“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.
‘Adjustment’ was the only word Kendra could come up with to describe the last month of her life. In just four weeks she’d had to adjust to the radical changes that had occurred in such a short time. Most people did not experience so much in their lifetime.
It all started when Kendra was forced to make the most harrowing decision of her life: keep the baby, or let it go.
John and Kendra had been trying for children for years, and finally, the dream had come true, and for five wonderful months everything went swimmingly. Then came that day, that appointment when the doctor said there were complications and enumerated a list of genetic conditions Kendra couldn’t spell, let alone pronounce.
“Kendra,” the doctor spoke softly, “if you carry this baby to term your lives are in danger. Should we lose you and it survive, the baby’s life will be difficult, and painful, and it probably won’t live much longer than you. Should we lose the baby and you survive, you probably won’t be able to have another child. Ideally, you could both live, but the chances are very slim. If so, adjustments would have to be made in your life, and in your home.”
Kendra looked into the doctor’s eyes, she knew where this was going, and she sought some alternative, or enlightenment in the doctor’s gaze, but all she saw was the despair of a mother losing a child, of a mother choosing to lose a child. Kendra saw the doctor’s eyes water, as she blinked back tears, kept a straight face and sighed.
“You’re saying I should let it go?”
“I’m saying that is an option available to you, neither I, nor anyone else will judge you for it. This is the most difficult decision of your life, believe me, I loved someone who was once faced with it too.”
“My daughter, she chose to keep the baby and in the end, we lost both.”
Kendra looked down at her hands, palm up on her lap. They were empty. There was nothing, but the big fat teardrops that plunked on them. She even thought she heard the sound they made as they splashed against her palm, like a storm pounding on rocks.
“You don’t have to decide right now,” the doctor told her, and Kendra nodded, folded her hands and set them against her protruding belly.
“Do you know the sex?”
“She’s a girl.”
Kendra spent many moments with her eyes closed, asking for clarity, praying for guidance. Once, she raised her eyes to the moonless, yet starry night and saw Andromeda. She who was sacrificed, though saved by Perseus. Kendra covered her face with her hands and cried, praying for help. She was on her knees when the pain ripped through her.
Kendra didn’t need to choose. The baby left on its own.
There was a funeral, and a service. Everyone rallied around her, her parents, her sister, her friends. All of them understood, no one judged. All but John, only he judged, and his judgement was severe.
Andromeda was still in the sky above her when John left. The moon, whose light she had missed the night the universe decided for her, was full when Kendra was forced to move out of her home and back in with her parents, so that the house could be sold per the divorce.
The moon was absent again when she started her new job. Kendra had never worked before, John had been the sole provider, but now, she had to look after herself. Kendra was more alone than ever. She was surrounded by people who loved her, but she felt there was one person missing. One love that was lost. And it wasn’t John.
Kendra looked around the cafeteria and took stock of her life. She wasn’t happy, but she wasn’t sad. Nor was she angry. It was Death that had taken that life, not Kendra. To her surprise, she often found solace and comfort in the cheerfulness of others. Her job filled her with purpose and satisfaction. Her parents had welcomed her with open arms and still smiled when she came home. She saw her sister every day, and they had more fun now, than they’d ever had before.
“I’ve adjusted,” Kendra sighed as she put away her lunch. She’d gotten into the habit of putting her palm on her belly whenever she felt like giving thanks. It kept her from breaking into a million tragic pieces. She gave thanks for her meal, her job, her life and most importantly, for the strength to adjust. She stayed like that for a moment; long enough for Peter to ask if she was leaving.
Kendra looked into his eyes and, for the first time in a long time, smiled so bright that Peter couldn’t take his eyes off her. He sought her, asked her out and before she knew it, Kendra was happy again.
Andromeda had returned when Kendra went into labor. Peter, her husband held her hand and kissed her as they welcomed their perfect little girl into the world.
The moon rose full in the sky. The waves splashed against the rocks on the beach. Lara sat on her porch, the soft light from the gas lantern framing the doorway. Everywhere else there was darkness and moonlight. The moon shone on the water in broken patterns of light on the waves. She could barely distinguish the soft foam on the sand.
“Moon, Moon,” Lara said softly, “will he return tonight?”
But the moon only glistened on the waves, and no matter how hard Lara tried, she could not see the horizon. The water was much too dark.
Lara closed her eyes and listened. She listened for the sound of creaking wood, of a flapping sail, of a rocking ship, but all she heard was the sound of waves breaking on the beach, their soft rolling rattle as they drew back, only to break again.
Lara wiped away the two tears she allowed to trickle down her cheek. She was certain that tonight was the night, she had felt it as the sun set the ocean alight and gave way to the cold white moon.
“Tonight was a beginning, Moon, I felt it,” she whispered, face turned upward, “won’t you tell me what will begin?”
She listened to the lapping of the waves.
Lara stood up with a sigh, took the lantern and went inside. The door creaked shut. If only she had heeded the Moon as its arms of light reached out to her through the window. If only she had stopped for a moment to listen, she might have heard the soft fluttering of a sail, and the far away cry of a weary sailor.
Someone had once told Martin that money couldn’t buy everything, but he’d always disagreed. Looking back at his life it seemed that he was right.
He was born during the Great Depression, a surprise child to an already old and impoverished couple. He grew up eating scraps left by others, wearing other people’s hand-me-downs, never the right size and always shabby. At school he had learned one thing, that work, not education made money. If he wanted to get ahead in life, and leave poverty in the past, he would have to start early. He had always understood what he termed “the poor people’s dilemma” that what was cheap quickly became expensive. He always believed that poor people remained poor because they settled for lesser quality and sought more quantity, but to Martin it was clear that it wasn’t worth it to buy used clothing that was already frayed and might last a few months, when you could scrimp and save to buy new that would last for years. His philosophy in life was: if you had to buy something, buy the best with what you could afford.
As a teenager he worked as a handy-man, jack-of-all-trades. He would mow lawns, deliver from the local grocery store, clean gutters, paint fences, any menial work available he would do it, and every penny he would save until he could buy one thing that met his self-imposed rules: it must be necessary and it must be the best. It didn’t matter if it took him months to buy a pair of shoes, he would live in his old shoes, feet torn up and calloused until he could buy the best shoes. The same went for clothing and even food. If he were to eat meat, it would be the best quality, otherwise potatoes suited just fine. School was important, but not all-consuming, he got good grades, but was never the best in class, not because he couldn’t be, but because he never wanted to be. Martin knew that a person like him would only get so far with school, work was necessary and he liked it.
Now, at the ripe old age of ninety-three, Martin, sitting on his Italian leather high-backed chair and smoking his Meerschaum pipe, looked around his study, covered from wall to ceiling with books, antiques and artwork. He was satisfied. He had pulled himself up from nothing.
He’d worked as a cobbler, a house painter, a newspaper boy, a carpenter, a bartender, a gardener, a clerk, a delivery boy and a myriad other jobs. He even sold lottery tickets for a while, and all that little money he saved best as he could, and if there was any left over he would invest. His keen eye for quality served him well, he would notice products and brands and would research the companies in the newspaper, and when he could, he would buy as many shares as possible. So one dollar, became ten, then one hundred, one thousand and ultimately, one million. Money begets money, he often said, especially if gotten the right way.
Martin puffed on his pipe and rested his head back. Everything had worked out. He had gone from zero to millions, but there was one thing he forgot along the way: he had no one to pass it on to.
David was not the type to take the reins. He was always more comfortable sitting back and letting someone else take the wheel. It was easy, and simple, and he found that he learned much through someone else’s guidance, rather than trying things out for himself. He had learned not to play with fire when his sister burnt her fingers while lighting a match, not to play ball in the house when his brother fell and hit his head on a step trying out a new trick, and not to run with scissors when his kindergarten classmate was taken to the emergency room for stitches.
David learned through others; he sat, observed, listened and let his life flow by, led by an invisible, tender hand. Talent came to him naturally and he was blissfully unaware of hardship. Never in his life had he needed to strive for anything, food was never wanting, nor dress, and education and learning was always easy. That’s not to say he took things for granted, he did not. In fact, he was very conscious of the struggles of others, but could not always understand the time and effort people took to overcome them. He always figured everything would turn out fine. He always believed that everything was for the best.
Raymond believed the opposite. Raymond had grown up poor, in a house dry of books and learning, its inhabitants working themselves to the bone. Raymond knew sunless days and freezing nights. He knew poverty and hunger and hard work. Raymond knew David, and hated him. He would watch David cross the quad, always smiling, the sun shining above. Raymond would look up at the same sky and see only dark clouds. He would then spit on the ground and curse his lot.
Raymond was the janitor at David’s college, he had never wanted a higher education for himself, but was always quick to blame the kids who did. Those snotty, little good-for-nothings that befouled his halls, smeared his windows and dirtied everything he cleaned. It did not occur to him that those kids and their tuitions paid his wages, that it was his job to clean the school, to maintain it. Raymond only saw in others the opportunities he never had; opportunities, which, truth be told, he’d never wanted.
One day, Raymond saw David and decided to teach him a lesson. The pea-brained little shit had come out of the bathroom Raymond had finished cleaning not five minutes before. David and those like him could never wait for at least ten minutes before soiling his pristine and sparkling lavatory. That day, his foul mood compounded his negative outlook on life, Raymond decided enough was enough. David would have to pay.
Raymond watched David as he walked happily down the hall. He put his foot on the mopping bucket and waited for the right moment. In one swift movement Raymond pushed the bucket with a mumbled warning, and watched as David, unable to get out of the way, slipped and fell over the bucket. He fell on his arm with a crack and a painful cry. Raymond smirked while David tried to stand, his nose bleeding and cradling his arm.
People dashed to David’s aid, they helped him up and took him to the infirmary. He was later rushed to the hospital with a broken arm.
Raymond was content, the little shit would be more careful next time, the little jerk would have to watch where he was going.
Raymond’s shift ended while David listened to the doctor explain that his fractured arm would be in a cast for at least six weeks. He would be unable to play sports, and would have to rest. He would have to learn to use his free hand for all tasks that required his dominant, yet broken arm.
David smiled and shrugged; cool, he said, he would be ambidextrous now.
Raymond was on the bus ride home as David walked out of the hospital, arm in a sling, his coat draped over it. The flurries that had begun to fall while David was taken to the school’s infirmary, had now become a full, steady, blizzard. The visibility was near zero, and the bus trudged slowly through the untreated streets. The wind had picked up and Raymond thought what a helluva whiteout, as he looked out the window.
Suddenly, an empty trash can tumbled across the street and into the bus’s path. The driver slammed on the brakes and the bus skidded on black ice. The driver tried his best to control it, but the bus overturned.
It was in all the newspapers the next morning: “Local school janitor only fatality in bus accident.”