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Friday, April 29, 2011

The Ice Rink - No. 57

Larry's mouth hung open like an unhinged door when Annabel walked up to the edge of the rink.

Her shoulder length hair had faded, from butterscotch to an egg-shell white but still swayed with youthful vigor. Age had added crow’s-feet and lines around her mouth; the crescent ones from too much laughing. The same amused glint filled her summer-sky eyes. She carried herself, a little plumper around the hips, less so around the breasts, as confidently as when she had been the Corn Festival Queen. The ice skates hung over her shoulders glistened with a fresh sharpening as cutting as the laughter she shared with the young woman at her side.

Pressing his hand to his sunken chest, Larry fell back onto the rickety bench and into the shadows of his milling teammates. He pulled a dirty handkerchief, marred from the sweat earned during practice, and wiped the blossoming beads at his receding hairline.

"Really? Here?" asked the young woman. She swept cornflower eyes up into the tree-line rimming the rink like an emerald necklace.

"Don't sound so shocked. Not everything's inside," said Annabel.

A crisp wind bucked across the snowy field and both hunched into their sweaters.

"It's certainly cold enough," said the young woman.

Annabel laughed. "You'll warm up when we get skating. Let's find a bench and get laced up."

Larry's stomach cramped. He traded the handkerchief for his plastic water bottle and guzzled. He immediately wished the luke-warm water had been something stiffer when the rest of the team noticed the women's arrival.

"Annabel Chase?" asked Ned.

"Ned Yager?" Annabel tittered and she gave the stooped shouldered man a hearty embrace. "How have you been?"

"Oh, fine, fine," said Ned. “Still can skate and shoot a puck so I must be doing something right.”

She chuckled and traded hugs with the other three white haired and wrinkled men half out of their hockey gear.

"Who's this here?" asked Ned once Frank, Todd and Mark had been greeted.

"Where are my manners?" Annabel grabbed the young woman's hand and pulled her close. "This boys, is Samantha, my eldest granddaughter."

A sequence of "Miss" ran through the quartet. Through the cracks of pudgy torso's and padding, Larry spotted a blush on the girl's cheeks, especially when Frank tipped a non-existent cap.

"Sammy," said Annabel, "these are some of the boys I went to high school with out here."

"Before you left for college?"

Annabel’s smile stiffened. "Before I left."

"She's was always too smart to stay out here in the sticks, Miss," said Todd.

"Whatever happened to you?" asked Ned. "You were here that last Christmas and then poof up and vanished!"

"Oh, you boys don't want to hear about that, at least not in the cold!"

They chuckled. A swirl cut across the rink, encouraging a foot stomps to keep the blood flowing.

"I wanted to get Sammy here out on some natural ice before it gets dark," said Annabel. "Do they still put the benches on the southern shore?"

"That they do," said Ned. He turned and his face lit up with a devilish mischief Larry hadn't seen since they’d raced away with Old Man Peter's tractor back when they were younger than the machinery. "I think you'll find the benches nice and cozy."

Larry thought about tossing the hockey puck at his feet right at Ned's dentures. Instead, he balled his field-calloused hands into fists and sought out an escape route. The rink however had drifts piled around the edges, thickened by the shoveling and scraping to clear the ice throughout the winter.

A gasp made him flinch, and then Annabel, speaking his name, nearly stopped his heart. "I thought that was your old pick-up."

Blowing out a stiff exhale, Larry looked up and met her eyes.


"See you at Snooze's," said Ned with a wave. He and the three others scurried away like mice, hockey sticks poking out every which way in their rush for the parking lot.

Larry scooped up the puck and winced while straightening. By then, Ned was far out of range. Annabel and Sammy, however, loomed. Pushing off his knees, Larry stood and swept his hand toward the bench.

"I was just going."


"I’m meeting the boys at Snooze's." Larry turned and drowned himself in collecting the clutter he had created along the packed snow.

"Sit, Sammy," said Annabel. The bench creaked under their weight. "Did I ever tell you about the Ice Ball?"

Larry tried pulling his head into his body like a turtle. Lacking that, he stuffed his helmet into his duffle and thought about crawling inside.

"Ice Ball?" asked Sammy.

"Yes, the Ice Ball." Annabel leaned back while Sammy tied her laces.

Larry couldn't help following her gaze as Annabel relayed the details. The string lights that laced the ring on that wintry night glittered like a mirage over the dusk-tinted snow. The laughter, inspired by a bit of snuck in booze; the musicians playing away in the heat of the garbage can fires; and the scrape of blades and swirl of skirts and snow jackets played against his memory.

"Sounds amazing, Grandma."

"It was, Sammy, it was."

Larry forced his gaze back to his bag and stared down at his wrinkled hands. Veins popped out like pipes, wrinkles cutting like trenches, all above the slight tremble now perpetual in his fingers. The vitality he remembered in his younger days seemed like dream.

"Ready?" asked Sammy.

"Go on," said Annabel. "I want to see you out there first."

Larry felt the young girl’s glance on his back before she rose and pushed onto the rink. She started gliding across the ice and then gained speed. The swooshing of her skates and the hush of her passing flooded the sidelines.

"How have you been, Larry?" asked Annabel, once Sammy had flown into another circuit.

"Fine, fine," said Larry. He pocketed his last puck and closed the zipper on his bag. The quiet lingered, broken only by the scrape of Sammy's blades and crinkle of the hardening snow. Larry cringed under the weight of the expected counter question and finally succumbed. "You?"

"Fine," said Annabel. She chuckled, bitterness tingeing her usual hearty tone.

Larry turned despite himself as a swell of concern bubbled.

"Harold, my husband, died last year. My Paula, Sammy's mother, is in the middle of a horrible divorce. They've moved in with me and it's like my whole life's been upturned." She looked up at him, blinking to keep tears at bay. "I wanted to come back and remember better days."

"You remember them that way?"

"Of course I do."

"Then why did you stay away? Why did you leave in the first place?"

The moment of fragility vanished. Her chin rose in a defiant angle and heat kindled in her eyes. "I needed to breathe, Larry, to explore. I got my degree. I met Harold. We started our practice. I had Paula." She shook her head. "Everything took off from there and before I knew it, it was over."

Larry stuffed his hands into his pockets and dropped his gaze to his boots.

"I never met to hurt you, Larry."

He grunted.

"I'm sorry for that then." The bench creaked, and a moment later, her boots appeared, blunted toes pointing at his. Her mittened fingers touched his chin and Larry lifted his gaze. "I'm not sorry I ran into you."

Larry stiffened. "I don't think I can say the same."

She cringed, retrieved her hand and wrapped her arms around herself in a stiff hug. Larry seized the inner-lining of his pockets, keeping himself from adding to the embrace.

"I should get going. The boys will be waiting." He turned and shouldered his bag with woof.

"Maybe I'll see you there."

"You go where you like," said Larry.

He strode past her and turned up his collar to block a frosted gust. Snow crunched under his boots as he entered the parking lot and reached his old Ford. Tossing his bag into the cabin, he heaved into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut. He grabbed the steering wheel in both hands and blew out a misted breath. The windshield fogged, softening his view of the rink where the Annabel and Sammy circled, side by side.

His face contorted with a frown and he rubbed at his suddenly runny nose. He reached for a hanky but found himself opening the glove compartment and retrieving a crumpled note wedged among the manuals.

Worn folds threatened to rip but he peeled at the edges and uncovered the brief paragraphs within. Annabel's fine cursive had faded along with the indigo lines, but the message remained legible. The stab of pain struck with the same piercing edge as it had when he had first read her explanation of why she couldn't accept the proposal he had made the night of their last Ice Ball.

He glanced up from the letter and found the world had turned watery. The two figures on the ice blurred and shadows wobbled, transitioning the day into wavering night.

"Wonder what'll come next?" asked Larry, scrubbing his eyes dry. He balled the note and stuffed it back into the glove compartment before turning the ignition.

The engine turned over with a welcoming grumble. Driving out of the lot, Larry adjusted his rearview mirror. He spotted them coming off the rink. The hope they might follow, that Annabel might walk through Snooze's door one more time, fell into his stomach like lead. He put his hands on the wheel and struggled to pretend, either way, he didn't give a damn.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Heroes - No. 50

Marcus crouched in the undergrowth. Brambles tickled the back of his neck but he fought the urge to scratch and kept still.

"They're not coming," whispered Gavin. He gripped his quarterstaff lying alongside his stout frame and glowered at the empty trail stretching beneath the star-speckled night.

"They'll come," said Marcus. "They have to come. This is the only road."

"Are you sure?" On Marcus's other side, Phillip rubbed his mountainous nose.

Marcus rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm sure. When there's only one trade route it's easy to know where the merchants are going to go."

"No," said Phillip. He blew out a weighty sigh. "Are you sure about doing this? I mean, it's stealing."

“The embargo is illegal, we all know that. We’re just squaring matters.”

“I don’t know…” said Phillip.

Marcus shook his head. "We'll be heroes."

Phillip frowned. "But I don't want to get anyone hurt"

"We're not going to hurt anyone," said Marcus. In frustration, however, he tightened his grip on the daggers tucked beneath him. "We'll take the cart, leave the drivers to spend the night in the woods and we're off."

Gavin clucked his tongue and Phillip adjusted his bulk beneath the branches.

"Quiet," said Marcus, "you'll get us spotted." He glanced between his companions, inspecting their resolve in the gloom.

Gavin looked nervous, but then again, he always looked nervous with those beady eyes and the perpetual gleam of sweat on his brow. When matters came to a head though, Gavin would be at his side. Phillip, however, was concerning. Marcus could nearly hear the methodical thoughts traipsing through his large friend’s head.

"Look,” said Marcus, taking on the reasonable tone he used when explaining his transgressions to Professor Ruddle, “how long has this embargo been going on?"

Neither answered.

"Since last spring! Can you remember the last time we had something that wasn't salty or sour? The last time a cake tasted like a cake or Angela's lemonade didn't curdle your toes? The festival is in two days. We do this, we do this one thing, and the town can have a summer banquet worth celebrating."

Gavin licked his lips as if savoring the treats shoveled out of the bakeries for the three day celebration. From beneath his linen jersey, Phillip's stomach grumbled.

"We'll be heroes for sure," said Marcus. "Think of that. Kings of the festival. I bet Vera and Adelaide would be ever so grateful." He grinned as both boys blushed.

Then Phillip frowned, shattering the constructed reasoning like glass. "Wendy's not going to like it. She'll be mad at you."

Marcus snorted. "So. I'll dance her around the floor a bit and we'll be square again."


"Shhh," said Marcus.

The rattle of wooden axles penetrated the night, nearing with each heartbeat.

"We're doing this," he whispered, thrusting one finger into the dirt in emphasis. "Just like we ran off with Mrs. Honeywell pie." Gavin winced. "And hid Pascal's last keg that night he was too drunk to walk straight." Phillip grimaced. "We were in it together then," said Marcus, covering his face with his mask and gripping his two unsheathed daggers. "We’re in it together now. Don’t let me, don't let the town, down."

He crawled back out of the brambles and stood. The plod of four hooves joined the racket of the cart. One lantern swayed, spraying golden rays upon the thick foliage. A wavering tune broke the nighttime hush. Marcus recognized the song, but the singer was an octave low and off key. His voice stumbled through the air like Pascal's inebriated stagger.

Perfect, thought Marcus. He dashed up the road, to where the trail narrowed at the bridge. Dropping into the shadow of a jutting boulder, he listened to the horse’s steps and held his breath.

"Careful now," slurred the driver. The horse whickered and the plodding tread slowed.

Marcus counted the fingers of one hand and then rounded the obscuring boulder.

"Evening," he said, showing both drawn blades. He swiveled the daggers so the lantern's light glinted off the sharpened edges.

"Whoa," said the driver. He pulled back on the reigns and nearly toppled from his seat. His voluminous cloak and tunic spilled off of him in a waterfall of fabric. "Evening." He wiggled back on the bench and squinted bloodshot eyes. "Little late to be on the road isn't it boy?"

Marcus bristled beneath his mask. "I could say the same to you."

"Bah," the driver drawled. "I've got Brutus here and an all-route pass." The horse whinnied and the driver patted at the left side of his chest before his hand dropped limp into his lap.

"Well," said Marcus, a grin reforming on his lips as he noted no one else in the cart, "I'm afraid you've gone far enough today." He grabbed Brutus beneath a saliva-coated bit and slashed both reigns.

"Hey now." The driver stumbled off his perch, steadied himself on the cart's rail and pointed a wobbling finger at Marcus. "What do you think you're doing, boy?"

Crunching steps and a soft swoosh announced Gavin and his slowly spinning staff.

"We're relieving you of your burden," said Marcus

The driver snorted and looked over his shoulder. Behind a masked Gavin, Phillip loomed like a fortress wall. He popped his knuckles and glowered behind his own mask.

"You know, lads, I don't think I can let you do that," said the driver.

"We don't want to hurt you," said Marcus even as he stepped forward, brandishing his daggers. "But we are going to take your cart."

Gavin and Phillip edged closer, flanking the driver like a closing noose.

The driver glanced at the pair, and then over at Marcus. His lax jaw stiffened as his wilted posture straightened. The wavering focus in his eyes sharpened enough to cut.

By the time Marcus's stomach had a chance to sour, the driver had swept into motion.

He wind milled his left arm, catching Gavin's staff and yanking the weapon free. Gavin gave a startled cry and then doubled over with a woof as the driver shoved the quarterstaff into his gut.

Phillip tried to move forward, but Gavin and the narrow road kept him pinned.

The driver wheeled again, swiping the staff at Phillip's temple. Phillip raised a defensive forearm, blocking the blow but earning a bone-snapping crunch.

While Phillip howled, Marcus leapt into the opening. He swiped his blade at the driver's billowing cloak but caught only fabric. The driver grasped his own hem, twirled once and the cloth coiled around Marcus's arm like a snake. With a tug, the corkscrew of cape tightened and Marcus’s fingers began going numb.

Marcus tried hacking at the fabric with his free blade, but the driver yanked. Marcus dropped both knives to cushion his fall. The quarterstaff whirled in his peripheral vision. The last glimpse Marcus had was the end of the stick coming toward the back of his head and then in a blinding flash, the world turned to pitch.

Eventually, dawn gleamed through the branches and wormed through Marcus’s shut lids. He grimaced and squeezed his eyes closed as the shards of light pierced his brain. He noted, however, someone using his head like a drum. Opening one eye a slit, he saw the empty bridge dappled in the morning but no drummer in sight. Touching the back of his head, he snapped his fingers away from the bulbous lump he discovered on his skull.

With a groan he shoved up onto his hands and knees. The world spun. He waited for the trees to point toward the sky again before sitting upright. He spotted Gavin, curled into a fetal ball and snoring, while Phillip leaned against a tree, his arm in a splint. Like his, their masks had vanished.

"You awake?" asked Marcus. He winced as his own voice amplified the swollen throb beating on his head.

"Yeah," said Phillip without opening his eyes. He gave Gavin a shove with his boot.

Gavin jolted awake, pebbles sticking to his cheek. "What? Hum?"

"Time to get up," said Phillip.

"Oh. Hey, we're still in the woods." Gavin wiped his nose with his sleeve.

Formulating a witty retort swelled the lump on Marcus’s head. He stood instead and looked around for his blades.

"They're up there," said Gavin, pointing and then gathering the broken halves of his quarterstaff.

Marcus followed the stout finger. Both of his knives jutted out of the bark, out of reach and far enough away from any branches to make retrieving them more of an ordeal than Marcus thought he could muster. With a wave, he dismissed them for later and then extended his hand to Gavin.

Once Gavin reached his feet, they turned to Phillip. He batted them aside his one good hand and stood on his own.

"Some heroes we turned out to be," said Phillip.

Marcus snorted and shook his head before thinking better of it. Gavin caught him as he wobbled, and shoulder to shoulder, the trio lumbered toward home.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Morning After - No. 37

Joan sloughed her fuzzy plum bathrobe over her pajamas and trundled out of her bedroom, nose bent on the scent of freshly brewed coffee.

"You're back," she said spotting Nell staring out the window at dawn breaking over their slim view of the city.

She wore the same strappy dress she had when she'd left the night before, a clinging maroon and velvet ensemble hugging her curves and ending halfway up her thighs. A mane of amber hair had lost some of its bounce and drooped at her bare shoulders. Her painted toes drummed the kitchen tiles, freed from the matching stilettos.

Nell shrugged and stroked manicured fingers along her naked arms.

Joan dug out her mug, the sugar jar and bottle of creamer and mixed together her morning concoction. She plucked another mug from the cupboard and filled it halfway.

"Bad night?" she asked, offering the untainted beverage.

"Hum?" Nell tore her gaze away from the fog drenched skyscrapers and took the drink. "Thanks."

Leaning against the counter, Joan cupped her mug at her waist. She rubbed one eye and stared at the Van Gogh Sunflower print across the narrow kitchen, hanging above the small dining table cluttered with unopened mail, salt and pepper shakers and her telephone. She joined Nell with a few tentative sips on the scalding brew and waited for her roommate to find her tongue.

"It's really over this time," whispered Nell.

"What’d Sam do now?"

"He's just..." Nell let out a throaty groan. "It's like he can cast this spell on me when we're together. I'll agree to anything and readily dump all my plans."

"Money and charm can do that."

"Yeah, but I don't want that, you know? I have plans, I have goals. I can't just be a trophy he can wear like an accessory whenever he needs a pretty face around."

"Have you told him this? Maybe Sam doesn't know how you feel. How he's making you feel."

Nell rolled her eyes and glared out the window.

"I'm not like you and Sam’s definitely not like Jeremy. We can't just talk and make everything okay."

Joan winced and hunched into her robe. Morning began lightening Nell's thoughts and with an expulsive sigh, she put her back to the view. Joan latched onto Van Gogh’s flowers, and ignored Nell's glance toward the front door where her stilettos, Joan's flats and assortment of other women’s shoes cluttered the foyer.

"Jeremy's not here is he?" asked Nell.

Joan shook her head and started counting the sunflower’s petals.

Nell took one of the two seats at the kitchen table, daintily crossing one leg over the other. Joan looked away as Nell’s gaze latched onto her like a fish on a hook. "What happened?"

A long exhale bled out of Joan, preceding the speculation keeping her up most of the night. "I think he wants to see other people."

"You think?" Nell cocked a skeptical brow. "That's usually not something so indecisive."

Joan shook her head and waggled one hand. "He kept talking about this new Saucier at the restaurant. She's so talented, she has great ideas, she's worked here, she’s worked there. He practically gave me her whole resume."

"She pretty?"

Joan shrugged and bounced her fingernail against the mug. "I guess. He introduced me when I headed over after work before their dinner run. Peachy cheeks, curly black hair and blue eyes. Medium height and curves she knows how to handle."

"So like you?"

Joan forced down a mouthful of coffee and stared at Nell.

She shrugged and assumed her "who-me?" expression, driven home with an innocent smile.

Wincing, Joan stared into her creamy brew.

"So based on all this "evidence"," said Nell, complete with the air quotes, "you think Jeremy wants this new girl?"

"Well...they have so much more in common and she was all bubbly and..." Joan tossed back her tousled curls and batted her eyelashes at an imagined Jeremy standing at her side. With a sigh, she slumped back onto the counter. "He called last night and I've never heard him come up with so many apologetic excuses when he was explaining why they wanted to show her all the late night chef spots and why I couldn't come along. It wasn't like him."

"Ouch..." Nell gnaws her lower lip. "That doesn't sound good."

Joan waved away the sympathy and veered the conversation back on course. "What are you going to do?"

Nell sighed and traced her finger around the lip of her cup. "Shower. Change. Go to work."

"I meant..."

"I know what you meant." She stood and drained her mug. "We can drown in ice cream tonight, okay?"

Joan chuckled. "Sounds good."

Her telephone chimed with a distinctive tone, illuminating the screen with a smiling face reflected in the salt shaker. Joan clutched her coffee and stared at the pixilated image of Jeremy.

"Aren't you going to answer?" asked Nell.

"If I don't talk to him, I can't know for sure," said Joan, turning to the counter and the bulbous cookie jar.

Nell scoffed. "You hypocrite."

"Hey," said Joan, extracting a chocolate chunk round with Jeremy's chef prints all over it.

"He at least calls," said Nell as the telephone buzzing died. "I probably won't hear from Sam until he has another "function" I'm supposed to jump to attend." Nell scooped up the phone and waggled the mute device in a hypnotic rhythm. "Call him back."

Frowning, Joan followed the phone back and forth, trapped in the movement. She flinched when Nell seized the cookie and replaced the treat with the phone.

"Go on, or you're going to be late to work." Nell took one large bite and her eyes fluttered as her chewing slowed to savor the morsel. "At least get another batch of these out of him before you kick him to the curb. They’ll go great with Ben and Jerry."

Joan quirked her mouth into a half grin while her gaze remained locked on the blank screen. She set down her coffee without shifting her eyes; her indecisive thumb hovering over the redial button.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Brain Teasers - No. 34

The ticking stopwatch in Helen's dream rattled with an alarm firmly based in reality. The hazy image of a classroom, chalkboard and longed for recess faded as she opened her eyes. Morning trickled through gauze curtains tugged to either side of paneled window before her desk, the fabric cinched with neat bows.

"You ready?" Her mother's shout from down the stairs pierced the last cloud of sleep.

Helen snapped upright in her chair, the cover of her workbook pulling away from her cheek. Pencils rolled away and clattered onto the carpet. A lunge later, she slammed her hand on the bleating alarm clock by her unmade bed. In a pastel swirl, she swapped out enough of her sweater and jean ensemble to avoid looking like she wore the same thing as yesterday, shoveled the books into her button-strewn backpack and stormed out of her bedroom.

"You're going to be late," chided Sammy.

Helen tossed his arrogant smirk a glare as he lingered beneath the Keep Out sign on his door. "Shut it."

"Mom..." he howled, feigning hurt.

Helen rolled her eyes and took the stairs like a dribbled basketball. She bounced off the final step as her mom came out of the kitchen.

"Eat," she said, thrusting a banana.

Helen crinkled her nose. "I'm okay."

"This is a big day," said her mom, donning a jacket and slinging her everything-but-the-sink purse over her shoulder. "You'll need it." Tossing the banana, she blew out the front door.

Helen bobbled the piece of fruit and sighed as she followed her mom outside and into the waiting honeysuckle yellow van. Hopping into the front seat, she striped the banana of its skin and began munching while her mom curved them around the cul-de-sac.

"Did you bring your books? Clock? Water bottle?"

Helen thumped the pack by her feet and stared at the passing neighborhood and line of budding trees.


She shrugged. "It's just a test right?"

"Right, but it's an important test. This is going to help you get into college."

"I know, I know."

Her mom got the message and turned up the radio. A reporter started interviewing people half a world away about the current disaster in the headlines and then cut to a professional in the field.

Helen stared out the window and fought to work out the definitions of their multi-syllabic euphemisms and terminology. Her stomach churned around the half eaten banana as she continued coming up blank.

"Do I have to take it today?" she asked, her whisper fogging the window.

"Do you not think you're ready?"

Helen shrugged.

"You've been working through all those books we got right?"

"Kind of," said Helen beneath a wince.

Her mom blew out a long sigh, the kind she used when the pot on the stove boiled over or traffic seized up on the highway.

Helen gathered her backpack into her lap and hugged her arms around the ivy green bundle. The crisp edges of the study guides and vocabulary tomes bit through the canvas. She half hoped the knowledge within the pages she had skimmed could soak into her skin and settle in her brain for the next few hours.

"It's too late to worry about it now," said her mom, flicking on the blinker and turning toward school. "Just read the directions and keep your head. You're a smart girl, you'll do fine."

Helen gave a non-committal grunt and latched onto the end of the drop off line disgorging students like rats from sinking ships.

"Here's good," she said, fingers on the door handle.

"See you at noon."

Helen hopped out of the van and slung on her pack.

"Good luck," said her mom.

"Right..." Helen slammed the door and trotted onto the sidewalk with the rest of the wide-eyed students.

"Hey, Helen!" Tai waved from the front steps leading up into the concrete fortress of Roosevelt High, while cradling a stack of cards in her other nimble hand.

Helen angled through the throng making their way inside.

"What's that?" she asked, pointing at the Tai’s deck.

"Vocabulary cards." Tai waggled the first off the stack, revealing a Sharpied word and then a definition on the other side, written in her neat hand.

"Wow...I didn't think..." Helen looked down at her empty hands and plucked at her sweater's hem.


"That you'd been studying so hard."

"Ha! With my parents?" Tai waved the inch thick wad of index cards like a fan. "This is maybe a quarter of them. If I never see another card again it'll be too soon."

"Yeah..." said Helen.

"Come on, I want to see if I get a seat by the windows. They say sunlight can help with brain function."

"Who says?" asked Helen as they melded with the rest and ascended the final steps.

Tai shrugged. "I forget. One of the books my dad was reading about standardized tests."

"Your dad's been studying too?"

"No, they just want me to do my best you know?" She exhaled and brought a smile to her chap-sticked lips, but the worry in her eyes failed to budge. "I'm the first in my family who could go to college. They want to make sure I do well."

"But it's just a test. I mean if you study so much aren't you going to throw off your score or something? Make yourself seem smarter than you really are?"

"Says 'Ms. I can learn anything'."

"Give me a break. I study too."

Tai laughed but her nerves cast her voice into atmospheric octaves. "You? Study? I haven't seen you look at our books longer than in class and for homework and you still have better grades than me."

Helen blushed and fought a wave of guilt. "But I'm not coordinated enough to play the piano or shoot a basketball."

"Well, I don't think the test cares about that unless there's a section on rapid tapping or the directions say toss-into-trashcan." Tai flipped through the cards again, silently mouthing definitions.

Helen peeked at the next word: Salubrious and grimaced.

Glancing up at the passing door signs, she spotted those for last names ending in N-Q and tugged Tai across the hall and into the classroom. Rows of desks sprouted like a metallic buds in a tile garden. A tented label with each person's name indicated their seat.

"I bet you're over there," said Helen as she noted the alphabetical arrangement.

"Perfect!" Tai tittered her way over to a seat bathed in sunlight as if the clouds had parted to illuminate nothing but that one spot.

Helen shook her head as Tai wiggled into her seat and began flashing through her cards with the vigor of a man eating his last meal. She found her place in the middle of the room and waved a good morning to the others sitting with itchy fingers and tense faces.

"Take your seats, take your seats!" The Proctor, Mrs. Carmichael, surged into the room. The English teacher had replaced her typical business attire with jeans and a Roosevelt High sweat shirt.

She looks almost like a normal person, thought Helen.

A scuff of chair legs and sneakers preceded plops of late comers down onto creaking chairs. Carmichael cast her glacier eyes upon the room and gained silence without another word. A nod later and she closed the door and started in on the instructions.

The same rules and regulations as had been explained during practice sessions in class rolled out of the needle thin teacher. Helen licked her lips and started a staring contest with the sealed booklet in front of her, Carmichael’s oratory washing over like waves on a beach. The hum of her speech wound down and in time with the rest of the room, Helen plucked up a number-two pencil, tinged with a faint burning from its fresh sharpening, and poised herself above the test.

"You may begin."

Front covers rustled like a flock of startled birds taking wing. The scratch of carefully colored ovals mingled with rapid breaths and the ticking of the clock above the door.

Helen tuned them all out. Gripping her pencil and grasping her lower lip with her teeth, she dove into one set of mathematical queries after another. Percentages, equations and word problems filled the gray tinged pages in an unending swath of brain testers. Scribbling out problems on to the provided scratch paper, Helen selected one of the four letters on the Scantron for one question after another.

"Five minutes," said Carmichael.

Helen glanced up at the clock and back at the book before her. The blur of ovals crystallized into rows of unanswered questions. Twirling the pencil in her hand she started flipping pages, counting the number remaining and skimming to see if any of the equations seemed simpler than the rest.

She squeezed her eyes closed as the first wave of panic threatened to overwhelm her. Drawing a determined breath, she struggled through the remaining questions and marked her answers on the Scanton.

The first session ended and she, like everyone else, sagged into chairs and stared blankly at the ceiling. Glancing over her shoulder she spotted Tai. The sun hadn't dwindled and her friend gave a tentative thumbs-up along with a wobbly smile.

"And now my favorite," said Carmichael as the break wound down. "Writing!" She walked down the aisle, distributing more sealed packets waiting to turn gray matter into mush. She read the directions, again, and then the flock of weary birds soared once more, heads bent, pencils scribbled while brains synapses wearily fired.

The end came nearly as quickly as with Mathematics. Helen blew out a relieved breath however when she managed to get to the last analogy before the five minute warning. She hopped back over her work and added graphite to some uncompleted bubbles.

The Critical Reading segment followed. By the time Carmichael warned of the nearing stop time, Helen's fingers were numb from the taut grip on the pencil. Everyone thumped closed their booklets and tossed down writing instruments. A collective exhale threatened to blow away the walls.

Carmichael regulated their departure, and everyone shuffled outside like soldiers dazed from battle.

Helen wasn't sure her brain was even controlling her body any more, but her feet seemed to understand the need to leave. She found herself on the sidewalk and slowed before stumbling into Tai who had been gathered into her parents embrace. Her mother had a bouquet of carnations in hand and they chatted over one another with a barrage of questions and answers about the test.

Helen gave a quiet wave she wasn't sure Tai noticed and headed down the line of cars.

"How'd it go?" asked her mom as Helen slumped into the passenger seat.

She rubbed her hands over her face, stirring blood and willing her brain to return to normal working order. "I don't know. It happened so fast. I got in there and poof it was over."

"I'm sure you did great."

Helen shrugged and leaned her head against the window, careful to not let the weighted lump shatter the glass. "I guess we'll see when the results come out, right?"

"Right. For now, how about lunch? Ben and Jerry's sound good?"

Helen snorted and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, sure. I could use a good brain freeze."

Monday, April 4, 2011

One Last Look - No. 31

The lights on the dash illuminated one by one. Crackling laces of electricity wound through the system, encircling Vara like a halo. The timer in her mind ticked down another notch as she flipped on the intercom.

"Counting down," she said into the hovering mouthpiece before her lips.

"Copy," said Medri.

Even from orbit, the nervousness in his voice chilled her stomach.

Vara clicked the last of the switches. With a shudder, the rockets lining her back rumbled and shook the shuttle pod like a handful of dice.

"10," she whispered, even though she suspected Medri had his hands full with the other departures.

The clear panel of glass revealed the fading dusk in shades of ochre and amber, tinged with charcoal columns where the mammoth bonfires now raged through once populated cities.

Staring up into the specked stars, Vara worked down to 1 and grasped the plastic armrests. The pod shivered and then vaulted into the air. Streaks of clouds licked the visor as the pod surged through the sky. Momentum pressed her flat against the chair but she kept her eyes open, staring forward at the growing darkness waiting to swallow her whole.

Come on, come on, she urged.

The rockets popped with a transition into secondary thrusters as the horizon curved. The pressure on her chest ebbed as the dome of space greeted her. Her bangs lifted from her sweat stained brow and the dash blazed with her orbital position and the other looming ships. All but one glimmered in sun-dappled silver, all but one was here to help.

She locked eyes on the pearl hued behemoth, dangling upside down like a falling drop of paint about to splatter a pristine floor.

Snapping the intercom, she said, "I'm out."

"Good. Locking on," said Medri. "I should have you tucked away before it blows."

"Just get me out of here," said Vara as her internal tally rolled on.

Medri's beam took hold of her pod, swinging the orbital into a docking alignment. The stars smeared for a moment and then Earth spun into view. The orb dangled in the dark, a swirl of cerulean, ivory, viridian, sand and mud. Spewing from the surface shot one pod or ship after another, streaming like poured water into the surrounding space. The planet winked as sunlight gleamed off the atmosphere and then shrank as Medri pulled her toward their waiting vessel.

"I'm sorry," Vara whispered.

She withdrew the contents of her suit's breast pocket and stared down at the onyx sliver. The blade-shaped stone filled her palm, weighing her hand down with a feigned density.

"You had to bring it here, didn't you?"

A surge of power from the behemoth replied.

Vara wrapped her fingers around the sliver. The edges bit into her palm as she squeezed tight.

Out of the viewer, an iridescent ripple cascaded across the behemoth, focusing to a point at the droplet's peak. The energy pooled, growing brighter and brighter as Vara's countdown crept toward a finish.

"Right on time," she said as the behemoth's beam snapped into existence. The line shot from the ship's pointed tip straight into the equator, tying one to the other.

Vara lifted her hand, partially shading her eyes against the blinding glow. She settled her gaze on the bulbous ship and her lips coiled into a mirthless smile as the beam intensified, thickening with each passing second.

Around her, the pod shuddered as the docking clamps latched on. Her panel dimmed as their vessel took control.

"Gottcha," said Medri. "You..." He banged his hand against his communicator as he spoke to someone else nearby. "She wouldn't have launched without it."

"Are you sure?" asked a low bass.

Paranoid, Reg? Vara mused.

"She just got out-."

"Give me that." The communicator rattled, and Reg's grumble blasted into her ear. "V? You have it?"

Vara tightened her grip on the sliver as she flicked on her vocals. "Of course I have it."

"Good." The mouthpiece bashed again while the two made a second exchange. "Let's go," Reg bellowed to the rest of the crew on the main deck.

"Nice," whispered Medri.

Vara snorted. "We'll see." She winced and peeked around her fist. Her arm blocked the first explosion, but chunks of planet blew by in a flawless ring of debris. She settled her gaze on the droplet behemoth and the arrow straight beam.

Come on, she urged, rolling the sliver in her hand.

The beam blazed with a final blast and then the behemoth shuddered. Energy surged from the tip and Vara squinted, lowering her hand to watch the last moments unhindered.

A backlash of power surged up the beam, rebounding off the husked remains of the planet. As if struck by a swift blow, the behemoth staggered and fought to stumble away from the surge pushing counter to its fire and stuffing energy back down its muzzle. The power poured into the behemoth's barrel and the ship swelled like an inflated balloon. As it had done to the now shattered planet, the vessel imploded under its own ammunition. Pearl shards rebounded off of hunks of earth until a pair of shattered circles loomed against the speckled backdrop of space.

That's what you get for coming after us, Vara whispered. She stowed away the sliver while watching the rings dissipating like ripples in a pond.

"Damn," said Medri. "Did you see that?"

"Yeah." Vara glanced up as she unbuckled the belts keeping her strapped to the pod's chair. The obliterated ship and planet clanked against the pod like pebbled rain.

Medri's sigh filled the silence. "Reg wants you up here."

"I figured." Blowing out a long breath, she yanked off the headset and looped the communicator onto its stand. She hefted out of the seat with a jangle of straps and buckles. Ducking low, she bashed a finger onto the door panel and after a vacuum hiss, exited the pod.

Steel corridors laced with sterilized air greeted her with stretches of artificial sunlight trapped in tubes lining the ceiling. Down either end, the mumbles of conversation and rushing feet echoed.

Standing upright, Vara grasped hold of the corrugated panels overhead, stretching weary muscles and stiffened limbs. The dark interior of the hatch gaped behind her, the maw joined by the tinkling of debris.

Vara released her grasp and sagged into the artificial gravity.

"Come on," she said, staring at her sneakered feet. "The war's not over yet."