is boring, isn’t it? We’re boring people, aren’t we? So why do you need the car?”
“Jeez, I can’t believe you’re doing this! What’s your problem?”
“I have no problem. But I believe you do. You want nothing to do with your family, but still expect us to be at your beck and call. We almost have to beg you to phone. We paid your plane ticket, so you’d visit, but you come here, and you want nothing, only to play your video games. Well, pal, you got your wish.”
“Ugh! C’mon, can’t you return and give me the keys?”
“Sorry, buddy, no can do. We’re too far away now. We’ve wanted this day trip for a while, and we won’t change our plans for you, just like you don’t change your plans for us. Tomorrow, you’ll have two choices: you come on our outing with us, or you stay in the house. But no car for you. Enjoy your video games.”
Laura hung up while Ricky was still fuming on the line. Her husband, one hand on the wheel, gave her the thumbs up. She smirked and laid back to enjoy the countryside from the passenger window. What a beautiful, sunny day!
“Lovely swallow, where do you go?” Nina whispered.
The swallow fluttered in easy wavelike patterns.
She sat on the veranda, the sun warming her skin in the cool spring air. Nina smiled, swallows meant summer was close.
“Did you see the world?” She asked, as the swallow alighted on the beam above her. It twittered, then flew off again.
Nina had never seen the world.
She lay her head back and closed her eyes. Images of adventure flitted through her mind, like hummingbirds. She imagined herself on a ship, brave in a raging storm. Or in the jungle, making her way through the thick vegetation in the driving rain. Her favorite fantasy was the one where she climbed the Eiffel Tower.
Up, up above Paris she would climb.
Another swallow appeared and was gliding in its random, careless flight.
“Nina!” The voice called from the house. It ripped through the sunny calm. “Time to come in!”
Nina took one last look at the soaring swallows and sighed. She wheeled her chair around and rolled inside, away from the world.
There’s a fine line between justice and revenge, thought Christine, and what I’ve done is justice. But, was it? At least it was justified. However, somewhere deep down a little voice told her it had been revenge.
It all started a two years ago when Christine met Rowan at a class she was taking. He’d shown up, out of the blue and with a wink and a smile had won her over. Well, it hadn’t been that simple, but Christine was not wrong in claiming he had started it.
He flirted first, asked for her number, called her, invited her for coffee, drinks, dinner. Soon they were going to the movies, to concerts, to restaurants, day trips, nights out. They were always together, or else they’d be phoning, chatting and emailing.
Rowan was charming and amiable. He was also good-looking and smart. He was everything a girl could want, and without knowing when or how, Christine fell head over heels for him.
Except, he wasn’t interested. At least not in that way, he said, let’s just be friends, he said.But the flirting didn’t stop. Nor did the constant contact. Christine would cry herself to sleep wondering why he wasn’t interested in her, what was wrong with her.
Before she knew it, Rowan, unwittingly, answered all her secret questions. He would look at women, totally different in appearance to her, and say they were beautiful, but never Christine. No matter how hard she tried to look her best, she never got a compliment. Well, not a verbal compliment, because in behavior, Rowan acted like she was Aphrodite, Goddess of Beauty and Queen of Hearts. He would stand so near her that she would feel the warmth emanating from his body. He would look at her with eyes that said, “I see only you” and he would smile at her like she was the most radiant thing in the world. But in words, Rowan always retracted. His closeness would be contradicted by his hand on her shoulder, slowly pushing her away. His gaze would be followed by words like fat, ugly, pimply, casually thrown into conversation meant to sting, but assuring Christine that he wasn’t talking about her, or was he? The smile, Christine soon found out, was the worst. Hurtful comments like “you’re so weird,” “you’re so pushy, it’s creepy,” “gosh what a nerd,” would come wrapped in its treacherous warmth. They pained Christine to the bone. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. She should’ve walked away, but he wouldn’t let her. He still called, and emailed, and even showed up unexpected.
I should’ve just run, Christine thought for the millionth time. But she hadn’t. Instead, she’d held on to the hope he might one day change his mind.
When he spoke for the first time about a girl he was seeing, Christine almost died. She cried for hours. Every time he spoke of Lucy, it stung Christine so deep down that her soul hurt. So she came clean, and told Rowan how she felt about him, and that if he still wanted to be friends he’d need to leave her alone. She wouldn’t contact him, she said, and she would appreciate it if he didn’t either. Rowan agreed.
For one marvelous week Christine felt herself liberated of his presence. She still cried and looked at herself in the mirror wondering what was wrong with her, but Rowan wasn’t there to sting her with honeyed gestures, and she felt herself beginning to heal.
But Rowan wasn’t about to let go so easily. He called her the week after saying he missed her, and the week after that, until Christine, heart on her sleeve, told him she would never speak to him again, she never wanted to see him again.
And so it was for almost a year, until one day, she saw Rowan walking down the street. He was walking towards her. Christine lifted her coat collar and hid her face with her hair and sunglasses as he approached. There was a discarded piece of cable on the pavement. She gingerly and discreetly kicked it his way. It tangled between his feet and Rowan fell flat on his face.
“Timber!” Christine mumbled to herself and kept walking as if nothing had happened, smirking with satisfaction.