Part II: Alvina’s Quest for Knowledge

 

Anywin Castle, home of the Elf Queen Gudrun, is a gold building. But once inside, Alvina notices that her feet are walking on a glass-like structure. Under her shoes are many levels with different rooms where elves are busy tending to various tasks: right below are elves standing up peering through a microscope, and in the next room are elves sleeping in beds as other elves in blue-white pants with matching shirts and black boots, pull blankets up around those who are resting. Are they patients? Alvina wonders to herself.

Several floors down elves rush around chopping long purple carrots and toss them into pots with bubbling water; other elves two floors up from those preparing food clink swords together; other elves are doing laundry; while other child elves are being instructed by an elf with a long white beard. On and on, elves work below Alvina’s feet, separated only by clear glass and see-through walls. None are distracted by what other elves are doing in different rooms.

All of a sudden, Alvina’s lips move together with thirst. It’s as if her saliva glands are working to produce liquid, but everything inside of her has gone dry.  Her hands that were relaxed at her side begin to open and close in fists as if she were trying to pump water from her hands up to her mouth.  Then the floor beneath her feet and the see-though rooms that were all separated, are closed in gold. Everything is shuttered from Alvina’s eyes.

“Are you alright?” A voice she knows, but can’t quite place, coos to her.

Alvina can’t speak. In answer to the question, she nods her head at the woman in the plaid shirt and blue jeans.

From her right side a hand touches her arm and says, “Here, drink this.”

When Alvina faces the voice, she sees a woman dressed in blue-white clothes, and she holds a clear liquid in a glass in front of her. Alvina takes the clear fluid, pushes it to her lips, and the zesty, sweet taste of orange-pineapple tingles on her taste buds. Some of the drink escapes from the corners of her lips and dribbles down the front of her shirt. Once done, she places the glass back on the tray the woman holds. Alvina whispers the words, “thank you.”

An eloquent and kind laugh echoes throughout the gold walls of the castle. Gudrun pulls from her jeans a white handkerchief and passes it to Alvina. When Alvina peers down at the cloth the letters: H.R.H.G.A. are embroidered on it. She takes it and wipes the corners of her mouth.

Gudrun nods at the other woman and says, “Satya, thank you. You may go now.”  The woman smiles slightly, steps backwards, bends forward, and then once she’s no longer facing the Queen and the child, she quickens her pass returning to her other duties.

Gudrun says, “I’m sorry. I should have asked them to close the floor before we arrived. I forget – some of your people are afraid of heights.”

“It’s okay. I’m alright. By the way, who are you?”

“I’m Gudrun,” the elf woman replies with a smile.  Gudrun waits a moment, testing to see if Alvina will ask a more precise question.

“Does everyone have a home like this?”

There it is. “No, I’m Queen of the Elves.”

Alvina’s face scrunches as she stares at the woman. “But you’re dressed in a plaid shirt and blue jeans?”

Gudrun’s hands rest easily at her side. She steps back and says, “What would you have me do?  Wear a silk gown and tiara on my head while tending to my duties? Also, dressed in an evening gown is hardly practical for flying.”

Alvina’s nostrils twitch as she chuckles.  Gudrun watches her guest carefully and notices Alvina’s shoulders relax more while her face returns to a pink glow. The child’s eyes focus on her, and are no longer distant as if they are lost in some other world.

Yes, the girl is no longer feeling faint. 

Recalling the statement the Queen said a second ago, Alvina finally says, “I guess I’m a little afraid of heights.” Her voice is a quiet confession.

Sympathetically, the Queen says, “We’re all afraid of something.”

Suddenly a monster appears behind Gudrun with light purple skin, red shimmering eyebrows, wide black eyes, and a glowing red mouth.  Wearing a yellow-gold shirt and pants, Alvina notices a white scintillating rope hangs on the creature’s black belt.

“Gudrun, run! There’s a monster behind you!” Alvina squeals. She reaches for the Queen’s hand and tugs at it to pull Gudrun forward.

The monster stops in his tracks. “Queen Gudrun, this is the reason why we can’t simply hand over the plant to the humans! They are narrow-minded!” The voice is an echo grumble as if the monster has a cold. The creature hisses the words at Alvina.

Alvina stops pulling the Queen’s hand.  The Queen’s fingers now tighten around Alvina’s hand as she nudges the child forward. The Queen only stops the motion when Alvina stands directly in front of her. Gudrun rests her hands on the child’s shoulders and says, “Alvina, I would like you to meet my friend, Radyalasana, who has travelled far beyond the Pinwheel Galaxy, where there’s a planet called Kysta. That is Radyalasana’s home.

Gudrun bends forward and whispers into Alvina’s ear, “don’t worry. We’ve already fed Radyalasana.”

Alvina twists her lips to the right side with annoyance at Gudrun’s joke. (By now she knows when the Queen is making fun of her.) “What does he mean, give us a plant?”

“I’m not a HE,” Radyalasana’s voice clips Alvina’s question.

“Well, she then,” Alvina corrects.

“You are wrong again, human,” Radyalasana says with annoyance. “I’m neither.”

“You have to be one or the other,” Alvina counters.

“No, I do not.”

Gudrun moves to Alvina’s right side and stares down at her. “Alvina, sometimes you must open your mind to other possibilities. Everything you believe, everything you are told, may need to be corrected at some point. That is why an A is not important. If you reach perfection, where is the ambition to continue to learn?” The Queen’s eyebrows pull together and with a soft smile she adds, “Remember, history is always being written – and re-written.”

Alvina looks over at Radyalasana. She nods, and offers a smile while asking, “What plant do you want to give us?” Alvina asks boldly.

The black eyes of Radyalasana blink quickly at the child. The Kystan’s wide lips remain silent.

“Radyalasana,” the Queen’s voice breaks through the silence, “Alvina pursues knowledge, and wishes to understand things. I sense Alvina has a special purpose in this project, and will be needed when she is older. Our encounter today was no accident.” Gudrun quickly peers over at Alvina as she says this.

Alvina can’t catch her breath. She’s special. The Queen said so. Alvina’s ears perk up as she waits to hear what Radyalasana will say. She is  aware now, that whatever the Kystan says today, she must remember for when she is older.”

Radyalasana’s eyes blink rapidly at the Queen and through clenched black teeth to Gudrun these words follow: “Very well. Only because I know you can see the future, and we have known each other for several hundred years, do I trust what you say is true, and will give the information to the runt human.”

“I’m a child!” Alvina shouts.

“Hmph,” Radyalasana grunts at Alvina. “You call me a monster, and when I call you a runt, you get angry?”

“Oh,” Alvina says as her eyes shift down to the floor. Then she blinks up to Radyalasana, and says, “I’m sorry.”

Nodding at Alvina, Radyalasana says, “I’m sorry too.”  The Kystan traveller begins to pace back and forth  and says, “It’s a plant that I brought from my home, and will transport and place in the ground in Brazil. It will be found by a researcher in the Amazon Rainforest, and will be the cure for many diseases that plague your people, according to Gudrun. Assuming your species doesn’t destroy the plant before it’s found with your clear cutting of the jungle, it will mean many illnesses will be eliminated.”

“Why don’t you just give us the plant?”

Radyalasana’s face scrunches. Eyes squint tightly at the child.

“Oh,” Alvina says.

With amusement the Kystan traveller smiles at Alvina, turns towards Gudrun and acknowledges, “You are right. The child is clever. She will find it.”

Do You See Me?

***

This short story was originally published online with Potluck Magazine in July 2015. The link can be found below:

http://potluckmag.com/july-2015/2015/7/19/do-you-see-me

It was also my very first publication in a literary journal.  Start the dance music.

***

My two day unwashed hair is greasy, face dotted in red and white pimples as I stand at the counter with yellow-egg splotches dribbled down my white t-shirt, combined with brown dusty crumbs from the last customer’s toast. I push my black, grease-stained skirt, apron-wearing-hip against the counter. The pocket of my apron holds runaway home fries, escapees from a plate earlier this morning. On my uniform I have all the essential elements of a great Canadian breakfast. If I get hungry later, I can snack on my clothes. I grab the coffee pot that contains the steaming black tar, lean in to ask a customer in my soft spoken, customer-oriented voice, “More coffee?”

I come from a large family consisting of me and my five siblings: Debra, Rob, Joseph, Cynthia, and Brad.  I am one of the middle children. Last Saturday night, I spent the evening scrubbing my mother’s bathtub, sinks, and toilets. My mother has been recently diagnosed with colon cancer and is in treatment. Cancer and chemo stole my mother’s energy. Cleaning is now an impossible task for her. Our father is gone; the victim of a Christmas heart attack last year.

My sister, Cynthia, called as I was leaving the house to ask a favour.  Cynthia is divorced and has crossed the eight-month line. She has started to shop for a new husband. Her husband, after six years of marriage, decided one night he didn’t want to be married anymore and left. It was that simple for him.

Cynthia is convinced that this new guy is “the one” and begged me through desperate tears to babysit her daughter, Kendra. As I hesitated in providing her with an affirmative answer she began rambling about the unfairness of life: a husband who abandoned her and their child, changing his mind without warning after an agreement was made in marriage and words. Cynthia proceeded to paint a picture of her date, Henry, like this: countless child-friendly dinners out with Kendra, trips to museums as a family, and she spoke at length about a planned trip to New York which Henry will finance. But, on that particular Saturday night, it was just to be the two of them at the Keg Steakhouse. Unfortunately, the babysitter that Cynthia booked for the evening developed a spontaneous case of the stomach flu, a common occurrence for THAT babysitter.

Cynthia’s daughter, Kendra, is a five-year-old, adorable little girl. According to Cynthia, all of my other siblings were busy. Rob was swamped at work managing competing projects for his company; Joseph had a date with his model-girlfriend. The hand model demands Joseph be on time, must not cancel scheduled dates under any circumstances, and Joseph pays for all their outings even though they are not in a committed relationship. The youngest in our family, Brad, broke his leg two weeks ago riding his motorcycle on slippery streets which were covered in rain that later froze when the temperature plummeted in the evening. Brad said he wanted just one more ride before the season ended. He can barely walk to the fridge. But, he’s lucky to be alive. That reminds me – I need to make Brad some food. McDonald’s wrappers littered his apartment intermingled with the odd empty potato chip bag when I saw him on Tuesday. His friends think they are helping. He will be three hundred pounds before that cast comes off.

Debra never picked up the phone when Cynthia called. She never does. To be fair, she works full time as an administrative assistant at a hospital and has two children. Debra is constantly shuttling her children to various extra-curricular activities: piano lessons, guitar lessons, volleyball, basketball or swimming – the list is endless.   After shuttling, Debra can be found up to her elbows in soap suds scrubbing the pots and pans from dinner. Kevin, her husband, works full time too, but prepares healthy dinners for his team. That’s what he calls them – a team. After the children are in bed, Kevin will help Deb clean the kitchen.

I secretly think Kevin uses the time in the kitchen as an excuse to be with Debra. I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, Kevin whistling while wiping counters down or drying dishes. (No man is ever that happy to do housework.) But, he will also make soap boobies or a penis in the dish water when Debra isn’t looking. When he has built a sudsy penis, inevitably, Debra will stick her hands in the water breaking the penis in two. On cue, Kevin winces and screams, cradling his private parts in horror. A small smile crosses my face. What a clown – and a good guy.

That left me to babysit. Babysitting and cleaning toilets on a Saturday. I love Kendra, but sometimes I just want to stop. Stop it all. No more working, cleaning, cooking, or babysitting. But, I know what will happen at work if I stopped. Grumpy, old, grey-haired, wrinkled, cane-wielding-Gertrude will have me fired.  She will stroll into this diner, demand her coffee, and when I don’t respond, will tap her cane three times on this black, slippery floor (she says she does it to get my attention) and scowl demanding to speak to Rudy, the manager. Words like incompetent and inefficient will roll off of Gertrude’s tongue. I’ve heard it before.

I’m sure Gertrude doesn’t really need the cane. I suspect she carries it as a weapon to beat unsuspecting victims, (no one would be suspicious of an old, defenceless woman) or to trip innocent people as they walk down the streets for malicious fun.

Does anyone see me?

I am a thirty-six year old, University-educated woman. I only completed University through student loans and hard work. I am not smart. I’ve been told. While the other wealthier, brilliant, students clubbed on weekday and weekend nights, I sat in my room studying text books convinced it would get me somewhere. And here it is. I am like the 1980’s, red rose wallpaper on these walls.

I am just part of the old decor.

I’m circling the black, grunge-ridden floor of this diner with red sticky booth seats. I watch as Allison wipes the syrup from her blonde, blue-eyed, toddler daughter’s face.  I check my other customers; Brian and Dan are in expensive grey business suits today and both wear their lucky Italian ties. They discuss another sub division planned in the area. Family and careers are juxtaposed in this world. I have neither.

Am I just a waitress, cleaner, cook, babysitter? I’ve covered all the domestic roles except the one I really wanted:  to be a mother.  After multiple miscarriages and a visit to a fertility specialist she said your odds of successfully conceiving a child and carrying it to term are less than 20 percent.  

I’m losing on all the front lines.  

In terms of career, how did I end up here? Failure again, is the correct word. In my past, I have held several administrative positions at companies with each company folding faster than the one before. There are signs when a company is in a downward spiral: employees diminish through lay-offs or resignation, vacant offices increase, funds for necessities such as office supplies decrease, and there are many, many, closed door meetings. I bounced out of each company quickly, locating a new opportunity shortly before my pink slip arrived. The last time, I was not so lucky.

Unemployed. It sounds like a dirty word: worthless, undesirable, down-sized. I was off for a few months and then everyone, with the exception of my husband, told me I should just take anything. Family and friends said: certainly you can wait tables as you did in University. Some money coming in is better than no money. My husband was the exception, encouraging me not to settle too quickly. But, after a few months enduring relentless, you could always work at McDonald’s jokes (why does everyone think that joke is so damn funny?) I took a waitressing job. Here I circle, one year later.

This is the middle of my life where I should have most of my shit together. And yet, I have nothing; no career, no children, and no house. I am biologically deficient in every way – not smart, and unable to reproduce. If natural selection is always at play, it has determined my genes to be inferior. How can I argue?      

I circle. If this were the end of my life, I would hope at my eulogy, I would be described as a good and kind daughter, wife, sister and friend. Oh God – please don’t say, what made her really happy was cleaning, cooking and serving. I swear, I will come back and haunt that person. All joking aside, my real concern is this: does anyone know who I am?

I blink back tears as I place the coffee pot back on the burner. I want a different life, but how do I make it happen? There are bills to pay, family and friends that depend on me. I want to change my life, but how? How much of my life do I give to others, and how much am I entitled to? What is the ratio?  90/10? 50/50? 30/70?

I know part of how much I give depends on how much I offer. But, I wonder – if I took care of me first, was happier, healthier and less resentful, wouldn’t I be able to help others more?

Or is that just the selfish?  What happens if I took the $15,000 in my RRSP’s and travelled for a few months to relax and think about what I want to do with my life? I hang my head down and put my hands on my face in an effort to hide the tears that swell in my eyes. Physically, emotionally, and financially bankrupt; I am spent. 

I have other plans. Here’s an example. What if I used the $15,000 in RRSP’s to buy property on the outskirts of the city in the hopes in ten or twenty years a developer will purchase it for a subdivision?  As already proven, the area is in a boom phase for residential building. It would be a long shot. I know. But I might be financially secure in my later years.

I hate this job.  I should quit right now. Walk out those doors today and find a Monday to Friday job that pays more than the $19,000 I made last year, tips included.

If I quit, do I include the waitress position on my resume if I want another administrative role? Is it true that it’s better to do something versus nothing? Or, if I left it on my resume, does it demonstrate to potential employers that I lack ambition?

Who am I kidding though? I wouldn’t quit on Rudy. Rudy, the owner, defended me against cantankerous Gertrude when she declared me incompetent, shuffled my shifts around to accommodate my mother’s sudden and various medical appointments, and I am always called in first if another waitress calls in sick. He’s a wonderful boss. I know I’m lucky in some ways.

As I uncover my face, I see her white hair. GERTRUDE. How long has she been sitting there? 

“Hello dearie,” she says as her head is tilted and she taps her cane three times on the floor. “Where’s my coffee?”

I grab a cup and saucer and pour the morning brew.

“Is there something wrong?” She asks in her squeaky, kind, grandmother voice.

It’s just a trick, I tell myself. Don’t fall for it. She doesn’t care. “Absolutely nothing,” I say with my head raised and a reassuring smile.

“Good. I was concerned I would lose the worst waitress that I’ve ever met.”

I stare at her dumbfounded, purse my lips together as my jaw locks up. God, I hate her.

Gertrude smiles at me, her eyebrows are raised as she tastes the black, caffeinated, poison.

Now that her brain is on, there will be no end to her comments. Trust me, I know what I am. She doesn’t need to point it out.

Gertrude places her coffee cup down on the saucer and stares at me for a long moment. The smile evaporates from her face as she drops a card on the counter and pushes it across to me.

“I give you a hard time Tammy, because I know you can do more than this. Maybe you’re tired or lazy, or possibly both, beaten down by life’s complications. But, don’t waste your life away. My daughter, Pamela Radder, works for an employment agency. You should call her. I’m sure she can find you another job better suited to your education and skills.”

My mouth gapes open as I stare at her in disbelief.    I hesitate for a moment wondering if she is playing some awful joke on me.

Gertrude’s eyes are steady, lips have narrowed, shoulders and jaw have tightened. She looks serious.

Softly she says, “Listen, I’ve lived a long life – and mostly a good one. I was married to a wonderful man for forty years.” Gertrude take’s a deep breath as if she’s about to go under water. I watch her grey eyes get misty like a foggy day. Then, she exhales and the fog dissipates.

She continues, “We have two beautiful, successful children who take care of me now. I am also blessed with three grandchildren. But, just like you, I went to University then settled into low-paying jobs after graduation. My husband, Daniel, was in a car accident shortly after we were married and we had two small children to feed at the time. I worked anywhere to pay the bills.”

Gertrude chokes on more tears that have gathered again at this memory. Her voice is thick. She is drowning. The tears fill her lungs making it difficult for her to breathe, let alone talk. I know. The same thing happens to me when I talk about Dad.

With more determination she clears her throat with greater force, sits erect, pushing the painful memory back.  She continues, “Daniel eventually recovered and became a successful businessman. After he was better, I gave up on any chance of having a career, too tired by footsteps I had already taken. My husband was a modern man for our time and he encouraged me to pursue the things I talked about when we first met.”

“He sounds like a wonderful man,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

For a moment I think about my husband. He was the only one who told me not to go back to waitressing. He said I could do more.

“Yes,” she says. “He knew me better than I knew myself. I was a fool who flatly refused to think outside the box, as the saying goes nowadays. I regret not listening to him. Life is short and time is finite. You will eventually run out of time.”  I am experiencing too many feelings in this conversation: confusion, anger, sympathy and sadness. Just like Mount Vesuvius, there is red hot lava boiling up in my head. An eruption is inevitable. I suddenly snap at her, “You said I was incompetent!”

“You’re alright as a waitress. But I know you’re unhappy. I wanted to give you some incentive to find a better job!”

Gertrude pauses and looks down at the counter for a moment. Then, she raises her head, as her eyes meet mine, she sighs, and says, “I was trying to get you fired. If you lost this job you would be forced to find something better. I’m sorry, I was wrong. I should have just told you that you could do better. You’re a smart girl Tammy. You deserve more.”

She pauses, eyes locked on me. “I heard about your father, your mother’s illness, and your brother’s accident. It’s a small town and everyone talks. But no matter how hard it is, you should always push forward even when the deck is stacked against you.”

With a sudden, widening, lop-sided smile, she adds, “You don’t want to turn out like me, do you?

A snort of laughter erupts from me. Then, my face flushes hot with embarrassment. My laughter is an admission of guilt; all those unkind thoughts that I had towards Gertrude. Oh god, I’m an ass.

I place my hand on top of hers and quietly say, “No, I wouldn’t want that.”

I bite my lower lip and pause for a moment to consider her words. I hesitate as the card stares back at me, beckoning me to take a chance. I consider my other options. They are zero. I pick the card up and slide it into my apron.

I turn around and reach for the coffee pot on the burner. I ask Gertrude, more gently than ever before, “More coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Gertrude says with her chin raised, sparkle in her eye, as she beams at me with a look of satisfaction.

Part 1: Alvina’s Quest for Knowledge

“I can’t believe I got a B!” Alvina says squeezing the pages of her test a little tighter in her hand crumpling it. The B stares at her, taunting her, with its curved letter. It’s an insulting reminder she’s not quite smart enough.

Her right foot swings out as she kicks at the ground. Surprisingly, her boot whips up a pile of dirt and it is tossed further down the trail. Alvina’s feet stomp at the ground. But because its spring, she sinks into the moist soil. If it were summer, the path would be dry and her feet pounding on the trail would be louder and would be a clear expression of her anger. Instead what she hears is muffled. The sound of slurping muck under her boots seems to suggest the springtime goo can pull her down below the surface like quicksand – never to be seen again!

Alvina’s face scrunches like twisted metal at the demolition yard when she thinks about the B versus an A; wanting to stomp loudly and only hearing the softness of earth beneath her feet; at wanting to be smart, and maybe, only being average. With this thought, anger blisters throughout her body.  It pops and explodes pulsing with fire through her veins.  Alvina kicks at the ground again, and another huge chunk of mud lifts up and spreads out across the air before it crashes into trees, ferns, and other plants that are in the way.

“What’s the matter?” Alvina hears from behind her.  It’s a curious tone mixed with concern.

Alvina glances over her shoulder. Standing on the path is a woman with long black hair, wearing a multi-coloured wool hat on top of her head, a plaid shirt, and blue jeans.  The woman’s face is punchy white against her black hair and it reminds Alvina of how white the moon looks on a clear night against the background of a black sky.

“Nothing,” Alvina mutters to the tall woman who is still standing further down the path.

“Nothing?” The woman says. “Surely, it must be something. You wouldn’t redecorate the woods for no reason.”

Alvina quietly laughs at the woman’s joke. Then Alvina huffs, glances up at the woman, before her eyes skim the woods. She doesn’t really want to answer the question. Alvina glances at green ferns, maple trees, balsam firs, and the dangerous wild parsnip that Mom warned her about when she said, Alvina, don’t get too close to the wild parsnip. That stuff will burn you.

“I got a B on a test,” Alvina blurts out to the stranger.

“You should be proud: a B is a good mark!” The woman says the words in an authoritative tone and with a nod of her head. To Alvina, it seems like the women has placed too much energy in the statement as if she’s trying to convince her it’s true.

Alvina’s eyes glare at the woman dressed as a lumberjack. She says, “I wanted an A.”

The woman folds her arms in front of her chest, tilts her head, and asks, “Why?”

“Because,” Alvina hesitates as if she were a train climbing up a monster of a hill with a heavy load. With her next words, it’s as if the train has reached the top, and now with the downhill momentum it blasts straight down and  Alvina’s words rush out of  her with the same speed when she finishes her because statement with, “I want to be smart.”

“You think a grade, an A, is a reflection of how smart you are?” The woman says folding her arms in front of her while her eyebrows pull together.

“Yes,” Alvina answers with zero hesitation in her voice.

“So, if you don’t get an A, you don’t know anything?” The woman asks the child as new lines crinkle together showing the woman’s confusion.

“No, I’m not saying that,”Alvina answers with annoyance. She knows the woman is challenging her, just like her parents, when she gets mad about getting a different mark than an A. But it frustrates her. No one seems to understand the importance of it. After a few moments, Alvina gathers her thoughts and says, “It means I don’t know as much as the other kids who got A’s on that history test.”

“Oh, history!” The slender woman says excitedly. “You know, history is constantly being written, right?” Then there’s a pause in her voice as she walks past Alvina towards the largest tree Alvina has ever seen. The tree isn’t a maple, or a balsam fir – as a matter of fact, Alvina doesn’t remember the tree being there before. The woman glances up at the tree, spins around to face Alvina with her black hair twirling, and says, “And history, is also being rewritten.”

“I know,” Alvina says as her eyes shift back and forth to the woman and to the large red tree in the middle of the woods.  “But history is important,” Alvina says defensively.

“Absolutely!” The woman acknowledges without hesitation. “But it’s impossible to know everything, about everything; particularly, something like history.”  With that the dark-haired woman places her left hand on the tree, and uses her right hand to remove her hat.  As her palm touches the tree, Alvina hears a creaking sound as two pieces of bark separate. This goes on for several minutes until the tree is split in two pieces. From the opening in the tree, a light blue light pours from the doorway of the tree.

Alvina’s mouth is open. She’s so surprised! Never in her life has she seen a tree do that! Alvina cautiously takes a step back with fear. It’s not a planned move, but rather an instinctive one to get away from something that you’re not familiar with.

Just then a rainbow coloured bird bursts from the entrance of the tree fluttering, and chirping, singing his song to everyone. It’s hard to resist music no matter who, or what, is singing. Alvina finds she is no longer afraid but smiling.  The bird bounces onto Alvina’s shoulder and continues to chirp into her ear.

With hesitation, Alvina asks, “How did you do that?” Realizing she has more questions she shoots out one more with, “And where did the bird come from?”

“My name is Gudrun,” the woman smiles at the child and says, “And this is the path to my world. That bird is Patnik, and he’s a friend of mine.”  During this whole time, Gudrun keeps the palm of her hand on the tree.

Alvina hesitates. She’s not quite certain of this woman, or this opening to another world. Turning her head she stares at the bird, and when she does this, the bird places his beak against nine-year-old Alvina’s nose.  Then as quickly as Patnik flew out from the tree and landed on Alvina’s shoulder, it rushes back into the opening of the tree, and disappears into it.

“Would you like to come see my world?” Gudrun says raising her eyebrows at Alvina.

Alvina stares at the woman. Then she notices it – or rather, them.

“Your ears!” Alvina shouts at Gudrun while stretching her finger out at the woman. Realizing almost instantly that she’s being rude, she quickly drops her finger, and her eyes stare at the muddy ground.

Gudrun shouts, “Oh my! Have I lost them?” Gudrun says with surprise as she places both her hands on her ears.  When the woman’s hand is removed from the tree, there’s another creaking sound and the two piece of bark that were separated pull together, closing the door to Gudrun’s world.

The sound causes Alvina to glance up. She’s giggling at the woman and she says, “No.”

“Then – what?” Gudrun asks still holding her ears.

“Their pointy, like Spock’s from Star Trek.”

Gudrun places her hands on her hips, huffs, and says, “Or – LIKE ELVES!” She finishes the last part with exasperation in her voice. “That show. What was it called, Star Trek?”

Alvina chuckles to herself and says, “Yeah, I guess so. And yeah, it’s Star Trek. How did you know that?”

“You’re not the first child I’ve encountered that said my ears looked like Spock’s. A long time ago, kids would always say elves. Now we’re in competition with Mr. Spock.”

Alvina laughs. Then she hesitates, points at the tree, and says, “The door closed.”

“Ah yes, it has.” Gudrun says matter-of-factly. Then she places her hand on the tree again, it splits in two, the door opens, and light blue light pours from the opening again.

Slowly Alvina walks to the entrance of the tree that leads to Gudrun’s world. She peers through the doorway and holds her breath when she views the landscape before her: a mix of green and red fields. In the background are what look like crystal mountains, and they are surrounded with purple water.

From behind Alvina she turns when there’s a small breeze that hovers above her. She notices that Gudrun has poked her head around the corner. She smiles at her, stands still mostly in Alvina’s world with just her head that’s poking around the corner. Smiling, she asks Alvina, “Would you like to come for a visit? I want to show you some things that may help in your quest for knowledge.”

Alvina hesitates glancing at the view of Gudrun’s world and before she turns back to the woman in the plaid shirt she says, “I need to be home for dinner.”

“I’ll make sure you’re back,” Gudrun says with the same amount of confidence in her voice as Alvina’s teachers do when they are explaining something in class. Then Gudrun says, “Me and the other elves have lived a long time. I want to show you what we’re learning.”

Patnik whips out of the open tree door again, singing, and squeaking with happiness. When it sees Alvina it hovers in front of her, and then waves its right wing at her as if it’s a hand in a motion of, come!

Unable to resist the wing of her feathered friend as if it were an outstretched hand, Alvina touches the wing.  In that moment when her fingers touch the bird’s wing, Alvina rises up gently at first, and then as the bird spins and twirls, so does Alvina. Giggling, Alvina does somersaults in the air.

When Alvina stops, she notices she is now past the tree and below her feet are the red-green fields. Gudrun is now beside her and the tree-door has closed to Alvina’s world.  Gudrun’s feet slowly rise up and she hovers beside Alvina, still holding her hat in her right hand. Then she stretches out horizontally, turns back briefly to face Alvina, and says, “Come, let’s follow Patnik! He’ll lead us to my castle!”

As if Patnik understood everything that was said, he beats his wings quickly, and flies happily towards a yellow-gold castle nestled in front of the mountains.  Not far behind Patnik, are Alvina and Gudrun. They hold hands as the air rushes across their eyelashes, nose, mouth and the breeze pushes their hair this way and that way, and their shirts and pants flutter from the speed their travelling across the white pillow clouds around them.

Their destination is Gudrun’s castle: for she is the Queen of the Elves.

The Hand of Retaliation

He was chosen because he listened empathetically to what people said before giving advice. Too many people, too often, give advice to others based on their own personal beliefs and personal experiences, disregarding the feelings of the people they are trying to help. But in sympathizing with someone’s position before offering advice, you validate their emotions and they know you understand them. This leads the person to be more receptive to listening to what you have to say. Michael always did that with friends and family. That’s what Vega said.

Michael huffs, out of breath again as he takes a few steps backwards. Then, he takes off in a sprint, gains momentum, and leaps across the stars. When he reaches the surface of the closest moon, his boots skid across the dirt.

“I’m certain there is an easier way,” Michael mumbles as he heaves in air and feels his lungs expand with the sensation. He is thankful that he no longer feels as light-headed as he did a few seconds ago.

The darkness of the universe is dotted with white, pink, blue stars and as Michael exhales his breath turns into ice crystals that mix in with thousands of celestial dots.  For a second, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two; that is, until the crystals dissipate.

Michael scans the infinite universe. It is annoying to be left here alone with no idea what direction to go. But at the same time – this experience is exhilarating! The protective shield that Vega mentioned remained despite Vega’s disappearance; Michael is still able to breathe, is somewhat protected from the cold, and is not drifting about in space as Vega told him he would without it. Michael smiles, and to no one says, “I’m the first man in space.”

“Depends on what year you are in,” a voice echoes from behind him. “If it’s your time, then you’re the first man.  But if it’s after April 12th, 1961, it’s a Russian, named Yuri Gagarin.”

Michael turns around, smiling at the familiar face and voice saying, “Those are the first words from your lips? You left me alone out here for almost an hour.”

“Yes,” Vega answers. A sparkling crystal bridge forms under his feet as he swiftly strides towards Michael.

“What?” Michael asks bewildered. “All I had to do was take a few steps forward?”

“Yes, Michael.” Vega gives him a stern sideways glance. The “look” is the same that Michael’s father gives him when he has forgotten something that he should have already known.

Michael looks down for a moment and then suddenly remembers what Vega said before he disappeared: it’s a leap of faith. When his eyes meet Vega’s, Vega gives him a crooked smile.

Michael asks, “Russia is the first to make it to our moon?”

“No, the Russians are the first to go to space. The moon is different.”

“Are you going to tell me who gets there first?”

“Not tonight.” Vega answers seriously as he turns to face him. Vega’s clothing and demeanor are casual: leather jacket, dress pants, and boots with hands casually draped and folded together in front of him. But his words are earnest, “Michael, you remember your task this night? Millions of lives are depending on you. General Usia’s course must be corrected.”

“That’s right. Give me the most arduous task to start.” Michael answers louder than intended and with a crackle in his voice.

A few hours earlier, Vega explained to Michael that he was born from the stars. His role was to travel across time in search of a person who was empathetic to other people’s problems and who would offer neutral advice. Vega’s role would be to help the chosen person get to where they needed to be in time, explain the situation, how they must correct it, retrieve them, and guide them on their next mission.

Michael asked Vega why he couldn’t help General Usia to change her course. Vega simply answered: it’s not one of my strengths.  Vega, with god-like qualities, admitted he had limitations. Most humans are unable to admit their shortcomings. But Vega could. That’s the reason why Michael came.

“Michael, this will not be your most difficult task. There will be others, with much larger consequences.” Vega states this casually as if they were discussing how best to harvest apples.

Harvesting apples is what Michael should be doing tomorrow in Vernon, BC, with his father. He prays that he can complete his task in the next few hours, and return home in time to help.  His father needs him: his mother just passed, and while his father still works as hard as he does on the farm they own together, there are times Michael has had to hold his father up when he nearly collapsed on the fields. Grief has taken his father’s appetite, and in these early days, he will barely finish a meal. In combination with this, and the occasional spastic fit of weeping in losing his wife of over 30 years it has left what was a very strong man in a frail state.  The work is also terribly difficult and Michael is the only son.

Michael’s breathing becomes shallow as he thinks about the two problems he faces. He loves his father, but the one that weighs heavily on him is that he might not be able to help General Usia. If he had a second longer to consider his decision when Vega asked, he may have chosen differently.

Michael looks around wondering if the shield Vega provided to protect him is starting to fail; his skin is cold and clammy and small beads of sweat gather on his brow. The galaxy begins to spin around him causing the potatoes he had for dinner several hours earlier to be tasted again in his throat.

Vega watches Michael closely.

“I’m ready.” Michael says.

Vega nods and walks a few feet away from Michael. Then, he snaps his fingers.

Immediately, Michael is thrust forward into a vortex of stars and blackness. The uneasy feeling that he felt is amplified in intensity as he spins around in circles. It’s as if he is caught in a riptide. It stops only when Michael finally crashes to the ground on his knees.

***

Michael takes in a big breath of air as he assesses his surroundings.

Within the confines of the space, the room is cold and stale. The floor is steel and there is a grey, circular structure in front of him. On the circular structure, Michael notices thousands of buttons like what might have been on the bridge of the Titanic before it sank off the coast of Newfoundland last year. As his eyes drift across the knobs, he catches sight of something else: a woman with hair cut short like a man’s, wearing a black shirt, pants, and boots to match. On the woman’s jacket, Michael notices several stripes on her upper right arm etched into the fabric.

Her hands are steady as she points a silver, smooth object at Michael that looks like a weapon of some sort. It looks menacing. But the menacing part is really this: she’s pointed it directly at Michael’s head.

Michael shifts one leg from behind him as he slowly tries to move to a standing position while asking, “Do you know where I can find General Usia?”

“You’re looking at her!” She snaps. Before Michael can say anything else, she says, “Stay where you are!”

“Sorry,” Michael says with hands raised in the air. He hopes this is still the universally acknowledged surrender position. He abides with the order given as he slowly places his foot back behind him and resumes a kneeling position.

Michael looks closer at Usia: her eyes are reddened and slightly moist from perhaps rain, but possibly, also tears.

Michael steadies himself. With arms in the air he makes an assumption softly saying, “General Usia, I’m so sorry about your children.”

General Usia’s eyes narrow at the stranger. Hands tremble. A sharp pain is felt in her stomach as if someone punched a knuckled-fist into it. She says, “How do you know about them?” As her mind quickly pulls random facts together she barks, “DID YOU KILL THEM?”

“I had nothing to do with it, General.” Michael says his voice gentle, like the sound of fall leaves that swish together.

“Who the hell are you then?” General Usia asks with a growl.

“I am a friend, General.” Michael answers as he tries to formulate a plan.

“No friend of mine would wear those clothes,” she hisses. “You look like you just stepped off some 20th century farm. Fuck! Do I smell horse?” She asks as she swipes at her nose. A tickling nasal drip has commenced with the smell of horse and hay that lingers on Michael’s clothes.

“I’m an old-fashioned man,” Michael answers wryly. “General,” Michael says more boldly. Vega warned him the window to change the General’s mind was ephemeral. “I know your children were killed a short time ago.”

“Killed today,” she answers. Her voice is suddenly void of all emotion.

Michael pauses as he mentally questions Vega’s decision to deliver him so soon after the event. The General’s children: executed in the fields of their home by the other side were just seven and nine years old. Michael feels the blood drain from his face, stomach swirls again with nausea as he thinks, they were children? How could they? Their whole lives were in front of them and now they are turned to dust, carried away by wind, leaving behind a void of nothingness.   

Michael regroups, pushing onwards. “General Usia, I am truly sorry. But, I beg of you – as a General you must exercise restraint and keep your heart calm. You must not let hatred rule your troops and gunfire.”

“Have you ever been to war, Sir?”

Michael shakes his head from side to side while answering, “No.”

“Then, don’t tell me how to feel, or how to command my troops!”

Michael’s head throbs. Panic overwhelms him. The sound of a ticking clock pounds in his mind as he feels the window of time closing in on him.

Desperate, he takes a bold approach.

“General Usia, I’m not from your time. But I met a man that said if your military decisions are fueled by grief, a young woman will die that would bring an end to the war in a few short years. But with the young woman’s death, this war will linger on for more than one hundred years. Millions more will die that never should! As a mother you can be angry; but as a leader, you must exercise restraint.”

Usia looks at Michael saying, “as a mother and a General, I can do whatever I want!”

From behind Usia, the door swishes open interrupting their conversation. The General swivels around to face her second intruder.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Captain McKay says. He glances at the gun General Usia holds tightly in her grasp. “We just need the final order to release the 630TZ bomb.”

General Usia turns to face Michael.

But Michael has vanished.

“Where did he go?” She snaps at Captain McKay.

“Who?” Captain McKay asks perplexed.

“The man! The man! He was just here!” She barks as she circles the bridge.

“I didn’t see anyone.” Captain McKay’s face is lined like a geological map in confusion.

General Usia’s eyes dart around and with thundering words that are so loud they are heard several hundred meters down the hallway of the ship she asks, “Computer, how many people are in this room?”

“Two.” Computer answers. “Captain McKay, and yourself.”

“Computer, check again!” She roars.

“The result is the same, General Usia.”

“Computer,” General Usia says, “Has there been any unknown personnel on this ship?”

The Computer takes a few moments to review the data history of the ship, and then it responds, “None.”

“General Usia,” Captain McKay presses onwards unwilling to be diverted from his task. He never wanted to carry out this order but she insisted, and honestly, he can’t imagine how she feels. Both of her children – executed. The cruelty.

General Usia’s duty, like all of them, required her to leave her family behind – even if her husband had been killed in battle a few months earlier.  She left the children with her parents because the war had not extended that far. The General thought they would be safe with them. But then in a few short days, the war was on the city’s doorstep. General Usia wanted to move her family to another city but had to make arrangements on her own. And honestly, the General would never ask for help. She knew that many soldiers in the military have families that are under threat of being killed in the crossfire.

The only kindness given to the General was that her parents were left alive. But this is a doubtful kindness. One can only assume that her parents were left alive for the sole purpose to tell the General the details of her children’s deaths.

But even with everything that’s happened to General Usia, he knows obliterating a whole city in revenge to pay for the sins of a few is tantamount to murder. He’s conflicted as to whether he should follow this order. But, General Usia has always been a good, fair General. She must have other reasons for attacking the city that she has not shared. General Usia would not use her position for revenge, he’s certain. Captain McKay prods General Usia, “The bomb is prepped. We just need the final order.”

General Usia looks up at him. Then, she turns away from Captain McKay.  Was the man a creation of her mind? A guilty conscience? She knows killing millions of people, civilians, is considered a war crime.

But they were her children.

Her hands shake. Her mind fumbles. There is something that the man said. Something important. That as a mother she could be angry, but as a leader she must exercise restraint.

Choking on tears she hesitates. He was real, or he was a creation of her mind.  The computer found no trace of him. It seems more probable he was a ghost she fabricated, probably from all her historical reading of the early 1900’s.

She understands the implied meaning behind the words the spirit said: that she should lead as a leader would in battle, and minimize innocent casualties. Do only what needs to be done. General Usia’s face crumbles as she thinks of the deaths of her two children, but also because she nearly made the wrong decision.

She answers, “No, let’s wait.”

“Are you sure General?” Captain McKay asks with small droplets of relief peppered throughout his voice.

“Yes,” she answers. “Find witnesses. Get descriptions of the perpetrators. We’ll focus on the individuals responsible for killing the people in my city.”

“Very good General,” Captain McKay says as he feels his lower lip tremble gently. He bucks up though, before he loses control of his emotions. Then, he salutes her as a woman who lost so much, but also as a General who refuses to allow the savagery of war to change the leader she is.

***Originally published in the Scarlet Leaf Review***

https://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories7/category/penelope-s-hawtrey

 

Part II: If You Asked Me To…

“Hello, Beth,” a familiar voice says from behind me. After the last few days of many encounters, I know who it is, before I turn around.

“Hello,” I answer swiveling around confirming my suspicions.

“Did you have breakfast there?” He asks as his nose crinkles. His eyes squint together from either the sun or the sub-zero temperatures. I’m surprised he’s not wearing a hat and notice his ears are glowing red most likely stinging from the brisk wind.  Despite the arctic temperatures his arms are crossed in front of him, and his hands are clasped together in a relaxed manner as if he could stand there all day.

“Yes,” I answer facing Evan.  “It’s a nice place. The breakfast was wonderful. But I wasn’t adventurous enough to try anything really different, just the regular eggs benedict. A friend of mine suggested the place.” I can’t help myself as my lips curl upwards. I glance up to Evan who stands a good foot above me.

Briefly, his gaze shifts and he watches the rush of cars criss-cross the streets.  When he faces me again, there’s a gentle nod of his head and a knowing grin.

Evan’s wearing a long wool winter coat, leather gloves, and a plaid brown scarf that’s bundled around his neck to protect him from the unusual cold weather this time of year.  White wisps of air swirl around in front of him as he says in a gentle river of a voice, “I’m headed to the hotel.  Starting my shift.”

“Oh, I’m headed in that direction too,” I say dropping my eyes to the pavement.

Is that me leading him on? I don’t know. Should I have drawn a line by now?

I push the thought aside. Nice guy like him, I’m sure he has a girlfriend. I didn’t notice a ring. He’s probably being extra kind to me, pities me really, because I’m alone in this big beautiful city. I shouldn’t read too much into his words, mannerisms, and gestures. He probably acts the same way when he meets anyone.

“If you asked me to…”

My mouth opens and then closes. Lines shape my mouth to form the well-known friendly greeting of a smile.  This is our dance. Mine and Evan’s. I’ve been in this spinning, whirl of a city that holds a flood of shops, markets, and tickets for all the big Broadway shows, and through it all Evan disappears and reappears when I need him; and whenever we see each other he will find an opportunity to say at the beginning of the encounter, or at some point later, if you asked me to….

Evan said it when I stood blankly at the front entrance to the hotel swinging my head from right to left, while simultaneously spinning my phone in all directions, trying to figure out what street to take to get to Times Square. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard – look for the brightly lit neon sign! But oh, tall buildings are everywhere and conceal that which should be obvious! And the shadows from the skyscrapers hide everything else.

It was only when Evan appeared, glimpsed over my shoulder at my phone, and then pointed and said, over, yonder! – I had a clue in which direction I might find that amazing place I’d seen only on TV. Then he said with a wink, Dorothy, just follow the blue dotted trail….

Playing along I nodded, and while holding my phone in front of me, stepped one foot in front of the other and began skipping down the pavement as if I were Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Then a couple of days ago, I was returning to my hotel with feet and calves that burned.  I had spent the day exploring some of the boroughs of NY, and my body punished me for it. Prior to my trip, I spent most nights binge-watching Netflex while eating ice cream; and then asked the same body to run a marathon (of sorts) in Miu Miu boots with no training. That’s the reason I didn’t notice the man who lunged at me and reached for my handbag a few meters from the hotel. As I had the strap of the purse looped through my shoulder it escalated into a tug of war between me and the thief, with me refusing to let go of my Coach baby as if it were something precious and irreplaceable like a child. The man out of frustration raised his hand to me, and I was certain his intention was to hit me. But before he made contact, Evan appeared in front of me and with a left hook punched the thug to the ground. The assaulted thief quickly recovered, and sprang to his feet. Evan chased him until I yelled, Evan don’t! Leave it!

Once we were inside the hotel we called the police. Evan said, we have to tell them because the man may try it again. I used the opportunity to give Evan a scolding for risking his life for a handbag. Facing me he said, it wasn’t the handbag, it was the person. Then he said, if you asked me to, I wouldn’t mind getting you a coffee while we wait for the police to come. 

“I wouldn’t mind walking with you to the hotel. You can protect me, in case someone tries to steal my scarf.” He says with a thin smile while clapping his hands together again.

I nod and say, “I would like that.” I can’t face Evan. I enjoy this man’s quietness, his calmness, and his energy all rolled into one.  My eyes are fixed on the pavement as my hands grip the small wallet I carry tighter.  The wind clips my cheeks and forehead. It causes tears to gather in my eyes because of the brisk slap from Mother Earth.

Is it the cold that causes me to tear up? Or is it emotional pain? My lower lip begins to pull towards the pavement. If it is emotional pain, is it because of what happened over a month ago? Or is it guilt that’s sweeping across my body like a virus making me feel a little worse each day; I ignore the signs and push aside the dizziness, nausea, and headaches  and explain to others I’m sure it’s just because I’m tired. Until in a final moment of outrage by my body for not noticing the subtle signals, it burns up from the inside. A fever takes hold of me signalling a virus was plaguing me. It leaves me so weak I can’t even get out of bed to get a glass of water.

As we begin walking Evan says, “how many days do you have left here?”

“I leave tomorrow,” I announce while shrugging my shoulders. It shouldn’t matter to either of us. I’m an insignificant tourist who booked a room at the hotel that Evan just happens to work at in the heart of this bustling city. Millions of people travel here every year.

“Oh well…” his voice disappears and is carried off by the wind.

I tug at my red hat and pull it down a little further to block out the cold. Once that’s done, I place my hand over my scarf to protect my chest. The frigid air is punching me in the throat.  For a moment, I can’t breathe.

Gone is Evan’s smile. “If you asked me to, I wouldn’t mind taking you out for dinner?” He says with hurried words.

My husband loves to watch boxing. I think of the man who tried to steal my purse and wanted to strike me. With the question Evan asked me, I see myself hit. Blindsided and surprised, my arms and legs stretch out in all directions as I am tossed to the ground.

Small convulsions begin to erupt throughout me. My hands shake, eyes twitch, knees rattle together as I realize my mistake.  The only words I begin to mumble are, “shit, shit, shit…”

“It’s ok,” Evan says somewhat defensively. “I just thought we had a connection.”

“I’m married!” I blurt out as I begin to whimper.

“Oh!” Evan says. “Oh Christ! You must think I’m the worst kind of man? Asking out a married woman? Geez, I didn’t know.” He says touching my arm gently and at the same time backing away.

So many emotions. “I didn’t know you thought of me like that. It’s been so long. Even when I was younger, I never saw myself as attractive. And now, even less so.”

“What?” He asks as his mouth opens in awe. “You’re lovely.” He quickly releases my arm and says, “Oh no, sorry. Should I say that? Can I say that? What are the rules?”

I’m still crying, but then I begin giggling at the incredible level of awkwardness. Throwing my hands up in the air I say, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know!”

“Well,” Evan says, “if your husband doesn’t say it to you, someone else should. Just this once.”

“My husband’s a good guy. He tells me all the time, but I never believe him – ” I pause and add, “he paid for this trip for me. Spencer thought I needed a break from everything.”

“Oh,” is Evan’s first response. Then he asks, “did something bad happen?” As if to give me some space, he takes a step backwards.

My tummy tightens. It’s the barren spot, where no fetus will ever grow. “I can’t have children. We just found out.” I say adding, “after we found out, I wanted to go away and he wanted to come too, but Spencer couldn’t get the time off.  I opted to come by myself. Give me a chance to clear my head. He thought it was a good idea too. ”

“Well, that’s shitty.” Evan says.

I laugh so hard at his bluntness. And I can’t stop myself.  Tears flow from my eyes and I quickly brush them away. I stutter, “yu-up” while blowing bubbles of mucus at him.

Evan pulls out a handkerchief, hands it to me, and says, “I don’t expect anything from you. But would you have dinner with me? Just as friends. I don’t think there’s anything taboo about me buying you a Big Mac in Times Square on your last night here.”

“That would be nice. Or maybe a hot dog in Central Park,” I offer as a second option. “And maybe I could pay, for all your kindness.”

“Okay,” he says. “It’s a meal together at one of them high end places,” he says pulling his scarf tighter. He shivers and adds, “we should keep walking. I’m going to lose my ears soon.”

We turn and walk down the street together. I blow my nose one more time into the handkerchief. I glance up to him and say, “I’m sorry for leading you on.”

“You never lead me on,” he says. Then a few seconds later he adds, “you know what I just realized – I never saw you without your gloves.”

“Oh no!” I say throwing my hands up. I pull the gloves off revealing my diamond engagement ring and wedding band.

Evan laughs, gently touches my ungloved hand, and gives it one quick kiss and says, “Don’t be sorry. I never minded.”

Part I: If You Asked Me To

There’s something about him – his quietness, some insecurity, or maybe it’s not insecurity at all but the sign of a confident man.  Perhaps it was the way he placed his hands together, not in an arrogant way, but one of quiet reflection. I instantly liked him.

“If you asked me to…” his voice is rhythmic as if he’s humming a song. A few moments later, after I turn and face the man who spoke the words he continues, “… I wouldn’t mind helping you with your bags?”

Bashfully smiling, I glance down at my three bags and answer, “I would love that. Thank you.”

He effortlessly hoists the duffle bag over his shoulder, and wheels the two other bags forward. We take long strides towards what looks like a golden cart.

Casually, I add to the conversation we already had about my bags and say, “I’m not a light packer.” Throwing my black gloved-hands over my face with embarrassment, I provide more explanation saying, “I’m only here for the weekend.”

He chuckles at me, and nods his head as he places my bags on the yellow gleaming luggage trolley. In a quiet voice he whispers, “I’ll tell you a little secret.”

“Okay,” I answer matching his tone as if we were spies on a mission to save the world.

“Most people aren’t.”

My face flushes as I giggle.

“If you want to check-in, I can take these to your room,” he instructs me as blonde wispy hair bounces on the top of his head.

“Right!” I answer in agreement.  I don’t know why I didn’t head straight to the lobby desk of the hotel.  This isn’t my first trip travelling alone and for sure, I know what the standard protocol is. But it’s my first trip in some time, going solo.

I’ll blame the flight. A gusty north wind blowing up the Atlantic Ocean made for an erratic, bumpy, and all around turbulent flight.  In the last few seconds before we touched down, my table dropped in front of me as if our plane were asking me, one last meal?

At various times while airborne, all I saw were the backs of people’s heads that ricocheted right to left, and up and down.  Sudden surprised gasps punctured the cabin air as we were jostled. Finally our landing gear skidded along the runway. As a tribute to the dramatic flight we already had the pleasure to experience, we lurched forward in a final crescendo as if it were a last attempt by the pilot to stop the plane before we ran out of pavement!

Thinking about the whole ordeal again, my hands shake. I walk towards the counter in my Miu Miu suede boots, Calvin Klein winter jacket, and hang onto my Coach handbag. I leave my gloves on as they were a gift from someone I love immensely, were expensive, and given at a difficult time in my life last month. Also, I have a tendency to lose things. The joke between us was this: we should have strings attached to your jacket, so you don’t lose them.    

I laughed, nodded in agreement and said, I’m sure you’re right.

***

I’ve checked in, received my room key, and spin around to see the bellhop with the nametag that said “Evan” on it speaking to another guest.  As I approach him I notice his robust frame, and guess him to be a man in his 30’s. His head is slightly tilted as he speaks calmly to an elderly woman in a black fur coat and carrying a white miniature poodle. Her eyes twinkle at him and with a wave of her hand she says, “thank you,” as I arrive.

Evan turns around to me and says, “All set?”

“Yes,” I announce proudly holding my swipe card to my room. Flipping the envelope open as if I’m about to announce the winner of a prize I say, “I’m in 1104.”

“Ok,” he says. He glances down at my bags and scoops the duffle bag from the cart, and proceeds to wheel the other two bags behind him. Glancing back at me he says, “The elevators are this way.”

Once inside the elevator he asks, “What brings you to New York?”

“Oh,” I stall.

The whole story? Part of the story? No story?

I decide to keep it to the basics.  “A little escape, from the dreariness of life,” I answer.

“Ah,” he says. “I understand that. Do you have plans while in New York?”

“Not really. Maybe do some shopping.” I laugh throwing my head back. “Assuming I can get anything else in my suitcase.”

Evan smiles at me. I may have even heard a gurgle of laughter. It’s hard to tell though. He’s probably afraid to laugh. Friends told me that when they first met me, I made them feel uncomfortable. It was the way I dressed, and the way I carried myself. They believed I lacked a sense of humor because I seemed sooooo proper. After they got to know me though, they learned quickly, I wasn’t a serious person.

Ding! The elevator breaks into our conversation.

As we walk down the long corridor together Evan says, “You should see a show. I’ve head New York has a couple,” he says as his forehead scrunches together in mock amusement at his own joke, and with a small trace of a smile.

When we arrive at my front door, I tap the swipe card to the lock and watch as the light switches from red to green with a click. I glimpse up at him and say, “Perhaps I will.”

When I push the door open, we’re greeted with heat that is stifling!

From behind me I hear, “Holy Sh–! That’s hot!”

I lose control at the almost unfiltered comment and near-oops on his part-; and also the blatant honesty.

He catches my eye and says, “I said holy shoot, that’s hot.”

“Yup, that’s what I heard.” I bend forward in laughter.

He quickly heads towards the thermostat and says, “If you asked me to, I’d turn the thermostat down, and open a window so you can breathe in here?” I know it’s a rhetorical question, because he’s already taken care of the thermostat and is now pulling a window open.

My eyebrows are  squashed together. I can’t stop laughing. I wave at him and say, “Yes, please!”

With the window open a cool breeze rushes through the room. It calms my laughing.

I tilt my head at his lingering grin. My smile remains too.

In a burst of electronic energy my phone splashes through the moment and breaks the quietness between us.

Evan walks towards the door and waves a hand at me. I begin rummaging through my bag searching for my cell. My eyes flicker at my wallet.

TIP!!! TIP!!!

Shit!

I turn around and frantically wave at Evan trying to get him to stop while saying, “Hello?”

As I approach the door, my face is flush. I pull my wallet open. Evan touches my arm gently and whispers, “Next time.”

“Sorry, can you hold on?” I say to the familiar voice at the other end of the line.

“You were so helpful.” I stare at Evan’s green eyes.

With a calm smile, Evan shifts and says, “I never minded.”

“You made me laugh.” I stagger over my words.

He doesn’t know. Evan doesn’t know there’s only one other person who’s been able to make me laugh in the last month, and I have him on hold.

“Good.” He says as he disappears through the door.

With nothing left to say, and Evan gone, I close the door and say into my phone, “Hi, honey.”

The Building Blocks of Her Dystopian World

Red flames burst out of the trash can in front of me. My fingertips are stretched out towards the orange-red heat and it licks them with warmth. Penniless and homeless, you can understand the dilemma I now face.  I can’t write a single word with no home, and no computer or laptop. Or for that matter, anything remotely technologically advanced. Even if I did have a computer device of some sort, no home, means no electrical outlet.

Even paper is hard to come by.

And pens.

And food.

Six sizes too big, the men’s full length black jacket hangs down and drags along the ground through the snow. The wool mitts I wear are peppered with small holes as if moths have taken special delight in chewing each part of the tattered cloth as if they were picking at a scab. There’s a pungent odor that drifts around me of rotting food, sweat, and alcohol.

Sixty-five years of age and this is my life. I had a husband at one time. Until he trotted off down the rainbow road with a blond bombshell, double-D, named Misty with bosoms the size of Texas.  On occasion a few years ago, before I lost everything, I would bump into them at the grocery store or coffee shop, and every time I saw them a part of Misty’s silky white breast popped out of whatever shirt she was wearing. (Even, if it was a sweater.)

But I can’t blame Misty. It was inevitable. I was a leech. I was barely able to financially support myself most of the time we were married. Combined with this, my struggles with depression where it became a situation of I-can’t-raise-one-foot-to-get-out-of-the-bed made me the worst sort of wife. When I was able to hold a job for some time, I would inevitably change them at whiplash speed in pursuit of some other opportunity that I felt may offer more challenges. Later in life, I hoped for a career as a freelance writer.

Let’s put it this way – that didn’t end well.

Writing, I believed, was my thing.

“Who saz u can be h’re, Cyndie?” He says with shoulders rolled forward and a bowed head as he staggers towards me.

All I need is one strong gust of wind, and he’ll be knocked off his feet and I can run away.

Dear God,

Did you hear me? One strong gust of wind?

“It’s Cynthia,” I say with my chin raised. Dwight’s the zip code bully to GRBG CAN. It seems only courteous that if Dwight’s going to force me to move somewhere else, he can at least have the decency to remember my name.

“I DUN’T CAREZ WH’ATZ YOUR NAMEZ!” He screeches at me.

Joe, Fred, Nancy, and Sandra who were warming their hands around the fire bend their heads forward and quickly glimpse up at me. But no one says a word to him. I can’t blame them.

Dwight is unpredictable at the best of times. He’s killed people before and he’s never been caught by the police. Poor Greta writhed around on the concrete as a knife protruded from her gut. She hopelessly placed a hand over the wound as sticky redness oozed from it. Anguished moans poured from her mouth. Tears streamed down the sides of her cheeks. She pleaded with me to help her, but I did nothing.   If I did anything, Dwight would end my life too. He said so.

I have a snappy line that spins in my mind that I want to say, but decide for the rest of the residents in the area it might be best to leave it unsaid.

I nod in the direction of Dwight and say, “I’m going.”

With that I slowly turn around and begin walking away.

“You’re nuttin!” He trudges behind me. The sound of his slow-moving words, shuffling feet, and his drunken words that are still somehow true – forces me to quicken my pace, and I hurry along putting some distance between us. Not because I’m afraid, but more out of annoyance.

After some time, I pass under a concrete bridge and something glistens on the sidewalk. I bend forward to pick it up, and let out a whoop of, “My lucky day! I found a toonie! I can go for a coffee.”

“Nah, that’z  mine!” He shouts from behind me.

I stare at Dwight frozen, wondering how the heck he managed to catch up to me, and why I didn’t hear him. Good god, even his breathing is loud.

I glance hastily at the two dollar coin and then back to Dwight. Surely, I can out run him. But then I begin to wonder what my life will be like if I decide NOT to hand him the coin. I could leave this city but I would need to walk. As well, there’s a good chance my situation would be the same and possibly worse, because some of those people around the garbage can are my friends, and they’ve helped me before.

Dwight continues a slow trot, odd lumbering motion towards me. When he arrives I have the coin in the palm of my hand and say, “Here you go, Dwight.”

I pull my coat tighter around me to block out the frigid December wind that drifts up my coat, and rips through my thin clothing stinging my skin. Protected a little more from the chill, I quietly ask, “Any chance I can stay at your garbage can tonight as I gave you the coin I found?” I glance away from him for only a second to do a sweep of the ebony streets to make sure nothing worse lives in the shadows than the man who already stands before me.

“No!” He screams spitting the word at me as his face reddens.

Jolted by his cry, I leap back from him! Surprised my eyes widen, and I quietly wonder, oh Christ! I’m going to be killed over a two dollar coin!

Red and blue lights suddenly begin a quick blink around us. Two muscular young police officers exit the cruiser and they assuredly march towards us. Dwight’s head bounces up instantly when he sees the lights and the men. He shouts, “Nah problem, offic’r.” Not even a second later, he wobbles down the street at a sad slow run.

“Ma’am, are you alright?” They ask me when they arrive. Four eyes skim across me as they do a quick assessment of where I belong, and what my story is. I tug at the collar of my coat. I don’t understand it. When I don’t want to be invisible, I am. And when I do want to be invisible, I’m not.

“Ye-yes officers, than-thank you.” I stutter at the two men. There’s a rush of an intensifying sense of doom. My eyes get misty.

MISTY!

I can’t escape that woman!

One of the officer’s face scrunches at me. “Mrs. Sandringham?” He murmurs.

My thoughts are broken and I’m back on 59th Street in front of the policemen. Squinting at the whisperer of the old name I used before, I answer uneasily, “Yes. But I don’t go by that name now.”

“Cynthia? You were married to Bert Sandringham?” He says. “It’s Jack. I shoveled your driveway, when I was a kid.”

This has never happened to me before. I’ve lived on the streets for a couple of years now, and I’ve never run into anyone I knew. After my divorce, I moved to another city a couple of hours away to start again. Things didn’t quite work out for me. This is where I had my final chance – and where I became homeless. I’d cut ties with family and friends mostly because I was delinquent in fostering relationships. My fault. When things got bad, I couldn’t reach out to anyone. Too embarrassed.

This kid, Jack…He’s a good boy. Sweet boy. He was nice to me, and my husband. And his parents, they were great.

I smile at the man before me. “Of course, Jack! Yes, I remember. How are your parents? David and Sue, was it?”

“Yeah! They’re doing great.” He says smiling. A moment later, his eyes scan my clothing again and his mouth drops open. He pulls his hat off, runs his fingers through his hair, and quietly asks as if he’s embarrassed, “Do you have somewhere to go tonight?”

I throw my head back. Laughing I say, “Well, I had a garbage can! But Dwight owns it, and he doesn’t like me much!”

Stunned Jack stares at me. The other officer, his partner, says, “There’s a shelter a few blocks from here. It’s a good one, run by a church. We can take you there.”

Jack’s mouth gapes at me. Then his words come out earnestly, “Yeah, really nice. Give you a hot meal, and somewhere to sleep tonight. Father Patrick – he’s a really good guy.”

I’m kind of hurt young man Jack didn’t laugh at my joke. I think I’m funny most of the time. His serious tone and desperate pleas causes puddles to form in my eyes. For the first time in a long time, someone cares about me.

The young man in front of me is a good kid. With no other options in front of me, and afraid of Dwight returning after the officers leave, I whisper, “Sure.”

“Great!” Jack beams. As we walk back to the cruiser Jack asks, “Do you still write?”

“Not these days.” I reluctantly answer.

“Oh right!” Jack answers as he nods his head, and his cheeks turn pink.

There it is again, that awkward silence.

Jack says, “I really liked your stuff when I was a kid. That you read to me. That fairytale you wrote, about the little girl, who only wanted to be smart.”

“Oh my, you remember that story?” I ask in a hushed tone of disbelief. “That was what, twenty years ago?”

“Something like that.” Jack says. “After you read that story to me, I buckled down and got my grades up. I was an honor roll student from grade ten onwards.”

I’m flabbergasted. I can’t speak. I mumble to myself only, “Maybe I should.”

Jack pulls the door open for me. Then he leans in and says, “I can bring you some paper and pens tomorrow.”

“That would be great.” I answer. Before I get into the car, I stare in the direction of the road Dwight wobbled down.

“Get me the paper, and I’ll tell you a story about a man named Dwight, and the murder of a homeless woman named Greta.” I say as my lips smack together in renewed anger at the death of my friend at the hands of the garbage can bully.

Jack’s jaw clenches. He gives me a tight smile and nods.  “If you do this Mrs. Sandringham, you can’t live on the streets.”

“Oh, I know. Maybe it’s time to find a home again.” I answer. “See if I can get my pension now that I’m 65. Clean stuff.” I give the kid a wink.

Jack roars with laughter.

“And after I write, The Murder of Greta Stonewall, I’ll write another story about a hero cop who saves an old woman from the streets.”

Jacks grins at me and says, “I can’t wait to read it.”

Into The Shadows: The Case of Maggie Shetland

It was February 10th, 1998 when the phone rang. When Diane Liscom answered it, Maggie Shetland’s voice was on the other end of the line, and it came across joyfully bubbly like champagne. It was consistent in terms of the woman’s character. Maggie’s words were concerning in that the call was meant to reassure her friend, Diane in a casual way, that she would be leaving for a little while but that her friend shouldn’t worry.

Maggie promised she would be back.

When Diane hung the phone up with “Mags” as her friends called her, she didn’t realize she would be the last person to speak with her.

Nearly twenty years later, there are no leads in what happened to Maggie Shetland.

To say the case has gone cold would imply there were leads to begin with. The phone call was the last contact anyone ever had with Maggie. Her bank account and credit cards have never been used. There were no additional calls to her family, or other friends. Even her car vanished.

She was the young woman who disappeared without a trace.

Occasionally, the police thought they had a lead. Someone remembered seeing Maggie briefly in a gas station, but when the security cameras were reviewed, Maggie did not appear in any of the footage.  Over the years there were other sightings of the woman, and sometimes of the car, but they never came to fruition.

In dark corners and hushed voices, some people said they were certain Maggie made the call under threat by a killer. That way maybe police wouldn’t look for her body for some time. Others said that Maggie may have simply walked away from her life in order to start a new one. Still other people would propose perhaps Maggie had simply driven off a cliff accidentally, or maybe on purpose.

But none of this is consistent with what we knew about Maggie. There was no nervousness in Maggie’s voice when she spoke to her friend. If she were under threat, would there not be some wavering, some pause – that indicated something was wrong?

Maggie was well loved by her family and friends. Every year she was one of the prime organizers for the local hospital cancer telethon.  She ran races for various charities and had an active social life. She was unmarried, but her marital status didn’t seem to be of concern to her according to family and friends.  If she ever considered suicide, she never appeared depressed.

Her friend Diane was under suspicion by police for years, and willingly agreed to a lie detector test and past it.  An old friend since childhood, Diane also participated in searches for Maggie in woods, and across various cities, and scoured the neighborhood with photos of Maggie in the hopes that someone would remember something.

Diane also willingly worked with the police turning over whatever information she had about her friend. One of the pieces she provided to the officers was an answering machine tape that accidentally recorded the last conversation between Diane and Maggie.

But what Diane hadn’t realized was that there was something else on that tape. Maggie’s voice came across clear and calm as Diane reported to the police. However, when the tape was reviewed recently, an officer with a keen ear noticed other sounds: the sound of wooden wheels turning and horse’s hoofs trotting, and words spoken in Latin in the background. A linguistic expert was consulted, and the man stated he thought it sounded like a marketplace where people were negotiating price for the purchase of fruits, vegetables, dishes, and pottery.

For this reason, police officers investigated a local Amish town.  When asked if the Amish people spoke Latin, the elders insisted they did not. Furthermore, no evidence of Maggie Shetland was ever found in the community.

Recently, some information came forward from an anonymous source. It was something that a friend recalled Maggie said to her as a joke. She referred to her car as a Shadow Car that allowed Maggie to be transported to other places.

I am a reporter, and I rely on facts. For this reason, I needed evidence.

In the last year of Maggie Shetland’s life, there were four separate occurrences where a mystery woman saved people in the area: a teenager who nearly drowned in a river almost 100 miles away from where Maggie lived; a two-year-old boy who was found walking down a street at 4 AM in -25 degree Celsius temperatures; and an unconscious woman was pulled from her burning house by another woman as reported by firefighters and police at the scene.

When I reviewed the witness reports of the heroic woman in each incident, several witnesses described her with dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, possibly Hispanic, standing around 5 feet 5 inches, and with a muscular build. In reviewing photographs – this is very similar to Maggie.

The final incident, Maggie couldn’t walk away from. It occurred on December 19th, 1997 when a woman pulled a man from his fire-engulfed single engine plane when it crashed in a field in -35 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. When the man woke a week later, doctors informed him that he was very lucky. The police found the plane the next day and it was a blackened carcass. If the woman hadn’t pulled him out he would have died from the fire, hypothermia, or his wounds.

The man insisted on meeting his savior and pleaded to local media outlets to run his story. To no avail, the woman would not come forward. But one particular newspaper wanted the big story. They offered a Security Officer at the hospital $300 to give them the tapes from that night. The guard did it.

Shortly after, the newspaper found an image of the woman on the video and also found her license plate. It wasn’t long before they tracked it back to Maggie Shetland and the newspaper released it to the world. The man who crashed his plane and wanted to meet the woman that saved him, found out her identity the same way as other residents in the city: through the newspaper.

Two months later, Maggie was missing. Did Maggie Shetland decide to walk away from it all, annoyed by the ever-present light that was cast in her direction by an unethical newspaper? Was she suffering from depression and decided to end it all?  Or after helping so many, was she randomly caught by a person who meant to harm her?

What would you say if I told you the first three incidents all happened in the same night, in different cities, and were hundreds of miles away from each other? Your next question to me would be: if the hero woman was Maggie Shetland, how is that possible?

I would answer you and say, that it’s not. It’s impossible for a single person to save multiple lives when the victims are located hundreds of miles away from each other – unless of course, she’s Superwoman.

For those of you who think Maggie Shetland may have committed suicide because the newspaper released her name, here’s one last piece of information for you. After her name was released to the public, Maggie voluntarily went to visit the man in the hospital. The man tearfully, through cracked words, apologized for what the newspaper had done to her, and said that he only ever wanted to thank her in person.

Maggie with a wave of her hand, and bright smile, consoled him and said that it wasn’t his fault and said quite emphatically, it’s not a big deal. Before she left, she wished him a speedy recovery and announced that she would see him again as she was a volunteer for the hospital cancer telethon.

Maybe Maggie Shetland never left?

Perhaps, she is the the quiet woman, who travels along the road in her Shadow Car saving lives amongst us.

How To Rule the World

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Thin, brown hair tops his head. On Jacob’s face rests his black-rimmed glasses allowing him to read the gospel on a sunny, fall day on a brown bench overlooking water. With a book placed in his hands he reads the lines with the utmost concentration. There are truths written in the book and if he follows each step, HE WILL RULE THE WORLD!  

Father is disappointed in him, mother too. He is twenty-four years old and is a failure in most aspects of his life both professionally and personally. An unfinished degree; a degree that is a blatant reminder of its incompletion in the way he left when he woke one morning in his fourth year and decided not to write the scheduled exam that day. He opted instead to pack his knapsack with clothes, and booked a last minute ticket to one of the oldest cities in Europe: London.

The cost for the ticket and the first few months of expenses was paid through a part time job that he held while attending University. His parents funded his tuition and living expenses, and his part-time job was his “play” money. Turns out, he was good at penny-pinching and had socked away quite a bit in the “play fund.”

His parents didn’t seem to mind footing the bill for his education given that he ranked in the 95th percentile on the Law School Admissions Test, and had an overall GPA of 3.8. The combination of the impressive LSAT score and GPA meant he had his pick of law schools.

A genius, his mother beamed at him with pride.

He was the genius who carelessly walked away from it all.

A phone call this morning with Mom, she asked again, did you plan to leave all along? To just quit?

The answer comes swiftly to him as she’s asked the same question so many times: No, I didn’t. I just didn’t know if I wanted to become a lawyer anymore. Or, if I ever did. He says as his voice trails off in remorse.

It occurs to him suddenly, she might not have known that last part. He never mentioned it before.

It’s what you always talked about Jacob! We just supported you in what we thought you wanted to do! She says in a shrill voice with exasperation.

Mom’s working day would have just ended. She works as an Executive Assistant at the General Hospital. He can see her standing in the kitchen as he remembers her when he lived at home. She would be wearing high heels, a skirt, and a blouse as she clutches her cell phone to her ear with arms folded in front of her, defensively. The blazer she wore to work would be flung aside on a nearby couch. The knife she used to dice vegetables until Jacob called, lies on the cutting board. It sits there ready for her to resume the preparation of dinner once their call is over. She loved onion and garlic and threw it in most foods and for that reason, the combination of the aroma of these two vegetables would linger in the air of his childhood home.

I know. I know… He says in short spurts with an edge of frustration.

The late autumn sun is cool and with the breeze, it gives him a chill as he wonders: why did I want to become a lawyer?

Mom is right. He was the first one who talked about law school.

Why?

He knows the answer, but is too embarrassed to admit it.

He knew it would make his parents happy. And he always tried to make them happy. But after he left, he wanted to do things differently.

And he did. 

London. Five feet six inches, short, blonde, bob haircut, blue-eyed Elsie breathed into his ear the first night he arrived in the city as he stumbled his way into Adventure Bar.

Elsie.

Sure, he had been with other women. There was Victoria, his long-time girlfriend during University. He saw Victoria in first year astronomy class. Vibrant red hair, freckles dotted her nose, green eyes, and a voluptuous figure. Their first time in his dorm room he remembers well; he grabbed her breasts as his lips opened and his tongue searched for hers.  Initially, he couldn’t get enough of her; legs tightened around him encouraging him to finish. The warmth of Victoria’s breath on him as moans escaped over his lips, drenched in sweat, and he was left satisfied.

But she was less satisfied, and he knew it. In their second year they began arguing over little things: movies, dinner locations, and how often they should get together.  As Victoria became unhappy, she piled on some weight. Her curvy figure became a little heavier as his wandering eye watched other women, comparing.

And he told her. Was it a jerk move? Of course it was. Eventually, sex diminished and was assigned to the Saturday night chore list:

  • Do laundry.
  • Have sex.

In their fourth year, Victoria dropped twenty pounds. While his eyes continued to drift and he flirted with other women, she found a new guy. The guy was his best friend, Gavin. Embarrassingly, as he danced and mingled with other women at Dance Bar 21, Gavin and Victoria snuggled close together in a corner booth one night. He watched them as they talked and laughed into the early morning hours.

He noticed it, but he thought she would never leave him.

He was wrong.

The ultimate comeuppance came on Valentine’s Day – when she sobbed and said: we’re not right for each other. At the time, he didn’t understand why she was crying. She was ending it, not him. The answer so elusive before is clear to him now. It was despite all of his neglect and unkind words, she loved him.

Yes, she was better than him. Happily married for a year now, Gavin told him they are expecting their first child. He’s still friends with them.

Shortly after Elsie and Jacob meet they take the adventure back to his hotel room. What a night it was. Elsie’s soft, red lips on his mouth as she worked her way down his neck; moving down lower still to his chest, abdomen, thighs.  Lips that moved lower still. Elsie was his first one night stand.

What an adventure it was.

Jacob snaps himself back to reality. A small half-smile crosses his lips, eyebrows raised, and he realizes that the solution to, How to Rule the World, is not to spend your days fantasizing about women you’ve been with, or women you may want to be with.  Sex, is the downfall to ruling the world.

As he cracks the spine and turns the page he reads these words….

***

Introduction

If you purchased this book you are on a wayward spiral to nowhere. I am here to help.  Owning the world will take some time.  But if you read each chapter and follow each step, world dominance will be yours.

First off, let’s debunk some myths. There are at least a half dozen websites and books that will offer self-help advice. They would advise you to do some, if not all, of the following:

  • Do something you love because money will follow. (Who hasn’t heard that one? )
  • Be hard working.
  • Be Diligent.
  • Be a Leader.
  • Be Action-Oriented.
  • Be POSITIVE. NOT NEGATIVE.
  • Be Honest.
  • Be Modest.

The list goes on and on. But, you get the idea. Ultimately, if you are an all-around good person then, good things will follow.

I am here to tell you – its rubbish. Don’t believe a word of it.  The best thing you can do for yourself is to make YOU the top priority. This will sometimes be to the detriment of family and friends. But, those people are a means to an end. USE THEM.  When they stop being useful it’s time to find new family and friends.

And never, EVER, should you give too much time, money, and commitment to anyone as this will slow you down in your quest to rule the world. It’s a cold world out there baby, and you’re the only one who will take care of you.  Family and friends will be the debris left on the path to ruling the world. Debris is a natural by-product of such a large quest.

Now, I want to provide the following outline of topics to be covered in each chapter. This will give you an understanding of how this book is organized. Please feel free to grab a pen and make notes in the margins. Or, you could buy some of that 3-hole lined paper that we used in high school. Then, you can put all your hand written notes in a binder, flagging the ones that are the most important to you.

I think I just dated myself. Or, you can use one of those fancy laptop, iPad, iPod, tablet thingy’s to take notes. Whatever, you want.

Ok, here is what will be covered:

  • The Art of Manipulation
  • YOU FIRST. Then, use, use, use them….
  • How to be a Successful Arrogant Man/Woman (This is a gender-neutral book.)
  • Buffering Yourself Against the Fall-Out (Should one eventually occur)
  • Disclaimer

Ok, so you now have the general outline of the topics covered in each section. There is one last point I want to make before we get started. I would ask that you NOT apply any of the principles to your life until you’ve read the COMPLETE book. That is – READ THE COMPLETE BOOK. You will not be successful in ruling the world until you’ve read everything from start to finish.

Did Gru from Despicable Me start off with only a half a plan to steal the moon? No, I didn’t think so.

Oh wait. That’s the movie where Gru ends up taking care of those three little girls and becomes a father, right?

He’s a bad example.

Darth Vader. YES! He’s a good example! He built the Death Star!

No, wait…he’s the dark, robotic guy that pretends to be all evil until the end of the trilogy and then he becomes a big mushy pushover.

Don’t use him either.

The Emperor in Star Wars. There’s a guy who built a plan and implemented it completely! Sort of. It didn’t end well for him. But then, he didn’t have this book. So, PLEASE READ THE COMPLETE BOOK.

And, we’re off…..

Chapter 1 – The Art Of Manipulation

Manipulation should be taught to all children at an early age. (Parents, are you listening?) You can be the parents of the Supreme Ruler of the World. But, you’re responsible for coaching them on the best methods to manipulate. It is a necessary skill that can be taught to toddlers, used by your child throughout their school years, when they are teenagers, and finally as full-fledged serpentine adults. Parents, this will truly benefit you in the long run.

Ok, so how do you manipulate people? Here’s an example. Kids, listen up.  (Parents – now would be a good time to whip up breakfast, lunch, or dinner for your mini Dr. Evil child. A.K.A. I NEED YOU TO STOP READING HERE. THANKS.)

Kids, here we go. If your parents demand that you clean your room and you are blessed with a little brother or sister, you can take full advantage of your over-eager younger sibling who idolizes YOU for no other reason except YOU were born first. (Sorry, second, third, fourth child etc. – life has dealt you crappy cards in your attempt to rule the world. You were born later. It’s tough out there. I can’t help everyone. You’ll have to figure out how to manipulate your older sibling(s) on your own.)

Anyways, to YOU the first born, here are a few ideas:

  • Tell little Timmy or Suzie that you are going to study group to work on a school project that is due tomorrow. Throw your hands up in the air, stomp your feet and say, Mom and Dad are being COMPLETELY unreasonable on insisting that I clean my room first before I leave! It’s a project! It’s not like I’m going to a movie! I’m going to fail! (It doesn’t matter that you’re in kindergarten and you don’t know what a study group is. If you don’t know, pipsqueak doesn’t know either.)

When little Timmy/Suzie offers to clean your room – go to that movie instead. You receive extra points if you conveniently leave your allowance money behind thereby, the chump parents of your friends have to pay your way. Everyone else wants to see the movie too. What are the parents going to do? Not take you? You’re only a kid! It’s not your fault Mom didn’t give you money. Someone else will pay. I promise. (Did you see that? That was 2 manipulations for the price of one.)

  • Oh god, my stomach! My tooth! I am so sick and Mom and Dad STILL want me to clean my room! Who makes a sick kid clean their room? 

Here are a few other ideas for illnesses that you can tell little Timmy or Suzie:

  1. I’ve had diarrhea for three hours. (Trust me on this – no one’s going to check.)
  2. I’ve had a headache since last Tuesday. (There’s no verifiable way to validate this statement.)
  3. I stubbed my toe.
  4. I have a hang nail.
  5. Just pick something already!

Add tears, people are suckers! Then, you are permitted to sprawl out on the couch, order some delicious buttery and salty popcorn, and secretly begin hatching your next diabolical plan.

Now, some people would suggest that you just beat up Timmy or Suzie to make them clean your room. But, alas, that is truly diabolical. You don’t want to be a thug. And here’s why. Being a thug requires work. You will expend great energy in physically throwing punches, keeping someone in a headlock and then subsequently, plotting how NOT to get caught by your parents/teachers/police officers.

Being a thug is a huge waste of energy and time. Besides, with a little brother or sister, if you start early you will be able to manipulate them for life. As well, being a brute is not a transferable skill in the workplace. It will get you fired, arrested, or both.

Never underestimate the importance of brain power versus physical power.  Your brain will help you think of new and interesting ways to manipulate people. I believe that potential candidates in job interviews should be tested on the ability to manipulate other people as I’m certain it will do wonders for a company’s profits. A company made up of people who are the Jedi Masters of Manipulation are guaranteed to increase profits for the business.

I can see it now. A customer says, “I can’t believe you ran out of cream! What kind of an incompetent run coffee shop runs out of cream?”

The Cashier says, “Oh, are you certain that’s what’s really bothering you? It sounds pretty ridiculous to be so angry because we ran out of cream five days ago, and we still don’t have any?”

Customer: “Well, I did find out that I have to spend $2,000 to fix my fence because the 110 kilometer winds we had last weekend ripped a section of it apart.”

Cashier: “That’s terrible! You poor man! (Or, you poor woman!) But, we just serve coffee and donuts. Maybe you want a donut to go along with your coffee to cheer you up?”

Customer: “Actually, a donut would be nice.”

Cashier: “Ok. Let me add that to your order. That will be $8.”

Customer: “But, what about the fact that you haven’t had any cream for five days?”

Cashier: “We have milk. You can put that in your coffee. And with the donut now, it’s loaded with fat. You can’t afford to put cream in your coffee and have a donut today, or for the rest of the month. You’re in really good shape, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that.”

Cashier is assigned double points as the man no longer cares that he doesn’t have cream for his coffee, she sold him a donut, and he now believes he’s got the same body as Superman. (Or ladies, Superwoman! Or, Wonder Woman! Now that I think about it, some women might want to have the same body as Superman. Whoever’s body you admire most is the one you have. You have a phenomenal SUPER HERO body. Go Girl!)

My body is more in keeping with Baymax myself; and I like it that way. But, I digress….

Now, if manipulation is done well and over many years, you have a very good chance of controlling other people. How? Because, if you are VERY GOOD at manipulation, people will never know that they were/are manipulated. They will constantly be doing things for you and will not have a clue as to the reason why.

When you start manipulating people early in life it means patterns are established in terms of how one person interacts with another person. (You can probably also call this behaviour).   If someone starts by being your sucker (oops, I mean helpful sibling!) it will be very difficult for them to break the learned pattern unless they have a lot of money and can afford counselling to realize:

1) They have been manipulated in the past.

2) They are able to identify new situations where you are manipulating them.

3) They are able to stop themselves from being manipulated again by you.

By then, they will have paid more money on counselling than it would have cost if they just let you use them. At the very least, isn’t it better that a family member benefits in taking a younger sibling’s money and time, versus that of an outsider, such as a counsellor?

Yes, I thought so too.

(PARENTS – SKIP THIS PART TOO!)

Now, manipulation and owning people – how does that help you rule the world? This is easy. Even if someone is considered above you such as a grandmother, father, mother, aunt or uncle you can still own them.  Here’s an example. If your father says you can’t go to the University of Windsor because you live in Ottawa and it has two completely acceptable Universities and living away will be too expensive, than counter his arguments. Provide him with real examples as to why the University of Windsor is the best University, like, EVER!!!

If you have no real reasons as to why the University of Windsor is superior to all other Universities, make shit up. Convincingly. Puff your chest out and flap your arms around for emphasis.

You can say, But Dad! Windsor has the best English Program! Did you know that Jane Austen went to Windsor University? Manipulation comes into play because he will want the best for his kid.   As well, if you lied to him before and never got caught, he will fall for the new lie too.   Guaranteed.  As well, once you are there, even if University is too expensive Dad will be on the hook. He would never drag you away from your education.

Your Dad won’t have a clue that Jane Austen wasn’t Canadian, continues to be a well-known British author who wrote Sense and Sensibility and Emma (to name just a couple of her books)  and sadly, died almost two hundred years ago.

It will work. Trust me.

Manipulation and lying are synonymous together. It’s like the Easter Bunny and chocolate. Santa Clause and presents. Bacon and eggs. You get my point.

Thanks for reading this chapter.

P.S. I know the real reason you want to go to Windsor is because you don’t want Mom and Dad to “pop in” for an unexpected visit and catch you blowing your tuition and rent money on alcohol-loaded-all-night-parties.

How do I know this?

Because.

I wrote the book.

***

Jacob thinks about his own life.

He wishes he told his parents that he had doubts about Law School. The doubts began in his third year when he felt an overwhelming sense of trepidation about pursuing a career as a lawyer after speaking with friends who were articling at law firms.

Stories told from his friends painted a dismal picture of what his future life would be like: long hours at work that would leave him with little time for family and friends. Divorce amongst the lawyers in the firms was rampant.

Then, there were the ethical dilemmas in law that would appear no matter what area of law he chose to practice in. Sure, lots of money and prestige came along with being labelled a “lawyer”, but he didn’t really care about the title.

All in all, he didn’t want that life. He wanted an easier life. A more adventurous life. Or, a creative life. As it turned out, he wanted any other life: except to be a lawyer.

But, he couldn’t watch the crushing disappointment in his parent’s faces when he told them he didn’t want to do it anymore. They were so proud as they bubbled with joy and announced to everyone that would hear it, how brilliant their son was, and how he was well on the road to becoming a successful lawyer.

It was a weasel-way; to cut and run with no explanation. Jacob only called his parents to tell them he had skipped his exams and was in London, when his plane landed on the tarmac. Safely on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, his parents could do nothing else but hiss at him through the phone.

Then, there was Victoria. In the summer between second and third year he should have ended it.  He became less attentive, more argumentative, and knew they were drifting apart. He used her so he didn’t have to be alone, for sex, and his fear of ending their relationship.

Gavin is so much better to Victoria: stroking her hair without even thinking about it, wrapping his arms around her waist, and he constantly snuggles close to her whenever he can. But, more importantly, he always looks at her as if he is in awe; still, two years later. They taught him what love should look like.

Is he sorry? Sorry that he wasn’t brave enough to tell people the truth and deal with the aftermath of being honest. Instead, he slinked away as a snake hidden in long grass after devouring its prey. But as he sits on the bench overlooking the River Thames two years later, he’s only sorry about how he did things – not that he did them.

Jacob’s life is this impossible, reckless mess. But one day at a time, one step at a time, with the odd step backwards for self-reflection allows him to improve, change, and hopefully – become a better person.

CHAPTER 2

YOU FIRST Then, use, use, use them

Part II: The Ghost Of Cybill

Part II

“Mom, where do you want me to put this?” Logan asks his mother as he wipes the warm water from the serving plate that he pulled from the dishwasher.

“Ju-just, put it-it on the shelf.” She says from the couch in the living room. Her head nods to Logan in a spastic twitch. It’s involuntary. It’s a tremor of sorts.

Amanda’s hand rattles as she reaches for the brown coffee cup in front of her. The cup sits on a pine coffee table they purchased from a garage sale some years ago.

“Hello, Amanda.” Jocklyn has arrived and sits beside her. He smirks at the fragile woman on the couch and watches as the cup she holds swings out and a black tar substance that resembles coffee rushes out of it. With a swoop! The dark black liquid splashes onto her pants.

Amanda bolts up from the couch, pulls at her pants because of the scolding liquid, and mumbles, “Goddammit!”

“Mom, are you ok?” Logan runs into the living room in terror as he watches his mother.

“Better be careful Amanda. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. After all, you have a boy to take care of.” Jocklyn taunts her.

Amanda gives a sideways glare to Jocklyn. Then she raises her eyes to her son and says, “No-no, honey. I’m alright-right.” She gently touches her son’s face. Logan’s wide eyes stare back at her with droplets of tears that have gathered in them. His face is longer than usual and he’s pasty white.

When Logan was a child his eyes were always wide with wonderment at something new: a new bike, a new sport, or a new instrument to play. Amanda doesn’t recall when she last saw him passionately amazed by something.

His gaze now is only one of bewilderment for his mother’s ever-increasing anxiety levels. From his perspective, it must seem like she’s falling to pieces for no good reason. The home they just purchased is big and spacious, requires a little work, but it was a great find for them as they had very little money.

They didn’t hear the stories about the house until after they purchased it.

Every penny she has is wrapped up in this house.

There’s no way out.

“Ammmmanda….” She flicks her head in the direction of the sound. “How old is your son?” His words seethe with slippery darkness.

“What?” She whispers to Jocklyn.

Her son hasn’t seen the ghost yet. Jocklyn has spent his time only terrifying her, but now the spirit’s question worries her.  Amanda’s shoulders push back defensively. The fragile woman who was there a few minutes ago has left. Her eyes flicker at the ghost in anger. Her jaw locks. Protectively, she stands in front of her son.

“How old is your son?” He roars at her while he pokes at a coffee table lamp with a wooden base and a beige shade. The lamp teeters, but it doesn’t fall.

“I have a rule, you know. I don’t hurt kids that are less than sixteen years old. But once he turns sixteen -” He scowls at Amanda without finishing the sentence.

Amanda grabs her son’s arm and pushes him backwards towards the kitchen.

“Mom! Mom! What are you doing?” Logan shouts at her.

“Honey, get behind me!” She says with a growl in her voice. She slowly backs up to the kitchen. Carefully, she watches Jocklyn who’s in front of her and tightly holds her son’s hand from behind her. Her position ensures that if Jocklyn intends to harm Logan, he’ll have to go through her first.

“Is he sixteen?” Jocklyn whispers to Amanda from across the room. He grabs a ceramic coaster from the table and throws it up in the air.

From behind Amanda, Logan screams, “Mom! Oh my god, Mom! What the hell is that?”

“At least in the end, your son will know you weren’t crazy.” Jocklyn’s words drip with venomous disgust at them.

He rotates his right arm back as if he’s a pitcher in a baseball game and hurls the coaster at Amanda and Logan.

“Mom! Mom!” Logan screams from behind her as he sinks down to the floor and covers his face.

A white outline of a spirit’s hand grabs the coaster just before it hits Amanda’s face. A woman’s voice sweetly says, “Honey, I’m home.”

“You!” Jocklyn screams at her. “I killed you!”

“Yup!” Cybill’s eyes stare down at her enemy. Her chin is punched out at him, challenging him.

“I can take you again!” He screams at her as he runs towards Cybill.

Cybill turns to face Amanda and says, “Get back!”

Amanda grabs Logan by the elbow and drags him to his feet forcing him further into the kitchen.

“Mom, Mom!” Logan whimpers at his mother. “We have two ghosts in our house!”

“Yes! The man has been tormenting me since we moved in! But that one,” Amanda says peering around the doorway of the kitchen while pointing at Cybill adds, “I’ve never seen her before!”

“This is my house!” Cybill’s voice thunders at Jocklyn. “GET OUT!”

Undeterred, Jocklyn continues charging at her.

But before he reaches Cybill, Amanda sees the outline of a baseball bat that swings up and it strikes Jocklyn across the right side of his face. The power behind the swing sends Jocklyn spinning and he plunges to the floor.

Jocklyn glances behind him and stares at Cybill. He huffs in disgust and says, “Oh, yes. The bat…”

Jocklyn jumps to his feet and in very slow deliberate strides, stares down at Cybill like a panther might do when they approach their prey. Once he’s in front of her, Jocklyn reaches for the bat.

His hands slip through it.  

Jocklyn’s mouth gapes at Cybill as he mumbles, “What the hell?”

“I told you already. This is my house.” Then she spins around, points at Amanda and Logan and finishes, “And those people, are under my protection!”

Jocklyn reaches over at a familiar item he’s threatened the mother with before – the lamp – and lifts it into the air.

Cybill stands before Jocklyn and without moving a muscle, forces the lamp back down with her mind.

“Oh,” she says to no one. Her lower lip slips down as her eyebrows raise and she continues, “I didn’t know I could do that.”

Jocklyn grabs the coffee table.

It won’t move.

Then he reaches for books and magazines.

Nothing shifts even an inch.

Cybill quietly says, “It’s time to go. Let these people live their lives.” She says half-turning to the two terrified people that stand behind her.  “It’s time to go home, Jocklyn.”

Just then a small hand slips into Jocklyn’s and a quiet, angelic voice says, “Daddy, let’s go home.”

Jocklyn’s eyes peer down at the child. His head bows forward as he begins to sob.

The child clasps Jocklyn’s hand tighter, pulls at his shirt with the other hand, and says, “Daddy, don’t cry. It will be alright. We’re together again.”

Jocklyn uncontrollably sobs as his shoulders shake back and forth. After a few seconds, he scoops the child up into his arms, and buries his face into her shoulder.

Cybill gently touches Jocklyn’s arm and says, “Grace will show you the way.”

Jocklyn nods at his one-time enemy and places his daughter down. With big eyes, and a huge smile, she leads her father through a wall and they disappear.

Cybill turns to face the new homeowners whose heads glance over at her with consternation from the kitchen.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “I won’t harm you.”

Suddenly aware that she’s holding her ghost-baseball bat she adds, “I can only fight ghosts with this. Not people.”

Amanda and Logan slowly slink towards Cybill. Amanda says, “I have so many questions.”

Cybill smiles and says, “There’s nothing you need to know – except the house is yours now. But, could I ask a favor?”

“Anything.” Amanda says with new found determination in her voice. There’s still an unintentional nod of her head. But slightly relieved Jocklyn is gone, it’s lessened.

“Get rid of the wallpaper in the kitchen. That stuff’s terrible!” Cybill says as she picks up her baseball bat and heads to the wall that Grace and Jocklyn disappeared through.

“Ok.” Amanda answers with a quiet laugh.

Cybill twirls around one last time. Her eyes sweep across the room as she takes in every moment she had: happy moments in childhood, struggles through her teenage years, losses of loved ones, every wish she had for the future in the house, and at the end of her life – the overwhelming pain that ended her.

With a final nod to life, and a shrug of her shoulders, Cybill smiles, and vanishes through the wall.