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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Heirloom - No. 121

Edna slipped her liver-spotted hand into her purse, touching the velvet box nestled between her address book, prescription bottles and wallet.

You won't mind, will you, Walter? she silently asked the ghostly presence riding at her shoulder.

The bus’ blasting air conditioner and struggling engine replied, both surging her through town with rugged determination.

A smile crept onto her thin lips as the vision in her mind's eye beamed a paternal grin. Withdrawing her hand, Edna clasped her purse closed, and rested her arms upon the supple, chocolate-hued leather. She played with the now-lone ring on her left hand with her right’s wrinkled fingers, and adjusted to the changed weight.

Outside, the blocks passed, store fronts and apartment buildings blurring at each of the bus' accelerations.

Edna checked her slim watch, and then noted the street signs. As the expected time and destination neared, she pressed the stop-request cord, and began assembling herself for the rendezvous.

Swaying up onto her sturdy flats, she shook out each pant leg in a vain attempt to rid the oatmeal colored linen from wrinkles. Her off-white blouse clung on her shoulders, and she made sure her twist of salted blonde hair remained securely clasped. Slipping her purse into the crook of her arm, Edna made her way to the front, stopping with her toes touching the yellow line.

The driver, squeezed behind the wheel like an about-to-be-crushed tomato, kissed the front tire against the curb, and then braked at the blue sign with a bold number 32.

Beside the sign, stood Ned, his lanky arms and legs sprouting from a sage polo shirt and pastel-checkered shorts. He ran a hand through his shaggy hair, and swayed to either foot like a metronome.

The driver pulled the lever, opening the door.

"Thank you," said Edna.

"Have a good day, ma’am."

Edna grasped the railing and descended, the humid summer afternoon cradling her exit.

"Hi, Mrs. Blaine." Ned stepped up to the curb, and then paused a pace away, as if unsure how close manners allowed him to stand.

"Oh come now," said Edna. She gestured him forward, and coiled one arm around his neck while he bent and gave her a delicate hug. As they parted, she noted the youthful anxiety pouring out of him as easily as the sweat at his brow. "Where’s Gail?"

"Shopping with Vicki."

"And what's your cover story?" Edna started for the nearby stretch of awnings and their shade, Ned quickly matching her stride with crackling flip-flops.

"I'm hitting the hardware store. The kitchen sink's been acting up."

"I see," said Edna, her mouth firming.

Ned stuffed his hands into his pockets as if to take back his slip referencing their domestic arrangement. His shoulders tightened.

From Edna's memory came Walter's voice. "He's a good catch for her."

"You're right," whispered Edna.

"Hum?" asked Ned. His mahogany eyes filled with concern.

She waved him off, and stopped by a towering shelf of wilted ferns by the hardware store’s automatic entrance. "Be sure to make that repair or else she's going to suspect something."

Ned's smile bloomed. "I will. I won't be able to make her dinner with a busted sink."

"Is that when you're going to ask?"

He dropped his gaze to his flip-flops, head bobbing like a dribbled ball. "I've got it all worked out. Roses, music, wine-."

Edna raised a hand, and he stumbled into silence. "Let her tell me the details."

"I think she'll like that."

"It seems like you have many things to do so let's not be dallying." Edna opened her purse and dug for the box. Although rust flecked the hinge, the rest of the dark blue velvet shone from the fresh brushing she had given it before heading for the bus.

Opening the lid, Edna rested the box in her palm, and offered the interior for Ned's inspection.

He licked his lips, and his whole body stiffened. "It's beautiful. I mean, it was always beautiful, especially when you were wearing it, but, ah…." Wincing, he ceased his rambling and found a point. "Are you sure you don't mind?"

"I don't."

His brow creased. He opened and closed his mouth like a desperate fish.

"Her father wouldn’t either," said Edna.

Ned sagged, as if melted an inch by the heat. With a snap of the lid, Edna passed over the box. He took it in two trembling hands.

"Thank you," said Ned, "I know it'll mean a lot to Gail."

"I was honored you asked." Edna folded her hands at her waist, and caught him in a stern stare. "You have to promise me something though, before we're done here."

He gulped. "Yes Mrs. Blaine?"

"You promise me you'll be as good to her as you have been all these years."

"I'll be even better."

"Good. Or else I'm going to be coming back for my ring, Darryl and Martin in tow."

"If you or your sons feel you need to knock some sense into me, then I'm sure I'll deserve it."

"Well, I'll let Gail have the first crack. That's a wife's prerogative."

"I'll remember that."

Edna held his gaze for another heartbeat. Ned didn't waver.

She softened her scowl into a faint grin. "I should be off, but I’ll be expecting a call soon, tissues ready."

"Did you want to get a drink? Iced coffee or something? I feel bad that you've come all this way just to turn around."

"Nonsense, I have errands to run, and so do you."

"Right." Ned gave the box an extra look before slipping it into his pocket. "We'll see you soon, I'm sure."

"I'll hold you to that."

She encompassed Ned in another hug, this one returned with greater ease. With a wave, Ned strode around the stack of ferns, vanishing through the hardware store’s doors.

“Now,” said Edna to herself, “what’s next?”

Scanning the nearby businesses, she spotted a drugstore and set off across the street with a furtive dab at her eyes. Within the store’s arctic air, Edna set her sights on procuring the necessary tissues and a card of congratulations for whenever Gail’s moment arrived.

Simple Things - No. 118

"Hey, Great Uncle Barry!”

Barry winced, and stared at the cards in his hand.

Like a train run off its track, Eddie thumped against the side of the kitchen table, jiggling the piles. Lifting up on his tiptoes, he peeked over the edge. "What are you and Auntie Paula doing?"

"Playing cards," said Barry. He neatened the discards, then drew two from the draw pile, and tossed one back into the face-up stack in the center of the table.

"Want to watch?" Paula pushed back, her chair squeaking against the tiles, and waved Eddie toward her.

Eddie frowned at the cards arranged before her in crisp rows of alternating black and red suits. “I guess so,” he said, hopping into her lap.

Leaning onto the table, Eddie touched the rounded corners experimentally, and then picked up the last discard. He flipped over the five of spades, scowled at the paisley backing, and then set the card onto the stack again with care.

"How do you play?"

Paula shifted him to one knee. "Let me show you." She encircled Eddie with her arms and revealed her hand. "You draw two," she said, doing so, "and then see if you have anything that matches." Her eight of hearts and Jack of diamonds failed to find a partner so she slipped them into place and discarded a four of clubs. "Then you have to give back one."

"That's it?" Eddie cocked his head, and began picking his nose.

"No," said Barry, taking his turn. "If you get three of the same number, you can put them onto the table and add to them later, regardless of the suit. Each card earns a certain number of points. The idea is to get rid of all of your cards and have one left for the discard pile, then you’re out and whatever’s left in your opponents hand counts against their point total."

"Oh," said Eddie. He slumped back against Paula's shoulder with a yawn while she drew and sloughed a six. "Aren't there any timers or a board or lights or something?"

"No," said Barry. "Just two decks and four jokers. That’s one hundred and eight cards."

Eddie wiggled, and swung his legs so his bare feet smacked against the table’s underside. The two piles shifted and the rows skittered out of alignment.

“Why don’t you go for a swim?” asked Barry.

“I’m tired of the pool,” said Eddie.

"And I’m sure it’s a little dark for that anyway. I think Frank and the others might be downstairs." Paula raised her arms, while keeping her hand shielded from Barry.

Eddie leapt for the opening, dashing across the kitchen and through the door leading to the basement. Laughter and electronic voices echoed up the stairwell before the door slammed closed.

"You'd think he'd never played cards before," said Barry.

"I don't think he really understood your explanation of the rules."

"You know what else they're missing these days?"

"I have a feeling you're going to tell me," said Paula. She scooped up his discarded Queen and laid down five ladies alongside the Kings already on the table.

"Simple stuff like reading a book, watching the sun set, going to swim somewhere not purified by chemicals."

"The lake’s fish poop is better?"

Barry sighed, examined at his hand, and then his gaze washed across her face-up cards. "How many do you have left?"

"Three," said Paula, without looking at the two Jacks and lingering eight. "What do you expect from these kids? They're growing up in a different time than us."

"I know, I know. I just wish they could enjoy something simple, like this." He discarded a Jack.

Paula pounced. Plucking the discard, she set down the trio of face cards, and then tossed down the eight.

"No fan-fare or swirling lights to accompany your victory?" asked Barry.

"No, but I'll have another glass of wine. Do you want one or would you prefer chocolate milk to go with your whining and losing streak?"

"Ouch." He rubbed above his heart. "You know I'm a simple man."

"You deal, I'll pour."

Smiling, Paula heaved up to her feet, grabbed both their empty glasses, and headed for the open bottle in the refrigerator. Behind her, Barry tallied points, shuffled and then distributed another hand. She emptied the bottle, and padded back to the table while a summer breeze swept through the screen door. Offering Barry his glass, she sat. He held out his wine, and she clinked against his.

"Now," he said, taking a sip and then delving into his cards. "Let’s show those kids how to really have a good time."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Trim - No. 112

The door chimes tinkled like breaking glass as I entered the salon. The swish, of a broom upon tile and hair, stopped.

"Can I help you?" asked a bubbly voice, muffled by the curtain separating the waiting area from the interior.

"I'm looking for a wash and haircut." I let the door close, and yanked off my knit cap. My blonde curls tumbled onto my shoulders in a heap of knots and frayed ends. Standing in the artful gloom created by stain glass bulbs dangling like heavy blooms from the steel ceiling, I scrunched the troublesome mess.

A thud echoed from behind the curtain, and a petite woman with a pixie hairdo appeared between the velvet folds. Her black attire nearly made her fade into the shadows cast by the doorframe, but her marble face beamed like a full moon, complete with navy-blue lips stretched in a feline grin.

"Oh, looks like you need it too!" Hopping down the step leading into the back, she dipped behind the receptionist’s desk. She clicked on the mouse while dwarfed by the lone computer monitor and stacks of leather bound books. "Just let me check my schedule."

"Thanks." Gripping my cap, I swallowed the sudden hope of an imminent customer, and swiveled to absorb the brief foyer.

Empty, leatherback chairs lined the walls while shelves of various hair products reached toward the ceiling in a rainbow collection. All of the bottles carried labels, but I didn't recognize the usual brands. The titles appeared in a sloping font, like some calligrapher’s manic scrawl. I neared the closest wall, but the hairdresser let out a little squeak and I turned back.

"How perfect!" She radiated with a broader smile. "I don't have another appointment until 4." Rounding the corner, she pulled one edge of the curtain, and gestured toward the entrance. "This way."

I glanced at the gaping maw, tinged with glittering hints of light. My imagination offered frightening sources for the illuminations, but I shook my head. Willing away the childish notions of medieval contraptions waiting in the dark, I returned the hairdresser’s grin, and followed her indicating hand.

Rows of dressing room lights glinted above two mirrors, each bulb replicated upon all of the reflective surfaces like watchful eyes. Both chairs sat empty, but one faced a bare counter, unoccupied by the usual tools cluttering the opposite station. The hairdresser clicked on the monitor as I entered, causing the more chaotic of the two workstations to brighten. As I neared the associated chair, my boots squeaked upon the pristine tiles, the screech ricocheting on the metal and glass as the lone noise in the whole salon.

"Do you have anyone else working here?" I asked.

"No. Just me at the moment." She set a sign on the desk and I caught the last word, "Later", in the same flowing script as on the bottles.

"Have a seat," she said, closing the curtain, and blocking sight of the exit.

Ice filled my stomach as the snowy sidewalk outside vanished behind the thick fabric. The hairdresser, however, floated by wafting with confidence, seized the chair’s headrest and spun the seat toward me.

"Feel free to hang your coat there." She pointed toward a hook I hadn't noticed beside the mirror. Then, humming a ragged tune, she set about aligning her combs and brushes before investigating the drawers and retrieving an array of clips.

I figured leaving now would only be rude and so I shrugged out of my coat. I hung the bulky layer on the hook, and stuffed the pockets with my hat and scarf. When I turned back, the hairdresser ceased her awkward melody, and tilted her head to the side, like an inquisitive bird. Her eyes, like glass, marched over my hair.

“Yes, exactly,” she whispered as if speaking to someone else. After a visible shiver trembled up her body, she met my eyes again. "Sit, sit.” She patted the rounded armrest and with a titter, dove into another drawer, her humming returning.

I watched her digging for a moment, and then, feeling gawkily tall in the small room, perched myself onto the swiveling chair. My reflection stared back for only a moment before she spun me, so I faced the monochrome wall instead. I nearly jumped as she began prodding my nest of hair with needle-like fingers.

"So,” she said, jabbing and tugging, “how did you find my little shop?"

“My brother lives in the neighborhood. He mentioned noticing your store.”

“That’s excellent. We’ll have to get him in here next.”

“Yeah,” I said, convinced he’d give this place one look and start running.

Her first pass over my scalp ended and she draped me with a drop cloth as heavy as a protective X-ray vest. My stomach descended like a stone and I gripped the lip of the chair, fighting off the feeling of being trapped. Her off-kilter humming resumed in full force, setting my teeth on edge as if she had scraped her nails down a chalkboard. When she gripped my shoulder with a vice-touch, all my apprehensions gathered together with a single demand to leave.

"You know what?" I wiggled out from under her hold and stood, trivially towering over the smaller woman. "I just realized I need to go. I...have another appointment."

Her smile switched off like a light. "No, you don't. That’s a lie."

I offered her the drop cloth even though my gut told me she wouldn’t accept. My gaze, however, was drawn to the scissors in her hand, each leg snapping together and then apart like slow clomping jaws. I froze as the light gleamed along the sharp edges.

A petrified second passed between us before she laughed a rapturous shriek. Her smile rebounded with sickly-sweetness.

"Sit," she said.

The command watered my knees, and I plummeted back into the leather with the drop cloth weighing down my lap. She stroked my hair while the scissors clicked by my right ear.

"You came to get your hair done,” she whispered, “and you’re not leaving until I’m through."

Locking my gaze on the inky brick, I hoped whatever came next, she’d at least be quick.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Run - No. 97

Who knew two days would make so much of a difference? As I looked into the bathroom mirror, I searched for any sign of my old self, the inquisitive but cheery one I'd been forty-eight hours before.

Bloody veins now rimmed my muddy-brown eyes. My olive skin seemed paler and dotted with scrapes and cuts from the shrapnel. Newly shorn tufts of once shoulder-length and chestnut hair, recently dyed to an inky-ebony, stuck out in a pillow-inspired halo. With shoulders hunched beneath fatigue, the muscles in my back and legs added their yearning to return to bed and cease keeping me upright. I leaned onto the counter and stared into the motel's pristine sink.

Like my reflection, the unfamiliar surface gazed back with just enough familiarity to set my nerves on edge. A haunting sense of déjà vu caused me to shiver. Then, a knock on the door made me flinch.

"We need to get moving." Paul's voice, steady, calm and only slightly muffled, sent another chill across my skin.

The alteration in his tone, and his actions during the past day left me apprehensive. His typical professorial demeanor had been completely undermined by the gun fight, car chase and the depth of his knowledge about being hunted. I gave the tiles at my feet a wary glance and then chided myself for worrying the floor might also reveal its true nature and shift into quicksand

"Yeah," I said, gripping the sink’s rim, "I'm going."

After a brief shower in the dregs of the hot water, I toweled off, and then tugged on the jeans and button-down shirt from yesterday. A bit of glass from the shattered windshield lingered on one sleeve, and added a fresh slice on my arm. I found the shard and tossed it down the drain.

Turning the facet off, I caught my reflection again. I raked a hand through my hair, as if to inspire some style. The locks, already dry, stuck out where they wanted and I gave up.

As I exited, Paul offered my bag. He'd already shouldered his pack, and I could see the bulges where he'd stowed his arsenal beneath his plain sports jacket. A baseball cap shaded his piercing blue stare.

"We're almost there," he said.

I think he was trying to make me feel better. Getting there, however, meant dealing with those who had undermined my life; who had come after me and my family with all the force of a SWAT team against a terrorist; who had made me look like a liar to my entire profession because I had found and voiced the truth.

Paul's friends, he assured me, would be able to set things right. I didn't by think by right he meant back to normal, but so long as I didn't ask him to clarify, I could live in a bit of delusion. I clung to the hope of regaining my original hair color and figured if everyone else simply survived, then this mess had turned out well.

I took my messenger bag and slung it over my chest, as I had every morning for the past three years. The documents I'd examined, and which had caused this clandestine journey, weighed upon me like the world itself.

"Ready?" he asked, hands stuffed innocuously into his jean’s pockets.

"No.” I drew a deep breath, knowing he’d grasp the sarcasm. I withdrew my matching hat and sunglasses, donning them with a sigh. “Let's get this over with."

He nodded, and led to the door where he unlocked the bolts before peeking into the hallway. After a stilled heartbeat, he beckoned, and slipped out of our room. I clenched my hands into fists and willed myself to follow.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Under the Fishbowl - No. 96

I didn't hear his message the first time around. I heard his voice. The words he spoke, however, vanished.

He was supposed to be dead. The thought repeated in my mind like a broken record until my phone's answering machine prompted me with options. I selected replay, and concentrated this time on what he was saying.

"Hi Bethany, this is Remy. I know this is awkward, that you probably think I'm dead. But I'm not, obviously." He chuckled mirthlessly at his joke, setting my teeth on edge. "I do need your help though. I left something where the fishbowl used to be. I need it back, but I can't risk coming after it myself. I’m being followed you see.” He sighed and my knees wobbled. “Please. Get it and go to where we first met, as soon as you can. I'll be waiting. I wish I could explain more now, but I hope you'll understand. I hope you'll help me. I hope I'll get to see you again." He paused as if thinking of more heart lancing words to use upon me. He settled on "Thanks, Bets," and hung up.

"You." I stopped before pitching the phone through my apartment’s window. Instead, I crumpled onto the couch, watching the dimming screen.

My bedroom door creaked, and Samuel padded into the living room.

"I thought that was you." He slowed in his venture toward a good morning kiss. "What's wrong?"

"He's alive," I whispered.


"Remy." I met the scowl breaking through his morning drowsiness.

"He's...." Samuel backpedaled, as if I'd slapped him in the face.

"He needs my help."

"You're help? Why you?"

I cringed and stared at my toes. My sneakers, stained with splashes of booze earned after another long night collecting tips for tuition, absorbed my voice. "I know where something is, something he apparently needs."

"You know? How?"



I looked up and saw Samuel’s face paling, like he'd seen a ghost.

"I thought he was dead," I said, as if that mistaken fact could repair the betrayal warping Samuel's angular features.

"So did I." He closed his flapping mouth when nothing else emerged.

I stood and rubbed at my temples, aligning my thoughts. "Fishbowl," I whispered.

Locking on the built-in bookcase, I strode across the postage-stamp room. A ring remained on the bottom shelf from the glass bowl where Remy had housed the goldfish he'd won shooting cardboard cutouts at the state carnival. The memory brought a grin to my face and a blush to my cheeks as I remembered where the evening had led.

"What is it?" asked Samuel. He neared, but hovered out of reach behind me. His gaze, however, burned against my ponytail.

"I'm not sure."

I ran my fingers along the crack between the shelf and the wall. Flecks of caulk came up, the putty clogging my nail and creating ivory pebbles. I kept scraping, and then wiggled the shelf. With a pop, the panel jumped free. I slid the board out of the grooves, and we both peered into the hole.

Occupying half of the crevice lay a burlap-wrapped bundle the size of my fist.

"Careful," said Samuel.

I gave him a grin over my shoulder, but my stomach quivered as he avoided my eyes. Steeling myself, I returned to the hidden treasure, and extracted the object. The surprising weight caused me to support it with my other hand. I pulled back the burlap and gasped.

Dawn glinted off the etched and golden surface of the round ball filling my palm.

"The Eye of Midas," whispered Samuel.

"The what?"

He frowned and plopped onto the coffee table, his gaze latched on the sphere. "Remy’s dad spent his whole life looking for it. He said it was the reason his parents separated. He used to tell me stories about it over drinks in the dorm." He shook his head. "And there it is."

"What does it do?"

Samuel straightened and his professorial tone slipped into his voice. "Legends say it can enable the user insight into people's thoughts, enable access to their minds, their dreams."

"What would Remy want with it?"

The academic demeanor vanished, and his hazel stare seized me like a vice. "Sounds like you're going to be able to ask him yourself."

I winced at the chill in his tone. "I guess so." I gathered my purse from beside him. Covering up the ball, I nestled the object between my wallet and phone.

Samuel rose. "Wait up, okay?"


"I'm not going to let you go by yourself." I stared up at him, his worry radiating like a mid-day sun. "And anyway, I have a few questions for him myself."

I nodded, mute, and went about reinstalling the shelf while Samuel dressed from the drawer I'd allowed him to commandeer two weeks earlier. He returned, decked in jeans and a tee-shirt rather than his usual slacks and tie. The attire made him look more like when we’d first met, when they’d been roommates and life had been less complicated.

I shouldered my purse, adjusting the straps to accommodate the extra weight. Together we headed out the door, down the stairs and to the sidewalk.

"No car?" he asked.

"We're going to Tillow Park."

"Why there?"

"It's where Remy wanted to meet."

He nodded and stuffed his hands into his pockets. I kept myself from slipping my hand through his arm, like I usually did when we went for walks. Instead, I seized my purse straps and kept our pace brisk while half of me wanted to hurry, the other half wanting to run the other way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Up Late - No. 92

If Arnold had gotten up ten minutes earlier, his stomach wouldn't have been growling. Instead, his alarm clock hadn't rung on time; he'd had to dig through his laundry basket for clean underwear; fling suit accoutrements across his bed searching for an appropriate combination; and scooped up the paperwork he'd left strewn over the table the night before. The usual toast and coffee he'd planned on nursing while he dressed and organized, had been left in the dust of his whirlwind exit.

From the curb before his stubby brownstone, Barry gave another two toots on his sedan's horn.

Arnold juggled his briefcase, jacket, computer and the reams of documents precariously balanced in his arms, before finding the latch and tumbling into the waiting car. "Sorry."

"It's all right," said Barry. He scrubbed at his trimmed beard and tapped at the steering wheel as Arnold clamored inside and shut the door. He dumped his case into the foot well, slung his coat over his lap along with the stacks, thumped his laptop on top and wiggled into the seatbelt.

"Got everything?" asked Barry.

"Just about."

"What did you forget?"

Arnold's stomach gave a protesting howl.

"Oh," said Barry.

"Do we have time to stop anywhere?"

Barry checked his watch. "You're joking right? She's going to be on edge as it is."

"Okay, okay."

Defeated, Arnold slouched into his seat as Barry pulled away from the sidewalk and melded into traffic. They snuck between hatchbacks and trucks, vans and sport cars, wending their way through the suburbs. Brake lights glowed as every stoplight flared in the same angry hue.

Arnold stared at the passing blocks, giving each coffee station and ubiquitous café a longing glance. "Next time I'm getting up earlier."

"You always say that."

Arnold smirked. Closing his eyes, he drifted toward sleep.

After an endless stream of slowdowns, rumbling stops and jerky accelerations, Barry turned on his blinker. "Brace yourself."

The warning pulled Arnold from the edge of slumber. "Here already?"

"Yeah," whispered Barry, "and who knows what kind of mood she's in this morning."

He pulled them up beside a claret suited woman dominating the curb before a glass-faced apartment building. The passenger door opened and Terra's heady floral perfume preceded her into the car. Arnold held his breath while she shuffled her bulk into the back. The entire car tilted and swayed like a ship on a rocky sea. With a huff and a grunt, she closed the door. The seatbelt thudded at the end of the strap and then clicked.

"Morning," she said through winded pants.

"Morning," said Arnold.

"What are we waiting for?"

"Right." Barry seized the steering wheel and began maneuvering back into traffic.

Terra adjusted her position in the back, jostling like a trapped elephant. Arnold shut his eyes as her knees poked through the seat and smacked his back. He avoided flinching when she snagged the headrest, along with a bit of his shower damp hair, and used the leverage to heft herself about. Rolling down the window an inch, he gained a reprieve from her clinging aroma, now soaking into his pores.

"We have the reports printed out?" asked Terra as she finished settling.

"Yes," said Arnold. He waved the paperwork and then decided to risk carsickness by reading through the text he had long since memorized. His stomach gave a nauseous rumble as Terra’s flowery scents and financial data failed to quell his hunger.

"And the account information?"

"All in the back," said Barry. "Take a look if you like."

Arnold heard the bolts on Barry's briefcase unlock, and then the rustle of more papers. A thud echoed by the time they'd reach the highway, their downtown destination hovering through the twisting web of concrete.

"Good,” said Terra, “then we've only forgotten one thing."

Arnold raced through his mental list, checking off everything including matching socks and the name of the client's children. "What?"


Arnold glanced over his shoulder in time to meet a cardboard tray occupied by two white paper cups, capped but with steam creeping through the slender holes in the lids. A baggie leaned against them, the sugary concoctions inside staining the recyclable paper. He stared past the decadence and met Terra's squinting blue eyes trapped behind her owlish glasses, framed by her helmet of cherry-red hair and pudgy salmon cheeks.

"I figure you'd be running behind," said Terra.

Arnold blinked and took the tray. "Thanks."

She gave him a curt nod. "I expect you both at your best."

Arnold brought the cup to his nose. The coffee smell finally wormed through the layers of Terra’s perfume, teasing him with earthy tones. His insides gurgled like an upturned water cooler and he took an initial sip, tempering his cravings. "This will definitely help."

"I figured."

Arnold swung back into his seat and handed over the second cup. Barry wielded the beverage with ease while swerving around a portly delivery truck.

"Pastry?" asked Arnold after a cursory investigation into the baggie.

"No, all yours," said Barry.

"Terra?" Arnold peeked over his shoulder again but froze.

Terra flattened her narrow lips and her eyes glistened like cut sapphires. "I'm cutting back."

“Oh,” said Arnold, sliding back into his seat. Saccharine compliments they'd both see through as easily as cellophane, leapt to his tongue. He swallowed them down with a bite of lemon curd Danish.

"Is it good?" asked Terra, the hard edge on her voice wavering.

Arnold brushed confectionary sugar from his lips. "No. Terrible."

Terra snorted and then a chuckle purred up from her ample torso. Barry released his tense grasp on the wheel, casually balancing his cup on his knee. With a growing grin, Arnold watched the oncoming skyscrapers, each sip and nibble making their looming mass, and the upcoming appointment, somehow less daunting than when their morning carpool had begun.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Leftovers - No. 91

Walter forced himself into a casual slouch. He ceased tapping his finger against the half-empty porcelain mug accompanying him on the cafe's table. Locking his polished loafers onto the floor, he averted his gaze from the door as another customer entered. The view out of the corner of his eye told him all he needed to know. The woman, slightly too plump, also didn't have Susan's evergreen overcoat or her honey-blond ringlets.

Staring into the black-and-white framed photograph of someplace far and exotic, Walter kept himself in his chair, waiting. He finished off his coffee, lest the brew chill, while another half dozen folks arrived, ordered and departed into the waning afternoon.

Pauline appeared, and wiped up crumbs from the nearby table where a man and a muffin had spent the last hour. "Did you want a refill, Walt?"

He blinked away from the door where a woman of the right shape but wrong style strode inside, and situated herself at the counter.

"Sure." Walter checked his watch as Pauline swept up his cup, and slipped behind the array of metallic spouts and kettles. She served the woman a non-fat latte with vanilla, and returned a few moments later, balancing his steaming mug with ease.

"You're here a lot longer than usual, today."

"Hum?" Walter flicked his gaze between the entrance and her timid smile. "Oh yeah, I guess so."

She folded her arms across her black polo, and kneaded at the dishrag in her hand. "Waiting for someone?"

Walter heaved out a long sigh. "Yeah, but...."

"But what?"

"She's late. She was supposed to be here two hours ago."

“Didn’t she call?”


Pauline winced. "I'm sorry, Walt."

He brushed aside her apology in a vain attempt to keep the reason for her sympathy from finding a home in his thoughts. "It's no big deal. It was just coffee, you know?"

Pauline nodded, and chewed on her lower lip.

Walter stared into his brew, noticing the swirl of cream. Taking a sip, he found the right amount of sugar. By the time he looked back up, Pauline had slipped back behind the register, bantering with a lanky gentleman in a tweed coat. Walter watched him depart with his double-shot cappuccino, and stared through the glass as dusk settled. The streetlights flickered on, illuminating a gradually emptying sidewalk. Gulping down another mouthful, Walter fetched his book from his coat pocket, and indulged in a chapter punctuated by brief glimpses at every entry chime.

As he neared the back cover, Pauline's sweeps foretold closing. Around him, the rest of the regulars made their way out with clinks of cups into the black tub and promises to return tomorrow.

When everyone else had gone, and Pauline doused the Open sign, Walter folded down the page’s corner and stowed his book. He stood, and draped his suit coat over his arm. Scooping up his cup, he headed for the counter.

"Thanks," said Pauline, taking the empty beverage.

"You too," said Walter. He met her smile with a wavering one of his own.

"You…you wouldn't be interested in any leftovers would you?"

"I am a leftover," said Walter with a smirk.

Pauline laughed. "I mean these," she said, pointing at a tray of sliced carrot cake, flecked with raisins and walnuts, waiting by the register. "I'd hate them to go to waste."

"Sure,” said Walter, digging out his wallet. "How much do I owe you?"

Pauline traded his empty mug for two plates from the stack of clean dishes. The china rattled against one another in her grasp. "Nothing if you'll join me for another cup." Her grin wobbled like the dishes, as if about to tumble off her lips.

Walter gripped his wallet. "Seriously?"

Pauline nibbled her lower lip. "Well, yeah. I mean, it's just coffee right?"

"Right," said Walter. A tremble raced up his spine, and his palms grew sweaty.

"Take these then," said Pauline, her smile rebounding as she shoved over the plates and tray of cake. "I'll get the drinks." She spun with his dirtied mug to the pot she'd yet to empty for the night, snagging another cup along the way.

Walter watched her add sugar and milk, two spoonfuls and half and half for him, a trio for her with soy. She topped off each with the last brew of the day and had both in hand when she turned back around.

"You okay?"

Stuffing his wallet away, he grabbed the plates and tray. "Perfect."

"You're pick then," she said, nudging her chin at the array of empty tables.

Leading back to his corner spot, Walter set the tray in the middle and one plate at each seat. He pulled out the chair facing the door for Pauline as she arrived, and savored the sudden blush on her cheeks.

"Thanks," she said, perching on the edge.

"Thanks for the invitation," said Walter. He took the opposite chair, the one putting his back to the door.

“It seemed like you had a rough day.” She took a sip on her coffee. “Anyone I know?”

Walter frowned. “I don’t follow you.”

Pauline grinned with visible embarrassment. “Your date, was she anyone I know?”

“Oh,” said Walter. “No, just someone from work.”


“Not anymore.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Overtime - No. 90

Hefting my kitchen-sink purse onto my shoulder, I laid a hand on my office door's handle and froze. My gut cringed, and I tried to remember what I'd forgotten. Meeting minutes danced with my swelling headache. The cascading accounts and paperwork that had flowed across my desk all week joined in, blurring in a mix of figures and security codes.

"Whatever it is,” I said to the door, “I’m sure it can wait until Monday."

Turning the latch and exiting, I caught a brief glimpse of cubicle walls and florescent strips before the ubiquitous humming whined and then gave a sizzling pop. Every light blacked out, dousing the sea of beige into shadow, punctuated by the workspace pits of everyone else who had long since departed. The summer evening did little to challenge the darkness through the tinted floor-to-ceiling windows rimming the west wall, or spilling through the blinds at my back. The other skyscrapers along our block, however, twinkled around cleaning staff, like stars in a sky of steel and glass.

Must be another overload, I thought.

Closing my door, I fumbled in the clutter occupying my purse and withdrew my cell phone. I activated the panel, and held out the light as I navigated the corridors to the front doors. Recalling the stairwell being close to the elevator shaft, I plodded along, bent on finally escaping for the day. As I neared the receptionist’s barricade of a desk, however, I heard whispers.

"Go. Now," said a hoarse and unfamiliar voice from down the opposite hall.

I slowed, and frowned. Who’s that? I wondered.

My Irritation spiked at some unknowns lurking about and I slipped behind the massive block of wood usually serving as an initial stop for new arrivals to my firm. Crouched low, I spotted a shadow along the corridor leading toward the partners’ offices. The figure stopped at each door label, obviously looking for one in particular. My stomach clenched as I tallied what lay in that direction, and realized what they must be after. I had put the confidential paperwork into the vault myself a few hours before.

You're not getting those documents so easily, I thought.

I brought the receiver of the blocky telephone sitting amidst the receptionist’s paraphernalia to my ear as I watched the shadowed figure creeping. Silence hung on the phone, and I scowled at the inert device. Nestling the phone back into its cradle, I tried the one in my hand.

I'd never summoned police before, and the notion of calling for help set my teeth on edge. Unlike usual, however, I didn’t think I could handle this on my own. The soothing voice on the other end calmed my trepidation.

"Wellington PD. How can I help?"

"My name is Julia Caine,” I whispered. “I’m calling to report a break in at the Beranger Firm on 23 Olive Road.”

"Are you still inside ma'am?" the smooth talker on the end of the line asked amidst clacks on a keyboard.

"Yes." I scowled at his impertinent question. Would I be whispering like this if I was outside? "I can see them heading toward our secure vault."

"I have no indication of alarms going off."

"Of course not, they cut the power to the floor. Maybe the whole building."

"All right. I'm going to detour a car to your location now. Are you somewhere safe?"

The idea dawned I might not be, and I hunched lower. "At the moment I'm behind the receptionist’s desk. The burglars are just down the hall."

"I want you to stay calm, ma'am. I'm going to stay on the line with you, okay?"

I rolled my eyes, and wished he'd stop calling me ma'am. "Fine."

Lifting up on my toes, I spied over the edge of the desk. The hallway gaped, empty, but I caught scrapes and murmurs around the corner. Pressing myself against the sideboards, I strained to grasp a word or another detail I could use to identify the culprits.

Then, the carpet squished behind me, and a metallic ring found the back of my neck.


"Quiet," said a curt woman.

A click sounded, reminding me of countless films where the safety's unlatched right before the villains begin threatening or demanding things of the ill-fated hero. My breaths turned into frantic pants.

"Ma'am?" asked the officer.

The woman shoved the icy barrel deeper into my skin. "Say one word and it’ll be your last."

I gulped and nodded.

"Put up both your hands,” she said, “and show me the phone."

I extended both arms, holding the cell as far as I could from my ear. A gloved hand appeared, and plucked the phone from my grasp.

"Damn it," said the woman as the officer repeated his query. Cutting off my call, she seized my neck in an iron-tight grip, thwarting an attempted glance over my shoulder. She pressed gun against me with more force. "Move.”

Together, we shuffled down the hall, until we reached the vault room's gaping doorframe.

"Stop," said the woman. She pinched my skin with dagger fingernails hidden beneath her gloves.

I kept myself from gasping as a figure moved in the dark.

"Who was it?" asked the owner of the hoarse voice from within the room.

"Caine," said the woman.

The man's chuckle, like rumbling boulders, sent a shiver through me.


"Perfect?" asked the woman.

A masked figure, dressed in black from head to toe, stepped out of the shadows and loomed in the doorway. The fabric seemed to strain around his mouth, implying a smile. "Do you know why?" he asked.

I felt the question directed at me, instead of the woman. Her initial threat, however, kept me mute, and I shook my head in ignorance although questions, like how they knew who I was, screamed to be voiced.

"Because you're going to open the safe for me," said the man.

My knees wobbled, hearing the certainty in his tone.

"You heard him." The woman pitched me forward.

I stumbled past the man and into the dark, stubbing my foot against the vault. "I can't…I can’t see,” I said, swiveling to face them.

A bright beam shot into my eyes, blinding me. Raising my hand to block the light, I saw spots for a moment, before the halo dimmed and my eyes adjusted to the glow.

"Quit stalling," said the woman. Light glinted on the gun while the two remained obscured in shadow.

Gulping, I pivoted to find the vault’s dials illuminated by the flashlight’s beam. I lifted my hand, and saw it shake as both burglars stepped behind me, close enough their body heat pressed against my back along with their glares. I clicked one number, and then the next, with deliberate care, hoping the delay might give the polite policeman and his fellow officers, a chance to arrive and save the day.