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Birds Flying Across the Sun 11.23.18

Birds Flying Across the Sun

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.”

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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.

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White Rabbit

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.

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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.

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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.

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OLD ENGLISH TAROT: The Sun + Seven of Coins



Beach Day

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.

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“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.

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A Plateful of Stories

The decorative plate had stood on display above the mantelpiece for as long as Christy could remember. It had a quaint little picture of a farmhouse with a picket fence and pine trees flanking the entrance; smoke billowed from the painted chimney. It wasn’t much to look at, but to Christy, it was the most beautiful painting in the world. 

As a child, she’d spend hours gazing at it and imagining the scene on it. Notebook on her lap she’d scribble the stories and fantasies the plate “showed her”. She wrote about princesses and villains, dragons and wizards. As she grew older, the stories became more mundane, often reflecting bits and pieces of her own private and school life. 

Christy finished high school, left for college and, upon graduation moved out, yet the plate remained above the mantelpiece. It witnessed Christy’s first toy, her first lipstick, her first crush. Her high school and college diplomas flanked it with pride. 

The family fell on hard times; first Dad died, then Mom fell ill. Christy moved back in with her, and soon, what with the demands of being the sole caregiver, she was laid-off from her job. They were scraping by, and yet, through the hardship, the plate remained on the mantelpiece and it became Christy’s anchor and her crutch. Gazing at it gave her a sense of inner peace and she found enlightenment in its painted scene, because, as before, the stories flowed from her and spilled onto her notebook. 

“Maybe it’s time to sell it,” Mom whispered one day, her voice so weak she could hardly raise it above a murmur. 

“Not yet,” Christy said with tears in her eyes. 

“This was the wedding gift your great-great-great-grandfather gave your great-great-great-grandma,” Mom wheezed, “he used to sail with the East India Trading Company and one day, he showed up at her doorstep with it and a marriage proposal. It’s been handed down for generations. No one knows how he came by it but there were rumors he stole it from a wealthy Dutch family, or that he won it in a card game. I remember my grandmother used to say she liked the story of the Duke of Wellington giving it to him as a wedding present.”

Mom coughed and continued, “it’s been with us all this time, through the fat years and now the lean years, and perhaps, it’s time to let it go.”

Christy shook her head through the tears. Mom was right, but not yet, she thought, not yet, please God, don’t take my inspiration just yet. 

Instead He took Mom and left Christy alone in the house she loved so much with nothing but debt and despair. 

God, please help me, Christy prayed every night, but the next day only dawned bleaker.

God was silent when the repo men came and she held on to the plate for dear life. She sat on Grandpa’s tattered high-backed chair which not even the creditors wanted and held on to the plate. One noticed the plate and told her to hand it over. Christy looked up, clutching it to her chest and shook her head, tears streaming down her face. Her expression of abject hopelessness softened him; he did a soulless job, but he wasn’t heartless. He put his finger to his lips and gave her a slight nod. The men left, and she clutched the plate closer to her. 

Poverty forced Christy to move in with her cousin Janice and work as their housekeeper and nanny for a small wage. She arrived with two suitcases, one filled with clothes and the other replete with old dog-eared notebooks, and the plate. 

“You should auction it,” said Janice, but Christy shook her head. 

“It’s been in the family much too long now, I can’t, not yet.” 

“Do you even know how much it’s worth?” 

Christy shook her head, “I know it’s worth something, Dad always said it would help us out of a jam, but I just can’t do it.”

Janice understood; her fondest childhood memories were of Christy reading her the stories the plate inspired. 

One day, Janice entered Christy’s bedroom meaning to ask her something, and upon noticing the room empty, crossed it to the small adjacent bathroom and knocked. No answer. Janice shrugged her shoulders and turned to leave, stubbing her toe on a suitcase by the door. The suitcase was open and Janice saw it was full of notebooks. Curious, and hating herself for it, she picked one up and opened it. She thought it would be a diary, but she beamed when she realized it was full of the stories of dragons and knights Janice remembered Christy scribbled when they were children. Janice’s eyes lit up with the sudden spark of an idea, one akin to an epiphany, and took the notebook. 

A few days later, Janice snuck into Christy’s bedroom, returned the notebook and snatched another. Janice swapped notebook after notebook for months and Christy was none the wiser. One day a letter from an agent arrived for Christy; the stories she submitted interested him and a publisher offered her an advance on a book. Janice hid the letter and answered it herself. She knew it was wrong, even a crime, but she also knew Christy was so mired in misery she was now unwilling to fight the stagnation. Christy lived day in day out caring for others and never minding how to move on herself. Her one escape was the plate and the stories it inspired, so Janice, however inappropriate, lent her cousin a hand, or rather, gave her a push. 

When the check with the advance came, Janice deposited it in an account she’d opened in Christy’s name. Christy was unaware that at night, Janice had been transcribing her stories for months, and was now working with the agent, presenting herself as Christy’s assistant. They published a book of twelve stories and the royalties went into Christy’s account, money trickling into it like pennies from heaven. The publisher wanted more. 

Janice knew there were thousands of stories in those notebooks, but her conscience was gnawing at her. She had to tell Christy. Christy had to know she had enough money to restart her life, and with the royalties and the unpublished stories it was possible that Christy never need worry about money again. Christy needed to know the fat years were here at last. 

“What’s this?” Christy asked when Janice put a book in front of her at the kitchen table. 

“It’s a first edition,” smiled Janice, “and I was hoping I’d be the first person to have an autographed copy.”

Christy was perplexed. The title read A Plateful of Stories and it was written by… Christy McIntyre! 

“What?” Christy looked at Janice.

Janice took a deep breath, “First, I want to apologize, I invaded your privacy when I found your notebooks, but honey, you were so stuck I had to do something. I hadn’t seen you smile in years, so I took them, one by one, and I transcribed them, and I sent one story to an agent, and he wanted more, and now they’re published and people want more.”


Janice slid a bank statement across to Christy, “I opened an account for you and you’ve been getting royalties. This book (she laid her hand on the cover) is number one on the bestseller list, and you have so many more stories to sell, you’ll never be poor again. I know that plate is your inspiration, and you don’t have to part with it anymore. Every penny here is all yours.”

Christy burst into tears, the statement showed thousands and thousands of dollars. Janice’s lips quivered and tears rolled down her cheeks as she moved her chair to Christy’s side and put her arms around her. They held each other and cried, their tears wetting the pristine, perfect book. 

“Thank you,” Christy blubbered, “thank you.”

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Marian was bored to tears at Kelly’s dinner party. The small gathering of budding artists had turned into a major drag with Percival’s arrival. The man was a pompous ass with and encyclopedic knowledge of everything under the sun, and, like all windbags, loved to hear himself talk.

Benny mentioned he was trying his hand at cubism so Percival recited every fact on Picasso known to man. When Kelly asked Parvati how her book was going, Percival remarked the importance of grammar, style and a good agent. The self-publishing thing was only a fad, he assured her. Percival spared no one—not even mild and affable Sonny—his judgment, condescension and pretentiousness. 

“So what brings you here?” Percival turned to Marian who was stifling a yawn, “I understand you’re a mathematician. How are you acquainted with these pseudo-artistes?”

“Marian is an excellent singer,” Kelly interjected, her smile tight as if she’d swallowed a SweetTart, “she has a beautiful voice and trained in opera, but works in Math instead. Her father was a musician.”

“Oh,” Percival smirked, “have I heard of him?”

“Only if you’ve heard of Hangman,” Marian answered with an air of pride she didn’t always show, “he was the frontman and main artistic force of the band.”

“Is that so? What genre did they play?”

“Heavy metal.”

Percival scoffed; Marian pursed her lips.

“Do you, um, like heavy metal?” Percival sneered, he seemed not to realize he ruffled people’s feathers.

“Oh yes, I love it,” Marian was sincere, “I’m the vocalist in a band—we’re not professional. I love music and the mathematics helped me understand it better and appreciate it from a different point of view.”

“Ah, so you know all about overtones, scales, harmonics and such.”

“Of course.”

Percival’s tone was not only mocking but highfalutin. The jerk was undermining her father’s achievements. Hangman was a very successful band and Marian had witnessed the struggle and exhaustion the constant touring, playing and recording caused.
Dad loved to write music and Marian recalled happy days when he would sit with her and compose. She co-wrote many of Hangman’s songs and appeared on the credits as M. “Written by Eric Noose and M” graced the titles of Hangman’s greatest hits. Rumors circulated among the fan base about the mysterious M. Some thought M was Eric Noose’s mistress, and others that M was a celebrity musician who preferred to stay an anonymous collaborator, such as Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger. Few people knew M stood for Marian.

“I dislike popular music, but maybe Mary here can enlighten us on the hidden wonders of heavy metal and prove that it’s indeed music and not just noise.” Percival’s nagging voice brought her back to the moment.

“Marian,” she looked him in the eye.


“My name is Marian, not Mary, and I have so much to say we’d be here till next week. I could tell you all about heavy metal from a musical, mathematical and cultural standpoint but I don’t want to monopolize the party.”

Besides, she thought, the heavy metal life is not for me. She knew rocker’s devils were booze and drugs and did not wish to meet either.

“Why don’t you tell us all about your favorite musical style,” Marian continued. Kelly and Parvati glared daggers at her, but Marian’s smile was sweet and innocent.

“Yes, well, in my humble opinion, classical music is the only music worth listening to…” Percival was off on a snooty rant which began with the history of music. On and on he talked, oblivious to people glancing at their watches, yawning or checking their phones.

“And,” Percival looked around the room with an air of haughty defiance, “do you know why Beethoven’s music is so magnificent?”

“Because it’s composed of the same notes, but jumbled?” Marian exuded honeyed snark.

Everyone roared with laughter. Percival turned bright red and looked like he wanted to slap the sneer off her face. Instead he stood up, said goodnight through gritted teeth and, with his nose way up in the air, stormed out the door.

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Let Them Eat Cake

“Martha!” Mom called from the hallway, “I’ll be back soon!”

“Okay, bye!” Martha listened to the lock click on the door and the car drive away.

Half an hour later Martha was hungry and ambled to the kitchen hoping to find something to munch. A bowl of fruit lay on the table. Martha looked at it and winced. She didn’t much like fruit, it was too… fruity. Martha preferred not to eat fruit because it was boring, and because it was always available.

The bowl had oranges (too acid), apples (meh), pears (too mushy) and raspberries (way too tart).

Martha opened the fridge. A big cake filled most of the rack. Martha licked her lips; it was a lava cake, and she knew what that meant: chocolate, with chocolate filling and oozing chocolate! A post-it stuck to the top of the plastic cover read: “DO NOT EAT THIS, MARTHA, I MEAN IT!”

Martha sighed. She was aware she’d gained weight and kids at school called her fatty now. I’m not fat, she kept telling herself, and it was true, Joan Perkins was much fatter—at least a size L—but it was small comfort.

Martha set the cake next to the fruit-bowl; she lifted the cover and smelled it, the delicious scent of chocolate caressed her nostrils. She looked at the bowl of fruit and the apples and oranges seemed to wilt right before her eyes. It looked sad compared to the decadent cake in front of her. The catch: no way she could take a slice with no one noticing.

Martha longed for the cake and wondered at its existence. Mom always tried to eat healthy, so why buy it? She put her hands on her waist, pensive. She could now squeeze the tender little rolls that, of late, spilled over the waistband of her pants, which, regardless of style or material, fit tighter too. Martha gazed down at herself, she was no longer a member of the itty bitty titty committee and her bra was uncomfortable.

Martha put the cake back in the fridge and grabbed an apple. She bit into it, its cool sweetness pouring over her tongue, but Martha only noticed it was mealy. Martha sighed and returned to her room, her downtrodden footsteps sounding over the empty house.

Going from a size extra-small to a size small isn’t so bad, she told herself. Yet she was always hungry now. What was happening? Mom said it was hormones, and she should accept herself as she is. But her body was changing too fast for her liking.

Martha finished her yucky apple and plunked on her bed. Moments later she was fast asleep.

She dreamt of the cake. Its chocolaty goodness bursting in her mouth, the syrup oozing down her throat. Then, the cake turned to dirt and Heather Carmichael held Martha’s head while pushing muck in her mouth.

“Eat it, Fatso!” Heather yelled as Martha struggled.

She tried to push Heather away, but her arms were spaghetti-like and weak. Heather stuffed a big ball of mud into Martha’s mouth and it turned into an apple. Martha was on a spit, hands and feet tied in front while Heather and her gang of stick-figure mean girls danced and whooped around in leopard-skin bras and skirts.

“Stuff the pig!” They yelled. 

Martha tried to scream but only muffled sounds emerged. The surrounding fire closed in and she felt herself suffocating. She gasped and the sudden intake of breath brought her back to her bedroom.

Damn! She thought, I need to lose weight.

She resolved to eat healthy and to deny herself that delicious cake in the fridge. She wouldn’t have a bite. Maybe it wasn’t for them, maybe it was for Mom’s work, someone was always having a birthday at her office.

That’s it, Martha thought, no more cake, only fruit from now on.

She rolled out of bed and shuffled downstairs, intending to eat an orange.

“Surprise!” Mom yelled, “Look who’s here!”

Her favorite cousin Lizzy sat at the kitchen island in front of the cake Mom was about to slice.

Martha hugged Lizzy and noticed that she wasn’t as bony. She gazed into Lizzy’s face and noticed her cheeks were fuller.

“It’s okay, there’s no shame in going from a size five to a seven, as long as we don’t overdo it. Aunt here was telling me how taller you are, it’s so true! My mom says it’s part of growing up, but being careful doesn’t mean we can’t have our cake and eat it too! Well, sometimes.” Lizzy winked.

“I say we enjoy this delicious lava cake and go buy you beautiful girls new clothes that fit your fabulous bodies!” Mom set out three slices of decadence.

Martha smiled and reflected on how fruit wasn’t so bland, but today, it could wait. One slice of lava cake wouldn’t turn Martha into a heifer, and Lizzy’s presence would help her turn a deaf ear to Heather’s bullying…

Bah, let Heather Carmichael eat cake.