If you've reached this blog, welcome. Unfortunately the content on this page has been moved and is being updated at my new blog:

Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Greenfield Estate – No. 77

Helen flicked the light switch, dousing the amber bulb at Jill's bedside. "Good night, honey."

" sure?" Jill scrunched deeper beneath her blankets, pert nose, bright blue eyes, and tawny bangs peeking above the periwinkle comforter. 

"I am, Jill." Helen stepped over the bedroom's threshold and inched the door closed. 


"I'll leave the hallway light on if you want."

She smirked when Jill stiffened, her memories of childhood squeamishness evident.

"No. You don't have to do that again."

Helen's lips faded from their curve at Jill's deepening soprano. "That's my girl."

Jill smiled and with an uncertain sigh, rolled over. Moonlight streamed through the far window’s watery panes and the branches of the barren chestnut outside, tinting her profile in shades of silver.

After a final glance, Helen crept into the hallway but left the door cracked. Jill's breathing tapered into a gentle rhythm and once certain she slept, Helen padded down the corridor, stepping lightly on the hardwood planks. She winced when the stairs creaked during her descent and held her breath at the base, making sure she had not woken Jill. Up above, the sputter of electricity trickling through the ancient wires and the gusts fingering the roof tiles echoed through the corridors, but none of the noise teased Jill from bed.

"Sleep tight," whispered Helen.

Turning from the stairs, Helen froze when a young man appeared against the mahogany walls. He scurried in a silent dash toward the kitchen and vanished through the shut door.

Staring at the kitchen's entrance, Helen waited for him to reappear. The swing door remained unmoving and nothing crept out of the shadows.

"Jill...." she whispered.

Rubbing her eyes, Helen sought to disperse visions of her daughter's quivering lower lip and the stories of what she'd seen during the day. It's your imagination, she heard herself reply.

"And now it's mine."

With a lengthy exhale, Helen headed toward the kitchen, bent on the familiarity of dirtied dishes left in the sink. She slowed at the door and her hand trembled when she put her palm against the wood.

"You're being crazy," she whispered.

Gathering her nerves, Helen pushed the door and stepped inside.

"Put the eggs—" 

When she looked up, the spindly woman by the kitchen's center island stopped short. Tendrils of gray hair wavered around her long face from where they had escaped the bun tucked at the base of her skull but above the ruffled collar of her blouse. Her rolled sleeves disrupted the garment’s silvery stripes and flour seemed to dust her ropey forearms.

"Excuse me, Miss, I didn't realize it was you."

Helen's mouth fell open while the other woman beamed a smile and scrubbed her hands on her apron's slack. 

"Can I get you anything?"

"No thank you," said Helen, ingrained manners rebounding.

"Have a seat then, Miss." The woman gestured to a stool nestled by the island, one with a high back and woven seat Helen didn't remember unpacking, let alone ever owning. "It'd be a pleasure to have your company."

"Ah...."  Helen strode forward and set her hands on the chair's backrest, half expecting it to dissolve beneath her touch. The wood resisted, however, its worn edges smooth and cool against her skin. "Who...who are you?"

"Forgive me," said the woman, "I'm forgetting myself with all of this excitement." She pinched her skirt in both hands and dipped into a brief curtsy. "My name is Molly Jenkins."

"And you are?"

"I've been Matron of the Greenfield Estate since...." Her grin stiffened. "For a long while now."


"Please sit. I'll have these done in a few minutes and we can have a proper chat." She hefted the wooden spoon resting against the rim of the massive clay bowl before her and began stirring. "Jacob?"


"Pour Miss Helen a glass."

Helen caught her balance on the stool when the same young man she had seen from the stairs crossed the kitchen, placed a basket with eggs onto the counter, and then opened the corner cupboard. Moonlight from the double windows glittered on the shelves decked with unfamiliar crystal and china, silverware and platters. A huge punch bowl occupied a shelf with decanters, each filled with various shades of brown and black. 

Selecting the darkest of the lot and a small port glass, Jacob came to the island, and poured to the rim.

"Thank you," said Helen, as she took the offered glass. 

"My pleasure, Miss."

Jacob ducked his head in a quick bow, the brim of his derby cap shading his nervous smile.

"Make yourself at home, Miss," said Molly as she began spooning lumps onto a baking tray. "And you," she said to Jacob, "best get to your chores."

"But the girl—"

"Is asleep," said Molly.

"Girl?" Helen tightened her grip on her drink’s stem. "You mean Jill?"

"Yes, Miss," said Jacob. His smile quirked and his eyes seemed to lose their focus on her face. "I wouldn't want to scare her again."

"Scare her." Helen plopped onto the stool as her knees failed. "You were the one she saw by the gazebo."

"Yes Miss. It's where I do my work."

"It's where you dawdle," said Molly.

Chagrinned, Jacob sent his gaze into his hands, now twiddling before him. Charcoal stained his fingertips and smudges disappeared up the sleeves of his canvas jacket.

"It's where I draw," he whispered. "I didn't mean to startle her, but I guess she saw me watching her in the garden." He lifted his chin and his back straightened. "I didn't mean her any harm, Miss, I just wanted to see her clearly, so I could sketch her later on. When she came inside though, I...." 

The wan pallor on his cheeks warmed. 

"You ran," said Molly.

He winced as she slid the dotted tray into the oven.

"I guess I did." He held up two hands, revealing calloused palms. "But I'm sorry if I bothered her any."

"She's fine," said Helen. "She was just a little confused by what she saw." She glanced at the glass in her fingers, the port within rippling. "I guess we both are."

"Well, we'll give you a chance to settle in and make yourselves at home." Molly shut the oven and checked the face of a pocket watch pinned to the belt of her apron. "We can be a bit to absorb."

"Are there more of you?"

"Of course," said Molly. She tucked away her pocket watch and rested her hands on Jacob's shoulders. "There's Mr. Benedict, the butler, who has every Friday off. Mr. Martin, the gardener who this boy helps out from time to time." She squeezed Jacob's shoulders until he winced. "And Tulip Grandee who'll be tending to your linens and the dusting. Oh, and there’s Sir Renning who manages the stables with his boy, Oliver. They usually stay in the carriage house." 

"But we don't have horses," said Helen.

"You don't, but the Estate does."

Helen gaped. 

"I can introduce you if you like Miss," said Jacob, squirming beneath Molly’s hold.

"Maybe tomorrow," said Molly. "I think Miss Helen's had enough for the moment."

Jacob's timid smile returned. "Sorry Miss." 

Molly shoved him at the door. "You should be at those weeds."

"Yes, Ma'am."

He tipped his cap and then Helen watched him pass through the door, his passage as silent as his footsteps.

"I should be going myself,” said Molly. “Tulip has a tendency to lose herself in the library."

"The library?"

"Where you've put your musical instruments."

"Oh," said Helen, recalling the shelves and their dusty tomes. "Will the piano be in your way?"

"Not at all. We had one in their three, no four families ago. The books are on the wall, so the middle is yours to do with as you like."

"Good to know," said Helen.

"But I should check in on Tulip before these cookies are done and make sure she moves along."

Molly plucked an egg timer from the sill by the sink, overlooking where the evening’s dishes, now clean, had been stacked. After turning the dial, she set the globular device beside the dirtied bowl.

"I won't be long."

With a silent sway of her skirts, Molly passed through the opposite door, the one leading toward the front hallway and the music room. 

Or is it the library? wondered Helen.

The ticking of the egg timer dominated the quiet and Helen stared at the small arrow making its way around the face. She counted down fifteen seconds before drawing the glass to her lips and taking a sip. Oaky port coated her lips and slipped down her throat like a warm bath. Licking her lips, she set the glass down before the urge to chug became overwhelming. She nearly knocked it over, however, when the kitchen door groaned.


Helen peered over her shoulder and blinked at the vibrant blue of her daughter’s bathrobe. "Jill!? What are you doing up?"

"I thought I smelled cookies," said Jill. She frowned and plodded forward, her robe tight around her budding frame. "Why are you baking in the middle of the night?"

"I'm not," said Helen.

She swiveled around, following Jill's stare at the bowl, its spoon, and the ticking timer. Meanwhile, the sweet smell of cinnamon and sugar began wafting from the oven.

"Then who is?"

Helen dragged the timer over, the next seconds speeding by. Setting it between them, she wrapped an arm around Jill's reedy waist, pulling her close, and  felt comforted by the arm Jill slung around her shoulders.

"In about three minutes," whispered Helen, "we'll find out."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Thorny Breakfast - No. 74

The snap of breaking branches woke Sam. Staring at the swirling cedar panels of their bedroom’s ceiling fan, he waited for another crunch, another grind, another press of hooves into soil. Munching drifted through the open window, blending with the perfume of roses and earthy-scent of disturbed mulch.

"Damn it."

Tossing back the sheets, Sam slammed his feet onto the carpet and glared through the honeysuckle curtains billowing before the window’s screen. Rays of morning light poured in, riding a soft bleat from outside. With a growl, Sam rose, stirring the mattress. 

Behind him, Adele shifted, the pillows scrunching beneath her ruddy curls and drowsy squint. "Where are you going?"

"He's back," said Sam, yanking on yesterday's jeans.

With a long yawn, Adele curled beneath the sheets. "Let him alone."

"I planted those roses for you, not to feed the neighbor's pets."

"Umm hum."

While Adele drifted back to sleep, Sam marched out of their shadowed bedroom and jammed on the flip-flops waiting by the front door. Sunlight warmed his face when he plodded outside, down their brick stoop, and along the flagstone path leading into the garden.

The rose bushes quivered beyond the plot of herbs beneath the kitchen window and Sam stormed forward, his flip-flops slapping, his arms waving.

"Get out of here.”

White and grey bolted from the rose bushes’ clipped branches and into the blackberry vines covering Clay's picket fence. Following the primal dash, Sam dragged the prickled curtain aside, the heaviest fruits splattering at his feet.

Under the thick vines, a stave swung back and forth, revealing Clay’s brown grass and his backyard’s muddy patches. Flustered chickens resumed their clucking and pecking but Webster's knowing bark made Sam wince.

"What is it boy?"

Sam backpedaled when the bloodhound snuffed over and Clay's thumping steps approached. Crossing his arms and spreading his near-bare feet wide, Sam waited for his neighbor's leathered face shaded by his molded ball-cap to appear.

"Sam!” Clay beamed, deep furrows curving his cheeks. “Morning."

"He's been in my bushes again, Clay."

Clay's caterpillar brows knitted together. "What? Who?"

"That damn goat of yours."

"Sheila?" Clay planted his hoe and glanced over his shoulder. The chickens tittered while the rows of vegetables encased in their wire barricade glistened under a fresh watering. "I don't see her."

"I did," said Sam. He thrust a finger at the nipped section of bush where the house's siding peeked. "I saw her right in there."

Clay shook his head. "She wouldn't. She couldn't. The fence here'd keep her in, like it does my other girls." He thumped the picket with the end of his hoe. "Solid as a rock."

"Not down here."

Reaching through the blackberry’s lush foliage, Sam earned another set of scrapes on his forearm as he swung the loose plank. The last nail holding the stave in place groaned. 

Clay dropped to a knee and, tipping back his cap, scratched his receding widow’s peak.

"Oh...I see." With a grunt, he straightened, adjusted his cap’s brim, and leaned again on the hoe. "But she couldn't make it through such a tight space."

"Something did. Something that looks a whole lot like her."

"Maybe it was the rabbits. They've been doing havoc on my radishes. Lost all my peas up to my knees too."

"Rabbit's don't bleat, Clay." Sam shook the nibbled section of rose bush, now void of blooms and leaves, with stems marred by teeth marks. "And they can't eat something at waist height."


Webster huffed and rose onto all fours, his tail curved and still. His ribbon of pink tongue disappeared behind his jaws as he swiveled his head toward Clay's paint-mottled ranch house.

"What is it boy?"

With a whine, Webster pivoted, nostril's flaring and body rigid from muzzle to the black tip of his tail. The chickens seemed to sense his focus. Their clucking quieted and even the winds stirring the blackberry vines and the garden of leafy greens calmed. 

A pained bleat rippled through the silence.


Using his hoe as a staff, Clay headed across his patchy grass, Webster at his heel.

The bleat echoed again, the sour note dispelling the irritation stewing in Sam's gut. 

"Is she all right?"

Clay didn't stop, and rounding the coop, he squatted, his flannel covering the rump of his dirt and grease spattered khaki's. Beside him, Webster lifted his head and Sam stiffened when the bloodhound’s sad brown eyes spotted him over the blackberries.


Webster woofed and his tail began an anxious wag.

"Damn it," said Sam. 

Pushing aside enough of the branches to grasp the top of the fence, he clambered over. Mud squelched around his bared toes and he trudged through the turned earth, taking big strides to save the hem of his jeans from being completely soaked. The chickens resumed their flustered pecking when he passed their coop and Webster woofed in greeting. The bloodhound then skittered back, giving room beside Clay who cradled Sheila's head in his hands. Blood dotted her muzzle in fat, wet globs.

"She's hurt."

"I see that," said Sam. He knelt at Clay's side. "What is it?"

"Thorns I think." 

With a tender finger, Clay worked under Sheila's upper lip. The goat's bleat turned into a whimper. Her glassy eyes circled in their sockets like rolled marbles and she shuddered, making the red-tipped rose thorns imbedded in her gums and piercing her cheeks tremble amid gushes of rust-scented blood.

The "I told you so" evaporated from Sam's tongue. He laid a hand on Sheila’s throbbing side, his fingers arching across the delicate ribs straining beneath her coarse hide. Sheila's frantic pulse worked into his veins, charging his heartbeat.

"What do you need, Clay? Pliers?"

Clay lowered Sheila's lip and stroked the goat's neck with bloodied fingers. "I...I don't know.... I don't know if I can get them out. There're so many. There's so much blood." Clay's voice began to quiver like the goat beneath Sam's hand.

"It's okay." Reaching around Clay, Sam worked off the other man's flannel and balled the fabric into a loose wad. "See if you can stem the bleeding until I get back."

Clay nodded as he did as instructed. He looked up though, when Sam stood. "Get back?"

"We're taking her to the vet."

"The vet...." The uncertainty in Clay’s eyes cleared and his head’s bobble firmed with understanding. "Yes, the vet. Good idea."

Sam thumped Clay on the back and then started back across the yard.

"Adele!?" Vaulting the fence, he called out again. "Adele!?"

Her face, surrounded by a frazzled mane, appeared in their bedroom window above the pruned rose bushes.


"Hand me my keys."

"Where are you going?"

"To the vet."


"Sheila's hurt."

"Sheila?" Adele vanished from the screen, and fabric rustled as change clanged. "Who's Sheila?"

"Clay's goat."

Returning to the window, Adele raised the screen, her head cocked. His key ring dangled from the hand she held out of reach.

"You mean The Goat?"

"Yeah," said Sam. "The thorns have made a mess of her face."

Adele balked with a sudden gasp. "Is she going to be okay?"

"I hope so," said Sam as he held out his palm. 

Adele tightened her fingers on the key’s ring. "You do?"

With a wince, Sam grabbed for the keys but Adele kept them in her grasp.

"I'm not a monster, Adele. I want her to stop eating my plants, not get killed by them." 

Grinning, she released the keys and followed them up with his wallet. "Get going then."

Stuffing his wallet away, Sam palmed the keys and headed for his truck. A quick reverse, short jaunt, and turn into Clay’s drive, and he leapt out again, leaving the engine rumbling and the door ajar while he trotted toward his neighbor’s backyard.

Clay met him at the gate cradling Sheila who he'd wrapped up in his flannel. Ushering them onto his pickup’s backseat, Sam closed the mini door and hopped behind the wheel.

"Sorry about your roses," said Clay.

Sam waved him off as he pulled onto the main road. "Don't sweat it."

"And the...ah…mess."

A glimpse in the rearview mirror revealed the wet stain spreading on the back seat's cushions from beneath Sheila’s rear end.

With a gruff sigh, Sam cinched his fingers around the wheel and sped toward the first intersection.

"Fix the fence, Clay, and we'll call it even."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Harvest's Bounty - No. 70

I slouched in the passenger seat of Barney’s truck, running my fingertips along the creases in my jeans. The flannel overshirt I’d borrowed from him rustled with each stroke, hiding a tee shirt as pristine as the boots laced to my feet. My skin, however, itched under the leather, denim, and cotton, the textures so different then the lab coats and flats, the business skirts and protective gloves I'd been used to donning each morning, but never in all those years, this early.

I thought I’d left behind these dawn awakenings when I’d first packed my bags, but as the sun woke, the truck thumped in and out of a pothole and tossed me against passenger window, proving the truth of the situation. I braced my hand on the flaking dashboard while Barney chuckled.

"Want to turn back?"


I slipped my fingers around the door's handle, determined not to unplug its lock or open it wide and dive to safety. Even if I had, we were miles away from town and the thought of trudging down the maze of muddied roads winding between the orchards made my feet ache.

"You sure?"

I nodded, forced my hand to relax and laid my intertwined fingers in my lap. Channeling my last round of explanations before the board, I exuded an outward calm I desperately wanted to imbibe.

"You might like it you know," said Barney. "The fresh air."

"The sweat."



Barney smacked the truck's signal and turned us down an unmarked right hand lane. I winced when we crossed a canyon-sized rut and the whole truck bounced. The seatbelt cinched across my torso and I rubbed the crown of my head after it smacked against the ceiling. A glance at my fingertips proved nothing more than a bruise would remain but the smooth palm and tapered fingers facing me seemed wounded nonetheless.

"What am I doing?"

"This was your idea, Paige."

"But is it a good one?"

"You won't know until you try," said Barney.

I rolled my eyes at his optimistic rejoinder and stared at the passing trees. Lush clumps of leaves clung to the branches, shading the damp ground and the plump apples ripening in their midst. The crooked limbs seemed to yearn for a climber and echoes of my own laughter when running between the trunks and scampering like a squirrel into the canopy called out from the past. I remembered the scrapes and cuts treated with iodine and the frosty showers with the garden hose when I’d stumbled home too muddy to be let inside.

Regardless of what fresh layers of dirt, blisters, or muscle strain today brought, I knew one thing was certain: At the end of the week I'd have my first paycheck in months.

Taking some solace in the logical course I'd begun, I straightened and watched the ruddy planks of the warehouse near.

Two trucks were parked outside: a pale blue one dotted with rust and a backseat I recalled smelling like hay, and a newer green pickup with muddied flaps. My heart thudded when I noted Carl and Maddie standing between them. In their worn jeans and plaid shirts faded by days in and out of the surrounding fields, they seemed a part of the scenery, a painting crafted for my reminiscence. Unlike streaks of watercolor or oily globs, the two of them chatted amicably between chomps on powdered donuts and sips on covered coffee cups. Carl's shaggy mop of hair swayed with a headshake and Maddie's wrinkles, too numerous for her age, deepened with her smile. The vicious thump of my heart sped, however, as they turned to watch us approach.

"Did you tell them?"

"Why would I do that?"

Barney veered into a parking spot, hiding me for the moment behind the cabin of Maddie’s green truck.


"We need an extra hand and I'm bringing an extra hand." Killing the ignition, he adjusted the ball cap perched on his globular head. "We're here to work, not dredge up old times."

Shading his tanned face with the cap’s brim, Barney stepped out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind him.

"I hope you’re right."

With a sigh, I tightened my ponytail and wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. Exiting the truck, I raised my hand, blocking a gust swirling jagged grains into my face. The smell of the night's rain and the damp earth the autumnal weather had left behind nearly obscured the sweeter undercurrent from the fruit and the musk of machinery. When the winds died, I could almost hear the swelling flesh amid the soft hush of leaves and Maddie's chastisement.

"...not like you to be running late."

"I had to run an errand," said Barney.

Sensing the opportunity to make my entrance, I rounded the bed of both pickups but stopped at the brake lights. My feet refused to move any further, like Carl's square jaw around his mouthful and Maddie's arm as she took her next sip.

Barney pivoted, his face a mask of innocence. "You two remember Paige?"

Maddie lowered her hand, taking the cup from her pursed lips. "I seem to recall the name."

Turning her back to me, she fetched the last cardboard cup from the tray resting on her pickup's hood and handed it to Barney.

"We better get started."

"Lead the way."

Barney motioned toward the warehouse and Maddie marched on. Her dirty-blonde ponytail jolted from side to side in time with her walk and twitched like a hooked fish when she shoved open the warehouse’s door, revealing a shadowed interior. She and Barney disappeared inside, and I jumped when Carl appeared beside me, his presence as quiet as an oak.

"I think she's still pissed about Garret Adams."

"Gar...."  With my mouth gaping, I stared up at him. "That was junior high."

Carl shrugged and peered beyond me, into the orchard. "Around here, some things stick around."

I gulped down the insinuation I heard in his soft tenor, and felt thankful for the cool dawn keeping my cheeks from blazing.

"Some things don’t," I whispered.

"Sometimes." His smile rebound and he cocked his head. “And maybe you’re here to prove me right. What’s all this about you being back?”

Leaning against the rail of Maddie’s truck, I crossed my arms and stared into the warehouse where tools clanked.

"My grant expired."


When I looked back, I found Carl's brow furrowed.

"The money for my project ran out," I said, "and they had to let go of our whole team."

"And you came back here?"

Rubbing at my sleeves, I warded off second thoughts. "I wasn't sure where else to go. Everyone's in the same boat so jobs are hard to come by."

"But weren't you almost finished?"

I stilled my hands. "How did you know?"

"Just because I live out in the boonies doesn't mean I don't hear the news."

"Of course," I said, suddenly conscious of my cleaner attire, "I didn't mean to sound so shocked."

Hanging his head, Carl kicked a piece of gravel with the toe of his boot. "'s your Mom really. She talks about you every chance she gets."

"You've see her?"

"At Barney's from time to time. Your Uncle's been looking after her since...." He winced and his focus drifted back into the trees.

"Since Dad?"

He shook his head. "Since you."

I grimaced but couldn't find the words to argue with his whisper. Anything I said would be a hollow excuse or an outright lie and Carl knew me too well to be fooled, or at least he had.

From the warehouse, the guttural rumble of a picker shook the loose pebbles around my feet. The rattle pulled me from my guilt and the decisions I'd made, and my hands suddenly yearned for something to do.

"What’s the plan?"

"We're harvesting today." Carl tipped his chin at the eastern rows where a hazy sun peeked over the treetops. "Seven through twenty-two."

"Two teams?"

"That's the idea."

A second warehouse door opened, creating a silhouette of daylight around the first picker trundling toward the waiting rows. Putting my feet into gear, I stalked inside as Maddie and my Uncle made their exit. My eyes adjusted after a couple of blinks and the second hulking machine with its angled arm and tires curving above my shoulders came into focus. Gripping the handles by the steps, I hauled myself into the driver's seat and eyed the controls.

"You remember how to ride this beast?"

I stroked my fingers along the steering wheel and the knob atop the clutch. "It's coming back to me."

Carl's contagious grin brightened the warehouse's gloom. "Then let's see it, Doctor."

"Strap yourself in."

Carl perched on the frame behind me as I fired up the motor and floored the gas. At a pace I remembered once finding laborious, we lurched out of the doorway and along the path marked by the first picker's tires.

“Hey,” said Carl.

I glanced behind me and found him pointing.

“Watch out for—"

His eyes widened as we tipped into a bottomless pothole hidden beneath a pool of murky water. Mud flung into my face and splatters coated the front of my tee shirt. I sputtered and the picker decelerated while I wiped my eyes clear and spat out hunks of brown saliva.

Beneath the engine's rattle, I heard Carl stifling a laugh. He reached both arms around me and steadied the wheel as we continued our trundle along the rutted path.

"You okay?"

I stared at the muddy pools in my palms, the water rippling from the droplets falling from my bangs.


Carl's concern whittled through my stupor and I met his worried gaze. The picker, however, took advantage of our distracted stare.

I yelped when we thudded through another sequence of puddles and a crisp shower drenched my back. Drops trickled beneath my collar, traced my spine, and headed for my waist, and I shivered while Carl steered us back onto level ground.

"Do you want to turn back? Get cleaned up?"

"No," I whispered.

He glanced my way and I palmed his face, smearing mud across his pristine cheeks and the skepticism in his eyes.

"Feeling better, Doc?"

"I am now," I said, joining in his laughter.

Taking the wheel back from him, I floored the gas once more. We accelerated down the row, the wind playing with my soggy hair, the rising sun drying the splatters on my face, Carl’s presence a fire against my back. I didn't bother wiping the rest of the dirt away with my flannel’s sleeve or the bandana I'd stuck in my back pocket. I’d end the day dirtier than I had been in years, but seated on the split cushion with its duct tape repairs and surrounded by the trees my great grandfather had first planted, I savored a sudden and unexpected sense of home.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Study Time - No. 68

Dana unclipped Max's leash once the park's gate clanged shut.  He romped along the gravel trail, the long hairs on his tail whipping about like russet streamers. 

"Max," said Dana, slinging her backpack forward. 

As she exchanged the leash for the blanket squished by her textbooks, Max woofed and trotted back.  Circling her legs, he settled at her knee and peered up, watery brown eyes intent.

"That’s my boy.”

A pale pink tongue drooped from Max’s jaws, his muzzle curving in a pleased, doggy grin.  She scratched behind his flopped ears and then adjusted the backpack on her shoulder. 

"So where should we sit?"

Max trotted beside her as Dana started into the park. 

In the sunny spots before them, pairs and quartets dressed in shades of red bunched while clusters of teenagers in similar holiday hues lay along the grassy hillsides whispering and laughing.  Subdued families and picnickers squirreled themselves in shady patches beneath budding cherry trees, and couples perched along the granite rim of park's main fountain, a few with roses in their hands. 

Sighing Dana ran her fingers through Max's coarse fur.  "You're still with me right?"

Max leaned into her leg, his body warm and solid.

"Thanks."  The renewed wag of his tail brought a smile to her lips and Dana thrust her arm at the expanse.  "Go on."

Max bounded off and swung into the grass, nose to the blades.  Squishing the blanket into a ball, Dana headed after him and tried to ignore the flirtatious giggling and hands holding hands. She veered into section of sloped lawn above a flat stretch where a trio pitched a Frisbee and unfurled her roll of powder-blue tweed.  Doffing her pack, she sat and scoped out Max's progress.

She found him snuffing around the base of a tree, and then followed his nose to a family picnic. 

“Shoo,” said the mother.

She clutched a little boy in ruby overalls against her carnation blouse as if Max might gobble the child whole.  Oblivious, the boy laughed and offered Max, who stalked tentatively closer, a carrot stick. 

"Max," said Dana.

His ears perked when he looked over his shoulder, then he swiveled back to the wide-eyed mother, the drowsy father propping up on an elbow, and the little boy’s treat.

“Max,” said Dana, threading her voice with a sterner tone.

She patted the blanket, and hanging his head Max padded across the lawn, up the hill and belly flopped at her feet.

"Leave them alone, okay?"

He woofed and set his chin on his paws.  His eyes swept across the park, darting every now and then to the little boy and his newest edible acquisition.

Leaving Max on guard, Dana lay on her stomach and brought out her textbooks.  She angled her notebook alongside, slipped the pen from its spiral spine and ejected the tip with a press of her thumb. 

"Where were we," she whispered as she flipped through the glossy pages.

She'd found her place among the Renaissance painters when a high pitched voice called out in her direction.

"Honey, look at this one!"

Max rose up on all four and cocked his head.  Glancing past him and into the lawn below, Dana spied a blonde in a short denim skirt, crimson halter-top and matching pumps.  She knelt, her hand extended like the little boy in overalls, her red fingernails waggling.

"Up to you," said Dana.

She swung back to the pages after Max flared his nostrils and padded toward the blonde.  The woman awed, the saccharine coo curdling Dana's stomach.

"Isn't he adorable?"


The man's uncertainty further soured Dana's gut and made the text between her elbows blur.  Max's bark, a joyous and familiar sound once following the slip of a key and turn of a lock, twisted the mid-February warm spell into ice.

"Do you think he can do a trick?"


"Give me your hand sweetie," said the blonde.

Dana rolled and sat upright while the blonde held out her hand, palm up.  A scowl marred her heart-shaped face when Max passed her by and lifted his head to look up at Linus.  Backpedaling, Linus stuffed his hands into the pockets of his pleated slacks, but Max crept forward, his low whine escalating.

"Max," whispered Dana, the name nearly catching in her throat.

Linus’s head snapped up while Max glanced backward.  His tail developed a metronomic sway when Dana came to her feet and strode near, planting each sneakered stride with care.

The blonde set one hand on her hip and gestured the other at Max.  "Is he yours?"

"Yeah," said Dana, her gaze locked on Linus and his reddening cheeks.

"Does he do any tricks?"

"His loyal," said Dana, patting her thigh, "and he can shake hands."

With a final glance at Linus, Max trotted over.  Dana offered her hand and Max dutifully sat and shook.

"That's so cute!"  The blonde clapped and then slipped her arm through Linus', adding a fresh rumple to his dress-shirt.  "We should get a dog like that."

Burying his gaze into the grass, Linus fidgeted with his tie-less collar. 

The blonde squeezed his limb into her breast, making him teeter.  "Shouldn't we, hon'?"

"I think we should go, Brooke."

"What!?"  Brooke glanced between them and realization bloomed in her mascara-lined eyes.  "Do you know her, Linus?"

“Yeah,” he whispered before drawing a deep breath and lifting his gaze.  "How are you doing Dana?"  He tipped his chin at the splayed books beyond.  "Still got your nose to those pages?"

"Graduate school pages now."  Dana crossed her arms, crushing her tee-shirt against the butterflies swarming her belly.  "You?"

"Good.  Busy."

"So I see."

Brooke extracted herself and smoothed her flawless skirt.  "How do you know each other?"

Cocking an eyebrow, Dana waited for Linus to reply.

"We...used to study together in college," he said.

Brooke glanced at Max who followed the conversation with swings of his elongated snout.  "And the dog?"

"We sort of lived together, too," said Linus.

"And got a dog?"

"I got Max," said Dana, laying a protective hand on the Max’s head.

"Because you thought he'd fix things," said Linus.

"Fix what?" 

Linus cringed and Brooke’s question hung in the air like a tossed up ball waiting for gravity to remember its flight.

"Nothing,” he whispered.  Cupping Brooke’s elbow, he tugged her back toward the trail.  "Let's go."

Brooke pulled her arm free.  "Fix what?"

Dana met the blonde’s startled blue eyes and felt a surge of sympathy at the panic glinting in their depths. 

"We lived together," said Dana, "but it never really felt like we were together.  I stupidly thought Max might help.  Might make us feel more like a family."

Shaking his head, Linus hid his hands back in his pockets.  "I didn't want a dog."

"You ended up not wanting me either," said Dana.

He winced despite her even tone, but neither could obscure the truth settling between them. 

"People change," he whispered.

"They sure do."

The Frisbee’s whoosh and the giggle of the boy in overalls dominated the following seconds.

"Well...," said Brooke.  "He's adorable."

"I know," said Dana, thumping Max’s ribcage.  "I should get back to my books."

"As always," said Linus.

"Something’s never change."

With smirk, Linus drifted down the hill, sauntering toward the trail with his head bowed.

"Good luck," said Brooke, “and Happy Val—“  A quirked grin twisted her ruby lips as she glanced at the vacant blanket and back again.  “Have a good one.”

With a fling of her blond curls, she spun and traipsed after Linus. 

"You too," whispered Dana.

As she watched them making their way across the lawn, Max pressed against her rigid leg.  She scratched his head absently while Brooke jabbered, her words lost in the distance.  The bow of Linus' head, however, never shifted.  His shoulders too remained hunched, as if the weight of an invisible world, or she suspected a pending conversation about needing space or feeling trapped, rested upon them.

"Same as always," she whispered. 

From out of the past, a scarred burden hooked through her heart and Dana closed her eyes.  Turning, she marched blindly back to the blanket and stretched out on her stomach.  She clasped the pen and traced her shaky finger beneath the last line of text.  

When Max flopped next to her, as he had the night she’d slammed the door in Linus’ face for the last time, the words before her ran together.  She sniffed and Max nudged her elbow with his nose, leaving a damp patch on her skin.  With a sad chuckle, Dana burrowed her face into the nape of his neck while he licked the unexpected tear streaks from her cheek. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Empty Chair - No. 62

The bawling ricocheted off the plane's curved bulkheads, underscored by a piercing shriek. 

Grant winced and plodded along, hoping with each row the wailing and sobs might subside or he might bypass their source altogether.  Seat numbers increased along with the decibels until the plastic windows seemed about to shatter. 

Reaching 43, Grant peered up and met a round face as red as a stop sign.  The banshee scream bellowed into the aisle from the kid’s maw, the tone warbling in time with the bouncing knee of his mother.  In the window seat a ball-caped fellow Grant assumed to be the father rocked a sobbing infant swaddled in canary yellow blankets.  He had his eyes closed, head bowed as if he wanted to vanish into the bill’s shade. 

Between them the cushion for 43B seemed to shrink.

Sighing, Grant unshouldered his backpack, the rustle against his denim jacket drawing the mother's weary gaze.

"Is this you?"  She tilted her head toward the middle seat, the motion freeing more frazzled tendrils from her pony tail.

"I’m afraid so," said Grant. 

He squeezed against the aisle chair as a passing couple grumbled about the lack of space in the overhead bins and the mother traded her son to her opposite knee.

"We were hoping you might be willing to move."

Grant's hopes shot into the stratosphere.  "Move?"

"They said they might have a free spot."  The mother arched and peered over the headrest toward the back of the plane. 

Following her bend, Grant spied an approaching red haired stewardess.  She smiled, a strained stretch of her ruby lips.

"If you’re willing to move sir, I can offer you a seat up front."

"Um, sure," said Grant, “whatever I can do to help.”

“Follow me, please."

Grant shuffled into the nearest row, earning a scowl from the suited man in 42D, and allowing the stewardess to tromp up the aisle.  When he started tailing her, Grant felt the spikes of envy launched through the air like the infants wails.  Hunching his shoulders, he weaved by the other stragglers working bags into bins, beneath the seats in front of them and cinching belts low and tight across their laps. Murmured conversations noted the noise, although they grew more sympathetic with every distancing step. 

Gazing over the seats, Grant sought the vacant one fate had provided.  Bald heads, dark-haired ones, Medusa curls, knit caps and slicked hairlines poked above the tweed headrests.  None, however, appeared empty.  Worry about some kind of mistake simmered, but he held onto hope as he followed the stewardess through the curtained divider, past the galley and into first class.

A stout steward straightened from his distribution of glasses sweating from the ice water within, his loafers gleaming like swooping bangs. 

"From 43?"

The stewardess nodded and the rigidity in the other attendant ebbed.  A smile bloomed on his lips, but the welcome failed to reach his eyes or his tone.

"This way, sir."  He pivoted and started down the cabin to where a leather chair gaped.

"Enjoy your flight," said the stewardess. 

She leaned into the bulkhead, allowing him room to pass.  A wail from the economy class punctured the curtain and made them both wince. 

"I'd bet they'd let you say," said Grant.

The stewardess chuckled.  "Not this time."

"Good luck then," said Grant, "and thanks."

"You're welcome."  She grinned and then a deep inhale strained the buttons of her blouse.  Turning on a thick heel, she stormed through the curtain and disappeared behind its folds.

The plane's intercom crackle and another steward's greeting flooded the sterilized air, encouraging everyone to find their seats.

Grant hurried to the hovering steward and plopped into the leather.  The cushions squished beneath him, offering a soft embrace.  Before he indulged, Grant tilted forward and stuffed his backpack at his feet.  When he shifted back into his chair, the steward’s painted grin spread.

"Can I get you anything to drink?"

"Water would be great."

"And you, miss?"

Grant followed the steward's gaze to the window seat's occupant and his heart seized.  Flashes of photographs, internet video, commercials, award ceremonies, album covers and concert advertisements inundated his mind in a sudden deluge.  Each provided a crystal rendition of Adrina Rinadli's patented sunny-blond curls, smoky eyes and baritone to soprano range now hidden beneath the floppy rim of a beige sunhat, the wrist-thick braid draped over her shoulder and the faintest hint of make-up on her oval features.

She looked up from the magazine held open in her hands and gave the steward a small smile.  "No, but thank you.”

"I'll be right back with the water then."

Grant swiveled around and watched the steward head toward the front galley. 

"Thanks," he whispered. 

His heart thumped, creating a staccato with the steward's stride.  Falling back into his chair, he latched his belt and placed his hands on his knees.  Out of the corner of his eye he spied Adriana flipping another glossy page. 

He wet his throat with a hard swallow. "Are you—”

She set the magazine onto the lap of her pale brown slacks but kept her eyes locked on the magazine’s image of green canyons and an idyllic sky.  "On vacation."

"Right," said Grant.

He glanced at the plane's interior, the business men and women around them, and the steward delivering a final soda to the neighboring row.  No one fit the look of an entourage or the typical horde of protectors in the background of all the tabloid photographs.

"I guess sometimes you just need to get away from everything for a bit."

"Sometimes."  A sly grin curved Adriana's lips and Grant felt a flush race over his skin.

An echo from 43A and C poked through the dividing curtain and Grant slouched into the leather.  "I hope you have a relaxing time."

"Me too."

She returned to her magazine and Grant fetched his battered paperback from his jacket's inside pocket.  As he sought the chapter where he'd left off the text began to resolve out of a blurry swirl. Whole words solidified by the time the steward reappeared.  He offered a glass of water, its base wrapped by damp napkin.

"Everything all right?"

"I think so," said Grant, cupping the drink and holding his place with a finger between the book’s pages. 

Holding his breath, he snuck a glance at Adriana when the steward cocked an inquisitive brow.

"Fine," she whispered.

"Excellent."  The steward caught his balance on the chair's headrest when the plane surged backwards.  "I'll check on you again once we're airborne."

"All right," said Adriana.

With a nod, the steward departed. 

Tucking the magazine into the pouch before her knees, Adriana then doused the overhead light with a long stretch of her arm.  She smashed a pillow against the bulkhead and squirreled onto the cushion.

"Sweet dreams," said Grant.

With another flush-inducing grin, she tipped the brim of her hat down, hiding the top half of her profile.

Grant returned to his book, hoping the lines might again steady.  He'd found his place when a finger tapped his shoulder.  Swiveling around, he came nose to nose with a middle-aged businessman with an unbutton collar and five o'clock shadow.

"Sorry," he whispered, "but is that who I think it is?"

He waggled a finger toward Adriana but Grant never shifted his gaze.  Instead, he smirked.

"I wish I was that lucky."

The businessman grunted.  "Don't we all?" 

He slid back while the plane angled upwards. 

Turning back around, Grant glugged the water and set the empty glass firmly on the armrest between them.  He popped his ears, and gave up on his paperback as the red-eye’s timing hit him full force. Clicking off the overhead light, he folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, he tried to avoid thoughts on the woman slumbering at his side.

"Thanks for that," whispered Adriana.

"Anytime," said Grant.

Her pleased hum sent his heart racing but he settled into the calm behind his lids, content to see what other destinations fate had in store.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Engagement - No. 61

Charlie woke with a pounding headache.  The squawk of sea gulls and the ocean's surge thumped in time with each throb against his skull.  Dragging his bared arm from across his face, he squinted at the brightening predawn and silhouette of palm tree fronds.  A breeze coursed off the water, weighty with plumerias and the expectations of another Monday.

“Not yet,” he whispered.

Sitting up, Charlie draped his arms over his bent knees and hung his head while his stomach lurched. After warding off a nauseous wave, he dusted bleached grains from his calloused hands.  His elbow knocked over the empty bottle of rum, the clear sides crushing the single red rose at its side. 

Petals fell away, dotting the sand like drops of blood before dancing in another onshore breeze.  They swept past the adjoining dent in the sand, the one Liza had made.

A sea gull's call seemed to mock him with a rendition of her laughter.  Raking a hand through his sandy hair, however, couldn't quash the memory.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

The bird squawked in agreement and Charlie cast it a sullen glare while his hangover jack hammered his temples.  With a tilt of its head and final call, the gull took to the air, soaring up and over the water.  He watched it glide effortlessly toward the horizon until it became a speck among the expanse. 

"Good riddance," he whispered.

Tearing his gaze from the envious flight, Charlie heaved to his feet.  He dug his toes into the cool sands and caught his balance before lurching toward his bike lying in the dried grass.  Uprighting the ten speed, he straddled the leather seat and stared down the single dirt lane leading south.

Beneath his pulse, horns and shouts seemed to wail.  With a scrub at his ears, Charlie resigned himself to his hangover’s din, leaned into the handles and shoved the bike into motion.  The pedals' metal grates pressed into his soles and with each push the wind fluttered his hibiscus print shirt, drying the sweat earned from his ride along the coast, up though the cane fields, and along the roadways leading home.  When he crested the last ridge, however, he pulled to a stop, the brakes screeching their protest.

"What in the world...."

Blackened plumes of smoke drifted from the harbor while oily smears coated the pristine water.  The horns and shouts he’d mislabeled, bombarded him from the armada and additional sirens punctured the early morning. 
Charlie cringed when an airplane swooped overhead, rotators rattling as the pilot angled into the devastation.  The plane met up with a swarm its brethren and in formation they soared through the explosions and out of sight. 

Secondary bombs boomed in their wake and Charlie’s gaze locked onto the base.  


He spied officers and staff in white and khaki along with civilians in jeweled tones rushing between bullet-peppered buildings.  Jeeps with olive canvas stormed along narrow passageways toward the harbor, and the spray of hoses doused the first flames licking from the decks of the anchored battleships.

Pushing off the road, Charlie swooped down the hillside.  He leaned into the sloping curves and didn't bother with the brakes again until he pulled up to the warehouse's back door.  Tossing the bike aside, he charged into the straw musk and weaved between the pallets stacked with seam straining fifty pound burlap sacks stamped RICE and FLOUR.

A clatter of one rolling door beckoned and he drew up before slamming into Arnold.  Donned in shorts still rumpled from sleep, Arnie heaved another panel up, revealing the trucks’ empty parking spots while the radio on his nearby desk sputtered static.

"What's going on, Arnie?"

Locking the door into place, Arnold yanked off his ball cap and mopped his cue-ball head with the ratty bandana perpetually in his back pocket. 

"I don't know, kid." 

Arnold turned his back on the lot and the ambient horns, wails and shouts filling the loading dock like their distributor’s trucks.  After a sniff through hairy nostrils, he frowned. 

"Where have you been?"

Charlie licked his lips, the flavor of rum blending with lipstick.  "At the beach."

"With Liza?"

Diverting his gaze, Charlie headed for the last door and snapped the clasps. 

"I told you she was a long shot."

"I know."  Gritting his teeth, Charlie shoved the doorway open.  He held onto the bottom edge and stretched his arms, savoring the pain raking across his chest.  "But I had to try."

"She let you down easy?"

The gulls’ squawks and Liza’s surprise ratcheted his hangover's pound.  "She laughed in my face."

Arnold gimped over, his flip flips slapping in a staggered rhythm, and Charlie cringed when he planted a massive paw on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, kid." 

Shrugging off the sympathetic hand, Charlie fought with the dials on the radio.  A frantic announcer finally broke through the static with reports of the aerial assault and the destruction the surprise attack had wrought.  His view from the ridge clouded Charlie's mind, each detail on the radio making the smoke, the shrieks, and the detonations more vivid.

"Sounds like the war's on now," whispered Arnold.

While the announcer promised a forthcoming speech from the President, Charlie buttoned up his shirt. He sensed Arnold's scowl when he rummaged a pair of boaters from beneath the desk.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"To enlist," said Charlie, wigging his reluctant toes into the shoes. 


"It's the right thing to do."  He pointed at the radio where sinking ships rolled off the announcer's tongue.  "Listen to that.  How many people are dead? Dying?"

He turned to leave but Arnold snatched him by the shoulder again and wheeled him about. 

"Is this because of the girl?"

"No," said Charlie.  "Liza turned me down, sure, but this is bigger than that.  She's doing her part already and it's about time I did mine instead of hanging around here."

Charlie held his ground despite Arnold’s wince.  A moment passed and the slight’s strike faded beneath Arnold’s level stare.

"You're underage, Charlie."

"You know that and Liza knows that, but the Navy doesn't.  And after today, I'm sure they're not going to care."

Arnold’s grip tightened.  "You'd be safer here."

"Maybe, but, hell Arnie if I don't go this'll happen again.  They'll get to you.  They'll get to Liza.  If I go, then I have a chance to stop them before anyone else can get hurt."

Arnold's firm lips warped into a smirk.  "You're going to take on the enemy all on your own?"

Charlie balled both hands into fists.  "If I have to."

With a barked laugh, Arnold reset his ball cap and shoved Charlie toward the loading dock.  "Give 'em hell, kid."

"I will," said Charlie, his cheeks burning with his sudden grin.   

He hopped off the platform but halted when a single face filled his mind. With one hand on the docks’ cement ledge, he drowned her chocolate eyes and milky face in a puddle of engine grease. 

"If Liza…if she asks...don't...don't tell her."

"Sure, Charlie, sure."

Lifting his chin, he gave Arnold a solemn salute.  "See you later then."

"I hope so, kid."

Before Arnold's concern could nip at his resolve, Charlie trotted toward downtown, the route through the string of bars by the base forming in his thoughts.  Behind him, Arnold turned up the radio, the crackling voice from across the country spurring Charlie’s stride.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fowl Play - No. 44

Peeling his eyes open, he flinched away from the yellow bill and the black face with white splotches hovering before him.  The penguin honked in a way he wasn’t sure was welcoming and stared with beady eyes.  With a flap of its flightless arms against oval sides, it belted again.

"Sorry," he whispered.

When he sat up and the igloo around him spun.  White bricks blended with one another, creating an impenetrable blizzard across his vision.  Closing his eyes, he cupped his head in hands scented of brine and fish but recoiled when his palm met a tender bump.  He touched the swollen mass on his forehead tentatively, grimacing at each hot shard bolting across his skull.  The pain helped his vision clear, but not the cotton candy between his ears.  Regardless, gravity took hold of the igloo, revealing his bared knees beneath khaki shorts and a pair of all terrain hiking boots.  Goose bumps sprouted over his exposed flesh and he rubbed his shins, inspiring some warmth in his pebbled skin.

He stopped his hands when slaps from behind neared, and gripping his legs tight, peered over his shoulder.  Through the igloo's arched doorway he spotted a streak of unblemished ice, a crystal clear pool, and a colony of penguins wobbling his way.

A tug on his leg drew him back inside.  The penguin beside him dipped down, pinched leg hair between its bill, and began preening each curly strand.

“Thanks Walter,” he said, although he couldn’t recall where the name had come from.

Walter paused, cocked his head and honked again, the bleat somehow flattered.  After another bob in greeting, he resumed his preening.

"If you're Walter,” he said, “then who am I?  What am I doing here?"

By then, the colony had gathered at the igloo's doorway, chirping and honking a surprisingly harmonious din.  During their serenade, he patted down his ruby polo shirt and found an insignia for a zoo on his chest, the lion, tiger and elephant heads surrounding the San Diego in the emblem.  A badge pinned to the belt of his khakis had a colored picture of a middle-aged man with a dopey smile and too-short hair alongside the name, Paul Grant and title Assistant Supervisor of Antarctic and Arctic Exhibits.  Touching his chin he found the same cleft as in the badge, and a rake over his face, the caterpillar-sized eyebrows. 

"Paul Grant,” he whispered.

The name made a home on his tongue, although he felt more dubious about the job.  Investigating deeper into his pockets, Paul found a toothbrush, four one dollar bills and a pebble the size of a small marble.  His search for a wallet or any other pieces of identification resulted in nothing more than pocket lint.

He sighed uncertainly, and unsure what else to do waited for Walter to cease his preening. 

The penguin finally shook from rounded head to pointed tail, and after a farewell nod teetered into the group crowding the door.  Paul swiveled around and watched the bird rejoin the others amid a swelling of screeches, tweets and honks.  The cacophony, however, had a resoundingly happy undertone and Paul found himself smiling.

The colony circled around Walter and then collectively they wobbled toward the lip of the pool.  One by one they dove, disappearing under the surface.


The woman’s voice calling his name flitted among the diving splashes.  The pounding footsteps of a gray haired fellow and petite redhead who hurried across the ice with arms held out to prevent a slip, made snowy flakes fall from the igloo's concaved ceiling.  Their shirts mirrored his, but besides the familiar polo Paul found nothing else recognizable.  No names came to mind, no titles, no relationships or no connections.  The concern in both their faces stoked his sense of worry when they arrived at the igloo's entrance.

The red head ducked through and began scouring the frosted floor.  "Did you find it?"

"Find what?"

"What was choking him of course."  Wheeling around, she set her hands on her hips and tilted her head in expectation.

Paul held out the rock he'd found in his pocket.  "Is this it?"

She snatched the stone and started examining it through a magnifying lens the size of a quarter.  Meanwhile the older fellow leaned against the doorframe.

"Is he alright?"

Paul turned to him.  "Who? Walter?"

"Of course Wal—" 

The fellow whistled, and then knelt.  Pulling a pen light from his pocket, he ignited the lamp.  Paul held up a hand against the beam passing over his eyes.

"What are you doing?"

The inspection didn’t slow.  "How did you get that bump on your head?"

"I don't know," said Paul.  He lowered his hand while the truth landed in his gut.  "I don't know."

"Do you know who you are?"

"I'm Paul….”  He touched the badge at his waist.  “Paul Grant…I think."

"You are," said the redhead.  She'd lowered her magnifying lens and the stone, and peered at him with the same boring gaze.  "Do you know who I am?"

Paul stared into her robin's egg eyes and wished he could say yes.

"No," he whispered.

He followed the penlight around when the fellow wielding it teased his vision. "What about me?"

Searching the man's wrinkles, the widow's peak flanked with two receding arches and brown eyes rimmed with crow's feet, Paul came up empty.

"No.  Sorry."

Looking up at the redhead, the fellow doused his light and draped his arms over his bent knees.  "We better get him to a hospital."

"What about the reporters?”

Paul glanced between the two.  "Reporters?"

The redhead pocketed her lens and the stone, and Paul let them guide him into a crouch, then to his feet.  Wary of being a burden on the woman, he leaned more heavily on the fellow’s arm when his legs threatened to buckle.

"How far back can you remember, Paul?"

""  He winced in the sunlight when they led him outside.

Cheers and claps sounded on the opposite side of the thick panes running along his right.  Squinting, Paul made out a line of children wearing identical construction paper rings about their heads, their noses squished against the glass.  Among them, those he imagined were chaperones towered.  Around the class, a few lone grownups took pictures or tapped into handheld devices.

"This way," whispered the fellow.

He tugged once on Paul’s arm, and then left him in the redhead’s care.  With his freed hand, Paul waved back to one of the kids before letting the redhead turn him toward a doorway hidden in the corner of the exhibit. 

As they trudged, the penguins reemerged from the pool, their wet webbed feet slapping.  Paul spied Walter and his white splotched face among the colony.

"Are the reporters here because of Walter?"

"Yes," said the fellow.  "He'd been having the same trouble as the others."

"The others?"

"The ones who’d died," said the redhead.

"Died?"  Paul stumbled from the sudden sucker punch.  "What do you mean?"

"They'd suffocated, choked."

"On what?"

"We didn't know until now."

"Oh," said Paul.  The stone’s smooth surface echoed on his skin, and he steadied when they reached the exhibit’s door.  "Then do we know whose doing it?"

"When you came running out here, I thought you'd seen something or someone," said the fellow.

The redhead put her hand on the doorknob but stopped before she opened it, embers kindling in her eyes.  "Did you?"

Paul dropped his gaze to the pristine floor and scowled.  He searched through the equally unblemished expanse of his mind, seeking a face, a hint, a memory.  Nothing emerged.  Shaking his head he faced them both.

"No, I'm sorry."

"It's okay," said the fellow. 

The redhead's glower said otherwise.

Paul swayed under the other man's resigned pat on his shoulder.  "We'll find out."

"We better," said the redhead, thrusting the door wide.  "Who knows which of them will be next?"

Paul followed them into the back of the exhibit where the pumps for the pool hummed and shadows draped the unpolished side of iceberg walls. With a glance through the doorway, he caught sight of Walter staring over the other penguin’s heads, beady eyes locked on tight.  The bird honked once, the wordless plea ricocheting in his ears and reverberating against the back of his skull.  The note faded away in the uncluttered terrain, making him feel even emptier, and when the redhead closed the door, more alone.

"Come on," said the fellow.  "Let's get you some help."

"I don't need it," said Paul.  He gestured at the shut door. "They do."

"They need you to remember," said redhead.

"And how do you suppose I do that?  Hit my head again?"

Her eyes glittered.  "Maybe."

"Easy now," said the fellow.  "It's not his fault he doesn't remember this time."

Paul frowned.  "This time?"

The fellow whistled again, a sound Paul was beginning to dislike.

"They really smacked you good didn't they?"

Paul looked to the redhead whose expression of distain hadn't lessened.  Sensing himself at fault somehow, he quickly turned away. 

"I guess so."  He scrubbed the back of his head, careful not to threaten its seemingly egg-shell delicacy. "Do you think there's anything we can do to fix this?  To get my memory back?"

"I don't know," said the fellow. "But we're going to find out for Walter's sake if nothing else."

"For Walter," whispered Paul. 

Lowering his hand, he let the fellow lead him on, hoping his past, with all its apparent pitfalls and menace, lay somewhere in the future.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Up in Smoke - No. 39

Jean's thighs had gone numb squatting by the arsenal, and by the time the final bottle rocket soared above the cul-de-sac trailing sapphire cinders, her craned neck was stiff.  Bowing her head, she counted down the last two mortars.  Each launched on cue, and she watched them showering the night sky with white and red flecks more numerous than the stars. 

The rocket’s pops and mortar’s whizzes died while the applause and cheers rose behind her.

"Take a bow, sis!" said Luke above the hoots.

The echoing booms and crackles of distant celebrations dulled his shout, but those nearby repeated his call.

Jean straightened among the charred papers, the sulfurous clouds, and ash streaks marring the asphalt. Pivoting with one arm lifted a dramatic arc worthy of any Broadway stage, she then froze.  Her heart thudded against her ribs more forcefully than when she lit a fuse.  Her eyes grew wide despite the sting in the air and ice replaced the coating of sweat the summer heat and adrenaline had inspired on her skin.

While gooseflesh covered her bared arms, flames danced along the roof line of Luke's avocado green ranch house and nibbled at the sun crisped leaves he’d never cleaned out of his gutter.  Embers alighted the dried wreath pinned to the front door, the one Meredith had made before she had had enough of home and hearth.

Jean covered her mouth, smothering an expletive from her twin boys who still had fingers plugged into their ears.


Bruce stepped forward, holding the kids back with both hands as he encroached her no-go zone.  He, like the rest Jean noted, hadn't turned around yet, their gazes drifting between her and the sky.

"Honey, what's wrong?"

She motioned at the house and forced her parched tongue to function.  "Call the fire department.”

"What?"  Following her gesture, Bruce swiveled and the crowd spun with him.

Luke, however, went rigid.  His stare riveted Jean to the asphalt and a guilty punch slammed her in the gut.  When he finally turned, he did so slowly, as if already certain of what he might find. 

Jean slinked to his side.  "I'm so sorry, Luke."

He grunted from what she imagined was a stunned stupor.

By then, Bruce had joined them and the neighbors had surfaced from their own shock.  They whipped phones from the pockets of shorts or windbreakers, their glows illuminating like one of her flaming stars.  Beeps sounded from some, while others began speaking with operators, reporters or friends and more than one bent their heads over forming text.

Luke never moved.  Jean touched his elbow, and he tilted his head without taking his eyes from the swelling flames.


"Yeah, sis?"

"You okay?"

"Sure.”  He nodded methodically, like a slowing bobble head doll.

"The fire department's on their way," said one of his neighbors.

"Thank God," said Jean.  "Hopefully they can put it out."

"Hopefully," whispered Luke.

"And I can pay for the damages," said Jean.


She raised a hand, cutting Bruce off.  "When he asked me to put on a show, he didn't mean for it to end like this." She thrust a finger at the fiery rooftop.  "This is my fault.  I’m going to make it right."

She flinched when Luke wheeled on her, the shadows playing havoc with his stubbled chin and sunken eyes. 

"It's not your fault," he whispered in a breathless rush.  "It's not my fault.  It's not anyone's fault.  Sometimes bad things just happen."

“Sure, but—“

"Something smells funny," said Renny. 

Like Ryan, he dislodged one finger from his ear and pinched his button nose shut.

"It’s just the fireworks and the flames," said Bruce.

Frowning, Jean clasped Ryan to her ash-flecked jeans when she recognized the scent.

"No, that's gas."

The statement rippled around them and collectively the crowd began shuffling backwards.

Bruce gathered Ryan to his hip and scowled.  "Did you shut off your grill, Luke?"

Luke shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets, hiding the charcoal smudges on his fingers.  The smell of cooked beef mixed with the propane wafting off his tee-shirt and blended with the fireworks' spoiled eggs and roof's cooking tar.

Then the first window blew somewhere near the back, where the grill stood on the patio stretching beside the overgrown vegetable garden long in need of tending.  Shrieks joined the snap of flames and the blasts of other windows, by the sound, the ones in the kitchen and its gas appliances. 

Everyone started fleeing for the safety of their homes or cars parked along the sidewalk.  Grabbing Renny's hand Jean backpedaled, but she shoved her second born at Bruce and Ryan, however, when Luke remained. 

Lifting a hand to ward off the heat, she looped her arm through his and tugged.  "Come on, it's getting dangerous."

He chuckled, his laughter crackling like the inferno.

"Luke? Are you okay?"

He looked at her, a smirk on his face.  "I've never felt better in my life."

"Why don't we feel better where we won't get scorched?"

"Sure,” said Luke, “I don't think anything else needs to go up into flames today."


Jean frowned at him but held her tongue, wary speaking might disrupt the slow plod Luke had started from the conflagration.  A dopey smile crept onto his lips and she thought back on how many beers he'd had. 

Three, maybe four, she tallied but the dearth this time didn't make her feel any better.  Maybe he’s in shock, she considered.  I'd be a wreck too if someone had lit my house on fire. 
Remembering her responsibility for the flames made Jean cringe.  She started going over the arsenal she'd fired, the same sequence she'd use on Friday when she'd arranged and shot off the show for their neighborhood.  Distance had been carefully calculated to prevent anyone from being hit, and the homes were far beyond the range of even the largest rocket.  Tonight, the winds too had cooperated.  They'd struck her back all evening, pushing the smoke down the street and away from the kids and neighbors, from Luke and his house.  She hadn't been that lucky on Friday but nothing else seemed to have been different except—

She stopped short and jerked Luke to a halt. 

"You did it on purpose."

He frowned although the quirk in his smile remained.  The curve reminded her of the one he’d had when he'd taken one of her stuffed animals and hidden it. 

"I did what, sis?"

"You didn't."

Luke shook his head.  "I don't know what you're talking about."

The faint wail of sirens filled the silence of their stare.  In his house, more windows blew and timbers began groaning.  The warping beams drew her gaze back to the flames and a whoosh of warmth tossed back her loosed bangs.

"God, Luke."

"It's alright."  He draped his arm around her shoulder and hugged her close. 

"How is this alright?"

"You remember how paranoid Meredith was about everything?"

Jean grimaced recalling the scolding she'd received when she'd dared to let her kids play unsupervised on their suburban block, the list of ailments her pyrotechnics would cause in the short and long term, how she should find a proper office job, something safe and secure where she could wear pastel skirts and product in her hair.

"Yeah," whispered Jean.

"Well, let's just say the house has one hell of an insurance policy."

The sirens grew louder and Jean imagined a whole line of police tailing the fire engines.  A picture of Luke behind bars dominated her mind’s eye next, like the teaser for a show's second season. 


"It’s okay, Jeanie."  He squeezed her tighter, and his cackling laughter returned.  "It's going to be okay."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Take Two - No. 38

"Mr. Eddy?"

Spencer sprang off the padded cushion of the lobby’s chair.  Catching himself, he forced his charge to slow and took his time collecting his portfolio from the glass table.  The bespectacled brunette seated across the way offered a half smile.

"Good luck."

"You too.”  Trading the leather bound papers between suddenly sweaty palms, Spencer turned to the frosted entryway where a coifed blonde secretary tapped an impatient toe. 

"This way, Mr. Eddy."

She held the door open until he could prop the panel himself and then marched along the carpeted hallway.  Hurrying to follow, Spencer matted down his slicked hair, straightened his tie and tested his breath against his fingers.  The remains of minty mouthwash rebounded and he rake his tongue over his teeth double checking his morning brush.

Meanwhile the secretary led him through a maze of opaque walls, the clack of keyboards and murmurs of conversation ambient.  The corridor ended at a pair of onyx doors, and she wrapped her knuckles on the entrance before seizing the latch.  When she pulled the door ajar, the rustle of paperwork greeted them. 

"Let him in," said a husky alto.

“Yes, Dr.” Pulling the door wide, the secretary motioned him inside.

"Thank you," said Spencer.

She nodded curtly and when he strode past, closed the door.

Spencer froze on the office's initial strip of gunmetal tile, avoiding the square of oriental carpet stretched beneath a pair of wingbacks and a mahogany desk looming before a wall of blank monitors and architectural drawings.  Resting a hand on the paunch threatening to droop over his belted slacks, Spencer set his sights on the frosty-haired woman filling in the lone leather chair as amply as her steel-gray suit.  She closed a folder and stood, offering a hand over the stacks of neat paperwork arranged around her desk's blotter and the name placard identifying her as Dr. Korposky.

"Mr. Geddy?"

"Ah, Eddy," said Spencer, stepping forward and taking her hand.

She hummed thoughtfully, and then lowered herself back into her chair.  "The G must be silent."

Unsure how to reply, Spencer simply held his tongue.

"Have a seat," said Korposky.  Plucking a pen, she pointed its ejected tip at the twin wingbacks.

Spencer perched on the edge of the one on the right and hoped he'd made the right choice. 

With her face a passive mask, Korposky interlaced her fingers above the folder and leveled him with her gaze, one as solid as the wooden barricade between them.

"I know most interviews start with pleasantries, explanations of the position, an overview of the corporation, but I'm not one for such niceties.  I expect anyone who's gotten this far to have done their homework."

Running his finger along his portfolio's edge, Spencer sought an agreeing grin.

"You know what we're about," said Korposky, "so why should I choose you over any of our other candidates?"

"That's a very frank question."

"I don't like to dally."

"That's understandable," said Spencer.  Taking a moment to collect his thoughts, he leaned his portfolio against the chair's leg and inched to the rim of his seat.  "Without knowing who else has applied, I can only tell you what I can offer.  You've already seen my resume so I don't feel you need me to elaborate there.  What it doesn't tell you about is my work ethic which if you've spoken to my previous bosses you've heard is rather legendary."

"To the point of divorce."

"Ah...."  Spencer stumbled over her tactless, but nonetheless valid, point.  "That was a while ago, but yes.  I put my job first, I always have.  I'd be bringing the same dedication to the Institute."

"That's easy to promise, but not easily followed up upon."  Korposky tapped her pen at the folder.  "Why did you leave your last post if you were so dedicated?"

"Money, honestly."

"They didn't offer you enough?" 

"No," said Spencer.  "A group of administrators decided to embezzle the endowment.  The Department lost everything and I lost my job."

"I didn't hear about that."

"Well, we were never in the headlines.  With the current market the way it is," said Spencer, veering the conversation back to positive terrain, "there haven't been a lot of openings for chemical engineers which accounts for the last seven months.  As you'll note, though, I have been keeping myself involved in the community, the lectures I’ve given, and the classes and conferences I’ve attended have all been rather stimulating."

Korposky hummed again, in a tone he found less than impressed.

"I'd be bringing all that self-motivation and individuality to this position,” said Spencer. “Don't get me wrong, I'm a team player, but if I see an opportunity or a possible route to an improvement or a solution, I'm going to take it."

"That kind of perseverance might cause problems."

"I guess it depends on your co-workers and the mentality of the organization."

"Did you find the mentality difficult during your time at NASA?"

Spencer gulped and adjusted the sudden noose of his tie.  "NASA?"

Korposky’s eyes narrowed a hair.  "From 1998-2002?"

"I'd like to say no," said Spencer.

"So it was difficult?"

"I'm afraid it didn't happen."

"Excuse me?"

He shrugged and found some solace in the truth.  "I never worked at NASA."

Placing down her pen, Korposky flipped open the folder.  She drew her finger along the top sheet, then the second.  "And your time at the Department of Energy?"

"It was the Chemistry Department at Harden University."

"Your participation in the Gulf Oil Spill recovery?"

"I...."  He shook his head.  "Not me unfortunately."

"You're not Theodore Geddy?"

He met her eye.  "My name’s Spencer, Spencer Eddy."

Sighing, Korposky rubbed at her temple, disturbing the combed ridges leading to the bun nestled at her nape. 

"I should probably go."  Spencer rose and offered his hand.  "I'm sorry for wasting your time."

"It wasn't you," said Korposky, giving his hand a single pump.  "My secretarial position is another slot I'm trying to fill."

"I thought...."  He glanced at the shut door.

"A temporary assistant who apparently has a knack for crossing contact information and resumes."

"I guess so."  Straightening, Spencer buttoned his suit coat.  "There's a woman in the lobby who seemed quite competent."

"We'll have to see."

"I'd also be happy to come back if you'd be interested in speaking further."

"I'm sure I'll be in touch if I do."

Hiding a wince, Spencer backpedaled from the wingback.  "Of course."

Korposky stood and rounded her desk, her heels thumping then clacking on the tiles when she opened the door.

"Don't feel you need to walk me out," said Spencer.  "I'm sure I can find my way."

"Are you certain?"

"Exit signs are pretty clear."

"Best of luck to you, then Mr. Eddy."

"You as well, Dr."

With a final nod, Spencer started down the corridor.  At his back, the door to Korposky’s office closed, the thud reverberating on the hallway’s paneling.  Spying the neon Exit sign, he started through the maze, feeling more like a mouse on the hunt for cheese than when he had arrived.  He doubled back once before finding the blonde secretary seated at her desk across from the lobby’s frosted doors.

"He's right here," she said into the receiver she held at her ear.  When she bolted up, the casters of her chair clunked on the plastic sheet and the spiral cord of the phone thrummed as she thrust the phone in his direction.

Spencer frowned.  "For me?"

"Yes, Mr. Eddy."

"Um…Thanks.”  Raising the receiver, he turned to face the double doors.  "Hello?"

"Mr. Eddy."

"Dr. Korposky?"

"I'm looking at your portfolio."

"Oh."  Spencer glanced at his empty hand while a fist punched his gut.  "I'm sorry, I must have forgotten it."

"No need to apologize."  Papers crinkled.  "They are imaginative plans.  Innovative really."

“Thank you."

"You should have mentioned them at the beginning."

Spencer sought a reply and ended up with a Neolithic grunt.

"Come back to my office," said Korposky, "I believe we do have something to discuss."

“What about Mr. Geddy.”

“His time will come.  At the moment, I want to speak with you.”

"I...I'll be right there," said Spencer. 

The dial tone sounded before his heart resumed beating.  Swiveling to the secretary, he extended the phone, the drooping cord waggling like his knees. 

"Thanks," he whispered. 

Adjusting his tie, Spencer then raked a hand through his hair.  Sweat dotted his palms in earnest when he started through the maze again, hoping his second chance might turn out more fruitful than the first.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Changing into Butterflies - No. 26

Melinda stopped short of turning off the engine.  Holding her breath, she listened to the reporter wrap up the radio announcement.  The dulcet tones relaying the FCC warning faded into tinny transitional music promising the forthcoming interview with a biologist and his discovery of some new subtropical species of butterfly. 

Before the lepidopterology segment began, Melinda flicked the key lodged in the ignition, silencing the sedan's rumbling and inquisitive interviewer.  A check on her watch showed the hands nearing eight. 

“Don’t be on time tonight,” she whispered.

The reporter’s words, the near right angle on the watch face and the thought of splashing water and another nighttime of wails quickened her pulse. 

Hustling her purse and briefcase from the passenger seat, Melinda slipped behind the wheel and into the humid night.  She didn't feel the clinging air, however, and her heels rounded the bumper and mounted the porch stairs on instinct.  Jabbing the front door's key into the lock, she hurried inside. 

The gush of water leapt from her worries and filled the hallway, undercut by Ted’s humming and a round of giggles.  Dumping her briefcase and purse, Melinda trotted down the corridor, homing in on the bathroom's gurgle.  She flung the door open without slowing.


Ted glanced over his shoulder while Vicki slapped at the bathwater.  Her pudgy hands cast droplets onto his arms, bare in his faded souvenir tee-shirt from a concert back in ‘92, dampened his ruddy stubble and the bags beneath his weary eyes.

"Look who’s finally home, Vi," said Ted. 

Pivoting away, he scooped frothy water into a red plastic up and dribbled it over Vicki's head.  She tittered with glee and clapped her hands.  When she swayed in the tub seat, he slipped one pale hand beneath her armpit like he might have a guitar’s neck and held her steady until she sat upright on her own.

Coming to his side, Melinda knelt, her a-line skirt stretching around her knees.  "Have you used the shampoo?"

Ted scooped another cupful of bathwater. "Mommy doesn't know our schedule very well does she?"

Melinda hugged her arms around herself, her body feeling small, empty and surprisingly fragile. 

"Ted," she whispered.  “Please.”  She swallowed the sudden warble in her voice.

He glanced over, the severity in his square-jawed features ebbing.  "I was about to."

Spying the honey yellow bottle, Melinda plucked it from the tub's rim and skimmed the ingredients.  The third on the list made her shudder.  She snapped closed the lid and cradled the bottle in her hands.

"I'm going to need that," said Ted.

"I heard a warning on my way home."  She twisted the label into his view, her thumb beneath the multisyllabic threat.  "The FCC believes it's causing sleep disorders in infants and toddlers."


The nights of Vicki's shrieks, her seemingly endless crying, Ted's rolls in and out of bed, his promenades around the living room’s coffee table or his circuitous route from kitchen to front door and back humming every tune in his arsenal seemed to coat the bathroom's tiles.

"You think that's the problem?"

Melinda shrugged.  "Isn't it worth a try?"

"I've tried everything else."

He swiveled to Vicki.  She'd quieted, for once, and seemed to be following their conversation, blue eyes wide as teacups. 

"We're going to do something different tonight, Vi," said Ted, his tenor softening. 

"What do you want to use?"

"How about your old body wash?"

From across the tub Melinda fetched the sage bottle within a ring of film and perused the ingredients, comparing the list to the toxic one.  "It's not listed."

"Then let's try it."

"Do you think it's safe?"

"Does it have anything the other doesn't?"

She checked again.  "No."

"I bet it'll be fine.”  Ted took the bottle and popped the cap with his thumb. “I like’d how it smelled anyway."

Melinda stared at the puddle of pale-green he poured into his palm, the smell of ginger and orange wafting up like steam. 

"You did?"

"Yeah."  He scrubbed his hands together, frothing bubbles.  "It made Mommy's skin feel soft too," he said, massaging the foam into Vicki's scalp.

Melinda leaned against the sink’s pedestal, the rough patches on her elbows and knees scratching the silken coating of her business jacket and pantyhose.  While Ted resumed one of his songs, she floated on the gentle rhythm and body wash’s aroma, each punctuated by Vicki's splashes; a wet but approving applause. 

The clapping, shouts, roars and hoots he'd had in black box theaters and larger auditoriums seemed to echo their daughter's ovation, a distant memory of months long past.  The spice and citrus scents replaced the haze of cigarettes and alcohol, and the jacket and skirt cinched around her deflated body traded for tactfully ragged jeans and the crimson halter top he been able to spot through the crowd. 

Not anymore, thought Melinda.

Rising, she collected a fluffy bathrobe from the hook behind the door and laid the feathery terrycloth against her cheek.

"All done," said Ted, rinsing the final bubbles from Vicki's downy head. 

He tugged the towel draped on the rod at his right, wrapped it snug around Vicki’s naked body and hefted her from the inch deep pool.  Rocking her lightly in his arms, he turned and paused.

Melinda met his gaze and offered the robe's open arms.  She held her breath again while considerations passed behind his cobalt gaze.

"Look what Mommy has," whispered Ted.

Vicki pointed a stubby finger and he stepped forward so Melinda could thread on the canary sleeves and slip off the towel.  She hung it back on the rod while they exited, Ted's nighttime humming quieting in their trek down the hall to his once-studio. 

Unplugging the tub’s drain, she let the water seep away and tidied up the bathroom, mopping up the puddles and drips and dumping the possibly toxic shampoo into the trash.  Once in order, she flicked the light switch and headed for the living room. 

The darkness welcomed her, and she slipped out of her heels and dropped onto the couch.  Turning on the baby monitor, she curled her feet up under her and hugged one of the paisley pillows, resting her chin on the corded edge. 

As if from another planet, the monitor transmitted Ted's gentle cooing and the bedtime rustling in Vicki's room.  Burbles mixed with the soft swoosh of the ambient noise maker mimicking the heartbeat Melinda felt thudding against her ribs.  She listened while Ted whispered through a book about caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, and then the wooden floor creaked and the door hinges groaned, each announcing his sneaking departure.

But where are you going? she wondered.

Melinda clutched the pillow close, and clasped tighter when Ted’s silhouette appeared in the doorframe.  She didn't move for fear of scaring him off or disturbing Vicki's tenuous quiet.  In the passing seconds, he drifted near and took the cushion by her side.

Eyeing the monitor, Melinda stopped counting when she reached triple digits.  Vicki's shifts here and there over road the fake heartbeat, but nothing more broke the stillness.  The silence seemed to stretch, however, leaving other problems in their wake.

"Sorry I was so late again," she whispered.

"No," whispered Ted, "sounds like it was good you were at the office."


He reached out, his hand finding her knee below the skirt’s hem.  "No, it was good.  It is good."

Exhaling a long breath failed to release the tension in her shoulders and Melinda snuggled deeper into the pillow. 

"This wasn't how I thought it was going to turn out."

"They needed you."

"I know but—"

"No buts." 

She stiffened when Ted caressed her thigh, his fingers pruned and tinged with an orange and ginger tang.  A slow smile curled his lips, one she couldn't remember seeing since they'd come home from the hospital. 

"We'll figure it out," he whispered.

She stared at him in the dark, the shadows deepening his voice and the lines on his face.  "You think so?"

"Yeah." He caught her gaze and moonlight gleamed in his eye.  "We will.  One FCC warning at a time."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Working Digits - No. 25

Helen paused in mid-sip when she noted Andy sliding her debit card through the register a second time.  The machine beeped and he stared at the panel.  Whatever the display indicated, he didn’t bother swiping again.  Instead he plucked a pen from a neighboring canister and while he jotted on their receipt, Helen swallowed her mouthful of unsweetened ice tea and set her glass aside. 

"Are you ready to go?"

Slouched in her chair, Wendy kept gazing over the wrought-iron fence and its pansy-housing flower boxes. Pedestrians swooped along the tree-lined sidewalk and beyond them, the traffic slugged by, bumper to bumper, but Wendy seemed to peer beyond the lunchtime crowds and into nothingness. 

In the passing seconds, the ice in Helen’s glass clinked and she sensed Andy’s approach.


"Sure," she whispered.

Helen rolled her eyes, and then stiffened when Andy’s shadow fell across their table and its dirtied dishes.  Looking up, she smiled.  His atypical frown when he offered their receipt, however, made her lips droop and the BLT on rye settling in her stomach to flip.

"Is everything okay?"

Andy cleared the worry from his square features and laid down the bill, pressing his fingers onto the spongy cover. 

"Fine,” he said in a hushed baritone.  “You two take care."

He strode away, his departing steps and the brush of his charcoal slacks gathering Wendy from her perusal of empty air.  She tilted her head and sighed. 

"Do you think he has a girlfriend?"

Helen stiffened in her seat.  "What do you mean?"

With a shrug, Wendy snagged the straw plunged into her lemon water and drained the glass while Andy vanished inside. 

"He's cute."

"And you're on the rebound."  Collecting the billfold, Helen worked the pen from the seam and opened the cover.

"You have to get back on the horse, or the bicycle or whatever right?"

Wendy’s sarcasm slid off of Helen's shoulders and her spiked nerves dissipated while she looked at their receipt.  Her gut clenched viewing the bright red circle around her debit card number and the accompanying line through the digits half hidden by the plastic card.  Below, the words: “Just go – A” caused sweat to spout on her palms.  Snapping the cover closed, Helen smothered the folder beneath her palm, but her downcast gaze poured through her flesh and the leather; the sharpie and ink in Andy’s hand staining her sight.

"….it, don't I?" 

Wendy’s question blended with Helen’s pounding heart, the honking horns and the surrounding banter of other conversations.


She jumped when Wendy touched her hand.  Collecting the bill to the front of her peach tank top, Helen bit her lip tasting the mustard from her sandwich’s dressing and her lip gloss underneath.

Wendy tightened her grip and faint lines marred her pristine brow.  "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," said Helen.  She placed the folder on the other side of her breadcrumb dotted plate.  "I...I'm just not sure I have any cash for a tip."

"I sure don't."  Wendy settled back and rattled her glass, melting the last of the ice.

"I didn't think so," said Helen. 

Scooping her purse from the terracotta tiles, she dug for her wallet.  She winced as she found the empty slots her credit cards had once strained, the plastic now sliced and diced and filling her apartment’s trash like swept up confetti.  Digging further, she searched for the emergency twenty tucked between her photographs and business cards until she remembered her last rejection.

"The taxi," she whispered.

Wendy slurped through her straw.  "We don't need a cab."

"I know," said Helen. 

She waved away her errant words, and sought a gulp of tea to wet her throat.  The straw gurgled at the base of her glass and she came up dry.

"If you know, then what are you so worried about?"  Wendy snatched the folder before Helen could free herself of her drink or her wallet.   "It can't be that big a tip."

When she opened the folder, the debit card and marked receipt slipped onto the table.  Cringing, Helen reached over and plucked the plastic card while Wendy's mouth fell open.


"Yeah," said Helen.

"I didn't think you were so bad off."

"Four months will eat at your savings," said Helen, sliding the debit card away.

"You should have said something."

"I thought I had it covered.  Anyway, you said it was an emergency."

"Dumping Ryan is not an emergency.”  Wendy closed the folder and waggled the leather case before planting it on the table with a thump.  “This is an emergency." 

"It's not."  Helen forced an easy smile but it failed to appease the arches of Wendy’s raised brows.

"You should have told me."

"While you're going through your third break up in as many months?"

"It's not like there's not going to be another one."  Wendy collected her handbag from beside her chair’s legs.  Unfastening the latch, she retrieved her turquoise wallet and fanned the folds.

"I thought you were broke."

Wendy snorted.  "There's always credit."

"Not always."

"You're kidding,” said Wendy, stuffing her card into the folder's crease.

"I wish."

"What are you going to do?"

Chagrinned, Helen peered over the fence and flowers at the rush of ties and power suits.  "Keep applying.  Keep hoping." 

"Maybe learn to ask for a little help?" 

Wendy made a point of setting the folder on the table's edge.  Following her wave, Helen caught Andy’s eye from where he hovered in the former garage door’s threshold.  Her cheeks warmed and she retreated to her plate and a count of the crumbs.

"I'll figure something out."

"Helen."  Wendy took her hand and squeezed again, her manicured nails pinching.  "You've got friends, family.   Hell, even the waiter wanted to give you a break.  You've helped us all over the years, now it’s time for us to return the favor."

"Sure," she whispered.

Wendy sat back in her chair, the whicker crinkling.  "You can be so goddamn stubborn sometimes."


Looking up, Helen couldn’t help but laugh when she spied Wendy grinning through the feigned hurt.  Andy’s shadow draping her once more, however, doused her sudden lightheartedness.

"Is something the matter?"

Wendy aimed her beaming smile at his concern.  "That was very sweet of you.”

"I ah....”  Andy smoothed the wrinkles out of his mint-green polo.  “I don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course." She inched the folder toward him, her card evident.

Collecting the bill, Andy bobbed his head and headed back to the register.

"Thanks, Wendy," said Helen.

"I think we’re a little old for running out on the tab."

"Just a little."

"Anyway," said Wendy, twirling a russet tendril between her fingers, "it gives me an opening."

"An opening?"

"To be the good girl.  You know he's going to remember this."

Helen folded her arms.  "You never stop do you?"

"I wouldn't be much of a predator if I didn't keep my eye out."

"I wish I had your stamina." 

“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Wendy ratcheted up her smile again when Andy returned. 

"Thanks," she said, a husky thread to her voice.

"No problem,” said Andy, laying down the folder.  Helen felt her cheeks flush again when he turned her way, his grin flashing.  “You two have a good day."

"It's gotten better already," said Helen.

"I’m glad."  Andy drummed the table’s lip and then weaved off, beckoned by a snapping pair of fingers.

“So much for that,” whispered Wendy. 


“Never mind.”  Taking the folder, she opened the cover and with a soft swish, signed her name.  Helen tipped forward when she swiveled the folder and kept writing.

"What are you doing?"

"Leaving a number."

“A number?”

“You know, a telephone number.”

Spurred by a sudden bolt of adrenaline, Helen slung her purse's strap over her bared shoulder.  "Good thing I'm not coming back here for a while."

"Well, maybe next time he can actually pick up the tab."

"Maybe by then I'll be employed."

"And I'll be engaged."  With an acerbic laugh, Wendy tossed the pen onto the table and flipped closed the cover.  "I think you'll have better luck with both of those than I will."

"No offense, but I hope so." 

"None taken. But at least until then, learn to bow that stiff little neck of yours."

Helen hung her head like a puppet on loosed strings.

"Very funny." Wendy rose and clutched her bag.  "Come on, we’ve got phones to hover by."

"And email to check," said Helen, leading through the patio of diners.  She found her sway competing with Wendy’s hips and on their way to the exit she waved a farewell to Andy who scooted into the kitchen, a tray of dishes in hand.

“My money’s on your phone,” said Wendy.

The hint in her voice froze Helen with her hand on the door’s knob.  “Wait a second.  Whose number did you leave?”

Wendy’s grin turned wicked.  “The right one of course.”