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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.