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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last Box - 8/31

Steve brushed the dust from the wooden frame. The gray photograph smiled back with the same curve and smooth cheeks caught in the distant moment from decades ago. A flicker of his desk lamp on the glass gave a vibrant twinkle to the pale set of eyes.

He laid the photo on top of a pile of reports stacked within the last cardboard box.

With a sigh, he dropped back into his leather chair with a creak of joints. He leaned on his elbows and his shoulders drooped as he entered a staring contest with the desk drawers.

"Did you want some help with these too?"

He looked up to find Adam, once more in the door. Rolled sleeves exposed the younger man’s healthy arms, full of muscle and vibrancy. His tie had been loosed once the office clocks had ticked past five but Adam didn't seem prone to making any other accommodations to the pending evening.

Steve followed Adam's pointed finger targeting a trio of closed boxes of books from the shelves now standing naked against the wall.

"If you don't mind," said Steve.

"Sure." He gave a half smile and dropped out of view for a moment. He returned with a clanking dolly.

Nice kid, thought Steve.

He rubbed his arms as if enduring the weight Adam took easily in his hands as he stacked one box after another onto the steel carrier.

"Do you want them downstairs?"

Steve nodded. "With the rest of the pile, yeah."

"No problem." Adam kicked the dolly onto the wheels and rumbled out into the hall.

Steve waited for the elevator to ding before pushing off his knees and starting into the center drawer.

He sorted through the tray of paper clips and push pins, putting those to be left behind in the plastic wells. Pens gathered in crisp lines although he tossed a few more memorable ones into the box. The deep drawers held stationary and envelopes all with flowing letterheads. He ran his fingers through the stack then withdrew his emergency stash of stamps, tucking the strip into his breast pocket.

By the time he had sifted his personal effects from the bowels of the desk, the elevator pinged and the dolly's creak returned.

Steve heaved out of his chair and pulled on his suit coat from the skeletal rack occupying the corner.

"Any more I can help you with, Steve?"

Steve slid his chair beneath his desk, his hands gripping the cracking leather.

"No, I can take this one."

Adam hovered in the opening for a moment before stowing the dolly and stepping forward, hand extended.

"Best of luck."

Steve shook and tried not to see how pale and wrinkled his hand was in comparison.

"You too."

Clacking heels pulled both of their attentions away from the awkward silence.

"Mr. Grant?" asked Beverly, her hand pressed to the ear piece clinging to the side of her head.

Adam turned and his secretary continued. "They're ready for you in LA."

"Thanks," said Adam. Beverly gave a sharp nod and her clicking steps took her quickly away. "You're alright with all of this?"

Steve glanced around the nearly bare room and hoped Adam wasn't about to become suddenly sentimental.

"It's one box. I think I can handle that."

"Alright," said Adam with a rebounding grin. "Excuse me, then. I better get back to the grind stone."

Steve waved his hand toward the door. "By all means."

He heard Adam shouting some orders to Beverly before another door down the hall slammed closed to block off the pending phone conversation.

The offices and hallways gave a small set of snaps and groans as the rooms and corridors settled for the night.

"No use hanging around," said Steve to the faded carpet and chips in his desk.

He scooped up the box and tucked it under his arm. Another glance around confirmed he had everything in hand, or at least waiting for him downstairs. With a nod he strode around the furniture and into the hall, pulling the door closed behind him.

He paused in the corridor as the latch clicked, his nose hovering before the metal sign etched with his name. He took a deep breath before slipping the sign from its frame and slid the plaque into the box. Laying his hand against the wood he sniffed and blinked his eyes clear. He drummed his fingers against the door, tapping the rhythm to a song he no longer remembered. At the final note, he turned and took the walk to the elevator for the last time.

Dinner Guests - 8/30

The smoke from the burning chips hovered in the air over the back patio. Fat dripped through the grates in the grill and sizzled.

Debbie glanced up from her cutting board as Ron poked at the wide steaks with his finger. The inch thick slabs dented under the pressure. He capped the grill, trapping the smoke under the round lid.

Debbie turned back to her tomato chopping and chewed on her lower lip. "How are they coming?"

"Ten more minutes."

She let out a small whimper and gave him a pleading stare. "They'll be here any second."

Ron rolled his eyes and waved with his checkered hot pads as he came back over to the table. "You can't rush this."

"I know, I know." She blew out a breath, trying to force her nervousness out with it, and set to slicing a cucumber with vigor. "I just want to make a good impression. It's not every day you have you new boss over for dinner."

His hand squeezed her shoulder. "And this will be great. We'll have a chance to chat and then eat."

"Did you open the wine yet?"

Ron drew a bottle from the ice bucket and hefted the corkscrew with a flourish. Debbie shook her head and dumped the cutting board contents into the salad, scraped down the juices and errant flecks then gave the bowl a hearty toss.

"You want a glass, now?"

"Definitely." By the time she had set down the salad tongs he had a brimming cup extended.

"Thanks." She took a long sip drew in a chest swelling breath. Her nerves settled a bit. "Smells great."

Ron looked up from setting down plates at the four seats encircling the patio table. "Did you have doubts?"

"Only at the altar."


Debbie smiled and set her drink down to help him with the cutlery.

They had napkins tucked under forks, water and ice poured and the side dishes arranged for the third time, when the front doorbell rang.

"Breathe," Debbie ordered herself and gave her summer dress a quick pat.

"Come around back," she called and made her way around the patio to the fence door.

She waved at the bobbing head of Jill and her husband Adam, making their way down the stone walkway abutting the house. Her fingers trembled as she unclasped the latch and swung the door wide.


She gave Jill a delicate hug in order to avoid disturbing the tray in the other woman’s hands. The vegetables making up the crudités lined the platter, encircling a violet and sage hued mound garnished with a spring of basil.

"You didn't need to bring anything!"

"Oh, it's nothing,” said Jill with a grin.

"She was up a four am steaming artichokes and salting eggplant," said Adam.

Debbie laughed what she hoped was an appropriate amount at the joke. "Artichokes and eggplant? That sounds delicious."

Jill beamed. "You find all sorts of recipes like that when you're vegetarians."

Debbie caught herself on the fence before she staggered to the ground. Ron's hand cupped her elbow to give her time to find her feet.

"Of course." Ron's voice seemed to trundle down a long tunnel.

"Please come in." The words mumbled out of Debbie's lips based on some residual notions of hospitality. Ron motioned them through and she watched Jill place her tray on the table. Adam and Ron then shook hands like new best friends.

"So," Adam said, giving the covered grill in the corner an interested glance. "What's for dinner? Smell's great."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

By Track 5 - 8/28

Abby groaned as her phone buzzed on the make-shift bed side table. Moonlight streamed through the plastic blinds, dropping into pale lines onto her cologne stained pillow and streaking a set of packed bookshelves and worn textbooks with faint rays. She winced at the dim glow on the screen and rubbed her eyes. They felt dry as her tongue. She licked her parched lips, tasting the lingering coating of beer, as the phone jumped again.

Against her back, Jim shifted at the noise. She froze as he rolled, the bed springs squeaking then quieting as he settled back under the sheets. Abby felt her stomach drop as her clearing thoughts registered how the evening had concluded.

She shut her eyes and reached out before a third shake from her phone echoed into the night. Resting the device against her pillow, she blinked her eyes into focus.

The neon panel shone around a set of digits from the bowels of her address book. Ones she hadn't had the heart to delete.

Abby frowned at the numbers. Her heart began to thump against her ribs.

He can't be calling, she thought.

The phone shook in her hand once more. She sucked in a quick breath as Jim shifted again.

The seconds stretched toward the fourth and fifth rings and then the sixth, the one that would shove the call into her answering machine.

Let it ring, ordered a small internal voice, you both agreed it was over.

You know you should answer it, urge another from her chest.

The fourth buzz sounded.

Cupping the phone in her hand to dim the shine, she sung her feet from the bed. She took the short steps over Jim's scrubs and her own clothes littering the carpet in order to enter Jim's semi-tidy bathroom. She didn't bother to search for the light. Instead she closed the door, used the phone's glow to find the toilet, set down the lid and sat. Her fingers tugged at the edge of Jim's shirt in a vain attempt to cover her bare knees and warm the skin pebbling from more than the night's chill. With a tremble in her fingers she clicked up the top half of the phone and brought it to her ears, cutting off the fifth vibration.

"Hello?" she whispered.

"Abby?" His voice sounded weary, as if he had finished a marathon and decided to ring.

His name stuck on her teeth but she pushed it out in lieu of an exhale.


"God it's good to hear your voice."

She smiled and rubbed her free fingers at her throbbing temple.

"You too," she found herself saying before she could temper her response. She swallowed down a flurry of butterflies and steadied her voice. "What's going on?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry. It's so late."

"It's not that."

"I know." A few ragged breaths fell against her ear through the receiver. "I found out what happened."

"What?" She frowned at a lump of dirty laundry outlined in the dim light.

"I found them," Darren continued. "The ones who were after my…dad."

"That's great."

"Sort of." His voice trailed off into concerned trepidation. "It's gotten kind of complicated."

"Darren," she said again, barely believing the man attached to the name was really on the other end. "What's going on?"

He gave a heavy sigh. She thought she heard a rumble of traffic behind his pause and then pain filled grunt brushed her ear. The sound reminded her of patients first arriving at the emergency room. They usually held wounded limbs or pressed hands onto various hidden ailments concealed by muscle and flesh. Her Hippocratic Oath bounded through the stale haze of alcohol.

"Are you alright?"

"No," he said through clenched teeth. "Can you meet me? I could really use some help."

"Are you hurt?"

"Not badly, but I'm not as good at stitches with one hand as I need to be." His attempt at humor fell flat.

"You should go to a hospital."

"I can't."

"Why," Abby paused to lower her voice as the bed springs squeaked again. "Why not?"

"Like I said, it's complicated." He sighed and let out a brief growl as if fighting against himself. "Please Abby, I don't know who else to call."

Abby felt her heart clench, avoid a few beats and then try to make up the rhythm in a quick staccato. Darren's oval face hovered in the bathroom's slightly humid air. The vision carried a pleading glimmer in the pair of brown eyes and his stubble dimpled with a thin lined mouth. The same look had crossed his features nearly a year ago when he had explained his need to leave her and what they had begun in order to find an answer to the mysteries around his estranged father's death.

A staggered breath struggled out of her chest. She licked her lips and tried to make sense of her spinning thoughts amidst the start of a clinging hangover.

"Where are you?" she asked.

Another relieved exhalation reached through the phone. "Down at Union Station, by track 5."

"Give me fifteen minutes."

"Thanks, Abby." A wordless sigh hung in the air. "I..."

She swallowed down a rising lump of anxiety based on a myriad of emotions she failed to clearly perceive. She focused on the necessary treatment for most injuries in order to keep steady. "Keep pressure on the wound and try not to move."

"Thanks, Doc."

Abby muffled the brief chuckle at the remembered nickname. "See you soon."


A few seconds passed before he hung up. Once the dial tone sounded, she held the phone before her until the light on the screen dimmed. In the darkness she began to move with numbed purpose.

She figured Jim, like any good resident, had a first aid kit and three drawers later she had the white box in hand. Abby slipped back into the bedroom and began a search for her clothes.

"Abby?" murmured Jim. He propped himself up on an elbow, the moonlight shading his broad shoulders.

Abby swallowed as she gathered her jeans from the floor. Her eyes stayed latched on the denim.

"Cathy called." She slid her limbs down each leg. "She's having a bad night and really needs to talk."

"She alright?"

Abby hoped the darkness masked her wince as well as the lie. She grunted in the affirmative.

"Are you..." Jim sat up further and the blankets gathered with a soft hush. Abby felt his gaze fall on her back as she exchanged his tee-shirt with her own tops. "Are you coming back?"

She knelt to pull on her socks and tie on her sneakers. "Probably not tonight," she said to her laces.

"This is a first," said Jim with a mirthless laugh.

"What do you mean?" She stood, found her backpack by the door and slipped in the first aid kit and phone before slinging the bag over her shoulder.

"I'm not used to being left in the middle of the night."

Abby winced again at the hurt tingeing his words even though she could hear him trying to keep them light. She walked around the bed and pecked his cheek.

"Sorry. I just have to go..."

"No problem," he said with forced ease. His hand found hers and gave a squeeze. "We can talk, later."

"Yeah." She disentangled her fingers as his digital clock ticked away another minute. "See you at rounds."

""Night," he said as she turned the knob and slipped out.

She padded down the hallway and into his cluttered living room. The array of empty beer bottles, used to help overcome a particularly morbid shift, glinted wetly. Abby strode quickly to the front door and locked away a sudden rise of guilt as the springs squeaked in the bedroom. By the time her sneakers met the sidewalk outside Jim's apartment, her feet were already churning at a swift trot.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Picking up the Tab - 8/26

Barry hauled himself out of the bucket passing for Dan's passenger seat and flung the door closed. Gasoline and exhaust hung in the air. He shoved his hands in the empty front pockets of his jeans and perused the other travelers filling up cars and stomachs in the florescent glow of the gas station. They all appeared weary, cramped and a long way from their destinations.

The car swayed as Dan straightened from his lean on the trunk. He tapped out the last drops from the nozzle and set the nose back into the pump.

Barry tossed a thumb at the small convenience store. "You want something?"

Dan spun the gas cap back on and flipped the small panel closed.


A bell jangled as they entered the sparkling store. A cluster of sagging drivers hung by the front counter so Barry and Dan wound down the first vacated aisle. The refrigerators wrapping the perimeter rumbled. Preservatives and plastic wrap stained the temperature controlled air.

Barry snagged a passing bag of chips as Dan opened the first glass door. He tugged a bottle swishing with ruby red tea from the rack.

"You want one too?" asked Dan.

"Sounds good,” said Barry, his eyes diving into a cluster of candy bars. “You're buying the gas anyway," he added.

Dan's hand froze on a second bottle's neck. He looked over his shoulder and through the fogging glass.

"What?" Dan left the bottle behind as he straightened and closed the door, blocking the chill air.

"It's your car," said Barry turning down the aisle with an absent wave of a Snickers.

"This was your idea." Dan let out a sigh and headed along a parallel set of tiles. He pulled a box of cheezy-flavored crackers from the bottom shelf.

Barry stopped, frowning at a rotating selection of hot dogs and accompanying drink stand. "I got it last time."


"When we went to shore with Cary and Paula?"

"No," said Dan. He paused as Barry pulled out one of the largest paper cups and pressed the lip against the ice dispenser. Only so many cubes could fit and he continued over the pouring of caramel colored soda. "I was the only one with cash and their machines were down."

Barry set down his lake-holding cup and reached for a lid and straw. "I would have paid."

"Right," murmured Dan. They stepped into the end of the slowly plodding line.

"If you want me to pay, I will. I'm just trying to be frugal you know?"

Dan tapped his foot as the man in front of them, carefully counted out exact change. Barry took a sip from his mammoth beverage as if whetting his next argument.

"You know how hard it's been to find work these days."

Dan ran his tongue over his teeth and picked a pack of gum from the impulse item display. The line surged forward.

"Hi, there," said the cashier and both men stood silent, jaws falling as they slowly blinked. The petite attendant's blond curls bounced around a gaze circled skillfully in eye-liner, soft curving cheeks with a hint of blush and a broad, gleaming smile made from two plump, ruby lips. Her polo shirt collar arched toward dangling earrings and then dipped into a flattering v neck. A thin chain with a shamrock charm glistened around her throat.

"Is this all together?" she asked.

"Yeah," managed Dan.

Barry fumbled for his wallet, his elbow bashing into Dan's arm.

The impact jolted Dan out of his stupor. He stepped forward, neatly boxing Barry out.

"Don't sweat it, Barry." Dan leaned into the counter, filling the narrow corridor in front of the cashier with a smile. "I got this."

Lunch Date - 8/24

The shaggy retriever flung himself at Becky's lean, bare legs with a woof. She stumbled, grabbed onto Joe's muscular arm and gave the beast a glare.

"Hey Red!" said Joe with childish glee.

Becky stumbled again as Joe swiveled and dropped into a crouch. Steadying against the porch railing, she straightened the hem of her sun dress and rippled her fingers so the new diamond glistened. Then, she watched with a grimace and raised brows as Red proceeded to lick Joe's square face like a doggy ice cream cone.

Joe ruffled the long fur now flecked with more gray than rust with his strong hands and laughed.

"Down boy, down."

The dog jumped up again, hairy paws on Joe's broad shoulder. He gently tossed Red's front legs back to the grass and the dog loped back onto his stringy hind quarters.

Becky sighed and fought not to roll her eyes at the cyclical game. Instead walked up the creaking steps and took in the round table at the other end of the porch. A red and white checkered table cloth swayed in the breeze. The three places had already been set with china plates rimmed with curving edges, squat drinking glasses and gleaming cutlery. Citronella candles glowed and a vase full of magnolias perfumed the air.

"Hope you two are hungry!" The call from Gloria pierced the screen door and clung to a heavy spatter of hot oil.

Becky winced as a breeze from the kitchen coated her skin like mud.

"You ok?"

She smiled over her shoulder as Joe came to stand behind her.

"Yeah," she said as Red rubbed his head on to her leg, his tail wagging with youthful vigor. Her lips strained to stay in a pleasant curve while the canine musk stained her flesh.

Joe leaned in a planted a kiss on the top of her head. "I promise," he said, his words muffled in her hair, "I'll take you out for a digestible meal afterwards."

"It'll be fine."

He shook his head and gave her knobby shoulders a quick squeeze. "Thanks for doing this."

"She's your Grandmother, Joe. The least I can do is have lunch with her."

“Wait until you see lunch.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Becky whispered.

Joe’s smile stretched. “The words cholesterol and low fat just aren’t in her vocabulary.”

"Suppertime!" crowed Gloria as she swung through the screen door with a clack of her cane. Her cloudy eyes squinted behind bottle cap frames and finally latched on to them. Her smile bloomed.

"Let me get that, Grandma." Joe strode forward, seeking to claim the platter balanced in her free hand.

"Shoo," she snapped with phony anger. "Just get yourself seated before this gets cold."

The older woman's calico dress and stained apron swayed with her waddling stride. Red padded along silently at her heels, his tail gently swishing.

"Smells delicious," said Becky, following in Gloria's wake.

"Damn right it does," added Joe.

Gloria set the tray where the fourth setting would have gone. She plopped down into the next chair and her hands fumbled for the dripping pitcher brimming with sun tea and lemons. She then poured each of them a glass full without wasting a drop. She waved toward the other chairs.

"Sit, sit."

Becky fell like a lump onto the floral cushion before Joe had a chance to tuck the chair under her. Her eyes grew wide and she licked her lips as her gaze flickered across the platter and then the other baskets completing the light lunch.

Tubes of glistening sausages rested next to a mountain of chestnut brown fried chicken. A moment passed before she realized the basket set between her and Joe contained buttery cornbread and not simply squares of butter. The other side dish sagged under the equal weight of cabbage and mayonnaise.

She jolted in her seat as Joe gave her shoulder another squeeze. He slid into the third seat and gave her an apologetic smile as he laid his napkin over his trim stomach.

Gloria meanwhile struck out with her veined hand. "Hand me your plate, hon’."

Becky picked up the china with two hands and forced her arms to extend toward the older woman's beckoning fingers.

"Poor scrawny thing,” murmured Gloria. “Little of everything?"

Becky hoped her grin didn't bare too many teeth like in a grimace. "Please."

Beneath the table she felt Joe place a supportive hand on her toned leg.

Gloria handed back the plate, dripping with heaps from each platter, basket and bowl, large enough to feed a hungry teenager.

"Don't wait on ceremony, sugar, dig in and put some meat on your bones." Gloria batted Joe's arm and repeated the process of scooping, plucking and placing.

Becky watched her own fingers strip away a crackling layer of fried skin from the first of three hunks of chicken on her plate.

Red pressed his furry head against her knees, making her jump. She juggled but the piece of oil scorched meat tumbled from her slick fingers. The strip bounded toward the floor and she dipped to the side in order to scoop the morsel off the ground.

A wet nose and tentative lick met her cheek. She looked at her fingers, then at Red's soft brown eyes locked on the chicken. His tail thumped against the porch’s floor.

Becky offered the meat to his muzzle and he snatched the fried bite with a swish of his tail. He then gave her palm a lick.

Gloria scowled across the table as Becky straightened in her chair.

"Is that dog bothering you?"

"Oh, no," said Becky, giving Red a hearty scratch on the top of his head. "He's my new best friend."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Spaces - 8/17

Joe shoved one shoulder through the door. His bag caught on the frame and he tugged it free with a growl.

"Is that you?" Lorna's voice coiled down the straw sized hallway.

Joe dumped his bag on the four tiles making up the foyer. "Yeah." He slid off his shoes and headed toward the sound of chopping. As he walked, he leaned to the right and left, avoiding the frames on the walls like a down hill skier navigates posts.

The thimble of a kitchen opened up on the right. Lorna stood at the counter squished between the sink and wall. A bowl of whole eggplant and onions sat between her feet and another of chopped carrots filled the sink. She tossed sliced onions from her square wooden board on top of the orange slices and looked over her shoulder with a smile.


"Hey," he said, taking the single stride forward in order to peck her on the cheek. "Careful with that."

She waggled the knife at him with a grin.

Joe leaned against the looming refrigerator. "Can I help?"

"I set the table already," she said, scooping an onion from the bowl on the floor. "You could fill the glasses?"

"Sure." He pivoted and opened the fridge door as he ducked down. A thud of heavy plastic and sliding magnets met flesh. The door bounced back against his arm and then metal met wood in a clatter.

"Ouch," said Lorna.

Joe straightened with a white wine bottle in hand. "You ok?" He flung the door closed as he saw red coating the finger Lorna had pressed to her lips.

"A cut..." she mumbled.

Joe searched for a place to put the bottle and settled on the top of the fridge. He took her hand and examined the small wound.

"Here," he said grabbing a sheet of paper towel from the roll clipped above the sink. "You know..."

Lorna pressed the wad of paper onto her finger and glared at her hand.

"Don't start on this again."

Joe folded his arms. "We could have so much more space."

"But I like this." She glanced at the narrow doorway. "It's cozy."

"It's tiny."

She scowled at him and wacked the back of her hand onto arms. "You're just a big lug."

He shook his head and tried not to smile. "No, my problem is I'm not an ant."

"Joe..." Lorna sagged against the brief counter.

His hands cupped her shoulders and her head tilted down to her hands. "Think about it. We could have more than two people over at a time. We could have a dishwasher and a bathroom with a tub. Instead of cramming all of our stuff into one closet, you could have one and I could have another." He bent his knees so he could catch her downcast eyes. "It'd be great..."

"But we've been here so long. And a bigger place just means we'll get more stuff and then that'll be too small too..."

"So this is small?"

She heaved out a sigh. "It just seems ridiculous to move and fill up more space with more clutter."

"But if we had a bigger place, we'd be able to actually enjoy some space. The walls wouldn't be our only decoration."

Lorna frowned down at the stained paper on her finger and Joe's hands took hers.

"Give looking around a chance. If not for me, for your fingers."

She chuckled and had a grin on her lips when she glanced up at him.

"They're going to be here soon..."

"Lorna. Don't push this off again."

"Moving is a pain."

"We have next to nothing to move."

"I don't want to go shopping."

Joe's eyebrows both rose. Lorna's cheeks colored and she avoided his gaze by diving into the disturbed magnets on the fridge.

"Ok," she conceded. "That could be fun."


She poked him with her bound finger. "But expensive."

"You're the queen of thrift."

Her lips pursed into a thin line. "I should finish chopping."

"Look with me, that's all I ask."

"The wine glasses need to be filled."


She signed and stumbled over the bowl on the floor as she attempted a conversation ending swing back to the counter. Joe clamped his mouth shut and simply caught her elbow to help her steady.


Joe kept the smile from entering his voice. "Saturday."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jump In - 8/10

Joshua gripped his drooping swim trunks. He swallowed down a chlorine flavored breath and stared up the steel ladder with wide blue eyes.

"Chicken!" came from the deep end of a rectangular stretch of pool. A chorus of imitation hens added their teasing clucks.

Joshua forced his fingers to unclench and instead took the banister in two tight fists. He pulled himself forward until his forehead lay upon the fourth step. The metal seemed to vibrate with the splashing waves and the cries from the water. The air grew thick with chemicals and wet clothes. A breeze chilled his skin, leaving it feeling frail, like a piece of paper.

He closed his eyes and imagined the ladder leading to his tree house. The safety of the hidden box hovered above his head, promising relief from the blaring voices and steaming rays of sunlight.

His first foot lifted from the damp concrete and landed on the bottom step with a slap. His arms tensed and he bent his other knee. The next few steps seemed to disappear as his body moved like a mindless puppet. The top curve of the ladder came under his hands before the vision of his sanctuary had time to firm in his mind.

Opening his eyes he took in the mint plank stretching before him. The end wobbled as he shifted and caused the fat spring beneath his feet to contract and release.

He gazed down the ladder behind him, fingers tightening as the deck below spun. Impatient faces and hands on hips glared up at him like tiny ants under a shoe.

His knobby shoulders sagged and he turned back toward the eminent dive. Shuffling forward, his hands tightened into fists and bashed against his twiggy thighs. He thought the pounding might even leave a bruise by the time he reached the other end. He pondered whether the next blow might simply break his leg. They couldn't expect him to dive with a broken leg.

His two scrawny limbs however stayed intact, and although his knees threatened to buckle, he remained standing. His toes curled around the edge of the diving board.

Licking his pruned lips, Joshua peered down at the soaked ants bobbing, splashing and swimming through the crystal clear water miles below. Weaving black stripes struck out toward the shallows like claws dragging on the tiled bottom.

"Come on, Josh!"

Sarah Anderson's voice rose like a siren above the jeers and splashes.

Joshua found her sitting with a cluster of other girls from his sixth grade class between the depth labels for four and five feet. Her legs were half submerged, a hand shaded her eyes and her thin ruby swimming shirt fluttered.

The rays on Joshua’s back turned to ice while a sudden fire burned in his stomach. His mouth twisted into a painful grin and he shook out his hands in order to release some of the flooding adrenaline rushing into his veins. Gazing up into the clear sky he blinked away the residual jeweled vision. He swung his arms in front and behind him, palms meeting with loud snaps. A deep breath filled his lungs and he vowed to let it out only after he resurfaced somewhere near the five foot marker.

Closing his eyes he brought his chin to his chest. His left hand lay over his right. His arms extended over his head like a curving swans neck.

Before he could recall the drop, before he heard more jeers, before he could think of another way down, he bent his knees and launched off the board.

The spring sounded like a rubber band shot across the room. Air cupped him for a hovering moment then a rush of wind deafened the watching crowds to a hush. Joshua's lungs burned, his heart thumped, his fingers itched to drown in waters that seemed to never come.

Unexpected Destination - 8/9

Even though the elephant plodded forward and should have stirred a breeze, to Adina, the air felt thick, like soured honey. The canopy of the howdah did next to nothing, in her opinion, to protect them from the jungle's sweltering heat. It certainly failed to keep the musk from the animal or incessant insects at bay.

She spun her parasol and then dabbed at the bit of her neck exposed by her snug summer gown and then her cheeks with her sweat damp handkerchief. She tried to ignore the trickle down her spine and her along the back of her legs. She hoped the staff would be able to wash out any stains.

But nothing would be washed clean or cooled by a mint julep or slowly rotating fan, until they headed back.

"Do you know how much longer this might take?"

In the front seat, beside the mahout patting encouragement to his elephant, Gerald laughed. "This is a lost city, Adina." His arms, bared by rolled sleeves gestured toward the dense jungle. "No one knows exactly where it is, which is why we're on this little expedition."

She laid her hands in her lap, ruffling the layers of her pearl hued skirts and pouted.

"But you said this morning that it couldn't be too far."

"He guessed, sister." Cassandra’s distracted soprano drifted into the jungle as they trundled down the littered trail.

"If I had realized that, I would have brought another handkerchief." She shook out the monogrammed and lace lined fabric like a dirty rag. "Just look at this."

Cassandra sighed and swiveled. She seemed reluctant to leave the view of dotted Ratchaphruek and the dense spread of vines and wide leaved trees flowing into a single mass of vegetation.

Adina fluttered the limp cloth as her little sister's sapphire eyes gave a quick inspection.

Cassandra's oval face added a soft smile to the sheen of sweat. "You can have mine." Her bronzed hand slipped out another square of fabric from her ginger dress.

"Thank you." Adina laid her spent handkerchief on the back of the front seat and dapped again at her cheeks with Cassandra's clean cloth.

Sweat poured on like a bottomless spring as soon as she had one bit of flesh clear. With a sigh, she tucked the square through her silk sash and concentrated on blocking the sun with her parasol.

She simpered in frustration as she failed to block all of the rays. Even the ones she managed to deter from landing on her smooth, fair skin, only warmed her parasol, leaving her under a near flaming lamp of her own creation.

Adina let out a grumble and glared at the flickering insects, the endless jungle and the back of Gerald and Cassandra's heads as they both seemed utterly content with their journey. With a rustle of petticoats, she stood, grasping the howdah's columns to steady herself. She tossed another glare down the mashed trail behind them.

The path wound through the jungle until a bend took their trek out of sight. She felt her stomach churn when she realized they had truly left the fort and any sign of civilization.

"We must be close," she continued, belaboring the point while trying to quell her own nervousness. "Look how far we've come already."

"Adina. Sit." Gerald's crisp order sounded as hot as the blaring sun.

"I'm not going to fall," she snapped. Even so she swayed near to tipping and barely clung to her parasol as the elephant's steady steps ended. The animal gave a warning trumpet. The mahout muttered under his breath.

"Why..." Adina whined as she reestablished her grip and balance. "Why have we stopped?"

She rolled her eyes with frustration as no one dained to explain. She swung her view back over the elephant's head to find out for herself.

The canopy gave way to a massive tiered pagoda and accompanying compound.

Adina gripped onto the column of the howdah. Her hand lowered her parasol to the side, drowning her in speckled light.

Through the clearing of trees the sun gleamed down the central spire and on the sweep of gilded tiles coating the wide roofs. The eaves dripped with golden lotus petals dangling in front of the lacquered railings slicing sharp corners around every layer of the tower. Sparkles from encrusted jewels blinked like a million tiny eyes.

"Adina," whispered Cassandra. "Sit."

"What?" Then her eyes caught other glints against the leaves.

The sharp edges of dozens of spears flashed in the hands of rows of warriors standing before the elephant's front legs and across their trail. Streaks of vermillion and ochre struck across their faces and bare torsos, amplifying their already threatening glares.

"Oh my," said Adina. She dropped back onto her cushion and realized the warriors wrapped around them in an unbroken ring.

By the mahout, Gerald cocked his pistol.

Adina's reached out and found Cassandra's hand already fumbling for a steadying grasp.

They both stared out over the overwhelming force and Lost City before them. The same murmur trickled out the sisters in tandem.

"Oh dear."

Hidden Treasures - 8/8

Harold strolled through the listing bookshelves. Worn spines stood in line on the press board shelves. Soft covers had been jammed into every nook. Peeling scotch tape held hand written subject labels to the splinter strewn wood.

His found Ancient History and felt at home. He proceeded to follow his wrinkled finger as the tip pointed to each tome. Three shelves had fallen by the wayside and he had dropped into a crouch, when he smelled Frieda's rosy perfume.

Rising, he let out a mild groan as blood coursed back into his calves and his knees aligned with a grind.

Frieda bobbed around the back corner and deposited her cardboard box between her feet. A cloud of dust puffed into her face in exchange for the heavy load. Her round face tilted in order to read the parallel and perpendicular spines on the first set of shelves. After carefully examining the stack to her right, she switched her petite feet around her box and poured her attention into the opposite bookcase.

Harold let out a sigh as he watched her studious perusal then sauntered over to her side. Moving closer he could see the folds of the cardboard box buckling around the contents.

Meanwhile Frieda tittered to herself and extracted a book, the cover of muted gold, from beneath a half dozen others. She dipped down and inserted the paperback into one of the few remaining crevices.

Harold folded his arms. "You've got to be kidding me."

Frieda jumped and her hand clutched at her plaid blouse.

"Harold," she reprimanded, and then her forehead crinkled with concern. "What's the matter?"

He motioned toward the box. "How many more do you have in there?"

"Oh, I don't know." She batted him away and returned to her expedition.

"It's all well and good to buy them, but shouldn't you finish the ones from last time first?"

"These are for the kids."

"They don't need any more books either."

She frowned at the spines on the shelf and avoided meeting his gaze. "I like to have a variety to choose from. This way whenever we head out, I have options."

"You're going to end up with one of everything."

"And happy to boot."

Harold raised his hands in defeat and returned to his hardbacks.

Frieda continued her examination of each and every shelf. She hauled her box passed him and he could hear her plodding down the last aisle.

As her steps neared the cashier at the entrance, he closed his skimming material and slid the summary of Egyptians Dynasty back into the hole on the shelf.

He stuffed his hands into his pockets and strolled to the front.

The quiet cashier had tucked a frayed bookmark, complete with tassel, into her own reading material and set her paperback beside the register. Frieda's part of the transaction left her attempting to pick up her box.

Harold laid a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her back. He gripped and tried to lift with his knees. An exhale puffed out of his lips as he set the box on the counter.

The cashier opened the tabs and methodically processed each one with a tap of her fingers on taped the calculator while Frieda watched on.

Harold saw her grin blossoming with each book. He assumed she was recalling why the particular one being tallied had been chosen or perhaps who might be receiving the gift.

The pile filled one bag, and then another pair.

"46.75," reported the young woman.

Frieda pulled over her purse and wallet, extracting a crisp fifty withdrawn from the ATM for the occasion.

She handed the bill over with a warm grin.

"Please keep the change," Frieda said, tapping on the tip jar beside the impulse bookmark display.

The cashier's mouth hung for a moment then she seemed to gather the insinuation.

"Thank you."

"You're very welcome. Just make sure this place stays open. Nowhere else has such treasures for such a price."

The woman glanced between Frieda and Harold and back again, slowly nodding. "I'll...pass that along."

"Excellent," said Frieda, stowing her wallet. She swiveled to face Harold as she slung her purse out of the way.

"What do we have left to do?"

Harold slid his hands through the handles of two of the paper bags, leaving one for Frieda. The sides crinkled under the weight, but at least, he noted, they were balanced.

"Hon'?" asked Frieda, scooping up the third bag into her arms like a small child. "Did we need to get anything else?"

"Yeah." Harold chuckled at her suddenly worried gaze. "We need to get another bookcase."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Adam's Box - 8/7

Jackson frowned, his arms burning under the weight of the cardboard box.

"Are you sure, Ma'am?"

The barrel-shaped woman occupying the doorway in pearls and a snug peach bathrobe gave an exasperated sigh. Her plucked brow curved into a sharp arch.

"You don't think I know who lives here?"

"No, I didn't mean that Ma'am."

Her pinked lips pursed together and her blushed cheeks grew rosier. "Of course you didn't." She swung the door closed.

The stain glass bouquet in the window stopped at the tip of Jackson's nose. Through the watery panes, he could see her lingering in the corridor, watching him. He shrugged off her stare and remained on the stoop. Rereading the hand written label on the top of the box, Jackson sought out the numbers lining the threshold.

"82 and 82."

He sighed and gave the woman's wavered shape a tilt of his cap before heading back down the brick steps. The winding path, lined with petunias led him back to his square, dirt brown truck and blinking hazard lights. He rested the box where the passenger seat would have occupied and climbed into the driver's seat.

A few pokes at his computer confirmed the address and name. He double checked the bar codes and again found them identical.

"This is the right house," he muttered.

His analog watch clicked away the seconds. The presence of the packages lining the shelves behind him bore into his shoulders. If they could have tapped an impatient foot, the echo would have been deafening.

She's got to be wrong, he thought.

He glanced over at the petite mail box tucked in the manicured lawn. Cursive letters spelling Perkins flowed in honey tones against a grassy backdrop.

His shoulders drooped. His hands gripped his saucer sized steering wheel and counted the numbers around his odometer.

Just leave it, suggested a devilish inner voice. His conscious countered with a reminder of his code of conduct.

Jackson glanced over and frowned at the box. The wall of the door well pressed against the side as if a magnet had drawn the package and his truck together. His brow deepened.

He hadn't put it there had he?

A bit of movement in the corner of his eye pulled Jackson's attention.

From the side porch of the brick faced manor trotted a lean man in grease stained denim and hunched shoulders covered in an over-washed tee-shirt. His shaggy head glanced back at the front door with each stride as he hurried across the lawn. He drew to a cautious stop at the open doorway of the truck and panted.

"Hi..." His hands fumbled with one another and his bespectacled eyes glanced up at the box. His licked his lips as if a starved man before a roast.

"Afternoon," said Jackson. His hands wrapped around his wheel as a sudden wave of apprehension swam through his veins.

"Do you have a package...a package for Adam Perkins?"

"That one's for Adam Perkins. 82 Alder Lane."

The man's pale face broke into what Jackson supposed was a grin. The fellow however looked more nauseous than happy.

"That's me."

"The lady at the door..."

"Oh, my mom's a bit..." Adam circled his temple with a bony finger.

"Ah..." Silence, broken only by Jackson’s ticking watch, hung between them for a few heart beats.

Jackson felt an annoyed stare shooting from his pending deliveries.

"Well…great." Jackson pulled out his signing unit and held it over the package.

Adam gripped the pen in his right hand then adjusted it into his left. An angular signature scrawled across the digital panel. Jackson made out the A and J although the rest looked more like a child's attempt to draw a straight line.

He rested the unit in its recharging stand and heaved the box back into his arms. The weight felt more out of balance than when he had carried it up to the stoop. He shrugged away the eerie notion as he stepped down to the road again.

"Here you go," he said.

Adam sickly smile grew, plumping sallow cheeks.

"Thanks," he said, taking hold of the package. He adjusted the weight onto his hip, jostling it carefully as he ensured a snug hold. "Um...Have a good day."

Jackson gave a curt wave but Adam had already turned back toward the house.

With a shake of his head, Jackson mounted his seat again. He chalked up the low growl he thought he heard from the departing box to his imagination. The rumble of the truck's roaring engine muffled everything else.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Two Scoops - 8/4

Jesse swiped away the trickle of sweat wandering down her face. She glanced up at the leafy green umbrella sprouting out of the wrought iron table and willed the shade to drop the temperature a few degrees. The suffocating humidity, mixed with the nearby canals savory stench failed to buckle under her glare. Summer heat washed over the cobblestone Palazzo even as evening pressed on.

She felt Darren gaze over his guide book from across the table.

"Looking for something?"


He plopped the book onto the newspapers with a smile, causing his empty espresso to rattle in its tiny saucer.

"Maybe I can find some."

She tilted her head and ignored the bead dribbling down her spine. "Dove?" she asked, testing her Italian.

"You'll see." He winked and rose.

"Don't you want your book?" She gestured with her own tome to the worn translation volume supporting the pile littering the table.

"No. You know me, I'm a pro."

She held her tongue and smiled instead. She knew whatever happened next would at least be better entertainment than repetitive exercises.

Lowering her grammar book into her lap, she followed Darren as he wound over to the lounging cafe owner. The potbellied man leaned on his counter-top in front of a sagging fan, soaking up more than his share of mobile air as he perused his own limp reading material.

"Excuse me," Darren began, adding his ever charming smile to try and mitigate the annoying American stereotype clinging to his accent. "Ha una crema?"

The owner frowned over his paper and cocked his head to the side. Jesse had the distinct impression Darren had sprouted two heads.

"Una crema de barba?" asked the owner.

Darren laughed and shook his head, waving his hands as well in order to make his point. "No, no." He drew a deep breath, regaining his buoyant confidence. "Ha..un..un gelato."

"Ah, si si." The owner folded his paper and Jesse presumed he went in search of a menu. The small dog ramming into her legs tore her attention away from the rest of Darren's endeavors.

The young blonde man at the other end of the leash bobbed his head repeatedly in obvious apology. Jesse guessed the train of words steaming from his lips added to the regret.

"Don't worry." She smiled and reached over to help him untangle the small bundle of fur from the knot the dog had created around the table's legs.

"," he managed in an accent Jesse couldn't quite pin down. He waggled his finger down one of the alleyways cutting through the towering buildings. "Grand Canal?"

"No," she shook her head and tried to pull the words together into an understandable string. "E sulla strada sbagliata."

He frowned, his eyes flickering around the barren café as if for invisible aid.

Obviously not Italian then, she thought, noting with dismay his incomprehension might be because she had skipped class in order to visit Vesuvius when they had covered maps and directions.

"Wrong road," she said again, aiming her finger again at the alley he had indicated and shaking her head from side to side at a methodical pace in order to make her point. She waved down another branch on the other side of the Palazzo and hoped her gesticulating arms successfully indicated he should head there and stay straight.

He seemed to gather the idea, or at least appreciated her help. He nodded again and smiled.

Jesse tried not to feel as if his spreading lips were an attempt to appease some lunatic his dog had accidently stirred.

He waved and with the little creature flickering along at his side, made his way to where she had indicated.

"Making friends I see?"

She swiveled to find Darren, hands full and a satisfied cafe owner counting some bills behind him.

"Have to keep up with you," she said with a shrug. The hint of a breeze carried a glimmer of coolness from the bowls in his hand. "What have you got?"

She took the glass bowl Darren offered. The cold touch on her fingers felt heavenly. A single round mound of magenta gelato promised a few morsels of relief.

Gathering her spoon she glanced over at Darren as he took his seat with his own mint hued concoction. "E compreso il servizio?"

"No, but if you care to give a tip, it would be appreciated."

"When you bring a girl ice-cream, always make it two scoops," she said and shoved a mouthful between her smiling lips.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cake Delivery - 8/1

The cloud of balloons thumped against each other as Becky trotted down the asphalt. The ribbons attached to the candy colored bubbles wounded around her hand, digging deep grooves. She ignored the lack of circulation in her fingers and steadied the sheet cake in her arms, silently willing the frosted edges not to slide against the plastic lid.

The animals within the cages she passed, glanced over at her, as if taking in their tiny frosted doppelgangers. The elephants gave a supportive trumpet as she wound the corner. Lions yawned as she hurried by like a fleeing gazelle. A giraffe craned his neck over the top of his enclosure, watching through drooping lashes as she rounded another bend in the maze of passageways slicing through the zoo.

Becky, panting over the cake, tried not to feel like a rat in search of hidden cheese.

She worried the cheese might be preferable.

She followed the jungle print arrows, scented like newly laid paint, down a last stretch of trail.

Laughter began trickling through the groans and calls of contained wildlife as the thatched hut came into view. The bungalow sat squarely in a clearing lined with ferns and tall palms. The tropical greens and browns created a muted backdrop for the scurrying children in brightly colored costumes. Little versions of those caged beasts dashed through the doorway and around the benches and displays. The battles would have made any right minded biologist wince.

Toucans chased leopards, beetles harassed monkeys, a hippo ran after a zebra who appeared to have acquired the hippo's red sneaker.

Amongst the menagerie she caught sight of Dylan. He was pressing his face against an aquarium, the mane of his lion's costume ringing his face. A few of his classmates were peering along with him, staring with pressed noses at the snake lounging in a mottled patch of sun.

Becky skirted around the games and absorbing creatures and plopped the cake down onto the streamer strewn table. She swung the bag of goodies from her shoulder and pulled out a box of washers. After a relieved breath she began working the strings from her hand.

"You made it." Angela's voice, husky thanks to the cigarette in her hand, slid through the childish cries.

Becky winced and pretended it was because of the slim paper cut one of the balloon's more vicious lines had delivered.

"Of course," she said, looking up and finding George's newest girlfriend donned in cheetah print for the occasion. "I wouldn't miss Dylan’s party."

"You are so sweet."

Becky shrugged. "I'm his aunt, I'm allowed to be." Uncoiling the strands she began tying the ends around washers and dropping the weights to the ground. She kept her eyes carefully averted on her task.

"And you brought the cake..."

"Yeah. George called, said he had forgotten to pick it up or something."

"Oh, that was my fault. Completely slipped my mind."

Becky looked up into Angela's mascara lined eyes. She could feel the heat in her gaze but didn't try to hide it. "I know." Her grin felt icy against her teeth.

Angela took another draw on her cigarette, her lips pursing as if she had just sucked on a lemon.

Becky went in search of candles.

Angela tapped her filter against bleached teeth. "You don't like me do you?"

"I don't think that really matters does it?"

"I think it does. George thinks a lot of you. Thinks a lot of your opinions."

Becky sighed and popped open the box of trick candles. "Well, if he asks me for an opinion, I'll give it to him." She stabbed the cake with one of the candles and shot the same chilled smile across the table.

"Sis!" George boomed out of the bungalow. Becky felt her smile soften as his orangutan arms wrapped around her. She gave him a squeeze and then they turned back to the cake.

"Wow, that looks great."

"You ordered it, silly." Angela sauntered over and gave his shoulder a playful shove.

"Yeah, well it works a lot better here than at the store." He slid his arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze to mitigate the jab.

Becky thrust the last half dozen candles into place and swallowed down a wave of nausea.

"I think that's everything," she said, standing back with her hands on her hips in order to inspect the decorated array.

"It's fabulous." Angela raked blood red nails through George's curls. "How about we get things started?"

"Why not! Can you tell the kids inside to come on out? That ranger too, he deserves some cake for putting up with us."

"Alright." She dabbed out her cigarette under her stiletto before pecking him on the cheek. "Be right back." Becky endured the other woman's hard stare and smiled innocently until Angela headed towards the bungalow.

"So," George said, watching Angela's sway, "what do you think?"