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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Check up - No. 144

Harold took the leash out of the cabinet while Jill yanked on her coat.

“Do we have to do this today, too?”

“It’s an hour and it’s on our way.” He closed the cabinet. “I’ll feel better if I know he’s all right.”

Jill rolled her eyes, and plucked her keys from her purse. “I’ll be in the car.”

She swept through the front door, and clicked the bobble on her keychain, unlocking the navy blue SUV waiting in the driveway. Taking the driver’s seat, she pressed the button to automatically raise the back door, and then turned on the ignition.

Harold followed, leading Jasper, whose head bobbed with his limping, four pawed stride. The mutt’s salted fur coated his otherwise sandy muzzle and stained his pointed ears, while his front leg carried the scarred reminders of his recent adventure.

“Here we go, boy.” Harold let out a grunt as he hoisted the dog into the back. Leaving the leash attached, he closed the door and hopped into the passenger side.

“It’s right off Oak-.”

“I know where it is,” said Jill, putting the car in reverse, and plowing onto the road. Maintaining the speed limit with effort, she navigated the side streets and pulled into the parking lot. She shut off the car, and drooped in her seat.

Harold opened his door. “Are you coming?”



Jill released a long sigh, and stared into Harold’s brown eyes, as wide and hopeful as the puppies she heard yapping inside. “Fine.”

Tugging off her safety belt, she swung out of the car while Harold hefted Jasper from the back. Jill stuffed her hands into her pockets and walked after them, matching the slow pace needed for Jasper’s wounded and already arthritic limbs.

A departing parrot owner held open the door, beaming a smile as she held her caged bird aside. Tweeting, meows and a wall of dander greeted them as they entered.

After a sneeze, Jill hovered against Harold’s back as he strode through the waiting patients and arrived at the receptionist’s desk.

“Hi Madeline,” said Harold.

A sunny haired woman, leaking from her plush chair, looked up from her paperwork with a weary but welcoming smile. “Hey Harold. Is that you Jasper, come to get your results?”

Jill shuffled out-of-the-way, avoiding being thumped as Jasper increased his tail’s wag.

“If I can just get you to fill these out,” said Madeline, sliding over a clipboard.

Harold wrapped the leash around his hand and doubled over, marking the page and then adding his signature.

“Terrific,” said Madeline, accepting the clipboard. “Go on through. First door on your right, as usual.”

“Thanks.” Harold handed back the pen, and gave Jasper’s head a rub. “Come on boy, let’s get you cleared.”

Jill followed them through the side door, and into the first examination room. Plopping down onto one of the waiting chairs, she watched Harold ruffling Jasper’s flanks before snatching a magazine and flipping through the glossy pages.

“Okay boy, let’s get you up here for Doctor Barnes,” said Harold, working Jasper onto the table. The dog gave a quick woof, and perched on the steel counter. While Jill read, they worked through his various tricks: laying down, shaking with one paw, then the other, and speaking on command.

A quick knock on the door preceded the entrance of a stout man with glasses, and a laboratory coat. His scowl remained on the folder, splayed open in his hands.

“Afternoon, Dr. Barnes,” said Harold. “What’s the verdict?”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Jill looked up from the pages, and lowered her magazine.

Stumbling onto the table, Harold sat next to Jasper, and rested his hand on the nape of Jasper’s neck. “What is it?”

“Jasper here has a blood condition, it’s quite severe. I’m afraid it may be terminal.”

Harold’s face blanched. He looked down at Jasper’s head, laid between his paws

Jill straightened in her chair, the magazine crinkling in her hands. “I didn’t think you were testing for that. You were just looking into his cuts and arthritis.”

Barnes raised his gaze, opened his mouth, and then frowned. Staring back at his folder, he flipped through the pages. “I can’t believe I did that.” He glanced between both of them, and closed the folder. “I’m sorry, this file’s for a different Jasper.” Stepping forward, Dr. Barnes gave Jasper’s lifted head a scratch. “You’re not a Siamese, are you boy?”

Jill stood, and came to Harold’s side. Finding his shaking hand, she intertwined her fingers with his.

“Now, let’s see.” Barnes adjusted his glasses, and then examined Jasper's right front leg. Fur had grown back over most of the stitches, and the healed edges on the wounds.

Harold tightened his grasp, his face remaining ghostly white. “Doctor? Is he okay?”

“Oh, yes, yes. I’m sorry for scaring you.” Barnes grinned. “A part from being a bit stiff here and there, he should be just fine. The best thing for him would be some short walks to keep his joints lubricated and some rest. Maybe cut back on the treats a bit, too.”

Blood ran into Jill’s hand as Harold loosened his grip.

“We’ll see you back here for his regular check up,” said Barnes, “unless he manages to have another run in with that raccoon.”

“Thanks, Doctor,” said Harold.

“No problem.” Barnes scooped up his file. “Sorry again about the mix up.”

Harold closed his eyes, and dropped his head after Barnes exited. A quiet, peppered with the sounds of the other patients and Harold’s deep breaths, descended.

Jill waited for the ticks on the wall-mounted clock to complete a circuit. “Are you okay?”

Harold sprung out of his meditations, and donned a forced grin. “Sorry, we should get going on those other errands.”

“Are you kidding?” Swiveling to face Jasper, Jill gave his neck a rub. “First, we’re taking this fellow for a walk.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What Goes Bump - No. 142

Alice crept down the stairs, and poked her head through the railing’s posts.

“It’ll be fun, you’ll see,” whispered Jake, lacing his sneakers by the front door.

“I don’t know.” Bert sat on his haunches, twirling a flashlight in his hands.

Jake nudged Bert in the shoulder, nearly toppling him from his rickety perch. “You scared of a couple of girls?”

“No,” said Bert, his voice cracking as he caught his balance and rose.

“Shhh,” said Jake. He glanced furtively around the darkened foyer, while finishing his shoe’s last knot.

Skulking down the final steps, Alice winced as they creaked. The pair by the door froze, gazes turning to her like rabbits in headlights.

Recognition kindled in Jake’s eyes, and he bristled. “Alice. You should be in bed.”

“So should you,” she said. “Mom and Dad would be mad if they knew you were awake.”

Bert winced. “She’s right you know.”

Snorting, Jake stood. “So go to bed.”

“Not if you’re still going,” said Bert.

Alice slipped into her sneakers. “Where are we going?”

“We’re not going anywhere.” Jake shoved her toward the stairs. “You’re going back to bed.”

Planting her feet, Alice put her hands on her hips, and glared up at him. “I’m going to tell if you don’t let me go too.”

Jake squatted down, and met her eyes. “You’re not going to like it. It’s scary out there in the dark.”

“I’ll use a flashlight like Bert.”

Bert hid the tool behind his back, as Jake scowled. “And if you get lost?”

“I know my way around better than you do.”

Jake shook his head. “Fine, try and keep up.”

“Jake!” Bert moved to block the door, but Jake yanked him close and lowered his voice.

“She won’t be able to and she’ll have to come back, now come on, we’re already going to be late.” Jake dragged Bert through the door, and they leapt from the porch in a dead sprint.

Alice grabbed a second flashlight from the nearby emergency bin. Clicking the switch, she raced off after them, her beam swaying like a drunken firefly. Gravel turned to grass as she scampered across the driveway and moon-lit lawn, and into the woods surrounding their house. Branches stretched above her head, blocking out the night sky until only a patches remained visible.

“Wait up,” said Alice. She raced toward her brothers running steps dwindling further up ahead.

Their crunching strides stopped short a moment later, and Alice swung her beam forward. The light struck their backs, both arched like tense cats. “What is it?”

“Hush,” said Jake as she reached their side.

Gurgling and growling rumbled against the tree trunks, sprouting goose bumps on Alice’s skin under her pajama shirt and shorts. She pointed her flashlight at the noises, paralleling Bert’s, her beam wobbling like his. A shriek and skitter responded, and then rustling bound through the underbrush.

“Jake…,” whispered Alice.

Jake wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and squeezed her against his side, tucking her head into his arm pit. Her stomach started to tumble like clothes in the dryer as a rotten egg smell drifted through the darkness. Alice put her hand against her belly, and swallowed down a lump flavored with the peanut butter cookies they’d had for dessert.

“We should go home,” said Bert.

“It’s all right,” said Jake. “It’s probably deer or something. Whatever it is will move on, and we can keep going. They’ll be waiting.”

A howl shattered the night.

“They can wait all night for all I care,” said Bert.

Alice jumped as Bert found her hand, but then clutched tight.

“We’re going back." Bert started walking backwards, his gaze locked on his flashlight and the eerie rustling in the gloom. Alice matched his stride, and kept her beam searching for the source of the sounds rippling through the shadows yet managing to remain unseen.

“Okay. Okay.” Jake pivoted but then halted with wide eyes.

Alice shone her light on her brother’s face. “Jake?”


With a sudden dash, the rustling encircled them, rushing through the undergrowth and in the branches overhead. Starlight flickered in and out as shadowed bodies took flight while gruff snorts disturbed twigs and fallen leaves, sending them tumbling against Alice’s bare legs.

Jake took the flashlight from her hand, and held the light high. “Get out of here! Go!” He scooped up a handful of dirt, pitching the loose stones into the black.

Adding in sweeps with his light, Bert joined in, shouting at the top of his lungs.

Alice glanced at them both, their faces contorted with fear and anger. Clenching her eyes shut, she added her high pitched roar to their defiant stand.

By the time she lost her voice, her throat burned, Jake and Bert panted at her side, and the woods around them remained, for the moment, quiet.

“Let’s go,” said Jake.

He took her hand, and Bert took the other so they formed a shaky chain. In a loping run, they made their way through the trees, until their house, with its wrap-around porch and shuttered windows, came into view. Jake didn’t stop, but led them straight through the front door. Bert fastened the chain while Jake bolted the lock.

Diving into the living room, they hunched by the windows, and stared into the night, flashlights close as they waited for dawn and whatever haunted the dark.

Friday, July 29, 2011

On the Patio - No. 141

Following the maĆ®tre d’, Fay dabbed at her eyes, and then checked her fingertips for tear-smeared mascara.  Her polished tips remained clean, and she gave the passing tables with their curious patrons, a forced grin, proving to them, and to herself, she was all right. 

With a sharp pivot, the maitre d’ gestured to their usual table.

Sitting across the ironed tablecloth, Amber beamed, her cheeks flush with the spring afternoon and the half-drunk glass of chardonnay she swirled between her fingers. 

“So?” She beckoned with her left hand.

Fay gave the maitre d’ an appreciative nod, as he pulled out her chair.  “Thank you,” she said.

Ignoring his bobbing head and departure, Fay focused on unfolding her pleated napkin.

“Come on,” said Amber, drumming her index finger on the table, “let’s see it.”

“Stop it, Amber.”

Amber puckered her heart-shaped mouth, and even Botox couldn’t prevent the wrinkles on her forehead.  After a moment’s silence, her frown disappeared, and the remains of her plucked brows reached for her tinted bangs. “I don’t believe it.”

“Good afternoon, ladies.  What are we starting with today?”

Fay blinked away a resurging sniffle, and tipped her face to the attending waiter.  “Martini, dry.”

 “Excellent,” he said, swiveling to Amber.  “Anything more for you?”

“Not at the moment,” said Amber, her gaze never moving from Fay.

“Then I’ll be right back with that martini.”

Once they were alone again, Amber leaned forward.  “He didn’t, did he?”

Seizing the water carafe, Fay filled her glass, and took a long, disappointing pull.  She set the glass down, and watched the drips wind their way along the crystal.  “No, he didn’t.”

“What happened?”

“The complete opposite of what was supposed to happen.”  Taking a deep breath, she met Amber’s expectant gaze.  “We’re through.”

“Oh, Fay.”  Amber reached across the table, clasping Fay’s other hand.  “I’m so sorry.”

“I’m just so stupid.”  She squeezed Amber’s fingers, and then wrapped her grip around the goblet’s stem.  “I should have seen it coming, known it was coming.  Sean just wanted the connections, not me.”


Shaking her head, Fay took another sip.

“Here we are.”  The waiter plopped down the martini, complete with stabbed olive.  “Are we ready to order?”

Fay put her lips to the drink, and motioned for Amber to take command.  She requested their usual salads with appropriate modifications, and then a towering frosted brownie.  The waiter gave a sympathetic sigh, and Fay restrained herself from kicking him in the shins.

“If anything else comes up, just wave me down.”

As he departed, Fay closed her eyes and savored the burn in her throat.

“Oh my,” said Amber.  “Don’t look now.”

“Huh?” Fay followed Amber’s stare toward the door, her gaze fighting her the whole way as her stomach sank to the tiles.

Sean stood silhouetted in the afternoon light filtering through the restaurant’s entrance, broad shoulders beneath a trim suit coat, hair slicked into stylish spikes. 

Cringing, Fay swung back to her martini, and bottomed the drink.  “Where’s he going?”  
“The patio.”  Amber’s chair groaned as she strained backwards.  “Some brunette in,” she gasped with distaste, “a pastel print, and some guy in khakis.”

“Receding hair and wearing sunglasses?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Director Ablos and his secretary,” said Fay, adding air quotes around the title.  “I introduced them last week at Mike’s after show party.”

“You didn’t.”

She shot Amber a warning glare.  “I bet he’s got luncheon dates all over town now.”

“Well, the three of them look pretty stupid sitting there at a table for four.”

“Not as stupid as me on the kitchen floor with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.”

Amber’s mouth fell open.  “You didn’t.”

Fay snorted, and waved her empty glass at the waiter.  He winked from his post by the bar. 

Sagging back onto the table, Fay cupped her chin in her hand and raked her finger around her bread dish.  “What am I going to do?”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” said Amber.   Snatching the plate, she shoved a filled water glass into Fay’s hand.  “What if he saw you here, slouching like this?”

Fay glanced up, and Amber’s glare helped straighten her spine.  “You’re right,” she said, sipping on the water. 

“Of course I am.”  Amber finished off her chardonnay.  “Now we’re going to have a wonderful lunch, complete with girlie stories, laugher and flirting with our waiter.”


“Just smile,” said Amber, covering an added giggle.

Fay jumped as the waiter deposited their salads along with her second martini. 

“Can I get you anything else?”

Snatching her glass, Fay quirked her mouth into an encouraging grin.  “Just keep these coming,”

“Happy to,” said the waiter with another wink.

As he withdrew, Amber let out an ear catching chuckle.  “See? Better already.”

“Yeah,” said Fay, holding the angular glass in her hand. 

Over the rim, she spied across the restaurant where Sean glanced over the tables while Albos received a whispered message from his secretary.  The pair stood a moment later, and their apologetic body language indicating some hurried excuses.  Sean froze half way between sitting and standing, his mouth gaping as they briskly exited.  Nearby tables mumbled with recognition, and then traced the well-known pair’s route back to their evacuated table.  Finally plopping into his chair, Sean snatched his beer, and rubbed at his temple.   Whispers rippled through the room, paired with interested gazes, and he responded to each with his scowl.

Fay stiffened when she met his eyes.

“Just smile,” whispered Amber.

The quiet nudge only added to the sly curve warping Fay’s mouth into a dazzling exposure of her pearly whites.  Lifting her martini, she gave Sean’s shocked expression a silent toast, laughed, and swiveled back to her table before victoriously digging into her salad.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Great Aunt Margaret - No. 140

Dust surrounded Adam's car as they wound down the lane from the main road, toward the farmhouse, with its’ sole oak and picket fence.  As he drove, Adam took a sidelong glance at the withered woman in his passenger seat. 

"What do you think?"

Wendy adjusted her bottle-cap glasses, and peered at the sepia-hued photograph in her wrinkled hands.  Two pig-tailed little girls sat side-by-side on a wooden stoop, sun dresses hemmed with ruffles revealing scabbed knees.   Looking up, she gazed through the obscuring cloud of dust with equally hazy eyes.

"I'm not sure.  Maybe?"

Adam adjusted his grip on the wheel, the leather rubbing against his fresh calluses.  Inhaling, he kept himself from flooring the gas or turning around completely.  Instead, he parked by the closed gate, and sagged into the driver's seat.  Powdery grains settled on the hood, and coated the windshield in a fine mist.

He waited until the engine clanks quieted before the same question he'd asked at the rest of the potential farmhouses rolled from his tongue.  "Do you want to come?"

"Maybe just to the gate."

Nodding with Wendy’s rote answer, Adam unclasped his seatbelt, and unfolded from the car.  The crick in his back protested, and he kneaded the spot with his knuckles as he slammed the door.  Wendy emerged, her snowy wisps clasped by ivory clips wavering as a breeze swept over the surrounding fields.  Dry corn husks rattled, and the weather vane perched on top of the farmhouse creaked into pointing east.

Smoothing down the back of his receding hair, Adam marched around the front bumper, and lifted the gate's latch.  Well-oiled, the gate swung open without a whisper.  Holding the gate open for Wendy's arthritic stride, he latched it again before traversing the front walk, shaded by the looming oak, and mounting the porch steps. 

A quick search revealed no door bell, so Adam opened the screen door and used the corn-shaped knocker. 

Buttercup-patterned curtains to his right wavered in the window panes.

Smiling in that direction, he closed the screen and positioned himself before the door, hands in full view. 

Steps within creaked floorboards, and then locks thudded.  A wilted face appeared in the door crack, cataract-clouded eyes hovering beneath the remaining chain.  "Yes?"

"Excuse me," said Adam, donning the smile he'd used each time he’d launched into the same brief explanation.  "My name is Adam Johnson Belay.  I was wondering if, by any chance, there's anyone else who goes by that name, Johnson, residing here."

The woman frowned.  "No, no Johnsons.  Not anymore."

Porch steps creaked behind him.  Adam pressed on as Wendy’s presence hovered at his back.  "Do you happen to know of any in the area?"

"Other Johnsons?”  The woman in the doorway shook her head. “No."



Turning, Adam found Wendy at his shoulder, clutching the photograph like a ticket.  She stared straight at the door, where the other woman stood frozen.

Wendy extended the picture, a tentative smile on her needle-thin lips.  "Isn’t this you?"

"It can’t be," said the woman, without giving the image a glance.

Wendy's face paled.

"Maybe you could just take a look at it," said Adam.  He took the picture, and offered the image again through the barricade of the screen’s mesh and door’s chain.

The woman's eyes flickered to the photograph.  Unhooking the chain, she widened the gap in the door and listed forward, bracing her other hand on the screen. 

"No," she whispered, her eyes locked with the pair in faded brown and ruffles, “it can’t be.”


The woman tore her gaze from the image.  Adam retreated as she and Wendy met eyes. 

“My name is Margaret…I was Margaret Johnson before I married.”

"It's me, Margie, it’s Wendy."

“That’s not possible.  You’re…you’re dead.  The storm took you…took everyone....”

“Oh honey.  No, it didn’t,” said Wendy. 

Sweeping forward, she yanked open the screen.  Margie fell into her arms where they embraced with a rain of silent tears.

Adam bowed his head, and looked at the image in his hand, the faces of the girls so much younger than the women standing before him now.  The trauma of the flood, and the decades of separation, melted on the sunlit porch like snow in summer.

Their quiet sniffles transitioned into joyful giggles after a few moments. 

“Oh Margie,” said Wendy, withdrawing slightly. 

Margie, however, found her hand in a tight clasp.   “And who is this young man?”

“Margie, I’d like you to meet my grandson.”  Wendy seized Adam’s arm in a vice-grip.  “Adam, dear,” said Wendy, her voice beginning to warble, “you’ve helped me find her, my dear, sweet, baby sister.”

Adam grinned, and brushed away the moisture starting to pool in his eyes.  Bowing down, he accepted Margie’s coiled arm around his neck, her squeeze rivaling Wendy’s grip.  “It’s wonderful to meet you.”

“You too,” said Margie.  She settled into her slippers, and patted her liver-spotted hand against her mouth.  “Where are my manners?  Come in, come in. We’ve got so much to catch up on.”

“That would be wonderful,” said Wendy.

Arm in arm, they swept through the door and vanished into the farmhouse, already in conversation.

Adam smiled at the photograph, before tucking the image into his pocket and taking his time following the pair inside.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Water Bearer - No. 139

Descending the cable she’d dropped from the ventilation system, Nel kept her snickering contained.  Silence surrounded her feather landing on the marble floor, even though the mammoth dome of the museum’s gallery ballooned over her head.  Red dots of active security cameras burned like Cycloptic eyes from around the upper molding while dimmed lights illuminated the artwork and statues lining the display chamber.

In the center, however, stood a single glass case, mounted atop the room’s main pylon.  The sides reflected the exit signs, capturing Nel’s gaze.  Within the rectangle stood an ivory white water-bearer garbed in a Grecian tunic, with one arm lifted as if brushing her fingers against the sky.

Crouched within a column's shadow, Nel unclasped the carabineer at her belt, and started counting down from fifteen.  She reached one, and a whirr sounded from the watching cameras.  Each eye blinked out.

"Thanks Wally," she said into the headset latched to her ear.

"Always a pleasure," he said, mirth coating his rolling base.

Grinning, Nel scampered up onto the center stand.  She tapped a code into the security panel with her gloved fingers, earning a soft ding of success.  With feline grace, she scaled the case, balanced on the stand’s lip, and lifted the hinged lid.

Retrieving a fishing line from her belt, she created a loop at the end and flung the cord into the case.  She extended the string, and started swinging, once, twice, then three times before hooking the circle around the outstretched arm of the water bearer.  A tug later, and the knot tightened.  Hand over hand she pulled the line back with care to avoid smacking the porcelain against the glass.  Seizing the statue, she wrapped the remaining line around the figurine, and closed the top of the case.

"I'm heading out," she said, hopping back onto the floor.

"Good.  Rounds are thirty seconds away."

Nel swung her backpack around, and stowed the water bearer into the foamed interior.  As she turned from the stand, a siren blasted, piercing her ear like a driven nail.  Light swirled where the water bearer had been standing, bright rays refracting on the glass.

"Damn it," she said, scowling at the interrupting wail.

"What is it?"

"Some kind of proximity or weight activated alarm."

"I didn't have anything on that," said Wally, "but I've still got the cameras."

“Keep them,” said Nel, sprinting toward the repelling cable.

As she clasped the carabineer, the cable tumbled to her feet like a limp snake.  Peering up into the shadows, she heard the snap of security panels slamming closed in the ceiling and along the walls, blocking the rooftop windows and concealing the other items on display.

"Just great,” she muttered.

Dropping the cable, she dug into her pack and retrieved the statue.  With a heave, Nel shattered the porcelain against the marble.  Sifting through the pieces, she plucked out a jelly-bean shaped lump.  In the dim light, the ebony pill gleamed like licorice.  She popped it into her mouth and forced it down with a dry swallow.  Crouched low, she swept her gaze across the room, and locked onto the main doors where footsteps neared.

"At least three incoming guards," said Wally

"What are my options?"

"Show yourself," said Wally over rapid typing.  "Just stay on the right.”

"You’re kidding me."

The main doors unlocked, and opened.  Three flashlight beams pierced the gloom, followed by a trio of guards in sleek uniforms, with the same build, and raised pistols.

Drawing a deep breath, Nel stood.

"Freeze!" said the guards as one.

Forcing out an exhale, Nel raised her hands while aims and lights found her.

One of the guards padded over while the others kept her in their unwavering sights.  He dislodged the pip in her ear, patted her down with brisk, military efficiency, removed her pack, and then clasped her hands behind her back with a pair of cuffs.  "She’s clean.”

“Take her to the security room,” said one of the guards. “We’ll double check in here.”

“Two coming back,” said the guard behind her.

“Copy that,” said a voice through communication static.

Nel straightened as a gun barrel pressed between her shoulder blades.  The guard gave her a nudge toward the door.  “Move it, sweetheart.”

Taking a quick glance behind her, Nel shot him a glare while noting her bag in his other hand.

“Now,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.”  Nel kept her pace measured as she passed the other two and crossed the gallery’s threshold.

A hushed hallway stretched before her, lined with statues on one side.   Floor to ceiling windows extended on the right, revealing the museum’s courtyard, glowing in the moonlight.  Crisp hedges and pathways lined in white stone flowed toward the U-shaped building’s gated opening to the tree-lined thoroughfare.

Smirking, Nel gave the nearest statue, a bronze depiction of Mercury in flight, an appraising glance, before veering closer.

“Watch it,” said the guard.

He gave her a shove, sending her toward the windows.

“Hey,” said Nel, adding an artful stumble complete with flailing hands.  The familiar straps of her pack brushed her fingers, and she clasped tight before falling shoulder first onto the window’s latch.

The lock disengaged with a noticeable lack of howling from the security system, the window swinging open.  A humid autumn wound inside, countering the chill of the museum’s artificial environment.

Tearing her pack from the guard’s hand, Nel tumbled over the balcony, and landed on the pathway a floor below in a breathless heap.  Wincing through the pain of impact, she crouched in the shadows and worked the pick, slipped from her watch, into the cuffs.  The lock snapped, her wrists breathing in relief.

Above her, shouts penetrated the night.

Shedding the cuffs, Nel sprinted along the perimeter of the courtyard.  From within, other alarms began bleating like wailing children freed from their lollypops.  Stifling another grin, she dipped through the columns framing the entrance, and seized the main gate.  The hinges gave a protesting groan when she yanked enough to gain a slim gap.

Nel glanced back as feet pounded upon the gravel paths.  Shadowed figures, the shape of security guards, raced toward her like skittering roaches.

Squealing tires pulled her attention to the road, where a van stopped at the sidewalk.

“Sorry boys,” said Nel.

Worming through the gate, she darted to the van’s opening side door, and pounced into the dark.  The engine roared as the door automatically closed.   Sagging against the separator dividing the interior from the driver’s cabin, Nel caught her breath.

Meanwhile, Wally’s voice crackled in the van’s intercom.  “Did you get it?”

Leaning into the van’s charging momentum, Nel stuck her finger down her throat.  Her body reacted with a stomach-clenching gag.  The jelly-bean launched into her hand, covered in saliva.  She coughed until her stomach settled, and then, staring at the tiny projectile, Nel chuckled as she wiped spittle from her lips.

“Yeah,” she said, listing with the van’s next turn, “we’re golden.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lunch Hour Errands - No. 137

Hannah's feet screamed in her too-small heels by the time she arrived at the start of the line.  Checking her watch, she winced at the fifteen remaining minutes before the end of her lunch hour.

At the wall of stalls a teller, whose sign named her Betty, counted dollar bills.  Once finished with the last pile of ten, she bound them all with a rubber band, and tossed them into the drawer by her waist.  "Next!"

Hannah cringed, and stepped to the barred window.  "Good morning," she said, working a smile onto her lips.

Betty peered through the bars.  "How can I help you?"

"I'm looking to cash this check."  Hannah fumbled with the wrinkled rectangle, and pressed the folded edges flat before slipping the check through the tiny slot.  Adding her bank card from the opposition across town, she seized her purse straps and held her breath.

Betty plucked the check by the edges, and played trombone until reaching the right distance from her gilded spectacles.  Frowning, she puckered her lips as if a lemon had spontaneously stained her tongue.  "I'm afraid we can't honor this."

"I know it looks terrible-."

"The signature's illegible."

"You must have come across these before.  If you look up the address you'll find Ted Erickson.  He was my grandfather, which explains the date."  Hannah pointed at the check's top right corner but ran into the stall’s glass window with a thud.  "The seal there is an old one for this bank."

"I can see that," said Betty, giving the check another glance.  She let out a sigh, her displeasure audible.  "I'm going to have to check with my manager." 

"Should I stay here?"

Betty gave her a curt nod before sliding a "Please Wait" sign in front of her window.  Behind Hannah, those in line released a collective groan as the teller sauntered away. 

Checking her watch again, Hannah closed her eyes, and inhaled a calming breath.  When she opened them again, Betty’s sign glared back. 

“I’m trying,” she whispered to the patient advice.

Glancing to the side, she noted the other teller’s steady progress through the waiting shop owner’s cash deposit, and then the toe-tapping irritation stretching through the pylons and leading to the front door. A few of those waiting peered at their watches, and more than one rolled their eyes and scowled.  Hunching into herself, Hannah leaned onto the brief counter, and bowed her head. 

Minutes later a pair of footsteps drew her chin from her chest.  Betty, followed by a silver haired man with a faux-tan beneath his pin-striped suit, appeared around the corner.  Betty swept her arm in an indicating gesture, and the suited man's smile stretched.

"Mrs. Walters, I'm Vince Paul, the manager of this bank.  It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Um, thank you." 

"If you would join me at the end of the counter?"  Vince motioned toward the right wall, where a glass barricade revealed hints of the bank's vault. 

"Sure," said Hannah.

As Hannah wobbled to meet him, Betty flipped down her sign and bellowed again, causing the next person in line to leap to her window. 

Hannah's frown remained as Vince unlocked and held open the barricading door, allowing her passage inside.  The minutes absent from work collected in her thoughts like autumn leaves.  "So, can you cash my check?"

"Oh yes, most certainly."  Vince led her on, to where a second door gaped.  "But there are actually some other matters with this account we need to discuss."

"Like what?"

"Why don't you have a seat?" 

Hannah nearly stumbled as they arrived at a mahogany-lined office with a fortress-sized desk strewn with manila folders and envelopes.  Traversing the plush carpet, she perched on the edge of a leather chair facing the back of standing photographs and a computer monitor.  After closing the door, Vince rounded the corner, settled onto the facing seat, leaned onto the evergreen blotter, and clasped his hands.  His smile stretched. Hannah gulped.

“I’m curious, Mrs. Walters, as to how you found this check.”

“Well,” Hannah licked her lips and clasped her purse.  “I inherited my Grandpa Ted’s library.  I was sifting through the collection, trying to make sense of it, and this tumbled out.  I know it’s not much, but,” she shrugged, “with how things are going these days, an extra hundred sure comes in handy.”

“Oh I completely understand,” said Vince, his diamond-studded pinky ring gleaming.  "You spoke of an inheritance and well, our Erickson account has a stipulation attached to it, a similar last order if you will."


Vince grinned widened to the point Hannah began growing concerned for his cheeks.  "The wielder of this check, number 142, you see, is to have access to the funds associated with this account."

Hannah wilted, and sensed her boss's annoyance through the surrounding bookcases.  "I’m afraid I don't understand."

"The money in Mr. Erickson's account, the account where this hundred dollars will be taken from and then given to you when we cash this check, is now yours in total.  In essence, you have gained another bank account with those funds left by Mr. Erickson."
"Like a checking account?"


“That's very nice, I guess, but I can’t imagine there’s much in there.”

"With the compound interest over the past 80 years the total comes to two million dollars."

Hannah stared at Vince, and waited for his smile to turn into a malicious grin, for his patronizing tone to shift to cold sarcasm, for the unexpected hospitality to transition into an escort from the premises.  None occurred in the next heartbeat.

Instead, Hannah laughed into the tense silence whose coverage rivaled the floor-to-floor carpet beneath her feet.  Joining in her chuckle to a lesser extent, Vince procured a lone folder at his elbow, and opened the cover.  The top page, faded with age and mottled with the echoes of paperclips, faced her like a stop sign. 

Every letter indented the surface from the typewriter's pressure as each word, and sentence in the trio of paragraphs filled the page.  Hannah skimmed the wide lines, and then backtracked, reread and read again.  The situation Vince described lay articulated before her in older phrases and antiquated terms.  The second paragraph provided details of her Grandfather's desire to provide for his only grandchild, but only should she show the fastidiousness to attempt cashing the check.  His flowing signature, along with the bank manager at the time, completed the order in blue ink and spotless penmanship.

"Congratulations, Mrs. Walters.  You've just become a very wealthy woman."  Vince extended his hand across the table. 

Shifting her wide gaze from the page, Hannah jerked her hand from the letter and shook.

"Now,” said Vince, “first things first. How about we cash that check?"

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Changes - No. 128

Vicki held up a magenta shirt no bigger than her hand. "What about this?"

"I can’t believe it," whispered Bert, standing behind her right shoulder.

"I guess it is a little bright." Shrugging, Vicki hung the tiny garment onto the rack. "Did you want to look-?" She paused, finding Bert staring across the pastel clusters of miniature clothes. Following his gaze, she ended at a straight-haired brunette filling a snug business suit with a blouse gleaming as if made of silk, perusing baby-sized shoes. Vicki slipped a hand over her swollen belly, as if blinding the child within from the sight. "Bert?"

He rotated slowly, shoulders and head first followed by his coal-dark eyes wide with shock. "What?"

Vicki cocked an eyebrow.

"Bert? Bert Athenson? Is that you?"

He cringed at the sound of his name, spoken in a husky alto. When he turned, Vicki drifted into his shadow.

"Miranda?" Bert straightened his shoulders beneath his nursery-paint stained tee-shirt so he towered over them both, Vicki in her stout flats, the other in three-inch heels. "It's been forever."

Miranda beamed a grin, revealing bleached teeth and pointed canines. "How have you been?"

"Great," said Bert, his voice wobbling like a tight-rope stretched too far.

Vicki coughed like a settling dove, pivoting Bert's head as if on a string. The shock on his face dialed down to a pleased, but stunned stupor, like when the test strip had come out blue. The tension in Vicki ebbed when he slipped his arm around her waist, and they turned back to Miranda as one.

"Things have been terrific actually," said Bert.

Beneath a layer of foundation, Mirada's pallor gained a green tint. "Busy, I see."

"Well, yes. Miranda, this is my wife, Vicki."

"Pleasure," said Vicki, extending a hand.

Miranda shook with a manicured set of fingers, their tips barely resting on Vicki's before leaping back like they'd been stung.

Vicki gave her a strained smile as a pin-drop silence descended. "So, what are you shopping for?"

"A co-worker's shower. It seems like everyone's popping out kids these days." Miranda's crystal blue eyes leapt to Bert, where they latched on as if nothing else existed. "I'm surprised at you, Bert."

Vicki let out a little gasp as Bert squeezed her close.

"Things change,” said Bert. “People change."

"I suppose they do," said Miranda. She tilted her chin up and folded her arms at her waist, as if keeping herself grounded instead of springing at a throat. The inset jewels on the silver watch lacing her wrist glittered. "It was nice seeing you again." Her gaze dragged off Bert's face, and Vicki fought not to retreat under the other woman's dagger-glare. "I hope things don't change too much for you."

"We're anticipating lots of changes actually," said Vicki, wrapping both hands protectively around her belly.

"I guess it's better to expect them." Miranda let out a sharp snort, and forced a thin smile onto her lips. "I wish you all the best."

"You too," said Bert.

Vicki leaned into him as Miranda sauntered through the racks and out of the baby department.

"Who was that?"

Bert exhaled from his toes, and glanced down at the floor as if the answer lay in the industrial tile. "We lived together my second year at graduate school."

"Lived together?" Vicki slipped out from his hold and squared herself before him. "Together, together?"

"Yeah, but it didn't work out."

"Obviously." He winced again and Vicki took a deep breath as her roller coaster of emotions took her on a peak and valley ride. "What happened?"

Bert stuffed his hands into his pockets and peered at the tiny clothes. "We wanted the same things for a while, careers and seven figure salaries. Then, I don't know, I think her sister or cousin or something got married and that was all she could talk about, all that mattered." He shrugged. "It wasn't right for me, not then at least, and we went our separate ways."

"She seemed...nice."

Bert chuckled. "You're too sweet for your own good." He pecked her on the forehead. "What else was on the list?"

"We still need sheets, but…wait."

She bit her lip and stared up at Bert, searching his face as her tongue struggled to formulate the right wording for the question bubbling within her.

"What is it?"

"What changed for you?" Vicki steadied herself on the clothes rack as the blurted words hung between them.

Bert gazed at her, and she dove into those inky depths. Leaning in, he kissed her, careful of her tummy's bulge. Vicki's cheeks burned, and when he pulled away, Bert's breath added another layer of warmth on her skin.

"What do you think?" he whispered.

Vicki gave him a cautionary glare, rimmed with the beginning of tears. "Sheets. Then the car seat."

"Sheets, right. I think they're this way."

Bert offered his arm, and Vicki slipped hers through, before resting her head on his shoulder and letting him guide them between the racks.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Survivors - No. 124

Doug jerked up the parking brake, clicked on the hazard lights, and bolted from the driver's seat.  Horns blared around him from the three lanes of idling cars crowding the curb.  Slamming his car door closed, Doug jogged between dual blinkers and spewing mufflers, and then dashed into the terminal.

A sea of worried faces cluttered the ticket area.  Shouts and conversations echoed against the arching glass and steel.  Spotting a woman in a police uniform, Doug pushed forward.

"Excuse me," he said, breathless, "I'm looking for information on Flight 43."

"We're still compiling the list of known casualties," said the officer, as if speaking on replay.  "If you want to get into line-."

"I want to know if my family's all right."

"What's your name, sir?"

"Marshall, Doug Marshall.  My wife's Sydney, my son’s Jake."

"Mr. Marshall, if you come with me, we'll get you into line-."

"I don't want to get into line,” said Doug, scowling in the face of the officer’s double-barreled glare.

"If you get into line, Mr. Marshall, they'll check your ID and allow you inside where they're gathering relations."

"Inside?”  Rising on his tiptoes, Doug peered over the mob and periodic reporters.  "Okay.  Where do I go?"

"Head down the perimeter," said the officer, pointing toward the other end of the terminal. "There will be signs for the security check-in station."

Doug followed her finger’s trajectory at a jagged sprint, starting and stopping as the assembled masses drifted in his way, heedless of anyone else.  Mumbling curses, he kept up the pace until he ran into the first sign and roped-off corridor.

His sneakers squeaked as he joined the end of a snaking line.  Directly in front of him stood a frumpy woman clutching her driver's license, and hugging her purse against a rumbled sweatshirt.

"You're here for Flight 43?" asked Doug.

The woman swiveled her gaze from those before them, her eyes near the point of tearing.  Biting her lip, she nodded.  "My sister, Fran...."

Doug motioned her on as the line trundled forward, bringing them closer to a wall of tinted glass.  "Have you heard anything?"

"No," said Fran’s sister, her voice warbling.  She drew a deep breath and steadied.  "Just that they have some folks on the other side receiving treatment, the others...."  Hunching her shoulders, she trailed into sniffles.  "I’m sorry."

"No, I understand."  Doug fished out his wallet, bent on his license, but plucked their family portrait out instead.  He held out the photograph, his hand shaking.  "My wife and son."

She touched the image, and then drew her hand to her mouth.  "This is just terrible."


Fran’s sister jumped as the officer at the security desk beckoned.  Skittering forward, she held her ID out like a ticket.  The officer adjusted his glasses, and began asking questions in a hushed tone.

Standing between the pylons, Doug kept his photo out as he withdrew his license.  He pressed the plastic and image against his wallet, and bounced in place.

"What are they doing up there?" asked the gruff man behind him.

Doug glanced over his shoulder, and met the red-faced man's glower.  "Asking questions, I guess."

"I'm the one with questions, damn it."  The man grumbled and the young woman next to him wilted into herself like a parched fern.

Doug offered an empathetic smile, and swiveled back to the officer.  A woman wearing a Red Cross vest exited the glass door behind the desk, and led Fran's sister through to the other side.

Rubbing at his temple with one hand, the officer waved with the other.  “Next!”

Doug shot forward, ID ready.

"Name?" asked the officer.

"Doug Marshall."

"Who are you here for?"

The officer stiffened as Doug offered the picture.  "My wife Sydney and son Jake."

Ripping his gaze from the image, the officer started flipping into pages of printed names attached to his clipboard.  He passed through the first half dozen, and then ran his finger down the column.

"Is that...?"  Doug gulped, unable to finish his question.

"Just the passenger list," said the officer.  He drew a line through two rows with a neon-yellow highlighter, the scrape setting Doug's teeth on edge.  Letting the pages flutter down, he looked up and Doug met his gaze.  "How is it that you're here?"

"When I heard what happened, I started driving."  Doug shrugged.  "It's only an hour and a half.  I couldn't just sit at home, waiting for a phone call."

The officer nodded, and then spoke into the walkie-talkie attached to his shoulder.  "One, over."

"Copy," said a static reply.

"Just one moment," said the officer, handing Doug back his license.  "Someone's going to escort you inside."

"Thanks," said Doug.  He transferred his stare from the officer to the glass door, willing it to open.  His pulse rattled in his ears, drowning the crowd noise beneath his heartbeat.

The door cracked, and a needle-thin man wearing another Red Cross vest appeared on the threshold.  Holding the door open, he gave a grim smile.  "This way, sir."

Doug froze, his feet suddenly as attached to the floor as they’d had been to the gas pedal.

"Sir?" said the officer.

The Red Cross attendant padded up, and took Doug's arm. The pressure jolted him from his stupor.

"I'm sorry," said Doug, allowing the other man guide him forward.

"Not a problem," said the attendant, keeping hold and opening the door for them.  "My name's Paul."


"About time," said the gruff man who'd been behind him in line.

Doug didn't bother offering another expression of sympathy.  Clutching his wallet, he followed Paul.  His heart leapt into his throat as they traversed a narrow hallway.  The smell of antiseptic and adhesive dominated the air, nearly obscuring the scent of char and gasoline.

"Where are we going?" asked Doug, his voice scraping against his throat as if it had claws.

"The medical team has a triage unit running.  The survivors who've received care are recuperating there until we can move everyone to the nearby hospitals."

Doug bobbed his head, and lifted his chin. Forcing down a swallow, he kept his knees from liquefying.

"Who are you looking for, Doug?"

"My wife and son," said Doug.  He offered the picture and ID again, his fingers quivering, palm slick.  "Have you seen them?"

"I better not say."  Paul handed them back.  "I don't want to pass along anything that's not fact."

"Right," said Doug.  He bowed his head, watching his sneakers as they walked in silence.

The beeps of equipment, orders for treatment, and jubilant cries grew louder until they reached a set of opened doors.  Paul halted them at a wrinkled man with another clipboard, who looked up beneath bushy eyebrows.

"Marshall, woman and young boy," said Paul.

Doug didn't bother staring at the pages being flipped this time.  He peered into the terminal gates, now filled with cots and scurrying staff instead of passengers waiting to board.  Vest denoted the Red Cross, white coats the medical personnel, while frayed and ragged clothes revealed the family members admitted before him and the survivors they’d come to find.

"I think we've got one Marshall," said the clipboard man.  "Just let me check-."


Doug swiveled toward the exclamation, and locked onto Jake jumping up on a cot.  He waved one scratched-up hand, his other, bandaged against his torso, matched the gauze half-taped around his head.  One woman steadied Jake as he nearly tumbled, while another stood beside his bed, holding more medical tape and gauze in rubber-gloved hands.

Surging between Paul and the clipboard man, Doug tore down the aisles.  He scooped Jake up, whose arm wrapped around his neck like a noose.  The rest of the room vanished as he clutched Jake's small body against him.  Sounds muted, and Doug’s senses died to anything other than Jake’s rapid heartbeat and tight clasp.  Pulling out of the embrace, Doug planted a kiss on the bare patch of Jake's forehead before catching his son's watery eyes.

“It’s all right now,” said Doug, cooing like when Jake woke from a nightmare.  "Do you know where your mom is?"

Jake's lower lip started to wobble, and he shrank into Doug's shoulder.

"Doug," said Paul.

Doug closed his eyes, and pressed his cheek against Jake’s curly black hair, the locks he’d gotten from Sydney.  "Yes?"

"We have some information about your wife."

Slinging Jake in his lap, Doug sat on the edge of the cot.  Jake squirreled close, as if to burrow through Doug’s jacket.  Looking up, Doug stared at Paul, standing with the clipboard man.  Both loomed like trees about to fall and Doug braced himself for impact.