The Sum of All Parts

I prop myself up on my elbow leaning heavily into the mattress. A second later, I slump down onto my bed as if my elbow were a car jack hoisting the rest of me up, until some malicious person came along and kicked at it, and the whole car came crashing down. It’s important to fix the wheel, because without it, the car won’t roll.

My head and right hand dangle over the edge of the bed. Eyes glaze over staring at a mixture of clothes littered on my floor: blue jeans, black and grey dress pants, a rainbow assortment of long-sleeved blouses, and rock t-shirts. Too weak to stand, too exhausted to sit up, and I can’t do anything about the mess. The pungent smell of three day coffee-booze mixture envelopes my nose. Here I lie, helplessly stuck gazing into the pile of too many unwanted clothes, while my aged favorite drinks that no longer smell the same, conspire to offend my olfactory senses. A burning sensation begins in my chest, spills into my throat, and spreads so far it pushes into my ears.

Who knew burning could last so long?

The Beginning of: Dragon in the Mirror: Into Canonsland

I’ve spent a full  year working on a full length manuscript for a novel titled, Dragon in the Mirror: Into Canonsland, that is a follow-up to a short story I released on Amazon in 2016 titled, Dragon in the Mirror.  I’m currently working on the final touches to the manuscript such as ongoing revisions, but for the most part the continuation of the middle grade fantasy story about my heroic girl, Jayden, is done. (Hurrah!)

The problem is that it feels like at times I’m not working on my writing at all, even though I know it’s not true. But right now my “free time” is spent doing submissions that can include some, if not all, of the following: researching publishers; and writing cover letters, synopsis, and chapter outlines. This is all the stuff no one knows about and no one sees.

For that reason, and perhaps to prove to myself more than others that my manuscript does exist, I want to share with you the first four pages.

And without further wait, let the story begin….

***

Chapter 1

Last year me, Mom, and Dad weaved along the highway in our truck somewhere between Calgary and Vancouver as rock formations on both sides slid by my window. At one point, I noticed a sign in front of us that had a triangle on it with small dots tumbling along one of the edges. I asked Dad about it and he said, Jayden, it’s a warning sign for falling rocks.

In my whole short life, it’s as if rocks threaten my family car as we travel along the winding road. Then when we were least expecting it, one pebble comes loose and travels along the side of the mountain, gathers force as it tumbles along the downward slope, and makes contact with our truck creating miniscule dents.  On occasion, one small stone hits the windshield in the right way, puncturing a coin-sized hole in the glass.

I know this because on that road trip, that’s exactly what happened. A drizzle of small pebbles danced along the edge of the mountain hitting our truck but more importantly, took a chunk out of our windshield. Dad was prudent – and had the windshield fixed. He said, if we don’t get it fixed, the small problem will get bigger.  

We didn’t know it before, but the small stones that we faced were nothing in comparison to the boulder that has now been hurtled at us.  Worse yet, it might be one of those situations that all attempts to fix it may still have the same final result: our car will be destroyed.

My fists are balled at my side and my teeth are locked together. Bob stares up at me with a tilted head. His brown expressive eyes seem to beg me to tell him what’s the matter. His tail is limp behind him. After a few moments, he slinks up the stairs with the understanding that he can’t help me. There is no happy puppy here.

I’m ready for a fight. I scream, “I WON’T GO!!! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” Then, I turn on my heels and bound up the stairs with my feet hitting the floorboards heavily as if to emphasize my position. It’s as if each one of my foot stomps is meant to punch through the floor that would anchor me in my home.

If I’m anchored, they can’t make me leave.

When I enter my room, I throw the door open and use all the force I have in my eleven-year-old hands to thunder it behind me. The walls of my room shake, and my eyes catch a glimpse of a framed picture that falls down the wall and hits the wooden floor. I hear the smashing and splintering of glass.

“Oh no,” I say as I race over and turn the framed photo over.

When I turn the photo over my face burns with heat, and then small droplets of rain flow from my eyes. My lower lip punches out as if to gather the rain and save it for another day.  It’s all about conservation. That’s what Mrs. Whitemore says in geography class.

Conservation means protecting the natural environment.  We must conserve and take care of the things that matter to us. 

The photo is a picture of me, Mom, and Dad that was taken overlooking Lake Okanagan on our trip last year. We couldn’t go for long – but it was the one and only trip we’ve taken as a family.

Over my shoulder I hear a puffing from behind me; it’s a gentle puff, like breath flows through a nose. It sounds more like a purring sound.

“Leave me alone Bob!” I blurt out.

When I turn to look around, I notice Bob’s in his bed that is placed in the corner of my bedroom. His body is wedged close to the corner of the wall and he stares at me from there. It’s as if he wants to be as far away from me as he can. This causes the small sprinkle of teardrops that began like a slow dribble from a tap to increase in pressure, and now it’s as if someone has turned the tap on all the way.  My tummy drops a bit as I look over at my terrified pup that prefers to be against the cold wall instead of anywhere near me.  I fold over with the amplified salty pressure of tears that gush from my eyes streaming down to my puckering lip.

The breathing wasn’t Bob. Well, not that Bob.

I glimpse into my bedroom mirror. There he is. My hands still clutch my treasured framed photo. Turning away from the mirror for a brief second, I assess the damaged item. My fingertips cling to it tightly as if I can magically fix it if I never let it go.  Incredibly, even though the glass is smashed to pieces, the photo has not shifted in the frame.  Satisfied that the picture remains in place, I crane my neck back to see the image in the mirror.

That’s when I see a big, soft, brown eye that watches me as it flutters up and down when he blinks.

Bob is huge. I giggle at the eye as I forget for a few seconds about the fight I had with Mom and Dad downstairs.

There’s nothing creepy about my friend Bob the dragon’s eye. It doesn’t remind me of those ghost stories or movies where eyes peer through a framed picture and watch their victim. I know the person is the “victim” because the music that plays in the background starts off quiet and slow, and then gets a little louder as the sound gets more intense screeching to a final conclusion. The music makes my heart race and sweat gathers on my hands. I know there’s perspiration on my hands because my fingertips slip together with all the moisture that has gathered on them. It’s also because just before something terrible happens in that movie, I throw my hands up and cover my eyes, slapping myself in the face with my wet palms.

Those movies terrify me. When I told Wyndham about them, he told me not to worry because he’ll always protect me.

I continue to giggle and turn my head back to Bob the dog. His tail thumps against the wall as it begins a slow swish back and forth. Bob moves away from the wall as he edges himself to the lip of his bed with ears arched forward. He’s waiting for an invitation from me; my voice that will carry soft words will guarantee that now, everything is alright.

I place the photo with the broken frame on my dresser and pick up the bigger pieces of glass off the floor and throw them in my trash can. I move to another area of the floor where I’m certain there are no smaller pieces of fragmented glass and sit down.

Then I say, “Come here Bob!” as my hands pat the bedroom floor causing a gentle thumping sound. I’m lying to him; telling him that I’m ok, when I’m not. But he doesn’t seem to notice that it may not be the truth. He prances happily into my arms, and with a soft stroke of slobbering wetness of his prickly tongue he licks my face when he arrives. I wrap my arms around his neck while my hands stroke his velvety fur.

“Dear child, what has happened this night that you shook the foundation of thy house?”

In the time I spent turning my attention to cleaning up my mess and to Bob the dog, the dragon has disappeared from the mirror. Wyndham stands in the mirror now, dressed in tights and a white linen shirt.

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.

Happy

The company Clinique offers the following two scents: Happy and Happy to Be.

My pointed elbows swinging around in my haste to get ready one morning, I bump Happy off the counter and watch as he topples off, onto my square-tiled ceramic bathroom floor. In the few seconds before impact, I secretly pray that Happy might make it.  Maybe, the bottle won’t break. Catastrophe averted, I will smile and think: yeah, how lucky am I?

The glass smacks to the floor and I watch as the bottle splinters into a jigsaw puzzle of bits of smaller and larger pieces.     

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Sadly, Happy to Be suffered a similar fate months earlier.  

The overwhelming scent of too much Happy burns my olfactory senses, smothering me.

I see my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Lines cross my forehead, laugh lines flatten, nostrils burn, eyes run cold with this thought:  I’m not even allowed to own a bottle of perfume called Happy!  I am pissed with the irony of it all.

This reckoning causes the image in the mirror to begin another transformation. A new set of lines map a different network on my face. I break into pieces like Happy, scattered at my feet. I can’t watch it happen and for my own protection; my head falls forward avoiding my reflection.

I sob, wishing for happiness instead.     

***

First published in The Commonline Journal. 

http://www.commonlinejournal.com/2016/03/happy-by-penelope-s-hawtrey.html

Light

In the darkness below her winged bird there are flickers of white dots here and there.  They may be a street light, the eyes of a car, or perhaps the larger patches to the west are an illuminated soccer or baseball field. If it’s one of the larger baseball games – those who attend might be able to get a mustard drenched hot dog and some fizzy beer that tickles their noses.

A drink would be good right about now. 

Through the window she glances at red lights pulsing back and forth signalling a sister plane is close by, although, not that close. It only seems like it is. In truth, she knows the plane is quite a distance apart. Or so, that’s what someone once told her.

She wonders if there’s another person who looks through their small round window and sees her, and if they wonder the same thing she does. The question: where are all those people going?

Are they going to tropical destinations, where they can get pineapple drinks adorned with little umbrellas that signal the commencement of a vacation?  Or is there a sombre individual who is wedged in his cramped seat wearing a starched white-sleeved shirt, black pants, and jacket hunched forward with his laptop perched on his fold-out tray table? It would be a last attempt by a businessman to complete some final work before he lands and attends his next big meeting.

Then again, she wonders why there’s an assumption by her that other people are travelling for enjoyment or money. There might be another reason: a loved one who is newly diagnosed with some disease and family and friends, in a show of support, flock to them to lift their spirits. But for some passengers on those flights, they may already travel with red-rimmed eyes and dark clothes so they may say their final farewells to someone special they have lost. You miss the little things: the tilt of their head when they talked; their hand clapping when they spoke with excitement about something; or perhaps an annoyance you never thought you would miss, such as the way they never let you get a word into a conversation.

The small things. Dots. Flickers. Ended. Before we even realize it.

But not everyone is lost when faced with a grim prognosis. She knows this to be true. Sometimes surprisingly, and to the delight of family and friends, a loved one will rally back from sickness that forced them into hospitals with white scratchy linen sheets, and ammonia-scented rooms, where clipboard-carrying doctors  dispense medication in the hopes of saving a person’s life.

And it works.

Sunshine returns.

Light carries us home. With lights on cars, boats, and planes it helps the pilot avoid disaster. Then there are beacons of light from lighthouses and red dots from airport runways that helps Captains navigate and bring passengers and crew back to land safely. It’s as if those signals of  light are waving an exuberant hand saying, “Come, this way!”

Among the red blinking lights in the darkness around her, there are smaller dots of white.

Stars, fixed and steady, illuminate the darkness and were the first navigational system that ships used as their compass to bring them to a selected destination. But a miss calculation on the part of the crew would bring them somewhere completely different.

Suddenly – there’s a shuddering, followed swiftly by a red flash! She jolts from her seat. There’s a faintly heard sound of twisting metal as air rushes and howls around her. Foolishly, she always believed in the last few moments of her life there would be a serene darkness that would descend. It would be as if death’s hands would wrap themselves tightly around her throat squeezing out her last breath.

The greeting of the explosion of brightness reminds her of the energy found in parades with thumping marching bands, comical clowns, and bedazzled floats draped heavily with white, orange, purple, and red flowers.  It’s an intense last spark, a final hurrah! It’s as if the spark were attempting to ignite one more time, with only the last embers of a tired flame. In that final burst of energy, of light, it ends.

What She Says To Me

“What are you doing?” She asks in a derisive tone. Standing above me, she hangs over my shoulder, staring at my computer screen.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” After a brief pause I add, “working.”

“Why? You know you’ll never get anywhere.  I can see you now – a pathetic, decrepit woman, with scraggly white hair in her 80’s, hunched over her computer saying, oh, if I just keep working, maybe I’ll become a successful writer.” And then if you still haven’t convinced yourself, you’ll say with a last hurrah, “It’s never too late!”  

“You don’t understand. It’s a part of who I am now. Even if I wanted to stop, I can’t.”

“That’s your obsessive-compulsive disorder kicking in. That’s all.” She says it in her VERY familiar authoritative voice. A few seconds later, she adds, “you’re unsuccessful at everything you do. Capital L-O-S-E-R, loser!” She screeches the last word at me as if she were stabbing me in the heart.

“I can spell,” I answer.

“I should hope so. How do you even get up in the mornings? Or,” she tilts her head back, claps her hands together, and says, “Why do you get up in the mornings?”

I sigh, and ask, “Are you done, yet?”

“Not yet. Shall I list our failures?”

“No, thanks,” I answer sticking my hand up in front of her. “I have that list too.”

“Listen, I don’t mean to be so negative…”

“Really? You don’t?” I say swinging my head in her direction with a mix of frustration and sadness in my voice.

I must get my emotions in check. I can’t let her know she’s winning.

She shrugs her shoulders, and says, “One of us needs to be the realist, the sensible one.” She paces around my office, touches my stuff, and continues saying, “listen, if you keep working at just your real job, you’ll probably make it to retirement, and won’t end up broke and homeless. Maybe you’ll even make it to old age.  You can’t keep working and writing at the same time. Your body is showing the signs it can’t handle much more. Give up, and you’ll be buried an old woman.”

“You’re so much fun. You should stop by more often.” I say sarcastically.

“Well,” she says, “if you keep up with this nonsense, no one will come to your funeral because you were too busy…” There’s a short pause, and then her fingers rise up in the air, and she makes the quote signs, and continues saying, “working all the time.” She huffs, stomps around a little, swings her head in my direction and with her nose in the air adds, “no one will care that you’re dead because when you were alive, you never made time for them.”

“Can you stop talking?” I say as I face the white glow from my screen.

“No,” she says inching her way closer to me until she’s standing to my left side. And of course – she’s still standing above me.

“Accept your fate.”

“Stop it.” My voice wobbles with weariness. She’s crushing me. We both know it.

“Why do you think you’re so special?”

“Oh, come on,” I huff in frustration. “I don’t think I’m special! I just feel like I need to try, to make an attempt!” A cliché spins to the top of my mind and before I can stop myself I use it saying, “I would prefer to try and fail, than never to try at all.”

“Cliché,” she announces to me in that dismissive, superior tone.

“I knew you were going to say that. Sometimes clichés last because they’re true.”

“Or, maybe they’re lies that continue to linger because people want to believe them.”

“Fine. Maybe. Are you done?” If I give her a victory, make her believe she’s won, she might go away, and I can get back to work.

“What’s that line that we laugh about? It’s the opposite of an inspirational quote. Was it, failure, when you’re best just isn’t good enough? Was that it? She says scrunching her eyes at me like a cat does when their plotting to trip you at the top of the staircase so the feline can  get their inheritance.

I snort with laughter. Okay, sometimes she’s pretty funny.  “Yes, that was it.”

I remember the quote so well, by a company called Despair Inc. I get their sense of humour. They have multiple posters with similarly sarcastic quotes. But that one stuck with me, with us, for a long time. I remember the photo they used: a runner sitting on a bench, hands on top of his bowed head. It was an image of utter defeat.  The whole thing was perfectly packaged encompassing a huge range of emotions; sadness, humor, and accented with a heavy dose of honesty.

“That’s you,” she says gleefully.

I pause.

I know how to get rid of her.

I stand up from my desk, and I’m finally at eye level with her. It’s just the two of us.

“Are you ready to accept defeat?” She asks with one eyebrow raised, jaw is locked, eyes are fixed on me.

“No,” I say stubbornly. “Did you know that some people say that failing is necessary? That so long as you learn something from the experience, it might make you better? I’ve heard of people who were fired from their jobs that went on to start their own successful businesses.”

“You’re not them,” she says as her eyes shift from side to side with uncertainty.

“I’m going for a run,” I announce.

“You’re running away from your problems.”

“Nope, that’s not it. You’ve used everything from name-calling, to my concern that I’m being neglectful to my family and friends by pursuing my passion to try bully me to stop me from writing. Then when that didn’t work, you started to discuss what my funeral might look like. Who does that? I need to get away from you.”

“You can’t get away from me. Not permanently,” she whispers in my ear as I change as quickly as I can into my sports bra, running pants, and sweatshirt. “I’ll be back,” she says finally.

I yank my sports watch on, run down the stairs clasping my MP3 player, and pull my running shoes on.

“DO YOU HEAR ME? I’ll be back!” She screams at me as a last effort to be heard.

“I have no doubt,” I answer just before I slip my headphones over my ears. “But when I get back, you’ll most likely be gone, and I can finally get some work done.”

She leans over the railing staring down at me. “Fine. Go then. I still think you’ll never amount to anything.”

My eyes flutter as I look up to the woman at the railing. I smile. I say nothing else, and won’t even acknowledge her existence with a good-bye wave. I turn the door knob, set my running watch, and my legs slowly begin to move from a walk, to a trot, until I’m clipping along at my fastest speed – which in truth, is terribly slow. It’s a race pace that translates to a 6 hour marathon.

But, I don’t care about how fast I go. Because right now, I can’t hear her scolding, hateful, bullying words, anymore.

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.”

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.”

Mind Maze

“It’s not you.” He announces with the sound of annoyance in his voice mixed in with concern for my well-being.

I don’t say anything. I’m pretending I can’t hear him. The hairdryer buzzes in my ear with a high-pitched rumbling sound as heat burns my scalp. The hot air tosses long strands of brown bits in all directions.

When I’m done, I stare at myself in the mirror. My hair is windswept. Of course, windswept summons a romanticized vision of some breathtaking brunette beauty with silky hair. The beauty’s strands of tresses would be swirling around in all directions as if some fairy godmother placed each piece perfectly in the air; it would be the godmother’s final attempt to win over a passerby who may be doubtful of how utterly gorgeous the woman is.

I glance at myself through the mirror. Perhaps hurricane-swept hair is a better combination of words.  Frizzy, dry, and poufy hair tops my head. It stands tall, but also wide, making it nearly impossible to see my ears. I attempt to push some hair back behind my right ear and the rebellious brown strands instantly bounce out as if they are shouting, YOU WILL NOT CONTROL ME!

No kidding.

I huff at myself. Dark circles form underneath my eyes. It’s quite nice. Now I look like a raccoon that’s having a bad hair day.

I mumble, “I miss the days when I could wash my hair and go. No blow drying. No straightening required.  Just wash my hair, tie back with an elastic, and go!”

“Then don’t do it.” He says.

My eyebrows pull together in confusion.

Well – maybe it’s more annoyance.

I don’t want to go down that road – that road we’ve travelled down on so many mornings. Then again, I need to provide some explanation. Otherwise, I’m just a crazy woman with a scent-phobia.

I stumble on my words. As I begin to say them, I know it’s not going to be enough. But I say the words anyways. “I have to blow dry my hair. It gets the smell of shampoo and conditioner out.”

My eyes shift to the large assortment of products that stand at attention on my counter: the Aloe Vera moisturizer is next to the unscented moisturizer; strawberry perfumed deodorant sits beside the odorless one.  I stare down at the Moroccan oil that I slather through my hair on weekends. The hair product makes my locks a little softer, and smooths out the overwhelming waves that I adorn on my head that’s reminiscent of a 1960 bouffant hairstyle that I wear Monday through Friday.

But the Moroccan oil – it’s scented. So, it rests on the counter. Waiting for the weekend, when I can tip the bottle back, drizzle some on my fingertips, and run it through my hair.

Ahhhh….My brain purrs.

Oh my god. I’m a scent addict!   

My husband rolls his eyes at me and says, “There’s no smell of shampoo in your hair.”

Stubbornly, I counter his argument with an intelligent and well thought through statement of: “Yes, there is.” With my well-articulated response that a five-year-old could have said behind me, I reach below my cabinet and pull out my hair straightener, and set it to 440.

He edges over to me and sticks his nose towards my head and announces, “I can’t smell anything.”

I shift. Then I say, “Well, the hair dryer got rid of most of the scent. But the Flat Iron will get the rest out.”

My husband throws his hands up in the air, grabs his shirt, and begins tugging it over his head.

I do believe I won that argument.

Beep, beep, my Flat Iron chants to me. On its command, I reach down with my right hand and wrap my fingers around the hairstyling instrument, and use my left hand to grab big chunks of hair that I quickly run through the plates of the device. Within seconds, my nose twitches at the familiar whiff of singed hair.

Tired of the routine, tired of worrying about everything, I stare down at the woman I see in the mirror. I wish I could shut up the voice in my head. And it’s just in my head. No one has ever said anything to me at work. But I exaggerate everything. One sneeze, over yonder, four floors down from where I sit, and perspiration will gather around the back of my neck instantly as my breathing becomes more shallow and I wonder, oh no…. Is someone having an allergic attack because of some scent I’m wearing?

I worry about smells: fruit scented deodorant, orange perfumed hand cream, or lavender-laced cosmetics.

But it’s not only scented products. Oh no, my mind has had some fun in taking things to a whole new level. Because once you’ve removed all scents from your life, you only have what’s left. And sometimes what remains is that “wet dog” smell because Fido wanted to be affectionate just before I left to go to work, and brushed up against me and it leaves a lingering reminder that yes, I do own a dog!; or a chemical smell will sometimes ooze from new clothes I purchased when they heat up because of the sun. Then there’s also the worry that my fragrance-free deodorant will fail at work, and then my perfume for the day will be Eau de B.O.

I blink at myself.

Hair is slightly flattened. (Still frizzy, but I found my ears!) No makeup. (Oh lord, I can’t even think about it.) Black pants. Grey shirt. Blue circles under my eyes.

I’m ready for work!

I stare down at the Flat Iron. I flip the power button off, and yank the cord out of the wall. Before I walk away, I bounce my head back into the bathroom where my Flat Iron sits on the counter. I pull it away from everything so that it’s not touching my makeup bag, hairbrush…well, anything.

Because you know, I don’t want to burn the house down.

As I start to walk away, there’s a twitching that begins in my fingertips, and before I know it, I’m spinning around again to check the Flat Iron one more time.

I don’t have a problem.

I’m being careful. This is one of those times you can’t make a mistake. My Flat Iron can touch something like the plastic on my hairbrush causing it to heat up, and it could ignite, and because no one’s upstairs right now, no one will know there’s a fire until it’s too late, and our whole house will be engulfed in fiery red flames.

Yeah.

I’m just being careful.

My fingertips begin to twitch. I spin on my heel. I’m standing at the top of the stairs in my home. I have two choices:

 Option 1: I can go and check the Flat Iron again. But I’m certain I turned the power button off, I remember I pulled the cord out of the wall, and I know it had already started to cool down because I placed my hand on the straightener for several seconds and it was warm – but not hot.

Option 2: I can go downstairs, get my bags, walk out the front door, and get on with my day.

I take a deep breath, and turn around as a voice quietly says, Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..

Then, I begin my descent.

Ruins

There’s no wall where one should be and the roof is missing.

White clouds of breath dance in front of me. It proves my existence – even if no one else sees me. Wind lifts my hair stretching it out in all directions as dampness envelopes me. It causes a tingling sensation to creep slowly down my back. My shoulders roll forward and I tuck my tummy. It’s as if my body believes if it recoils, it may escape the cold and dampness.

My eyes search for something.  Against a tumbling wall, I see a place where I might take shelter for the night; the dilapidated remnants of a fireplace.

I step lightly over a broken wooden chair moving in the direction of the square enclosure. For a moment, I imagine parents and children gathered around a yellow-orange fire in that spot where they would talk, laugh, eat and sing songs. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ve only seen it in movies.

The warmness of the imagined family heats me from within, and fends off the dampness and cold. It even works a little to stomp out the pain in my belly from not eating for a few days.

I tuck myself into the fireplace, peel off my jacket, and stretch it out across my body. Above me the man in the moon winks at me, and he, my only friend tonight, watches over me as my eyes slowly close to the world around me.