How to Build a World

I’ll be honest.

I’m staring at the screen right now, and I’m supposed to crank out something for what is to me tomorrow morning, and I don’t know what to write. I usually come up with an idea for my blog posts a few days in advance, and then all I have to do the night before is polish what I’ve built so it’s smooth and pretty. But this time I feel tired, and I don’t really want to string together some cohesive thoughts, and the thought of taking “just a little break” from blogging this time around sounds so good.

But I’m showing up anyway, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about writing, it’s that you have to keep showing up. All the training and reading and technique and talent in the world isn’t worth a thing if you don’t show up, if you don’t write little by little day by day.

And most, if not all, writers have this problem. Writing is our passion; it both gives us life and makes sense of life. We can’t live without writing, but we also don’t want to do it. We come up with clever excuses and side hustles and procrastinations.

Writing is the most self-sabotaging of all professions.

This week I finished a short story I’ve been working on. I’ve been submitting to a few contests, and the deadlines have been invaluable in making me work. Unfortunately, my next submission deadline isn’t until the end of the month, and so of course I’ve been dragging my feet on this blasted story.

So my best friend and I came up with a plan. She lives several hours away during the summer, which really sucks in many ways, but primarily because it cuts down on our mutual creative socializing and forces us to act like well-adjusted adults for the benefit of the masses. But I digress.

When we’re together, we camp our books and computers in some hip coffee shop and spend time drinking coffee and writing (as any self-respecting millennial writer does). When we’re not together, we end up mismatched, one of us drinking coffee when the other isn’t, one of us not writing when the other is. There is imbalance and disharmony. It is very bad. It does not do.

So one day we planned an impromptu, virtual coffee run. We each camped our books and computers at home, got coffee (at least, I had coffee. If she didn’t, I don’t know what the point of all this was), and challenged each other to write 1,000 words on our individual projects (that was the point).

I knew I could finish my story in a little over 1,000 words, so I set off eagerly. And it was grueling. I spent most of the time staring at the screen while my phone lit up with her texts signposting her progress, and I told myself “It’s fine, this is all fine, it’s not a contest, stop getting mad, you can write, you’re smart, you know words, THINK, DAMMIT!”

So relaxing.

But in the end, I finished my story in just shy of 1,500 words. And she finished a chapter of her book and started another in a little over 2,000. We both showed up. And our relationship is still intact, too. I don’t tell her how competitive I can be. She still thinks I’m nice and don’t care about it. Boy, do I have her fooled.

Sometimes just showing up is all you need, no matter what you’re doing. Showing up is 99% of my yoga hobby. Showing up is how my Russian is so amazing (like ridiculously good) at sports. Showing up is how anyone does what they do to make the world a better place.

Showing up builds something beautiful brick by brick, even if you don’t think you have the energy to do one more thing. And before you know it, you’ve created a world, and all you have to do is sand it down, polish it, and make it smooth and pretty.

Like I just did.

Happy Birthday

Tomorrow is Alex’s birthday. He’s not a huge fan of celebrations, but I’m hoping that this year is an improvement. Last year at this time we were on our honeymoon, and I had grand aspirations of being the best new wife.

We were all alone in a condo on the beach, I had the cleverest present already wrapped, and a delicious homemade cake was planned. It was going to be so awesome that he’d finally realize how fun birthdays can be and start to treat his own like a national holiday (like I do).

Unfortunately, this all came to naught when I got violently ill on his birthday. He spent the day mostly by himself while I stretched out semi-conscious on the couch. So much for being the best new wife.

It all works out, though, because this year we’re in the beautiful Arizona desert, I have another clever present, and I think  cake is also on the horizon (sh, don’t tell). And last year’s wonderful festivities ended up being excellent material for a short story.

So happy birthday, luv.

silly

Work Zone

Alex’s driver’s license expired during our honeymoon. We left our rented condo on the Outer Banks at five in the morning. He wore a black Nike shirt with the words drive fast emblazoned across it in neon yellow, and I was sick in the passenger seat. We were driving a borrowed car.

“Lord, I better not get pulled over with this shirt,” he said.

The last few days of the honeymoon had passed in general misery. Three days earlier, on my new husband’s birthday, I had started feeling ill. At first it was dizziness and chills, but soon it progressed to vomiting and a high fever, creating a state of complete uselessness. Alex got to experience the full meaning of his “in sickness and health” vows less than two weeks into the agreement by cleaning me up, gathering our luggage, locking up the condo, and packing everything into the car. It was ten hours home.

All was going well until Richmond, Virginia. Traffic was thick – five lanes wide in each direction. He wove in and out of the mass of cars, leaving the slow movers behind and being urged on by the faster ones.

The car in front of us changed lanes and Alex sped up to replace him. “Oh crap,” he said, touching the brakes. Red and blue lights flashed behind us from a previously unassuming white car. We pulled over.

He pulled out his wallet. We looked ruefully at the expired date on his license, but said nothing. Soon the officer, a Virginia State trooper with a light khaki uniform and a hat atop his shaven head tapped on the window. Alex rolled it down.

“Are you aware of how fast you were driving?” the officer asked in a solid Virginia drawl, every r dutifully pronounced.

“I’m sorry; I don’t know sir,” Alex said.

“You were going eighty-seven miles per hour in a fifty-five mile an hour work zone,” the officer replied.

“I apologize, sir. I was just trying to go with the flow of traffic.”

“In the state of Virginia, anything over eighty miles an hour is considered reckless driving. I’m gonna have to write you a ticket.”

Bullcrap, thought Alex. He had seen no indication that it was a work zone, people were flying past him, and he wasn’t driving recklessly by any stretch of the imagination. He silently cursed our out-of-state license plates.

“Can I please see your license and registration?”

I’d been rooting through the glove compartment this whole time, a job made much harder by the fact I couldn’t even sit upright without my eyes crossing. When our neighbor had leant us the car, he hadn’t told us where he kept the registration. All we found were coupons, endless coupons.

“I can’t find it,” I whispered to Alex. My head was spinning and my stomach twisted. I had started crying. Part of me hoped the officer would see how upset and sickly I was and let us go. This would be a really great time for my stomach to make good on its promise to reject everything I’d put into it in the past twenty-four hours. I was prepared to throw up now, over all these coupons, if it meant taking one for the team.

Alex finally found the pale blue registration card and handed it to the officer, who went back to his unmarked car and ran everything through. I envisioned the discovery of Alex’s expired license, accusations of a stolen car, detainment in a Virginia police station, and a huge fine. And I was so sick.

The officer soon returned with some papers. We held our breath.

“If you could sign here,” he said, “and take this, you can be on your way.” He handed Alex the license and the registration card along with a piece of yellow paper. After a final warning and a polite goodbye, he drove off to entrap some other unsuspecting honeymooners.

We carefully got back onto the highway. I laid my head back onto my soft leather seat and focused on the ceiling.

“Well, crap,” said Alex.

“How much is the ticket?” I asked.

“Four hundred and fifty. How did he not notice my expired license?”

“It’s good he didn’t.”

“Of course I’m wearing this stupid shirt! That was a funny one, Lord.” He laughed in spite of himself.

Five hours later we finally made it to our home exit off I-80. Just a half hour to our new apartment. Just thirty more minutes until a soft bed and fresh water and ibuprofen.

It was then my stomach decided to make good on its promise.

 

The Highway

This is a short story I’ve been working on for one of my classes. I’ve been wanting to share it here – enjoy!

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They were building a highway. It would stretch from the northernmost tip of the state through the mountains and all the way to the ocean, five states away. It was progress. It was speed. It would bring produce and packages and soldiers. It was the mark of every modern society.

Unfortunately for Norris, they were building the highway right through his farm, right in between his house and barn, where the old dirt road ran through to connect one town with another. Some engineer in Washington had decided that Township Road #132 was the ideal place to link the new Interstate. Anywhere else would run into a lake or mountain range, wasting money and time.

The highway wouldn’t interfere with his farm at all, they had told Norris. It wouldn’t ruin his land or crops. They were essentially just widening the road that was already there, which did belong to the government, after all. It was part of the President’s new initiative. It was progress.

Construction began at the beginning of summer. Crews came and plotted out the new boundaries of the road. It would be a four-lane highway with low railings on either side. You’ll still have your privacy, they told Norris. One edge of the highway was to come twenty feet from his house, the other twenty feet from his barn. We’ll build a bridge so you can get across, they said. It won’t interfere with your farm at all.

So every morning Norris got into his rusty Ford pickup, clattered down the makeshift service road, across the skeletal wooden bridge stretched over the fledgling highway, and down another makeshift service road to the barn, where he fed the animals and started his work in the fields. Around midday he’d return to the other side of the highway for lunch and then work in the other fields. “It’s a damn nuisance,” he told his wife.

When the highway finally opened, it droned with business. Huge trucks carried cargo to faraway cities and little cars, like brightly colored insects, carried people. The house, barn, and garden were soon coated with a perpetual layer of dust, and there was an incessant hum that echoed off the old farmhouse no matter what the hour. Norris and his wife began not to notice it until they went out for errands or church or visited other people’s houses and felt an emptiness in their ears.

Norris remembered when a single car on the old dirt road was an occasion. He’d been young then, a short skinny boy with a blond mop head, freckles and snaggleteeth, spending his summers running wild through the woods and cornfields. Dad came in from the fields every night at six, covered in dust, with rings around his eyes like a raccoon. Norris was expected to be home by then too, if he planned on getting a dinner and avoiding a spanking. Mum had dinner on the table by six fifteen, usually meat and some kind of vegetable, with her famous bread. They’d sit in the golden light of the summer sunset, eating and drinking the light and balmy air as they ate and drank their dinner.

One evening as they were sitting down to eat, Norris looked through the open kitchen window and saw one of the cows staring back at him, right on the other side. All of the cows had gotten out of the pasture by a break in the fence, and had ambled over to the scent of dinner.

“Dammit!” Dad said, jumping up from the table. The dust shook from his overalls.

“Bill,” Mum noted before jumping up as well.

The three of them struggled into rubber boots and ran out into the yard, where the three dozen brown and white cows strolled lazily in the evening light. It took hours to corral them all into the barn. Norris whooped and jumped to get their attention while Mum and Dad chased the herd into a little knot, then drove them into the barn while Norris held the door open and welcomed the bovines in like a circus master. When he shut the door behind the last straggler, he slipped in the thick mud, and when his parents tried to help him, they slipped too. Then, weak from exhaustion and hilarity the three of them pulled together and slid their way to the house, laughing in spite of themselves. By then, dinner was cold, but they were too hungry to care.

One day at the end of a summer, when Dad was in the fields and Norris had been drafted into the service of window washing, a blue Ford Model 18 drove up the dirt road in a cloud of shining dust and parked in the yard. The car stood out crisply against the faded green cornstalks and the yellowed white house. The man it carried stood out too, in a navy pinstriped suit and matching hat. He marched up to the porch, his patent leather shoes clicking like snap peas.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he said when Mum answered the door. He swept off his hat and held it to his chest like a martyr. “My name is Ellis Chaney and I work for the township. I’d like to talk to you about improvements to this road here.”

Mum brought him in and offered him a seat at the table. Norris watched through the windows, wiping away the grime with his sponge so he could see better.

“Ma’am, it has come to our attention that the roads in our fine county leave much to be desired. They are beset with dust in the summer and potholes in the winter. Ma’am, we in the township value our citizens, folks like yourself who are the lifeblood of this county and state. We are considering paving this road here. It’s high time we had some progress in this area, and it’ll certainly make travel and trade faster, a boon for everyone involved. We’d like to hear everyone’s input on the matter.”

“Well, that’s certainly an idea,” said Mum. “But I’m afraid my husband isn’t home. I’m sure he’d like to give his two cents.”

The man cocked one shiny, groomed eyebrow. “Of course ma’am. I can come back another day if that’d be better.” He rose to leave. “But if I may ask, what, Ma’am, would you say about paving the road? I’d like to have your two cents.”

Mum blushed a little. “Well, I think it’s a very nice idea. It’d be… nice to go into town and back without getting so dusty.”

The man smiled. “Of course, Ma’am. If I may say, however, you look quite fresh and lovely. Not dusty at all.”

Mum blushed more. “Oh. Thank you.”

Only after the man had gotten back into his car and sped away toward another white farmhouse did Mum notice Norris at the window. Her face grew scarlet.

“What have I told you about sneaking around?” she said. “I don’t have all day for you to wash one window! Get on to the next one!”

Dad came in from the fields at six. Mum didn’t mention the Man in the suit.

As the weeks passed the cornstalks grew brown and dry and Norris was drafted into the service of school. Every afternoon he hurried home down the dirt road, his books and lunch pail holding on for dear life, hoping to get a few rambles in before Mum called him to chores and dinner. The sun was setting sooner now, which meant Dad came in from the fields earlier, which meant Norris only had a short time to avoid any work.

One afternoon he got home to find the blue Ford Model 18 in the yard. He remembered the Man in the suit, but since the dirt road was still dirt, he had filed him away as not useful. He wondered, as he panted sweaty and dusty in the afternoon warmth, if the Man was finally bringing some good news.

Norris burst into the house, forgetting to wipe his feet on the rug. A bump and clatter was heard upstairs, and then a wild parade of footsteps brought Mum and the Man in the suit (a brown one this time) down the stairs. Norris blinked. Mum’s face turned scarlet.

“What have I told you about wiping your feet?” she scolded. “Look at this floor!”

“I’m sorry Mum,” said Norris, feeling more guilty than usual for the mess.

“Go get the mop and clean it up. I will not have you tracking mud into this house.”

With a glance at the Man, who smiled with all his perfectly white teeth, Norris went to the broom closet for the mop. When he returned, the Man and the blue car were gone. Mum was putting bread in the oven for dinner. Norris worked silently, erasing every speck of dirt in the hallway. Suddenly Mum was behind him, her hand on his shoulder.

“Dear, I’d like to talk to you.”

Norris blinked. “I’m sorry about the mud.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she smiled. “I’d like to talk to you about Ellis.”

“The Man in the suit?”

“Yes… Mr. Chaney – the Man in the suit.”

“What about him?”

“He was here to talk about the road, you understand?” She began to blush.

“Yes ma’am.”

“And your father and I have talked about the road, and we don’t agree on it. I agree with El-Mr. Chaney. We’re trying to figure out what to do with the road, and until we do, it’d be best not to mention anything to Dad. He’s tired from working so hard and shouldn’t have to worry about another little thing. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy. Go on, then. And remember: we don’t need to talk about Mr. Chaney or the road. Not until we think up a solution.”

Norris went on until the whole house was mopped. Of course Dad wouldn’t want the road to be paved; he hated progress of any kind. It made sense not to worry him with it. At least, it sounded right.

That night dinner was quiet. Dad ate hungrily, Mum bustled around making sure everyone had what they needed, and Norris could neither talk nor eat. He still felt guilty, and he couldn’t remember why.

“Dear, eat your vegetables,” Mum said. He jumped.

“I’m not very hungry, ma’am.”

Dad put his fork down. “Eat your food, son. Times are thin and we need to show thanks for our blessings.”

“Yessir.” Norris tried very hard but the food in his mouth was tasteless and sticky. It was like swallowing dust.

“What is the matter with that boy?” Dad shook his head.

“He’s just tired, is all.” Mum moved her food around, then passed the butter to no one in particular, then got up to refill everyone’s water glasses. She spilled the pitcher a little and went back to the sink.

“I’m fine, sir,” Norris said, forcing down a bite of bread. “Just tired.”

“You weren’t like this yesterday,” Dad finished off his meat with a final bite. “I hope he isn’t coming down with something,” he said to Mum. “I’ve heard reports of the flu in town. Any kids at school come down with the flu?” he said to Norris.

“No sir,” Norris gulped down his newly-filled glass of water.

“He’s fine,” said Mum, “and even if he is coming down with something, I’ll just run him up to the new doctor Ellis was telling me ab – ”

She stood still for a moment, then sat down slowly and set the pitcher in between her and Dad. Norris stared at her in horror.

“Who’s Ellis?” Dad looked up, sensing the change in the air.

“That man.”

“What man?”

“That man from the township. I mentioned him to you. He came over again today asking about the road.”

“I thought we already told him what we thought about it. His name’s Ellis?”

“Yes. Ellis Chaney. He’s from the township.”

“Well why did he come around again? I hope you told him we don’t need a paved road here.”

“Well, I didn’t want to be rude. He wanted to double check with everyone. He had some very good things to say – ”

“He must be pretty friendly if you’re on a first name basis already.”

Mum began to blush. She smiled and looked at Norris. “Dear, please go up to your room and do your homework.”

Norris sprung from the table like a squirrel from a cage. He had barely shut his door before their voices started talking faster and louder. By the time he fell asleep an hour later they were shouting.

He woke the next morning, and the house was silent and gray, like the fields after a rainstorm. His parents’ door was closed and Dad’s work boots were gone. Norris dressed and packed, then left for school, running away down the dirt road as if sunshine would be found at the end of it. All day he dreaded going back home. He didn’t feel guilty anymore, just sick.

He trudged back home down the dirt road, fearing everything that might meet him when he got there. He didn’t want to hear another shout, see another stiff smile, hear Mum say “dear” one more time.

He was still a ways off when he saw the blue Ford Model 18 parked in the yard. The engine was running and all the doors were open. Mum and the Man in the suit (a black one today) were loading it with suitcases. Norris broke into a run. Mum and the Man got into the car and shut the doors, and sped away in the opposite direction to a town Norris didn’t know. They were almost out of site by the time he got to the house.

“MUM!” he screamed. “Come back!” And he knew she must have looked back, at least for a second, and seen him crying in the road, but the car didn’t stop.

It never came back again.

In the years that followed, the house was always gray, and dinners were always quiet, and there was no more bread. Norris and Dad washed the dishes and mopped the floors and went to sleep for work and school in the morning.

And every so often Norris would dream of the blue Ford Model 18. Mum was driving it, and she would, unlike most people, be able to find the dirt road and the yellowed white farmhouse on it, and she would drive herself up to the house and let herself in. Norris would smell her perfume and fresh-baked bread and come bolting down the stairs, and she’d wrap him up in the kind of hug she used to give him when he was little. Dad would come in from the fields, covered in dust with rings around his eyes like a raccoon, and she’d kiss him, and the three of them would sit at the table to a dinner of meat and vegetables and bread in the golden light of the sunset.

But now none of that would ever happen, because now there was a highway.

45 Degrees

Hello all!

I hope you had a splendid weekend. We had a lovely two days of 45 degrees (Fahrenheit), which melted a bunch of snow and left a fresh, floral scent in the air. Tomorrow it’s back to ice and snow however – February always has the most curious weather.

So, enough about the weather. That’s boring. This post is really meant to be an update on the stories of our book! Here is where I must make a confession: I’ve been lax. I haven’t edited the rough draft at all (gulp). The past week has been busy beyond belief, and when I have spare moments I waste them on naps or staring at the ceiling (though I’m not quite convinced those are wastes in themselves).

I have a lot of work to do on my story, and I’m intimidated by it. It’s a long tower I have to climb, and I’m afraid of heights. I’m afraid to even scale the first few feet. I’ve certainly thought about it, of course. I’ve even considered building a new tower entirely. But I know I have something good here and I need to stick to it, and I’m determined to.

So, that’s my astounding progress. How riveting! Here’s to finishing it this week (I’ve no choice – deadlines! heh.) Here’s to hacking away at my sculpture until it’s a work of art – even if it’s abstract art I’ll be pleased.

Here’s to climbing that darned tower!

The Tokenmaster

Paul polished the bright gray metal into a silver shine. Then he set the finished piece on his desk and sat back on his stool, admiring his work. It was a tiny soldier figurine, barely two inches high, with a neat cap, detailed face, crisp-looking uniform, and even a tiny ray revolver tucked into the belt. Paul breathed a sigh of contentment. He was the best Tokenmaster in this part of the country, he was sure. His father had taught him the trade well.

“You have to have an eye for quality,” Paul’s dad had once said, sitting his 10-year-old son before him and holding up various examples of his own work, “and each token needs to have quality, something special about it, something unique, just as every person, every customer you get, is unique. If you make a soldier token, for example, ask the customer for specifics in the soldier’s appearance; hair length, facial features, stature. And don’t charge extra for it. The customer may be coming to you for a single moment, for a simple token, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go the extra mile.

Paul smiled into the sheen of the new token. His face reflected back at him; it was a broad, brown face, tinged with lines and the grime of his workshop. His blue eyes had once had a twinkle in them, he remembered, but now there was a dullness. He knew it was because he had forgotten something very very important, very very long ago. But he also knew there was a reason he had chosen to forget it, and he didn’t bother to pursue the subject further.

He finished polishing the token and then reached under the counter, bringing out a wooded box lined with cheap green velvet. He set the token in it carefully and then tied a green ribbon around the box. Mrs. Avery would be coming for it later. Until she did, he had an awful lot of tidying up to do. The shop was a mess. The tokens on the shelves (ready-made ones for economic people, not special orders for people like Mrs. Avery) hadn’t been dusted in over a week, and it showed.

“Ralph!” Paul yelled through the door to the back room beyond. “Ralph come here!” From the back room came a ticking sound, followed by whirring, and then humming. A stiff, electronic voice replied:

“Yes-master.” Metallic footsteps crossed the ancient wooden floorboards, and soon Ralph appeared.

He had a smooth, brown metal head and gray steel appendages. His torso was the only digital thing about him; Paul had splurged to give him an update. It was long, barrel-shaped, plastic on the outside and with hundreds of chips and wires within. Ralph was a vintage automaton, an AUTO T-17, one of the first models made over fifty years ago. He had worked for Paul’s father first, and Paul had patched him together over the years to keep him running. His hardware was quality, just needing some tune-ups from time to time. Paul had considered installing a new voice chip, to give him a more realistic voice (some of the newer service droids, the DR-30s, sounded just like their human counterparts), but he always had decided against it somehow. He had grown fond of Ralph’s stiff voice. It reminded him of the good old days, when the token-making industry was just beginning. The automatons nowadays gave Paul a chilled feeling. They looked and spoke like real humans. If an auto police officer and a human one stood side by side, you’d have a difficult time deciding which was which. This was all well and good for the police force, Paul decided, but the thought of any random passerby on the street possibly being an automaton gave him the willies. And he knew it scared everyone else too.

Ralph had a duster attachment that extended from his right hand, and he was just beginning the work when the bell above the door rang and Mrs. Avery came in. She was an attractive woman, rather tall and slim, with strawberry blond hair done up in an elaborate bun and green eyes that shone beneath her long lashes. She wore a black wool dress and matching hat with black silk flowers. Her gloves, heels, handbag and belt, all black, were soft suede. Paul had met many beautiful women, but Mrs. Winifred Avery surpassed them all. Especially now, when her creamy, dewy face was tinged with the shadow of something mysteriously tragic. Paul knew she had a secret to tell, but it wasn’t his job to hear secrets, only to help people forget them.

Mrs. Avery nodded to Ralph, her ruby lips tightened in a thin smile. She approached the greasy brown counter and set her hands primly, shyly, onto it.

“I’m here to pick up the token I ordered,” she said, her voice thin and delicate, like the fragile stem of a wineglass.

“Yes, Mrs. Avery,” Paul nodded cheerfully, pushing the wooden box across the counter toward her. “A silver soldier, just as you requested. I will gladly show it to you before you leave, if you wish to be sure of the quality.”

“No!” she said quickly, her voice quivering. “No,” she said again, more softly. “I know you do good work, Paul. I trust you. How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty,” he said, typing numbers into the little black device he had fished out of his pocket.

“Come now, Paul,” Mrs. Avery pulled her black wallet out of her black suede purse. “I know your custom items are worth much more than that. What would you charge a stranger?”

“The fact is, Mrs. Avery, that you ain’t a stranger,” he nodded firmly, scratching his balding head. “The price is fifty.”

She paused, deciding whether to dispute it or not. Then she sighed and took her Identification Card out of her wallet. “Very well, then. Fifty it is.” She handed the card to Paul and he scanned it with his device. He handed the card back.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he smiled warmly. “You need a bag for it?” he reached under the counter for some of the cloth sacks he knew were somewhere under there.

“No, I uh…” Mrs. Avery held the box in her hands and stared at it. “I actually was wondering if… Well that is,” she bit her tongue. “Do you… charge extra, for a download?”

“Well… there aren’t many people that ask me to download,” Paul stammered, taken aback. “I mean, I can do it, but I hate knowin other people’s business. You do know how to use a token, don’t ya?”

“Yes of course, I just…” she paused and then burst into tears. Ralph, who was nearly finished dusting now, turned in alarm.

“Do-you-need-assistance-Madam?” asked his wooden voice.

“Ralph, you metal idiot,” Paul exclaimed, hurrying from behind the counter, “Mind your own business!”

“I-am-sorry-Master,” Ralph replied, turning back to the little dusty tokens on the shelves.

Paul put his hand awkwardly on Mrs. Avery’s shoulder. “Now now ma’am, it can’t be as bad as that. There’s always a silver lining in every rainbow… Er, cloud, I mean. It ain’t nunna my business what’s the matter, but I know it can’t be bad as that. Now, why don’t I call a cab for ya or call Mr. Avery to come get – ”

“Mr. Avery’s dead!” she cried out, holding her face in her hands. “We got the text this morning. He was killed in battle.”

“Battle?” said Paul hoarsely. That word reminded him of something, something dreadful and terrible, something that made him feel sick. He couldn’t remember what that something was, but he didn’t want to remember. “Is that what you’re trying to forget, Mrs. Avery? Is that why you need the token?”

“Yes,” she whimpered. “I need the token for me and for Cecil. He’s too young to lose his father.”

 “I understand,” Paul nodded solemnly. “I’m more than willing to help you with the download, Ma’am. It’s no trouble. I can do it for you, and for Cecil. Just have him come in later. I can do it on the same token, too.”

“Thank you, Paul,” she tried to smile but it just brought on more tears. She gripped his hands instead. He nodded and guided her over to the stool behind the counter. “Have a seat,” he said encouragingly. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

He dashed to the back room, a dim and damp little area with shelves of tools, spare parts, electronic chips, and hunks of metal. Ralph’s desk sat in one corner, where he sat putting together electronic chips. There really wasn’t any better electrician than an automaton, Paul thought to himself. He grabbed a set of patches from the desk and hurried back to the store. From the outside the patches looked like tiny, round little pillows of beige velvet. On the inside, however, they contained a network of wires and chips. Paul had bought these at last year’s Tokenmaster’s Convention in Chicago. They were the latest in token technology, much more sophisticated than the old way of downloading with wires and syringes. These patches made downloading quick, easy, and painless, both physically and mentally. And that was the point, he decided.

“Here ya are, Ma’am,” He handed one to Mrs. Avery. She placed it on her left temple. Paul took the wooden box, untied the green ribbon, and took out the token. Mrs. Avery gasped.

“It’s beautiful, Paul,” she said. “And such a wonderful job on such short notice.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he replied, a little embarrassed. He knew he had done a good job, but he was always self-conscious when someone else said it out loud. He placed the other patch onto the bottom of the token. The little metal soldier was silver on the outside, but on the inside there was a network of wires and chips just like the ones in the patch. The technology was first-rate; unlike in times past, Paul could now download wirelessly.

“Now, Mrs. Avery,” Paul took her shoulders, “Think about Mr. Avery. Think about the battle. Think about what you want to forget.” Mrs. Avery closed her eyes as tears streamed down her face. She was sobbing quietly. Paul took the token and the patch on it and pushed the very center of the patch, where he could feel a little button. Mrs. Avery winced. “It’s alright ma’am. Just a few seconds more. You’ll be fine!” He took her shoulders again. “Now concentrate!” He could see the red light within each patch start to flicker. “You are doing wonderfully ma’am. Tell me about the text you got this morning. What did it say?”

Tears seeped from her closed eyes. “It said,” her chest heaved with sobs. “It said… ‘Mrs. Avery, w-we regret to in-inform you,” she moaned. “…in-inform you that your hus-husband Henry – ” she cried out, whether in pain or grief Paul couldn’t tell –  “Henry A-Avery was killed in action… at 0700 on Sept-ember twelfth!” she cried out again, and doubled over, and then was very still. Paul saw the lights stop flickering, turning to a steady yellow.

“Mrs. Avery,” he said gently, patting her back, “The download is almost complete. I need you to think of a Keyword for the token. You need a way to access the memory if necessary. What’s a good Keyword for this memory?”

She didn’t answer, only moving her mouth in anguished expressions, no sound coming out.

“Mrs. Avery?” Paul asked again, more gently this time.

“Harry,” she whimpered. “The keyword is ‘Harry’.”

Paul nodded. “Very good.” The lights on the patches turned green. Mrs. Avery sat up.

“Is it done?” she asked. “Have I finished downloading?”

“Yes Ma’am, you have,” Paul smiled cheerfully, taking the patches off her temple and off of the token. “Now, tell me what you came here to forget.”

“I don’t know,” she said, and then began to laugh giddily. “I forget!” She touched her forehead. “Why… have I been crying?”

“Yes Ma’am,” answered Paul, gladdened by the success.

“How silly. Why on earth should I be crying? I do apologize, Paul. I know we’re on good terms and all, good acquaintances and all that, but I really shouldn’t be blubbing in your store,” she chirped, jumping down from the stool and reaching into her purse for some lipstick. “Did what I forget really make me cry that much?”

“Yes ma’am,” Paul smiled grimly, realizing that what she had forgotten had distressed him too. He made a mental note to download ‘Harry’ onto one of his own tokens later.

“Well, at any rate, the download worked. I don’t remember a thing. Is it this token?” She reached for the metal soldier.

“It is, Mrs. Avery. Let me box it for you,” Paul put it back in the green velvet. “Remember to put it in the Prison at home, otherwise you might remember again.”

“I thought downloads were failsafe,” Mrs. Avery pursed her lips.

“Usually they are, but every now and then people will remember a thought they’ve downloaded onto a token. It’s uncanny, really. The human brain is extraordinary.”

“That’s for sure,” Mrs. Avery shook her head. “Thank you Paul,” she took the box from him.

“You’re welcome, Ma’am. And should you need to upload the memory back from the token, remember that your keyword is ‘Harry’.”

“’Harry’,” Mrs. Avery replied. “That’s my husband’s name.” She furrowed her brow as Paul walked her to the door. “He’s fighting in the war, you know. Overseas.”

“Is he, now?” Paul’s voice broke.

“Yes. But he’s perfectly safe; he’ll be home for Thanksgiving Day. Cecil and I can’t wait!” She nodded goodbye and set off down the street.

“No ma’am,” Paul replied sadly, to himself. “I suppose you can’t.”

The Life and Times of a Sewing Machine

Hello everyone! 

Finals week is upon me soon and I have been super busy after the return to classes. I have some really fun literary stuff in the works, but for the time being I thought I’d share a short story I wrote a few years ago. It is a sort of ode to my trusty, 35+ year old sewing machine. Odd concept, to be sure, but I hope you enjoy. Happy Tuesday!

stuff

My name is Athena. I am not the Roman goddess; I am better than she ever was. I can create beauty better than she ever could; I can make something out of nothing, which she never did.

My full name is Singer 1200 Athena, but I just go by Athena. I am a sewing machine. I was built in 1976 and am still going strong, because of course, I am an Athena. No other sewing machine works as well as I do. No other sewing machine is even a valid machine. They all refer to themselves by their middle names, which is a bothersome practice. I know a machine named Singer 2250 Tradition, and he goes by 2250. Does he really think I’ll go through the bother of remembering all those numbers? (The Traditions always were an odd family, so boxy and plastic, not sleek and shiny and sturdy like me.)

I am a warm, buttery yellow color with stylish brown panels and buttons and shiny silver knobs. My peers say that white is in vogue for machines now, which is positively ridiculous. Just seeing all those vain machines flashing their shiny plastic shells of pure white is laughable. How else do you say “Made in China”? Honestly. Butter yellow might be a little… vintage, but it practically screams dependability. I am no plastic shell. I’m built of sturdy steel within, with just one piece of plastic on the top to cover my, ahem, machinery. I have ten different stitch options, which include a leaf pattern, numerous zigzag stitches, and even one that looks like the Golden Gate Bridge. I also have multiple accessories: a clear buttonhole foot, a bulky blind hem foot, and several silver needle plates. I am as beautiful as my namesake, the Roman goddess Athena. Well, even more beautiful, because I can actually do something.

I can create dresses and blouses and skirts, curtains and pillows and purses. I can alter outdated clothing and repair broken seams. There is nothing I can’t do. Just last week, my Seamstress and I worked on a new dress for her. The fabric she chose was simply beautiful: a turquoise and white floral print that takes me back a couple decades. Very retro; I liked it. This was a pleasing pick from my Seamstress; she has a lot of sense. While 2250 and his Seamstress are using gaudy polka dot prints and neon color blocks, my Seamstress and are sewing with red floral calicoes, feathery white muslins, and delicate ivory lace. My Seamstress clearly has as good taste in fabrics as she does in sewing machines.

This turquoise cloth was for a retro dress she’s working on; I think she said she was for a 1940s dance she’s going to. It has a high waist, crossover bodice, fitted sleeves, and a gored skirt. She bought the pattern off the internet about a year ago and has made two other dresses from it, but the poor thing had no idea what she was doing when she worked on those dresses. Any merit those things could possibly have is because of me. The skirts were too long, the bodices too baggy, the waists too tight. My Seamstress, bless her heart, thinks she’s good at this stuff. (She was so proud of her first invisible zipper. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the only reason that zipper is invisible is because I’ve been doing zippers since before that girl was born.) At any rate, this time I did my best work to insure that the dress turned out right. Of course, my Seamstress thought it was all her own skill that made the dress so beautiful, and I let her think it. That’s the way to keep Seamstresses happy; let them think they are better sewers than they actually are. It isn’t much fun at the time but in the long run they are more confident and patient and gentler with their machines.

There is nothing better than the sheer thrill of sewing. I love the gentle hum of my gears as they turn faster and faster and the pressure of my Seamstress’ foot on the pedal as my needle punches up and down, up and down (the sound of it doing this used to be so smooth, until one day my Seamstress got impatient and put me on full speed. I think she sprained one of my belts, and now my needle makes a clackity sound when it moves. I’m still trying to forgive her for this).

My favorite part of sewing, however, is the stitching itself. Every time is like the very first time I sewed, back when I was a young machine. I love the feel of each fabric as it speeds under my presser foot, as I punch the stiches into it, sturdy and tight. Silk is slippery but luxurious. Cotton is common but has so many colors. Linen is hardy and lovely. Knits are soft and cozy. Voile is a dream. Tulle is a nightmare. Each piece has its own feel and flavor: creamy silk from China, succulent brocade from India, sugary satin from the USA. Old fabrics, new fabrics, modern prints, and vintage ones. I can travel the world just by working with its cloths. They say that clothes make the man. Well, I make the clothes.

So you see, I am much better than the Roman goddess.

The Red Room

Happy Tuesday!

I wrote this short story earlier in the year. I got the idea one quiet winter day when I was all alone in one end of a rather large house that is not my own (don’t worry; I was allowed to be there… I don’t just pop in at strange houses :o). I wanted to explore the sense of strangeness when we are alone in unfamiliar surroundings and the way the brain works when we dream, how it pulls from our experiences and presents us with a combination of memory and imagination that is terrifying and amusing at the same time. So I hope you enjoy it!

Hall edited

The Red Room

Her eyes fluttered open, and for a moment all she saw was a blur of dark colors that looked like a watercolor gone wrong. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. There was such an ache in her head, such an awful ache that wouldn’t go away. She opened her eyes again and tried to make sense of her surroundings. The room was dark, and rain beat against the curtained windows with the sound of a hundred heartbeats. Her head pounded. What an ache! What an awful ache that wouldn’t go away!

     She sat up and steadied herself. She was on the floor, flattened out on the soft, thick, creamy carpet. It smelled like roses. She looked over at the window curtained with heavy scarlet drapes that blocked out any light from outside. That’s why the room is so dark, she thought. She tried to stand up. The room tipped and her head hurt. What an ache! Why wouldn’t it go away? The rain beat mercilessly on the windows. The incessant pounding echoed in her brain. If only her head didn’t hurt so much!

     She took stiff, wobbly steps toward the window. The carpeted floor heaved up and down like earth during a quake. She began to fall. In desperation she reached out and grasped the heavy curtains, hanging onto them as if her life depended on it. She ran her fingers over the rich scarlet fabric. She could tell it was scarlet even in the dark, though she didn’t know how. This is velvet, she thought to herself. Velvet curtains. The owners must be rich. Then it occurred to her that she didn’t know who the owners of the house were. She didn’t know what house she was in. She had never been to this house before. She didn’t even remember going there in the first place. In fact, she remembered nothing before waking up on the soft creamy carpet. If that terrible headache would only go away, she might be able to remember!

      A feeling of helpless panic crept from her heart up to her throat and aching head. It paralyzed her feet and froze her hands. She was welded to the spot where she stood, arrested by a fear that was nothing more than an endless, bottomless chasm of emptiness. There was nothing in her mind, nothing but that horrible ache.

     She willed herself to move. In one sharp action she threw the curtains open. The window was long, reaching from the floor to the ceiling and made up of dozens of small, crystal clean panes. She looked out and saw nothing but dark gray fog and hundreds of raindrops dashing against the glass. It was evening, she determined, but there was nothing more she could tell.

     She turned back toward the room to look about. The window had let in little light, but enough that she could make out the room. It was shaped like a long rectangle. There were six windows, three on one wall and three on the opposite wall. They were all draped in scarlet velvet, and all of them were drawn except for the one she stood at. The walls were papered in a crimson that matched the curtains. A massive four-poster bed sat between the two walls. It was dressed with scarlet silk hangings and a matching silk duvet decorated with white ribbon roses. Next to the bed there was a dark wooden nightstand, and on it sat a lace doily and picture frames. She dashed over and grabbed at the photos like a madwoman, searching for a clue to where she was.

     But none of the pictures held any indications; there were no portraits of the house’s owners or any other people for that matter, only little nature scenes. One was a sketch of a bluebird perched upon a weathered wood fence, and one was a watercolor of purple daisies next to a similar fence. They were probably made by the same artist, she mused, setting them down. In the last frame was a photograph of two hemlock trees in the forest. A rocky stream ran between them, and the sun shone down onto their needles, which caught and filtered the light into brilliant rays that touched the earth gently. The scene was beautiful; it caught her by surprise. It looked so familiar, as if she had been in that very spot in the woods once, as if she herself had taken the picture. But that was impossible. She had never used a camera in her life; she had never been to the forest. She had never been anywhere but this Red Room, at least she thought so. Perhaps she had gone to the woods once, but she didn’t remember. If only her head didn’t hurt so much! If only she could remember!

     She put down the picture and turned, shivering. The pounding in her head had stopped, but a dull ache had taken its place. Maybe there was something she could take for the pain. Maybe there was someone else in the house who’d lend her some medicine. There might even be a doctor, she thought.

     She crept to the door. It was an old, heavy door, probably oak, with panels in it. It was painted white like the creamy carpet. Its knob was glass and faceted like a diamond. She reached out and grabbed it. It was cold as ice, and the sound it made when she turned it sounded like the shattering of icicles on a clear, frigid day.

     She pulled the door open slowly and peeked out. She was at the end of a long, windowless hallway where the walls were papered in rich textured burgundy and candles burned in iron sconces, casting eerie shadows on the shimmering crimson walls. My room is in its own wing, she thought, at the end of the house. For a second she wondered why she had called the Red Room hers, but the thought escaped her when a flash of lightning and clap of thunder made her jump. The storm outside was getting more violent, and so was the pain in her head.

     She took a deep breath and shut the door behind her. The hallway stretched long and endless before her. Now that she was in it she could see huge gilded frames on the walls. The paintings in them were more pastoral scenes, no likenesses of people. She wondered why the owners of the house didn’t have any portraits of themselves, or at least of their ancestors. She had thought that that’s what rich people with big houses did.

     As she walked on, the paintings became stranger. Not because of what they portrayed, but because of the sheer number of them. The walls were covered with frames, covered with scenes of barns and waterfalls and farms and animals, all lit by the eerily wavering candlelight. Every painting struck a chord with her; every scene reminded her of something. It was as if all her memories had been painted and put out on the walls for all to see. Except there was no one to see them, and none of the memories were in her head. Oh, why did she have this wretched headache? She couldn’t think!

     She felt as if she’d been walking for over an hour when she came to a door on her left. It was the first door she had come across since her own door. (Why did she call it her door anyway?) She turned back, wondering if she’d still be able to see it. The door to the Red Room was no more than a yard behind her. She shook her head and blinked. How weird; she could’ve sworn that she’d been walking in the hall for hours! It was the headache again, messing with her brain.

     She turned again to face this new door. It was like her own: heavy, paneled and white. The knob was different though, made of smooth glass, black as obsidian. She took it and turned it. The door swung open noisily. The owners should really take better care of their doors, she noted. The hinges need oil. She stuck her head into the room beyond.

     The room was small and had only two windows, unlike the Red Room. The curtains were silk, with a pattern of black and white diamond shapes so striking that they made her dizzy. The walls had a pattern of red and black hearts painted onto them. The shapes faced up and down, sideways and backwards, spinning and swirling until she wasn’t sure if the floor was the ceiling or vice versa. The black table and chairs in the center of the room were her only sources of orientation. She crept to the nearest chair and collapsed into it, burying her head in her hands while the colors and patterns spun and cavorted around her. Her head! Why did it have to hurt so much? Why couldn’t she think?

     She opened her eyes slowly, trying to ease herself into her overwhelming surroundings. I’ll look at the table first, she decided. I’ll study the table. Then I’ll look at the windows and get used to the windows. Then I will study the walls, but not too much. I can’t look at them too much. She let her eyes roam over the table, but not beyond its glossy black edges. The table was a long rectangle that extended from one side of the room to the other. There were matching chairs set at it, all empty. The table itself, however, was not. It was covered with millions of playing cards: Aces and Queens and Kings, Clubs and Hearts and Spades. The sight of them was dizzying, mimicking the motion of the walls and curtains, spinning her round and round and pushing her to and fro. She shut her eyes again. I hate this room! She screamed. Then she realized, for the first time, that for as long as she had been in the house she hadn’t said a word. She hadn’t even actually screamed. All her talking had been in her mind. That confused her, but it was a minor issue compared to the one at hand. She would think about talking after she got out of this horrible room.

      She willed her eyes open and stared down at the floor, hoping to see the creamy white carpet that had been in the Red Room. But instead, the floor was hard and painted, painted with the shapes of red and white spades. Her heart lurched. She stood suddenly and dashed toward the door in panic. She tripped on something, she didn’t know what, and fell onto her hands and knees. She moaned while the shapes danced and her head spun and the entire room seemed to be laughing at her, mocking her. She scrambled on all fours, her eyes fixed on the white door that was still open. She could see the hallway beyond, with all the ridiculous paintings plastered onto the wall. Her head felt as if it were split open. She wished she had stayed in the Red Room, in her room. She was almost to the door now. Why was her room red, anyhow? She didn’t even like red. At least, she didn’t think she did.

     She finally collapsed onto the floorboards of the hallway, the patterns of the Room of Cards still dancing wildly behind her. With one last burst of effort she grasped the obsidian handle and pulled the door shut with a resounding slam that echoed throughout the endless hallway. She threw herself against the hallway wall and covered her face with her trembling hands.

     When she finally calmed down the candles were burning low in the sconces and the shadows were growing darker. The air had grown colder, as if all heat had been sucked away. She reached for the obsidian doorknob and pulled herself up, slowly and stiffly. She wondered how long she had been sitting there. She felt as if she had fallen asleep.

     The hallway stretched on, as far as her eye could see. She contemplated going back to the Red Room to rest. The headache was still there. It annoyed her. Why wouldn’t it go away? I need to get out of this house, she thought. I don’t care what’s out there; I have to find a door and get out. She wondered again why she had thought these words instead of spoken them. I must not be able to talk, she decided. I don’t really want to anyway.

     She walked on, away from the Red Room and the horrible Room of Cards. She walked for a long time without coming upon another door. Her feet grew tired and her head began to throb with her tired pulse. Finally a door came into view. She ran to it eagerly. Perhaps this was the way out, or if not, perhaps there was someone who could show her the way! She grasped this door’s handle. It was made of stamped brass. It was cold in her hand, just like the door to the Red Room had been. She threw a glance toward the end of the hallway where she had just come from. The Red Room and the Room of Cards were only a few yards away.

     Her heart leapt to her throat and in fright she pushed open the new door. A new room greeted her, a huge one. Dark, glossy wooden floorboards were laid in a herringbone pattern that ran from her feet to the ends of the room, under a domed ceiling and crystal chandelier and past a great fireplace, until it met with burgundy walls. There was a roaring fire in the hearth, a fire that radiated warmth and light. This room was not like the Room of Cards. This room was friendly. Her head was feeling better; the throbbing was fainter now.

     She walked toward the center of the room. It’s a ballroom, she realized, and then she wondered what a ballroom was. There was something wrong, though. Ballrooms are supposed to be clear of furniture or obstacles to better make for dancing (Oh, that’s what a ballroom is). But in the middle of this dance floor, right under the chandelier, was a huge, polished grand piano. She knew what it was called before she remembered what it did, which was ridiculous. I’m losing my mind, she thought. I’ve never seen something like this before. How should I know what it’s called? She stroked the silky edge of the lid. Her fingers itched to touch the keys, and that frightened her. What would they do? They were black and white like the curtains in the Room of Cards. Would they spin and swirl and mock her too?

     She found herself sitting down on the soft cushioned bench. It was the strangest feeling in the world, as if her hands knew something she did not. Her fingers ran over the keys tenderly, exerting no pressure at all. The keys were smooth and cool. Ivory, she remembered suddenly, they’re made out of ivory.

     Her left hand automatically positioned itself. Her fingers set themselves upon the keys. She wondered what her hand was doing just as her right hand began to do the same thing. It found its place on the keyboard and waited for her command. She pursed her lips and studied her anticipating hands. Why don’t they move? She wondered. What are they waiting for? She exerted the tiniest bit of pressure, and suddenly her fingers began to move, pushing on the keys in an automated pattern like eerie clockwork. She was so surprised that for a moment she sat and stared as her hands kept on moving. Then slowly, she began to hear music. It wasn’t just a cacophony of keys being pounded upon; it was real, sweet, beautiful music, and she was making it.

     Her hands moved up and down the keyboard, trilling, harmonizing, singing. The sounds that came from the instrument were sounds she didn’t know a piano could make (how could she? She had never seen one before). The piano became a waterfall, a flock of singing birds, a thunderstorm, a summer breeze. The music wanted to make her laugh and cry and dance. Her heart welled with a feeling she couldn’t name.

     Then her heart stopped. A new sound had joined the sound of the piano. It was high and sweet and strong. She jerked her head swiftly from side to side, looking for the noise’s source in startled surprise. Her hands were still playing. What was that lovely noise? It complemented the piano perfectly. It was the mist to the waterfall, the plumage to the birds, the lighting to the thunderstorm, the perfume of the summer breeze. She held her breath; the sound stopped. She breathed in again, and it resumed. Then she realized that the sound was her own voice. She was singing. I can sing? It was beautiful. Where’d I learn to sing? It was the first time she had used her voice in this house. I need to get out of here. She must be dreaming. If only my head didn’t hurt so much!

      The singing stopped; the music stopped. She held her head. It was throbbing, and she was freezing. Her fingers were stiff and numb. No wonder they had stopped playing. She looked over to the hearth. The fire was reduced to a few glowing embers that were growing cold one by one. The heat was seeping out of this room, too, and the shadows were lengthening more and more. She was frightened. She couldn’t waste any more time in this horrible house. She had to leave.

      She raced down the corridor, away from the Red Room and the Room of Cards and the Ballroom. The air was getting colder and colder with each passing second. The candles in the sconces were burning out one by one. The hall behind her was drenched with darkness. Panic was beginning to overtake her, a fear she realized was unreasonable. But she ran faster, as if fear were something that could be outrun.

     A white door came into view on her right. She ran past it. I won’t waste my time on a nightmarish room. I need to find the front door. I need to get out of here. Another door was on her left. Does this house ever end? There were pictures all over the walls now, and they weren’t even in frames anymore. The walls were plastered with paintings and sketchings from the floor to the ceiling. She ignored them; she hated the sight of them. It was as if the walls were screaming to her, “Look at us! Look at our paintings! Aren’t we beautiful? Look at us!” They made her want to scream herself.

     Finally, a staircase going down. She grabbed the banister and jumped down two steps at a time. The lights in the hall behind were all extinguished, and the ones in the windowless stairwell were quickly being snuffed out. It was as if a Shadow was chasing her through the mad corridors. Her only option was to keep running.

     She got to the bottom of the staircase and found herself in a wide entry-like room. There was a huge red Persian rug in the center, and the rest of the room was taken up by clocks. Grandfather clocks, mantle clocks, cuckoo clocks and pocket watches all ticked together in perfect unison. It was enough to drive anyone mad. She clamped her hands over her ears. Her head throbbed with every resounding tick. The Shadow was on the staircase behind her, and the air was tinged with the scent of ice. Her eyes roved over the room, desperately searching for a window.

     There was only a door. Tall, white, and with a steel handle. She shivered, but the Shadow was behind her. She had no choice. She dashed across the room and pushed the door open, throwing it shut behind her. She could feel the Shadow against the door; the door grew cold as It tried to get in. But she wouldn’t let that Shadow get any further. She pushed the lock on the handle. The Shadow couldn’t get in now. She was safe.

     She turned to assess this new room. It was unlike any other in the house: it was completely white. The floor underfoot was made of shiny white tiles. The walls were painted white, with a feathery gray and white patterned border that ran around like a ribbon. The room had no windows but was brightly lit by harsh, sterile florescent light overhead. The place was empty except for a cluster of white curtains in the center. She took a step forward. The air was cold, but not icy. It was a coldness that was simply a sanitized emptiness. No warmth, not softness, no comfort. Just hard, sanitary emptiness.

     The air smelled odd. She sniffed and tried to place the scent. It was so familiar! But what could it be? She stepped forward and touched the thin white curtain. I know that smell. It’s the smell of something clean, no… she sniffed the curtain, it’s the smell of something that was dirty, that someone is trying to make clean. Disinfectant. It’s disinfectant. The curtain was drenched in that strong smell; in fact, the room was reeking with it now. Where is it coming from? Her head was hurting again. She pushed the curtains aside to reveal a white, cold, sterile bed. It was an odd bed, not at all like the sumptuous one in the Red Room (My room, I miss my room). This bed was metal, with weird white gates that rose up on either side, like a cage to keep someone out.

     Or maybe to keep someone in, she leaned in closer. The bed was empty, neatly made with a thin white blanket and pillow. She cocked her head and circled around it, puzzled. She had never seen such an odd bed. Oh wait, yes I have. It’s a hospital bed. She ran her finger over the plump pillow. What’s a hospital, anyway? She touched the clean white side table that had a little pot of purple orchids on it. Orchids, I like orchids. Especially purple ones. It’s nice to have color in a white place like this. I always said that if I were ever in the hospital they should get me purple orch –

     She stopped and bent down. Her heart was pounding and her head had begun to hurt again. (Why won’t this terrible headache go away?) The orchids. Purple orchids. She did like them, so much. They were her favorite flower. Purple was her favorite color. She hated red. (Why is my room red if I hate red?) And somebody knew she like purple orchids. Somebody had gotten them for her. This was a hospital bed; this was a hospital room. She was in it. She was in the hospital. And someone had gotten her purple orchids.

     She gently stroked the delicate flower petals, and then she stopped in shock. When did that get there? She looked at her left hand. Where did that come from? She held her fingers up to her face. Was that there this whole time? It was a ring on her third finger. It was a silver band that circled around her finger in intricate curls and weaves that surrounded a single, tiny diamond. At least, that’s what she thought the stone was called. It was white.

     She had forgotten about the ring. She had forgotten she even owned it, that it was even on her finger. She wondered how she could have forgotten it. Looking at it made her happy, warm, content. She smiled and tasted salt on her lips. She reached up and touched her face. It was wet. She was crying.

     What is this? What am I crying for? She didn’t know she was capable of crying. She didn’t know what crying was until she had done it. Why should I be so sad? She looked that the ring again, hoping it would bring up the joyful feelings again. But she only tasted more tears, and her shoulders began to shake. She cried harder and harder until she was sobbing, and she still didn’t know why.

      Her head had ached during her whole time in this awful house, but now it throbbed more and more with each sob. She had never hurt so much in her life, at least not that she could remember. The pain was excruciating. The pain made her angry. She wanted an explanation. Why did she have such a headache? Why was she crying? Where was she? She wanted to go home!

      “Home,” she moaned, not noticing the sound of her own voice. She collapsed onto the white bed. She needed a rest. She needed to sleep. Maybe if she slept her head would stop hurting. Maybe she’d understand what was going on. She’d rather go to her own room and rest, but it was so far away. And the Shadow was outside too; she’d have to outrun It and she was too tired to run. And anyway, her room was red. She hated red.  She burrowed underneath the thin white blanket and snuggled against the plump white pillow. She shut her eyes. Sleep came upon her like a piece of granite.

     She slept on for hours and hours, or at least it seemed so to her. It was the best sleep she had ever had, from what she could remember, which wasn’t much. As time went on she heard voices, distant, echoing in her brain. She propped one eye open. All she saw was a blur of dark colors that looked like a watercolor gone wrong. She closed her eyes again. Her head still hurt. She slept again. More hours passed. She slept more.

     It felt like days, weeks, or years later when she felt herself coming back into consciousness. She could hear the voices again, becoming clearer and clearer. She had been swimming in the deep waters of sleep and was slowly coming back to the surface. The one voice was very intelligible now; it was youthful and deep. A man’s voice, she decided, though she didn’t know what a man was. Oh wait, yes she did.

     “It’s been three weeks now,” the man said anxiously. Her heart skipped a beat. That voice! She knew that voice!

     “There’s still hope,” answered another voice, a woman’s voice, but I don’t know it. “It happens all the time. They’re under for weeks or even months and then they come back.”

     “What if she doesn’t come back?” asked the man. Oh! I know him! I know I do! “It’s been so long already.” Ugh, who is he? Why can’t I remember? “Three weeks. For three weeks the clock has ticked and the hours have passed and she hasn’t shown any sign of coming back.” Who is he? If this wretched headache would only leave me alone!

     “She will,” reassured the woman’s voice. “I promise, she will.”

     “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he retorted dejectedly. He’s crying now. Why is he crying? I don’t want him to cry!

     “Listen to me,” the woman’s voice grew firm. “She’ll come through it. The doctor specializes in cases like this. And he’s very hopeful. She’ll come through. Just stay positive. Be strong, be strong for her.”

     “I’m sorry I snapped at you like that.” The man sniffed and cleared his throat. “It’s just hard to put a brave face on something like this.”

     “I understand; believe me I do.”

     “I just can’t believe it,” his voice was shaking. “We were on our way to New York, you know, visiting the museums and concert halls. She wanted to see The Met. She loves art, you know. Her favorite art is nature stuff, like Monet. She can draw pretty well herself, too. She’s done all these paintings, mostly woods or animals or flowers. Never people. She says she can’t do them well enough. She takes awesome pictures, though. I’ve always told her she should be a professional at it.”

     There was a squeak of chairs as the woman sat down.

     The man went on. “She wanted to see a Broadway play, in New York. She loves music. She’s an amazing musician. Her piano playing could put any of those concert guys to shame. This one time, she was playing at a wedding. Her cousin’s, I think. There was supposed to be a singer, too; they had rehearsed together the night before. But at last minute the singer got sick. I don’t remember how. But she… she sang in that singer’s place; she sang and played. It was beautiful. She was so beautiful.” He began to cry again. No, no, please don’t cry! It hurts me when you cry! Stop!

     “But anyway.” He composed himself. “That was gonna be our big trip, New York. Our summer vacation. Last summer we went to visit my brother in Florida. He’s got a house on the beach. We stayed there for a week on the beach; it was great. We stayed up all night playing cards until we were so tired we laughed ourselves silly. She hated that, though. The cards. She could never understand Poker or anything. She always lost, never even had beginner’s luck. She claimed that the cards were mocking her.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “Maybe they were. Maybe they were unlucky cards.”

      “Now now, don’t say that,” said the woman. “There’s no such thing. She’ll come through, just wait and see. And next year you can take another vacation, another wonderful vacation.”

     His voice quivered. “Maybe, I don’t know. I can’t go through that again! I can’t do that again!”

     “What do you mean?”
“The car! The car was all torn and twisted and crushed! And she was inside it! Why couldn’t it have been my side? Why couldn’t she have been driving, instead of me? My side was fine! I had a few scratches and bruises, but otherwise I was fine! It was just that idiot on her side; I’d wring his neck if he were still alive. I’m almost glad he’s not.”

     The woman was silent.

     “But it was horrible!” His voice trembled sadly, angrily. “The car all twisted, she all bloody, all… all hurt.” His voice reduced to a whisper. “Her head was hurt, really bad. Covered in blood. I’ll never look at the color red the same way again.”

     I don’t like red either! But my room is red, and I hate it! I hate it!

     “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted, sounding lost. “What if she doesn’t wake up?”
“She will,” the woman said, her voice shaking. “She will.”

     He began to answer, but stopped, choking on his words. Please don’t be sad! Please don’t cry! I love you! Please don’t cry!

     Her head was hurting again, pressing, pounding, burning. She felt herself drifting back into sleep. No, please no! I need to talk to that man! I know that man! I love that man! She was being pulled under, into the deep again, into the dark water. She thrashed and struggled and squirmed. Her head pounded with the rhythm of her heartbeats. Please don’t send me back into that house! I don’t want to go back! It’s so quiet! I’m so alone! Please!

     Her eyes fluttered open, and for a moment all she saw was a blur of dark colors that looked like a watercolor gone wrong. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. There was such an ache in her head, such an awful ache that wouldn’t go away. She opened her eyes again and tried to make sense of her surroundings. The room was dark, and rain beat against the curtained windows with the sound of hundred heartbeats. Her head pounded. What an ache! What an awful ache that wouldn’t go away!

Apple Peel

Welcome back to Tuesday, friends! It’s hard to believe that it’s already here again. These weeks go by so fast, which we know, and yet nothing’s been done about it! You’d think the days would realize that we were on to them. :o) 

Today I wanted to share a short story I’ve been working on. It’s a bit rough, but I hope it’s still enjoyable. Plop yourself down, partake in a nice soothing mug of coffee or tea (you’ll see why), and take a few minutes out of your busy Tuesday to hear a story. Who doesn’t love storytime every once and a while?

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Apple Peel

She kept squinting and adjusting her glasses. She’d had them for over a decade and her sister kept nagging at her to get new ones.

      “You can’t see, Genevieve,” Eleanor said every Tuesday, when they shared lunch in the local café. “It’s high time you go see Doctor McGill, if you ask me.”

     “Well I didn’t ask you,” Genevieve retorted, clearing her ever-congested throat. Her voice had a warble to it, she knew. Once it had been high and musical, but now it was low and loose. It was just a part of getting older. You can’t live eighty years on the earth and not have some battle scars to show for it. “Besides, I can see just fine. And Doctor McGill doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I keep telling him I don’t need new glasses, but he insists over and over that I need my prescription changed. I’m telling you, these young doctors have a lot of nerve. I can see just fine.”

     Eleanor didn’t ever believe her, but she pressed her dark red, prim lips together and rolled her blue eyes. And that was that.

     Now it was Wednesday and Genevieve was trying to order hot tea from the café. She was the only one in line, which suited her fine because it took her a long time to decide on what she wanted. The tea selections at the café were numerous and diverse, and it took particular discernment and skill to choose the right one.

     Genevieve had once decided that the people who said they didn’t like tea were horribly ignorant, because any educated person knows that there is not a single kind of tea to like or dislike. If you say you don’t like coffee, well, it’s a shame for you, but tea is much different. There are myriads of types, blends, and flavors, and if you dislike one, then you dislike that one. But to throw out the whole world of tea just because of one un-liked flavor is to be prejudiced and uninformed. As it was, Genevieve liked all kinds of tea; every blend had a distinct flavor and she tasted and savored them as some people taste and savor different wines.

     Her very favorite was called “Star of Persia”, and it was a simple black tea with a hint of vanilla and tiny red sugar crystals mixed in with the tea leaves. When the tea was prepared, the sugar melted, making sweet red streaks in earthy brown liquid.

      Gunpowder green tea was another favorite; it had a hearty, strong, and yet somehow delicate flavor because the green leaves were rolled tightly, compacted into tiny dried spheres. Genevieve usually chose gunpowder green after she had been reading articles in health magazines on the benefits of green tea. In her mind the healthy tea made up for the enormous blueberry muffin she always got when she visited the café.

     Those two weren’t the only teas of course; there were the usual white tea, oolong, rooibos, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, lemon, chai, berry, fennel, and peppermint. (She chose the latter two whenever she was on her way home after having tests done at the hospital, because the tests gave her a nauseous feeling afterward.)

     The tea choices were many, and so it was difficult to pick a specific one. And on this rainy, gray Wednesday afternoon in the almost empty café, Genevieve was having a hard time choosing. The barista at the counter was a tall, skinny guy, with wiry orange hair and blotchy freckles. His wire glasses magnified his blue eyes and they were bent, leaning off to one side, but they were balanced by his bony, crooked nose that leaned off to the other side. His large front teeth bulged out more the longer he smiled, and he smiled more the longer Genevieve took to decide on a tea.

      But it was so hard to decide, because the menu up on the wall, up above the skinny barista’s orange head, had such small letters! Genevieve could have sworn that last week the letters were much bigger. The barista shuffled nervously as Genevieve continued to adjust her glasses and squint at the menu.

     “The menu is too hard to read,” she warbled with a chuckle that was more like a snort.

      The skinny barista looked up confusedly. “W-would ya like a paper menu, ma’am?”

      “No, no!” Genevieve scoffed. “I can see just fine. But you should let your manager know that the menu up there is too small. It could be hard for some people, who can’t see so well.”

     The skinny barista nodded vigorously. “So… what’ll it be?”

     Genevieve sighed in frustration and set her heavy black purse down on the counter. “Star of Persia, I suppose. For here.”

      “Yes ma’am, coming right up.” The relieved skinny barista punched some numbers into the register. “That’ll be one-fifty.”
“One-fifty?” Genevieve gasped, gripping her wallet. “It was one-thirty-five yesterday!”

      “We had to change the price, ma’am,” the skinny barista quaked in his high tops. “The tea company jacked up the prices.”

     “Well you’d better change the menu then,” Genevieve said grudgingly as she counted out the money. “Some people might not like to have to pay more money than the menu says.”

     “B-but the menu says one-fifty,” the skinny barista stammered. “We changed it just last night.”

     Genevieve looked up and squinted. “Oh.” Maybe if the letters weren’t so darn small, it’d be easier to see!

     She sat at a little round table in front of the window and watched the traffic outside in the rain. Cars splashed through puddles in the potholes of Gingko Street, and Genevieve wondered why on earth the city didn’t fix those potholes. “It’s ridiculous, that’s what,” she muttered to herself. “How do they expect people to come to this town if they can’t even get around without popping a tire? No wonder the economy is so bad.”

      Frustrated with the incompetence of the city council, Genevieve turned her attention indoors. The skinny barista was hurrying around the kitchen, putting the loose tea into a tiny silk bag and preparing the mug. Genevieve watched closely to make sure he added the perfect ratio of tea leaves to sugar crystals. She hated it when the tea was too bitter or too sweet.

      He was a nice young man, she decided, but a little gangly. He reminded her of the one boy she had dated in high school. Dated for a few years, but never married. After graduation he had gone off to school in Virginia and stayed there for the first four years of medical school. He’d sent Genevieve a few letters, the last of which told her he had found a new girlfriend, one who more completely shared his interests. Genevieve didn’t care, of course; he was entirely too ridiculous and undignified for her anyway. Her mother had raised her and Eleanor to be gracious and ladylike, as befitted their fortunate position in life. So Genevieve had stayed in the big sandstone family home on one of the hills in their tiny town, filling her days with ladies auxiliary meetings, concerts, sight-seeing, and visiting the café.

     She snapped out of her reminiscing and turned her attention back to the skinny barista, who was pouring the boiling water into the mug. Some of the scalding water spilled onto his thumb and he dropped the teapot to the floor. It shattered and he ran to the back room to bathe his thumb in some cold water and Neosporin. Genevieve scoffed. Poor kid. It wasn’t his fault he was so inept. The longer she lived the more she realized that people these days were much more incompetent than the people of days gone by. In earlier years, the baristas at the café were elegant and poised. Making coffee, tea, and pastries was an art to them, and the men who stood at attention behind the café counters steamed their milk and brewed their tea with the same finesse and grace that a painter or musician would show. Now everyone and their brother could be hired for the job.

     Genevieve sighed and rubbed her eyes. They’d been more irritated lately, red and itchy and dry. But she was sure it was nothing; she just needed to drink more water like it said in the health magazines. It wasn’t nearly as serious a problem as Eleanor or Doctor McGill would like her to believe. It was just a part of getting older. Goodness! She thought to herself. Was it a crime to get older? Couldn’t she accomplish it without everyone making a fuss?

     The skinny barista startled her by setting a cup of tea in front of her. “Sorry for the wait ma’am,” he said. “Tea’s still hot.”

     Genevieve saw the bandage on his finger and smiled. “It’s quite fine, young man,” she said. The words themselves were nicer than the way she said them. Her smile wasn’t the nicest one in the world, either, but it was the best she could manage. The skinny barista nodded with a quick, jerking movement and smiled idiotically.

     “Thank ya, ma’am,” he said, and Genevieve noticed for the first time that there was a stain between two of his teeth, a dark, shiny stain that made her insides cringe. But, like a lady, she kept composure and only subtly inched her tea away from his direction.

     “That’ll be all,” she said briskly, as if dismissing a butler. The skinny barista nodded quickly again, and with a rather confused look on his face he walked back to the counter in long, bouncing strides.

      Genevieve had never been so disgusted in all her eighty years. For the life of her she couldn’t understand how she hadn’t seen it before! There were a lot of lowlifes in this town, a lot of people who were poor and had never been educated in proper hygiene. Here he had a serious dental infection that could have been avoided by good daily tooth brushing! Where had his parents been all his life? Probably nonexistent to him, she imagined, off doing other things and too busy to properly look after their child. It wasn’t the poor kid’s fault, she decided, but it did explain why he was so inept. But it didn’t explain why on earth the owners of the café would allow him to work here! Here, of all places! This café had the reputation as the classiest place in town, and in a town this small and this poor, it was a reputation worth protecting.

     The more she sipped her Star of Persia tea (it was a tad too sweet), the more irate Genevieve got. The nerve of that kid! How indicative of his culture and generation he was: lazy, inattentive, and unmotivated! How he had had the initiative to even get a job was beyond her. Because of his age, he was undoubtedly an addict of some sort; she imagined him smoking in the alley behind the café on his break. And there was no denying that he most likely was late to work every day. His work uniform – those nicely washed jeans, crisp white button-down, and red sneakers – he must have bought it at some thrift store. Genevieve would bet anything that they were the only clean clothes he owned. The only ones without holes, too. The poor kid.

     She finished her tea and gazed out at the window. The rain was beginning to let up and some yellow rays of sunlight glimmered in the windows of the library, bank, and theatre across the street. The charcoal-black pavement, the little crocus and ivy garden in front of the library, the ginkgo trees lining the street with their green fan-shaped leaves, everything was still soaking wet, but the birds were singing. Genevieve sighed.

     It really wasn’t the kid’s fault. He’d been born of poor parents, in an obscure little town somewhere in the mountains, with no opportunity beyond a job at a café. Her heart was moved with pity for him. She wished there was something she could do. But of course, there wasn’t. Because if she gave some help to this one kid, people would start to think she was out to give help to everyone, and she’d be locked into some sort of society or trust fund. It is a shame how much people will assume.

     Genevieve stood and took her mug to the counter. She decided to give the skinny barista a generous tip. Not fifteen percent, and not twenty, but a dollar! A whole dollar; that was almost a seventy-five percent tip! Genevieve deposited three quarters, two dimes, and one nickel into the tip jar on the counter. The skinny barista, hearing the clink of the coins from where he was eating his lunch in the back room, came out with an apple in hand.

     “Thank ya much, Ma’am!” came his voice, muffled between bites of apple.

     “You are very welcome, young man,” she smiled as warmly as she could and gathered up her things to leave.

     Just before she slipped out the door, Genevieve paused and looked back at him. He was partially hidden behind the espresso machine, critically beholding his own reflection. She shook her head ruefully and began to turn away, when –

     “Gosh darnit,” the skinny barista said to himself, “that’s what I hate about apples. Ya always get peel in your teeth!” and grasping a toothpick from the little glass dish on the counter, he cleaned between his perfectly whole, clean teeth.

     Suddenly noticing Genevieve standing on the threshold, on the line between inside and out, he straightened and grinned, showing those oversized pearly whites of his. “Anything I can help ya with ma’am?” he asked uncertainly.

     “No, no…” Genevieve’s voice died on her throat. “I-it’s just, the apple peel.”

     And she walked out of the café.

Mr. Barton Seeks a Wife

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s one of my favorites because it is modeled after the classic Victorian story in which there is a nice tidy plot, a moral lesson, and a happily ever after. When I was little my favorite books were by Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and my favorite writing style is still the quaint, fairlytale-like storytelling of those old authors. As a writer in the modern world, I have been educated to not write that way, but it still pops out sometimes, like the seed of a touch-me-not. So, in order to both satirize and celebrate Victorian literature, I give you

Mr. Barton Seeks a Wife

In New York City around the turn of the century there lived a wealthy bachelor named Daniel Harold Arthur Barton. He went by “Dan” to his card playing mates or simply by “Mr. Barton” to the general public. He was around thirty years old, with dark, unruly hair, a clean-shaven face, eyes the color of blueberries, and a tall, well-formed figure. He wore the most expensive clothes in the latest fashions, and lived in the finest mansion on Madison Avenue. At that time he was considered the most famous rich man in the country, but no one remembers him now, even though the famous millionaires of that era had nothing on Mr. Barton. Mr. Barton was a blueblood; his money was old money. John Rockefeller only owned a socialist oil company. Mr. Barton’s family had been wealthy for hundreds of years, back in England where the Barton name had been synonymous with prosperity. And when his ancestors had come to America, they only did so to exchange their hundreds of thousands of British pounds into American dollars. It was in America that they had really become, as the saying goes, filthy rich. Andrew Carnegie only owned steel companies and built libraries and had half the buildings in Pittsburgh named after him.

Mr. Barton’s life story is simple to tell. His parents raised him to be a typical spoiled, whiny, greedy brat of a rich boy, and when they died in an accident during their son’s sixteenth year, they foolishly left him all the money. Thanks to Hugh, the loyal family butler, Mr. Barton was advised to save some of his fortune; otherwise in his youth the wealth would have been squandered. So he finished school and went on to college, soon quitting because (as he said), “it was too strict”, although other sources have indicated that he got expelled because of his general lack of respect for authority. At any rate, he then went on to the military, because he had heard how glamorous it is to be a rich military man. But he left that soon after starting, because it was stricter than college. So he returned to New York and spent his days throwing parties at the lavish Barton estate. By now (and by some freak of nature) he had become quite responsible with money, so he always wisely kept it in the bank to collect interest. He invested in oil, in steel, and in coal, all booming industries, and owned one or two factories. But as of yet no one had named any buildings after him, because for some reason no one wanted to.

On the evening of his thirtieth birthday he stretched himself on a chaise, lit a cigar, and considered himself a very successful young gentleman. But, he remarked to Hugh, how he felt that something was missing! And he couldn’t imagine why, with all his money and property, he would be seeking something else, but he was. He felt all empty. What a conundrum! So he pondered it and pondered it, until one night at 3 am he sat up in bed and snapped his fingers. That was it! Every successful young gentleman had a wife! That was the missing factor! So the next morning after breakfast he sent a message to be printed in the New York Times.

Mr. Barton Seeks a Wife.

That was it, for as you know, Mr. Barton was very wise with money and had no intention of wasting it on a classified ad. But the simple sentence was enough. As I said before, everyone in New York knew of Mr. Barton, so there was no need to illuminate on the details. Suddenly the papers christened him the “most eligible rich bachelor in New York”, somehow forgetting their former criticism of his wishy-washy lifestyle. News spread quickly of his intent on marriage, as such news always does. And soon every young maiden of New York’s upper class found it expedient to call on Mr. Barton. Every day from one to three there was a line of well-dressed ladies outside the huge front doors of Barton Manor (his estate, the one building named after him), a line that stretched from those doors to the street, winding its way through the circular driveway and pristine lawn and out Mr. Barton’s wrought-iron front gate.

The first day the callers came, Mr. Barton was delighted at the number. Surely there was chance of him finding a wife among these wealthy ladies! The very first caller was Mr. Rockefeller’s daughter Alta, who was about Mr. Barton’s age and had apparently had no luck with love yet. She was dressed in the very finest of walking ensembles: a tailored jacket and skirt of muted pastel green trimmed with fine white lace, an art nouveau brooch pinned on one lapel of the coat, a pair of soft white leather gloves buttoned with pearls, and a spectacular hat. It was angle-brimmed, made of white plush, decorated on the crown with a wide green ribbon, and garnished with millinery flowers of soft orange, blue, pink and yellow. A mist of fine lace settled over her chapeau, wound around it and lingering over her face. The general effect was very elegant and breathtaking. Mr. Barton was quite overcome.

So he offered his caller a seat, and she sat on a fine brocade settee with her back to the front window of the parlor. For a while neither of them said anything, but instead smiled politely and a little awkwardly at each other. Finally Mr. Barton considered it appropriate to begin, as he was, after all, the one who had instigated the meeting.

“Well, Miss Rockefeller, I trust you have had a pleasant afternoon.”

“Indeed, Mr. Barton,” Alta replied.

“And what, if I may ask, are your interests these days?”
“Oh, not much, I am afraid. As it is summer, you know, almost everyone else is out of town. There is hardly anyone to talk to, except of course yourself. I have begged Papa to return to one of our estates out of town for the hot summer months, but he is too busy here.”

“Yes, yes, but – ” Mr. Barton swallowed, “What do you like?”

“I like our home in Cleveland very much, only it is often stormy, it being on the lake…”

“I can imagine. What, um…” Mr. Barton decided to try a different approach. “How do you spend your time in Cleveland?”

“Well, I enjoy parties.”

“Capital! So do I!” Mr. Barton felt relieved.

“That is to say, I only enjoy parties if they are very grand. I attended Miss Vanderbilt’s cotillion several years ago, and it was dreadfully shoddy. It seemed as if her father was only a millionaire, not the billionaire I know him to be.”

Mr. Barton gulped. He had enjoyed the Vanderbilt cotillion very much; Mr. Vanderbilt had actually spent more on that party than Mr. Barton usually spent on two parties combined. But he had little time to reflect on this, because Miss Rockefeller kept speaking.

“So where else do you make your home, Mr. Barton? I mean where are your various estates?”

“Well, I spend most of my time here in New York, of course, but whenever it strikes my fancy I like to travel down South. I have a house in Aiken, South Carolina. It’s a very nice little town, rather quaint and quiet, with a large horseracing community. I own a few thoroughbreds myself.

Miss Rockefeller gasped. “You don’t say?” The disgust on her face was evident. “I am simply amazed that such a nice man as yourself would be interested in horse racing. I see it as a horrendous gamble and a dreadful waste of time. And horses are so dirty!”

“Yes, I suppose they are… compared to humans, of course. But then again, one can’t expect them to be as clean as we are,” Mr. Barton tried to defend his good faith in the members of the animal kingdom. But Miss Alta was by no means convinced of their merit and presently rose, stating,

“I believe, Mr. Barton, that I should take no more of your precious time, especially as there are other young ladies who are waiting to meet you.” Her emphasis on the word other gave Mr. Barton a strange feeling of mingled disappointment and relief. Miss Rockefeller soon left, and Mr. Barton said to himself:

“It’s a shame that it didn’t work out with Alta. But she likes grander parties than I could afford, and anyway, she doesn’t like horses. I suppose this is for the best. The marriage would have been rocky anyway.”

For the remainder of that day and of the days that followed, Mr. Barton met with many high society ladies from New York and the surrounding area. As word spread, wealthy ladies came from further away: from Chicago, Asheville, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Soon Mr. Barton began to regret the sentence he had put in the paper. He had only intended to find a few local women, not every rich girl in the country. But, as the French say, c’est la vie. He had made the decision and was determined to stick it out. It couldn’t hurt. He was plenty on time, and if what they say is true, that time is money; well, he was plenty on that too.

After a few weeks of having callers five days each week (thank goodness that ladies observe weekends when they chase suitors!), Mr. Barton was tired and with half a mind to put a “do not disturb” sign on the front gate. One evening, after a particularly exhausting day, Mr. Barton collapsed onto his chaise, gasped at a cigar, and considered himself a very unfortunate young gentleman. “What is it, Hugh,” he remarked to the butler, “that is so difficult about finding a woman? One would think that a rich man such as myself should have no trouble in that respect. Well, upon second thought, I suppose I have no trouble attracting women, while I have considerable trouble choosing one who suits me.”

After letting his master talk out his troubles, Hugh offered his rarely sought and yet very sage advice: “Perhaps, Master Daniel, instead of finding a wife to suit yourself, it would be wise to find one whom you suit well.”

Mr. Barton gawked and congratulated Hugh on his excellent counsel, even though the poor rich man only had a vague idea of what the butler had actually said. But at least it was something to go on. And throughout the entire evening Mr. Barton repeated the ambiguous phrase over and over, purposing that it should stick to him, and that he would remember it through the night. And he did, falling asleep dreaming about a woman whom he suited well, yet still not knowing quite what sort of a woman that was. Then, waking suddenly from his dreams, he sat up in bed at 3 am and snapped his fingers.

“Ah, I see now!” he exclaimed. “The trick is not to find a woman to make me happy, but one whom I could bring happiness to!” Then he lay back down, fell back asleep, and began to dream of a small, petit, shabbily clad woman with dark brown hair and eyes and a small, elfin face that had no smile. And in his dreams Mr. Barton bought her pink roses and chocolates and took her to the opera. And she smiled wide and her eyes sparkled like diamonds. And Mr. Barton had never been so happy.

When he awoke, he found the sun shining through the silk curtains of his room and it gave him even fresher resolve than he had had at 3 am. He donned his gentleman’s robe and went straight downstairs for a quick breakfast, the quickest he had ever eaten. He then hurried back to his room to dress in fine black trousers, a crisp oxford shirt, a burgundy silk vest and a black silk tie under a black suit jacket, glistening patent leather shoes, and a shiny top hat. On his way down the staircase he buttoned on some white gloves and stuck a white carnation in his suit coat buttonhole. The general effect was that of a very wealthy, well-mannered gentleman, of which Mr. Barton was very much the former and working toward being the latter.

He went out the side door of the mansion, to the little portico where a carriage sat waiting for him. He entered it, and it took him down the cobblestone drive past dozens of ladies and out the wrought-iron gates to the brick streets of New York.

“Drive slower, please,” he begged the driver, “and can’t you go to a poorer section of town?” The poor driver was not prepared for such orders. He had been taught that time was money, so naturally men with money must be short on time and could not waste it driving about in the streets. And furthermore, it went against every ounce of wealthy-family-chauffeur training to take a rich employer to the lowest part of town. But he did, because what was part of wealthy-family-chauffeur training was doing as you’re told.

So they came to the dirty slums. There were sagging tenement buildings, garbage and mud puddles in the streets, and a cold dampness that hung in the air and clung to the buildings and the people outside them. Even the sky overhead seemed dirty gray, though it had been nicely blue just a while ago. Some grubby children ran by with a makeshift ball, involved in a sort of game. Soiled, tired faces peeped out of the dusty windows, and high up some work-worn women were pulling the laundry in from the line.

“Do stop, please,” said Mr. Barton to his driver. “I would like to walk.”

The driver almost suffered a stroke. “Y-yes sir. Shall I wait here?”

“No thank you, I’ll just walk home.”

The driver audibly gasped, but Mr. Barton didn’t notice. He had already set out among the street, his hands clasped behind his back, observing the New York slums as if he were observing paintings at the Louvre. He was quite overcome by the sights he was now seeing, even more overcome than he had been the day Miss Rockefeller had called. He realized that he had never walked in New York; he had taken a few strolls in the park, yes, but he had never actually walked the streets. He had only passed by quickly in the carriage, never seeing the tiny details that make up life. And he saw that he had bypassed all which was important – people and their feelings – to reach what he had once thought was important – money and prestige. But he didn’t think those things so important now.

Everyone he passed looked upon him in wonderment. Who was this rich man who walked with so contemplative an air and who seemed unconcerned that he was out of place? He didn’t bother to avoid the puddles or skirt around the dirty children or shy away from the darkest alleys. He only walked, distracted by the sheer unfamiliarity of it all.

He came upon a dark, run down tenement with most of the windows broken and boarded up. The front door was boarded shut, but next to it was a little stone staircase that led down to a beaten basement door. The little patch of pavement that served for this door’s porch was wet and muddy like the rest, but on it was set several stone pots and a few glass jars. In all these containers were planted flowers: pink roses, climbing morning glories, violets, and daisies. Mr. Barton gazed upon the little garden with awe. He had seen many grand and famous gardens, but this one seemed to surpass all of them. It was probably because of its location. This garden offered the sole piece of color and beauty that could be found in such a dark, hopeless place, and this made it all the more beautiful.

Mr. Barton had just thought this when the battered door opened to let out a young lady: a small, petit, shabbily clad woman with dark brown hair and eyes and a small, elfin face that had no smile. Mr. Barton’s heart suddenly stopped beating and then began beating again, only to seem to burst with excitement and happiness. This was she! This was the girl of his dreams, literally of his dreams!

She stopped, surprised to see such an evidently wealthy man at her doorstep. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked in a kind, soft, and rather worried voice.

“No, I mean yes, I mean…” Mr. Barton, for the first time in his life, was tongue-tied. “I mean, what a lovely garden, miss.”

“Thank you. May I ask what brings you here?” her brow wrinkled.

“I am… on an errand.”

“Oh?” her brows raised.

“Yes, and I came by here on it.”

“I see.”

“Yes.” He nodded.

A silence followed that was rather awkward, she unsure of his sanity and he unsure of it as well.

“Well sir, I mustn’t keep you from your errand…” she finally said.

“Oh, you are not at all,” he replied.

She looked confused.

“Ah, what I mean to say is, is that you actually were the errand.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Well, it is a rather long story, so perhaps I should begin by introducing myself.”

“Perhaps you should.” A smile teased the corners of her mouth.

“My name is Daniel Barton. Have you heard of me?”

“Why, of course! Who hasn’t? Forgive me for not noticing sooner!” she looked worried again.

“Oh, hang that!” he responded. “I don’t mind at all. I rather like not being noticed for once.”

“I suppose that lately you’ve been getting a lot of attention.”

“Oh, so you have heard about the, um, contest?”

“Oh yes. Everyone has.”

“Well, yes. That brings me to my errand.”

“And what is that, Mr. Barton?”

“Finding a wife.”

She started. “I should think that you of all people would have no trouble in that regard.”

“That’s what I thought too! But when all the ladies came and told me about themselves, I realized that I did not suit them.”

“What do you mean?” asked the girl, tilting her head.

“I mean that they don’t really want husbands; they want lap dogs or bodyguards or benefactors. They don’t want a friend to spend their lives with, to be happy with.”

“I can imagine that,” she replied, nodding. “But what does this have to do with me?”

Mr. Barton inhaled, his heart hammering. Gone was all his dashing wit and grandeur. In its place was terrified excitement. “Well, miss, I hope that you would consent to being my wife.”

She almost suffered a stroke.

Me?” she finally sputtered. “Oh Mr. Barton, what are you talking about? You only met me a few minutes ago! And I’m poor as dirt. What could a rich man like you want with me?”

Mr. Barton thought a moment. “Do you like pink roses?”

She stared. “Yes.”

“Do you like chocolates?”

“More than anything.”

“Do you like the opera?”

“I’ve never gone, but from what I’ve heard it must be divine.”

“Do you think you could love me?”

“I think I already do.”

“And why do you think that?”

She bit her lip and pondered. “Because you are so very kind. And because I think that you are very friendly and happy and good-hearted.”

“If it helps, I believe I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“Oh?”

“And I fell in love with you at once.”

She smiled and bowed her head a little, unsure of what to say.

“Well? What of it?” he asked, reaching for her hand. “Marry me?”

She laughed and gave her hand to him. “Of course, Mr. Barton! I will!”

And so she ducked back inside her little apartment and came back out with a carpetbag filled with the few little treasures she owned. And she and Mr. Barton walked arm in arm toward his mansion, which was quite a long way but of course it didn’t seem at all like it because they were in love. And it was only after about two miles that Mr. Barton suddenly stopped and asked what her name was. And she smiled wide and her eyes sparkled like diamonds as she told him that her name was Lenora Beecher. This settled, they walked on.

When they came to the mansion, the line of ladies was still stretched across the lawn, even though Mr. Barton had been gone over three hours. As he and Lenora walked down the driveway, he greeted the ladies one by one very matter-of-factly. And one by one the ladies turned, staring, gaping at the little lady on Mr. Barton’s arm. She flushed a little, but it was enough to render her perfectly beautiful. And all the ladies whispered to themselves on who this shabby-but-stunning street waif could be.

Mr. Barton came to the front door, and Hugh let him and Lenora in. Then the door was shut again, leaving the crowd of women completely befuddled. Inside the house Mr. Barton introduced the butler to his future wife, and Hugh like her immediately. Then Mr. Barton commanded that new clothes be ordered for her and that she be shown to the finest guestroom. Then Mr. Barton hurried to the parlor and on his shiny new telephone he rang up the parson and explained the whole ordeal, setting the wedding for the following day. Then he sent a message to be printed in the New York Times:

Mr. Barton found a wife.

The next morning every wealthy young lady in the country found the need to be struck with a sick headache and confined to bed. Even Mr. Barton’s card playing mates were skeptical. But at the wedding Lenora was so sweet and kind and lovely in every perceptible way that everyone (with exception to Mr. Barton’s former admirers) was immediately won over.

And so Mr. and Mrs. Barton lived happily; not ever after, because of course it is not realistic to expect every married couple to completely adore each other all the time, but as a rule they were very happy and very suited to one another. Mr. Barton gave his money to create schools for the poor children in town, and he and Lenora worked with them every day. Mr. Barton found that he really loved working with children, and he was also glad to finally have a building named after him. He and Lenora also went to the slums and fixed up the old melancholy buildings into beautiful, stately ones. But their lives were not completely full of charitable activities. There were leisurely ones too. Mr. Barton helped his wife plant a huge garden in back of the mansion, where most of the flowers were pink roses. And every Sunday after church they had picnics in the park, eating nothing but chocolates. And when Mr. Barton took his wife to the opera, she thought it was divine. And she smiled wide and her eyes sparkled even brighter than the diamonds that she wore.

And Mr. Barton had never been so happy.

Thanks for reading!

Hannah