Check

For a moment, she considered it.

The cashier was a woman, not a 17-year-old guy.  Check.

No one ahead of her.  Check.

Then she made a sweep with her eyes of the contents in her cart.

Less than 20.  Or was it 15?  Wait . . . 12.  No.  That’s crazy.  It’s 20.  It’s 20 items or less, and I have less than 20 items.  Check.

But then she saw the Self-Checkout Lanes.

Shining like the proverbial pearly gates of heaven with an angelic choir, the allure of buying groceries privately with no social interaction whatsoever was too strong.  She passed the cashier that wasn’t a 17-year-old guy.  She passed the No-Wait, 20 (or maybe 15) Items or Less Lane.

A conversation in which she didn’t have to answer was too great a promise.

“Welcome valued customer.”

“Are you using your own bags?”

“Scan your item.  Then place your item in the bagging area.”

The first item she plucked from the cart was a red pepper with a bar code sticker on its skin.  She carefully held it above the scanner, waiting for the red laser lines visible through the glass plate of the metal surface to do their job.  Technology is wonderful, she thought.

She continued to hold it, but there was no familiar chime.

She turned it over in.  She smoothed the sticker in case a tiny fold or crease was the culprit of failure.  She even gently pressed the pepper against the surface of the scanner, to no avail.

“Did you pick self-checkout,” said a real and decidedly male voice behind her, “so you didn’t have to interact with anyone?”

“Maybe,” she replied, avoiding a husband’s judgmental glare.  Then she all but smashed the pepper into the scanner.  Work, you stupid piece of crap!

“Honey.”

His voice was kind but impatient.

“Let’s go.”

“It’ll work.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“It.  Will.  Work.”

Ding.

“Place your item in the bagging area.”

“See?”  She held up the pepper condescendingly, then did as she was told.

Her husband shook his head, and the baby in his arms smiled and cooed at the sight of his mother’s face.

“You have a problem.”

She continued scanning and bagging more groceries.

“You know,” her husband said as she individually scanned and individually bagged the sixth jar of baby food, “these people are paid to help you.”

“I like doing it myself.”

“This takes three, maybe even four times as long.  All so you don’t have to speak to another human being.”

“That is correct, yes.”

He sighed.

“I’m going to go get the car.”

“That’s a good idea,” she said cheerfully.  She didn’t even look up as he passed, making his way to the exit, and as she placed another item in the bagging area.  The price was high, she thought, but the rewards are great.  Perhaps one day they could afford to have their groceries delivered to their home, eliminating this problem altogether.  But who has the money for that?

Money.

She looked in the cart where the diaper bag was supposed to be, and in which her wallet was now living these days.

It was gone.

Of course it was.  He had taken the diaper bag with the human for whom the diaper bag was used: the baby.  Not the adult woman.  The adult woman was supposed to carry a purse, and if she had been, there would be no problem.

The pause in the transaction elicited a response from the machine.

“Attendant has been notified to assist you.”

No.  No!  Cancel.  Cancel!

Within five seconds, she had her cell phone pressed to her ear.

“Yeah?”

“I need the diaper bag.  My purse is in there.”

His voice faded as he hung up the phone.  “You have got to be kidding – ”

After an excruciatingly 3-5 minutes, her husband reappeared carrying the baby in one arm and the diaper bag on the other.  With an exaggerated and comical pursed-lip expression, he extended the bag to her and she offered a polite “thanks.”  He turned to leave, and she returned to scanning her items and placing them in the bagging area, just like the machine said.

Machines don’t get impatient with you, she thought to herself as she scanned and bagged a pack of hamburger buns.

Her last item was a small four-pack case of ginger beer.  It was a last-minute addition to their grocery list, her husband having been wanting to make Moscow Mules ever since their friends had introduced them to the refreshing, summery cocktail last month.  He “just so happened” to be walking through the liquor aisle and discovered their local store was now carrying it, and had excitedly held it up to her face so she, too, could be excited about the prospect of Moscow Mules.

Now she just wanted to leave.  It was getting dangerously close to the start time of the bedtime routine.  Countdown would begin at the first unpleasant sound from her infant son, and for all she knew, that could have been minutes ago during her husband’s first trip to the car.

She went to pick up the ginger beer.

This special beer, however, was not packaged in the usual way of its Michelob cousins or its distant relative, Smirnoff.  The beers were wrapped on the top, bottom, front, and back with cardboard, leaving the sides exposed and open.  Instead of a handle, there was a hole at the top, presumably for an index finger.

Perhaps if she had just taken a moment to examine the item before she tried scanning it, the following would never have happened.  But the machine gave no such instructions.

She reached for the beer, paying no heed to the hole, and lifted the beers by their cardboard container no more than two inches from the infant basket at the rear of the cart.

The momentum was not enough to knock them all over, but one beer was shaken loose from the questionable cardboard and tumbled gloriously to the hard, unforgiving floor where it very satisfyingly smashed into an explosion of glass and ginger beer.

She blinked her eyes and felt a sense of dread come over her.

Not over her bare foot in the flip-flop she was wearing, that was now covered in beer.

Not over the tiny bits of glass on her big toe.

Someone would be coming to “help” her.

But it wasn’t just one person.  Oh no.  It had to be three people, all under the age of 23, descending upon her humiliation like vultures, ready to feast on her pride.

This time, the voices did not come from a machine.

“Hey, Sara, we need a mop.”

“I think it’s somewhere in produce.”

“No, the other mop.  We need to get this cleaned up before Darlene sees.”

“But it’s glass, too.  Do we mop up the glass?”

“Just mop it all up and get it out of here.”

“Ma’am, do you need another case?”

She glanced up to the stranger who called her ma’am – a young girl with sleepy eyes and a pretty bad set of jagged-cut bangs.  She was heavyset and looked annoyed, in the way that only those who work in the food industry can look both annoyed and pleasant at the same time.

“Y-yes.”

The girl turned to the direction of the liquor aisle.

“I’m so sorry,” she heard herself say to the remaining two, feeling both guilt and panic rushing in now that the shock was over.  Since meeting their gaze was impossible, she began picking glass bits out of the bottom of her foot, absently tossing them to the floor.  Whether real or imaginary, she perceived their displeasure with her, and the disgust of having to interact with such a clumsy fool.  Perhaps they were watching all along, she told herself, and saw that she had to wait for her husband to bring back the diaper bag.

Humiliated, she hid her face as the third girl returned with another case of beer.

Instead of placing the item on the scanner, she returned it to the same place it was in the cart.  Then she walked away, likely distancing herself from the scene entirely.

This time, there would be no mistakes.  She carefully wrapped her hands around the entire case, foregoing the questionable hole on top altogether, and warily placed the item on the scanner.

Ding.

“Please show your ID to the attendant.”

She shuttered.  Now it seemed even a lifeless machine was twisting the knife.

However, a message flashed on the screen.  Age verification bypassed.

She sighed in relief.  Still, she was forced to awkwardly scoop the four beers from the scanner’s surface, and deposit them into a plastic bag.  The action left her flushed and trembling.  She made a mental note to call and complain to the brewery and manufacture, a thought she found ironic later.  Call and speak to another person?  On the telephone?  To lodge a complaint?  She would rather drop a whole case of beer than have to go through that kind of torture.

She quickly retrieved her bags, carefully adding them one by one to each arm.

Then she turned to the two store clerks still cleaning up the mess.

“I’m really very sorry,” she said softly.

They glanced up at her with polite smiles, and one of them exclaimed that it was “all right.”

She left the store with her bottom lip between her teeth, her nerves shaken, and her pride sticking to the bottom of her flip-flop.

She needed a drink.

A Moscow Mule.

Check.

 

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The Serviceman

He could feel the sweat begin to pool on his brow.  It was 11:43, exactly seventeen minutes until he felt he could reasonably break for lunch.  As he turned the Phillips screwdriver on the riveted glass of the light fixture, he thought about the sandwich he painstakingly made this morning.  Two swabs of mayonnaise on both bread slices.  Three leaves of lettuce.  Four slices of meat.  A slice of tomato and a two slices of cheese.  His mouth began to water.  Seventeen minutes.

At 12:01, he was replacing the glass to the light fixture when Terry arrived, asking if he could eat lunch first.  The answer was an instinctual yes.  Terry was known for taking longer than a half hour, but he could take a look at the flickering light in the foyer while he waited.

He bit into his sandwich at 12:46, the same time Mike – his manager – told him one of the A/C units was on the fritz at the main office.  Let me know when you’re finished, Mike had said.  But he ate the sandwich in three large bites and followed Mike, leaving the bag of chips and chocolate M&Ms for later.

Three-forty-five and the A/C unit was not yet working on a 90-degree day.  The employees at the office were leaving suit jackets on the back of chairs and fanning themselves.  He was due to take a break, but he knew if he could just isolate the problem, the solution would reveal itself.  It was almost time to go home, and he didn’t want anyone to swelter the next day.

The cold air was moving through the office at 4:02.  A few people clapped and one young intern cheered from the cubicles.  Their last hour of the day would not be spent in an oven.

His cell phone went off at 4:16 while he was fixing a sticky window in the office of one of the assistant managers.  It was his wife, and she wanted to know what time he would be home for dinner.  He told her he didn’t know, that he had to stop and see his mother on the way home, and he still wasn’t sure what time he would be leaving work.  She sighed and said she would put his dinner in the refrigerator so he could reheat it when he got home.  Meanwhile, in the background he could hear his grandson squeal and scream near the phone.

At 4:58, Terry said he had dinner plans with his girlfriend and wanted to know if he could leave early.  Before he could tell him to go, Mike appeared with the news that there was something wrong with the electricity in one of the auxiliary buildings.  He could see the reluctance in Terry’s face as he offered to stay, so he told him to go on home and that he would take a look at it.  Mike sighed with relief.

It was 6:30 when he got into his car.

He pulled in his mother’s driveway at 6:47.  Her garbage cans were still by the street, so he brought them in as he entered the garage.  He shouted hello from the kitchen, and he heard his mother greet him over the TV.  Before he could go see her, he noticed her pill dispenser was out, and several pills were on the counter.  He asked if she had taken her medicine with dinner, and she replied that she wasn’t sure which ones she needed to take.  He sighed as it occurred to him that she was becoming more forgetful, and less independent.

He poured a glass of water and shuffled the pills into his hand and brought both to her.  She smiled at him and asked if he had eaten any dinner, and he said had dinner waiting at home.  Then he asked if she needed anything before he left, and she told him her bedside lamp wasn’t working.  A simple bulb replacement later, he said goodbye with the reminder to call him if she had questions about the medications she needed to take at bedtime.  She said she would, and thanked him again for coming to see her.

It was 7:59 when he arrived home.

There was no one to greet him, as he heard the water running upstairs, signaling it was his grandson’s bath time.  He placed his keys on the shelf by the door and was about to head for the kitchen when his cell phone rang.  It was Mike.  When he answered, Mike told him that one of the managers of the main office had accidentally left his keys inside, thereby locking out the staff in the morning, and could he get there before 7:00am the next day to make sure everyone could start work on time.  He said he would be there, and he hung up the phone.

At 8:15, he took his plate of food out of the microwave and sat down to eat.

After two bites, he heard his grandson’s quick descent down the stairs as his wife shouted instructions for him to say goodnight.  His grandson appeared in his pajamas, smelling of Suave.  He opened his arms and his grandson fell into them, quickly muttering something that sounded like “night” as he avoided eye contact with his grandfather.  He said goodnight and wished him good dreams, and his grandson clapped his hands in front of his face eight times.  The ritual completed, he ran out of the kitchen and back up the stairs, his deepening voice squealing at every step.

He ate his dinner quietly and methodically as he listened to his wife’s soothing bedtime stories travel down from the second floor.  After two lullabies, he was finished with dinner, and he took a deep breath as he heard the soft shuffle of her gait.

She sat down at the table across from him and asked how his day was.

Fine, he said.

She asked how his mother was, and he considered telling her about the pills.  Instead, he replied that she, too, was fine.

She wiped her face with her hands, clearly exhausted, before she began to recap her day.

She was late to work this morning because she was on the phone with the insurance company to dispute a denial of coverage for one of her surgeries.  She was berated at work by a patient who was demanding a second round of pain medications that the doctor refused to fill.  Then that afternoon she received a call from the middle school that her grandson had bitten another child, and they were holding him in the office until she could pick him up.  On her way to the school, she stopped at the store for a few essential groceries.  When she picked him up from school, he screamed the duration of the trip until she took him for an ice cream and he finally calmed down.  Then she told him that their neighbor had been laying in front of her house, having fallen trying to go up the concrete stairs, and she had to call the ambulance to pick her up.  She spent the rest of the evening keeping her grandson occupied until it was time to get ready for bed.

He sighed and said nothing.

She blinked a few times before suddenly exclaiming that she forgot to bring the groceries in from the car.

With being prompted, he immediately jumped up from his chair and started for the door.

He pulled the two plastic bags from the car in the driveway.  Laundry detergent.  Granola bars.  Nothing that would have spoiled.  No money wasted.  This made him so cheerful, he was whistling when he walked through the front door a second time.

At 10:00, his wife turned on the TV.  He settled into his favorite spot on the couch as she tried to engage him in more conversation.  But the day was almost over, and conversation was as difficult a task as staying awake.  He fell asleep three times before the 11:00 news came on, and his wife went upstairs to bed.

At 11:27, he turned off the TV.

As he got ready for bed, he reminded himself that he needed to be up early tomorrow, and that he should set his alarm accordingly.  He pictured the faces of the staff as he arrived with the key, and smiled at the realization that he was both their savior and their prison warden.

His wife asked what he was smiling about, and he said nothing, that he was just thinking about work.

It was 11:59 when he got into bed and turned off the light.

And before he fell asleep, he remembered the bag of chips and chocolate M&Ms he left on the table in the break room.

Twenty-Three

Jess stared at the tickets in her hand for the one-hundred-and-fiftieth time that night.

“It says the doors open at 7:30.  But it’s already 7:24.”  She looked up at me with panic on her round face.  “What if it doesn’t happen?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, melting scolding words down to reassurances, like I did with my younger siblings.  “They can’t just call the whole thing off.  It’ll happen.  What did the email say?”

As she pulled a folded sheet of paper from her back pocket with trembling hands, I glanced at the line of concert goers at least two miles long.  It snaked around the venue, down a street I did not know.  After all, this wasn’t our little West Virginia town.  We were over 100 miles from home, in a god-knows-how-long line to see a musician I barely knew, and it had just started to rain.  But I wasn’t here for myself.

“It just says congratulations, you’ve won, blah blah blah, and to be in line at the venue by 7:30.  We will be assigned a number, and if that number is called, we will . . .”  Her voice cracked the way it always did when she was excited about something.  “. . . get to go backstage.”  Her blue eyes lit up shamelessly.  “Duncan!  I’ll die if I don’t get to!  Please, oh please!”  Then she danced around nervously like a kid who has to go to the bathroom.

I looked away, afraid she would draw attention to herself and therefore me.  But the people we were standing around seemed preoccupied with their own conversations.  Still, the excitement in the air was almost contagious, even for those without the “golden tickets.”

Jess had spent many a failed attempt trying to get me to like this guy, this Jack West.  “He’s a visionary,” I remember her saying.  “He plays lead and sings and he writes his own music.  And it’s beautiful.”  I, however, was not so impressed.  I was more of a Daft Punk kind of guy and he was a little too John Mayerish.

But Jess had scrimped and saved to afford for us to go.  The majority of the money she got for graduation was going towards this very night.  And she had entered her name god knows how many times into the drawing to win backstage passes, and somehow – in spite of her recent string of bad luck – she had actually won.  It seemed the universe was on her side this one time, for this one thing she desperately wanted.

Naturally, she was hopelessly in love with the guy.

“Oh my god, oh my GOD!” she squealed in a private lovesick glee that for some reason, she chose to share with me.  “I will just die if I get to meet him.  I will just keel over and DIE.”

“I thought you said you would die if you didn’t get to meet him.”

“Either way, I’m going to die,” she said casually, averting her eyes.  I was gutted.  But this was something we did not discuss.  “Might as well live it up.  Right?  Oh, Duncan.  Will you ask him to kiss me?  Please?”

I turned my head and to scratch the back of it and closed my eyes.  “Sure,” I said slowly.  “But what if he turns out to be a jerk?”

“Oh, he won’t.  He can’t.  It’s impossible.  If you would just listen to his songs, if you would just listen to the lyrics, you would know he’s a kind, warmhearted, selfless person.”  She glazed over in a kind of euphoria.

I bit my lip.  I did not want to disappoint her, nor did I want her to be disappointed.  I had known Jess for most of my life, and over the years we somehow became fellow outcasts in our rundown school district that was strangely populated by other pathetic outcasts who were higher on the totem pole than we were.  Now that we had graduated, I wanted nothing more than to get out of that old mining town.  Jess just wanted to live.  Both of us were trapped.

I had applied for a few scholarships for the local community college just seven miles away.  Jess had bought tickets to a concert in Richmond, Virginia.  Somehow, she seemed like the one who had broken free.

“You promise you’ll ask him to kiss me?”

“Why can’t you ask him yourself?”

Because.”

I growled.

“Come on, please?  For me?”

“Jess, you know what happens when I get nervous.”

“Come on, this isn’t speech class.  This isn’t a debate.  I promise you won’t stutter.  I promise you.”

I gazed down at her condescendingly.  The truth was, even if I did ask him to kiss her, I highly doubted he would even want to.  Jess wasn’t exactly the most attractive girl I had ever seen.  She had a great personality, sure.  She was funny when she wasn’t dancing around like a five-year-old with a full bladder.  But she had a round face and squinty eyes and was just otherwise plain.  She was also on the heavy side, but then again, so was I.  We had the same tall, heavy build, and the same dark brown hair.  To onlookers, we probably looked like siblings.

But we weren’t, and she had been my best friend since second grade when she told the other kids to stop saying I smelled like “old oatmeal.”  What could I do?  We had six or seven cats back then.

“I’ll try,” I told her.  But I made no promises.

A tall, lanky guy blew open the venue doors.  “Okay!” he cried cheerfully, aiming to get our attention.  “For those of you who received an email yesterday, please have your printed copies ready with your IDs!  I have a number for you!”

While Jess went searching her pockets, I checked the line to see how many were doing the same.  At least a dozen other girls were doing the nervous potty-dance, waving their folded pieces of paper like white flags.

I couldn’t fight the internal monologue that started with What am I doing here?  Was she really taking me to see Justin Bieber?  Something deep in my soul was dying, but I was too far in it now.

The lanky guy, who looked to me like the very definition of a bona fide douchebag, checked off Jess’ email with a red Sharpie.  Then he handed her two numbers with adhesive backing – 22 and 23.  “When you get inside, the line forms to the left,” he told her.  Then he moved on to the next so-called lucky pair.

Jess handed me the 23.  “What’s wrong?”

“You mean we have to wait in another line?”

“I owe you so much for this,” she said absently.  “Like, a million dollars.  Or a girlfriend.  I promise to find you a girlfriend when we get home.”

“Jess, this is several hours of my life I will never get back.”

I had said it without thinking, of course, and I beat myself up when she looked away with a twisted expression on her face.  “Yeah, well, me either.”

Mayday, mayday. 

“Hey,” I said, hoping to turn things around, “I hope this is everything you thought it would be.  I hope he asks you to marry him.  For all this trouble, he should.”

She was defenseless to fight the urge to smile.  “Will you ask him that too?”

“No,” I said as the line finally began to move closer to the doors.  “Absolutely not.”

Inside, we made our way to the left as others headed for the bar.  We were already behind at least ten other females, all of whom were unbelievably attractive, and all of whom barely gave me a second look.  In fact, when she wasn’t looking, I saw one of them give Jess the once-over and then proceed to whisper something to one of her friends.  Suddenly, we had walked through the doors and stumbled into an alternate dimension where we were back in high school once again.  My stomach turned.

“Twenty-two and twenty-three,” Jess whispered, oblivious.  “Twenty-two and twenty-three.”

But there were at least twenty other people in the line behind us, mostly other teenaged girls or twenty-somethings.  They were sticking their numbers to their shirts.  Some were sticking them over one breast.  I began have to have serious concerns about my manhood.

I turned to see Jess applying hers to the upper part of her hoodie, in the center of her chest.  “You should put yours on, too,” she reminded me.

“No, thanks.”

“What if they don’t let you in?”

“Who cares, as long as you get in?”

“Duncan!  You can’t let me go in there by myself!”

“Actually, by the look of things, that’s probably what everyone else wants.”

“I need you.  I can’t do this by myself.  I will die of nervousness.  I’m about to throw up right now.”

“It’s fine.  Look, there’s that guy.  I bet he’s about to announce our numbers.”  I sincerely hoped this was the case.  I could not bear to stand in another line.

“Okay!  Ladies and . . .”  He glanced at me.  “Gentlemen!”  Then he spoke fast and lacking finesse.  “I will read the winning numbers chosen at random.  If your number is called, please follow security up the stairs behind me.  Good luck!”  Then he looked down at a clipboard and cried “Number 36!”  And that was when the squealing began.

“Number 42!  Number 49!  Number 53!  Number 57!  Number 69!”

It continued this way until half of the line had been whittled down.  Sixteen girls received backstage passes.  Jess was not one of them.  There wasn’t even a number called from the group of 20s.  If there were any at all.

“Thanks for coming, folks!” he said, turning the charm once again.  “Enjoy the show!”  Then he turned to climb the stairs, two steps at a time.  In less than three seconds, he was out of sight.  And we were out of luck.

The groans were audible above the growing crowd of people in the venue’s foyer.  I took a quick glance at the girls left remaining and realized a horrible truth – they all were either plain, heavy, or simply just less attractive than the girls I watched climb the stairs.  I could feel my sense of justice upset.  The scale had been tipped.  Worse yet, the weights had been tampered with.  The whole thing was rigged.

“Aw crap,” Jess said in a brave attempt to hide her disappointment.  “That really sucks.”

Did she not see what had just happened?

Do I tell her?

I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t disappoint her after so much disappointment.

“We can wait around afterwards.  Maybe he hangs out after the show to talk to fans.”

She brightened up.  “Yeah!  Come on, let’s go down to the pit.  Hopefully we can still find a good place to stand!”

I wasn’t sure whether her enthusiasm was well-founded or just downright naïve.  In any cast, I followed her into the darkened theater, past rows of seats, and down to the open floor that was already four or five rows of people deep.

Jess had forked over the cash for general admission, which meant we could stand where we wanted, or into whatever space we could push through.  I got us at least to the third row – my height and glare was enough to scare a few girls out of our way.  I settled into my 12 inch-by-12 inch spot and realized I was going to spend the rest of the night standing and sweating in this very space.  For all I knew, I was going to die here, and possibly be buried here too.

She waited in reverential silence for the show to start, nervously biting her nails and shifting her weight from side to side.  I wondered how many girls I would take out if I suddenly passed out from dehydration.

The time crawled by even slower than it did outside.

Finally, the opening band came onstage.  Jess had told me their name, but I had forgotten it.  They weren’t half bad, but Jess looked disinterested.  There was only one person she was here to see.  They and everyone else – including myself – were expendable in her eyes, no matter how much she begged for me to come with her.

The opening band finished their set, and I sighed with relief.  We were that much closer to leaving.

As they began setting up the stage for the main event, Jess turned to me.

“I hope they do ‘The Heart.’  Oh my god, Duncan.  I can’t believe I’m actually here!”

I smiled at her good-naturedly, knowing I would be saying the very same words when I was back in my own bed at home, hundreds of miles away in both space and time.

After an agonizing wait, the band finally came onstage.  The crowd was cheering.  The girl next to me had an especially ear-shattering, banshee-like scream.  Then I realized it belong to Jess.

The man of the hour came onstage, fresh from his backstage exploits with sixteen attractive females.  I couldn’t help but seethe at him at the same time Jess was nearly in tears.  He smiled at the crowd, and I thought for sure I was going to have to carry my best friend in a puddle out of here.  She was very nearly melted to the core when he picked up his guitar and began to play and sing.

I barely recognized any songs.  Jess had played a few of them for me a long time ago, and we had listened to some of them on the way here.  But when one isn’t at a concert of one’s choice, the songs all bleed together into a cavalcade of noise.  One right after the other, each eliciting shrieks and cries from the girl standing beside me.  He may have been the most talented guitarist there ever was, but I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know a talented musician from one who just faked it onstage.  However, it seemed he was the real deal, and his songs were kind of moving, and to top it all off, he had a violinist with him who looked like the girl from Parks and Recreation.  She was hot in a deadpan, scary, yet ethereal kind of way, and there is always something about a girl who can shred the violin.  Suddenly I found I was enjoying the show in spite of myself, and in spite of the fact – whether he knew it or not – this so-called “visionary” had slighted my best friend.

For the encore, he opened with the notes of what I assumed was the song Jess had hoped for, based on the way she began screaming and shouting just like everyone else in the building.

They put on a decent show, and while I probably wouldn’t listen to them regularly, they certainly took my mind off my aching feet and back for an hour and a half.

Amidst cheers and cries and utter madness, they waved and air-kissed the audience before disappearing backstage.

The lights came on, and the crowd slowly began to disperse.

“What do we do?” Jess cried.  “Should we wait here or go outside?”

I didn’t have a choice.  If I didn’t get outside, I would spontaneously combust from heat and sweat.  “Let’s go wait outside.  Maybe we can hang out in the back of the building where his tour bus is.  Dude’s gotta come out sometime.”

She followed me to the doors, but not before buying a large men’s t-shirt.  I thought about asking why she didn’t buy a women’s, and then I wondered in horror if she was buying it for me, until I realized she probably couldn’t fit into anything smaller.

She carried that thing outside like a trophy, and buried her face into it like a stuffed animal.

I wasn’t sure what I was thinking, slinking around the building like a stalker.  Then I saw a group of fans waiting by the tour bus, blocked by a makeshift metal gate that prevented them from getting any closer.  I sighed with relief as much as I cringed in horror.  Another line.  Another group of girls.  But this time, Jess would get to meet her idol.

“See?” I said as we approached the gate.  “I told you.”

“Oh my god,” she whispered nervously.

We weren’t there five minutes before the tall lanky douchebag appeared again.  “Sorry, everyone,” he said.  “Jack West has already left the building.”  Then he added cheerfully but stupidly, “Be safe getting home.  Thanks for coming tonight.”

More groans and sighs.  Most turned around to leave.  Some stood their ground, shouting questions to the man who seemed to know his whereabouts.  But he kept repeating “I don’t know where he is.  Sorry.”  And then finally, when he was finished with us, or tired of repeating himself, he simply turned around and disappeared behind the bus.

Jess was determined to wait.  She crossed her arms and narrowed her brow.  It almost looked like she was willing him back to the venue, wherever he was.  But after several minutes had passed, even the most diehard fans surrendered to the fact he really was gone.

I turned to Jess and started to speak.  “Well . . .”

But I could see the tears she was fighting to hold back.  Her lips quivered, and she bravely brushed me off.

“Let’s go,” she whispered.

Disappointment was all she ever knew, and she faced it more bravely than I ever could.

I put my arm around her and we began making the short walk back to my car on a side street a few blocks away.

I took the keys out of my pocket in anticipation of getting in the car and getting my Coke.

“Wasn’t it everything you hoped?” I asked, grasping at straws.

“Yeah,” she said softly.  “It was.”

But we both knew it wasn’t.  Whether he realized it or not, he had given a false hope to a girl who needed the real thing more than anyone in that building.  The contest was cruel and calculated, weeding out the unattractive fans for the hot ones.  Typical, I thought.  But it still pissed me off.

Once we were close enough, I unlocked the doors, and Jess and I parted ways so she could get in.  “Hey,” she cried suddenly, “did you keep your number?”

“What?”

“Number 23?”  She pointed to her own number, still stuck to her hoodie.

I patted my pocket.  Then I went searching for it, in all the pockets of my jeans.

“Huh,” I said, realizing it wasn’t there.

“You lost it?” she cried.  “How could you lose it?”

“What difference does it make?”

“What do you mean?  It makes a WORLD of difference.  It’s our memento of the time we almost got to go backstage.”

“But we didn’t.”

“So?  It’s a memory you and I will always have.  You know . . . forever.”

Oh, God.  She was pulling the guilt over on me like a sheet, burying me in it.

“Is it that big o’ deal?  Isn’t the ticket enough?”

“It’s a big deal to me.”

I sighed, trying to think of where I could have lost it.  I knew I hadn’t thrown it away.  “Maybe I dropped it when I got my keys,” I told her hopefully.  I’ll go back and look for it, if it’s that big of a deal.”

“Thank you,” she said, and got in the car.

I sighed again.  There was no reasoning with her.  I would have to wait a little longer for that Coke after all.

I searched the ground for that stupid adhesive piece of paper with the light of my cell phone, looking down as I walked.  I was so intent on finding it that I wasn’t watching where I was going, and I didn’t see that I was about to run headlong into someone.  When we collided, I was caught off guard, and then the shame and embarrassment was quick to follow.  “Sorry,” we both said at the same time, never even looking each other in the eye.

But as he passed, I caught a quick glance – enough to register a face, then a smile, then a guitar, and finally an entire stage.

I had just ran into Jack West.  And he was walking away from me.

“Hey!” I cried.  “Hey!”

But he continued walking, and now he was holding a cell phone to his ear.

I’m not sure what came over me.  Maybe it was simply the fact that I was bigger than him.  Maybe it was my upset sense of justice.  Maybe I just wanted to see Jess happy again.  Whatever it was, I suddenly found myself charged with what could only be described as stalking – and then, for all intents and purposes, harassing – a man I hardly knew and hardly cared to know.

“Hey!” I cried again, catching up to him.  I stood in front of him, blocking his way.

He put the cell phone away and smiled.  But I could tell he was annoyed.

And as scared as I was of public speaking, or speaking to strangers at all, I put that aside to say a few words to this guy, who was quickly becoming the real douchebag of the evening.

“Listen,” I said, “I know you’re Jack W-w-west and all, and I know about your little cont-t-test.  And I know the whole thing was r-r-rigged.  And I don’t want your autograph and I certainly don’t w-w-want a picture with you, but my friend loves you, okay?  She loves you.  God knows why.  If you could just take a minute t-t-to say hello to her, I sure would appreciate it.”

“Sorry,” he said.  “I’m kinda on a time crunch, buddy.”

“So is she.”  Then I got brave and went for broke.  “She’s dying, man.  She’s sick.”

This at least seemed to get his attention.

“Just a minute,” I said.  “Just to say hello.  You will literally make her life.”

He was staring at me now.  I could see the exhaustion behind his stone-faced expression.  Then he looked away, staring off into the darkness.

“Where is she?”

“In a car.  Just a block away.”

“I’ve only got a minute.”

“That’s all she needs.  Follow me.”

It was the longest walk of my life.  In those two, maybe three minutes, I walked beside someone who probably considered himself to be a veritable rock star.  Likely he had been on TV and performed for thousands – perhaps millions – of people.  I hated him.  I wondered how anyone could possibly even like him, let alone obsess over him like Jess did.  I thought back to what she said earlier – If you would just listen to his songs, if you would just listen to the lyrics, you would know he’s a kind, warmhearted, selfless person. 

What a load of crap.

The real warmhearted, selfless, and kind person had befriended me in second grade and was sitting in my car.  This guy was just a phony.  Perhaps we both were.  But she was the real deal.  And if he didn’t treat her like she was another one of his attractive blonde fans, I toyed with the idea of making sure he never played another song again.

“What’s her name?” he suddenly asked as we rounded the corner.  I told him.

Jess saw us coming.  Her squinty eyes suddenly got huge and she covered her face and started to cry.

I opened the passenger door.  “Someone here to see you,” I said.  My attempt at lightheartedness.  Then I moved out of the way.

He kneeled down beside the car and smiled at her, turning on the charm.  I was glad.  If I could fake civility toward him, he could fake the rest for her.

“Hello, Jess.  How are you, sweetheart?”

She was wiping tears away, smiling at him like he had just saved her life.

I decided I was no longer needed.  Just an accessory, a third wheel to a moment that was not mine.  He was signing her T-shirt when I turned to walk away, saying something that made her explode into one of her genuine laughs.  I realized it may be longer than a minute for both of us, and I was going to have to wait for that Coke.  But it would be worth it, whether he realized it or not.

I looked down at something blowing around on the ground.  I took a few steps before I recognized the paper and the number on the back.  Number 23.  A genuine memento.  A memory we would keep forever, of our bravery, hers and mine.

The End

 

 

Subterfuge

Haley trailed the rim of the wineglass with her finger, staring expectantly into its golden contents.  Then she looked up at her date across the table, Dale.  He was dashingly handsome in the way only a liar could be, and he was smitten with her.  Tall, wealthy, intelligent . . . he was everything she ever wanted.  The guilt she felt in her trembling heart was a ruse.

“How long have you been in town?” he asked.

She drank the rest of the wine like a shot.  “Since earlier today,” she announced after she put down the glass.  “I’m just visiting for a few days.”

“So why did you want to meet up?”

“I wanted to see how you were doing.”  She smiled sweetly, batting the eyelashes she had meticulously covered in mascara earlier that afternoon.  “I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.”  Dale paused for effect.  Then he went for broke.  “Didn’t I hear you’re seeing someone?”

Haley blushed and looked away.  Through the glass of the window to her right was the city skyline – a glittering composite of yellow lights and flashing signs through which she could barely make out the silhouette of the buildings she had seen a thousand times during the day from her old job a few blocks away.  The familiar-turned-enchanted was a welcomed site and served to calm her nerves.

“Yes,” she said, surprised her voice wasn’t breaking.  She gazed warmly at Dale.  “Thomas and I have been dating for a few months now.”

“Thomas!” he cried, grinning.  “How did that happen?”

The words came out in a rush.  “He lives a half hour away.  The next town over.  We met for coffee once, just to talk.  He told me he always had a thing for me after all these years.  I kind of always knew it, I guess.  So we got to be friends, and then . . .”

She knew it didn’t sound convincing, and Dale was not convinced.  Still, they both pretended she still had feelings for Thomas.  When the silence made her nervous enough to start picking at her nails, she added, “I heard you were seeing someone, too.”

“Yeah.  Tess.  She is nice, but she’s nothing like you were.”

Haley swore she felt her heart stop.  He was moving entirely too fast.  This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.  Or was it?  There were no rules laid out beforehand.  She had the heady realization that he was calling all the shots.

As she reached for her wineglass only to realize it was empty, she bit her lip.  “Tess, huh?  She’s a nice girl.  Does she know you’re here?”

“Does Thomas?”

Haley blushed again.  “Does he know about this?  No.  I decided it was best not to tell him.”

“Probably a good idea.  He knows me too well.”

“Why, what are you planning on doing?”

“Nothing.”  Haley was surprised to see the cast of red on his cheeks.  “It’s just that we’ve been friends for a long time, you and me.  I was crazy about you.  I’m still crazy about you.  How could I ever get over someone like you?  You’re funny, beautiful, smart . . . you know, all the things Tess isn’t.”

“Hey.”  Suddenly Haley felt very defensive on her friend’s account.  “Be nice to Tess.  She’s a nice girl.  Besides, I thought you liked her.”

“Not as much as I liked you.  Not as much as I like you right now.”

Haley touched the pooling sweat at her temples.  If this was how he wanted to take it, then fine.  She would play along.

“I’ve really missed you.  Thomas isn’t like you.  He makes fun of the music I like.”

“Thomas is a jerk.  You always had good taste in music.  Tess doesn’t laugh at my jokes.”

“You were always funny to me.”

Haley reached across the table to touch his hand.  They shared a moment stretched beyond two worlds, two people, and two ridiculous lies.  But in the pale blue glint of his eyes she could see the person he was, and she found herself wanting him to come back.

For his sake, however, and because he seemed to be enjoying this – she continued to play her part.

With as much love as she ever had for him, she coyly exclaimed “Let’s go somewhere.”

Dale paid the bill, and the two of them left the bar as the band broke into another session.  Haley felt the pulse of the music as she passed the stage to follow Dale to the exit.  Her heart was pounding in her chest.  Deep down, she didn’t want to go through with this.  Not like this.  Not as this person.

He took her hand as they began the walk back to his car.

In the gentle evening breeze, Haley felt her tears freeze to her eyelashes.  She tried to smother the sting of her failure.  She had wanted to seduce him, and now she was the one being seduced.  And she was certain she could take no more of this, for as much as she longed to be someone else, she only wanted to be herself with him.

“Hey,” she said, stopping at the car.  Dale turned to face her and she read his eyes.  They were still warm, so she continued.  “I don’t think I can do this.”

“What do you mean?”

This.  I don’t want to do this.

“What’s the matter, Haley?  I care about you.  I’m in love with you.”  He touched her face, briefly looked into her eyes, and she felt the fireworks as he kissed her, but not because he was playing a part.  She felt that way regardless, no matter how many times he had kissed her in the past.  There was no need for the ruse.  She loved him for him.

“No,” she said after she broke away.  “I don’t want to pretend anymore.”

Dale’s face nearly fell, but he caught himself.  “Oh.  You sure?”

“Yes.”

“You’re positive?”

“Positive.”

“You weren’t having fun?”

“A little at first.  But not anymore.  Not now.”

“That’s too bad.  I was having a blast.”

“I’m sorry.  I just can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because.  It’s just silly.  I shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else in order to be in love with you.  I want to love you as me.

Dale sighed heavily.  She could read disappointment in the eyes she knew more than her own.  But as she braced herself for bargains, pleas, or perhaps even a bitter outburst, instead he pulled her close and kissed her forehead like a child.

“Let’s go home,” he said softly.

Haley closed her eyes in relief, wrapping her arms around him, feeling as if she already was.

In the car, she held his hand while he drove.  The silence finally got to her.

“You’re sure you’re not mad?”

“Nope.”

Another minute passed before she spoke again.  “Someday we will laugh at ourselves.  That we ever did this.”

“Probably.”

“I mean, Thomas?  Tess?”  She exploded into giggles.  “I hope they never find out!”

“Now that would be funny.”

They continued to laugh together, basking in their own familiarity and good-natured humor.  When it finally died down, Haley reached into her purse.

“Almost forgot,” she said, placing the thick metal band in Dale’s hand before she slipped her own ring back on her finger.  Then she settled into the passenger seat, once again holding her husband’s hand.

The End

 

 

Reality Ever After

**The following is a dream I had.  I blame the mozzarella sticks.**

Belle considered her options.  Returning to the castle – her home – was not a possibility.  Neither could she stay here in her father’s house, as he would be returning from his honeymoon any day now.  While she loved Mrs. Potts like the mother she never knew, Belle realized she did not belong here.  She never did.

There was only one place she truly felt like she belonged.

But in the last several months, everything had changed.  He had changed.  What began as a fairy tale eventually spiraled into old habits.  The prince she had married regressed back to being spoiled, selfish, and unkind.  His temper was out of control.  By the last month before she left, they had been sleeping in separate bedrooms on opposite sides of the castle.  He isolated himself in the West Wing and refused to see her.

Belle anxiously recounted the events before her departure.  She had requested they have dinner, and initially he refused.  Pressured by his loyal and faithful servants, he finally agreed.  There she laid out a plan of helping him return to the kind, patient, and selfless individual who had broken the spell.  She had a stack of psychology books she had found in the library and an outline of how they would proceed.

But he would have none of it.  Flying into a rage, he overturned the table, breaking dishes and spoiling food.  He began throwing the books against the wall, and what books he didn’t throw, he ripped the pages from their binding.  “You keep trying to change me!” he screamed.  “You don’t love me for who I am!  You never did!”

Belle clutched her heart as she collapsed onto her old bed in her old room.  That was the night she had calmly but firmly told him she was leaving.  He stormed out of the dining room, leaving a path of destruction all the way to the West Wing.  She knew he wasn’t a monster, but sometimes he made her wonder.

She had hoped someone would be able to talk some sense into him.  Lumiere could schmooze anyone.  Cogsworth might be able to reason with him.  Perhaps Chip could appeal to his heart.

It was after she returned to her father’s house that she found out the terrible news.

Chip had been exploring outside the castle gates when it happened.  When he returned, everything had changed.

The mysterious enchantress had transformed the castle back to the dark, foreboding place it once was.  The servants were reduced to common household objects once again.  And the prince was back to his familiar form – a Beast.

This time, however, there was no enchanted rose, and no explanation for it.  The servants took this to mean one thing – that they would be imprisoned like this forever.  All hope was lost.

Chip raced to Maurice’s cottage to deliver the disturbing news, explaining that he was not inside the castle’s perimeter when it happened, and therefore was not under the spell.

Belle was crushed.  It seemed nothing could be done now.  He had done this to himself, she reasoned.  And he made everyone else suffer for it.

“He’s a monster,” she whispered out loud and alone in the cottage.  “My husband is a monster.”

Then she heard the stirrings at the front door.  Kind voices.  Laughter.

Her father and Mrs. Potts were home.

Belle wiped her tears away on her blue pinafore dress and summoned her courage.

“Belle!” her father cried when she appeared in the doorway.  “What are you doing here?”

Tearfully she explained what had happened.  Her father listened patiently, and Mrs. Potts began wiping her own tears away.  Their worst fears had come true.  He had never truly changed at all.

Then there was a knock on the door.  It was Chip, who excused himself from his mother’s embrace when she let him in, and he struggled breathlessly to get the words out.

“Gaston,” he gasped, “is alive.  He survived the fall.  And he wants revenge.”

Belle cried out before she could cover her mouth in surprise.

She grabbed Chip’s shoulders.  “Are you sure?  How do you know this?”

“He called a meeting at the tavern.  The whole town is there.  Everyone knows you left and that The Beast is back.”

Belle immediately felt unsteady and sick.  She stared blankly at the wall behind her family.  “I shouldn’t have left,” she whispered.  “This is all my fault.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” her father said.  “You did not cause him to be this way.  He was like this before you.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Potts agreed.  “You cannot control these things.  No one can.”

But Belle was not listening.  She turned to her father.  “Where is the mirror?”

He sighed.  “I don’t know.  I put it away after the wedding.”

“You lost the magic mirror?”

“No.  I did not lose it, Belle.  I just put it away.”

Belle began walking through the house.  “Help me find it,” she said.

She searched cabinets, cupboards, and closets to no avail.  Then she began searching drawers.  Finally, in the very back of a drawer next to her bed, her fingers touched the glassy metal of the mirror’s spine.  Relief washed over her, but it was quickly replaced by the panic of her situation.

“Show me Gaston,” she said, trembling.

The mirror’s glow nearly blinded her, but the glass swirled into an image.  Men huddled around a table at the tavern, steins half-empty with beer.  In the center was their leader, a man so ugly and disfigured he was hardly recognizable.  But Belle knew his diabolical sneer.

Gaston.  His so-called handsome face was now twisted with scars from the fall.  He had wild hatred in his eyes.  And he was talking about Belle’s husband, The Beast.

“I’m going to free Belle from that monster once and for all,” he growled.  “Tonight, we kill him.  Tomorrow, I’ll be a celebrated hero, and Belle will have to thank me.  And then I’m going to marry her.”

Belle turned the mirror over, disgusted at the fading image.  This was all too familiar, yet it seemed worse now than it ever had been.

She searched her heart for truth.  Did she want to be free?  Surely, she had the means to escape this poor, provincial town once again.  She could see the world.  Have her own adventures in the great wide Somewhere.  Gaston would never find her.  Perhaps one day, she could even learn to forget any of this had ever happened.

“Show me The Beast,” she said softly to the mirror.

She closed her eyes as the glass rippled and changed.  When she opened them, her heart was wrenched in two.

He was crouched beside her bed in the East Wing, listlessly gazing at nothing.  “My life is over,” he lamented.

He looked as sad and pitiable as he always had before.  Belle knew he felt regret.  He wasn’t heartless.  He wasn’t the monster.

She slipped the mirror into her apron.  Then she draped her cloak around her shoulders.  With determination in her eyes, she gazed about the room quickly for anything she might need on her journey.  Time was of the essence.  Any moment now, Gaston and his fickle, mindless followers would march to the castle gates once again and finish the job.  And Belle wasn’t sure anyone would try to stop them this time.  His beloved servants were likely just as bitter, depressed, and hopeless as he was.  They probably assumed she was never coming back.  If Gaston attempted kill The Beast, would anyone stop him?

Belle wasn’t going to take that chance.  If no would defend him, not even he himself, then she would.

She slipped on a bow and a quiver of arrows.  Then she noticed the head of a rose lying on the table in her bedroom.

It was the one her father wore on his lapel at his wedding a month ago.  The bloom was dying, but still vibrant and beautiful.  Belle pinned the rose to her breast with a kind of trembling purpose that shined from within.  If The Beast had no enchanted rose, then she would be one.

Her father tried to stop her at the door, but she refused his pleadings, even though she did not know what would be waiting for her at the castle.  She didn’t have a choice anymore.  “I promised to love him,” she reminded her father.  “Not change him.”

With that, she mounted her trustworthy steed, Phillipe, and they rode for the castle.

Belle was heartsick when she clapped eyes on her once glorious home.  It was just how she saw it the first time when she was a scared and lost girl searching for her father.  But now was not the time to think about the past.  She dismounted her horse and began to run, her eyes fixed on the towering East Wing where she believed him to be.

Panting breathlessly, she climbed flight after flight of stairs until she reached her bedroom.  There, The Beast still was, and Belle noticed the dagger beside him that she did not see in the mirror.

She cried his name and he opened his eyes.

He stared at her in disbelief as she approached, kneeling on the floor next to him.

“You came back,” he said softly, his voice kind but broken.

She touched the matted fur on his face and gazed into his blue eyes.  “Of course I came back.  I’ll always come back.”

Just as his lips barely curled into a smile, the sound of breaking glass startled them.  Belle rose up with a bow and arrow aimed and ready at the dark figure in the window.  It was Gaston, his eyes glowing red with madness, as he sneered and laughed maniacally at Belle, clutching his rifle.

Belle pulled the arrow back and let it fly, striking him in the heart he didn’t have.

Gaston collapsed to the floor, stunned and powerless.

“This is my home,” she said.  Then she looked down at The Beast, who was staring up at her in shock but had not moved.  “And I will always come back.”

**For Stacy.**